The Wages of Sin

By: Derry

Part Thirteen

As soon as he saw the stampeding cattle, Buck passed one of his guns to Casey and rapidly exited the barn.

Nathan and Josiah also broke cover, attempting to make their way to the position which they thought Ezra was holding. There were only four outlaws left standing, but one managed to spot them and fired off a couple of shots. Josiah’s left leg collapsed from under him, as one lodged in his thigh. His and Nathan’s returning fire brought the man down with several bullets in his chest. Then Nathan directed his attention to the fallen preacher.

Chris and Vin appeared from the house, quickly going to round up the three remaining outlaws. These remnants of Greel’s gang offered very little resistance and, leaving Vin to cover them, Chris turned to view the devastation caused by the stampede.

Wreckage, including several flattened small trees, was all he could see in that direction and he mentally kicked himself. In an act of what now seemed like extreme pettiness, he had left that position to be covered by the person least likely to know what do when facing a stampede (except possibly JD). He yelled Ezra’s name, knowing that he would find it hard to forgive himself if the gambler had sustained anything worse than a few bruises.

He was astonished to see Buck running in that direction, even though he’d had years of experience regarding the man’s impetuous nature.

"JD!" Buck yelled.

Chris ran to catch up with him, "Whad’ya mean ‘JD’?"

Buck turned frantic eyes towards him, "JD slipped out t’check on Ezra an’ never came back."

"Y’mean they were both out there?" Chris’ concern rapidly became an ice-cold desperation. They couldn’t have lost both of them! He and Buck rapidly crossed to the far side of the cattle-pen and immediately saw JD lying inert beside one of the larger trees.

Chris turned to bellow Nathan’s name before joining Buck as he knelt beside the lad. JD’s face was covered with blood and he made no movement at all when Buck called his name and placed a hand on his shoulder.

Nathan arrived. "How bad?" he asked breathlessly but knelt to examine JD without waiting for an answer.

The blood came from a deep gash in JD’s scalp at his right temple. Buck winced as Nathan easily and unhesitatingly put two fingers inside the wound to assess the damage to the skull. The healer then made a completely unencouraging grunting noise as he felt a fracture of the bone with a small step between the two edges. "It’s bad," he said, although Buck and Chris had already deduced that fact from his reactions.

"How bad is ‘bad’?" demanded Chris.

Nathan looked up from checking JD’s pupils (which were both large in the dawn’s semidarkness but at least they were of equal size), "Skull’s fractured. An’ at that point there, it’s ‘specially dangerous. Can cause bleedin’ from an artery inside the skull." He looked them both directly in the eye, "He might never wake up again. We’ll need to watch ‘im very close an’ wait an’ see."

Both Buck and Chris absorbed this information and reacted, in the manner typical of both of them, with a fierce anger. Buck’s abundantly visible. Chris’ hidden below the surface but just as intense.

Nathan looked around briefly, "Where’s Ezra?"

"Shit!" muttered Chris. He’d become so absorbed by finding one of his missing men in such a grievously injured state, that he’d momentarily forgotten about the other.

"Yeah," he heard Buck growl beside him, "Jus’ where the hell is Mr Reliable?" As was often the case when JD was injured and/or in danger, Buck’s anger was colossal and somewhat indiscriminant in direction. Seeing Vin approach, he snapped, "What about the prisoners?"

The tracker eyed him steadily, "Tied up an’ Josiah’s watchin’ ‘em. What happened here?"

Chris placed a placating hand on Buck’s shoulder, as he answered, "JD’s hurt bad an’ Ezra’s missin’."

"Then we’d better find ‘im." Sometimes Vin wondered why the obvious had to be stated. He left to scout around further.

Chris envied that virtually unshakable equanimity which appeared to be the tracker’s inherent nature. It wasn’t that Vin didn’t care. But he usually didn’t let his feelings run amok and lash out at others. Of course, on the rare occasions that he did lose control, it was quite spectacular to see.

However, in this case, his calm assessment was absolutely right. Nathan was doing all he could for JD, and Buck was there if he needed any help. They needed to find out what had happened to Ezra.

Chris had spent several minutes futilely searching the area, when he saw Vin returning, his face noticeably grimmer than when he’d left.

"His horse’s gone," the tracker said quietly.

"Could it’ve run off with the stampede?" Chris asked, even though he knew it wouldn’t be the case.

Vin shook his head, "Rest are still there. Bit skittish, but not ready t’run."

Chris felt a familiar cold anger spread through him. Bitter experience had taught him that trust often meant betrayal and for years he’d held off forming loyalties or close attachments. But he’d let his six associates gradually break through his barriers and work their way into his trust.

The last through that door, by a long stretch, had been Ezra Standish. Con-artist, liar, cheat. The man’s credentials had hardly been trust-inspiring. And that smartarse mouth of his didn’t help either. Then when he’d disappeared and left them in the lurch when that nutcase Confederate colonel had attacked the Seminole village, well Chris had let him know of the dire consequences should he ever run out on them again.

And now the faithless son of a bitch had done it again. And probably because of it, JD was lying over there with his head split open. There was a good chance that the kid might even die.

Damn him! After all this time and everything they’d been through together! Damn his useless lying cheating soul! Chris damned Ezra for making him trust him and then he damned himself for letting Ezra con him and then he damned the whole pathetic dismal situation. Damn it all to Hell!

He dared not look at the others, lest they saw him lose control completely, but he ground out, "Find him!"

"Yeah, we will," Vin said quietly, neutrally.

They all needed answers, Chris included, but he knew that it would take every ounce of his self-control to stop himself from shooting Ezra on sight when they found him.

* * * * *

Ezra rode like all the demons of Hell were at his heels. A few of his own personal ones rode with him. Leaving, Chris and the others as they were about to go into battle was something which he thought he would never do again. He’d sworn it to himself, actually. The guilt felt like a physical weight in his chest.

JD might try to explain to them, but Ezra knew that the explanation he’d left with the young sheriff was terribly inadequate and JD could hardly explain what he didn’t understand himself. Not that it would stop him trying. The kid was all loyalty, right through to his bones, even when his loyalty was pulled in six or more directions at the same time.

But the bottom line was that he knew that his six friends possessed a reasonable amount of skill in self-preservation, even in the face of very unfavorable odds. Teresa and Angelica had nothing with which to protect themselves against Greel. That was another huge reservoir of guilt. It was he who had convinced Teresa to stay, promised that they could protect her and help turn her life around.

It was pretty much hopeless. Greel had had hours to reach them and he wouldn’t have gone alone. Teresa had no expectation of attack and the pistol and rifle she had would be no match for the forces Greel would have brought with him.

Ezra had never had a lot of time for prayer. He had always considered that, inundated as he was with the petitions of the righteous, the Lord would hardly place a high priority on the requests of an unrepentant sinner such as himself. But right now, he would have happily traded in all his days to come and rotted in eternal hellfire, if by some miracle those two innocents (and they were, no matter what Teresa thought of herself) could be saved.

He could see the old mine up ahead. There was no movement at all. No blood, no bodies, no circling birds of prey. Was this a good sign? Could he begin to hope that he had arrived in time? Maybe he’d guessed wrong and Greel had no idea that Teresa was here. He’d have a hell of a time explaining everything to Chris if that was the case but at this point in time he really didn’t care. If Teresa and Angelica were safe and well, he’d happily take all the righteous anger that Chris could dole out.

He dismounted and as he made his way to the entrance, he called out to Teresa. No sense in getting his head shot off by her because she thought he was an intruder. There was no answer and his brief flash of optimism began to fade. Fear gripped him again as he peered inside and saw the flickering torchlight in the distance.

"Teresa! Angelica!"

He stumbled twice as he ran toward it and when he arrived, he was almost physically sick.

They had obviously intended for her to be found. The torches had been placed to produce the maximum horrific effect. Blood splattered in all directions. Her body had been horribly mutilated and burned in places (Dear God, he hoped that these had occurred after she was dead) but her face was smeared with blood but otherwise untouched. They had wanted her to be recognized.

He dropped to his knees beside her, gently and uselessly wiping some of the blood away from her cheek. "Oh, Teresa."

He remembered the hollow words he’d uttered, only a week before.

"Trust me."

And her reply.

"I did! And look where it got me."

"How right you were, dear girl. Better if you’d never met me, let alone heeded my advice," He murmured, removing his coat and covering her body with it.

But where was the little one? He reluctantly surveyed the bloody tableau for another body and couldn’t find one.

"Angelica?" He grabbed one of the torches and began searching every nook and cranny in earnest.

"Angelica, it’s Ezra. Answer me, please." The only reply was the echoes from his own voice. A thought struck him. They had obviously left Teresa to be found and recognized by someone she knew. What if they were waiting for that person to lead them to Angelica?

Damn! He could hardly leave her in this bloodstained pit. Dead or alive, he had to find her.

He drew his one of his pistols with his left hand and feeling somewhat foolish he knelt in front of an empty niche saying, "There you are! Thank God!" He reached his right hand forward as if to take the child’s hand, while listening intently for any noise from the shadows. Not a sound. Either there was no one there or they weren’t fooled.

So much for subterfuge! He started calling her name again, even more loudly, moving further into the mine. There was no answer, no sounds of movement, no sounds at all. He looked in every corner, under every fallen timber and piece of debris, calling to her until he was hoarse.

More than an hour later, thoroughly dejected, he made his way back to Teresa’s bloody resting place. Looking down at the covered corpse, he whispered, "I can’t find her. God help me, I’ve tried," as he leaned back against the cavern wall, in utter despair.

It gave way slightly under his weight and he turned to see a cracked timber with some dust stirring around it. Then he heard it. A faint, almost inaudible, cough. If he hadn’t been so desperate to hear it, maybe he wouldn’t have.

"Angelica!" He ripped the rotting timbers away from the wall with his bare hands and held his torch at the opening of the resulting hole. There she was, staring up at him with terrified eyes and visibly shaking, her mother’s shawl wrapped loosely around her. He could see the child was in shock and very slowly and gently extended his hand toward her.

"Don’t be frightened," he whispered as he placed his hand on her shoulder. She didn’t flinch. She didn’t move at all.

He glanced back at the gory scene behind him. He couldn’t let her see that. Placing the torch in a convenient hollow in the rock wall, he reached forward and wrapped the shawl tightly around her. Then he drew her forward, receiving absolutely no resistance, and buried her face against his shoulder as he lifted her out. He quickly strode out of the mine and towards his horse, continually muttering vague reassurances even as he awkwardly held his revolver, semi-ready to deal with any threat that presented itself.

Angelica’s apparent paralysis was fading and she clung to him fiercely, as if afraid that he might suddenly vanish. This made it easier for him to hold both her and his gun but much more difficult to mount his horse when he reached it but he managed to swing up into the saddle with her and turned to head back to Four Corners. Nowhere seemed to be really safe anymore but home instinctively felt slightly safer. With one arm around Angelica, he rode back as fast as was humanly and equinely possible.

He had no idea what would be in store for him when he got back. He had been gone for hours. He had failed Teresa miserably. Now he had to consider that he may have failed Chris and the others too. The demons were regrouping with a vengeance but there was no alternative but to return and face whatever awaited him there.


Part Fourteen

Inez raced to the door of the saloon, shotgun in hand. She didn’t know the exact details of what was happening but she could feel the thick cloud of unease that was enveloping the town. A man on horseback thundered down the main street. She recognized him instantly.

"Ezra!" He didn’t rein in until he reached her and she realized that he had Angelica clasped to his chest. "What’s happened?"

He swung down off his horse, still holding the child, and when he looked at Inez, his eyes were haunted. "Teresa’s dead."

"Dead?" She couldn’t quite believe it, but there was no other way the young mother would have left her daughter.

He nodded, "Greel found her but she managed to hide the little one."

"How? I mean did he..."

Another feminine voice cut across hers.

"Mr Standish!" He turned his head to see Mary Travis crossing the street towards them. She looked perturbed. He glanced back at Inez whose gaze was one of concern. She hadn’t had time to tell him and, to her, he looked slightly dazed but before she could say anything, Mary reached them.

"Chris is looking for you!" Mary actually had a lot more to say. Earlier, Chris had appeared at her office, after checking first at the saloon. He had exuded cold rage as he asked if she had seen Ezra and when she had asked why, he had tersely told her that Ezra had run out on them again and left abruptly. But when she took in the gambler’s appearance, pale and dazed with blood staining his clothes and carrying Teresa’s four-year-old daughter, the words died in her throat.

Her words seemed to shake Ezra out of his stupor, "Where is he?"

"At the church I think."

Ezra tried to pass Angelica to Inez but the child tightened her grasp on him, even as he tried to soothe her. "Come now, Little Angel. You have to go with Inez now." With Inez’s help, he had physically pry her arms and legs from around him. She fought every inch of the way but, throughout it all, didn’t make a sound.

Mary had taken the shotgun from Inez, as she grappled with the struggling child. Inez soon gained control and Ezra handed her one of his revolvers, "Lock yourselves in the cellar until I come for you. If it’s anyone other than me…"

"I’ll blow their brains out." The look in her eyes left him in no doubt that she would.

Ezra turned his gaze again to Mary, "I’m not sure how much peril you might be in, Mrs Travis, but I would not put it past Greel to try and harm anyone even vaguely connected with us..."

Mary cut him off, "I’ll stay with Inez and Angelica." She held up the shotgun for emphasis and silently thanked God that her son was out of town, visiting his grandparents.

Ezra looked vaguely disconcerted but nodded, turned and ran towards the church, not once looking back.

"We better get down to the cellar." Mary glanced at Inez when she spoke. The saloon manager’s features showed grim determination. In contrast, the child in her arms had tears silently forming in her eyes and her hand still reached out in the direction Ezra had gone.

* * *

Ezra was less than halfway to the church when he saw Chris, Vin and Buck approaching. He increased his pace and called to each of them as he ran.

"What happened?" Ezra had barely got the question out when Buck, who had reached him first, drew a fist back and solidly connected it with Ezra’s jaw. Ezra’s vision darkened momentarily and when it cleared he found himself lying supine in the street with Buck, restrained single-handedly by Vin, glaring murderously down at him. The numbness in his jaw was beginning to give way to pain as Ezra managed to lever himself onto his elbows. He was stunned out of any further mobility by the sight of gregarious, genial Buck staring at him as if he wanted to tear him apart with his bare hands. He had more or less expected searing recriminations from Chris, but Buck?

The black-clad man did not disappoint. The glare Ezra found directed at him from that quarter was enough to make the devil himself quake in his boots. Vin’s expression was unreadable, as it so often was, and his tone was neutral as he asked, "Well?"

Ezra stared into the distance, unable to look them in the eye any longer, and tried to organize a myriad of thoughts into an answer to the monosyllabic question. The first thing that came into his mind actually seemed like a reasonable place to begin. "Teresa’s dead."

Chris had expected some kind of explanation from Ezra and although he didn’t have a clue what form it would take, he couldn’t imagine one that would be satisfactory. Not after what had happened at Nettie’s farm. But this reply was so unexpected, he couldn’t even recognize his own reaction. Ezra himself had told him that Teresa had gone to the deathbed of her grandmother. Another lie? What the hell was going on? He needed answers, now!


"Greel. That was why she fled from San Francisco." Ezra suddenly seemed to take stock of his surroundings. "Where are the others?"

"Nathan’s looking after JD and Josiah. Josiah’s bin shot in the leg an’ JD’s got a fractured skull and may never wake up accordin’ to Nathan."

It was Ezra’s turn to ask, "How?" and his voice had become very subdued.

Buck broke in furiously, "He got trampled by stampedin’ cattle. ‘Cause, he was on ‘is own, coverin’ up where you were s’pposed t’be. An’ when them bastards panicked Nettie’s cattle, he didn’t stand a chance."

Ezra felt like he was sinking into the earth beneath him and he barely heard Chris’ voice as he told him what happened, his mind only surfacing to hear the conclusion, "...So we rounded up the last few thugs but Greel an’ Walsh weren’t among ‘em."

Suddenly, several shots rang out, coming from the direction of the new town hall. Chris and Buck took off instantly while Vin paused for half a minute to pull Ezra to his feet before following.


As they approached the town hall, taking cover behind various wagons, barrels and other large objects, there was a lull in the gunfire. A body lay motionless in the centre of the street and, motioning for the others to stay back, Chris moved swiftly to investigate.

Another shot rang out from a ground floor window of the town hall and Chris stumbled, clutching his left arm.

Vin and Ezra directed a barrage of gunfire at the window, as Buck immediately and instinctively went to help Chris. There was no further retaliation from the window gunman and all four quickly but cautiously made their way to the front door of the town hall.

Silently Vin elected himself to be first through the door, signaling this to the others but giving them no time for opposition. Buck and Ezra covered him but there was no more gunfire and they met no resistance as they entered the main hall.

Suddenly, the roof exploded above them and bricks, tiles, timber and plaster cascaded down. Buck managed to catch hold of Chris’ arm but the rest lost track of each other as they frantically tried to throw themselves out of harm’s way.

Vin heard Ezra cry out but it seemed to be more in anger than fear or pain. He tried to call out to Ezra and look in the direction he had heard the sound come from but the falling dust was choking him and making his eyes stream with tears. Then he felt something connect with his head and full darkness fell.

* * *

When the dust appeared to have settled, Buck wiped the tears from his eyes and, still coughing, called out to his friends. Almost instantly, Chris’ voice beside him irritably asked him not to yell so loud and there was a groan from the other side of the room. After briefly checking that Chris was not seriously hurt (he had a bullet graze on his left forearm and twisted his right ankle), Buck scrambled over to investigate.

Vin seemed almost to erupt from a pile of dust and light debris, as Buck neared him.

"Vin! Are you okay?"

Vin didn’t answer immediately. He sat and leaned back against a nearby wall, blood streaming down the left side of his face from a scalp wound somewhere above his hairline. It took him a few seconds to focus on Buck and process the question.

"Think so," he muttered.

"What the hell happened here?" All three turned to see a mildly bewildered Nathan, standing in the doorway.

"Gunfight, then the roof fell in," Chris said. It wasn’t much but it was all that any of them knew. "How’re JD an’ Josiah?"

"JD’s awake. Still very groggy but I think he’ll be okay."

Buck let out an audible sigh of relief, "Thank God! An’ Josiah?"

"He’s fine. I left ‘im lookin’ after the kid."

"Where’s Ezra?" Vin asked suddenly.

"Ezra?" Nathan asked, really confused now.

"Yeah, he came back. Was with us till the roof came down."

Buck started calling Ezra’s name in earnest and picking through the debris as Nathan, after prioritizing Chris and Vin’s injuries from a distance, headed towards Vin to provide medical attention.

"So, did he say where he’d bin?"

Vin shook his head, which didn’t help Nathan’s work at all, "All he said was that Teresa was dead."

"You didn’t ask ‘im any more than that?" Nathan’s incredulous tone revealed how much he, like the others, needed an explanation.

Vin shrugged, "Well, Buck also got one good punch in."

Buck paused in his search to glare over his shoulder at Vin.

"But then," Vin continued, "we got kinda busy."

"And what did he mean that Teresa’s dead?"

Another shrug was the only reply.

Buck had rapidly covered all possible places of concealment within the room.

"I can’t find him. D’ya reckon he coulda got out the back?"

The exit in question was now blocked by substantial debris.

"Dunno," said Chris, "I s’pose he musta done."

Despite Nathan’s protests, Vin got up slightly unsteadily to help Buck clear the debris from the door. Chris made a similar attempt but fell back when his right ankle gave out from under him and Nathan redirected his efforts towards their black-clad leader.

"When ya find him," Chris said, reluctantly acknowledging that he wouldn’t be able to participate in the search, "tell him to quit with the disappearin’ act. It ain’t funny anymore."

Then they heard gunshots from behind the blocked door, followed by a loud crash.


Part Fifteen

Just as the roof had exploded, Ezra had glimpsed Malcolm Greel slipping out the back exit of the main hall. Finally, the bastard was within his reach. Almost involuntarily, he shouted Greel’s name, as he followed him through the back door.

He was so intent on his pursuit that he barely noticed the cacophony behind him, as the doorway he had just passed through was buried in rubble. He did hear the footsteps on the upper part of the staircase which led to the unfinished upper floor and unhesitatingly climbed it. Only to find himself facing the business end of Greel’s revolver when he reached the top.

Greel favoured him with one of the most purely evil smiles that Ezra Standish had ever seen.

"Why, Mr Standish, I’m so glad you could make it. For a moment, I feared that you might not accept my invitation. Now I really must ask you to put your weapons down."

The intention to eliminate Greel had become so strong that it had virtually excluded all other thoughts from Ezra’s mind. This blight on humanity facing him had to be eradicated so that it could never cause harm to another person again. If the cost was to be his own life, then he could honestly say that he would spend it without a single regret.

He quickly judged the odds that he might be able to get a bullet into Greel and found them overwhelmingly unfavourable. But, if he read the man correctly, he seemed inclined to talk, so maybe, if he played along, an opening might arise. So Ezra relinquished his weapons, awaiting his opportunity.

Greel’s smile deepened as he saw the situation come more under his control. "Thankyou. I hope that you’re having an enjoyable day. Mine has had a couple of rough patches but on the whole, it’s been immensely satisfying."

Ezra just stared at him silently. Greel didn’t show his annoyance at this lack of response, merely continuing with his side of the conversation.

"I take it that you’ve caught up with Teresa. I really couldn’t believe my luck there. I mean, I was only scouting around to find a way to destroy you, but to actually take out the little bitch that ruined my prospects in the first place. Well, I can’t tell you how gratifying that was. She put up quite a fight, though. Have you seen the results? The men did a very good job."

Ezra spoke with a deceptively even voice, "What was done to that girl was the work of subhuman animals, not men."

Greel’s smile increased even further, "There was no more blood spilled than when she killed Jimmy Muldoon, so we’re probably even."

Despite himself, Ezra couldn’t stop the anger creeping into his voice, "The situations are in no way comparable. That was a mother protecting her child."

Greel actually laughed, "So, it was because Jimmy found out about little Angie. I can just imagine what he suggested. It’s a pity that I didn’t find out about Angie, myself. Could have earned myself a nice little bonus from old Jimmy. First I knew that Teresa had a kid was when I overheard your boy sheriff telling his girlfriend about ‘Teresa and Angie’, who apparently had disappeared as soon as I arrived. But indulging my curiosity has certainly paid good dividends."

He looked for a response but Ezra had returned to watchful silence.

Greel shrugged, "I had half a mind to start up a business in this town, despite your advice. Mr Walsh and I had plans for a nice little protection racket. Unfortunately, your friends have virtually wiped out our workforce. So I’ll just have to settle for going back to San Francisco to see if I can pay back that little debt with your mother. Do you have some personal item which she would recognize easily? So I can dip it in your blood and wave it in front of her face as I kill her very, very slowly."

"Mother?" This caught Ezra by surprise. Perhaps the man really was completely deranged.

"I think I owe her something for fobbing me off to you and thus sending me all the way out here, despite the unexpected rewards the trip has produced. After that the debts will all be settled. After, of course, Mr Walsh deals with Senorita Roscios whom, I presume, you left little Angie with."

"What?" Ezra’s blood ran cold. He’d thought that if he could take out Greel here, Inez and Angelica would be safe.

Greel laughed again, "You didn’t take a good look at the man lying in the street, did you? Mr Walsh played a very convincing corpse. And I even nearly managed to take out that friend of yours with the Hamlet delusion too. Then you all rushed in here to find to find the shooter and it didn’t take much dynamite to bring the roof down on all of you (although you, for one, seem to have escaped relatively unscathed). And by now, Mr Walsh will have slipped off to the saloon. Rather neatly done, all in all. What do you think?"

It was now or never, Ezra decided. "I think you talk too much," he said, as he desperately dived forward to tackle Greel. He managed to divert the man’s pistol before he had recovered from the surprise and fired several shots which went harmlessly over Ezra’s shoulder. But they fell heavily together onto the loose floorboards and the structures beneath them began to collapse rapidly.

First, Ezra became aware that he was plunging downwards. Then, he was aware of a sudden intense pain although he couldn’t locate its source. Then, he wasn’t aware of anything at all.

* * * * *

When Buck, Vin and Nathan had finally cleared enough of the debris to get through the back door, the first thing they noticed was that a large section of the upper floor had crashed to the level below.

"Oh great!" said Buck, "More rubble!"

Vin got down to the task at hand and shouted Ezra’s name. Buck and Nathan followed suit, but it was several minutes before they got a response.

Nathan was actually slightly startled when the response he’d been listening for finally was heard. From somewhere near the centre of the debris, a dazed and rather breathless voice said, "Nathan?"

All three of them immediately clambered towards it. Nathan called out again, "Ezra, can you hear me? Can you move at all?"

The voice returned, more lucid but still breathless and interspersed with small coughs. "Might be slightly difficult. I appear to be underneath the remnants of a small house and I think my leg’s a bit twisted."

That actually worried Nathan considerably. Strangely, although Ezra had a unique capability to gripe and moan out of all proportion about minor discomforts and inconveniences, he tended to downplay serious injuries as much as the rest of them. ‘A bit twisted’ could mean anything from slightly bruised to partially amputated. Furthermore, he was only slightly exaggerating about the amount of rubble covering him.

Nathan would have complained about the ridiculous macho stoicism which his comrades frequently indulged in, which certainly didn’t make his job any easier, except that he knew that he tended to be just as guilty of it when he himself was injured.

He, Buck and Vin managed to unbury Ezra from the wreckage heap he was under, to find that several large pieces had sheltered the gambler from being badly crushed. And as they lifted him out to a flat area, they realized that there was another body underneath which had partially broken Ezra’s fall (and consequently sustained the majority of the damage).

Vin stepped closer to investigate. "It’s Greel. Deader than a doornail. Looks like he got what he deserved."

"No," Ezra managed to gasp out. He was a little worse for wear after the necessary manhandling but that wasn’t going to prevent him from pronouncing judgement on Greel, "What he deserved was a far more painful and lingerin’ kind of death."

Buck smiled slightly then winced as Ezra suddenly gripped his arm.

"Walsh!" the gambler said, desperately, "He sent Walsh to the saloon, after Inez and Angelica. And Mary’s there too."

Buck leaped to his feet, "Don’t worry! I’ll get to ‘em!"

He was halfway out the door when Ezra called out him, "Be careful! Inez is armed and ready to shoot!"

Buck turned to flash them a quick grin, "Like I ain’t faced that before!" Then he was gone.

Nathan was examining Ezra’s misshapen left ankle. He had managed to remove the boot with the aid of a sharp knife, causing Ezra a moderate amount of pain, and was alarmed to find the foot pale and pulseless.

Ezra, the professional face-reader, correctly deduced, "Bad?"

Nathan looked him straight in the eye, "Yeah, the ankle’s fractured an’ dislocated an’ the blood to the foot is bein’ cut off. If we don’t put it back as soon as possible, it might go gangrenous."

Ezra didn’t like the sound of the proposal, but it didn’t seem like he really had a choice, "Will this be worse than puttin’ a shoulder back in place?"

"Oh yeah," said Nathan softly, "Y’prob’ly won’t be awake by the end of it."

"Wonderful," Ezra murmured, closing his eyes.

He opened them again when Vin tapped him on the shoulder, and looked up to see the tracker proffering a dilapidated piece of leather decorated with numerous teethmarks. It might have been the sheath for a knife, at one stage.

"Here, bite on this."

Ezra eyed it with distaste, "No thanks, Vin. I couldn’t possibly take your lunch."

Vin couldn’t repress a small smile, "Stop tryin’ t’be funny, an’ do as y’told." When Ezra opened his mouth to protest again, Vin shoved the leather between his teeth. Ezra sighed and bit down on it.

Nathan had removed the shirt from under his jacket and was tearing it into strips, "Vin, could y’find a coupla nice straight pieces of wood for a splint. An’ then I’m gonna need you t’provide countertraction."


"I’ll be pullin’ ‘is foot in one direction t’straighten it. You pull the rest of ‘is leg in the other direction."

With his mouth full of leather, Ezra couldn’t offer the rather hypocritical observation that since he’d begun associating with Dr Elliott, Nathan had acquired a tendency to use long technical medical words. So he settled for just rolling his eyes.

Then he remembered what Chris had said about JD and Josiah, and realized that he was now also unable to inquire after their conditions. If Nathan was here, they were either out of danger or dead and his pessimism-steeped mind was tending towards the latter. He was about to spit out the leather and ask when Vin and Nathan turned back to him, armed with all the necessary tools for putting his dislocated ankle back in place and splinting it. It seemed to him, that they had gotten ready in a remarkably short amount of time.

Nathan cut away his left trouser leg up to the knee and then took a relatively gentle but firm hold of the foot. On Nathan’s instruction, Vin took hold of the knee and then looked up for the healer’s signal.

"Ready?" asked Nathan.

They weren’t sure if he was speaking to Vin or his patient but both nodded anyway, and Nathan started pulling. He did so slightly tentatively at first, to get a feel for the position of the bones, then sharply so as not to prolong the pain.

Due to long experience, he was able to partially block out Ezra’s substantial groan of pain (he’d long ago accepted the truth of the adage that you had to be cruel to be kind) but he noticed Vin wince in sympathy. The sound didn’t last long though. As Nathan felt the bones slip back into place, he saw that, as he’d predicted, Ezra had become mercifully unaware.

The foot became warm and reddened in his grasp, as flow returned to the blood-deprived tissues, but just to be certain, he felt for and found the pulse on the top of the foot. Vin looked at him questioningly and he nodded, "Yeah, it’s back. Jus’ gotta splint it up for now." The injury would probably be unstable and he’d most likely have to raid Doc Elliott’s office for some plaster of Paris to make a proper cast but he knew that he wouldn’t be able to do that until all the swelling had gone down anyway.

Vin looked down at the unconscious Ezra, "S’pose all them answers’ll have to wait."

Nathan sighed, as he continued to bind the ankle with strips of cloth, "Not sure I really wanna hear ‘em anymore."

Vin glanced at him in surprise, before understanding dawned, "Y’mean about Teresa?"

Nathan nodded, "Yeah. I s’pose I feel that until I hear it from him, it won’t be true."

Vin knew what he meant. They had all become fond of the feisty young mother. She had always seemed so full of life. It didn’t seem possible that she could be dead.

At least, they knew that little Angie had been spared, so far. For her sake, not to mention Mary and Inez, Vin prayed that Buck had got to the saloon on time.