Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
The gunslinger's spurred boots pounded out staccato as he bolted along the boardwalk, duster splaying out behind him as made for the jail. Narrowly missing a passerby and shouldering his way between gawping out-of-towners, the peacekeeper could only manage a snappy apology before lunging through the door with a grateful sigh.
The gunslinger snorted.
Not that he would have shouted it across the street, but Chris and the others would be glad to be rid of the town for a few days; with one down already and with Buck still laid up after his fall from the porch roof, their duties for the town had left the remaining seven spread thin since Ezra had ridden out. Each had been forced to pull double or triple shifts on patrol, riding out for prisoners, for collection errands and escort trips, and it had exhausted them all; draining the life from even the most exuberant and energetic of their group.
But regardless of their fatigue, as of that afternoon those left had been hurrying around the town preparing for the imminent ride out for the best part of half an hour after Rosie Latent had finished her story. It had left them angry, enraged, sickened and greatly disheartened their gambler had done what he had and suffered for his courage, and with just a look and a nod Larabee had given the others the go-ahead before striding from the clinic to begin his own chores; but just starting them had been a pain in the ass.
With the upcoming trial in Eagle Bend in two short days, strangers had poured into the town ten to the dozen, milling around shop fronts, rummaging through mercantile stores and overcrowding the saloon and restaurants, and yet just two days ago it had been peaceful as normal. With the sudden capture of Oregon-born outlaw Louis Buchanan people from across the territory had travelled in droves to see him swing; what made it worse for law enforcement was that the Judge had set the trail in Eagle Bend, so close to Four Corners, where the murderer had made a crueller name for himself.
But with the news that the warring families had already engaged in combat, Orrin Travis was forced to forgo the honour of sentencing the brutal killer in favour of deliberating over the sentences for Quinn Cauldwell, his family and men. Instead he offered the seat to his friend, Judge Henry Fowler so that he could deal with matters between the Latents and Cauldwells personally and see to it that justice was done for Ezra Standish. The rise in newcomers to Four Corners wasn't expected to last; the travellers were simply using the town as a place to rest, but with the boys already set on the knife-edge and chomping at the bit, it wasn't setting them at ease.
This was going to be a difficult ride and the sooner they left the better.
"Boys, Travis is on his way. When you're done here get your horses saddled and ready in front of the clinic- fast as you can." He threw a canvas bag onto the desk and spread it out ready for its cargo. "Josiah, how are we for ammo?"
"Gloria just brought round a new box for the rifles before the uh- guests bought them all. We're set for a good fight." He grimaced and stacked the boxes from the cabinet.
"Good. Vin's helpin' Nathan with the medical supplies so, JD, we'll need two extra horses; sort that out with Tiny and grab a spare saddle before we head out; whatever money he needs, tell him I'll see he's paid when we get back." Chris grabbed another rifle from the rack and tossed it across the room to Josiah, checking and loading the ammunition in practiced succession.
"Is Nate expectin' heavy casualties?" Sanchez breached the rifle and checked down the barrel.
"He knows Ezra's gonna need all the help he can get, he figures there'll be more who need help from the fight. Surroundin' towns ain't gonna step in for the Latents so it's down to themselves-"
The gunslinger turned towards the voice to see Buck hobble into the jail quickly before another wave of newcomers could mow him down in their eagerness. "Hey, watch it!" He cried as three kids sprinted past the door and shook his head. "What's goin' on? Nathan said you got news?"
"We're headin out this evenin', Buck; we need you on guard duty while we're gone." Larabee winced, knowin the ladies' man would be in the thick of it while the trial took place. "You'll be the only one here for the job and the only one of us not fit for the ride..."
The ladies' man shook his head impatiently, having already had that discussion with the healer. "That's fine, but what news did you get? What happened out there?" He edged over to the desk and looked at the array of weapons they'd amassed over the years.
JD gathered an armload of guns for the bag and shook his head in resentment. "It's crazy, Buck! They figured it all out, Ezra's hurt and now we don't know where the hell to find him! And we're days away from reaching him!"
Buck grabbed the eager blur's arm as he sped past. "Hold on, calm down. Who is they? And why can't you?"
"William's daughter just rode in; it took more than two days to find us. The fight already started across the ranches and by the sounds of it Quinn kicked it off by killing one of Latent's boys. " Larabee growled in disgust as he drew the jail keys from the desk. "Here, keep these with you."
Wilmington frowned at the gunslinger's tone as he caught the keys. "But what's stoppin' you from reachin' Ez? What's happened to him?"
"He gave himself up to the Cauldwells; thought he'd save the family from the worst by offerin' himself as a scapegoat."
JD clenched his jaw and hid his face before the others could see the burning tears in his eyes. He had been worried for the gambler since his departure; with no news to ease concerns his guilt and doubts had festered, and now with this news...
Buck's jaw dropped in shock. "What!? Does the man have a death wish? How in the heck did this all start anyhow?" His voice rose. "He had this all figured out; I thought he was supposed to be posin' as one of them?"
"Well it didn't work, did it!" JD snapped. "They caught Ezra tryin' to get the evidence from the property. They damn near killed him trying to get their hands on it, and-" He stopped bitterly, unable to voice the probability.
"And for all we know, they succeeded." Buck spun round at Josiah's reply. "No one's seen or heard from Ezra since the fight broke out, and no word had reached those left back at the house before Rosie fled north."
Buck turned as JD angrily slapped a gun into the bag with a small, hitched breath. "JD?"
The kid stopped what he was doing but wouldn't meet his eyes.
"I know what you're thinkin'. Ain't your fault, you know?"
"The hell it isn't!" The kid snarled and slumped into a chair. "He was so sure this was gonna work, you know? And he was supposed to be so safe- so close to the telegram wire to call us for help."
Josiah winced as he recalled his own words.
"Do you think he even tried to reach us when it went wrong?" JD whispered as a worry sprung to mind. "Do you think we mighta missed a telegram?"
Sanchez shook his head sadly; he knew full well Ezra wouldn't drag the others into the problem. The man knew he was going it alone the second he left for the Cauldwell property.
Wanting more answers, Buck looked up at Chris, resting a hand on the kid's shoulder.
"They found out he was an imposter. He had to kill one of the ranch hands to escape and they caught him headin' back to the Latents; he was hopin' to give them the findings to hand over to Travis then give himself up in the hope of avoidin' any confrontation. He must have known time was up." Larabee clenched his jaw and laid another rifle on the desk.
"And now there's speculation of whether even the wives and children managed to survive; if Quinn was still willing to carry out the threats then they'd be the next target after they'd finished off Latent's men." Sanchez surmised.
"Shit." Buck breathed and shrank down into a chair. "Hell, I don't figure he'd be one to just leave it at Ezra. Christ, those young kids... Is there a possibility they just took Ezra back to their ranch? " He asked hopefully, but that chance was slim; after they finished having their fun they'd kill him quick.
"There ain't no way Quinn'd take him back there, not now. We're lookin at a widened search, that bastard has hundreds of acres to dump a body." Without saying it, his eyes told Buck they wouldn't be given a chance to find their friend, and that thought was enough to fuel him on. "But we're takin' a couple of Ezra's shirts with us; hounds should be able to track the scent easy enough if we can get a hold of any."
"I just- I don't get it," The kid voiced quietly. "I mean Ezra's so damn sly, how did they see him?" JD chewed a thumbnail anxiously and couldn't shake off his feeling of loss.
"Son, it wasn't through carelessness." Josiah placed a heavy hand on the kid's shoulder. "After what Fin had put him through, he wasn't in any condition to cover his tracks."
Buck looked up at this. "Who's Fin?"
Larabee shared a look with Josiah.
Larabee shrugged as shoulder as much to say 'Over to you'.
"After our brother made his escape, Ezra was tracked easy enough and one of Quinn's men, Jacob Fin, tried to get answers out of him..." Josiah's voice rumbled restrainedly.
Buck's eyebrows shot up then suddenly pulled into a frown. "You talkin' about torture? This bastard tortured Ez?"
Sanchez lifted a bag of ammunition distractedly and cleared his throat before he tore the place up in rage. "JD, best you get those horses ready, son; we'll need to leave soon." He whispered.
Shoulders slumped in defeat; JD got up without a word or look to the ladies' man and strode quickly from the jail, swallowing back his worry in the presence of the others.
Buck hadn't missed the fear flit across Josiah's face and turned to Larabee expectantly. "That true?"
Chris nodded silently.
"And- he just offered himself up for more? I-I don't believe it...." Buck shook his head in dismay. "I ain't ever heard of a Jacob Fin. What did he do to Ezra?"
"You really don't want to know." Chris pinned him with a look that told Buck he'd get no further asking questions like that.
Wilmington rested his elbows on his knees, his tone considerably darker. "Fine, then at least tell me what you know about the son of a bitch."
Larabee closed the cabinet and turned to gather the leftover guns. "Goes by the name of Jacob Fin, but it sounds like it's just a cover. He was a nasty piece of work in the army and I swear it turns my stomach to know what he did to his own men. The Union's men."
Buck could have- and certainly wanted to bellow out loud and vent his rage at the mere idea of turning on men he served with but he held it down fast. "Do we know who he hurt?"
"No." Larabee shook his head, knowing it was best they didn't because his actions wouldn't have been justifiable in court when they got hold of the Cauldwells. He'd heard of insanity bringing a man to kill and commit suicide, but the stories Rosie had told them... Good God.
"Listen, whatever he was and whatever he did to Ezra, Standish took care of the bastard himself. He's history. But the army deserves to know what happened to him. He's a wanted man; the Union put a bounty on his head and it's probably around $10,000 now, maybe more."
Buck nodded, knowing where the gunslinger was going with it and grateful to have something to work on.
"Check through old records, any 'wanted' posters of a man with longish silver/brown hair, tall; with a price that big he shouldn't be hard to miss. Go through whatever articles Mary kept over at the Clarion. Send out wires and ask around- find the son of a bitch, Buck."
Wilmington caught the fire in his friend's eyes and answered the snarl with a feral grin. "You got it."
"Whatever you find, keep it close to your chest until we get back. We can't run the risk of sending a wire from any of those towns, and don't trust any that look as though they came from us. If we need to contact you one of us'll head east for Short-Rope," he grimaced. "And maybe the Judge'll use their gallows for any survivors." He murmured of the ghostly little town.
Larabee finally looked across at Buck and instantly felt a flicker of guilt that they would have to leave the man behind. "I'm sorry you couldn't come along. I know you'd wanna find Ezra yourself."
"Hell yeah, I got more than a few scores to settle for him," He admitted, remembering the times Ezra had stepped up to help when an angry husband or irate lover came calling.
Buck shook his head and looked at his hand. "But I can't shoot with a broken hand; I wouldn't be much good out there." He whispered in frustration. "Will you be okay?" He asked seriously.
"Why do you ask?"
"Chris, kids have been killed; just boys." He replied as if were the obvious answer. "You gonna be okay out there?"
Larabee studied his friend's face for a moment before nodding. "Gotta be."
For Buck it wasn't much of an answer, but where Larabee was concerned it would have to do for now.
Deciding it best to step back, he looked up curiously as a query came to mind. "Anyway, how come Nathan's let Vin go? Broken ribs don't make for a comfy trail ride."
Chris smiled and shook his head. "Bargains and threats, but then reason won out in the end. If we start out now, we'll need a tracker to pick a good route through the mountains, and for the search. If things get ugly out there we've got cover on the high ground, too."
"You expectin' too much trouble?"
"Hell, I couldn't guess, but we've cleaned out what weapons we've got in case. We've left you the Spencer and the shells in the cabinet, that'll leave you with your own guns for now. You need anything else?"
"No, I'm good. Got plenty of willing company to keep me busy." He bobbed his eyebrows and grinned lasciviously despite his ever growing worries for his departing friends.
Larabee snorted. "Well before you get all comfortable, Nathan's comin' over to check your hand- then you'll be on your own until mornin'." He warned. "Yosemite's offered his help if you need it."
"Yeah, I know." Buck watched Chris walk to the door and scratched his cheek in thought. "Hey, Chris? Did Nathan say if-" He shrugged helplessly. "You think Ezra's gonna make it?"
The gunslinger took a moment and sighed. "Honestly, no one knows Buck. It sounds bad."
"Listen, Chris I gotta say somethin'." Buck walked towards him and held onto his gaze. "If it's too late, don't leave him out there. Don't bury him there. Bring him home, okay?"
Larabee nodded wordlessly and gripped his friend's shoulder.
"And don't bother savin' any of those bastards for me- you give 'em hell, you hear?"
"Better make sure JD doesn't get to 'em first then." He grinned.
"Heck, you're right." Buck shook his head sadly. "Watch out for that kid, Chris. He's angry and blamin' himself- it ain't a good combination."
"You got it." He assured quietly before tipping his hat to the big-hearted man and heading to the clinic, chest aching with the possibility that burying the gambler would be all they could do for him.
Roughly shaking off his silent pity, he looked up as Nathan jogged towards the jail.
"Buck okay?" The healer frowned at his dark expression.
"Got him lookin' into Fin's past, it should keep him occupied for a time. They all set?"
"Almost. The judge is talkin' with 'em now. Give me ten minutes to see to Buck and we'll be good to go."
Chris nodded distractedly and pursed his lips, hoping Travis had good news. Walking closer, he had a quick glance at everyone's horses and grunted in satisfaction that the gear was stowed; never mind having reinforcement from the army, they looked like they were supplying one instead.
"Mr Larabee." Orrin greeted as the gunslinger handed the weapons to Josiah.
"Judge, we're gonna need those men quicker than planned."
"I understand, but before I send them out I need to have them readied and it'll take three hours at least. We may not meet up with you before we reach the ranch, so you won't have backup for another day at most; but you're free to leave as you wish."
Larabee looked at their faces in turn and saw what he expected.
None of them were entirely happy with it but they weren't prepared to wait any longer. With having the Union blues at your back you made a considerable threat, but at least with just five men they gained the advantage of stealth and speed.
"We've taken enough time already, Judge. If we head out now, push the horses as far as they'll go and switch with the pack horses we'll get there as fast as possible." He called over as he mounted. "Tell your men to head towards the south eastern pastures, towards the tail end of a canyon that reaches the edge of Latent's property."
"There's a lot of woodland around there, sir, so it shouldn't be hard t'miss as ya head that way." Tanner added.
Travis nodded. "And who will be here to guard the town? Is Mr Wilmington fit enough?"
"Buck's stayin' to keep an eye on the place, and a couple of others have offered their time. I've told him not to accept incomin' wires from anywhere but Short-Rope until we've sorted out this mess. Quinn's men are still runnin' surroundin' towns and it won't make communications safe."
"Very well. For my own reasons I'd prefer never to have to set foot in Short-Rope again, but you've got a point." He stepped back on the boardwalk out of the way as Nathan ran across breathlessly to retrieve his horse.
"Thanks Vin." He wheezed before leaping into the saddle. "He'll do for a few days. I should have asked Gloria to keep an eye on him to make sure he's wearin' his sling." He shrugged ruefully.
Travis grinned. "I'll ask around, Mr Jackson, I'm sure Mary wouldn't mind. Oh, that reminds me! What of the young girl? I should like to talk with her about the circumstances surrounding the fight."
"She's bin taken over to the hotel, then in a few days we'll get someone to take her back home when the area's safe."
"Very wise." He nodded. "You've done an excellent job, Mr Jackson, thank you." He tipped his hat to the healer and stepped back to look at what remained of the seven; alone they were formidable, but together they made a hell of a sight. "Good luck for now, gentlemen, we'll see you in three to four days."
"Judge." Larabee tipped his hat in polite farewell before drawing his horse around and leading the others from the busy street.
Orrin watched their horses trot and canter along the track, weaving between coaches and carts and dodging newcomers, and chewed his lip thoughtfully. In a way he would have preferred to have overseen the trial himself, to make sure everything went above board in Four Corners, but until the apparent massacre had been cleaned up it would be up to Buck, Yosemite and a handful of 'volunteers', the Judge would be rounding up, to keep an eye on the town.
Orrin didn't expect them to stay; they had been less than enthusiastic at risking their necks for no pay and would doubtless scarper within a few days.
For next two weeks at least, it seemed Four Corners would be on its own.
+ + + + + + +
Finally on the trail south, it was an outright relief to the five riders to be on the move. Given the freedom and space to let the horses lengthen their strides, they flew across the open land in a cloud of dust, pushing the beasts to get as fast as their pumping muscles could get them. Impatient for progress and impetuous for news, sleep became a last resort; the seven would be united, and fate had no choice in the matter.
JD thought of nothing else but the lust for the hunt still fresh in his mind and using every trick he knew to make his horse pick up its pace; desperate to reach his friend and take revenge he would push his horse to the front of the group, vying for the lead without thinking about it, even so far as to ride ahead of Vin, who was still scouting the way ahead of them, before suddenly having his horse try to throw him for his hot-headedness.
On the third attempt, Larabee had snatched the kid's reins from his hands before the horse could lift its hind legs. "If you don't hold back, then this horse is gonna break your neck! And if it doesn't I will for pullin' such a fool stunt!" He threw the reins back at the startled kid and drew his horse up tight, making damn sure he was in JD's space. "Any more crap like that and you turn around and you head back to town." He warned. "Got it?"
JD swallowed and nodded mutely, fidgeting with the reins in his hands.
"Calm down, JD." He whispered for the two of them to hear. "Need you to keep your head, understand?"
Without waiting for an answer, Larabee turned away and let the matter lie as the others finished refilling their canteens with the break they had found themselves with. They knew the kid was eager to recover Standish but his impatience would kill him. If anything they were relieved that Chris had stepped in; Lord knew if there was a man to make another change his mind Chris was it.
The gunslinger swung from the horse with a grunt and untied the canteen. Looking up at the dying sun he couldn't help but think of the distance they had yet to travel and how patient they would have to be the next day. He hoped that that was the last they would see of JD's reckless enthusiasm for a while, believing it was purely excitement and adrenaline; but if tomorrow proved to be as long a haul as Chris dreaded, then the toll it would take on their tempers and resolve would be anyone's guess.
For now they just needed to set up camp and eat for the first time in hours.
"Good a spot as any." Vin answered the unspoken question, resting his elbows on his saddle tiredly.
Larabee nodded. "Not like we're gonna get any sleep no matter where we camp; we're too strung out and edgy- kid just proved it." He took a mouthful of water and sighed. "How did the land look to you?"
"Quiet; shouldn't have a problem if we stick to the hollow over there."
"That's good enough for me. Listen, Vin." He walked over to the quiet man. "JD seems pretty keen to stay as far in front as possible; reckon he just needs to burn some o' the worry from his system but he may not be so lucky tomorrow."
Tanner nodded at the gunslinger's thinking and set to work on the buckle around his bedroll. "S'alright, pard, I got his back. You might wanna switch places with Josiah tomorrow though; I think one o'the horses damn near bit his arm off earlier. He was gettin' a mite pissed off last I looked." He grinned.
Larabee peered over the saddle at the sour preacher and smiled. "Fair." He clapped a hand to Vin's shoulder. "I'm gonna go catch us some grub." He corked the canteen and drew his rifle from the saddle, leaving the others to set a fire going and start on the coffee.
Despite their best efforts, Chris had been right; they had slept very little. After the small meal from a few birds and a little shared whiskey, the others had been slow to retire to their bedrolls; fingers still itching for the reins to get back on the trail. Between them they shared the watch to get as much rest as possible, but by morning it didn't matter. They had eased into their saddles with minds fit to burst with anticipation, but with bodies slow on the uptake.
The journey south the following day was largely uneventful. Letting the kid satisfy his need to have some control of the situation and feel of some use, the others had let him take the lead. The country they rode through was pretty well travelled between the seven peacekeepers and what trouble lurked would be easy enough to spot in time, so Larabee was content to hang back and give the kid his space.
It wasn't like old times to be out on the open trail; there was no banter, no joking or anecdotes, and the two most animated and hilarious of their band were missing from the journey. Surprising what you missed when it wasn't around; the smart-ass comments, the backchat, the teasing, the schemes and bets....
The ride got pretty monotonous without the distractions. Chris was one for solitude and quiet, it was well known, but heck, more recently he had grown fond of the lively company; he found himself looking forward to a new laugh and prank once in a while, even the gambler's bitching and the ladies' man's tall tales. Hell, they all had.
The morning of the next day, the five had lit out for the mountains without so much as a word spoken between them. They would often look for signals or hints from Chris but aside from the roar of hooves and the wind whistling past their ears, the only noise, they realised, was in their own minds.
Thoughts would run through their heads over and over; a blur too hurried to be able to distinguish fact from imagination, but all the while reminding them of how blind they were. They were travelling into relatively unexplored country and what little Josiah remembered had been long since fractured by time and history.
On top of it all, in the recesses of their minds, they had known something was wrong; they had gone for too many days without communication with Ezra for this lapse not to be suspicious. Though it had been the kid's worry and fretting that had reminded them of their friend's extended absence, it was only when Larabee voiced his opinion on the whole affair that a fire was been lit beneath them.
He'd been honest with Nathan when the healer had shamed him into an answer; Ezra Standish could not be ignored. He was a cocky, arrogant silver-tongued demon in his best mood, but damn if he wasn't loyal, protective and bold with it. Above all, he was at their side. He'd nearly run out on them twice, almost thrown away what trust and respect they had for him for a worthless sum of money... but he'd come straight back at them all guns blazing; saving the life of Mary Travis, carrying Vin's half-frozen body from an icy pool one winter past, and knocking a knife away from the ladies' man's face before it robbed him of an eye.
In their years together, the gambler had more than compensated for what slip ups he'd made in the beginning, and seemed now, more than ever, to put his best efforts into the good cause... which the six hoped would not be for the last time.
Just before they reached unfamiliar land, Chris had retaken the lead when the kid hung back wearily to the others. He had let each man make his own speed until evening came and stole away good light; they were forced to make camp as the clouds thickened overhead and hid the trail from them. They knew that the rate they were going they would reach the ranches in good time the next day, it just disappointed them all not to have gotten as far as they had hoped. But they're only real concern on the trail was the weather; with spring so new in the air there was the ever real threat of downpours and more frosts to hamper their progress.
Huddled round the campfire with the others, JD looked at them all wistfully, recalling one particular cold night under the stars with Ezra. He'd felt sick, very sick, bruised and exhausted that evening but in his friend's company he felt secure and happy enough to make it almost enjoyable. They had acted on more of a hunch than solid information, neither knowing if their actions were justifiable or reckless, and yet JD had never worried.
He had trusted his friend's instincts back at the jail and never once had he felt unsure, never thought twice over the gambler's idea; he just believed him- whether Standish believed himself was unknown. Back in Four Corners when Ezra finally laid out his plan for the others it hadn't frightened him that his friend was going through with it, just that he was doing it without him.
JD sat forward and set his chin in his hands. Maybe if he'd argued a little more back in the livery; maybe if he'd put his foot down to stop the gambler from making the decision. Maybe if he'd gone in Ezra's place....
But no, JD thought. He knew well enough that if he had taken Ezra's place he'd probably be dead by now. He didn't have the versatile demeanour or sharp mind to pull it off, and now he knew what kind of people Ezra had stepped among it would have taken every fibre of his being not have turned tail and run.
Deep down, it wasn't really that that JD was finding so enraging and frustrating about the whole business. It wasn't Ezra's wilfulness and daring that had him going; in fact it came as no surprise to him. Instead it was something in his attitude and thinking....
Then it clicked.
"There you go again! You're shiftin' the compliments, it's like they're- like poison or something."
JD frowned at his tone but knew he had a point; the gambler's words had infuriated him.
"Because they're not meant for me....because I don't deserve them"
What had he meant? How the hell could he not deserve them??
The kid looked up and saw Josiah frowning at him in concern.
"Something on your mind, brother?"
JD shook his head and sighed.
The kid nodded quietly and threw a piece of grass into the fire. "You know, when we were headin' back to the town, me and Ez had to camp out a night. I was feelin' real guilty for draggin' him into the mess at Warren Break, tryin' my best to apologize and he- Ezra, he just- wouldn't hear of it! I swear he said he didn't deserve the praise he was getting- hell, he sounded like he thought he was expendable, Josiah!"
Sanchez watched the kid throw a twig into the flames and caught Chris' gaze across the fire.
"After what he did back in that town, after what he said, and now this! I don't know, it just sounds like he thinks very little of himself." Now JD was worried his friend had taken reckless little regard for his own safety and the kid had had no way of straightening him out.
"How was he in the town, JD?"
The kid looked up at Larabee in surprise. "You remember how he was with the Nichols family, right? Of course you do, anyway- like that! He was runnin' around, dodgin' bullets and riskin' his life to make sure I was safe. He just ran straight out in front of the bank and almost lost a leg doin' it."
Chris's frown deepened.
"He damn near took it upon himself to stop the robbery on his own and then the look in his eyes when we were talkin' one night.... it was like he was real sad to be complemented, real hurt, you know?"
"Seems our brother has a problem accepting his value."
"Oh no, he accepts his value, he just doesn't have the same one in mind as we do."
Larabee held Josiah's gaze a moment longer and nodded with a sigh. "Get some sleep, JD. We'll settle things when we find him." His words filled with a half promise.
"What if we're too late?" JD mumbled as he lay back across his bedroll.
Sanchez dearly hoped they weren't. If Ezra died not realising how important he was, Josiah could never hope to forgive himself.
When they had arrived back from Warren Break, he'd heard that JD had tried to convey his own apologies to the gambler, but hadn't been aware of such a heated rejection.
If it weren't for his own self-pity after a spontaneous trip to Vista City some weeks before, leading him down a bleak drunken spiral until the following morning, then the gambler wouldn't have had to have dragged him from a church thick with billowing black smoke. The preacher had been laid up for three days trying recover from the smoke inhalation, unable to get out of bed let alone leave the clinic so that he might thank the elusive gambler in person. Then Ezra and JD had been sent away to Gauze Mount on prisoner transport.....
Josiah shook his head. They would find him; there were too many burning questions that needed answers for the Lord to take Ezra now.
+ + + + + + +
Oh God, Lawd, kill me now. A small voice called in his mind, muffled from the gambler by the sickness running ragged through his mind.
That night the cold had fast worked its way beneath the yellow slicker, wrapping around his fingers and feet and blanketing his body. Despite the blistering heat radiating from his torso and every limb, the muscles quivered and jolted spasmodically against the bitter gales cutting across the grasslands and drew groans and puffs of panted breath through his split lips.
With a fumbling hand, Ezra pulled the coat around him a little more, shivering wickedly despite the immense heat pulsing through his body and leaving sheens of sweat across every inch of his skin.
He groaned for the pain in his hand, the swellings and cuts, and his thigh burned from the bullet wound, but no one could hear his cries. It was as though Lady Luck had turned her back on him and Mother Nature only sought to teach him a lesson; never take chances on unexpected odds, no matter how righteous they made you feel afterwards. Ezra hadn't seen any of this punishment coming, never expected the torment that came with the plan, but deep in the back of his mind it felt.... deserved.
He frowned at another tug of pain and shifted in the saddle, letting the mare guide herself across the open land as he tried to work out why he had just thought that. Better yet, where the hell was he going? He wanted to get home but was this the way?
He looked about in confusion as answers ran through his head for questions he never asked; faces, sounds, names and forms drifted through his fever-sick mind and wouldn't linger long enough for him to make sense of the noise and mess.
He shook his head and gasped for air as a sudden feeling of isolation and exposure took him by surprise. Where was home? What was home for that matter? He tried to think it over but his muddled mind refused a straight answer; he was sick, he knew- but why?
He had no idea how long he'd been in the saddle, how far they had travelled; and from what he could recall he hadn't even considered guiding the horse. It had picked its own route, ambled along whatever path it chose and just accepted the new rider as a burden, nothing more.
The harder he tried to press his mind for clues the sicker he felt; nausea welled up in his throat and threatened to send him careening to the ground. He felt stifled and claustrophobic, heavy-limbed and so, so tired.
"Gawd... help- ssst-op!" He groaned as a pain seared through his body.
Ezra slumped forward with a gasp and pressed his hand against his temple, blinking repeatedly before falling further forward. God, he felt so trapped, so wretched and ruined... the overwhelming helplessness frightening him to the core. The horse startled at the shifted weight and eased back, getting no response from the lax rider.
The mare snorted and turned away from the open land as she smelt the air for the stream nearby. She swung round and picked up her pace as she stepped down off the bank to the rocky shore ahead, snuffling her nose at the stray grass before striding into the stream.
Ezra could immediately feel a shift a temperature when they neared the water, making him shiver worse and groan loudly as it jostled his wounds.
The mare took a long pull of the clear water, snorting in her tire as the journey lingered on. The saddle was rubbing and the rider's weight kept shifting uncomfortably across her back and irritated the mare. Feeling another movement, she lifted her head from the water and shook her whole body from nose to tail in an effort to dislodge the burden, and grunted with displeasure.
With a final groan, unable to hold onto the saddle and too sick to try, the gambler suddenly pitched to the side, sliding in one unstoppable motion from the smooth leather, and plunged shoulders first into the bitter cold water.
It gave the feverish body the worst shock the system had ever experienced and for a brief moment it jolted him awake, but the gambler quickly succumbed to the sickness; he never moved, and never responded to the cold current lapping over his boots and legs, swelling around his body.
The horse took a moment to nudge the prone form but soon turned away, wandering back to the sweet grass upstream.
His head barely above water level, Ezra lay half submerged in the shallows in the dead of night, his breathing becoming ragged, his heart rate slowing down.
+ + + + + + +
Back in the town, Buck sat at the jail desk with lamp light warming his hands as he read over the pile of 'wanted' posters. He had gone through all of them a dozen times but nothing stood out; there were plenty of men matching the description but the bounties only got as steep as $700.
He leant back in the chair and winced as his splints pulled against his arm and fumbled with the sling at his wrist. Earlier he'd asked Mary to collect articles together that she'd written about criminals and nefarious characters but once again Jacob Fin was eluding him and wiring towns outside the territory was getting expensive.
Tired of the fruitless search, he pulled the keys off his belt, blew out the lamp, and ambled to the door, giving the jail a once over before locking it up ready the next day. It hadn't been as rowdy as he'd imagined but tomorrow afternoon could test them all; if the trial was a success and Buchanan got the punishment he deserved, then folks would leave in good spirits. However, if the Judge wasn't as heavy handed as Travis, and people got angry for the lack of justice, then things could get unpleasant.
The ladies' man scratched his chin in thought and shrugged off his worries; he'd deal with them when they arrived. Come morning he would send out wires to military high command and get as much information on Fin as they'd let him have.
Until then.... He looked up at Miss Millie's window and chewed his lip. He had a couple more hours to kill and after all a wounded man such as himself deserved a little care and attention.....
Light, tapping footsteps snagged his attention away from the lace-framed view of Millie's room.
He spun round and saw Mary step up to the boardwalk. "Ma'am? Is everythin' alright?"
"Oh yes, it's just you were asking about the articles and I've found something else."
Buck walked up to meet her eagerly and took the paper from her hand. "What's this?"
"These are notes I was taking for a story some time ago- it was when Steven and I were still getting the newspaper started. Well, as I didn't have enough evidence to write up the article I couldn't publish something made up of half-truths so I had to forget the matter. Anyway, it was about a man called Sebastian Friary. There were rumours he came from Montana, others say California," She shrugged helplessly. "The information is so inconsistent in places you see why I had to give up on the story."
Buck nodded. "Go on."
"Well, the part that made me want to research this man was his reputation. He was said to have done some- well, very awful things, Buck, and that he had links to the army. Whether it was a relative instead, I'm unsure, I wasn't ever able to find out more; the army was very tight-lipped on the subject."
Wilmington bounced on the balls of his feet. "You think they'd be willin' to talk now?"
"Perhaps," she nodded and tightened her shawl. "When I made my inquiries it was shortly after the war, so it was understandable that they'd want to keep such atrocities by the Union's own men as quiet as possible."
Buck nodded and quickly kissed Mary's hand with a solid-gold smile. "Mrs Travis, you've done us quite a favour, thank you Ma'am!"
"Your welcome- but listen, if you get the answers to this, will you let me know? I'd still very much like to publish the story."
Buck scratched his head in thought and winced. "I'd like to but I don't know, Mary; what with Ezra bein' involved... you'd best ask him."
"Oh, I promise absolute discretion, Buck, I assure you." She replied eagerly, dearly hoping she would get her story.
"Well then, it shouldn't be a problem, Ma'am." He held up the paper. "Thank you again!"
She nodded at the sudden enthusiasm and watched him stride along to the telegram office with a smile. Chris had left him with loosely harnessed anger and one simple request. Maybe with this lead his friend could stop aching from the past. It was worth a try.
It was close to midnight but the ladies' man hammered on the door insistently. "Wake up, damn it! This is an emergency!"
He thumped on the door again and waited for an answer impatiently, looking down at the paper in his hand:'Friary was a savage, awful man; the Devil met his
match the day he was born.' Opinion of Mr Haskin.
Deputy Lester - recalled a man from Montana that had
deserted the army
Buck thumped on the door again. "Mr Thompson! Garret- open up!" he called.Stage Driver, Jim Harding with Wells Fargo - former
Pony Express rider. Once headed through Richardson
en route to Army encampment, heard about a man wanted
for desertion - clarifies earlier findings.
"Hell!" Buck hissed and went to knock on the door just as light flooded the office.
'Goddamn, middle of the God damn night! I do have office hours!' A voice called as bolts were pulled across. "So what the hell do you- oh, it's you." He grumbled. "Well?"
"Need to send a wire, it's an emergency."
"I heard, but it's the middle of the night, what's so important that you can't wait another eight hours?!"
Buck shook the paper in his face impatiently. "I have to send a telegram to army personnel and why is none of your business."
"Why the heck would army personnel be awake at this time of ni-"
"Would you just open the damn door and let me send the message?!" He threw his hands up in exasperation. "Hell, it ain't like you'll be doin' it for free!"
John shook his finger in Buck's face angrily. "No, you're right; I should charge you double at this hour." He grunted but let the peacekeeper through the door.
"It'll just take a few minutes then you get back to that cozy little bed of yours, Mr Thompson."
"It's Tomlinson, for pity's sake, man; you've known me for a good year!"
"And I apologize sincerely, I truly do. Now," Buck smiled nicely and handed him the hastily scrawled message. "With any luck they'll get back to me tomorrow."
John snatched the page and screwed his face up at the handwriting. "Alright, alright." He trudged to his desk with a sigh. "Who's Seb Friary?"
Buck stepped back from the door quickly. "A name you keep to yourself, you hear?"
Tomlinson looked round at him as though his warning meant very little.
"That's an order from Judge Travis- and Chris Larabee."
John's face dropped a little as he turned back to the message. "That's good enough for me." He cleared his throat and tapped out the telegram.
+ + + + + + +
Before dawn, after little sleep between them, the five had stirred and broke camp ready for the second leg of the journey that would take them through the mountains before the short ride to the ranch.
Vin had been out shortly before to scout around, remembering the mountains from years before; if you were running from trouble, they were perfect to hide in. He remembered the many nooks and caves he had used on the run from the law.
But there in lay the problem; anyone could be up there ready to pick them off as they passed through.
"You know of a safer route through 'em?" Chris asked.
"There ain't. They're perfect for an ambush but when you're about half way through the ridges thin out; there's barely enough space for a man to climb along, let alone any horses. After that the only way someone could attack us is on level ground; there ain't no way a man could get to the high ground. If we start out now, we'll reach the foothills in about an hour and cut through the mountains with the half-light. If there's anyone up there they'll be sluggish at this hour and have poor light to track us with."
Chris folded his arms over the saddle horn and sighed. "What's the ground like?"
"Not much to it. It's solid enough, no vegetation for the first half and water's pretty hard to come by. There's quite a lot of loose rock the lower you go but I should be able to guide us through it."
Larabee nodded. "We best wrap the horses' hooves in any case; all the horses are shod so if there's trouble they'll hear the echoes no matter where we ride, and if that happens they won't need light to know where we are." Larabee warned as the others unfurled sack cloth from their saddlebags.
"How long will we have to ride through there?" Jackson called over.
"About two hours, maybe three. Last time I was here I wasn't lookin' to ride through it, just hide out." Tanner smiled at his implication.
"Then I'll check your ribs now, Vin." The healer walked over. "If there's no chance of stopping for a rest I won't get a chance to check for a while."
Tanner looked across at Larabee and shook his head, getting no back up as he swung round off the horse.
It was a slow ride through the mountains and uncomfortable. The eerie quiet unnerved the riders and the thin light made it difficult for Tanner to pick a way through; when they reached the lower grounds the horses slipped on the loose rock, and when forced to higher ground they felt exposed. It was a no win situation.
With Vin's warning, each man was on the lookout for the possible threat; but with the trouble that Rosie Latent had encountered it made it impossible to relax. On her way north she had been followed through the range by what she believed to be trappers or hunters, but for all they knew they could have been Quinn's men fleeing from the shit their boss had got himself in.
Several times they were forced from their horses to seek cover, guns ready at the slightest click and knock of stone in their vicinity, only to discover a wild animal or bird hunting for water or a way out of the labyrinth of rock.
It was fast wearing them down' with having little sleep to go on and no appetite to sate their bodies' hunger, their energy was fading. If they didn't leave the mountains within the hour there would be an accident; to make matters worse, as the sun rose over the peaks the heat trapped within the confines of the rocky walls and made travelling conditions all the more difficult.
With a route in mind, Vin was eager for them to make up for the time they lost; they would remove the sack cloths and give the horses their grip back. It would mean they could be tracked from a distance but it allowed for greater bursts of speed if they needed to make a run for it.
That settled, Vin took point with Larabee bringing up the rear to cover their backs as the five made a beeline for the open plains, and within forty five minutes they broke free from the maze after so many suffocating hours.
The strong gust of wind that met them as they left the mountains was as bliss to the riders as a cold draught to a thirsty man. They sucked in the cool air and looked at each other in shared relief; it was true they'd been caught, trapped and stranded many times over and in many different locations; but now they were on edge, sightless to lurking threats and frightened for their friend and, honestly, they were intimidated with all the uncertainties.
Not wanting to wait any longer, they took a moment to check no one had followed them before urging the horses into a full sprint, covering as much ground as they could until fatigue demanded rest.
They were close now, maybe a couple of hours ride away at most, and keen to get back into the saddle even at the risk of falling straight off. In the far distance they could make out the edge of Latent's borderline, and beyond that lay the forest.
"That's a hell of an area to search." JD whispered half to himself. "Where do we start?"
"From the beginning?" Josiah suggested. "If we head back to the house we can get a clearer idea of where they headed."
Larabee acknowledged with a grunt and studied the land spread out before them. "It may be best to skirt around the forest first, then head west to the house; that way if we find anyone on the trail we can take them with us."
"What about the dead?" JD turned innocently.
Chris avoided the kid's gaze. "There's nothin' we can do for them, JD- not yet anyway." There was a reflective tone to his voice, almost sad to the kid's ears. "Besides, we don't know who are with the Cauldwells and who are the Latents."
JD said nothing more and dismounted, untying his canteen to wash the dust from his throat.
Vin looked at the others and recognised the same exhaustion on their faces as he felt himself. "There ain't a whole lot any of us can do for now; I'm gonna scout ahead, let y'all have yer rest." Tanner nudged the gelding down the slope when a hand latched onto his arm.
"Lemme check those ribs first, Vin. Gettin' on and off o'that saddle back there couldn't have done 'em good." The healer advised as he swung from his horse.
"Nothin' to worry about, Nate, they ain't too bad."
"Humour me, okay? You can't afford to pop a lung. It'll only take a few minutes."
"I'll be fine- really! It's better just ta ride on, anyway-"
"For fuck sake Vin, let him check!" Larabee retorted sternly, his impatience clear.
The others turned to look at their wound-up leader and felt the unmistakable presence of a growing storm. Wanting nothing more than to avoid a bust up or explosion, Tanner exchanged a quick look with Nathan before hastily sliding from his saddle. "Alright, Chris." He complied quietly.
The gunslinger sighed irritably at the tone his friend had adopted and urged his horse away from the group; it wouldn't do for any of them if he lost his temper now. Buck had been right to ask what he did; Larabee was beginning to lose control of his composure and this time he had no place of refuge to drink away his pain.
"Vin?" JD whispered.
"He'll be alright, boys." Vin nodded in understanding as Nathan tested his ribs. "Just give him space."
+ + + + + + +
The expanse of woodland had been neither welcoming nor a delight all the time they had it in their sights. From the onset it struck them as being a void, a black hole from which nothing returned. The hollow canopies, devoid of any weighty bulk of foliage, stood sharp and uninviting to the five riders and other than the odd shadow and shape of some carrion creature the area was otherwise absent of life. It was as though winter had bled it dry.
And as they drew up to the forest it became all the more apparent when a familiar, ghastly stench wafted on the breeze.
"Oh my God!" JD exclaimed over the fragile sounds of hoof steps.
"I don't think God had a hand in this, JD." Sanchez murmured, looking around for signs of life besides the vultures overhead.
The kid wrinkled his nose at the smell and clamped a hand around his nose and mouth as nausea teased at his stomach and throat.
"Try not to breathe through your nose, JD." Nathan warned, grabbing his canteen should the kid need it.
Vin studied the ground and bent downward from the saddle to pick up signs of horses and men. "There was a hell of a lot of movement around here but...." He looked around again and frowned. "There ain't any bodies out here; that smell is comin' straight from the forest."
Larabee pulled his horse to a stop and peered through the trees, feeling a shiver rake down his spine.
"What's the smell from?" JD called behind his hand.
"The dead, son. I ain't smelt anything like that since the war." Chris sighed and shook his head. "I don't see anything. Vin? Nate?"
"Undergrowth's too thick." Vin pointed. "If we go searchin' through there we'll need the dogs; and more men too."
"Travis's men don't arrive for another day, Brother."
"Then we wait." Chris called with finality. "I've been responsible for loadin' bodies for the graves before now; I don't plan on doin' it again anytime soon." Larabee swung his horse round and pulled his hat back over his eyes. "Let's head for the house, see how the families are holdin' up. Chances are none have made their way out here to check the area."
"As well they shouldn't." Josiah muttered, clutching at his rosary.
Tanner took another look through the trees and nodded in empathy; he didn't want the job either. "It's about a six miles to the west, a shade to the north." He pulled out his glass to survey the land ahead of them. "I can't see any trace of movement from here, but that doesn't mean the house wasn't attacked from the south." He added and snapped the glass shut.
Larabee nodded. "Let's go."
As they approached the house they kept their speed steady and each held out their arms as a show of assurance. The house and yard remained quiet, shuttered up and boarded but not breached.
"House looks sound." Nathan whispered.
"We'll see." Chris pushed his hat back. "Lo the house!"
His call echoed against the buildings and faded out with the wind.
Chris looked over his shoulder at Vin, keeping his hands in full view as the horses clopped closer. "Lo the house!" He called again.
Nearby a gate swung idly as the breeze buffeted the freshly painted wood. To strangers the house looked to be a piece of paradise suddenly abandoned and forgotten; the corrals and stables were in good condition, the yard clean and well repaired.
Vin shook his head; he didn't like it. "You reckon they fled when trouble came?"
Larabee shrugged and swung his right leg over the saddle to slide carefully to the ground. "Stay put, I'll go look around." He whispered, throwing the reins to the Tracker.
"Stay put!" He warned and started off towards the house nice and slow. "Is anyone here? Hello?" He shouted with a steady voice.
Behind him the others watched his every move and let their eyes dart towards the slightest noise and motion. JD looked around to watch their backs and looked round to see Chris heading for the barns. The gunslinger's arms were held out horizontally, as unthreateningly as he could think of, as he stepped between the large barn doors.
"Hello?" he called and looked about, running his gaze over the stacked hay and loft.
Vin brushed the hair from his eyes that drifted on the breeze as Larabee backed up onto the yard. "Nothin'." He whispered to himself and chewed his lip.
The gunslinger strode back over to them and dropped his arms, not seeing the point in keeping them up if no threat lurked. "Can't find anyone." He stopped in front of his horse, hands on hips, and sighed. "Hell, now what?"
"Hey look!" JD pointed suddenly. They spun round to look up at the top floor windows and just caught a shutter closing too.
"What was it JD?"
"Looked like a kid- a girl, I think." He went to dismount but Chris grabbed hold of his arm in warning.
"Not yet, wait here."
Chris looked backup and squinted to study the other windows before peeling off his duster. "I'm gonna check the house, wait here."
"Careful, Larabee." Tanner warned, shifting in his saddle uncomfortably.
Chris strode over with his hands held away from his sides and stepped up to the porch, making a deliberate show of being harmless. "Hello? Annie Latent? Is anyone there?" he called, reaching forward to grab hold of the door handle.
"Who is it? What do you want?" A voice called from inside.
The gunslinger backed up suddenly off the steps and held his hands all the higher. "Ma'am, my name is Chris Larabee; my friends and I came to see if you and you're family were alright-"
"The hell you did! You think I'm just gonna open the door to you?!"
He was cut short as a white shutter creaked open for a gun muzzle to slip through.
"Get off the property or so help me you'll die where you stand."
"Ma'am, I'm a peacekeeper from Four Corners- my men and I are looking for a friend of ours..."
There was a moment of silence and shuffling.
He licked his lips. "Yes Ma'am."
"What's your friend's name?"
"Standish, Ezra Standish- he came here to help William Latent deal with the trouble he's been having with the Cauldwells."
"How do you know about it?"
Chris smiled at their discretion and obligingly answered them. "A young girl, Rosie Latent, came to us for help."
"Rosie?!" A voice called and before he could blink, the front door swung open before him.
+ + + + + + +
"Take a seat, gentlemen, can I offer any of you a drink? A Brandy?" Annie offered shakily as they walked through to the study.
Larabee looked around his men and shook his head. "No, but thank you Ma'am."
"Rosie told you about your friend? About his injuries?"
"She told us about him needin' treatment but she wasn't specific about his wounds; I think she was a little too shaken up to think clearly about the details." Nathan supplied.
"Is she alright? Did she make it safe?" Mrs Latent asked anxiously as Poppy set the rifle back on the desk behind them.
"She's alright, Ma'am. She was exhausted and frightened but unharmed." The healer replied gently.
"Good, good." Annie wrung her hands. "I've been worried sick every since I let her go. My God, there's been no word- none at all!"
Poppy took hold of her friend's arm supportively.
Larabee quickly realised their distress and checked his guns were out of sight so as not to alarm them. "Mrs Latent, your daughter told us what started the fight and where to start looking but we need to know how many there were out there. Have any managed to get back here?"
"No." Annie shook her head sadly. "They all took what guns they had and every able man went to confront Quinn. They hoped they'd managed to outsmart them with having more guns and fewer men with them as targets, but...." She held out her hands hopelessly. "I was getting ready to look myself but with all the violence it- it's just been so dangerous."
As Annie's composure threatened to betray her, Josiah stepped forward and gently took the matriarch's hands, his eyes holding no judgement or reproach as he caught her gaze. "You made the wise choice, Annie; your family and friends needed you here. Lord knows you did everything you could."
"I've wanted to do so much more." She whispered, tears welling in her eyes as she shook her head in angst. "I've had no idea how to handle something like this." She squeezed Josiah's hands and looked at all of them in turn. "And I will never be able to tell you how grateful I am that your friend was here to help. Has there been any sign of him?"
JD hung his head and took a step back.
"No, Ma'am." Chris replied quietly.
Annie took in the sight of the hardened gunslinger and nodded. "He gave us hope; he was the only one that was willing to help us- you men are the only people who have made an effort on our behalf. I can't thank you enough for this support."
It was then that JD's misgivings were eased. With the mother's words how could he have doubts for what his friend had done? Reckless or not, Ezra had stepped in for them when others turned away.
As tears welled in his eyes, JD felt a hand on his shoulder.
"We'll find him, JD." Nathan whispered almost inaudibly.
"He is very dear to you, isn't he?" Poppy observed.
"That he is, Ma'am." JD nodded confidently.
Annie wiped her tears and straightened herself, looking at Chris with hardened eyes. "He suffered a great deal, Mr Larabee. When he came back here he was willing to throw himself back to the wolves to save this family." She reminded them. "I pray to God you find him safe."
Amen to that, Sister. Josiah clenched his fists behind his back and shared a look with the gunslinger.
The anger Larabee had managed to suppress in their presence had fired up inside him again. God, he hadn't wanted to search through the forest before, but now his impatience to find the gambler was making him rethink it. He wanted revenge; and now he had another reason to seek it.
"Annie, Rosie mentioned that Ezra had found evidence that would support your claims against the Cauldwells; do you have it safe?" He asked, wanting as much dirt on the bastard clan as he could and bring them down with the full force of the law- and his fists.
She nodded but could only frown. "Mr Standish came back here with a book containing details from ledgers and items he'd found on their ranch, but from what I saw he gave it to Fred, Poppy's husband."
JD frowned in puzzlement. "Why would they take it with them? Wouldn't Ezra have wanted it hidden?"
"He expected the worst and knew that if they were all killed then Quinn would come here to find the book. At least if it was on them, easy to find, then there would be a chance we'd be spared. Fred took it, being the more formidable, in case they got out of it alive." Annie smiled at Poppy and took her friend's hand.
"He was a bull of a man." She whispered affectionately, knowing there was little chance her husband would still be alive.
Chris looked at Sanchez and nodded in understanding at the big man's worrisome expression. Ezra's still got a chance, Josiah.
The preacher sighed and rubbed a gentle thumb over his cross.
"But the odds of you finding it now are few and far between." Annie sighed dejectedly, cutting through the gunslinger's thoughts. "We've only heard commotion in the distance; we've seen no one else. That can only mean they're all dead, can't it?"
"At this stage, no one can say, Ma'am." But that was all that Chris could offer than the deep growl in the back of his throat.
Annie sighed in dismay and took a seat behind her husband's desk, running loving fingers over the polished surface with a distant gaze as she realised her loss. "My boys." She whispered, inaudible except to Chris.
The sight of a mother's pain and grief stung and it took all Larabee had not to stride from the room and destroy something; this sorrow, defeat and death was far too familiar.
Clearing his throat, Larabee stood up straight to get their attention. "Before we lose good light, the five of us will make a recognisance of the site and ride a way through the canyon."
The others looked at him in surprise.
His peripheral vision caught the stares. "You have loved ones out there Ma'am and I'd like to bring them home to you,-"
"Oh, thank you!" Annie smiled at him gratefully as Poppy's hand clasped her arm.
"-if you have their pictures we can borrow, it'd help."
She stood up quickly and nodded as she reached for a slim volume on the book case. "I have small a family portrait, if that will suffice?" She thumbed through the book to pull out a more recent image.
Chris took the photo carefully, studying the young faces with disbelief, before pocketing the item. "This'll work just fine, Ma'am."
Torn between eagerness to help them, and sadness that her worst fears would be confirmed, Poppy could feel neither relief nor elation that they were going to bring the bodies home; with the greatest chance her Fred had been killed but no proof of such, she clung to the hope, to the small belief that he was still alive, wanting to believe for just a little while longer that he would come home to her.
"There's an awful lot of land out there to cover; how will the five of you manage on your own?"Poppy asked gently, her scepticism clear.
"It's not a problem, Mrs Housen. The Judge, Orrin Travis, is on his way with 40 Union soldiers; by tomorrow evening we can have a full-scale search under way and cover the forest and canyon. As a precaution I'd like to take some hounds with us- do you have any on the ranch?"
Poppy worried at the edge of her shawl without comment.
"In the kennels out back." Annie nodded and pulled the keys from her apron pocket. "I'll need to see to them first, they can be very excitable."
Chris turned to the kid. "JD, can you help with that?"
"Sure." He nodded eagerly.
This plan seemed to reassure the grieving mothers and bolstered the men's determination and, at last, Larabee felt they were getting somewhere.
"Can either of you think of anywhere else we should look? Did the fight spread to any of the surrounding areas?"
"No, not that we heard, but there's still Cauldwell's ranch and surrounding towns that Quinn and the others could have scurried off to."
"Yeah, Little Street in particular." Poppy sniffled quietly and dabbed her eyes.
"The Judge'll handle those personally and if more men are needed to bring the perpetrators in, Travis'll see to it."
Annie looked up at that with hardened eyes. "I'm a Christian woman, gentlemen; this household was brought up with the word of the Lord, but I hope and pray they are all hung for their crimes and punished wickedly for what they've done. These atrocities are a pure outrage."
Larabee couldn't have agreed more; he was seeing in this woman a rage and bitterness that he still felt after all these years. "The Judge will make sure justice is done, Ma'am, you have my word. Until he arrives the five of us will bring back who we can and... and take care of our friend ." He cleared his throat. "How many from this ranch left that day?"
"My husband, our four sons- there were thirteen others with them but unless you know them you may not be able to tell them apart."
Larabee put his hat back on and nodded. "Is there a wagon we can use?"
"Yes, it's in the barn next to the stables- but wait, there's another!" Annie walked up to him desperately. "Quinn killed by youngest son, Joseph."
"We haven't been able to find him, he was shot close to the southern border- please find him!"
He took her hands clutched before him carefully. "Joseph... he was the one Quinn used?"
Annie nodded bitterly and closed her stinging eyes.
Chris ground his teeth at the mere idea of using a kid as bait and shook his head firmly; the grieving mother's hurt and suffering were burning the gunslinger deep and it was clear for the others to see.
Thought he was okay about this? Hell, is this a good idea lettin' him go?
Vin caught Josiah and Nathan' eyes and shook his head in caution. We'll deal with this later.
"Ma'am, you have my word we'll search everywhere we can. If it means working through the night, I will." Larabee assured the distraught woman and tipped his hat to her.
The others followed the enraged gunslinger through the hallway and down the porch steps, letting him walk off some of the anger before entering the barn; this wasn't a healthy way to start the search.
"Vin, JD, bring the two spare horses round while we set this up; Josiah, see if you can find lanterns and spare lamp oil, I ain't leavin' the site without those boys and their father." He ordered as he set about unloading the harnesses from the cart.
Taking his chance, Vin started laying his cards on the table. "Chris, if we try workin' through the night out there we could have more trouble than we bargained for."
"I promised Annie I'd bring her family back, you don't have to stay if you don't want."
"He's right, Chris. If any of the Cauldwells show up lookin' for their own men we could have a fight on our hands."
"That isn't a problem."
No, not for someone lookin' fer a fight. "We won't be much use to 'em dead, cowboy."
"Godammit, don't call me that!" He bellowed and spun round to face Vin. "That son of a bitch murdered boys to make a statement; he tore up a family, Vin!" He spat heatedly.
"We know, Chris." Now they knew where he was coming from. "And I'm sorry."
"You're hurtin' all over again- for your family."
"Oh, this is bullshit!" Chris turned back impatiently.
"Is it? Back there you were ready to tear the place apart when Annie begged you to find her son."
"This isn't about them, Vin." He growled irritably, pinching the bridge of his nose.
"Then is it about you wantin' to get back some control?"
Larabee looked round with a deadly scowl. "Wanna explain that?"
"Hell, Chris, ever since we got Rosie's story you've been on edge and knotted up- now Ezra's missin' you're out of the loop and just as stumped as everyone else."
"You've got balls, Vin." He stood up menacingly. "You think I'm acting up? Why, because I lost power? Is that it?"
"You know I didn't mean that." Tanner held up his hands calmingly. "Hell, we know what it's like. We offered to help and hoped we'd be some use but now it looks like all we'll be able to do is bring the bodies back." Vin replied quietly, seeing the others take a careful step forward in the corner of his eye. "Now we have no leads to find Ezra."
Chris looked away and stared at the reins in his hands.
"It's frustratin' not knowing the answers, or havin' a plan."
Chris sat down on the driver's bench and sighed, pushing his hat back off his head. "She's lost her husband and kids, Vin, and- hell, I know what she's feelin' but for the first time I see someone sufferin' more than me and it's cuttin' me up. It hurts to lose a child; it's gotta hurt more to lose five." He tossed the reins behind him in disappointment. "And whatever plans we helped with just weren't enough to stop it."
He looked up at the faces of his friends and knew at some stage in their life they had lost those dear to them. They had all come to accept that one day their jobs would demand the highest of sacrifices and they would have to live with the death of one of the seven. Maybe even all of them. But none were willing to yield to that fate for a long time to come; that they would now be forced to with the loss of Ezra was unbearable.
"We're as angry as each other; we all want someone to suffer for this." Josiah's voice rumbled through the barn.
There was a collective nod in agreement.
"But whatever we find out there, whatever we encounter, we have to keep a lid on it. If we don't keep our heads all the work Ezra did could be for nothing; going in and killing who ever we see is gonna ruin his chances. We have to get justice for what they did to him but we gotta do it right." He warned them. "When we find Ez we're gonna need to find that book as soon as possible and finish the work he started. If Travis doesn't have evidence to convict the Cauldwells then the Latents could be blamed for this fight as much as Quinn's men- there's nothing that proves otherwise as far as the law is concerned."
Larabee nodded quietly as the others looked at each other.
"Let Travis have his hangings, we'll let the soldiers deal with runaways; we're going there to find the Latent boys and we're going to find Ezra. We're gonna take him home." He ground out with resolve.
"Amen, Preacher." Tanner nodded in the quiet.
+ + + + + + +
Buck watched dark clouds building in the distance from the warm confines of the jail and scratched his hairline absently. He'd sent the wire off so many hours ago he'd hoped to have had a reply already; all day since he'd paced and wandered, never really paying attention to what was going on around him. Even the soft teasing of a couple of familiar ladies couldn't draw him from the outdoors longer than an hour; his head just wasn't with it.
Buck turned and grinned. "Now, how many times do I have to tell you that my name is Buck?"
Mary smiled and walked through the jail door. "I've been watching you meander through town for the best part of the day; I just thought I'd come and see how you were."
Buck grimaced and nodded. "I'm very well thank you- you uh, weren't plannin' on forcin' that sling around my neck, were you? Ma'am?" He added pleasantly.
Mary laughed and shook her head. "Well, I hadn't planned on it..." She left the threat open. "But seriously, Buck, is everything okay?"
"As it should be, Ma'am." He replied quietly.
"Have you heard any news?"
"Heck if I did you'd be the first to know, Mary." He sank down on the edge of the desk. "I figured the army'd be a little more punctual with their mail is all."
Mary sat down beside him. "Well, from what I know, army records and accounts are quite a job to archive; it could take a couple of days for a reply." She offered encouragingly.
Buck sighed and rubbed his shoulder. "Haven't heard a word from the others either."
Mary frowned. "Did they say when they'd get back?"
"Not really; just said to expect a wire from Short-Rope if they were even gonna send one."
Mrs Travis hooked a hand around his arm and smiled gently. "If there was bad news they'd send word. Take the silence as a good thing."
"Yeah, but they'd wire if there was good news, too." He scrubbed a hand over his face. "I don't know, Mary, I just hate feelin' useless is all."
"Buck you are far from-"
They snapped round as Garret Meyer ran through the door. "Mr Tomlinson wanted you to see this!" He handed him the wire paper hurriedly. "Oh and to warn you about not trying to- hammer your way into his home again??" He shook his head at a loss. "He's got a shotgun primed and ready next to his bed." He shrugged before waving his goodbye. "Anyway, see ya!"
Mary turned a strange look on Buck who just shrugged.
"Hell- this is from the army!"
Mary looked over his arm.
FOUR CORNERS - STOP - BUCK WILMINGTON -
STOP - INQUIRY INTO SEBASTIAN FRIARY CONFIRMED
- STOP - FELON HUNG 11 MONTHS AGO - STOP -
THE MAN YOU HAVE IS NOT OUR CONCERN - STOP -
COLONEL VAN DEEN.
"Damn." Buck breath and tossed the paper behind him.
"Not their concern?" Well, that was a little offhand.
"So who the hell is this Jacob Fin?" Buck asked, turned to look at Mary. "Now what?"
"Short of calling in this Colonel Van Deen to identify the body, I don't see there's anything left we can do."
"The Judge is headin' out there with soldiers now- maybe they'll spot somethin'."
Mary eyed up the tired, weary man and patted his arm. "Let me walk you to the saloon, Buck, you look like you could use a drink. Have you eaten?"
"Yeah, a little, but a whiskey sure sounds nice right now." He picked up his hat slowly. "'Ppreciate it Mary."
"They'll be alright, and they'll send a wire in good time; you'll see. In the meantime you'll have a town to watch out for; it won't be long now before folks start heading back from Eagle Bend."
+ + + + + + +
With the hounds barking shrilly as they followed the scent trails, the horses skittered and jumped when the dogs ran too close and balked furiously when they caught wind of the death still lingering on the breeze.
It had been difficult trying to get the horses within a metre of the tree line, then suddenly the hounds darted this away and that as an abundance of smells came at their sensitive noses at once and all hopes of riding through the forest for a quicker search fizzled out.
"Hell, God dammit!" Larabee snapped as his horse bolted upright away from snapping jaws. "JD, whistle that one back over here!" Chris called as he struggled with his horse.
"Larabee??" Tanner called when it looked for sure like the big black would tip and fall.
"M'fine!" He bit out as his horse pranced nervously with its ears flat.
"This ain't gonna work, Chris." Vin slid from his saddle with a hissing wince as his ribs pulled.
"You're tellin' me!" the gunslinger growled back.
"Vin, you okay?" The healer called over the howls and whines.
"Yeah, Nate." He ducked and grabbed hold of a dog as it ran between his gelding's feet, sidestepping a near swipe from a hoof. "We can't take the horses in there, they're too scared."
"Dismount!" Larabee called with the last of his patience. "Tie 'em up with the cart and hobble the other two so they don't bolt." He swung from the gelding's back and snatched the animal's head round with the reins. "Vin, you still got that shirt?"
"Yep." Tanner shoved a hand in his coat pocket and drew out the white cotton garment, holding it down at nose-level for the dogs to scrutinize. "Dog's don't seem to be as interested in it anymore." He looked up uneasily.
"You think they're losing the scent?" Josiah asked worriedly.
Chris shook his head with a sense of futility as he watched the dogs ferret through the bushes and trees around them. "We ain't gettin' anywhere just lettin' 'em run around; we'll be waitin' forever for 'em to pick a scent."
He looked along the line of the forest and chewed his lip at the seemingly vast area to search. In the pit of his gut he knew he should ask Nathan along, knowing that if they found Ezra that he would need the healer's help. But Josiah's need to find the gambler was greater than most, and besides which the Latent boys could need Jackson's help the most; and it wasn't as if they had never treated wounds before...
"Josiah, you and me'll take a couple of dogs and the shirt to try to pick up Ezra's trail, and see if any others managed to escape. If we head north we may come across some of Latent's boys."
"Shouldn't someone check it out further south? I mean, that's where the Cauldwells would have run off to, right?"
Larabee turned a derisive frown on the kid. "You wanna waste your time chasin' after those sons of bitches, be my guest; they ain't worth your time, JD."
"But they might know where Ezra is! They may have him with them-"
"If they did they wouldn't hang onto him for too long." He winced a little at the kid's look of hopelessness. "Listen, chances are they left him near the forest 'cause they sure as hell wouldn't want him around as evidence; let's just do what we can now and let Travis worry about 'em, okay?"
"If Ezra's out there, you're gonna need me to pick up the trail, pard."
He looked back up at the Tracker and shook his head. "Vin, you're best trackin' the others through the trees; as much as I want everyone out there lookin' for Ez, I want- no, I need to make sure Annie's boys are returned to her. I can't have it any other way." He explained softly.
Catching the anguish in the gunslinger's voice, the Tracker nodded understandingly at Larabee's subtle request.
"Alright." Vin replied as he tied off the reins. "If Quinn's men drew the Latents out from this direction," he walked over to them. "Chances are they ended up near the ridge- Cauldwell'd wanna get to the high ground first."
"Good idea; there's too much forest to be searched by three men alone, you're best going straight for the obvious." Larabee took the shirt from him, digging his fingertips into the familiar article as he studied it for a moment. "Take care of yourselves out there- just because no one came out alive doesn't mean they're all dead in there." He looked pointedly at JD.
The kid took the caution, but didn't need to be reminded; he'd keep a level head.
"And thank you; Annie'll be grateful you did this, and I sure as hell am."
The three smiled with resolve, neither wanting to be left out of the search but proud that the gunslinger had turned to them for help.
"Any trouble fire off three shots." Chris called over to them as Vin let out a piercing whistle to the dogs behind.
Josiah leant down and grabbed the slip of rope around one of the hound's necks to pull it from a shrub, taking a quick glance back as the others disappeared through the trees. It was then that he couldn't help the feeling of foreboding as they blended in like shadows, walking away as fading sounds. One by one they were being separated and it felt...
"Josiah, come on!" Chris called back to him.
Sanchez shook off his thoughts and picked up his speed. But there's crows in the sky.....
The small breeze that had once made it bearable to stalk between the trees had long since died off as the woodland closed itself off from the open plains, the deeper they got the stronger the stench became... and the bodies piled ever higher.
As soon as the first corpse had been found, it was decided among the two that they should carry others to the same spot; it was closest to the woodland's edge and in the best clearing they had found. But there in lay a problem as all the while JD had been hunched over with his head between his knees throwing his lunch up out of sight, unable to share the burdens with the other two.
The kid had been doubled up on countless occasions as he struggled against the nausea, wrapping his bandana ever tighter around his mouth and nose to fend off the odorous, stale air, and it was he who had found the first body; or what looked like.
Ready to keel over at the find, he only managed a quick, raspy "Nathan!" before his face drained of all colour and his knees buckled.
The healer turned at the frightened voice and saw a sump of blood in a dip in the earth. Beyond it laid a young boy, damn near torn in two from a shotgun blast to the chest.
"Oh, God..." The kid pulled away from the gruesome scene, covering his eyes in horror as he let slip a whimper.
"It's okay, JD." Vin edged up to him, holding the back of his neck as he'd seen Buck do so often. "Go on back over there, git yer wind back." He suggested, helping the kid to his feet.
He waited for the kid to move out of earshot before looking across at the healer. "Who ever this is, he didn't get a chance to suffer, that's fer sure." He mumbled of the tattered remains with reined in anger.
Nathan stooped to check the body with a deep frown. "I think that'll be the only consolation we get." He whispered and pulled out the photo he'd taken from Chris. "Damn." He shook his head.
"Got one?" Vin asked with regret.
"Yeah." He studied the face of the corpse before closing the staring eyes. "Now I'm glad I stayed to find 'em; God knows how Chris'd take it."
"We'll know soon enough." The tracker whispered before walking off in search of others.
+ + + + + + +
The wind had picked up for the two men as the hour went by, rushing over the open land and making work difficult; hands were quick to tighten their coats as their hats were pushed from their heads and it had been all too tempting to keep to the sheltered dips and valleys where the wind buffeted their tired bodies far less.
Following the dogs had taken tremendous patience and willpower the further they went; they're actions were never consistent, running this way and that and under their feet, barking and yapping at the slightest scent, and it concerned Josiah and Chris that they weren't concentrating on the search at all; more interested in stretching their legs instead.
Drawing to a stop, Larabee let out a shrill whistle and drew the dogs back to them, turning to see Josiah bent double to get his breath back. With a shake of his head, Chris pulled out the shirt again and snagged hold of one hound by the scruff of its neck.
"Lord, I'm too old for this." Josiah walked over to him with a cough. "Too bad we couldn't bring the horses, because chasing these idiots is gonna be the death of me."
Chris shook his head and grabbed hold of the other dog as it bolted past his legs. "We'd end up with broken necks." He made sure both dogs took in the scent and sighed. "I don't know if this is workin' anymore; they don't seem to get anythin' from it."
"It was the best I could find; I checked his room, all the other shirts had been laundered and pressed."
Larabee stood back up and released the whining dog before rolling the shirt back up again. "Come on; if they don't find anythin' soon we'll head back to the horses and start lookin' on our own."
Josiah nodded grimly and set off with Chris at a steady walk, adding his own whistle to the cacophony of barks ahead of them.
For another hour they searched, ambling through shallow rivers and clambering stony rises as the dogs followed with noses pressed to the ground. As they wandered the pastures it occurred to them that they had yet to see cattle...until a sudden racket of yapping and yelps drifted over a hill with a din of mooing and snorts. They had rushed the higher ground with guns drawn to chase after the dogs when a terrifying sight of steer horns peeked into view.
"Oh, God damnit!" Chris hissed.
In the dog's enthusiasm they had left their human shadows to round up the cattle lazing around the field after a week of being kennel-bound. The irritable, grazing beasts snorted and swung their horns at the smaller blurs and most turned in a panic at the sight of the two strangers with guns at the ready.
"Got any ideas?" Josiah puffed.
Larabee holstered his gun and stood akimbo to the herd. "We'd better get out of the way before they head towards us."
Josiah looked back and pointed to a skirting of rock face some distance away. "That'll make do for now, then we can get a clearer v-"
"Oh- hell, run!" Larabee yelled, clapping a hand on the preacher's shoulder to get his friend moving.
Not thinking twice about the order, Josiah bolted down the hillside ahead of Chris, skidding towards the thin scattering of boulders before recognizing the thunder of a stampede bearing down on them.
"Get down!" Chris shouted and chanced a look over his shoulder when Sanchez made it to cover. Suddenly he lost his footing on the loose earth and before he felt the pain in his foot the ground rushed up to meet him with a crushing agony.
"Chris!" Josiah shouted, already on the move towards his friend as he saw dark shapes reach the hilltop.
Feeling the earth shudder beneath him, Larabee tried to wave him back. "Get back, stay down!" He snarled as he tried to shake off the dizziness. A God awful pain ran the whole way along his right side from slamming to the ground so hard that it took real effort not to groan.
Ignoring the warning, Josiah hurried to his side as the gunslinger tried to get to his feet and slipped a hand under his friend's shoulder. "Brother?" He took Larabee's other hand and hauled him out of the firing line just as the first rush of cattle hurtled past.
Easing to the ground behind a shield of rock, Larabee rubbed a soothing hand down his side with a grimace, nodding his thanks to the preacher.
"You okay?" He breathed, looking around them to check their safety.
"Fuckin' dogs!" The bruised gunslinger hissed and spat a little blood from a split lip.
Sanchez let out a chuff of laughter and sighed in relief when the last of the herd sped by. "And I thought this trip was gonna be a bore." He grinned.
"Come on." Larabee beckoned with a gasp. "Let's get goin'."
"Need a hand, brother?" He asked of the younger man.
"Nah-" He stopped when he tried to draw his foot beneath him
He waited a few moments before cracking a grin. "Chris?"
Larabee looked up at Sanchez with a scowl and nodded. "Hell..."
Josiah took the gunslinger's scratched-up hand and pulled him up from the ground without uttering another word or chuckle that would piss him off even more.
Brushing himself off he pushed his hat back on his head, eyes thinning as they glanced at the churned up ground on the hill. "Buck often wondered what it'd be like to fall from your horse on a drive.... and I still wonder why it even interested him."
"People have a penchant for morbidity, I guess."
Larabee shrugged in disinterest and looked around. "Where are the dogs, anyway?"
"One moment." Josiah whistled when he saw two small dots weaving around the herd. "Here they come."
"Little bastards are wastin' time." Larabee grumbled quietly and kicked a toe into the grass.
"You want 'em back on the rope?"
"No." He stopped and grabbed hold of a wide-eyed, drool slathered dog before it could dart away from him. "I say we- damn it hold still!!" He cussed. "I say we head back for the horses; we'll follow the stream a way before we cut south; anyone fresh from a fight's gotta be thirsty- I know I am. Besides, the dogs probably ain't used to this kinda work anyway."
"We had to try, Brother."
Chris nodded disappointedly and shoved Ezra's shirt around the dog's nose. "Last chance, mutt." He growled before letting it go with a shake of the head. Looking back at the western skyline a movement caught his eye. Squinting to see a little further into the distance, he let a hand reach for his gun.
"What is it?"
"Josiah- that look like a horse to you?"
Sanchez turned and traced the gunslinger's line of sight to the horizon and caught the flick of a tail. A pale horse.... he shuddered. "You seen the rider?"
"No." He looked around, letting his eyes settle against the western sun. "How the hell did we miss it?" He wondered aloud.
"Cattle must have startled it when they ran nearby."
Chris snorted. "So the dogs were good for somethin'. Hell, we gotta check this out; keep your guard up."
+ + + + + + +
With most the children having run themselves tired for most of the afternoon when they'd heard of the strangers' arrival, the household had begun to settle down for naps and rest, leaving the still wide awake parents to finish chores and replenish supplies in the brief respite.
As the threat of attack no longer hindered them, the womenfolk were doing their best to tend to vegetable gardens, see to livestock and try, in whatever way they could, to pick up the fragile pieces from their lives before the fight. With help at hand from the five peacekeepers, and more aid on the way, their sense of security was recovered if nothing else; leaving the weary mothers and daughters with a chance to pull themselves together and put the ranch back in order.
In the rare peace of the kitchen, Poppy had put together a light broth for the workers before sitting down to feed her own young child.
Tucking the tail of a napkin into her son's shirt, she lifted a small bowl of the soup from the stove top as hurried footsteps clattered across the stone floor from the porch.
"I've checked around but no one's come back yet." Annie breezed into the kitchen. "I've got the last of the wood piled up in the shed; it'll last another couple of days if we're careful; after that we'll need to start cutting up the logs in the store house."
The young mother nodded silently and turned back to wiping her son's hands off with a cloth.
Annie looked over her shoulder. "You're very quiet."
Poppy glanced up at her with a weak smile of apology but couldn't bring herself to talk.
"Are you okay?" Annie wiped her hands and sat down on another chair.
"I uh-" She cleared her throat. "I...."
"Darlin', you can tell me."
Poppy put the bowl down and looked away, tears welling in her eyes.
Putting two and two together, Annie took her friend's hand and smiled gently. "There's the chance he's alive, Poppy; those men will be back in no time and then we'll know for sure-"
"But I don't want to know!" Poppy pleaded, her lip trembling with the effort to keep from sobbing. "It's this waiting I can't stand and the hoping! God, Annie, if he's dead I don't think I ever want to know the truth; I just wanna believe he's out on the trail or on a- a trip someplace- anything but dead!"
Annie drew Poppy close and put a soothing hand to her startled young boy's ruddy cheek. "Me too." She whispered, running careful fingertips through the mop of hair. "I'm just grateful there is someone willing to look for us."
Poppy buried her face in Annie's blouse and held her tight. "I know it's awful, but I hope they don't come back- I hope I never see them again because they'll know! They'll know what happened." She cried quietly. "I don't think I could face them."
Tears rolled down Annie's cheeks at the pleading sobs, grateful the door was closed behind them. "We'll manage, darlin'; we won't be alone, no matter what comes of this, you hear?"
She rubbed her friend's back gently for many minutes, speaking quietly of reassurances and promises until the shuddering sobs eased. Annie knew they weren't the last and prayed for some small mercy for the days ahead. By nightfall the men would have answers and neither woman looked forward to them.
+ + + + + + +
Trying to round up the horse had been a mistake; the dogs had taken up an excited chase of the poor animal before they could even get a good look at the mare. Running out of air, lungs burning with use, the two stopped as soon as they hit the stream.
"Well that does it. Did it leave anything around here?"
"Don't think so." Larabee panted, throwing his hands up in exasperation. "Well, there goes a lead."
"Hang on-" Josiah gripped his arm with an intense stare, eyes fixed on a point downstream.
"What is it?"
Suddenly the preacher bolted between the thinning trees, arms flailing to keep his balance over the pitted terrain.
Chris's eyes widened at the name before he took off after Sanchez, hurriedly pushing twigs and branches from his face.
"Ezra? Oh, God!" Josiah barrelled towards the stream, boots slipping over the rocks at his feet. "Ezra!" He shouted, reaching for the gambler's arm as Larabee leapt from the bank towards them.
With a cry of remorse, Sanchez hurriedly pulled away a clog of washed up debris that had caught up around Ezra's neck, brushing away weeds and twigs in a desperate attempt to preserve his friend's dignity. Lying in the water, muddied and tattered, he looked for all the world like a dumped corpse.
"Ezra can you hear me?" Longing for a reaction, a flutter of an eyelid or a hitch of breath, he pushed rocks and anything offensive away from the man he'd be proud to call 'son' and slapped a heavy palm against his cheek.
"Ezra!" He cried, shaking the gambler's sagged form in anguish.
"Josiah?" Chris called over the flowing water as he knelt down in the stream beside him, forcing a swell of water to wash over the southerner.
"Nothing- he won't wake up."
Larabee raked Ezra's longer hair back from his eyes and tried to lift a lid to see the pupils as he'd seen Nathan do so many times before.
"He's so cold, Chris."
"Fuck." He hissed when he saw the bloodied sclera. "Crap- alright, listen," He began, pulling Ezra's left arm from the water to wrap around his shoulders.
"Grab that arm, we gotta get him clear of this water." Larabee scrambled to get a good footing on the stream bed as Josiah leant into grab a handful of the clothes clinging to Ezra's shoulder blades. The slicker and shirts weighed the smaller man down and had soon caught up on the rocks and driftwood before they could even manage to lift him above the surface.
"Christ-" Larabee grunted as they settled Ezra on the flat ground, still half dragging him from the stream to get him as far from how they had found him as possible.
"My God, Chris- look at his hand!" Josiah held up the wounded appendage for him to see and shook his head bitterly. "Knife wound, just like Rosie said."
Larabee slapped the big man's arm to get his attention. "We can't deal with that now, help me with his coat-"
Chris snapped his head up.
"He's been shot!" The preacher exclaimed worriedly, holding a hand beneath the gambler's leg where blood was pooling on the grass.
"Back of the thigh- there's no exit wound, the bullet's still in there."
Chris frowned as the odds stacked up against Ezra and cupped a hand around Standish's throat for a pulse.
Josiah picked at the torn pants as he watched Larabee, his eyes pleading that his friend was still with them. "Is he alive?" He asked anxiously as the gunslinger pressed his ear to the southerner's chest.
Agonizing moments passed for the two men as Chris struggled to hear a heartbeat, placing a hand over Ezra's heart to double the chance of finding it.
"Come on, Ezra." he urged, sitting back up to check his throat again, holding his fingers against the clammy throat.
"Oh God, don't do this." Josiah whispered as the gunslinger bent once more to listen for a heartbeat.
Suddenly, moments later, Chris slapped a hand down on the solid earth in frustration. "God dammit!" He sat up and took hold of the slicker's sleeve.
"Chris? Is he-"
"He's alive, Josiah, but barely. Help me with this slicker." He ordered as the two set about trying to keep their friend warm; he was icy cold to the touch, his lips were turning blue and his breathing was so shallow that Chris almost believed the next breathe Ezra would take would be his last.
"Hurry, get this off- get him warm." He urged, hastily tugging at the garment to free the southerner's arms.
With the slicker peeled away and tossed aside, they cut back the over-shirt to get rid of as much soaked clothing as they could; every item was stuck to him skin-tight with water and grime and neither knew how many other wounds were concealed beneath. The gambler was probably never as cold and wet again in his life as he was then, but the fact that he wasn't shivering from it was scaring them; if they didn't get him warmed up soon they'd lose him.
"Get his boots off too; they'll be full of water."
Sanchez nodded and gently teased away the boots from lax form, unable to take his eyes away from the pale, still face. "Ezra? We're here, son. You just hang on." He pleaded.
"Ezra?" Chris tried to draw him back to consciousness and slapped his cheek repeatedly. "Standish!" He called but got no reply.
"He looks so close to death." Josiah shook of his coat and wrapped it around the southerner's frigid body.
Larabee shrugged out of his own duster to further blanket the gambler and looked back towards the forest.
Josiah shook his head. "No, Chris." He warned, seeing the idea in the gunslinger's eyes. "We can't wait for Nathan, we gotta get him back to the house- now!"
"We'll have to carry him- there's no way we can chase that damn horse down, it already took off across the prairie!"
"Can you roll him forward?" he beckoned anxiously. "I can take it from there."
Nodding, the gunslinger pulled the southerner's body up against him so that Josiah could get in place behind him. "You gonna be okay carryin' him to the horses?" He asked, knowing he would be unfit for the task with an injured leg.
"Whatever he needs." Josiah pushed his cross back inside his shirt and held his arms out ready.
"Alright, on three. One, two-" He lifted the gambler up off the damp ground with clenched teeth, holding him up a little higher for the preacher to get a good hold beneath the southerner's shoulders and knees.
Josiah grunted as he lifted Standish up into his arms but never lost his grip. "Lead the way." He nodded confidently, shifting the lighter weight in his arms, and trudged after Larabee as the gunslinger pushed a way through the low hanging branches.
Sanchez looked down at Ezra's face as his head lolled backwards against his arm and couldn't hold back the tear of relief that they had found him. "You hang on, son. You stay with us for just a little longer, you hear?" He whispered, clutching the gambler tighter in his hold.
"You hang on."
To Be Continued