by the Desperado's Daughter
A DAY’S RIDE FROM FOUR CORNERS
“GET DOWN!!!!!!!” Chris Larabee yelled. He was furious. JD Dunne was on the other side of the road and had scampered up the rocky hillside. There were all kinds of places the kid could hide. Why the hell wasn’t he? Did he think that the dusk made him any less a target?
Chris tried to cover him, although the horrific barrage of gunshots that were raining on them drove the gunfighter to seek cover himself. His side of the ravine was much rockier--a bluff, for all practical purposes. He had to be creative about finding cover, all the while worrying about the damn fool kid. Chris would ease out from behind a tree or rock and take a shot, then he’d dive to avoid being hit.
But JD . . . he looked like he didn’t care whether or not he got hit. For a minute Chris thought maybe JD had frozen. He had seen that happen with greenhorn soldiers who got into battle and became paralyzed with fear. Yet, JD’d seen action like this before. It wasn’t like him to let fear overtake him. Chris took a deep breath and started firing again.
For an instant, Chris got a better look at JD, and Chris realized that JD was being deliberate about what he was doing. From what he could tell, it seemed like the kid was trying to get a particular shot off. If only Chris could get to him--if only he could pull him down behind a rock or something . . .
It wasn’t until the very end when Chris could see what was really going on--when Chris saw a truly magnificent act of sacrifice.
A bullet pinged on a rock just behind his ear and JD dropped to the ground. He knew he was on a suicide mission, but he couldn’t just let those men shoot Chris in the back. He’d been watching as they worked their way down toward the overhang just above Chris. In another half a minute, one of them would have a clear shot.
Well, he couldn’t let that happen.
He figured it was good luck that he and Chris had scrambled in different directions when the shooting started. Maybe one of them would make it.
He took another shot, but didn’t have enough time to aim.
And they were closing in on Chris.
It was now or never.
Chris pulled up again and he saw the boy’s silhouette against the dying red of the sunset. JD took two heroic shots before being hit.
A moment later, Chris felt the weight of a body toppling over on top of him and he saw another fall from somewhere above him down the rock face to the road.
He struggled to pull himself out from under the body that had landed on him. Then he looked desperately across the ravine. There was no sign of the kid.
JD had saved his life.
And Chris prayed that he hadn’t gotten killed doing it.
Nathan Jackson grinned at the gambler. “I can’t believe I’m gonna say this, Ezra.” Nathan started to laugh. “But I like the way you think.”
“Well, just . . . look at him!” Ezra said and they watched Buck across the street as the tall self-proclaimed “ladies’ man” stood leaning against the post in front of the cafe. Clearly Buck had taken great pains with his appearance, and he made a play for every woman in town that wasn’t accompanied by a gentleman.
“Tippin’ his hat, kissing their hands, bowing like he thinks he’s some kind of royalty.” Ezra was mimicking his friend’s behavior.
“Are you sure you ain’t jealous?” Nathan asked, and that elicited a chuckle from the gambler, who sat back down again.
“Mr. Jackson, I assure you, I have no lack of companionship.”
“You can’t count me and the boys", Ezra,” Nathan said, never cracking a smile. It took Ezra a moment to realize that Nathan was teasing him.
“Well, at any rate,” Ezra said, “Let’s try it and see what happens.”
They didn’t have to look to know that the heavy footsteps approaching were Josiah’s. “Scoot over there, Ezra.”
“I don’t ‘scoot’, Mr. Sanchez, but I will gladly move aside so you may sit with us.”
Josiah addressed Nathan. “I never knew a man who could get through life without ever having to scoot.” Before Ezra could protest, Josiah changed the subject. “You boys are up to something. I want to know what it is.”
Miss Ally would talk to him. Buck smiled his most devilishly handsome smile. He knew it was devilishly handsome because he’d worked on it in the mirror and because Miss Viola had told him it was.
Miss Ally smiled back and fluttered her eyelashes at him.
“Why Miss Ally, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you look more lovely than you do this evening.” Buck took her hand in his and brushed his lips across the top of it.
“Ooh, Buck, your moustache tickles.”
Buck was taken aback. “Well, that can be a good thing, don’t you think?”
“As long as we don’t kiss on the lips,” Miss Ally said. “It’ll itch me.”
“It’ll . . . itch you?” Buck laughed nervously. “Ma’am, it doesn’t itch the other ladies.”
Her expression suddenly turned stormy. “What other ladies?”
“Well . . . "
“You never said anything about ‘other ladies’ when we had dinner last night . . .”
“Well . . .”
Miss Ally harrumphed and stormed off down the street.
Josiah and friends had been so absorbed in the goings on across the street that they hadn’t heard Vin approach.
“Looks like Miss Ally is none too happy with Mr. Wilmington,” Vin said.
“Mr. Tanner, I know you pride yourself on your ability to track a jackrabbit without ever giving yourself away, but do you have to approach us with the same stealth?”
Vin smiled. “Feeling a mite skittish tonight, Ezra?”
Ezra sighed, frustrated. “I do not get ‘skittish’. I just don’t think a man should sneak around like he’s about to ambush somebody.”
“Sorry,” Vin said. “You look like you’re up to something.”
Nathan grinned. With Vin’s help, they could really pull this off. “Oh, we’re ready to take Buck down a peg.”
“Looks like Miss Ally already did,” Vin commented. He looked at the long bench where his friends were sitting. “Hey, Ezra, scoot over a little, you mind?”
And Josiah laughed harder than he had in a long time.
As he made his way cautiously back toward the road, Chris’ keen eye kept returning to where he had last seen JD.
God . . . let him be all right.
It had sounded like there were snipers everywhere. So where were they?
His question was answered when he saw a couple of men move toward where JD had been. Chris crouched and took aim . . . but then five or six other men gathered there too. He couldn’t help JD if he gave away his location. He watched as a couple of men lifted the kid’s body.
And the kid struggled. Thank God . . . at least he was alive.
His struggle was rewarded with a fist to the midsection. Chris seethed. How could they hit somebody who’d just been shot--and a kid at that? He could hear them yelling at JD, but he couldn’t tell what they were saying. Why were they still hitting him?
JD was trying to fight back, but finally his head dropped and his body went totally limp. Chris hoped he was just unconscious. He wished he had Vin’s glass so he could really see how badly hurt JD was.
And he wanted a good look at the guys that had hit him. He wanted to remember.
Chris had to figure out how to get JD away from there, but there were so many of them. He needed help.
And tomorrow, help would be on the way.
His moustache didn’t itch nobody. At least he hadn’t had any complaints--well, not til tonight, anyway. Buck reached up and touched the back of his hand with his moustache. Maybe it tickled a bit. Maybe to a lady’s delicate lip. He practiced trying to kiss his hand in such a way as to keep the whiskers from scratching.
Suddenly, laughter erupted from across the street and Buck looked up. His “friends” were sitting on a bench, howling.
He felt the heat rush to his face.
“Oh, that’s real nice,” Buck yelled at them. He opened his arms expansively. “Have a good laugh at my expense. I’m glad I could bring you some entertainment this evening.”
“Aw, Buck . . .” Vin was still laughing as he stood and started across the street. “You don’t have to kiss your *own* hand. I’m sure some lady’ll let you kiss her.”
“Hell, *I’ll* kiss you, Buck,” Josiah hollered.
“Very funny, preacher,” Buck said.
Vin patted the ladies’ man on the shoulder. “I’m just glad Chris ain’t here to see this.”
Ezra Standish had arrived at Buck’s other side. “In the South, a man can be put in jail for dating his own hand.”
“OK, ha-ha,” Buck said, slamming his hat in his hand. “We’ve all had a good laugh. All the funny’s gone out of it now, so you boys just run on and find something better to do this evening.”
“Hey Buck!” Nathan yelled from his seat beside Josiah. “Maybe you’ll have better luck on this side of the street.”
“I DON’T NEED LUCK!” Buck yelled back at him. “All the ladies in Four Corners find me very attractive, thank you very much!”
“BUCK WILMINGTON!” a female voice cried. Buck spun around to find himself face to face with Miss Ally again. He felt the sting of her hand slapping his face before he even had a chance to say anything.
“All the ladies??” Miss Ally said. “I thought it was just us. I thought you cared about me, Buck.”
“Well, I do, darlin’” Buck stammered. “I just . . .”
The pretty girl blinked back tears. “I don’t find you attractive at all anymore.”
Buck found himself speechless, for once. He looked at his “friends” and walked away, head hanging.
Chris Larabee froze in place as he heard the unmistakable sound of a hammer at his ear. A pistol.
“Drop it.” Chris let his own weapon fall and then raised his hands. Rough hands pushed him forward and he barely caught himself before falling. His captors were behind him, but he didn’t try to turn around. He felt the unmistakable muzzle of a shotgun in the small of his back. His hands were pulled behind him and bound too tightly.
“Who are you?” he asked, but no one answered him.
“Move,” a different voice said, prodding him forward. They were moving him toward the road. There wasn’t enough light for him to see, but he could hear horses and other voices. There were a couple of lanterns down there, and Chris realized there was a wagon of some kind.
“Why were you shooting at me?” Chris asked, but he barely got the question out before suddenly, something--the butt of a rifle?--slammed into his back, driving him heavily to his knees.
“Shut the f*** up, Larabee.”
God, his back . . . At least they hadn’t hit his spine. Hurt like hell. Angry arms pulled him up.
“On your feet!”
He tried to stand up, but evidently not fast enough for them. A hand grabbed his hair and a man wearing a mask backhanded him. Chris felt the blood in his mouth. Someone jerked his head again and he felt hot breath against his ear. “I tell you to move, you move. You understand?”
Chris nodded. The stench of the breath nauseated him and he coughed. The hand pulling his hair released him roughly, then pushed him forward.
He staggered on, fighting the pain and trying to figure out if he recognized any of the voices he’d heard.
He’d have been able to concentrate too . . .
If he hadn’t heard JD scream . . .
Nathan stood up and leaned against one of the posts. He watched Buck walk toward the saloon. “This ain’t good,” Nathan said, shaking his head. Ezra and Vin wandered back across the street.
“How do you like that?” Ezra said, chuckling. “Looks like Mr. Wilmington took himself down a peg. Our little prank would have paled next to that little exchange.”
“I don’t know, Ezra.” Vin was watching Buck. “I think that really hurt him.”
“Oh, surely you don’t believe the illustrious Buck Wilmington would let one little rebuke get him down.”
Josiah stood up. “You never know.”
Vin raised an eyebrow. “Buck, he likes to flirt and all. And he enjoys a woman’s company. Getting turned down would hurt his pride, but he’d shake it off.” Vin took off his hat and looked at it. “Tonight was different, though. He knows he hurt a woman’s feelings, and he’ll carry that around a while.”
“What are they doing to him?” Chris growled.
“What do you care, Larabee? You’re a lawman, he’s an outlaw.”
A meaty hand shoved him forward and he landed on his knees again. This time Chris got back up quickly, anger driving his actions.
“He’s no outlaw . . .”
“He shot two deputies--killed ‘em.”
“They were about to ambush me!”
“Ain’t how we see it,” a new voice chuckled.
“Shut up down there.” That voice must belong to one of their leaders.
They were close enough now to see the road clearly. Chris could tell that the wagon was a paddy wagon--a prison transport with no windows and with bars in the back. A f***ing cage.
As they drew closer, Chris could hear sounds . . . JD . . . JD trying to keep from crying out. Groaning instead. Chris wanted to make a threat . . . to tell these guys that he would tear them apart for what they were doing. But he didn’t dare give them any reason to hurt the kid more. So he kept his mouth shut.
Once they reached the road, a big, broad man came up to Chris--a man vaguely familiar, but Chris couldn’t place him.
“Larabee . . .”
“Do I know you?” Chris asked, fighting the ache in his back, not willing to let his captors see him cower.
“Oh, I don’t think so.” The man’s voice was like thunder, his laughter a heavy, awkward sound. “But I know you . . .” Like lightning, his fist connected with Chris’ jaw. “ . . . Inmate 78.”
Chris lay on the ground. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and squinted up at the man before him. He still didn’t know him. He didn’t remember him from the prison camp. What the hell was going on?
The toe of a boot caught him in the gut and drove any rational thought from him. All he knew for a few blinding moments was pain. He curled in on himself, protecting his abdomen from further assault. For the second time that evening, he smelled fetid breath. The hot whisper at his ear taunted him. “Trust me, the boy feels a lot worse than you do.”
“What have you done to him?” Chris could hardly croak out the question.
No one answered him.
“Get up, Inmate 78.”
Slowly , painfully, Chris started to pull himself up, but he couldn’t balance with his hands tied behind him. Again he was hauled to unsteady feet.
The big man nodded toward the wagon and Chris was dragged to the black barred cage. The heavy door was opened and a shaft of moonlight flooded the inside. Chris could see JD lying on the floor, trembling, struggling to breathe.
“Bastards,” Chris breathed
“What was that?” the big man yelled. “We can give him some more--you just keep talking.”
At the man’s signal, Chris was thrown into the back and the door was slammed heavily behind him.
Chris rolled heavily across the floor and into another person. The other body reacted by recoiling slightly then trembling.
“JD . . . it’s Chris . . .”
A whimper first and a weak voice spoke.“Help . . .”
“Where do you hurt, boy?”
A groan. A wheeze. Nothing.
“JD.” Chris said again.
“Huh?” JD was trying hard to talk . . . maybe to keep from crying in front of Chris.
“Where are you hurt, JD?”
The wagon lurched forward and Chris felt like his body was coming apart. He hurt everywhere, but he set that aside when JD called for him.
“I’m right here, son.” With his hands tied behind him, Chris was utterly helpless.
“You taking me . . . home?”
Chris’ throat tightened. What the hell could he say? He’d never lied to the boy.
The wagon hit a pothole and Chris rolled back over his hands, the knotted rope digging into his bruised back. He groaned in spite of himself.
“Chris,” JD whispered. “They hurt you.” Chris could hear JD trying to move, but then falling back down again . . . with a thud.
A sob. A cough. “I’m sorry . . . I tried.” JD was fading.
“You saved my life, JD,” Chris said, as he struggled to crawl back through his arms, so at least they’d be in front of him. Maybe he could help the boy at least a little.
“You did, son.” Chris bit back a groan. JD was worried enough about him. “They were gonna shoot me in the back. You saved my life.”
JD’s voice quivered as they continued on their rocky way. “I couldn’t . . . let them.”
Chris’ hands were finally in front and he was able to reach up and touch the kid. First he found the boy’s face. “You did good, JD.”
Chris heard the lightest thread of a voice repeat . . . “I did good . . .”
Oh, the great gunslinger’s eyes stung as he checked for injuries. “C’mon, son, stay with me, now.”
A groan in answer, but the boy remained unconscious. “JD?” Chris asked, knowing he’d get no answer.
He took a deep breath.“ We’re prisoners right now, but it won’t be for long. Buck and the boys are coming for us.”
There was no answer.
The f***ing wagon lurched again and Chris realized that the unconscious boy didn’t roll across the wagon like Chris did. Chris, his hands still bound although in front of him now, reached JD to assess the boy’s injuries. In the dark, Chris’ hands found the boy’s legs first. JD was lying on his side--his feet bound together. Chris checked the kid’s legs for injuries and found a gunshot wound just below the knee. JD jerked awake--
“Easy son . . .”
“No--don’t . . .” JD tried to pull away and Chris could finally tell how JD was attached to the wagon. There was a rope tied around the kid’s waist and it was tied to a plank in the floor. Whenever JD moved, it got tighter, like a lasso or a choker collar or something.
“Don’t fight me, son. I’m gonna take care of your leg, then I’ll loosen that rope around your waist.”
JD was listening. “Hard to . . . breathe . . .”
“I know. Try to stay still.”
No sooner had he said it than the wagon hit another pot hole. This time, however, Chris was already holding the rope and he kept it from tightening. Chris braced himself so he wouldn’t roll.
The wagon settled.
“You ok?” Chris asked, trying to keep the pain out of his own voice.
“Better . . . that time,” JD said.
Chris felt the scratchy thick rope dig into his own hand and could only imagine how it felt against the boy’s tender, bruised belly.
Chris felt the area--checking for . . . well, maybe he’d know when he felt it. He’d seen Nathan do it often enough.
Feel for heat, for tenderness, for swelling, for . . .
JD cried out in pain and tried to fight Chris--but when he did, the rope at his waist tightened unbearable.
“Help . . .” JD said, breathlessly.
But Chris felt powerless to offer any real relief.
“You gotta quit jerking like that, JD.” Chris hated having to speak so harshly to the struggling boy. He cursed the ones who were doing this. And he wondered . . . first, if JD could survive the ride, and then, could he survive prison. Chris himself damn near hadn’t and he knew strong men had been broken in the barbaric camps.
Chris started tearing the material of his old shirt so he could at least bandage the kid’s leg. The job was awkward with his wrists bound together, but he still managed. JD had settled into a light unconsciousness. Maybe the boy could be spared some of the pain.
Once he had created a makeshiftbandage, Chris continued checking for more injuries, realizing how much he himself was hurting.
JD’s torso was tender and, as Chris’ hands traveled upward, he felt the unmistakeable stickiness of blood. Quickly, Chris searched for the wound . . .
And found it. JD started to scream, but Chris put his forearm over the boy’s mouth.
“JD, I know you hurt son, but you can’t scream. They’ll come in here and no telling what they’ll do.” Chris pulled JD’s shirt up and gave it to him to chew on when he felt like crying out. “If I had a bullet on me, you could bite that, but your shirt’s the best we got right now.”
The gunshot wound was high on the front of JD’s chest, far to the side--a shot that would have killed the boy if it had hit his lung. Instead, it must have nicked a rib or caught muscle or something because it was almost under JD’s arm. Chris found a matching wound on the other side. It had gone straight through.
JD’s arms were pulled over his head--it had to be hurting his chest wound. Probably what the bastards intended.
Chris would kill ‘em. And if he died before he could, Buck would kill ‘em, or Vin would. Any of his men would.
JD was fighting so hard not to cry out.
“You’re doing great, kid,” Chris kept telling him. There didn’t seem to be any major head wound and JD’s arms were ok. Two of the kid’s fingers were broken--Chris hoped it was from JD getting a good lick in when they were beating him.
Finally, satisfied he’d done all he could, Chris took JD’s face in his hands and checked it ever so lightly. JD winced as Chris found the cuts and bruised--Chris winced when he felt the tears roll down JD’s cheeks. The seasoned gunman got as close to the young man’s ear as he could.
“You saved my life today, son.”
JD started to answer.
“Don’t try to talk. It’s ok. That was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen a man do--ever.”
A breath of a voice. “Really?”
Chris had to smile slightly. “Really. I’m proud of you, son. And I’m gonna get us out of this thing, JD, I swear it.”
“Your word . . .” another lurch of the wagon. A groan. A muffled cry. “That’s . . . good enough . . . for me . . . Mr. Larabee.”