His heart pounded. His breathing was labored. His head pounded with each step.
But still he ran.
The low brush tore at his ankles and his worn boots aggravated his blistered feet.
Don't stop. Run!
They were gaining on him. For a while he'd been able to maintain a steady distance. Then, about mid-afternoon, he figured he'd lost them.
Then, he'd heard them again. How the hell were they tracking him? It was as though they knew where he was headed before he did.
But that was impossible.
If he stopped long enough, he figured he'd hurt all over. His head hurt and his feet hurt. Everything in between? Well, he'd worry about that later.
He had to run.
He had long since lost his shirt, and his skin burned from too much exposure to the relentless sun. How could he keep going? This was insane.
But still he ran.
He would die before he let them take him.
They were closing in on him.
His breaths were coming in great gasps, and his legs felt like lead. NO!! Don't give in! Run!
They were closing the distance.
His heart felt like it could explode, but he kept going.
He wouldn't give in. Not after he'd come so far.
God help him!
Ezra Standish smiled broadly.
"Ah, gentlemen," he drawled as he gathered hoardes of chips from the center of the table and slid them to the area directly in front of him. "Shall we make another go at it?"
He would love to keep going at this table--a beautiful cherry hardwood table surrounded by plush chairs. At the rate he was winning, he could afford to stay at this fine hotel for another week at least. He had made a careful study of the other men at the table. Each was dressed impeccably and Ezra thought fleetingly that he would need to augment his wardrobe if he were going to keep such elite company.
The most auspicious of his cohorts was Sir Everett Smythe. He claimed to be royalty of some sort in England, but Ezra suspected his story might be an . . . embellishment of the truth. No matter. Sir Everett Smythe had more money than the Lord God Himself, and Ezra wanted very badly to separate him from as much of it as possible.
The other players seemed to be waiting for Smythe to make the determination. Ezra could feel the dapper English gentleman's eyes studying him, even without Ezra's looking directly at him. He knew Smythe wanted a chance to win his money back. He also knew that the man was trying to decide whether or not Ezra had been cheating. If Smythe continued the game, it would mean he trusted that Ezra played fairly. If he didn't, Ezra would have to sleep with his gun under his pillow and he'd have to leave town before he could hook up with Vin Tanner.
Ezra kept his expression pleasantly neutral. Any sign of nervousness would blow the whole game. If he appeared too happy, too cocky, it would be seen as a form of mockery, and they'd run him out of town that very night. This wasn't Four Corners. If it had been, there would have been someone watching his back. As it was, he'd have to watch out for himself.
He allowed his eyes to meet Smythe's, and he held the look. He was issuing the man a challenge. Silence was working in Ezra's favor. Neither man flinched. Neither man moved. The room hushed as the two high rollers faced off.
Suddenly, Smythe laughed and slapped a hand on the table.
"Another game!!" he cried, and Ezra grinned.
"Another round, my darling," Ezra called the pretty waitress over and slipped a bill into her decolletage. "Pour one for everyone and put it on my tab. It is indeed a pleasure playing with you, Mr. Smythe," Ezra's voice lilted through the parlor and the room applauded the Southerner's generosity.
It was well after midnight, but for the two seasoned players, the night was just beginning.
Chris Larabee was bored--bored and restless. As long as he stayed busy, he could keep his mind away from his demons. But when things were quiet, like they'd been for the last couple of weeks, he had time to ponder things. He had time to wonder what the hell he was doing with himself.
And he had time to miss his family.
Sometimes he imagined what Adam would be like now. How tall would he be? Would he want to be a doctor? A lawyer? God forbid, a cowboy? Chris smiled sadly as he thought about that. Adam Larabee, the cowboy. What he wouldn't give to see Adam as a cowboy--riding free, roping, cutting--and Chris would have ridden right beside him.
Just when Chris would get lost in his fantasy, the present slammed into his consciousness and he'd realize that it was all just that-a fantasy. Reality was a hard barstool and bad whiskey.
He absently let his eyes roam around the saloon. Josiah sat propped up in the corner, asleep. An empty glass sat on the table in front of him. JD sat at the same table, poring over one of those novels he fancied. Buck was sitting at a small table, whispering in the ear of one of the working girls. It was clear he would not go home alone tonight.
Chris looked back at his glass. He held it so that he could see distortions of his reflection in the amber whiskey. He sloshed it around and looked again, mildly amused by the sight of his eye changing shape, size, appearing and disappearing in the thick glass.
"Chris," a familiar low voice greeted him.
Chris tilted his head to the side and looked up. "Nathan . . ." he replied.
"I'm glad folks are healthy," Nathan commented. "But it's quiet as a tomb around here. I'm getting a little stir crazy."
Chris nodded, and said nothing. He listened as Nathan ordered a drink, and the two friends sat drinking in bored, comfortable silence.
Thank God for nightfall.
At least he hoped it was a good thing. He'd eluded his pursuers up until now.
Or had he?
They probably knew exactly where he was. They knew every inch of this wilderness. They knew every hideout. No doubt they were waiting for him to fall asleep so they could ambush him.
Vin Tanner lay on his back in a crevice in the rock wall, no supplies, no gun, no shirt and boots that were not made for running. His body ached and he was so thirsty. He hadn't found fresh water yet. At least they could play fair, but then that would not be profitable for them.
Vin had fought the weariness he felt until he was sure he wasn't being tracked any longer. He had to cover his own immediate tracks. He was exhausted. He just lay there, winded. Oh God, they would just wear him down until he didn't care if he were killed. Or maybe they'd just let the wilderness kill him.
It had only been one day. And here he lay, head swimming, throat parched, body aching, and feet killing him. Survival wasn't hard for him. He could live forever in the wild. But he wasn't merely surviving, he was running--running for his life.
He tried to gather his disconnected thoughts. Why couldn't he think straight?
They'd beaten him. Hadn't they? That's right. They had beaten him. He made a vague move to touch his face, but his arm was too weak.
A chuckle bubbled out of his throat. He was too weak to touch his face. He chuckled again. Then his head started to pound.
He squeezed his eyes closed--trying to ward off the pain. What had they done to him?
He had to work to remember. They'd taken everything--his guns, his knife, certainly his horse. He'd eaten breakfast. He remembered that. They hadn't found him till after he'd eaten breakfast.
His stomach rolled suddenly, and he turned onto his side. He'd have vomited if there had been anything on his belly. He felt the bile rise in the back of his throat, burning. He squinted hard. He tried to remember more, but his head was still swimming. It hurt to think.
He'd meant to stay awake--at least until he had some idea of where his pursuers were, but he started drifting to sleep. Right there in the cleft of the rock. He nodded off to sleep. It would be all right. He'd just sleep for a minute, then he would run.
Run--he'd have to run.
It was at this time of night when Chris Larabee hated himself the most. He sat alone at the bar. Everyone had gone--even the bartender. Chris would lock up . . . again.
Chris had had enough to drink to get a buzz, but not enough to forget what kind of life he could have had. He hated that he felt so damn sorry for himself. He hated being the last one there.
Yet, at the same time, it afforded him some strange comfort. No one would expect anything of him right now. Most importantly, he expected nothing of himself. At this quiet time, he didn't carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. He could hurt no one. He could let no one down. He didn't have to answer for anything. He was free of any current responsibility.
But he would never be free of the guilt.
He set the glass on the bar. He stood slowly, legs stiff, testing himself for the degree to which he'd become inebriated. That would let him know how much he needed to hang on to the bar.
He hadn't done too badly tonight. He walked around the bar easily and rinsed his glass. Then he set it, top down on the towel with the others. He realized suddenly how very tired he was. He was almost sleepwalking by the time he closed up the place.
The night air was muggy and it seemed to be as hot as the afternoon had been. The only relief was a pitiful movement of air that could hardly be considered a breeze. Wispy curtains fluttered lazily out of open windows. Four Corners was very quiet.
Chris walked back toward the livery. He wanted to go back to the homestead tonight. He wanted to sleep outside. The boarding house would be too hot-too musty. A short ride would feel good.
He rarely rode bareback, but tonight he would. He climbed slowly up the fence that separated his mount from the others being housed there.
"Easy . . . " he soothed, though it was unnecessary. He swung up onto the black, leaned over to open the stall door and urged him through it. His horse settled into an easy lope once they'd reached the outskirts of town.
He rode easily, and let the rush of air cool him. He eyed the horizon all around. The night welcomed him.
He rounded the curve that would take him beyond the sightline of the town, and started up the low slope. Awake now, Chris breathed deeply and urged the black onward. Once he crested the hill, he stopped. The sight before him was nothing short of amazing.
A horse running . . . faster than he'd ever seen . . . across the wide valley . . . running freely, like the wild horses did. Only there was a rider. This rider was part of the horse, moving with him in a steady pulsing stride . . . his head so close to the horse's neck that he created no more wind resistance than the horse himself. Chris watched, in awe, as the rider guided the horse toward a distant fence. The preparation for the jump was flawless, the jump itself--thrilling. The rider eased the horse around and came rounding back in the direction of Chris and his black. But as soon as the rider saw him, he pulled up and slowed to a stop, still yards away.
The rider stroked the neck of the winded animal, and sat up straighter.
And Chris recognized both the horse and the rider.
The horse was the wild stallion that had been brought to Four Corners for auction--a horse that had been considered unbreakable--a magnificent animal no one could ride. Vin Tanner had finally purchased the beast for far less than it was worth. He had felt sorry for it and had bought it to turn it out to pasture and eventually put it up for stud. It could command no decent price because it threw any rider that had attempted to break it. The best horsemen had tried--and the worst, the last leaving the horse so abused that he was defiant and unapproachable.
Yet, here he was. Chris didn't want to interrupt this moment anymore than he already had. He knew the rider and the rider knew him. The rider paused, waiting. The next move would be Chris'. In a slight gesture, Chris nodded, and the rider nodded back. They understood each other.
Chris watched as JD turned the beautiful animal back toward the open field to continue this strange midnight training run.
Chris felt . . . pride. It was a rather intense pride as he watched their youngest ride off to the next horizon.
And Chris rode on to his homestead. He would sleep very well.