Main Characters: Chris, Buck, Ezra, Vin
Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven and characters are the property of MGM Television, The Mirsch Corporation, Trilogy Entertainment Group and CBS. No profit has been made off of this work. No copyright infringement is intended.
They had been trailing known horse thief, Dick Peters, for three days. He and his brother, Frank, had stolen two horses from the livery, leaving Yosemite lying in a stall; bleeding from a blow to the head. As soon as the peacekeepers had been told what had happened, Chris, Buck, Vin, and Ezra had taken off after the thieves. And Dick Peters had been giving Vin a run for his money ever since. The tracker was using every piece of knowledge he had, to keep the peacekeepers on the thieves’ trail.
They were currently looking at another dead end and Vin was mad enough to chew nails. Leaning over from his perch on Pony, Chris Larabee tried to see what the tracker was staring so fixedly at; Vin Tanner stood up from his crouch and kicked at a rock.
“Problem,” Chris asked as he scratched at his chin; moving his gaze out the horizon, hoping beyond hope that something would materialize. They all wanted to get off the blasted trail and back to town, back to the comforts of civilization. Unfortunately, it appeared that fortune would not be smiling on them today. This afternoon had been a scorcher and with not a cloud in the sky, the night promised to be just the opposite.
Cursing under his breath, Vin looked back at his companions, “The trail’s gone cold, again, and I have absolutely no clue where to look next.” The tracker continued to walk back and forth looking closely at the ground around him, hoping that something would stand out, no matter how insignificant.
“Don’t upset yourself needlessly, Mr. Tanner. We have the upmost confidence in your abilities.” Ezra remarked as he casually rode up next to the gunslinger, “Do we not, Mr. Larabee?” Ezra pointedly looked at Chris, clearly expecting a response to his statement.
Chris shook himself from his wool gathering and glanced at Ezra, “What did you say?”
Sighing deeply, Ezra admonished the gunslinger, “My dear Mr. Larabee, if you had stayed involved in the conversation, I, Ezra P. Standish, would not have to repeat myself. May I ask what was far more interesting than what I had to say?”
Prickly tempers had risen right along with the temperature; Chris sent the gambler a heated glare, “Well, Ezra. Before you started blathering on, I was thinking that a few miles to the east is an old farm, can’t remember the name of the family living there, but maybe they would have seen Peters, it’s the only spread for miles around.” Chris sat up in the saddle stretching the kinks from his back.
“Sounds like an idea to me, besides my ass is killing me. I haven’t been in the saddle this long in a coon’s age.” Buck chimed in from where he was waiting at the back of the group. “And I know I’m not the only one hurtin’, I’ve seen you scooting around on your saddle, Ez.”
“My posterior is not up for discussion, Mr. Wilmington. And as a point of information, I don’t think any of us have been out on the ‘trail’ for an extended period in recent memory.” Ezra huffed and tried to find a more comfortable spot in his saddle. He had been able to ignore the growing discomfort for some time, but the ladies man had just brought it back to the forefront of thought.
Vin glanced up at Buck and Ezra, noticing how both were in fact sitting gingerly in the saddle, grinning he glanced at Chris, who just stared back down at him, “Your ‘posterior’ hurting too? Think you can ride on a little further?” Vin asked as smirked up at his friend; before climbing back up Peso and settling confidently into the saddle.
“Let’s check out that farm up ahead, and call it an evening.” Chris turned Pony to the east, not even questioning if the others would follow, and definitely not giving the tracker the satisfaction of knowing that he was as trail weary as Buck and Ezra were.
Buck pulled General up alongside Ezra and Chaucer, “He didn’t mention his hind end. You think he’s hurtin’ as much as we are?”
Vin rode past Buck and Ezra, “You two are too concerned with how everyone’s seats are feeling, might start to think I’m ridin’ with some little boys. Buck up, Buck.”
“Ha ha! Just because you live in the saddle and we choose not to doesn’t make us little boys.” Buck called out in indignation. “Let’s get a move on, Ez. I’m ready to call it a day.”
Sometime later they had arrived at the farm, but it been in a condition that none were expecting. It appeared to be devoid of life and the house had been boarded up. As they rode up, only the wind rustling through the leaves on some nearby oaks could be heard. Somewhere in the distance an unsecured door banged against a wall. The place just seemed creepy to Buck’s way of thinking; there were no chickens loose in the yard, no cow bawling to be milked, or pigs rooting in the muck. Nothing but the leaves and that damn loose door.
“I suggest we take a quick look around and then depart for a friendlier locale.” Ezra chimed in as he dropped down out of the saddle, squatting down to stretch his tight thigh muscles.
Chris snorted and hopped off of Pony’s back with a grimace; that he quickly hid behind a sarcastic smile, “What, are you afraid the Bogeyman’s going to get you? It’s just a deserted farm, the scariest thing here is me, so let’s look around and go from there.”
The peacekeepers spent the next several minutes checking every possible nook and cranny. Chris’s frustration with the whole situation had grown by leaps and bounds until he was ready to throttle Peters within an inch of his life, if they ever found him and his no good brother that is. As Chris stalked off toward the barn to continue his search, the ground was unexpectedly gone from beneath his feet. He only had time to let out a startled gasp before the gunslinger found himself falling long and fast. He landed with a resounding splash, when he suddenly met up with a wall of water, the breath knocked from him his lungs. He sank like a rock.
He tried not to panic, knowing that if he did he’d be dead. Instinctively he started kicking for what he hoped was the surface, his lungs screaming for oxygen. Seconds later he broke the surface sucking in a large gasp of air, treading water he tried to find a handhold but the sides were too smooth. It was then that he noticed how frigid the water was, not good.
Coughing up water, Chris yelled as loud as he could, “Buck! Hey, Buck!” holding his breath for a moment; he strained to hear over own his ragged breathing. Nothing. Looking up he could barely make out the sky above; how far had he fallen anyway? Pushing his hair out of his face he noticed blood on his hand, “Wonderful” he thought as he tried to summon help again, only succeeding in bringing on a coughing attack. He sank under the freezing water once again as his clothing pulled at him, kicking frantically he resurfaced coughing up water as he gasped for precious air once more. He’d definitely gotten himself into a bad spot.
Up above, Buck stood rooted to the spot; flabbergasted by what he’d just witnessed. There was no way that could have just happened; his mind was playing tricks on him. One moment Chris is stalking across the way and then nothing, not even a yell, the ground just seemed to swallow him up.
A muffled splash yanked Buck’s mind back to himself and put his feet into motion, he took off with a ground eating pace to the place he’d last seen his friend. “Chris! Oh God, Chris!” Buck screamed as he seemed to move too slow and the distance too great to where he’d last seen Chris, “Vin! Ezra! Help! Help!”
Vin and Ezra looked up in confusion at the screams coming from the ladies man. They’d been looking near the farm house for any sign that someone had recently been on the property. At Buck’s frantic cries both peacekeepers took off running. Buck’s voice was bordering on hysterical, and neither man had any earthly idea of what could have happened to scare the man so thoroughly?
Rounding the corner at a run they saw Buck sprinting hell bent for leather toward the barn. They charged in Buck’s direction, putting on more speed as they watched Buck drop to his knees, screaming Chris’s name.
Sliding to a stop near a now visible gaping hole in the ground Ezra and Vin looked at Buck in confusion, the ladies man was pointing at the hole, gasping something completely unintelligible. Ezra knelt down and tried to peer inside, all he could hear was what sounded like harsh, stuttered breathing and splashing.
Looking questioningly at Buck, Vin asked, “You think Chris in there?” At Buck’s nod he exclaimed, “He can’t be, he’s probably down at the barn. How could anyone miss this massive hole?”
Chris could hear muffled voices above him, pulling in a breath he shouted for all he was worth, “Hey! Hey get me the hell out of here!” As his teeth began to chatter, he strained to hear some sort of reply. When no reply was immediately forthcoming the gunslinger resumed treading water and silently cursed to himself.
As Chris’s disembodied voice rose from the well Vin’s mouth dropped open, snapping it shut he dropped down along side Ezra to peer down into the well also. “Chris, what in the world are you doing in the well?”
Again, Chris stilled for a moment, thinking that his ears were playing tricks on him. He knew he had just not heard Vin ask him what he was doing in the well? Rubbing at a cramp building in his leg he called out sarcastically, “I’m fishing. What the hell do you think I’m doing? Get me outta here!”
Vin shrugged as he rolled to a sitting position, “Guess he can’t be too hurt, seems to have kept his wonderful sense of humor. Better grab a rope to pull his sorry ass out with.” Standing quickly, Vin brushed the dirt off his pants.
“Don’t think he was trying to be funny Vin.” Buck remarked as finally pulled himself shakily to his feet. “I just hope he’s really okay, he just scared ten years off my life.”
Vin grabbed his rope off of Peso’s saddle and handed it to Buck. “We should use your horse; he’s not as ornery as Peso. It’ll be easier to get Chris topside using the horse to pull.”
“Sure, sure. Won’t be a problem, General’s most reasonable horse I’ve ever met. Let’s get this done.” Buck went about securing the rope to General’s saddle horn, and when that was done the ladies man slid on his gloves in order to assist with the pulling.
Ezra had stayed by the well to listen for Chris. “Hold on Mr. Larabee, we should have you out of your current predicament post haste.” Ezra called over the side of the well, squinting down into the darkness below. Ezra was currently lying on his stomach looking down into the dark abyss; the gunslinger was about thirty to forty feet below, in freezing water, waiting for them to pull him to safety. “Mr. Wilmington, are we almost ready? I believe our stalwart friend is tiring.” Ezra leaned up on his elbow to look behind him where Buck was tying off the rope they were going to use to pull Chris to safety.
“I’ve almost got it.” Buck called loudly so Ezra could hear, “Vin, when I give you the word you lead General off that way.” Buck directed, pointing off to the right as he double checked the knot to make sure it was going to hold, and gave his horse a pat on the shoulder.
Vin gave Buck a thumbs up, “Let’s get it done, and see what the damage is. I’d like to get out of here as soon as possible; this place gives me the willies.”
Ezra turned back to the well when he heard Chris calling from below, “We’re going to lower a rope to you in just a moment, Mr. Larabee, hold on for just a little longer.”
Spitting water out of his mouth Chris called out, “Ez! You boys need to hurry, I’ve got a mean cramp coming up in my leg, and I’m not going to be able to hold on much longer!” Chris took small panting breaths, trying to breathe through the pain, and keep his head above water. Why did this have to happen? Who the hell doesn’t mark where an old well is, especially one you can’t see until you’re falling in it?
Apparently at some point the well had been covered with boards, but had been left unattended for so long that the wood had rotted and scrub had grown up around it; silently waiting for the unwary traveler or preoccupied gunslinger. Chris was glad he had been on foot at the time, he would have hated for Pony to have found the well instead. Of course, Pony would have had the sense to miss the well entirely.
Buck dropped down next to Ezra and looked down into the well, “Hey, Pard how you doing down there?”
“Damn it, Buck! Just get me outta here, I’m freezing and I’m getting a cramp in my leg.” Chris yelled up to the ladies man, again Chris tried to find purchase on the smooth sides of the well with little luck. He was beginning to feel a little frightened, not an emotion he liked to embrace, but the pain in his leg was building and he was shivering even more now, the spasms were to the point that they were painful.
“All right, I’m going to drop the rope down to you, just loop it around yourself and we’ll pull you up.” Buck grabbed up the rope and lowered it down into the well.
Chris reached up as the rope got within his reach, and somehow managed to loop the rope around himself despite having clumsy fingers and aching muscles. The gunslinger rasped out with a much force as he could muster, “Pull! And get me the hell out of here!”
Ezra turned to Vin, “Go, Mr. Tanner. He’s ready.” The gambler watched as Vin urged General on, away from the well.
As Buck and General pulled, Ezra kept watch as Chris was slowly drawn to the top. Glancing down into the well, to judge their progress, the ladies man took in the gunslinger’s bedraggled appearance; his pale complexion, blue lips, the blood running down the side of his face from a cut somewhere in his hairline. Buck and Ezra both let out a collective sigh of relief. “Well welcome back, though I do have to say you look like a half drowned kitten.” Buck chuckled as he reached out to pull Chris the rest of the way out of the well with Ezra’s assistance.
Chris flopped into boneless heap on the ground, unable to move any further. “Just leave me, I’m done. Wake me when we get home.” He moaned and closed his eyes; his arms falling uselessly by his sides. “Oh, and I’ve lost my hat.”
“We should take care of them tonight; I don’t think we should drag this out. They’ll be preoccupied with that stupid gunslinger.” Frank Peters bit out as he put his spyglass away.
Dick snorted and turned his horse away from the farm, “I want them to suffer, I don’t want them making it back to that fleabag town alive.”
Remounting his horse he followed his brother, “Dick the longer we wait, the better chance they have of catching us. I’m not getting hanged for a stupid horse.”
Pulling up his horse, Dick Peters turned in the saddle to glare at his younger brother, “It’s the thrill of the chase; you always said you wanted to be famous. Well this is our shot, but we need witnesses. Someone needs to know that the Peters Brothers took on and bested the ‘Magnificent Seven’, that’s the stuff legends are made of. We’ll be rich.”
Frank drew his horse up beside his brother, “But Dick, there’s only four of them.”
Dick reached over and punched Frank in the side of the head, “I know that you dunder head. You see we’re going to get the other three to come after their friends, then it will be bye-bye Magnificent Seven.”
“Well, I don’t completely agree with how you’re going about this whole fiasco, but if it makes us rich and famous. Who am I to argue?” Frank rubbed at his sore ear and followed behind his brother away from their prey.
Vin quickly knelt down beside the gunslinger, “We’ve got to get you out of those wet clothes, Cowboy. You’re frozen clean through.” Pulling a limp and exhausted Chris Larabee up into his arms, Vin helped Buck peal the duster off; followed by Chris’s shirt and trousers.
“Here, I have a towel, blanket and an extra set of his clothes.” Ezra gasped out as he dropped down next to the trio, noticing how unresponsive the gunslinger was. Looking behind him at the boarded up home the gambler made a suggestion, “I think if we can get a fire started we should stay the night, darkness is only a few hours off and I believe that Mr. Larabee would benefit from the rest.”
“I think you’ve got a good idea there Ez, why don’t you and Vin go check out the house, while I dry Chris off here.” Buck replied as he used the towel to dry Chris’s wheat blonde locks.
“I’ll help Ez out; then we’ll move Chris inside.” Vin transferred his hold on his friend to Buck who wrapped him in the blanket Ezra had brought over.
Looking down at the lethargic man, Buck gently moved his hair away from the cut in his scalp to better assess the injury. Chris had scared the life from him, when one moment he’d been standing near the windmill and suddenly Chris had disappeared into nothingness. Buck’s heart had jumped to his throat and his legs had not wanted to move with his brain’s command.
Once they’d all arrived at the defunct well they’d been elated when they’d heard the splashing coming from the hole in the earth and the gunslinger yelling for assistance. Though Chris had gotten himself in a bad spot, he was at least still alive; and there was something they could do to save his skinny hide.
Reluctantly leaving the gunslinger and the ladies man behind, the tracker and gambler, cautiously traversed the open yard, to the small farm house with the faded, pealing paint and boarded up windows. Mounting the stairs, the tracker moved to the door and grasped the board preventing their entrance. Pulling for all he was worth Vin managed to remove the three boards that had been nailed to the doorframe.
Ezra gently pushed Vin away from the door and tried the knob, the door was locked. Reaching into his vest he pulled forth a tool, “Allow me, Mr. Tanner, I believe this part of the task requires my expertise.” Flashing a grin that showed off his gold tooth Ezra went to work on the lock. The lock made a quiet click and Ezra pushed the door open a few seconds later, bowing and indicating that the tracker could precede him inside.
“Thanks, Ez. That’s a lot easier than kicking the door in. You do come in handy to have around.” Vin laughed as he entered the murky interior of the house, smells kinda musty in here, he thought to himself, at least it would keep them dry and out of the elements.
The parlor had a small fireplace against one wall, sheet covered furniture strategically placed around the room, and wall sconces covered in cobwebs. The dust hung heavy in the air and had settled sometime ago on every available surface. With two fingers, Ezra slowly lifted one of the dustcovers and found an opulently appointed chaise lounge covered in the softest blue damask he’d ever laid eyes on. “This is a beautiful piece of furniture, why would anyone want to leave this behind?”
“I’ve been wondering the same thing myself, whoever lived here sure did like the ‘good life’, there’s even knick-knacks left on the mantle.” Vin took in the room with a furrowed brow, it didn’t make sense. Why would someone leave this all behind?
“Maybe they decided to move back where they’d come from?” the gambler suggested as he uncovered the other pieces of furniture, Vin leaned over and checked the chimney flue for blockages and nests.
“Mr. Tanner, if you will get the fire started I will assist Mr. Wilmington with Mr. Larabee. I believe it could turn quite cold this evening, but I think we should be quite comfortable as long as a supply of wood holds out.” Ezra wiped his hands off on one of the dust covers that he’d piled in the corner.
The sharpshooter turned from the fireplace, he had found no evidence that would indicate that the chimney was blocked, “Sure Ez, I’ll check for some kindling and wood, hopefully enough to get us through to the morning.” Looking around at the room again he replied, “Could have found worse places to hole up, this ain’t so bad.”
“Most assuredly, Mr. Tanner, most assuredly;” Ezra pulled the front door open, “I will return with our companions.” Stepping out onto the porch and looking out toward the well he could see Buck sitting on the ground with the gunslinger. As the gambler traversed the barren yard he could feel the cold bite in the air.
Buck looked up as Ezra drew up next to him, “Everything in the farm house okay?” At Ezra’s nod he gently shook Chris awake. Chris blearily opened his eyes and Buck grinned, “Hey, Stud. We’re gonna move inside before it gets too cold out here, we’ll head out in the morning.”
“Sure. Help me up, and we’ll head in.” Chris extracted a hand from the blanket and held it out for Ezra to take. Chris groaned as he felt what appeared to be every muscle protesting his movements, as he gained his feet he wavered where he stood; he’d have collapsed if Ezra hadn’t reached out to support him.
“Careful Mr. Larabee, you don’t want to land in the dirt so soon after getting your feet under you. There appears to be a rather comfortable chaise inside for you to use this evening. As we speak, Mr. Tanner is preparing a bone thawing fire.” Ezra held Chris steady as Buck got up from where he had been sitting on the ground with the gunslinger.
“Come on, Stud. Let’s get you inside.” Buck wrapped the blanket tighter around Chris and lifted him into arms, at the gunslingers ineffective protests; Buck remarked, “You only have your long johns on and no shoes. You can’t walk across the ground because there are too many rocks. Just relax and let me get you inside.”
Ezra followed along behind Buck with the saddle bags he’d managed to grab up. Maybe they could actually scrounge up a halfway decent meal tonight; he was tiring of trail food. He watched Buck carry Chris to the house with little effort; he often forgot how slight the gunslinger was compared to Buck. Chris had a personality that was room filling, if he was around you could feel it.
Vin met them at the door of the farm house, “Got the fire going, should be right comfy in here in just a bit.” Moving out of the way of the trio as they entered the house he continued, “Found a cot in a back bedroom, thought we could bring it out here, instead of making Chris sleep on the chaise, think he’s a little too tall for it.”
Buck settled Chris into one of the chairs and looked up at Vin, “Let’s get it then, he can barely keep his eyes open, wore himself plum out treading water until we could get him back up out of that godforsaken well.”
“I’ll see to getting Mr. Larabee out of the rest of these clothes, do not tarry, I fear his lips are still blue and he is still an unhealthy shade of pale.” Ezra set the bags down next to the chair and knelt down near the gunslinger.
“I can change my own clothes, Ezra. I’m fine, just a little tired.” Chris groaned as he pealed the blanket away and shivered violently as the outside air made contact with his still wet long johns. Leaning forward he shrugged one shoulder out of the cotton and pulled his right hand free of the clinging, wet fabric. Somehow his left hand had become impossibly tangled and Ezra reached forward to help his pull his hand free.
“Mr. Larabee, this would go much faster if you would let me divest you of your clothing. Let someone help you for a change, I do not mind.” Ezra sat back on his heels as Chris glared at him from beneath a furrowed brow.
Chris grimaced, as his teeth started chattering again and the tremors returned to his muscles. “Fine, but watch where you put your fingers, your hands are cold.”
A clatter from behind them interrupted Ezra’s reply. Looking over his shoulder, Ezra could see Buck and Vin carrying the cot into the parlor. Setting it up near the fire, Vin pulled some folded linens from under his arm.
Smiling Vin held his find up, “I found some clean linens, they aren’t musty, dusty, or anything. You are a lucky man, Cowboy.”
“Yeah, kinda strange if you ask me.” Chris grunted as he lifted up so that Ezra could remove the rest of his clothing. Flipping the blanket back over himself he sneezed violently.
Ezra dropped the wet items to the floor and pulled the extra set of long johns from Chris’s saddlebags. He helped Chris put them on as Vin and Buck made up the cot.
“Okay, your bed’s ready anytime you are, Stud. Just think, you actually get to sleep off the ground tonight.” Buck chuckled and moved to the front door, “I’ll go see to the horses.”
“I’ll be out to help you as soon as we get Chris bedded down.” Vin called from where he was helping Ezra get Chris over to the cot.
Exiting the farmhouse Buck strolled over to the barn, the horses were milling around the windmill, pulling at the scattered tufts of grass. Opening the barn door, Buck cautiously stepped inside, looking around he noticed that the barn appeared well put together and was as clean as a whistle. There was something strange with this entire farm, it appeared to have been well taken care of, inside one of the rooms he found feed, and it still appeared to be in good condition. Where were the people who had lived on this farm, and why did they leave?
“Buck! Buck, hey where are you?” Buck could hear Vin calling to him, moving to the barn entrance he looked out and saw the tracker near the windmill.
“Over here at the barn!” Buck called and Vin gave him the thumbs up, Buck watched as Vin gathered up General and brought him over.
“How’s it going out here?” Vin asked as he drew abreast of Buck, “Getting cold out, glad we got a solid roof over our heads and good fire tonight.”
Buck took General’s reins and led him into the barn, “Everything’s right as rain, nice barn and the feed and hay are still good. Whoever lived here must not have left too long ago. Wonder what happened?”
“Well, I’m sure glad the farm was here, not happy about Chris taking that trip into the well, but we’ve been in worse situations.” Vin remarked as he prepared to go back out and get Peso. “Ezra said he was going to check out the kitchen see if there’s anything edible left. Looking forward to a nice meal, we’ve been eating trail food for three days now.”
“Shake a tail feather there, Hoss. I don’t know about you, but I could use some good vittles.” Buck pulled General’s saddle and tack off and moved him into an empty stall.
They spent the next half hour putting the horses up for the night and when they stepped out of the barn their breath could be seen on the evening air. “Hope Ezra’s got something warm cooking for supper.” Vin closed the barn door behind them as they returned to the house.
Buck shivered as he reached for the doorknob, “Damn, it’s cold out here, let’s get a move on.” Pushing the door open, he could feel the warmth coming from the parlor. Sighing in happiness he strolled through the room and dropped into one of the chairs near the fire. “Ah, cozy. Think I’ll stay here all night.” Buck stretched his feet out toward the fire and closed his eyes in contentment.
“Don’t be hogging all the fire there, Bucklin. I’m just as frozen as you are.” Vin smirked as crouched near the hearth and glanced back at Buck.
“You all talk too much, you know that?” Chris turned on his side and pulled the blankets closer about himself, fixing a tired gaze on Vin and Buck.
“Thought you were sleeping, Cowboy?” Vin asked as he stood and moved toward the bed where his friend was lying.
“Not with all of you jabbering away and letting the cold air in.” Chris yawned and fought to keep his eyes open.
“Sorry Chris, horses have been tended to, Ezra’s scaring up some grub, and I don’t plan on stepping outside again until I absolutely have to” Buck yawned and pulled his boots off, before sticking his cold toes closer to the fire.
“Yeah well, don’t forget that the Peter’s boys are still out there. We don’t want to get caught unaware.” Chris shivered violently and brought his knees up to his chest, before making sure that his feet were completely covered. The warmth from the fireplace was finally starting to take the chill off.
“I’ll go check on Ezra, see if he needs any help.” Vin chuckled and moved quietly in the direction of the kitchen.
Buck yawned again, “I’ll keep an eye on ol’ Larabee here. Lord knows he can’t seem to keep himself out of trouble. Yup, had to fish his skinny butt out of the well, like a poor half-drowned, sputtering kitten. Kinda looked like one too.” He waited patiently for some smart aleck retort from the gunslinger. When none was tossed back his way he realized that Chris had drifted off to sleep.
As Vin entered the kitchen he found Ezra digging through the pantry. “Need any help, Ez?”
Ezra smiled so widely that his gold tooth flashed in the lantern light, “My dear Mr. Tanner, I feel like the proverbial Goldilocks. There is a fully stocked larder and pantry. We will be feasting like kings this evening.”
Vin frowned in thought, “Ez, don’t you wonder where these people went? Why would they leave all of this stuff behind?”
The gambler stopped with the meal preparations and stared at the tracker, “Who am I to question gifts such as these? Just remember the saying ‘Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’ you may just loose your nose in the process.”
Vin just rolled his eyes and looked down at what the gambler had collected for dinner. “Just what are you planning on cooking for supper? I was thinkin’ of something real simple.”
Looking aghast at Vin, Ezra cried, “Bite thy tongue, my naive friend. Have we not been swilling trail food for the last three days? I say ‘Nay!’ to more trail food. Tonight we will have ham and potatoes, fluffy biscuits with creamy butter, and peach cobbler for dessert.”
“Didn’t know you knew how to make all that, Ez,” Vin chortled, “Thought you preferred fancy eating establishments.”
If it wouldn’t seem so childish Ezra had half a mind to stick his tongue out at Vin, he’d just have to settle for a scowl.
The popping of the fire brought Buck out of his light doze, looking toward the cot he could see the gunslinger was still sleeping; the blankets wrapped tightly about him. Yawning widely the ladies man stretched and rose from the comfortable chair. Sniffing the air he could detect some yummy smells coming from the direction of the kitchen. His stomach growled loudly and he gave it a consoling pat.
He looked up as the kitchen door swung open and light spilled into the parlor, the sharpshooter’s silhouette preceded him. “He sleeping?” Vin asked the ladies man as he moved to look out a window. Darkness had settled in, making it near impossible to see any movement outside.
“Yup, plum tuckered out. What’cha making for supper?” Buck asked quietly, as he bent over to place another log on the fire.
Moving to the next window, Vin chuckled as he peered through the curtains, “Ezra’s making supper, swears he can’t stomach trail grub another day. Have to say, I was mighty surprised to find out he even had a notion of what a larder was, leastways know his way round it.”
“Well Ol’ Ezra’s been known to pull an Ace from the deck when he needs it. Just hope it’s eatable, ah edible.” Buck grinned and grabbed up his coat, “I’m gonna check around outside, it’s just been too quiet for my taste. Don’t want to get caught with our trousers round our ankles.”
Vin sank down into the chair Buck had recently occupied, “I’ll keep your seat warm, be careful out there.”
“Thanks, I’ll be wanting that seat back when I return.” Buck grinned as he slipped out into the night. Pulling the door closed behind himself, he looked out into the yard scowling. There was no moon tonight, someone could be standing just a few feet from him and he wouldn’t even know it. A cold breeze ruffled his hair and sent the barn door to slapping again. Stupid door, he thought to himself, he was going to have to brace it closed with something. Walking cautiously along the side of the house he strained to see along the ridge line. Nothing. Blowing out a frustrated breath, he secretly wished something would happen, just to give him satisfaction for the uneasiness he felt deep down inside.
“Reach for the sky!” a rough voice hissed to Buck’s left as cold iron pressed up on his chin. Buck’s heart stuttered to a stop, “You and your friends just don’t know when to back down. Is your life really worth a few mangy horses?” Son of a bitch, it was the Peters.
Buck reluctantly raised his hands as the gun pushed harder into his unprotected throat; causing tears to spring to his eyes. Buck could feel an arm snake around his waist, relieving him of his knife and gun. The ladies man was mentally kicking himself six ways to Sunday; he should have known things were too quiet and going too easy. To call out now would mean certain death for Vin and the others. “Why are you still hanging around? You know you’ll get hanged for being the low-bellied horse thieves that you are.”
Buck’s hands were suddenly yanked viciously behind his back and something rank was stuffed into his mouth. He tried not to gag on the disgusting cloth but his stomach was trying to voice its protest. He moaned as bile moved up his throat, somehow he managed to choke it back down.
“You upchuck and you’ll drown in it.” Another voice snarled as a dirty hand yanked his head back by his hair. He felt a blade pressed to his throat as a face came into view, Dick Peters. He should have known, these two were vicious and were obviously trying to make a name for themselves.
“Frank, grab that rope and come on, were gonna string us up a peacekeeper, then were gonna get his friends. We’ll have ourselves a real party.” Dick shoved his gun in Buck’s back and pushed him toward the barn.
Buck groaned in pain as Dick jabbed him in the back again and pushed him toward the barn. Stumbling, Buck hoped to trip up Dick Peters, but only succeeded in jamming his shoulder into the ground.
Frank viciously kicked Buck in the back, “Get up you piece of rubbish. I ain’t carrying you. Crawl if you got to.” He kicked the ladies man again, when he didn’t get up fast enough for his satisfaction.
Buck managed to get to his feet back under him and shot a glare at Frank Peters. Stumbling forward he felt the gun in his back once more. Buck prayed for some type of intervention, but figured he was going to have to hope for a rescue. The Peters were gonna hang him up like a trussed up goose for Christmas supper.
Vin stared into the crackling fire, listening as the wind sent the bushes beating against the outside walls. He shivered against a draft that snuck in through a nearby window; Buck had to be freezing by now. Rising from the chair he made his way back to the warmth of the kitchen. “How’s it coming? I’m plum starved out here and Buck’s gonna be crying when he comes back in from the cold.” Vin grinned at the flour speckled gambler, though he’d found an apron, he’d still managed to get it on his trousers.
Giving the tracker a harassed look, the gambler swiped at his cheek, leaving a swath of flour behind, “Supper will be ready when it’s ready. You can not rush perfection, Mr. Tanner. My biscuits need to fluff a little before I subject them to the fire. When they are finished, I have located a crock of butter and some honey. These biscuits will just melt in your mouth and leave you panting for more.”
Vin stood there listening to Ezra’s description, his mouth hanging open and his belly growling its displeasure. Suddenly snapping back to himself, the sharpshooter moaned, “Thanks, Ez. If I was starving before, now I’m dying.” Ezra just grinned back. Vin slapped the table, “You keep an ear for Chris, I’m gonna go find Buck. He’s dilly dallying outside somewhere. I’m holding you to those biscuits with butter and honey.”
Ezra stood there with his hands on his hips, “Here I am slaving over a decent meal and now you task me with attending to our petulant leader?”
“Ez,” Vin sighed as he clapped his hat down on his head, “He’s sleeping, he’s not gonna bite you. In fact, he hasn’t moved a muscle since we bundled him on the cot. I wouldn’t worry on it, just keep an ear out.”
“Fine, Mr. Tanner, I will do as you request, but you best not tarry, or you may have to fore go your biscuits.” Ezra complained as he slid the biscuits into the stove.
“No, I won’t. Be back quicker than three swipes of a lamb’s tail.” Vin vowed and pulled the kitchen door open, exiting the house quickly as the cold wind buffeted him in the face he could hear Ezra squawking behind him. Yanking the door shut, he hopped down the stairs and out into the yard. Looking to his left and right he heard nothing, squinting into the darkness he couldn’t make out any shapes that resembled the ladies man. Buck, where are you? He thought to himself as he moved quietly along the house.
A clang from the direction of the barn had Vin creeping toward the dark building. He hoped it was just Buck knocking something over; he really wanted those biscuits Ezra was baking up. As he neared the doors he heard something that sounded like a muffled grunt and flesh striking flesh. Pulling his mare’s leg free he moved closer to the door and tried to peer inside. “Too dark.” He hissed in exasperation. Pulling the doors open just enough to slip through, he stepped inside.
“Welcome to the party.” A voice hissed behind him and then Vin saw a flash of light.
Ezra peeked in the stove and grinned, a few more minutes and they would be ready. Looking at the kitchen table he smiled to himself, call him lazy would they. He’d like to see any of them attempt to prepare such a succulent repast.
Moving to the kitchen door he looked out into the parlor, Chris was still lying on the cot before the fire. At some point, it appeared the man had turned onto his stomach and was sprawled out, one arm hanging toward the floor. Ezra could have sworn he heard him mumble something in his sleep, but could not fathom what it could have been. He had no intention of waking the gunslinger, how did the saying go? “Let sleeping dogs lie.” Sniffing the air he remembered his biscuits, Ezra all but ran back into the kitchen, he grabbed a towel and pulled his now perfect biscuits from the oven. Setting them on the sideboard he pulled each one from the pan and placed them gently on the plate, crooning over each perfect morsel.
Pulling his gaze from the biscuits he glanced out the kitchen window and scowled. “They said they’d be right back. They are ruining supper.” Pulling off the apron he’d donned earlier, he pulled on his coat; he’d just have to see what was much more interesting than the meal he’d slaved over all afternoon. Grumbling darkly he snatched a biscuit off the plate, took a vicious bite out of it and yanked open the door; stepping right into the business end of Dick Peter’s Remington pistol. Slowly raising his hands in the air, “When did you arrive?” he mumbled around the biscuit currently occupying his mouth.
“Just never you mind.” Peters snapped, “Come on down here, real easy like. Be sure you keep those hands in the air.”
Ezra cautiously stepped down out of the kitchen, trying to dry swallow the biscuit before he choked. Glancing around, he assumed that Dick was alone, especially if they already had Buck and Vin. Ezra prayed that Chris would awaken and realize something was wrong. Feeling a muzzle press into the base of his skull Ezra stopped cold.
Peters laughed evilly, “I almost forgot.” Pulling Ezra back against him, he reached around and divested Ezra of his sidearm. “Now be real careful and hand me that little pea shooter you got squirreled away up your right sleeve.”
Cursing to himself, Ezra released the derringer from its rig and handed it back. Peters snatched it from his hand and shoved it into his pocket.
“Head toward the barn, I’m sure your friends will be happy to see you.” Jamming the gun into the gambler’s back they trudged toward in that direction.
Chris wasn’t sure what had pulled him from sleep, but as he lay on the cot listening to the fire crackle he realized that it was quiet, too quiet. Rubbing at gritty eyes he looked around the empty room, frowning in confusion he pushed his aching body up from where he lay. Dropping his feet over the side of the cot he noticed his rig sitting nearby, grabbing it up he pulled his Colt Peacemaker free. Looking it over carefully, he smiled, Good Ol’ Vin. He was sure the tracker had been the one to clean the weapon for him.
Once he had managed to extricate himself from all the blankets, he hobbled over to the fireplace where his clothing had been laid out to dry. Chris grimaced in pain as he bent over to retrieve his trousers. They were only slightly damp; he could live it with for now. After dressing as quickly as he could, he strapped on his gun and moved quietly to the kitchen. Slowly pushing the door open he glanced into the room, it too was empty except for the delicious aromas still hovering on the air. Cautiously moving into the room, he found the plate of biscuits. Picking one up and stuffing it into his mouth; he chewed slowly. The biscuits were still warm, so wherever they went, they hadn’t been gone too long. By the looks of the supper laid out, someone had been industrious in the kitchen.
Chris could hear the wind knocking the branches against the house and a draft swept under the kitchen door, causing him to shiver against the chill. Balking at the thought of going out in the cold, he snagged another biscuit off the plate and stalked back into the parlor to grab his coat. Looking around for his hat he sighed and his shoulders slumped; he’d lost it when he’d fallen into the well. Damn it! He’d just gotten it broken in the way he liked too; Vin’s nag had destroyed his last one. It just wasn’t fair. Pulling open the front door he slipped silently into the night, tip toeing down the stairs, he kept to the shadows.
Buck watched Frank Peters pace back and forth from where he was tied to one of the support beams in the barn, the thief had been grumbling under his breath for the last fifteen minutes. “Guess Ol’ Dick don’t trust you to nothing but guard duty.” Buck snarked as Frank passed by him.
“Shut your mouth or I’ll shut it permanent like.” Frank snapped as he rushed at the ladies man.
“Really, you gonna bash me over the head and leave me for dead like you did Yosemite?” Buck spit out in defiance.
Vin just sighed in frustration, Buck and this fool had been going at it off and on for the last half hour, and if Vin’s poor head hadn’t been pounding before; it sure was now. Vin watched out of his one good eye, as Frank puffed himself up as much as he could in front of Buck. Unfortunately, the man was built like Chris Larabee, and no amount of posturing was going to intimidate the ladies man.
“You won’t be alive to see the sunrise, you heifer.” Frank laughed and danced away as Buck fought his bindings. “Dick’s gonna eat you for breakfast.”
Buck yelled at the top of his lungs in pure unadulterated anger, which left Vin wincing in pain. Frank just giggled in the middle of the barn, slapping at his knee. The barn door suddenly blew open and the thief drew on the two people walking in.
“Put that gun away, Frank. It’s just me. I’ve brought another one of their friends.” Dick snapped and kicked Ezra in the back, sending the gambler sprawling across the dirt floor.
“That was not very hospitable of you. If you treat all your guests this way, you shan’t keep many friends.” Ezra simpered as he slowly stood up and brushed the dirt from his clothing.
“Be quiet!” Dick growled and kicked him toward an available support beam, “Frank, tie ‘im up. Make sure you make the knots extras tight. Think we got ourselves a weasel here. Don’t want him slinking away before we need him to.”
Frank looked Ezra up and down, “Why can’t you do it? Let me go after the gunslinger. I want to have some fun too.”
Dick scowled at Frank, “This is not supposed to be fun, at least not yet. Once we’ve got’em all squared away I’ll let you have some fun. The gunslinger is mine. You can have the others.”
Frank just shot Dick a glare and grabbed Ezra by the elbow, dragging him to an open post.
Chris noticed that the wind was bitingly cold and whipped his hair about his head, wiping at his running nose he mumbled to himself. “Should have gotten that hair cut the other day.” As he moved along the outside of the farmhouse he looked toward the only logical place to possibly find his missing friends, the dark and silent barn; its hulk blocking out the stars resting on the horizon. Having no idea what would have called all three from the house, he preceded cautiously across the yard, silently wishing for some moonlight to light his way across the unfamiliar property. He had no intention of falling into anymore wells or being happened upon any ne’er-do-wells who may be in the immediate vicinity.
A sudden prickling of the hairs on the back of his neck caused him to stop where he was. Standing perfectly still and holding his breath, he listened for any sounds out of the ordinary. His empty fingers itched to be wrapped around his Peacemaker; and just as he was giving into the sensation, a twig snapped behind him. Gun clearing leather, he spun in the direction of the noise, but before he could bring it to bear something with the force of a sledgehammer slammed into his back and out through his chest, near his shoulder, dropping him to the ground.
Lights flashing behind his eyelids, he gasped in pain as he managed to open his eyes and look around frantically, trying to find his assailant in the darkness. There was nothing; just the tree limbs creaking in the wind and the rustling of the winter grasses. Who was out there and where were they hiding? Groaning through grit teeth he tried to lever himself up, but his left arm useless and his right hand holding his gun in a death grip it almost impossible. With his strength ebbing away with his life’s blood here he was lying out in the open like a landed fish, unable to get himself up off the frozen ground. Chris yelled in frustration, “Show yourself you yellow-bellied coward. Only cowards shoot people in the back, get out here and face me!”
“I’m no coward, gunslinger.” A rough voice called from the darkness, up near the house, “I just know how to tips the scales in my favor.”
Taking a shuddering breath Chris slowly rolled to his knees, sweat pouring off of him despite the coldness in the air. His chest burned with every stuttered breath; fortunately he wasn’t tasting blood so he counted his blessings. He could feel the blood running in rivulets down his back and front, soaking into his clothing and gathering at the waistband of his trousers. The gunslinger could hear a ringing in his ears and knew time was running out, “What do you want? Why are you doing this?” he croaked out, his breath short.
Stepping into the light cast by the lanterns in the kitchen, Dick Peters grinned evilly at the gunslinger, “I want you, Larabee. I want to destroy you and your reputation. When I’m done with you, you’ll be a shadow of your former self.”
Chris tried to bring his gun up but it felt as if it weighed a hundred pounds. Looking down at his hand he tried to will it into movement, but his brain had lost communication with his arm. Two feet came into his field of view and he slowly looked up, there stood Dick Peters larger than life, and he was grinning like the cat that licked the cream. Chris gave him one of his most heated glares.
“Welcome to Hell!” Peter’s cackled and kicked the gunslinger in the chest, sending him into a sprawl back into the dirt.
Chris looked up at Peters with heavily hooded eyes, unable to gather the strength to fight back. They were definitely in trouble this time.
Ezra watched Frank Peters pace back and forth in the barn, the man was obviously disgruntled. It was probably some form of sibling rivalry, big brother trying to keep little brother under his boot or some such ploy. He tried to think up some barb to rile the horse thief, but before he had his chance Buck was back at it again. The ladies man was a glutton for punishment.
Taking the opportunity to interrupt the silence Buck called to Peters, “Hey, Frankie. Why you let him walk all over you like that? I bet you got just as much clout as he does, bet you’re the better shot too. I saw the way you wielded your gun. Wouldn’t want some brother keeping me under his thumb.”
Frank turned on Buck, “Shut up! You’re not supposed to talk. Dick’s in charge. He knows what’s what.”
Buck shook his head and licked at the blood that continued to weep from his split lip. “You know big brothers aren’t always right, sometimes they need guidance too. Dick’s probably just hoping you’ll step forward and take over. You being the smarter one an all.”
Frank scrubbed at his neck with his hands and thrust them through his hair, “I told you to shut up!” he charged over to Buck punching him in the gut hard enough to leave the man wheezing for air.
On the other side of the barn Vin was trying to work his hands free of his bonds as Buck continued to torment Frank. Chris was the only one who had yet to be trussed like a bird at Sunday supper and the tracker was concerned, Dick had gone back out and had yet to return. They could only hope that Chris would somehow evade their tormentors and start a rescue. Vin’s head was throbbing with every beat of his heart and he could barely see out of his left eye. How in the world are we getting out of this mess? He thought silently.
“Get up you lazy good for nothing dog!” Dick Peters spat at Chris kicking him viciously in the back just below the bullet wound.
Chris cried out and jerked away in pain, his hand scrabbling for his gun which was laying a few feet away. Peters saw this and viciously stomped down on Chris’s hand forcing him to release it. As Peters reached down to grab up his gun he used his free hand to grab a handful of tangled blonde hair and pull the injured man to a seated position. Tears unwillingly sprang to Chris’s eyes as the horse thief yanked his hair harder and jammed his own weapon under the gunslinger’s chin.
Peters moved in close and breathed in, “You smell like fear Larabee. Are you scared?” he whispered in Chris ear, grinning as his captive tried to push free. He pulled him closer, his lips brushing the gunslinger’s ear; the thief impulsively ran his tongue around the outside shell of the gunslinger’s ear reveling in the responding quake.
Chris shuddered in revulsion and froze as Peters pressed closer, “Don’t!” he rasped out and aimed a fist Peters’ face, which the man caught easily due his weakened condition.
“My, my, aren’t we full of piss and vinegar! Guess we better get you to the party.” Moving to a standing position Dick Peters pulled Chris up by his hair and pulled him in close to his body, “Come on sweetheart, we’ve got work to do and you’ve got a long night ahead of you.”
The taunting that had been going on in the barn ceased with the sound of a gun shot outside. Buck watched as Frank moved hurriedly to the barn door to peer out, glancing at Vin and Ezra, he could see right away the fear in their eyes.
Turning back to his prisoners Frank smirked, “Guess Ol’ Dick got tired of your friend. Figure you three will be joining him in hell soon. I wonder which one of you will get to be first.”
There was total silence for all of about a minute and then Ezra chimed in, “Excuse me, but how are you positive that your nefarious brother was the one who did the shooting? For all we know, Mr. Larabee got the jump on him and is at this moment working to effect our release.”
Frank just laughed and slapped at his knee, “You’re a funny one, Gambler. Someone get a jump on Dick? I do not think so, he’s killed at least a thirty men down in Mexico and he’s gonna do that here too, but bigger. We’ll be famous; it’ll be parties every night, all the women you want, and all the liquor you can drink.” At Buck’s guffaw he turned to face the ladies man. “What? You think that’s not going to happen?”
Buck gave him a toothy grin with none of his usual kindness, “You think Ol’ Dick’s just gonna let you ride on his coat tails? You’ll be there to do his bending and stretching, he won’t share his fame with you. Oh, and you think you’ll get the women? You might, after he’s done with them.”
Frank stalked up to Buck and stabbed a finger into the ladies man’s chest, “Why do you continue to speak when I’ve told you to stop? Can’t you follow orders?” throwing his hands up in the air, he moved over to where the gambler was tied up, “Here’s what we’re gonna do. Each time the magpie over there opens his mouth I punish you; that seem like an idea to you?”
“I don’t know what you hope to accomplish with that. Mr. Wilmington has always been loquacious, can’t seem to help himself.” Ezra grinned when Frank looked at him in confusion.
“Speak English you candied ass peacock.” Frank’s eyes narrowed as Ezra smirked.
“I am speaking English. Would you prefer it if I said he was talkative, chatty, glib, oh how about voluble or garrulous. I can go on all day if you like.” The gambler gave the horse thief the most innocent expression he could muster.
Roaring in anger, Frank grabbed Ezra’s face in one hand and his knife in the other, “I’m gonna cut your tongue right outta your head. Then let’s see how chatty you are.” Frank brought the knife to Ezra’s lip and squeezed his face tighter forcing a moan of pain from the man.
A banging on the door to the barn broke up the pandemonium that was occurring in the inside, Buck and Vin halted their protests as the door vibrated again, the hinges loudly protesting their abuse.
Frank re-sheathed his knife and gave Ezra a hard pat to his cheeks, “You get to keep your tongue for now, you better be thankful for the interruption.” The banging echoed through the barn’s interior again, “Hold your horses, I’m a comin’. Had some business to tend to.”
As the barn door was opened, Dick Peters struggled in with his captive. Laughing as he made his way to the center of the building. His left hand still tangled in the gunsliger’s hair, dragging him along. Chris had a desperate grip on Peters’s wrist trying to keep his hair from being pulled out from the roots. When Peters finally released the him he fell to the ground in a boneless heap, unable to move; his precious store of energy depleted.
Dick turned to his brother, “Well, the gang’s all here. Shall we begin or should we partake of the evening’s feast? Appears we interrupted their supper plans.”
“Let’s eat first, don’t want the food to get too cold.” Frank answered as he glanced down at the injured man at his feet. Frank used his foot to flip him over onto his back, “Course I’m not sure this one’s gonna make it that long. Probably shouldn’t have shot him, not much life left in him.”
Dick clapped Frank on the shoulder, “That’s why I’ve got you little brother, see you’re gonna go on up to that fancy house, put us together two beautiful dinner plates and bring down some supplies to patch him up.”
Frank looked at his brother in frustration, “Me? How come I gotta put him back together? You shot him, you put him back together. We’re supposed to be partners in this, fifty-fifty.”
“Come, come little brother, I shot him, that’s fifty percent, you fix him, that’s another fifty percent.” Dick explained as he pulled Chris’s Peacemaker from the waistband of his pants. Walking over to one of the lanterns he looked at it in the light, letting out a whistle, “Nice piece of work you got here Larabee, think I’ll add it to my collection.” He grinned at the gunslinger, who was starting to show signs of life. Stalking over, he pressed Chris back to the ground with his boot, “Now Frank, I ain’t telling you again. Go get the food and supplies or I’ll make you sorry Ma ever birthed you.”
Frank snarled at his brother, but said nothing more as he slammed out of the barn and into the night; his brother’s laughter following him.
Dick turned back to the others once Frank was gone, “Now as I see it, you all are my opportunity to make a name for myself in these parts. Heck, seems to me you all are widely known round here and I’m gonna become famous by putting each and everyone of ya seven in the ground.”
Buck snorted and both Vin and Ezra cringed, “Seems to me you can’t count, you’ve only got four of us. Plus out here, you don’t have any witnesses to the killings.”
“Buck!” Ezra and Vin shouted, the man was gonna get them all killed; quick like.
“You should heed your friends’ warning; you’ll live longer that way.” Dick sauntered over to Buck, looking him up and down. They were of a size, maybe he’d have to fight this man before he killed him. As he thought on it, he liked that idea better and better. Yes, he thought to himself. That idea definitely had possibility. Out of the corner of his eye he saw movement on the floor, turning he could see that the gunslinger trying to get up, “You just don’t know when to stay down do you?”
Chris warily watched Peters as he finally gained his feet. The hole in his chest felt like a burning inferno and he was as weak as a newborn colt, to compound matters, an incessant ringing had begun in his ears. “Do you really think you can get away with this?” Chris rasped out, taking an unsteady step back.
Grinning widely, Peters drew closer to the gunslinger, “So far it seems to be working.”
Vin watched anxiously as Chris wavered where he was standing, it appeared that only pure cussedness was keeping him on his feet. The tracker continued to work at his bindings and had to steel his expression when he felt them start to slip.
Frank startled them all when he banged into the barn, laden down with food from the kitchen and a sack full of supplies, “Got what you wanted, Dick. Them biscuits sure are good; brought the whole plate down with butter and honey.”
Dick Peters’ attention remained on Chris, “Bring me that chair over in the corner and set it right in the middle here.” Quick as lightning he lunged at the gunslinger, Chris managed to land a few well placed punches before Peters had him back down on the ground; face in the dirt.
Peters had one hand on the nape of his neck and a knee pressed into his lower back. Chris fought for all he was worth. When Peters leaned over to grab his free arm, Chris somehow managed to grab the horse thief’s ear. Peters screamed at the top of his lungs and he lost his grip on the gunslinger and Chris was able to scramble onto his back. Bringing his booted foot up with as much force as he could he landed a kick to Peters’ crotch; dropping him to the ground like a felled tree. Wheezing heavily Chris pulled himself away as Frank rushed in to check in his brother.
Dick Peters clutched at his privates and rolled on the ground, he pulled in a breath and hissed out, “Grab him!”
Vin started in surprise as Chris’s kick landed true. The gunslinger’s labored breathing sounded harsh inside the barn, as he tried to crawl away. Chris was going to be down for the count after this and it would be up to Vin to get them all free. As the tracker looked to his right, he noticed a pitchfork resting near some hay bales, it was not the most practical weapon but it could damage a person just the same.
Ezra watched as Dick Peters toppled to the ground after receiving a stiff boot to his nether regions. Grimacing to himself; the gambler realized that Chris was in real trouble now and he was unable to help. Out of the corner of his eye he detected movement from where Vin was biding his time. Directing his attention to the tracker, he watched as Vin moved stealthily toward the direction of the hay bales. Both of the Peters were distracted with Chris Larabee and hadn’t seen Vin move. “Bravo Mr. Larabee!” Ezra called from his location on the other side of the barn. “You took the bull by the horns, so to speak and made him a cow!”
Frank snorted as he rose from where he squatting by his brother, and moved over to where the gunslinger lay trembling, curled into himself, “Feeling kinda poorly there aren’t ya?” Reaching down he grabbed Chris’s left hand and yanked it back behind him, causing the man to scream in agony, “Hurt’s don’t it; well this is just the beginning.”
Buck struggled at his bonds, yelling in frustration as they only seemed to rub at his already tender skin. He could see the tears of pain running down his friends face; he could hear the hitching gasps of breath. If he could get free, he’d cut Dick Peters’ balls off and feed them to him as he was choking out his last breath. “Get up you sniveling little weasel! You want to take someone on, you take me on!”
Dick Peters’ pried his eyes open and glared at the ladies man, “You had best hobble your lip, or I’ll make you regret the day you saw sunlight.” Peters growled out as he slowly rolled to his knees, taking heaving breaths to quell the nausea that threatened to send the contents of his stomach spewing all over the barn floor, he barked out. “I’m gonna gut you and feed ‘em to your gambler friend, then I’m gonna stake him out on an ant hill and slather him in honey.”
Buck watched in satisfaction as Dick Peters’ gained his feet and staggered over to him. Beefy hands wrapped themselves around Buck’s neck and Peters started to squeeze, staring at the ladies man with fire in his eyes. Buck just grinned and wheezed out, “Shame you don’t have your brother watchin’ your back.”
Peters looked at him in confusion, “What are you blabbering about?” The ladies man just grinned at him so he squeezed harder. Buck choked for breath, stars starting to dance before his eyes.
“Hey! Not Nice!” Vin hissed behind Dick Peters, the man spun round in surprise and Vin slammed the tines of the pitchfork up and under their nemesis’ rib cage, piercing his black heart. As Dick Peters reached up and wrapped both hands around the handle, Vin grabbed his gun.
“Frank! He’s killed me!” the horse thief shouted out as he dropped to his knees, clutching at pitchfork, blood slowly leaking out around the wounds. He stared down at the tool sticking out of his chest in amazement. This was not how he had planned to go, no he was supposed to go down in a ‘Blaze of Glory’ to be written into the history books, not in some ramshackle barn out in the middle of ‘God’s Country.’
Frank jumped up from where he was tying up the listless gunslinger, pulling his own weapon and firing. Vin was faster, his bullet striking bone in Frank’s lower leg. The man crumpled to the ground crying out in agony.
Vin cut Buck loose and handed him the gun, “Watch him!” he spit out indicating the floundering Dick Peters, “I’m gonna take care of the other one.” Vin stalked over to where Frank was writhing on the ground in pain, grabbing up an extra length of rope Vin flipped the man onto his stomach; dropping a heavy knee into the small of his back he reached forward, pulled Frank’s arms behind his back and secured them tightly.
Glancing down at the blood freely flowing from the gunshot wound, the tracker pulled off his neckerchief, “Waste of a good bandana if you ask me.” Vin barked as he tied off the wound.
“Mr. Tanner, may I remind you that they--,” looking down at Dick Peters who was starting to get a glazed look about him, “Uh, let me rephrase. Frank Peters can be hanged for horse theft. Personally I’d like to be in the front row.”
Vin grinned as he stood up, “You have a mean streak in you, Ez.”
“We all do when provoked, Mr. Tanner.” The gambler pointed out, glancing down at the ropes still holding him to the post, “Do you think you could maybe untie me now? This is becoming quite tedious.”
“Sure, Ez. Let me untie Chris and I’ll be right over. How you doing over there Buck?” Vin asked as he cut away the gunslinger’s bonds and gently turned him over. Chris groaned as Vin pulled his coat open to look at the wound. “You just relax, Cowboy. We’ll have you back up to the house in no time.”
Buck watched Vin from across the barn as he pulled the pitchfork from Dick Peters body, “Well, Vin. I believe he’s deader than a can of corned beef. How’s the other one?”
Looking over at Frank Peters groaning on the floor, “Oh he’s hurtin’ all right; crying for mercy and all that. Have to say I wouldn’t mind helping to build the scaffolding for this one.” Vin admitted as he dug through the bag of supplies. “I think we should take Chris up to the house where we can fix him up proper like.”
“Sure, let me free Ezra and we’ll be right over.” Buck divested Dick Peters of all his weapons and used the knife to cut Ezra free. “Okay, Ez. Let’s drag him over away from the horses and cover him with that canvas over there.”
Ezra screwed his face up, “Can I not help Vin instead? I really hate dragging dead bodies around.”
“Ezra, he’s dead weight. It’d be easier and quicker with two of us. Just grab his foot and we’ll drag him. Not like he’s gonna feel anything, he’s dead.” Buck puffed out as he grabbed one foot and tried to pull the man across the barn.
Looking doubtfully at the ladies man, Ezra grabbed Dick Peters’ foot and pulled for all he was worth. With a lot of huffing and puffing, moaning and groaning, they were able to move the body and cover it up. “Next time, I think Vin would be the better choice of brute strength, not me. I detest manual labor.”
Grunting under the gunslinger’s dead weight, Ezra and Vin pushed through the front door of the house.
“I believe Mr. Larabee has been partaking of Ms. Potter’s apple pies a little too often.” Ezra tightened his grip on Chris’s legs as they started to slip from his grasp,
“You saying Chris is getting fat?” Grinning, Vin backed around the settee to the cot.
Narrowing his gaze Ezra sighed, “Mr. Tanner, I was just pointing out the fact that Mr. Larabee appears more robust since the last time I had the pleasure of carrying his dead weight.” Ezra dropped the gunslinger’s legs onto the cot while Vin pitched forward as he took the brunt of Chris’s weight. Ezra grimaced at the scowl Vin directed on him. “Oops. A momentary lapse of reason overcame me.”
“Oops? You better be glad he’s unconscious,” Vin whispered as he pushed himself up off the gunslinger. “Go help Buck with Peters and see if you can find any whiskey. Then get me some hot water and clean rags.”
Pulling off Chris’s boots, Ezra placed them under the cot before heading back outside to assist the ladies man.
Vin threw a few logs onto the small fire which had managed to survive while they had been out in the barn with the Peters brothers. Hoping the chill would soon dissipate, he knelt down next to his friend. “You sure know how to get yourself into trouble Larabee.” Realizing he was going to have to lever the gunslinger up to get his coat and shirt off, Vin sat on the edge of the cot. Pulling Chris toward him, the tracker slipped one arm out of the coat and shirt. He was able to remove Chris’s left arm from the coat, but the shirt fabric was stuck to the wound.
The tracker jumped in surprise as the front door banged off the wall when Buck and Ezra made their way inside with Frank Peters.
The man was bawling louder than a calf looking for its mother and Buck was reaching the end of his tether. Indicating the corner of the room, which happened to be the furthest from the cheerfully dancing fire, Buck growled, “Hey Ezra, spread that bedroll out in the corner over there.”
Frank ceased his moaning long enough to complain, “I’ll freeze over there. I’m injured and you should be treating me better.”
Buck gave Frank an evil grin and dropped him in the corner once Ezra had moved out of the way. “I don’t remember you being too hospitable to us and I just can’t bring myself to ‘turn the other cheek.’ So just sit right there and hobble your lip.”
Vin was about to go fetch the water for himself when Ezra arrived with a basin and rags. “I was about to go look for ya, Ez.”
“My apologies, I had to heat the water and it took longer than expected.” Ezra looked down at the pale gunslinger in concern when Vin soaked the fabric loose from the wound and there was no reaction to be had.
Wiping at the oozing bullet hole Vin sighed, “I wish Nate was here. He’d have ol’ Chris fixed up in no time.”
Ezra squeezed Vin’s shoulder but said nothing. They would have to do the best they could, at least they had a roof over their heads and enough stores to hold them for awhile. “I’ll heat us up something to eat. I sadly admit I am quite famished.”
“That’s ok, Ez. We need to eat. Maybe you can find something to make a broth with ‘cause Chris’ll be needing something too.” Vin finished cleaning the entrance and exit wounds before covering them with whiskey soaked bandages.
As the whiskey burned into the tender flesh Chris moaned in pain but did not awaken.
“How you holding up over there?” Buck called from where he was finishing up with Frank. Wiping his hands on a rag, he stood and joined the tracker and the gambler by the welcoming fire.
Vin reached out a hand and rested it on Chris forehead noting the gunslinger’s flushed cheeks. “He’s a little warm. Not surprised though considering what he’s been through today.” Securing the bandage, Vin pulled the blankets up to Chris’s chin. “I’m hoping he’s gonna sleep awhile longer. Best thing right about now.”
Buck shot a glare at Frank Peters as he sat in the chair next to the cot. “Why don’t you go wash up Vin while Ezra heats some supper up. While ya’ll are busy I can watch over Chris. Peters ain’t going anywhere if he knows what’s good for him.”
Dragging himself up from his knees the tracker picked up the soiled rags and blood tinted water. “I’ll rinse these and be right back. I’ll bring some cool water to wash him with.” Poking his head in the kitchen door he chuckled, “Still looking forward to those biscuits Ez.”
Looking up from the pot he was stirring on the stove Ezra replied, “I’ll put a tray together. We can all keep an eye on Mr. Larabee and Mr. Peters and still enjoy supper.” Ezra bustled into the pantry to gather what was needed.
Vin moved his chair closer to the hearth and pulled his boots off, enjoying the comforting warmth of the fire and fullness in his belly. “I didn’t know you could cook up a meal like that, Ezra. My belly thanks you heartily.”
“You’ll get no complaints from me. Next time we’re on the trail I’ll let you cook.” Buck sniggered as he gathered up the tray of dishes. “I’ll take care of these, least I could do. Those biscuits were pure heaven. I sure hope you mix some more up in the mornin’.”
Ezra took a sip of his coffee and smiled cockily. “I could be persuaded if you and Mr. Tanner would give me first watch.”
Vin snorted and got up from his comfortable slouch. “We all know you’re a night owl and need your beauty sleep. You want first watch? It starts now.” Vin had noticed Frank getting a little antsy in the corner and knew it was only a matter of time before the man needed to use the privy.
“Thank you my dear sir. I’ll be sure that you have your biscuits in the morning.” Ezra grinned as he relaxed back onto the settee and sipped from his coffee mug. How hard could it be to watch two invalids?
After pulling his boots back on Vin grabbed up his coat and moved to the front door. “Gonna check on the horses and then I’ll hit the hay. Back in a bit.”
“We’ll be here enjoying the cozy warmth of the fire. Don’t feel rushed on my account.” Ezra waved as Vin pulled the door shut behind him.
Buck wandered out of the kitchen about ten minutes later and flopped down in an available chair. “Where’s Vin?”
Yawning widely Ezra scratched at his belly. “Mr. Tanner has gone to check on the horses. He should be back directly.”
“Hey! I’ve got to use the privy and you better be quick about it. I’m about to spring a leak.” Frank shouted from his dark corner of the room. Waiting in the uncomfortable silence he cried out again. “What in tarnation you all doin’ over there? I told you that I’ve got a need.”
Buck slid a glance at Ezra who was lazing on the settee with his eyes closed. Buck cleared his throat, “Um. I believe he’s callin’ your name there.”
Ezra cracked an eye at the ladies man. “I believe you are mistaken. I’m not helping him to the privy. I made supper.”
“I believe you called first draw on watch. It is all you, have fun.” Buck barked out on a laugh.
Looking over the back of the settee at Frank Peters, Ezra scowled. “But it’s cold outside. You take him and I’ll make up an extra special breakfast.”
Crossing his legs at the ankles Buck sniggered. “Sorry. Your watch, your problem.”
As Chris made the climb up through the cobwebs of unconsciousness he became aware of a sharp pain radiating from his shoulder to end below his left collarbone. Frowning, he tried to remember what had happened since he’d been in the barn with Buck, Ezra, Vin, and the Peters brothers. Cursing softly, Chris took a short, shuddering breath he forced heavy-lidded eyes to open on a dimly lit room. When he managed to focus his eyes he saw two empty bedrolls laid out on the floor near the hearth. Where were the boys and how had he gotten back into the house?
Indistinguishable voices broke through his muddled thoughts and he realized they were somewhere nearby arguing. Trying to make out what was being discussed he levered himself up onto his right elbow, hoping to locate his friends. “Son of a --!” Chris cried out as the pain flared to new life and brought tears to his eyes. Dropping back onto the cot his breath came in hitching gasps as he grasped ineffectually at the blankets on the cot with his right hand.
“Hurt’s don’t it?” Frank called from where he was slumped in the corner unable to get up and move around. “Dick got ya good. I saw the hole in your shoulder and you were bleedin’ like a stuck pig.”
Chris cracked an eye open and tried to take deep breaths. The ringing in his ears had not completely drowned out the voice in the corner of the room and he tensed in apprehension. The voice had sounded suspiciously like Frank Peters and if he was in the house where was his brother? What had happened to the boys?
Vin strode back into the parlor when he heard Frank calling out and hoped that maybe Chris had awoken. “Keep quiet, Peters, or I’ll tie you up under the porch like a mangy mutt.” Not sparing the irritating man a second glance he moved to the cot. He knew sleep was the best thing for his friend, but he really wanted to get some nourishment into him.
Kneeling down next to Chris, he smiled when he noticed the dull green gaze tracking the room, “Hey, Cowboy, welcome back. How ya feelin’?”
Chris pulled a face and replied shortly, “Like I’ve been shot, how else should I be feeling?”
“Good to know you have lost that lovable sense of humor. Here drink some of this.” Sliding his arm under the blond’s shoulders he lifted him just enough to drink without choking. Chris tried to push the mug away when after the first swallow. “Come on, Chris, you’re supposed to finish this. It should make you feel better.”
Sticking his tongue out as he shivered, “Blech. What is that? You steep your dirty socks?” He kept pushing the mug away as Vin tried to coax him to drink.
“No, we used Buck’s union suit.” Vin grinned down at his friend who was glaring up at him with one eye. “Actually, it’s ginger and lemon tea with a touch of honey. Buck found some down in the root cellar. Sorry, we were all out of Willow bark. I know how much you love that stuff.”
“Can I have some water instead? That’s all I want, plain water.” Chris whispered as he closed his eyes and shivered again. “Not feeling too good right now.”
Vin put the mug to Chris’s lips again. “Drink the tea and I’ll get you all the water you could want. It’ll help with the fever.” He waited and then waited some more, until finally the gunslinger acquiesced and drank down the tea. “See, now that wasn’t too bad. We’ll have you up and about in no time at all.”
Chris just sighed and drifted back to sleep. Straightening the blankets over his friend, Vin stayed by his side a little while longer before throwing a few more logs onto the fire. Once he was satisfied with the fire he sat down on his bedroll and pulled off his boots and crawled under the blankets.
Buck drifted into the parlor a few minutes later with a blanket. Stopping in front of Frank Peters he dropped it into the man’s lap. “Here, found you another blanket. You keep quiet for the remainder of the night and I may see fit to let you sit at the table for breakfast.”
“You have no call to treat me like some animal. Just move yourself off and leave me to my misery,” Frank snapped as he draped the blanket over himself and burrowed down to sleep.
Buck wanted to comment so badly, but didn’t feel up to a verbal sparing match with this man. Right now he just wanted to get some shut eye before his turn at watch came up. If he was lucky he’d get a good three hours in.
Propping the kitchen door open so he had an unobstructed view of Peters, Ezra sat down at the table and dealt himself a game of Solitaire. Listening intently he could hear Buck’s heavy snores and Frank’s snuffles. Thankfully, Vin and Chris were quiet sleepers so he only had the two disturbing his peace and quiet.
The first hour of his watch in solitude seemed to drag on forever as he listened to the wind rattle the windows and the house creak in protest. Sitting at the table sipping at a cup of tea another sound encroached disturbing him. It sounded as if Vin were speaking, though he wasn’t sure over Buck’s snores. Moving to the doorway he looked toward the bed rolls, noticing that Vin was bent over the cot. Frowning in confusion Ezra slipped into the room.
“Is there something amiss, Mr. Tanner?” Ezra asked as he moved closer.
Looking up quickly Vin met his eyes. “Bring me a basin of water, Ezra, and brew some more of that tea.”
Ezra gazed down at Chris and watched as Vin felt his forehead and neck. “The fever’s back up?”
Vin shook his head. “No. It never went down. Now he’s burnin’ up.” Vin grabbed Chris hands as the blond tried to push him away. “Relax, Cowboy. We’ll make you feel better soon.”
“I’ll be right back. Keep him calm Mr. Tanner.” Ezra hurried to the kitchen to grab a clean basin of water and some rags. Giving them to Vin, he went about brewing some more tea.
Looking out the kitchen window Ezra watched as the window blew drifts of snow up against the outbuildings. He hoped luck was with them because good help was several days away.
“How’s that tea coming?” Vin called from his wounded friend’s side. Chris had gotten so hot that the cool water had ceased to bring him any relief. They needed to bring the fever down before Chris was too exhausted to fight anymore.
“I have it here.” Ezra blurted out as he brought a tray with a mug, teapot and honey. Setting it down on a nearby table he poured a cup, blowing on it as he drew near. “It’s a might warm. Be careful.”
Vin propped Chris up and took the mug from Ezra’s outstretched hand. “Thanks. He’s cookin’ from the inside out. After we get this in him we’ll check the wound again.” Holding the mug of tea to Chris’s lips he watched as the liquid slowly entered. “He’s not swallowing.” He groaned in frustration.
Ezra chuckled, “Have you ever known Mr. Larabee to do anything the easy way? We’ll work together. You dribble and I’ll rub his neck, maybe we’ll get at least one mug into him before morning.”
“What’s going on Ezra?” Buck asked from his bedroll as he pushed the blankets down.
Ezra spared him a glance and went back to rubbing Chris’s neck as Vin slowly poured the tea into his mouth. “Mr. Larabee’s fever has continued to climb and we are trying to get some tea into him in order to lower the fever.
Pulling his boots on and his coat, he strode up to the cot. “Shift over, Ez, let’s put him out in the snow and see if we can break the fever that way. Wiping him down is doing nothing but making him wet.”
“I was holding off on that, but I think you’re right. Let’s do it. I’ll grab a linen sheet to wrap him up in, ‘cause I don’t want to freeze his skin.” Vin ran to a back room to grab some linen while Buck stripped Chris of his clothing.
“Mr. Wilmington isn’t this a tad drastic? It’s freezing out there, he could catch his death.” Ezra gathered up Chris’s clothes as they hit the floor and moved them to a nearby chair.
Scooping Chris’s hot body up in his arms Buck followed Vin who’d returned with the linen to the front door. “If we don’t do this, Ezra, he’s gonna be even weaker. We have to give it a try.”
Ezra followed Buck and Vin outside with a lantern to light their way.
“This looks good,” Vin remarked as he spread the linen out on the snow. “Just place him on the sheet and we’ll wrap him up. Then we can pack the snow around so it’ll work quicker.”
Buck gently lowered Chris onto the sheet and straightened his body out. He, Vin, and Ezra then flipped the linen over him and piled the snow up close.
Briskly rubbing his frozen, wet hands together before shoving them under his arms Ezra asked, “How long do you think he needs to stay out here?”
Buck squatted down next to Chris and looked him over critically. “He’s still flushed, but I don’t want to leave him out here too long.”
“Let’s try five minutes for now and if we need to leave him longer we will.” Vin felt the gunslinger’s forehead and sat back on his heels to wait. Noticing Ezra shivering next to them he asked, “If we’re all out here who’s with Peters?”
Buck and Ezra just stared at one another for a moment before Buck cursed and ran back toward the house. Taking the steps two at a time as he pulled his gun free of the holster, he threw the door open onto an empty parlor.
Peters had used the window for his escape and now Buck stood in the center of the room watching helplessly as the curtains fluttered in the breeze and snow drifted down onto the empty bedroll. “Son of a bitch!” Buck hissed in frustration.
“Stupid. Stupid mistake!” Buck hollered looking up at the ceiling in disbelief. Heaving a sigh he re-holstered his gun and rubbed at his throbbing temples. Beating himself up mentally, he strode to the window to reach up and pull the sash down. Something outside caught his attention and he stopped in mid-pull.
“Well I’ll be damned,” he murmured as he rested his hands on the sill, poking his head out. He looked to the left and right of the house, and looked straight down. No footprints and the snow was completely undisturbed. The fine hairs on his neck prickled and his gut flip-flopped when he realized Frank Peters was still somewhere inside the house. Looking over by the cot he found Chris’s rig. Empty.
Peters was armed.
Making as much noise as possible he moved to the front porch and called out above the wind, “He’s rabbited, Vin! We’re gonna need to check the outbuildings and surrounding area. He can’t have gotten far on his bum leg!”
Vin and Ezra stared in confusion as Buck hopped off the porch with an anxious look on his face. “What are you talking about Buck?” Vin asked as he stood up from where he’d been squatting down next to Chris.
Buck reached out, grabbed Vin by the arm and pulled him in close. He whispered. “He’s still in the house. He just wants us to think he’s outside.” Vin went to pull away, but Buck held tight, “He’s got Chris’s gun.”
Vin shook his head and laughed with little humor. “This day just keeps getting better and better. Okay this is what we should do. First, we need to get Chris out of the snow and then we’re gonna turn this house upside down and find Frank. Lastly, we’re gonna truss him up like a Christmas goose.”
“A little assistance here would be appreciated.” Ezra’s urgent call interrupted Buck and Vin’s discussion. Glancing down at Ezra they could see that Chris had regained consciousness and had his right hand firmly twisted into Ezra’s shirt front.
“Someone had better start explaining why I’m lying naked in the snow,” he croaked out through chattering teeth.
Vin knelt down next to Chris and helped him sit up. “Well you were stewing in your own juices and we figured this was the best way to cool you off.”
Chris narrowed his eyes at the trio and struggled to get untangled from the sheet. “Well now I’m wet and freezing.” Groaning as he inadvertently twisted his shoulder. “Damn it, Vin! Get me outta this sheet.”
“Hold your horses there, Stud.” Buck stripped off his coat and wrapped it around his shivering friend. “We’ll take care of you. Get you warmed up right quick. You just need to calm yourself down and let us do what needs doin’.”
“Ezra, can you get Chris up on the porch while Buck and I check the house?” Vin asked as he brushed at the snow sticking to his trousers. His union suit was now wet and clammy from the snow.
Ezra glanced down at Chris’s bare feet and the distance to the porch and frowned. “Mr. Tanner that may be easier said than done. Mr. Larabee is currently without proper footwear and in his current condition it will take some time to reach the porch.”
“Sorry, Chris, I’m gonna have to carry you.” Buck grunted as he swung his friend up into his arms and strode toward the porch with Vin and Ezra trailing behind. Setting Chris down on a bench he and Vin moved quietly inside the house. Ezra took up a position near Chris who looked about ready to pass out.
Chris huddled down into Buck’s coat for warmth as the wind and snow assaulted them under the relative safety of the porch. The sheepskin lining was soft and Chris closed his eyes as he breathed in Buck’s unique scent. As he pulled the coat closer around himself his throat tightened on a sob as he thought of all the times Buck had been there for him. Feeling tears prick behind his eyelids he shook himself, attributing the melancholy mood to the injuries and fever.
A crack splitting the night brought Chris’s head up. Blinking blearily he wondered if he’d just heard thunder. Ezra was standing against him, his pistol drawn. “Where’s the lightning? I heard the thunder. Where is the lightning?”
“Chris, that was gunfire and I sincerely hope Frank Peters has been dispatched with.” Ezra kept careful watch from their location on the porch. It would be up to him to protect them and he had no intention of letting Buck and Vin down.
A clattering from inside the house had Ezra on edge and only his quick reflexes kept Vin from an early grave. Holstering his gun and placing a shaking hand over his heart Ezra pleaded, “Mr. Tanner, I must insist that in the future you announce yourself. Do you have the slightest inkling how close you came to having a third eye?”
Vin twisted round, “What you rambling on about, Ez? Told you we’d be right back.” Smiling devilishly he held the door open as Buck struggled outside under a blanket wrapped burden.
Raising his eyebrows Ezra asked, “Deceased?”
Buck snorted as he dropped Frank Peters onto the porch, “Deader than a door nail. Thought he’d get the jump on us. He was hiding in a ladies wardrobe and jumped out as we were on our way out of the room. Planned on shooting us in the back like his lowlife brother did to poor ol’ Chris here.”
“Not supposed to shoot people in the back,” Chris mumbled from where he was leaning against the house, his eyes at half mast. He watched with a disinterested eye as blood seeped out of the blanket wrapped bundle and trailed toward the edge of the porch to drip into the newly fallen snow. “He’s leakin’ and messing up the porch.”
Vin glanced down and huffed, “Come on, Buck. We’ll wrap him up in the other tarp and throw him in the wood shed with his brother. It’s cold enough and they should keep for a while.”
Chris held up a hand. “I need to lie down but I can’t seem to get up.” Ezra grabbed his hand and helped Chris to a standing position. “Thanks.” He murmured and stumbled inside to the relative warmth of the parlor.
As they neared the cot Ezra tried to divest Chris of Buck’s coat, but Chris stubbornly held onto it all the tighter. Glaring at Ezra, he dropped onto the cot and curled into the sheepskin. Sighing, Ezra picked up the blanket and draped it over the man shivering before the fire. He’d let Buck get his own coat back. He no longer had the energy for it.
Chris lay there staring into the flickering fire. The snapping and crackling of the logs comforting as the warmth slowly penetrated his chilled flesh. It was times such as these when he felt the weakest that he missed Sarah the most. She had the gift to make him feel better when he was feeling the worst; to kiss away the aches and hug away the sickness. He really needed her now.
Distorted shadows danced across the walls and ceiling as the chilled draft sent the flames to flickering wildly. Ezra looked up from his seat near the fireplace as the front door opened wider and Buck and Vin walked back into the house.
Pushing the door closed with a solid thud Buck joined the others and held his hands out to the welcoming fire. “Colder than a witch’s teat out there and the storm’s really picking up. We gathered up some more wood after we took care of the Peters brothers. Oh and Vin bedded down the horses. All we got to do now is hunker down and ride out the storm.”
Vin looked at Chris and noticed his pale complexion wondering if he was getting sickly.
Sitting on the edge of the cot Vin reached for Buck’s coat. “Well, Cowboy, all you got to do now is concentrate on healing. We don’t have to worry about the Peters anymore cause they’re down cooling their heels in the woodshed.”
Ignoring Vin, Chris held on all the tighter and turned his gaze back to the fire. “Leave me be.” Pulling his knees up to his chest he lay on the cot feeling completely and utterly miserable.
Buck looked at Chris and shook his head. “Come on, Chris. Don’t be like that. Vin just wants to make sure you’re okay.”
“Let me take a look at your shoulder so’s I can clean and re-bandage it. Then you can sleep as long as you want.” Vin waited patiently for any acknowledgment from his friend.
Without saying a word Chris pushed himself to a sitting position and pulled his right arm free of the coat. Closing his eyes tightly he lifted a trembling hand to move the coat off his left. He swallowed convulsively as nausea set his stomach to somersaulting and a cold sweat broke out over his face.
“You feeling sick?” Vin asked as he noted the blood leave Chris’s face to be replaced by a sickly gray pallor.
“Get it done,” Chris answered slowly as he leaned forward to rest his head in his right hand.
Buck hurried to the kitchen to collect a basin of hot water and some clean linen to use as bandages while Vin unwound the dressing they’d used on Chris’s shoulder to stop the bleeding. Once the wound was uncovered Vin sat back to eye it critically.
“Chris, I don’t like how it looks and its hot to the touch. We need to give the wound a good cleaning just to be sure. We’ve got some whiskey and I don’t want to waste any. You think you could bear up under the pain so we can douse the wound real good?”
Chris looked at Vin with red rimmed eyes and asked, “Do I have a choice?” After a pause he said, “I’ll do the best I can, Vin.”
Ezra sat forward in his seat and looked at Chris thoughtfully. “Mr. Tanner, I believe I may have a better remedy. While I was rummaging around in the pantry earlier I came across a nice sack of sugar. The previous occupants must have had a sweet tooth but alas I digress. In my travels I came across an old gypsy woman who saw fit to bestow upon me an old family remedy. You see sugar can be used to clean a wound and prevent it from turning putrid. If I remember correctly all you have to do is pack the wound and each time the sugar turns to syrup you clean it out and repeat.”
Vin looked at Ezra like he’d grown two heads, “I’ve never heard of such a thing. You’re sure it works?”
“I admit to having not tried it but she assured me it was a good remedy. Let’s try, shall we?” Ezra stood and retreated to the kitchen.
Buck returned to the parlor soon after. “What is Ezra going on about? He was mumbling some durn thing about sugar healing the wounded.”
Vin spared Buck a quick glance as he soaked a rag in the basin. Reaching in he winced at the temperature and dropped the rag back into the bowl. “Damn! That’s hot.” Blowing on his fingers Vin gamely fished the cloth back out.
Chris leaned away as Vin drew the dripping cloth near the wound. “Not gonna happen, Vin. I just heard you yowl like a stepped on cat because you burned your fingers in the water. Let it cool some first.”
“Hotter is better because it’ll take the caked on blood off,” Vin explained reaching toward Chris once again.
“You’ll be out cold if you touch me with that rag, Tanner,” Chris snapped as he pushed Vin’s hand away from his shoulder.
Buck sloshed some whiskey in a glass and held it out to Chris. “Here take a swig and cool off. All this fussing isn’t doin’ you any favors.”
Grimacing as he downed the whiskey and handed the glass back. “Thanks.”
Shaking his head Vin wiped at the wound and tried to ignore the gasps of pain escaping Chris’s tightly clenched teeth. “Almost done and as soon as Ezra brings that sugar we’ll wrap you up and put you to bed.
“Never fear Chris. We shall have you tucked in the arms of Morpheus within the next quarter hour.” Ezra assured as he once again joined the group. “Now, Mr. Tanner, all you have to do is pack the wound very well and wrap it. We can check it again in the morning which according to my watch is about four hours away.”
Buck sighed and dropped onto his bedroll. “Where did the night go? Well at least with the Peters brothers gone we can actually get some sleep.” Pulling his blankets up to his chin he called, “Wake me when breakfast is ready.”
Chris looked at the bandage as Vin tied it off. “Thanks, Vin.”
“You’re welcome. Now go ahead and lie down and I’ll get your blankets.” Chris carefully stretched out on the cot and Vin draped the blankets over him being mindful of Chris’s bad shoulder. “Get some sleep, Cowboy. You earned it.”
“I don’t know about you but I’m more than ready to head for home. I’ve had about enough of this place.” Chris said around a yawn.
“I think you ought to be thanking your lucky stars that we were around or you wouldn’t have made it out of the well. I would hate to think of you spending eternity rotting away in a well. In fact you’d probably end up haunting this homestead. Doomed to walk the earth forever because no one found your body to put it to rest.” Ezra explained and sat down on the settee.
“You got any good news?” Vin asked as he threw the dirty water out the front door into the snow. “We could all have been haunting this place if we hadn’t gotten the upper hand. I hate to think what could have happened.”
“If you all would hush your yammering maybe I could get some sleep,” Chris snapped from his place on the cot.
“Goodnight.” Ezra and Vin called simultaneously as they prepared their sleeping areas.
The morning dawned crisp and bright with the promise of plenty of sun. Vin breathed the frigid air deeply into his lungs and stretched his arms wide. Sighing loudly he leaned back against the porch railing. “Gonna be a cold one today but at least the snow’s moved on.”
Sipping at his steaming mug of coffee Buck squinted against the sun’s glare off the snow. “Appears that way so’s I figure we got a few more days out here and when Chris is up to it we’ll head toward home.”
Vin snorted. “You know we’re gonna have to start sitting on him once he starts feeling better. He’s already saying he wants to go home.”
“I think we’ll be okay. He hates the cold and won’t want that wound aching with it.” Draining his mug Buck sat forward. “He’ll probably sleep most of today and tomorrow. It’s the best thing for him right now ‘cause we’ve got a long trip back home.”
“You headin’ back in?” Vin asked and at Buck’s nod handed him his empty mug. “I’m going down to the barn to check on the horses.”
Turning the door knob Buck pushed the door open. “You do that and maybe Ezra will break out his cards for a friendly game.”
Buck entered the house and looked around the darkened interior. As he was closing the front door Ezra strode past with a basin and rags.
Following Ezra into the kitchen he asked, “So how’s he doing this morning any improvement?”
Sitting down at the kitchen table Ezra huffed, “The wound is looking quite healthy and the sugar seems to be working. I found some laudanum as I was looking around this morning and gave him a small dose.”
“You know that stuff knocks him ass over tin cups. I’m surprised he let you give it to him.” Buck cocked an eyebrow at Ezra when the man grinned thinly.
Scratching at the back of his neck Ezra sighed. “I mixed it in some whiskey. It wasn’t a lot. I promise. It was just enough to take the edge off.”
“Well I guess a little won’t hurt and it’s not like he doesn’t need the sleep.” Buck set the coffee mugs on the table and flopped down next to Ezra. “How about when Vin gets back we have ourselves a friendly game of poker to pass the time?”
“I thought you didn’t have any money left? How do you plan to back your wagers?” scratching at a knot on the table with his thumb, Ezra leveled a look at Buck.
Buck gave Ezra a wide smile. “I’m sure we can find something around the house. This is supposed to be a friendly game. Remember?”
Smirking, Ezra pulled his cards from his vest pocket. “I always play friendly games.”
“Come on, Ez! Shake a tail feather,” Buck called from his perch atop General. “I’d like to get back home before Chris turns old and gray.”
“Hey! I’m not old or gray. You’re supposed to be sympathizing with me. I’m hurt, remember?” Chris scowled at Buck’s remark as he pulled the heavy blanket tighter around himself.
Vin sniggered. “Yeah. Give Grandpa Chris a break. He’s feelin’ his age.”
“My right arm works just fine, Tanner. Don’t make me shoot you.” Shifting in the saddle Chris looked toward the house. Clearing his throat he called, “We’re leaving in two minutes with or without you!”
Stepping out onto the porch and pulling the door shut behind him, Ezra jiggled the doorknob to be sure it was secure. Throwing a disgusted look over his shoulder Ezra grabbed up the wood plank that had been barring the door and hammered it into place. He skipped down the stairs and handed Vin the hammer he’d used. “Thank you for the loan of your hammer and I’d like to point out that things would have proceeded much more efficiently if I’d had assistance closing up the house.”
“We did. You just insisted on checking the house a second time,” Vin pointed out as he handed Ezra Chaucer’s reins.
Buck tsked and grinned at Vin. “No. I believe he actually checked it three times. The house is just as we found it. Right, Ez?”
Ezra’s jaw dropped open. “Mr. Wilmington, I am stunned at your lack of trust. I had to nursemaid while you two were away collecting the reward on the corpses. Three days. Three days I had to do everything and my pockets are as light as they were when we arrived at this forsaken farm. We could have at least split the reward.”
“We discussed this, Ez. Yosemite should get it,” Vin sighed as he leveled a look at Ezra. “He lost his horses and got knocked six ways to Sunday. We’re not in it for the money.”
Ezra made no comment as he swung up onto Chaucer and settled into the saddle.
“Don’t pout, Ezra. Just think how happy Yosemite will be when we give him that thousand dollars. He may even buy you a drink.” Buck shot Ezra a wide grin when his face darkened further.
Tiring of the banter, Chris just shook his head and started Pony off toward Four Corners. “I’m leaving. Follow if you want.”
The others hadn’t even realized Chris had ridden off, but as soon as they did Buck hurried to catch up to him. “Hey, you can’t leave us back there. The conversation was just getting interesting.”
Chris did not comment.
Adjusting his hat, Buck continued chatting. “Besides, you could get hurt out here on your own. You’ve still got a bum shoulder to deal with.”
Snorting, Chris continued on. “I was with you boys and I still got hurt. It was a case of bad luck. That’s all it was.”
“You keep telling yourself that, Stud. If we hadn’t been with you, you would have drowned in that decrepit well. You were lucky we were there to pull you out.” Buck looked at Chris noticing the dark shadows under his eyes and the gaunt look about his face. Chris should have spent another few days resting but he’d gotten it stuck in his craw that he was heading home today.
Chris could hear Vin and Ezra chatting behind them as the horses moved at a leisurely walk. He let the Pony’s easy gait lull him into a doze and they traveled that way until they reached the first resting point.
“You need a hand there, Chris?” Vin asked from where he was standing next to his friend’s left leg.
Blinking owlishly Chris looked around for the first time noticing Buck and Ezra setting up camp. “Thought we were riding until lunch?”
“We did. We’re gonna have lunch, let the horses rest, and let you lie down for a while.” Vin stepped back as Chris stiffly swung out of the saddle, staying close by as Chris made his way over to a fallen log.
Buck looked up from where he was lighting a small fire. “Hey, Stud. We’re having your favorite: Beans.”
Arching an eyebrow at the ladies man he asked, “Is that supposed to bother me? I like beans though I’m not sure if I’m actually hungry.” Sliding down onto the ground in front of the log he absently drew pictures in the dirt until the beans were heated through.
Wrinkling his nose at the beans Buck held out to him, Ezra asked, “How long are you planning on staying here? I only ask because the sun will be down around five this evening.”
Licking his spoon, Vin set his plate aside. “I figure we’ll stay here ‘til about one and then move on until four. Everything depends on Chris.” The sound of tin hitting the ground brought Vin’s head around.
Sighing deeply Ezra stood up to see to their fearless leader. “Mr. Larabee you could have mentioned you were about done in. Here. Come over to the bedroll. It will be much more comfortable.”
Shaking his head slowly, Chris set his spoon down on his plate. “I’m fine. I can catch a quick cat nap here.”
Ezra was about to protest but Buck waved him off. “Mind if I set down here next to you, Chris. I’m kinda chilly.”
Yawning widely Chris nodded his head. “Up to you. Just don’t keep me awake.”
“No. I won’t do that. I’ll just sit here all quiet like.” Buck dropped down next to Chris and waited for him to fall asleep. As Chris settled further into sleep he listed against Buck who grinned widely. “Works every time.”
Vin and Ezra puttered around doing whatever needed doing while Buck watched over his self appointed charge.
“Woo Wee! Would you lookee there. I believe we’ve finally made it,” Buck called out cheerfully as Four Corners materialized in the distance.
“Well I have to say I’ve never been happier than I am at this moment. Home is close enough that we can almost touch it. I long for my feather bed,” Ezra sighed as he pulled Chaucer up beside Buck.
“Never thought I’d be eager to get back in town but I have to agree with Ez. I want my own bed.” Vin grinned looking back at Chris who sat there looking toward town. “What’s wrong? I thought you’d be happy to be back.”
Chris scowled. “I should have gone to my cabin. Nathan’s gonna want to poke and prod.”
“Oh no you don’t. You promised us you’d let Nate give you the once over,” Buck pointed out before urging Chris and the rest on.
“I know what I promised. Doesn’t mean I gotta like it.” Chris huffed and took the lead. “Might as well get this over with so I can get some sleep.”
Shaking his head Buck laughed, “Welcome home boys!”