The blazing noon sun was high over head when the blond gunfighter came to. Blinking against the combination of bright light beaming through the holes in the roof of the shack and the blinding pain in his head, he struggled to sit up, but the nausea and the chair he was still tied to forced him back to the floor. Lowering his head to the hard planks below him, he replayed the last bit of conversation with Sam over again in his mind.
What had him so confused was her reaction to the mention of Sarah's name. He couldn't figure out why she'd gone off like she did, and just the thought of her sudden burst of anger made his wounds begin to ache anew.
A sound outside the door stilled any attempt to work himself free from his ropes. He watched through lowered lids as she came back inside the shack. The toe of a dusty boot nudged Chris in the ribs.
"I know you're awake, Larabee. So stop pretending you're not." Sam dropped to one knee on the floor in front of him. "I think I've been a bit too easy on you, cowboy."
Flipping her hair over her shoulder, she reached out and ran the tips of her fingers across his bare chest. She paused over the scars, shaking her head and making a sound of disapproval. "I can only imagine how you gathered these." Bending her finger, she pushed the knuckle into one that was still pink, causing Chris to grunt softly. "Did they hurt?" Getting no answer, she forced him to look up at her, her fingers biting into his flesh. "You don't mind pain, do you?"
Chris jerked his head away and refused to look at her. But she wasn't finished.
"Why are you doing this, Sam?" Chris offered softly.
She turned his head back towards her and looked him dead in the eye. She spoke as if the answer was obvious.
"Because I'm going to kill you," she said calmly. "Just like you killed Sarah."
With a roar of anger, Chris fought to free himself from his bonds. Sam grabbed the back of the chair and righted it onto its legs. The momentum from Larabee's erratic struggles to free himself, fueled by rage, helped her. Once the chair was righted, Sam calmly slid to his lap, straddling him, and placed the knife against his throat.
"Stop," she said in a level voice. "Enough playing around."
"I did not kill Sarah." Chris ground out through a clenched jaw. "She and Adam were murdered."
Sam smiled in his face, hers so close he could feel her breath as she spoke. "That's right, they were murdered," she said, her tone full of condescension and disbelief. Leaning close to his ear, she whispered. "By you."
Standing abruptly, she grabbed a handful of the blond's hair, jerking his head back to look up at her as she stood in front of him. "I'm going to give you something to remember what you've done. Your own badge of cowardice, if you will," she sneered.
Chris's eyes widened as the tip of the knife danced down his chest coming to a rest over his heart. The tip of the blade pierced the flesh slowly at first. Chris stifled a grunt, trying to breathe through the pain of the wound. Slowly, deliberately, the knife was dragged across his chest. Trying to smother the groan of pain in his throat, small sounds escaped him. Sam smiled as she sat back on his lap, the knife never losing contact with the flesh.
Angling the blade to reverse direction, Sam began the next cut. Larabee's breathing increased, trying to control the fear coursing through his veins and the terror he felt at this woman's mercy. Sam dragged the knife slowly, enjoying every small bit of muscle she revealed through the gashes she was leaving. Chris grunted as he tried to buck her off his lap, tried anything to get this bitch to cease her assault. Or to speed it up. Anything. His chest was on fire.
Sam gripped Larabee's legs with her thighs, holding on as if to a bucking horse. Her smile became a sneer as she switched her grip on the knife, holding the handle as if it were a spear. But she did not let the blade up for one instant. She was perspiring with the effort, holding on to the bucking wild animal Hank had told her about. The man who had killed her beloved cousin. The man who would pay.
She held her breath and she began the final slice. She was shaking with excitement and anticipation.
Chris cried out in pain, in fear, and in frustration.
The blade ripped the taut flesh of Larabee's chest as Sam finished her task. Allowing Larabee to buck her off of his lap, she stood to admire her work. She looked appreciatively at the crudely carved 'S' now adorning the gunslinger's chest.
Chris panted, looking down at his marred chest, trying to keep the bile at bay as his head swam.
"What's wrong, Larabee?" Sam said softly panting from the effort and with the excitement. "Still can't admit you weren't man enough to save Sarah and your son?" She smiled wickedly at the bleeding, broken man.
A red haze clouded Chris' vision as he fought to control the rage inside him and the pain in his chest.
Sam stalked around her prey, a predator waiting for the right time for the final strike. "I'll bet you just stood there, guzzling that bottle of rye while the flames got hotter and hotter," she curled her mouth into a half smile that was all evil, venom dripping from her words as she circled the chair. Chris remained still, but she could see his muscles testing his bonds even now.
Leaning in closely, her lips a feathery touch on his ear, her voice sultry, she spoke softly, "How did the screams make you feel?"
"No!" he roared. But the loss of blood from the new wound had taken the last of his strength and his head swam. The roaring in his ears slowly became a hum and eventually dissipated as he surrendered to the peaceful darkness once again.
"Do you think we can trust Mr. Gundersen was entirely truthful in his revelation of Mr. Larabee's whereabouts?" Ezra questioned as he and Nathan rode away from Carter's Ridge.
Nathan looked over at Ezra, a broad grin on his face. "Nothing like the threat of swingin' to make a man feel obliged to tell the truth."
Standish smiled. "You do have a point, Mr. Jackson. Indeed you do."
Dark clouds began to gather overhead, blocking out the hot midday sun. The sound of approaching horses drew Nathan's attention to the path in front of them.
"That's Buck and JD." The healer said. "They're supposed to be on their way to Rock Springs. Wonder what's going on?"
Slowing their mounts to a stop, Ezra and Nathan waited for the two men to reach them.
"Well, well, Mr. Wilmington. It would appear you and Mr. Dunne are possessed of a rather inadequate sense of direction." Ezra grinned, the afternoon sun glinting off his gold tooth. "Isn't Rock Springs that way?" Standish nodded toward the trail behind the two newcomers.
Buck maneuvered his horse alongside Ezra's, before answering the gambler. "Oh, you're just a barrel of laughs today, ain't you, pard?"
"What?" Ezra tried his best to look offended. " I was merely pointing out that if it is your intention to meet Mr. Larabee in Rock Springs, as per his request, you gentlemen might want to consider consulting a map, that's all."
Jackson lowered his head, trying to conceal the smile on his face. JD glared at the healer and at Standish.
"This ain't no time to be cracking jokes," the youngster stated hotly. "I think Chris is in some real trouble."
Ezra's voice took on a serious tone as he studied the youth. "Son, he is in real trouble. That's where Nathan and I are headed. It would seem that he was taken from Eagle Bend under extreme duress and is being held not too far from here."
"That true, Nathan?" Buck gripped the reins tighter.
The ex-slave nodded. "Yup. We ran into the kidnapper's partners in Four Corners and one of them was more than happy to tell us the whole story."
Buck looked at Ezra. "One of them? What happened to the other one?"
Ezra shook his head and placed his hand over his heart. "The scoundrel had ideas other than supplying us with the pertinent information we were seeking."
JD looked confused. "What?"
"He's dead." Nathan offered.
"And you two know where Chris is?" At the affirmative nods, Wilmington jerked up on the reins and shouted. "Then why in the hell are we sitting here like a bunch of gossipy old school marms? Let's go get him!"
Nathan held a hand out and shook his head at Buck. "Now hold on there. If we go in there hell's a'poppin', we're liable to get Chris hurt worse or even killed."
The ladies' man looked fit to be tied, but stilled and listened to the healer.
"He's right, Buck." Standish added. "We go in there unprepared and it might prove to be most disadvantageous for Mr. Larabee."
Buck ran his hand over his mustache in frustration. "Disadvan--what are you trying to say, Ezra?"
Ezra heaved a weary sigh. "I am simply saying we need a plan, Mr. Wilmington."
"Then why didn't you just come right out and say that instead of throwing around words that would choke a plow mule?"
The Southerner's retort was cut off by Nathan. "Fellas, if them two was telling' the truth, we need to stop jawing and go find Chris. Now."
"By all means, Mr. Jackson." Ezra drawled. "I gather you have a plan in mind?"
Nodding, Nathan laid out his plan. He would ride back to Rock Springs with JD for some medical supplies and to round up Vin and Josiah, while Ezra and Buck would go find the shack where Chris was being held, but would stand down until the others were back with them. As much as his gut said otherwise, Buck finally recognized that riding in, guns blazing, worked in Jock Steele's dime novels, but not in the Real West. With a tip of his hat, Standish called for Buck to follow him.
They rode on the trail for several miles, then cut through the woods just before they reached the river. Ezra explained to Buck that this was where Gundersen swore Chris was being held prisoner.
Dismounting, they tied their horses, then moved closer to the shack as quietly as they could. Licking his bottom lip, Ezra's green eyes darted from one end of the building to the other.
"Nervous, pard?" Buck grinned.
"Not at all." Ezra replied. "I am simply trying to ascertain our best course of action."
Wilmington stared at the smaller man. "Thought we were going to wait for the others?" he questioned.
A figure appeared at the window of the dwelling. Standish nudged Buck with his elbow. The ladies' man unleashed a string of epithets when he focused on the woman. Her clothing appeared to be saturated with blood. Chris' blood.
Buck stood quickly and drew his gun. "The hell with the others, Ezra. Chris needs us now," then added under his breath, "if it's not too late."
"I'll go around the back, you take the side door," the mustached lawman whispered.
Putting his weight on the balls of his feet, Ezra crept closer to the door, keeping an eye on the window as he went. Reaching the building, he noticed that the side door was ajar. Peering through the crack, Standish swallowed hard. There was Larabee, bound to a chair and beaten badly. But the sight of the Chris' bloody chest proved to be the final straw, and Ezra barely made it back to the stand of trees before his stomach emptied its contents onto the ground at his feet.
Drawing a sleeve across his mouth, he took a deep breath then quickly made his way back to the door. Buck was already inside, and from the looks of things he needed assistance. Pushing the door open a few inches, Ezra gripped the handle of the Remington and stepped inside.
Sliding one leg in the open window, Wilmington prayed that Ezra was in position. Dragging his other leg in behind him, Buck stopped in his tracks when he saw the condition Chris was in. Hell, his chest looked like it'd been carved on.
Just as the rogue looked away from Larabee, he felt a warm metal blade slide against his skin. Lowering his gaze, he flinched at he hatred filling the blue eyes looking up at him. Holding his hands out in midair, he smiled at the petite brunette.
"Now hold up there," he said in a soothing tone. "We can work this out."
"Shut your mouth."
Buck almost missed the tiny movement on her face, then decided to use it to his advantage.
"Are you winking at me, darlin'?" Buck looked down at the woman in front of him, the tic below her left eye becoming more noticeable as the seconds passed by. She pressed the blade of the knife closer to his throat, her face flushed with anger.
"I'm quite skilled with my blades, you bastard." She nodded toward Chris, slumped over and bleeding in the chair across the room. "Ask your friend."
Taking a shallow breath, he exhaled slowly, so as not to give Sam a reason to draw blood from him as well.
"Lady," the mustached lawman said in a voice intended for her ears only, "I don't know your story, but you sure are one big bucket of crazy."
The realization of his words hit her seconds later, but before she could reply, he shoved her with one hand, the other grabbing the weapon from her. A shriek tore from her throat as she fell away from the tall man.
Reaching behind her, she pulled a short blade from her belt and took aim at Wilmington. The cold steel of a gun barrel pressed to her temple stayed her throw.
"Are you certain you want to hazard that chance?" The smooth drawl was laced with steel.
Sam drew a shuddering breath. "He's trying to save Larabee, and the bastard's not worth it."
Ezra chuckled. "Worth?" Pressing the pistol tighter against the woman's flesh, he looked at Chris' abused form before continuing. "Exactly how does one determine the value of a human life?"
"He murdered Sarah," she replied, glaring at the blond across the room. "He doesn't deserve to live."
Buck flinched as if he'd been struck. "You lyin' little bitch!" he growled.
"You are sadly mistaken." Ezra said slowly. "Mr. Larabee's family lost their lives at the hands of Ella Gaines and her henchmen."
"He killed my cousin, just the same as if he'd set the fire himself," she hissed. "And he knows it's the truth."
Hearing the sharp intake of breath from his friend, Buck moved closer to Chris. He knew the guilt Chris carried over Sarah and Adam's death. Unwarranted, but he carried it all the same.
"She don't know what she's saying, pard." He placed a hand on Chris' shoulder. "We both know what really happened that night."
Chris shrugged Buck's hand off, and looked at Sam. "She knows what she's saying, Buck." Larabee spoke slowly, hatred for the woman in front of him mixing with guilt and sorrow in his voice. "Only thing is, she's right. I did kill them."
Standish stared openly at the leader. He knew that Chris was full of guilt over his family's death, but he never really knew how deep-seeded that guilt was until now.
Sensing that her captor was distracted, Sam took the opportunity to scramble away from him. Rising to her knees, she took aim at Chris with the knife in her hand and let it fly. Ezra's shout brought the two men across from him out of their reverie in time for the blade to sink into Chris' thigh.
"Bitch!" Buck roared and reached for his gun. Her slender form jerked and twisted as the bullet from Ezra's Remington made impact. She dropped to the ground whimpering, as blood began to pool on the floor beneath her, a second knife slipping from unfeeling fingers.
Vin came through the front door, mare's leg cocked and ready. He'd heard the shot as he jumped up on the porch. Tanner holstered the rifle and went to Chris' side. Buck was cutting the ropes that bound Larabee while Ezra held the gunfighter upright.
The three men carried their friend to the pile of blankets in the corner, taking care to jostle him as little as possible. Larabee bit back a groan as they lowered him and Nathan gently eased Buck aside so he could get a better look at the blond's wounds.
"What the hell happened here, pard?" Vin asked Ezra quietly. Standish shook his head, still not sure if he believed what had transpired before his own eyes.
"It would seem that our female friend over there held Mr. Larabee at fault for Mrs. Larabee's death. She was a cousin or some such. So she bided her time and waited for an opportunity to exact her revenge on Chris." The gambler cleared his throat. "And she would have been successful had it not been for Nathan overhearing her associates in the saloon." Standish grinned at the sharpshooter. "Not two of the more intellectual creatures one would ever meet."
The Texan nodded and Ezra continued.
"Nathan and I followed them and uh, persuaded them to share Mr. Larabee's whereabouts with us, after which we were most fortunate to happen upon Misters Wilmington and Dunne. JD and Nathan came to find you and Josiah, Buck and I found this place and I believe you know the rest."
Chris struggled to sit up, knocking away first Nathan's, then Buck's hands.
"I need to see," he said in a voice rough from pain. "I've got to know.."
Jackson looked at Buck, not understanding what Chris was talking about. 'The woman' Wilmington mouthed to the healer.
"You just lie still and let me take care of you then I'll have a look at her," the healer said in a gentle voice. "You got some pretty nasty bumps and bruises there." Jackson tried to pull the handkerchief that Ezra had placed on Chris' chest away, but stopped when he saw the blood had dried and plastered the cloth to skin.
"Gimme your canteen, Josiah." He poured a small amount of water on the fabric and gently eased it back. The skin beneath was an angry puckered red, and he could swear there was an 'S' carved there. He sat back on his heels and looked at Buck and Ezra.
"What did she do to him, fellas?"
Wilmington spoke first. "She did her best to kill him."
"But only after a day or two of torture from the looks of it." Ezra added.
Nathan turned back to Larabee, cleaned and dressed all of his wounds except for the slashes on Chris' chest, then stood and motioned for Ezra and Vin to join him by the window.
"We've got to get him back to my clinic so I can take care of him proper." The ex-slave shook his head. "Them cuts on his chest need to be cauterized and I need more supplies than I have here for that. If infection sets in…"
Vin headed for the door, Standish close behind. "There's a barn a couple miles back. We'll head back there and see if we can rustle up a wagon or cart."
JD stared at the lifeless form on the floor of the shack, starting when Buck walked up beside him.
"She's a woman, Buck," the youngster stated in a disbelieving voice. "How could she do those things to him?"
The mustached lawman shook his head, not sure he understood himself. "She wanted revenge, kid, and that's never a pretty sight. The need to get even with Chris for her cousin's death was eating her up inside and it festered until it twisted her into the monster she was when she finally met up with him."
Dunne looked at his friend with confusion in his gaze. "But Chris didn't kill Sarah, Ella Gaines was to blame."
"I know that, son, and so does everyone else." Buck turned away from Sam's body. "But this one didn't."
The young sheriff took a deep breath, taking in what Buck had said. Then he spoke.
"Shouldn't we bury her body, Buck?"
Wilmington shook his head. "Our main priority right now is to get Chris back to Nathan's clinic." Placing a hand on JD's shoulder, Buck said softly, "Then we'll come back and take care of her."
The squeak of the wagon wheels announced that Vin and Ezra had returned. Nathan, Josiah and Buck lifted Chris and carefully carried him outside. JD spread a few blankets in the bed of the wagon and Larabee was lowered softly down to them.
The ride back to town was slow, and for the wounded man, torturous. An occasional groan or twitch were the only indications of his discomfort, however. And the pitiful cry for Sarah that only Buck heard. Tears filled his blue eyes as Wilmington tried to console his friend and calm him for the remainder of the trip.
It was near dusk on the streets of Four Corners when the group arrived outside Nathan's clinic. Fluid movements by his friends soon had Chris settled in the bed inside and Jackson began to clear the wounds and carefully bandage them.
A minor disagreement over whether or not Larabee was going to swallow the laudanum was settled when Josiah pinched the gunfighter's nose closed and he opened his mouth to protest. The six men in the room were treated to Chris' scathing opinion of them regardless of his weakened condition. Then he settled down and was soon claimed by a fitful sleep. Nathan convinced the rest of the regulators they also needed food and sleep so he could tend to his patient in peace.
Buck and JD were the last to leave the room and head downstairs. The two were lost in their conversation as they headed for the livery. As they rode past the jail, Vin called to Wilmington, inquiring as to where they were headed.
"Headed back to the shack," Buck said in a calm voice that belied the emotions raging inside him. "Whatever she did to Chris, she still doesn't deserve to be left out there for the animals."
Ezra tipped his hat as the two men rode away. Settling back in his chair, he lifted the cup of coffee Inez had brought out and took a small sip. Standish placed his cup on the table between him and Tanner then stood, checking his pocket watch.
"Got some place to be, Ez?" the Texan asked.
The confidence man smiled as he replied, "I do believe my down pillow is calling my name. For the next couple of hours, anyway." Replacing the watch in his vest, he picked up his cup once more and started on his way to the room he kept above the saloon.
The first bullet caught Ezra in the shoulder, spinning him around as the second hit hard, drilling its way deep in his thigh. Landing with a thud, he clutched his leg and dragged himself behind the trough. Vin returned fire on the unknown assailant.
"You a'right, Ez?" Vin shouted.
"Never better, Mr. Tanner."
Ezra fought against the wave of nausea and dizziness that threatened to claim him and drew his Remington, intent on assisting Vin. Standish focused all his energy on the gun and attempted to fire the weapon.
Tantalizing fingers of darkness caressed him. Just before he gave in to the temptation of the peacefulness they promised, Ezra heard the sharpshooter cry out as a bullet tore into the man's side and the mare's leg went silent.