DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction. No profit
involved.. This story 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'd like to curl up with a good book.
Vin Tanner stepped inside the Redbird Saloon and looked around. His eyes automatically found Buck Wilmington, sitting at their usual table, in his usual chair, leaned back on two legs (his usual position). Wilmington nodded to the tracker and raised an eyebrow, seeing the intent look on Tanner's face.
Vin lingered on Buck only long enough to nod a greeting and then continued his perusal of the room. It was still rather early in the day, and the afternoon crowd was just beginning to drift in. Soon the saloon would be crowded again, patrons vying for seats and money rolling in, investments growing. That wasn't what was on Tanner's mind at the moment though.
His gaze darted into the corners and crannies of the saloon, until he spotted Inez behind the bar, who shrugged and then looked upward.
"Room?" Vin asked.
"Roof," Inez responded.
"Damn," Vin grumbled and turned, quickly exiting the establishment. He strode into the middle of the street, heedless of the disruption to local traffic and tilted his head back to see the roof of the saloon. "Hey!" he shouted. "Get on down here! Come on! I ain't waitin' all day."
Buck scrutinized the odd behavior of the usually quiet tracker. Tanner muttered, and then started searching for something on the ground. Finally, spying what he was after, Vin picked up a rock and looked upward.
"All right then, if that's the way it's gonna be!"
Townspeople watched the tracker in trepidation, giving him a wide berth and then stopping to stare. Buck just laughed, realizing that Vin didn't give a damn about the looks he was receiving.
"I know you're up there! Know just where you're at." Tanner frowned and waited a moment. "Ain't gonna say nuthin', huh? Well, don't say I didn't warn you."
Vin drew back and hefted the stone at the roof of the saloon. It arched high and landed with an unusually soft thunk. Buck jumped to his feet and headed toward the door just as the litany of curses began.
"Hell, Ezra," Buck said, joining Vin in the street. "I thought you were a gentleman. How is it that you know words like that?" He threw a smile at Vin before looking upward and spying the gambler on the roof, rubbing a sore shoulder.
"I learned at the knee of the best, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra replied.
"Git on down here," Vin called. "It's time we were goin'."
Ezra sighed as he moved to the edge. "Mr. Tanner, if you recall correctly, Mr. Sanchez is to accompany you on this little excursion."
"Naw, he ain't. Had to go with Nate to help the Harkenson's fix their fence."
The gambler nodded at Wilmington. "You have an excellent replacement beside you."
"Hell no!" Buck returned. "I'm spendin' the night with Miss Fanny." He gave Vin a shove. "Not with the likes of this."
"I know Chris already told you!" Vin shouted again. "Get on down here and stop messin' around."
Ezra sat down on the edge of the roof, dangling his feet precariously. "But, Mr. Tanner, I have obligations. There's promise of a large crowd tonight and I felt it best if I remained close to my establishment." He patted the roof of the saloon lovingly.
"You got obligations, alright… to the town," Vin called back. "And right now that means you gotta go with me to Blaire. You want me to get Chris and have him explain it to you?"
Ezra rolled his eyes. "Lord, no!" he cried, and grasped onto the edge of the roof. He flipped himself easily to the balcony below, landing gracefully before repeating the process to alight on the street. The same townspeople who had stood and stared at Tanner, leapt back in surprise at the unexpected appearance of the gambler. Ezra smiled pleasantly at their started faces.
After dusting himself off, he asked, "Shall we go?"
Vin looked skeptical. "You gotta pack?"
"I have already completed that task, Mr. Tanner. My saddlebags are in the livery."
Vin shook his head. He never could be certain about anything with the cagey con man. "We'll be goin' then."
"Good day, Mr. Wilmington." Ezra nodded to Buck and then tipped his hat to a small group of ladies that watched from the safety of the bank. With that, the two of them strode into the livery and prepared their horses for the journey. As promised, Ezra's saddlebags were packed and ready in his tack box.
Vin checked with Yosemite, who had been asked to keep a horse ready for them. The big blacksmith showed them a pretty palomino mare, promising that she would be a good enough ride, but that she needed to be kept on a short line. "A little on the jumpy side," the smithy declared.
"Perfect," Ezra muttered as he adjusted the straps on Chaucer's bridle, getting head-butted in the process. "Exactly what we need."
"Yes, sir," Yosemite said, "She's a fine little thing. I'm expecting her back tomorra, so you boy's better not keep her out too long."
"No need to worry, my hirsute friend," Ezra commented, getting shoved into the wall by the chestnut horse. "We have appointments to keep and will return tomorrow evenin'." He gave the horse a gentle tap and Chaucer stopped playfully pushing him.
"Don't fret," Vin said as he took the reins of the mare. She nickered and craned her neck toward Peso. The blazed black gelding looked beyond her, eager to get on the trail. "See, seems to get along with Peso. Won't be a problem."
Yosemite nodded curtly, and then patted the horse on the rump. "Floss is my beauty. Don't want to see nothin' happen to her."
"We'll see to it," Vin declared and led the two horses out into the sunlight, followed by Ezra with Chaucer.
"It's a lovely day to commence a journey," Ezra said good-naturedly as he came abreast with Tanner. "I believe our excursion may prove to be quite agreeable. The weather is pleasing and the sky holds no harbingers of precipitation."
"I 'spect what yer sayin' is that you don't see no clouds."
"That is one way to phrase it, Mr. Tanner."
"Yeah, well, I understood you at least. Let's get our prisoner and get goin'."
"Oh Lord," Ezra muttered when he saw the shadowy figure on the porch of the jail.
Vin smirked. "Ey, Ezra, it's only Chris. He won't bite cha."
"Are you so sure of that, Mr. Tanner?"
"Long as you don't provoke him."
Chris nodded at the boys as they approached with the three horses. He regarded them for a moment, the tracker in buckskins, with his long hair and battered hat, and the gambler at his side -- impeccably groomed, wearing a well-tailored jacket and expensive boots. They made quite a pair. The two couldn't look more dissimilar. If one were to glance at them, one would have to wonder what they were doing together. It was strange that the two had become friends. If it hadn't been for the curious set of circumstances that had thrown them together, Chris speculated that they would have had nothing to do with each other.
And yet, as they walked toward him, Chris knew that a subtle friendship existed between the two. He could tell by their easy manner; they seemed totally comfortable with each other. It was only once the gambler looked up and spotted him in front of the jail that the contented manner disappeared. Standish stiffened slightly, but didn't slow his pace and smiled agreeably enough as he approached.
It was a reaction that still surprised Larabee. He didn't know if he should be pleased to see the gambler acknowledge his leadership status, or if he should be disappointed. He didn't understand what Ezra was expecting. Was he automatically anticipating an admonishment, a slight, a punishment? A moment ago, he was chatting openly with Vin, but now, as he approached, his manner was guarded, though his smile never dipped.
"I see you found 'im," Larabee said, looking at Vin, but nodding toward Ezra.
"Knew where he'd be," Vin responded.
"With great accuracy, I might add." Ezra rubbed his shoulder. "And where is our Mr. Marley?"
"JD's getting him ready."
"And are you here to dispense words of wisdom that might aid in our journey?"
Chris leaned against a roof support. "Just get on back here in a hurry. We got that business to take care of."
"Yeah, we ain't gonna be long. Just two days ta go to Blaire and back," Vin responded.
"We'll return in time to keep our appointment with destiny," Ezra added.
"Make it quick. We're gonna need all the guns we can get to go after Grady and his crew."
"You can rest assured, Mr. Larabee, that I have no intention of spending any more than the necessary amount of time on the trail," Ezra said.
"See to it," Chris responded. "And watch your backs."
"Don't we always?" Ezra asked.
Vin smiled and rested one foot on the boardwalk. "Don't worry none ‘bout that, Chris. We got it covered." He glanced over his shoulder as the mare sidled up next to his own horse. "Should be an easy enough thing to do. Just transportin' a wet-behind-the-ears pip-squeak of an outlaw."
"And we have the opportunity to spend the evenin' in a virtual metropolis," Ezra said, stepping out of the way as Peso tried to maneuver away from the mare.
Chris smiled. "Never did consider Blaire to be a metropolis, Ezra."
The cardsharp sighed theatrically. "It is when you consider the current surroundings." He gestured expressively to the buildings around him.
Larabee shook his head and fixed Vin with a glare. "Keep him out of trouble," he demanded.
"I'll keep an eye on him," Vin replied.
Ezra said nothing immediately, but finally voiced, "If Mr. Tanner is to keep an eye on me, than who shall watch out for Mr. Tanner?"
"Why you, of course," Chris responded.
The gambler rolled his eyes and the tracker smiled, saying, "Then we got nothin' to worry about."
"And so that's how I ended up in the middle of that bank robbery," Malcolm Marley explained as he tugged at the restraints. "Weren't much my fault, as you can plainly see." He was a boy of nearly seventeen years, with long hair, as stiff and yellow as straw, and a friendly but stupid-looking face.
"Ah, yes," Ezra said with a nod, directing his horse forward. "It would appear that the Fates were unkind to you, son." They were traveling upward, into the high country. A ridge, known as Dolby's Crest, separated Four Corners from Blaire and the quickest route between the two towns was straight over the top. The path passed through ruts and gouges, past sheer drop offs and abrupt turns. There was another, easier trail, but it would have added hours to their journey. Vin and Ezra both decided that faster was better. They had an appointment to keep upon their return, and neither of them was of the persuasion that did things the easy way. It was beautiful country, but a pain in the neck to transverse.
"Yeah, you can see that, can't cha?" Marley asked. "Weren't a thing I could do."
"Just sorta fell into it, I ‘spect," Vin replied agreeably.
Marley nodded and smiled broadly. "Yeah! You guys understand. Ya think the judge will?"
"Depends on a variety of circumstances," Ezra replied, keeping to the right of the prisoner, while Vin kept to the left. "Mostly, whether or not the information you provided to us proves to be accurate and if your associates will be in the location you described."
"Yup." Vin nodded. "If what you told was true and we catch up to those fellas…"
"…The Honorable Judge Travis may find a lenient sentence to your crimes," Ezra completed.
"We're 'spose to be meetin' outside Kotter's Ridge on Wednesday. That's the plan at least. Well, what if they're not there?" Marley asked anxiously. "Could be that they decided on a new plan. I mean, after what happened in Blaire, they could 'ave changed plans. The judge wouldn't hang me then?" The boy's lip quivered as he spoke those words. "Not hang me, would he?"
The two men exchanged glances over the head of the boy. "Nah," Vin finally replied. "Ya didn't shoot no one."
"But Mr. Grady and the others did," Ezra added. "Five souls were left to heaven on the day that the Blaire Bank and Trust was robbed. I believe that Judge Travis would be much more interested in putting Mr. Jervis Grady at the end of a rope than in stretching your rather insubstantial neck." Marley touched his throat as Ezra continued, "And he is much more likely to ascertain Mr. Grady's whereabouts if you are still with the living."
"He liked me, Mr. Grady did," Marley said. "Almost like a Pa to me. Didn't ever have one of my own. Ya know what it's like to grow up without a Pa?" Again the two men exchanged a glance as Marley continued, "Sure is hard, let me tell ya. Nuthin' ever come easy fer me as I was growin'. Made a tough row to hoe, but I done the best I could." The boy sighed. "Hell, I didn't know that Mr. Grady would do what he did. Thought we was just gonna sneak in and take the money. Jus' take it and run. Didn't know there'd be killin'." The boy shuddered. "Mr. Grady and Dancin' Dan were so…" The boy scrunched up his face in thought.
"The word you're looking for is ruthless," Ezra supplied, remembering the information they had heard about the lethal robbery. "You should count yourself lucky that you parted company when you did."
"I run is what I done," the kid clarified. "I jus' seen all that blood and heared the folks in the bank screamin'. I seen the look in Mr. Grady's eyes when he come from the bank. There was blood on his coat." He paused and looked off into the distance. "Ain't seen nothin' like that a'fore. And then all the shootin' in the street."
"Ya did the right thing, kid," Vin reassured.
Marley nodded and was quiet for a while as they continued onward. The kid looked to his escorts from time to time and smiled at them. "Maybe if things were different, I could'a met up with the likes of you, 'stead of Mr. Grady and all. Could'a been a different life altogether. I could'a been a peacekeeper! Bringin' in the lawbreakers and all. Doin' good stuff. Savin' lives and such. Think I could'a been a lawman?"
"The life of a lawman isn't all it's cracked up to be, Mr. Marley," Ezra said. "There are far too many days spent in the saddle on mundane tasks such as transporting underage criminals to their trials."
"What he means ta say is, it's a lot of dull work." Vin smiled. "But that's a heck of a lot better than the other way."
"Dull is good?" Marley asked.
"It is when the alternative is being shot at," Ezra responded. "Or dead."
Marley nodded. "Yeah," he said. "But I guess I like the excitement and all. And I know there's a bit of that that goes with bein' a peacekeeper. Maybe I coulda been a good one. Wish I had the chance to show what I could do. I got the balls for it."
"Balls?" Vin questioned seriously. "Is that what it takes to do this job, Ez?"
Ezra grinned widely, started to speak, thought better of it and stated instead, "I believe a well-padded backside would be of more benefit."
"Speak fer yourself!" Vin exclaimed, unconsciously fidgeting in his saddle and then returned to Marley. "I 'spect if things were different you may have come up on the right side of the law. Might'a done a good turn or two at it, but kid, ya screwed up and there ain't no way outta that fact."
The kid's mouth fell open and he stuttered, "B-b-but I'm doin' a good thing ain't I? Lettin' you all know where Mr. Grady is gonna meet up with the guys? They done go their separate ways to throw you lawkeepers off the track, but they'll be back together soon enough ta split up the goods."
"I'm certain that your act of good faith won't go unnoticed," Ezra assured. "And perhaps, if you mend your ways, you may end up on the same pristine path as my compatriot and I."
"Yeah, pristine..." The boy nodded and looked to Vin for help, but was met with a confounded expression.
When Malcolm returned to the gambler, Standish said, "Pure and uncorrupted."
They passed several minutes without speaking, although it took some time for Vin to stop laughing. Marley fiddled with his horse's mane as he considered his lot in life. He patted the mare with his cuffed hands and asked, "What's her name?"
Vin gave the palomino a glance. She was a nervous little thing, with the bad habit of constantly running into Peso. It didn't seem to be a malicious act, rather she seemed totally enamored with the blazed gelding and wanted to be as close to him as possible. Peso didn't return the affection and did his best to distance himself from her. It meant that the two were at constant odds with the line that secured them to each other. "Yosemite calls her Floss," Vin replied.
"Hey, Floss," Marley said, caressing her neck as much as he was able. The mare nickered happily, and tried to turn to see him, but couldn’t turn her head far enough due to the restraints, and was too stupid to try the other direction. "She's pretty. I wish I had a horse again. Mr. Grady gave me one of his, but I don't got it no more."
"All for the best, Mr. Marley," Ezra replied as they headed upward. The trail narrowed abruptly, and after a nod from Ezra, Vin continued forward with Marley, leaving Standish to pull in behind. The hill sloped steeply in both directions as they traveled further up the ridge.
"Yeah, I figure so," Marley said. "But I do miss the guys. They were the greatest."
"An interesting assemblage of sanguinary cretins if nothing else."
Marley looked over his shoulder, gave Ezra a quizzical look and then smiled again, a big stupid childish smile. Ezra didn’t return the grin. He paused and looked away from the men before him. What was that? Something tingled in his perception. He looked up just as the shots started to ring out.
Marley cried out in pain as the first bullet struck him. He slumped almost immediately to the side, blood pumping from a vicious hole in his chest. Floss tried to flee backward, butting into Chaucer who wanted to sidestep away, but the narrow path left him with nowhere to go but backward as well. Peso was jerked sideways on the too-narrow path by Floss's reverse progress. Ezra drew his gun and fired at the shooters as his horse tried to avoid the back-stepping mare. Vin fought to keep Peso under control, tried to straighten him as Floss continued to pull him sideways and the gunfire exploded about them.
"Damn it!" Tanner grunted as a bullet whizzed past his ear. He tore at the mare's lead, trying to get her free of his own horse. He realized that there was no point in guarding the prisoner any longer, and if he wanted to survive, he'd have to get away from this mare.
Finally, he let loose the line, and Floss reared back in her confusion, nearly unseating the slumping rider. Vin drew his rifle and looked for his target. Who the hell was shooting at them? "Shit!" he cried as a bullet struck his arm just as the palomino, unable to escape backward, suddenly shot forward. She slammed full force into Peso. Vin lost his grip on the gun and barely kept his seat.
The trail-smart horse shimmied out of the way, but the terrain worked against him. The land disappeared from beneath his hooves and the black horse bellowed in fear as he lost his footing and plunged with his rider down the hillside.
Vin was falling. The world tilted. He slammed onto the sloping ground. White stars of pain flashed through his head as the horse fell with him down the ravine in their insane descent. He gasped as he was flung away from the animal. He bounced against the rocks and for a moment he was airborne. He landed with a painful thud at the bottom of the hill.
And then everything was quiet.
Vin gasped, trying to catch his breath. An overhang blocked his view of what was happening above him. The shooting had stopped. He tried to move but was met with pain that tried to force him into unconsciousness. "Oh, God!" he cried, as he reached for his legs, but was stopped by a blinding pain. He couldn't move.
He was unarmed, hurt and helpless. He tried to slow his gasping breath to listen. Were they coming? Were they still out there? Who were they? Why were they attacking? Ezra! What the hell happened to Ezra? He resisted the urge to call out -- it would only give himself away. Shots rang out. Oh God, he thought. What happened to Ezra?
"Patience," Ezra whispered. "Patience, my friend." Chaucer shifted eagerly beneath him, feeling anything but patience radiating from his owner.
There had been three men firing on them. Standish had killed one already; the body lay in plain sight, slumped forward on the rocks. The other two shooters were still up there. He glanced toward the edge where Vin had plummeted, and swallowed nervously. If anything had happened to Vin, there'd be hell to pay. "Patience," he said again, quietly. They were tucked up against the protection of a rock. He'd dismount if he could, but it would put him into the open and he trusted his horse enough to behave precisely in this situation.
He saw one of their attackers peer out for a moment and then disappear. Ezra smiled and raised his revolver. "Try that again, sir," Ezra whispered, easing back into hiding, but keeping his aim where the man had last appeared.
Graciously, the shooter complied. Two shots fired at once. One was off target and one dead-on. Ezra smiled grimly as a second body lurched forward, and then dropped to the trail not far from where Vin had vanished. There was a scuffle and a rattle of falling rocks as someone moved above him. Ezra dismounted, hearing the man change position and move further up the hill. He took a chance, running into the open, but the man continued to head uphill, just barely in sight. He fired at a tall man with red hair, who jerked forward, but didn’t fall and soon disappeared over the top of the ridge.
Ezra made a move to follow, to climb the steep side of the hill, but could hear the distinct sound of a horse, moving quickly down the trail on the opposite side of the high hill. Ezra glared upward, knowing that it would be a scrabble to follow the sound, and impossible to cross the sheer incline on his horse. If he were to continue along the trail, he would end up far behind. There was no time for that now. He had more important things to do.
Ezra exhaled and went to check on the dead… to ensure that they were exactly that. He regarded the man on the trail first and then climbed up to where the other lay. Dead, both dead without a doubt. His forehead creased as he examined their features. Trouble. He then turned his attention to the hillside.
His heart missed a beat when he saw the steep descent and the path torn by man and animal. Peso was at the bottom of the hill, standing stiffly, looking anxious but unharmed. The nervous palomino had made her way to the bottom as well and was running about in wide circles on the rocky land below, staying close to the tracker's horse, but apparently too upset to stop her motions. Ezra's eyes fastened for a moment on a body that lay near the horses, his heart thudding until he could be certain. Marley, he decided. There was no sign of Vin. "Mr. Tanner! Mr. Tanner!" Ezra shouted. "Vin!"
Vin blinked, trying to keep the world from going black. His damn leg was screaming with pain, his back ached miserably. He could hardly breath without wanting to puke his guts out. God, this hurt. He waited through the silence and then jerked at the sound of gunfire again. "Ezra," he muttered, turning his head as if he could see around the ledge. "Oh, damn, Ezra." He tried to get his arms under himself, to push up to his elbows, but a pain shot through is back and his wounded arm wouldn't hold him. The explosions of pain in his leg was enough to quell that plan. Aw, hell, he thought as he allowed himself to settle back again.
Silence again. Too much damn silence. Ezra...if something happened to him now, there was nothing Vin could do about it. Oh shit, he was in a world of trouble. He prayed that the wily cardsharp was all right. What the hell was taking so long? He listened, hearing someone moving around. He strained his ears as if he could tell the difference between Ezra and a stranger walking along a hillside. Please, he thought when a handful of pebbles cascaded down on him, let that just be Ez messin' around. Don't sound so graceful right now, but it's hard to walk so pretty when you're on a trail. That sounds like it could be his calfskin boots…does regular ol' cow-leather sound like that?
He sighed when he finally heard the voice calling his name. ‘Mr. Tanner’…the appellation made him smile. From anyone else, the constant use of formality would have been offensive, but from Ezra… well… that was just Ezra. Then the voice called him 'Vin'…another reason to smile.
"Ezra!" Vin called as loud as he was able. "Ez!" The second call was strangled as the pain reached for him again.
"Vin? Are you hurt?"
"Damn it, Ez!" he called back. "'Course! I jus' fell off a mountain." His voice failed as he completed the phrase and he doubted that all of his words carried.
"I'll be right there."
"Damn right," Vin said softly, and winced again. Hurry, he thought.
"What d'ya figure they're up to right now?" JD asked, clutching a stack of papers to his side as he crossed the street at Buck's side.
"Hell, JD," Buck replied. "They ain't even made it to Blaire yet. Probably ain't even made it over Dolby's Crest."
"Yeah," JD said with a nod. "They just better make it back here quick. I don't like the idea of goin' after Grady without 'em. It's gonna be tough, I think. There's eight of 'em still and…after what they did in Blaire…" The young man shuddered. "Just don't want to meet up with 'em unless we got all of us together."
"Vin and Ezra will be back," Buck reassured. "Ain't no reason to doubt that."
"Think that kid was tellin' the truth about Grady and all?"
"Well, since giving up their names was the only way to save his neck, hell yeah!"
The two men stepped onto the boardwalk in front of the Redbird and entered the little saloon. It was crowded and most of the tables were full. The two men fastened their eyes on their usual table, currently occupied by a group of four men. Usually a look from one of the Seven was enough to clear that table, but the men were strangers and didn't know the rules of the house.
Inez sauntered over to the table and said a word or two to the men. The four cowboys looked up at the newcomers with disdain, but they stood as a group, grumbling and muttering as they clutched their beers and their bottles, and they made their way toward a less appealing table.
Buck clamped a hand on JD's shoulder and said, "Ain't it great to be an investor!"
Dunne nodded enthusiastically as he set the papers down and found a seat. Inez delivered a beer to both of them without any requisition being made. "Yup!" he agreed. "Ain't that the truth!"
The business thrived, but they had yet to see any monetary return on their investment. Ezra was always insisting that new improvements needed to be made. The interior had been painted and the mirror was replaced with one that ran the entire length bar. The lamps had all been upgraded and a new set of doors installed. It was funny how things like that could change the place so much. Already, The Redbird seemed much larger and brighter too. Ezra had been talking about replacing the entire bar with something much more expensive -- all imported wood and brass -- but he wanted to acquire a piano first.
The two men looked up as a third joined them. "Hey, Chris!" Buck said and another mug was delivered as Inez strolled past the table.
Chris nodded to Inez and then turned to his men. "You boys gonna be ready to go up against Grady on Wednesday?"
"Sure," JD replied, "We'll be ready!"
"Yeah, we'll be ready for those bastards," Buck agreed. "Can't believe how they killed those folks in Blaire, the tellers at the bank… the deputy…that woman in the street." He shook his head violently at that last thought.
Chris solemnly declared, "They'll come to justice for it."
"Why d'ya figure they wanna meet in Kotter's Ridge?" JD asked. "That place is a death trap." He screwed up his mouth, remembering how Ezra had almost died there not so long ago.
Buck looked askance at the kid. "Not 'in' Kotter's Ridge, boy. They're gonna meet just to the south of it. They were plannin' on goin' to Clarksville next. They got that plum bank there, and Kotter's Ridge is on the way."
"Oh," JD said and then grabbed the papers beside him. "I got the wanted posters for those guys that Malcolm was talking about. Here's Jervis Grady, Tobias Ren, Dancin' Dan McCollough, and the rest of 'em.
Buck picked up one of the posters and held it up. "What good will these do?"
"There's stuff here about what to expect out of 'em -- what kind of weapons they use and such. Look at this one, Roger "Rooster" Folley, he's over six feet tall, got red hair and a long neck. It says, he's got a prominent Adam's apple and shoots left-handed. He's wanted in connection with a bank robbery in Houston."
JD showed the poster to Buck who regarded it with little interest. Undeterred, JD picked up another. "Mick Ferguson is supposed to be a bit fat and kinda short. Got a mustache, too, see?"
Buck squinted at the poster in disgust. "That ain't a mustache, JD. That's a little dirt on the upper lip." He stroked his own facial hair. "This is what the ladies like."
"Yeah, sure," JD said with a laugh. He turned his attention back to the posters. "I just figured it would be a good thing to read these ahead of time, I mean, since we got the information already, we'd might as well use it."
Chris nodded. "It's always a good idea to know your enemy."
JD smiled confidently. "We'll be ready for 'em."
Ezra worked quickly, pulling the rope from his saddle and tying it to a nearby stump. "Chaucer," he said confidentially and the horse pricked up his ears. "You will remain here. The incline is too steep for you to try."
Chaucer snorted and pawed the ground as Ezra removed the saddlebags and threw them over his shoulder. "You'll remain here," Ezra said sternly. "Remain."
Again the horse snorted and showed his teeth. Ezra frowned at the horse and tapped him on the muzzle. "Behave," he said curtly and then grabbed the rope and started down the slope. He repelled down the hill as quickly as he could manage the rope, nearly leaping down the mountainside, and was at the bottom in a matter of moments.
He approached the still form of Malcolm Marley first. Blue eyes, flecked with green, stared vacantly toward the sky. Marley's mouth was open and his head twisted to one side, giving him a stupid and astonished look. Standish waited a second, as if that broken body could blink back at him and that mouth would start uttering more pointless questions.
"Damn it all," Ezra muttered as the boy remained still. He removed his hat and struck it against his leg. "Poor child." With a sigh, he rubbed his eyes.
Standish settled the hat back on his head. Marley was beyond help. There was nothing to be done for the young outlaw who wanted to become a lawman. "Vin?" he called. He looked about, trying to find the man. "Vin?" He listened.
"Here," was the quiet reply.
Ezra took a moment to ascertain where the call had come from, then jogged the short distance to the shadow beneath an overhang. He came to a standstill. Oh dear Lord, he thought as he saw Vin's condition. Tanner was pale, battered, bruised and bloodied. He had been shot in the arm, a red puddle was forming beside him, but his right leg appeared to be the worst of it. The break was easy to see, as the leg turned in a decided unnatural manner.
"Hey, Ez," Vin said feebly as looked toward the gambler. "You okay?"
Ezra scowled. "Yes, yes, of course I'm okay." He quickly crossed the distance between them, slung the bags to the ground and fished his flask out of his pocket. "Drink this," he commanded.
Vin smiled. "Must be bad… if yer givin' up yer good stuff."
"I thought you might want to take the edge off," Ezra replied.
Vin tried to grab the flask with his left hand, but couldn't raise his arm with any ease, so he used his wounded right arm. It hurt, but at least he was able to lift that hand.
Standish sighed, as he pulled off his hat again and ran his hand through his hair. He tried to see if anything else was wrong with the tracker, trying to figure out what to do first and what to do next. Tanner looked horrible, and definitely was in pain. "Vin, your leg is broken."
"I figured as much," Vin said as he took a gulp of the fine whiskey. "Marley?"
"Young Mr. Marley is dead," Ezra said dully and Vin grimaced. The gambler quickly changed the subject. "Where do you hurt?"
"Pretty much everywhere."
"Anywhere in particular?"
"Hell, Ez, the leg for starts and this hole through my arm ain't makin' me too happy." Tanner took another deep gulp from the flask. "And my back kinda aches. Can't move this arm, but it don't seem broke." He nodded to his left side as he drank again.
Ezra snatched the vessel away. "Don't drown yourself, sir. This is sippin' whiskey."
"Not the worst way to go," Vin gasped. "What d'you reckon… we should do?"
"I'll do what I can to remedy the situation." And be damn quick about it, Ezra thought. Here he was, in the middle of nowhere with a seriously injured companion. What in the world was expected of him? That leg was in a wretched state and would need immediate attention and yet the only person available to offer any help was a nomadic gambler with no skill in that department. No, he wasn't the 'doctoring' type -- far from it. It was more his style to leave if such a situation presented itself...or just leave the task to someone else. But what could he do?
He had been able to glean a fact or two from observation, Mr. Jackson provided him with a treasure trove of information. Ezra was always quick to learn, but he was no healer himself. Vin, it appeared, would have to settle for the little that he could offer. What should he do? Think, Standish.
He looked at the landscape that surrounded them and asked, "Do you have a hatchet?"
Vin's already-pale face paled considerably more. "Hey, Ez," Vin said nervously, remembering what he’d heard about wartime hospitals and the penchant the doctors had for removing a limb instead of trying to save it. "It ain't that bad is it? Don't need to take it off. Maybe we should wait to see if Nate shows?"
Ezra smiled tightly. Yes, he thought, if only we could wait, if only Mr. Jackson was already here. He sucked in his breath and said, "Mr. Tanner, amputation is better performed with a saw than a hatchet. I don't intend to try that particular procedure, as I'm certain it would result in my clothing being ruined." He gestured to his expensive coat. "I need to create a splint and that tree would give us exactly what we need, only I need a means to separate the branches from the tree, thus the hatchet."
Vin regained a little of his color and relaxed as much as he was able. "Wouldn't want ya to ruin that nice jacket." He nodded. "Yeah, got a hatchet on my saddle. Did Peso make it okay?"
"Yes, your magnificent steed is unharmed, and is once again with his girlfriend." He nodded to where Peso stood, looking chagrinned, with the palomino mare pressed close beside him. "His paramour will give him no quarter." Ezra handed the flask back to Vin. "Don't finish all of it. I'll need some to take care of this." The gambler examined the bullet wound in a perfunctory manner. Lord, that looked painful and was bleeding still. "This will be fine," he declared, pulling the knife from his belt.
"What d'ya aim t'do?" Vin asked.
"I'll need to remove this sleeve." Ezra gestured with the knife. "It appears that the bullet went straight through your arm. It'll only need to be cleaned and dressed. The bleeding must be stopped immediately."
"Yer not cuttin' my coat."
"Not my coat."
"Ezra," Vin glared, trying to put a menace into his expression when all he wanted to do was cry or pass out. He really didn't know why, but suddenly the welfare of this jacket became of utmost importance to him. Here he was, bleeding and in pain, and he was worried about the condition of his coat. Vin knew it was ridiculous, but in this out of control situation, he needed to find a handhold somewhere.
Ezra shrugged. "And they say I'm particular about my vestments. It's your funeral, Mr. Tanner," he said with a sigh. Why does he have to make this so difficult? I'm doing the best I can, Ezra thought. Lord, why couldn't Josiah have made this trip as he was supposed to? Why in the world did the Harkenson's fence choose this day to fail? Surely, Nathan could have tended to the restoration of that fence on his own... perhaps with JD's help.
Yes, Vin would be in much better shape under the ministrations of the preacher. Josiah had a way about him that was better suited for this sort of thing... a caring and gentle nature. That is, of course, unless you had him riled in one manner or another.
Ezra continued, "It would have been difficult to cut through the leather in any case. I'll have to sit you up to remove the jacket and I don't want to do that until I have your leg properly immobilized."
"All right then, just tie this up for the time bein'. Don't want to bleed on ya while ya fix my leg." He smiled, trying to show his good humor, to offer an apology for his obsessive behavior.
Ezra grumbled as he used a handkerchief to create a makeshift bandage. "You, Mr. Tanner, are exceptionally stubborn."
"Yeah," Vin agreed, gasping as Ezra tightened the cloth. "Ain't that the pot callin' the kettle black?"
Ezra raised an eyebrow in response.
Once he had finished with the bandage, Ezra made sure that Vin was as comfortable as possible and then headed off to retrieve the hatchet. Once Standish was gone, Vin did his best to quiet his breathing, taking gulps from the flask from time to time. The whiskey was helping, but his leg was screaming. His arm throbbed, but he was capable of coping with that. His back ached as well, a disorientating feeling that frightened him. He moved his left foot cautiously, hoping to test whether or not his back was okay. He grimaced when he tried the right foot. No, that wasn't a good idea. He could move his left hand, but couldn't raise it. He decided that it would be best to remain perfectly still and try to ignore the all-consuming pain. Things were becoming muddled when he heard Ezra shouting.
"What did I tell you? Did you even listen to me? For a moment even, did you listen?" Standish was yelling up the hillside and Vin could hear the rumble of something coming down at them. "Now see here! You go back up thar! You'll hurt yourself!"
Chaucer suddenly came into view, rocketing down the hillside with his head back and his mane flying. He ran immediately toward his owner and pranced about him happily. Ezra just frowned as he picked up the sticks he had cut and headed back to Vin.
"That horse," Ezra muttered when he saw Vin's amused expression, "refuses to listen to me when I give him an order."
"Nah," Vin replied. "He jus' didn't want to do it. He seen all of us down here and wanted to join the party."
"Direct order," Ezra mumbled as he took the flask from Vin's hand and sloshed it about. He cocked his head. "You've been busy since I left."
"Lef' some, like you said. Feelin' a might more comfortable now," Vin said with a grin.
"Hmmm. We'll see how long that lasts." Standish set down the armload of sticks and sighed. Hell, he didn't want to do this, but there was no way around it. At least he had been able to stop that bleeding from the bullet wound, but it still needed to be tended. At least Vin didn't seem to be any pain at the moment; that would change soon. His eyes fastened again on the curiously situated leg. This would not be kind, no matter how he went about it…not kind at all. It would be best to get it over with quickly.
"Ready?" Ezra asked as he put himself into position. "I’m going to try to get this bone back in place."
Vin nodded sharply and then pressed his head into the dirt. He remembered feeling Ezra grab onto him and then a blinding pain before everything went black.
Ezra was sweating by the time he had the splints strapped around the broken leg. He sat back, and ran the back of his hand across his forehead as he gazed at his handiwork. At least the foot was pointing in the right direction again. He had tried to do the work as painlessly as possible, which was an apparent impossibility. Working the tracker's boots off was bad enough. Lord, that must have hurt. Vin had groaned and flinched without gaining consciousness.
He looked to Vin's still face. Tanner was resting easy again. Thank God, the gambler thought. He then moved to Vin's head sure that he was breathing smoothly. "Relax now, Vin," he assured. "It's all downhill from here." He glanced upward unconsciously, realizing how disastrous downhill could be.
Now he could tend to that arm. Vin grunted as Ezra sat him up. "Don't worry, Vin," he said softly. "I will take excellent care of your jacket and will see that no further harm comes to it." He had to untie the bandage to get the buckskin jacket off. Vin struggled as Ezra tried to remove the coat. "Please, Mr. Tanner, it's not worth that much effort. Really, a satisfactory replacement could be easily purchased at little expense." Vin groaned and tried to roll out of the gambler's grip. "Not to worry. Please, Mr. Tanner. Just relax and I'll take care of it. I can sympathize with a man's partiality toward certain garments." Vin continued to fight and Ezra said softly, "You do trust me, don' t you, Mr. Tanner?"
Vin ceased his movements and uttered softly, "Sure, Ez…" and was easy to work with after that.
The injury was quickly cleaned. Ezra did what he could to wash out the dirt and fibers that had found their way into it. Vin had hissed and rocked away as the remaining whiskey was poured over the bullet wound, but became relaxed again, quickly enough. Ezra spoke quietly to Vin throughout the uncomfortable procedure.
After giving Vin a reassuring pat, Ezra began a more thorough examination of his patient. He had been afraid that perhaps Vin had broken his back in the fall. He shook his head at the thought, praying that Tanner's back was sound. Lord, if he's damaged his spine, if he's to be a cripple because of this… Ezra sighed, not knowing how to complete that thought. The pain in Tanner's leg was a good sign. As long as there was pain, there was a chance that all was well.
Vin had suffered some rather impressive bruises, but it seemed that his ribs were still sound. The scrapes and cuts would require tending. Boiling water would be needed to ensure that they were properly cleaned. A nasty looking bruise across one of his shoulder blades troubled Ezra. He hoped that no bones were broken. How does one splint a shoulder blade? It would explain Vin's difficulty with his arm and was the apparent source of that back pain. Well, Ezra thought, it's better than an injured spine. He considered rolling Vin to his side to relieve the pressure on that bruised shoulder, but the broken leg would get in the way. He retrieved the small cushion that he used as a pillow and gently settled it under the painful looking shoulder, hoping it would be of some benefit. He tied up the arm in a makeshift sling in an attempt to keep the shoulder as still as possible.
Next, he would turn his attention to treating those cuts. For that, he would need boiling water, and a fire, and thus firewood. He grabbed the hatchet again and headed toward the tree he had already pruned. As he wandered out from under the overhang, a strange movement caught his eye. He looked up in alarm at the sight of a buzzard hopping toward the forgotten body of Malcolm Marley.
The corpse lay on its side, arms splayed out in front if it. How long ago had that young man been talking with them about his choices in life? How much time had passed since young Marley thought about how he might have been a lawman if things were different? Was it an hour? More? Less? Marley was nothing but food for scavengers now.
The buzzard swung its head around, looking at Ezra impartially before it took another hop toward the boy.
Ezra's face darkened and he charged the bird. "Get off! Now!" he shouted, wielding the hatchet at the interloper. "Get away from him, you son of a bitch!" The bird turned again, its beady cool eyes fastened on the man in the red coat, flailing the weapon. It regarded him for a moment, and then took to the air.
The little axe just brushed the very ends of its dark feathers as the buzzard beat its retreat into the sky.
A second later, one shot fired from a Colt Richards Conversion brought down the fowl in a shower of black feathers.
Nathan and Josiah returned to town at a slow pace. It had been a long day, but the fence they had set to mend was standing again. They both agreed that it was good to be home. They could relax tomorrow and be prepared for the confrontation with Grady and his men on the following day. Josiah smiled at the novelty of having a shootout scheduled for a particular date.
They had just reached the livery when a man rushed directly into Prophet's path. Josiah had to rein in the horse sharply to keep from trampling the tall man.
"Hey!" the redhead barked, laying his left hand on his weapon's butt. "You itchin' for somethin'?"
"No brother," Josiah responded quickly. "Let me apologize."
The man regarded them for a moment, his Adam's apple bobbing as he swallowed his excitement. Seeing no threat from the two, he moved his hand away from the weapon and said, "Don't let it happen again."
Nathan's gaze fastened on a discoloration on the man's dark jacket. "Hey," Jackson said, his eyebrows arching in concern. "You get yourself hurt?" He pointed to the bloodstain on the man's torn shoulder.
The long-necked man glanced at the offending stain. "Ain't a worry of yours."
"I'm a healer," Nathan said, dismounting. "Here, let me look at it. Maybe there's somethin' I can do." He reached toward the man.
The stranger jerked away, swatting at Nathan's hand. "I said, it ain't a worry of yours. I done tended it already and I got no time for the likes of you."
Nathan continued, "You don't want it to go bad on ya. Let me just look. Won't be no trouble."
The man's eyes were fierce. "Are you deaf? Are you an imbecile? Let me pass. I got no time!" And he stormed into the livery.
The two lawmen watched as the tall redhead quickly saddled his mount. They waited, preferring not to get in his way.
Vin slowly opened his eyes. Between the pain, blood-loss and alcohol, he had fallen into a disconnected sleep. It took a moment to remember what had happened. He was still beneath that ledge, but further in now. He studied the ceiling above him, calculating the distance to be a little over six feet. He winced, realizing that he had fallen from that height. No wonder he felt like hell.
A blanket had been thrown over him. Not his coarse horse-blanket, stained and patched from years of use, but Ezra's fine woolen marvel. Vin didn't think that wool could feel so soft. No wonder the man never wanted to get out of bed.
Ezra. Where was he? Vin turned his head to see the three horses standing in a row, not far from him. They were hidden close to the stone wall beneath the overhang. Peso was closest and Floss was next. The palomino was leaning against Peso, and his horse was shifting his weight uncomfortably. Poor guy, Vin thought. He stared at his horse for a moment, to see if he could find any sign of injury. He was glad to see that the animal looked unharmed from the tumble.
Tanner pressed his head against the material beneath his head and noted with a smile that it was his jacket. Slowly, he turned his head to the other side, hoping to see Ezra, but saw instead the pile of their saddlebags.
And then his eyes fastened on the body. "Ezra?" Vin cried as his heart started to race. Oh, damn! Oh, damn! "Ez!" What the hell happened to Ezra? Vin struggled to get up, to get to the body, but he found his left arm was bound to him and his right was too sore to maneuver with any ease. "EZRA!" he shouted, falling back in frustration.
"Vin, there's no cause for alarm," he heard the calm drawl coming from the far side of the horses. Vin turned to see Ezra slowly lead Chaucer away from the other two. "You didn't suspect I'd left you?"
"No," Vin returned, glancing again at the body… Marley no doubt. "Thought maybe you'd done somethin' stupid though."
Ezra grinned. "Oh, the day is still young, my friend." He continued to walk the horse into the open. Chaucer bit at his pockets, seeking a treat.
Vin felt his heart sink as he watched the gambler fiddle with the saddle. "Where're you goin'?" Vin asked, trying to keep the concern from his voice. He's not leaving, is he? Damn, he wouldn’t go, would he?
Standish had the saddle and blanket off the horse in a moment, carefully setting them aside. "You've consumed all of my whiskey and I'm afraid that I cannot last long without it. I'm sending a request for more provisions." Standish held up a folded paper for Vin to see and then carefully wrapped it in a handkerchief and tied it into the reins of his horse. "I do hope that room service is accommodating."
Vin felt himself relax a bit. "Make sure they send somethin' to eat too. I got a hankerin' for a big ol' steak with gravy."
"I will order yours rare, as I know you prefer it," Ezra said and then turned his attention to the horse. "Home, my friend," he muttered to Chaucer.
The chestnut twitched his ears, snorted and stomped.
"Home," Ezra repeated.
Chaucer twisted his neck and took two reluctant steps forward.
"Chaucer," Ezra said urgently. "Home is where the oats are, and where you find your perfect little stall at the back of the livery, where Mr. Wilmington's addlepated grey is your only neighbor. It's time you returned. Truly, Chaucer, it isn't very far."
Again a snort, and an added shake of the head.
"I don't think he wants to go," Vin concluded.
Ezra sighed exasperatedly as Chaucer's ears twitched erratically. "He's well aware of what the command means, but I always have a devil of a time making him comply."
Standish reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the packet of peppermints that Chaucer knew would be there. The impatient horse tried to shove his head between his hands. The moment a piece of candy was free, the animal had it in his mouth and chewed on it luxuriously.
"Yer gonna rot his teeth with that stuff and spoil him rotten," Vin said from his spot beneath the rocks.
"His teeth are sound," Ezra said, pulling back the horse's upper lip. Chaucer snorted indignantly, clicking his teeth audibly at his owner's hands, but missing by a good margin. "And as for spoiled, well…"
"Too late to do anythin' for that…" Vin completed.
Ezra nodded and gave a long-suffering sigh. He caught the horse's bridle and pulled the head close to his. The horse blew peppermint breath at him. "Old friend, it's important that you don't tarry. Return home and remain there. I'll come fetch you as soon as I'm able." Standish lowered his voice to a whisper and added, "It's for Vin's benefit that you hurry. He's in a well of hurt and we need Nathan immediately. There's really nothing I can do for him."
Ezra released the horse's head. He kept his voice low, but put an unmistakable demand in his tone, "Home!"
The horse reared, rolled his eyes and took off at a gallop. Ezra stood with his hands behind his back, watching the departing horse, waiting for the inevitable. After the horse went a good distance, he came to a loping stop and turned to face his owner. The chestnut gave a long, shrill whiney.
"You heard me," Ezra shouted. "Home!"
The horse whipped its head around and started off again at a canter.
The tracker smiled. "That horse is quite a handful, ain't he?"
Ezra looked discontent. "You have no idea, Mr. Tanner. He seems to enjoy being difficult."
"Like his owner," Vin replied.
It surprised Vin to find that he had been frightened by the thought that Ezra would leave him behind to search for help. And even the minutes that passed as Standish waited for his horse to disappear had been long. The tracker, seeing that the gambler had finally turned and was headed back toward him, tried to adjust his position. He stopped quickly with a strangled cry, "Aggghhhh."
Ezra was beside him in an instant, and pressed his hands gently but insistently against Vin's chest. "It would be best if you kept still." His voice was concerned.
"Don't need to tell me twice," Vin groaned. "God, my back hurts somethin' fierce and m'leg...damn! Forgot what a broken bone felt like."
"Indeed. It's not pleasant," Ezra said, unconsciously rubbing his left arm. He had just spent the better part of three months in a sling. The arm had nearly healed once when it had been broken again. Ezra wouldn't wish that on his worst enemy. He amended that thought, realizing that there were some enemies he might wish that on. "You may have broken your left shoulder blade as well, which would account for some of your discomfort."
"Shit," Vin growled. "No wonder I can't do nothin' with this wing." He tried to move the arm again and winced.
"I've placed it in a sling for a reason, Mr. Tanner. You'd best keep it still."
"You sure it ain't dislocated? Maybe you could pop it back in?"
Ezra cocked his head. "Mr. Tanner, I can tell you for certain that you're not suffering from that particular malady. I'm rather well aquatinted with the symptoms."
"Yeah, I 'spect you are. Why you figure yours goes out so much?"
The gambler sighed, shifting his attention from his arm to his shoulder. He rotated it slowly. "A not so subtle reminder that I'm not cut out for menial labor."
"Best try to avoid it then."
"Agreed." Ezra remembered the comment Vin had made about the steak. "Are you hungry?"
Vin's stomach rolled again and he shook his head. "Nah, I was just joshin' ya. Hurt too much to eat right now."
"I truly am sorry about that, Mr. Tanner."
"Heck, what you got to be sorry about?"
Ezra sighed. "I'm no doctor and hope I haven't caused you any harm in my ministrations."
Vin tipped his head forward, and tossed the blanket aside. He could see the carefully applied splints and the cloth straps that bound them in place. He recognized the color of one of his shirts in the crosshatched strips. The frilled sling must have come from Ezra's wardrobe. The bandage on his arm seemed to be applied as well as one from Nathan. "Looks good to me. Glad to see you decided against cuttin' off m'leg." Tanner sighed as he lay back against his jacket-pillow, then closed his eyes tightly as a tendril of pain caught him again. God, he wished this was over.
"S'okay," Vin said with a gasp. He felt something cool against his face and opened his eyes to see Ezra over him again, wiping his face with a wet cloth. "It's gettin' a bit better now."
"Are you in great discomfort?" Ezra asked, pouring more water onto the cloth and reapplying it to Vin's forehead.
"Shit, call it 'pain', Ez. And yeah, hurts like hell. Nothin' to be done for it though. We'll just wait a piece for that note to get on home. Won't be long. Nate'll come and he'll know what to do."
"Yes," Ezra nodded quickly. He shook out the blanket and then laid it over the tracker again. "Let us pray for Mr. Jackson's prompt arrival." Standish sighed after a moment. "You must forgive me, Mr. Tanner. This situation is entirely my fault. I should've been able to provide protection to you and Mr. Marley. Now Mr. Marley is dead and you are injured. This never should have happened in the first place."
"Couldn't 'ave done nothin' about the attack, Ez. Ain't due to you."
Again Ezra nodded, and the two were quiet for a few moments.
Vin turned his head and looked toward Marley's body. "You brung 'im in here?"
"Buzzards," Ezra said with a shudder. "I couldn't allow Mr. Marley to be torn apart by them."
Vin grimaced at the thought. He had liked the kid. Marley had seemed decent enough, just got caught up in the wrong element.
"My message should reach the others before our companion here becomes offensive," Ezra explained. "He deserves a decent burial."
In spite of the blanket's replacement, Vin started to shiver. Ezra quickly pulled off his jacket and laid it over him. "I got my blanket over there with my kit," Vin said, eyeing the expensive clothing.
The gambler shrugged. "This will work just as well. The wool is the best available in this country and will keep you warm enough."
Vin sighed, hoping he didn't bleed or throw-up all over the costly garment. He didn't know how he'd be able to pay for it. He wished his stomach wasn't so queasy. He kept talking to give himself something else to think about. "Who was it that got us? Did ya get a look at 'em?"
"Mr. Tobias Ren and a man who I believe goes by the name of Dancing Dan. I'm vaguely familiar with both of them."
"Grady's men," Vin said with a sigh.
"Yes, Mr. Marley's wonderful friends. There was a third who escaped. Him, I didn't recognize."
"Grady wasn't there?"
"There was no trace of Mr. Grady. The man who departed had red hair and I may have winged him."
"Must 'ave been Rooster Folley." Vin had remembered the name when Marley ticked them off not so long ago. "He'll bring the others," Vin groaned.
"I should've killed him," Ezra muttered as he pulled at his sleeve garters. "Unfortunately, his back was to me and some of Mr. Larabee's ethics have rubbed off on me. I aimed to wound."
Vin exhaled slowly. Although he found Chris' pledge to never shoot a man in the back a commendable idea, it didn't always work in practice. "Naught to be done about it now."
"He continued on the trail toward Blaire when he left us," Ezra drawled. "Away from Kotter's Ridge, where the rest of them shall congregate."
"Don't mean for sure that he'll stay on that side of the Crest."
"Indeed." Ezra thought a moment. "It appeared that he and the other two were coming toward us when we came upon them. It's quite possible that Mr. Folley adjusted to the lower trail and is continuing in that direction. It would take longer, but he would avoid us completely and be able to meet up with his companions." The gambler pulled the gold watch from his waistcoat pocket and remarked, "He could have made it to Four Corners by now and be halfway to Kotter's Ridge."
"Ya think that's the way it happened? Just came across us by accident?"
Ezra shrugged. "It's possible that it was an ambush, but I don't see how they would have known of our crossing. We sent no message to Blaire's lawmen for just that reason."
"Rooster will bring Grady and the others back here."
Ezra sighed. "I doubt that Mr. Grady would let this slight go unanswered. Once he meets up with Rooster, he'll be aware that you are injured and I killed two of his men."
"We're in a hell of a place."
Vin was silent for a moment. "We should go then."
"You're in no state for travel." Ezra pulled his Remington from its holster.
"Maybe you could rig up a travois?"
"A wagon would be preferable." Ezra frowned at the rugged landscape around them. "It wouldn't work though, even if we had one. There are far too many obstacles to negotiate. The state of your leg and the lack of a proper analgesic would make travel via travois…unbearable. I don't want to put up with your complaints and cries of agony."
"Then you should go."
Ezra smiled and spun the cylinder against his arm. "We had best be prepared. I prefer to take them here where we have some protection."
Vin watched the cardsharp as he checked his guns and ammo, preparing for whatever was going to happen. Standish's face was calm and inscrutable. The circumstance seemed to be of little interest to him. Funny how that helped Tanner feel a little better.
The gambler looked up, aware that he was being studied. "Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Tanner?"
Yeah, Vin thought…go. Knowing that wasn't going to happen, he said, "Could ya get somethin' out of my bag there?"
"Certainly," Ezra said as he holstered his weapon and reached for Vin's saddlebags. "Perhaps you've squirreled away some of that rot-gut you seem to prefer."
"Nah," Vin replied. "Jus' open that one there and feel down to the bottom."
Ezra scowled. "Mr. Tanner, if you are secreting dead snakes or such in your bags and are making sport of me by…"
"Hell, Ez, just look."
Ezra gamely began a search, his face displayed his curiosity as he drew out the specified item from the bottom of the bag. "A book, Mr. Tanner?"
"Yeah, been takin' it with me when I'm on the trail."
Ezra smiled as he recognized the title, Travels in South America. He never would have recognized the book itself. It was utterly transformed from the last time he had seen it. Four months had passed since he had given it to Vin, five months since Tanner had read it aloud as they were held in their cells on the Vaughn ranch.
"Mr. Tanner, it's positively bedraggled," Ezra said as he flipped the pages. The book naturally fell open to the chapter about the Amazon River. The pages were muddied and worn, dog-eared and foxed. There were streaks of dirt, tell-tailing how Vin had run his finger under the line of text.
"I keep it safe in the bottom of my bag. It could be in worse shape if I didn't."
Ezra nodded. "I would hate to see what that would look like." The southerner had always held books in very high regard, taking excellent care of them. This poor tattered volume was an assault on his sensibilities, and yet he looked on it with a fondness, realizing how often Vin must have opened it.
Standish thumbed the pages thoughtfully for a moment until Vin coughed and said, "I was thinkin' you could read it out loud."
"Of course, of course," Ezra waved his hand. "Just trying to find where to begin."
"I like the part about the mountains."
"Ah yes, perhaps this would be a good opportunity to take a trip across the Andes." Ezra found that section easily enough and began to read. "Always wonderful, the mighty ramparts of the Andes rise tier upon tier from the reddish strip of the desert shore, first in solid black, then in slaten pallor..."
"Pale gray," Vin said with a smile. "I remember that slaten pallor means pale gray."
"Correct, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said. "Although I believe that the author made up the word 'slaten'. It's not in any dictionary I've ever read."
"They can do that? Just make up stuff?"
"An author should always try to use correct language and information, but I do suppose a certain amount of poetic license exists."
"Ya gotta have a license to be a poet?"
Ezra sighed. "It's a figure of speech."
"But this ain't a poem, Ez."
"True, Mr. Tanner. But some authors are able to approximate verse in prose."
"Some folks write quite nicely, Mr. Tanner." Ezra had read this part of the book to Vin several months ago as they relaxed on the roof of the saddle shop. Tanner had committed many of the words and their meanings to memory, thinking that someday he would use them in conversation, but somehow the impressive words failed him in speech. Even now as Ezra read, he still couldn't understand why the writer hadn't just written 'pale gray' and kept things simple.
After clearing his throat, Ezra continued, "...to the misty heights of inland distance where the peaks are ill-defined against the sky, except when the sun burns through the haze and makes brilliant for a moment some snow-capped summit that appears to float many miles away."
"D'ya think it's really like that?" Vin asked. "I've been thinkin' 'bout that one since you read it the first time. Ya think it really looks like the mountain top is just floating out there, out in the clouds?"
Ezra tapped the book. "It says so here."
"But d'ya think it's just more of that poetic license?"
Ezra shrugged and smiled. "Perhaps, but it's a lovely image."
"Yeah. Bet it'd be pretty."
Ezra went back to the book. "The highest peaks reach incredible heights and, on the east side, the land rapidly descends to almost sea-level. It is from here that the affluents of the Amazon meander."
"Affluent is a small river."
Ezra looked up from the book and said curtly, "Are you going to let me read or will there be constant interruptions?"
"Just wanted to make sure you knew what you were readin' about."
"Hi, guys," JD greeted as Nathan and Josiah took a seat at the table. "Didja get somethin' to eat?"
The two men nodded. "Just come from the restaurant," Nathan said. "Sure is nice to have a hot meal after a day of work."
"Didja get that fence fixed?"
"Ah, yes, brother. The Harkensons won't have to worry about losing any of their horses again," Josiah replied.
"Where are the others?" Nathan inquired.
"Oh." JD shrugged. "Chris is over at the jail. Buck's doin' somethin' with Frances Abernathy. Ezra and Vin are taking Malcolm to Blaire for his trial."
Josiah smiled wickedly. "Chris sent Vin and Ezra? Doesn't that man know better?"
Nathan shook his head and tossed his hat to the table. There was no telling what would come of this.
JD shrugged. "I 'spect it'll work out okay."
Josiah wasn't so sure. It seemed that trouble only multiplied when the tracker and the gambler were put together. "Any more news on Grady and what we're to expect?" Josiah asked.
JD pointed to the posters. "Well, just that I found in these posters. They're for the guys that Malcolm mentioned." He sighed. "I hope the judge goes easy on the kid. Seems like a decent enough fella. Just a boy really."
Nathan smiled at the young sheriff and then looked to Josiah. "Yeah," the healer agreed. "Just a kid."
"Still." JD looked contemplative. "I suppose he does need to pay some sort of price. Shouldn't be runnin' around free, I figure. He's gotta serve a sentence for what he done." He leafed through the posters, even though there was no need to look at them again. He had been over the images several times already that evening. "Ya want to take a look."
"It wouldn't hurt," Nathan decided, taking the top sheaf and Josiah took the next. The three men settled in for a long evening. JD leaned back, feigning disinterest, but watching the faces of his two friends. The men casually read the descriptions on the pages, noting the images that were included, trading sheets when they were finished. Nothing was said as they relaxed.
It wasn't until they had both finished their first beer and had reached the bottom of the stack that Nathan grabbed Josiah by the arm. He didn’t say a word, but held the poster in front of Sanchez.
"Why, I'll be…" Josiah muttered.
"What?" JD demanded, having sat remarkably quiet up until that point.
"We seen him when we came into town," Nathan supplied. "This Rodger Folley was gettin' his horse out of the livery."
JD shook his head. "Can't be him. He's not gonna be 'round here until Wednesday when we meet up with him and the others at Kotter's Ridge."
"Well, I can tell you for a fact that the man described here was in town," Josiah said.
"He was in some god-awful hurry," Nathan added. "Had a gunshot wound, too, I reckon."
JD looked between the two of them. "I better tell Chris," he decided and then after a moment he added, "I ain't gonna be the one that fetches Buck though."
"Ez?" Vin called. He was alone. He turned his head back and forth, hoping to find Standish, but all he saw was the two remaining horses and the body of Malcolm Marley, now covered with a blanket. He struggled to sit up and failed with a groan. God that hurt! What he wouldn't do for a good dose of laudanum. He hated the stuff, but it sure did serve a purpose. Another gulp from that flask would work wonders right now. Hell, good whack on the head might be welcome.
Did Ezra leave? Did he really go? He couldn't have! He wouldn't have gone! Vin looked about frantically, a terrible fear clutching at him. Don't leave me here alone, helpless like this. "Ezra!"
"I'm here!" Ezra appeared from just beyond their protective overhang.
Vin felt himself calming already as he gazed at the worried face of the gambler. He realized that he had been kidding himself. It was suicide for Ezra to remain here, but as much as he wanted Ezra to be someplace safe, he sure as hell didn't want him to go. "Where were ya?"
"Not far. Just a little scouting to ascertain if we should be expecting company. I've seen nothing yet, and as night is approaching, perhaps we'll not be visited today." Ezra's brow furrowed in concern as he noted Vin's pallor. "You must keep still, Mr. Tanner. Don't allow yourself to become so overwrought. There's no cause for it."
"Damn, I hate this," Vin muttered. "Hurts like hell. Can't move; can't do anythin'. Just got to lay here and leave everythin' up to you. Not used to that."
"Don't worry. I'll do my best to keep you in the land of the living. I may not have your perfect aim, but I do have some skill. I hope it'll be enough."
"Didn't mean it that way," Vin sighed. He could feel his heart thudding in his chest, his shoulder ached relentlessly, his arm pounded and his leg was simply unbearable. He raised his hand to his head. "God, I feel like shit."
"Quite understandable." Ezra sat on his heels beside him. "If you'd like, I could continue with the reading. It'll be dark soon, but the fire should allow enough light."
"That'd be good." Vin responded. Being able to wrap his mind around that foreign place certainly helped. If he could concentrate on something as far away as the Andes, he could distance himself from the constant pain. He watched as Ezra picked up the book and gingerly opened it to the page he had marked.
"Life in high altitudes is often difficult. The oxygen in the atmosphere may be only half of that at sea level, and requires profound adaptation and bodily changes on the part of persons accustomed to lower altitudes. Often several months are needed before the stranger becomes acclimated, and similar acclimatization is required for those who descend from the highlands to the coast."
"Ah, Ez..." Vin paused. "I forgot that one."
"Acclimatization means 'the act of becoming accustomed'."
"Like folks gotta get accustomed to you?"
"I was thinking exactly the reverse. It's you that takes getting used to."
Vin meant it as a joke and it was accepted as such, but he realized the truth in his statement. One had to come to know the slick con man in order to realize who he truly was. One had to take the time to get beyond the apparent indifference and the false fronts, the feints and sarcasm, to find the man that had created that careful facade. Tanner was glad that he'd had the patience to take on that challenge.
Ezra said, "I would think that it'd be very difficult to catch one's breath at that high altitude, with so little air. You'd be laid low in a matter of moments."
Vin, who wasn't breathing his best at the moment, could appreciate that fact. "Probably couldn't move more than a few steps without feelin' like you were runnin' a race."
"I would think so." Ezra returned his attention to the book, "The natives of the area have developed a body build adapted to the oxygen deficiency. Their lung capacity is much greater than among low-altitude peoples."
"So I guess some greenhorn to the Andes is in tough shape if he were to come up against one of the folks who lived there."
Ezra nodded. "I would suspect that the native would have a definite advantage at that altitude. On the other hand, I believe that native to the Andes may suffer problems if he were to descend to our level."
"Sorta like if I were to go to the big city, huh?"
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Oh, Mr. Tanner, I'm certain that you could quickly adapt to any situation put before you."
"Makes ya wonder why folks'd go up there at all though. Seems like it would be pretty hard livin' in such little air."
"I understand that the mountains are rich in gold, silver, copper and tin. A fortune can be made there in very little time."
"Still, you said folks 'ave been livin' there since forever. You'd think they'd have gotten rich and left that place."
Ezra shrugged. "They must have their reasons."
"Maybe it has something to do with that mountain peak, floatin' in the clouds."
"Why would you say that?"
"Sure would be
pretty t'look at."
"What d'ya mean … Rooster Folley was in town?" Buck yelled as he pulled his jacket on.
"He was," Nathan said. "I can vouch for that."
"Which direction was he headed when he left?" Chris asked Nathan and Josiah.
"South," Josiah replied.
"South?" Buck shook his head. "That's the wrong way. They're supposed to be meeting up at Kotter's Ridge. Hell, they ain't even supposed to be anywhere near here."
"Chris?' JD tried. "Why was he here? What's happening?"
"I suspect he may have been here to find out what happened to Marley," Chris replied. "They musta heard that we caught him. Maybe they were fixin' to spring him."
"Well, then they know that Marley's not in town anymore," Nathan input.
"If that Rooster knows where the young man went, then our brothers may be in some danger," Josiah said quietly.
"Vin and Ezra should have that kid in Blaire by now. They'll be safe enough," Chris voiced.
"Unless," JD muttered, "unless somethin's already happened to them on the way."
"Could be Rooster was tryin' to get in contact with the others," Nathan added. "He was hurt. Shot maybe. This might have been the closest town."
Buck's brow furrowed. "Then we should go check it out," he stated. "Make our way towards Blaire."
"Pretty rough country out there," Nathan said. "It'll be mighty hard tracking anything through Dolby's Crest at night."
Chris acquiesced. "Won't be able to do much of anything now. Too damn dark. We'll check the outgoing wires and send one to Blaire. See if Ezra and Vin made it. Warn 'em to sit tight. If we don’t get a response, we'll light out of here in the morning."
Ezra looked up from the book to see Vin lying with his head pressed into his pillow. He was tense and trembling, his eyes tightly closed.
"S'alright, Ez," Vin panted. "Just hurt for a bit there. God!" He jerked his head back again.
"Vin, Vin, listen to me." Ezra dropped the book and laid his hand on Vin's chest. "Remember that floating mountain peak? I want you to think about that. Think of it, a mountain, floating as pretty as you please in the clouds -- light as air, a marvel, a trick of the eye maybe? But there it is just the same, a mountain peak that rides upon clouds."
"Yeah?" Vin said with a gasp.
"And the light of sunrise shines off of it, turning the snow pink and violet -- incredible and delicate colors. The clouds are glowing in the morning light. Can you see that, Vin?"
"Just think about that, Vin. Concentrate on it. You can see a mountain floating, silently and peacefully -- free of the world and everything it contains. There's hardly any wind and the day is cold, but crisp. The only sound you hear is the cry of an eagle, far from here, and a gentle wail from the breeze that blows through the cracks in the mountains. Can you imagine it?"
Vin concentrated on the image, remembering that the Indians had used a similar technique to distance themselves from pain. "Yeah," he said again...dreamily.
"And nothing can touch it. It's free. It's so clean and clear and perfect. It seems almost within reach, but is many miles from you. It's gilded in the sunrise, flawless and beautiful."
Vin could picture it so vividly, he felt that he could almost reach out and touch it. He sighed as the pain lessened and he dreamed of the mountain floating just out of reach.
Ezra waited, keeping a gentle weight on Vin's chest. Finally, he sighed, thankful that the tracker had fallen asleep.
He must be utterly miserable, Ezra thought. He hated to see his friend in such pain and to have no way to stop it. He regretted the sips he had taken from the flask during the journey, bracing himself against the monotony of travel. Vin needed it much more than he ever did.
It was dark, and their small fire was dying. He decided to allow the fire to extinguish itself. They had needed the boiling water earlier, and the light for reading, but now it seemed more intelligent to do without. The terrain that surrounded them was too difficult to cross in the cover of night, and he truly doubted that anyone would be so half-witted as to attempt it… but people always managed to plumb the depths of idiocy and he didn't want to chance it any longer.
Rooster was still out there, had probably made it to his friends by now. Trouble was coming. There was no doubt in his mind that they were in imminent danger. His only hope was that the others received his message. Marley had said that there were eight other men involved -- two were dead now. Vin would be unable to add support to their defense. Six men against one were mighty poor odds, especially when Vin's life depended on the outcome.
His hand remained on Vin for a moment more. "I'm sorry my friend," Ezra said quietly. "If I had only been more alert, this never would have happened."
Vin muttered and tried to roll over, but stopped quickly. He grunted in pain, his eyelids fluttering in the dim light.
"Quiet, Vin," Ezra said, increasing the pressure of his hand. "It's all right. Lie still. I'm here." Vin settled down and Ezra sighed. "So sorry, Vin. I'll get you out of this. I promise that no further harm shall come to you. Have no doubts."
Continue onto the Second Half