The Outlaws - a Virtual Season episode - Part One

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.

FOUR CORNERS

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.

**************************************************************************************************************************

THE RAVINE

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.

FOUR CORNERS

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.”

“Wha-”

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.

**************************************************************************************************************************

THE RAVINE

CLICK.

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 . . .

**************************************************************************************************************************

FOUR CORNERS

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.”

------------------------------------------------------------------------

THE ROAD

“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.

“Huh?”

“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 . . .

There.

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 makeshift bandage, 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.”


FOUR CORNERS

Buck sat alone in the saloon, nursing a whiskey and nursing his own wounded feelings. What could he do to make things right? He hadn’t been “cheating” on Miss Ally because he hadn’t actually been courting her. Still, he wouldn’t hurt her for anything in the world.

One of the working girls sat beside him, and, once again, Buck appreciated being in the bosom of his real family -- the family he grew up with, not in the company of his so-called friends who thought of him as a fool. Oh, not in a gunfight, of course, he knew that, but maybe they thought he was “boorish” in his “regular” life.

Well, to hell with them and what they thought about him. At least JD looked up to him. Buck paused and laughed. JD got excited about a new frog gigger.

“What’s on your mind, honey?”

Buck smiled sadly for a moment and he took her hand gently. “Nothing I have to worry on tonight, darlin’.”

“You can tell me . . .” she said, her easy voice drifting, soothing him like his mama’s voice used to. “Come upstairs . . . we’ll talk . .. “

Buck was good to the working girls in town and they loved him . . . differently. He knew they had fun together, but when the chips were down, he could go to them and talk it out.

That’s all he’d do tonight.

*********************************************************************

ARRIVING AT THE PRISON

Chris had either fallen asleep or passed out. It didn’t much matter. Waking up to being thrown out of the wagon felt about the same either way, he figured.

He could hear JD struggling--still in the wagon. A moment later, he saw two big men push JD out of the back of the rolling cage, then pull him up short with that g**d*** “leash” around his waist. Chris could see it now. It was a lasso, for crying out loud and when it caught, it forced JD’s air out. The boy started wheezing. His captors were laughing.

And Chris was burning.

Chris’ instinct was to break somebody--but his better sense prevented it. If he reacted, then they would take it out on JD. And JD couldn’t take much more.

“Take him.” The man in charge indicated JD. They pulled him to his feet, but he couldn’t put weight on his hurt leg. He fell hard.

And got kicked in the gut for it. The one who’d kicked him then hoisted the kid unceremoniously over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.

JD had passed out, thank God.

But God only knew what awaited him once he reached the prison cell. ********************************************************************************************************************************************

FOUR CORNERS

Something was not right. Call it a premonition but something wasn’t right. Usually those feelings or messages came to Josiah in a dream, but not tonight. He’d tried to sleep. He read, had a drink, prayed, had another drink, but he still couldn’t get rid of the uneasiness. He figured it was about 3 o’clock in the morning when he gave up trying and went out for a walk. So it was probably a quarter after when the horses came loping into town.

He knew these horses as well as he knew his own.

Chris’ and JD’s horses were clearly spent from running full out for a good part of the night. They were skittish--saddled and rider-less--and Josiah’s approach spooked them.

Josiah’s heart pounded mercilessly, but he stopped and spoke in low, steady tones. Once they settled a bit, he took the initiative again. He took a tentative step toward them, and Chris’ horse bolted.

JD’s let Josiah take his reins, and he whinnied and blew as if to let Josiah know there was trouble.

***********************************************************

Vin Tanner felt a whiskered muzzle nudging him urgently. The tracker rubbed his eyes and reached his hand up to stroke the horse, but it took him a moment to realize it was Chris’. Vin squinted then his eyes widened.

“Sweet Jesus . . . “ he whispered, seeing the horse without seeing his friend.

***********************************************************

JD had told him that you could tell one animal’s “talk” from another, so when Buck heard the familiar whinny, he smiled. JD and Chris were back, and Buck sure could use JD’s chatter. He got up from the wing-back chair that been dozing in and went over to Miss Lisbeth’s bed. They’d fallen asleep in the middle of a sweet conversation, and she hadn’t even taken off so much as a shoe. Tenderly, Buck pushed her auburn hair out back and kissed her forehead.

“You leaving?” the molasses voice asked him.

“JD and Chris are back. I’m gonna go check on things. Ain’t like them to ride in the middle of the night.”

Miss Lisbeth turned her head to see him better. “Are you gonna be all right?”

Buck pressed his lips over hers and kissed her deeply. Then he smiled, “I am now.”

************************************************************

Vin led the horse to the livery and found Josiah unsaddling JD’s horse.

“It’s Vin,” he announced, and he joined Josiah. “What do you think happened?”

“There’s no blood. That’s good. But that’s the only thing good.”

Vin started to say something, when he heard a voice outside.

“Hey boys,” Buck thought he was greeting Chris and JD. “Why’re you riding so late?”

Then Buck stopped short. “Where are they?”

Josiah’s answer was succinct. “Dunno. The horses came in alone -- saddles and all.”

Vin interrupted. “Take care of the horses. I’m gonna look around and see if there’s any sign of them.”

“I’ll get Nathan and Ezra once we’re done here,” Josiah said.

Vin handed the reins to Buck then patted Buck’s shoulder.

This was shaping into a nightmare.

**************************************************************************************************************************

THE PRISON

“Heard you took out two lawmen.”

“Huh?”

“Heard you took out two lawmen. Good going, boy.”

Chris Larabee would never say that. Why would Chris let this person say that? JD’s brain was foggy. What was going on? Where was Chris? JD started to feel panic as he opened his eyes slightly. Where the hell was he?

It was dark, with one high window, and the tiny room smelled and JD was hurting and somebody was sitting too close to him. JD scooted away quickly, but his leg rebelled and he cried out.

Immediately, a meaty hand was clasped over his mouth and an arm encircled his waist and JD was utterly and completely terrified. His eyes opened wide and he wondered what was about to happen to him.

“You don’t make a sound,” a gravelly voice said, frighteningly close to his ear. “You don’t scream. You don’t cry. You don’t holler for help. You don’t make a noise. You understand?”

JD nodded quickly. The hand didn’t move. The voice, that sounded like the devil himself, continued. “Young boy like you . . . if you holler, they wonder what’s happening in here. But don’t think they’ll come in to rescue you, boy. They’ll come in to . . . have some fun with you. Not all of ‘em mind you. But the ones what don’t will look the other way. So I don’t care if your f***ing leg falls off. You don’t yell.”

JD’s thoughts were coming so fast that it took a minute for him to realize that the man was trying to help him. It made sense. The men that were shooting at him and Chris were the law. They’d beaten him up and thrown him in jail. It had been a set-up. So what this guy was saying was that the jailers were the enemies. Maybe they were the same people who had shot at them in the first place. Maybe this guy was innocent like he and Chris were.

“I said, do you understand?” The voice cut through JD thoughts and JD nodded again--slowly this time and slowly the man removed his hand.

“You yell,” the man threatened, “and I’ll knock you out myself.”

JD didn’t say anything. He was out of breath and trembling, but his eyes met the man’s.

The man’s eyes were hard and cold. There was nothing of Nathan’s compassion or Buck’s mirth or even Chris’ heart. JD thought they looked like Chris’ would look if Chris had never hooked up with their odd circle of friends.

Or if he’d never gotten out of that prison.

JD shuddered. What if they didn’t get out? Would he and Chris turn cold like that?

The man that had issued the warning had moved away from JD. There must be some good in him. Otherwise, why would he have warned him.

“Are we the only ones in this . . .”JD searched for a word as he looked around. “This cell?”

“For now. Usually there’s four in here.”

“Where are the other . . .”

“Dead.”

JD’s eyes filled. “My friend?”

“No. These guys had been in here a while. They’s *hanged*.” The man pulled the last word out like he was telling a ghost story or something. Then he watched JD with amusement? . . . like he was expecting some kind of reaction from him--like he’d shocked him or something. But JD was so relieved that Chris wasn’t among the ones that were hanged, he didn’t feel scared by the word.

“That better scare you, boy. We all gonna wind up at the end of a rope or a knife. It’s just a matter of when.”

JD thought about it. But in the back of his mind, he remembered that Chris had promised to get them out of there. He held on to Chris’ promise. JD would wait for him.

**************************************************************************************************************************

“Where’s the kid?”

Nobody was telling Chris anything.

“Did you get him some medical attention?”

There was no answer except the hard slam of the cell door.

“Shit!!” He cried, and pounded his fists against the door.

“Won’t do you no good,” a grizzled old voice said. Chris turned around and glared. The cell was shadowed and Chris couldn’t see the speaker. “Who’re you?” Chris asked.

“Inmate 36.”

“Your name, man.”

“Ain’t got no other name.”

Chris moved away from the door and waited for his eyes to adjust to the poor light in the tiny room.

“How long you been here?” Chris asked.

“Don’t know. A while.”

Chris started to make out a large being on the floor, and as the light got stronger in the little slot near the ceiling that was pretending to be a window, he saw the man.

Chris felt his throat constrict. On the floor, cloaked in tattered clothes, sat a man whose legs had both been amputated just above the knee. Next to him was a crude little wooden platform with wheels, and Chris realized that that was how his cellmate got around.

“What are you in here for?” Chris asked, keeping the horror out of his voice.

“I’m an outlaw.” The man said it with pride.

“Yeah? What law did you break?”

The man chuckled. “Didn’t break no law--didn’t have to.” He motioned for Chris to come close. Painfully, Chris eased himself to the floor beside him.

“Usually an outlaw . . . broke the law,” Chris said, gently. He wasn’t making fun of the poor soul. Clearly, his cellmate wasn’t right in his mind.

“Mr. Bright said I was one.”

“Who’s Mr. Bright?”

“He runs this prison.”

Chris kept his voice low. “Why’d he put you in prison if you didn’t do anything wrong?”

“You don’t get it, do you?” “I reckon I don’t.”

“I was a nobody. Went to war. Fought like hell, but didn’t do any good for anybody. Wasn’t no hero. Bomb blew up in front of me the first time we saw action. That’s how I lost my legs, you know. Couldn’t remember anything from before the bomb.”

Chris’ jaw tightened. “Why do you think you’re nobody?”

“Mr. Bright said so. And he said he’d take me, seeing as how I didn’t have no family.”

“He told you you had no family.”

“Yeah.”

“And Mr. Bright told you you were an outlaw.”

“He said I was. Said everyone would be scared of me.” He squinted at Chris. “You scared of me?”

Chris swallowed hard. “Yeah, I am.”

The man laughed--a big belly laugh. “You better be, mister. You better be.”

**************************************************************************************************************************

RIDING OUT OF FOUR CORNERS

Ezra Standish hadn’t had time to become the least bit dapper. When Josiah called him to ride, he’d thrown on the pants he’d had on the night before and grabbed a shirt he hadn’t even had time to button and they were off just as dawn was breaking. He knew time was of the essence. Chris and JD had left two days ago, so if they were lying by the road somewhere, they could be dying. If they had been kidnapped, they could be a day’s ride in any direction. This was not good.

It was odd. Ezra was not accustomed to feeling this weight on his chest simply because he was worried about other people. He’d felt it when he had a lot of money at stake and was holding a less-than-stellar hand. Now the lives of his friends were at stake and it made him sick at his stomach.

“This way,” Vin Tanner called over his shoulder, and the four followed his lead. They were lucky, the tracker had told them when they left this morning. The tracks were very clear. It was just a godsend that there had been no rain.

Ezra watched with admiration, and perhaps a little envy, as Vin worked. Ezra would not likely tell anyone this, but he wanted to learn to track. No, he wouldn’t tell, although he studied Vin at every opportunity. It didn’t seem . . . proper . . . for Ezra to get down on the ground and study little changes in the terrain. Yet something in him wanted to dig for clues--to be lithe on approach like the native peoples were--like Vin was. He wanted to know how to live off the earth and to be able to track.

Of course, then his better sense would always over and he would study his manicured hands and be thankful for linen napkins and cologne and fine, tailored clothes.

But still . . .

PRISON

The only way to tell that dawn was breaking was to judge by the shift in the color of the gray of the room. Chris had slept fitfully, waking from time to time when a voice cried out during the night. The first couple of times he’d heard it, he was certain it was JD, but then he realized there were different voices. Some would wail, some would scream, and one actually sang.

Chris looked over at his cellmate. The poor bastard had been there for years. He probably didn’t have a family--not anymore anyway. If he ever had, they may have figured they couldn’t take care of him. Chris had heard horror stories about veterans who had been “sent away” to hospitals when no one could take care of them. Some went to decent enough facilities.

But others . . .

They weren’t in prison. They were in a f***ing asylum. And there was a madman in charge.


Next part:

voxckb@aol.com