Die Hard The Hunter

by Heather Hillsden

Disclaimer: The ‘Magnificent Seven’ characters are the property of MGM, Trilogy, and the Mirisch Company. I just borrowed them, abused them a little, and sadly gave them back!

(With apologies to Def Leppard for borrowing their song title!)

The mountain lion was patient as it crouched on top of the flat rock, the tip of its tail flicking idly and its tawny hide rippling as powerful muscles bunched, ready for the killing leap. About twelve feet below, its intended target moved ever closer, drawn by the fresh water in the small rock pool at the base of the butte.

The boy was young, no more than eleven or twelve years old, and his mind was on the up-coming fishing trip his father had promised him. Big-mouthed bass and catfish as long as his arm filled his thoughts, and he was totally unaware of the danger above his head until he heard the first warning snarl.

Glancing up, the boy screamed as the cat leapt.

+ + + + + + +

Word had spread like wildfire that there was a cougar on the prowl.

Jess Carter had ridden into Four Corners with the news that the cat was getting bolder, and a crowd gathered as he told them of his son’s lucky escape when the beast had snatched a lamb from right under his nose, not two hundred yards from the farm house. It could only be a matter of time before another child was actually killed.

"What are you gonna do about it?" Carter demanded, as JD came to see why so many people were standing outside the saloon.

"About what?" the young man asked, having only heard the last part of the man’s story.

"This damn cat! You’re the law around here."

"Well, I… Vin, this is more your line of work."

Knowing when he was out of his depth, the young peacekeeper deferred the matter to Vin Tanner with some relief. The Texan was lounging in the doorway listening to Carter, with Ezra at his elbow, and JD knew the tracker was vastly more experienced than he was to co-ordinate a hunt for the cat. So did the townspeople. Vin stepped forward to the edge of the sidewalk so everybody could hear him.

"Waal, first off is there anybody hereabouts with a pack of hounds?"

"Yeah, Tom Clay’s got four dogs – good ‘uns, too – but he’s more’n a days ride away," a voice called from the crowd.

Vin considered that for a moment, and then he shook his head. "I don’t think we can wait. If that cat’s coming so close to the house, then it needs to be stopped – and quick!"

"What d’you wanna do?" JD asked.

The Texan scrubbed at his chin thoughtfully. "I’ll get me some supplies and go track it down."

"What - just you?" Jess Carter wanted to know.

"No sense in all of us running off to look for it. I just need one man."

There was a murmur of discord from the crowd, and a babble of questions.

"Why only one?"

"How about a posse?"

"Why shouldn’t we all go?"

Vin held up his hand and waited for the noise to die down. "For a start, too many people will scare it away," he said, when he had their attention. "It’ll only come back again. And it’s safer. I’ve been on a hunt where a man was shot ‘cos his neighbour thought he was a bear sneaking up on him."

"Alright," Carter conceded. "You’ve made your point. But who’s going with you?"

Vin thought for a moment. Chris would have been the obvious first choice, but he and Buck had just arrived back from an exhausting trip to Eagle Bend, and he was loath to drag him out again so soon. Suddenly, he felt a presence at his shoulder, and he glanced round to find Ezra standing beside him.

"There is no question of who." The gambler stated. "Mr. Tanner needs someone he can trust to watch his back - without shooting him in it by mistake!"

"Are you volunteering, Ezra?" Vin stared at him in surprise.

"I do believe I am," the Southerner replied. "Besides, the pelt of such a magnificent beast would make a splendid trophy for behind the bar."

Vin shook his head in amusement; sometimes he just couldn’t figure the gambler at all.

"That’s it folks," he called. "Y’all heard the man. Just keep an extra careful eye on your stock until we get back."

As the crowd drifted away, content to let the experienced tracker deal with the problem, JD stepped up to Vin, a worried expression on his face.

"Are you sure just you and Ezra can handle this?" he asked, and the tracker grinned at him.

"Yeah – I’m sure." Vin gave the young peacekeeper a wink, and his smile became broader. "And if I miss it… Waal, Ezra could most likely talk it to death!"

+ + + + + + +

Jess Carter waited patiently in the saloon as Vin went to the General Store and got the supplies he thought they would need for what could be a lengthy hunt. Ezra collected their mounts and a packhorse from the Livery, and the three men rode out, with JD promising to tell Chris and the others what they were doing.

Carter’s homestead was about two hours ride from town, and he showed them the spot where the mountain lion had leapt down to snatch the lamb, scaring his son half to death in the process. At Vin’s insistence, the man left them, with the Texan’s warning about penning up his livestock ringing in his ears. Tossing the packhorse’s rope to Ezra, Vin kneed his black gelding up to the place where the cat had waited. Letting the gelding’s split-end reins drop, he slipped his feet out of the stirrups and eased himself up until he was standing on his saddle.

"What are you doing?" Ezra demanded.

The tracker didn’t reply. Instead he sprang lightly from his horse, and pulled himself up onto the rock. Bending down, he carefully examined the spot where the cat had lain in wait, apparently for some time. Either the animal was desperate, or more cunning than most. Whatever the reason, it made it extremely dangerous.

Straightening, he moved away from the edge, out of Ezra’s sight as he followed the downward slope of the rock until it was low enough for him to scramble back down. The gambler was watching as he reappeared several yards further on, and he gathered up the reins of Vin’s horse, leading the animal forward.

"Wait up, Ezra," the Texan said, holding up his hand as he squatted on his heels to check the area around the rock-pool. "Take a look at this."

The Southerner dismounted and joined his companion at the waters edge, seeing the imprint of large paws in the mud.

"Just how big is this beast we are hunting?" he asked, trying to form an image in his mind from the depth and size of the tracks.

"A reasonable size. About 130 -140 pounds."

"That’s… reasonable," the gambler agreed, raising one eyebrow.

The tracker grinned at him. "For this area maybe. In Texas these cats can reach upwards of 200 pounds." Ezra whistled softly as Vin studied the ground a little closer, and he frowned as he poked his finger in first one paw-print, and then another. "That’s odd," he murmured, half to himself.

"What’s odd?"

"Hmm? Waal, these tracks don’t match."

"What do you mean – they don’t match?" Ezra stared at him in confusion. "There is only one cougar, isn’t there?"

"Yeah!" Vin pointed at the tracks as he explained his findings to the gambler. "See that one – the front left paw? It’s not as deep as the others, as if it’s hardly putting any weight on it."

"It’s lame," the Southerner stated, seeing the implication in the other’s words.

"Or it’s already wounded. That would explain why it only took a lamb."

The Texan’s expression was grim as he pushed himself to his feet. If the big cat was injured or wounded then that would make their hunt that much more hazardous. He could only hope that he would be able to make the kill from a distance.

+ + + + + + +

Two days later Ezra was wondering just what had possessed him to come on this hunt with Vin.

The cougar had remained one jump ahead of them all the way; they had heard its spine-chilling howls, and found signs of its kills – always small, which supported Vin’s theory about it being injured - but they still hadn’t had physical sight of the cat itself, and they were both getting jumpy.

"I’ve a bad feeling about this," the tracker told Ezra as he stretched a rope between two trees.

They had found a small clearing near a creek, and decided to make camp for the night, even though there was still almost an hour of daylight left. With the gambler holding all three horses, Vin set up the picket line, and then took his mount down to the water to drink, Ezra following him with his chestnut and the packhorse.

"What do you mean – a bad feeling?" The Southerner was well aware of the, sometimes, strange premonitions that Vin was prone to, but he had never given them much thought before.

"I’m not sure." The Texan pushed his hat back so it hung by the storm-strap, and knelt down to splash some water on his face. Tipping his head back, he frowned, blue eyes troubled and wary. "It’s like… we’re being watched."

"Watched?" Ezra gave a small laugh, and then stopped, seeing the gravity on his companions face. "You don’t mean…?"

Vin shook himself, and then shrugged. "Sorry, Ezra," he apologised, with a faint grin. "Just thinking out loud."

"Yes, well, perhaps you should consider thinking about supper," the Southerner told him, leading his chestnut and the packhorse over to the picket line, and fastening their tethers. He was more unnerved by Vin’s comment than he was willing to let on, and he kept glancing around as he unsaddled his horse and removed the supplies from the other animal.

When he had finished, the gambler gathered up several armfuls of tinder and started a fire going, putting a pot of coffee on as Vin tended to his black. With the horses watered and fed, the tracker went back to the creek, took his jacket off, and pushed up his sleeves.

"What are you doing?" Ezra asked, as his friend stretched himself out at the edge of the creek, his hands just below the surface of the water.

"Thinking about supper," Vin replied with a grin, as a sudden flick of his wrist snagged a large speckled trout. Within a few minutes, three more fish had joined it on the bank and he pushed himself to his feet. Pulling his knife from its sheath, he dropped it point down in the dirt between the gambler’s feet. "If you’d care to do the honours," he said indicating the plump trout. "I’ll find some green sticks to cook them on."

Ezra grimaced, then took off his own jacket and set to work. By the time he’d gutted and cleaned all four, Vin had returned with a number of sturdy sticks that he’d peeled the bark from. He skewered each of the fish in turn and wedged the sticks amongst the rocks encircling the blaze, so the trout were just over the flames. Sitting back as they started to sizzle, the tracker took the cup of coffee that Ezra handed to him.

"Thanks," he said, leaning back against his saddle that lay on its side under a tree. Gazing into the dancing flames, his face took on a far away look as he contemplated their next move.

Ezra studied him for a moment, seeing how worried he was; the Texan wasn’t one to accept failure easily, and at the moment he obviously felt that he had failed.

"A penny for your thoughts, my friend," he said softly, repeating the words a second time when Vin didn’t respond.

"Huh? Oh, I was thinking maybe we ought to take turns to watch tonight," he said at length.

"Okay." The gambler didn’t argue. They hadn’t bothered with such a precaution before, but the tracker must have felt a need for it now, and Ezra was willing to bow to his superior knowledge in such matters. "I’ll take the first watch then."

"Alright." The Texan reached forward and removed one of the trout from the fire, checking to see that it was cooked. Holding the end of the stick, he took small, careful bites of the hot succulent flesh, licking warm juices from his fingers appreciatively. Ezra followed suit, and they washed down the last of the fish with another cup of coffee.

The sun had long since disappeared over the horizon, and Vin tossed some more wood onto the fire, watching as glowing embers whirled upwards into the night sky like tiny fireflies. Unfastening his bedroll, he shook his blanket out and lay back, using his saddle as a pillow.

"Do you really think we’re being watched?" Ezra asked him softly, as the tracker laced his fingers behind his head. Vin sighed.

"I don’t rightly know," he replied. "It was just… a feeling."

"Surely a mere animal wouldn’t be that cunning?"

The Texan propped himself up on one elbow, and regarded the Southerner intently. "Some of these old cats can be real clever. Hell, even the Comanche’s respect them! A mountain lion is a real powerful totem to have."

The gambler shivered, looking around and expecting to see a pair of feline eyes regarding him hungrily from the darkness beyond the circle of light cast by the fire. Vin gave a wry smile at his friend’s discomfort; a little healthy respect would keep him on his toes.

"Wake me in a few hours," he said, rolling himself in his blanket and closing his eyes. "Don’t let the fire go out!"

+ + + + + + +

Ezra had woken Vin a little after midnight, and turned into his own blankets, leaving the tracker to watch until the dawn started to stretch her golden fingers up from the west.

Once, about an hour before daybreak, Vin had heard the cougar call, but it was some distance away, the sound carried to his ears by the shifting breeze. The gambler stirred in his sleep as the horses whickered, alarmed by the sound of their hated enemy, but after a few minutes everything was quiet again, and Vin put on a pot of fresh coffee.

He had almost finished his first cup when he felt eyes on him, and he turned as Ezra yawned and stretched.

"That coffee smells remarkably good, Mr. Tanner," the gambler said, throwing back his blanket and rubbing his hands across his face. He glanced around as Vin held out a steaming cup to him. "I assume we had no unwelcome visitors through the night?" he remarked, accepting the cup gratefully.

The Texan grinned. "Yeah! The cougar’s done snuck off with the horses and all our supplies when I wasn’t looking," he replied sarcastically.

"Well I’m glad it was nothing important," the Southerner told him, relieved that the tracker’s forebodings of the previous night seemed to have vanished with the moon.

They breakfasted on biscuits and hard tack, saving their meagre supply of flour and beans for the evening. Rinsing out the cups in the stream, Vin packed them in one of the saddlebags as Ezra fastidiously shook his jacket out and slipped it on, picking up his saddle and blanket and going across to the horses.

Vin rolled up his bedding as Ezra began to saddle his horse. The gambler had just placed the blanket over the chestnuts back when he felt a gentle breeze lift his hair, and the wind swung around in another direction. At that moment, the tracker’s black quarter horse flung up its head and snorted in alarm, tugging at its tether as its eyes rolled in fear. Its fright was infectious; the packhorse pranced and half-reared in panic, and the gambler’s own chestnut danced and skittered out of his reach.

"Whoa, easy boy." Ezra ducked under the picket line, reaching up to stroke his mount’s ears and pat its neck. He was still trying to sooth the animal when he noticed that Vin was on his feet, with his revolver drawn. "What’s wrong?" he asked, feeling the hairs on the back of his neck prickle.

"There’s only three things that’ll suddenly spook a horse like that," Vin told him, glancing around uneasily. "Fire, bear – "

"And cougar," the Southerner finished for him, stepping away from the horses to collect his gun. What happened next caught even the lightning quick tracker by surprise.

Without warning a tawny body erupted from the bushes behind, and a little to the left of Vin. It flashed across his line of sight – and leapt straight at the unprotected gambler! Ezra gave a startled yell, flinging up his hands instinctively as he went down under the weight of the cat. He caught the picket rope as he fell, yanking one end free from the trees, and the three horses, almost mad with terror at finding a cougar in their midst, reared and plunged about him before they made their break for freedom, iron-shod hooves slashing down and narrowly missing both struggling man and cougar alike.

Vin hesitated for only a moment; he couldn’t shoot for fear of hitting Ezra or one of the horses, so he grabbed up a blazing brand from the campfire. Giving a blood-curdling whoop, he dashed forward and thrust the torch into the face of the cat. The mountain lion roared in pain, and Vin could smell singed fur as the beast turned on him. He took a hurried step backwards, trying to draw it away from the Southerner, but the animal lifted a large paw and made a swipe at him. The Texan gasped in pain, taking another involuntary step backwards and dropping the torch as the cougar’s claws raked across the back of his hand. Then his luck ran out completely.

Catching his heel against his saddle, he tripped, wrenching his ankle as he fell. Instantly the cat was on him, a snarling spitting fury, and its jaws closed around his forearm as he tried desperately to protect his throat. A numbing, searing fire shot through the tracker’s arm as teeth sank into his flesh, and he could feel the beast’s hot, rancid breath, and see the rage blazing in the eyes so close to his face. Self-preservation took over then as he brought his revolver up and put the muzzle against the great beast’s head. Closing his eyes against the flash, he pulled the trigger. The sound of the shot almost deafened him, but through the ringing in his ears he heard one final agonised yowl, and then the dead weight of the animal collapsed on top of him.

Vin lay where he was for a few long seconds, breathing hard as the nauseating musky odour of the cat filled his nostrils. Pushing with his knees, he slid out from under the body and sat up, shuffling backwards on his haunches as a shudder ran through him. His gun dropped from trembling fingers as he cradled his left arm against his chest, sucking in his cheeks as pain coursed through the torn flesh. Blood drenched the sleeve of his shirt and dripped from his fingers into the dirt, and the Texan knew he had to do something about that before he could even think of helping Ezra.

He glanced towards the trees; the gambler was curled on his side in the churned up dirt, his back towards the tracker, and he hadn’t stirred or made a sound since Vin had enticed the cougar away from him. He didn’t even know if he was alive.

"Ezra!" Vin called the gambler’s name, but got no response. "Dammit!" he hissed in pain and frustration, as he struggled to pull his shirt over his head. He finally got it off, gritting his teeth as the material tugged at his torn flesh. Using his teeth and his right hand, he tore the garment into strips, and then crawled across to the creek. Plunging his throbbing arm into the water, he washed some of the blood from the cuts, blinking as the pain brought tears to his eyes and made his head swim. The scratches across the back of his hand were long but shallow and stung like crazy, but the ragged punctures around his forearm were deep and painful, and he bound several strips from his shirt around them as tightly as he could manage. Satisfied that he had done all he could for himself, he slipped his coat on to cover his injuries as he turned his attention to Ezra.

Pushing himself to his feet, he limped slowly across the clearing, unable to put much weight on his right ankle. Skirting the body of the cougar, he dropped to his knees beside the gambler, drawing in a sharp breath as he studied his friend. The thick beige jacket may have protected him a little from the worst of the attack, but it was still ripped across the shoulders, and the front of Ezra’s shirt was shredded and soaked with blood. Vin put his hand on the Southerner’s shoulder and shook him.

"Ezra? Can you hear me?"

The gambler moaned, but he remained curled on his side with his eyes tightly closed, and his hands clenched into trembling fists. Vin could feel him quivering violently beneath his hand, and he tried to push him over onto his back, but the other resisted.

"Dammit, Ezra!" the tracker almost yelled. "You gotta let me see!"

"V...in? The... c... c... " The Southerner couldn't get the words out, but Vin knew what he was trying to ask.

"It's dead," he told him, finally managing to get Ezra turned over. The gambler's eyes were open now, the emerald gaze clouded by pain and shock as Vin used his knife to cut open the front of his shirt.

"Vin? How... bad...?" Ezra reached out, his fingers closing about the Texan's injured arm in a fierce grip. The tracker gasped, and all the colour drained from his face. He drew a shaky breath as the pressure sent fire coursing up to his shoulder, and he blinked back the darkness that gnawed at the edge of his vision.

"Pretty bad," he replied, his voice wavering as he shook off the other's grasp and tried to push the pain to the back of his mind. He succeeded after a fashion, concentrating instead on his injured companion. "I gotta get that jacket off you." He paused, his blue eyes concerned as he regarded Ezra.

The gambler nodded, steeling himself as Vin shuffled around behind him and propped him up against his knees, but he couldn't prevent the agonised groan that escaped his lips as his ravaged body protested at the rough handling

"Sorry," Vin apologised, trying to ignore the other's discomfort as he eased the Southerner's arms from the jacket, and slipped the remains of his shirt off at the same time. Reaching out, he dragged Ezra's saddle forward, and leaned the gambler back against it. Sitting back on his heels, the tracker chewed on his bottom lip as he regarded the injuries caused by the big cat.

It was easy to see where the animal had caught Ezra; the claw marks on his shoulders were little more than long, jagged scratches, although the left side was worse than the right, but down his ribs and across his stomach the wounds were deeper and bleeding heavily. Vin could feel the sweat break out on his own forehead when he realised just how lucky his friend had been; the cougar's powerful hind paws could have disembowelled him easily. He touched the gambler on the arm lightly.

"I gotta clean these scratches, Ezra, but it's gonna hurt like Hell!"

The gambler stared at him for a moment, and then he closed his eyes and nodded. "You have... such… a way with... words," he whispered. "Just do it."

The Texan's mouth twitched in a faint smile; Ezra was going to need his sense of humour to cope with his crude, but necessary, ministrations.

+ + + + + + +

Despite his confidence in Vin's abilities, JD had sent a rider to fetch Tom Clay and his four hounds that same afternoon.

The young peacekeeper had reluctantly informed Chris later that evening, wondering if the gunslinger would think him foolish for doubting Vin, but Larabee was pleased at his initiative.

"None of us are perfect," Chris said, as he sipped a beer along with Buck and JD in the saloon. "Vin would have waited for the dogs himself, if he hadn't thought that time was important."

"I figgered maybe some of us could go out with Tom Clay when he gets here." JD said, regarding the two men before him.

"Sure!" Buck agreed. "I reckon Vin'll need all the help he can get, what with Ezra tagging along." JD laughed, but the expression on Chris' face made him pause.


"Don't be so quick to condemn," the gunslinger told them both. "Ezra didn't have to volunteer - and Vin wouldn't of taken him unless he thought he could help."

Buck and JD looked at each, and then the ladies man gave an apologetic smile as he nodded. "I guess you're right. We don't always see past them fancy pants and funny talk."

"Vin does."

There was silence for a moment, and then Buck finished his beer in several swift gulps, and thumped the glass down on the table.

"Alright," he said. "So who’s going with Clay?"

"Just me and you." Chris stopped JD’s protest with a sharp glare. "You heard what Vin said," he reminded the peacekeeper. "The fewer people the better."

"Why do I miss all the fun?" the young man muttered, and Buck grinned wickedly.

"’Cos you’re the kid," he stated with a chuckle. JD scowled at him, but he wasn’t really angry. He wondered when he would ever be considered more than just ‘the kid’ to these men, and then realised it didn’t really matter. They were his friends – that was all that counted at the end of the day.

+ + + + + + +

Vin was tired. No, more than that, he was tired and hurting.

It had taken him some time to clean Ezra’s wounds, and stop as much of the bleeding as he possibly could. He had found the small hipflask that the gambler carried, and he knew that the powerful spirit would help to clean some of the dirt from the wounds. He had dabbed at the scratches on Ezra’s shoulder, pausing as the gambler cried out, but his task had been made a little easier after the Southerner had passed out, and Vin no longer had to worry about how much pain he was causing him. A number of the scratches were superficial and were already starting to scab over, but the deep ragged tears on the Southerner’s lower abdomen had him worried. He had washed the dirt and the gore from them, acutely aware of how filthy the cougar’s claws must have been, and bound them with strips torn from the remains of his own and Ezra’s shirts, but the gambler had still lost a lot of blood.

The Texan tucked a blanket around his unconscious friend as he started to shiver, and then piled more wood on the fire. As the flames flared brighter, Vin sank back on his heels, closing his eyes momentarily as he contemplated their situation. With the loss of their horses they were effectively stranded, but at least they still had their weapons and their supplies. One thing the tracker was certain of; before long a search party would be out looking for them, because the horses would head back to Four Corners, their ‘home’, and Chris would be at the head of the queue to find them.

The downside to the comforting picture he tried to paint in his mind was the badly injured gambler, and the damage that the big cat had done to his own arm. He had dealt with Ezra’s wounds as best he could for now, but he could feel the pain throbbing through his own forearm, and the occasional waves of dizziness made him feel a little light-headed.

He stood a fresh pot of coffee on the rocks around the fire, and then glanced down at the outline of the bandages wrapped around his left arm and hidden beneath his jacket. Every movement he made, every time he even flexed his fingers, was torture as the material chafed at the torn flesh, and it sent the blood pounding through his temples. Pouring himself a cup of coffee, Vin glanced across at the body of the cat, closing his eyes in bitter regret. He had already seen the festering wound in the animal’s left shoulder – confirming his theory about why the beast had attacked smaller and supposedly less dangerous prey – but his accurate assessment about why the cougar had behaved the way it had now left a sour taste in his mouth. He had neglected to take all the options into account, and Ezra had paid the price for his failure.

Suddenly he felt something warm seeping through the leg of his pants, and he jerked upright with a start, realising that he had dozed off. Half the morning had already passed him by, and if he sat by the campfire any longer the tracker had no doubts that the rest of the day would fly by just as quickly. He needed to keep himself occupied, to keep himself alert and awake until the others found them. Brushing the spilt coffee from his leg, he stood the cup down and scrambled to his feet, gingerly testing his right ankle and finding that it felt better.

The first thing he needed to do was to move the carcass of the cat further away from the campsite. Cougars weren’t the only carnivores to roam this area, and he didn’t want to tempt the coyotes or wolves any nearer than was absolutely necessary. Stepping around the body, Vin grasped the cat’s tail and started to pull. At first, he made no impression; despite his best efforts the carcass didn’t move, and all he succeeded in doing was re-opening the wounds on his arm. Then he felt the body give and slide slowly, but it took him almost half an hour to drag the remains about thirty feet from the camp. Finally, his strength gave out, and he dropped in a dizzy, sweating heap, his forehead resting on his knees as he tried to catch his breath.

After a little while, he pushed himself to his feet and staggered back to the fire. He could feel the sweat trickling down his face and he squatted down by the creek, scooping water up in a trembling hand and splashing it against his warm skin. Suddenly he heard a strangled cry, and he turned as Ezra started to thrash and moan. Picking up one of the canteens, he went across to where the gambler lay, and sat down beside him.

The Southerner’s face was flushed and damp with perspiration, and he had thrown off the blanket Vin had tucked around him as he tossed fretfully, locked in some fevered nightmare.

"God – Vin! No!!" The cry was ripped from his throat, and he sat bolt upright. The green eyes snapped open, but they were unfocussed, the gambler’s gaze turned inwards as he relived the horror of the attack.

"Ezra, it’s okay. I’m here!" Vin reached for the gambler’s shoulders, remembered the gouges, and grasped him by the arms instead, wincing as the pain from his own wounds flared through his nerve-endings. As the Texan’s fingers closed about his wrists Ezra gave a gasp, the vaguest hint of recognition in the gaze he turned briefly on the tracker before he slumped back against the ground, slipping into unconsciousness once more.

Vin made him as comfortable as he could, and poured some water onto the bandana he had been using, carefully wiping the sweat from Ezra's face and throat before laying at across his brow. The gambler twitched and murmured something that Vin didn't quite catch, but he seemed to have quietened for now.

The tracker took a few mouthfuls of water from the canteen, and then checked Ezra's bandages again. He could see the spots of blood seeping through the material where the gambler's thrashings had re-opened his wounds, but he still had some strips left from the shirts to change them. Using his knife, he carefully slit the bindings and peeled them back.

Some of the newly formed scabs caught and split as he removed the bandages, but the blood that leaked out was bright and fresh, with no sign of any infection. However, the longer, deeper wounds down Ezra's stomach were a different matter. A number of these really needed stitching; they were still bleeding freely, the blood darker and thicker, and there was one, just above the gambler's right hip that was beginning to turn nasty.

Reaching into Ezra's saddlebags, Vin pulled out the spare shirt that he knew the gambler always carried, and ripped one of the sleeves off. He cut away the cuff and sliced through the seam, until he had a large oblong of material. Folding it in four, he soaked it with water and started to bathe the angry-looking wound. Ezra moaned and shifted under his hand as he pressed down firmly, trying to force the poison out, but he persevered with his task. By the time he'd finished, the wound seemed much cleaner, although it still looked a little red and inflamed around the edges.

"Sorry about this, Ezra," Vin murmured, even though he knew the other couldn't hear him. He picked up the hipflask once more and carefully trickled a little of the whiskey into the raw wound. The reaction was just about what he expected. The gambler drew a choking breath and his fingers dug into the ground beneath him. Vin stoppered the flask and laid his hand on Ezra's chest; he could feel the gambler's muscles, tense and knotted with pain under his palm, as his body cried out in protest. Suddenly, the Southerner went completely limp, his head rolling to one side, and Vin had an uncharacteristic moment of panic.

"Ezra!" He tilted the gambler's face towards him and patted his cheek, but got no response. Leaning down, he placed his ear against his friend's chest, closing his eyes with a sigh of relief when he heard the faint heartbeat. "Don't you scare me like that again," he admonished, as he began to wrap clean bandages around the Southerner's wounds. With that done, he pulled the blanket back up and replaced the damp cloth across his forehead. Ezra’s wounds might be cleaner, but the gambler was still feverish and sorely in need of Nathan's healing skills.

Vin sat there for a long moment, watching the other, seeing the faint rise and fall of his chest, and trying to marshal his own flagging energy. Feeling a sudden need, he took a long swallow from the hipflask, coughing as the fiery liquid burned down his throat, and he felt a new vigour return to his limbs. Pushing himself to his feet, the tracker discovered to his dismay that the renewed energy was just a cruel illusion.

Dark spots danced before his eyes, and his vision blurred alarmingly as he reached out to steady himself against the bole of a tree as the world tilted crazily. Dizziness broke over him like a tide as he caught his injured arm against the trunk, and the sun winked out as he crumpled to the ground.


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