by The Buffalo Gals (Sue Diver & Colleen Newton)
Chris had woken early and hastily dressed. He didn't want to cause any embarrassment to Mary, especially after the kindness she'd shown him. In any case he wasn't sure just how to thank her for her hospitality. He slipped away as the morning light was reaching Four Corners and went over to the church where he guessed Josiah would be sleeping. The preacher was there, but not asleep.
"Mornin'. " Josiah greeted him without turning from his work.
Chris watched as the older man carefully lit seven candles and placed them on the altar. Never a religious man, Chris didn't truly understand the ritual but remained in respectful silence as Josiah said a few, quiet words in prayer.
When Josiah turned to face Chris, he could see the question on the blond's face, "I light a candle for each of our souls," he explained, sitting on the seat closest to Chris. "And remind God of our plight." He waited, his patience ceaseless. Before him, Chris was a haunting picture, his almost gaunt form was a fitting host for the torment in his eyes.
Josiah motioned Chris to the altar. "Try it for yourself."
Chris shook his head, "I don't think God would hear me. " He tried to turn away but found himself caught by the candlelight, fixed in position.
Josiah sighed and smiled fondly at the man, "You don't have to speak to God, my friend." He stood up and reached out for an unlit candle, placing it in Chris' hand. "Lighting it will suffice."
Chris studied the candle in his fingers, then up at the preacher. He wanted to put a candle on the altar and light it for Vin. With Josiah by his side, he stepped forward and placed the candle's wick against a flame.
The candle caught and the flame burnt brighter it illuminated Chris face; worry mingled with wonder as he placed it with the others.
'See his face, Oh Lord. Recognise his pain and help him. No man deserves to suffer as he does. May he find peace.' Josiah prayed silently, nodding his approval to his friend as Chris turned away from the candlelight.
He followed Chris to the doorway; "You came to ask me somethin?" He guessed.
Chris stopped, surprised at himself for accepting the earlier diversion, "Yeah." he almost whispered, taking a moment before continuing, "I'm riding out again to have a second try at finding out where Vin's horse went lame. There's a chance he was thrown and could be lying out there, injured." He looked up at the preacher, "Would you ride with me?"
"Aint no tracker," Josiah warned, "But I'll gladly come along."
Chris nodded, "Good." He opened the door and gazed out onto the still deserted street, "Then I'll saddle the horses up. Could you let Nathan know where we're goin'?"
Josiah nodded knowingly; "I'll tell him to inform Buck as well."
+ + + + + + +
Josiah's heart fell when he watched Chris crouch down before Vin's abandoned campfire and cover his face with his hands.
They'd discovered the site quite easily. Vin had been on the main trail into town when his horse had gone lame. They'd found where the horse had stumbled and followed the animal's tracks to the camp. It raised the question that if Vin had carried on back to town, albeit slowly with the injured animal he might have made it back safely.
Chris and Josiah had circled the campsite and found the tracks of at least four other horses. There were signs that Vin had been taken unwillingly from the place.
Josiah tethered the horses away from the glade then crossed over to where Chris crouched and hunkered down beside him.
Chris uncovered his face, his eyes dark, his expression hopeless. "I was afraid of this," he whispered, staring into the cold ashes.
Josiah's voice was steady and calm, "Maybe we were wrong; maybe he has been taken by bounty hunters."
Chris rubbed a hand over his face. "I don't think so." He lifted Vin's abandoned canteen, turning over and over in his hands, "Got this feelin' Josiah ... can't explain it. Sounds dumb, huh?"
"No my friend, it does not." Josiah stood as his knees began to complain, "You care about Vin. It ain't a weakness, you know."
Chris looked briefly at Josiah, his expressive eyes filled with despair. His next sentence cost him dearly, "After I lost Sarah and Adam I didn't want to care anymore." He moaned low in his throat, before turning away.
Josiah closed his eyes; Chris' pain was tearing him apart. "You were afraid that to lose someone else, as you had your family, would destroy you."
"It did destroy me!" Chris snapped, "I can't go back to being the man I was."
Josiah nodded, ignoring Chris' sudden anger and reluctance to be understood, "No one can ever go back my friend. But your journey brought you to Four Corners, and with us, with Vin, you've found something that fills a void. You've found somewhere to belong," he said sagely, smiling sadly at Chris.
They wandered over to the outcrop of rocks and sat down.
"Sometimes I just want to saddle up my horse and leave."
Josiah shrugged, "Sometimes I feel that way myself."
"What makes you stay?" Chris stood and blew the ashes off his fingers, hoping that Vin wouldn't end up like them; blown to the wind; forgotten
"Signs ...duty ... friendship, what about you?"
"I take one day at a time. There's too many holes in me to start talking about duty and friendship."
"Yet we still follow you. Doesn't that say something to you?"
"Perhaps that's why you stay," Chris replied with enlightenment." I envy you, Josiah. You know who you are."
"Like I said, I'm not whole anymore. Too much of me is lost."
"Not lost, just hiding."
"Lost, hidden. What's the difference?"
"A lost soul cannot always be found. But hidden, that means you want to be found. Believe me, I'm a priest."
"Maybe you're right. I need to be whole again especially if I'm to find Vin."
Josiah placed a hand on Chris' shoulder. "You're feeling the burden of bein strong for us. I know this, because I feel it too." When Chris frowned, he explained, "You may be the leader of this group, but as the preacher, I'm responsible for their lost souls. Six anyway, I'm not sure Buck is lost, just playing hide and seek," he quipped, bringing out a brief smile to Chris' sombre face.
"What do we do now?" Chris asked simply.
"This flock has lost a lamb. One that is dear to us both." Josiah stood, wiped his brow, then placed his hat back on his head, "We keep searching." He glanced around the campsite, "We know that Vin didn't die here, so we have to assume that he was wanted alive."
Realizing now the genuine reason why he'd asked Josiah to accompany him on the journey, Chris thanked the preacher for his words of wisdom.
Josiah cocked his head to one side, as they walked back to the horses, "My faith is not absolute. Perhaps that's why the Lord continues to visit his lessons upon me."
"As long as you pass those lessons onto us," Chris replied, hauling himself into the saddle, "Come on let's see if we can follow Vin's horse's trail. They can't have left it here, otherwise it would have made its way back to town, not Nettie's."
"Good thinkin'." Josiah kicked his own horse forward. There was a few hours of daylight left, then they'd have to make their way back home as the other members of the group would be looking for them.
But as the hours passed, the trail faded, as did their one tangent lead to Vin.
+ + + + + + +
JD lay as still as the dead under the thick eiderdown. The pallor of his skin caused Nathan grave concern. He pressed a mixture of herbs into the shoulder wound, then redressed it, his gaze slipping to the man sitting by JD's bedside.
"Yknow Buck, JD could use some space to breathe," he held Buck's grim stare, knowing that should the kid die he would take a piece of the big man with him.
"I ain't never known him so quiet," Buck said solemnly, his fingers running stray tendrils of fringe from the sleeping man's face.
Nathan pulled the eiderdown high over the injured shoulder, allowing Buck to play with its edges, tucking it around his charge. "He's lost a lot of blood," he informed Wilmington, "But he's young. And all the time he sleeps quiet like, he's healing."
Buck nodded in agreement.
Nathan gathered up the soiled dressing and made to leave. "Now Ezra; he's another matter," He noticed Buck stiffen at the mention of Ezra's name and glance over at the unconscious gambler. Nathan knew his friend would not care to be reminded of his hasty words, spoken two nights before, "He's hot with fever and delirious." Shaking his head, Nathan left Buck staring sightlessly through the window over JDs bed.
+ + + + + + +
Later in the day, Buck was woken by a strangled cry, followed by Ezra's southern drawl at an almost hysterical pitch, "Stop right there mister! One move and Ah'll blow your head clean off your shoulders!
For a moment Buck stayed still, then he turned to see Chris Larabee being held at gunpoint by the delirious gambler.
JD moaned softly, more a result of Buck's sudden movement than the noise itself but soon soothed under Wilmingtons nurturing touch.
"Move again and you're a dead man. Ah don't play this kinda game too well."
"I ain't no threat to you, Ezra," Chris' voice was low; dangerous yet calm.
Chris swallowed hard as he stared down at the wavering gun barrel. Ezra looked like hell itself. His normally clean shaven face, thick with a three day stubble and his red rimmed eyes the only colour on his drawn features. Even raging with fever, Ezra would make a clean shot, and Chris didn't want to shoot him first, but he couldn't afford to have another man go down. He knew Ezra wasn't seeing him; the fever gripped him tightly. His only attempt to reason with the sick man had seen Ezra shoot a hole in the sleeve of his outstretched arm. Chris wished Vin were at his side, the other man would know how to handle this situation.
"What are you doing here?" Ezra spat, almost pitching onto his face as he thrust the gun forward.
"I came to look in on you," Chris answered flatly, noticing the tremor running through Ezra's half naked form.
Buck got quietly to his feet and stepped towards the ailing southerner.
The injured man wiped the sweat from his sore eyes. "Not so fast, " he growled, staggering backwards until he had the wall at his back. The breath heaved in his chest and he almost buckled under the effort of holding himself upright, but the gun never wavered as it continued to cover Chris and Buck, swinging back and forth between them.
"Ezra, it's me, Buck. The fever got yall confused. We ain't here to hurt ya," Buck took another step towards the shivering man, only to have his hat shot off his head.
"Stay where you are!" Chris yelled at his friend; he didn't want Buck injured either.
The words of warning were ignored and shaking his head, Buck took another step towards the gambler, "You're sick," he implored Ezra, "Give it up son, you gotta rest."
"Buck?" Ezra's mind reeled as memories of the ambush blasted into his head with a numbing pain. JD falling, his blood spilled on the ground where he lay. "No!" He cried, almost dropping the gun as convulsions gripped his weak body.
Both Chris and Buck leaped forward, brought up short by the quickly raised gun.
Ezra gasped through the pain. "Don't you see," he cried to both men, "We were set up .... Ah never meant for JD to die."
"He ain't dead Ezra," Buck shouted to him, "He's goin' to be fine. You saved him."
Ezra wasn't listening as his eyes searched the ceiling for answers, yet his gun was still aimed firmly at Buck's chest.
"They let us go. How else could Ah get JD back here?" His eyes rounded at the revelation, " He was on the ground ... the shooting stopped .. Ah was able to put him back in the saddle. That's when they shot me!"
"What the hell you talkin' about?" Buck shouted, lurching towards the distressed man.
"Stop!" Ezra pointed the gun at Buck's head.
Chris grabbed hold of his friend and pulled him back, watching in horror as Ezra turned the gun on himself, letting the muzzle of it rest under his chin. The gamblers voice was suddenly cold and calm, "Ah don't believe in good-byes," he said, and closing his eyes, he prepared to die.
Buck was upon him in an instant, wrestling the gun from its resting place. The shot blasted into the ceiling making them all flinch, then Ezra slumped into Buck's arms, his fevered strength exhausted.
The big guy held onto him, rocking him gently, "Ezra, you dumb ass," he groaned, "Whatever I said to you out there, I never meant for you to do this."
Chris reached down and squeezed Buck's shoulders, "Let's get him back to bed."
Together, they lowered the half dazed man back onto the mattress and covered him over. Chris motioned Buck to tie the sick man's wrists to the sides of the bed, to prevent a re-occurrence of what had just happened. He then leaned down to speak to the young man, "Rest easy Ezra, we're goin' to find the people who did this to you and JD, and we're goin' to make them pay." He doubted the words were getting through to his injured comrade but he felt stronger for uttering them.
+ + + + + + +
Vin watched in horror as the whip lunged towards him, slicing into his stomach.
Not content with flaying the skin off his back, the woman had ordered her men to hoist the injured Texan from a beam. She now enjoyed herself as she concentrated on scarring his chest and belly; deliberately allowing the leather to catch his pants covered groin and thighs.
Vin tried to think of other things in a vain attempt to block out the pain. He focused on the few good memories he had, but with each agonising sting, the memories faded, replaced by the horror of what his life had become.
Fevered sweat poured off him, mingling with the blood that threaded down his torso, to be soaked into his torn, stained pants. Then the final humiliation for him as his control disintegrated and he urinated into his filthy clothing.
The woman laughed harshly when she threw the whip to Cassidy, and ordered him to wash the blood from it.
"Oh, how the mighty have fallen. What would Larabee and the others say if they could see you now? Oh, but of course, he is busy at the moment ... doesn't have time to search for you."
Vin squinted at her, blinded by the salty sweat that trickled into his eyes. He was only half listening. Pain consumed his every thought.
She wandered over to him, admiring her handiwork. Her gloved hand meandered down his chest, following a bloody trail, stopping only when she met his belt buckle.
"It could have been so different," she whispered softly, for a moment showing regret at her actions, before continuing, "I wonder how JD and Ezra are faring?"
"Wh...?" Vin strained against his bonds, "wh 've you done.." It was difficult for him to speak; his mouth was swollen and parched. He'd been denied water as punishment for attacking, albeit feebly, Eli when he'd come to feed him.
"Me? I've done nothing. But my very able associates have, isn't that right, Cassidy?"
"Sure have.... it was fun, seeing the boy go down and that fancy dressed fellah try and protect him."
"No!" Not JD! The kid had got involved in their fight against Colonel Anderson, and against Chris' better judgement, been allowed to stay with the group, instead of being sent on his way. They should have explained that there was no romance or glory in their lives. Yet somehow he'd become an integral, if slightly irritating member of the cadre; one they all loved and protected.
And what of Ezra; the gambler who was in danger of becoming a reluctant hero. A man they'd all doubted at first, but who was beginning to show his true worth.
Were they dead? Or worse; suffering the same fate as him?
The woman smiled as she saw the questions reflected in Vin's sad, anguished eyes.
"They're not dead, just suffering for the moment. Poor Chris Larabee; he doesn't know where to turn next. His private army is dwindling, thwarted by an unknown, unseen, enemy." Pleased with the effect her news had had on her prisoner, she turned and walked over to Cassidy, "I think it's time for the next chapter of this story to commence."
"The ransom note is written. Wait four days, then make sure it gets to Larabee."
"Yes Ma-am. Why wait though?"
"Because I want his suffering to last. I want his every waking moment to be a nightmare."
She turned back to Vin, intending to hurt him once more with her words, and was disappointed to find he'd already passed out. It didn't matter, she still had plenty of torment planned for him.
As she walked back to into the homestead, she took off the scarf and veil that covered her face and breathed in much welcomed fresh air. Her auburn hair glinting in the late sunlight. It would be dark soon and she wanted to be back in town before nightfall otherwise there'd questions asked. She'd already seen Mary Travis watching her from afar, but Victoria presumed it was jealousy nothing more.
The blonde newspaper owner was more than a little interested in the mysterious Chris Larabee and viewed any new female in town as a major threat. If only she knew. Victoria smiled to herself. The only way she'd be satisfied with Larabee, was seeing him lying in a coffin. He'd killed her father and he was going to pay for it; he and his miserable band of gunslingers that considered themselves above the law. Her father had been an upright, honourable gentleman, who'd never recovered from the South's loss in the civil war. And although misguided in his attempt to resurrect the South's beliefs he certainly didn't deserve to die for them.
At least she'd honour his death, by making his murderers pay a fine price for his demise. It was easy to hate Chris and the others, except.... her eyes returned to the barn. Vin Tanner was different and she'd immediately fallen for his gentle, quiet nature. A man of few words, but his eyes were so full of expression. She was certain her father would rest easy with six of the men dead. In her tortured mind she saw Vin as the one standing up for the crazed Colonel, begging Larabee not to kill him.
She could see herself and the Texan together; they would make a handsome, happy couple. Except Vin had shown no interest in her; had actively shied away from her whenever she'd tried to engage him in conversation. Therefore, he had to die, not for her father's death, but for spurning her; and his death would be the most violent of all.
+ + + + + + +
JD groaned and writhed with agony. He tried to tear himself free of the excruciating pain that ripped through his body, but all he could do was whimper softly. A sudden pressure on his fingers told him of a presence close by.
"Hey buddy, hang in there."
JD almost sobbed with relief. "Buck." He opened his eyes, unable to distinguish the big mans face in the shadows.
"I'm here," Buck flashed a smile despite his misgivings.
JD tried to move and cried out as his shoulder protested.
"What happened?" JD eventually asked, seeing for the first time the bandages across his shoulder and chest.
Buck grimaced as he made JD more comfortable, "Ywere shot." He sat back and looked down at the injured man,
Caint ya remember?"
JD remembered going to Texas in search of Vin, then he relived his journey home with Ezra.
"No, " he whispered, "Oh no.." His eyes filled with tears as the memories returned. He clutched Buck's arm tightly, "I remember my horse fallin." He searched Buck's face for the answers, "Then there's nothing ... until now." He pulled Buck closer, gasping from the searing pain that accompanied the action.
"What happened Buck. What happened to me and Ezra and Vin?!" He panted from exertion, but wouldn't release Buck's arm, though the older man tried to free himself.
Buck patted the hand that held him so tightly, "Vin didn't come home. We're still looking."
JD closed his eyes for a moment, trying to understand, that one simple sentence. When he opened them he could see pain reflected in Buck's face. "I'm sorry," he said flatly, unable to look Buck in the eye.
Buck swallowed dryly before continuing, "Ezra was hurt too," he said, stroking the youngster's face, "He was shot in the side. He's alive, but he has a fever." Buck shook his head, "We don't know what happened out there, but Ezra managed to get you back here somehow."
JD was devastated by the news and turned his head away, "Poor Vin," he whispered softly, "How long as it been?"
Buck sighed, "Well, let me see. Josiah and Nathan returned three days ago; you've been back two." He saw the knot in the kid's jaw as he realised he'd been out of it for two days, " Casey rode into town three days back to tell us Nettie had found Vin's horse on her land. It was lame and in poor condition."
JD snapped to attention, "Does Casey know about me? Has she been here!"
"Sure she does. She sat with you fer a while but Chris didn't want her around, just in case there's more trouble," Buck smiled at JD's disappointment, "She's returnin tomorrow, bringing Vin's horse in, if it's sound enough."
"Maybe Vin fell," JD pondered aloud, "Maybe he's lying out there, hurt!" He struggled under Buck's hands.
"Chris already thought of that. He and Josiah have been out lookin." Buck hushed him, making him lie still. Rest now, ya lost a lot of blood."
"I did?" JD gulped, suddenly very pale and still.
Buck smiled affectionately at him, "Sure did." He tweaked the kid's nose and winked, "Get some sleep now. Chris'll be along to see ya later."
JD nodded and let Buck tuck him in, feeling safe with his friend at his side. Before long, the noises from the street receded and JD slept.
+ + + + + + +
The room was tilting gently, his body swaying too and fro, like a raft on a lazy river. Ezra watched the walls ebb and flow and marvelled at the ride. He tried to turn onto his side but found himself tied down to the bed, the ropes just a fist short of allowing him to clasp his hands together. The room began to pitch crazily as he focused on his tethered hands. He grasped the sides of the bed, gasping in horror and surprise at the situation.
A friendly face came into view. Nathan, carrying a cool cloth that he placed on Ezra's fevered brow. Ezra stared upwards, relieved to see the room settle a little. Soon he felt calm enough to hold the black man's eyes.
"Are ya back with us?" Nathan asked quietly.
Ezra stared hard at him for a moment, for the life of him unable to recall the events that had brought him to this place.
"What happened?" He asked his voice a hoarse whisper. He held up his hands showing Nathan the bonds. His mouth was too dry to allow him any more conversation.
Nathan slipped a steadying hand behind Ezra's head and gently lifted him from the pillow, cradling him as he placed a cup to the invalid's lips. "You have a fever. You've been out fer five days," he told his patient, carefully laying him to rest once more.
"Five days?" Ezra croaked, his face blanching as the events of the shooting came back to him. He grabbed Nathan's wrist, too weak to stop the man from slipping free, "JD!" He gasped, caught in a panic attack.
"JD's fine," Nathan replied as he cut the rope on Ezra's right wrist, turning him onto his left side and gently rubbing his back until the attack passed. He stayed here fer a couple of days, but now hes back in his own room with Buck hoverin over him.
For the first time, Ezra felt the wound deep in the flesh on his right side; it pulled gently in protest to his new position.
"Thank God hes alive!" He eased himself onto his back, shifting to almost a sitting position against the pillows with Nathan's help, "Has Vin returned yet?" His heart fell as he saw the sadness in Nathan's eyes. "He's not..."
"No!" Chris snapped from the doorway, striding into the room, "We have no reason to believe he's dead," he said in a more gentle tone. He exchanged a glance with Nathan before sitting down on the bed by Ezra's free hand. "You had us worried," Chris told the invalid as he freed the ropes from Ezra's wrists.
Ezra closed his eyes, hiding from the questions he knew would come. He remembered Buck's accusations only too well
Ezra looked up, his eyes pleading for understanding, "Ah didn't see them, Chris. Ah'd never let JD get hurt ..."
"Hey, hey," Chris soothed, stilling him as he tried to get out of bed.
"Ah'm no good to you, lying here like this. Ah need mah clothes." Ezra stopped fighting; he was too weak anyway.
Nathan slipped the cool cloth back onto his forehead then offered him more water. Once his patient was settled, Nathan nodded to Chris, warning him to go easy.
Chris looked down at the injured man. Ezra was staring into space, his pale features bearing a tormented expression. Chris sighed as he spoke, "I know you were ambushed. I went back down the trail and saw where JD fell" He paused long enough for the information to sink in, "I found tracks to their horses, they hid on top of the rise."
Ezra's expression hardened, "Why? Why would they do that?"
Chris shrugged, "I don't know. I can't understand why they'd attack you on the way back or why theyd let you live. He dragged his weary body from the bed, "Get some sleep," he told the patient. "I'm gonna need you soon enough."
+ + + + + + +
Another day had passed, and still there was no news of Vin Tanner. The townsfolk gave Chris a wide berth whenever they saw him, even the smallest child could see the gathering storm called Chris Larabee. If Chris heard one more whisper that his friend was dead, hed shoot the person uttering it, whether it be man, woman or child.
Kojay, the Indian Chief, promised to help with the search. Vin had saved his son's life; an act the Chief would never be able to repay fully. But with the passing of each day, his experienced trackers found it more difficult to uncover any trail that might lead to discovering Vin.
Chris was grateful for their help; at least they were assisting, which was more than could be said for the population of Four Corners. He knew the seven were unwelcome guests to some of the townsfolk, but he'd expected some offers of help. However, apart from Mary, Nettie Wells and Casey, there were very few who'd offered their services or even asked about the missing man.
+ + + + + + +
Mary entered Nathans clinic with an armful of clean linen, unaware of the half naked man sitting on the edge of the bed. She stopped short in the doorway, a gasp of surprise slipping through her lips. Ezra looked as equally shocked and quickly drew the blankets around his waist, his hands shielding his chest, "Ah'm sorry Mrs. Travis, Ah had no idea you were visiting."
Mary was angry with herself for acting so girlish, "Take no heed, Mr. Standish. I expected you to be asleep, that's all." She smiled at him, handing him a clean gown, "I'll help you with it if you like."
"To be truthful, Ah was dressing. Ah just cannot get mah arm in." He looked suitably embarrassed as Mary gathered his undergarment up from the waist and helped him into it. He stopped her, when she offered to button up the front, "Ah thank you for your help but Ah can manage from here." He coloured up as she studied him.
"Alright," she said eventually, collecting his breakfast dishes from the dresser. She stopped at the doorway and turned, watching him for a few moments as he scrambled into his shirt, "Mr. Standish Ezra?"
"Should you be out of bed yet?" She searched his face for an honest answer. He was still pale, and traces of the fever hung in beads of perspiration on his knitted brow.
"Ah cannot lie here when there is trouble about," he whispered, his eyes barely making contact with hers.
Mary figured that was about as straight an answer anyone would get out of the young man. She nodded her understanding then slipped away.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra studied his reflection in the mirror. He'd managed to shave, and although it had taken him a long time to wash and dress, he'd made a half decent job of it.
He hadn't found the bloodstained vest, so the dark green jacket was worn over a plain white shirt.
Half way down the steps he rested his back against the wall and waited for the dizzy spell to pass then continued down.
The street was fairly quiet and thankfully, none of his friends were around. He'd decided to take up his shift in the jail house so headed that way, his gait a little off. He tended to drag his right leg in an attempt not to tear open his wound.
The steps up to the jail house were pure torture and he knew he was sweating heavily when he pushed the door open.
Buck was standing there, gun in hand. He took one look at the ashen faced man and was quickly by Ezra's side, guiding him to the big wooden chair behind the sheriff's desk.
"What the blue blazes are you doin' here?" He asked gently, sinking to one knee to study his injured friend's face.
Ezra was taken aback by the other man's concern; he'd expected retribution and was caught speechless by Buck's warmth. For a moment they just looked at each other.
"Buck..." Ezra started, unable to hold his friend's gaze, "Ah'm genuinely sorry about JD. Ah never wanted that to happen"
Buck shook his head. "No Ezra, don't explain none. I'm sorry I said those things. Ya didn't deserve it." He looked down at the floor, " I just hit out at you because I was scared fer JD. I didn't mean none of it." He shifted position so that he was in Ezra's line of vision, "Can ya forgive me?"
Ezra smiled gratefully, "Ah value your friendship, he said, receiving a slap on the shoulder, which sent shock waves into his wound. "Ouch!"
Mortified by his stupidity, Buck fussed around him until the spasm passed; then the two men settled down to discuss the latest situation concerning Vin.
+ + + + + + +
As the sun drifted over the saloon to settle behind the general store, Josiah knew it was his turn to make a move to relieve Buck. The four remaining members of the team were taking short shifts in the jail house, maintaining at least a front of law and order about the town. He carefully closed the heavy wooden door of the church and made his way over to the jail, halting on the doorstep as he heard an angry exchange within.
"He's got no right leavin you here alone!" Chris hurled to the slumped form in the Sheriff's chair, making the shadowy figure recoil in anger.
Josiah was amazed to hear Ezra's voice.
"Ah offered mah assistance. Mr. Wilmington was not enamoured by the idea, but Ah said Ah could do it!"
Chris paced the wooden floor, his heavy tread and sharp chink of the spurs. "Youre a sick man. What if there'd have been any trouble. Do you think you could've handled it?"
Ezra would have stood, but he couldn't find the strength at the moment, "Ah would have coped. Anyway, as you can plainly see, no one has broken the law around here for the last hour. They daren't. One look at your face is enough to quell any illicit thoughts."
Josiah sniggered as he walked in and fixed his gaze on the invalid, "Ezra, good to see you up and about." He eyed Chris, who was still pacing the jail, his stance brittle and unforgiving.
"Thank you, Josiah. Ah'm feeling much better. Though some people do not agree with me."
"Where the hell is he?!" Chris cursed, storming past the newcomer and into the street.
"Don't take it personally," Ezra mumbled to Josiah, "Our illustrious leader is on a mission and Ah wouldn't want to be in Buck's shoes when he finds him."
+ + + + + + +
Chris found Buck in the saloon, trying to tempt Inez onto his knee, laughing and joking as if it was just another day. Growling with rage, Chris swept the table clear of the whisky glasses mounting up.
"What the..!" Buck leaped to his feet, shooing Inez away.
Chris cleared the distance between them, shoving Buck hard in the chest. "What in hell do you think you're doin?" He spat, squaring up to the taller man.
"Now hang on a doggone minute and calm down," Buck scolded, parrying the blow that was coming. Chris came at him with both fists, but Buck easily turned them aside, pinning the blond to the wall with an arm across his throat before letting him go, dismayed by his own actions.
Undeterred, Chris continued, angrier than ever, "You left an injured man to watch over the town." He squared up to Buck once more, the two of them oblivious to the growing crowd. "Here you sit, makin entertainment, while Vins injured ... maybe dyin out there," he snarled, "What kind of man are you?"
Buck's hackles rose, he wasn't about to take insults like that, "Now look here Chris." He wagged a finger in his friend's face, "You just take a look at yerself before throwing accusations. I've been there for the others, I've made time for the town. Where were you? What were you doin when the others were getting hurt? "
The two men circled each other, bumping chests in an angry dance before something snapped in Chris and he lurched forward, grabbing Buck by the shirt and blasting his fist against the other man's jaw.
The two of them went down, each trading blows as they writhed around on the rapidly clearing floor. A gunshot brought them up short; both of them drawing their guns at the same time and pointing it at the intruder. It was Josiah. He stood, hands on hips, glaring down at the two brawling men.
"Let's break it up boys," he said steadily, although he was tempted to bang their stupid heads together, "We've just got ourselves a ransom note."
+ + + + + + +
They knew now that Vin was still alive, if they were to believe the note. And the relief showed in their faces. However, they still had to get him back.
It wasn't a ransom note as such; there was no mention of money, yet; just directions for Chris to take. A ride out, alone. The note had specifically said alone, otherwise Vin would die. He'd be met at a certain place, blindfolded, then taken to where Vin was being held. Once Larabee had seen for himself that Tanner was okay, there'd be a discussion about the ransom to be paid.
The note had been delivered anonymously to Mary, so there'd be no way to trace it back to the kidnappers.
While Chris and the others discussed the note and its repercussions, Ezra scrutinised the letter, carefully holding it up to his nose to sniff the plain, white paper it was written on.
"Whatcha doin'?" Nathan asked the gambler.
"Ah am intrigued by this letter. Ah am wondering what kind of woman would associate with dangerous felons."
"Are you sure, Ezra?"
Ezra mentally preened himself; he enjoyed gaining the attention of the others. It proved he was still a worthwhile member of the group; something he'd doubted since the ambush.
"This letter was written by a female. An educated woman," He sniffed the paper again, "There's a slight trace of a sweet smelling fragrance. Lavender, I think."
"Maybe she was forced into writing it," Buck said, finding it difficult to believe any female could be so mercenary.
"No, there is no trace of tension in the writing. If she were under pressure, there would be."
Chris looked suitably impressed by Ezra's discovery, but it still didn't tell them much, "I guess I'll find out tomorrow."
"Chris, ya can't go out there alone. What if it's another trick? What if they take you too?"
"Chance I have to take, Buck." Chris glanced around at the others. Only JD was missing. Nathan wasn't about to release him from bed rest yet.
It was going to be a difficult task arguing his case, but he would win. Vin's life depended on it.
+ + + + + + +
An hour later, they were still arguing. Chris was tired of the endless talk; he knew what he was going to do. Snatching up the note, he strode out of the hotel bar, Buck's angry words at his back, "Ycain't do this alone Chris, and right now, all yer doin' is shuttin' us out!"
Chris hurried up the stairs to JD's room. The youngster had to be considered in this latest development.
The room was in darkness, keeping some of the heat away from the figure on the bed.
"JD?" Chris called from the doorway, hoping the youngster was awake.
"I heard y'all shoutin, Chris," JD said weakly. What's happenin'. Is there news about Vin?"
Chris sat in the bedside chair, smiling emptily at JD's worried look, "We got a note. It said if we want to get Vin back we have to send a lone rider to meet with his captors." He shifted uneasily under JD's scrutiny.
"Lone rider ...you Chris ... But ya can't go alone. Yknow it'll be a set up, like what happened to us." JD's eyes rounded at the horrible memory.
"Take it easy kid," Chris soothed, "It ain't gonna happen like that."
"How do yknow?"
Chris took a moment to ponder the question, unwilling to lie to the boy, "It just can't, " he offered feebly, "I need to get Vin back."
JD held Chris look, his face hardening as he studied their leader's stubborn stance, "You can't do this alone..."
Chris shrugged as he got to his feet, "There's no other way." He walked to the doorway, stopping to look back at the boy.
JD managed a thin smile, "I hope this isn't the last time we get to talk," he said, his eyes sad.
The statement struck a fear into Chris and he faltered for a moment, "I hope so too." Then he was gone, leaving JD with his fears.
+ + + + + + +
No one else tried to dissuade Chris Larabee from his task and sunrise saw him saddling up his horse in the stables. Standing next to the doorway to catch the only light, he saw Buck approaching and kept a steady eye on his progress. His friend was on a direct route, suggesting his intentions were not to overpower the rider. Still, Chris would be careful; Buck was full of surprises.
"Hey." Buck's infectious smile had Chris off his guard despite his reservations.
"What are you doin' up at this hour?" Chris asked as he swung the saddle over the horse's back, making sure Buck was in view all the time.
I didn't want ya ridin' outta here with bad feelins," Buck told him, helping Chris as he tightened the cinch. "Hell, things are bad enough right now without us being at odds." He looked hopefully at Chris, seeing his ruse was working on their leader; Chris wanted to believe him.
The gunslinger nodded as he walked around the horse and held out his hand to the big guy, "No hard feelins." He said. The two men clasped hands.
"None at all," Buck grinned, catching Chris as he fell forward, whacked on the back of his head by a reluctant Nathan.
Buck eased Chris down in the straw, placing his hat over his face, "Don't worry Nathan, he'll sleep it off. His head's 'bout as hard as mine!" He gathered the note, then took up the loose rains of the black horse and led it outside.
Nathan checked on Chris' condition before following Buck, "Ysure you know what you're doin?" He was very worried about his involvement in Buck's crazy idea; after all, when Buck was gone and Chris woke up, it would be he, Nathan who'd have to answer to Larabee's wrath.
Buck winked, "I'll be back before ya know it." With that he turned the horse and rode out of town.
Nathan sighed heavily, unhappy with his lot. He glanced back to the stable and thought about trying to wake Chris. He decided against it. Chris would simply follow Buck out of town and then they'd be down to four. He walked away from the stables, back to his room. By the time Chris came to, Buck would be long gone. Nathan hoped he wouldn't live to regret this mornings work.
+ + + + + + +
Buck made the rendezvous place in good time, making a quick sweep of the area before moving to the lone tree on the rise. He stayed in the saddle, just in case a quick getaway was required. He watched the horizon carefully, and soon picked out the two riders coming in, strangely enough from his own direction. Maybe they'd been in town all along?
About a mile out they circled his position and rode in from the opposite side. Buck pondered the move for a moment then dismissed it entirely; the important thing was to find out what these people wanted.
The two men were no more than cattle hands, whose skill with the gun was perfunctory. They were nervous, their weapons drawn and pointing at Buck's chest.
"Howdy boys," Buck said with bravado, his hands in the air, clearly away from his own gun.
A gun was waved in Buck's face as one of the men rode alongside and took Buck's gun from its holster. Then the rider backed away, "Are you Larabee?"
"I got the letter," Buck answered, nodding to his jacket pocket. "You gonna tell me what you want?"
Both men approached him; the first one speaking again, "We're here to take you to Tanner," he said, his eyes fixed on his partner who'd rode behind Buck.
"Well lead the way," Buck replied evenly, well aware as to what was about to happen. The crack on his head was a good one and Buck slid soundlessly to the ground, blood trickling from the wound.
+ + + + + + +
"She said knock him out, not kill him!"
Both men dismounted and went to hoist the fallen rider over his saddle, "She ain't gonna be pleased anyways, this ain't Larabee."
+ + + + + + +
Chris came to with a jolt, his flailing arms displacing his hat that was shielding his face from the suns rays. Light pierced his skull, adding its intensity to the stabbing pain in his head. Groaning, he rolled over in the straw, hands over his eyes. Then he wondered what he was doing there.
Memories flooded back; he remembered his intended journey and Buck. He cried out his frustration, beating the ground with his fist. The dumb ass would jeopardise everything! If he moved quickly he might be able to stop Buck and take his place. He dragged himself to his feet, clinging to the wooden stalls as the barn spun around him.
Staggering to the door, he pushed it open and shielded his face with one hand as the stark sunlight hit like a physical blow and he found himself lying once more on the stable floor.
He'd been unconscious for at least a couple of hours; Buck was long gone and probably knowing Wilmington, in a situation out of his control.
+ + + + + + +
Victoria wasn't pleased; she'd expected Larabee to come in person. She kicked the unconscious man in the ribs; he groaned but didn't wake up.
"If he hasnt come round before nightfall we'll wake him. I want him out of here as quickly as possible." She turned on her heels and flounced to the door.
"Wouldn't it be easier to kill him?" Eli asked, not savouring the thought of dropping this bundle back in town.
"No!" She snapped, "I want him to see Tanner and report back to Larabee." She pointed the whip in Eli's direction, "Anything else and you'll face my wrath."
Eli recoiled, shocked by her threats. Across the room, Cassidy chuckled darkly, "You'd do better, if you followed her orders." He grinned toothlessly.
Eli grumbled thickly then followed his mistress out of the room, Cassidy following after taking one last look at the unconscious man.
+ + + + + + +
Chris staggered to the jail house, kicking open the door and overturning the desk before his friends could react. Ezra leaped clear of the desk and with a roar, Chris grabbed the chair and smashed it over the upturned desk until he held one broken leg in his hands.
With everyone shouting at once, Josiah and Nathan grabbed his arms, holding him still before he could do anymore harm.
Josiah squeezed Chris' wrist until the weapon dropped to the floor, but Chris continued to struggle against their combined strength.
"That was my place!" he yelled at them," My decision and my place." Finally he pulled himself free of their grip. "Who the hell are you to take that from me!" He addressed them all, smashing his fist into the wall; then he lay his head against the splintered wood, his breath rasping through his teeth.
The other three men looked stunned. Eventually Josiah moved towards their leader.
"If Buck is right and I think he is, you'd be walkin into a trap." He stopped as Chris turned on him, his face contorted with rage.
"And just what do ythink Buck is walkin into? What makes you so sure he'll know what to do?" He shoved the preacher hard in the chest. "Did you hit me, Josiah? Was it you that laid me out in the dirt back there?" He glared at the man, daring him to answer.
"No " Nathan stepped forward, "That was me."
Chris stared at him, lost for words; he'd not expected Nathan to be a party to it. Then he pushed past the two men and went back into the street.
Ezra followed him, half running, half hobbling, calling his name unsuccessfully. Eventually he had to stop, bent double as the muscles in his injured side spasmed. He watched Chris storm into the saloon. At least he wasn't off to the livery stable to saddle up Buck's animal! When the spasm passed, Ezra followed at a steadier pace, ignoring the strange stares he got from the townsfolk passing by. Before entering the saloon, he peered over the doors into the shadowy room. Chris was in the darkest corner, rapidly downing whiskies that he refilled from the bottle on the table.
Ezra picked up a glass at the bar, then slid into the seat opposite the brooding man, pouring himself a drink from the near empty bottle. Then he waited for Chris to speak; at least he hadn't turned on Ezra; yet!
"What do we do next, Ezra?" Chris asked coldly, downing another glass before yelling to the bartender to bring him another bottle.
The gambler tried to think of an answer. Something that might calm the tormented man before him. Normally a witty retort was his reply, it was one of his defence traits. Eloquent men were few and far between in the ignorant West, and intelligent words could terrify most itinerants if used correctly. But Ezra recognised that Chris wasn't in any mood for a walking dictionary, so he chosen word was succinct, "Wait," he replied, looking dolefully into the glass of amber liquid.
"Wait for what?" Chris asked evenly. " Another note? Buck to come home filled with holes?" He glared at the southerner, "What am I waiting for Ezra."
Ezra downed the contents of the glass in one go, "Whatever it is, we'll wait together."
+ + + + + + +
Victoria Anderson prepared to leave for town. She carefully pulled on her gloves and turned to Cassidy.
"You know what to do. I want Wilmington to see Tanner, but do not allow Tanner chance to give away any of our secrets."
"Yes Ma-am." Cassidy tipped his hat to her.
She poked him in the cheek with her whip, following the scar down his jawbone. "You foul up, and you'll be the one at the end of the rope. Understand?
"Yes Ma-am." Cassidy nodded nervously, swallowing his curses.
"Good," she drawled, making for the buggy, "You give Wilmington a beating in front of his little friend; knock him out then take him back to town." She motioned to one of the hand's who'd brought Buck in, "Get him to run Wilmington's horse around. Get it nice and hot. We don't want Larabee thinking we're close to town, or he'll be out here, guns blazing."
"I'll see to it myself," Cassidy said, helping his employer into the buggy, thankful she was leaving.