Wounds of A Friend
by THE BUFFALO GALS
The next day wasn't much easier on the injured lawmen. Mindful of their weakened state Chris searched out an early camp site, finding the ideal place by a wide, slow moving river. They pulled up at the river's edge and dismounted. It was a perfect spot to rest themselves and the horses. Trees surrounded the area Chris had picked out to make camp, so the late afternoon sun could do little damage to their already tired and aching bodies.
Men and beast knelt before the water, as if worshipping it. Buck was soon stripping off his upper clothes.
"This is heaven!" He splashed the cool liquid over his broad chest and washed himself down.
Smiling at his friend's enthusiasm, Chris did the same thing. It would be quite a while before they had a proper bath.
Vin slowly followed their lead, smiling encouragingly at Ezra, who still panicked when he remembered the communal bathing in the lake.
The gambler took his time, carefully folding his tattered jacket and shirt before placing them on the rocks.
For a time they forgot their troubles and reason they were on the dusty trail; it just felt good to relax. Chris hadn't told Vin they were making camp for the day, the tracker would only grumble that they were wasting precious time. But the tired horses desperately needed a break.
Chris was just about to tell the others, when Ezra stood up and stretched, displaying for the first time in front of Chris, his battered torso. Larabee knew they'd been beaten, but until now, seeing the extent of Ezra's injuries, he'd not realized how badly. The gambler's body was a mosaic of different coloured bruises; then there were the ugly, red stripes across his back. Whip marks. Glancing slyly at Vin, Chris saw the same, awful discoloured skin, and both of the young men were so thin! How had they survived?
An irrational anger swept over Larabee, irrational and ill directed, as certain horrific thoughts entered his head. He lurched to his feet and lunged at Ezra, knocking him to the ground. The gambler cried out as jagged rocks and stones bit into his back. Normally a solid, stocky figure, he didn't have the strength to push the leaner, yet stronger, Larabee away and he winced painfully when Chris caught hold of his shoulders and began to shake him uncontrollably, yelling,
"What the hell happened to you...! What else did they do to you!"
Panic finally overwhelming him, Ezra screamed at his attacker, pleading with him for release. Chris couldn't hear the shaking voice or see the anguished look in Ezra's green eyes.
Buck, startled by the turn of events, began to hurry towards the scuffle; he wasn't fast enough. Hurtling past him, Vin threw himself at Chris and they rolled into the shallow water lapping the river's edge.
"Leave him alone!" Vin screamed, lashing out at Chris; his new found anger giving him a strength he didn't really possess. "I... told ya... before, leave him... alone!"
Coming to his senses, Chris lowered his arms and rode out the attack. He was shocked by Vin's reaction. This was a different side to the young tracker; they'd never heard him raise his voice before, not even when they were facing dangerous enemies; yet here he was, almost hysterical, screaming and swearing as he protected his friend.
Buck was caught between tending to Ezra, who was white with shock and shaking to the bone, or hauling the tornado named Vin Tanner away from Larabee, who was lying back and taking the beating. Deciding that Chris had somehow got things under control, Buck moved over to Ezra and was dismayed when the gambler cowered away from him.
"Ezra, it's me, Buck."
"Ah know..." Ezra struggled to bring himself under control. "Ah'll be right in a minute... get Vin away from Chris... he doesn't know what he's doing."
" Sure?" Buck saw the slight nod and accepted it. By the time he reached Vin, the younger man was already running out of steam, but he was still a handful to all haul out of the water.
Chris smiled grimly, glad that the water had been shallow otherwise Vin might have been tempted to drown him! By the time he found his feet and stumbled out of the water Buck had sat down, encasing the struggling form of the younger man, while Ezra was kneeling next to them, trying to talk Vin out of his temper.
"Ah am all right, my friend. Look at me."
Chris walked over and knelt before the still writhing figure, instructing Buck to let him go. Buck wasn't sure about the request, but trusted Chris' instincts where Vin was concerned. He slowly released Vin's arms, then sat back.
Before Vin could react to his freedom, Chris pulled him forward and encased him in his own arms, then he turned to Ezra, "I'm sorry... forgive me. I had no right to attack you."
"Apology accepted Mr. Larabee, as long as you make everything right for our friend."
"I will... I promise..."
Sensing that Chris wanted to be alone with the younger man Buck got to his feet, then helped Ezra to his. "Come on... let's make a fire, and get some coffee goin'. I need it hot and strong!"
Regaining some of his composure, Ezra joked, "Ah shall make the fire. Ah have been taking lessons!"
Buck put an arm around Ezra's shoulder and hugged him. "Another talent, huh? No holding you back, Ezra. No holdin' you back."
Chris clung to Vin, afraid that if he loosened his grip the tracker would take flight. He was also worried about the other man's mental state. Vin had gone from screaming hysteria to deathly stillness.
"Hey pard..." he said quietly, stroking Vin's hair as the young man rested against his chest. "Will you forgive me?"
"Vin, you're scarin' me here."
"Shouldn't have hurt him..." Vin shook as he spoke in a hoarse whisper.
"I know... I don't know what came over me."
"Always hurtin' him... he can't help bein' how he is..."
Chris frowned deeply. "How do you mean, pard?"
"Fancy... not used to work... always pickin' on him!"
"I was scared, Vin," Chris admitted honestly. "I saw the damage inflicted on him... you... I was scared."
Still huddled close to Chris, Vin mumbled, "He thought he was goin' to die. They put a sack over his head! Left him..." He sagged in Chris' arms. "I couldn't protect him, not all of the time... I tried Chris... I tried."
Larabee grasped his friend tighter when he thought of the pressure and responsibility placed on Vin's shoulders and how seriously he'd taken them on. "You did your best, cowboy. Ezra knows that... we all do..."
Chris glanced over to where Buck and Ezra were making camp; Buck doing his darndest to keep the gambler cheerful, and he wondered how Ezra had survived the terrible torments and suffering he'd been put through. Yet still the unanswered question twisted Larabee's gut, but how was he going to ask it, when both men were under such stress. How would Vin react? He'd already snapped once, and in a grand style.
If Chris probed further into their nightmares would Vin finally slip over the edge? He also had to question his own motives; but he found them easy to explain. The days and nights spent in that hellhole of a prison, just outside the town of Jericho. especially the nights, listening to the cries and screams as men turned against men in search of physical satisfaction.
Chris had been unable to help those unfortunate souls, but he'd never forget their harrowing cries. And now he worried and wondered about his companions, his blood turning to ice as he pondered over their circumstances. And God forbid; what if JD had been abused? No wonder Vin was exhausted if he'd tried to protect them from that.
Chris wouldn't rest until he knew one way or another, the true extent of their torment and injuries. "Vin...?"
"Hhmm..." The younger man sat back and saw Chris' bruised cheek and split lip,. "I, I didn't mean to hurt ya... 'm sorry..."
"You were protecting Ezra. Don't be ashamed of that... but... " Chris studied the deep, vulnerable eyes of the young man who'd come to mean so much to him. He found it difficult to form the question. "You were abused Vin. I was angry..."
Maybe it would be better to explain if he told him of his fears. "When I was in prison... things happened. Men, usually young men, like you... Ezra... JD..." He closed his eyes. "Since we got you out of the mine Vin... I know you were beaten... but was there something else happen to you?"
Vin was perplexed, which didn't help the headache that was gathering. "I think being beaten is enough..."
"You're right, it is..." Chris gathered his breath and his courage, to ask the dreaded question, when another voice intruded on the conversation.
"Ah can assure you sir, it did not happen. On more than one occasion, I... we... thought we were going to die..." Ezra said in a pained voice that sent shivers down Chris' back as he marveled at the two men's courage.
"But, we came away from it..." Ezra considered his words for a moment as he looked into Vin's confused eyes, knowing that if he said the wrong thing now, he would shatter the frail strand of balance that was holding his companion together, "In tact."
Chris nodded, accepting the Southerner's words. No one could hide a hurt like that, not even an accomplished conman like Ezra Standish.
Buck had walked over to the trio and was listening to the conversation. He knew exactly what Chris was asking, because he'd had the same concern about JD. But they'd been quelled when he'd spoken to the youngster, that first night at the mine. JD's spirit had been injured, not because of the torment bestowed on him, but having to watch his companions take beatings and suffer humiliation; some of it meant for him.
Buck hadn't thanked Vin and Ezra yet, the time wasn't right. But he would show his appreciation to them for protecting the youngster in the time honoured way, by getting them blind drunk, once everyone was safely returned to Four Corners.
"Come on boys!" He tried to sound jovial as he said, "I got coffee on the boil, nice and strong, Chris, just how you like it."
Larabee chuckled as he ruffled Vin's unruly hair. "Ever tasted Buck's coffee?"
Vin pondered for a moment. "No, don't think I have." He held out a hand so that Wilmington could haul him to his feet. "How bad is it, Buck?"
"Ah have been tarred and feathered by a weaker concoction," Ezra said as he joined in the banter, praying that their world would soon right itself. He couldn't do anymore explaining to Chris, not without awakening his nightmares once more.
Chris stood up; his clothes, like Vin's were still soaking wet from their tumble in the river, "Guess I needed a bath," he said lightly, putting an arm around Vin and leading him over to the fire. "I think I have something in my saddlebags that'll just about make this coffee taste decent."
Vin nodded. He was still quiet, still unsure. Shocked at himself for attacking Larabee so violently. "I don't know where that came from Chris..." He shrugged his thin shoulders. "Then again, I ain't rightly sure what's been happenin' here... will ya explain to me?"
"Not now Vin... I'm not ready, neither are you... we have more important things to concern ourselves with, than pondering a misunderstanding."
Vin opened his mouth to say something, then changed his mind. Chris was right, there were more important things. The tracker was just angry that everyone knew what was going on, apart from him. But, if Chris didn't explain, Ezra would, in time. He nodded to Chris, accepting his words, then smiled; a smile that lifted the others hearts.
"Let's not bother with coffee. A good slug of whisky sounds a better idea right now."
Buck pretended to be snubbed by Vin's suggestion, but he didn't really care as long as the storm had passed, "Got any cards on you, Ezra?"
The gambler shrugged as he shook his head. "At this particular moment in time, I am bereft of any such home comforts."
"Guess that means 'no'... never mind..." Buck readied the tin cups for the anticipated liquor. "Wouldn't have won anyway..."
Chris didn't like the camp unguarded at night, but by the end of the third day they were all too exhausted to care about anything but sleep. After placing more wood on the fire, he settled down close to Vin, his gun nestled close to his hand. He'd just closed his eyes when Vin shot up, pointing his own gun towards where the horses were tethered.
"Riders comin' in." He quietly warned as all four men struggled to their feet.
There was a group sigh of relief when a welcome voice called out. "Don't shoot us brothers, we're not the enemy!"
"Yup..." Two horses, one carrying two riders trotted into camp.
"Didn't expect to see ya so soon." Chris said as he walked over to the riders. Peering behind Nathan he was surprised to see JD.
"Wouldn't stay with them army fellahs... created on so!" Nathan grumbled as along with Chris he helped JD to the ground.
"Army boys? Whatcha talkin' about?"
"Day after we left, met an army patrol on their way to Willow Springs. Had a doctor with 'em... and a couple of wagons." Nathan explained. Watching Buck carefully as he carried the youngest member of the Seven over to the welcoming fire. "They offered to take care of Jacob and the others. The Lieutenant told us they'd heard about the mine; seems like Judge Travis was kickin' up a stink about it."
Josiah walked with Chris and Nathan over to where the other horses were tied. "We tried to get the boy to go back to Willow Springs and wait for us, but he wasn't listenin'."
Once they'd secured the horses for the night, the three men went back to the fire where Buck was making fresh coffee. JD had been placed on a bed roll between Vin and Ezra, who were now watching over him. Buck had seen the kid's eyes light up when he saw his two companions and knew he was doing the right thing giving JD into their care.
"Can we expect anymore help from the army?" Chris asked urgently.
"Expectin' a troop at any time, they left the fort, five days back. Should be catchin' us up, any day now." Josiah explained, agreeing with Chris that by then, Rafter would be in their sights...
"Well I'll be..." Buck said almost cheerfully as he looked down into the valley. It was too good to be true. These had to be the men they were chasing; but how come they'd caught up with them so easily? Rafter and his gang had left the mine three days before them. Of course, Rafter wasn't in a hurry, as far as he knew everyone back at the mine was dead or dying.
Without getting closer, Buck couldn't determine just how many men they were up against. Ezra had guessed that there'd been about fifteen guards, plus Rafter and Stone. Twenty guns at the most then. Buck snorted at the odds; the Seven had taken on more than that in many a fight. But, they'd all been fit then; now three of the group were hurting, though he doubted that would stop them.
Turning his horse around, Buck made his way back to the others; his news would surely bring a smile to their faces.
The other six men were continuing at a steadier pace; the three horse doubling up. JD, riding behind Nathan, spotted Buck galloping back and pointed him out.
"What's he so excited about?" Chris asked out loud when he saw the grin on Buck's face. He didn't have to wait long for an answer.
"Not more than three miles away... six wagons... small remuda... sound like Rafter and his men?"
"Sure does," Vin replied excitedly. "Come on Chris, let's get goin'." He tried to urge Chris' mount forward, but Larabee was firmly in charge of the reins.
"What's your hurry, Cowboy?" Chris asked of the man sitting behind him. "They ain't movin' that fast. Gives us time to plan things out."
"Ain't no need to plan," Vin replied angrily. "We go in there and..."
"And get ourselves killed. Vin, you're the one with the bright ideas..." Chris felt the tracker slouch back on the horse in defeat and was surprised at how easily the younger man had given in. "Buck, did you get a good look at the lay of the land?"
"Sure did, pard." Buck slid out of the saddle and hunched down on the ground, clearing away rough stones and twigs before tracing a map out on the earth. The others dismounted and knelt down beside him, listening as he explained.
"We're to the south of them. I was overlookin' a valley they've made camp in. There's cover here... a dozen or more trees... To the north there's a rocky outcrop, that's where the horses are... and there's plenty of cover at the base of the hill."
Chris studied the amateurish map for a moment. "Best time to take 'em is at daybreak. 'fore they have time to wake up." He looked to his men, who nodded in agreement. "Josiah, you and Ezra'll go and cut out our stolen horses tonight. Ezra'll bring 'em back here, to where Vin and JD'll be waitin'. Then, you stay close to the rocks until mornin'. Soon as you see the sun peepin' up, scatter the rest of the herd."
"Be my pleasure, bro'."
"I'll make my way around to those trees to the south of the wagons."
"I'll come with ya."
"No, Vin. You stay at the bottom of the hill, where the cover's the deepest. We'll make camp there. It's up to you and Ezra to watch over JD."
"I said no! You ain't fit enough... Stay where you're put."
Vin glanced at Ezra in disgust, but both men kept their peace.
"Where d'ya want me?" Buck asked, not wanting to miss out on any battle.
"You and Nathan make your way into those trees nearest the wagons... and if any of you get chance to take some of these men out, silently..." Chris' eyes focused on Nathan, the knife expert.
The black man understood; they all did. There weren't going to be many prisoners.
They made camp early, hoping to get some sleep before night fell. JD was asleep almost immediately. Buck was concerned about the boy's mental welfare, all he ever did was sleep; but Nathan said it was a normal reaction. JD was healing, and the best healer was sleep.
Vin, over hearing the conversation said that JD's condition wouldn't improve until he saw Rafter and Stone, dead.
"Is that how you feel, Vin?"
The tracker wrapped his arms around his waist as he stared across the wild country. "Yeah... while they're still livin', I'm dead inside..." The look he gave Buck was so cold and savage, it shook the older man.
He'd never seen this side of the tracker, didn't even know it existed. But, then it perhaps never had until Rafter had gotten hold of him. Vin's true nature rose to the surface a few seconds later when he knelt down next to JD and spoke softly to his sleeping friend.
"You'll soon be well, kid. Nightmare's nearly over."
After he'd gone, Buck glanced at Nathan. "Hope Chris can control him."
"Just what I was thinkin'," Nathan replied. "And God help Rafter, if Vin finds him first."
The nearer they got to Rafter, the more troubled Ezra felt, yet he couldn't fathom out why. Like Vin, he wanted to exact retribution on the evil man. He wasn't concerned about retrieving his horse or possessions, as long as he saw Rafter, and Stone, die. After that he could get on with his life. everything would return to normal; or would it?
As darkness fell, they moved in closer to the wagons. Josiah, with Ezra riding with him, moved northward, taking a large arc around the horses not wanting to spook them too early. They tethered Josiah's horse up behind one of the rocks then walked quietly towards the animals, speaking nonsense to them.
Ezra easily picked out his own and JD's horse and after roping them, they followed passively as he returned to the cover of the rocks. Josiah had a little more trouble with Vin's horse. The white faced black was a highly strung creature that only responded to the tracker's quiet nature. It shifted aimlessly amongst the herd, while Josiah followed doggedly by its side, speaking to it at all times. Eventually, it stood long enough for him to carefully reach out and pat its neck.
"Whoa boy, it's only preacher man... come to take you back to Vin..." Keeping close contact with the horse, he fashioned out a halter from the rope and slipped it over the animal's head. "He's really missin' you.."
He led the animal back to where Ezra stood with the others. Then he hoisted the southerner onto his own horse, "Don't fall off, this time." He joked.
"Ah'll try not to..." Ezra took hold of the ropes from the other two horses, then trotted off into the night, back towards Vin and JD.
Making sure his own horse was securely tethered, Josiah crept stealthily back to the herd; he'd seen two men on night watch over the horses. If he was careful he could take one of them out, then take the guard's position, ready for scattering the animals.
Chris was in place, hidden by the trees. There was too much open ground between him and the wagons to make any furtive attacks on it during the night. He'd have to stay put until the battle began.
Nathan quickly dispersed of two guards who walked too close to where he and Buck were hidden. He'd tried to take them alive, hoping to plead for their lives once Chris and the others had calmed down; but they'd no intention of being taken back to stand trial, knowing they'd end up swinging from a rope. The fight was short and silent and the rest of Rafter's men never missed their comrades. Buck had no qualms about killing their foe. These men had dared to harm JD and the others, for that they would pay dearly.
Vin turned sharply when he heard hooves coming towards him. The gun in his hand ready for firing. "Dammit Ezra! I nearly shot ya! All that noise; ya'd never make a Comanche..." Vin grinned.
"Ah never aspired to be one."
Vin held out his hand and passed Ezra a few extra bullets. "Not many. Chris said we had enough to protect ourselves."
"Ah get the feeling he doesn't trust us."
"Ain't right. It's our fight too."
"They may, in the fullness of time require our assistance."
Vin grinned impishly, "No truer words spoken." He settled back next to JD, Ezra joining them.
As the sun glimpsed over the horizon, Josiah made his move. He'd managed during the night to successfully dispose of both guards, now it was time to scatter the herd. Pulling out his gun, he galloped into the nervous creatures shooting high above their heads. Soon they were scattering in all directions and the preacher moved in towards the wagon train.
The disturbance woke Rafter and the others up and they scrambled from their bed rolls, guns firing anywhere until Stone bellowed for them to find cover. But the order was too late for most of the gunmen; Chris, Nathan and Buck had picked them off quite easily. During the confusion, Rafter gathered Stone and Charlie and ordered them to stash as much of the precious ore as they could into saddlebags, then they made their way southwards, their only avenue of escape.
Vin and Ezra were itching to join in with the fight and it wasn't the fear of being chastised by Chris that stopped them, only their loyalty to JD; they could not leave him alone. As the gunfire dwindled to the occasional salvo, Vin moved forward to see exactly what was happening , though he had little doubt who the victors would be.
A few minutes later he returned to Ezra, an evil glint in his eyes. "We got visitors comin' this way."
"Acquaintances of ours?" Ezra understood the tingle of excitement on his friend's animated face.
"That's a polite way of puttin' it." Vin glanced down at JD. The youngest member of the group seemed lost in his own world. He glanced at Ezra.
The gambler made things simpler for him. "You go, Mr. Tanner. Ah'll move our young friend to a safer place."
"Thanks." Vin disappeared back into the undergrowth. He had a date with destiny.
Chris glanced around the carnage. Only five of Rafter's men had survived. The two that Josiah had taken out and three who'd sensibly surrendered. Nathan had been nicked in the arm by a stray bullet, but otherwise they were all well. But as they checked over the bodies, they realized that none of them matched the description of either Rafter or Stone. Had the two men escaped? There was only one direction that had been free from attack. South, to where... Chris and Buck were already sprinting in that direction when the first gunshots were heard.
"Let's see if we can circle around. The horses shouldn't have gone far."
Vin's heart skipped when he heard the voice... that voice!
"Ain't luggin' no saddlebags... we'll hide 'em in these bushes, come back for 'em later."
Stone and Rafter! They were both with striking distance of the young man. Somehow they'd managed to escape the gunfight. He smiled grimly as he prepared the gun for firing. He preferred his own carbine; the mare's leg, but this would kill. Crouching down he crept stealthily forward, nearing his prey.
"Hurry up and hide 'em then!" Rafter grumbled. He didn't know who'd attacked them, only that they were good and he didn't want to confront them again. While the two men pulled away the bushes to hide their treasure, he searched for a better avenue of escape through the trees. Suddenly there was a figure standing before him.
"You! You're supposed to be dead!"
"Maybe I am," was the cold reply.
Rafter pointed his gun at the figure and fired but he was too late, the figure had disappeared back into the trees.
"Who ya shootin' at?" Stone asked as he and Charlie joined him.
"The kid from the mine... the one with long hair and cold blue eyes..."
Stone scanned the area, he couldn't see or hear anyone. "He's dead. And even if he weren't he couldn't've caught up with us."
"He spoke..." Rafter was beginning to doubt himself. "Let's go."
The other two men didn't need any prompting. They ran past Rafter, making their own path as they went. As he followed them through the trees, he kept turning to look behind, certain he was being followed. Not watching where he was going, Rafter fell over an exposed root; when he finally got to his feet, Stone and Charlie were gone and he realized he was alone. Searching wildly around, he stopped dead when Vin stepped out in front of him again. Rafter raised his gun, this time it was effortlessly knocked from his hand.
"All alone now, Mr. Rafter... no gunmen... no slaves..."
"I don't need them!" Rafter launched himself at the younger man, but Vin side stepped him.
"Took some of them folk a long time to die."
"Why are you bothered? There's silver back there. It's yours... just let me go." Rafter wasn't sure how to face the young man and he was regretting not having him killed when he had the chance. "You won't get any pleasure from killin' me."
"Not pleasure..." Vin smiled crookedly as he readied his gun, "Just satisfaction."
The gun went off and Rafter fell to the ground, clutching at the bullet wound in his chest.
"And justice..." Vin continued as two more bullets pumped into the dying man, "I hope you rot in hell." Vin clicked the gun again and again until the chamber was empty.
The young tracker spun around to face Larabee.
"Where's JD?" Buck yelled at him.
"Back there, with Ezra..."
Suddenly more gunfire was heard.
"God Dammit!" Buck hurled himself towards the sound of the shooting.
Chris was caught between staying with Vin, who was staring in horrid fascination at the dead man, or chasing after Buck.
"Go..." Vin barely whispered the order.
Nodding in agreement, Chris hurried after Wilmington. What were they going to find?
Ezra wondered at the silence. It had been five minutes since the last gunshot had been heard and Vin still hadn't returned. Then he heard someone stumbling through the undergrowth; realizing too late that this wasn't the tracker returning. Vin was a stealthy as a cat. There was a slight hesitation as Stone's eyes met Ezra's, then Stone turned to his companion.
"Well I'll be, Rafter was right, they did escape... but why follow us, Fancy Pants?"
"Mah name is Ezra Standish and Ah followed you to kill you, sir." Ezra slowly raised his gun, but he couldn't stop his shaking hands. Coming face to face with Stone was twisting his guts inside out, but he had to protect JD who was thankfully hidden behind some rocks.
Stone and Charlie laughed at him, mocking his southern accent.
"And Ah, suh, am goin' to spill your guts!" Stone sneered as he pointed to Ezra's gun hand, "Look at him Charlie, cain't even keep his gun straight."
"Wonder if the kid survived?" Charlie asked aloud. If the other two were here, where was the boy? He couldn't see them leaving him behind, unless he was dead. Then he saw Ezra glance nervously behind him. He grinned. "Kid over there, behind them rocks? Hey Stone, we're goin' to have some fun." He moved assuredly over to where JD was hidden.
Stone had other ideas, "Let's just kill 'em and get outta here. Pretty boy must be around here somewhere.." He'd noticed that Rafter had not been seen since the shots were heard a short while before.
"Shame, but you're right. " As he passed Ezra, Charlie shoved him to one side, never considering him a threat. "Where is the brat..."
"You do not touch him." Ezra's fear was pushed aside as easily as he had just been. He charged at Charlie, forgetting that Stone was watching, and they tumbled to the ground.
It was then they both realized Ezra's strength was minimal. Stone moved closer, aiming to blow Ezra's head off, but as he neared the two men a muffled gunshot was heard and Charlie slumped forward, dead. Effectively pinning the gambler to the ground.
"Looks like I get to keep all the silver for myself," Stone smiled. "Thanks a lot, Fancy Pants..." He cocked his gun and took aim, enjoying the look of terror in Ezra's green eyes; then the smile disappeared as another gun was fired and a bullet hit him firmly between the eyes.
Ezra turned his head as best he could to thank his saviour. "JD... JD, son..."
JD wasn't listening; he dropped his gun to the floor then shuffled over to Stone's body, knelt next to him and began to smash his fists against the dead man's chest, yelling, "Damn you to hell! Damn you... Damn you..." Tears streamed down his face as he screamed.
When a shadow loomed above Ezra he panicked, before releasing his breath when he realized it was Chris Larabee. Ezra struggled to free himself from the dead weight that was once his tormentor. He couldn't find the words to ask Chris for help but thankfully, as he started to shove the body away the gunslinger crouched down and rolled Charlie over. As soon as his chest was unrestricted Ezra was up on his elbows kicking his legs free, gasping in horror at the grisly sight before him. Shot at point blank, Charlie's chest was blown open and Ezra was covered in his blood.
"Take it easy," Chris soothed him, the calmness in his voice in stark contrast to JD's shrill curses behind him. He placed his hand on Ezra's shoulders, trying to stop him from standing. "Are you hit?"
"No," Ezra panted. "Not hit... just winded.." He tore open his bloody shirt and dragged it off, wiping the blood from his flesh with what was left of the white linen. The muscles in his shoulders trembled in revulsion as he cleaned himself. As Chris straightened and looked down at Ezra's tortured back, the southerner spoke his thoughts exactly.
"Will this nightmare ever end?" Ezra's voice was weary; he wiped his hands on the ruined shirt then threw the bloodied garment at Charlie.
Chris didn't answer; he stepped back from the gambler and moved towards the horses. "Stay there, I'll find you somethin' to wear."
Ezra bowed his head, he wasn't goin anywhere, he felt too damned weak to move!
Buck had managed to stop JD from pummeling Stone's body with his fists and now, with his fingers around JD's wrists he pulled the youngster to his feet and led him back to where Vin and Ezra had previously made camp. Settling JD down on the only blanket he turned to Chris who was rifling through the saddlebags.
"What'cha lookin' fer Chris?" He asked, as he sat down next to the youngster.
"A blanket or somethin'. " Chris threw down the contents of the bags in disgust then grabbed a canteen and a handful of bandages.
"Ezra hurt bad?" Buck asked, getting JD's attention.
"Oh no... he's not is he? He can't be..."
"No, he's not kid. The big guy bled all over him." Chris couldn't keep the irritation out of his voice.
Buck hushed JD, wrapping an arm around his shoulders, "Why don't you get him back here. I'll sit with him and JD; you go get Vin."
Chris nodded, already on his way back to Ezra.
Ezra didn't want to sit looking at Charlie for a moment longer. With a gasp of pain he got steadily to his feet and limped over to where Stone lay, touching the dead man's shoulder with the tip of his boot. Stone's head rolled over to one side and Ezra could see himself reflected in the lifeless eyes. Wrapping his arms around his middle, he doubled up, moaning softly. It took all his strength to stop himself from screaming.
Chris saw the stooped figure and hesitated. Ezra straightened as he heard the other man and turned, fully expecting to find Rafter at his back. Chris saw the quickly veiled fear and continued towards him, uncapping the canteen and pouring water on the pad of bandages.
"Get yourself cleaned up." He offered the cloth to the southerner.
Ezra unwrapped one arm from around his middle and took the offered bundle, tugging the cloth over his red stained ribs and hands. As he worked, Chris shrugged off his long black duster and laid it across his arm, watching the undergrowth and straining to hear Vin or the others. Ezra quickly finished the task and was about to drop the soiled bandages when Chris took them from him. Holding the southerner's shoulder, he washed a bloody fingerprint from Ezra's jaw. Embarrassed, Ezra held his tongue, his eyes fixed firmly onto the trees beyond the gunslinger.
Chris stepped back and held out his coat. "This will have to do until it's safe to check the wagons." He shifted restlessly as Ezra pulled on the coat, then taking his upper arm, led him back towards Buck and JD. Though Ezra stumbled along the path, each time hissing with pain, Chris didn't allow him to steady up. Only when Buck and JD came into sight did Chris stop.
JD scrambled to his feet and ran to join them, stopping inches away from Ezra's face. Chris looked down at their youngest member, his heart twisting in pain as he watched the tears fall. Without saying a word, Ezra reached up and wrapped an arm around JD's neck, drawing him to his chest. When JD's muffled sobs reached his ears, Chris moved away up the path to where Buck stood.
"I'll be back at the wagons with Vin and the others," He told Buck. " We'll come to you."
Buck nodded, his eyes never leaving JD. Chris turned and found himself being studied by the gambler who held JD so tenderly. Their eyes met for a fleeting moment. Chris' breath hissed through his teeth. Green eyes, filled with loathing, fell away to look at the ground. Chris knew he had to deal with Ezra's anger sooner rather than later. He glanced across at his old friend. Buck had seen the exchange and was wondering what it was about.
"Don't ask," Chris whispered, striding back down the path. He touched JD's shoulder on the way past and was surprised to hear Ezra's southern lilt as he whispered,
"Tell Vin that Stone is dead. JD killed him."
Chris nodded, then continued on his way.
Vin sat on a rock, facing Rafter's body. No trace of emotion was showing on the young man's face, but inside he was alternating between calm and storm. It was over... finally over, yet he didn't feel any satisfaction. Killing Rafter hadn't brought Lily or any of the others back. Nothing ever would. If only...
Chris had warned him not to go there, but it was difficult not to. Maybe, if they'd done things differently, everyone could have been saved; he'd never know. It was something he'd have to live with. He'd have to live with, not Rafter
Vin glanced up when Chris came back into view. "How?... Ezra and JD... they alive?"
Chris nodded grimly, "Yeah... Ezra said to tell you that Stone's dead. JD killed him, now he can't stop crying. Ezra's fine... he shot another feller." Chris startled Vin when he grabbed hold of his shoulders and began to shake him. "I told you to stay together! What you doin' out here alone?"
"I came to see how you were doin'." Vin flinched away from Chris' rough treatment. "I surprised Rafter."
"And let the others get to Ezra and the kid..." Chris could see his words were hurting as they connected. He was angry and afraid. He'd thought he'd left the three men in the safest place, yet he'd ended up forcing his enemies in their direction. Releasing Vin's shoulders he turned to look down at the body. "Rafter? Feel any better now that he's dead?"
Vin shook his head. "Thought I would... but killin' him don't make things right."
"Least he can't hurt anyone else." Chris pulled Vin to his feet. "Nathan and Josiah will be wonderin' about you.."
"What about JD?"
"Buck's there to take care of him and Ezra. Let's give 'em some time..." He placed an arm around Vin's shoulder and led him back towards the wagons.
"Guess ya won?"
"Guess we did."
Buck watched Chris go then turned his attention back to his two charges. Ezra rocked on the balls of his feet almost pitching the two men over. JD was still weeping into the black coat Ezra was wearing and although the gambler's composure held, he was ashen with shock and very, very weak. Buck hastened towards them and wrapping his arms around JD drew the boy towards him.
"Come on kid, let's get Ezra back into camp. He needs to rest." He drew his hand over JD's brow, brushing the hair back from his face. JD gazed up at him, tears glistening on his thick lashes. He nodded, then let Buck turn him towards camp. Placing his hand on JD's shoulder, Buck took hold of Ezra's arm and dragged the silent gambler after them.
Buck eased Ezra down onto the only blanket. "Better sit down 'fore ya fall down," He said, turning back to the now sullen JD. "Let's get a fire goin'. Ezra here is mighty chilled." He strode off into the trees.
JD tagged onto the older man, accepting the kindling he gathered, without complaint. Moving in mechanical steps as his mind raced over recent events. Tears began to fall once more and he found himself stumbling into Buck's back, unable to suppress a sob as Buck turned to face him.
"Aw hell, kid." Buck moaned, gently cupping the youngster's jaw and stroking the back of his neck. "It's over now, ya gotta let it go."
"Can't Buck," JD sobbed, trying to turn away so the older man couldn't see his grief. Buck pulled JD towards him, crushing the kindling between them.
"All right then. " He rubbed JD's back as he spoke, "This is what we're gonna do." He glanced over at Ezra, swathed in the black coat. "We're gonna get this here fire goin' and then ya gonna tell me what's botherin' ya so."
JD sniffed and looked up, allowing Buck to gently stroke his hair. "You don't mind?"
Buck smiled down at the youngster, "I'm yer friend JD, you can always talk to a friend." As he steered back towards the camp, the now crushed kindling fell to the floor. He knelt down and gathered it, passing it back to JD; his eyes filled with concern for the youngster.
Ezra watched their exchange with growing despair. JD was about to receive absolution from the most unlikely of characters and he, Ezra, would have to sit through it.
'God give me strength!' He thought scornfully as the two men approached. He shuddered involuntary, 'Who's goin' to listen to your fears, Standish? Who's going to offer you a shoulder to cry on? No-one.' He answered his own question 'because no-one cares,' he finished, curling further into the coat. He didn't know why he suddenly felt so sorry for himself, couldn't explain it but couldn't deny it either. He stared hard at the ground as Buck took the bundle of kindling from JD's hands and put it on the ground.
"Sit yerself down, and I'll get the fire started." Buck helped JD onto Ezra's blanket then placed a hand on Ezra's head. "You all right, Ezra? You're mighty quiet." He leaned down to try and see the gambler's face.
Ezra pulled away from Buck's touch, still uneasy after the treatment in the mine. "Ah'm fine," he mumbled. "Just tired."
Buck wasn't convinced, his eyes scrutinized the southerner, but Ezra wouldn't meet his gaze. Eventually the gunslinger turned back to fire.
Ezra stole a look at the youngster. JD was rocking himself, to and fro, his face twisted with a misery he was struggling to contain. Almost losing what little composure he had left, Ezra eased himself down onto his side and curled up, covering his face with the collar of Chris' coat. He felt a depression creep over him, covering him like a shroud. Bit by bit, he cut out the two men at his side and slipped into a dark, dreamless sleep.
Buck soon had the fire going and he banked it up well so that its heat would reach the sleeping gambler. He wanted to check on Ezra but didn't want to risk waking him. Taking a quick look at JD, he went over to the saddlebags and found the coffee beans, then he set a pot of water to boil. Happy he'd done all that he could, Buck sat down by JD's side and leaning towards him, whispered to the boy, "You wanna talk some now?"
JD shifted uneasily, his face sullen. "I ain't good at talkin' about things," he said dully, staring at Buck as the older man sighed indulgently. "You're not takin' this serious!" JD cried, jumping as Buck hushed him, nodding towards Ezra. Duly chastised, JD lowered his head and stared at his hands. Buck covered them with one of his own.
"Never said it would be easy," he told the boy, his tone gentle. Seeing the haunted look, Buck reached out and cupped JD's neck, drawing him nearer. "Come here kid, let me hold ya some."
JD shuffled closer until he was resting in Buck's arms, against the older man's shoulder. His need for comfort warred with his pride and won, but he felt he had to say something to support his reputation. "Won't help none," he mumbled into Buck's collar, unable to halt the tears.
"Maybe not, but it'll sure make me feel better," Buck replied, stroking the young man's back as JD wept softly against his neck.
Buck cradled his friend through the worst of his anguish then, when the sobs eased he drew him back and wiped away the tears with his fingertips. "So what is botherin' ya JD?" he asked, keeping the kid within the circle of his arms. He glanced down at the pale features when JD didn't answer and whispered softly, "I could help ya more if ya could tell me how yer feelin'."
JD laid his head against Buck's shoulder once more and stared into the fire. With a faltering voice he began to unburden himself to his friend. "I'm scared," he admitted for the first time, shivering despite the warmth.
"That's all right. It's natural," Buck said knowingly.
JD shook his head. "Right from the start I got it all wrong. Got caught waitin' for Vin and Ezra, got Vin nearly half drowned for shootin' my mouth off. " He clutched Buck's shirt as another sob tore from his throat.
Buck hushed him, rocking him gently.
"Ezra tried to get me some water," he wept, relating the gambler's ordeal to Buck. "They put a bag over his head and hung him from a post!" The sobs grew in intensity and Buck found himself grasping the youngster as he cried out his frustration. "They suffered for helping me, but I couldn't help them. I'm so stupid ."
"Hey." Buck leaned closer to JD's face, shaking him gently. "No yer not. Ya ain't stupid."
JD glanced up at him, tears running unchecked into his unruly beard..
"Look JD," the older man said, his hands rubbing the youngster's shoulders. "Ain't nothin' in life gonna prepare ya for somethin' like that. Ask Vin. He'll tell ya. Yer just gotta grit yer teeth and hang on. " He smiled sadly down at the youth. "An' wait for help, cos we were comin' for ya."
"That's what I'm tellin' you Buck! I didn't do any of those things. I just kept gettin' into trouble!"
"Hush now," Buck soothed, seeing JD was getting worked up again. He looked across at Ezra who was stirring. The gambler turned away from the fire and curled up once more, never waking.
JD followed his gaze then leaned back into Buck's arms, letting the older man hold him. "What about Ezra?" he asked. "What would he say if I asked him?"
Buck wrapped his arms around JD's middle. "Oh, it would be somethin' on the lines of..." He chuckled as he fought to mimic Ezra's southern accent. "Ah wager you whan silver dowlah that Mr. Wilmington hais the first mahn to reach urz." He looked down as the younger man's body shook under his hands. JD was laughing softly, wiping his eyes with the back of his hands.
"Hell Buck, that was awful!" He giggled, laying his head against Buck's chest.
"Well at least it gotcha smilin'," Buck whispered, helping JD get comfortable.
The tension drained from the young man and in its place came a warmth that he couldn't resist. Listening to Buck's steady heartbeat, he drifted off to sleep, ready to put his ordeal behind him.
As the morning progressed, four of the seven men rounded up the stray horses and gathered together the dead bodies, getting their prisoners to dig the graves. Nathan, Ezra and JD watching over them. Then Vin and Ezra went in search of their weapons, saddles and other possessions, searching through the personal effects of the slaves with great reverence.
The wagons and horses would be returned to Willow Springs where the soldiers had taken the survivors from the mine. Hopefully, names would be put to all of those who'd died, then maybe they could be put to rest with some dignity. Perhaps somehow the silver could be split up between those who'd worked so hard and lost so much, to obtain it.
Once Ezra had gathered together his effects, he wandered over to his horse and began to give the animal a good groom. Vin noticed that while JD became more animated during the day, the gambler became more subdued.
Chris discussed their next move with Josiah and Buck. "I'd like to be gettin' back to Four Corners as soon as possible."
"Won't take too long, once we've called in at Willow Springs," Buck replied with his usual optimism. The morning's battle had been like an catharsis for him. The brooding feeling he'd lived with for weeks had now dissipated.