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.
Down the Amazon
How the hell did he do this, Vin Tanner thought as he leaned out the window. This was going to be difficult. He searched the underside of the eve and found a handhold. He tried it first, to make sure it would hold his weight, and then swung himself out of the window and half onto the roof. From this position he could clearly see what he was after. Yup, he was right. He searched for another handhold, found it, and was able to pull himself completely onto the steep metal roof of the saddle-shop. The sloping surface was too difficult to walk against, so he climbed to the peak and headed across from there.
The tracker had been on many of the roofs in town, but this one was always avoided because he thought it was impossible to reach without a ladder. He had been proven wrong. On the street below he could see JD and Buck talking. Josiah was stepping into one of the other buildings. Nathan was near the clinic and Chris was outside the livery. No one had looked up. He crossed the peak slowly until he reached the man in the red jacket, lying flat on his back on the lea of the roof, reading.
Vin carefully sat on the peak, just to the right of the man and said, "We've been looking all over for ya."
"Well, it would appear that you've found me," Ezra said absently, not taking his eyes from the book.
Vin wondered how the con man was able to stay in place and not slide to the ground below. "What're ya doin' up here?"
Ezra glanced at Vin, tipped the book slightly and then continued reading.
Vin sighed and said, "We've been tryin' to find ya for over an hour."
Ezra set the book down on his chest and stated, "I'm not scheduled for any duties. Is there a crisis that I should be alerted to?"
"You weren't in the saloon so JD started askin' if anyone had seen ya, and nobody could say. Chris wanted us to start lookin' around," Vin explained. "Your horse was still in the livery. You weren't in your room. Made us think that there was some sorta trouble."
"Well, as you can plainly see, Mr. Tanner, there's no trouble. I simply found a quiet place to enjoy some solitude," Ezra said, returning to the book.
"On the backside of the roof?" Vin shook his head. "Can't see ya from the ground, the feed shop's in the way. I wouldn't 'ave seen ya at all if I hadn't leaned out of the hotel window."
"Exactly," Ezra said.
"Well, you'll have to do some explainin' to Chris," Vin stated.
Ezra grimaced and set down the book again. "Simply because I wanted a moment to myself?"
Vin shrugged and stated, "We thought that somethin' had happened to ya."
Ezra groaned. "What am I supposed to do if I want quiet place to read?"
"I guess ya should go findin' someplace a little more obvious than this."
Ezra was about to speak again when he looked out across the prairie and frowned. Vin followed his glance and saw a plume of smoke in the distance.
"A farmer burning his field, perhaps?" Ezra tried.
"Wrong time of year," Vin replied. "Smoke's too dark. Looks like a house on fire." He stood uneasily on the slope. "We should check it out."
"I'm quite comfortable where I am, thank you," Ezra declared.
"Look, I'm gonna tell Chris where ya are when I get down there, and I doubt he's gonna let ya stay here all day."
"Then he may transverse the rooftop and retrieve me himself," Ezra responded and smiled slyly at the tracker.
Vin shrugged. "You'll have to come down eventually. Ya can come with me to check out that smoke. Get away from the man for a while if nothin' else."
Ezra looked up at Vin and apparently agreed. He shoved the book into his pocket and carefully maneuvered his hands and feet under himself, then crab-walked backward to the peak of the roof.
Vin laughed. "I wondered how ya were gonna to do that."
"It may not be graceful, but it's effective," Ezra said as he stood and then followed Vin across the peak toward the window. Vin hesitated at the edge and Ezra moved around him. The gambler grabbed the edge of the roof and easily flipped himself into the window hidden below.
Vin frowned and gazed over the edge. Well, if the gambler could do that, he could as well. He gripped the edge of the roof as Ezra had and attempted the same maneuver. He flipped, but his feet collided with the frame of the window. He would have been in some trouble if Ezra hadn't grabbed them and pulled his legs through and then grasped Vin by his shirt and helped him get his head in through the window.
Vin shook himself as he stood again on level ground. "Ezra, I could 'ave killed myself doin' that!" he blurted out.
Ezra shrugged. "Nobody asked you to those heights, Mr. Tanner."
Vin grumbled and hurried down the stairs to the lower level, where the shopkeepers looked up in puzzlement at the two men. They had remembered the tracker coming through earlier, but not the gambler.
The moment Ezra stepped out onto the boardwalk, he heard Chris shouting his name. "Ezra! Where the hell have you been?"
Ezra hid a cringe and turned to Chris, smiling mildly. "Why, I was reading, Mr. Larabee."
"Where?" the gunslinger demanded. "We got half this town torn apart lookin' for you."
Ezra glanced to his left, then his right, looking down the street. "The town appears to be in one piece. Or rather, it's usual, multiple pieces."
Vin interrupted, "We saw some smoke, Chris. Looks like someone's got a house on fire. Ezra and I were gonna go check it out."
"Yes, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said, "We'll investigate the conflagration."
Chris narrowed his eyes at the gambler. "You better not make any side trips on the way back."
"Not unless it were absolutely necessary," Ezra replied, touching the brim of his hat before he headed to the livery.
Chris grabbed Vin's arm, asking, "Where the hell did you find 'im? What was he doin'?"
"Like he said, he was just readin'," Vin responded with a smile and then turned to follow the
The two had ridden in silence toward the diminishing plume of smoke. As they drew closer, it became obvious that a house had burned to the ground. Ezra and Vin dismounted and slowly surveyed the scene. Vin was thankful that Chris wasn't with him. The sight that greeted them was eerily familiar. The house was completely destroyed, and within the ashes were the bodies of two people. The foul stench of burning flesh filtered through the air. It was a small cattle ranch, nothing very extravagant, and now even less so.
"Do you believe they suffered much?" Ezra asked somberly as he stood near one of the charred corpses, his expression bleak.
"I don't know, Ezra," Vin said, not wanting to think about it. Burning to death had to be a horrible way to go. He walked slowly around the destroyed building until he saw the tracks in the sand. "It looks like someone survived. Two horses with riders headed that way recently."
Ezra looked in the direction that the tracker was pointing. "Why? Surely, if they were in need, they should’ve come into town."
"Maybe they know someone out there," Vin said thoughtfully.
"Or maybe they're the people who caused this horrible tragedy," Ezra stated.
Vin nodded in agreement. "Yeah, the thing burned down pretty fast. Makes me wonder. I 'spect in any case, we should follow 'em. See if they need any help, or bring 'em in for justice if it's the other case. We can come back and take care of the bodies after we take care of those fellas."
"Very well, Mr. Tanner, let us not tarry," Ezra said as he mounted his horse. "I'd like to get back to my book." He looked to the darkening sky and frowned. "Lord, it looks like rain."
"Yeah, seems so," Vin replied.
Ezra sighed. "I do deplore the rain."
They headed across the prairie, following the path left by the others. They did not speak as they traveled. Vin's thoughts were on the fire. He preferred to believe that they were following the survivors, not the causes of it. It was easier to think that the deaths weren't caused by another human being. He hoped they ended up finding these riders safe and well at a neighbor's house. But they kept riding onward.
Finally, they slowed their pace as they drew near a lonely ranch house, drinking in whatever signs may present themselves. Cattle milled about the establishment under a dark and threatening sky. The first few raindrops were already starting to fall -- a promise that it was only going to rain harder.
"Your opinion, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra asked leadingly.
"I don't like the looks of it," Vin replied. He pulled his mares' leg, prepared for whatever was within the house and Ezra followed suit with his Remington. "Doesn't feel right."
"I agree," Ezra responded.
A voice within the structure shouted out, "Drop yer weapons or yer dead!" Vin and Ezra watched as rifles appeared at the windows of the large house.
Ezra and Vin exchanged glances and then reluctantly dropped their weapons to the ground. They were outgunned. Four men charged out at them, pulling both from their horses. Arms were twisted behind their backs. Both were searched and their weapons removed, even the sneaky little gambler's friend hidden within Ezra's sleeve.
"What have we here?" a man with a scraggly beard questioned, holding Ezra's arm pinned behind him.
"I know 'em," a man named Delancey said. "They're part of that group that guards Four Corners. The mountain man is Tanner. The city boy is Standish." Vin remembered Delancey; he had seen this man around town and had figured that he could be the kind to cause trouble. Apparently, he was right.
"They work with Larabee?" a third man, with light brown hair and cold gray eyes, asked.
"Yeah, Clem," Delancey responded.
"Interesting," Clem replied and then turned to their two captives. "And what do we owe the pleasure to, boys?"
"We were just passing through," Ezra replied. "And thought, on a whim, we might critique your hospitality. And seein' that you are adverse to our plan, we'll beg our leave." The man behind Ezra felt it was time to twist his arm a little more. Ezra closed his eyes against the pain and gritted his teeth.
"Do you honestly think I'd believe that?" Clem said. "Quincy, do you believe that?" he asked the scraggly bearded man.
"No, Clem," Quincy answered, "I think he's lyin'."
"I don't like liars, Standish," Clem went on as Quincy continued to twist Ezra's arm. Ezra squeezed his eyes tighter, stood on tip-toe and tried not to breathe. Quincy was taller than him and seemed to enjoy what he was doing.
"Let him alone!" Vin barked.
Clem snorted, and slammed his fist into Vin's stomach, doubling him over. He chuckled as Vin gasped for breath."I think the two of you are here to investigate something. Maybe you thought you'd come here and find my men here holding smoldering torches? Did Larabee send you?"
"We came to see if anyone was hurt," Vin said, struggling against the pain in his stomach and against the grip of the man who held him. He could see Ezra out of the corner of his eye. The gambler threw him a concerned glance, as he teetered in Quincy's grasp.
"Does Larabee know where you are?" Clem looked down at Standish who met his gaze impassively. Angrily, he backhanded the gambler, snapping his head to one side. Ezra slowly turned his head back and met Clem with the same still look.
"Take 'em down below, boys," Clem snarled.
The two were propelled into the ranch house and down through a trap door into the cellar. The rather large room had been dug down to the bedrock. A barred door was imbedded into the stone floor.
"Ya see, lawmen, we got our own holding cell here," Delancey said as he pulled a key from his pocket and unlatched the lock. He swung open the door. "Who's first?"
"Here's a volunteer!" Quincy responded, pushing Ezra forward. The gambler looked down into the pit and tried to get out of Quincy's grip, but the man had him too tightly and shoved him into the opening. He landed with a thud.
"Ezra?" Vin called with concern.
After a moment, the response came, "Quite all right, Mr. Tanner. Why don't you join me in these lovely accommodations?"
Vin stepped uneasily toward the edge of the pit, and the fourth man prepared to shove him in after Standish. Ezra stood below him, his hands behind his back, looking up in the otherwise empty hole. It was seven or eight feet deep and the floor was about the size of a bed. Vin could feel his stomach tie in knots at the thought of being in such a small, confined place. Someone shoved him closer.
Clem stopped him. "Leon, we're gonna want someone we can get to easily. Can't have both of 'em down there." With that. Clem pulled the heavy metal door off the ground and dropped it into place over the hole. It landed with an ominous crash. Delancey stepped forward and locked it
Leon pushed Vin to the wall. He handcuffed Vin's right hand to metal ring imbedded there. Delancey pulled off one of the tracker's boots and shackled the ankle in the same way.
"That should do it, " Leon declared. Although he didn't relish being shackled to the wall, Vin had to admit he was glad he was not in that pit. It was bad enough being closed up in this basement. He never liked the feeling of confinement.
"Now, I hope you boys are comfortable," Clem stated with mock congeniality. "You may be here a while." Clem walked past the cell-pit and glanced down into it.
"Why are you doing this?" Vin demanded to know.
"You should never have come here," Clem responded. "But since you did, I think I have a plan for you."
"And what, pray tell, is this plan?" Ezra's voice echoed from beneath them.
"Payback from that buddy of yours," Clem said.
"Buddy?" Ezra asked. "Who exactly is our 'buddy'?"
"Larabee," Clem replied darkly. "He owes me for somethin'. I think I've found a way to make him pay for it."
"Look," Vin said, "I don't know what you think he's done..."
Clem roughly grabbed Vin by his chin, forcing his head back. The tracker gasped as his head made contact with the stone wall behind him. Leon and Quincy drew their weapons.
Clem snarled, "He took something from me. I'm about to make things even."
Ezra's voice again came from below. "Retribution is a tricky thing. Tell me, sir, why'd you burn that home and the people within? What did they take from you?"
Clem released Vin with a jerk and glared into the hole behind him. "They didn't do what I wanted," Clem growled. He nodded to the other men. "Come on boys, let's make sure we don't have any more surprises coming our way." The four men climbed the steep stairs to the main floor and slammed the trap door shut behind them.
The moment they were alone, Ezra called from below, "Mr. Tanner, are you unharmed?"
"Yeah, Ezra," Tanner answered, tugging at the handcuff.
"It sounded like handcuffs and a leg shackle is that correct?"
"You know your restraints," Vin said glumly. "Are you okay in there?"
"Right as rain," Ezra replied and then paused a moment. "Speakin' of which, I suppose it's raining rather heavily by this time."
"Yeah, I'd think so," Vin responded.
"And what are the chances that our compatriots would be able to track us, considerin’ the precipitation?"
"Rain, amongst other things,... it makes one wet."
"Oh. It's not good, Ezra," Vin sighed.
"I do deplore the rain," Ezra said. "So, what's our next course of action?"
"Don't got much of a choice right now, do we?" Vin replied, somewhat irritated.
"No, I suppose not." He could hear Ezra pacing back and forth in the small stone cell. "It's unfortunate that our positions are not reversed. I'd be able to make short work of the restraints and we'd both be out of this situation."
"We'd still have ta get outta the house."
"That, Mr. Tanner, I'll leave up to you."
Chris kept his gaze on the street outside the saloon. Buck and Josiah shared the table with him, all of them watching the rain falling in the night. A dark shape ran through the wet street and in through the batwing doors. JD shook off the oilcloth that he had been holding over his head and noticed the others.
"Gee, what a downpour," JD said as he sat down beside the gunslinger. "It's like the whole sky just split open."
"Any sign of Vin or Ezra?" Chris asked.
"Nah," JD replied. "I was just by the livery and their horses ain't back yet."
"Probably holed up somewhere," Josiah said helpfully. "You know how Ezra hates the rain."
"I knew he'd get out of talking to me about this morning's business," Chris muttered. "Wish to hell I knew that they were all right."<
"I'm sure they're okay, Chris," JD told him. "They'll probably head for home as soon as the rain lets up."
Chris tossed back his drink and then said, "I've just had this bad
feeling all day."
"My luck is deplorable," Ezra muttered.
"What's wrong, Ezra?" Vin asked. He had been able to get reasonably comfortable on the pile of sawdust that formed his bed. The leg shackle gave him some room to move at least. He was trying to keep his mind off the closeness of the walls, and the overpowering urge to get outdoors.
"Here I am, with nothing to do, and I can't even read my book," Ezra grumbled dejectedly. "It's entirely too dark in here."
"That's too bad," Vin said, feeling a pang of jealousy. He wished he could read an entire book. He could hear Ezra pointlessly fluttering through the pages. "What's the book about anyway?"
"South America," Ezra replied.
"You're not thinking about taking a trip, are ya, Ez?"
Ezra chuckled. "One must always keep one's options open, Mr. Tanner."
Vin paused a moment, wondering if Ezra really was planning on leaving. He didn't know the gambler very well, and anything was possible with him. So what did it say about South America?"
"Quite a bit, actually. They've the most interesting animals, including the largest rodent in the world, the capybara. It's semi-aquatic."
"Aquatic. It likes the water."
"What's a rodent anyway? It's like a mouse, ain't it?"
"It's a order of animal that includes the mouse, rat, beaver, muskrat, nutria and so on."
"Yes, indeed. And there's a bird called the rhea. It's flightless and quite large. The males take on the task of hatching the eggs. Whole harems of females use the same nest and a single male may hatch as many as 50 eggs."
"Hey, that's sumthin'. You mean the guys have like 50 kids? How can one of them big birds take care of 50 kids?"
"It didn't delve into those details. They must be multi-talented," Ezra replied. "The most incredible societies once flourished there. They were murderous barbarians to say the least, but accomplished unbelievable feats. The cities they created were unparalleled and their artisans were very skilled. Of course they did practice human sacrifice, but they had a wonderful way with gold."
"Oh, there would be gold involved."
"Gold's what keeps it interesting."
Just then the trap door opened. Vin sat up as Quincy and Clem quickly descended the stairs and walked toward him. Quincy carried a bowl and a cup.
"Tanner," Clem said, "You look like a smart man."
"Not too smart, I guess. Look where we ended up," Vin replied.
Clem smiled. "Takes a wise man to realize his failings. Now tell me, Tanner, what'll Larabee do when he figures out that the two of you are missing? Will he come lookin' for ya?"
"You can go to hell," Vin growled.
"What'll he do?" Clem continued, "Will he be willing to negotiate, or will he come with guns blazing to our appointed meeting place? Will he bring others with him, even if I demand that he comes alone?"
"I ain't tellin' you nothin'," Vin replied.
Clem shrugged. "It doesn't matter in any case." He nodded to Quincy who set the bowl and cup down in front of Vin -- soup and water. "Eat up."
"Pardon me," a voice came from below, "Is supper is bein' served?"
Quincy and Clem headed up the stairs without answering Ezra. Vin looked down at the bowl, his stomach growling and then to the barred door that marked the top of Ezra's cell. "It's soup, Ezra. I can't get any of it to ya. I'm sorry."
"Quite understandable, Mr. Tanner," Ezra replied. "Enjoy your meal. Perhaps the second course will be easier to hand off."
Vin sipped the soup from the bowl, as he listened to Ezra pacing. Every few minutes the pacing would stop and he could hear the sound of the gambler jumping, obviously trying to reach the bars above him. Vin couldn't believe that they would feed just him and not Ezra. He had a very bad feeling about their future and no aspirations of "second courses".
His meager mean finished, Vin sought to quiet his anxious thoughts. "Tell me more about that book," he requested.
"I haven't read very much of it. So far it's discussed mainly the flora and fauna and a little of the culture."
"Well, what about that stuff? -- whatever flora and fauna is."
Ezra complied and told about the native cultures of the Moche, the Nazca, the Tacana, and the Inca, plus half a dozen other names that Vin couldn't for the life of him remember. Then went on to the animals found in the southern continent... the jaguar, the llama, the alpaca and vicuña, hoatzin, angingas, greater anis and the coati-mundi. Ezra talked until his voice was hoarse and finally said that it was a far as he had gotten in the book.
Vin was astounded at how much the southerner had remembered and again felt envious. There was a whole world closed to him. His reading skills were still so low that he could never see himself delving into such a complicated book. There was so much out there to learn.
The trap door was thrown open. Delancey and Leon walked slowly through the room, checking on their charges.
"It's time you boys went to sleep," Leon declared, grabbing one of the lanterns. "You don't want to keep us up with your yammerin'."
Delancey took the other lantern and the two left the basement, taking the light with them. The room was plunged into darkness. Only a few shafts of light filtered through the floorboards above them, and those eventually went away as the men above them went to sleep for the night.
Vin sighed, hating the totality of the blackness. He wished for stars.
"I suppose this means it's time to say 'goodnight', Mr. Tanner," Ezra said.
"Goodnight, Ez," Vin
sighed and lay down on his makeshift bed. He closed his eyes and fell to sleep.
"Chris," Josiah said, as he approached the darkly dressed man on the boardwalk. "You should go to bed. I'm on watch. I'll keep an eye open for them."
Chris sighed and glowered at the darkened town. It was well after midnight and the rain had stopped almost an hour ago. He leaned against the roof support and looked down the street, in the direction they'd be coming.
"They should be here by now," Chris said.
"They probably just bedded down wherever they were. Probably at some poor farmer's house, driving 'em crazy," Josiah said with a smile. "You'll see, they'll be back tomorrow."
Chris' expression did not change, and he glowered into the darkness.
Vin had no idea what time it was when he awoke. The basement was still dark, but he was certain that the night was over. He could hear their captors walking overhead, and light was once again filtering through the floorboards. He had slept reasonably well, considering the circumstances. The darkness troubled him though. He was not an 'indoor' person and this imprisonment made him edgy.
"Ezra? You awake?" Vin called, hoping that the gambler was up.
"Yes, Mr. Tanner," Ezra replied tiredly.
"You sleep okay?"
"In a word, 'no'."
Vin remembered that there was nothing in the cell for a man to sleep on. It was all stone walls and floor. "What time do ya think it is?"
"It's hard to say as I can't see my watch."
"Do you remember anymore about that book?" Vin asked. He wanted some distraction from their present situation.
"I'm afraid that I've related my total memory of it."
Vin frowned. He had enjoyed hearing about the distance place and wanted to know more. He never really felt that way about a book before, especially one that wasn't just a story. It must be nice, he thought, to be able to pick up a book, climb onto a roof, and read.
"Why were you on the roof, Ezra?" Vin asked.
"Are we back to that again?"
"Yeah, back to that. Why the roof? I mean, you could'a found other places to read. Why would ya go up to the steepest, most difficult roof to reach?"
"I enjoyed the solitude."
"I can understand that. I like being alone sometimes, too. I usually go out somewheres though, out on the range or into the wilderness."
"I'm not the wilderness type, Mr. Tanner. I'm more comfortable on the rooftops. I've spent many an afternoon upon the roofs across the south. It's often the only place to go where there are not throngs of people when you are in the larger cities. "
"Oh, I get it," Vin said and nodded in the dark. "That makes sense."
"You have to understand, Mr. Tanner, that in my profession it's often best to get out of sight when one is relaxing. I don't leave a favorable impression with most of the people that I encounter and many would enjoy finding me in a position of repose and take advantage of it."
"What? So you think that someone is out to get cha in Four Corners?"<
"Only Mr. Larabee," was the sly reply.
Vin chuckled. "Ya did get him plenty mad yesterday."
"I'd done nothin' to inspire that ire."
"I don't know. He just got it into his head that somethin' was wrong." Vin pulled at his bonds and said, "I guess he just got that feelin' a little early, that's all."
Ezra was silent for a moment and then said, "I didn't believe that anyone would be worried about my absence."
The tracker sighed. "For a man that acts as smart as ya do, ya can be pretty damned stupid sometimes, Ezra," Vin said without any rancor.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Ya think ya can just disappear for the better part of a day and have no one notice? Didn't cha think that someone would come lookin' for ya? Just to make sure ya were okay?"
Again there was silence, then finally, "It hasn't been my experience."
The trap door opened and Vin squinted against the dim light thankfully returning to their prison. "Good morning," Clem said as he descended the stairs with two lanterns. Delancey was at his heels, carrying a bowl and a cup. Only enough for one again, Vin thought. Clem set the lanterns into their places, illuminating the room.
"Breakfast," Delancey said, setting the bowl of thin gruel in front of the tracker.
"What about Ezra?" Vin asked lowly.
Clem shrugged. "I only need one of you mobile for the exchange," he said. He squatted down in front of Vin, and Delancey drew his pistol on the tracker. Clem smiled and drew back his fist. Vin prepared himself for the blow that came crashing just above his eye. He gasped in pain.
"It'll do you no good to kill him," Ezra shouted. "That won't support your plan."
Clem smiled. "Maybe your fancy friend is right, Tanner. It isn't time for this yet -- not yet." He turned sharply and left the room.
"I'm okay. The bastard hit me in the eye."
Vin sucked in his breath as he touched his aching eye. "Why the hell did he do that?"
"Because he could."
Vin looked to the bowl that'd been set down near him and nearly forgotten in his present pain. "Ezra, I still can't get any of the food to ya. Why the hell are they doin' this?"
"To dampen our spirits, Mr. Tanner. Please, go
ahead and eat what you've been given. You'll need your energy when we effect our escape."
At first light Buck and Chris had saddled their horses and headed after their missing friends. Buck assured Chris that they would run into the two any moment, but as they headed out into the prairie there had been no sign of Vin or Ezra.
There was no trace of a trail and Chris only had a vague idea of where the
smoke had come from the day before. They headed in that direction, hoping to
find Ezra and Vin quickly. The gunslinger wished he
could shake off the horrible feeling that followed him, the thought that his
men were in danger.
"How're you feelin', Mr. Tanner?" Ezra called.
"It's not so bad, Ezra. Got a black eye, I think." Vin sighed. His eye was swelling and the whole side of his head hurt. God, he wanted to get out of here. "What was that you said about the really big mouse? Wish I could see one of those."
Something suddenly sailed out of the cell and smacked into the wall above Vin's head, falling just to the left of him.
"Look at page 37," Ezra said.
Vin reached over and retrieved the book from the ground. He found the page with the drawing of the strange looking animal. "That's a mouse?"
"A capybara. It is in the same family as the mouse," Ezra replied. "The varmint family."
"Funny lookin' thing," Vin said as he flipped through the pages. "Hey, what's this on page ... 25?"
"Mr. Tanner, do you think I've memorized every page?"
"You knew which page the varmint was on."
"That was pure happenstance."
"Looks like it's a kind of a pig or somethin'."
"Could be a tapir. Perhaps a peccary. I do believe there was an image of one somewhere in that vicinity. I can't be sure."
Vin sat back and looked through the drawings, wishing he could read about them. There were a lot of big words and the book was much longer than anything Mary Travis had brought to him.
"Turn to page 52, Mr. Tanner," Ezra called to him and Vin complied, but found only a block of text on that page.
"Nothin' here, Ezra," Vin said.
"Of course there's something there. They're called words. Do me the favor of reading a passage or two."
Vin paused. "Ah, Ezra, I can't."
"Mr. Tanner, I'm aware of your valiant attempt toward literacy. I believe Mrs. Travis is a more than satisfactory teacher and am confident that you would be able to make your way through a few short paragraphs."
"Huh?" Vin replied.
"Just give it a try," Ezra returned and then added, "I'll help."
How did he know? Vin thought. He was certain that Mary hadn't divulged this secret. Vin looked helplessly at the words in front of him. These were nothing like his lessons. "The ame-zzzz-one." He stared at the word. "Aim-a-zone."
"Amazon, Mr. Tanner?"
"Yeah, okay, 'The Amazon rive-er...river. The Amazon River sa-tr-et-ca-hes... st..retch..ches...stretches from..." He stopped, feeling his face grow hot with his frustration. "It's too hard, Ezra. I've ain't never seen a lot of these words b’fore."
"Please, Mr. Tanner, I'm tired and cold, in the dark, hungry and thirsty and locked in this godforsaken cell without the least attempt toward comfort. The minimum I could hope for is to continue with my book."
Vin looked again at the top of that cell and shuddered, glad again that he wasn't the one in there. At least Ezra seemed to like small places -- that is, when he wasn't looking for high places. The least he could do, Vin decided,...was try.
Vin read as best he could, stumbling over the words with Ezra's interjected help. He would read each word slowly and then go back and repeat the whole sentence once he figured it out. It was a painstakingly slow process. Many of the words were frustratingly difficult. He would have to stop and spell them to Ezra.
"Oh yes, that word is 'thorough'," Ezra said.
"Thorough?" Vin replied looking at the word in disbelief. "How do ya figure that? Don't look like that a-tall."
"It's just the way things are," Ezra responded. "English is a most perplexing language."
And a little later, "Ah, I don't know about this one."
"Spell it, Mr. Tanner."
"I haven't the foggiest on that one."
Vin chuckled. "I thought you knew all the words, Ezra."
"First of all, I doubt that the origin of that word is English or even Spanish and secondly I don't know 'all the words'. That’s why I'm reading this book...to learn, Mr. Tanner."
It was funny, because Vin was actually enjoying this. The Amazon turned out to be a fascinating place, filled with strange animals and plants and the most exotic people. It was a place so different than anything Vin had ever seen or even imagined before. He could hardly believe it existed. He always prided himself at his ability to survive the wilderness, but after reading of the wilds of the Amazon, he wondered if he could survive that place.
"I don't think I'd want to go there, Ezra," Vin said after a while. "Sounds like a pretty dangerous place. What about that ana-codo thing?"
"Anaconda, the snake?"
"Yeah, that's right."
"I wouldn't want to meet one."
"And those poisonous frogs and the spiders. It all sounds pretty, well, bad. I mean, part of me would like to see it all, but it just doesn't sound very safe."
"That's why we are reading about it, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said. "It allows us to experience the location from the safety of our..." and he trailed off. "It allows us to keep our minds off of other things if nothing else."
"Yeah," Vin agreed. He wondered how much time had passed. He was hungry again, so it must have been getting late. Time passed pretty quickly when you were reading.
"I wanted to apologize, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said out of nowhere.
"For the time that you came to me to help you with writing your poetry. My response was unconscionable."
"Hell, Ez, you were drunk. I shoulda noted that," Vin said. "It's no big deal." Why was he bringing that up now?
"Nonetheless, I've not forgotten. I pride myself at acting the part of a gentleman and that was hardly fitting behavior. You're an excellent reader and have a great knack for poetry as well."
"Thanks, Ez," Vin
said, feeling a little bit proud of his accomplishment. He smiled down at the
book and continued reading aloud.
Chris and Buck surveyed the unsettling scene. It had taken them the better part of the day to find the ruined house. The fire that Vin and Ezra had investigated the previous day had burned a house to the ground. Chris dismounted and walked hurriedly to one of the bodies in the rain soaked ashes.
Buck caught up to him. "It's not one of them," he said distinctly to Chris. "This guy's too big. It's not one of them."
He saw Chris' features relax and then turn to the other body. It wasn't burned as badly as the first; its legs were mostly untouched.
"I don't recognize those boots," Buck ensured. "It's not them."
Chris' expression stayed morose. It may not have been their friends, but two people had died horrible deaths in that fire.
"Where are they?" Chris looked futilely for a sign of Vin and Ezra's tracks, but the rain had washed away all trace.
"Not here," Buck said, "Maybe they've headed home by now. They could'a gone home by another way, tryin' ta find some shelter from the rain."
They buried the bodies, laying them to rest. As they finished the work, someone caming toward them. "Look, it's JD," Buck commented. "He's probably comin' to tell us that they've showed up, finally. I bet Ezra's got a game goin' already to make up for lost time."
The two men mounted and headed toward the youngest of their group.
JD shouted to them as they drew nearer to each other, "Chris! I got something for you!" The sheriff held out an envelope. "Someone shoved it under the door of the jail while I was out."
Chris took the envelope and noted first that it was addressed to him, and second that it was already opened.
"I had to see what it was," JD admitted somewhat embarrassed. "Look for yourself. It's important."
Chris pulled out the letter and read it aloud so that Buck could hear. "We got your men. If you want to see them alive again, you will do as I say. Wait for further instruction."
Buck's face fell. "Do you know who left it?" He asked JD.
"No," JD replied angrily. "There's no one in the cells, so no reason to stay there. I came back after breakfast and found it."
"Think this has something to do with that?" Buck said, indicating the burned house with his head.
"It's highly possible," Chris returned.
"So all we gotta do is figure out who would'a murdered those folks and then we can get an idea of where Vin and Ezra are," Buck stated.
"That ranch belonged to the Thompson brothers," Chris supplied.
"Yeah, they're just small time ranchers," JD added. "They're dead? Who would'a wanted to kill 'em?"
"We figure that out and we got a way to find Vin
Clem and Delancey descended the stairs again. Vin met them with one eye.
Clem smiled at the sight and said to him, "Larabee should have my letter by now. He'll be wondering what I'm planning. What do ya think he is doin' right now?"
"What difference does it make what I think?" Vin asked.
"None, I suppose," Clem told him. "Think he's worried about what's happened to you and your friend? Think he'll do as I ask? What would he do if I sent one of you boys back in a box?" He pulled a gun from his holster and pointed it at Vin. "Think it'll make him listen up and do what I want?"
"I don't know what the hell you want," Vin spat, glaring down the barrel of the gun.
The man raised the weapon and fired above Vin's head. The shot ricocheted off the wall, sending out a spray of rock shards. The concussion of the blast resounded in the stone-walled basement and Vin grunted as one of the shards struck his arm, drawing blood. Clem lowered the gun to point it at Vin's head again, grinning evilly.
"Vin?" Ezra shouted. And a rock arched out of the cell, just missing Clem. "Leave him alone! Vin? Are you okay? Vin?" and another missile came toward them.
Vin, still shaken from the shot, finally found his voice. "I'm okay, Ezra."
A third rock made its way to the surface, this time striking Clem in the back Vin looked up in alarm as Clem turned the gun toward the cell. "Knock it off, Ezra! Stop it!"
But it was too late, the man fired into the cell and laughed.
"Oh God, Ezra!" Vin shouted, hating the fact that he couldn't see the gambler. He lunged forward, forgetting his bonds, trying to stop Clem, but the man was out of reach.
"He's fast," Delancey said, and watched as Clem fired again. "Just look at him jump."
The two men laughed as Clem emptied the gun into the stone cell. Vin felt his heart leap at every shot, but he heard nothing from Ezra. He lunged again, gasping in pain, stopped by his restraints. Finally the gun was empty and the two men continued to stare down into the cell.
"Ezra?" Vin shouted. "Ezra, talk to me!"
He finally could hear the con man coughing. "I'm quite all right, Mr. Tanner. There's no cause for alarm."
"No cause for alarm," Delancey echoed.
Clem pulled his second pistol out of his holster and held it at Vin. "Now you're going to behave or maybe I'll go back to this game of mine. It was quite entertaining to say the least."
"What do you want?" Vin growled, keeping his eyes on the pit in front of him. He could still hear Ezra coughing. The damn cell must have been filled with smoke from the gun. He couldn't understand what Clem wanted. Clem didn't seem to even care if Vin answered any questions.
"I need ya to write a note to Larabee, to let him know of your predicament."
Vin leveled a glare at Clem and demanded, "Let 'im out of there. He'll write it for ya."
Clem shook his head. "I don't care about that one. He's my insurance and nothing more." He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and held it in front of the tracker. "What I need for you to do is to write to Larabee and tell him how we've been treating you."
"I can't write," Vin said darkly, hating the man for forcing him to reveal this fact. He was still learning and it took all of his concentration to write the simplest thing. "Let Ezra out of there and he'll do it. He writes real perty." He looked back at the cell and asked, "Ezra, are ya okay?"
"Right as rain," Ezra replied after a moment.
"Are you hurt? Did they hit you?"
"I don't think that was their plan," Ezra answered.
"You didn't answer the question!" Vin shouted back.
"Enough of this, Tanner," Clem declared. "I need to send something to Larabee." He looked at Vin's boot that was still sitting nearby. "Would he recognize your boot, Tanner?"
"I reckon he would," Vin replied.
Delancey picked up the boot and then smiled. He approached Vin slowly, looking first to Clem. "You're bleeding very conveniently, Tanner," He said as he rubbed the boot against the open wound on the tracker's hand. Vin grimaced against the pain.
"That'll look good," Clem said with a smile. "What should we do about that one?"
Delancey looked into the cell and said, "Give me your hat, Standish."
"You can rot in hell," Ezra returned, still coughing.
Delancey, standing beside the cell so that its inmate could clearly see, raised his gun and pointed it at Vin. "I'll shoot your friend. It's a simple enough request." He smiled and then reached down through the bars and came up with the hat. Vin could see from his position that there was a hole through the brim, and blood. "This'll do just fine," Delancey said.
Clem nodded to Vin. "We'll see ya later." And the two men exited the basement.
"Ezra, you're hurt."
"As are you," Ezra replied quietly.
"It's not bad. A rock hit my hand. Tell me, no foolin', how bad are you hurt?"
"Just a graze, Mr. Tanner. Nothing to be concerned about," he answered. "I'll tend to it now."
Vin could hear the sound of fabric ripping. "Where are you hurt?" Tanner asked.
"An inconsequential area."
"Ezra, the blood was on yer hat!"
"It's only a scratch, I assure you, Mr. Tanner. He hit my ear if you must know. I'm hoping that I'll not be horribly disfigured from this encounter. How's your eye?"
"Swolled up pretty good. Hurts."
"That, I'm sorry to hear."
After a few moments Ezra was walking about in his cell and jumping again. Vin could hear the disappointed grunt as the gambler missed his mark and fell to the ground. Vin glanced at his arm restraint and noticed that the ring seemed to be a bit looser. He must have pulled it out slightly when Clem was shooting. He felt a glimmer of hope, a chance to get out.
"Ezra, I might be able to get this ring outta the wall." He tugged on the ring and it wobbled.
"That would be a grand start to our escape," Ezra said with sigh. He had stopped his attempts to reach the bars, and Vin thought he heard him sit down.
"Ya sure yer okay?"
"Nothin' to worry about, Mr. Tanner. Truly." And after a moment, "Our captor is a madman."
"Yeah, it kinda seems that way." Vin worked at the ring in the wall for several minutes. It didn't seem to budge, but at least it was loose. His hands were tired with the work after a while and he figured he'd better give it a rest. "You wanna hear more of the book?"
"That would be delightful, Mr. Tanner," Ezra replied. "I'd
enjoy floating down the Amazon at this moment. It seems to be the preferable
place to be."
"Chris," Josiah said urgently and motioned the gunslinger into the church. There in the middle of the building was a wooden box with 'Larabee' written on it. Chris approached it slowly and looked to Josiah. "I just found it here. Nobody around it."
Chris carefully lifted the lid and frowned at its contents. Ezra's hat was on top with a note stuffed into the band. There was a hole through it, and blood under the brim. Under it was one of Vin's boots, also bloody.
"Son of a bitch," Chris said under his breath as he pulled the note from the hat.
He read the contents slowly. "Larabee, meet me at Kotter's Ridge at noon tomorrow or they both will be dead. Come alone. Unarmed. If I do not return, your men will be executed."
"Who is it?" Josiah asked as he looked from the note to the contents of the box.
"I don't know, Josiah," Chris answered. "The others should be back by now. Let's see what they came up with."
They met up with Nathan, JD and Buck at the jail and sat around the desk.
Chris showed them the letter, the hat and boot, and a somber mood fell over the
"What do they want?" JD asked. "They just want you to go to Kotter's Ridge?"
"That's all it says. What've you come up with?" Chris asked the others.
"The Thompson's weren't very well liked by their neighbors. They let their cattle pretty much run wild. Some of the folks around them think they might have been involved with some minor cattle rustling," JD said. "It's usually was just a couple of cows. "
Buck nodded and said, "They got a lot of neighbors who didn't like 'em. The neighbors are mostly decent folks. Just wantin' to live their lives without trouble."
"They did let us know one curious thing though," Nathan said. "Some of the folks out there have been approached by this man, Clement Vaughn. He's been trying to buy up their property to enlarge his ranch."
"I know 'im," Chris stated.
"Yeah, I've heard of him, too," JD said. "He's got a pretty big ranch to the north. Lots of cattle."
"I killed his brother," Chris stated simply.
The others looked to him, and started to think up a plan.
It was getting easier to read the book since many of the words repeated. The new ones were often terribly hard.
"Verdant foliage," Vin said for the forth time.
"Yes, I think you have it now."
"What does it mean?"
"Why doesn't it just say green plants then? It would be a whole lot easier."
"Because one way is mundane and the other is beguiling."
"Yeah, ah, okay." And later on... "Pre-sip-a-ta-te-on."
"What did I say about T.I.O.N.?"
"Ah, T.I.O.N. sounds like 'shun'."
"Pre-sip-a-ta-shun.... Precipitation. Hey! You said that one before. It's rain, right?"
"Mr. Tanner, you're an apt pupil."
"I hope that's a good thing."
Vin continued his efforts throughout the day. "Pee-ran-ha?"
"Spell it, would you Mr. Tanner?"
"P I R A N H A"
Silence for a moment. "Piranha? I think that would be correct."
"Man, that piranha is a mean and nasty ol' fish, Ezra. There's a drawin' of it here. It looks like it is all teeth, and what's left is plenty ugly."
It took a few minutes, but Vin was finally able to put together the sentence that followed. "Once aroused, a school of piranha can quickly reduce a large mammal to a skeleton."
"Indeed? I wouldn't enjoy an encounter with such a creature. Perhaps it'd even put Mr. Larabee off of a fishing adventure."
"I wonder if they're good eatin'."
"By your excellent description, my thought would be 'no'."
Vin smiled. "Yeah, it don't look too tasty." His eye still ached. His hand stung and bled. His wrist was beginning to hurt from pulling at the restraint so much. The ring continued to wobble but stayed firmly attached to the wall. But, all things considered, he was rather comfortable for the moment. The moment ended abruptly.
The trapdoor opened again and Vin shoved the book into his pocket. Clem and Quincy came down and walked toward Vin with a canteen and his dinner.
"Thirsty?" Clem asked, as Quincy poured out a cup and set it before Vin.
"Ezra gets some this time," Vin demanded.
"I was thinkin' I may need some more target practice," Clem said, aiming down at the cell again.
"Then you'd best provide me with refreshment of some sort," Ezra said from below. "You'll want me active, will you not?"
Quincy threw the canteen onto the barred door, where clattered and stayed. The two men laughed.
"We sent a message to Larabee," Clem said. "Will he come alone to the meeting place?"
"If I knew, I wouldn't tell ya," Vin growled. He looked at the bowl of soup that was placed in front of him and said, "Ya can't keep doin' this."
"I can do whatever I want, Tanner," Clem said with a grin. "In fact, you'd be surprised by the things I can do. Larabee will pay most perfectly for what he's done to me."
"And what, exactly, is it that our esteemed Mr. Larabee'll pay for?" Ezra called out.
Clem didn't shift his gaze from Vin as he spoke. "The bastard murdered my brother, Aaron. That boy hadn't done anything worse than kill a couple of whores. Tomorrow at noon, your Larabee will get the pleasure of seeing you die before his eyes, Tanner." He jerked his head toward the cell behind him. "That one we're keeping. You see, Larabee can't do anything to me if he is still missing one of his men, now can he?"
Clem smiled and said, "Keep your strength up, Tanner. We're goin' for a little ride tomorrow." He then turned toward the door. Quincy made a move to pick up the discarded canteen but Clem stopped him and said, "Leave it there. Let him think about it."
Once the trapdoor shut again, Vin turned back to the cell just in time to see the canteen stand on its head as Ezra caught hold of its strap. After a second, it disappeared between the bars, followed by the sound of Ezra landing rather loudly below. "Pretty good jumpin', Ez," Vin commented.
"Indeed, but it'll have to improve," Ezra replied. Vin could hear him open the device and drink. The gambler must have been pretty thirsty by now; it was well over a day since they had been locked up.
"I'm gettin' pretty close to getting my hand free," Vin said.
"Excellent, Mr. Tanner. What are your chances of freeing the leg restraint as well?"
Vin sighed. "I think the one on my arm was a bit loose to begin with. The leg ring is pretty solid."
"Do you believe that you could reach my cell once your arm is freed?"
Vin looked at the distance between them. "Yeah, it looks like I'd just reach."
"Continue with your work, Mr. Tanner. The Amazon will have to wait." Vin could hear Ezra again jumping within the cell. After several attempts, he said, short of breath, " Do you believe that Mr. Larabee and the others are looking for us?"
"Yup," Vin replied as he worked.
"Do you think they've ascertained our whereabouts?" Vin puzzled for a moment so Ezra restated, "Do you think they know where we are?"
"I don't know." They were silent for a while as Vin continued to worry the restraint.
"I suppose I just don't fully understand," Ezra said finally.
"What? What don't you understand?"
"Everything," was the enigmatic reply. Vin waited and Ezra eventually continued, "You'd asked me earlier why I thought no one would worry about where I was if they couldn't easily find me."
"Yeah, well ya said it hadn't occurred to ya or somethin'."
"I'm afraid that much of this is new to me. I'm unused to the rigors of friendship. I've had mostly acquaintanceships and a few partnerships in my lifetime, but little to do with friendship. I behaved somewhat selfishly by disappearing. I hadn't thought that this would cause apprehension amongst all of you. That was not the act of a friend. I just don't understand what it means to be a friend."
Ezra stopped talking when Clem suddenly came down the stairs, with his gun drawn. "You boys keep quiet now or I'll aim next time. Keep your mouths shut, I'm sick of hearing you."
Vin watched sadly as Clem
removed the lanterns again from the room.
Nathan, Josiah, Buck and JD slowly approached the Vaughn Ranch.
"Remember boys, we are just coming in for a look-see," Josiah said softly.
The ranch was quiet. They could see one man standing near one of the outbuildings who sauntered across to the house and went inside. He came back out with two other men.
"Afternoon," Buck called as they approached.
"Afternoon," one of the men returned.
"Is Clement Vaughn here?" JD asked.
"That would be me," Clem said as he stepped out of the house, joining the other three men. "What can I do for you gentlemen?"
"We are lookin' for a couple of our friends," Nathan spoke up. "They might 'ave passed through this way. Have you had any visitors over the past two days?"
"Nothin' beyond the coyotes," one of the other men responded.
The four lawmen watched the four ranchmen. Buck wished that either Vin or Ezra were with them, both of them were skilled at reading people. The ranchers seemed pleasant enough, but looks could be deceiving.
"If you wanna look around, you're more than welcome," Clem said. "I'd offer you somethin' for supper, but I'm afraid we've just cleaned up."
The four lawmen dismounted and began their search with the ranchers. Josiah and Nathan checked the outbuildings with the men named Leon and Quincy. JD and Buck went through the ranch house with the other two men, Clem and Delancey. There was nothing out of order or suspicious, no sign of blood, not a whisper of a clue. Clem and the others were relaxed and congenial throughout, showing them around with an easy manner.
When the four lawmen started toward home they spoke quietly to each other. "Maybe we're wrong," JD said. "We didn't find anythin' out of the ordinary. Didn't find Vin and Ezra's horses or anythin'."
"Hell," Buck grumbled. "This was our best lead and we got nothin' out of it."
Josiah looked over his shoulder at the ranch house and frowned. The connection between Vaughn, the burned Thompson place and Chris was too neat. "Vin and Ezra may be already at Kotter's Ridge. Hopefully Chris has found something."
The other three nodded and turned their horses to Kotter's
Ridge and Chris.
Vin was glad to see the trap open and the light returning, but he didn't like the look of Clem and Quincy as they stormed down the stairs with the lanterns.
"He knows!" Clem yelled at Vin. "How the hell does he know?" And slammed his fist into the tracker's stomach, doubling over the tracker. He gasped with the pain. Quincy kept his pistol aimed at Vin's head.
"Who knows what?" Ezra shouted.
Clem didn't turn from Vin, whose face had gone white. "Larabee sent some of his friends out here. They searched the property, but didn't know enough to look under the rug." He struck Vin again, just as hard.
Vin grunted and shook his head, trying to clear it as Ezra continued his attempt at distracting the man. "Well, it seems that they've discovered a clue, which led them to you."
Quincy snorted. "They left. They got nothin' on us."
"Perhaps," Ezra replied. "Or they're well aware of who you are and what you've done. It may be in your best interest to end this now and release us. It would be the wise choice." Clem drew back to strike Vin again as the gambler continued, "You're not so stupid are you?"
Vin saw the anger in Clem's eye and shouted, "Shut up, Ezra!" But the man had his gun out again.
"Who are you to tell me what to do?" Clem growled as he aimed the gun into the cell. "Do you know how easy it would be for me to end you?"
"As easy as shooting fish in a barrel, I would suppose. But there's hardly any sportsmanship in that," Ezra replied levelly.
Clem smiled at this comment. "You're right," he said and fired the
It was growing dark when Buck, JD, Nathan and Josiah met up with Chris. The gunslinger had spent all afternoon at Kotter's Ridge. Looking for any sign of movement, any trace of a clue, waiting for Clement Vaughn to arrive, wondering exactly when he would come. Would Vaughn wait until tomorrow or would he get himself set up tonight? Finally, having found nothing, he had turned toward the Vaughn ranch, hoping to find something from the others.
"Anything?" Chris asked, already knowing the answer from the looks on their faces.
"Nothing," Nathan answered. "We searched the whole place. Not a clue."
"Did they give ya any trouble?" Chris asked.
"No," Josiah replied, "They even invited us in, very kindly. Vin and Ezra must be held somewhere else. Was there any trace of them at the Ridge?"
Chris shook his head slowly. "Nobody's been there since the rain."
The five horsemen sat quietly for a moment, trying to decide their next move. JD sighed, feeling horrible. Why couldn't they find their lost men? They thought they had the answer to the problem, but Vin and Ezra were still missing.
JD looked out over the range at a small shack in the distance. They were still on Vaughn property. "I wonder," JD said and turned his horse toward it. The others remained for only a minute and then followed the young sheriff.
They slowly approached the structure, guns drawn. There was movement within. Chris motioned to the others and he crept to the door with Josiah at his side. He grabbed the latch and nodded. As the door was thrown back, both men aimed their guns within, with three more guns ready behind them.
Two familiar horses looked at them in surprise. They were the only inhabitants of the small building. The five men audibly released their held breaths. "e;Easy boy," Chris said, reaching out to touch Vin's horse. The two animals nickered, recognizing the men who greeted them. By the looks of things, they'd been here for a while, probably all day.
Buck looked down at the tracks around the shed, wishing again that Vin were with them. The tracks were easy enough to discern though, having been left after the rain.
"By the looks of it," Buck said, "Three horses came this way and one left, back toward the Vaughn house. We should go take another look at that ranch."
Chris examined the tracks. "You looked everywhere? The hay loft, the attic, the cellar?" <
"We looked everywhere, Chris," Nathan replied.
JD added, "Didn't have a cellar."
Chris met Dunne's eyes. "The hell they don't. A ranch as big as that would need one."
"Dear God," Josiah sighed, "They're in the cellar."
Buck looked confused and then angry. "Damn it, they must have a trap-door entrance. No outside entrance though. They had a big ol' rug in the main room. Damn it! How the hell did I let that go past?"
JD stood with his mouth agape. "You mean we were in the house and they were there the whole time? We missed 'em?"
"Looks like it," Nathan said slowly.
JD looked at Buck. "How could we miss 'em like that?"
Buck said, "We were stupid, JD." And he remounted his horse. Buck
waited until Chris and Josiah had gathered the horses of their missing friends,
and then the five men and seven horses started back the way they had come.
"Ezra?" Vin called again as he pulled with all his might at the ring that held him to the wall. "Ezra, damn it, talk to me! Say something!" There was no reply. Clem and Quincy had left the cellar in a hurry, laughing. And now for the longest time he hadn't heard the slightest response from the gambler. Vin could feel the ring becoming constantly looser. With just a little more work he'd have it pulled from the wall.
"Come on, Ezra," Vin said desperately, "You gotta be okay. We're gonna get out of here. You and me... we're gettin' out. Say somethin', Ez." He could feel a panic rising in him. The feeling of being closed in was returning. He didn't think he could handle this without Ezra to talk to. And he felt guilty with that realization. God, he hoped the man was all right. Please, Ez, he thought, ya gotta be okay. He added aloud, "I'm gonna need your help when I get back to that book."
"Where'd we leave off?" Ezra's voice answered, sounding weak and tired.
"Ezra! What the hell happened? Are you okay? Did he hit you?"
"I think... I think... I hit myself," came the quiet reply. "I think... I hit my head. Ran headfirst into a rather-- uncompromising wall."
Vin sighed. "Damn it, Ezra, you scared the crap out of me. Are ya okay?"
"Hmm, head hurts-- like the devil. Please, tell me that you've managed to free yourself, Mr. Tanner."
"Not yet, Ezra. I'm working on it," Vin said and tugged again at the ring. With a satisfying 'ping' it suddenly pulled free of the wall and Vin grinned at his now free hand. "I got it!" There was still the shackle on his leg, but he had finally freed his hand.
He looked to the trap door above for a moment and then slid out on his stomach toward the cell door. By pulling the shackle on his leg tight he could bring his head fully over the opening, just beside the lock.
"Ezra?" Vin called. In the dim light of the cellar, the pit was almost completely dark. He could not see Ezra at all. God, he hadn't realized that it was so dark in there.
"Look, I got my hand free," Vin said holding the still cuffed arm over the cell.
Suddenly two hands slammed on the bars with a "wham," startling Vin backward. And then the hands started walking toward him on the cell door.
"Help me, Vin!" Ezra cried, hanging just below him now, his green eyes blazing in the dimness.
"What? What do you want?" Vin asked, still startled by Ezra's sudden appearance, hanging just beneath him.
"The lock," Ezra said through gritted teeth. "Get to the lock." Vin could see the bandage that Ezra had applied the day before, askew on his head, and he had a rather nasty looking welt on his forehead. His pupils had that tell-tale quality of concussion. "Have to get to the lock."
"I can't do it, Ezra," Vin said staring down at him, "I don't know how to pick it."
"I do," Ezra said breathlessly. "Can't reach it... without help."
Vin understood and reached down through the bars to grasp the gambler's clothing. The handcuff, still attached to his wrist, came dangerously close to striking Ezra on his already damaged on the head. Ezra glared at him.
"Sorry, Ez," Vin said as he grasped through the man's jacket, waistcoat and shirt to get as much purchase as he could. "Gotcha," he said.
He felt Ezra's weight increase in his hands as the gambler released his right hand from the bars and came up with a carefully bent piece of wire.
Ezra reached over the top of the lock and started searching. Vin could feel the sides of the cell biting into his forearms as he struggled to hold Ezra up. "To the left, the left!" Vin encouraged and then watched as Ezra moved the tool the wrong way. "No, my left."
Ezra rolled his eyes and moved the tool in the opposite direction until it found the lock and slipped the tool easily inside. Vin watched as Ezra's expression changed from fiercely determined to almost wistful, as he fiddled the tumblers into place. And then, the most wonderful sound in the world followed, the lock clicked.
The two men smiled. Vin looked up suddenly as he heard footsteps approaching the trapdoor. "They're coming!" he hissed and released his hold on the gambler. Vin heard Ezra land with a heavy thud as he scuttled backward to his place and push the pin of the ring back into the wall.
If those bastards tried anything this time, he at least had his hand free. And Ezra's cell was unlocked now. If he could disarm one of the men, they were halfway home.
Leon and Delancey entered the cellar, checking on the prisoners. "Look's like Sleeping Beauty is still out," Delancey said, gazing into the pit. "It's time you were out, too." The man smiled at Vin. "You've got a busy day tomorrow." And they picked up the lanterns and started to leave.
"Why are ya doin' this?" Vin asked the departing men. "What does that man's revenge have to do with you?"
Leon turned slowly and faced Vin. "Clem pays us pretty good. $500 is reason enough." The two men ascended the stairs and the cellar was again plunged into darkness.
"Ezra?" Vin called out. He waited for a reply and heard only a sickening silence. "Come on, Ezra, don't cha do this to me again!" He remembered the sound that Ezra made when he hit the floor of the cell. It didn't sound like he landed very well. "Please, don't do this again!"
almost outta this, Ezra. You better say somethin'." But there was no answer.
The five men approached the ranch house in the growing darkness. It was starting to rain again.
"They were nice and friendly the first time," Buck said. "Let's hope they haven't changed their attitude."
"Who's out there!" A voice shouted from within the house.
"Chris Larabee," Chris shouted back. "You're gonna release my men now!"
Chris recognized the voice that followed as Clement Vaughn. "Go to hell! You've clinched their fate, Larabee. You didn't keep your end of the bargain. They're dead men."
Chris and the others leveled their weapons at the house, looking for any sign of Clem or the other men. "Your only chance of making this out alive is if you release them now," Chris shouted.
"Like I give a damn," was Clem's reply, and then the gunfire began.
Nathan ducked for cover behind a tree. JD and Buck ended up behind a rocky
outcrop. Chris and Josiah found similar cover.
Vin was stretched out on his stomach, calling into the pit again. Everything was dark in cellar, as the sound of gunfire resounded outside.
"Ezra, come on, wake up," he called hopefully. "Please, Ezra, they're here now. Hear 'em? We're gettin' out." Blackness and no Ezra. Vin wanted to open the cell, but didn't dare for fear of being caught. It wouldn't have done any good, since Vin was still attached to the wall and couldn't get to the gambler. He wished to hell that Ezra would answer him. He stopped when he heard footsteps nearing and barely had time to make it back to his place when the trap door slammed open. Leon ran into the basement. His movements were nervous and quick as he set his lantern down on the table and then started walking around the room with a large bottle in his hand. Vin smelled the kerosene as Leon poured it liberally onto anything wooden in the cellar.
"No!" Vin shouted. "What are ya doin'? Why?"
"Gotta finish this," Leon replied.
"Listen, ya give this up now, ya got a chance," Vin said quickly, hoping for anything. "Y'all hang for murder if ya do this. That's not worth $500."
Leon just shook his head. "I'm hung already for those Thompson boys. We
just gotta make sure that nobody wins." He continued
around the room, saturating everything and then threw the empty container into
the corner. "You boys are gonna burn," Leon said and exited through
the trap door, slamming it shut behind him.
The ranchers were on the front porch now, at least three of them. Josiah managed to hit Quincy, but the other two were still firing. Leon, the fourth man, came running out of the house and was struck by Chris. Only two left, Buck thought. Delancey made a dumb move and was easily picked off by JD. Only one now. They were going to get Vin and Ezra out of this.
Buck reloaded, turned back to the house and his jaw dropped open at the
sight. "Oh my God," he muttered in horror. The house was alive with
Vin grabbed the empty tin cup and leaped forward to the cell. He worked to swing open the heavy door. He could just barely make out the form of the gambler in the dimness.
"Ezra, you have ta wake up NOW!" Vin shouted urgently. And he flung the cup into the cell. It landed with a crash a few feet from Ezra's head. "Get up!"
The gambler jerked and softly said, "Why?"
Vin sighed in relief. "Because they're about to burn down the house with us in it. The others are here. We just gotta get to them," Vin said, "Can you get up?"
Vin watched as the shape below him rolled over and then stood with the aid of the wall.
Ezra looked up at him. "The door's open," he said in wonder.
Vin reached down. "Come on. Grab on, I'll get cha out." Ezra started to reach up but stopped and stooped down to the floor, feeling around. "No time to mess around, Ezra!" Vin cried. He looked toward the trap door. He could smell burning wood over the powerful odor of kerosene. "Now, Ezra!
"In a moment, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said calmly as his hand moved quickly the darkness. The con man found whatever he was after and stuck it between his teeth before he took two running steps and grasped Vin's outstretched hand. The tracker felt the leg shackle bite into his foot as he tugged the gambler up to the surface.
Ezra pulled himself up the rest of the way out of the cell and crawled to Vin's bound foot. He pulled the wire out of his teeth and plunged it into the lock. It opened in a second. Damn, it felt good to get out of that, Vin thought.
"Come on," Tanner said as he stood. He reached down to help Ezra to his feet. The gambler staggered for a moment and then the two of them ran to the steep stairs to the surface.
Vin pushed Ezra ahead of him, up the stairs. They
could both clearly smell the smoke above them. Ezra shoved open the trap and
they both looked into an inferno.
Chris charged toward the house in the falling rain in spite of Clem Vaughn, who was still firing. Clem smiled at the approach and raised his weapon. "You've been paid back, two-fold!" Clem shouted at the gunslinger. "They're gonna burn, Larabee!
Without a thought, Chris shot him down without another word and the rancher fell dead on the porch. Chris ran on toward the house, which was now completely engaged. How could it burn so fast?
Buck grabbed Chris before he reached the porch. "Stop, Chris!"
The gunslinger tried to twist out of Buck's grip. "They're in there!' Chris shouted. "We got to get them out!"
Josiah had reached them now, and held Chris by his other arm. "It's too late," the preacher said dully. There was no way into the house now. Fire spewed out of every door and window.
"No!" Chris cried, turning wildly back toward the fire filled house. "NO!"
They could hear the sound of windows shattering in the heat. There was nothing they could do. Josiah and Buck held Chris for all they were worth, knowing that if they relaxed for a moment he would try to leap into the house.
"There's nothing we can do, Chris," Josiah said softly to him.
Buck looked on in despair. The only thing that kept him from running in himself, was his attempt to keep Chris from doing the
"Keep moving!" Vin ordered, pushing Ezra the rest of the way onto the main floor. He climbed up after him and the two stood in the only section of the house that wasn't currently burning. The fire would be in the fuel-soaked basement in moments and the whole thing would go up like a torch. They coughed at the smoky hot air.
Surrounded on all sides by flames, Vin looked for any sign of escape and saw a window through the fire. "There!" he said, grabbing Ezra by the arm and leaped into the flames. It took three long strides thorough the burning heat to reach the window. They both jumped into it, shoulder first. Vin prepared to hit the glass pane, but instead met only air and they tumbled out of the house and onto the grass outside.
Vin cried out as he landed poorly on his still cuffed hand. He pulled the smarting hand to himself and looked up, smiling to find Ezra still with him. The smile quickly fell.
"Ezra!" Vin cried, seeing flames darting about on the con man's jacket, "You're on fire!"
Ezra only pointed to Vin's back, indicating that he was in the same shape.
"Roll!" Vin said, and tucked his arms around himself and rolled away from the inferno. He could feel the heat of the fire being squelched by the coolness of the grass. He ended up several yards from the burning building, on his stomach. He looked up quickly for Ezra and found him a few feet from him, on his back, the flames extinguished.
"You okay, Ezra?" Vin asked.
"Yes, Mr. Tanner, quite." The con man hadn't moved yet. "Did you notice that it's raining?"
"Yeah," Vin replied, "Lucky. Put us out right quick."
"Maybe the rain isn't so bad?" Ezra said, laughing. "The grass is wet."
Vin started to laugh, too. "Precipitation on the verdant foliage," the tracker said, somewhat clumsily.
And both men laughed all the harder, more out of relief than anything else.
Chris stopped his struggle. He shook his head slowly and then shuddered. How could this happen again? He let Buck and Josiah lead him a short distance away and the five of them watched the house burn. It popped and moaned and creaked as the fire raced through it. The building exploded briefly in a ball of fire as the flames reached another fuel source, and then continued to be consumed. It hissed as the rain fell ineffectually upon the house's half missing roof.
Buck watched silently, listening in spite of himself for something he didn't want to hear. Please, he thought, don't let me hear any screams or cries for help. This was his fault entirely. He should have known to look for a cellar. If he had only done that, his friends would not be dying now. Then an eerie sound came up under the others, making Buck's heart freeze. It sounded like laughter. He held his breath in horror.
God, Buck thought, it sounded like Vin -- Vin and Ezra, laughing. How could that be? He stood, listening to the unearthly sound for several minutes, then he turned his head. It really did sound like Vin and Ezra. He walked slowly around the side of the house, following the sound. He was half-soaked by the rain, but the heat coming off of the house was tremendous. He stopped dead in his tracks when he saw something not far from the side windows, down a slight incline.
He trotted down the slope, smiling broadly. "Chris!" he shouted, "Josiah, Nathan, JD!"
"Hello, Buck!" Ezra greeted, trying to stifle his laughter as Buck approached. He was flat on his back, looking upside-down at Buck. He had a rather ineffectual looking bandage tried around his head and a horrible red welt on his forehead.
"Hey, Buck!" Vin said, turning his head to see him, one eye swollen shut. He was cradling a shackled, bleeding hand in his other arm. "You got precipitation all over you." And the two men laughed even louder.
Buck shook his head and looked back up the hill. He saw Chris come toward him, his face still and pale. He watched the gunslinger's expression change, as if a lantern had been lit inside him.
"Vin!" Chris shouted as he ran the short distance, "Ezra! What the hell are you doin' out here?"
"The foliage..." Vin started.
"...is wet," Ezra completed and they both continued laughing.
"Thank you, Lord," Josiah exclaimed as he saw the scene in front of him.
"They're okay!" JD cried, grinning widely.
"I think they've gone insane," Buck commented, sitting down between the two. He smiled and put a hand on each of his friends, so glad that they were okay. They were both smoldering, despite the rain.
Nathan sat down beside Ezra and said, "Looks like you got an awful knock on the head, Ezra."
"I think he has a concussion," Buck said helpfully.
Nathan frowned and held up two fingers before Ezra's eyes. "How many, Ezra."
"Fourteen," Ezra replied seriously, bringing a snort of laughter out of Vin.
Nathan looked between the two of them and then back to Chris, perplexed. "I think there's something wrong with 'em, Chris."
Chris was smiling. God, he was so relieved to see them again. He started to
laugh, which only got Vin and Ezra going again. The
other four couldn't help but join in.
Vin found the handhold and swung himself half onto the roof and then pulled himself up the rest of the way. He crossed the peak slowly until he reached the man in the red jacket, who was lying flat on his back on the lea of the roof, reading.
Vin sat down and then carefully lowered himself down the slope until he was lying beside the other man. "Hey," Vin said, "It's warm here. The sun heats up the roof real nice."
"It's an added benefit," Ezra said. He glanced up from his book and said, "Be careful that you don't slide off."
"Chris said you were here," Vin said.
"Yes, I've learned that it is a good idea to let others know exactly where one is. I'll continue to inform Mr. Larabee of my every location until I make him entirely exasperated with the circumstance and he orders me to stop. Then perhaps the situation can return to normal."
Vin laughed and said, "How's your head doin'?"
"Much better, thank you." Ezra looked at Vin and said, "You're looking better. The splint is gone, I see."
"Yeah, Nathan said I could take it off. It wasn't broken anyhow, just sprained real bad," Vin said. "Your ear don't look too bad. Just a nick."
"It gives me character."
"Ez, I haven't had much of a chance to talk to ya since we got back. I just wanted to set something straight, ya know. I didn't get a chance to say it before."
"Despite the fact that all we did was talk during our incarceration?"
"Yeah, well, the fact that ya were unconscious part of the time didn't help."
"Ya said that ya didn't know how to be a friend, but ya gotta know that that's bullshit."
Ezra set down his book and turned toward Vin. "Such language, Mr. Tanner."
"Look, I notice things. Anytime that any of those guys came after me, I know ya were trying to distract them. Hell, Ezra they'd been shootin' at cha and ya still kept at it."
"That was due to my head wound. I wasn't thinking properly."
"Yeah, and ya took the time to find that lock-pick even though ya knew that we were about to get burned up in that building."
"I wasn't about to leave you, Mr. Tanner. I realized that I wouldn't have been able to make it out on my own."
"And ya were, I don't know, so patient about the whole book thing. I was really screwing up all the words and ya were so ..."
"I only wanted to hear the book, Mr. Tanner, a task that I forced upon you. And you performed the task excellently." Ezra sighed and said, "And I should thank you for that service. It did make my incarceration much more pleasant. And I, too, am observant enough to realize that you leapt to my defense at every opportunity. I'd like to thank you for your concern for my well being. You indeed are an excellent friend to have in such a situation."
The two said nothing for a few moments, but simply lay on the sun warmed roof. "We weren't done with the book yet," Vin said after a while. "I's hoping you'd keep me up to date on what was goin' on. We hadn't made it out of the Amazon."
"Oh, but we have, Mr. Tanner. You'd just finished that section during your last recitation." Ezra replied. "We're onto the Andes now."
"Yeah, what's an Ande?"
Ezra turned back a few pages and started reading aloud.
THE END -By NotTasha
the next story in the series is... The Ledger