Across the Andes - the second half
"Yeah, yeah," Winston Juje from the telegraph office said as he thumbed through his notes. "Man with red hair, tall guy, neck like a gander. He was here. Wasn't named Folley though - was Fox. Sent off a message to Eagle Bend."
"What did it say?" Chris asked, leaning over the operator's book.
Juje's eyes widened behind his thick spectacles. He made an effort to protect the book, but the gunslinger had his hand on it already. "I can't..." he started.
Larabee said nothing, but determinedly took the register out of the operator's hand. Juje made a feeble attempt to stop him, enough to say that he had tried, and then let the man in black have the notes. Hang it, he thought, I ain't dying for a principle. 'Sides, if it's somethin' to do with keepin' the peace, I 'spect I should let it go.
Larabee's eyes flashed down the list of outgoing messages, written in Juje's spidery hand. The operator leaned forward and pointed one of his pencil-thin fingers at a specific notation. "That was the red gander."
The message was directed to a man named Green, signed by Fox, and read "RAN INTO MM RIDING WITH PINKS. DD AND TR DEAD. MM TRAITOR. MEET AT SITE C. PINKS WILL PAY RETRIBUTION."
So Rooster had run into Malcolm Marley, riding with the Pinks. Larabee's eyes hardened. He had heard the slang used before as another word for "Pinkerton Detectives" and applied to anyone who had anything to do with the law. Pinks translated to lawkeepers. Two of the outlaws were dead, but there was no mention of what had happened to 'the pinks". Retribution was sought. Did that mean that Vin and Ezra were still alive?
"Site C?" Larabee lifted his eyes and Juje sat back in his chair.
"Ain't my business!" The white-haired man snapped. "I take messages. I send messages. Ain't a problem of mine what people say. And no, he didn't go explainin' what 'Site C' meant and I didn't ask him."
Larabee sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. "Next time, maybe you should."
Juje grimaced. "If I were to ask after every strange thing that came through here, I'd never stop yackin' and nothin' would go from here." He nodded and said, "Now, did you have a wire to send or not?"
Larabee pushed the message he had composed across to Juje. "Send it to Blaire. I want to know the minute you get an answer." And he turned, his black duster flowing around him, and left the telegraph office.
Ezra paced back and forth in the darkness. Night had fallen, dark and deep. The moon was new and the ledge blocked out what little starlight might have reached them.
He sighed as he gazed back at Tanner, not quite able to make him out. What the hell was going on? Where were the others? Of course, it was too dark for them to travel tonight, Ezra reminded himself.
Had Chaucer even made it home? Was the horse was just biding his time, waiting for the right moment to amble on back? He wouldn't put it beyond the animal. Chaucer was far too clever for his own good.
Still, the horse usually followed through with an order once he put his mind to it. Ezra smiled, realizing that the animal would do as he was told. He never quite understood how the horse could be so faithful, so loyal. It seemed that Chaucer would do just about anything that he asked. Of course, he had disobeyed that previous command when he descended the steep slope, but that was typical. The chestnut gelding never liked staying put if his owner was in sight. He had this compelling need to be near him. Ezra wasn't sure what he had done to gain such devotion. Don't exactly deserve it, he thought as he paced.
He wandered back to Vin and sat down beside the sleeping tracker, adjusting the blankets. He had finally retrieved Vin's horse blanket and thrown it over Tanner, after removing his own jacket. The night was growing cold and he realized that he could no longer do without something to keep warm. Marley still had a blanket of his own, although he was beyond the need for warmth.
Ezra lightly laid a hand across Vin's forehead, looking for signs of fever. The tracker stirred at the contact but fell back to sleep immediately. So far, so good, Ezra thought. Fever had taken more than it's share of good men and Ezra was determined to keep the malady from his friend. He moved his hand to the bandaged arm, to see if a fever radiated from there, but it seemed to be doing well. Vin groaned but didn't waken.
Gently, Ezra tried the straps on the splint to assure that they were tight enough and that the bone was staying in place. He remembered the hatchet and Vin's anxiety in regard to amputation. The gambler smiled, but the expression soon fell as he recalled another place and time where such fears were well founded.
An image of a hospital tent appeared before him, where boys in gray cried out in agony and begged to be left whole. The doctors wouldn't listen. No, those men had become deaf against the pleas, the cries, the screams and the whimpers. The doctors worked at a furious pace, wielding saws like mad carpenters, shouting orders to their underlings, wearing boots that squelched in the red substance at their feet -- blood, so damn much of it…it flowed in rivulets from the tent. The doctor's eyes were puffed with exhaustion and their bloodied hands trembled as they ran them across their sweating foreheads. There was no rest for those crimson surgeons.
Ezra flinched, remembering the sound of saw on bone, remembering the sound of flesh on flesh as a blank-eyed nurse flung what was left of a leg onto a pile of other pieces that had once belonged to other men.
The gambler picked up his empty flask and grasped it tightly in his hand, staring off into the black.
The flies, the stench of blood, vomit, piss and puss, the cries…the endless cries.
There had been a private, no older than Marley. The boy had kept asking where his leg was, because he said he could feel it still, saying it itched and ached, and that he could feel every toe. He'd said that the doctor had promised to fix it if he just stayed quiet, promised him even as he grabbed the saw. The boy had kept asking if it was buried in a grave like a person with a marker and a name, 'cause wasn't it like a person? He had kept calling, looking for help… for answers…for comfort… for anything. The boy just kept at it until his stump stank from rot and turned all black and green and yellow. He died from the fevers, quietly crying for his mama.
Ezra shook his head sharply. No, he thought, this was not the time for such memories. There would never be a 'right time' for it.
At a shuffling noise, his Remington leapt into his hand. Ezra aimed into the darkness, taking a moment to verify that it was only the horses moving about in their sleep. He set the gun beside him. No, no one would be about tonight, but one could never be too cautious in such a situation.
The gambler drew his knees up close to his chest as he settled himself close to the sleeping tracker. He tried to get comfortable despite the chill in the air. If anything happened to Vin, it would be his fault entirely. Tanner would meet with no further disaster. No matter what, he pledged, Vin would make it through this.
"Mr. Larabee! Mr. Wilmington!" Mr. Juje said, popping out of the telegraph office as he tugged on his coat. He paused when he saw five of the peacekeepers together on the boardwalk. One of them alone was troubling. Get those lawmen grouped together and they certainly could be an ominous bunch -- especially when they had something stuck in their craws. "Got that message from Blaire. Last thing to come in tonight. Nothin' came from Eagle Bend from that 'Mr. Smith'."
"Thanks, Winston," Buck said, snatching the frail paper from the operator's hand, letting Juje lock up the shop for the night and slink away to his home and family. Wilmington joined the others on the boardwalk.
"What's it say?" JD cried, nearly climbing on top of Buck in his efforts to read the note.
"Ah, dang," Buck muttered.
"Well? Did they make it?" Chris asked slowly.
"Naw," Buck replied. "Says here that the deputy in Blaire ain't seen any sign of 'em."
"Hell," Chris murmured.
"What do we do now?" JD asked. "Should we head out tonight?"
"And where do you suggest we'd go?" Buck asked. "Ain't any moon to see by and we wouldn't know where the hell to look for 'em."
"They're on the trail to Blaire," JD said. "That should be easy enough to follow."
"That don't put 'em anywhere in particular," Buck countered. "Did they go to the left or the right of Gravel Creek? Did they go along the Warren's Spread or did they cut across it? Did they take the upper or lower trail across the Crest?"
"Knowing the two of them, they took the upper," Nathan said with a sigh.
Before JD could speak, Buck snatched the bowler off his head and smacked the young sheriff with it. "Ya see! If they're up on the Crest, no way we're gonna make it in this dark. It'd be like commitin' suicide."
"Mighty hard country," Josiah said.
"We just gotta wait 'til it's light enough to see a thing or two," Nathan added.
JD harrumphed. "Well, I ain't just gonna wait. I gotta do somethin'."
"Be best if you got yourself some rest now," Nathan supplied. "It'll be big doin's tomorrow."
"Yes, JD," Josiah agreed. "Sleep now and tomorrow we'll be ready for whatever mess our brothers have found themselves in."
The young sheriff paced back and forth outside the telegraph office. "I can't sleep. Hell, I can't even sit still."
"Why don’t you check on the horses, JD," Chris suggested to the energetic young man. "I don't think any of us will be gettin' much rest anyhow."
JD nodded to Chris and headed to the livery.
Buck waited until Dunne was gone. "Think those two trouble-magnets are okay?"
"Can't rightly say." Chris squinted into the darkness. "Rooster made it back here alive. That gunshot wound ain't the best sign."
"He was in some all-fired hurry," Nathan responded. "Could be that he was tryin' to muster the troops."
Buck groaned. "Or get the hell out of the territory after doin' somethin' that's gonna get 'im into even more trouble. Dang it! If anythin's happened to Vin and Ez, I’m goin' after that Rooster. Ain't no way he's gettin' out of this territory." Buck stared off in the direction of Dolby's Crest.
Wilmington never had trouble making friends, but these people, these six men, were something special to him. They were his family. Nobody could hurt his family and get away with it. "I don't like this one bit."
"Guys!" JD appeared suddenly at the door of the livery. "You gotta see this!"
The four of them turned, and seeing the startled look on JD's face, hurried to him. "What's up, kid?" Buck asked, peering inside and seeing nothing amiss.
JD shook his head and pointed to the stall at the far end. "What's Chaucer doin' here?"
The men strode inside and gazed at the chestnut gelding that occupied the stall at the back corner. The horse glared back at them, as if daring them to try something.
"Ezra took Chaucer, didn't he?" Josiah asked, looking to the others for confirmation.
"I saw him ride out myself," Chris responded. He noted that the door to the stall was shut, closing the animal in. "How in the hell did he get back in here? Didn't anyone see anything?"
JD shrugged. "Chaucer's done this before so maybe folks are used to it. Ezra's always tryin' to teach him to come home on command. I saw Chaucer come down the street once by himself. Scared me a bit, 'til I seen Ezra come up behind him on foot, like it was a normal sort of thing." JD laughed at the memory. "Chaucer opens and shuts his stall all the time. He only stays put 'cause Ezra tells him to."
"Think he got spooked and come on back here on his own?" Nathan asked.
Buck shook his head. "You know this dang horse wouldn't leave Ezra without a fight. Hell, you can't hardly give the man a friendly shove without that horse tryin' to bite cha!"
Chaucer was dusty and tired. He wore no saddle, but his bridle was still in place and there was a white cloth tied into his reins.
Chris' eyes fastened on that dusty handkerchief. He couldn't reach it easily and wasn't about to enter the stall with the difficult horse. He had no intentions of getting crushed or harassed. He opened the door and tried to draw the horse out, but Chaucer dug in his hooves and refused to move. When more force was applied, the animal whinnied, reared, and struck out with his hooves, drawing an end to that plan.
"Can you reach over from Clyde's stall, Buck?"
Buck sighed and waited a moment. "You owe me one, Chris," he said as he entered his horse's stall. The big grey muzzled him as he pressed against him. He gave Clyde a quick pat, and muttered, "Easy, boy," he muttered, hoping that Chaucer was in a good mood. It wasn't as if he thought Chaucer would hurt him -- but the animal obviously didn't want to move. If the gambler was a stubborn fool -- his horse was ten times as bad.
Chaucer, for his part did nothing as Buck leaned over the wall that separated the two stalls. As long as they weren't trying to move him, the horse appeared perfectly happy to remain still and let them fiddle with his reins and remove the cloth that was carefully tied to him. He snorted violently as Buck finally lifted the handkerchief free of the knot and Buck fell onto his horse and then dropped to his butt in the stall.
Clyde nickered and looked down at his owner. The horse shuffled about until he was able to lower his head and ruffle Buck's hair.
"Get back now, ya big baby!" Buck said, shooing the horse off as he staggered to his feet, the cloth still clenched in his hand.
Chris and Josiah offered their assistance in getting Buck out. JD helpfully brushed the straw from his coat as Wilmington pulled the cloth open and found the note.
"Well, what you got there?" Nathan asked.
Buck squinted in the low light of the livery. Too damn dark. Let's get to somewhere's brighter. Can't see worth shit here." And they strode out of the livery. The horses watched their owners go, and settled down again for the night. Chaucer didn't raise his head, but continued to stare off into the corner of his stall, muttering an equine oath.
It took the men only a minute to reach the saloon and free up their table.
Inez watched from her position at the bar as the men fell into their
seats and leaned forward in anticipation.
Buck held the note before him and, in the light of the Redbird's newfangled lamps, read out loud:
Come immediately. Mr. Tanner is gravely injured. He has suffered a fall from Dolby's Crest. We are at a location directly below the point where the upper trail narrows. He has suffered a broken leg, a gunshot wound, possibly a broken shoulder blade, as well as multiple contusions and assorted lacerations. I feel that an attempt to move him by myself is ill advised.
We were attacked by three of Grady's men. Two are dead. I believe they're known as Tobias Ren and "Dancing Dan". One escaped due my inability to stop him in time. Be on the lookout for a tall man with red hair. I regret to report that Mr. Malcolm Marley is deceased, murdered by the men with whom he once rode. I'm afraid that Mr. Grady and his band will return. We are at a disadvantage.
Mr. Tanner is in great pain and I am at a loss as to how to relieve him of it. He is in need of your help. I ask that you hurry.
Sincerely, Mr. Ezra P. Standish
much for our scheduled shootout," Buck muttered as he finished.
"I'll get my bag together," Nathan said, shoving back the chair to stand.
"We can get partway there tonight if we just keep a cautious pace," Josiah suggested. "Could get as far as the foothills. Should be able to get to that place first thing in the morning now that we know where to look."
Chris nodded. "Let's get ready then. Ain't gonna waste any more time."
"How we gonna get Vin out?" JD piped in. "A travois won't work through there, and we won't be getting a wagon in."
Chris grimaced at the thought of Vin suffering from a broken leg and shoulder. Damn, it was going to be hard on him.
"Mule back litter would do the trick," Nathan said.
"What's that?" JD asked.
"It's a contraption so someone can sit proper while they're bein' moved. More like a chair than a saddle. He'd sorta lay on top of the mule, instead of sittin' astride. Wouldn't be no pressure on his leg at all," Nathan explained. "We should be able to get him all the way home usin' that, seein' as how they aren't too far out."
"Think you could describe the making of one?" Josiah asked.
Nathan nodded. "Sure can. We'll get it together quick."
"A mule?" Buck asked. "Does it have to be a mule?"
"I don't know," Nathan admitted. "The only type I seen were on mules. We used 'em to transport folks with leg and back injuries durin' the war. I guess they put up with that sort of thing better than a horse."
"JD, go see if Yosemite will give up Darling," Chris instructed.
"Oh Jeez," JD shook his head. "Vin ain't gonna like this one bit. He don't like mules much at all."
Buck laughed. "Don’t think he'll have much say in the matter."
"Hey, Ez, you up?"
"Yes, of course, Mr. Tanner."
"It's awful dark."
"Indeed, it is."
"An excellent observation."
"Fire went out?"
"Yes, some time ago. I felt it was for the best. I didn’t want to alert anyone to our present location."
"How are you feeling?"
"God, Ezra, I feel like someone knocked me off my horse, drug me a half-dozen miles, then hit me with a yard-long fence rail."
"In other words, 'not well'."
"Yeah, them's the words I was lookin' for. I'm a bit parched." Vin heard an immediate rustle and soon saw shape looming over him in the dark.
"Sorry, Vin. I should have asked." Ezra helped Vin sit up enough to take a drink from the canteen.
Vin groaned at the movement, but was grateful for the water. "We got enough water to last us?" he asked after several gulps.
"I'm afraid that I used more that should be advisable while I was tending to some of your injuries. We're low on water."
"Guess I've had enough then." He sighed as Ezra settled him back on the ground. "How you been doin'?"
Vin chuckled, an action that jostled him more than he thought it would. "I don't see anyone else 'round."
"I'm quite fine, Vin."
"You have anything to eat? Get any sleep?"
"I'm not particularly hungry. Have you acquired an appetite yet?"
"I could eat. My stomach ain't so bad now."
Ezra moved away from him and came back after a few minutes of messing with the saddlebags. "Would you care for some pie?"
"Pie? You got pie in there?"
"Mrs. Potter makes a magnificent pumpkin pie. It's best with fresh cream, but I'm afraid we'll have to 'rough it' and do without." He handed Vin a slice that had been wrapped in brown paper. "I apologize. I put it in a safe place, but it's somewhat…smooshed."
Tanner didn't realize how hungry he had been until he bit into the offered food. "Man alive, you're right, Ez," he said between bites. "This is damn tasty!"
"Ah, yes, the secret is out."
Vin took several more gulping bites and then paused, offering the remainder to the dark shape beside him. "You want any?"
"You've eaten the point off…the best part. No, you finish that. I have another slice stored away for later."
"Good thinkin'. Any idea what time it is?"
"None whatsoever." Vin heard a soft jangle as Ezra pulled his watch from his waistcoat pocket. "I'm afraid that I can't see my watch and I have no intention of removing the crystal to feel the position of the hands. There is no moon to judge the passage of time. All I can say is that it's night and has been so for some time now."
Vin shoved the last of the pie into his mouth and licked his fingers. "You think Chaucer made it back?"
"Since he hasn't returned, my answer would be 'yes.' I only hope that he has made his presence known. It'd be like him to simply sneak into his stall and remain there, quietly sulking while he waits for me."
The two were silent for some time, as Vin lay still and listened to the night. He loved being outdoors. The subtle sounds of the night creatures were music to him. After several minutes, he sighed deeply and found Ezra looming over him. The tracker almost laughed, seeing the anxious look on the gambler's face in that low light.
"Mr. Tanner, are you feeling all right?"
"Crap, Ezra. Ain't feelin' no better. Wish you could read more of that book."
"Ah, I'm afraid that the text is illegible at this time."
"Yeah. I was thinkin' about that mountain in the clouds and was wonderin' about what it would be like to live there. So far up that there's hardly any air."
"…In the rarified atmosphere of the Andes."
"Why would anyone want to go up there, Ez?"
"Perhaps they enjoy being there, the same way that you enjoy the outdoor life. Perhaps the people of that region have found something that they need, something even more important than oxygen."
"But it makes no sense. I'd rather be where there's more air to breathe."
"And I'd rather be in the city, with its refinements and civilization, with its diversions and chances for prosperity, with its fine dining and casinos. You see, there is perplexity in everything."
"Yeah, I know, Ez. You like those places a lot. Me, I've never stepped foot in one of them big casinos."
Ezra sat forward and spoke excitedly, "They're astounding, Mr. Tanner. Truly, you must find time to see one. You remember The World-Famous Ritz? My mother's erstwhile establishment in Four Corners?"
"Never did go in there, Ez."
Ezra paused a moment before continuing. "But certainly, I recall you entering the establishment after Eli Joe started taking pot shots at you from the Presidential Suite."
"Ezra," Vin sighed. "I was kinda preoccupied at that time. Didn't really notice where I was in particular."
Again, a slight pause. "Well, if you had paid attention, you would have seen a very modest establishment. The riverboats that ply the Mississippi are wonderful things, plush and extravagant -- palaces on the water. And there are casinos in Saint Louis, San Francisco and New Orleans that seem to stretch to infinity. Not just one wheel of fortune', but a dozen; twenty faro tables and as many roulette wheels, blackjack, craps, euchre and of course, poker. Whole rooms set aside for keno. Lovely ladies walk though with their silver trays, delivering drinks and sundries to the patrons. There are restaurants of excellent repute and the best of hotel rooms above. All of glittering perfection." His voice became soft as he spoke.
"Sure sounds nice."
"It is, let me assure you. If you were to see such a place, Mr. Tanner, you would pray to never leave."
Vin looked toward his friend, but Ezra had sat back and he could no longer make out his face in the darkness. "So why didn't you stay?"
"The locations didn't...satisfy me."
"All that gamblin' stuff and good eats and beautiful women didn't do the trick?"
There was a silence before Ezra continued, "Something was missing."
"Well, hell, Ezra, if it was missing there, then it really must be far gone here." Vin waited a moment, hoping for a response. Tell me, Ez, he thought. Not receiving a reply, he finally asked, "Why stay in this…ah… rarefied atmosphere?"
"I couldn't exactly say," Ezra replied. He paused and then said, "You should get some sleep, Vin. It will be morning soon enough."
It was aggravating to be so tired. Vin wanted to continue talking, but he could feel his weariness drawing him under again. "You'll wake me if somethin' happens?"
"You can rest assured."
"Get up, kid," Buck said, kicking the blanket off of the sleeping sheriff.
JD blinked at the early morning light, shocked that he had slept at all. He had thought that he'd be too high-strung to drift off. They had traveled for hours into the night, but had finally drawn to a stop when the territory became too rugged to try in the dark. The five men had fallen into a weary sleep.
Nobody knew for certain the time when they stopped the journey, but the amount of sleep they had gained was minimal. They plodded around their camp sluggishly as Buck set to the task of making a particularly strong batch of coffee to get them moving.
JD yawned and stretched and went to check on the horses. Darling, the mule, stood placidly among the horses. The mule-back litter that Josiah and Nathan had fashioned would be mounted on her again before they started. The clumsy-looking, but sturdy device was sitting nearby. Buck had decided to use it for a bed that night and declared it a fairly comfortable way to sleep.
Chris watched JD as he tended to the animals. The boy had a great skill when it came to horses, could get fairly decent behavior out of most of them. He had been put in charge of the mule and was particularly successful in getting the often-ornery animal to behave. Larabee sighed, realizing that an animal didn’t have to have long ears to be a mule.
A piebald gelding had been obtained for Ezra because Chaucer had refused to leave his stall. JD had tried to coax the con man's horse from his place, but Chaucer had only cocked an ear at the young man and locked his knees, refusing to give way. No amount of pleading, cajoling or bargaining could make the horse move. A sugar cube had lit a fire in the chestnut's eyes, but it wasn't enough. The sugar eventually went to JD's horse, Toby, drawing a disgusted snort from the gambler's horse and a deadly glare directed at the little bay. Toby was oblivious to any threat that Chaucer tried to aim his way. He was in horse heaven as he smacked at the unexpected treat.
Chris yawned and stretched and looked out at Dolby's Crest, trying to gage exactly where Ezra and Vin were.
His keen eyes scanned the landscape, looking for smoke or some sign of their location, but saw no such marker. Probably don't want Grady's men to know where they are, Chris thought. Smart thinkin' there. He looked for the location that Ezra had described and located it as best as he was able, plotting a path downward. He whistled, imagining the descent. Damn, he hoped Vin was all right when they reached them.
"We'll be ready to go in a few minutes," Josiah said as he approached their leader. "We just want to get some breakfast together.
"Yeah, breakfast is the most important meal of the day," Nathan said, as he stooped to check the litter and ensure that it made it through the night without any problems. He was proud to see that it stood up to Buck. "We'll get some grub in us and we'll be gone. Don't want to meet up with these folks on an empty stomach."
"Better not take too long," Chris muttered. "Could be that no one's comin', but Vin's in a sorry state and we can't keep him waitin' for long."
"Yeah, he won't be too happy," Nathan shook his head. "I'm hopin' that Ezra thought enough to get that bone back in place. Otherwise Vin'll have one hell of a time."
"I figure he would," Buck said, carrying the pot of dangerous coffee to his friends. "He's handier than he lets on."
Chris grimaced. "Must hurt like hell. I'd hate to think what sort of shape Vin's in right now."
"Least he's got Ezra with him." Buck nodded, pouring the thick brew into a cup. "He'll be looked after."
Vin watched as Ezra checked his weapons again. The gambler paced back and forth in their secluded spot, waiting and listening.
"I'd feel better if you give me one of those," Vin suggested. "Makes me nervous not havin' my gun."
Standish smiled. "I'm afraid I'll have to leave you in that nervous state as I'm not as well armed as I would hope. I may need all of my armament. Sorry, Mr. Tanner."
"Wish you'd find my mare's leg. It's up that hill somewhere. You could go look for it a-fore anyone shows up."
"I'd prefer to stay here."
"You ain't gonna leave me unarmed here, Ez," Vin chided.
Ezra sighed and flexed his right arm. The derringer popped into his hand and he handed the small gun to the tracker.
"Ah, hell, Ezra. What am I s'pose to do with this little toy?"
"It's saved my life more than once."
"But it's got no range whatsoever and ‘bout no chance of hittin' a target. Hell, can't hardly aim with it." Vin nodded to their pile of supplies, seeing the long barrel that stuck out. "Give me your rifle."
Ezra just grinned as he strode over to the supplies and picked up the Remington revolving rifle. "My friend, I'll need it myself."
Vin groaned, not liking this one bit. He was a sharpshooter and the little gun in his hand was almost worthless to him.
Seeing the look on Vin's face, Ezra added, "A rifle would do you no good whatsoever from your current position. What exactly to you expect to shoot except for the underside of this ledge? And with that shoulder? You'll find that the derringer is light enough to easily handle with your wounded arm. Let me take care of it. If I fail, and the miscreants reach this point, that ’little toy’ will prove more than lethal."
Vin grimaced at that thought, understanding what Ezra meant. The derringer would work at close range… if the men were to come into this protected place…if Ezra failed… "Well, I'm countin' on it not gettin' that far."
"You and me, both, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said and then stopped abruptly, tilting his head. His posture drove Vin to silence as he listened as well. Something was moving along the trail.
Ezra nodded once to Vin and then skirted along the rock face, toward the sound.
"Ez…" Vin hissed out, but the gambler didn't seem to hear him as he moved away. Damn it, don’t go doin' anythin' foolish! Vin thought. Don't go!
Ezra reached the end of the overhang and peeked carefully around the edge. He waited, knowing that someone would have to come into sight soon. It only took a moment for a man on horseback to appear on the trail. Ezra aimed the rifle, and waited. Let him pass, he thought. Let him go on by. Perhaps he doesn't know where we are. He frowned as another man came up the trail -- that redhead. Damn! He'll know! More men came into sight -- six of them. Damn it all. How was he supposed to take them all on? Ezra sighed, hoping that they would just continue on their way. Perhaps no one would realize…
Then redhead pointed vaguely in his direction and the first man changed his gaze. Almost instantly, his eyes fastened on the gambler. The man jerked a pistol out of its holster. They both fired. The man on the trail fell as his horse reared.
Ezra bolted backward, and a barrage of gunfire followed him. He heard his name shouted and turned for a moment to Vin who was trying to sit up. Ezra smiled reassuringly at him, and then gestured for him to stay down. Everything is fine, he tried to portray. There's no problem here. No problem at all.
"Ezra!" Vin shouted when he heard the gunfire. He tried to force himself upright and caught sight of Ezra dashing for cover as bullets gouged out chips of stone all around him. "Ezra!"
Ezra looked to him and smiled with ridiculous reassurance. Damn him, Vin thought. Who the hell does he think I am? Some sort of an idiot? "Get back here!"
"I'm fine," Ezra exclaimed. "I have everything under control." A bullet gouged out a substantial amount of rock above his head, sending down a shower of fragments. Ezra ducked and then shrugged off the particles. "No reason to worry."
Ezra was far enough back to be out of sight of the gunmen, but they wouldn't be so easily deterred. He had no doubt about that. Damnation! He had to get Vin out of here. Where the hell were the others?
To answer his thoughts, a shot rang out from a new location. He moved again, trying to keep cover from this direction as well. These shooters were somewhere among the many huge rocks that littered the area surrounding Dolby's Crest. He took a deep breath and peered out at the newcomers, careful to keep his protection against the shooters above him. He caught sight of a domed hat appearing from behind a rock and swore to himself until he saw it abruptly disappear and heard the indistinct cursing of one Mr. Wilmington.
"What the hell's goin' on?" Vin shouted.
"The Calvary, my friend, has arrived," Ezra grinned widely. "And just in time."
"Good ol' Chris," Vin muttered as the sound of gunfire continued. The men on the trail were apparently focusing on the men hiding in the boulders now, leaving Ezra as little more than an observer. Vin watched Ezra as he stood with his back flat against the steep wall of the hill. "How're they doin'?"
Ezra sighed. "Not well. They're unharmed, but pinned down. It'd appear that they're unable to make a move. Meanwhile, the men above us have ample cover and the ability to find new positions at will. Unfortunately, they're aware of my position too and haven't allowed me the opportunity to reduce their numbers further."
"Damn," Vin muttered, resting his head again. "Grady has the advantage. Could be just a matter of time 'fore he starts takin' out our boys."
"I'm afraid you're right, Mr. Tanner."
"Gotta do somethin'."
"Agreed," Ezra said, glancing back at him. His gaze traveled, taking in their supplies and what was available to him. Always make use of what you are given, he reminded himself.
Vin was glad to see Ezra walking away from the edge of the overhang. The gambler squatted down beside Vin and said, "I have an idea."
"Good," Vin responded. "What do we do?"
"Our friends are unable to get a clear shot since Mr. Grady's men are too well fortified. The outlaws must be drawn out."
"Yeah, I hear ya. What now?"
"It's time for action and a well-executed distraction."
Vin frowned. "What d'ya have in mind, Ez?"
"I swear to you, Vin, you'll make it through this. Fear not."
"Ez," Vin muttered. "Nothin' stupid, Ez. Please, nothin' stupid."
Ezra gently placed his hands under Vin's shoulders to sit him up. "Don't worry, Vin. I have everything figured out."
"Damn! Damn! Damn!" Buck shouted, giving JD a cuff across the ear just because he was still annoyed with him for almost getting his head blown off. "We're makin' about as much headway here as Top Hat Bob at a beauty contest." He growled as he tried to get a glance at the outlaws. "Can't get a shot at 'em that's worth shit!"
"They have an advantage," Josiah agreed, attempting a glimpse of the men on the trail, but being forced back to cover by another bullet.
"We're so close!" JD exclaimed. "Vin and Ez gotta be right in there, under that ledge. If we could just get to them…"
"We have to take these fellas out first," Nathan replied. "And it looks like they ain't gonna let us move."
"Have to figure out a way to distract 'em," Buck said, throwing Chris a meaningful glance. "What do ya say, cowboy. Vin and Ezra need our help. Can't leave 'em to themselves much longer. I mean, we leave 'em alone for less than one day and look at the mess they got into."
Chris grimaced. The last thing he wanted to do was risk Buck's life, but this situation was getting them nowhere. "Give me some ideas," Chris replied.
"I break cover. " Buck licked his lips. "Those fellas will start poppin' out like prairie dogs and you just pick 'em off one at a time."
"Don't like it."
"What else you got?"
What else? Something, anything. Chris was about to reply when a "Whoop" cut the air. The five trapped men peered from their hiding places to see Ezra come into view from under that ledge. He was astride Peso, trailing a second horse behind him. Vin, in his favorite jacket, was across to the saddle of the other horse.
"Son of a bitch," Chris murmured. "What the hell does he think he's doing?"
"Ezra's gonna get 'em both killed," Nathan moaned.
As the two horses sped out of their protection, the five men on the trail suddenly shifted positions, coming out of hiding in order to get a good shot at the two who were trying to escape. Ezra ducked his head as the bullets started flying. Vin stayed motionless except for the jarring of the horse, but Chris could hear him shouting and cursing at the gambler for a few seconds.
Buck, Chris and Josiah jumped to their feet and started firing. One of the men on the hillside jerked backward and fell. Another of his compatriots followed. Buck and Josiah exchanged a grin as everyone ducked for cover.
Nathan's gaze followed the departing horses, watching with horror. The man strapped to the saddle bounced and jostled as the horse careened over the rocks. My God, the healer thought grimly, he's gonna shake that broken leg to pieces.
JD turned about in his hiding place, taking a quick shot and ducking back down again. Buck and Josiah had returned to the gunfight, but the three remaining outlaws seemed to have realized their error and were trying to hide again.
Finally, one of the remaining men popped out of the cover, some distance down the trail. Chris took quick aim and fired. The man spun around, grasping frantically for a hold on the rocky surroundings, but he miss-stepped. For a second he seemed to be held in place, fighting against gravity, but the Laws of Nature won out and he plummeted downward, landing with a 'whump' on the ground below.
Then there was silence. One of the last two men, the redhead, stood. He frantically waved a white handkerchief over his head.
"We give!" a voice shouted, but the man attached to the voice was apparently too frightened to show himself. "We give up!"
It was over.
The two horses still sped away, apparently untouched by the bullets that had chased them. Four of the lawmen smiled, glad to see that the tide had turned. The fifth, the healer, had not moved his eyes from the form that jostled and jerked on the back of the galloping palomino. "Vin," he cried. "Oh dear God… Vin! That crazy southern bastard is puttin' him in a world of pain!"
Buck narrowed his eyes at the fleeing horses, trying to understand why Ezra had made such a foolish attempt. Hell, they had just arrived… why would Ezra choose this time to make an escape, put Vin through that, as hurt as he was. It made no sense at all. What was he up to?
The mare was frantic, trying to overrun Peso in her attempt to escape all the noise. Chris could see that Ezra had realized his danger and let loose the lead rope, freeing himself, with Vin still tied to her. What the hell is he doing? Was he sacrificing Vin to save his own skin?
The mare was relentless, and rammed into the blazed black. Peso tripped, and Floss rode up over the top of him. The two horses tumbled over each other, pitching their riders. Nathan sucked in his breath as Vin landed like a rag doll, falling hard on his head and then come to rest lifelessly on his side. Ezra tried to jump free of the falling horses, but ended up turning head over heels in a flash of red coattails.
The horses gained their feet and were gone in a matter of seconds, Peso in the lead and Floss taking chase. The two men didn't move from where they had landed.
"Sweet Jesus," Josiah cried out as he and Nathan ran to their friends. Chris nodded to Buck and JD, sending them off to secure the surrendered men, and he followed after Nathan and Josiah.
The two shapes were sprawled some distance apart. Nathan reached Vin first, horrified at what he was seeing. The body lay at an awkward angle, the neck twisted and the head turned toward the dirt. Vin, oh dear God. What the hell did Ezra think he was doing? He killed Vin! The healer sunk down beside the still form and laid his hand on the neck. No pulse echoed there. He closed his eyes and sighed, his trembling hand gently touching the cold neck.
Vin. Why the hell did Ezra take such a stupid chance with Vin's life? Damn him! Damn him for killing Vin! Nathan wearily dragged a hand over his eyes, mourning the loss of Vin Tanner and cursing Ezra Standish.
Nathan's hand still rested on that cold, stiff neck.
Cold. Why is Vin so cold? His body seemed so stiff. Nathan placed his hands on the blond head and turned it slowly toward him. He released a long-held sigh, as he gazed down at the face before him. "Not Vin," he uttered. "It's Malcolm Marley." He pulled at Vin's coat and shook his head, finding himself near tears from relief.
Josiah, on his way toward Ezra, paused and turned toward Nathan to throw the healer a broad grin. When he returned his gaze to the other form, a frown crossed his face and he picked up his pace, with Chris at his side.
"Don't kill him," Chris said seriously to the preacher.
Ezra groaned as he sat up with his back to them. He rubbed his head dolefully and cursing colorfully. His jacket was askew, his hair disheveled, his hat missing, but he was apparently in one piece.
"Are you alright?" Josiah asked tersely as he approached.
Ezra looked over his shoulder. "That was unpleasant," he remarked. He gazed toward Nathan and said, "Mr. Marley should be seen to properly. I apologize for his poor treatment. He deserved better. I may have to replace Mr. Tanner's jacket as I'm afraid Mr. Marley was a little rank when I made use of him. I nearly had to break him to get him into it. It will at least require a good cleaning." He nodded curtly and then attempted to get to his feet.
"Ezra," Chris said shoving him back to the ground. "Sit down!"
Ezra struggled for a moment against Chris' weight, but gave up soon enough. "There's no reason for chastisement." Standish shook his head, trying to clear his vision.
"No reason for chastisement?" Josiah repeated. "You nearly got yourself killed."
Chris squatted beside the rattled man. "What the hell were you trying to do?"
"I provided a distraction. I wasn't about to let those brigands get the better of us, to let them kill any of you in your attempt to rescue Mr. Tanner and myself."
"You think you're impervious to bullets?" Josiah asked, crossing his arms over his chest.
Ezra laughed, flopping back onto the ground and looking up at Josiah with merry eyes. "Mr. Sanchez, I haven't forgotten the incident at Kotter's Ridge, involving the dispute between the Split Infinity and the Lazy G, or the Governor's rally." He thought for a moment and added, "Of course I was a bit impervious to the shot fired by that assassin." He looked wistful and said, "And then again, there was the time I was saved by a diamond broach…"
Chris shook his head sharply. "You could've gotten yourself killed. You think we came all the way out here just to bring you back dead?"
Ezra squinted back at the gunslinger. "But there's Mr. Tanner to consider." He sat up quickly and the world spun around him. "Nathan!"
Jackson had left the body of Malcolm Marley and came to stand beside Josiah. "What is it, Ezra?" he asked as he squatted down to check on the tumbled gambler.
Ezra laid a hand on Nathan's arm as soon as the healer was near. "You must see to Vin. He's there, beneath that overhang." He pointed and then returned his gaze to Jackson, his eyes intense. "Please, Nathan."
"Let me make sure you're okay. You took quite a fall."
"It was rather spectacular, Ezra," Chris added.
Ezra rubbed the back of his head and said, "Truly, Mr. Jackson, I'm fine. Mr. Tanner needs your excellent assistance."
Nathan could see nothing immediately wrong with Standish. "Okay," he agreed. "I'll be back."
Josiah nodded to Nathan. "We'll see to this one. You go to tend to our other brother. Perhaps I can take the chance to talk some sense into this fool's head."
"Won't be any luck in that, Josiah," Chris declared.
"Keep him still!" Nathan ordered as he got to his feet. He looked first to Josiah and then to Chris, letting them know with his glance that he meant what he said. He then got to his feet and jogged toward the overhang.
Chris stood and watched Nathan go. He glanced down to Ezra and perhaps a look of admiration crossed his face, but Ezra couldn't be sure because he was seeing three Larabees at that moment.
Chris finally spoke, "Don't you ever try anything like that again."
Ezra made a move to touch the brim of his hat, and realized, with a look of consternation, that it was missing. "Fear not," he said. "I have no intention of taking another fall."
Chris shook his head and followed Nathan back toward the overhang.
Ezra struggled to get to his feet again, but this time it was Josiah's hand that kept him on the ground. "Brother, we should have ourselves a little talk."
Ezra moaned and covered his eyes.
JD and Buck had already collected the last two outlaws and had them at the bottom of the hillside, beside the body that had fallen. Five other corpses littered the trail above them. The still-breathing men, one of them tall and redheaded and the other paunchy with a funny little mustache, had confirmed their suspicions. It was Grady who took that dive off the cliff. Apparently, with Grady dead, Rooster and Ferguson had lost their fight. They had realized that they were outnumbered and figured their chances would be better if they gave themselves up.
The lawmen searched their prisoners and JD wasn't surprised to find a small knife hidden at Rooster's left side. The tall redhead glared at the young sheriff, but JD grinned, glad that he already knew that the outlaw was left-handed. There would be no surprises from this one.
The two lawmen looked to Nathan as he passed, wanting to see some degree of hope for their comrades. They had seen the horrible fall that their friends had taken, had watched as Jackson did nothing to help the man in Vin's coat. That was enough to tell them the worst. Still, why was he running past in such a hurry? Why was Chris hot on his tail?
Nathan hurried, his face concerned and his eyes focused on the space beneath the rocky overhang. Chris stopped for a moment and offered Buck and JD a smile. "He's a slippery son-of-a-bitch," Larabee said.
"Vin," JD asked breathlessly. "Is he…?"
Chris shrugged. "Not dead." And he took off after the healer again.
Buck laughed loudly and clomped JD on the shoulder. "Knew that snake was up to somethin'!" the ladies' man said gleefully. JD nodded and watched as Chris disappeared around the rock wall.
Nathan strode into the quiet and dim area, and was greeted with the frantic blue eyes of the tracker and a gun pointed at his head. Jackson came to an immediate stop, raising his hands. "Hey, Vin, it's me," Nathan said as he looked down the deadly barrel of Ezra's derringer.
"Hey, Nate! Good ta see ya." Vin smiled to see the familiar face and lowered the gun. The smile left as he bellowed, "Where the hell is he?"
"Calm down, Vin," Chris said, coming up beside Nathan. It was good to see the tracker sitting up with that pathetic-looking but lethal little gun in his hand. Tanner was bruised and scraped, bandaged and splinted, pale and obvious in some pain, but a fair sight more alive than Malcolm Marley. "You really look like hell," Chris concluded.
"Where did he go? Is the little bastard okay?"
"Sure, Ezra's fine," Nathan said as he sat down beside the tracker. "Just took a spill is all."
"Damn him! Damn it!" Vin grumbled as Nathan started prodding him. "Hey, Nate! Careful!"
"Looks like ya got it splinted up pretty good," Nathan commented. He examined the broken leg, drawing painfilled groans from Tanner. "Should be okay. Looks like it's fixed up proper so you'll probably not even have a limp. That is, of course, if you do what I tell you and stay off of it."
Vin grunted as Nathan started prodding his back.
"Not too bad," the healer said thoughtfully. "I'll tighten up this sling a bit, I think. Let's get ya sat back down on this cushion in the meantime. We may want to figure out how to keep you sittin' upright though."
"So," Chris said, as he helped Vin to lay down again. "You gonna tell me what just went on?"
"Ran into some bad luck, cowboy," Vin replied. "Fell a bit. Then it was just me and Ez for a while. Seemed to be doin' alright 'til those varmints of Grady's showed. Sure as hell was glad to see the all of you." He shook his head slowly, grimacing as he did so. "Then that stupid idiot stole my jacket and took off! Wouldn't listen."
"Doesn't surprise me," Chris replied. "Luckily, he's got a hard head."
Vin snorted and then winced. "Yeah, that's fer sure." He tried to sit up again and said, "Time we were goin'."
"He's not the only one with a hard head," Chris commented.
"The trip won't be pleasant for ya," Nathan informed him. "I'm gonna want to dose you before I get you moved."
Vin paled slightly. "Ya gotta?"
"What with the broken leg and the shoulder, you won't have a lick of ease on that litter. It'll jostle ya the whole way. It'd be best if ya weren't feelin' much."
The tracker nodded. "Yeah, I 'spect."
"Trust me, you'll want it that way," the healer confided.
Vin nodded again and then looked beyond them, as if he had heard something. "Where the hell is Ezra if he's okay?"
"Josiah's with him. Probably givin' him a good talkin' to. The pig-headed southern fool deserves it, after the scare he put on us." Nathan looked up when he heard JD and Buck talking animatedly to someone and groaned as Josiah entered the area with a limping Standish. "Josiah, I told you…"
"He was insistent," Josiah explained.
"Damn it, Ezra…" Nathan started, but was interrupted.
"Please, Mr. Jackson," Ezra said as he leaned on Josiah's arm. "I'm only trying to escape Mr. Sanchez's admonishments."
"Ezra, I swear," Vin declared. "Soon as I'm on my feet again, I'm gonna call you out! What the hell did you think you were doin'?"
Ezra winced as he continued forward with Josiah's help. "I believe I was acting in a way to save lives."
"Could 'ave gotten yourself killed!"
"I'm remarkably unscathed."
"Yeah," Josiah put in, "Except he's a mite dazed and I think he may 'ave twisted his ankle pretty bad."
Nathan stood. "Let me see."
"Please, Mr. Jackson, it's of little consequence. Mr. Tanner requires your immediate attention."
Nathan shrugged. "He's splinted up right fine and bandaged well enough. I'll check that bullet hole and stitch it maybe. I'm gonna have Chris here start up that fire again so I can get some tea brewin'. But if your foot's swellin' up in that boot of yours, it's gonna have to come off…now."
"Perhaps it should wait."
"Sit down, Ezra," Josiah said, forcing the smaller man down on a handy rock.
Ezra scowled at the preacher, but said nothing to him. Instead he spoke to the healer. "I'm quite capable of waiting until you have seen to Mr. Tanner's injuries." He put his hands protectively over the hurt foot.
Nathan sighed wearily as he approached the southerner. "Let's get this done now so I don't have to end up cuttin' off that fine boot of yours. It'll be that, or maybe the whole leg if you don't let me at it." Nathan grinned, but was surprised by Ezra's sudden submission to him. The gambler paled and his jaw dropped as he moved his hands out of the way.
"Very well, Mr. Jackson," Ezra replied quietly, licking his lips. "But you will not bring a cutting implement anywhere near me." He felt Josiah place his weight on his shoulder and knew there'd be no hope of escape. "Mr. Larabee…" he started.
"Shut up, Ezra!" Chris ordered. When Vin chuckled, Chris turned on him. "Oh, you're gonna be next smart-boy, so don't get started."
"I hate mules."
"I understand completely."
"That fool thing ain't suited for ridin'."
"I'm surprised you remember any of the journey. Mr. Jackson had given you a dose of laudanum sufficient to put said mule to sleep."
"I 'member bits and pieces. Like you gettin' sick."
"Indeed." A sigh. "Mr. Jackson saw fit to medicate me as well, assuring me that all would be well and I would be more conformable. He explained that I'd have difficulty keeping my foot in the stirrup with the severity of the strain."
"Laudanum does affect me rather poorly from time to time. I prefer to go without."
"Should 'ave told him 'no'."
"Mr. Sanchez held me down."
Vin turned toward his companion. Both men were on the balcony of the clinic, enjoying the good weather. They made quite a pair. Vin, with one leg braced in a splint and Ezra with his swollen ankle. Nathan had ordered the gambler off his feet for another day and Vin was promised to stay in splints for more than a month. Nevertheless, Jackson had kicked them out of the clinic earlier that afternoon, saying that one of them was bad...but the pair of them were 10 times worse.
"They work together," Nathan had said in disgust to Josiah. "I swear, when one starts into somethin', the other goes right in with him. I don't care what it's about. I'm beginnin' to think that they plan it that way, that they discuss it all in secret and spring their little plans on me just to get my ire up."
And so the preacher and the healer had moved the two incorrigible lawmen to the balcony and left them there until Nathan was able to stand them again.
Vin couldn't handle crutches for a while, with his left arm strapped to his chest to keep his shoulder blade still and his right arm bandaged. No, there would be no use of crutches for some time. He was trapped. Standish on the other hand, could manage to hop down the stairs if he was so inclined. He could, undoubtedly, manage to make it to the Redbird.
Vin hated being in clinic. He didn't mind the herbs so much; they had an earthy quality to them that sat well with him. He disliked the chemical smell of carbolic acid, the syrupy texture of laudanum. He didn't like being pawed and prodded, examined and leaned over all the time. He hated the humiliating processes that went with bedpans. Add to that, Nathan seemed to enjoy lording over his patients, keeping them in their places. Vin decided that, more than anything, it was the fact that he was held captive and he never liked being closed in. But as much as he disliked it, he knew Ezra hated it even more.
"Surprised yer still here," Vin said.
"Mr. Tanner," Ezra confided, "I have no intention of ruining my gait by disobeying the orders of our good healer. If he declares that I must relax, then I must do as he says." He gestured broadly with his arms and smiled at the tracker. "The added benefit is that I've been freed of duty for as long as I'm to stay off my feet."
"Yeah, well, you can still play poker, hang out in The Redbird and all. Nate says I ain't goin' nowhere for a long time. Ain't fair."
"The world isn't fair, Mr. Tanner. If it were, I wouldn't be here in the first place."
Vin pondered that for a moment. Yes, why was he still here and not hiding away somewhere in town? "Where do you ‘spect you deserve to be then? You think you should be in one of those fancy saloons you were tellin' me 'bout? One of them places far from here with all that gamblin' gear and folks goin' through?"
Standish was silent a moment. "That is the life I was reared for."
"Ah hell, Ez, I know you like the Redbird just fine. I think it suits ya better than one of those big places."
"You'd get lost in someplace so big. At least, I wouldn't be able to find you."
"There's always that," Ezra said, tipping his head. "You seem to have found all of my favorite hiding places here."
"Took a while, but I smoked ya out. ‘Sides, ya like it here. Much as you'd like to make the rest of us doubt it, you like Four Corners just fine."
Ezra rolled his eyes and then sighed. "I do suppose it grows on one after a fashion."
Vin glanced at the gambler and said, "I s’pect I owe you one."
"Owe me? For what?"
"For watchin' out for me and …"
"Mr. Tanner," Ezra cut in before Vin could go any further. "If there are debts to be paid, then I'm well in the red to you. There are debts that I'm afraid I shall never be able to satisfy. Besides, I did little more than bide my time until help arrived."
"Hell, Ez, I know I woulda gone plumb loco with the pain if you weren't around, and you got my leg fixed up good and everything."
"It was either that, or listen to your moans of distress."
"Yeah, right," Vin muttered, and then added, "Ya could 'ave gotten yourself killed. It was a damn fool thing to try."
"It was successful."
"Ya got no sense! What right do you got to pull somethin' like that?"
"What was I gonna do if you got yerself killed?"
"I wasn't planning on…"
"I don't give a shit what the plan was. You could 'ave gotten shot for that 'distraction' of yours. How do you think that woulda made me feel if you got yerself killed 'cause of me? Huh?"
Ezra studied Tanners face, seeing the concern there, the anger at the situation. The con man was used to having people angry with him, but this was different. Was Vin really that upset about the risk he had taken? What would Vin have done if he were killed? Tanner probably would feel rather down for a while, but the tracker would recover from that soon enough, wouldn't he? Certainly Vin was a man of the world, had seen plenty of death in his days as a bounty hunter. The demise of a mere gambler shouldn't matter at all.
"Damn it, Ez!" Vin continued seeing the placid look on Ezra's face. "One of these days I'm gonna have to knock you down and get you to understand. You can't go doin' things like that. Ya pulled the same sorta stunt with the Nichols' armored wagon and that damn bottle of whiskey. Could'a gotten shot!"
"Again, it proved successful and saved lives. I weighed the odds in both circumstances and found the risk acceptable."
"Acceptable," Vin rubbed his forehead. "Damn idiot. Ain't acceptable if you get killed." He sighed and focused on his splinted leg. He said nothing for several moments and then finally spoke again, "Ain't had a whole lot of friends in my life, Ezra. Lot of lonely times when I was a young'un. Lots of time by myself out there on the trail. Got used to it. But, now it seems like things are goin' good for me and I got some friends and all. I think I like it this way. Seems like a fine thing that I'd like to keep for a while." He glanced to gambler and said, "Be a damn shame for you to screw it up by gettin' yerself killed."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Tanner. I hadn't considered that."
"It's high-time you started!" Vin shook his head. He opened his mouth to speak again, but was interrupted.
"Mr. Tanner," Ezra said, leaning forward. "Have you missed your horse?"
Vin grumbled. "And that's another thing. I can't believe you done what you did. Took my horse and let him loose! Can't believe Peso let a filly run him off!"
"We all must suffer through our coursers foibles."
"Yeah," Vin said, not even knowing for certain what he was agreeing to. "And I can't even go out lookin' for him." Tanner felt badly about that. He cared a lot for that black horse, and hoped that he would find his way to safety somewhere. Peso wasn't the most amiable horse and he hoped that the gelding didn't end up getting shot.
Ezra, of course, had to free Chaucer from his duty once they had returned to town. The quarter horse had gleefully left his pen the minute he saw his owner, nearly plowing him over. If Josiah hadn't had a hand on Standish, the horse might have crushed the gambler in his excitement.
"Here he comes now," Ezra drawled.
"Here comes who?"
"Look," Ezra said with a nod.
Vin watched as a dusty and sweaty Peso strode up the street, with a frustrated look on his long face. The mare, Floss, was right at his flank, almost resting her head on him. Peso picked up the pace and snapped at her. She stepped away for a moment, but returned to her position as soon as his head was turned.
Flummoxed, the black horse turned in a tight circle, trying to get rid of her, but she wasn't about to go. Vin whistled and the horse came to a stop, his eyes searching for his owner as Floss came along side him again.
"Hey!" Vin shouted and the tired horse looked up and whinnied mournfully.
"The poor thing," Ezra said with a grin.
"Damn sorry sight, you mean," Vin laughed as the horse gazed at him, longing for release. "Wish I could help ya, Peso," Vin called down, glad to see that the animal was well.
Several of the townfolk had already stopped to stare at the sight of the two loose horses. Nobody seemed to want to step up and take care of the situation. Peso was known to have a bad temper and nobody wanted to try it. Chaucer was tricky, but Peso could be downright mean.
JD finally came into sight, talking reassuringly to the horses. Peso nickered, happy to see familiar face and a possible a sign of his deliverance. Floss shied away from the young man. Dunne quickly assessed the situation and grabbed hold of Peso's loose reins to lead him to the livery, knowing that Floss would follow.
Dunne shook his head, seeing the mare fall in behind. He shouted, "Ya owe me, Vin!"
"Make sure Yosemite puts her on the far side of that place. My boy needs some rest!"
"Yeah, sure," the sheriff said congenially as he disappeared into the livery with the two horses.
"It's good to see that he's returned," Ezra said with a nod. "I'm certain he'll be glad to be rid of Lady Floss."
"She's a flirt," Vin said. "And she likes Peso a little too much."
"I'd rather stay with my own horse. The pinto that I traveled home on bruised my backside rather severely with his stiff gait." Ezra rubbed one buttock thoughtfully.
"Ya should tell Nate. Maybe he'd put some ice on yer ass if you asked 'im nice."
Ezra glared at Vin and then a dimpled smile formed. "It would be interesting to see his expression at the request."
Vin laughed. "Ask 'im for some fer yer foot first, and then I'll try to get him to bring some for my back. We'll lead up to the ass."
"Perhaps I could request that he massage it for me." Ezra leaned back, smiling still. "He'll throw us out again."
"Serves 'im right for all that pokin' and prodin' he's been doin'. Ain't givin' us any rest."
The two laughed and after a moment were quiet again. Vin's gaze moved out across the town, resting finally on the cemetery. "Too bad about Marley, huh?" The young outlaw had been buried in the town's cemetary -- the others dead men were buried at Dolby's Crest, a lonely and desolate resting-place. Malcolm Marley had wanted to ride with lawmen, to be one of the 'good guys'. And had managed it, saving the lives of the others in his postmortem masquerade. "He was a good kid. Could 'ave turned out different if he hadn't fallen in with the wrong crowd."
"Yes, indeed," Ezra replied.
"Ya ever think about where you would be if you didn't fall in with us?"
Ezra laughed. "I suspect, I would be getting lost in one of those fine casinos. And you, Mr. Tanner."
"Dead, I figure. Y'all saved my life when Eli Joe came to town. He'd have found me alone if I weren't with the all of you. I figure that you lost the Standish Tavern 'cause you went off to help me out. Ain't had the chance to thank you for that."
"I'm quite content with The Redbird, Mr. Tanner. As you said, it suits me."
"Yeah, glad to hear that you're listenin' to me." Vin grinned, not looking at Ezra but knowing that he had been fixed with a look of consternation. "If you have a mind to, you could go ahead and read a bit. I'd be open to listening." He nodded to the book that sat on the porch railing, not far from Ezra's bound foot.
"Oh, would you?"
"I believe that the chapter in regard to the Andes is almost at an end."
"Well, there's another chapter after that, ain't there?"
"Indeed there is."
THE END - by NotTasha
Continue on to Strictly Business?
Hope you enjoyed the story...comments and suggestions