Defend Me from My Friends
Chapter Ten: Every Man's Got a Weakness
It didn't take long for Matt to pick up the outlaw's trail, and he shook his head at the posse's apparent blindness, immediately regretting that movement as shards of pain sliced through his skull. When he was able to think again, he reminded himself that Chester wasn't a trained tracker, and the rest of the posse was comprised of volunteer townsmen just trying to help. Nor did they have the benefit of the clue Kitty had passed on to Louie.
Urging Buck on, he fought not to be consumed by the fire that burned from his thigh up to his hip and down to his foot; the fire in his head was almost as bad. He swayed in the saddle and acknowledged the very real possibility that his body would betray him, that he wouldn't make it to Art's place, or that, if he did manage to make it there alive, he wouldn't be in any shape to help Kitty.
Stinging, bloodshot eyes stared hard at the ground as he followed the tracks. More than once he found himself falling forward toward Buck's mane and struggled to sit straight again. Worry for Kitty, fury at Glenn Cantrell, and uncertainty about his own ability tore at him. Any guilt that might have lingered over the events at Chickamauga disappeared the moment Cantrell and Layton took Kitty. He cursed his hesitation the night Glenn first showed him the money. He should have acted then, should have thrown his old comrade in jail while he followed up on the Pueblo robbery. But he wanted to give his former friend the benefit of the doubt, wanted to trust him, wanted not to be obligated just because his own bullet had been the one to draw blood those many years ago.
He had been wrong, and now Kitty was the one paying for it. Again.
On any other day, Ol' Art's place would have been an easy ride from Dodge, but blood loss, fever, and pain roughened the road. Matt blinked at the dark spots swimming in front of him, until finally the weathered logs of the house appeared through a small grove of trees. Clucking softly to Buck, he swallowed hard and struggled to slide his big body from the saddle without landing on the leg, but when his right boot shifted, taking too much of his weight, he bit off an agonized cry. Hanging on desperately to the saddle horn and Buck's mane, he fought to stay conscious. The spots coalesced into one solid curtain of black and then gradually dissipated until he could again make out the tan of his horse and the green of the leaves. His shirt damp with cold sweat and sticking to him, he squinted through the leaves to see that the cabin was not 100 feet away. Layton, Cantrell, and two other men stood just outside the door, their voices carried by the wind.
" – damned if I'm gonna hang around this piss-poor pile of sticks until – " Layton was saying as he faced Cantrell.
"He said it'd be today or tomorrow," Glenn countered. "We can wait – "
"We bin waitin'!
"That bank ain't goin' nowheres. Besides, Dillon ain't gonna stop us, is he? Dodge is wide open."
Damn. He should have known there was more to it that just getting out of Dodge. Contemplating his chances of taking on all of them, he figured if he got the drop on Layton first –
One of the other men slapped Layton on the back. "Figured you'd be jest as happy to wait, seein' as how you got thet fine lookin' redhead ta entertain ya, Jake."
Matt's teeth ground together at the statement, the bank momentarily forgotten, and he stared at the cabin, searching in vain for any movement to show that she was in there. If anything happened to Kitty, he would personally tear every single one of those bastards limb from limb.
A twig snapped behind him, and he swore, belatedly realizing the consequence of his distraction. Without time to brace his injured leg, he tried to turn, but a sudden, hard blow against his left side staggered him. Crashing back, he saw a huge man, as tall as he was and at least fifty pounds heavier, raise a rifle butt and slam it into his ribs. There was an audible crack. Desperately trying to fight back the sharp agony, he scrambled to draw his gun, but just as his fingers grazed the ivory grip, pain exploded across his kidneys, and he collapsed into darkness.
" – done good, Ox. We figgered you wasn't gonna git here in time."
"Got here right in time, seems ta me."
"Yep. Yer shore nuff right 'bout that. "
"Think he's comin' around."
"Toss thet bucket of water on 'im."
Matt Dillon jerked hard, coughing and choking as water slammed into his nose and mouth. He tried to sit, but pain blasted through his entire body, shoving him back to the ground. With effort he lifted his head to see six men standing in front of him, watching with malicious amusement.
"Well, now," one of the men began, stepping toward him. Matt recognized Layton's voice before he could see him clearly. "Ol' Glenn wuz right, Dillon. You don't die sa' easy." He laughed. "But we're gonna change that right soon."
"Where's Kitty?" Matt demanded.
"Kitty?" the other man asked innocently.
Bound hand and foot, Matt pulled at the restraints, ignoring the sharp sting as the rope cut into his wrists. "Damn it, Layton! Let her go."
Layton shrugged. "I didn't figger you'd be fit ta come after us, Lawman, but they say every man's got a weakness. Ain't too hard to figger yours." He grinned. "And I see why, too. She's a sweet piece of ass – "
Fever, fatigue, pain, and fury overrode caution, and before logic could temper his actions, he somehow shoved himself to his knees. Despite the agony that shot through him, he roared, "Let her go! You got me now. You don't need her anymore."
Jake rubbed his scruffy jaw and shook his head. "Dillon, you ain't in much of a state ta' tell me what to do. Matter of fact, yer 'bout ta be in a state where you kaint tell me nothin'." He gave a quick motion with his hand to the man who had ambushed the lawman earlier. "Okay, Ox. He's all yers."
The hulking form advanced, grinning eerily.
Matt managed to bite off a grunt with the first blow against his jaw, although the force snapped his head back hard. Another followed, smashing into his right eye. Even the brutal fist to his sore kidneys didn't elicit a sound from the big man. But the fourth one, a kick into already battered ribs, knocked a harsh gasp from him and doubled him over, fighting to suck in air, struggling not to be sick in front of his captors.
Ox grunted. "You ain't sa' big and mighty now, Law."
Raising his head slightly, Matt swallowed hard and gazed at Glenn Cantrell. His former partner sat apart from the group, his face impassive. What an idiot he had been to trust the man. If only somehow their old loyalties still meant enough to buy him time.
And time was what he needed. Time to get Kitty out of there. Time to think of a plan to stop this murderous gang from more killing. But thinking wasn't easy, not with his head throbbing and the rest of his body pounding.
Strong arms jerked him brutally back to his knees; he could only sag in their grasp.
"Matt!" he heard Kitty cry from inside the cabin, her voice raw and passionate.
Peering through the blood that ran down his face, Dillon growled, "If you have laid one hand on her – "
"Oh, she ain't hurt," Layton said. "In fact, she's jest fine. Real fine. I'll give ya this, Dillon, you sure know how ta pick yer whores."
The name he called the outlaw – the vilest he knew – earned him a kick directly on his ravaged thigh, and for a long moment he couldn't see or hear anything over the pain screaming through his body. Slowly, he opened his eyes to find himself still held in Ox's grasp.
His chin lay against his chest, eyes staring unfocused at the patchy grass. The cabin door opened but he couldn't find the energy to look – until he heard her gasp. Heart pounding, he managed to lift his head just as Layton dragged Kitty out into the yard. She was disheveled, her hair half torn from its pins, her dress ripped at the shoulder, her cheek darkened and bruised, her eyes squinting into the sunlight as if she hadn't seen it in days.
Oh, Kitty, he moaned silently. Their eyes met, and he gave her a slight shake of his head, grateful when he saw that she understood the multiple messages of assurance, caution – and love – all conveyed in that one, subtle movement.
His gaze then searched for Glenn, for his old friend – and new enemy – and found him standing several feet away from the others. "You have what you want, Cantrell," he managed, straining to bring strength to his voice. "Let her go."
"I wish I could, Matt," Glenn said, sounding almost sincere. "Wish I could."
Dillon's dulled brain recognized that his time was almost up, and he frantically searched for some way out, some way to save her. Knowing he sounded desperate – because he was – he pleaded, "Tie her up with me, then. You'll be long gone by the time anyone finds us."
"Shut up!" Layton yelled, then turned toward Cantrell and ordered, "Finish 'im off and let's git outta here."
Cantrell frowned. "What about the woman?"
Layton leered at Kitty. "Yeah, she's a pretty piece, thet's fer shore, but we ain't got th' time ta' entertain her. Shame. You take care of her man, there, an' she'll be occupied right ennuf fer us not ta' worry about."
Relief flooded Matt's chest. They would kill him, but Kitty would be safe. It was a price he was willing to pay – had always been willing to pay.
"Aw, but you sed we cud take her," one of the other men whined.
"I sed we ain't got time," Layton snapped back, his tone accepting no argument. The man glared at him, but didn't say anything else.
Cantrell nodded. "All right." He turned back toward Matt, drawing his pistol.
Swallowing, Dillon squared his shoulders as best he could and met his old friend's gaze evenly.
"What – what are you doing?" Kitty cried out.
But Cantrell ignored her. "I'm awful sorry about this, Matt," he said, raising the barrel so that it pointed toward the lawman. "Wish there was some other way."
"No!" Kitty yelled.
"Think what you're doing, Glenn," Matt warned, sick that Kitty had to watch this. "Nothing but trouble is gonna to follow you."
"It's been followin' me all my life, Matt." Cantrell took careful aim at the marshal's head. "You just don't move and this'll be quick. At least I owe ya' that much."
Matt clenched his teeth, bracing for the shot, even as he tried to reason with Cantrell one final time. "Don't do it, Glenn."
"Don't move," Cantrell said again, staring intently into Matt's eyes.
Dillon's bleary thoughts snapped into focus a second before the eruption of pain through his skull obliterated them.