The Seamstress and the Indians

by Angie

Chris and Nathan pulled Ezra from the coach and eased him to the ground. Ginny hovered protectively over him, her hands constantly reaching out to lightly touch him. The bullet had passed thru cleanly and the Foster’s had done a good job of cleaning the wound. The fever was not terribly high. Jackson tapped the gambler on the side of his face gently.

“Ezra? Can you hear me?”

The green eyes popped open and he immediately tried to sit up. A firm hand pressed him to the ground and he looked around. Twisting his head around, he finally spotted Ginny and her family. His body relaxed back onto the ground and breathed easily.

“Ezra?” Nathan gently turned the gambler’s chin toward him. The green eyes swung around and focused on the dark eyes of the healer. A relieved sigh passed from Standish’s lips before he smiled.

“I think he’s glad to see you, Nathan,” JD said as he smiled.

“I need to get him back to the clinic. What happened to Vin?” He addressed his question to the family standing beside the stage.

“The Indian took him, a couple of days ago,” Ginny said, never taking her eyes from Ezra.

“What Indian?” Chris came to his feet and advanced on the girl. She pulled away from the dark clothed man and her eyes widened in fright. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. What Indian took Vin?”

“He was with the other men, the ones who took us hostage. He said that your friend had killed his brother and he was going to have to stand trial.” Ginny explained.

Nathan eased Ezra into a sitting position to check the exit wound and the gambler cried out weakly. Immediately, Ginny shoved past Chris and landed on her knees at his side. Her eyes flashed angrily at the healer as she pushed his hands away.

“It’s all right, Ginny, dear. Mr. Jackson is attempting to evaluate my injury, not causing further harm. Do you think you could bring me a drink of water? I would appreciate it.”

The girl jumped to her feet and hurried off to get the canteen.

The motion of the travois lulled Vin as he tried to regain consciousness. His arm throbbed and he felt as if his body was on fire. He was tightly restrained and struggled against the bonds. He cried out in his rage.

The private riding behind the travois called for them to stop. He jumped down and carried the canteen to the injured man. Sliding his hand under the sweat-soaked hair, he lifted the head and tipped the canteen to the bruised lips.

A sliver of water touched his tongue. The fire in his throat was quenched. He tried to reach the canteen, to hold it longer, but it was pulled away. Something cool touched his face. Even as Vin’s tortured mind tried to figure out what was happening, the motion began again.

+ + + + + + +

“Chris, I’ll take Ezra and the Foster’s back to town, you go on and look for Vin.”

Larabee looked at Nathan and then at Ezra, who was being tended to by Ginny, and then back to the healer. As badly as he knew the southerner needed to go back to town, he hated the thought of not having Nathan with him if Vin was injured when they found him. Finally, he nodded.

Mr. Foster offered to ride with them to show Chris where they were separated from Vin. Borrowing Nathan’s horse, the four regulators rode off in the direction the stage had come from. Nathan helped Ezra into the stage and headed back to town.

+ + + + + + +

The injured white man was delivered to the surgeon. Dr. Lamb examined the feverish young man. He was dirty and bruised over most of his body but the worst injuries were to his thigh and wrist. When he removed the poultice from the wrist, the odor of the wound caused his stomach to tighten.

Bonny Lester had been working with Dr. Lamb for the better part of the year that her husband had been assigned to the post. She had seen a lot of illness and injury in that time but the sight of the young man’s wrist and forearm made her blanch.

“I don’t know what good it will do, but let’s get that into some hot water and start debriding the wound. Get those filthy clothes off of him and wash him down. Try coaxing water into him if he starts to waken. I’m going to get ready to operate on that arm.”

After cutting away the clothing, Bonnie lowered the wounded arm into a bucket of hot water with a generous amount of carbolic in it. Only the slightest flinch crossed the handsome face as she reached into the water and massaged the injury. Immediately, the water was colored with the blood and gore from the wound. Even over the smell of the carbolic, the odor was horrific. It wasn’t gangrene, she knew that smell, it was something else.

Dr. Lamb had the young man brought into the surgery room. Bonny had done a good job of cleaning the dirt from the body and had applied carbolic and salve to several of the smaller wounds and burns. He stretched the wounded arm out onto another table and strapped it down at the elbow. The hot water and carbolic had done their work and there was surprisingly little gore left in the deep wound.

Bonny stood at the head of the table and applied the ether to the mask over the man’s face. She would be responsible for keeping the man asleep while Dr. Lamb worked. He studied the damage to the muscle and opened the wound to study the scrapes on the bones. Except for the couple of angry, red lines that ran up the arm from the injury, the wound was surprisingly clean.

“Can you save his arm?” Bonny’s voice intruded on his thoughts.

“I’m sure as hell going to try. And then I want to find out what was in that poultice that was tied to him when he came in. It appears to have drawn most of the poison from the tissue. I’m going to stitch the muscle on the deep side first and then the outer muscle. I’ll have to trim the dead edges of the gash before I can stitch it closed.”

A couple of hours later, Dr. Lamb stood washing his face in a basin of cool water. He had cleaned and repaired the arm and leg wounds and had given the man liberal doses of sulfa medication. If the fever didn’t kill him, he had a reasonable chance.

+ + + + + + +

Chris and the others searched the area around the site of the original kidnapping. They found and began to follow what appeared to be Peso’s trail. Around dark, they found the place where Vin and Falcon had apparently spent the night. They found the blood soaked bandage and the remains of the bloody bindings attached to the roots.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan looked out the window as the stage eased into town and stopped near the clinic. He enlisted the help of a couple of men from the town to get Ezra up the stairs. Mrs. Foster and the stagecoach driver headed for the boarding house, Ginny would not leave the gambler’s side.

A few minutes after the news reached the rest of the town, Miranda Barton knocked on the door of the clinic. She slipped inside and studied the sleeping form on the bed.

“Is he all right?”

Nathan looked up from the herbal tea he was brewing.

“Mrs. Barton! Yes, he’s just sleeping now. He’s a little fevered, but not seriously. If you’d like, you can try to get him to take some of this tea. He don’t much like it, but if you give it to him he’ll probably take it just fine.”

Taking the cup from Nathan, Miranda turned and nearly bumped into the teenaged girl standing at the bedside. The girl backed away from the older woman and looked at the healer with a question in her eyes.

“She’s a friend of Ezra’s. Ginny, this is Mrs. Barton.”

After nodding to the girl, Miranda moved to the bedside and rested her hand lightly on Ezra’s forehead. The slight fever left a light sheen of perspiration on his face. At her touch, the green eyes opened and locked on hers. He immediately struggled to push himself up and reached out to pull her close. She eased her arm around him as she set the tea on the bedside table. After a couple of minutes, she eased him back against the pillows.

“Here, drink this for me.” She pressed the cup into his hand as she brushed the hair back from his face. His nose wrinkled at the tea and she shook her head at him. “Drink it. It will make you feel better.”

Nathan shook his head as he watched Ezra drain the cup. Miranda took the cup and pulled the blankets up higher on his chest. She gathered his hands in hers for a moment and smiled.

“I’ll be back to check on you later. Can I bring you anything?”

“Just yourself.” Ezra felt the tea taking effect and blinked his eyes rapidly a couple of times before smiling at Miranda again. “And maybe a piece of that apple pie you make with the … topping.” The soft drawl dropped off as he fell asleep.

“Can I bring you anything, Nathan?”

“No, thank you, Mrs. Barton. You’ve done enough. I woulda spent half an hour arguing that tea into him. Ginny can sit with him while I get cleaned up.”

+ + + + + + +

Cool sheets caressed him as he awoke. The room was dimly lit and he opened his eyes slowly. Instead of the dark, somber colors of the clinic, the ceiling and walls were white. That was odd. ‘Where am I? This isn’t Four Corners.’ Even as he tried to figure out where he was, his weakened body demanded rest and he slept.

Bonny explained to Ruth Sheppard what the doctor had done for the injured man. They were to keep bathing him with cool cloths to try to bring down his temperature. He was to have water and broth as often as he could be persuaded to take it. He was terribly weak from all the trauma he had endured.

Ruth studied the young man’s face. In spite of the bruises, he was a good-looking man. She ran a hand over his hair in a motherly gesture and he moaned softly. Taking up the cup of warm broth, she lifted his head and pressed the rim to his lips. She had to smile as he immediately began to draw the warm liquid into his mouth. After a couple of swallows, his strength waned and he went limp.

+ + + + + + +

At first light, Chris and the others resumed their trek thru the woods. The trail was hard to follow and they turned back a couple of times. By the time they reached the valley and found the Indian shelters, it was late afternoon. The area was deserted. They found Vin’s coat. It had been trampled into the ground. Josiah winced at the sight of the bloody sleeve.

From the blood on the ground and the drag marks all around, it appeared that the Indians had been attacked and many of them either wounded or killed. JD picked up several brass casings and brought them to Chris.

“Looks like military ammunition. Let’s head for the fort and see if they know anything about what happened out here.”

Buck searched one of the shelters and came out with a familiar gun belt. Vin’s gun gleamed dully in the sunlight before it was gently placed in Wilmington’s saddlebag. Chris brushed the worst of the dirt off of the hide coat before rolling it up and securing it behind his saddle. Without another word, the four men mounted and rode out.

+ + + + + + +

Miranda slipped back into the clinic with a tray balanced on her hip. The young girl, Ginny, jumped to her feet. She had fallen asleep and the sound of the door opening startled her. She smoothed down her dress and looked at the woman standing just inside the door.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you. You’re Ginny, right? Nathan said you took care of Ezra after he got shot. You must have done a good job, he’s going to be fine very soon.”

“I should go see to my ma. You’ll stay with him until Nathan comes back?” At Miranda’s nod, the girl practically bolted from the room.

At the sound of the door closing, Ezra opened his eyes and shifted slightly in the bed. An expression of pain crossed his face and Miranda put the tray down to go to his side. Pulling him into a sitting position, she arranged the pillows behind him and eased him back. She automatically pressed her hand to his forehead to check his temperature.

“Do you think you could eat something? I brought you some beef stew and that apple pie you asked for earlier. It’s still warm.”

His hand reached out and brushed something from her cheek and she nuzzled against the hand for a moment. She smelled of cinnamon and spice. He inhaled deeply and smiled.

“You didn’t have to make it special. Anything you brought would have been perfect.”

“But you asked for the apple pie.” She left the bedside and brought the tray. Settling it across his lap, she shook out the linen napkin and handed it to him.

As many times as he had eaten in the clinic, Nathan never thought to bring him a napkin. He had usually had to make do with clean towels. Ezra ran his hand over the napkin before laying it on his stomach and reaching for the spoon on the tray. She allowed him a couple of bites of the apple pie before nudging him toward the stew.

By the time Nathan arrived a half hour later, Ezra had finished his supper and was resting again. The healer smiled at the woman as she moved away from the bed.

“How is he?”

“The fever is almost gone and he ate a good supper. If you’d like, I can sit with him tonight.”

“You’ll come get me if his fever comes back up?”

“Of course. If you’ll make another cup of the tea, I’ll give it to him when he wakes next time.”

+ + + + + + +

Dark! It was dark and he was so hot! He hurt all over! Where was he? Why couldn’t he figure out what had happened? Why couldn’t he move? The blankets were so heavy. A brief flash of a fire and pain caused him to thrash and cry out softly.

Ruth moved from the chair to the side of the bed. The young man had been delirious off and on all night. She smoothed the hair from his face and held lightly to his injured arm to prevent him from moving it around. Using a bucket of cool water, she bathed his face and shoulders again. Her touch seemed to calm him, as did her soft humming. A child’s lullaby, one she had used on her own son, fell naturally from her throat as she bathed the fevered chest.

+ + + + + + +

Chris and Josiah sat staring into the fire. They were still a couple of hours from the fort. Buck and JD lay across from them, sleeping. The soft sonorous snore announced Wilmington’s presence to the world and brought a slight smile to Larabee’s face.

The itch in his mind was intense. He knew he had to find Vin. The longer they were apart, the stronger the urge became. Something was seriously wrong with his friend, he could feel it. Almost absentmindedly, he pulled at his right arm as if it pained him. Looking up, he saw Josiah watching him.

“We’ll find him, Chris. It’s only a little farther now.”

“I know, but he’s hurt bad, Josiah. I can feel it. I have this hot, sick feeling.” He scrubbed at his chest and looked around at the clearing. “He’s lost and alone.”

Josiah wondered at the unusual bond between the two men. He had seen the silent communication that occurred from time to time. He didn’t doubt for a moment that what Chris said was true.

+ + + + + + +

It was quiet in the clinic but Miranda was wide awake. She looked at Ezra as he slept. He had taken the bitter herbal tea around 10 PM and had been sleeping soundly. The tight, uneasy feeling in her chest brought burning tears to her eyes. ‘Why did I volunteer to sit here?’ It brought back the painful memories of the night she had been forced to sit and watch as her husband and daughter had succumbed to the fever.

The sound was so soft, Ezra wasn’t sure he actually heard anything. Then he heard it again, a soft sniffle and a shuddering breath. Someone was crying? He opened his eyes and searched for the source of the sound. Silhouetted against the window, he saw her.

“Mrs. Barton? Miranda? Are you all right?”

She turned, startled. “Ezra, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to waken you!” She sniffled again and wiped the tears away from her face. “Do you need anything? A drink of water?”

“Come here. Sit down.” He eased away from the edge of the bed and patted the mattress. She moved hesitantly to his side. “Tell me what is bothering you so.”

+ + + + + + +

Ruth noticed that the young man’s breathing had changed and she moved to his side. His skin was cool to the touch and he was drenched in sweat. ‘Thank Heaven.’ His fever had finally broken. She wiped him down with a soft cloth and carefully changed the sheets and blankets around him. With a final pass over his hair, she returned to her chair with a smile.

Dr. Lamb arrived just after reveille to check on his patient. He was pleased to find that the young man no longer burned with fever. The wound on his arm was still a little warm and swollen, but considering what it looked like when he came in, it was much improved. He sent Ruth back to her quarters to rest. He would stay until Bonny arrived with breakfast.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra had held Miranda against his chest as she recounted the night she had spent watching her family die around her. He apologized to her for being the cause of her unfortunate trip down memory lane. Eventually, she had dozed off on his shoulder. The comforter became the comforted as the southerner nestled his cheek against her head and closed his eyes.

Nathan peeked in the window before he entered the room that morning and decided that he needed another cup of coffee. He would not embarrass either of the people in the clinic by walking in on them.

+ + + + + + +

The smell of baked apples swirled thru the air and caused Vin’s nose to twitch. He opened his eyes and gazed up at the woman who leaned over him. Turning his head, he fixed his eyes on the tray she had brought in with her.

“Hungry? That is a good sign. Let me get another pillow and I’ll sit you up a little.”

“Where am I?”

“The soldiers brought you in a couple of days ago, you’re at the fort. Can you tell me your name?”

“My name is Vin, Ma’am.” He was hesitant to give his last name and the woman didn’t press

“Okay, Vin, I’ll be right back and we’ll get you fed.” She smiled and touched his arm lightly.

Several minutes later, Vin’s watering mouth was richly rewarded with warm baked apples on the end of the spoon Bonny held to his lips. The food was soft and sweet and his hungry body soaked it up like a sponge. He moaned in pleasure as she dipped up a second bite. Another bowl on the tray held oatmeal and she gave him a bite of it after the apples. He could take only a few bites of each before began to doze off again.

+ + + + + + +

Chris and the others rode into the fort. In the corral, Peso nickered to the familiar horses as they approached. The four men dismounted and hitched their horses to the rail of the corral. No one stood in Larabee’s way as he stormed into the commanding officer’s office. He stood over the older man at the desk using the Larabee glare to gather the man’s attention.

“Can I help you with something?”

“A friend of mine was taken by an Indian last week and I think your men may have seen him.”

“Would your friend be a young fellow with long dark hair?”

“That’s him. Is he here?”

“Over in the infirmary.”

The four men turned as one and left the small building. They crossed the compound and entered the infirmary building. A woman looked up at the dark clothed man and she stepped back a little.

“M-May I help you?”

“The commanding officer said my friend was brought over here.”

“Right thru there.”

Chris opened the door and stepped into the large room. On the far side of the space was the only patient in the room. A woman got up from the chair at the bedside and quickly moved to prevent them from going to his side.

“Can I help you with something?”

Giving no answer, Larabee stepped around the woman and went to kneel at Vin’s side. With a trembling hand, he stroked the top of his friend’s head. The blue eyes immediately opened and with a startled gasp Tanner raised his left hand and reached for Chris.

“You’ll have to forgive my friend, Ma’am, he’s been looking for Vin for a couple of days.”

Seeing her patient pulling himself up to cling to the blond man, Bonny smiled.

“Excuse me, Ma’am, could you tell me what happened to him?”

Bonny looked at the older, graying man and motioned him across the room farther away from the patient. The other two men immediately went to the bedside and stood over the two men clinging to each other. She sat at the desk in the corner and explained what the doctor had done to Vin.

The three regulators stood over their injured friend as he clung to Chris. The young tracker looked like he had been dragged thru a briar patch. His eyes had dark circles under them and his checks were sunken and bruised. Under the pale material of his shirt, they could see the dark bruises that covered his ribs.

Dr. Lamb entered the infirmary and quickly crossed to his patient.

“Gentlemen, I’d appreciate it if you would all step outside and let the young man get some rest. He’s been thru an awful lot and he needs his sleep.”

“If it’s all the same to you, doc, I would feel better if’n they stayed.” Vin’s voice pleaded.

The doctor studied the battered face and relented. “All right, but just for a little while.”

+ + + + + + +

Miranda stirred as the rhythm of the breathing under her ear changed. Suddenly, it dawned on her where she was and whose chest she was cuddled against. She sat up, embarrassed. The green eyes held a tinge of laughter as Ezra looked at her. She felt the heat of blush creeping up her face.

“You’ve done nothing to deserve the look of shame on your lovely face. It was I who drew you to my chest last night. As I recall, you were in some emotional distress.” His fingertips held her chin lightly as he studied her face.

“I should go and get you some breakfast.”

“If you would be so kind as to help me with my boots and jacket, I would go with you.”

“But shouldn’t you wait for Nathan to check you again? I don’t want to overtax you while you’re injured.”

“My dear, Mr. Jackson tends to prolong my recovery by taxing my patience. Sharing a meal with you would be the best medicine for me right now.”

Miranda helped him with his boots and jacket before insisting that he use the sling that had been set out for him. They slipped out of the clinic and over to the restaurant before Nathan made it back from the saloon.

Ginny looked up from her breakfast to see Ezra coming into the restaurant with the Barton woman. She immediately started to get up from the table but her mother stopped her.

“You leave that man alone Virginia, you can see he has a lady with him and you are too young to be chasing after a man of his age anyway!”

+ + + + + + +

After sitting with Vin for half an hour, Chris and the others went to find out if any of the Indians survived the attack on their settlement. Surveying the handful of survivors, Larabee felt his rage boiling over. Tanner had never gone up against the Indians except to protect the town or settlers, he didn’t deserve to be treated like that. One of the braves glared with open hostility at them from the confines of the cell where he sat.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan entered the clinic and stood with his hands on his hips as he looked at the empty bed. He did allow himself to chuckle as he noticed that the sling he had set out was gone. It didn’t take him long to figure out where they had gone.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah asked Dr. Lamb how long it would be before Vin would be able to travel. The doctor wanted to keep him for at least a week to watch for the wounded arm to heal. Chris announced that he would stay at the fort with Tanner while the others accompanied Mr. Foster back to Four Corners to be with his family.

+ + + + + + +

Her eyes were filled with only him as they had breakfast together. Miranda knew she had lost her heart to the green-eyed gambler. She was as giddy as a schoolgirl as they bantered over their meal. Nathan came into the restaurant and tossed an angry glare at the southerner.

“Don’t look now, Ezra, but I think you’re in big trouble.”

“Mr. Jackson, I assure you that I am in good hands. I shall return to the clinic later for you to fret over me. As you can see, I am wearing your confining sling.”

“You know better than to slip out like that, don’t you? Mrs. Barton, he is slipperier than a greased pig when it comes to staying in the clinic. The only person harder to confine is Vin Tanner.”

At the mention of the tracker, Ezra’s smile disappeared. “Have you heard from Mr. Larabee? Is there any news on Mr. Tanner?”

“I just got this from the telegraph office.” He handed over the yellow piece of paper.

‘Vin’s fine. Others returning with Mr. Foster. See you in one week. Larabee.’

A relieved expression crossed the gambler’s face as he returned the paper.

“Join us, Nathan?” Miranda asked as she indicated the empty chair.

“No, thank you, Mrs. Barton. If you will please see that he returns to the clinic this afternoon so I can clean and check his wound, I would appreciate it.”

As they finished their meal and left the restaurant, Ezra noticed Ginny and her family. He detoured around the room to speak with the young woman.

“Ginny, I didn’t get a chance to thank you for taking care of me after I was shot. Your care and attention made all the difference. Some young man will be very lucky to have you for a wife.”

As Ezra knelt next to Ginny’s chair, he took the girl by the hand and pressed a light kiss on it. He stood and tipped his hat to Mrs. Foster. The young girl continued to stare after the gambler as he took Miranda’s hand over his arm and left the restaurant with her.

As they were walking up the boardwalk, Casey Wells approached them from the direction of the boarding house. She called out to get their attention.

“Ezra, Mrs. Barton, have you heard from the others? Do you know when JD is coming back?”

“Mr. Jackson received a wire from the fort. Mr. Larabee is remaining behind with Mr. Tanner while the rest of our esteemed colleagues return with Mr. Foster. They should arrive some time this evening.”

“Thanks, Ezra. I’m glad to see that you’re all right.” A slight blush crept up her face as she smiled shyly at the southerner before turning and jogging away.

“I do believe that Miss Wells has a bit of a crush on you.”

A slight smile brought the dimples to Ezra’s face. He remembered only too well the one time Casey Wells had made a ‘pass’ at him. It had taken days for her to work up the courage to face him.

They ended up at her shop after a short walk. She guided him into her personal quarters at the back of the shop and eased him onto the couch. The exertion of the walk and the effort of eating had drained the man and she wanted him to rest. After drawing a blanket over him, she left him to sleep while she worked on a project that she had been neglecting while he was missing.

+ + + + + + +

Vin sat up in his bed and looked at the bandage on his arm. It still hurt like hell but the doctor had said that it was better than it had been when he had first been brought in. He could just barely move his fingers. Chris had gone to get some rest after sitting with him for a few hours. The relief at finding his friend safe had overwhelmed the gunslinger. The nurse, Bonnie, brought his lunch tray and helped him to eat.

“Your friends were very relieved to have found you, especially Mr. Larabee. You are fortunate to have such good friends.”

“They are special, Ma’am.”

Just thinking about all of them left a lump in his throat. Josiah had told him all that Mr. Foster had said about what Ezra did to rescue them from the kidnappers. He had been grateful for the help the southerner had given him after Falcon had attacked him. Hearing that Ezra had been shot had frightened him but Josiah assured him that he had only a slight fever when Nathan had left for Four Corners with the stagecoach.

Chris returned after lunch and spent several hours with Vin. There wasn’t a lot of conversation between the two men as they sat. Dr. Lamb visited with them briefly before returning to his own quarters that evening. In one corner of the room they found a checkerboard and used it to pass the time.

+ + + + + + +

The soft jingle of the bell on the shop door wakened the gambler. He was a little confused at finding himself asleep on the couch but he felt much better for the rest. Digging his watch from his pocket, he realized that he had only slept for a little over an hour. He stretched carefully after shedding the hated sling. A soft chuckle brought his eyes up, filled with guilt.

“He said you’d lose the sling the first chance you got. Sleep well?”

“Yes, thank you. Although I must apologize for my abominable behavior.”

“No need to apologize, you’re still recovering. Would you like a glass of lemonade? Nathan isn’t expecting you for a few more hours. He stopped by a little while ago to check on you.”

She handed him a glass of lemonade and sat on the chair across from him. The steady gaze of his green eyes disconcerted her slightly. A fluttering in her stomach caused her to look away. Her hands were trembling as she heard him come to his feet and approach her. Raising her eyes, she found him standing in front of her chair. His free hand caressed her cheek.

Miranda came to her feet and ran her hand down the side of his face. Their lips met and she leaned into the warmth of his embrace. His hand cradled the back of her neck and her hands rested lightly on his shoulders. The surge of emotions that raced thru her body was so strong that she trembled. Tears stung in her eyes and she twisted away from his kiss to bury her face in his shoulder.

“That is the second time I have evoked a tearful response. Would I be right in assuming it has something to do with your former husband?”

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to go to pieces like this. It has been so long since I have been attracted to anyone. Your build is similar to Lawson, but that is where the similarity ends.” She lifted his hand and stroked it with her fingertips. “Your touch, your body language, everything else about you is different. You stir feelings in me that I have not felt in years.”

There wasn’t anything he could say in response to her words so he lifted her face and kissed her again. Tightening his free arm around her waist, Ezra held her. After several minutes he released her and she backed away, shaking with the strength of the feelings he had awakened in her.

They returned to the clinic a couple of hours later and Nathan checked his wound. He was healing well and had no fever so the healer told him that he could return to his own quarters. There was no point in keeping him in the clinic when he suspected that the gambler would prefer the company of the seamstress.

+ + + + + + +

The doctor finally decided to release the young man. Keeping him in the infirmary after the second day was nearly impossible. Vin wanted to go home. His arm was still healing and weak but would improve with time and use. The other injuries were healing well. After giving Chris a list of instructions for Nathan and a vial of the salve he was using on the incision in Tanner’s arm, he let the men leave the fort.

It took them most of two days to get to Four Corners. Vin tired easily and had to stop frequently to rest. He slept for long hours during the night. It was nearly dusk when they reached the town. The tracker was immediately confined to the clinic until he was stronger. Simply having all of them together in town was a great comfort to Chris.

The gambler was oblivious to the anguish of the teenaged girl. Ginny had taken to watching him and Miranda every time they went out together. The girl had the beginnings of a bad crush. Jealousy was eating her up inside when she saw the two of them walking the boardwalk. She ducked into a doorway and watched as they exchanged a passionate kiss in the doorway of the seamstress shop. Her tension eased somewhat when the gambler left the door alone and headed for his room above the saloon.

Closing the door behind him, Ezra eased the sling from his shoulder and then eased off his jacket. He smiled as he hung the sling on the wall hook. Miranda insisted that he wear it and for her, he complied. A soft knock at the door drew his attention and he moved to see who was there.

The door opened and Ginny drank in the sight of the man she thought she loved. He blinked in surprise at the girl standing on the landing.

“Ginny, what are you doing here? Does your mother know where you are? Come in here for a moment, you should not be in the saloon at your age at this hour of the evening.”

The girl moved into the room and looked around. The space was spotless and the furnishings tasteful. She noticed his jacket lying across the rocking chair and moved to hang it up for him. Ezra followed her with his eyes for a moment before he spoke.

“Ginny, it is highly inappropriate that you should be alone here with me. Allow me to escort you back to the boarding house. Your parents must be worried about you.”

The gambler moved to take the girl by the arm only to find her pressing herself against his chest. He stumbled, wrapping his arms around her. He found himself looking into her eyes for a moment before she tried to press her lips to his. Her inexperienced attempt at kissing repelled him instantly. Thrusting her away he stepped back.

“I-I think you’d better go. It would not do for you to be found in here.” He stammered as he looked toward the door. He held his hand out as if to ward off evil.

Tears sprang to her eyes as she took in the look on the southerner’s face.

“But I thought, I thought you liked me.” Her voice quivered as she spoke.

“I do like you, as a friend. You are a very special young lady. I told you before that you will make some lucky young man a very special wife. I appreciate the care that you gave me when I was injured but I fear that you have misunderstood my intentions.”

A look of horror and dawning understanding crossed the young woman’s face before she bolted from the room. Racing down the stairs, Ginny ran from the saloon and out into the darkness. Ezra stood for a moment before pulling his jacket on and heading down the stairs. Chris and Buck were sitting at their usual table and looked up as the gambler approached.

“The Foster girl just went running out of here. Is there anything we ought to know?” Chris glanced up as he spoke. He was surprised at the confused look on the southerner’s face.

“I fear that I handled the situation badly. I didn’t realize that she had become attached to me in that way. I feel that I should find her and try to explain it to her again.”

For once, Buck didn’t have a smart comment. The ladies man leaned forward and rested his arm on the tabletop. “Would you like me to find her for you? From the way she lit out of here, she’s not gonna want to see you right away.”

“I think you should give her a day or two to calm down. She’s a teenage girl, Ezra, she’ll get over it.”

“I hope that you are right, Mr. Larabee. She is a dear child and I have been so engrossed in my own pursuits that I failed to see what was happening right before my eyes.”

“How is Mrs. Barton?” Buck’s eyes held a mischievous sparkle.

“Mr. Wilmington, you should know that a gentleman never kisses and tells.”

+ + + + + + +

Leaning back in the chair against the wall outside of the saloon, Vin soaked up the morning sun. His leg was healing well and he had only a slight limp. He was still a long way from healed. His right arm was still weak. The wound was healing well but the muscles were weak from disuse. Nathan had been doing some stretching exercises with him to keep the muscles from stiffening up.

The creak of the chair next to him caused Vin to look over. Chris handed him a cup of coffee as he leaned his own chair back against the wall. The two men sat silently watching the town coming to life around them. JD rode in from his patrol and headed for the saloon to get breakfast. Just as the kid was joining the other two men on the boardwalk, Mr. Foster came running from the boarding house.

“Have either of you seen my daughter? She didn’t come in last night.”

“I saw Ginny last night. Are you sure she didn’t just go out before you woke up this morning?”

“Mr. Larabee, I am quite sure. Where did you see her?”

“Running out of the saloon late last night.”

“And where might I find Mr. Standish? If I find him with my daughter, I will kill him myself.”

“Mr. Foster, you really don’t want to be threatening one of my men. I saw Ezra go to his room last night, alone. He wouldn’t do anything with your daughter anyway, she’s just a kid.”

“You had better be very sure of that.” Mr. Foster stormed off in a huff.

“Do you want me to go wake Ezra?” JD offered.

“Yeah, we’d best get busy and find her before she gets into trouble.”

Half an hour later, the seven men were riding out in search of Ginny Foster. Vin picked up her trail and followed it toward the river. They found a small amount of blood on some rocks where the girl had fallen. The trail continued along the river. After an hour, they found where someone on a horse had apparently picked up the girl. They trailed the horse for a couple of miles.

+ + + + + + +

Ginny sat shivering in the blanket as she looked at the man who had pulled her from the river. It was his fault she had fallen in, but he had gallantly jumped in to save her when he realized that she couldn’t swim. She had willingly accepted his offer to take her home to dry her clothes. His name was Phillip and he was only a few years older than she was.

Phillip jumped down from the horse and pulled the shivering girl down. He nudged her toward the house and Ginny suddenly began to resist. Something told her not to go into the house with him. As he cast a leering look at her, the girl screamed and began to run. He overtook her quickly and tackled her to the ground. Her hands were trapped inside of the blanket and his weight prevented her from being able to kick. His swiftly delivered fist knocked her senseless and he carried her unresisting body into the small cabin.

+ + + + + + +

The trail they were following crossed a stream and meandered thru a wildflower field before heading into the hills. Vin kept the others back as he checked a point where the trail converged on another. The second trail seemed to follow the first.

“It looks like they picked up a tail. It’s a big horse carrying a load and moving along slowly. We should come up on it before we come up on Ginny,” Vin explained as he climbed back into the saddle.

+ + + + + + +

A hand stroked her face gently and she nuzzled against it. She was under a nice, warm quilt and something good to eat was cooking. Ginny opened her eyes from her nap only to find herself in the midst of a full-blown nightmare. Phillip was stretched out next to her on the bed. It was his hand stroking her cheek. A lewd smile lit his face and the girl began to try to turn away.

“Wait until my pa sees you! You’re the prettiest thing we’ve had in this cabin in a long time! I hope you can cook ‘cause I’m real tired of doing it all by myself. He’ll be home in a little while. He’s just been out checking his traps. Don’t be afraid! He’ll be real good to you.”

A cold sweat broke out on Ginny’s face as she tried to pull away from the gentle touch.

“Please don’t! I want to go home! Please? My folks will be worried if I don’t get back!”

The big, draft horse blew loudly as his owner stepped down. Jonah Sobel led the horse to the trough and let him get a good drink while he pulled the pelts off of the animal’s back. He’d had a good day. He had two wolf pelts and several fox and beaver pelts. After he dropped the pelts in the barn, he led the horse to the stall and pulled off the saddle and tack. Tossing a fork full of hay into the stall, he left the barn and headed for the house. He stopped at the pump to wash his hands and face.

A girl’s scream drew Jonah into the cabin. A young girl bolted off of the four-poster bed in the corner of the room and tried to get to the door. Like a startled deer, she ran without looking and slammed right into his chest as he stood in front of the door. She screamed again before he managed to wrap his arms around her and cover her mouth.

“Easy now, little girl. Just calm down. If I take away my hand, will you be quiet?” He growled into Ginny’s ear. When the frightened girl nodded, he lifted his hand. “Okay, just stop fighting for a minute and I’ll let you go.”

As soon as Jonah lifted his hands from the girl, she backed away from him warily. Phillip edged closer to her and laughed at the terrified look on her face. Ginny looked around for anything that she could use as a weapon. Her eyes swept over the small cabin and found nothing of use. Phillip edged closer.

+ + + + + + +

The horses came to a halt when Vin pulled Peso up short. They were coming out of the edge of the woods and facing a small clearing with a cabin. The small horse barn was set off a short distance from the cabin along with several racks used for stretching animal hides to cure them. A thin line of smoke floated up from the chimney.

“That’s the Sobel place. I rode out here once to help when Jonah had gotten his ankle in a trap. It’s just him and his boy. They trap and trade with the Indians and with the merchants of the surrounding towns,” Josiah announced.

“Maybe one of them picked Ginny up. Or maybe one of them saw her. I think we should ride down and talk to them,” Chris said as he studied the cabin and shifted his weight on the saddle.

Vin nodded and they rode down toward the cabin.

Hearing the approach of horses, Ginny bolted for the cabin’s only window. The sight of the seven men coming down the trail filled her with relief. Jonah wrapped his arm around her neck and pressed a knife under her chin.

“If you make a sound, I’ll kill you, understand?”

When the girl gave a terrified nod, he dragged her to the dark corner of the cabin and handed the knife to Phillip. The young man gripped her by the hair and laid the flat of the knife against her throat. When she shifted slightly in the chair, he tightened his grip on her hair and pulled her head back a little farther. When the knock came on the door, she made only a slight whimper.

“Mr. Sobel, Josiah Sanchez, do you remember me?”

“Yes, Josiah, it’s good to see you again. Is something wrong?” His eyes swept over the other six men.

“We’re looking for a girl who ran away from the town. About 15, brown hair about so high?” He held his hand up in front of his chest. “We followed her trail to the river and then to your cabin.”

“No, I haven’t seen any young girl. I’ll ask Phillip when he gets back. If he picked her up, he probably took her back to town.”

“Okay, Jonah, if you see the girl, will you make sure she gets back to town? Her parents are terribly worried about her,” Josiah asked as he shook the other man’s hand.

“I hope you find her. There’s a pack of wolves in the woods. I’ve been thinning them out but they’re still dangerous. If she’s hurt and they catch scent of her she could be in real trouble.”

Josiah and the others mounted the horses and rode toward the trail. When they were out of sight of the cabin, Vin stopped. The others stopped to look at the tracker.

“He was lying! I could see it in his eyes. You all stay out of sight, I’m going to head back down and see if I can find out anything.”

Chris caught Vin’s blue eyes and stared hard. The warning to be careful was implied and accepted. The others dismounted and JD gathered up the reins to take the animals farther up the trail. Chris and Buck edged around to get closer to the cabin while still remaining under the cover of the trees. Nathan and Josiah edged around from the other direction so that they could see the front of the cabin. Ezra and JD slipped thru the woods to try to follow Vin. They tried to get closer to the barn.

As soon as the men reached the edge of the woods, Jonah nodded to Phillip. He released the girl and pushed her forward. After the tense moments of having her head pulled back, Ginny toppled out of the chair to her hands and knees. Despair welled up in her as she looked from one feral gaze to the other.

The sun was moving so that the shadow of the trees covered the area between the house and barn. Vin was on his hands and the balls of his feet as he eased toward the cabin. The compact building had only one window and that was in the front. It had doors in the front and back. The outhouse was on the back side of the house several yards away. Vin pressed his back against the wall of the cabin and closed his eyes to allow him to focus on the sounds inside of the cabin.

Jonah advanced on the girl and drew her to her feet. Ginny pulled away and whimpered again. The man ran his hand down the side of her face. She shuddered as she tried to turn away but gasped suddenly when he gripped her chin roughly.

“You can make this easy or you can make it hard. I don’t want to hurt you but I will if I have to. You behave yourself and this can be a mutually beneficial arrangement. If you do not, I will make you wish that I had killed you,” Jonah hissed.

The badly frightened girl was shoved toward the hearth and instructed to prepare supper for them. In spite of her trembling knees, she was able to stir the pot of stew that was hanging near the fire. Her hands shook so hard as she was trying to set the table that she nearly dropped the dishes she had taken from the shelf next to the hearth. As she was putting the silver wear on the table, Phillip reached out and touched her hip and she caught herself just before she screamed.

Out of the corner of his eye, Vin saw the slight movement of something red in the trees. He ducked low and ran for the pair creeping up on the corner of the barn.

“Damn it, Ezra! I thought all of you were gonna stay up on the trail!”

“We thought that perhaps we might create a diversion if the need arose. The rest of our merry band are spreading out to provide cover fire if you should find it necessary to resort to brute force,” the gambler replied.

“Is she in there?” JD asked as he looked toward the cabin.

“I think so. I can hear the man talking to someone in a real low, threatening kind of voice. Maybe a diversion would be a good thing. What did you have in mind, Ezra?”

“If we can encourage the horses in the barn to make noise, perhaps that would draw the elder Mr. Sobel out of the cabin and we can slip in and overpower the younger man.”

Once Vin and Ezra were in position, JD began waiving his arms at the horses to try to cause them to make noise. Getting no response, the young sheriff pulled off his coat and began to waive it before the younger animal. The young stallion tossed his head and began to neigh at the material flapping so close to his face. After a few more moments, the animal began to prance in the confines of his stall and kicked at the wall.

Ginny set the pot of stew on the table and set the potholder down. She looked up at the sounds coming from the barn and caught the worried looks on the faces of the two men. She wrung her hands as she stared at the door. Jonah looked at Phillip and then at the door. The stallion’s cries grew louder and more frantic as he began to kick the barn wall.

“Go see what has your horse wound up. Hurry up!”

Phillip ran out of the cabin and Ginny edged toward the back door. Jonah looked at her and she froze in her tracks. She edged back toward the table and reached for the empty chair farthest from the older man. Her knees were getting wobbly again and she was feeling sick to her stomach.

The boy entered the barn and looked around to see what had the stallion so upset. Seeing nothing, he moved farther into the barn toward the stall. The click of the gun being primed caused the hairs on the kid’s neck to stand on end. As he felt the cool metal touch his neck, he raised his hands. JD stayed behind the young man as he nudged him toward the stall. Ezra crept along behind Vin approaching the door. Drawing his guns, he crouched down as he moved toward the back of the cabin.

The door opened again and Jonah did not look up as he spoke around the mouthful of food, “Well?”

Ginny glanced up and saw the tracker standing inside of the door. Vin made a quick gesture and the girl dropped her eyes back to the plate in front of her. As the tracker stealthily crept across the floor, Jonah turned. The older man jumped up, causing the chair to tip over behind him. He swung a hard right at Vin while his left hand pulled a knife from his belt.

After securing the younger Sobel in the stall, JD hurried to the cabin. He was only a few steps behind Ezra as they entered the cabin. Seeing the knife flash in the firelight, Ezra pulled the trigger of the gun he had drawn when he came out of the barn. Jonah Sobel gasped, dropped the knife and sank to the floor before he toppled over dead.

Ginny had screamed at the sound of the gunshot as she jumped up from the table. When the body hit the floor, her shoulders began to heave as she struggled to force sound past the knot in her throat. JD started toward the terrified girl only to have her to shrink from him. Phillip Sobel was dark haired like the young sheriff and Vin figured that was the reason she had shied away. He stepped toward the girl and she bolted around the table to throw herself into Ezra’s arms.

Holding the girl with his left arm, the gambler holstered his gun and turned Ginny’s eyes from the body bleeding out on the floor. With a shudder, the girl began to sob as she tugged at the lapels of his coat.

“Let’s get her home,” Vin suggested as he tossed his head toward the door. Ezra took the hint and guided the girl out just as Chris and Buck charged in.

“We heard a gun shot. Is everyone all right?” Chris demanded.

Josiah and Nathan were next into the small cabin. Josiah knelt and checked the pulse of Jonah before offering up a prayer for the dead man. He closed the unseeing eyes as Nathan prepared to help him move the body off of the floor.

“JD, you and Buck take Phillip and ride back with Ezra and the girl. We’ll take care of things here and meet you back in town in a few hours,” Chris said as he surveyed the room.

Once out of the cabin, Ginny began to shiver. Ezra pulled off his jacket and wrapped it around her shoulders as he nudged her into a rocker on the porch. Kneeling before the girl, he offered her his handkerchief. As she wiped her eyes, Ginny looked into the gambler’s eyes. The concern she saw, she mistook for love and she smiled just before she blacked out.

After tying Phillip’s hands to the saddle horn, Buck gathered Ginny into his arms. Ezra figured that the girl would panic if she awoke with anyone else, so he agreed to carry her back to town. JD brought a blanket from the cabin to cover the girl, knowing the effect of shock. They situated the girl in front of the gambler and covered her with the blanket.

Ginny’s head bobbed as she rode until she began to waken. She stiffened as she felt the arm wrapped securely around her waist.

“Be at ease, Miss Foster. You are quite safe,” Ezra spoke softly so as not to startle the girl. She relaxed into his arms and closed her eyes again.

The three men arrived in town with the two teenagers. Mr. and Mrs. Foster dashed off of the boardwalk and pulled their daughter from the front of the gambler’s saddle. As her mother cried and fussed over her, Ginny only had eyes for Ezra. Mr. Foster didn’t miss the direction of his daughter’s gaze and he snatched the red jacket from her shoulders and shoved it back toward its owner.

“I told Mr. Larabee and now I’m telling you, stay away from my daughter!” His words were punctuated by sharp jabs of his finger. Ezra nodded and touched his hat in acknowledgement of the command. Buck moved to intercept the man and was stopped.

“Leave it, Mr. Wilmington. As much as I appreciate you coming to the defense of my honor, the man is distraught over his daughter. My skin is not so thin as to be irrevocably damaged by his words.”

A soft hand closed over his shoulder and Ezra turned. Miranda waited to see what his response would be before she touched him further. The southerner slipped an arm around her and leaned against her for a moment. The seamstress pulled him up the boardwalk after seeing that JD had gathered Chaucer’s reins up with his own.

The others returned after burying Jonah next to his wife. Vin and Josiah were concerned about Ezra while Nathan and Chris were more concerned about Ginny. They went to the Foster’s room at the boarding house to get a statement from the girl. Her father met them at the door and turned them away. They met up with the rest of the group in the saloon.

“You find Ezra?” Chris enquired of them as he took a chair.

“Near as anyone can tell, he went with the seamstress. JD said she led him away after the confrontation with Mr. Foster. I’d guess he’s getting a dose of the best medicine right about now,” Josiah explained.

After Miranda settled Ezra on the couch, she brought him a glass of tea. When he finished with the glass, she took it away and moved around so she could reach his shoulders. Riding for most of two hours holding onto the unconscious girl with his still healing shoulder had left him tense. Emotionally, he was wiped out. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw the glint of firelight off of the knife as it lashed out toward Vin.

Finally, the emotion bubbled up and boiled over. Ezra pulled Miranda into his arms and buried his face in her neck. Their kisses started tentative and built up to crushing and passionate. As her smaller hands removed the pin from his cravat and began to unbutton his shirt, he suddenly tensed up and pushed her hands away.

“Mrs. Barton, I don’t think it would be appropriate for us to engage in this course of action. I-I …”

Her lips smothered his protest and his hands finally released hers. He embraced her tightly as her lips and teeth moved along his jawbone and down his neck. He was unresisting when she pulled him to his feet and led him into her bedroom.

When the sun was cresting the hills east of town, Ezra snuggled into the warmth of the body cuddled up on his side. Her hip rested on his and the top on her head was fitted neatly beneath his chin. Her arm was thrown possessively across his chest. The patchwork quilt was pulled up to her shoulder. With his free hand, he ran his fingertips along the contours of her face. Miranda smiled as she stretched against his side.

The smell of coffee and eggs was still faintly in the air when the gambler showed up at the saloon later in the morning. Buck tossed up a smile of pure envy as Ezra went to his room to change and shave. JD looked up from the plate he was just finishing and followed the other man with his eyes.

“Buck, do you think he actually spent the night with her?” The young sheriff’s eyes were owlish as he spoke.

“Yeah, I’d have to say he did. And I’d bet it did him some good,” the ladies man responded.

The Foster’s left town a couple of days later. Mr. Foster was determined to get his daughter away from the place where she had endured so much trauma. Philip Sobel was sentenced to a year in the territory prison for his part in kidnapping Ginny and holding her hostage.

It was a long, slow recovery for Vin. He had to work to rebuild the muscles in his wrist enough to be able to fire his gun again. He insisted on going to the trial for the Indians who had survived when the soldiers rescued him. He pleaded with the military judge that the braves be relocated to a larger reservation. In spite of everything that they had done to him, Vin had no desire to see them punished. Losing their homes was punishment enough.

The judge stared for a long time at the young man in the buckskin coat. He doubted that the braves would even appreciate what the man was trying to do for them. When he could no longer bear the penetrating blue eyes, the judge agreed to have the braves relocated.

Chris stood with Vin as he stared into the compound where the Indians were being held. Falcon was one of the survivors. He approached the bars and glared at the Texan.

“Have you come to gloat before the soldiers hang us?”

“No, I came to wish you well in your new home. The soldiers will be moving you to another reservation soon. The judge decided to spare your lives.”

“Why would he do that?” Falcon asked.

“Because Vin asked him to spare you, that’s why! In spite of the way that you tortured him, he asked the judge for your life,” Chris hissed venomously.

“I took your brother’s life, there wasn’t anything I could do to prevent that, but I didn’t want to be the reason you lose your life, Falcon,” Vin said softly.

The brave studied the white man carefully. For more than a week, they had expected to die. It was easy to say that they were not afraid to meet their end at the white man’s hand; it was quite another thing to sit in the shadow of the gallows day after day. Falcon nodded before walking away from the bars.

“He could have said thank you,” Chris commented several minutes later.

“Nah, it’s not their way,” Vin replied. “Let’s get back to town, Cowboy.”