The Fifth Horseman
by Terrance Keith Harrington
Part I: Before the Storm
J.D. Dunne, all scruffiness and energy, a paradox of kid's innocence and deadly handspeed, sat in consternation, glaring at his cards. his bowler hat was pushed back on his head, his sweat glistening not so much from the summer heat as the pressure of the moment. Across the table, in constrast, the dapper Ezra Standish waited calmly, gazing over his poker hand at his youthful companion.
"As you are aware from your lengthy observation, these are indeed marvelously constructed cards, Mr. Dunne. One can note the quality in the very texture," Ezra noted. "Despite that, all things, well made or not, eventually succumb to the ravages of Father Time..."
J.D. wasn't biting on Ezra's quip, so the gambler continued. "Take Rome, for instance. Even at the height of her civilization, she too was destined to crumble to dust, trampled beneath the steady march of the seasons."
J.D. looked up, the bewildered expression he seemed to wear constantly around Standish surfacing once more.
"Sorry. You say somthin'?" J.D. coughed.
"I was contemplating the inexorable passage of time, Mr. Dunne. I was wondering, perhaps, if this were some new strategy on your part, to wait until I had progressed into complete senility before opening your next bid. Or perhaps you were waiting for my demise from advanced aging, to loot my helpless body where it fell," the professional gambler mused.
"Your bid, sir. Are you planning to bid sometime this century?"
"Yea. Just give me a minute."
"Why not? I've given you several thousand," Ezra chucled, reaching for the bottle of whiskey. He preferred something a little more civilized... he had a sophisticated palate, of course. However, as he had noted to himself mre than once, one did not venture into the West for civilization. One just had to make do with what one had at hand.
As he poured himself another round, J.D. finally made his bid. Ezra called, nonchalantly, and the younger man placed his hand on the table: Three ladies over a pair of eights.
"Hah," he cried out, "Read 'em and weep, Ezra. I got a full house."
Standish nodded lightly, but, as Dunne reached for the cash in the center of the table, he placed his four tens (king high) down.
"No weeping for me today, I'm afraid," Standish offered. J.D. sat back in stunned disbelief, as Ezra roughly gathered the money, organized it by denomination, and then folded the bills into his right vest pocket.
"Damn," the young man spat, slamming his right palm flat agains the table. "I was sure I had you that time. How do you keep doing that?"
Standish shivered as he downed the hard liquor.
"How do I keep doing what, Mr. Dunne?"
"Winning! How do you keep winning?"
Ezra paused, not sure how to answer, then settled on the truth; "I keep playing you."
He reached for the bottle again. J.D. frowned as Ezra poured another shot.
"You're drinking too much, today."
Ezra actually smiled at Dunne, "Why, than you for the concern over my health. However, seeing as relieving you of your meager earnings has limited entertainment value..." Buck Wilmington sauntered into the Four Corners Saloon at taht moment, grinning like the proverbial canary-eating cat. He strutted over to the table and sat heavily in an open chair. "... and, seeing how I haven't the proclivities... or the stamina... that our dear friend Mr. Wilmington seemingly possesses, whiskey is my sole vice at the moment."
Buck laughed, "You could always ask J.D. to share his latest joke."
Ezra was too much of a gentleman to snort derisively, but he gave the impression he considered the action, just this once. "I might also leap in front of an oncoming train, but I shall pass on both experiences, this day."
Standish knocked back another drink, and began pouring another. Buck ordinarily wasn't the kind of man to speak of other's vices, but even he frowned as his friend gulped this shot down. Ezra could... and would... drink as hard as any man Buck knew, but, it was very unusal for this gentleman gunfighter to imbibe quite so much.
"Ezra?" Buck asked, softly.
"Et tu, Brutus?" Another shot vanished. "Can't a man enjoy even the least essences of life without commentary from every passersby? I tell you gentlemen... that I shall drink until I run out of coin, care, or consciousness. Whichever retires first."
"Ah! Fellow sinners," boomed a large voice from the door. "Mighty early to be hittin' the saloon, isn't it...?" Josiah stopped when he saw how wobbly Ezra was becoming. "A little too much on the heart takes its toll on a man's soul."
Ezra, now becoming somewhat irritated (very unusual for him), stood from his seat unsteadily. "A man drinks for many reasons. Sometimes to run from demons. Sometimes to ease the pain... " A strange intensity settled into his otherwise glassy stare, as he peered into a world only he could see, but didn't want to see. "... Sometimes to stop the screaming." Ezra took a telegram out of his pocket. He handed it to his giant of a friend. "A ghost is coming from my past, you see, and he is bringing his own little personal... hell... with him. I do not wish to see him, but I may not refuse, upon my honor as a gentleman. Upon my honor, I shall endure the screams, once more."
The Preacher Man unfloded the note, and read two names which meant nothing to him. Then, his eyes grew wide. "Why in the world would the Secret Service be coming to see you, Ezra?"
"We are to compare skeletons in our closets, I imagine," the gambler drawled in his deepening Southern accent. "Now, if y'all will excuse me, my friend Mr. Bottle and I have an engagement with a feather bead." Ezra made a wavering path to the stairs, and headed, as best he could, in the general direction of his room.
Chris Larabee exited the farmhouse, and moved, as a man possessed, around the corner. He saw his temporary partner stooped by the barn, looking at something on the ground, rubbing his chin. Vin Tanner was standing next to him with arms crossed, apparently discussing some technical matter with the man. Chris wasted little time wondering about the possible content of the conversation; he could guess.
As he approached, Vin looked up and shook his head.
"Same as the others, Chriss. They seem to have been taken completely unawares."
"Whatcha got here?" he inquired.
The man checking the ground spoke: "A child, a boy perhaps, was standing here... " he pointed to the print in the mud. "Someone come right up to him, snatched him from the ground and headed..." he pointed off toward the house proper, "... that way. The child just stood here like a lamb. Didn't even try to run."
Chris squinted into the early afternoon sun. "How long?" was all he asked.
Vin shrugged, and turned to the third man. At the silence, he looked up. His dark eyes held as many questions as answers, but he managed: "About three hours, give or take." He stood, a little taller than Vin, and, though his hair was about as long as Vin's, his was obsidian black to Vin's lighter brown. Like Vin, he wore the buckskin cloths that many familiar with tribal life wear. And, like Vin, he was a trained tracker.
Chris nodded. "The mother seems to have been cooking. From the prints in some spilled flour in her kitchen, about three men walked right up to her, grabbed her, and walked out. The father was mending a fence nearby. He seems to have kept right on working as whomever took him rode right up. It's the damnedest thing I've ever seen."
The father of a good friend who had gone missing a few weeks ago had approached Vin. The father, Sam Bakersfield, said that he had dropped by Zachariah's place and found it completely deserted. Zach, his wife Mary Beth, and their three children were nowhere to be found. Some of the livestock and horses were missing, but most of the Bakersfield's possessions had been left undisturbed. Vin had agreed to check into the matter, and Chris joined him on the road.
Matters were not simple, however. Though Zach was a large, firey man, like his father, it appeared he and his family had been taken without a fight. Worse, there came reports from neighbors that other families had mysteriously vanished, as well. In between towns, similar news was travelling. It seemed that some ghostly army was snatching people and disappearing without a trace. On the way back to Four Corners... the two decided they needed some help... they came to a Sioux village that had fared no bettert han a growing number of white farmsteads. And, it was here that they met this third man, who called himself McLeod.
Duncan McLeod, a Scotsman, worked as a scout for the Army, and was tracking a series of apparent attacks by raiding parties. However, he drew the same conclusions that Vin and Chris had reached: a raiding party perhaps, but nothing like he'd ever encountered before.
"I don't understand," Chris stated. "A group large enough to be kidnapping farmers and... Hell!... entire Indian villages? You can't hide somthing like that! Somebody would have seen it!"
"Normally, I'd agree," admitted McLeod, "but I've been following this longer than you. These raids... if that's what they are... seem random. But, the area of the raids is growing. And, no one has yet seen one occur."
Vin simply nodded. There was nothing more to add.
This was the third such home they had visited, along heir way, that had the same attributes as others they had seen: A group of riders came suddenly, dismounted, and without so much as a scuffled, grabbed up every man, woman and child at the place and vanished. Tracks leading up to the attack appeared abruptly on the roads, as if they came from thin air, and disappeared as swiftly on the far side of the site. On such attack seemed to have occurred a mere fifteen minutes to a half-hour from the three ment's arrival, but no riders were passed, and none could be seen in any direction in the distance.
Vin, Chris and Duncan were hard men, having seen a lot between them, but this spooked each of them. Vin and Chris invited the third to join them, and he heartily agreed. Help was definitely needed here! The three had no sooner mounted, however, when a rider, moving hell-for-leather, came flying from the trees to their southwest. A woman, in her late teens to early twenties, came right at them. As she neared, she yelled for help.
"You have to stop them! They've got my folks! They've got my folks!"
Vin caught her by the bridal as she reached them.
"Whoa, there, Miss. Who's got your folks?" he asked.
She turned wild, frightened eyes to him. Stammering, she exclaimed, "The Dar... Dark Riders!"
The three men looked at each other in puzzlement. She acted as thought this name should mean something.
"Please! You have to help."
All three men reached the decision simultaneously. "Which way," Vin growled. The young woman pointed back in the direction she had come... then, her face drained of blood and her eyes went wide with fear. She broke away frm Vin, and spurred her horse on in the direction she was headed when they first saw her. They looked in the direction she had pointed.
Silently, fifty mounted men came from the trees, all dressed, head to foot, in black. Once out of the forest, the group formd, military fashion, in seven ranks of seven, with one rider out front. Without a single apparent word, the group began moving at a slow trot toward the three men.
Chris understated, "This doesn't look good."
Vin added, "Fight or run?"
The three men glanced at each other, with Chris and Duncan saying, almost at once, "Run." The three turned and encouraged wind underneath the hooves of their steeds, heading roughtly the same direction of the frightened lass.
Part II: Clouds Gather
Two men rode into Four Corners from the east of town, both looking slightly out of place. With the exception of Ezra, few men in the area dressed like Sunday-go-to-meeting, but both of these men were sharply attired. They stopped briefly at the Sheriff's Office, and asked Josiah, who was sitting out front, a question. The Preacher Man nodded toward the Saloon, and they thanked him.
Once in front of the only (official) drinking establishment in Four Corners, the two dismounted, fastened reigns, and went inside. Buck looked up with faint interest from his whiskey, but, since the two seemed uninterested in him, he returned to Nathan's conversation. Both he and Nathan stopped talking when one of the two asked to speak with Ezra.
"You them Secret Service men come lookin' for him." Buck stated flatly. It wasn't a question.
The two looked at each other, as if gauging what should be said. The younger, leaner of the two shrugged. The older man replied: "Why, yes. Might you tell us where we might find Mr..." the man frowned, as if he had to remember the name, "Standish?"
A voice came from the top of stairs: "They might were they of such mind."
All eyes turned toward the speaker. "However," Ezra drawled from his vantagepoint, "I had asked them that I not be disturbed, and it is unlikely that you'd gotten the response you wanted, if I did not speak." The gambler was dressed in his finest red jacket and vest, looking for all the world like a man without a care in it. He ambled slowly down the steps, as befitting one recovering from a heavy hangover.
The older man moved toward Ezra as he reached bottom, and held out his right hand. "It's been a very long time, Captain."
Ezra merely looked at the hand for a moment, then grasped it with his own, turning his bloodshot eyes toward the speaker. "Under other circumstances," he said, "I might say it were a pleasure seeing you again, Captain Gordon. Under other circumstances." His grasp was friendly, nonetheless.
"Please have a seat gentlemen, and allow me to introduce you to a couple of dear friends. The quiet young gentleman sitting to my right is Mr. Nathan Jackson, the local healer, and my more boisterous friend," he said as Buck nodded, "is Mr. Buck Wilmington." Then, turning to his friends, he added: "Captain Artemus Gordon I know well, but I only know Special Agent James West by reputation."
"Well, this is right dandy. But, you still haven't told us why the Secret Service is interested in you, Ezra."
"The reason is private," the man identified as West said curtly.
Gordon started to speak out, but Standish only shook his head. "No, Mr. West. Whatever we shall discuss, shall be discussed with my friends also." He sat down at the table, between Nathan and Buck, concluding his thought: "or not at all."
"Now see here," West began, but Gordon placed a restraining hand on his shoulder.
"It's OK, Jim. Mr. Standish knows full well that we can't force his cooperation. And, trust me, he's not the sort of man whose cooperation can be forced. I know. Believe me, I know."
It was late in the year of 1864. Most of the country had been torn apart by civil war, but the end was not far off. The Confederate States' primary forces, under General Robert E. Lee, had taken a major defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg in July, 1863, and Lee's army had been harassed mercilessly by Ulysses S. Grant and the Army of the Potomac ever since.
However, the Confederacy would not die quietly, and a plan had been hatched to prolong the war. In a series of schemes designed to thwart Union victory, the Confederate government made secret deals with the British, who still stung over the loss of their "most prized colony" and with Czarist Russia, which had begun having serious imperialist dreams of its own. One such deal was designed to get arms and gold to the South via a sympathizer in central California, and a group of bold young men volunteered to make contact.
The Secret Service, headed by Allan Pinkerton, gained knowledge of the action, and was ordered to stop it at all costs. The group assigned the task was headed up by a youthful, but brilliant Captain named Artemus Gordon.
The plan, simple in form for both sides, seemed routine. That was before each group reached their destination. What they found stunned both sides, and forced, even if briefly, an alliance among enemies.
"He didn't call himself Standish back then, of course. What was your name?"
Ezra smiled weakly, "I can't always remember, myself. I try to forget those days."
Gordon nodded sympathetically.
Nathan interjected at that moment, heat beginning to rise in his voice, "Now, let me get this straight: a man I call friend fought for the people who called me 'slave'?" Nathan, an escaped slave and former army healer, still bore physical and emotional scars from the period. He glared at the gambler.
Ezra was silent for a moment, but looked Nathan straight in the eyes when he replied. "Nathan, I cannot coerce you to believe other than you will, but, if you believe nothing else about me, believe this: I never owned another man nor have I ever used another human soul for property. I was an idealist back then. My fight was for the pride of state and my country. I cared less for politics then than I do now, and I care little enough for it now."
"But you were in California," West said.
"Indeed, I was most certainly in California. A young man filled with juice and intrigue, running a most important errand for my compatriots. Little did we know."
"You were a Reb soldier?" Buck asked, incredulously.
"I never swore in," Ezra said.
"He was a spy," West amended.
Standish nodded lightly, "That would be more accurate, yes."
"As I live and breath, Ezra Standish, you have more secrets than a room full of priests!" Buck laughed.
"That would also be accurate," Ezra chuckled.
Nathan had now calmed back down, and the scientist in him wanted more information: "Mr. Gordon, you said you found something in California. Something bad?"
"Worse than bad, my good man. We found the Devil."
Most of the West Coast, at that time, was still in development. Yet, many who ventured west for the allure of gold came away sadder, if wiser. Some could not make it very far back, at all. Unscrupulous men took advantage of families, especially those with unmarried women in them. Prostitution, corruption, and crime became the sources of income for those who came too late to pan for nuggets and possessed too little wit to do anything else.
But, there are worse things than a simple criminal mind, and one man possessed the genius and cruel will to bring a malicious dream to pass. His name was Walter Drakeson, his passion was war, and his goal was to become a god among men.
No one knew where he came from; despite his all-too British name, his English was thick with some central European accent. However, he had a regal bearing about him, and, as Buck would say, "a rattlesnake's temper." If he were some deposed prince, he was the very model of Machiavellian menace. He considered himself without peer, and brooked no disobedience. An entire mining town of 137 souls discovered the price of crossing him.
He demanded half of everything this town owned, as tribute to him and his cause. He was rejected.
A haunted look came across Ezra's face as he nearly whispered, "My squad had to travel through this town on the way back from the coast. It was a lively place when we passed through before, filled with hardy men, women and children. I didn't find out until much later why it happened, but what we saw..."
Silence made the room thick.
Buck ventured, "You saw...?"
Gordon spoke up, "The entire town was dead. Drakeson came back with an army, and the people stopped laughing. They stopped doing anything but dying."
Standish found his voice, "He had them beaten. Beaten, stripped, tortured, and finally crucified, upside down, on every piece of unvarnished wall, railing, and post in the town. Every living body. Even the children. I've never seen Hell before, gentlemen, but I'll recognize it if I do."
"How do you come into this picture?" Nathan inquired of Gordon.
Artemus was somber, "Most of my men were captured by Drakeson's forces at his camp, nearly five miles distance from the town. At the time, we thought we might be witnessing a far west Reb training ground. In fact, we thought this might be the good Captain's destination." He added, as he looked at Ezra.
"His sentries were good. Very good," Ezra commented. "Yes. We never heard them coming. Three of us fought our way out, but we left seven men behind. Seven very good men.
"We heard the shooting as we moved eastward from the town. Fortunately, we were far enough away not to be observed. Normally, back then, I would not jeopardize a mission to investigate. However, I had been... moved to anger, to hatred... by what I had witnessed in the town. I had to know if the villains behind the townspeople's horrible demise were also behind the gunplay..."
"Hard to imagine you moved by anything but a double eagle, Ezra," Buck mused, half-jokingly.
Ezra, for a moment, appeared to be a very different man than the one Buck had come to know. There was an unusual blaze kindling in the depths of his eyes, and his face took on a rigid forcefulness Buck had only seen before in Chris.
"I have witnessed horror before, mind you," Ezra spoke with a softness that belied the emotion behind the voice, "On the field of honor, where combatants meet, I have seen the young men bleed and die, limbs severed from bodies. Oh, yes, Mr. Wilmington, I have seen blood and death, from afar, and very near. But, despite these horrors, these represented the price paid in honest, if ugly, warfare, the results of conflict among honorable warriors. For, in those same fields of bloodletting, I have seen strange mercies, as soldiers in one color uniform give comfort to a brother soldier in another. I have seen an enemy, one moment past, hold the hand of a dying antagonist, venturing with him to death's veil, as a friend should.
"What I saw in that mining town was not the act of a war, but of butchery! I had every intention of finding the ones responsible for the slaughter of innocents..."
"What did you hope to do, Ezra?"
"I was a spy, not a soldier. Dishonor was part of my trade. I intended to find them, then visit upon these loathsome murderers war most vile. I intended to see that the merciless received no mercy."
"And he did," quipped Gordon.
"What happened?" Nathan asked breathlessly.
"First, he found us," Gordon replied, "then Drakeson and some of his troops found the Captain. That confrontation, gentlemen, is a tale even I wouldn't believe, if I weren't there to see it..."
Part III: Storm Front
The three men had separated fairly early in the chase. After all, it was better to split the pursuers, and it improved the chances that at least one of the three would escape to tell of the matter. The Dark Riders took the bait, splitting into three roughly equal groups to proceed.
Vin Tanner, used to tracking others, quickly lost his group. As soon as he knew he was clear, he spurred his mount as fast as was healthy, on as straight a line as possible with Four Corners.
Chris Larabee, on the other hand, was not as adept, prefering a good fight to running, anyway. However, before he could dismount and seek cover, he heard a muffled rifle *crack!* and felt a stinging sensation in his right shoulder. Reaching back, he amazingly felt no blood, but he almost immediately began experiencing other difficulties. Within seconds, his mind became extraordinarily fuzzy, and he sat, dazed in his saddle. With no urging or direction, his horse slowed to a halt. Shortly, his chasers caught up. Chris numbly tried to look at the men, tried to gain some understanding of what had befallen him. Yet, nothing seemed familiar, and the words being spoken by those surrounding him made no sense. After what may have been seconds... or even days, from his warped perceptions... the men rode away, leaving Chris sitting dumbly on his horse, in the middle of nowhere.
It took several minutes for the effect to wear off, but Chris soon felt the grogginess receed, and, he too... though at a slower pace... aimed his horse toward home, for Four Corners. He thought he understood, now, how people were being taken without a single blow being thrown, but he wanted more answers... especially, he wanted to know why he was left, not taken...
Duncan McLeod had other plans. Like Vin, he was an experienced tracker, so he probably could have lost his pursuers easily enough... yet, he only stayed far enough ahead to set a few quick traps. Duncan was an Immortal, and had a different set of priorities. Although he, like Chris, sought answers, he sought particular ones... this had the feel of another Immortal behind it, and he wanted to know who it was. There once was another place, another time, where a similar set of events occured. If this were the handiwork of that particular Immortal, he and his new friends were in tremendous danger. In fact, if this Immortal were still alive, still up to his old tricks, no one was safe, anywhere...
Duncan had been born too late for the Crusades, but he still found plenty of trouble on the mainland when he finally arrived there during the late 17th Century. He had befriended a man who planned to travel from Spain back to his home, but wished to see Constantinopol at least once in his life, having heard about the city from family members who had visited. Duncan was still unschooled and illiterate at this point, but he loved adventure, and thought the idea to hold potential.
Among the troubles still seething in that part of the world was continued animosity between the followers of the Christus and those who followed Mohammed's legacy. In particular, there was a Serbian prince who longed to drive Islam from his beloved land, and he stopped at nothing to accomplish the task. Legend had it that this prince fought against the original incursions into the regions going back as far as the 600 A.D.'s. Of course, no one but an Immortal would ever give such talk a second thought. But, as Duncan and his mortal friend neared their destination, rumor began taking the shape of reality. On one occasion, Duncan got to see, first hand, the work of this man who was called Prince Slaus by his men: over 200 men in a coastal town had been hung on either side of the road entering the village... not because they aided the enemy, but simply because they refused to fight a superior foe. The Prince decided that since such cowards refused to die in his honor and service, they would die to prevent "siring worthless cowards like them". Any sons over 12 years of age were taken into forced labor, and any under 12 were herded off to be trained as proper fighting men for their "Lord"...
Duncan never met this Slaus, but word circulating the fearful villages was that the Prince had once rode with a legendary group of cold-blooded killers from the Russian steppes who called themselves the "Four Horsemen". Duncan placed little stock in such rumors, since such Immortals (and that's what they would have to be, if true) would have been been nearly 5000 years old... old, even for those who only die by a chance stroke of some blade. Yet, seeing the end result of this Slaus' justice made Duncan wonder...
His more obvious traps were, naturally, avoided. Of course, the path of avoiding them lead into less obvious ones. Duncan was able to reduce the number of his opponents to five within seconds. He made his move when the last remaining few dismounted to help fallen comrades. He was among them in seconds.
In another time and another place, Duncan McLeod had been washed ashore in a strange land, and was befriended by a warrior, who placed his own life at risk by allowing Duncan to live. The man, who called himself a samurai, in service to a warlord called a shogun, taught Duncan as many of the samurai skills (called jujitsu, or "methods of giving way" and kenjutsu, or "way of the sword") as he could, and, over the years, Duncan had managed to master some of these techniques. He used all his skill against the remaining five Riders, and soon had them subdued.
The answers he got to specific questions did nothing but heighten his concerns... it was imperative that he make it to Four Corners, if for no other purpose than to evacuate it, before all Hell broke loose...
Larabee's group of Riders regrouped with one other set after a while. The young woman had escaped, and two of the men apparently did likewise. The Boss would not be pleased, but this was no capital offense... they had other duties to attend. Several of the men disapproved that their Major had decided to allow Larabee to ride on... especially after Markham's splendid shot, but he reminded them that (a) it was not their task to round up stray cowboys, and (b) if the man didn't flee to the East Coast... even to book passage elsewhere... he would be caught and/or killed, later.
Time the Dark Riders had plenty of... it was a commodity that the denizens of the region had in ever diminishing "ticks", however...
Part IV: First Rain
"It was the damnedest thing I'd ever seen," Gordon remarked...
The brash young Confederate agent sat completely unruffled on his horse, facing about 25 gunmen. Artemus Gordon and two of his men stood, catching their breath, behind his mount. About 30 feet closer to the forest, another two Johnny Rebs sat, waiting.
At the head of the gunmen rode a tall, slender man with long dark hair, a neatly trimmed beard and mustache, and deep-seated, brooding eyes. Strangely, as the man's jaw worked fiercely, he appeared confused about a course of action... it was an appearance he didn't look like he made very often. When he spoke, his words were thickly accented and harsh.
"Who are you, and why are you aiding these spies?"
The Reb leader looked casually around at Gordon and his Secret Servicemen.
"I'm not really aiding anybody, sir,' the Southerner stated flatly. "As to who I am, I am a fortune-teller without peer. Would you care to know your future?"
Every one of the gunmen looked at each other in puzzlement. The tall man stammered, "Wh-what?!?"
"Your future, sir. Would you care to know what your future is? I really am quite good at prognostication."
"I have no time for games, fool! State your business, and be quick about it!"
The Southerner cocked his head to one side, smiling strangely, "Why, sir! I do believe you are also quite good at the art of seeing what lies beyond. Although you miss the mark a bit narrowly. About having no time, that is."
"What are you talking about?"
"Are you the man responsible for the town of Aurora?"
Now, all eyes were upon the Southern agent, and all murmuring ceased. The tall man narrowed his eyes.
"What do you know of Aurora?" he asked dangerously.
"My gift, this evening, is for the one responsible for that unfortunate hamlet. My talents tell me you are the one I seek."
The tall man sat imperiously in his saddle, "If you have seen Aurora, you know that I am not one with which to play childish games."
The Confederate smiled at the tall man, "I knew I was right about you! And, as promised, I shall tell you of your future."
"I know my future, already, idiot!" the tall man growled.
"Humor me, nonetheless, I ask you..."
The tall man snarled, "Very well. What is my future?"
"You don't have one."
The Confederate produced a derringer from his right sleeve, and fired, knocking the tall man from his saddle. His men reacted quickly, without much hesitation, but still much too late. From the forest, rifle shots cracked, and men fell swiftly. In seconds, it was over... the Southerners had fired completely around their leader, never once even grazing him or the Union agents. The Southerner turned to the three men behind him.
"And what, pray tell, has such three distinguished looking gentlemen running in the night, and what business have you with these villains?" he pointed at the fallen group.
"We are escapees from the mines," Gordon lied.
"Unlikely," the Reb laughed, "Your hands are too soft and manicured for a miner."
Gordon frowned. "We're here from Washington, looking for a band of Confederate trouble-makers."
"Well, sir, I'd say you found us! Now, the question is..." he began, as his men appeared, armed to the hilt, from the surrounding woods, "... what are you three planning to do with all us?"
One of the three thought strongly about going for his gun, but a wave of the derringer in his direction appealed to his common sense and self-preservation. He slowly raised his hands.
"We thought you were with this group," Gordon nodded toward the fallen riders. "We were reconnoitering their camp when we were caught."
The young Reb's smile vanished, "I'd not cross a road to spit on the grave of such as these. They are without honor and mercy." He told Gordon about the town and its fate.
"Dear God!..." Artemus whispered.
"I'd say you were my prisoner, sir, but we really have no provisions for it. I reckon I'll either have to shoot you, or set you free."
As they spoke, his men rummaged through the pockets of the fallen. One pulled a pouch from the tall man's pockets, picked a couple of papers from it, and quickly handed them to his leader.
The young man frowned as he read. "Change of plans, boys! Get the wagons and equipment together." He handed the papers to Gordon.
"How far away is your closest Yankee fort?"
Gordon's eyes widen with shock as he read the paper, "Too far to do us any good."
"Then, sir, I suggest we gather the remainder of your men. I think we shall need them..."
JD had joined the group in the saloon, curiosity getting the best of him. Like Buck and Nathan, his jaws dropped as Gordon continued his tale.
"We pulled off a pretty good raid on the main camp. Your Mr. Standish and his group had some impressive firepower in their small arsenal, and we were able to make short work of those soldiers still in camp. The captured men were badly beaten, but would live... and Mr. Standish was correct... we did need them... "
Between them, the Secret Servicemen and the Confederate group made excellent time, reaching the town of Sandstone within a day's ride. The group took up fortifications to the north of town, along the path trouble was coming. And, they did not wait long...
"What was in the papers that was so urgent?" JD asked.
"Marching orders, Mr. Dunne," Ezra said, taking a slow sip of whiskey. "Orders for a regiment of troops to take the 'strategic city' of Sandstone, by whatever force was needed."
Buck frowned. "I've never heard of the place."
"Neither have I," West offered.
"That was just it," Gordon added, "Sandstone was nothing but a small crossroads town leading nowhere in particular. The papers we found were for a military exercise."
"I don't understand," Nathan shook his head.
"Target practice," Ezra grimaced. "The entire community was to be used as target practice for an army-in-training."
West's eyes widened, this time.
"You mean, another massacre?"
"Correct, sir. They meant to kill or capture every man, woman and child in Sandstone, and the surrounding area, for the simple purpose of practicing their skills."
"What kind of people were these?" JD shouted.
"Monsters, Mr. Dunne," Ezra said. "If only that were the worst of it... "
Duncan McLeod managed to catch up with the woman he, Chris and Vin had encountered earlier. He convinced her that she'd be safer riding with him to Four Corners. Seeing that he had escaped the Dark Riders, she tended to agree. They rode toward their intended direction, but Duncan stopped when a familiar sensation overcame him.
"Ride on ahead, in that direction," he pointed.
"But..." she started to argue.
"We don't have time for this. Just go!" he hissed. She had a concerned look in her eyes, but she complied, if unwillingly.
As soon as she was out of sight, a tall man on a rather large horse came out of the trees, in the direction Duncan was staring. Unhurriedly, his horse pranced up beside McLeod's. The rider was lean, with a cat-like grace in his bearing. He had angular features, a beard and mustache, closely cropped, and the darkest eyes Duncan had ever seen.
"Duncan McLeod of the Clan McLeod," was all the Scotsman would say.
"Kin of Conner?" the tall man asked, accent thick with the life-long practice of another tongue.
"I've heard of him. An old acquaintance of mine, the Kurgan, has an score to settle with him, I think."
"Aye. I've heard of this Kurgan. Are you like-minded with him?"
"We are cut of similar cloth, shall we say."
"Then you are no friend of mine." Duncan deftly drew his katana from its back-slung scabbard.
"Stay your hand, immortal. I'm not after heads, today."
"Then, what is your goal, today."
"War. I have come to wage war on these filthy, short-lived mortals."
Duncan was taken aback.
"It's against our laws to needlessly kill mortals!" Duncan sputtered.
"Laws for fools," the tall man scoffed. "These insignificant beggars, shadows of real men, ought to worship the ground we tread. We are as gods to their wisp-like nature. Fragile beasts with greatness walking among them. Today, they learn a near religion.. they begin to learn the truth."
"Just because you say so," Duncan sneered.
"No, just because I and some friends say so..." at a wave of his hand, several dozen mounted troops emerged from the trees.
"Impressive," Duncan commented, "but not enough to scare the mortals."
"I have more," the tall man stated.
"Who are you?" Duncan inquired, unable to fight a growing fear in his breast.
"My men call me Walter Drakeson."
"That's not your real name."
"No, it is not," Drakeson smiled, darkly. "I was born Mo'esh in the Ural Mountains ages past, when mortals appreciated the strength and cunning of their betters. I have lived as a king wherever I have traveled, Duncan McLeod. In the Balkans, the peasants revered me... feared me... as the Dragon's Son."
"The Devil's Son... " McLeod choked.
"That is one interpretation," the tall man conceded.
"Prince Slaus... "
"I always hated that sloppy contraction of a proud name. It is actually Vladislaus."
"Ah! A reputation well earned, I assure you. But, they never called me 'Butcher'. I was called Tsepish in the local tongue...."
"My God... 'Sepish'...." Duncan pronounced without the soft "t" beginning.
"Yes... the Impaler... Vladislaus Dragwyla, Son of the Dragon. And, soon to be a king once more!..."
Part V: Thunderhead
Chris rode into town like the proverbial bat out of hell, and headed straight for the Saloon. Ezra and Artie stopped their tale-spinning as he crashed through the door. All eyes turned upon Ezra as Chris relayed what transpired over the last few days.
Buck was the first to speak afterward, aiming his comments at the two Secret Servicemen: "How did you two know that the Dark Riders were in our area? And how come you haven't said anything before now?"
Jim West replied, "We didn't know."
Ezra added, "It may be that you are under a false impression, Mr. Wilmington. I contacted Mr. Gordon, first. It was not the reverse."
Buck began, "But..."
Standish shrugged, "The telegram was essentially their response to my query. They came when I was certain they might be needed."
West: "And, so. We finally get to the point... Where are the Riders, and what threat do they actually pose?"
Josiah flashed a toothy grin, "You have to like a direct fellow."
Ezra gazed off into a world only he could see, "The Riders' main camp is about two-and-a-half days' sojourn southwest of Four Corners. They number about 273 armed men, at this moment, but are expecting reinforcements within the next two days... probably coming from the Pacific Northwest. They have been steadily training for the past five months, and are now ready to begin 'live' exercises. I suspect their first sortie shall be an attack on Millington, followed closely by an assault on our fair community. At full strength, they shall number in the neighborhood of 420 soldiers."
JD sputtered a mild profanity, which earned him a smack in the back of the head from Buck, who, in his turn, used a stronger expletive. When JD looked tempted to return the favor, Buck muttered lowly, "Don't even think it."
Chris looked perplexed, a sight that was not at all pleasing, "How the Hell do you know all that, Ezra?"
Ezra sipped some whiskey, and turned to face Chris. "There occurs no commerce in this region that I am not aware of, Mr. Larabee. All commodities, even information, have value. I make it a point to know all that I can about potential customers... and potential adversaries. I came upon knowledge concerning the Dark Riders a few weeks ago. When I ascertained the risk posed by these blackguards, I immediately contacted Mr. Gordon and his rather edgy colleague."
West was mentally calculating the risk, himself. "420 men do pose a threat in this sparsely populated area... but they shouldn't last long against the Army. Did you consider contacting them, instead of us?"
Standish smiled sadly at West, "Indeed, I did, Mr. West. There is, as we speak, a regiment proceeding toward the main camp. I would think they should be within striking distance within a few hours."
West looked puzzled, "Then why...?"
Standish never let him finish his statement. "I contacted them to warn against such a foolhardy endeavor, Mr. West. Apparently, they had been appraised of the danger, but chose to ignore the consequences."
West frowned, "I don't understand. A couple of hundred men, even well trained, aren't going to be much of a match against a full regiment..."
Standish once more interrupted West, "Under ordinary circumstances, Mr. West, I'd agree. However, the Dark Riders are in possession of some very sophisticated and unconventional weaponry. I fear that many widows will be made this day..."
The sun breathed its unbearable heat upon the blood-soaked valley. The last echoing remnant of the slaughter faded into the summer's air. In the valley proper, men and horses lay dying, never once having seen the enemy that so effectively obliterated them.
In standard columns, they had entered the green vale, the steady cadence of hooves pounding out a familiar beat. Death came whistling, the only warning the group received before the Reaper tore into their midst. Only after the first few impacts did the distant hammers of big guns become evident, and, by that time, it was much, much too late. The ordinance was far from typical, generating a hellish flower of shrapnel that shaved all flora and fauna down over three feet high, within a radius of 40 feet per blast. The spacing and accuracy of the salvos were evident in the economy of destruction, a fact the colonel leading the targeted unit may have admired were he not on the receiving end. From the time Drakeson's artillery was given the signal to fire until the last shell collided with earth, all of twelve seconds past. Twelve seconds were all it took to reduce a regiment of decorated warriors into dust.
Vin could do nothing but watch helplessly through his spyglass, being too far away to warn the horse soldiers before the killing commenced...
The woman had no idea why she had veered from her intended path, but the farmhouse she sought was just over the next hill. Just as she suspected, Mr. Pascal sat on his front stoop, tinkering with some gadget or another. He once told her that Ben Franklin gave a name to his malady: laziness. Because he did not wish to work hard, he found ways to make his work easier. At the very least, he kept himself busy in his loneliness. He did look up, however, when he heard her approach.
"Ah, my dear! I see you are enjoying the weather, this fine day. Will you stop for a while, to give your horse a rest, however?"
"I can't, Mr. Pascal. I'm headed for Four Corners, but I wanted to warn you before I continued."
"Warn me, child? About what, pray tell?"
She relayed all she could remember about the attack on her family's farm, the Dark Riders (Pascal's expression only changed when he heard this name), and the encounter with the three men who rescued her... or, at least interfered with her pursuers long enough for her to flee.
"You performed admirably by coming here, Sarah, as you should have done. It is well that you have informed me. However, there is an adjustment that must be made before you venture further, to prevent an untimely slip from occurring..."
Sarah's brows creased at Pascal's strange words, but she dismounted when Pascal asked her to, and entered his farmhouse. She sat where he requested, and watched the strange man intently as he gathered a few items from his shelves. She barely noticed when he sprayed a fine mist in her face, however. Her eyes closed briefly, but snapped open when he called her name. There was a strange, emotionless expression on her face.
Pascal shook his head slowly, irritated that her conditioning had not taken hold as he had planned. It proved wise that he had given her explicit instructions to return if the exercise had failed. Had she continued on to Four Corners, she may well have tipped off Pascal's intended target with erratic behavior, as she diverged further and further from her carefully scripted actions.
She made no obvious movement as he proceeded to reinforce his earlier efforts.
"Listen closely, Sarah... it is important that you make Four Corners by nightfall. When you get to town..." Pascal spelled out his intended program. Sarah was to seek out a certain man, and when she found him, she was to wait until he was distracted. At that time, she was to draw a hidden weapon, and strike him down. She was to then turn the weapon upon herself, and finish her assignment. During the entire synopsis, Sarah McFadden never as much as flinched, even when her "instructor" spoke cavalierly about her death. All she would remember upon leaving was that the kindly Mr. Pascal had given her food and drink before sending her on to town, to warn them of the pending attack of the Dark Riders.
After she rode out of sight, Drakeson stepped out of the hallway.
"How long have you been waiting there?" Pascal asked.
"Long enough to know your treatments aren't taking effect, Doctor. I do not understand your insistence upon this questionable approach. There are more efficient methods."
The man who Sarah knew as Pascal smiled broadly at Drakeson. "It doesn't matter, in the long run, if this case works as planned. I'll simply perfect the method, later. You'd be surprised at how lucrative assassination is becoming. Besides, have I failed you yet?"
Drakeson had to admit he was pleased thus far. In fact, he was delighted to report that the good Doctor's targeting system and specially designed cannons and shells were a rousing success. And, of course, he had no complaint whatsoever with the stupefying drugs he now had at his disposal.
"Yes, the art of war is about to take a giant leap forward, I should think. Of course, the best is yet to come. After we've finished field testing our armament, it shall be time to think of bigger things. Like Washington, perhaps. Or London. Whatever your heart desires. Today, Millington will fall. Then, within a week, we shall have Four Corners."
"And my revenge!" Drakeson shouted.
"Ah, no, my good Prince Vlad. Your revenge will come long before then. That is, after all, why we came to this miserable part of the world... to kill the only two men in fifty centuries to completely humiliate you, n'est pas? And, as luck would have it, Gordon arrived in Four Corners yesterday, placing the two back together again."
"And you aren't thinking revenge yourself, are you?" the Dragon's Son laughed, darkly.
"Of course, my 'lord'. I think of little else. James West's head will make a fine addition to my collection, and one long overdue. By morning's light, we shall have our vengeance, Prince Vlad. Miguelito Loveless swears it..."
Part VI: Lightning Strikes
Vin Tanner had been on his way back to Four Corners, when he noticed the troop movement. A veteran tracker, he saw the dust raising in the distance, and curiosity finally got the best of him. They were going back in the direction he had come from, so he wasn't eager to follow. Yet, there was a part of him that demanded answers, and he would not be happy until he had them, thus, he tagged along, remaining out of sight.
Unfortunately for the troops, Vin wasn't the only one to take interest. He saw the lookouts fairly easily, but could not warn the advancing unit without giving away his own position. Nonetheless, it was a very large column, and Vin couldn't think of anything... or anyone... that could threaten such a force.
Still, Vin decided to ease ahead of the Army, to scout out the enemy. That was when he saw the guns. Or, at least, when he saw where the guns were concealed.
Camouflage had been used in espionage and warfare, before, especially during the Civil War, when balloons were used to spot enemy positions. But, this was far more extensive than anything else used to date. A set of hidden sentries used flag signals to warn the concealed position, then a series of signals passed back and forth between the sentries and the location Vin now watched with interest. A group of people was jotting down information on chalkboards as the signals were translated. In moments, the netting was removed, and some of the largest cannons Vin had ever seen came into full view.
Each cannon was fitted with an elaborate system of ropes, pulleys and levers. Using the markings on the chalkboards, men and women proceeded to manipulate switches and levers, stopping at certain times to recheck the markings. Another group appeared to be attaching objects to the shells to be used. When finished, each group threw what appeared to be the main control on each unit, and the cannons were automatically swung into position. Vin was now quite alarmed and began thinking about how he could warn the oncoming troops. Before he could make a decision, however, the firing commenced. Vin watched in agony as the troops were massacred, unable to return fire at all. However, that is not to say he had no options at all...
There was nothing Tanner could have done to stop the cannons once they began firing, but he noticed that several shells went unused and were in plain view.
In plain, unobstructed view of everyone in the area.
Vin was no fool, and knew an opportunity when it presented itself. There was no way to bring back the dead, but Vin could repay in kind. He shouldered his rifle, and found a likely target. It was going to take a hell of a shot at this distance, but Vin had made such shots before...
Sarah McFadden finally reached Four Corners. She remembered that the best place to find help, according to Mr. Pascal, was not the Sheriff's Office, but at the Saloon. She was not the sort to enter such a place, ordinarily, but these were not ordinary times.
A group of men were seated at one of the tables when she entered, and Chris Larabee turned in surprise to see her.
"I glad to see you got away, Miss," he said, smiling cordially. "Did you happen to see the friends I was with on your way in?"
Sarah breathlessly conveyed her ride, about how she encountered Duncan McLeod, but how he bade her to move on. She had no idea where Vin was, but assumed the two men should be on their way. If they were half as resourceful as Mr. Larabee, that is.
Chris smiled ruefully, "I'm afraid I'm not all that resourceful, Miss..."
"Sarah, then. They shot me with something... something that dulls the senses. Makes it hard for a man to make up from down."
She became excited. "Yes! They have some sort of potion that they use on folks, to make them docile. They've captured a great many people that way."
Jim West broke in at that moment, "Just how many people have they taken, and what's become of them?"
Sarah turned to West, her breath catching for a moment... like Buck, the trim, dapper, yet intense West tended to have that effect on women... but she recovered quickly enough.
"I have no idea exactly how many, sir. Most are being used as slave labor, I'm told. I came here looking for help, however."
Artemus Gordon spoke up, "That's why we're here, Miss."
She locked her gaze onto Gordon, but her expression was very different from the one she gave West. Buck would say later that it was the way a person looked at the dead.
"You are Artemus Gordon." She said, without a hint of passion in her voice.
If Artie was shocked by this revelation, he failed to show it. "Why yes, Miss. I am."
"Then, I take it that..." she mentioned another name, "is nearby?"
"No, I'm afraid that my partner is Mr. West, here," Artie nodded at James.
Sarah scanned around, and her gaze rested on Ezra. She frowned, as if trying to remember something. She repeated the name she just mentioned. Ezra stood gracefully and bowed to her.
"I fear I know nothing about the gentleman you seek, my dear lady. However, I am Ezra Standish, and I'd be delighted to be of service to you, if I may."
She seemed lost, momentarily. "Mr.... Standish. I thought..."
"I have been confused for others of the common rabble before, sweet lady, and I admit that associating with such rabble..."
Buck laughed, "Hey, now!"
"...on a daily basis does nothing to improve my reputation or good name. I assure you, however, that Ezra Standish is a man of integrity and honor."
JD sputtered with barely concealed laughter.
Ezra turned a cold eye on the younger man, but the warmth and humor in his voice betrayed his true feelings, "Perhaps it is my charitable nature that compels me to try to civilize such ruffians as these."
It was Josiah's turn to comment, "Oh yes! Charity is Mr. Standish's middle name."
Throughout the banter, Sarah remained locked onto Ezra, who appeared oblivious to the attention. Her jaw worked as she looked at him, as if she wished to say something, but was held from doing so. Her hand carressed a spot on her belly, under her shirt and above her riding pants. She received no comfort from the hard object hidden there, but it was not yet time to bring it into play.
Ezra clasped a hand on JD's shoulder, and led him aside. "A word with you, Mr. Dunne, about your manners, if you don't mind..."
Sarah started to follow, but West called her.
"Sarah, might I ask another question or two of you?"
With some difficulty, she broke free of whatever spell she were under long enough to turn back to Jim.
"I'll answer, if I know it, Mr. West," she said.
Duncan McLeod hated being caged. It had happened to him several times in his life, but it never ceased to irritate him. Vlad Tsepish told him he sought no heads, but that did not mean he would be allowed to roam freely... at least, not until the Devil's Son had finished what he had started this day. Duncan was not alone, however.
Outside the cage was a table with some strange device on it. McLeod would have no idea what the thing was for, but every now and then, an individual talked with the machine, and it always answered back. Marconi would receive credit, years later, for it's invention, but the crude radio upon the table worked well enough. The man currently at the console spoke with Prince Vlad (Duncan would never mistake that accent, no matter how poor the sound quality was), and relayed the report that the field test of their "mobile artillery pieces" was successful. After Vlad expressed his pleasure at the news, the device was cut off, and the man at the table continued upon whatever tasks he was assigned.
Cheering and clapping resounded around the area, but Duncan couldn't see much, due to the netting. He had heard the big guns go off, and he could only imagine the target. He was working the lock on the cage when a more familiar sound occurred... the ping of a rifle shell hitting metal. All cheering stopped, and the crack of the shot came a split second later. Duncan realized immediately that the shooter was at some distance away. Only a few rifles could fire at such a distance, but the man called Vin Tanner had one such weapon. Duncan wondered if Tanner was out there, and what he was up to...
The first shot went wide by an inch, but Vin adjusted his aim, and squeezed the trigger. This round was right on target, and a rather satisfying explosion resulted. In fact, several satisfying explosions resulted. Vin, seething inside, kept his anger in his aim, as he collected another, then another target, firing again and again. Vin reloaded as fast as possible, and did not stop until all motion stopped below. His attack was not as economical or elegant as the artillery barrage has been, but the results were about the same. Wrecked equipment, fire, and scattered bodies told the tale through his spyglass. Only the footsteps coming quickly behind him broke his concentration. Drawing swiftly, he spun and gunned down the three guards that came to take him. A shot nearby rang off the rocks below him, but the shooter was too far to be a threat. Vin stood where he was, found his sniper in a tree, and casually knocked him out with one shot of his baby. When he saw no other movement, he made his way cautiously, toward the encampment, looking for answers...
McLeod never heard the second shot. The explosives were too close to his location. When the rounds went off, the force knocked his cage over. He felt the pressure of the shockwave, and searing pain as shrapnel cut his flesh. He knew he was dying. Of course, he knew just as well, that he'd be back...
At the Four Corners Saloon, the men were planning the evacuation of the town, and were planning the message to be sent by telegram, to Washington, and to the nearest Army outpost. It seemed no one paid attention to Sarah McFadden, who had quietly edged closer to the group. Slowly, she pulled a derringer out of a band around her waist, cocked it, then leveled the weapon, aiming at the back of Ezra's head. She squeezed the trigger...
Part VII: Some Light Breaks the Clouds
Vin moved cautiously among the wreckage, both material and human. The few left living were not long for the world... not that Vin would have offered comfort or sympathy. His "handiwork" damaged the cannons beyond repair, as well, which gave him some grim satisfaction. He did freeze when he saw one of his victims, however... an unintended one: Duncan McLeod. The man had been thrown clear of the cage he'd been trapped in. Vin turned the Scotsman over, but his quickly cooling body was fairly well shredded, and Vin felt no pulse.
"Damn," was the only eulogy Vin could think to offer the man. After checking on the rest of the camp, he'd come back to tend to the body of his fellow tracker properly... he owed an honorable man trapped among murderers at least that much. Yet, as he started to move away, the Highlander gasped, inhaling strongly. Vin fell back on his posterior in shock, as McLeod rolled over, painfully, sucking in air.
"God Almighty!" Vin whispered in wide-eyed wonder. This man should have been dead... was dead... and yet, he was not.
"Ahhhk!" the Highlander coughed, "Oh God! That hurt!"
"I imagine so," Vin said, to no one in particular.
Duncan's eyes snapped open, and he peered around at Tanner. He stared for a moment, returning the look of blank amazement that met him.
"What are you doing here?" McLeod croaked.
"I could ask you the same thing, friend. Especially seeing how you were dead a minute ago," Vin stated.
"Dead?" McLeod lied innocently.
"Yea. Bled from about three dozen places. Cold as snow. No heartbeat. Dead."
"How about that. A miracle. And to think I didn't believe in them," Duncan quipped, "I guess I need to get back in church, eh?"
"I was coming back in a few minutes to bury you."
"Neighborly of you," McLeod replied, sitting up.
"You care to explain this?" Vin asked, backing away a little bit.
Duncan pondered the question. "Not really," he said, as he pulled himself to his feet. He held out his right hand to Tanner. Vin took the offer, and the Scotsman helped Vin to stand.
"Kind of you to give me a hand, seeing how I killed you, and all," Vin mused.
"Don't worry about it," McLeod said, feeling the holes ripped in his shirt. "Happens all the time..."
Sarah pulled the trigger, but not before JD yanked her arm upward, causing her shot to sail harmlessly over Ezra's head. She fought fiercely to turn the weapon on Dunne, but he smashed a bottle of whiskey over her head, causing her to collapse to the floor.
Everyone was shocked, except for Ezra, who smiled broadly at his younger companion.
"Excellent timing, Mr. Dunne! I could not have requested a more advantageous action on your part."
"Glad to oblige," JD grinned, but then dropped his gaze to the fallen McFadden. "But I don't like hittin' no women."
James West stepped beside Standish. "What's going on here?" he demanded.
"When she mentioned another man's name earlier, she caught my attention. In another time, I have used such a name as an alias. Only a handful of people has ever connected the name to me, one of which would be Walter Drakeson. I suspect that our dear Miss Sarah was delivering a message to me, on his behalf."
"She was trying to kill you, Standish," West replied, flatly.
"I didn't say it was a happy message."
James rolled his eyes and looked over at Gordon, who shrugged. "Did you know about this, Artie?"
Gordon nodded, lightly. "I remembered the name he was using several years ago, when we first met. It got my attention, and aroused his suspicion."
"That is correct, Mr. Gordon. Mr. Dunne was kind enough to keep a close eye upon her, when I asked him to do so. No offense intended..." he said as he smiled at Dunne, "but my youthful ally is easy to ignore, making him the perfect observer."
JD aw-shucked, "Thanks!... " Then, he frowned, as the thought occurred to him: "Wait a minute. Did you just insult me?"
He felt a brotherly hand on his right arm. He turned to look at Buck, who smiled lightly at him.
"Take off your hat, JD."
"Yessir," Dunne said, as he removed his bowler. Buck cuffed him on the back of his head.
"Ow! What didja do that for?" JD wailed.
"For hittin' a lady! You oughta know better'n that. Folks'll think your Momma didn't raise you right."
Then, Ezra smacked him.
JD turned to Standish and cried out: "Hey! I saved your life! Why are you hittin' me?"
"You wasted a full bottle of perfectly good drinking whiskey, Mr. Dunne, when you had several empty bottles at your disposal. Pray do pay more attention in the future."
Then, as JD began to protest, Josiah slapped him, as well.
"What? What?" the young man cried out. "What in Sam Hill are you hittin' me for?"
Sanchez frowned in thought, trying to think up a suitable answer, then settled on: "It felt right."
"Ahem," came a cough. All eyes turned to James West.
"In case you've forgotten, we have a madman with an army out there, gentlemen. And, unless we are badly mistaken, that army is coming this way. I'd suggest we remember that, and act accordingly."
JD rubbed his sore pate, and turned to Ezra, frowning. "I thought you shot the guy. How come he's still alive?"
"Bad aim?" Ezra replied.
"Well, I'd be a might angry if ya shot me, but it seems a bit strange that he'd send women to kill ya, and send a whole army after ya just for pluggin' him. Ain't like ya did permanent damage. Especially after all these years."
Gordon coughed, and Ezra's brows raised.
JD looked back and forth between the two.
"What?" he asked, just knowing he was asking something stupid.
"If all we had done was shot Mr. Drakeson, your assessment might be entirely accurate."
"Uh huh," JD prodded.
Artemus and Ezra looked at each other, then Gordon sighed, "We dropped a mountain on him."
"Huh?" JD answered.
"Has your hearing departed you, Mr. Dunne? Mr. Gordon told you that we dropped a mountain upon Mr. Drakeson. That's enough to ruin anyone's day."
West covered his face with his hands. He wasn't sure he really wanted to hear this...
Part VIII: Fire In the Air
As quickly as could they could, the townspeople of Four Corners gathered belongings and headed east... it was the only choice they had, considering the news from Millington that arrived by shot-up rider. A fast striking force had hit their sister town, miles to the southwest, early in the morning. Several riders attempted to escape, but only this one soul managed the task, a hapless Phaedippas, who gasped not "Victory!" to awaiting Athens after the Persians were routed at Marathon, but who whispered: "we are lost..." to the fearful inhabitants of this western town. Contrasted then, as joyful Phaedippas departed life having accomplished his run, so too did the rider die, with a look of intense despair in his glazing eyes. He would not see his family again on this side of life's boundary.
"The key," West said as the people continued to flee from the anticipated horde, "is protecting the people. We shouldn't give a damn about the town proper."
Gordon, Standish, Larabee and Sanchez tended to agree. JD was simply itching for a fight.
West continued, "I think that we should make a token defense of Four Corners, itself, but, as long as none of their troops advance on the fleeing townsfolk, I'd say let 'em have the place."
"I'd also strongly recommend not being killed, gentlemen, as dead men make poor defenders, in general," Ezra quipped.
"Sounds like a good plan to me," Buck huffed.
Josiah Sanchez was not completely convinced, however.
"Listen to me," he muttered, "we don't have the numbers to slow down an entire army. Wouldn't it be better to fall back, protecting the backs of our citizens?"
It was Gordon who answered, shaking his head slowly, "Mr. Sanchez, we know we can't hold Four Corners. What we want to do is make taking the town worthwhile. If we abandon it too easily, the Dark Riders may have orders to push on. We need them to stay in town, at least one day."
"That's right," West said, "Our only serious fighting will be done once any number of their units attempt to move eastward of the town limits..."
"And," Ezra added, "we have a surprise for those foolish enough to try..."
Few things bothered Drakeson these days, but the memories of years gone by occasionally tormented him. Though he survived his last encounter with those two fools, he still bore scars on his body from that last battle.
Sandstone had been a mockery. He sent a modest force to take the town, after his plans had been discovered. Yet, he never expected his troops to be completely defeated. It appeared his newfound enemies were more resourceful, and determined, than he had originally imagined. However, Sandstone no longer held his interest. He could not chance that these irritants might persuade the Union... or even the dying Confederacy... that he and his army posed a threat, as yet. He was hardly ready for that kind of action. Instead, he had telegraph lines cut for miles around, and had the few Army outposts in the region obliterated. With the war waning in the east, it was unlikely that Washington would spare troops not yet committed to battle for anything short of another rebellion. He intended to rid himself of these pests, then return swiftly to the task of building his forces. It was his intention to be ready when the Civil War ended, to claim the west coast as his territory, and use a show of force, if necessary, to dissuade Washington from moving against him, until he could solidify his hold. He reasoned that, with a nation already tired of conflict, he would have decades of unopposed opportunity before Washington once more became a viable threat to his plans.
Imagine his surprise, when a small band of persistent gadflies thwarted his every move. His actions always seemed to be anticipated, and that Southern agent and his Yankee friend continuously found novel ways to annoy him... like blowing up the Danning Bridge, with his train crossing it... like pouring kerosene into the river, alighting it as his troops tried to pass over... like blowing up four of his ammunition warehouses...
The most painful memory stemmed back to the summer of 1865, when he lead his troops in pursuit of those damnable asses into Jackson's Pass. He had no idea that this was exactly what the two wanted, that they had planted explosives on both sides of the cliffs. He cursed their very existence as tons of rock covered him and his men.
It took days for him to dig himself out of the rubble. The experience was most excruciating, and he swore that one day, he would find them... or their descendants... and make them pay most dearly for this insult. If he had his way, their deaths would be slow and very, very painful.
As it were, he had to return to the Balkans, to fetch his fifth generation of warriors. Sadly, he had other plans for them, originally, but they were needed for his American campaign. It had been his plans to enter through Canada, dropping down into the northwestern territories, and prepare his war plans at that point. However, his ideas changed when he met Loveless.
Vlad nearly had the diminutive genius flayed alive when he was first approached by Miguelito, but Dr. Loveless' ideas appealed to him. Loveless sought a particular type of man to share his notions with, one who was open to new forms of warfare. He had researched Drakeson well, revealing the depth of his knowledge by revealing Vlad for who he was. However, it was his working models of war machines that the Dragon's Son found so intriguing. It did not take too long... nor too many lives.. to build the first set of prototypes. Within months, Drakeson and Loveless had their people ready for field tests.
Another, more devious plan, also unfolded favorably. Miguelito Loveless had a nasty penchant toward deception. He developed a "training" program for spies and assassins... usually unwitting. By the creative use of drug dependency and a form of hypnosis, Loveless was able to create agents so convincing, even they weren't aware of their own agenda. Loveless created entire personae for his "elite team"... however, there was one critical drawback. For one or two missions, these agents were quite acceptable in their performance. Yet, the continued "reprogramming" created undesirable side-effects in one of these human "tools", usually in the form of some catastrophic psychosis. At the point that such mental and emotional collapse was eminent, Dr. Loveless generally programmed his living weapon for suicide. Such was the case with Sarah McFadden.
All had proceeded according to plan, until his mobile artillery unit failed to report in on time. A rider sent to investigate found the site completely destroyed. Vlad had the dawning suspicion that his gadflies had somehow found one last way to annoy him, but spies still located them in town. It was always possible that McLeod had somehow managed the feat, since he was nowhere to be found, but there was no way of knowing for certain. Unfortunately, Miss McFadden also failed in her task.. she didn't even have the decency to end her own worthless life... so Gordon and his Southern compatriot still breathed to harass him once more!
He entered his war room, to find an angry little man switching off his "telecommunicating" device.
"Fools! Every last one of them fools!" he spat.
"Problems, Miguelito?" Vlad asked, mildly.
"Our workers are inefficiently motivated to finish tasks on time. As it now stands, the war wagons will not be ready for tomorrow's assault."
"Punishments can be stepped up. A public execution or two might help," Drakeson offered.
Loveless turned tired eyes to the tyrant. "Dead workers are useless workers, Prince Vlad. Unless you wish your troops to finish building my devices themselves, we cannot spare even one example."
Drakeson merely shrugged. It was no concern of his, although he would have loved witnessing Loveless' toys in action. There would be time.
"Fortunately, the airships are ready, and our advance forces will be in place to cut off the retreat."
"Good. I will enjoy watching Gordon and..."
"Standish. It was foolish of me to assume the other was his actual name..."
"...Standish die. It would please me to slay them by my own hands, but I prefer to use them in my service. If for no other purpose than bayonet practice. No matter. Soon, I will have them. Soon, they will exist only in my dreams..."
Vin returned to Duncan's hiding place, thinking the man asleep until he sat up quickly, if silently.
"I still don't understand why you won't help me scout Drakeson's camp. You're easily one of the best trackers I've met."
McLeod shook his head, "I told you before. Drakeson and I can... feel... each other if we're close enough. I'd give both of us away to that bastard if I go. Once he is gone, I will help you, but not until then."
"What are you, McLeod?" Vin asked for what seemed the hundredth time.
"Just a man, Mr. Tanner. Just a man... who's going to kill Walter Drakeson, if it's the last thing I do."
Sarah heard the voices, telling her things, making her do things she did not will to do. She remembered things. Horrible things. And, she did them. She did them because she could not disobey the voices. In her dream, she remembered the convent, where she was in training. She remembered the little man who invaded with his vile cohorts. Who picked her from among the sisters for her natural beauty. Who, for his perverse pleasure, reshaped her life as he pleased, as a farm hand, as a schoolmarm, as a saloon girl... mostly so she could spy for him, but sometimes so she would kill. He told her, in those muffled nightmares, that she had been his "best" subject, that she'd be famous one day. Then, the drugs required higher doses to keep her in line. The "training" ceased to hold, and her false lives began unraveling faster than a cheap carpet. That was when he used her to train the Prince's troops in tracking and capture, in interrogation and terror. And, one day, when her mind was wound tighter than she could bear any longer, he ordered her to kill a man, then to end her own life. She did not wish to do it. She longed to seek this man's help, for, any enemy of the little man had to be a friend. In her flickering dream state, she remembered the man. She remembered firing at him, at missing, and at darkness. She fought to awaken herself, but the darkness continued to engulf her. Still, she fought...
Josiah shook his head slowly when Gordon asked if there had been any change.
"She's been tossing and turning for an hour, now. She keeps muttering stuff. Mostly nonsense. But..."
West entered the bedroom, followed by Ezra.
"Yes, Mr. Sanchez?" Gordon prodded.
"She keeps saying these names. I don't recognize them, though."
"What names are those?" West asked.
"Mickle-something... sounds like Loveless..."
Artie nearly fell, but a dark expression swept over Jim's face. He growled, "Miguelito Loveless. It figures he'd be involved in this, somehow."
"And, another name I didn't recognize. Someone named 'Drak-kew-la'. What kind of name is that?"
Artemus droned flatly in a professorial tone: "Derived from "Draco", it is a central European name. Means 'son of the dragon'."
The Preacher Man smiled at Ezra, "Sometimes, he's as bad as you."
Before Ezra could reply, a strange droning sound filled the air. JD came bursting into the room like a madman.
"Come quick!" he said, breathlessly.
Out in the center of the now mostly deserted town, Buck, Chris and Nathan had stopped what they were doing, and were looking into the sky. Ezra, Josiah, West and Artemus joined them. In the air, moving overhead, were a set of cigar shaped objects floating by. West pulled out a spyglass and looked more closely.
"I'll be damned," is all he could say.
Gordon amended the thought, "Looks like Loveless has been a busy boy."
Buck just shook his head, "What the living hell are those?"
Before anyone else could speak, objects came out of the sides of the aircraft, fell a short distance, then floated toward the far side of town. West was astonished at the sight that greeted him on closer inspection.
"Gentlemen, we have trouble..."
Part IX: Storm's End
Jim West awoke with a splitting headache, only to find himself in a cage. And, his reaction was much like McLeod's had been, earlier. He liked it, not at all. Looking around in the dim light, he noticed Chris Larabee, Buck Wilmington, and Josiah Sanchez had been thrown in, as well. He admitted to himself, quietly, that he was impressed with these men. They had a job to do back in town, and they comported themselves with courage and honor. And, evidently, the foursome had been successful... it looked as though Standish, Jackson, Dunne and Artie had gotten the McFadden woman out of harm's way when all hell broke loose.
A voice behind him, from outside the cage, startled him. "Ah, what a pleasure it is to see Special Agent James T. West, once more." He turned slowly to face the speaker, who was quite amused to see West this way.
"I can't say it's a pleasure seeing you, again, Loveless. You'd have done the world a favor that last time, if you'd just gone ahead and died."
The dwarfish genius came out of the shadows. He was fairly well dressed, in his middle age, now. His hairline had receded somewhat, but he still had the dark, curly locks West remembered from times past.
"Come now, West," Miguelito laughed, "You'd be unemployed within a week without me to keep you occupied. After all, why should the Secret Service maintain such a man as you, only to harass common criminals? Hmm?"
"What do you want, you undersized lunatic?" West growled as he tried to reach Loveless through the bars.
Loveless backed away, instinctively, and the smile left his face. "To watch you die, West. I do hope you'll oblige me, this once." He turned to walk away, stopped, then faced West once more. "Of course, feel free to put on a show for my new friends, if you wish. Just die at the conclusion." He then left...
Miguelito Loveless' heritage was sketchy, at best. His known history only carried back to his early manhood, when, despite his short stature, he impressed the professorship at the Ecole' Polytechnique enough to gain entrance to that august body of learning. However, when fellow students stole several pieces of his research... and, in one case, a professor 'confiscated' his work... the dark and brooding genius turned to sinister plans of revenge. Virtually blackmailed into releasing an impressive piece of work he'd finished on new energy sources, along with working models of a new type of engine, to the favored son of a Marquis temporarily studying at the school, he deliberately tampered with the fuel and engine before they were demonstrated. Miguelito was gone long before the resulting explosion killed his tormentors, three of his professors, and the Marquis' heir. With a price on his head and hatred in his heart, Miguelito Loveless escaped to America, where he hoped to finally reap the benefits of his brilliance. Unfortunately, crime was more appealing than honest endeavor, and Loveless became the nation's top security risk shortly after the Civil War. His actions spurred President Grant to make Loveless' capture... or death... the Secret Service's number one priority. Grant's two best men, James T. West and Artemus Gordon, were assigned this on-going task. They succeeded in foiling most of Loveless' plots, but they only captured him once. He escaped, however, and had been on the run ever since.
It was back in Europe that he decided to find an ally. His diligence paid off when he discovered Drakeson, a man whose ambitions were as great as his own... and one who held an exploitable secret. They had proven to be a great team, thus far. Oh, he annoyed Vlad from time to time, but he succeeded in pointing out that Vlad would live long to enjoy the fruits of Loveless' work. Loveless simply wanted to enjoy those fruits, now! It had been settled that the two would share power at present... once Miguelito was dead, the Dark Prince would have it all!...
Nathan found Gordon and Ezra, and asked them to come inside. The cave they were hiding in lacked the creature comforts of the Saloon and Inn, but was better than the six by six by three hole in the ground each would have been destined for, had they been caught. Sarah McFadden was now awake, and was asking questions. Nathan thought Ezra and Artie would be able to answer them.
JD remained on-sentry, for the time being.
Artemus Gordon did not like the impromptu plan that West had conceived while watching their only clear exit being cut off by "sky soldiers", who used some type of single-man, fixed-wing cloth and frame gliders to sail to earth on the far side of town. With troops now converging on Four Corners from both ends, the original plan had to be scrapped. West's instincts, normally very sound, told him that Miss McFadden was the key to winning this fight, and that some had to protect her, at all costs. West, Buck, Josiah and Chris decided to take the fight to the bad guys, while the rest tended to Sarah's escape. Those fleeing Four Corners heard the explosions and gunfire emanating from the town, as its defenders valiantly held the invaders' attention. Many of the traps and surprises meant for the Dark Riders after the town was deserted were brought into play during its furious defense.
However, the fight did not last for more than a half-hour. Those who were sworn to protect Sarah McFadden could only hope their friends survived.
In the here and now, new hope awoke with Sarah, who looked extremely embarrassed to see Ezra. She explained, hastily, that she did not want to act as she did, that she was coerced to do so. However, always the gentleman, Ezra assured her that he did not take the action personally. His charming demeanor disarmed her fears, and she relaxed.
The three spoke at length about Sarah's abduction from the convent she was studying at, at her "training" under Loveless' tutelage, and of her missions. She was a very intelligent woman, impressing Gordon and Standish with her strong memory and command of logic and scientific principles.
"In order to be a more perfect spy, I had to be knowledgeable on a variety of topics," she offered. I was schooled intensely for many months before my 'conditioning' was put to use."
Ezra held her right hand softly, as he listened. It saddened him that Loveless would take such an innocent and twist her the way he did. She would recover, in time, but she would have to reconcile herself with her past actions, intended or not. The gambler did not envy her the months... perhaps even years... ahead.
Gordon interjected on one topic, "Miss McFadden, I hate to ask this, but I was wondering if you might know something... anything... that would help us stop these madmen. If there's anything about their encampment, their weapons, schedules... anything... we could use, we'd be most appreciative."
Sarah was silent for several moments, as she bit her upper lip in thought. Finally, she sighed: "I'll help you, Mr. Gordon, of course. But, you'll have to take me with you."
As Ezra and Artemus vehemently protested, she raised her voice, edging it with hardened steel: "You'll need me, gentlemen. You don't know the fastest ways to get there, the best places to hide, the surest ways to avoid lookouts. I do. You don't know where the ammunition or other supplies are stored. I do. And, you don't know the passwords and codes they employ. I do. I also know the one thing that might hold promise for your plans..."
She told them. As their eyes broadened at the prospects, they grudgingly agreed that having her along might prove most helpful.
"Well, then, if we are to make our best time, we need to leave right away..." she said.
Vin nearly exploded with rage as he saw the large cage being unloaded from the airship. Through his spyglass, he saw three of his friends, and a man he'd never seen before, being carried to a storehouse in the steel prison.
McLeod firmly grasped his shoulder, however. "They are still alive, Mr. Tanner. That means there is still hope. But, you'll cost them everything if you go charging down this hill. This changes nothing. The scheme we hatched will still work, but we'll have to move a little sooner than planned, that's all."
"Didn't figure a man who can't die to be a coward," Vin challenged, but Duncan didn't rise to it.
"I can die, Mr. Tanner, and, for the plan to work, I'll have to die. There's no other way..."
At morning's light, Drakeson's troops we assembled at the small arena they had constructed. Vlad and Loveless were in positions of honor, as befitting royalty. When they sat, the troops sat, a dark audience for dark entertainment.
In the center of the pit, Buck Wilmington stood defiantly. He had a nasty cut healing on his forehead, a cut he had earned from a rifle butt after throwing an enemy off the Saloon's balcony. He was a real mean son-of-a-bitch in a fight, and he caused casualties as Four Corners was taken. Like the others, he had discipline to thank for being alive; however... Drakeson had ordered the capture of all left in the town. He intended to use survivors for training his soldiers. After all, what better way to improve than to fight skilled warriors?
A young, strong looking man entered the arena to face Buck. He walked around the cowboy a couple of times, then stopped in front of him. When he spoke, he had a thick accent. "You look like you hit like woman," the Dark Rider sniffed.
Buck grinned, "I've been told I hit like my Momma."
The young man stepped toward Buck, intending a wrestling move against him. However, Buck's hands snaked up, one catching the young man in the gut, and the other following up on his jaw. It was a sound heard even over the murmuring. The younger male fell forward, biting dust. Buck laughed at him.
"Course, you understand, my Momma hit like a lumberjack."
Two guards came to take Buck away, but not before he made an obscene gesture at the ones seated in the shade.
Chris was matched against a wiry, fast looking lad who landed several punches in quick succession. However, as anyone who met Chris could attest, this sort of cat-and-mouse fighting only pissed the man off. He had to be dragged off the young soldier, as he sat on his chest, with a wad of hair in one hand, and beating the stuffing out of him with the other...
Sarah, good to her word, demonstrated a unique shortcut that used an underground stream. This path cut a good day and a half off their journey, and finally, the group arrived near the main camp. Sarah advised caution, at this point, however. There were only two or three ways into the encampment that would not draw immediate attention, and she aimed them at one. Ezra, Nathan and JD got quite a surprise when Vin and a stranger met them near the wall.
"Land's sake!" Nathan softly exclaimed, "I've never been so happy to see a soul!"
Ezra asked, just as softly, "How did y'all find us?"
McLeod answered, with a grin, "We're trackers. We spotted this area as a good way in a day or two ago, and when we saw you were headed this way, we decided to join you..."
Josiah had a tougher time with his opponent, a bear of a man who tried to crush Sanchez in his arms. Effective head butts, and a very ungentlemanly grab and twist gave the Preacher an advantage, and, by applying additional pressure to an already sensitive area, Josiah simply watched as the man passed out from pain. Sanchez ached in his ribs, but would not have traded places with his opponent for the world. When he was returned to the cage, in view of the proceedings, West exclaimed with a laugh, "Remind me not to pick a fight with this fellow."
Vin pulled Ezra aside and told him of McLeod's plan of attack, fully expecting Standish to be as astonished by the tale as he was. What a shock when Ezra's sole reply was: "Do as he asks, Mr. Tanner. He has his reasons."
"Didn't you hear what I just said, Ezra?"
"My hearing has not faded, Mr. Tanner. Not to worry, however. I'm aware of Mr. McLeod's kind. Mr. Gordon and I fought against Drakeson years ago. Like Mr. McLeod, he is rather difficult to dispatch. Do what he asks, then do one other thing..."
West's opponent was from the Far East, a practitioner in one of several esoteric fighting styles common to the region. Jim smiled inwardly... Loveless probably warned Drakeson about West's own expertise. James West, desiring to be at his best in service to his country, sought out every piece of instruction that he thought would make him a better man... a better warrior. Included in his training was education in both Japanese and Chinese styles of combat. West was one of the first American's to combine hard and soft, linear and circular systems to form his own unique style. Had Duncan been able to see the match, he would've appreciated the dance of destruction he would've witnessed.
The Indonesian soldier came at West with a weaving double stick attack, borrowed from the Philippines. The best defense against a hard blow is not to be there when it arrives. West moved like air, softly, economically, avoiding the sticks time and time again. Every now and then, he deflected a blow rather than dodged it, and, in one faked opening, created a target with a side step, upon which he pivoted and planted a solid kick in the man's ribs. Of course, he paid a price when the man caught his shin with a backstroke. West limped, but he knew the blow wasn't as bad as it could've been. The man whipped one stick into a downward diagonal blow, intending to catch West across the left temple. However, Jim caught the arm, spun on his left foot, and in a classical piston action, executed a perfect hip throw. Holding on his opponent's arm, he locked the elbow, forcing him to drop the weapon. Then, hopping onto the other hand, he dropped his knee into the man's abdomen, forcing his torso upward, and planted a hard palm strike, upward, into the man's nose. At the very least, he had disoriented the man by breaking it. His opponent was finished.
Loveless cursed softly, but Drakeson was caught up in bloodlust. He didn't care who won or lost, but appreciated skill. He considered it a tragic waste to eliminate men such as these for no reason. But, ah! The arena... the arena was where men had always been able to prove their worth. It was the only contribution Rome made to his training regimen. He had lost a few men in this manner, but the ones who survived were always hardier. His best warriors defeated Roman centurions because of such education, and he had bested the Saracen on one glorious day because of it. Drakeson ordered all four men to be placed in the arena, now.
"My soldiers!" He shouted, "Witness worthy opponents! Learn from them, as they die, this day, for they shall be your teachers. They shall fight, until they can fight no more. Then, as honored enemies, they shall be put to the sword!" Drakeson motioned for several of his Riders to enter the pit, and they slowly progressed on the four. Buck whistled softly, "This is gonna be a long day..."
Vin cursed under his breath every step of the way, but managed to carry his burden well. Once he got to the airships, he lowered his load. Moving more gently than was needed, he removed the knife from McLeod's chest (he refused to stab the man, prompting Duncan to do it himself), then waited for him to gasp for air... not really expecting it, but not shocked when it happened.
He was glad that Ezra and Artemus had kept JD, Nathan and Sarah busy with other things. It was hard enough for him to believe what was happening... he didn't think he'd ever be able to convince anyone else that Duncan could magically return to life, almost at will. Once McLeod became more lucent, he moved on toward the mines. Sarah told him that help would be there. McLeod gasped one short statement before Vin left: "Hurry! He knows..."
Even Rome, at its height, would have been hard pressed to match the spectacle in Vlad's arena. Four glorious combatants matched against his finest soldiers. It was a wonder to behold!
Josiah Sanchez was a reluctant warrior, who fought defensively, but with tremendous strength and courage. James West was fluid motion, air and water, but suddenly turned hard as stone, as another opponent fell. Buck Wilmington was all fists and rawhide, a man who loved a good fight almost as much as a woman's warm softness... Almost, but it would have been a stretch to say he enjoyed fighting as much... and then, there was Chris, who was... well, Chris. There was something mad and animal in him when he fought, as if demons had to emerge any time he balled up his hands. He'd tear into one antagonist, get pulled off, then turn on the one(s) who pulled him off. Drakeson was so caught up in the fight that he almost missed the Quickening... that gut-punching sensation that an Immortal always felt in close proximity of another.
He rose from his seat, looking around wildly. Loveless became alarmed.
"What is it? You're spooking your people," Miguelito said. "You're spooking me."
"Another... here. But, how?" was all Vlad could say.
Gun shots went off in the center of the pit, as Dark Riders scattered from the four... scattered, except for one who stood nearby. Drakeson focused on the scene, and became enraged.
"I said no firearms in this fight! Who dares disobey me?"
The Rider turned in Drakeson's direction, and flashed a familiar smile. One gold tooth caught the sun, and Drakeson nearly fell from recognition.
"You..." was all he could manage.
Ezra took a step forward, and made a mocking bow. "Greetings, Mr. Drakeson. I'm sorry about the revolvers, but you know I'm not one for rules."
Loveless stared intently at Standish: "That's him?"
Ezra bowed at Miguelito, and continued: "You must be the infamous Dr. Loveless. I had heard rumors of your lack of stature, but I could not resist the temptation to see for myself. And, yes, you are indeed in dire need of inches..."
Loveless scowled at Drakeson, "You're right. He is irritating."
Vlad ignored him, focusing on Ezra. "It was foolish of you to come here, Standish, or whatever you call yourself. You could have lived a while longer. Now, you have only made me a happy man."
"I would not be terribly pleased, just yet, Mr. Drakeson. I have not interrupted your festivities to bring you cheer."
Drakeson stood at his full height, as if he could cower Ezra in this manner.
"You once told me my fortune. Today, I return the favor. Today, you die..." He nodded at guards positioned around the outskirts of the arena.
Ezra merely smiled, "I think not..."
Shots rang out from several locations, as the indicated soldiers fell where they stood.
The gambler smiled broader, "Did I forget to mention that some friends accompanied me?"
Vlad glowered down at the man who, more than any other, he hated with a passion even the Ottomans could not stir within his breast.
"It will take no time for others to arm themselves. Even without such weapons, you few cannot hope to take all these warriors."
"That would ordinarily be true. However, thanks to your lovely... and resourceful...Miss McFadden..."
Drakeson turned a dark expression on Loveless.
"...we know where your weapons stores are. We also know a few hundred people who would love an opportunity to test those weapons on you and your troops."
Loveless caught it immediately, turning to Vlad: "The mines! The slave labor!" The timing could not have been better as angry voices began growing to the rear of the compound. When Loveless ran to the top and looked out, he could see than Standish was not bluffing. The freed slaves were coming, and they were heavily armed.
Ezra continued as Vlad's troops looked uncertainly at one another, "Dr. Loveless has created a bunch of pretty toys for you, Prince Vlad, but a damn lot of good they do you when they're on the far side of your camp! And, now that my good friend Mr. Gordon has had a chance to tinker with them..." A huge explosion shook the arena, as the experimental weapons' depot was wiped from the face of the earth, "let's just say they might not be very useful, at any rate, if they were closer."
Drakeson didn't need to hear any more. He ran to the back of the arena, and jumped off. Standish and Gordon had bested him again, but it was foolish for him to stay and fight. He had another army in training in the Baltics... he would simply return and fetch them, coming back one day in the future to deal with his mortal antagonists. It even gave him some perverse pleasure to imagine returning when the two were old and frail, while he were still vital, and he choked the remaining life out of each. If it took that long, he swore they would die at his hands...
Drakeson's men, without his command, hesitated, but sensing a rout in the making, rushed as hard as possible for their rifles, which were stacked outside the arena. Unfortunately for them, the ex-slaves were upon them, led by a large and angry man named Zachariah Bakersfield...
Ezra turned back to the four men, and said, "I wish we had time for pleasantries, but we need make haste. We are not out of danger, yet..." He handed each man a pistol, and belt. JD and Nathan were doing their best to pick off armed men as they approached, but they would be engulfed swiftly, if action were not taken. Ezra motioned for the two to join he and the four others at the front gate...
Vin fought side by side with Bakersfield. It felt good to give back something for all those who suffered and died at the hands of the Riders, and he showed no remorse as he gunned down murderer after murderer. Artemus met up with Buck, West, Nathan, JD, Josiah and Ezra, and the group joined in with the ex-slaves, as they overwhelmed the remainder of Vlad's men. It was only as the fighting settled down that West thought to ask: "Where's Loveless?"
The object of Jim's concern used the confusion to slip away. In moments, the sides of a breakaway structure collapsed, revealing a small dirigible, which filled quickly and began floating away from the fighting. Miguelito Loveless would, like Vlad Tsepish, live to fight another day...
Except, Vlad Tsepish had a problem. Between him and the airships stood Duncan McLeod, who held his katana by his side. "Are you ready for heads, today, Impaler?..."
Loveless was well over the forest when he heard the noise, but, before he could turn, he was sprayed with a fine mist. Almost immediately, his senses turned to mush, and he barely understood what was happening. A woman sat in a chair next to him: Sarah McFadden.
"Hello, Mr. Pascal," she said. "Nice day for a little ride."
Loveless lolled his head in her direction.
"It's a real pity that you can barely understand me, with that great intellect of yours dampened so severely. Nonetheless, you'll understand enough. I watched you over the last few years, you know. I got to know your tendencies. I thought to myself, where would that little bastard go if everything went wrong? Then, it occurred to me. You always have escape plans, always practice them, as if your life depended on it. Did you forget that I helped you practice them, at the compound? All I had to do was hide in the closest one to your current location. You'd come right to me." She kissed Miguelito on the forehead. "Despite everything you made me do, I want to thank you for the training, Little Man. It's what makes my justice possible." She placed a device, one of Loveless' timebombs, on the seat by him, with a gallon of highly flammable fuel. She flipped the switch, and stood. "Goodbye, Miguelito. Say hello to the Devil for me, when you arrive." She walked to the hatch, opened it, and grabbed the pair of fixed-wings that she purloined for the act. Without looking back, she leapt into the clear blue air...
McLeod could have easily taken Vlad's head, without so much as protest from anyone else, had they known. There was no law among his kind prohibiting the slaying of an unarmed Immortal. However, Duncan was raised with a sense of honor, and he would never slay an unarmed man intentionally. He provided Vlad with his weapon, and the two dueled.
Duncan had a disadvantage, in that Vlad had centuries of practice on him; however, Vlad had wasted much of his time, raising armies to do his fighting. The two sparred evenly for several minutes...
Ezra and Gordon rounded up the others, including the former slaves.
"We must make haste and depart this vacinity! We shall die here, if we do not," Standish exclaimed. The men gathered as many of their families as still survived, and fled on foot, by wagon, or any other means as possible.
"What's the meaning of this, Ezra?" Chris demanded.
Standish was silent for a moment, considering the things Sarah had told him. "Chris, there are many volatile substances used here. In a very short time, there shall be a rather sizable explosion, which shall likely kill anything within a mile of here. I suggest we not discuss the physics of it any longer than necessary."
"I'll be damned..." Chris swore.
"What's the problem?" Standish asked.
"It must be serious. You called me 'Chris', not 'Mr. Larabee'..."
Buck whooped, "Then let's get the hell out of here, boys!"
Loveless, despite his stupor, tried to reach the bomb. However, his will was not sufficient to the task. For the first, and last, time in his life, he was without answers. In honesty, Sarah needn't have compounded her revenge with the fuel... it was overkill. Loveless had mastered the use of acid and electricity in water to split oxygen and hydrogen long before it became commonplace. All his airships used hydrogen to get their lift, and few things are more dangerous than mixing oxygen and hydrogen with a sufficient heat source present. An explosive device would be more than sufficient to get the desired effect.
As Sarah floated to earth, she watched the sky fill with fire...
Duncan disarmed Vlad, and swept his legs, seemingly leaving the tyrant defenseless against a killing blow. However, as Duncan prepared for his cruelest cut, Tsepish sprayed some of Loveless' concoction in Duncan's face. The potion did not as severely affect Immortals as mortals, but they were still slowed by it. Vlad laughed mirthlessly, reaching for his sword. "Ah, Highlander. It really is a shame that we cannot both depart this field. Alas, there can be only one."
He turned to behead Duncan, but was run through, to the hilt, with Duncan's katana. Vlad, in shock, dropped his weapon once more.
"Sarah suspected you might try that. She found an antidote, and gave me some beforehand." He twisted the katana, causing more damage, yanked the sword free, and cocked it above and behind his head for the final slice. "As you said, madman, there can be only one..."
He swept the blade in its terrible arc.
The Quickening was fierce, as lightning blasted the area. Vlad Tsepish was a powerful Immortal, and this only added to the force. Ezra Standish and Artemus Gordon had wanted everyone out of the area for this reason... when lightning hit the airships, the world turned to fire, and the remaining ammo and fuel sheds nearby added their essences to the blaze...
Artemus Gordon, Ezra Standish, Sarah McFadden and Vin Tanner sat in the otherwise empty saloon. The others had long since gone to bed... their own, or in Buck's case, someone else's. James West thanked each man, and Sarah, for each one's role in stopping Drakeson's threat to the country, and thanked Sarah, quietly, for dealing with an old foe. "I only wish I could've seen his face!" West smirked. Despite Loveless' contention, there would still be plenty to keep James West busy for years to come.
Sarah and Vin stared at the newly made tattoos on their right wrists, not quite sure what to make of everything that had happened. Vin was the first to speak up.
"You know, Ezra, I've only seen your sleeves rolled up one time. When I noticed that marking you have, you told me you lost a bet..."
Standish only laughed, "In a way, that was the truth."
Artemus also laughed softly, "But not the whole truth."
Ezra poured another drink, the screams finally silenced at last... Duncan McLeod was seen leaving the site of the destruction, and would never have done so with Vlad still alive. Ezra wasn't sure, but was fairly certain he'd not seen the last of the man.
"A man named Adam Morningstar approached each of us, separately, after the War Between the States..." Ezra began.
"Civil War," Gordon prodded.
"A rose by any other name... still has thorns," Ezra downed his drink. He continued, "He had found out about Drakeson, and informed us of the truth."
Sarah stated, "About Immortals."
"Yes. We would not have believed Mr. Morningstar, but he carried us to Europe, and, discretely showed us our old adversary. It wasn't a hard choice to make after that."
"My Secret Service job allowed me the freedom of movement to pursue my newer purpose..." Gordon claimed.
"While I needed an entirely new occupation in order to continue mine. I've always wanted a casino, so gambling seemed an ideal place to start."
Vin nodded, "I always wondered why a fancy-pants gambler like you would come to an out-of-the-way place like Four Corners."
Ezra nodded. "I knew Drakeson, Vlad Tsepish, would want a piece of my hide, if he could find me. I came to a place where few would get hurt if he did, and then made sure he knew I was here. He moved his little band of merry men...and women... into the valley southwest of here, preparing for the day he would make a move on the world."
Sarah quipped: "I bet McLeod being here was no coincidence, either."
Gordon smiled at that. "No. A timely word to a friend in the Army placed Mr. McLeod in the right place at the right time."
"Why didn't you just take Drakeson, yourselves?" Vin asked the obvious question.
Gordon and Standish looked at one another. Standish said, "We have to walk a fine line, Mr. Tanner. We observe... we report... we do not interfere."
Sarah was confused, "But what you did with Drakeson..."
Gordon fielded that question, "He became a threat that could not be ignored. We had to let another Immortal take him, but we couldn't sit by idly as he raised another army. Especially not with Loveless at his side."
"Then, you knew about Loveless," Sarah said.
"That's why I got West involved, Miss McFadden." Ezra sighed. "Nothing churned the hearts of those two like each other."
"Well, I'm off to bed, myself," Gordon said. "I trust you'll finish discussing our responsibilities with our newest recruits?"
"Of course, Mr. Gordon. Till tomorrow, then?"
Gordon smiled, "Till tomorrow..."
Vin shook Gordon's hand, tipped his hat and the lady, and smiled at Ezra. Then, he left, rubbing the Watcher's symbol etched into his arm.
"Well, Miss McFadden, what shall we do, now?"
She leaned across the table, "I was hoping we could play some poker."
"By all means. What are the stakes?" Ezra grinned, pulling a deck out of his pocket.
"I have no money," she said.
"A pity," he replied.
"Of course, there are assets other than money," she said coyly.
"And you were educated in a nunnery?" Ezra chuckled. "I shall have to visit one more often."
Sarah proved to be a most capable student...
And, naturally, JD came bursting through the front door a half-hour later, when Ezra and Sarah were sharing the same chair.
"Ezra, come quick! There's trouble... uh... oops..." he stammered.
Standish just rolled his eyes, as Sarah fought to keep from laughing.
Ezra merely said, "Mr. Dunne, we must speak soon about your sense of timing..."
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