The Story continues.....
Buck hesitated only long enough to tuck JD's hat into his saddlebag, right next Nathan's knife. It stuck him as ironic the he was collecting momentous to return to friends he'd never see again. A humorless laugh caught in his throat as he pulled himself up into the saddle. He caught up to Lee easily. He studied the ruts for a brief moment before pressing on. He could follow these tracks. Not because of any skill on his part, but because it was the quickest way to find those responsible. And when he did catch up to them...
Elaina righted herself in the saddle, tapping the horse's rump lightly with her crop. He broke into a trot, and she posted with the gait. When she rounded the bend and was out of sight of the two riders, she urged her mount to a gallop, then finally leaned over his neck, spurring him to a full-out run.
She'd heard the well-dressed man whisper something to his companion, but never paused to look back. She should have known. Never con a con man. But there were other ways to go about things.
Elaina barely noticed the man on the black horse as she raced past. She let out a startled cry, casting a panicked glance over her shoulder at the man in black behind her. She allowed him to gain some ground on her, but made sure she'd put sufficient distance between them and the others before she let him catch up. He reached over, grasping her reins, pulling both their horses to a stop. Her thoroughbred matched his horse for height, giving her the opportunity to collapse into his arms.
Startled, the man pulled her into the saddle in front of him.
"Are you all right, ma'am?" he asked.
Elaina nodded. "I am now," she whispered breathlessly.
With his arms full of woman, Chris Larabee was unable to defend himself when four gunmen surrounded them.
Nathan blinked to clear his eyes. He thought he'd seen it, but couldn't be sure. He glanced toward Josiah, and the look on the preacher's face confirmed his suspicions.
Chris Larabee had finally come to rescue them.
As soon as he rescued himself.
Ezra watched, amused, as the woman rode away. Almost as if she had heard his words, she had straightened up. But as quickly as the laughter started, the dire situation returned too quickly to let it linger. He was wet, disheveled, miserable in every way, and worst of all, accustomed as he was to the leadership of others in endeavors of this type, he was unsure of himself. Always having gone out of his way to avoid personal entanglements, he knew himself to be completely out of his depth in the current predicament. Sighing, he bowed to the inevitable.
"Mr. Tanner. Since our esteemed leader has chosen to vanish back into the wilderness from whence he emerged, perhaps you have some wisdom to share in this situation?" Hesitantly, he continued, "As much as it galls me to admit it, I am completely unprepared to..." he trailed off.
"Uh-huh," Vin said, he watched the woman ride away and narrowed his eyes, deep in thought.
"We're gonna follow her. Real quiet-like too understand?"
Elaina sat behind her desk, annoyed when Crawford stepped into the room.
"What?" she asked tersely.
The man hesitated. This woman was so hard to predict. But, God, she paid well.
"Mr. Larabee is settled in."
"Fine. I'll see to him later. Mr. Dunne and I will be dining at seven." She stood, causing the man to back up a step. "Hit the town again in the morning. Burn something. Find the rest of them, and remind them that I have their friends if they don't want to cooperate."
Crawford nodded, backing out of the room, habit grown of fear, not respect.
Elaina went to the couch, sinking into the soft cushions. She closed her eyes, willing away the headache. She drifted to sleep, and became caught up in the dream...
Elaina could see the redheaded girl clearly, huddled behind the banister, shivering despite the warm summer night. In the room below, men were yelling. The child recognized some of the voices - her father and brothers - but couldn't understand the words. There was a stranger's voice, too. She could see four men, hands raised in supplication, and the dark shadow of another, strange man, behind them. Everything about him was dark - his clothes, his hair - except something shiny on his shirt. A watch fob, or button, maybe?
The man radiated hate.
Elaina heard the girl's mother scream, saw a blur of white as the woman rushed down the stairs to the evil man, closing her hand around his arm, pushing the gun aside.
Elaina blinked at the loud sound of the shots. She didn't see what happened below. She was transfixed on the little girl behind the rail, who had her hands pressed to her ears, staring at her own reflection in the big picture window across from her. Finally the loud sobs of the woman drew her attention, and she looked down. The four men lay on the floor, limbs cast at odd angles, blood everywhere. Crimson stained the white lace of the woman's nightdress, as she clutched her husband's body to her breast, rocking back and forth.
Then the strange voice again. A single word.
The man walked toward the door, his mirror image growing as he neared the window, his faced burned in the girl's memory.
Elaina wanted to go to the girl. To engulf her in her arms and assure her that everything would be all right. But she knew, somehow, that it was too late.
The red headed girl had died that night along with her father and brothers...
Elaina's eyes snapped open. The dream had not changed since the first time she'd had it when she was twelve. Sometimes it was harder than others to separate dream from reality. Details changed. But the red haired girl with the empty eyes always stayed the same.
The dinning room was lavish.
JD had never seen so many candles lit all at one time. The points of light softened and warmed the rich wood and lush fabrics. The effect was something like how he had always thought heaven would feel.
Except the heaven JD prayed to was nowhere near the secluded mansion.
...and the woman sitting at the head of the table was no angel.
As if she knew what he was thinking, Elaina met his eyes with at predatory stare. JD quickly looked down at the plate he hadn't touched. She reached over and brushed a stray strand of dark hair from his face.
Even though he had sworn to himself earlier not to react, JD flinched.
A smile settled across Elaina's features. The slightest touch got reactions from the boy.
"Tell me about your companions."
"I- I don't know them that well. We just ride together sometimes." JD was determined that he would not give her anything else to use against them. As her hand settled over his own, he swallowed and added *not willingly* to his vow.
"That's a shame. It was my understanding that you were all quite close. Perhaps you know more about them than you think?" She took a long look at JD's face. He had set his jaw tightly, a stubborn light replacing the fear in his eyes. *Not quite yet,* she thought to herself.
When she spoke again, it was sweetly. "If you don't know them, you don't know them." She took his hand and led him to the ballroom.
Caught off guard by the sudden change in tactics, JD didn't react until he heard the music again.
The strains of the mazurka died as the music box slowed to a stop. Elaina stepped back from the young man she was dancing with, glaring at him. He had grudgingly agreed to the dance, but resisted her efforts to draw him into conversation.
Oh, he would answer her, all right - one or two word, curt responses. But he wouldn't actually talk. Converse.
Of course, that was the gambler's forte. But the boy could at least be civil.
Turning back, she strode toward him. He tried to flinch away as she grasped his chin tightly, raising his face so that their eyes met.
"Tell me, little one," she said softly. "What gives you the right to be alive?"
Josiah continued to stare at Nathan. He was gaining some small bit of catharsis just from being in his friend's presence. It was better than pacing the room...
A memory played at the edges of his mind, pushing the headache aside. Something about the pacing...
Slowly, he rose, nodding imperceptibly at his friend, and entered the room. He started pacing, thumping his boots on the floor in a steady cadence. A stead thumping. Then, a thunk. He tried again. Definitely, a change in the sounds.
Looking around for a tool, he grabbed the tin plate, dumping the cold food on the floor, then knelt on the boards. He finally managed to work the plate into the space between the boards, prying one up far enough to loosen the nails. Using the fork, he pulled the nails up, releasing the plank. Underneath was a hole.
Encouraged, Josiah pried up more planks. There was a shaft. He could feel a small breeze. After he revealed the full opening, he sat back, satisfied. Finally, something positive. Except he was far too large to fit. He doubted even JD could squeeze through the tight space. But it was a start.
Carefully, he replaced the planks, dragging the table over them.
"...what gives me the right?" The question so surprised JD that he stopped trying to pull away from her grasp. "Someone thought I was worth putting here. Thought I had the 'right.' That maybe I could make things better in some way. That I deserved a chance to at least try."
Steady hazel eyes locked with cool green ones.
"What about you?" His voice gained strength as the pain, fear, and confusion of the past two days melded into anger. "What have you ever given the world, to make up for the pain you've caused in it? Huh? Take a look outside. Nathan Jackson is one of the best men I know. He's seen so much hate, and he still cares about people. How can you do that to him? How can you bring back the past? What has he done- What have any of us done to earn your hate? Or-or... What about Josiah? He's always..."
JD's words trailed off as he realized Elaina was watching him with amusement.
"I thought you didn't know them very well? That you just 'rode together sometimes'?"
Horrified at what he'd just given away, JD dropped his gaze to the floor. The bond that his companion shared, was their greatest strength. It could also be their weakness.
Elaina smiled, triumphant. She didn't particularly need the information the young man gave. She just had to let him believe she did. She placed a hand lightly on his shoulder.
"You remind me so much of..." She hesitated, tears brimming in her eyes. She blinked them away. "I'm sorry if you've been hurt."
JD shuffled, confused. He was young. Women were still a great mystery to him and he was beginning to think he wanted to keep it that way.
Elaina brushed a strand of hair from his eyes, then walked away.
"Phillipe, see Mr. Dunne to his room."
JD listened at the door carefully. He was nearly certain that there was no guard in the hallway, and the last footsteps had been nearly half an hour ago. He smiled crookedly to himself. That meant the only thing between himself and freedom was a lock.
All he had to do was get to the courtyard where Josiah and Nathan were. If they were together, there was no threat of leaving someone behind to keep them from escaping.
He quickly stripped the heavy wire hanger from the back of a painting. Twisting the wire into a makeshift lock pick, JD set to work on the only obstacle in his way.
Fifteen minutes later, it was still there. *C'mon,* he silently pleaded with the wire as he pulled it straight- again. *Cut me some slack here. It's not like I do this on a regular basis.*
He gave the wire one last twist out of frustration, and was rewarded with a metallic click.
*Now all I have to do is avoid my hostess and her goon squad.* The front door was definitely out. He didn't remember a whole lot about the trip in the wagon, or their arrival, but he did remember the activity level at the main entrance. *'sides, there's still Nathan's guard to deal with.* There was no way JD could sneak up on him from the front of the house, but if he could get to Josiah- together they could figure it out.
*Course, it's not gonna matter if I get caught standin' here daydreamin'* He pulled the door closed behind him and padded softly down the hallway toward the rear of the house.
Another roar echoed through the house, rattling the windows. Crawford cringed, rushing down the stairs. He rounded a corner and nearly collided with Elaina. He stumbled back a few paces.
"Please, Mr. Crawford. Do something about Mr. Larabee. Tell him that trying to beat down the walls is not advantageous. I want the noise stopped now." As if to punctuate the statement, another angry roar echoed through the hall. Elaina shook her head, stalking toward the stairs. Crawford shuddered, hurrying toward Larabee's room.
JD held his breath as the footsteps approached his shadowed retreat. There was nowhere to hide in the empty hallway and he hadn’t found an unlocked door anywhere. He pressed himself against the wall near the entrance. Hopefully he could surprise whoever was coming. The tonic he’d been given earlier for pain was wearing off rapidly. If it came to a fight JD would been in a world of trouble.
*Knew it was a mistake to follow that noise. Should have gone straight to Nathan and Josiah.* Of course, he wasn’t positive that the source of the noise wasn’t Nathan or Josiah. *Or one of the others, * he amended glumly.
Luck had apparently decided to make an appearance on his behalf, because the hurried footsteps rushed passed his hiding place without hesitation. JD risked a quick look. *Fancy-man. That figures. I knew he looked out of place in the saddle.*
The other man hurried down the hall to JD’s destination, the room with one very unhappy- and very loud- occupant. Fancy-man spook to the prisoner through the door for a moment. The sound from the room gradually dimmed as he spoke. At last there was silence.
JD quickly ducked back into the shadows, as Fancy-man hurried back in the direction he’d come from.
Waiting for a long moment- just to be sure, JD slowly crept to the door in question.
He knocked softly, ready to bolt if the occupant made any attention getting noises.
The voice that came from behind the door was sickeningly familiar.
“I said, GO AWAY!” Chris Larabee drawled in his most deadly tone
“Chris!?!” JD winced as his startled voice echoed through the empty hallway.
“JD? How did- Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine. What about you?”
“I’ll be okay once we get out of here. I saw Nathan and Josiah on the way in. Is anyone else...?”
“I don’t think so.”
They froze as the sound of footsteps reached them.
Crawford stalked down the hall, grumbling. Larabee had been warned about the noise. He'd tried to be civil with the man, but if shackles and a gag were what it took to shut him up, so be it.
He dropped the shackles on the floor in front of the door, drawing his gun.
"What?" the reply was curt.
"Please stay back from the door."
"Anything you want." Larabee's tone was sarcastic.
Crawford moved his pistol to his left hand, placing the key in the lock. He braced himself for an attack from the room. What he didn't count on was an assault from behind.
The blow to his head brought him to his knees. He turned to fire, but the pistol fell from his limp fingers. Another blow to his jaw clouded his vision.
How the hell had Larabee gotten out of the room. And how am I going to explain this to Noonan??
Black haze overtook him.
After a few seconds of debate, Ezra and Vin had tethered their captive to a tree, tightly enough that he wouldn't be getting loose for the next 7 or 8 hours, but not so tightly that it would be a death sentence. *After all,* Ezra thought with revulsion, *I couldn't bring myself to do THAT.*
With a forced but nonetheless chilling smile, he promised the man that if he even heard that he had returned to warn his "friends", Ezra would happily, and painfully, remove him from the land of the living. Ezra wasn't sure whether he was pleased or horrified that people seemed to believe this particular act so readily.
Ezra followed Vin quietly and the tracker moved through the woods like a ghost. They were next to the path that the woman had taken, but Vin hadn't needed to explain why they weren't on it. B
arely a minute from the clearing where they had met the woman, Vin spotted the sign of Chris's horse in the underbrush. He spoke in a whisper, explaining to Ezra that Chris had left the woods and apparently run into the woman, and been surrounded by four men. Then all of the people had gone forward in the direction Ezra and Vin were headed now.
Even more cautiously now, Vin led them forward. Ezra was amazed again at his skill. Vin reminded him of a snake, slipping silently over the ground, and even his posture was predatory. When they reached the end of the trees Ezra drew up beside Vin, and then felt his stomach turn. Tied to a tree in the middle of the clearing, between a house and a smaller structure, was an unconscious, hurt, Nathan Jackson. Ezra looked over at Vin, his eyes meeting the other man's in mutual disgust.
JD picked up the fallen firearm. He covered Fancy-man, while he quickly opened the door. JD shook his right hand. “Damn but he’s got a hard head,” he whispered.
Chris grinned at him, not letting the sudden burst of rage he felt as he got a good look at the kids face reach his eyes. “Here-give me a hand with him.”
They pulled the still form into Chris’s cell. Chris’s smile was just the sane side of feral, as he attached the shackles and gag that had been intended for himself.
“There, that should give us some time before he’s discovered. Which way?”
JD was a little suprised that Chris was asking him for once. “I don’t know. I came in the front door. I haven’t been able to find a servants entrance yet. The kitchen is this way, that’s the best bet for a back way out.”
JD gave up both the gun and the lead to Chris as they silently stalked through the empty hallways. He was grateful that someone else was in charge. The tonic had completely worn off, and JD was struggling to keep his body from betraying him. The brief struggle with Fancy-man had awakened countless points of pain in his side and abdomen. He forced his thoughts back to the situation at hand.
Buck was seething. He'd lost the wagon tracks nearly half a mile ago. It had been a good ten minutes since he'd seen any other signs. He took a deep breath, forcing himself to stay calm, focused. He couldn't afford to overlook anything that might lead him to the killers.
Buck was certain that they were on a mission of vengeance, not rescue. Three of his friends had fallen victim to this unforeseen threat, maybe more. Including his surrogate brother. Buck owed it to each of them to extract revenge. For Nathan, who had suffered through the worst of man, and come away with the best. For Josiah, one of God's blessed peacekeepers, who'd finally found peace within himself. And for JD...a stubborn greenhorn, who had truly earned the right to call himself a man of the West. *Lord, I shoulda put that kid on the first stage headed east. Not that he'd a stayed on it long.*
Buck allowed his thoughts and memories to pull him farther and farther away from the bleak reality of the present.
The slap of a wet branch across his face, caused Buck to look up sharply. The curse he was about to utter died on his tongue. Just ahead, a light had flared to life in the darkness. A window, illuminated by a candle stood out sharply in the steadily darkening twilight.
Silently he gestured to Lee. The mercenary nodded, he too had seen the large house.
Lee knew what exactly what Buck was instructing. They had learned often to communicate without words. By all rights, this house should not be here. Lee held up his two fingers and pointed it to his eyes indicating that they should proceed and scope out the place.
Realizing also that the front of the house may be very well protected, Lee opted for the rear approach. Again, it may be a bit on the overly cautious, but that is what he owed his continual existence to. Again, it may be just a house.
Lee intended to find out.
Josiah woke with a start, instantly alert. Something was wrong...
He glanced over at Nathan, who appeared to be sleeping. The guard was leaning against the tree, eyes half-closed. Then Josiah noticed the movement near the house. His pulse bounded as he recognized Chris Larabee, slinking around the corner of the building, followed by JD. the guard by Nathan opened his eyes fully, casting a startled look around.
Quickly, Josiah roes to his feet, drawing the man's attention. He took a step forward, arms held out in a gesture of surrender. The man raised his rifle.
"I just want to check on my friend." Josiah took another step. The man moved toward him, but before he could take action, Chris was on him, grasping him in a silent choke hold. Josiah stepped in to help bring the man down.
JD had run to Nathan, and was fumbling with a ring of keys. Finally finding the right key, he released the lock binding the wounded man to the tree. He then handed the keys to Josiah, a broad grin of relief on his face.
"You and Chris get the gate open." the kid told the older man. "I'll help Nathan. We'll be right behind you."
The preacher glanced at JD, who was half carrying the wounded man, and nodded encouragement, before trotting after their leader.
Neither man spoke a word as Josiah tried the different keys in the lock. One finally slipped into place, and the gate swung open. Josiah turned back to help the kid with his burden, horrified when he couldn't find them. He and Chris both froze.
Where had JD and Nathan gone?
He was dreaming, he felt sure. He knew he had a fever. His shoulder was likely infected, and the combination of no food and cold was wearing him down. So when he awoke to see the long haired angel hovering over him, he knew it must be a dream.
The angel looked remarkably like JD Dunne, and the thought made him chuckle. But when the angel tried to haul him to his feet, he resisted wearily.
"Come on, Nathan, help me here," the apparition muttered.
"JD? That really you?"
"Yeah. Now get up. We're leaving." Nathan struggled to his feet. He had to lean heavily on the kid, and even then was having a hard time staying upright. They were headed for the gate, where he could make out Chris and Josiah doing something. But as they passed a large brick building, he tumbled to the ground as his support was suddenly pulled away from him. He glanced up in time to see a huge man hurl JD into the building before he, too, was grasped roughly and tossed inside.
Nathan hit the far wall hard, landing next to JD. He shook his head, trying to clear haze. The kid crawled over to him, grasping his arm as he faced the man glaring down at them.
"Secure the gates, and reinforce the guards," the man ordered. "And alert the house." The others scrambled to comply as the man turned toward the captives. The guy was downright ugly, Nathan thought. He sported a couple of bruises on his face, and a large bandage on one arm. He pulled out a knife, slowly advancing on them.
"Hey, kid. We meet again." His lips curled in a cruel smile. "We have unfinished business."
The hand on Nathan's arm tightened as JD slid closer to him.
JD was fixated on the blade. Unconsciously, he tried to back away. As the wall at his back stopped him, he forced his eyes upward.
“Maybe I should settle up with your friend here?”
“No.” The word hung there between them, taunting.
The sneering smile broadened. “Who’s gonna stop me, pup? You?”
“JD. Don’t.” Nathan tried to grab JD’s arm.
JD stood, shaking off Nathan’s hand. He swallowed hard. “If I have to.” The words were soft, but his tone was hard. He deliberately placed himself between Nathan and their captor.
The man laughed harshly. “No, I don’t think so, kid. Last time you surprised me. This time I know better.” He shifted his foot, drawing JD’s attention down.
Prepared for a kick, the right cross caught JD above his left eye. His head snapped back. JD staggered, tripping on Nathan’s legs. He hit the ground hard. The other man was on top of him in a heartbeat. Nathan tried to pull him off. JD’s assailant drove his elbow back into the healer’s face.
The door opened and several men rushed in. Nathan flailed as two of them hauled him backward, but the adrenaline that had carried him into the fight was ebbing. He tried to jerk away again as they dragged him through the door.
“Nath---!” A large hand clutched JD’s throat, cutting off his cry. From the corner of his eye he could see the knife blade settle across his cheek.
“We’ll finish this later. You’re just lucky She still has plans for you.” He pulled JD roughly to his feet and shoved the teen toward one of the waiting men.
JD looked up. *Simmons* Somewhere he found the nerve to smile. “Well, this is just a regular reunion, ain’t it.”
The behemoth caught JD’s arm in a vice like grip. “C’mon. They’re waiting for you at the house.” ***** *****
Ezra and Vin watched as Nathan was freed and the four men headed towards the gate. When JD and Nathan were grabbed, Ezra started forward, only to be halted by Vin's hand on his arm. Silently Vin nodded towards the house, where more men were emerging. Ezra stepped back and prepared to wait. They weren't disappointed when the group of men separated, one group returning with Nathan to the tree, and the other taking JD back towards the house.
Once the men with JD were around the corner of the house, Vin motioned to Ezra, and they snuck up behind the ruffians who had just started to tie Nathan back up.
"This'll have ta do." one of them was saying.
Ezra attracted their attention, and Vin silently finished them off. Ezra quickly cut Nathan loose again. Unsure of what to say to the obviously ill man, Ezra tried to help the only way he knew--by making him angry. As he supported Nathan to keep him from falling, he said "I hope that we haven't caused you any inconvenience...but you really couldn't expect me to go anywhere in this deplorable weather...I might have ruined my apparel." His words and tone indicated that he had spent the time up until now in comfort, and he thought that Nathan was too ill to notice how he looked. He looked at the other man hopefully, waiting to see a reaction. *Right now, ANY reaction would be good!*
His face hurt and his vision was blurred. Someone had hurt him and his brother, then dragged the boy away. He'd promised their parents that he'd look out for his younger sibling, but he just didn't have the energy anymore.
He felt them drag him back to the tree. They were tying him with his arms above his head. That only meant one thing to his fevered mind...
When his arms suddenly dropped free, Nathan reacted with all the strength his fear and could muster. He swung a blow into the startled face of the slick-talking gentleman, connecting his jaw with the iron shackles he wore, forcing the man back into his companion. The two men stumbled away from him, the smaller one falling into the dirt. Taking the unexpected opportunity, Nathan turned and ran toward the house, where he'd seen the overseer drag his brother.
Elaina swept down the stairs, approaching the group of men in the entryway of the mansion. Crawford turned toward her, and she couldn't help but smile when she saw that one eye was swollen shut. The man glanced away quickly.
"Would someone please tell me what this is all about?"
"Mr. Larabee and Mr. Sanchez have escaped," Crawford mumbled.
"I don't know, Miss Noonan." Crawford was beginning to wonder if all the money in the world was worth facing this woman's wrath.
"Find out," she snapped. She stepped over to JD, who was struggling in the grasp of a man nearly twice his size.
"Aren't you happy with the accommodations, Mr. Dunne? That can be rectified." She traced his jaw-line with her fingernail, leaving a light abrasion over his jugular vein.
"Take him to the tower room. Chain him. I don't want him getting out again, under any circumstances." She addressed the man holding JD. "And, Mr. Simmons, teach him some manners."
As JD was dragged toward the stairs, Crawford cleared his throat.
"Yes, Mr. Crawford?"
"The sentries report that Misters Tanner and Standish, as well as Misters Fitzgerald and Wilmington are outside the perimeter."
"Then double the guard and secure the gates. Search the grounds, too."
"Yes, Ma'am. What about Larabee and Sanchez?"
"Let them go." She turned to leave.
"Let them go, Ma'am?" Surely he hadn't heard right.
"Do you enjoy living?"
He exited quickly.
Chris had had to hold him back, and even then, Josiah had almost knocked the smaller man out in an effort to go back for Nathan and JD.
"We can do them more good out here," Chris hissed in his ear. It made sense, and he knew that it wasn't any easier for their leader to stay back than it was for him.
They watched in silence and Nathan was dragged from the building, back to the tree. Then JD was pulled out, caught in the grasp of a huge, angry man. The kid was struggling valiantly.
Chris tapped Josiah on the shoulder, directing his attention to the tree. In the darkness, he could see two figures approaching Nathan and his captors. He could tell by the way that they moved that it was Ezra and Vin. They overpowered the men with Nathan, cutting the captive down. Josiah breathed a sigh of relief.
Then, as if possessed, Nathan slugged Ezra, knocking him into Vin, then ran toward the house, disappearing through the front door.
"Damn," Chris breathed.
Then it got worse. The massive gate that they'd left through swung shut, closing Vin and Ezra inside the compound.
JD’s head lolled. He wasn’t sure just how many more ‘lessons’ he could take.
“What do you say, kid?”
“Now that weren’t very polite. Miss Noonan told us to make sure you learned your manners. She ain’t a woman you want to disappoint.” Simmons slammed his fist into JD’s unprotected abdomen.
JD pulled his knees up protectively. His breath came in short, sobbing gasps.
“Say thank you.”
Part of JD’s brain screamed, *Say it!*
*No! Chris would never give in,* another part shot back.
*Chris ain’t here, now is he?*
*But he is, and he’ll come for you. Just hold on.*
The realization that he was having an argument with himself struck JD as funny. A mirthless chuckle pressed its way past swollen lips.
Simmons grabbed JD’s hair, pulling his head back. “Oh, you think that’s funny. Maybe I should go see if your darkie friend has better manners,” he hissed in JD’s ear.
The implied threat had the desired effect. JD knew the wounded healer wouldn’t be able to take much more. He forced himself to get control. There wasn’t much he could do, but he could protect Nathan from Simmons.
This time the blow was to his ribs. JD gasped painfully, struggling weakly against the chains that held him.
“Now say it, damnit”
The other man in the room laughed. “Look at him. I don’t think he can talk anymore.”
“He can, and he will. Or his friend will.”
JD drew a shaky breath. Keeping his eyes down, he stammered, “th....thank.....you” Hot tears of shame burned down his cheeks.
"We gotta get them out of there. That woman's crazy," Josiah whispered. Chris nodded agreement.
"I don't think anyone saw them. Let's scout around out here. You go around to the left. I'll meet ya back here."
Josiah turned to leave, then hesitated. "Chris?'
"Good to see ya."
"Same here, pard." Chris smiled slightly. "Let's get this over with."
Josiah moved around the tree line as stealthily as a man his size could. The fence surrounding the estate was at least eight feet tall. Even across the open area between the trees and the fence, he could see that the gates were heavily guarded. He hoped Chris had some sort of plan.
As the preacher slipped from his place behind the trees to get a closer look at one of the gates, he froze at the feel of cold metal against his neck. there was the distinct click of a pistol being cocked.
Any fear vanished instantly at the menacing voice. "Just give me a reason."
He knew that voice well. "Buck?"
Levi was in the big house, somewhere, and Nathan intended to do whatever it took to get to his little brother. He charged through the front door, eyes fixing on the woman at the stairs. He could tell by her stature and bearing that she was the only person of consequence in the room. He ran at her with every intention of bringing her to the ground. But she heard him, and easily side-stepped him. He stumbled on the bottom step, landing at her feet.
Elaina glared down at the man. "How did he get in here?" she asked angrily. The other men in the room shrugged and shuffled their feet self-consciously.
"What'd you do with Levi?" the man at her feet asked, gripping the hem of her dress. She kicked him off, stepping back. Crawford moved forward.
"What's he talking about? There ain't..." Elaina silenced him with a glance. She knelt beside Nathan.
"Your brother won't behave himself. He had to be punished." She lifted the man's face up so she could look in his eyes. The vacant gaze pleased her.
"Where's he at?"
"If you promise to control him, I'll let you go to him."
Nathan nodded wordlessly. Elaina gestured to Crawford, who stepped in and hauled the healer to his feet.
Nathan allowed himself to be dragged up the stairs. He didn't have much choice, really. He couldn't stand on his own anymore, and the only thing keeping him conscious was the thought that his little brother needed him. And a promise he had made to protect the kid.
“Josiah?” Buck clapped the big preacher joyfully on the shoulder. “I thought you were dead.”
“Not quite yet, brother, not quite yet.”
“Thank God.” The relief in Buck’s voice rose a degree as it dawned on him that if one survived.... “Nate? JD? Are they okay?”
“They were holding their own last I saw them.”
Buck held a finger up to his lips. He pointed to something off to the right. Torches moved about inside the fence. “What are they doing?”
“Damn, they must know Vin and Ezra are inside.”
Buck tugged on Josiah’s arm. “C’mon, Lee’ll be waiting.”
Lee was ready to act. It had been too long. Actually, anytime that Lee had to wait was too long. It was not in his nature to be passive. He had to act.
Forcing himself to calm down, Lee entrenched himself to provide as much cover as possible. He had the Winchester firing hammer already cocked and was ready for anything. Then he heard noises. Smiling to himself that he still had what it counts, an ordinary man would not have heard the noise. His senses were flaring back to life. He can not remember when he felt this exhilarated.
It was though he had a purpose.
He had to protect and his rescue his friends.
He surprised himself. In his profession, friends were a liability.
He did not care anymore about his profession or just looking out for himself. His friends needed help. This would be his last stand, physically as well as spiritually.
Lee silently approached Buck and Josiah. He just blended in with them as though he was part of the land. Silently, quickly. He just stood there and smiled as they suddenly realized he was with them.
"Glad to see you preacher."
He paused and added, "What about the others. Who owns this house?"
Josiah glanced at his companions.
"Woman's name is Elaina Noonan. Never saw her before, but I think she has a grudge against one of us. She made mention of the friends we keep. She had JD in the house. I'm not sure what she wants with the kid. Nathan was chained to a tree. They wouldn't let me help..." Josiah trailed off. Buck put a hand on his shoulder.
"I'm sure that just havin' you there was a comfort to 'em, Josiah."
"We gotta get them out. No telling what that woman will do."
"Rest assured, we will. How do you want to handle it? We could split up and each take a side of the house. What is the opposition in the house and how many numbers?"
“’s ok, ’s ok, ‘s ok...”
The soft chant inticed JD back into consciousness. He instantly wished it hadn't. Unable to stop himself, JD whimpered softly. Gentle hands passed across his forehead.
“Levi, why'd ya go an get them riled up? Ya know the ov’seer just gonna beat ya down.”
“Nathan?” JD rasped.
“You jus’ hush now. I’m gonna take care of ya. Jus’ lie still now, Levi. It’s gonna be all right.”
That was the second time Nathan had called him Levi. Even in JD’s muddled brain, he realized something was very wrong. He opened his eyes wearily. Nathan’s normally warm brown eyes looked down at him. JD resisted the urge to jerk away. The Nathan he knew, was nowhere to be found in the vacant orbs that stared back at him.
“Nathan, are you okay?”
“Jus’ lie still. They ain’t gonna hurt you no more.”
“Nathan, it’s me. JD. C’mon, look at me.” The healer was too immersed in his fever dream to respond to JD.
Slowly, JD pushed himself into a sitting position. He was still in the ‘tower room’ as She called it. His hands had been released, but a manacle and heavy chain attached his ankle to the wall. At least he had some mobility.
He carefully took stock of Nathan. His skin had a gray hue and was glossed with sweat; his eyes fever bright. Infection? He tried to remember what Nathan would do when it was one of the others who was sick. No good. He didn’t have the supplies or the skill.
He needed Nathan to tell him how to help. That meant waking him up. “Nathan, who is Levi?”
"Can't say for sure how many there are. At least two dozen. All of 'em look like Godless reprobates that look forward to fightin'."
Buck laughed at this. "Sounds like us, pard." Josiah smiled.
"I know I'm itchin' for some righteous retribution. The upper floors of the house all have bars on the windows." He shuddered slightly at the memory of JD's forlorn looks from a barred window. How could he have left the kid and Nathan behind?
"One thing I noticed. That middle building has a shaft of some sort under the floorboards."
"Any idea where it comes out?' Lee asked.
"Nope. Reckon we could look. Problem is, it's awful small. Take a little guy like JD to get through it."
"Or Ezra," Buck interjected.
"What'd ya mean, ‘who's Levi’?" the healer asked, looking JD hard in the eyes. He fingered the bruises on the kid's face. "Levi?"
JD shook his head slightly. Nathan turned his brother's up, looking into the hazel eyes. He blinked, trying to clear haze. This wasn't Levi. With a lightening-fast movement, he grabbed the stranger by the shirt collar, shoving him to the floor. He closed a hand on the boy's throat, leaning close to his face.
"What you done with Levi?"
“...athan...leggo...” JD tried to squirm out of Nathan’s grasp, but delirium lent the other man strength. JD strained for a breath. Blood pounded in his ears. Black doors were closing on his vision. In desperation, he took the only shot open to him...the cheap one. With as much strength as he could gather, JD slammed the palm of his hand into Nathan’s wounded shoulder. With a roar of pain, Nathan shoved JD as far away from himself as possible.
Gratefully, JD pulled in several lungfulls of sweet air. A short while later the roaring in his ears and the dizziness passed. He could hear Nathan mumbling to himself. JD felt a twinge of guilt, he'd hurt Nathan badly.
“Nathan?” The other man turned away from JD, cradling his injured arm. JD tried again. “It's okay, Nathan. I jus’ need ta take a look at your arm.” Cautiously, JD touched Nathan’s good shoulder. “Come on, Nathan, ya know you need help.”
Nathan finally turned to look at him, “Levi?”
JD drew a deep breath. Levi again. If that was what it took to gain Nathan's trust.. “That's right. Now are you gonna let me take care of ya?”
After a long pause, Nathan nodded.
Nathan submitted to the gentle hands that touched his shoulder, then brushed across his forehead. The coolness was refreshing, and he allowed the tentative inspection.
"Papa said to behave," he whispered. He opened his eyes, looking up to see Levi hovering over him. He smiled.
"Mr. Prickett gone?' he asked. The boy shrugged. "I won' let him bother you no mo'."
The master's youngest son had taken such pleasure in tormenting them, but always seemed to target Levi, since he was the youngest. And it seemed that the white boy with the black hair and hazel eyes also knew that picking on his brother also tormented Nathan. A part of him felt that he'd kill the kid if he ever got a chance. If they were ever free...
"They ain't gonna hurt you again. You listen to your big brother." His eyes slid shut. He'd rest. Just for a minute.
Nathan had finally fallen asleep. JD didn’t know if that was good or bad, but it did make his job easier. He wasn’t sure what to do about the bandage. It was filthy, which was bad. But whenever he tried to gently pry it away form Nathan’s shoulder, fresh blood welled up- which was worse. In the end he decided it was best to keep the wound clean.
He cast about for a fresh bandages. Nothing. Nathan was clothed only in rags. His own shirt had seen better days, but it would have to do. Hissing painfully as his ribs and stomach protested, JD eased his shirt off. He quickly shredded part of the shirt, leaving enough to make a sling.
Satisfied that his handiwork would hold, JD leaned back against the wall next to Nathan. He didn’t have it in him to try another escape, neither did Nathan. Which meant it was up to Chris and Josiah. He sent a silent prayer that they’d be okay.
Nathan shifted in his sleep, resting his head on JD’s shoulder. Despite the chill in the room, heat came off Nathan’s skin in waves. JD sighed and sent another prayer up for Nathan and himself.
Ezra struggled to stand, stunned, as Vin dragged him towards the small building. After Nathan had hit him, knocking him into Vin, Ezra had been quite dazed. Vin had shaken him out of it enough to tell him that there were some men coming out of the big house with torches, looking for them, apparently. He had explained that the small building with its thick walls and small window was a good defensive position. Ezra tried to grasp it, but he was still reeling from the blow.
*Thanks be that Nathan was wounded and didn't manage to hit me straight on! With those manacles, I would have a broken jaw!* was his first conscious thought as he gained control. Vin was busy hauling items to block the door and window, leaving only a small peephole.
Ezra, realizing what he was doing, began looking around for something he could add to their sanctuary's defense. Vin had just stepped up to the table, and Ezra moved forward to give him a hand. As they moved the table, however, Ezra stepped sideways to maneuver it in the small room. He was startled out of his wits when the board he stepped on flipped loose. They finished moving the table out of the way, and Ezra dropped to his knees, frantically pulling the boards out of the way. He looked up at Vin "There is a small passage way here. Perhaps, once we can no longer hold this refuge, we could leave through it. If one of us crawled backwards, we could even replace the boards when we were inside. Even after they broke the door, it would take them some time to find it."
She sat alone in the large parlor, gazing at the picture. Faces from the past stared silently at her, beckoning. She ran her finger lightly across the paper.
"Soon," she whispered.
Standing, she called for Crawford. The man slunk into the room, contrite.
"What's happening outside?"
"There's at least four of them outside the gates."
Elaina shook her head. The seven men posed a formidable opposition. As a whole, they were incredibly strong Well, she still had two in her control. By breaking them, she would break the whole. And she planned to break them beyond any help.
"Send someone out to extend a breakfast invitation to Mr. Fitzgerald. Then send Simmons up to check on the gentlemen upstairs. It seems the wolves are at the door, and action is necessary."
His head ached, and his shoulder hurt. But it was the numbness throughout the rest of his body that concerned Nathan. He knew he was very sick. He didn't have the strength to open his eyes, much the less move. His rest had been plagued by nightmares, dredging up long buried memories.
A movement beside him startled him. He was leaning on someone. Slowly, with great effort, he opened his eyes, finally focusing on the man sleeping next to him. He shifted slightly, and hazel eyes opened to meet his.
"Yeah." A small smile played across the features, followed by a grimace. Nathan lifted his hand, running gentle fingers across bruises and cuts, settling on the dark marks on the other's neck,
"God, JD. Who did this to you?"
JD averted his eyes. “It’s nothin’, Nate. How ya feel?” His voice was rough at the edges.
“Like I been shot.”
JD cringed. “Don’t make me laugh. How’s your shoulder?”
“Hurts.” With his good hand, Nathan fingered the bandage. “You do this?”
JD nodded. “Wha-”
The door swung open, Simmons’ massive frame filled the portal. The big man studied the rooms occupants with a smirk. Trusting the two men who flanked him to watch the door, he crossed the room to the two prisoners.
He crouched before them, resting on the balls of his feet. “Comfortable, boys? No? That’s a shame. A real shame.” His smile was savage. “What’s this?” He roughly gripped JD’s jaw, exposing his throat- and the forming bruises. “Not my work.” He turned to Nathan and asked, “Yours?”
Nathan looked at JD, confused. It sounded like Simmons was implying that he had tried to choke his friend.
The young man cast his glance down, fighting tears. Simmons gripped his jaw tightly.
"You gonna tell him, or should I?"
"You've got a fever, Nathan," he whispered. Nathan shook his head.
"Yeah, kid. Tell him," Simmons sneered. "And while you're at it, why don't you ask him who Levi is...Or was." He laughed cruelly.
Nathan glared at the man. His gaze clouded at the sound of his brother's name. With an angry roar, the healer launched himself at the sneering face. Or tried to. He only managed to roll into the man, pushing him away from JD. Simmons reacted violently, throwing Nathan across the room. JD tried to intervene, but the shackle around his ankle restricted him.
The last thing Nathan saw was the hulk of a man advancing on him.
"No answer, yet, Ma'am."
Elaina glared at Crawford. He shrugged. "We know they're out there. We're just not sure where."
"How many of you miscreants am I paying for, Mr. Crawford."
He cleared his throat. "Twenty-six."
"And you can't find six men?"
"Well, Ma'am. Actually, we do have two trapped in the bunkhouse."
"Why wasn't I told?" Before he could answer, she continued. "Burn it."
Crawford knew better than to question her. He nodded, backing from the room.
The three men sat in silence, each pondering the ramifications of the 'invitation' that had been extended to Lee. It seemed like a dangerous proposal, but the alternative could mean trouble for JD and Nathan.
Josiah was tired. How long had it been now? Three days? Three years? He felt old, tired. With the group fragmented, his center was skewed, and he prayed it would not be long before the whole was restored.
Shouts from the yard drew their attention. From their vantage point on high ground, they could see a man with a torch running at one of the small out buildings. There was a roar that Josiah recognized as Vin's mare's leg as the man fell in the dirt, but not before the torch had found its mark on the shake roof.
"Prey God they found the shaft," the preacher muttered.
Lee turned to the others. "I have no idea what is going on. But it appears that our friends are in more danger if I don't go. Do what you must but I will see what they want. I will play their game. For now."
The others tried to argue against it but Lee realized that this was the hand he was dealt with.
Lee readied his Winchester and approaced the stranger.
Elaina watched, satisfied, as she watched the Lee Fitzgerald approach the house, silhouetted against the flames dancing off the roof of the small building across the yard. Finally, after all this time...
"Mr. Crawford, bring Mr. Dunne to the dining room," she ordered. The man nodded, quietly leaving the room. She was really beginning to despise the man. More than most, anyway.
Simmons' attention to Nathan was halted as 'fancy-man' pushed his way into the room. The huge man turned to regard the intruder. "What does she want now, Crawford?"
JD was relieved that Simmons had been distracted, but it was a short lived reprieve as Crawford gestured to him. "Miss Noonan wants him to come down for breakfast. Where's his shirt?"
Simmons kicked at Nathan's still form. "Sacrificed for the greater good," he sneered.
Crawford smirked at JD. "I do hope Miss Noonan's sensibilities won't be offended." He turned to leave. "Bring him," he ordered Simmons over his shoulder.
"Bring him," Simmons mimicked once Crawford was out of hearing range. "Man thinks he jus' a regular.... Well, C'mon kid. The cat's ready for another round." He kept up a stream of one-sided conversation as he released JD's ankle and hauled him upright.
Lee watched as the stranger approached him. It was almost comical the way he was trying to escort Lee to this 'breakfast.'
"Sir, if you will come this way."
Lee realized that this person probably wanted his Winchester. He made no request for the rifle nor his handguns but Lee answered him. Slinging the Winchester over his shoulder, Lee made it quite clear that the rifle could be easily brought into action. Lee even removed the leather strips from his dual holsters. The stranger at first reacted as Lee thought he would. This person was expecting a fight - but Lee graciously smiled and extended his hand.
Moments later they approached the house,.
Josiah and Buck watched in silence as Lee disappeared into the house. Their companion still had his weapons with him, which was both comforting and disturbing. Was the woman so confident that she'd allow an armed enemy into her house? Of course, JD and Nathan were there as pawns.
A loud roar turned the preacher's attention to the outline of the small brick building, as the flaming roof collapsed into the walls, sending sparks into the early morning sky. He shuddered. There had been no sign of Vin or Ezra. It was only a small chance that they had found the tunnel, or if they had that both would have been able to squeeze through in time. Even then, where did it come out?
And where had Chris gotten to? It had been several hours since they'd parted, and there was no sign of him. Josiah wasn't particularly worried. Chris could take care of himself. But still, he'd feel better if they were together.
"I hate this," he muttered, not realizing that he'd spoken out loud.
Slowly, with great effort, he opened his eyes. It seemed to be getting harder each time he tried, and he knew that soon his efforts would fail, and they'd never open again. Now , despite being open, he saw nothing. Worse, he felt nothing.
"'Bout time you woke up." Nathan recognized the voice as a threat. He tried to move away, but his body would not respond.
"Wha's a matter, boy? Feelin' poorly?" The voice got closer, and Nathan tried to turn away. "Too bad 'bout your little brother."
"Where's Levi?" He barely managed to get the words past his parched lips.
"That little brat won't be a problem no more." The voice was practically in his ear now. "I kilt him. Watched the life go right out of his eyes."
"No..." It was no more than a whisper, but in his head it was a scream that echoed across years, bringing numbing agony.
Squeezing his eyes shut, Nathan folded in on himself.