Cowboy Paladin (part 10)
Patience led the way through the tunnel, hating each step that took her farther from Jethro. It didn't help that Elliott was having to run his good hand along the earthen wall to support himself. Jethro had been right about the other Paladin's wound being more serious than he'd let on. If the two of them died to keep her safe, she'd never forgive them—or herself.
She wished they could have reached the barn and the horses. If Elliott had gotten away, he could have ridden for help. Instead, Jethro was trapped inside the house, and she and his wounded friend would be hiding in the woods with no sure chance of getting to safety.
She paused to catch her own breath, but also to ask one all important question. "Were you two telling the truth about Paladins not being able to die?"
Even in the dim light of the lantern it was easy to see that Elliott didn't want to respond. "Answer me, Elliott. I need to know."
He sighed. "We can be killed. It happens often enough. But as long as the body remains intact, we can come back to life."
Patience ignored the intact part to ask, "But?"
"Look, I don't know how much you've understood about Jethro told you, but there's no guarantee that we come back the way we were. There seems to be a limit on how many times we can die and still be human. It varies from man to man, so there's no set number of chances. When our time is up, we come back crazy and try to kill everyone in sight. Other Paladins or our doctors know when that happens that there's no choice but to put us down like rabid dogs."
His words hammered at her heart. If the thought of Jethro dying was terrifying, the thought of him no longer being the honorable man she knew was even worse. She stumbled back a step, her head swirling. Elliott did his best to steady her.
"I'm sorry, Patience, but that's just how it is for us."
She swiped at the tears streaming down her face with the back of her hand. "How do you keep fighting knowing what you risk every time you face those monsters?"
"It's our duty and our honor to protect our world, Patience. It's no different than a lawman facing off against outlaws or the cavalry fighting renegades." Elliott managed a small smile. "But for what it's worth, Jethro will fight his way back from whatever happens because of you. You caring for him will make all the difference." When she straightened up, he nodded in the direction they were headed. "The sooner we get out of here, the sooner we might find help."
Patience knew he was right, but it nearly killed her to take even one more step away from Jethro. Despite her reluctance, she knew Elliott was right.
"Let's move on, then."
A few minutes later, she raised the trapdoor up just enough to listen. The silence didn't mean that no one was around, but they had no choice but to keep moving. She lifted the lid all the way and crawled up out of the tunnel. Elliott passed her the shotgun and then dragged himself up the ladder.
The surrounding darkness was nearly complete. Even so, Elliott turned all the way around, staring into woods as if he could see through the deepest shadows. "Which way would you recommend?"
She leaned in close enough to whisper. "The last time I escaped through the tunnel, I was captured and dragged to a cave up that way. That's when Jethro heard me screaming and rescued me. The road to town is in that direction. If we can find the creek that runs along the base of these hills, it will lead it right to it."
This time Elliott tipped his head to the side and slowly turned around, stopping to listen harder off to their right. "Let's head that way."
She let him take the lead since he obviously had much better night vision than she did. She didn't know what was keeping Elliott on his feet as he headed down the steep hillside. It felt as if they'd been plodding through the endless trees forever, but she knew in reality it had been less than an hour since they'd left Jethro behind. As she walked, she prayed for his safekeeping, hoping that he would still be there waiting for her when they returned with help.
The sound of rippling water was growing stronger, making it clear that Elliott had chosen the right direction. A few minutes later, they reached the creek. "There's a game trail that follows the far side of the water that should making the going easier. If we're where I think we are, we should cross the road in less than half a mile."
"That's good news."
Elliott's voice was much weaker when he spoke. By the time they crossed the creek and found the game trail, he stumbled with greater frequency. Patience moved up beside him and slung his good arm around her shoulders to help support him.
He tried to pull free. "Leave me behind."
"No. I left Jethro, and I might not ever forgive myself for that. I won't leave you, too."
He sounded almost amused by that fact. "You have no idea, Elliott."
They trudged on in silence until they broke free of the woods at the edge of the road. "The town is this way."
Elliott was breathing hard with sweat pouring off his face despite the cool night air. "You have to go on alone, Patience. I've had enough experience with dying to know that I'm not going to last much longer."
Before she could protest, he collapsed. "Elliott!"
When he didn't respond, she pressed her fingers on his neck. He still had a pulse, but it was weak. She'd never get help for either him or Jethro if she tried to drag an unconscious man along with her. She moved him to the deep grass where he wouldn't be easily seen. Then she ripped off a piece of her skirt to tie on a tree branch a few yards farther down the road to make it easier for her to find him when she did return.
She knelt by the wounded Paladin long enough to check his pulse one last time. Then she brushed his hair back from his face. "I'll be back, Elliott. I promise."
Patience had lost track of time and distance, but it seemed like she'd always been lost in this darkness. She was so lost in fear and grief that she didn't realize that she'd reached the edge of town until she'd already passed several houses.
Her throat was too dry to yell for help, so she kept moving in the direction of the sheriff's office. After stumbling up to the door, she pounded on it with her fist. Seconds later a bleary-eyed deputy peered out at her. As soon as he recognized her, he swung the door open wide and started yelling.
"Sheriff! It's Miss Kort! She's got blood all over her dress!"
"Well, get her in here and see how badly she's hurt!" Sheriff Garner staggered into the room, tucking his shirt into his pants. He was followed by two other men, both strangers to her.
She accepted the chair the deputy offered her, needing to catch her breath before leading the charge back to her cabin. "The blood's not mine. Jethro and his friend Elliott were at my house when we were attacked! Elliott was wounded, and Jethro made us leave through the tunnel my pa dug as a second way out of the cabin. Elliott collapsed a ways up the road. He was still breathing when I left him. I can show you where he is, but we need to get back to Jethro before it's too late.
One of the strangers knelt down to meet her gaze. "We're also friends of Jethro and Elliott. If you can give us directions, we'll ride out to help them."
"Two of you won't be enough. Jethro and Elliott thinned those killers out some, but more were still coming."
"The rest of our men are over at the hotel. I'll roust them out while you tell my partner there how to get to your place."
"I'm going with you." She caught his arm when he started to protest. "If you try to leave without me, I'll just follow you. Jethro needs me."
When he hesitated, she played her trump card. "You'll get there faster if I show you the way. Besides, I'm a good shot, and you're likely to need all the guns you can get."
She couldn't tell from his expression if he was impressed or exasperated. "Fine, but you'll follow my orders."
Relieved she'd gotten her way, she nodded. "Agreed, but it will make it easier if I at least know your name. I'm Patience Kort."
"Josiah Hardy, ma'am." He surprised her with a grin. "It's sure enough a pleasure to meet even though Jethro will kick my backside for letting you tag along. It might just be worth it to see the look on his face."
His smile faded as he stood back up. "Sheriff, it would be best if you and your men stay here to patrol in town in case some of those renegades make it this far. My men and I will do our best to make sure that doesn't happen."
He started for the door but pause to look back at Patience. "Miss Kort, rest here for a few minutes while we get saddled up. I promise we'll won't leave without you."
"Thank you, Mr. Hardy, but please hurry."
Josiah and his partner nodded and disappeared out the door. Meanwhile, she drank deeply of the cup of water that the deputy brought her. She knew they were curious about what had happened, but that story would have to wait for another day. Right now, all she could do was silently pray for the two men who'd sacrificed themselves to save her life.
She appreciated what they'd done, but she wasn't sure she wanted a life unless Jethro Bane was in it.