The Fifth Horseman
A Magnficent 7 - Highlander - Wild Wild West Crossover
by Terrance K. Harrington
Part One: 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 think 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.
Send Terry a wire!
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