Devil's Mouth

by Beth

Chapter 10

The horses screamed as an explosion rocked the barn and shook the fence. They pressed against the wood structure, and the posts rocked slowly at first only picking up speed as the horses panicked further. A large crack echoed and the two top rails snapped and three horses jumped the remaining rail, quickly joined by the others.

JD stood on the other side of the fence, thankful he hadn't been crushed. Three gunshots echoed and then everything stilled, except the weather. The rain continued its downpour, and the wind whipped relentlessly over the ground and through the branches of trees.

Someone moaned, someone else pleaded for mercy, and another cried in pain. Chris' voice echoed, demanding surrender, and despite the darkness, his imposing figure clad in black would strike the fear of God into most. JD could hear Chris' wet duster slapping against his legs, blowing with the wind.

JD came around the fence, his weapon, no longer usable due to the rain, hung limply in his hand. He watched Chris Larabee, standing before three men who rested on their knees, their outlines visible by the light of the moon. Chris' white hand glowed, and the metal of his weapon glistened.

"JD!" Buck tossed him a rope. "Let's tie these bastards up and toss them into the barn. They can take their chances with the hogs."

"There're only three?"

"Brother Ezra's concoction was a little stronger than even he probably expected. God rest their souls." Josiah shook his head and stood with Chris looking toward the house. "How do you want to handle this?"

Chris could hear grunts as ropes were secured around the remaining Hornets. Josiah turned and watched as they were forced to their feet and pushed toward the barn. None uttered a word of protest. Men that knew they had been beat. Gone was the audaciousness of winning, all that remained was the realism of defeat.

The remaining Hornets lay sporadically around the field, and the moon's ray highlighted their still forms. A gust of wind blew the branches of the trees toward the east, and clouds soon covered the moon, swallowing it whole.

Josiah looked toward the house. "What do you want to do?" He glanced toward Chris who seemed lost inside his head.

Chris turned and watched as JD and Buck exited the barn, their hands covered their noses. He clutched the handle of his weapon. He stepped forward, the slop of mud squishing around his boots at every step. With long strides he walked toward the house, his dark duster shadowing him in the darkness of night.

The front door swung open and Mrs. Brewer stood clutching the door. "Don't kill them," she said, keeping her eyes on the four men standing before her. "Please don't kill them." She looked at Chris, seeing his intentions, seeing death walking, without knowing him-she knew him, and knew by his eyes what he was capable of. "They're upstairs-we had no idea what was goin' on, we didn't know-my boys are young an' impulsive-they didn't know what they were gettin' into when they joined up with those others." She followed Chris' gaze to the fireplace and then toward the staircase. "I tried to talk them into comin' down, but they think you're goin' to kill 'em."

"If you don't get them down here…I might," Chris said, taking a step into the house. He noted Mrs. Brewer and how youthful she appeared, younger than himself by several years-too young to be the mother of two grown boys.

With her red hair pulled into a loose ponytail, it flung off her shoulder when she headed toward the stairs. She had pulled her skirts up and around her knees, her hand holding the fabrics tightly near her thigh. She was thin, painfully so, and her cheekbones protruded from her skin. Her dark green eyes were surrounded by lush lashes, but here eyes were unnaturally deep, and a long narrow nose only amplified her features.

"I'll get them to come down, but don't kill them." She backed toward the stairs as the four men entered the room.

"Ma'am," Buck said, seeing her distress and understanding it. "We don't want no trouble."

"You'll get it," she said, "my husband ain't right, never been-but that don't give you no right to kill 'im."

"We're not goin' to kill him, ma'am," JD said, looking around the room, noticing the homemade and poorly designed furniture. Broken and chipped glasses rested on the shelf, and the eating table was covered with furs and bones.

She bumped into an old piano, knocking small ornaments from the top. She jumped and scooted closer to the stairs.

"Tell them to come down, Mrs. Brewer," Chris said, standing in the center of the room, rain dripped from his duster and mud fell in clumps from his boots. "I won't ask again."

She nodded and turned, still clutching her skirts. "Boys, come down here!" Her hands shook, and her voice shook even more. "They're not gonna hurt you, but you have to come down now, bring your father with you!"

Chris looked up, hearing the scuffing of shoes on wood floors. He still grasped the weapon, but he tossed it toward the settee that was covered in old quilts and furs that had been cleaned and stacked. Bear, coyote, rabbit, and squirrel lined the floors, furniture, and cabinets. Chris felt as though he had been sent back in time, even the muzzle loader was outdated, the brass along the barrel had turned color and the wood had splinted and chipped.

Josiah handed Chris Ezra's peashooter, the only weapon among them worth a damn at the moment. "He didn't have any use for it…and it's dry."

Chris nodded and concealed the weapon in the palm of his hand. He heard the first few steps of someone coming down the stairs, and Mrs. Brewer moved off to the side, keeping her back to the wall, and her eyes upon them.

"Please don't kill them."

Old man Brewer was the first to appear, his bare feet hitting the floorboards with a soft plop. He hadn't changed, and his nightshirt waved gently around his legs. His gray hair stood up at the roundness of his head, and his bald spot glowed from the lantern to his right. His upper lip was curled, scarred by something unpleasant. His eyes were deeply set and his brows collided together above the bridge of his nose.

"Shut up, Agnes," Mr. Brewer said, placing claw like hands on his hips. "This is private property an' you ain't got no right bein' here."

"Pa," Steven said, "he said he wouldn't kill us, I heard 'im say it." He stayed hidden from view in the narrow stairwell.

"They lie…they all lie."

"Thom, please," Agnes said, keeping her position next to the wall.

"Know your place, woman!" He turned his face just slightly to look at her from the corner of his left eye, when he knew he had silenced her, he returned his gaze to Chris and the others. "This is my house, my farm, my boys, my land-get off it. We don't want your kind here…none-of-yas."

"You knew what they had planned," Chris said, refusing to move.

"So what if I did?"

"That makes you just as guilty," JD said, keeping his eyes toward the stairwell.

"Just means I like my privacy." He clenched his hands. "I've been here for 53 years an' I don't need no strangers comin' through to stir things up."

"You move here with your wife?" Buck asked, trying to break up the conversation. It was taking too long, and why in the hell wasn't Chris moving faster?

"Ain't none of your business."

Chris looked toward Agnes who kept her back to the wall and her skirts in her hands. He looked at her face, the dark eyes, deep sockets, and the heavy lashes and brows. He then looked toward Thom Brewer and found the same eyes staring back at him. Chris' stomach turned and he felt suddenly nauseous. He raised his hand, exposing the small hole of the derringer. "Get your boys down here now." There was a deep growl in his tone.

Steven slipped through the stairwell frame and moved beside his mother. "We didn't mean nothin' by it, we's just havin' us some fun-ain't easy bein' locked up here all the time an' Leroy said it'd be easy an' like havin' a whole new respect from others-" he continued to babble, even as his brother stepped beside him, their mother moving to stand in front of them as protection.

Buck sighed and shook his head. He couldn't help but think the situation could have been avoided if Mr. Brewer had done more as a father. He couldn't help but notice the similarities between Agnes and her sons. It was, however, her youth that caught him off guard.

"Buck," Chris said, pulling his attention away from Thom, "you and JD take the two boys and keep them with the others."

"Now hold on!" Mr. Brewer stepped forward, his short stature was still imposing by his measure of girth. "You ain't gonna do anythin' with my boys."

"You're goin' to sit down and shut up or you'll spend the rest of the night in the barn with them," Chris said, keeping his jaw clenched tightly as he spoke. His lips formed around each word with a formidable pressure. His nostrils flared, and the veins on his neck pulsated. "Two of my friends are down out there and it's because of you." He took a threatening step forward, his face just inches from Brewer's. "I recommend you leave this area…for good. We don't take kindly to your kind."

"I ain't the one packin' 'round a nigger," he said, standing firm.

Chris looked slightly to his right: "Do they know that their father is also their grandfather?"

Brewer swallowed, but didn't back down. "Ain't nothin' wrong with what I done."

"How old was she?" Blood dripped from Chris' right hand onto the floorboards, his nails sinking deeper into his flesh of his palm.

Brewer curled his lips into a sinister smile: "Where I come from, if they're old enough to bleed, they're old enough to breed."

Josiah stood and watched as though his feet were rooted to the floor.

Chris raised the small derringer, its size hidden perfectly within his palm, and fired. Though small in size, the derringer packed a hefty punch, and coupled with steady hands, it was just as deadly. There had not been enough time to think, much less act, as Thom Brewer's head whipped back, blood and tissue splattered the back wall. He crumbled to the floor. His legs twitched, and his eyes looked blindly forward, a small penny sized hole rested perfectly placed between his eyes.

Chris lowered his hand and then looked toward Agnes who stood frozen in the corner. She shook from terror, unable to speak, much less move; she remained tucked between the corner of the piano and the wall. Chris clenched his jaw. He hadn't thought twice about it, and for a moment, the Chris Larabee everyone feared stood before them.

Brewer was a bastard, a dirty one at that, but he had been unarmed-unable to defend himself. It had been a long time since Chris had acted as such, and those old feelings peeked up, stirring at his soul.

Buck knew the look. He took a deep breath and grabbed JD's jacket and forced him out the front door, behind the two brothers.

Josiah's stomach clenched and pinched as though the world he had known or once believed in was gone. A reign of doubt hit him, and for the first time since riding with these men, he truly wondered if they had indeed changed, or had they simply put their pasts on hold. He couldn't put his mind around Brewer or his ideals, nor did he want to.

Josiah took a deep breath and then said, "Let's get Vin and Ezra taken care of, then we can deal with him."

Agnes stood next to her piano, her head was down and she refused to look them in the eyes. Her skirts were still clenched tightly in her hands, and damp spots marked the front of her blouse just above her breasts. She continued to shed her tears.

Josiah grabbed a few strands of rope that hung on the wall near the old drapes. "What do you want to do with the body?"

Chris watched Agnes remain still: "Toss him to the hogs."

Josiah covered Brewer's body with a wool blanket, and then placed his big hands on Agnes' shoulders. "It would be best, ma'am, if you remained in the next room." He had to force her to move, as though shock had taken hold, keeping her from any cognitive thought.

Chris watched, fighting those old feelings that could at times reach through his chest and literally remove his heart. He hated it, but his past had created him, making him the man he was. All except Buck had been fortunate enough to have missed that part of his life where revenge fed his every move. Revenge fed by anger. He watched as Josiah removed the body, leaving a trail of blood out the door. He could hear the bumps as hands and feet flopped through the mud. It coupled the sounds of a woman crying.

Chapter 11

Vin coughed, echoing the sound of rattling lungs and sheer exhaustion. He lay on a makeshift bed that had been padded with furs and blankets. He relished the warmth of the fire a few feet away. Chris and Buck helped him out of his wet clothes.

"Damn, Vin," Buck said, wincing at the black and blue bruising that ran from hip to shoulder on his right side. "What in the hell did they do to you?"

Vin sighed and shook his head, grasping the blanket edges and pulling it up to his chest. He curled on his left side, enjoying the warmth and comfort of being dry. Dark circles had embraced his eyes, and hollow cheeks amplified his misery. "How's Ezra?"

Chris leaned against the wall and looked toward the table where Ezra lay. His jacket and shirt had been stripped, and Nathan worked frantically to stop the bleeding from the bullet wound to his left flank. Ezra's arms lay lifeless at his sides, rocking with every application of pressure to the injury, his hands dangling off the edges of the table. Josiah stood at Ezra's head, one hand placed on his brow, the other carefully positioned beneath his neck, keeping him steady.

JD handed another blanket to Buck who had shed his own clothes, except his pants. He wrapped it around his shoulders. Chris and JD soon did the same. Their clothing hung on a rope above the fireplace, and their boots sat to the left near the head of Vin's bed.

Agnes remained in the adjacent room, slowly warming chicken broth and boiling water. It gave her something to do. Still unable to look anyone in the eye, she thought it best to hide.

Chris walked to the table and watched, his face solid and unemotional, but his actions spoke volumes. He had bound his hand, and found himself clutching the same palm and the familiar pain that followed. "What do you think happened?" He looked toward Josiah and saw grief and uncertainty expressed in his eyes.

Nathan ignored the question and continued to work. "I can't get the bleeding to stop-I don't know why."

"Take it slow, brother."

"I can't, Josiah." Nathan clenched his jaw and applied more pressure to the wound. "I don't know what to do." For the first time since knowing him, Nathan sounded desperate and unsure of himself-doubting his every move. He looked at Chris for answers he knew he didn't have. "It's as though his blood's too thin or something." He grabbed the bandages Ezra had brought with him and pressed them into the wound with more force than he anticipated, earning him a groan from his patient who opened his mouth to gasp.

Josiah hushed him, gently brushing his hand across his brow. "Hang in there, brother…hang in there."

Chris stepped up to the table and pulled Ezra's boots from his feet and then peeled off his wet socks. The backs of his calves hit the corner of the poorly made table, snagging the fine material of his pants. Chris placed his hand on Standish's left calf. "He said he fell," he sighed, and then looked around the room. JD sat on the floor, looking like a kid who had just experienced the worst day of his life. Buck sat on the bed next to Vin's legs and waited. Vin was asleep, the rasping of his lungs echoed.

"Is the bullet still in him?" JD asked, shifting his legs into a more comfortable position.

Nathan shook his head: "No, it went though."

"Charcoal," Agnes said, stepping into the room. She held two cups of steaming broth. "It will stop the bleedin' and pull the toxins from the wound, comfrey and cranesbill will help fight any infection." She handed a cup to JD and another to Buck.

"This ain't pig, is it?" JD asked, holding the cup at a distance.

"It's chicken," Agnes replied.

"Can you get those things, the charcoal an'…comfrey?" Buck asked, holding the cup in his hands.

Agnes nodded and then turned and left the room.

"Hey," Josiah said, looking into half-hooded green eyes.

Nathan leaned over, careful not to remove his hand from the injury. "Ezra…do you remember what happened?"

Ezra closed his eyes and moved his lips.

Josiah leaned over as Nathan backed away, turning his head so his ear was above Ezra's mouth. "He said he fell," he replied, returning to his posture.

"Ezra…Ezra," Nathan said, looking for a response, relieved when he saw dark lashes flutter, he spoke again, "you were shot, Ezra, do you remember how?"

Weakly, Ezra moved his hand and tried to push the pressure away from his side. "I…fell," he said, opening his mouth to gasp as the pressure and pain hit full force. "Oh…God." He inhaled deeply, and the sound of breath seeping through a narrow tube.

Josiah grasped Ezra's hand and kept him from pushing at Nathan. Blood slipped between palms, fingers, and seeped beneath fingernails. Josiah held tight, watching, and wincing with every squeeze.

"His jacket," Buck said, standing. The blanket slipped from his shoulders, forming a U on the edge of the bed. He reached for the jacket Ezra had been wearing and started examining it. "He brought us all those weapons an' all the ammunition-if he fell-"

"-Or was pushed," JD said.

"There were two shots," Buck said, poking his finger through the hole in the back of Standish's jacket.

"Shit," Chris said, moving to stand on the opposite side of the table from Nathan. "There were two we could hear through the lightning."

"You think someone spotted him?" JD asked.

Agnes walked into the room with a small tin bowl and several white handkerchiefs. "This will stop the bleeding." Her voice continued to shake, not from uncertainty, but fear. "I've used it before." She stood beside Nathan, offering her goods, and fearing he wouldn't accept them. "It was a trick my mother taught me."

Slowly, Nathan removed the wads of cotton sheets he had been using as bandages and watched in doubt as blood continued to seep from the gaping wound. At this point, he was willing to try anything. He watched Agnes apply the grayish paste in large amounts to the handkerchiefs. With a clean cloth, Nathan wiped the blood from the wound and quickly applied the paste.

"What about the other injury?" Agnes said, applying more bandages to the wound. A handful of long strips of torn sheets rested to her left.

Nathan and Josiah gently turned Ezra onto his side, and then Nathan peeled the bandage from Ezra's back. Blood seeped from the wound, slower than it had, and the small dime-sized hole bore ragged edges. Nathan helped Agnes apply the poultice and with Josiah's help they wrapped the long strips of cloth around his chest, securing the packs in place.

Ezra moaned throughout the process, but never reopened his eyes. He did not feel himself gently lifted from the table, placed on a straw mattress, or covered with warm blankets. He never heard their questions: Will he be all right? Why didn't he know? Why won't he stop bleeding?

Nobody had any answers, least of all Ezra.


Vin lay leaning against a pile of rolled furs, his chest burning and rattling with every breath. A fever raged, and he continued to cough, hacking up phlegm. Sweat soaked hair stuck to his scalp and dangled onto his shoulders. He could feel the hot packs of mustard applied to his chest and it eased his breathing.

Soup was spooned into his mouth, and though it was a slow process, he managed to swallow. He could only watch as someone, usually Buck and sometimes Chris, would apply cool cloths to his forehead. It did little to aid in relieving his fever, but it did offer comfort. He felt weak, and all he wanted to do was sleep.

Nathan sat next to the bed, wearing his own clothes that had finally dried, and he grasped Vin's hand, carefully examining the ripped fingernails and bruised and torn palms. With graceful and precise movements, he applied new bandages.

"Hey," Vin said, rolling his head slightly to the left. He gazed at Nathan through glassy eyes and curled his lips into a lazy smile.

"How're you feelin'?" Nathan asked, resting his elbows on his thighs.

Vin closed his eyes and was slow to open them. "Better."

"You're a terrible liar."

"Where're…the others?"

Nathan looked toward the bed where Ezra lay, completely still except for the slow easy rise and fall of his chest. His head faced the far wall, and like Vin, Ezra's hair was wet and plastered to his head. His fever, not nearly as high as Tanner's, lingered and refused to budge, as though stuck in place by some unknown dial. The infection had spread quickly, and it had taken four applications of charcoal poultices to stop the bleeding. Ezra's already fair completion seemed paler.

"Chris and Buck took the prisoners to town, they're on their way back with a wagon for you and Ezra. JD's escorting Agnes Brewer to Eagle Bend where she'll take the stage to California. It seems she has a younger brother there who ran away when he was old enough to learn what his father was doing." Nathan sighed, both from exhaustion and weariness. "Josiah's sitting with Ezra." He looked toward the big man, and could see the same exhaustion there. Prayer and presence did little to aid the situation.

"Ezra…how is he?"

Nathan shook his head, and then clenched his jaw. "Lost an awful lot of blood, Vin. Haven't been able to get any food or water down him for two days now. I think he's just too damn weak-"

"Wh…what happened?"

"Got jumped when he went back to get the horses. He shot and killed one of Leroy's men-we're not sure if that was before or after he was hit…still can't figure how he didn't know he'd been shot."

Josiah looked at Nathan after hearing his last words, and then slowly focused on Vin. With sad eyes, Josiah shook his head and readjusted his grip on Ezra's left hand. It seemed strange, the how and why this all happened, and in Josiah's mind he couldn't help but think it had happened for a reason. He wanted to believe, to think something good would come from it. Agnes had been an innocent victim, and because Ezra hadn't turned tail and run…she was going to a better place. It was never a definitive response, thinking that Standish, the one most likely to steal a friend blind, would actually do it, but the thoughts still lingered…and they still broke spirits as though they been true. Ezra knew it, he knew what they all expected from him, and Josiah wasn't sure if that was not the way he liked it. If, for some reason, he preferred to be the one most doubted. Perhaps in the long run that made it easier on him. If people expected the worst, then they wouldn't be disappointed when he failed.

Not unlike the rest of them.

But what about the rest of them? Didn't they all doubt themselves, question their own motivations? Josiah knew he did. He knew and understood that human behavior was inherently faulty, and because of that, he blamed himself for things he could not control. He looked toward Vin who could hardly breathe, and Ezra…and Ezra hadn't regained consciousness since that brief moment on the table.

"He's stronger..." Vin sighed, collected his breath and continued, "…than anyone gives him credit for."

"Would you keep coming back?" Josiah asked, reaching up and brushing Ezra's bangs away from his forehead. "He's the one we reflect our own weaknesses through, blaming him in some misguided attempt to redeem ourselves."

"Like Chris," Nathan said, placing the palm of his hand against Vin's forehead. "Like Thom Brewer?"

"What's kept any of us around?" Vin asked, resting his head against the furs. He closed his eyes and waited for an answer.

Josiah contemplated the question, looking at Ezra, Nathan, and Vin, trying in some way to better understand their circumstance, and what it was that drew them together. They had been solitary their entire lives, until that fateful day not so long ago. But what was it that kept them in Four Corners? Why did they fail to depart? And why where they bonded so tightly?

"Maybe it's because we feel needed," Nathan said, placing a cup in Vin's hand and watching as he sipped. "Anywhere else, Josiah, I know I wouldn't be accepted."

"Could be," Josiah said, "but I think it's more."

The front door slowly opened and Buck peeked through. "How's everyone doin'?" He walked into the room, removed his wet jacket and hung it on the back of a chair to dry. He looked toward both beds and shook his head. "Ain't we a bunch?"

"Could be worse," Nathan said, "you could be with them."

"No offence, Nathan, but if I'm goin' to be flat out on my back, I'd prefer one of them nice young fillies down at the tavern to sit by my side spoon feedin' me some of their homemade broth." He closed his eyes, dreaming about the moment.

"Seems to me, brother, you've got your sick days all figured out?"

"Oh, I do, Josiah, I do, and Miss Abigail Tower is the woman who'll do the spoon feedin' too." He moved toward the stove and poured himself a cup of hot coffee. "She's got hips smoother 'an butter an' shaped like rollin' waves."

"Buck," Josiah laughed, "you're a romantic!"

"Damn straight, preacher! I'm as crafty an' skilled with a woman as Ezra is with his cards."

"I don't know, Buck," Vin said, pausing enough to catch his breath, "Ezra's pretty smooth with the ladies."

"What do you know, Tanner, you're a damn tracker, the only thing you know is dirt." Buck smiled, slumping into a chair, keeping his feet in the direction of the fire.

"And rifles," Josiah added.

"And Chris," Nathan said.

"That's it," Buck held his hands in surrender, "Vin wins. Anyone who can tolerate Chris in one of his moods by doin' nothin' other than noddin' his head has to win."

"It's a gift," Vin said, watching as Nathan removed the mustard pack and applied another. "My mother taught me when I was young…that folks won't change unless you give 'em the chance to…an' the only way to see that change…is to give 'em time."

"You're mother was a very wise woman, Vin," Josiah said, with a smile.

Vin nodded: "She was a saint."

The room became uncomfortably quiet, even the sounds of the rain hitting the roof diminished. A gust of wind caused a window shutter to slap against window, and the creaking of trees swaying back and forth echoed.

Buck stood and walked to a window and looked out. The blurry visage of warped glass caused the trees to bend and bow unnaturally. A move in one direction would send the barn two feet off the ground, in another, it made the barn appear four feet shorter. "Chris should be back with the wagon anytime, he wanted me to ride up ahead." He took a sip of his coffee. "It's been a long time since Chris's fired on an unarmed man."

"Who's to say he did?" Josiah asked, turning just slightly to get a look at Buck's back.

"Brewer was in his nightshirt."

"Who's to say anyone of us would have done things differently?" Nathan said.

"You didn't see him, Nathan."

"I didn't have to, Buck, I know the stories. I know that Chris saw something in Brewer that had to be destroyed."

Buck chuckled and shook his head: "You didn't know him then-hell, I hardly did… There was a time when he would have rather killed you than look at you." He turned and looked at Ezra, still unconscious. He couldn't help but think of all the times the gambler had come so close to seeing the end of that weapon, ending up with a bullet in his head-just like Brewer.

"The judge will never know," Josiah said, "what happened here today will never be repeated."

Buck nodded, keeping his eyes on the warped glass, unsure if that was the best thing for all of them. "He's been my friend for a long time, an' I've seen 'im come a long way."

"Just like you," Josiah said. "There ain't a one of us who's different than Chris, Vin, or Ezra here. We're all cut from the same cloth-just different colors."

Ezra choked: "Dear God that was awful." He rolled his head to the right, taking in as much air as he could. His head swam, and his eyes blurred. "Same cloth, different colors." He gasped, fighting the pain in his side and the pain in his head. He pulled his hand away from Josiah's grasp and weakly reached up to touch his face. He made it to his neck before allowing his hand to fall near his chest.

"Always one for the comments, Ezra," Josiah chuckled, knowing his metaphor had been a bit on the lame side.

Nathan grabbed the pitcher of warm water while Josiah carefully positioned himself behind Standish, cradling his upper body against his own chest. Ezra's head lulled between the arch of Josiah's shoulder and neck.

"Drink this, Ezra, you haven't had any water for 2 days." Nathan pressed the rim of the cup against Ezra's bottom lip.

Ezra pushed it away, spilling water on his chest. He moved his legs beneath the blankets, fighting weakly within the confines. He struggled with heavy eyelids, trying to keep them open.

Again, Nathan pressed the cup to Ezra's lips. "Take a sip, Ezra."

The first was the most difficult, but once he took the first swallow, he wanted more. Weakly, he grasped the cup, and drank the remainder. He sighed, collapsing onto Josiah's shoulder, his chest moving up and down in rapid succession. The simple movements had exhausted him.

Nathan wiped Ezra's chin with a cloth, a smile tugging at his lips. "I think he's going to be all right."

Ezra's eyelids closed slowly, and within minutes he was asleep.

"Why's he so weak?" Buck asked, standing at the end of the bed, glancing from Vin to Ezra.

"Blood loss," Nathan said, getting to his feet and grabbing another blanket. He unfolded it and then tossed it over Ezra's form. "His fever's gone, now all he needs to do is sleep." He turned and looked at Vin. "Now we just need to get you taken care of."

"Hell, Nate…I'll be fine."

"You sound like shit, Tanner," Buck said, taking a seat, placing his booted feet on the stool where Nathan had been sitting.

Josiah carefully squeezed himself out from under Ezra, placing him back on the bed and then pulled the blanket up past his shoulders. He turned and looked toward Vin. "How about another mustard pack?"

Vin frowned: "Hell."

"You'll never get close to another woman, Vin, you'll smell like somethin' even a dog won't eat." Buck crossed his arms over his chest and listened for the wagon Chris was bringing in.

"Got my own methods for that." Vin coughed when the mustard pack was applied to his chest, and for a moment he imagined his nose hairs curling beneath the odor.

"Buckskin and fringe?" Buck chuckled and took a deep breath when he heard the jingles of harnesses and the rocking of a wagon. "Chris's back." He stood and went to the window.

Josiah placed a calming palm on Vin's forehead. "Ready to go home, brother?"

Vin nodded: "More than you know."

Buck looked at Chris as he stepped through the door.

"How are they?" Chris asked, pulling his hat off and slapping it against this thigh.

"Vin's still got a fever and he's still coughing, but his fever's coming down-looks like he'll pull through just fine-with, enough rest." Nathan looked toward Ezra. "He just needs to sleep to replenish the blood he lost-fever broke a little while ago."

"Can they travel?" Chris asked.

"If they stay dry," Nathan said, standing between the two beds.

Chris nodded: "JD wired from Eagle Bend, said Agnes got off okay. He'll head back tomorrow after the weather clears a bit."

Josiah turned, looked hard at Chris and then at Buck, knowing the silence between the two was there for a reason. He could see the grief written in Chris' eyes, the immersion of old fears and realizations of what and who he was. Death walked beside Chris like life walked with Nathan, and it was a burden he would never surrender.

"Ready to go home, brother?" Josiah asked, looking at Chris.

Chris nodded, a slight twitch of a smile appearing. "Yeah, I am."

The end!!

Please send comments to: