DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction. No
profit involved None whatsoever. This story is is based on the television series
"The Magnificent Seven" . No infringement upon the copyrights held by
CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved
with that production is intended.
The Amazon Series - Winner of 2003 Mistresses of Malarkey Best Gen Sequential Fic
By NotTasha....who can't say the title without blushing a bit.
The afternoon crowd was just beginning to fill the Redbird. Vin, Buck and Ezra sat at their usual table, having finished their lunch but not having anywhere else to go immediately. Buck leaned back in his chair while Vin scratched his chin contemplatively. It was a warm afternoon, and Ezra picked up his hat to fan himself as he waited for the others to come to a decision. Spring had spread across the land and the change in weather was welcome. Gone was the cold of winter. Already, the days were growing hot and soon their desert home would be the oven they were used to.
The three men sipped their beers and played a good-natured game of poker for small change. It was the day before payday after all, and the pockets of some were nearly empty. The money moved easily across the table. Vin smiled when he noticed that the distribution seemed rather even. On another day, in another mood, the dispersal would be exceptionally different. Yes, Standish could play cutthroat when he wanted, or spread the wealth with ease. Even so, Vin had no doubts that Ezra would leave the table with a profit -- however small.
Vin studied his cards and raised a dime. Ezra arched an eyebrow at the sum.
Buck asked, "Got yerself a royal flush this time, Vin?"
“Figure I’ll bet the farm,” the tracker returned with a smile.
“Too rich for my blood,” Buck said, tossing in his cards. They landed face up, displaying his pair of threes. “How ‘bout you, big-spender?”
“Lord,” Ezra said, running a thumb along his bottom lip. His eyes flitted up, looking at the small collection of coins with unnecessary trepidation. “It’s high stakes isn’t it?”
“Take a chance,” Vin encouraged. “Ya only live once.”
“Very well,” Ezra sighed, tossing in the appropriate amount. “Though I fear it’ll break me.” He nodded. “I call.”
Vin smiled stupidly. “Got a couple of sixes.” He held up the cards for inspection. “And a couple of twos.”
Ezra sighed dramatically, “And I have a straight - 9 high.”
“Damn it, Standish!” Vin shouted, tossing his cards to the table in mock anger.
The gambler laughed affably as he raked in the coins, less than thirty cents with the ante. “I suppose your luck might turn… given time and proper training.” He grinned rakishly at the tracker.
The doors swung open and Fletcher Bowman, the saloon’s pianist, strode in as if he owned the place. “Hey, boss,” he called as he moved through the tables. “You expectin’ a good night?”
“Every night’s a good night, Mr. Bowman,” Ezra responded brightly.
The pint-sized piano-man nodded. “Good enough for me,” he replied. The three continued their low-stakes game as Fletcher helped Inez set up for the evening crowd. The Redbird continued to thrive in the town of Four Corners. There were plenty of saloons in that town, but people had come to expect a little something extra from the small saloon beside the dry goods store. It was a refuge of sorts, a bastion against the lower tastes exhibited in some of the other establishments.
Vin smiled to himself as he looked around the place. It was a shade too nice for his tastes, but he liked it here well enough. It felt like a home to him.
“Hey,” JD shouted in greeting as he pushed open the doors and strode into the saloon. “You guys still here?”
“So it would seem, Mr. Dunne,” Ezra responded.
“Don’t look as if you’ve all gotten too far. Looks like you’re in the same shape as last time I seen ya.”
“Yup,” Vin agreed.
“Monotonous, isn’t it?” was Ezra’s response.
“Funny how that happens,” Buck added.
JD pulled up a chair and sat down.
“You aim to join us, kid?” Buck asked. “You gotta have a penny to open.”
JD threw Buck a puzzled look, used to a higher ante, and then shook his head. “Naw, I was lookin’ for Vin. Wanted to ask him somethin’.”
“Yeah?” Vin prompted as Ezra dealt out another hand and they tossed in their ante. “Well… ask.”
JD furrowed his brow and said, “I heard some fellas sayin’ that the highest lake in the world is Asia or Africa or somewheres, but I remember you sayin’ somethin’ about one in South America. When I told those guys that, they just laughed at me and told me I didn’t know what I was talking about.”
Buck chuckled and Vin smirked.
“Ah,” Ezra stated, pressing a hand to his heart. “How delightful. Our young friend has taken an interest in geography!”
Buck shook his head and sighed. “Hell, JD, how’d you get yourself involved in a conversation like that?”
The kid shrugged. “I don’t know. I was just listenin’ and they come up with that. I figured I had to set ‘em straight. They were from Germany, I think -- maybe Sweden or somethin’. Anyway, I figured the things we got in the Americas are just as good as what they got over there, maybe better sometimes.”
“One shouldn’t eavesdrop, Mr. Dunne. It’s impolite,” Ezra responded.
“Aw shucks, Ezra. You do it all the time.”
“True,” Ezra admitted. “But I don’t let everyone know. I exercise a thing known as ‘subtlety’.”
JD shook his head and faced Vin. “Anyway, what were you sayin’ about that lake up in the mountains? You were tellin’ me about it last week when we were fishin’.”
Vin paused, not knowing what to feel at hearing this question. People were always asking him about tracking and bounty hunting, Indian customs and camping. Nobody had ever asked him anything that would have come from book-learning. That was a realm usually left to Ezra and Josiah. Hell, JD had more schooling that Vin ever had. It didn’t seem right for this educated Easterner to be asking the scraggly, unschooled, back-woods tracker such a question.
“Vin?” JD tried. “You know anythin’ about that lake?”
Surprised that Ezra hadn’t stepped in and answered for him, Vin finally replied, “Well, there’s that one up in the Andes. The book said it was the highest ‘navigable’ lake in the world.” He did his best not to stumble on the word. “That means you can put ships on it and such. It’s miles long.” He glanced to Ezra and saw a small smile as the cardsharp scrutinized his cards.
JD twisted his lips in thought. “So was I right?”
“Seems so,” Vin responded. He wasn’t certain though, and didn’t want to lead Dunne astray with incorrect information. “Ya think, Ez?”
“I suppose it’s all in the terminology,” Ezra put in. “If they are referring to a mere ‘puddle’ as a ‘lake’, well, I suppose that something might exist in the Himalayas, but I believe your prior assertion is correct. The highest body of water that could truly be called a ‘lake’ is indeed in South America.”
JD nodded curtly. “See, I knew I was right!”
Buck chuckled. “Now, Ezra, why do you go around fillin’ Vin’s head with stuff he don’t need to know? You got JD doin’ it, too. What’s the point of that? Who cares where the largest lake in the world is?”
Vin frowned as he set down his cards, feeling a certain amount of resentment. “I got a right to know stuff, Buck. I like learnin’ things. And I learned that myself from a book. Nobody told it to me.” His words came out a little sharper than he wanted.
“Whoa now, Vin,” Buck said, raising his hands in surrender. “Didn’t mean nothin’ by that.”
“You’d best watch your words, Mr. Wilmington,” Ezra said with a disinterested sigh. “Mr. Tanner obviously pays closer attention than you do. We were talking about Lake Titicaca, the ‘highest’ lake, not the ‘largest’.”
Buck snorted out a laugh. “What did you just say? Titty? Caca?” He laughed again. “The ‘titty’ part sounds like my kinda place. Get rid of the ‘caca’ and let me in!”
JD laughed out loud. Vin threw Ezra a glance and said in a low voice, “Better not say anything about Lake Poopó.”
“Lord, no,” Ezra returned quietly, smiling at Vin’s deliberately incorrect pronunciation.
The doors of the saloon swung open again. Ezra glanced up and noted in a low voice, “Mr. Larabee, it appears, has a look of frustration about him.”
The others turned too and Vin added, “Yup. Looks like he’s got a worry or two.” The vein on Larabee’s head was close to the ‘throbbing’ point.
“Hey, Chris!” Buck shouted congenially as Larabee strode to the table.
“Cowboy,” Vin greeted with a mischievous grin. Ezra touched his fingers to the brim of his hat.
“Everything okay, Chris?” JD added, noting the irritated squint of their leader’s eyes.
“I need two of you to take a trip,” Chris stated. “Stagecoach needs protection.”
“Yeah? What for?” JD asked eagerly.
“Got a gold shipment heading out of town today. Fella moved out of town last week and is sending for his stake.”
“Gold?” Ezra sat up immediately. “Well, sir, what is the worth of this treasure?”
“Ezra,” Chris sighed. “Why does that matter?”
Standishlaughed, “Ah, the value makes all the difference in the world. It’s the difference between a shed in the bayou and a summer palace in Newport. A dogcart and a gilded chariot, a mule and a thoroughbred…”
“I got the picture, Ezra…”
“The difference between that…” Ezra continued, gesturing disdainfully at Vin’s worn buckskin. “…And this.” He touched the fine fabric of his own sleeve.
“It’s valued at about $5,000,” Larabee finally blurted out to stop Ezra from going any further.
Buck whistled. “Man oh man, that’s a tidy sum.”
“Ah,” Ezra sighed. “Not an extravagant amount. Just enough to set me up comfortably and take care of me in the opulence I deserve. And not too heavy to manage with the proper transport, I should say.” When he saw Chris’ scowl, he added, “And it’s rather nicely divisible by seven. $700 each?”
JD frowned. “Wouldn't it be more like $715 each?”
Ezra waved hand to wipe away this thought and make it inconsequential. “It depends on who’s doing the dividing. There are certain fees involved in…”
Chris cut in, “No one is gonna be dividing anything. It’s gotta go to Cedar Ridge. They want a couple of guards on the stage to keep an eye on it. Word is, there’s been some trouble up that way lately. Probably nothing, but folks are talking.”
“Cedar Ridge, you say?” Ezra said, standing quickly and collecting his coins. “I’d be more than willin’ to go along.”
Chris pursed his lips as he regarded the suave gambler. Ezra smiled congenially as Larabee spoke, “This willingness of yours doesn’t have anything to do with getting your hands on that gold, does it, Ezra?”
“Why, Mr. Larabee, you know I’m always interested in the subject.”
“If I let you go on this one, I’d have to add an extra man, just to keep a guard on you.” Larabee sighed. “I’m afraid the temptation would be a bit too much for you.”
“Ah yes,” Ezra responded. “Wisely spoken. But in this case, I have more than larceny in mind. There’s an errand I’d like to attend to.” He lowered his eyes as he brushed distractedly his jacket. “I hear the town has acquired an excellent tailor. I wanted to discover if the stories proved true.”
Chris looked skeptical. “What about you, Buck? You and JD could do it.”
Buck shrugged. “Sorry, stud. I got a date with Miss Katy tonight. I aim to keep that appointment. Might make it stretch for a day or two, if you know what I mean.”
“I was kinda hopin’ to see Casey tomorrow,” JD said, fiddling with one of the cards from the table. “She’s supposed to be comin’ to town with Nettie and I thought we could spend some time together.”
Vin glanced at Ezra and noted that his smile never disappeared, but his eyes that had been so cheerful a moment ago, took on a different shade. The con man covered well, but Tanner had learned to see through some of the chinks in his wall.
“Perhaps Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sanchez are available,” the gambler said helpfully. “Certainly they’re beyond such temptation.”
Chris was about to respond when Vin cut him off. “Hell, I’d like to see this new tailor fella, too. Got a rip in my jacket that needs mendin’.” He lifted his arm to display the worn seam at his elbow.
Larabee groaned. “Way I figure it, I’d be ten kinds of a fool to send the pair of you together.” He shrugged in resignation. “Wilsons’ baby’s got the croup pretty bad and Nate’s been helpin’ them with it. Josiah’s busy with the church. Cuts down on my options.” Chris gave Ezra a stern look and said, “Stay out of trouble.”
Ezra tilted his head and drawled, “I will endeavor to…”
“There’s no ‘endeavoring’ about it, Ezra,” Chris returned quickly. “Judge wants this done right. No crazy stunts or schemes out of you.” He changed his gaze momentarily to include Vin and added, “…either of you.” He turned and headed to the door, informing them, “Stage leaves at 3:00. Wire me when you get to Cedar Ridge.” The batwing doors swung violently at his abrupt departure.
“Well,” Ezra said as he picked up his cards. “That was a definite note of confidence.”
“Aw, don’t mind him, Ezra,” Buck said as he picked up his small pile of winnings. “I figure he got the announcement about this shipment at the last minute and he’s just pissed off about that.”
nodded as he straightened the cards, weighing them and puzzling for a moment.
He ran one finger along the edge as his eyes searched the table and he
noticed the one in JD’s hands. He
took the last card from the sheriff with a sigh. “Well then, we’d best get ready, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra said without
looking at Vin. He picked up his hat, settled it on his head and headed toward
Vin quickly packed his bag and headed out to the waiting stage. It was a small but heavy coach, designed for short runs in-between Ridge City and the other nearby towns. The driver seemed nervous. His partner sat beside him with a rifle ready, his beady eyes scanning the shops that surrounded them. The very closeness of the buildings seemed to intimidate both men.
The afternoon was hot, promising a scorching summer. Vin grimaced at the idea of riding a coach through the oppressive weather. He’d much rather ride a horse alongside, but apparently that was not to be. Larabee had specified that they would be ‘passengers ’and not ‘escorts’.
The stage had arrived on schedule with its load of train travelers from Ridge City, but it sat empty as Vin approached. There’d be no paying riders for the trip from Four Corners to Cedar Ridge. The value of the gold outweighed anything a few passengers might have to offer.
“Hey,” Vin called up to the waiting men. “Where you want me?”
The man riding shotgun nodded. “You and the other are inside.”
Vin grumbled and opened the door to examine their ride. It was like an oven. He stepped back, pulling the door wide open to try and vent it a little. A strongbox sat on the rear seat, padlocked and chained in place, leaving only the backward-facing seat available. “Why ain’t it in the boot? ” Vin asked, pointing to the locked luggage compartment in back.
“‘Cause we got you two to watch it inside,” The driver said. “‘Sides, it’s too heavy. Might bust the thing off.”
The tracker tossed his knapsack onto the empty bench and withdrew. “I’m Tanner Vin Tanner.” He extended a hand to the coachmen. He recognized the men from previous stops in their town, but he’d never actually met them.
“Al Winter,” the driver said, leaning down to accept the handshake. He nodded to the other man. “This is Frank Riggens.”
“You do this a lot?” Vin asked congenially.
“We make this run sometimes, yup. But, deliverin’ someone’s gold for ‘im? Hell no,” Winter responded, sounding annoyed. “They sprung this on us when we got here. I thought we were headed back to Ridge City with passengers. Some fella paid the company a good dollar for the transport. He figured it’d be safer to send his money with our stage then to take it himself, I reckon.”
“Safer for ‘imself,” Riggens put in, resting his rifle. “Word is those bandits know he’s movin’ this gold today.”
“How you reckon that?” Vin asked.
“There was a story in that newspaper of yours.” Winter nodded contemptuously at the wooden sign outside the Clarion. “Said he was movin’ out of town and wanted his money brought out once he was settled. That lady writer figured it would come by special stage, so I figure they’re waitin’. Hidin’ in the hills until they see a stage comin’ off schedule.”
Vin grinned, wondering at Mary Travis’ discretion. “And those banditos got it figured that it’ll happen today?”
Riggens snorted. “Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve got word that the regular run back to Ridge City just chucked off all its passengers. Figure one or two of our customers sent a wire to somewheres, tellin’ what happened."
Vin shrugged, not knowing if that was enough to make the drivers so anxious.
“You a good shot?” Riggens asked.
“The other, too?”
“Ezra? Yup,” Vin responded. “Figure on trouble?”
Riggens spat. A dark stream of tobacco juice struck the hard-packed road. “I’m bankin’ on it.”
Figures, Vin thought. The rumors about bandits usually caused more trouble than the bandits themselves -- stirring nervousness amongst travelers.
They still had some time before 3:00, and Vin wanted to talk to Chris before they left. He was about to tell the two men that he’d be back in a few minutes when Ezra appeared from the saloon and strode toward them, carrying a carpetbag and a water jug. Standish nodded at the driver and his partner, but the two seemed occupied with other matters. Vin grinned, glad that Ezra had the aforethought to bring plenty of water for the hot ride.
“Mr. Tanner,” Standish greeted as he came closer. “Are we ready to depart?”
“Got a few minutes left, I figure,” Tanner responded.
“The sooner we get out, the better,” Winter put in. “We gotta make Cedar Ridge before nightfall.”
“Plenty of time. I was gonna talk to Chris,” Vin responded. “Maybe I can get him to send a few more of us along.”
“Please, Mr. Tanner, don’t bother our illustrious leader. I’m certain we can handle this…alone.” Standish stepped into the coach and grimaced at the heat. The sight of the chest brought a further look of annoyance. He positioned his carpetbag alongside the big box and set the jug on the floor. “Let’s get settled and be on our way.”
When Vin stepped in to stow his bag, the brake was released and Winter applied the whip to the horses. The coach shot forward. “Hey,” Vin shouted, trying to keep his feet in the rocking stage. Ezra clung to the braces and rolled his eyes.
“Gotta get goin’!” Winter insisted from above. “Ain’t safe here. Too many hidin’ places for them outlaws.”
guess we’re on our way,” Ezra responded, settling into his seat as Vin
pulled the door shut. The coach
Chris was almost out of the jailhouse when the stagecoach left Four Corners. He stood for a moment in shock as it took to the road, heading toward Cedar Ridge. With an irritated gesture, he pulled out his pocket watch and noted that they had left almost fifteen minutes early.
“Damn it,” he muttered. He’d wanted to talk to the two lawmen before they disappeared. He wanted to at least talk to Ezra regarding that short conversation in the saloon. Did Standish insist that the stage get started early just so he could get away?
It wasn’t that Larabee didn’t trust the gambler on this mission -- he simply knew where the strengths and weaknesses of his men lay. There were members of this team that couldn’t be trusted among young ladies, and others who had trouble with liquor. Ezra, he knew, was not to be trusted near other people’s money.
Larabee shoved the watch back into his pocket, remembering the day that Ezra had been shot at the political rally and laid out on the main street. Only the cash secreted in his jacket had saved his life. Chris remembered the mix feelings he’d suffered: terror, relief, confusion and disappointment. If it wasn’t for that wad of cash, Ezra would have died, but what the hell was it doing in his jacket anyway?
He recalled when Ezra glibly commented that he should not be trusted with other people’s money. I can trust you to save Mary’s life though, Larabee thought. There was no questioning that. Trust you to come back even if it'll bring you nothing but shame. Trust you to put yourself between a bullet and someone you've promised to protect.
That gambler always managed to surprise him.
As he glared after the departing stage, Chris realized he had nothing to worry about. The gold would arrive in Cedar Ridge intact. He had to admit that he knew Standish wouldn’t take a cent. He was just sorry he’d brought it up in the saloon.
Wish I could have told ya that before you left, he thought.
The gunslinger pulled a cigar from his pocket and lit a match. Cupping a hand, he lit the stogie and leaned heavily against the jail’s outside wall. He frowned, thinking that those quickly spoken words wouldn’t sit well with the gambler. No, Standish might act like a thick-skinned jackanapes, but he took everything to heart.
Damn fool southerner…he must feel so alone sometimes. Chris puffed on his cigar. I don’t help things much.
The coach hurried along the trail to Cedar Ridge as if the fate of the world depended on its quick arrival. Ezra had pulled back the flap on the window as soon as he was able to let in some air.
Ezra kept his face passive as he sat in his backward-facing seat, watching the world behind them. From time to time, his glance fell upon the chained box. His hands itched, knowing what was contained within. $5,000 in gold was a handsome amount. It was enough to make his heart beat a little faster. He imagined the improvements possible at his saloon, the furnishings for a decent home, the extravagant meals, the rings and clothing, the finery, the prestige.
God! His mouth watered at the thought and he felt a little lightheaded. Think of what that treasure could purchase!
He pressed his palms against his knees and returned his gaze to the window. Well, Ezra thought as his musings drifted with the dust. That just goes to show…I should have expected those comments from Mr. Larabee. I have given him no reason to believe otherwise of me. I've proven myself to be nothing more than a thief. I shouldn't be surprised.
A bead of sweat trickled down his face and he moved uncomfortably in his jacket. It's the life I've chosen. It what I've designed. I have created an existence where no one can trust me. I have constructed a life where money is the only thing of value and the attainment of it is the only thing I care for. The sweat continued to build on his face as the hot stage rocked and bounced. It's easier to live for monetary wealth -- easier than living for virtue, valor, victory. Money is easy; it’s something I can attain for myself with no need to think of others. It's an excellent measurement of worth, he reminded himself.
So, why do I allow myself to be bothered by the comments of others? Especially when they speak only the truth, a side of my life that I've never tried to hide? There wasn’t a reason in the world for him to feel so unhappy with what Larabee had said. He glanced at the chest again, but looked away without feeling that strange rush again.
As he watched the land pull away from them, he told himself that he never was meant to have lasting friendships, strong relationships, rewarding companionships. No -- he was to live his life for the sake of Ezra Standish, to keep Ezra Standish comfortable and well-tended, to cheat, steal and con everyone in his path to make Ezra Standish a wealthy man. Friends were things to exploit and leave behind.
He kept his gaze on the land, looking for movements that might be considered threatening. His hand strayed near his gun belt, watching and waiting for trouble, ready to do what he must to protect the cargo.
Beside him, Vin shucked off his heavy buckskin coat and shoved it onto the overhead shelf with his bag. He gestured to Ezra, opening his hand to offer the same for the gambler. Tanner waited, clinging to the side of the rolling coach as Standish stood and removed his jacket as well.
After glancing at the wadded leather coat next to the knapsack, Ezra carefully folded his jacket and placed it on top of his carpetbag, beside the chest. Vin shook his head and sat down again on the rattling bench.
“Hot,” Tanner commented as he stretched out his legs.
"Indeed," Ezra replied as he picked up the water jug and uncorked it. He tipped it back, enjoying a long drink and then handed it to Tanner. Vin drank as well and then stowed the jug as Ezra patted down his forehead with a cloth.
Ezra and Vin kept watch for the expected banditos. There was nothing but open space -- a long stretch of nothingness. They sat in silence most of the way. The tracker glanced at his traveling companion, seeing only an empty expression. He frowned, knowing why Ezra looked so distant, so expressionless. Chris should trust him a bit more, he thought.
The tracker tried to start a conversation, but was rewarded with only succinct responses that did nothing to prolong the discussion. And Tanner, a man of few words, found it difficult to draw out the usually garrulous southerner.
“Figure we’ll get in b’fore nightfall?”
“If we have no mishaps.”
“Think we’ll be able to get a good room when we get in?”
“I couldn’t say.”
“You reckon this tailor guy is good? Can I trust my jacket to him?”
“We’ll see. He may be competent,” was the extent of Standish’s replies.
The noise of the rattling coach, the thundering of six horses and the coarse shouts of Winter made discussion difficult in any case. Ezra and Vin gazed out of their separate windows, watching the landscape for trouble.
They were halfway into their four-hour trip when a sharp rap on their ceiling brought them out of their reverie. “Riders!” Riggens shouted. “Comin’ fast from the front!”
Ezra and Vin quickly found positions to see what they were heading into. “Shit,” Tanner muttered as a mob of men rode toward them. He counted ten men before reaching for his rifle. Ezra unholstered his Remington and stood ready. The coach turned sharply, nearly pitching over as the horses cried out with fatigue.
“Get on! Get on! Hah!” Winter shouted to the team as he brought them around. The mob continued their approach.
“Well, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra said quietly, holding on as the stage swerved. “It would seem that our monotony is about to end.”
“Yeah, might get a bit excitin’ too,” Tanner added as they both moved about in the crowded space, vying for the best position. The wagon continued to turn, heading off the trail.
Vin kept steady aim on the lead rider, waiting for someone to make a mistake. His finger tightened on the trigger. Obviously this group wasn’t paying a social call. They were riding hell-bent-for-leather and were just coming into range.
Ezra leaned beside him, half out of the window as he tried to find a position around the tracker in the turning stage. “I suppose they’re not to be easily dissuaded,” he commented dryly.
“Nope,” Vin responded.
Winter and Riggens were shouting above them, urging the horses onward, yelling supposed orders to them. “Take ‘em out! Take ‘em out!” Riggens demanded.
“Shall we?” Ezra asked.
The gunfire began before Tanner had a chance to respond. He got off a couple of good shots, taking out the lead rider. Another fell in the mob, most likely from Ezra’s gun firing just over Vin’s head, half-deafening him. Tanner withdrew and fitted new cartridges into his Winchester. Above them, Riggens was adding his rifle to the effort.
As the coach finally straightened out and the gang came up behind them, Ezra ducked in to reload and then switched to the other side of the coach to find a better shot. He took out another from his new position. The horsemen continued firing. Riggens suddenly screamed and thudded against the ceiling.
“Frank! Frank!” Winter shouted as he beat the horses onward. “Damn it! Frank!”
Ezra threw Vin a discontented look across the stagecoach as he leaned ridiculously far through the window.
“Get your ass back in here!” Vin shouted as he fired again, taking down another of the men.
“My ass is firmly situated within the cab, Mr. Tanner.” Vin barely heard Ezra’s voice as the gamester’s head disappeared from sight. “I plan to keep it there.” He grasped the top of the coach to keep steady, shooting with as much precision as he could muster on the rocketing vehicle. It lurched and hopped, jerked and jumped as the team of horses galloped madly.
Vin and Ezra continued firing, their aim often ruined by the riotous machinations of the stage. The six remaining men kept their chase, shouting to one another, yelling at their horses, firing, swearing or screaming in pain as a bullet caught them.
A man lurched from his saddle and dove into the ground. His horse skittishly ran on. A man in a blue vest was the next to be caught; he jerked backward, tried to keep a handle on the saddle, but drooped quickly -- slowing his horse. Eventually he slid to the ground and was left behind. A man in a white Stetson hit the hard earth and cartwheeled before coming to a lifeless stop.
Only three riders remained.
“We’re gettin’ ‘em, Ez,” Vin shouted encouragingly. “They’ll turn back if they got any sense.” He smiled, sure of himself. “We’ll get ‘em. Matter of time.”
One of the remaining outlaws suddenly got wise. He fired beyond the stage and into the team of horses. The left lead horse jerked as the gunfire continued. It valiantly continued forward for a few halting steps, turning the wagon as he slowed. Inexorably, it stumbled and fell before its teammates. The following horses rode up over the first. Their mates toppled headlong over each other in a contortion of hooves and heads, screaming in terror and pain. The stage lurched violently, slamming to a bone-jarring stop and flipping up over the top of the tangled herd before falling backward again and, turning and smashing to the ground.
Vinhardly had time to grab onto something before the coach slammed forward. His side of the stage went skyward while Ezra’s twisted toward the
ground. He looked for Standish as the coach jerked and turned and
pitched and shattered, but the con man was gone.
Dazed, Vin blinked and he tried to get his bearings. His gaze landed first on a jumble of broken planks and twisted metal. He was still clinging to his side of the stage, but the side had suddenly become the roof, and the roof was yet another side. Above him, the wheels were spinning still. The weight of the chest had wrenched the bench off of its fittings, but the box remained intact in the rubble. The whole rig jerked every few seconds. He didn’t know immediately what had happened, but it all came back to him with crystal clarity. He grabbed for his mare’s leg and what ammunition he could find. With precise hands, he breached the rifle and shoved the cartridges into place. Something was coming. Along with the disconcerting cries of the dying horses, he could hear the hoof beats of the approaching gang. This wasn’t over yet.
He winced and swore as he felt every bruise and scrape. Struggling, he kicked out the broken roof of the stage and crawled through. Riggens’ bloody body lay not far from him. The horses, in their tangled, broken pile, rose to their knees and then sank, jerking the stage in their attempts to break free. Riggens was dead. Winter was gone. Ezra was gone. Ezra! He looked around frantically, but could find no sign of the gambler. Ezra!
They'll pay for this. Damn them
He leaned on his protection and turned toward the charging men. They wouldn’t live to see another day. He took a steadying breath as he lifted the rifle from behind the wreckage, taking a bead on one of the approaching men. He fired. The man jerked and fell as if torn from his saddle. Vin smiled grimly.
The remaining two came to a skidding halt, and Vin gritted his teeth. He fired again, ducking as the bandits returned the compliment. The broken roof of the stagecoach did little to protect him. Vin couldn’t see whether his shot was successful as a bullet tore through his thigh. He spun back as it ripped through the meat of his leg, spraying blood in the baked desert. He was flung to his side, losing his grip on the rifle and landing in the broken planks.
Everything went black.
Ezra woke at the sound of a gunfire --slow methodical shots. He jerked his head up and tried to understand what had happened. His whole body hurt. His last memory was that the stage had tilted dangerously. He recalled trying to jump away, but the earth rose up to meet him and everything was turned asunder.
There was a blank space… and then six gun shots.
Now, all was quiet. Was it noisy before?
He attempted to breathe deeply in spite of the pressure and pain. God, he hurt. He raised his head slowly and blinked. His leg throbbed. His shoulder screamed. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t move. Damn.
He needed help. Where was Vin?
Six shots. My God! Vin! He didn't have a chance! Damn them! If he could only get to his feet, he'd …
Someone was walking nearby. He could hear the boots crunching on the coarse sand. Quickly, Ezra tried to find a weapon. One arm was trapped. He couldn’t get to his Remington and his Colt Richards Conversion, but the little derringer was still in its place. Thank God he hadn’t removed it along with his jacket. Darkly, Standish declared to himself that the man who killed Vin would get his just deserts. Vin didn’t deserve to end his life this way.
Ezra rested, narrowing his eyes to slits. He felt so very tired. From around the front of the stage, a shape moved, dark against the cloudless sky.
“Hey, here’s another one, Aggie,” the man said, lifting something from his side. “Didn’t see him the first time I went around. Damn, look at that.” The man laughed as if he’d been told a joke and Ezra fought the urge to fire. He waited until the man moved closer. “Shit, he’s as dead as the others.”
“Arggh,” another voice groaned from a long way away. “Check ‘im and then come help me. My arm’s bleedin’ like a son of a bitch.” The voice sounded scared. “This ain’t right. Let’s grab the gold and get out of here.”
“Yeah.” The man, dressed in grays and greens, held a gun at his side. “Good idea. Soon as I’m sure about these bodies.” He lifted the weapon, bringing it to bear. “I figure he won’t feel another one.”
The little derringer ejected into Ezra’s hand and the gambler discharged it in a well-practiced movement. The man let out a sharp cry, staggered and fell. Bastard, Ezra thought.
“Beau?” the other voice called. “Beau?” Ezra closed his eyes and tried to find some strength. All his energy seemed to be leaching from him. Somewhere on the other side of the stage, someone staggered. “Damn it!” The voice was terrified. There was no stealth in the movements he heard. The man floundered about, and groaned and moaned as he scuttled away.
Ezra breathed slowly, barely able to hear any longer. It sounded as if the other man had made it to the horses. “It ain’t worth this. Ain’t worth this!” The voice was muttering, getting drowned out by sound of his heart resounding in his ears.
A horse danced and stepped and galloped away. Ezra sighed softly as a weight pressed against him. He closed his eyes tightly, remembering the shots fired and not wanting to imagine where they’d found their targets. He drifted away, wishing that things had happened differently. Wishing that he could’ve done more.
Vin. Awful sorry.
He hadn’t been out for long. Vin raised his head as the horses departed. He watched them, feeling disconnected and tired. The one rider seemed to be determined to go as fast as his mount would take him, leaning forward as if hurt. The scattered horses followed the rider, wanting to find safety in a herd. Damn, Vin thought. Shouldn’t have let that man go. The rider and the loose horses disappeared from sight.
Almost without thinking, he moved his hand to the bleeding bullet wound on his thigh and pressed against it. The blood had coated his leg, soaking his pant leg completely, seeping into the sandy soil beneath. He found the entrance and exit through the meat of his thigh and hissed has he tried to close them.
“Ezra!” he called and listened for a response. All was silent. He winced and continued to press. It seemed to take forever to slow the bleeding. Gotta stop it, he thought as he gritted his teeth against the increasing pain. Gotta find him. Finally, satisfied that the bleeding had slowed, he untied the bandana from his neck and knotted it around his thigh in a makeshift bandage.
Already, a buzzard circled lazily in the sky. More would come -- coyotes, foxes, cougars maybe – rats and beetles and flies. The scavengers would come. With an inescapable groan, Vin leveraged himself upward, using the overturned stage for support. It wobbled as he pressed on it. Other than the lazy gliding of the buzzard, nothing else moved.
Vin sucked in his breath and squeezed his eyes shut. GOD! His leg hurt. Once he was able to move again, he examined the binding. It seemed to be doing the trick for now, but he knew it was only a matter of time before and the wound would be flowing again. “Ezra!”
The tracker scanned the surrounding area from his half-standing position. The horses were tumbled in a terrible dead mass. He staggered toward the front of the stage, staring at them in wonder. They’d been alive a short time ago. The outlaws must have killed them. He glanced back into the interior of the stage, noting the chest was still within. Damn fools, he thought. Killin’ for no purpose whatsoever.
Tanner stopped when he found a body near the front of the stage. Winter faced him with filmy eyes. The driver looked stunned, his mouth open and hands spread at his sides, his head twisted awkwardly. Damn. Vin turned and headed back the way he’d come, throwing Riggens a quick glance as he went.
He hobbled toward the rear of the wagon, scanning the land behind the stage and looking for a similarly twisted body, his friend. But, there was no sign of the southerner -- Ezra was nowhere in the bleak country. God, he had to find him. Won't let him be torn up by those varmints! Deserves to be buried decent.
Every movement was tortured and slow as Vin rounded the back of the toppled stagecoach. His leg seemed unwilling to respond to his commands and every step shot a bolt of agony through him. “Damn it, Ezra,” Vin muttered as he struggled.
He paused when he came around the far side, what had once been the bottom of the vehicle. The wheels had finally stopped turning, but they creaked pathetically on their broken axles. Not far from the front wheels, a body in green and gray lay sprawled, blood seeping sluggishly from a hole in his chest.
Vin eyed the newly-killed stranger, and felt a sudden surge of hope, knowing what it meant. The man didn’t get that wound by himself. He allowed himself a small smile. “Ezra?” he called, for the first time expecting a response. “Ezra?”
He stumbled forward, unable to locate the gambler. Growing more frustrated with each pain-filled step. "Ezra?" he shouted again. "Where the hell are ya, huh?"
He twisted around to backtrack and regretted the move as he found that his leg wouldn’t move so nimbly. Damn it! He gripped the stage in a vice and closed his eyes as he tried to catch his breath. What the hell was he going to do? Why couldn’t he find Ezra? He slowed his breathing to keep from passing out.
And then he opened his eyes and noticed a chestnut head of hair not far from his feet.
With a sigh, Vin dropped to his butt beside the former bottom the stage. He winced at the sudden pain, but realized that it was the easiest way to get to where he wanted to be. “Aw, Ez,” he sighed. No wonder he’d missed him on the first pass. Only Ezra’s head and one outstretched arm were visible from beneath the vehicle and its undercarriage. The brake shoe had hidden him from behind, the huge wooden wheels had just barely missed crushing him. Ezra was pinned on his stomach beneath the rig, smashed between wood and sand.
Tanner did nothing immediately, and simply observed. “Please,” he said softly, as he watched intently. A wave of relief hit the tracker as he saw the gentle movement of sand beneath Ezra’s mouth as the gambler breathed. Oh God, thank you. “Damn, ya scared me, Ez,” Vin said softly. “Scared the shit outta me.”
Thoughtful of his own safety, Vin removed the derringer from Ezra’s grip, before he laid a hand on his head. “Hell of a place to end up, Ez,” he said softly as his eyes took in the size of the vehicle. “Can’t do anything easy, can ya?”
gave him no response, and the tracker sighed woefully. Damn, why couldn’t this be easy?
“We’ll getcha out of here,” Vin promised, rubbing the back of the
southerner’s head thoughtfully. “You
got my word on that.”
Vin sighed and wondered what the hell they were going to do this time. He made it to his feet and hobbled as quickly as his wounded leg would allow, looking for anything that might help their situation. He quickly searched the wreck, finding his rucksack and canteen near the broken roof of the stage. Peering into the interior, he could see Ezra’s carpetbag within, but he didn’t want to bother with retrieving it. No sense in climbing into the rig with Ezra still trapped beneath it. The interior was shattered anyway and it would be no easy feat to get it out. The padlocked strongbox lay in the midst of the mess. He frowned, thinking of the weight of the box -- not considering the worth. He’d have to get that out, if he could only get past those broken benches.
He continued looking, but could find only the one canteen. The water jug had been destroyed in the accident. He shook the canteen experimentally, finding it mostly full. He hoped it would last until help came.
Moving as quickly as his wounded leg allowed, Tanner came to the front of the stage to decide exactly how he was going to get it lifted off of Ezra.
He stared again at the jumbled and bloody mess. Horses, halters and splintered traces were heaped in a horrific pile. One big bay was rolled back across the stage’s tongue, pinning the front of the vehicle to the ground. His mate was lying across him, partially covered by one of the roans that had been hitched in front them. A pair of buzzards stood nearby, watching him -- waiting.
The tracker’s blue eyes took in the futility of trying to move the tons of horseflesh. Even if he had the full use of both his legs, the project would be nearly impossible. He groaned and leaned against the broken vehicle, feeling weak and defeated.
He wasn’t the type to be sentimental about animals, but even so, he felt upset by their deaths. He was pragmatic enough to realize that if even one of the team were still alive, they could have made use of it. One living horse would have given them a chance to move the others, would have provided a ride home, would’ve given them a fighting chance.
Bastard, he thought, considering the man who had deprived them of this escape. One horse might have been sound enough to pull, would have allowed him to get Ezra out of that trap. Even a broken-legged animal might have lasted long enough to do that. A half-dead horse could have been forced to roll over and get off the damn hitch. Son of a bitch.
He pulled one of the sturdier looking tracings free and leaned on it. He studied the heaped bodies, knowing that there was nothing he could do about them. A quiet cough broke him from his grim reverie and he hobbled back toward Ezra, using the pole to keep himself upright. “Hey, Ezra,” he greeted when the gambler coughed again, weakly.
Ezra lifted his gaze and stared back at the tracker with one eye. He blinked, turning his head as much as his position would allow. His hand jerked, trying to find his gun. A look of panic flickered over Ezra’s face as his hand flashed about on the sand, searching.
“Ez, hey, Ez. It’s me. Ezra!” Vin called urgently. He dropped down beside the gambler with a grunt and grabbed hold of the gambler's wrist. The damn derringer rig made it difficult to get a good grip on him. “Ezra, it’s Vin!”
Ezra continued to blink at him. It was several long seconds before a look of realization struck him. “Vin?” he asked dully.
“Yeah, you got that right.”
The southerner swallowed. “But, they shot you.”
“Got a hole in me,” Vin admitted. He gestured to his bandaged leg and frowned when he noticed the blood seeping though. “But I ain’t dead.”
“Six shots. I heard six,” Ezra murmured as he lowered his head, pressing half his face against the sand. “Thought they’d executed you.”
“Well, six ain’t enough to keep me down,” Vin said with a chuckle, and then added seriously, “That probably was the horses. Figure that fella there did it.” He nodded to the body near them. “Looks like you took care of 'im. Probably was the same one that got me this hole.”
“Good,” Ezra responded.
Vin wasn’t sure if Ezra’s response was regarding his bullet wound or the death of the man who’d killed the horses and caused the wound. “You got any holes in you?” Tanner asked.
Ezra blinked. “Don’t think so,” he responded.
“Hurt? You got anything broke.”
“Don’t know.” Ezra looked up to Vin. “It’s hard to be certain.”
“Can ya wiggle your toes any?”
The tracker waited, watching the wince that crossed the southerner’s face. “Yes,” Ezra responded.
Vin sighed in relief, hoping that this meant Ezra hadn’t broken his back…Lord help him.
Ezra’s eyes roamed, taking in the size of the wreck on top of him. “Can you get this monstrosity off of me?”
“It’s stuck hard.” Vin looked away, unable to observe his trapped friend when he stated, “It’s gonna be a trick to move it. The horses got the front of it pretty weighted down and then there’s that big box inside.”
Tanner said nothing, waiting for Ezra’s response, but the southerner remained silent. “Got this stick though. Maybe I can lever it up a bit and you can wiggle out.” He looked toward his friend finally. “Won’t be able to lift it much, but it might be enough.”
Ezra was staring beyond Vin, not looking at the upheld pole. “It’d be worth a try,” Ezra responded.
Vin nodded and resolutely, painfully, shoved himself back to his feet. “Just gotta get this thing lifted a few inches. Then you come on out, okay?”
“Yes, yes,” Ezra said.
Vin’s eyes searched, trying to find a decent place to set up a lever, and finally shoved it in between Ezra and the front wheel.
“You up to it?” Vin asked, pushing a rock into place to act as a fulcrum.
“I’ll do my best,” was the response.
Vin nodded, realizing that he’d receive no better answer than that. “Okay, I’m gonna shove down on this stick and when I do, I need you to get out. Ready?”
“As I’ll ever be.”
With that, Vin pressed his weight on the upraised pole. He gasped in sudden pain as the effort tore his wound open. The stage started lifting. Ezra sucked in his breath, valiantly trying to leverage himself up and out with his one free hand, but he stopped almost instantly, panting against the agony that caught him.
“Ez! EZ!” Vin yelled through his teeth, closing his eyes against he explosion of pain in his leg. “Get out! Get out!” The tracing creaked ominously. Ezra said nothing, clawing the sand beneath him with his one usable hand.
“Damn it, Ezra!” Vin squeezed his eyes tightly shut against the agony in his leg. “Get your ass out of there!”
Ezra gasped. The pole, too weak to lift the weighted stage, shattered and Vin, unable to catch his balance in time, painfully fell to the ground.
“Shit! Shit! Shit!” Vin barked, pounding his fist against the ground, venting his frustration on the earth. God, how was he going to get Ezra out of there if he couldn’t lift the damn thing? He rolled onto his back and clutched his freely bleeding leg. “Damn it!”
He lifted his gaze and sighed miserably when he noted Ezra. The southerner was trembling, his skin had gone white as chalk. “Ah, hell,” Tanner muttered.
Still holding onto the bleeding wound, Vin shuffled over until he was beside Ezra again. “You okay, pard?”
“Tried…” Ezra managed to say between panting breaths. His face was sweaty and ashen. He didn’t open his eyes.
“I know,” Vin responded. “Damn thing’s too heavy. I got no strength, and this bum leg…” Tanner grimaced in annoyance at his wound and his excuses.
His eyes drifted back to the gambler, who was trying to control his breathing. Ezra had pulled his free hand over his face.
“I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to hurt you worse. You okay?” Tanner asked quietly.
“Not so well, ” Ezra responded truthfully. “I couldn’t quite move. I believe my shoulder’s out. M’leg hurts…a bit.”
Vin closed his eyes. God! If he were a bit stronger, he could have wrestled the coach up, grabbed Ezra by his collar and yanked him out. “Sorry, Ez,” he said softly. “Looks like we gotta wait for help.”
Ezra nodded his head, and pressed his hand to his face.
They both were still for several minutes, catching their breath. Vin picked up the free half of the broken pole and tossed it away in disgust. Damn thing could never have lifted the heavy coach…why did he even bother. Had to do somethin’, he figured.
He glanced to Ezra, seeing him still breathing harshly, his hand hadn’t moved from his face. “Holdin’ out okay?” Vin asked.
A smile ghosted across the gambler’s face as he finally he pulled his hand back. “Managing…” he responded. His green eyes turned to Vin and he observed thoughtfully, “You’re bleeding.”
“Yeah,” Vin replied, glaring at the painful wound.
“You’d best tend to it properly.”
“Gotta make sure you’re okay. Cain’t exactly leave ya.”
“Mr. Tanner, it’s imperative that you remain in functioning order. I’m countin’ on you to take care of me in my predicament.” Standish lifted his free arm in futility. “I cannot do much on my own.”
“Yeah,” Vin agreed in frustration. He realized that if he let himself go, then Ezra wouldn’t stand a chance alone. He pulled his knapsack into his lap and started to undo the buckles. He had some cloth that would work for a better bandage, but he needed something to clean it properly.
“I acquired some Kentucky Bourbon recently. The finest of course,” Ezra expressed, seeming to read his thoughts.
“I expect nothin’ less.”
“It’s in my carpetbag. Hopefully the bottle’s still intact. If not, my clothing must have soaked up some of the contents. You’d best make use of it.”
As much as he dreaded getting to his feet, Vin realized that a festering wound was the last thing he needed. And, if he was off his head with fever, he wouldn’t be much help to Ezra. “‘Spect you’re right,” he replied. Slowly, Tanner managed to stand, using one of the wheels above his head for support, and then withdrew his hand quickly when he remembered that Ezra was still under it and didn’t need anything else pressing down on him. “Be back in a minute or so. Think you can behave until I get back?”
“What could I possibly do?” Ezra asked, gesturing to the rig above him. “I can’t even reach my cards, so one need not worry about me causing any sort of trouble.”
“Well, you and trouble, Ez, kinda go hand in hand.”
“Pot and kettle,” Ezra muttered. “Don’t bleed on my luggage,” he warned, closing his eyes as Vin moved away. He placed his hand over his face once more. “It costs more than you make in three months.”
Vin chuckled. “I’ll do what I can. Not promisin’ nothin’.” He staggered off with his knapsack in hand. He managed to make it around the stage and to the hole he’d bashed through the former top. The interior was a jumble. He found his jacket easily enough and pulled it clear. Ezra’s had disappeared.
He shook his head in wonder, looking at the mess. It was hard to believe that he had survived the crash inside this smashed thing. Wishfully, he searched for an axe. If he had one he could slice up this thing and move it off of Ezra piece by piece. No such device appeared.
The carpetbag was out of reach, resting not far from where Ezra was trapped. At least the heavy chest wasn’t near him. "You sure your hooch is the good stuff?" Vin shouted, wanting to get a response from the gambler.
“Of course, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra’s voice came back to him, a little muffled.
“Well, then I guess it’s worth the effort.” Vin grabbed hold of one of the benches and tried to wrench it free, but stopped immediately as his leg sharply reminded him that it wouldn’t stand for that. “Goddamn,” he gasped, bending forward and trying to catch his breath.
“Mr. Tanner?” Ezra called querulously.
“Hang on a sec,” Vin gasped. Damn, but it hurt. He should be resting now, having Nathan tend to him while Chris raged about this whole situation. He shouldn’t be the one in charge. But he was the only one who was mobile at the moment and if he were to take care of Ezra, he’d have to take care of himself first. He could feel the blood running down his leg, telling him to hurry. “I gotta get to that bag, Ez.”
“Isuspected that’s why you’d left.”
“It’s kinda on top of you and I can’t see how to get it without gettin’ in.”
“Do as you must. I have some Epicurean delights packed that might make our evening’s repast more pleasant.”
“Yeah, what’s that?”
“Food, Mr. Tanner.”
“Well that settles it. I’m goin’ in.” Vin set his knapsack outside and carefully, putting as much weight on his bad leg as it could handle, he made his way into the ruined stage. “You doin’ okay, Ez?”
“Fine,” was the too short answer.
Gotta get out of here. Gotta get off of him. Vin lurched forward, hanging on to a tilted wall, and snagged the carpetbag. He lurched backward, but the movement was more than his weakened and hurt body could stand. He gasped and tried to catch his balance, but his leg wouldn’t respond correctly and the torn up interior of the stage only tripped him up. He landed with an 'oof', on his butt just outside.
“Dang it!” he shouted in frustration. At least he had the carpetbag and since he was already seated he decided to tend to himself; the bandage was already red with blood. Standing at this point would not be a wise idea. He opened the bag and easily found the bottle, thankfully intact.
“You holdin’ out, Ez?” Vin called as he pulled his knife from his belt and started cutting through his blood-soaked jeans. There was no immediate answer. “Ezra?”
“Fine… M‘fine.” Ezra’s voice was weak.
“Well, I’ll be back right soon. Gonna take care of to this so I can hop around a bit more.”
Frowning deeply, Vin hurried to take care of the wound, splashing more bourbon than necessary in his haste. He bellowed in pain as the alcohol hit him, and sucked back a few swallows of the same in order to combat the new ache.
After ripping up some cloth, he tied up the bandage in a quick but efficient manner. It would hold, as long as he didn’t exert himself. He snagged the two bags, his jacket and a blanket, then struggled to his feet. Using another of the broken tracings as a crutch, he staggered back toward Ezra.
“Hey, Ez,” he said softly as he came around the back of the stage. Ezra hadn’t moved. His hand was still over his face. “Got it fixed up. Nate would be proud.” He sighed as he lowered himself beside his friend. “Figure I’ll keep the leg.”
Ezra still hadn’t moved. Vin waited. Finally, he pulled Ezra’s hand out of the way. Ezra’s face was slack and his eyes were closed. Vin laid his hand near Standish’s mouth, hoping to feel a breath. Don’t be dead. You can’t have died while I was away lookin' after myself. His other hand still held Ezra’s. He squeezed it softly, holding onto the cool hand as he waited to feel something.
And there it was, the quiet breathing on his fingers. He moved his hand to Ezra’s forehead and felt the skin, tacky with sweat. Ezra's whole face seemed to be covered with sand and grit. The day hadn’t become any cooler. They were looking at a long hot evening ahead of them.
Vin took up the canteen and searched through Ezra’s bag for something appropriate. He pulled out a pair of handkerchiefs. He moistened one of them and starting wiping down Ezra’s face with it. Water was at a premium, but the tracker figured the least he could do was to offer the gambler some small comfort. Ezra would hate to have all that crap on him. Standish mumbled softly, flinched and mumbled again.
“S’okay,” Vin murmured, washing away the sand and sweat. He tried to ease the other cloth under Ezra’s head before he got too far.
Ezra blinked, bewildered, as Vin lifted his head. He sucked in a long breath, but didn’t seem to see Vin as he gaze remained fixed in front of him. “S’okay, Ez,” Vin said softly, moving the cloth underneath. “Just tryin’ t’get your face out of the dirt. You’ll be happier.” When he was done and had Ezra settled again, the eyes closed and he drifted off. Vin finished his work, wiping the remaining sand and grit from the gambler’s face, flicking the bits off the handkerchief that formed the cardsharp’s pillow. Ezra continued to flinch from time to time, but didn’t wake again.
“Sorry, Ez,” the tracker apologized, wishing he could do something more, wishing there had been some other way to get the damn carpetbag out of the stage. “Damn sorry, Ez.”
The derringer rig was his next concern. It took a moment to figure out how the mechanism attached, but Tanner finally found the secret to it and removed it from the gambler’s arm. No use in keeping the uncomfortable bit of business on him any longer. How could he stand to wear it all the time? Must have gotten used to it.
Ezra tried to jerk his arm out of Vin’s grip at one point, but Vin quickly soothed him and he quieted again. He placed Ezra’s arm in what he hoped was a comfortable position, wrapped around his head as a sort of a windbreak, and then put the contraption in Ezra’s bag, along with the derringer.
Tanner exhaled slowly, feeling lightheaded. He stretched his injured leg out in front of him, noting that the bandage had not bled through and hoping that his handiwork might hold until Chris and the others found them. He was damn hot. He could find some shade if he moved to another side of the stagecoach, but he wasn’t going to leave Ezra here alone.
Allowing himself some respite, he tipped back the canteen and took a swallow. Damn, that was good. Temptation was to finish off the whole thing right then, but the contents hardly seemed enough for one, let alone two. He re-corked the canteen and set it safely beside him.
He sighed and started his vigil, keeping a close watch on his trapped friend.
SECTION 2 to find out what happened to Ezra and Vin