Dry Gulch by MMW - Chapter 8: Waiting In The Shadow Of The Noose - Day 2


Dry Gulch
By MMW

Chapter 8: Waiting In The Shadow Of The Noose - Day 2

Ezra lay on the cot and watched the sky lighten. He had been up for a while due to the discomfort of his back and the bruises from the fight. But none of it seemed to match the ache in his soul. He and Chris were trapped in a jail and facing a hanging tomorrow morning. Chris could have probably gotten away or at least gotten some better treatment, but no, he, Ezra Standish, had been too clever by half and insisted that they use false names. Now Vin was dead and it was all his fault.

"Not your fault," Chris said aloud.

Ezra gasped. He had been sure that Chris was asleep. He hastily tried to slide his normal mask into place, upset with himself that heíd allowed his emotions and thoughts to show so openly.

Chris saw Ezra trying to hide and moved to stand. A low, pained groan escaped him.

Immediately Ezraís eyes fixed on the blond. He could see the pain movement was causing. Struggling to sit up, he cautioned, "Please, Mr. Larabee, allow me to help you. I apologize for not realizing you too had suffered at the hands of those brutes."

By this point, Chris had managed to gain his feet, though he was struggling to stand straight. He released a chuckle and waved the now wincing Ezra back down. "Sit Ezra," he commanded. "I need to look at your back anyway."

Ezra sat, willing to do anything to ease the pain he had cause.

Chris turned around from retrieving the last of their supplies and sighed when he saw the guilty look in Ezraís eyes. He would somehow need to convince Ezra that none of this was his fault. The truth was, Chris should have paid attention to his gut feeling, but hadnít. Moving to sit down next to Ezra, he helped the sore man out of the borrowed shirt and then began tending his wounds.

"I knew we were in trouble," Chris said, apparently out of the blue.

Ezraís eyes grew wide as he turned quickly toward his friend. A wave of pain washed over him as his weakened and still-exhausted body protested the quick move. "How?" he managed to gasp.

Chris rested a comforting hand on the Southernerís shoulder, squeezing gently as the pain ran its course. "Nothing sat right. You know that. We discussed leaving, but I didnít listen to my instincts," he said honestly, staring straight into Ezraís eyes. "Had I listened to them, we would have been gone before any of this happened. We wouldnít have been arrested, the noose wouldnít be awaiting us and VinÖ"

Ezra heard Chrisí voice crack Reaching up, he squeezed the hand resting on his shoulder. He searched for some words of comfort but found none.

Clearing his throat, Chris continued, "We all bear some of the guilt. We were all involved in the decisions and we all had a say."

Ezra wanted to believe the words, but struggled.

"The only people who deserve the blame are the ones in this town who framed us," the blond finished, anger and rage lending a steel edge to his voice.

Ezra couldnít stop the small smile that appeared on his lips. It was a good thing to have Chris Larabee on your side, even when all hope seemed to be gone. He most definitely did not envy the men who had set them up, confident that not even the grave would stop Chris Larabee from seeking retribution.

A noise by the doorway caused them to turn. Standing just inside the cell area was the liveryman who had helped them the day before.

Offering a smile that came closer to being a sneer, he said, "I brought your breakfast." Then, moving closer, he slid the tray under the bars and stood outside. He watched the pair carefully, wary when they didnít move. Looking over his shoulder out the door into the other room, he saw the sheriff was still involved in reading the newspaper. Taking half a step closer to the bars he motioned for the men to approach.

Chris felt Ezra begin to rise and rested a hand on the manís shoulder. His eyes clearly spoke his compassion.

Seeing Chrisí concern, Ezra settled back on the bed, aware that if he didnít hear everything, Chris would fill him in when the man left.

Approaching the bars, Chris stopped just short. "What?" he demanded.

Hank flinched at the harsh question. "Look," he said, his eyes sliding to the left, unable to meet the green eyes. "I been thinkiní real hard all night about what happened. Iíd like to help if I could."

Ezra felt hope flare within. He hadnít realized how desperate he was for hope after theyíd been informed Vin was dead, but now, as hope was once more ignited within, his eyes sparked even while his instincts were telling him not to trust the man.

Chris glanced over his shoulder and found his own hope reflected in Ezraís eyes. He could feel his instincts telling him to not trust the man, but the lure of hope in the midst of his hopelessness and despair was too tempting. "What did you have in mind?" Chris asked cautiously, seeing a flash of excitement in the manís eyes.

Reaching into his pocket, Hank pulled out a sheet of paper and the stub of a pencil. "I brought this paper and pencil soís you could scribe a note. Then Iíll go and get them to telegraph it for you," he said quickly and quietly.

"And what will this cost us?" Ezra gasped as he tried to stand.

Chris saw Ezra rising and quickly crossed to him. "What are you doing getting up?" he asked the Southerner even as he slipped one arm around Ezraís wounded back and supported the gambler with his other hand on Ezraís elbow.

Ezra winced and allowed Chris to help him up. "Iím tired of that cot," was all he managed to rasp out as he struggled to control his pain. With the aid of Chris, he slowly shuffled toward the waiting form of Hank. "Again," he said, once he had his breath back, "what remuneration do you require for this errand."

At the moment Chris was more concerned about Ezraís pallor than the cost of the wire, but he wouldnít say it, not with Hank watching.

Hank had to suppress a smile. This is what he wanted. "Twenty dollars," he blurted out.

Chris stood straighter, jaw clenched in outrage. Just as he was about to speak, Ezra held up his hand. "Done," he agreed. Turning his head to look at Chris he added, "If you will assist me back to the cot, I will retrieve this manís payment while you compose the note.

Chris was about to protest again when he caught sight of a spark in Ezraís eyes that said he was up to something. Biting back his protests, he nodded and helped Ezra back to the cot. Then turning, he placed the paper on the windowsill and composed a short note.

Ezra reached for the remains of his coat, unwilling to reveal the other money he had hidden, not that it mattered, really. If his suspicions were correct, his money would be found the following morning after his hanging.

Chris quickly composed a message to send back to his friends and turned to retrieve the money from Ezra. Concern lanced through him as he saw Ezraís face pale as the gambler tried to straighten up. It dawned on Chris that Ezra hadnít really eaten since the night they arrived. He would change that as soon as they got rid of Hank.

Ezra closed his eyes as the room began to spin. Were it not for the strong, warm hand that came to rest on his shoulder, he might have passed out. Taking several deep breaths, he turned grateful eyes toward Chris and smiled his thanks. Then, passing the twenty dollars to the man in black, Ezra watched from his seated position while Chris approached Hank.

As he approached the liveryman, Chris saw excitement and greed burn within Hankís eyes. Handing the paper, pencil and money over, he scowled as the man snatched the items away.

Quickly storing the money and the pencil, Hank looked at the two men in the cell, his greed turning almost to madness as he laughed at them. Holding up the note that Chris had written, he began tearing it into little pieces. Finally, when he could tear it no smaller, he threw the pieces up in the air. "Fools," he said, cackling. "You donít have any idea whatís going on, do you?" Seeing the blank looks on the faces of the two men, he continued. "We were just waiting for someone like you to come into town, someone everyone would believe would pull off the robbery. We knew you were carrying money, just not how much. So me, Fred and the Sheriff carried through our plan. We cleaned out the bank and got your money. The money we took will get returned to the bank and the Sheriff can retire a hero and I can finally get out of that livery."

"And the Bank Manager?" Ezra drawled, trying to force himself to focus on anything other than the despair that nearly overwhelmed him as he saw their last hope disintegrate before his eyes.

Hank shrugged. "Stupid man got greedy. Wanted more than his 25%. But thatís OK. I took care of him. Set you boys up for murder." An evil, unbalanced grin appeared on his face, "Now thereís no cominí back after us for you."

Chris stared at him, his cold, green eyes drilling into the pathetic excuse for a man. "No," he agreed, his voice holding nothing but the promise of death, "but our friends will."

Hankís laughter stopped. His smile faltered and he began to shift nervously from foot to foot. He didnít know what to make of the feeling of dread crawling up his spine. Eventhough he knew the manís friend was dead, he couldnít stop the shiver of fate that overtook him. "Maybe they will," he agreed, his voice serious and trembling slightly. "But theyíll have to hunt long and hard to find me." Then, after he failed yet again to meet the blondís eyes, he quickly exited the jail.

Chris watched him go, feeling his anger increase. He knew he had spoken the truth. The others would hear of their unjust hanging and come to reap vengeance against those responsible. He knew Buck would never let such an injustice rest and where Buck went, JD was sure to follow. Josiah wouldnít let such an insult slip by and Nathan would stand by them all. The danger of this line of thought, however, wasnít the regret he would have at missing out on the hope of a new life heíd been entertaining, but that Vinís fate would never be known.

Ezra watched as his friendís shoulders slumped and knew instantly where his thoughts had gone, for his own were not far behind. As the weight of grief settled upon his heart, Ezra struggled to find something, anything to counteract the weight of despair. Before anything came to mind, however, the room began to spin once more. A darkness began to overtake his vision, he managed to weakly call, "Mr. Larabee..." before slumping forward. He never saw Chris fly across the cell or felt the gunslingerís strong arms catch him as he fell.

<><><><><><><>

Nightmare images swirled around him. The face of the sheriff, liveryman and deputy twisted into evil caricatures of themselves, laughing and taunting the Southerner about his stupidity, about failing his motherís training, about failing his friends. Then came the images of the noose, hanging still and strong before him, whispering death to his soul, coming ever closer until it dropped over his head and began tightening around his throat.

Chris watched as Ezra began to toss on the bed. Heading over toward the man, he got there just as Ezra began to choke and gasp for air. Shaking the sleeping man he called out sharply, "Ezra! Ezra!" Receiving no response, he lightly tapped the sweat-soaked face. "Ezra!" he tried again.

Ezra gasped a great gulp of air as his eyes flew open. His confused brain took only seconds to realize that he was still alive, still in the cell with Chris and his back still hurt, as did most of the other muscles in his body. "C-Chris?" he asked, trying to catch his breath and sit up.

Chris looked concerned as he helped Ezra sit. "Yeah. You passed out. Seemed to be having quite a dream there." Seeing the emerald eyes focus on him and understanding chase away the terror, he continued, "You need to eat. Itíll help you regain your strength."

Ezra snorted in derision at the thought. "Canít have me passing out before they can get the noose around my neck," he said bitterly.

Chris glared at him, his face scowling as he hissed, "Donít you say that. As long as thereís life, thereís hope. Just because we donít have a way out now doesnít mean we wonít be able to escape. Iím not ready to die and I refuse to be led to the noose like a lamb to the slaughter. Weíll have our chance, Ezra, just need to be strong enough to take it when it comes."

Listening to the impassioned words spoken with such certainty, Ezra found himself believing what Chris said. It was quite possible that they would be able to make an escape attempt before their hanging. They had certainly escaped tighter situations than this. Smiling at his friend, hope once more shining in his soul, he agreed, "All right, Mr. Larabee. What fine fare have they brought to temp our pallets this morning?"

Chris smiled down at the conman, feeling only slightly guilty for the near lie heíd told. The truth was, he wasnít confident they would find a way out. He didnít think that they stood a chance at escaping and after what Hank said, Chris was fairly certain the two of them would be lucky to make it to the gallows alive. Still, for Ezra, he would carry on the charade.

<><><><><><><>

The rest of the morning passed slowly. The deputy had come in and brought them lunch, taking away the breakfast dishes and assuring the man the doctor would be by to see them that afternoon.

While they waited the two men did their best to keep their spirits up, discussing possible scenarios and working to limber their stiff bodies.

It was still a few hours before they could expect their evening meal and after the doctor had visited that Ezra began to lose his battle to keep his spirits up. He thought about all he had gained over the past months riding with these men who had become his friends, all he had discovered about them and about himself. This led his line of thinking back to the question that had been plaguing him and he knew he had to ask now. He refused to die not knowing. "Why did you bring me along on this journey?" he asked, not looking at his friend.

Chris had been expecting this question, but had hoped that Ezra would figure it out. "Needed a third man," he said bluntly.

Ezra nodded. "But why me? I think I proved clearly enough with that whole Hopewell debacle that I canít be trusted around money," he observed bitterly, his tone reflecting his self-disgust.

Chris watched Ezra closely, reading the feelings playing so clearly across the normally impassive face. Raising a blond eyebrow, he remained silent until Ezra finally looked at him. "Is that what you think?" he asked.

Ezra looked at Chris, puzzled. Once they had discovered the money, Chris had made it very clear that he did not trust Ezra with it. It was, in fact, Josiah in a very odd mood who had finally given it to the gambler. Ezra had sat staring at the money, feeling its call, feeling the need to run with it, knowing thatís what everyone expected of him. Eyes focusing back in the present, he looked at Larabee and responded, "What else is there to think?"

Chris sighed. Obviously he had gravely misjudged the situation. Heíd have to spell it out for Ezra. "Ezra," he began, making sure he had the Southernerís attention, "I never doubted your integrity. I knew you wouldnít let me down, that you would watch the money we found in that room." He read the shocked surprise in Ezraís face. "But I also knew what a temptation it would be for you, how hard it would be to face that much money and stay focused. Your mind would have been racing all over trying to figure out ways to spend it, invest it, use it to make more money. You would have been distracted and missed something."

"I almost did," he whispered.

Chris nodded. "But you came through for us in the end." He saw Ezraís eyes spark with pride at that statement, much the way Adamís had when Chris had expressed approval in the boyís actions. "You also learned some hard lessons about yourself."

Ezraís slight smile turned bitter. He had indeed learned some lessons about himself and he wasnít proud of any of what heíd discovered. "Indeed," was all he replied.

"To tell you the truth," Chris admitted. "They were lessons I was hoping to keep you from learning. Itís never easy to learn your weaknesses or see yourself in less than favorable light."

Ezra could only nod, staring at the floor. He understood now. Larabee hadnít been protecting the money from Ezra, heís been protecting Ezra from himself, from discovering his own ugly side, his own failings.

Seeing the truth of his words sink in, Chris continued. "Ezra," he said, waiting for the gamblerís eyes to meet his. When they did, Chris asked, "Have you wanted to, felt the urge to take the money we were carrying this time and run?"

Ezraís brow furrowed in puzzlement. Thinking back he could honestly say he hadnít. "No," he replied, his shock evident in his voice.

Chris allowed a small smile to escape. "Why not? Itís four times more than what we found in that hotel room," he observed.

Ezraís brows drew down in confusion. What Chris said was true. It was four times what they had found before. Why wasnít there a desire to take the money and run? Chris and Vin had left him alone with the money several times during the trip and the thought to run had never crossed his mind. He turned confused green eyes on Larabee. "I... Iím not sure," Ezra admitted, wondering at Chrisí grin.

Shaking his head slightly as he smiled, Chris stood, walked over to Ezra, patted him on the shoulder and recommended, "Think about it." He then headed toward the window to look out at the waning day.

<><><><><><><>

Sunset.

It had been a long, hard ride to get to the outskirts of Dry Gulch before dark, but the five men knew they had no choice. Nathan had ridden close to Vin most of the way, well aware that the man was pushing himself to his limits. The tracker had to be exhausted and sore. The last thing he needed was to fall off his horse.

Closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, Vin dismounted his horse. He was bone weary, but Chris and Ezra needed him and that gave him all the strength he would need to go on. "Weíll make camp here," he said.

"Weíre not going into town to rescue them?" JD asked. Theyíd ridden all day. Now, when the town was so close they were stopping.

"Need ta plan," Vin replied.

Buck had been quiet during much of the trip, thinking of his oldest friend and wondering what was going through Chrisí mind. "If the whole town wants them strung up, last thing we can do is ride in there and spring them. We need to clear them."

"Which is why Iím goiní inta town tonight," Vin said, turning to face the others as he allowed his horse to cool down somewhat.

"Not alone youíre not," Buck declared, his voice reflecting anger, worry and determination.

"No heís not, Brother Buck," Josiah assured. "You and I will be going with him."

Vin stared into Josiahís eyes, challenging the man. When he saw Josiah wasnít going to waver, Tanner nodded his head in acceptance of the offer.

"Before anyone goes anywhere, weíre all going to eat. And you, Vin Tanner, are going to get some sleep if I have to tie you down and drug you," Nate ordered.

"Aw, Nate," Vin whined as the others laughed.

Buck grinned, thankful for the moment of levity, but his eyes were soon drawn to the hazy form of the town. His smile faded as determination to free Chris and Ezra took hold once more.

Buck grinned, thankful for the moment of levity, but his eyes were soon drawn to the hazy form of the town. His smile faded as determination to free Chris and Ezra took hold once more.


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