After a long and tiring mission on the other side of Eagle Bend, the seven decided to return to Four Corners by way of the mountains. As they came into a valley, Vin shuddered. "Don't like it here."
Josiah nodded. "No, I don't suppose you would. This is cursed ground."
"Cursed?" Ezra chuckled, earning a glare from Chris, Vin, and Nathan.
Josiah just smiled. "Heard tell of some Indians stumbled across some bodies here. A father, a son, a daughter, and a slave. Heard tell of the bodies wearin' cloth that wasn't woven or leather, and them bearin' the marks of dehydration when anybody knowed a town was nearby." He moved as if to ease a creak in his back, and let out a sigh of relief when he did. "Heard tell of a box that spoke in lights, countin' down to the end of the world. Heard tell they buried the bodies, and the box with them." Josiah let out a sigh and shook his head, then looked up and grinned that infectious grin. "But then again, that's just a tale."
Vin nodded toward the distinctive ruts in the ground ahead. "There's been floodin' here, recent. Bad floods, looks like."
"If there are bodies buried here, that'd be enough to disturb them," Nathan mused, frowning.
"Well then, we had best watch our step," Ezra said with a slight smile. "Wouldn't want the deceased shades to take umbrage at our trespasses."
At JD's frown, Josiah supplied, "We don't wanna piss off the ghosts."
Slowly, they urged their horses forward, wanting out of this area as soon as possible. Even Ezra fell silent, sensing something very odd about this area.
Suddenly Midnight shied, sending Chris into a flurry of shushing and soothing. It didn't work, and Chris had to jump behind Buck on Juliet as Midnight took off running. Vin had to mount Chaucer swiftly when Peso took off after him. "Damn mule," Vin groaned, rubbing his horse-bitten thigh.
As Ezra brought Chaucer's surprised circular canter to a halt, he growled, "For once, we are in agreement. But the next time you have to abandon horse, might I suggest Mister Dunne's steed?"
"Hey!" JD bellowed as the others laughed.
Vin shot him an aggravated look as he slid from Chaucer's rump and glared at the chestnut as it quite deliberately swatted him with its tail. "'Nother damn mule," he growled, then walked over to where Buck and Chris were dismounting Juliet. "What spooked 'im?"
"Not sure," Chris said. "But I'm gonna find out."
As the others dismounted, Chaucer nimbly plucked Ezra's hat from his head. The gambler went forward two whole steps before he noticed it missing. "Chaucer!"
The others couldn't help but chuckle as he took back the Stetson and berated the animal in three languages. His tirade ended as Chaucer nipped at him, earning the cantankerous chestnut a swat on the end of his nose. As Ezra rejoined the others, only sharp-eared Vin heard him mutter under his breath, "...damn mule...."
Vin's grin lasted until he reached Chris's side. He saw the pale face under the black hat and blond hair and his heart skipped a beat. "Find out why he shied?"
Chris nodded. "Open graves."
Josiah crouched. "Correction, Chris. Open grave. Four skeletons, flung into one grave."
Indeed, there were. Four skeletons, lying helter-skelter, still in remnants of clothing.
Nathan crouched beside Josiah. "Chris, one of these is a woman." He pointed at the remnant of skirt around one's legs. "A prostitute, by the length of that skirt."
JD suddenly pointed. "Guys, look -- something's blinking by that one's hand."
Ezra's face lit up. "The sunlight glinting off the sheen of gold?" he asked, rubbing his hands together.
"Is that all you think about?" Nathan growled.
"No, I also think of silver, double eagles, dollars...." Vin put a hand over his mouth, causing Ezra to glare at him. As Vin removed his hand, Ezra commented, "You might consider investing in a washbasin for that wagon of yours, sir." He genteelly wiped his mouth.
"Soon's you invest in a swallowtail jacket made outta leather," Vin shot back, crouching down beside JD. "....he's right, something is blinking down there. Blinking red."
"Ain't natural," Nathan mumbled.
Chris nodded. "You're right, it's not. Any ideas what it is?"
Vin's head tilted. "Looks manmade..... excuse me," he addressed the skeleton as he lifted a small rectangular ebony object from beside its hand. "Will get it back to ya soon as I can."
"What is that?" Buck asked, looking over Vin's shoulder.
"If'n you'll quit crowdin' me so's I can see...." When Buck moved off, he turned the box over. "It's got lights on it. An' numbers --- an' they're changin'."
Intrigued, Ezra moved to his side to investigate it for himself.
"Changing?" Chris asked. "Changing how?"
Ezra's eyes widened. "It's a tiny time ledger! Four spaces, labeled 'Day/Hour/Minute/Second' -- and the numbers are all in the 'second' space. They are rapidly diminishing ---- fifteen....fourteen...."
Josiah stood up so fast he nearly toppled into the grave. "Get rid of it!" As all eyes turned to him, he cried, "That's the box! The box of lights that spoke, counting down to the end of the world!"
Ezra rolled his eyes. "Oh, come now! Surely you don't seriously believe that in -- ten seconds -- the world will come to an end!"
Josiah took a step forward. "Get rid of it!"
Chris stepped forward. "Vin, put it back!"
Vin nodded, and crouched down to do that just as the numbers clicked off.
A light near Vin's thumb began to flash as if demanding attention. "Josiah, lookit this," he breathed, standing back up. "Ez, what does this say?"
Ezra read over his shoulder. "Open," he read. "It says open."
"Open what, I wonder?" Chris asked softly.
"I vote we don't find out," Buck said quickly.
"I gotta know," Vin said, pointing it away from them. "If it'll prevent the end of the world...." He pushed the button.
With a loud whoosh and a bright light, a tremendous hole opened up in the very sky. It swirled and whirled in colours of yellow, blue and white. It looked like a sideways tornado, with nothing but blackness inside. It stood there as if waiting, howling its impatience.
Seven pairs of eyes went wide. Vin's hand trembled as it fell to his side. Ezra moved swiftly and swooped up the device as it fell from Vin's hand.
"....sweet mother of God...." Josiah breathed.
Ezra took a curious step forward. "The wind velocity is incredible!" he cried. "It's almost like a cyclone tipped on its side!"
"Ezra, get away from that!" Chris yelled, running toward him. "You might get sucked---"
Focused on Ezra, Chris barely noticed the flood-carved rut in his path. He jumped over it as he simultaneously turned to push Ezra away --- and fate intervened.
His silver spur caught on the very edge of the rut and threw him off-balance. His arms flailed for purchase for a second before he fell -----
Into the yawning mouth of the vortex.
"CHRIIIS!" JD screeched. Vin didn't make a sound, he just took a running leap and flew into the vortex after Chris. Buck followed a second later, and JD a second after him.
"Aw, hell..." Ezra breathed as he followed, device in hand. Josiah yelled Ezra's name as he grabbed after him and then jumped in when he missed.
Nathan just stood there for a second, then let out a weary sigh. "Well, hell, someone's gotta talk sense into them..." And he jumped as well.
The vortex closed with a sucking noise, leaving five very confused horses behind. Chaucer trotted up to where it had been and nosed the ground, nickering in sudden loneliness and a dread he would never see his rider again.
On the hill overlooking Four Corners, the peace of the early afternoon was shattered by the whooshing roar of a vortex opening and the startled cries of seven men as they fell out.
Chris was the first on his feet, followed by Vin a second later. "Everyone okay?"
"So far so good," Josiah said, standing shakily.
Ezra just grumbled and knocked dust off of his jacket.
An outraged roar drew their attention. "Will you get off'a me??" Buck shoved JD off of his legs and staggered to his feet, slapping his hat against his thigh. "Jeez, wreck a guy's boots! I swear, you aimed for me!"
"I did not," JD said, laughing.
"You did too! I swear, you did!" Buck waggled a finger under his nose. "Don't you do it again, kid, ya hear me!"
"I hear ya, Buck." As he walked off, JD laughed and said softly, "I didn't aim for ya this time...."
"What makes you think there'll be a next?" Nathan asked him, making him grin wider.
Ezra pulled the device out as the vortex vanished. "Mister Larabee, the numbers now read six days, four hours, twenty-three minutes and the seconds are counting down."
"Does that mean that damnable thing is gonna appear again?" Chris moaned.
Vin nodded. "Sounds like it. Good."
"Good?" Buck roared. "How can it be good?"
That produced a wry grin. "Cuz if it comes back, we go back where we started."
JD let out a whoop. "It moved us! We're nearly at Four Corners!"
Chris smiled. "Looks like we won't need that thing after all."
"Perhaps," Ezra said, tucking it into his vest pocket. "Nonetheless, I shall hold onto it."
They walked into town seven abreast, checking it over. All seemed just fine, so they decided to check the prisoners at the jail before heading to the saloon. Why all seven of them went, they couldn't say, but they all felt they had to stay together.
And so, all seven were together when they found the empty jail cells. "What the hell..." Chris gasped.
"Who let the prisoners out?" JD gasped.
"Whoever it is, they're gonna be in the doghouse...." Buck growled.
And from outside came a familiar refrain in a gruff voice. "LARABEE! I'M CALLIN' YOU OUT!"
Chris rolled his eyes. "Now what..."
Vin's voice met their ears. "Larabee don't shoot men! Git outta here fore I do!"
All eyes turned to Vin, who stood wide-eyed and white-faced. "That was me.... but I'm in here!"
"What the hell is going on?" Buck hissed.
"Let's find out," Chris said, moving toward the door.
Only to be stopped cold as a woman's voice, touched with a faint Irish brogue, hit his ears. "Damn you, Sykes, you crawl back into whatever hell-hole you crawled out of. I don't shoot men, but I swear to God I'll make an exception in your case!"
"I said, I'm callin' you out, Larabee! You woman enough to face me?"
Laughter. "That's a joke! You woman enough to face me?"
And a second later, the distinctive bark of Vin's mare's leg roared. Six men started and whirled toward Vin, who looked down at his weapon.
He raised haunted eyes to his friends. "We're not where we should be..."
"I think that's obvious," Josiah said. His eyes were now on Chris, whose hazel eyes were huge in his milky-white face. "Chris?"
"Can't be...." suddenly he was on the move, running into the street, his friends right behind him.
Catching the movement, the two standing people on the street whirled, guns pointed right at him. One was unmistakably Vin -- save for the left hand aiming the gun and the wedding band on that hand.
The other one came up to Vin's shoulder. She was a slender thing dressed all in black, from the hat tied around her throat to the tight jeans to her boots. Her auburn hair bounced as she whirled, aiming the pearl-handled Colt with the deadly ease of long practice.
Suddenly her almond-shaped cerulean eyes widened and the Colt faltered. Her face drained of colour as she lowered the weapon, eyes locked on one form among the seven. Her voice shook as it breathed one word.
"My G-d," Chris said as he stumbled a step closer, his own eyes huge with shocked disbelief.
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