The Paladin's Lady Partner (Part 2)
Thoughts began creeping through Elliott's mind, moving like sludge, but still they were moving. Sensations, not sentences.
Cold. Darkness. Pain. Fear.
It was the same every time he made the long journey back from death. First, his pulse stuttered and started several times before finally falling into a regular rhythm. His lungs came back to life next. Usually those first few precious breaths of air tasted like a nauseating mix of old blood and medicine. Not this time, though. The all too familiar smell of blood was there all right, but this time it tasted like dirt.
His blood gradually warmed up enough to chase the chill of death from his bones, his flesh, and lastly, his mind. He'd learned over the decades to not fight against the slow moving tide. All that did was burn up precious energy and slow the process to a crawl.
Damn, he hated this. It never got easier.
Finally, Elliott's patience ran out, but he concentrated on the small things. His fingers twitched. His toes wiggled and scraped against the leather inside his boots. His eyes slid from side to side under his eyelids. When he finally coaxed them into opening, he saw nothing but darkness. No real surprise there. It was impossible to judge how much time had passed since that last bullet had ripped into his chest, but it had to have been hours.
Actually, all things considered, night was his friend right now. Most people tended to get spooked if they saw a dead man suddenly sit up. He strained to listen but couldn't hear anyone walking around. As far as he could tell, he was alone in the darkness. Had the woman-Sarah, no, Sadie-reached safety? He hoped so.
But if she had, why hadn't she returned with the sheriff? Maybe the town was farther away than he'd thought or maybe the lawman had been away from his office and she'd had to wait. Regardless, Elliott needed to be up and about before she returned.
When he tried to move, though, he got nowhere. His entire body remained frozen in place, pinned down by the weight of death. Panic danced around the edges of his mind as an ugly thought crossed his mind. What if Sadie had returned only to find him dead? Sometimes it took a day or even two before life came seeping back into his body. Other Paladins and those who worked with them knew to be patient, but Sadie didn't know Elliott wasn't like other men. Had she laid him to rest, thinking she was doing the right thing?
He'd spent too much of his life down in the caves that riddled the southern part of Missouri to be afraid of closed in places, but being buried alive was a whole different matter. How the hell was he going to dig himself out of a hole six feet deep? Panic fluttered in his chest until he realized he could feel a trickle of cool air on his face. That wouldn't happen if he was underground.
Gathering up what strength he could, he flexed his hands and assessed the situation. His fingertips brushed across the cold, hard surface of rocks. Not good news, exactly, but at least that explained why he wasn't trapped inside a cheap wooden box. Instead, someone-most likely Sadie-had covered his body with a pile of rocks. Why the hell would she have done that? Not that he was complaining. If he was right about where he was, he stood a good chance of digging himself free.
It took considerable effort to move the first rock, but it gradually became easier. When he finally cleared the last stone off his face, he paused briefly to breathe deeply of the cool night air and to stare at the full moon overhead. The night sky was stunning, but he drew little comfort from its beauty.
On one level, he knew he should be grateful that he'd once again rejoined the living, but the endless cycle of death had grown old a long time ago. Only the knowledge that his sword was still needed in the war he and his kind fought against the Others gave him the strength and determination to pick up the pieces and keep moving forward.
Maybe once he got clear of this mess, he would stop by his friend's farm for a short visit before reporting for duty again. A year ago, Jethro Bane had fallen in love with a woman who'd learned the truth about the Paladins the hard way. The last time Elliott had died had been in the skirmish where he and Jethro had been defending Patience from the Others. She had witnessed his recovery firsthand. As a result, he loved spending time with her and Jethro on their small farm where he didn't have to hide who and what he was.
Memories of how good it had felt to kiss Sadie had him wondering if she, like Patience Bane, was strong enough to handle his truth. Her blue eyes had widened in surprise, but then she'd surrendered to the brief embrace. Maybe it had been the chance of neither of them would survive the attack, but he'd like to think it was more than that.
Not that it mattered. If she was the one who'd buried him, there was no way he could let her see him again. Of course, getting away free and clear was problematic when she had his horse. He'd have a long hike back to the last town to buy another one. He shoved aside another bunch of rocks, this time clearing off his chest and stomach, which gave him enough room to sit up. After another break to rest, he kicked his feet free from their prison.
When he finally stood up, his legs shook badly enough that he nearly collapsed. Luckily, he was close enough to a boulder to catch himself. While he waited for another burst of strength, he checked out his surroundings. The other dead men were gone, so clearly someone had been there. Why had they buried him on the spot?
Actually, all things considered, he was lucky they had. If he'd been hauled back to town for a proper burial, he would have had to break himself out of cheap coffin and still had several feet of dirt to burrow through. He would have most likely run out of air before he broke free. He'd had personal experience with some pretty damn awful ways to die, but suffocating in his own grave would probably have gone right to the top of his worst-way-to-go list.
It was the stuff of nightmares, but then that was true of many things in his life as a Paladin. No use in dwelling on things that didn't happen, much less things he wouldn't change even if he could. The world needed men like him, and there were far too few of them to go around. For now, all he could do was start walking and hope that he found some farmer heading in the right direction who would let him ride along.
Once he reached the nearest telegraph office, he would wire headquarters and ask them to send him enough money to re-outfit himself. He'd not only lost his horse, but his saddlebags as well. He had almost no money, no food, and no clothes. He didn't care about any of it except the mare and his sword, but he couldn't risk going after them.
He dusted off his clothes as best he could and started walking. At least his legs had quit their twitching by the time he cleared the woods and reached the road. He stopped to catch his breath and consider which way to turn. Going right would take him to the town where Sadie had hoped to find the sheriff. They'd obviously come and gone already. Had she returned home? If so, going left might increase the likelihood of running into her since her home lay in that direction.
The sky was starting to grow lighter. With dawn approaching, people would be out and about soon. Surely someone would come by and give him a ride. The sooner he reached town-any town-the sooner Elliott would get his life back. He turned left and started walking.
A short distance down the road, his luck changed when he spotted a horse, which had on both a saddle and bridle, grazing near a stream. Damn, he'd forgotten all about Sadie's horse. It had bolted when she'd come under fire but obviously hadn't gone far. Elliott started toward the skittish animal, talking low and moving slowly. In the end, the poor horse seemed almost glad to have a human take charge of him.
Elliott checked the gelding over for any injuries. Other than a couple of minor scratches, the horse appeared to be sound. Feeling better than he had since he woke up buried in rocks, he swung up in the saddle and headed west. Once he reached town, he would send the telegram. When the money arrived, he'd buy a few supplies, a new horse, and make arrangements for the gelding to be returned to Sadie.
And maybe it was selfish of him, but he really hoped she'd think about him every time she rode the big bay.
Sadie's heart hurt. It had been early evening by the time Sheriff Robbins and the undertaker had followed her back out to where she'd come under attack. The lawman had prowled the area, asking her questions as he tried to make sense of the attack. She'd only met Robbins once or twice before but knew he had a reputation for honesty and seeing justice done.
Once he'd seen all that he could, he'd helped wrap the six bodies in tarps and load them in the back of the undertaker's wagon. They'd left Elliott's makeshift grave untouched. If the sheriff thought it odd that Elliott had been armed with not just the usual rifle and revolvers, but with a razor sharp sword as well, he didn't say anything.
He did go through Elliott's saddlebags looking for anything that would help track down any next of kin. There'd been a letter from someone named Jethro Bane who lived further south in the state. The sheriff promised to send a wire to the man to see what he could find out about Elliott.
In the meantime, he'd continue to investigate the attack on Sadie. He escorted her back home to make sure she made it safely. After suggesting she stay there until he knew more about what was going on, he'd headed back to town.
Under other circumstances, she would have been only too glad to take his advice. The attack had left her badly rattled, and she had no desire to repeat the experience. However, she owed it to Elliott to keep an eye on his makeshift grave even if it was only temporary until his family and friends came to claim the body. With that in mind, after dinner she'd nailed two pieces of lumber together and carefully lettered his name on the cross piece. She'd head out first thing the morning to plant it next to the cairn she'd built over him. Once she had the simple cross in place, she would hurry back home, stopping only long enough to look around for her lost horse.
The sun had yet to crest the distant hills when Sadie did her early morning chores. When it was light enough to see, she saddled up Elliott's mare and set out.
She rode north to hit the main road and then turned east. It was tempting to keep to the woods parallel to the road to avoid being seen by anyone else, but she'd make better time if she didn't. A few minutes later, she already regretted that decision. Another rider was headed straight toward her.
Knowing she'd already been spotted, she rested her hand on her revolver, ready to defend herself if necessary. But as the rider came closer, she recognized the roan the man was riding as her missing gelding. Should she immediately demand its return? Most men wouldn't take kindly to be left afoot out in the middle of nowhere. It might be smarter if she thanked him for finding her horse and ask him to leave it at the stable in town for her to retrieve later. There would be no guarantee he'd do so, but it was risk she might have to take.
She was still wrestling with what approach to take when she realized that it wasn't only the horse that looked familiar. Whoever the bastard was, he was riding her horse and wearing Elliott Jones's duster. She could be wrong about the duster, but there was no mistaking Elliott's fancy black hat that the rider had pulled down over his face. She reached for her revolver ready to do battle with the grave robbing son of a bitch.
"Stop right there, mister!"
He kept coming, his head still tipped down.
"I said for you to stop. That's my horse you're riding and my friend's things you're wearing. We don't much hold with thieves around here." She aimed her gun right at his chest. "Dismount and leave the duster and hat on the saddle. Walk away and I won't press charges."
When the rider finally lifted his gaze to meet hers, her heart nearly jumped out of her chest. Sadie recognized that face, knew the man. She ought to-she'd laid him in a shallow grave just the day before.
Either that was Elliott Jones's ghost riding toward her or she'd buried a man alive. He'd almost reached her, his handsome face streaked with dirt and dried blood. Dear God, what had she done? Her gun slipped from her fingers even as the world went black as the ground came rushing up toward her.