Dropped and Caught
It was an hour's ride to Gill's ranch at the speed at which Josiah Sanchez travelled, and when he arrived at the door he was somewhat perturbed that no one answered him. If he was going to be convincing, he thought, he'd better start now.
"I have come to rescue your souls from burning in eternal damnation," he announced loudly in a broad Southern accent. "If you are penitent the Lord will have mercy on you. You must cleanse your sinful beings of your crimes. Embrace the true religion - God Almighty will not tolerate the evil rites of illiterate, pagan natives. I will - "
Someone opened the door and stared at Josiah. And, the preacher admitted to himself, there was quite a lot to stare at; quite apart from his immense height, today he could easily have been taken for an incarnation of Chris Larabee. Dressed totally in black, Josiah had scared even himself when he'd looked in the mirror after Ezra had made him don the dark clothing. He wouldn't want to have to do this every day.
The unfortunate servant who'd opened the door to him didn't appear entirely sure what to do so Josiah grasped the opportunity and strode in and through the hall, giving him only the most cursory of glances.
"I wish to speak with the owner of this building. I can sense evil here - I must root it out." Josiah wondered if maybe he was overacting but he seemed to convince the man, who fled without a word. Humming the only hymn he could remember off-hand, Josiah looked at a photo hanging on the wall of two young men side by side - obviously brothers, although one was considerably shorter than the other. Hearing footsteps behind him, he decided not to turn round.
"Can I help you, Mr...?" Slowly revolving, Josiah looked at the man in front of him expressionlessly.
"My name is Aaron Wickerman," he replied, at once giving the name that, for some reason, sprang to mind.
"My name is Gill. How can I help you?"
"I am a... missionary. I have spent the last ten years of my life making the inhabitants of this God-forsaken territory follow the path of righteousness. I have come to save the souls of your people before they rot in hell."
Gill looked at him carefully. "I see," he said. "Well, that's certainly very considerate of you, er... Reverend, but I can vouch for the religious inclination of all my men. Staunch Christians, every one of them."
Josiah looked vaguely disappointed, then returned to his study of the photograph. "Would I be right in saying that the shorter of these two young gentlemen here is you?" he enquired, abruptly changing tack. Gill stepped up beside him.
"You would indeed," he confirmed. "The one on the right is my brother, Jack."
"He looks a fine young man."
"He was. He was killed some years ago - accused of a crime he didn't commit. A bounty hunter refused him even a fair trial - just killed him before he could defend himself."
"Oh." An idea was slowly forming in Josiah's mind concerning bounty hunters. He could be wrong, but his gut told him otherwise... "Men such as the bounty hunter you speak of are precisely the kind I mean," he informed his listener. "Men who have no regard for other lives and make their despicable livings by murder and injustice. I have... shall I say converted? I have converted the lives of many of these people. Admittedly," he added with an evil grin he was horrified to discover came naturally, "They did need a little... persuasion. But then, persuasion happens to be a small hobby of mine... in the war, I found there were an inordinate number of souls in need of salvation and I found plenty of opportunity to - well, experiment."
"In the war?" There was just the smallest glittering of interest now in Gill's eyes, Josiah noted with satisfaction.
"I was a chaplain."
Josiah took a gamble. The man had a Southern accent similar in fact to the one he was affecting and, praying silently, the preacher crossed his fingers behind his back. "Confederate," he replied. The risk paid off, and Gill finally returned the grin.
"As was I," he said. "As was I. So tell me, preacher... you say persuasion is a hobby of yours. Is that just of bounty hunters in general, or do you operate on a wider scale?"
"My... speciality is those who lead immoral lives, such, as you say, bounty hunters. I consider the worthless lives of Indians beyond saving but the other field I am interested in is that of Indian lovers, white men who should by rights be Christians but have turned away from the true road and instead follow the satanic rituals of the Indians. Such men are, to me, little more than filth and deserve to be treated as such." Josiah had no idea where all this crap was coming from but he blessed his creative imagination, because Simon Gill seemed to be buying it.
"I know the very kind you mean," he agreed, seeing in Josiah a godsend. "In fact, you may be surprised to know that I have with me in this very house the man responsible for my brother's death - an Indian lover such as you describe."
Josiah was elated. This was just too easy, he thought. Forcing his eyes to take on a fanatic glint, he widened his smile so Gill could see his teeth. "In need of converting?" he enquired hopefully.
"I don't suppose a gentleman such as yourself would put much hold in the use of violence to speed up the conversion process...?" He sounded wistful.
"Welllll..." Gill pretended to consider. "Only if absolutely necessary..." he allowed finally. "And only if, as you say, it will save his corrupted soul."
"Oh, definitely," agreed Josiah. "Most certainly it will do that. Mr Gill, I see you are a man after my own heart. Where is this tortured soul?"
Gill snickered to himself at the description. Just wait 'til you see him, preacher-man, he thought. Waving an expansive arm ahead of him, he gestured Josiah through to the courtyard. "I'll show you," he replied. "After you."
It took Nathan nearly an hour before he discovered J.D., sitting morosely on a gate throwing stones at a dried-up puddle.
"Hi, J.D.," he said in greeting. The young man just looked at him and grunted.
"How are you?" he persisted. For a boy that talked all the time, trying to make J.D. speak when he'd made up his mind not to was like getting blood out of a stone. But then this was such an unusual occasion - limited generally to when he was either shot or sleeping - that it rarely bothered anyone, and now Nathan didn't know what to say to draw him out from his shell.
"Where's Buck?" he asked, at a loss for any other line of conversation.
"Dunno," said J.D., and tossed stone after stone into the soggy patch of ground.
"I dunno. Last time I saw him he was in the stable, getting his horse ready to go somewhere."
"Really?" Nathan frowned. Buck's grey had been there when Josiah had left. Where could he possibly want to go?
J.D. was being excessively ignorant, thought Nathan. He could at least hazard a guess... Nathan shook himself. Poor kid still hadn't got over getting hit by Vin, more than likely.
"Well, I'm gonna go check up on the stables, see if his horse is still there," he said. "He didn't tell anyone he was going anywhere... you want to come?"
Shrugging, Nathan turned his back to J.D. and left him still chucking stones moodily into the ground. Josiah better come back with some good news, he thought, or this whole situation is just gonna drag to into something far worse. But, as he made his way to the stables, Nathan tried - and failed - to think of what good news his friend could possibly gain from his trip to Gill's... ah well, 'nother couple of hours and he'd find out. 'Just have to be patient.
He hadn't really expected to see an empty stall where Buck's horse should have been so it came as a shock to him to see the door open and the huge mount replaced with an envelope addressed to Chris. Frowning, the healer unpinned the piece of paper and meandered slowly to the hotel where hopefully he would be able to find his friend. Without bothering to knock, he opened the door into the gunslinger's room to behold, much to his surprise, a fully sober Chris staring at him with a frown.
"What's the matter?" he growled. "Can't a man get any peace round here?"
Wordlessly, Nathan handed him the note and watched with interest as Chris read it, the black-clothed man's eyebrows gradually getting lower and lower.
"Well?" he prompted after a minute or so. Chris seemed to have forgotten his presence because, at the sound of his voice, he twisted round violently and swore.
"It's from Buck," he said when he had recovered.
"I guessed that."
"He's gone to find Vin."
"He's gone up to the ranch Josiah said Vin might be held at to get him out. Stupid bastard. Shouldn't have bothered. He says he's going to get him out and make sure he doesn't come back. Sounds fine to me."
"But - Josiah went up there about an hour ago."
"Same reason. Shouldn't we go after Buck? Might get his self into trouble."
"Nah. He'll be fine."
"We don't know that. And he might do something to Vin."
"Chris - "
"Look, Nathan. What Buck does and what Vin does and what Josiah does has nothing to do with me. They're all grown men and they're perfectly capable of looking after themselves. If any of them had needed my help they'd have asked for it. I don't give a damn what any of them do and I don't give a damn what you do, as long as it involves getting out of my room. Now, preferably."
Nathan spun on his heel and slammed the door shut behind him. Damn, he just couldn't cope with his six friends when they were like this. Bloody ornery Cowboys... Well, there was nothing he could do until either Buck or Josiah came back. He'd done his good Samaritan bit for the day - J.D. wasn't in the mood to talk, neither was Chris, Josiah was at Gill's ranch and so was Buck... ah, to hell with it. Maybe Ezra had more sense than he gave him credit for. Yep, he decided: only one thing for it - Nathan would go and have a very long, very expensive and much needed drink. And Ezra could pay for it.
Vin shuddered as the manicured hands slid smoothly over his exposed back, tracing the ridged scars that ran across his shoulders. Huxtabey dug his long fingernails into the tracker's neck, making him hiss in pain.
"That's it, Bernard," Adams coaxed, "make the bastard sing for his supper."
"Oh, I will," crooned the other, returning to his task of massaging the Texan's bruised back. Suddenly and without warning, the heel of Vin's boot slammed into the man's groin, causing him to bend double in a most undignified manner.
"Yeah," drawled the prisoner, "but I won't be singing as high as you."
Adams raised his hand to backhand his captive but, at that moment, Simon Gill arrived in the dusty courtyard with Josiah shadowing him.
"That's enough," he barked sharply, and Adams lowered his fist reluctantly. When Huxtabey had recovered his posture and regained his breath his friend jerked a sour head at him and he limped off to leave Gill and his visitor some privacy.
Gill ambled away from Josiah and circled Vin like a buzzard circles its prey. Vin remained motionless and stared at some unidentifiable target ahead of him. Josiah was too shocked at his appearance to say or do anything.
"Morning, Mr Tanner," greeted Gill politely.
Vin Tanner's vocabulary was, as Ezra would have testified, hardly extensive at the best of times. And, in his present condition, it was decidedly limited.
"Fuck off," he rasped tiredly.
"Tut, tut," admonished his captor in mock severity, almost idly kicking the man's feet from under him so he landed with a crunch on his knees. "We mustn't swear, now. The Good Lord abhors blasphemy... looks like you've got yourself into a good position now to pray for his forgiveness." He prodded Vin with a disdainful toe. "You believe in God, Tanner?"
"Not the same one as you worship," came the growled response.
"Then, my heathen friend, let me introduce you to a man come to save your soul. Be polite now, shake hands." He kicked at Vin's tied wrists. "See, you can purge yourself of all your sins, as it were... your last confession, shall we say? Here's your patient, preacher... hope you can teach the bastard some manners." With one last disgusted boot at the kneeling man's ribs he stalked off, leaving Josiah alone with Vin and just one guard for company.
Into Josiah's reeling mind slowly filtered the fact that he had to keep up his pretence and couldn't just kill the bastards that had done this to his barely-recognisable friend now. He thrust his itching fingers tightly into balls and hammered his sides with them rhythmically. Bang bang, bang bang, bang bang. Bang. Bang. The sudden pain this action caused forced him to focus, and assess his situation carefully.
With the guard there, he couldn't afford to let slip his identity to Vin. Any sign of recognition given by the tracker would land the both of them in even more trouble than they were already in, and given the state of Vin's back Josiah did not want to risk himself in a wager that even Ezra wouldn't lay bets on. Retaining the Southern drawl he'd adopted, Josiah paced slowly to where Vin had now seated himself cross-legged on the ground and was trying - without success - to loosen his bonds on a stone that seemed to be doing more damage to his frayed wrists than the ropes that tied them. The Texan didn't acknowledge his presence and it took more than a few moments for Josiah to regain his composure after finally seeing the extent to which Vin had been hurt.
It was obvious he'd been whipped with something, and obvious also that it hadn't been the first time the quietly spoken tracker had endured this act. Through the scarce patches of skin that weren't criss-crossed with red scores, thin, pale lines were visible that stared out at Josiah in stark contrast to the man's tanned skin, and the question crossed the preacher's mind when this had taken place. At the orphanage, maybe, he thought, or perhaps his grandfather. He shook the thought away as irrelevant and assessed the rest of Vin's injuries.
To say he was bruised all over didn't quite do justice to the situation. His left leg looked to be pretty bad - judging by the angle at which it lay, it was at the very least twisted, probably broken. His long hair had been unevenly shorn and by no professional: the perpetrator didn't appear to have made much effort at distinguishing where the hair had stopped and Vin's head had started - and Josiah found himself smirking despite the desperate situation. To think it took something like this to get Vin a haircut...
He knew the guard was looking at him oddly. Time to say something, he thought. Nodding tersely to his observer he finally forced the words through his throat and out of his mouth to address his friend.
"Peace be with you," he intoned sonorously. He had never been what could be termed as a typical man of God but this was how he assumed he would approach the scene if he was.
"Doesn't bloody feel like it," muttered Vin. Josiah permitted himself a small internal smile. At least Vin's own strange sense of humour was still intact.
"God is here with you," he assured him. "It might not seem like it at the moment, but believe me, He watches over all his flock - even the stray ones." This was good, he thought, very poetic. Might have to try this back home, see how the Four Corners congregation reacts... He tore his thoughts back to the present. Vin was looking at him through blindfolded eyes, disturbingly shrewd.
"Yep, well, he's done a mighty fine job of it so far," the sharp shooter told him sarcastically. "I'd be grateful if you'd thank him for it when you next see him, preacher, 'cos I'm thinking I ain't gonna get the chance. Me, I'm goin' straight to hell."
"Don't talk like that, my son," reprimanded Josiah as sharply as he could bring himself to, mindful of he guard's eyes boring holes through his neck and secretly alarmed at Vin's lack of confidence in his own worth. "We have no right to judge - that is left to the Almighty. Tell me, do you truly not believe in God? Have you never listened to a preacher's words and accepted them as truth?"
He watched as Vin's pain-creased face thawed into a softer expression. "Only one," he replied quietly. "But he was a special one: 'words he spoke actually made sense."
"Who was this man?"
"Friend of mine - well, friend I - I used to have, I guess. Don't reckon I'll be seein' him again. Name's Josiah Sanchez. You know 'im?"
Josiah's heart almost snapped at the wistfulness he could hear in Vin's voice. He was touched the younger man thought of him in this way.
"I - um, I've heard of him," was all he could say in reply. "What makes you think you'll never see him again?"
He was surprised to hear a deep chuckle erupt from Vin's throat. Once again, he thought wryly, Vin's weird humour comes into action.
"No offence, preacher," laughed the tracker, "but you ain't too good a judge of human character 'n all if you think Gill 'n his friends'll be lettin' me outta here alive. I don't reckon they've got any intention of lettin' me see anyone but the devil."
Josiah resisted the urge to comfort the young man, knowing it would look suspicious to the guard if he did. Instead, he rubbed his face fiercely; this Southern accent made his jaw ache and he wanted to know how Ezra Standish could keep it up for so long.
"What about your friend..." he continued, "this Mr Sanchez? Won't he come looking for you once he knows you aren't there - uh - wherever it is you, er, usually are?"
Vin's face sobered as quickly as if he'd had a bucket of cold water thrown at him. "Nah," he shook his head sadly. "I ain't friends with him no more. I... did somethin' wrong by him - him and some other friends I had once - and, well, I don't deserve their friendship any more."
Josiah froze. What the hell was Vin talking about?
"You want to talk about it?" he asked softly. Then, realising Vin would likely refuse, he added, "If, like you say, you aren't leaving here alive then don't you think it would help to tell someone? Get it off your mind, son - I swear to you I won't tell anyone. You have my word, for what it's worth."
Vin's head was cocked on his shoulder like a bird's, assessing the preacher through unseeing eyes. Finally, he gave a brief grin and nodded.
"Yeah, thanks, I'll do that..." he accepted. "You seem like a good man, preacher - you'd like Josiah. Tell ya what - would you do me a favour? I'll - I'll pay you." A frown flickered across his face. "I don't know what with, but... well, if you ever do see Josiah Sanchez will ya' tell him I'm sorry. That's all. I... I ain't actually got any money or nothin'... um..."
"I'll tell him," promised Josiah. "I'll tell him, if you tell me what cause you've got to be sorry. That's the only payment I need."
"Ok, deal." Vin looked oddly content, and settled further into the dusty sand to make himself more comfortable. "I'd shake, but I can't." He brandished his tied hands at Josiah and the big man grunted in response.
"'S ok," he said. "I'll take your word. Seems yours should be as good as mine. Now, tell me your tale, Mr Tanner."
"Well," began Vin, "I won't tell ya my whole life's history - ain't much to it and it ain't of any use to anyone, least of all me... wouldn't wish it on anyone. 'Ceptin a' course Gill... but that don't matter. The only part of it's as any good started 'bout half a year back, when I made friends with a guy name of Chris Larabee. He... well, I was workin' in a town called Four Corners an' he was there an' there was a man called Nathan Jackson 'bout to be lynched on account a' bein' black. Nathan was a doctor - healer; would've been a doctor if he was white - anyway: I saw Chris an' he saw me an' we both saw Nathan, an' didn't reckon it was right a man should be strung up like a dog for doin' nothin'. So we stopped 'em from doin' it. Well, Chris did mostly; but anyhow Nathan, he's a good man too, he was the second friend I made in one day. That's more really than I've ever had in my life, an' they're better than most people I've ever known. An' then we just kinda picked up some more of 'em. Four more. Buck, J.D., Ezra, an' that Josiah I told y'about - they were all good men an' all like brothers to me. Don't reckon you could find six better if ya searched from here to heaven.
"Well, the reason I ain't friends with 'em any more an' the reason they ain't gonna be comin' looking for me's this. Coupl'a days back I was out ridin' with J.D. - he ain't much more 'n a boy but sometimes I think he's got more fool courage 'n the rest of us put together - well, we were ridin' an' suddenly we found we weren't alone. Surrounded by a bunch a' desperadoes and one of 'em said he was lookin' fer me. None other 'n Mr Gill here... ain't much company, t' tell ya the truth. Now, me an' Gill, we go back a ways... I used to be a bounty hunter, see, 'n he took it a bit personally when I brought his brother in. When I saw it was him, I knew we weren't in fer a party - 'least, not the kind I wanted to be invited to - 'n I figured that if he was so riled at me that he'd come lookin' fer me then he'd go as far as getting' at me through my friends. So... so I made it seem like I was mad at J.D., said some stuff about him that I didn't mean - honest to God I didn't mean it... Jeez, I wish I didn't have to've said what I said. I told him stuff about him and the other five, stuff I knew'd hurt 'em, so he'd go back an' tell 'em. I can see the pain in his eyes now... God, he looked so hurt. He didn't deserve none of it."
Vin looked so haunted with guilt that it took all of Josiah's resistance not to reach out a hand to his shoulder. But he couldn't: quite apart from anything else, he could see how much pain it would cause the smaller man. As more of Vin's tale was revealed his heart sank lower and lower, and he realised that he'd been biting his lip so hard a thin trickle of salty blood now ran rivulets down his chin. Licking it away, he coughed encouragingly.
"Go on," he prompted. "If you did what you did for a good reason then your friends won't find it hard to forgive you - and God'll find it even easier. Trust me."
"It was for a good reason," continued Vin, almost as though he were trying to convince himself. "It was... well, I... I just thought, if they were so mad at me that they hated me they wouldn't come after me. If there was any way I had of letting them know I didn't mean any of what I said I'd do it. But there ain't. It's better they hate me than feel sorry or guilty about me... an' it's better that they don't come lookin' for me. I don't want anyone to treat them they way they've done me. Yeah, so I said all this stuff to J.D. 'n then I - I hit him." Vin's voice faltered and it sounded as though he was alarmingly close to tears. "I hit him," he repeated, as though he couldn't quite believe it himself. "Punched him right in the face, twice, then knocked 'im out with my gun. Cold-cocked him. So, I reckon, havin' done that I'm just getting' what's been comin' to me here. Reckon I deserved the beatings."
The calm, practical part of Josiah's mind was wrestling with everything else. He wanted to beat the crap out of the bastard that had done this to Vin, he wanted to tell his other friends why the tracker had said what he said and done what he'd done, and more than anything else he wanted to reassure Vin, tell him that it was okay, that the others would forgive him and that they'd get him out of there as soon as possible and everything would go back to normal. But he couldn't. He knew that. He stood thinking of the right words to say for a moment, but before he could align his thoughts Vin spoke again.
"I've never been a good Christian," he admitted penitently. "Never had much faith in a God that could let so much suffering go on. And, Jesus, I've sinned... killed a lot of men, a lot. More 'n I can remember, an' I ain't pretending that ain't sinning. But... I - I never... aww, forget it. Like I said, I deserve this - proper punishment, ain't it? But I'd be really grateful to yer if you'd have a word with J'siah if y'ever see him... don't go outta yer way or nothin', but if you're ever goin' through 'place called Four Corners then just tell him I'm sorry. 'N thanks fer listening to me, preacher - you're a good man."
"You do not deserve this," hissed Josiah savagely, taking Vin aback with his sudden ferocity. "And I wish to God you'd stop putting yourself down. No one deserves what you've been through and I doubt you know your friends as well as you think you do if you think they won't forgive you, you damn stupid fool, and for that matter what makes you think they haven't already? God."
Vin sat dazed for a few seconds in shocked silence then grinned that familiar lopsided grin of his. "You sure you ain't related to J'siah?" he asked. "I'm thinking you'd like him, mister. Thanks fer what you just said - I think that'll make...it... easier. I hate to think of 'em hating me; nearly kills me."
Josiah could bear it no longer. He noticed Gill re-emerge from one of the buildings and knew his time was up. "No one hates you, Vin," he whispered in his normal voice, then strode off leaving his friend open-mouthed in amazement staring after him as though he could penetrate the bandanna wrapped round his face with those piercing eyes of his.
In less than an hour Josiah was back in the town and approaching his rendezvous with Nathan. He practically ran down the street to the saloon and collapsed into a chair, too breathless to speak for a while. Nathan looked at him in concern.
"Don't do it, Nathan," gasped Josiah. "Don't offer me any of your poisons... I'm fine... save 'em for Vin."
"Vin! Did you see him, then?"
"Yeah," replied Josiah grimly, downing a shot of whiskey considerately placed in front of him, "I saw him."
"And what? What do you want me to say? That he's been beaten to a pulp and he said all that shit just to save our asses? Because that's what he did, Nathan. He deliberately told those things to J.D. to make us hate him so we wouldn't go and get him out of that hell hole he's in at the moment. He did that for us. Stupid bastard... one of these days I'm gonna have to have a serious word with that boy. I mean, I know Ezra accuses him of having Robin Hood tendencies, but this is... Nathan? What's the matter?"
Nathan had gone a peculiar colour. He didn't pale so much as take on a greyish tint, one that alarmed Josiah considerably.
"Nathan! Will you tell me what the problem is?"
"Er," Nathan stuttered, "I - er, B-Buck has, well..." He physically shook himself. "While you were gone Buck decided he'd go an'... get him out. And you know how he felt about the whole thing - hell, how we all felt about what Vin said about us... we didn't know. And I doubt he'll give Vin a chance to explain himself when he gets there..."
"I doubt Vin'll want to explain himself," retorted Josiah darkly, launching himself to his feet and making a grab for the coat he'd slung over the back of his chair. "Boy was thinking he deserved getting' whipped and God knows what else in there. Guess he'll just reckon it's rough justice when Buck catches up with him. Come on, let's get outta here. You go and get Chris 'n the others." They made for the door.
"And what are you going to do?" enquired Nathan as Josiah veered off to the left. The preacher glanced at him distractedly.
"What? Oh, I - er... I'm going back in there. Before Buck does anything stupid."
The big man kept walking and Nathan stuck his heels into the road and tried again.
"What?" Nathan had rarely seen his friend so angry.
"We need to work out a plan. It's as pointless you marching back in there as it is Buck getting' his fool self into trouble... I don't want to have to patch up more people than necessary and I sure as hell ain't windin' up having to think of nice things to say at six funerals... will ya just calm down please? Thank you. Listen. Why do you think Vin didn't want us to come an' rescue him? 'Cos he didn't think we'd have a chance. This is Vin, Josiah; he's a better judge of that kind of thing than anyone else I know. Buck don't stand a cat's chance in hell and if there's all three of you in there all separated then you don't neither. We need to come up with a plan that'll get Vin out of there in one piece and we need to do it soon so come with me now, and we'll see what the others can think of. Right?"
He reached out a long arm and grabbed Josiah's, steering him back in the direction they'd come from. Josiah shook his head wearily and allowed himself to be led away.
"Right," he said.
Buck crept stealthily past the enclosure that contained Vin's prison. He'd get the tracker out of there, he thought to himself, but that was it. Rescue was more than the bastard deserved... he thought again of the words a man he'd thought was his friend had given as a message for J.D. to deliver to them all - along with the bruises. He remembered what Vin had said about his mother being a whore, about how he'd all but killed Sarah and Adam... the accusations cut through his soul into his heart so sharply Buck wasn't even sure someone hadn't knifed him. Even if he'd been able to forgive Vin for what he'd said about him, what he'd done to J.D. was beyond even understanding. Sure, the kid was annoying sometimes, but to beat him up for no apparent reason?
And the individual messages he'd given to everyone else. The look of utter bewildered hurt on his friends' faces was etched into the back of Buck's eyeballs and every time his lids closed he would picture Chris's defeated, unbelieving stare of betrayal and pain. Vin's words had all but broken a man who had already been snapped up and trodden on - there was no way Buck could see that anyone of his friends would ever be the same again. And he was losing sleep over the images engraved in his mind. The constant reminder of his friends' faces was more than he could bear.
There was a tree, just high enough for him to see over the fencing, if he could climb into it. The tall man levered himself up into the lower branches and clambered gradually upwards until he had the perfect view of the courtyard - and Vin - and, despite his feelings towards his old friend, Buck could not help but gasp as he saw the state the young Texan was in. There was only one guard there with him, though... maybe, if he could just somehow get over this damn fence...
The silence in the room hurt J.D.'s ears and he had to break it.
"You mean... he did... all that... just so we wouldn't help him?" He was having to alter the view he'd built up of Vin to explain his behaviour very rapidly. Josiah nodded sadly.
"'Fraid so, J.D.," he replied. "'Fraid so."
The other two men that hadn't known of Vin's reasoning behind his actions sat back to back on a bed staring at two completely different blank walls, both their faces totally expressionless. Chris and Ezra hadn't spoken since the incident in the saloon the day before but they were so alike - in their attitudes to each other and their response to Josiah's news - that Nathan, J.D. and Josiah suddenly burst out laughing. At hearing the noise, the two men snapped out of their respective reveries and glared at the others.
"What?" they snarled. The simultaneous reactions increased the noise of laughter and this, in turn, deepened the customary frowns.
"You two," snorted Nathan at last. "You look like a pair of Gemini book ends... Jeez, get a mirror, someone."
"Identical twins," agreed Josiah, nodding sagely and trying to keep a straight face.
If he had dared, J.D. would have gone on to point out the similarities between the two glares, but as a third of both of them were directed at him he decided against it and instead stifled his giggles with his fist. Chris remained looking at the three evilly through slit eyes, but Ezra had the grace to look vaguely sheepish. Suddenly, his ramrod straight back relaxed and slumped backwards, and the gambler ran a shaky hand through his fair hair. He cast a terse grin at Josiah, Nathan and J.D. then turned to face Chris.
"Mr Larabee," he said, keeping his voice carefully neutral and avoiding eye contact with his leader, "I believe I owe you an apology for yesterday morning. I fully understand if you don't feel inclined to forgive me but I also feel, given Josiah's news, that out present situation calls for us to at least speak to each other. I cannot tell you how delighted I am to hear that Mr Tanner intended no harm by his remarks and how badly I want to - to..." Ezra's voice trailed off momentarily as he sought for the appropriate words, "beat the shit out of the bastards who could even think about doing what Josiah says they've done."
Ezra's departure from his usual use of complicated English caught Chris by surprise and to his shock he discovered that he was grinning at the conman. The sensation in his jaw was so unusual that he wondered if he'd gotten tetanus or something, and ran an experimental finger round his chin just to make sure he hadn't. This time six months ago he would have probably just punched Ezra in his gold-toothed mouth and stormed out to attempt a suicidal rescue of Vin on his own. It was with a sense of alarm that he realised he not only had grown to respect the gambler in front of him now with his hand stuck out in the hope of friendship, but actually to like him. He grasped the outstretched hand and shook it so violently the others thought he'd wrench it off; Ezra winced, but looked more stricken at the sudden display of emotion Chris was showing him. He gulped.
"I accept your apology, Ezra," Chris informed him quietly, "and I... hope you'll accept mine. I didn't mean what I said about you - and I just want you to know that what Vin said; well, I know he didn't mean it, now, but I reckon you ought to know that none of us mean it either. None of us think of you like that - you're a good man."
Only on a very few occasions was Ezra ever at a loss for words, and rarer still did he ever give people a glimpse of what he was feeling. Now was such an occasion and it was one his companions cherished. His mouth dropped open and he blinked at Chris rapidly before pulling himself together and clenching it shut, massaging his fingers distractedly against each other.
"Mr... Chris," he started tentatively, "I think... I think that what both you and Vin said about me is - was - true. I think it would have been true if I'd never met any of you, and I think that what you just said to me means a lot. Thank you very much. I also think - no, I know that I have the pleasure of riding with six of the best men I have ever had the fortune to meet and it is an experience I wouldn't exchange for all the gold you could offer me."
This having been said, Ezra looked acutely embarrassed and darted quickly furtive, sly glances around the room. No one, however, laughed; Ezra's real thoughts had never surfaced in a conversation with any of them before and it impressed them. Nathan laid a hand on the gambler's meticulously kept red jacket.
"I reckon it's about time we go an' rescue two of these fine men," he said gently, "before we're down to five. Doesn't quite have the same ring to it."
Ezra shot him a grateful glance and sprang gracefully to his feet. "Well then, gentleman," he exclaimed. "I believe Mr Jackson has stated the obvious. Now - who has a plan?"
Chris grinned a feral gin at the remains of his men. "Yeah," he said. "I've got a plan. We bust in there and beat the shit out of those bastards. Any objections?"
Anyone who would have normally urged caution at this juncture remained silent. Even Nathan didn't complain at the prospect of more work for him - at a time when one of their lives was at stake, such things didn't matter. There wasn't a man in the room who did not want to extract vengeance on those responsible for Vin's capture and the damage done to their friendship, and they shook their heads grimly.
"Well, then," said Chris, "Let's ride."