Characters: Vin, Ezra, Chris
"Ezra, you go on ta the saloon. I'll take care of the horses."
The gambler visibly brightened at Vin's suggestion, eyeing the noisy establishment with anticipation. "Your offer is most tempting, Mr. Tanner."
For days, Vin had been sustained by his interaction with nature. Ezra, had found the long ride from Four Corners to Yuma and back long and dusty. To Vin, it was a chance to catch his breath, to feel free again. But as badly as he had needed the wide-open spaces, he knew Ezra craved a raucous bar and a card game. "Send yer telegram." Vin smiled at the surprised look on his friend's face. "I'll meet ya in the saloon."
"How long have you been aware of the missives I've been conveying to Mr. Larabee?" Ezra demanded.
"Since ya sent the first one."
"You could have told me," Ezra indignantly growled, dismounting and handing his reins to his companion. "Do you know how arduous it has been trying to send them without your knowledge?"
Vin grinned. "That's why I didn't tell ya."
"Mr. Tanner," a smile played at the corners of Ezra's lips, "has anyone ever told you, you have a Mephistophelian nature?"
"Don't rightly know, since I understood only half of what ya jus' said."
"I was paying you a compliment."
"Reckoned you were." Vin stared at Ezra, the intent on his face clear. "Or ya wouldn't still be standin'."
Ezra ran a finger along the edge of his collar, a visible sign of how dangerous he knew Vin Tanner could be. "I'll see you shortly."
Nodding his head, Vin touched his heels to his mount's sides and trotted up the street to the livery. Dismounting, he handed the stable hand several coins to cover the one night board and led Peso into an empty stall. Settling Chaucer in the one next to it, he unsaddled both horses. Glad to see the pens had plenty of water, he found grain and hay and fed the two animals. While they happily munched, he retrieved some brushes and gave each a brisk rub down. It didn't matter to him that these were chores he had just paid someone else to perform. And, it wasn't just because their lives depended on their horses that made him want to complete the task himself. He had formed a bond with Peso. It made him want to make sure the horse's needs were seen to before his own. While Ezra would never admit having feelings for a horse, Vin knew the gambler felt the same about Chaucer. He was honored to have been entrusted with the gelding's care.
With a tired sigh, Vin exited the barn. Knocking stray bits of hay and dust off his clothes, he ambled slowly down the street toward the saloon. Hidden beneath the brim of his hat, his eyes constantly searched the shadows studying the residents of the tiny metropolis. Boomtown hadn't lived up to its name. Smaller than Four Corners, many of the buildings appeared empty, deserted by owners who had obviously moved on to greener pastures. It was a sad, tired town. Vin couldn't imagine why anyone stayed.
The depression of the neglected village bearing down on him, he gratefully entered the brightly lit saloon. This was an atmosphere that never seemed to change no matter where Vin traveled. Here, one's spirits could be raised in a physical and spiritual sense. Vin felt his own mood lighten immediately. Looking around for Ezra, he saw a knot of people surrounding a table in the far corner. Smiling, he crossed to the bar. It was obvious he wouldn't be seeing the gambler for a while, if at all, that evening. Vin really didn't mind. He liked his own company. And, though his companion would vehemently deny it, Ezra would be generous with his winnings. A few dollars would result in a meal and a drink. A large pot could mean several expensive dinners and a fine bottle of whiskey. Vin hoped Ezra would win big.
"Yer a good fer nothin' cheat."
The growled accusation dashed Vin's dreams for a profitable night. Resting his hand on his Mare's Leg, he easily pushed through the crowd to the center of the disturbance.
"I assure you, sir," Ezra sat calmly at the table, fingering a deck of cards, "your skills are so atrocious, cheating is irrelevant."
Vin kept his hand on his gun but was content to let Ezra handle the disgruntled cardsharp. The gambler was proficient in these kinds of confrontations. It happened often enough that he should be. What Vin was not prepared for was the look of horror on Ezra's face when the gambler glanced in his direction.
Vin spun, pulling the sawed-off shotgun from his holster, but it was already too late. He saw the butt of a rifle descending toward his head. Raising his arm, he tried to deflect the blow. The other man was too strong. As darkness claimed him, Vin silently apologized to his friend for not being there to watch his back.
Chris quickly downed the shot of whiskey in his hand before catching Leroy's eye. Though the ritual had occurred nearly every night for the last two weeks, the messenger always called the gunslinger's name from the saloon's batwing doors. Only entering after he had gained the dangerous man's attention.
"Here's yer telegram, Mr. Larabee." The high-pitched voice quivered with fear.
Handing the boy a coin, Chris nodded. "Much obliged, Leroy." He had long since given up trying to put the teenager at ease.
"Is it from Ezra?" Buck asked, joining his old friend at the empty table.
"Yeah." Chris unfolded the paper and read it silently to himself knowing how it would annoy the ladies man.
Exasperated, Buck demanded, "Well, what does it say? Are they almost home?"
"Why, Buck," Chris bit his lip to keep from smiling, "I didn't know Ezra's welfare concerned you."
"It don't," Buck stuttered. "I'm just tired of riding his patrols as well as my own."
Knowing the big-hearted rogue did care but was embarrassed to admit it, Chris took pity on him. "They're in Boomtown. They should be home in three or four days."
"I sure hope Leroy's heart is strong enough to last that long." Buck's mustache twitched with amusement as he took a long swig of his beer.
The first thing Ezra was aware of was that his head hurt. He just didn't know why. Had his mother disappointed him again, making him drink himself into a stupor? Had he tried to match Chris Larabee drink for drink? Opening his eyes to ascertain his location might alleviate some of his questions. But his brain was bouncing around on a roulette wheel making the possibility of inflicting more pain positively aberrant. His stomach churned as black and red numbers spun dizzily by. He wished someone would pick a slot and stop the whirling.
Taking deep even breaths, he managed to settle his nausea. Finally deciding his head wouldn't fall off, he forced his eyes open. The view was familiar. Metal bars ran from floor to ceiling, as they did in every jail cell Ezra had ever occupied. Turning his head to confirm his suspicion, he moaned as a sore spot came in contact with a stained pillow. Gently fingering the wound, he disgustedly sat up. With the room spinning around him again, he realized he was indeed locked up. But he couldn't remember doing anything to warrant incarceration.
Pain framing his vision with hazy film, he cautiously glanced around. It took him a stunned moment to identify the lump on the bed in the enclosure next to his own as Vin Tanner. Ignoring the throbbing ache movement accentuated, Ezra hurried to the barrier the two compartments shared. Putting a hand through the bars, he rested it on a still shoulder. When heat penetrated through the thin cotton shirt to his palm, he sighed with relief. Vin was alive. Briefly, Ezra wondered what had happened to the buckskin coat Vin had been wearing and his own scarlet colored jacket. But more important matters pushed these concerns aside. Finding out where they were and why they were here took priority.
Recognizing how his own head felt and remembering the blow he'd seen Vin sustain before his own cranium contacted the butt of a pistol, Ezra gently shook the unconscious man. "Mr. Tanner?"
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Ezra bit his lip. If the local constabulary wasn't aware they were holding a man with a five-hundred dollar dead or alive bounty on his head there was no sense in informing them. Hoping he hadn't inadvertently made things worse, Ezra tapped a bony shoulder. "Vin?"
Even as he regretted the rough handling, it gained a response. With an agonized groan, Vin rolled over. Ezra winced when he saw the dark bruising marring the entire right side of the tracker's face.
"Leave me be, Ezra. It ain't my patrol."
"Nor is it mine, Mr. - - Vin. As much as I would like too," Ezra faintly mimicked the Texan's drawl, "leave you be, circumstances suggest I do otherwise."
Blue eyes squinted from partially opened lids, widening when they recognized the bars separating the two men. "What the hell's goin' on?"
"That is precisely why I felt it was imperative that I awaken you. I don't know."
"Maybe ya coulda waited 'til ya did?"
The barb bouncing off him like a hail stone, Ezra outlined, "We appear to be in the local prison." The gambler waved at the wall dividing the cells from the sheriff's office. "No one has materialized to delineate the charges against us."
"Maybe 'cause ya cheated?"
"I assure you, I did not. However, even if I had while it would clarify the reason for my incarceration it does not explain yours."
"Maybe they know about the bounty on my head?"
"Again, while that would lead to your arrest, it does not warrant mine."
Vin gently massaged his left temple. "My head feels like Peso's stomped on it and ya want me ta make sense of somethin' that don't make sense."
"Mr. . . ." Ezra shook his head at his near slip, regretting the action before it was completed. "Vin –"
"That's another thing," Vin interrupted, "what's with callin' me by my first name? Did they knock ya on the head too?"
"Actually they did, but it has nothing to do with my manner of addressing you."
Exasperated because he wasn't sure if Vin really didn't understand or was simply being difficult, Ezra growled, "I believe it would be prudent to keep your identity concealed. If they are unaware of the price on your head there is no reason to apprize them of it. If they believe they already know, there's no reason to confirm their suspicions."
The door to the cell block swung open, slamming into the back wall with a loud bang. Both men jumped in surprise, before putting a hand to their throbbing heads.
"I see you boys are finally awake." A burly man with a star on his chest stood in front of the cages. Chains dangled from his hands. Throwing one set into Ezra's compartment and the other into Vin's, he ordered, "Put these on."
Ezra stared at the manacles but didn't move to obey. "May we ask why we have been incarcerated?"
"Disorderly conduct. Judge sentenced ya ta a year hard labor."
"I do not recollect receiving due process of law."
The sheriff glared at the gambler in puzzlement. "Huh?"
"When were we brought before the judge for sentencin'?" Vin interpreted.
"It was done by what the judge calls proxy."
"Such a trial is illegal," Ezra argued. "We never had a chance to defend ourselves. A new trial must be convened immediately."
The sheriff pulled his gun and pointed it at Ezra. "What the judge says is law in this here town. Ya got two choices, workin' or a pine box."
Exchanging a worried glance with Vin, Ezra untangled the bindings. Trying to wrap the thick iron clamps around his ankles, he realized they wouldn't fit over his boots. "I believe I require a larger size," he said, demonstrating the problem.
"Take off yer boots." The sheriff pulled down the hammer of his pistol, indicating he would not debate the issue. As Ezra reluctantly complied, the gun shifted to point at Vin. "You, too."
Slipping on his poker face so Vin wouldn't see his deep concern and the sheriff wouldn't see his fear, Ezra pulled off his boots. After snapping the links around his ankles, he did the same with the wrist restraints.
When both men were confined, the sheriff unlocked the cells and gestured for them to exit. Checking each clasp to make sure it was tight, he waved his gun hand signaling them into the office.
His boots clutched to his chest, Ezra shuffled through the door, taking a quick look around before he was forcefully persuaded to continue outside. Carefully manipulating his shoulders to alleviate the ache caused by a rifle slamming into them, he followed Vin onto the porch circling the building.
The air was still cool from the previous night but Ezra could tell once the sun came up it was going to be a hot day. It surprised him to realize he could read the signs revealing what the weather would be. He had learned more from Vin in their short association than he had realized.
"Git in the wagon."
The barrel of the sheriff's rifle pressed into Vin's back. Taking the hint, Ezra threw his boots onto the wagon bed. Though the chains on his hands and feet made it difficult, he managed to crawl up beside them. As soon as Vin joined him, the wagon rolled down the deserted street of the dying town.
Angry with himself, Vin jerked awake when the wagon stopped moving. He had tried not to succumb to the effects of his injury and the sun's hot rays beating down on his unprotected head. He had failed. With a touch of envy, he regarded his companion's hat, pulled low to shield Ezra's face. Several times the gambler had tried to persuade Vin to take the covering. He had refused until Ezra had turned away in exasperation. Vin was sure the gambler wouldn't believe him if he told him it was easier to suffer himself than to watch a friend suffer.
Catching a worried glance the other man had been unable to hide, Vin realized he was wrong. Ezra had the same feelings, he was just better at hiding them.
"All right you two, out of the wagon."
A burly man stood at the tailgate with a rifle in his hands.
Muscles sore and stiff from the bumpy ride, Vin slowly slid off the wagon carefully studying his surroundings, searching for an opportunity to escape. A camp, of sorts, lay in front of him. One large tent was surrounded by a number of smaller ones. Beyond them was a wide canyon. Men in chains swarmed over a wooden structure jutting out over the deep valley. Other men, some on horseback, stood or rode near the edge, rifles in their hands.
"I'm Vern," the guard proudly revealed. "Everyone here, including you two, takes their orders from me."
His throat dry from heat and dust, Vin rasped, "What is this place?"
"Judge Tyrone's operation," the guard said.
The information less than satisfactory, Vin pressed, "Which is?"
"Ta build a bridge across the gorge."
His chained hands restricting his movement, Ezra waved them from side to side encompassing the desert surrounding them. "May one ask why?"
"So them wagons' goin' west kin git there faster."
"I'm still not enlightened."
Ducking his head to hide a smile he knew would earn him retribution, Vin said, "Right now, the wagon trains go north or south of here. If there's a bridge that Tyrone fella thinks they'll come straight across. Charging a hefty toll, he reckons he'll clean up."
"Yer a pretty smart fella," Vern praised.
"Smart enough ta know it ain't gonna work." Vin kicked at the sand, causing the guard to back away and level his rifle at them. "The ground is too grainy. The oxen would hafta work too hard ta pull a wagon 'cross the desert."
"Mr. Tyrone knows what he's doin'. He's a judge. They don't come no smarter."
Vin glanced at Ezra. The spark of anger in the green eyes made it clear the gambler recognized the significance of the guard's revelation. He wondered how many of the men toiling in the hot sun were as innocent as they were.
"That's enough jawin'." Vern emphasized his remark by slamming his rifle across Ezra's back. "Time ta get ta work."
Manipulating his sore shoulders, Ezra grumbled, "I do respond to verbal commands, my good sir."
Stumbling in the gloom, Ezra grabbed his friend's arm to keep from falling. When he heard a muffled groan, he regretted his action. If Vin hurt even half as much as he did, then every muscle in the tracker's body was screaming in protest at the abuse the long day had inflicted upon it.
Half a day, Ezra mentally amended. It had been almost noon by the time they arrived, leaving them a mere eight hours of daylight in which to work.
His parched throat longing for a cool beer, Ezra stood in line to receive his ration of water - a small cup that would hardly quench his thirst. Once every hour, each man would be given his portion of the precious liquid. It would scarcely replace the fluid sweated out them by the hard work and boiling sun. It was barely enough to keep them alive.
The moment the sun disappeared behind the distant mountains, the air began to grow chilly. Ezra quickly rolled down the sleeves of his shirt, wincing when the soft fabric touched the sun-burned flesh.
"Keep it moving."
Raising the cup pressed into his hand, Ezra gulped the meager contents in one short swallow. His tongue lapped at each errant drop before he reluctantly handed the utensil back to the guard. In another time and another place, Ezra would have been disgusted by the realization that all the men were drinking from the same tumbler. Though he would have liked to have held himself up to the higher standards his mother insisted upon, he realized that in less than a day he had been beaten down by the conditions in which he had found himself.
Absently following Vin to the next line, he waited for his dinner. His growling stomach indicated its need. They hadn't eaten since lunch the day before and even that had been a single strip of beef jerky. After two days on the trail, both men had been looking forward to a hardy meal in Boomtown, the first real pocket of civilization east of Yuma.
Slop that Ezra could not identify was thrown on a plate and handed to him. Nausea replaced the hunger gnawing at his stomach, he opened his mouth to refuse the offering.
"Ya better take it, Ez," Vin warned.
Ezra started, uneasily wondering if the tracker could read his mind as easily as he did Chris Larabee's.
"If'n ya don't eat, ya won't be able ta work."
Soon after their arrival, they had seen what happened to a man who couldn't work. Already, the stench of decaying flesh was permeating the camp. Rigor mortis had stiffened the limbs, making it difficult for the unfortunate slaves detailed to dispose of the body to extract it from the small cage in which the injured man had been imprisoned. He hadn't lasted long in the hot sun with no water.
Shuddering, Ezra reluctantly took the plate with hands cramped and raw from the rope he had been forced to manipulate in his designated task. His breath visible in the cool air, he settled next to Vin as close to the fire as he could get. With no utensils, he followed the tracker's lead and used two fingers to shovel a portion of the "food" into his mouth. The clanking of the chains around his wrist hid the sound of his protesting stomach.
"What're you boys in fer?" the man sitting on the other side of Vin inquired.
"Disorderly conduct," Vin succinctly replied.
The man snorted and slapped his thigh. "Damn, that seems ta be the judge's favorite charge."
"We're innocent," Ezra huffily insisted.
"Ain't we all?" Holding a hand out to Vin, he introduced himself. "Name's Joe."
Ezra could tell by the clothes he wore that Joe was once a solidly built man. Now he was beyond thin. Blue veins were visible where the flesh hadn't been burned a deep brown. His age was indeterminate, he could be thirty or fifty. His hands looked more like claws, the palms devoid of skin, with seeping gashes. Ezra shuddered, wondering if his own hands would become equally deformed.
"I'm Vin, he's Ezra," Vin returned.
"When were you boys taken?"
"Last night, soon after we arrived in Boomtown."
"Before ya got dinner?"
"Damn, even a condemned man gits a last meal."
Somehow managing to gulp down the last bite of his dinner, Ezra encouraged, "I did get a telegram off to some friends. When we don't show up, they'll come looking for us."
"They won't find ya." Nodding to the man sitting on Ezra's left, Joe explained, "Ted there has a family worrin' on 'im. He's been here two months."
"You don't know our friends. They're very resourceful." Ezra couldn't hide his pride. While Larabee might wait until the last minute before conducting a search for the gambler, the gunslinger would be on his horse within the hour when Vin didn't appear - if not before. The two men had an uncanny connection. Ezra hoped it was working overtime.
Ezra jumped nervously when Ted rose from beside him.
"I'll t-take the p-plates and c-clean 'em," the younger man stuttered.
His own appreciation echoing Vin's and Joe's, Ezra looked around. "Which tent do we sleep in?"
"We don't." Joe started burrowing into the sand. "Tents 're fer the guards."
Horror struck, Ezra argued, "They can't expect us to sleep out in the open without so much as a blanket."
"They kin make us do whatever they want. They got the guns."
His voice low, Vin asked, "Has anybody ever tried ta escape?"
"Ain't no where ta escape to. They guard the water better'n they guard us. Only place within thirty miles ta git more is Boomtown. Too fer ta walk, even at night, especially in these chains." Joe shook the links connecting his feet. "They catch ya, they put ya in the cage."
Though the hideous contraption was no longer visible, the stench made its location known. Another shudder wracking his tired body, Ezra stretched out, burrowing a shallow hole in the sand. Afraid his friend would try to be heroic, he whispered, "Vin I suggest we bide out time and wait for the others to rescue us."
When the recommendation was met with silence, Ezra grew worried. Pushing up on one elbow, he whispered, "Vin?"
"I reckon yer right."
With a soft sigh of relief, Ezra eased back onto his "bed." He would have to keep close and hope his friend wasn't telling him what he wanted to hear. With his loathing for small, enclosed spaces even an hour in the box would kill Vin. If not physically, certainly mentally.
Chris glared at the batwing doors leading into the saloon as though they were responsible for Leroy's absence. He hadn't expected a telegram last night knowing there weren't any towns between Boomtown and Spring Grove. But there should have been nothing to prevent Ezra from carrying out his obligation once the two men reached the next small town.
From the beginning, Chris hadn't been comfortable sending Vin to Yuma with the prisoners Judge Travis had sentenced to life imprisonment. The bounty on the tracker's head made him a tempting target. But there had been no choice. To make matters worse, the only one healthy enough to accompany Vin had been Ezra. JD had a sprained ankle, Buck was in Ridge City, and Josiah and Chris were just recovering from a bout of the flu. Due to the distance and length of time it would take to travel to Yuma and back, Chris couldn't with good conscience send Nathan. The town and the other peacekeepers depended too much on his medical skills.
Knowing Vin would balk at sending telegrams relaying their progress, Chris had enlisted Ezra's aid. In an effort to avoid the tracker's wrath at what he would label as intrusive, the two conspirators had agreed to keep the missives confidential.
Chris had felt enormous relief when Vin and Ezra had reached Yuma and signed over their prisoners. At least now, he didn't have to worry about the murderers escaping and possibly killing their guards in the process. A scenario, Chris had to admit was farfetched given that Vin and Ezra were extremely competent.
Now on their return journey, all Chris had to be concerned about were bounty hunters, Mother Nature and accidents. They were enough to keep him on edge.
"Ya keep starin' at them doors and yer gonna burn a hole clean through 'em," Buck warned, joining Chris at his table.
With a feeling of deja vu, Chris shifted his gaze to his old friend for a brief, telling moment before returning it to the saloon entrance.
"I reckon Leroy's gonna take one look at you and head fer the hills."
"I'm jus' sayin' them two have been takin' care of themselves fer a lot of years 'fore we all met. Ain't no reason ta think they can't fer two weeks."
"They shoulda reached Spring Grove by now."
"Maybe the wires are down between here and there?" Buck soothed. "No reason ta be thinkin' the worst."
"I had Ben check, they're workin' fine."
"Maybe a horse went lame, slowed 'em down?"
Chris appreciated his old friend's attempts to ease his mind. He had wondered the same things himself. Even coming up with a few ideas Buck hadn't mentioned. Yet he couldn't shake the feeling something was wrong. He wasn't sure if he could blame it on instinct, the missing telegram or the connection he shared with Vin Tanner. The pink glow streaking across the sky as the sun slipped below the horizon told him he had made his decision too late.
Pushing back his chair, Chris rose. "Buck, tell the others, we ride at first light."
The days had fallen into a routine. The bruises now covered Vin's face. Ezra could tell by the glassy blue eyes that his friend was still experiencing severe headaches. He wasn't surprised. His own head ached with a persistence that was annoying. There were other factors that could be contributing to their slow healing, sun and dehydration being only two of them.
The only good thing that had happened to them since their arrest was that they hadn't been assigned as hangers. Lifting his end of a heavy log, Ezra rubbed his itching arms across the back of the rough bark. Dry skin fell like snow flakes. Vin had warned him not to roll up his shirt sleeves. Initially, he had adhered to the sound advice. But gradually, the sweat-soaked cotton had chafed his flesh until he could endure it no longer. At the time, sunburn had seemed the lesser of two evils. Now he wasn't so sure.
The weight of the log pulling at his shoulders and back, he helped Vin carry it out onto the rickety construction the guards had the audacity to call a bridge. Ezra wasn't an engineer, but he knew what they were building would never hold the weight of a wagon and the oxen pulling it. The boards were shaking beneath his feet even now.
Ezra tensed, waiting for the lash of a whip to strike his back. He heard the whistle of the leather as it sailed through the air, followed by the slap as it struck human flesh. However, there was no pain. Belatedly, he realized he had not been the recipient of the enticement to labor harder. Glancing behind him, he saw Vin's arms tighten around the end of the log as he rode out the agony.
Ezra turned to his friend. "Vin?"
"Keep movin', Ez." The order was hissed through gritted teeth.
Reluctantly, Ezra continued to the end of the bridge. Tying the rope around his section of the log, he waited until Vin had done the same before carefully easing his burden over the side. Hemp tearing into the already abused skin on the palms of his hands, he slowly lowered the support until a shout from one of the hangers below informed him it had reached its destination. Knowing it would take a while for the men to secure the log, he braced himself. Sweat streamed down his forehead and into his eyes, making them sting. Briefly, he wondered if this was what it had been like for Larabee when he had been unjustly imprisoned in Jericho. There was one major difference between them, however . . . Ezra wasn't alone. He didn't even want to try to imagine what it would be like here without Vin Tanner's companionship. Every morning, Ezra worried he would wake up to find the hole next to his empty. It wasn't the work or the heat or the food his friend found unbearable. It was the lack of freedom; the chains on his arms and legs restricting his movement; the guards telling him where he could and couldn't go. The free spirit inside Vin would need a release soon. And it scared the hell out of Ezra.
The rope in his hands went slack. Absently, he pulled it up. Vin was till braced at his end. Ezra squatted, physically preventing himself from offering assistance he knew would be rejected by the younger man.
By the time Vin's line was released the sun had dipped low enough to make it impossible to keep working. The routine of the last two nights was repeated. After receiving their dinner and their ration of water, they sat around "their" fire with Joe, Ted, Luke, Dave and three other men whose names Ezra hadn't been told or couldn't remember. Ruefully, he realized it wasn't just his physical body that was deteriorating.
As soon as their meal had been consumed, Ezra took Vin's plate. "I'll wash tonight. As soon as I return, I want to examine your back."
"I'm fine," Vin insisted, relinquishing his plate.
It wasn't the words that told Ezra his friend was lying, it was the action. Their first night when Ted took the dishes to clean them was the first and last time Vin had allowed anyone to do anything for him. The independence the tracker usually wore like a comfortable coat had become an obsession.
Taking Ted's and Joe's plates, Ezra hurried over to the bucket used to "wash" the dishes. Dead bugs floated on top of the dirty water. Something slimy touched his hand as he swished the dishes through as fast as he could. Throwing them on the "clean" pile, he hurried back to the heat of the fire and a warmth that wasn't provided by the burning logs but by friendship. They had only been here two and a half days, but it felt like forever.
Still hungry, Ezra tried to ignore his grumbling stomach as he sat behind Vin to inspect the bloody gash which started at the left shoulder and ran across to the right side. Flesh around the wound was already showing a touch of sunburn.
"Leave it, Ezra." Vin wearily pulled away.
Exasperated, Ezra reminded, "You know what Mr. Jackson is always telling us, infection is your worst enemy."
"Since Nathan ain't here and there ain't no carbolic or even clean water, there ain't nothin' ya kin do."
Though Ezra hated to admit it, Vin was right. If he went to the guards for medical supplies they would laugh in his face. Or worse, make him require the supplies himself. Gently wiping away flakes of dried blood, he suggested, "At least change shirts with me. When you lie down to sleep, sand is certain to get into the open wound."
"How?" Vin held up his manacled hands.
At first, Ezra was confused by the response until he realized there was no way to get their clothes off with the chains binding their arms and legs. Admitting defeat, he crawled back to his place in the circle around the fire. The hot flame soon warmed his front. His back shivered as the cool night air brushed against it. Careful not to get sand on Vin or Ted, he dug the hole that would be his bed, knowing the sand below the surface still retained the warmth of the sun.
"What do ya reckon, Ezra? Think they'll be here tomorrow?"
Ezra didn't need to ask who "they" were. Though he hated to dash Vin's hopes he knew it would be cruel to give false expectations. "Doubtful. Mr. Larabee would not have expected a telegram two nights ago, knowing we would have to camp on the trail. He would have anticipated a missive from Spring Grove last night. Since he will not have received one, it is my belief they rode out this morning."
"Then another three or four days ta Boomtown."
"Once they reach that metropolis there is no guarantee they will immediately discover its sheriff was responsible for our disappearance."
"It's gonna be a long week."
"You do have a talent for understatement, Mr. –" Ezra quickly corrected himself, "Vin."
"Been hangin' around Larabee too long."
"We gotta stop, Chris," Buck insisted.
His voice soothing, yet firm, Josiah added, "We could miss their trail in the dark."
Chris knew his two friends were right. What they hadn't pointed out, but what he also knew, was the horses were exhausted. Riding hard, they had covered more territory than anticipated. But it had taken a toll on the riders and their mounts. They still had a long way to go, and they couldn't do it on foot. "We'll bed down in that grove of trees ahead."
When they reached their destination, they wearily dismounted, taking care of their horses needs before their own. Not a word was spoken as they prepared the camp, each knowing what was required of them.
Sitting around the fire, waiting for their meal to cook, JD was the first to break the long silence. "Chris, what if we're headin' in the wrong direction? If bounty hunters got 'em, they'd be goin' east ta Tascosa."
JD glanced nervously at the other men before pressing, "How do ya know that?"
"Just do." Chris wished he could explain to them why he was so certain, but he didn't know himself.
Carefully stoking the fire, Josiah said, "That's good enough for me."
As the others echoed their agreement, Chris didn't feel relief. He wouldn't be pay the price if he was wrong. Vin and Ezra would.
Setting the half-section of log near the edge of the bridge, Vin tied ropes around his end and waited patiently while Ezra did the same on his side. As he glanced over to check the gambler's progress, he saw Ted and Joe lowering their burden to the hangers below. Straining against the heavy weight, Vin saw Joe's mangled hands cramp. The rope slipped from the torn flesh.
One of the hangers saw the free swinging danger and managed to propel himself out of its range. The other man never had a chance. The massive log slammed into him, pinning him against the frame. Unable to bear the unwieldy weight alone, Ted released his end, allowing it to drop into the deep canyon.
Horrified, Vin hurried over to help pull Luke up. As soon as the injured man appeared, Vin knew there was nothing that could be done for him. His face was so smashed, it was barely recognizable. The chest was caved in. Even if there had been a nose to breathe out of there were no lungs to pump the air. With an aching heart, Vin untied the rope from around the man's chest and helped stretch the body out.
Joining the mourning workers, Vern demanded, "What happened?"
"The rope slipped from my hands," Joe hastily admitted.
The guard looked around the group. "Who else is to blame?"
"No one," Joe assured, "it was all my fault."
Waving another sentry forward, Vern pointed out, "You know the punishment for your crime."
Vin didn't protest as Joe was led to the cage. He couldn't help the older man. Discipline was fast and harsh for any infraction of the rules whether real or imagined. Joe knew the consequences of his action, it was why he had confessed so quickly. He didn't want anyone else to pay for his "crime."
Kicking the dead body off the bridge, Vern pointed to Ted. "You take his place." A thumb indicated the falling hanger.
Even as he wondered how many bodies littered the canyon floor, Vin stepped forward. "I'll take the job."
"Are ya crazy or jus' stupid?" Vern regarded him in surprise.
It was a shock that was reflected on Ted's and Ezra's faces as well. Vin knew the hangers had the worst positions. With just a flimsy rope tied around his chest, he would spend the entire day hanging over the valley attaching the supports lowered down to him. He wouldn't even be allowed to come up for water. His ration would be dropped on a rope, much of it splashing out before it reached its destination. Vin had to agree with the guard, no sane man would volunteer for the job.
"Reckon it don't much matter who goes," Vern decided. "One of ya git down there."
Grabbing the end of the dead man's rope, Vin quickly tied it under his arms and around his chest. Knowing what he was asking would be difficult for his friend, he put the middle of the lifeline in Ezra's hands.
"You don't seriously believe I'm going to assist you in this madness?" Ezra demanded.
"Give me one good reason why I should."
"Can't." Vin glanced at Vern, who looked like he was ready to push the tracker off the bridge.
His own eyes resting on the guard, Ezra took a firm grip on the rope and braced himself. "This discussion is not over."
"It is for now." Vin flashed the gambler an encouraging smile and eased himself over the side.
Chris studied the streets and the people traversing them with a practiced eye. Spring Grove was a little larger than Four Corners, boasting four saloons. A virtual paradise to Ezra Standish. If Chris found out the gambler had allowed himself to indulge his pleasure, rather than performing his duty, there would be hell to pay.
Squinting his eyes against the fading glow of the setting sun, he watched JD exit the livery. With an energy the older man envied, the boy crossed to his side.
"Ain't no sign of Peso or Chaucer. Stable hand says he ain't seen any horses fittin' their type. Did the sheriff know anything?"
His gaze returning to its inspection of the town, Chris shook his head. "He don't remember seeing 'em either."
"Here comes Buck, maybe he got lucky."
Chris could tell by the look on his old friend's face he had come up empty too. A shake of the head confirmed his evaluation.
When Josiah exited one of the saloons his shoulders slumped in defeat, Chris knew their journey wasn't over. What little hope he still retained was dashed by Nathan's appearance.
"Doc says he ain't treated no one matchin' Vin or Ezra's description," the healer revealed.
Stepping off the boardwalk, Chris ordered, "Let's ride."
"Chris," Buck protested, "we been ridin' all day and it's almost dark."
"We still got a couple hours of daylight."
"What difference could a couple hours make?"
In no mood to argue, or try to explain the urgency he felt inside, Chris replied, "You wanna stay Buck, you stay. That goes fer anyone else."
His decision made, Chris crossed to the hitching rail in front of the sheriff's office where his horse was tied. When he rode out, four men rode beside him.
Ezra gripped the rope with hands that could no longer feel, praying he wouldn't repeat the tragedy that had occurred that morning. This time, the dead man wouldn't be someone he barely knew, a shadowy face observed through the flickering flames of a fire. This time, the dead man would be Vin. A fear Ezra had rarely felt before filled him. He had looked down the barrels of pistols and rifles, sought shelter from exploding cannon shells, even come close to being tarred and feathered, but had never felt this scared. He never doubted that Larabee and the others would come. He only wondered if they would be in time.
"Bring 'em up."
With a sigh of relief, Ezra felt the rope in his hands go slack, indicating the log had been put in place. Though impatient to retrieve his friend, he coiled the rope neatly, noting the disappointment in the guard's eyes at his diligence.
His chores completed, he joined Ted. Between them, they quickly pulled Vin to the top. When the tracker appeared, his eyes were closed, his mouth twisted with pain. While Ted kept the line taut, Ezra grabbed his friend and pulled him onto the bridge. The spent man leaned heavily against him as he untied the rope from around the narrow chest. "Vin?"
"I'm fine, Ezra."
The whispered reply was barely audible. Ezra shook his head. "I doubt that very much."
"Ain't nothin' ya kin do."
The rope laying neatly at his feet, Ted knelt at Vin's side, his stutter more pronounced than ever. "I-I w-wanna t-thank y-ya fer w-what y-ya d-done, V-Vin."
Ducking his head shyly, Ted observed, "W-We best -h-hurry or w-we'll m-miss our w-water ration."
Ezra put his hands under Vin's arms to help him stand. When Vin staggered, almost pitching off the bridge, Ezra was ready. "Easy, my friend, your legs have got to get used to having weight on them again."
"L-Let m-me h-help," Ted offered.
Realizing how much Vin would hate accepting the aid of a virtual stranger, Ezra suggested, "Why don't you go on ahead and slow down the line to give us more time?"
"Ya s-sure ya d-don't need m-my h-help?"
His sore muscles protesting as they took Vin's weight, Ezra ignored them. He knew his pain was nothing compared to what his friend was enduring. As soon as Ted was out of earshot, he demanded, "Why did you do it?"
"Do what?" Vin rasped.
"Don't try to pretend you don't know what I'm talking about."
Shuffling toward the water line, Vin hesitated before finally revealing, "Ted's afraid of heights."
"How do you know that?"
"I got eyes."
Once again, Ezra marveled at the tracker's powers of observation. Thinking back over the last few days, he realized he had seen the same signs that had led Vin to his conclusion. He just hadn't interpreted them as quickly.
"Makin' him a hanger," Vin confided, "would be like puttin' me in that cage."
Reminded of the gruesome device, Ezra's eyes shifted to where the last rays of the sun were fading. He knew what he would see would demoralize him, but he couldn't stop himself. Joe's body had already started to decay in the intense heat. The smell permeated the air, reminding them of their own fate. There was no longer a question in Ezra's mind if he would end up in the box. The only question awaiting an answer was when.
They were the last to reach the line of men seeking their water ration. While they waited their turn, Ezra saw how badly Vin's arms were shaking. When the guard offered him a cup, Ezra quickly took it, knowing Vin would spill most if not all of its contents. As the cracked lips separated to voice a protest, Ezra lifted the cup and emptied it into the open mouth.
Coughing as some of the liquid went down the wrong way, Vin asserted, "I don't need no help."
The cup already filled with his own portion, Ezra offered it to the tracker as well. "Shut-up and drink."
"I don't take another man's water." Vin managed to raise a hand and cover his mouth.
A guard glaring at him with a threat Ezra knew wasn't feigned, the gambler quickly, though reluctantly, emptied the cup. As much as he wanted, needed the fluids, he knew Vin needed them more. While a light brown beard covered the lower half of the tracker's face there was enough flesh visible around the bruises for Ezra to see it was gray. The cheeks were sunken in, making Vin look older than his years. Idly, Ezra wondered about his own appearance. Surprised to find it really didn't matter.
Moving to the food line, Ezra realized he couldn't hold two plates and Vin. He was afraid to take his arm from the exhausted man's waist. If his friend collapsed, he would take Joe's place in the cage. The chains between his wrists making it difficult, Ezra dumped one plate's contents onto the other, before leading Vin to their place around one of the fires. It felt colder tonight. Ezra wondered if the temperature actually was lower, or if the feeling was due to the empty space next to Vin.
With a soft sigh of relief, Ezra placed the plate of food in Vin's lap and settled next to him. He hoped the tracker hadn't noticed there was only one large serving. It was his sincerest wish that Vin go to bed with a full stomach.
"I ain't hungry." Vin pushed the plate away and stared into the fire.
"Nonsense, Vin," Ezra croaked, trying to ignore the rumbling of his stomach. "You must eat to keep up your strength."
Vin pulled his gaze from the mesmerizing flames. "I wouldn't drink yer water, I won't eat yer food."
"It's our food," Ezra corrected. Noting the determination on the tired face, he relented. "I'll eat my share, if you will eat yours."
Finally, a trembling hand reached toward the plate. Two fingers dug into the slop, lifting the contents to an open mouth. Ezra was reminded of a baby bird waiting for its mother to bring the next meal.
As he chewed the inedible food, Vin's hand dropped to his side as he glared at the gambler. Understanding the unspoken command, Ezra quickly stuck his fingers in the disgusting mess. He took as little as possible, until a growl from his companion warned him to take his fair share. Slowly, they emptied the dish, neither seeking a portion until the other had taken his. Ezra decided he had never met a man more stubborn than Vin Tanner.
When the last morsel had been consumed, Ted took their plate to wash it. Scooping out a shallow hole in the sand, Ezra eased Vin into it. He wasn't sure if he should be worried or grateful when the weak man didn't fight him. The blue eyes were closed before the shaggy head touched the ground. Ezra could only hope it was a soothing sleep. Widening the hole, he laid down next to his friend, offering warmth - and he hoped security. What little he could in this perilous world.
A soft glow lightened the darkness in the eastern sky. Chris watched it with a barely contained impatience. As soon as it was light enough he would wake the others.
Putting some wood on the fire, he filled the pot with water and coffee beans. With any luck, the aroma of the brewing beverage would make the unpleasant task of rousing the exhausted men easier. Chris knew he was pushing them and their horses hard. He wished he knew why. If only he could make them feel the same urgency he felt.
"If we doubted you, Brother, we wouldn't be here."
Almost dropping their breakfast in the fire, Chris swung around in shocked surprise. "You takin' ta readin' minds now, too, Preacher?"
"I've learned a lot of things from Brother Vin," a sad smile curved Josiah's lips, "but that's not one of them."
"Ya coulda fooled me." Chris turned his back, continuing with his preparations.
Ignoring the gunslinger's obvious slight, Josiah probed, "You think something has happened to Vin and Ezra?"
"I know," Chris softly corrected.
"You clearly don't doubt yourself. Why do you think we would?"
"There's no tangible proof," Chris huffed in exasperation. "There ain't no visible tracks."
"And you think we need them to follow you?"
"Most men would."
Josiah smiled broadly. "In case you haven't noticed, we aren't most men."
"I had noticed," Chris admitted with a sheepish grin.
"The good book says faith can move mountains. Seems to me you need to have a little faith in Vin and Ezra, in us and in yourself."
"Yer askin' a lot."
"I wouldn't ask if I didn't think you could do it."
"Sounds ta me like ya got enough faith fer the both of us."
"There can never be enough faith."
Vin opened his eyes to see the golden glow in the eastern sky. It wouldn't be long before the guards rang the bell summoning them back to work. Vin needed these few minute of quiet. He had to find the strength to tie that rope around his waist and allow himself to be lowered off the side of the bridge.
He couldn't suppress the snort of derision as he thought about the rickety structure they were calling a bridge. He didn't have to be an engineer to know it would collapse soon, taking everyone on it to the bottom of the canyon. All he could do was hope some of the guards would go with them. Unfortunately, Vin knew, he and Ezra would also be victims if Chris and the others didn't arrive in the next day or so.
It seemed strange that Ezra would be the one who believed the boys would save them. Vin tried to hope, but every time his stomach growled for the food it wouldn't receive; every time he yearned for a cup of water he couldn't have; every time he moved and his muscles screamed in protest, he found it harder to imagine.
The thing that made it all bearable was that he wasn't alone. Vin had always suspected Ezra had hidden strengths he disguised behind a facade of sarcasm. Now, Vin knew for certain. Though, even he had been surprised when Ezra had tried to give Vin his ration of water. They received little enough as it was. The gesture could have cost the gambler his life. Last night, when Vin was hurting so bad he barely knew who he was, much less what was expected of him, Ezra had taken care of him with the generosity and caring a mother lavishes on her child. Vin hadn't been surprised to find Ezra cared, he had only been amazed by the degree.
The bell rang, causing Ezra to jerk awake.
An elbow dug into Vin's ribs. He clamped his mouth shut, forcing back a moan. If given voice the small utterance of his physical pain would cause the gambler untold mental anguish.
Stiffly climbing to his feet, Ezra declared, "My dreams are far preferable to this reality."
"Yeah?" Vin forced a smile as he allowed his friend to help him to his feet. "What were ya dreamin' about?"
"I was in the saloon –"
"What a surprise." Vin grinned, taking the sting from his sarcastic remark.
Ignoring the interruption, Ezra expounded, "I was holding a full house. I couldn't lose."
"Was it a big pot?" asked Vin, enjoying the fantasy.
"The biggest I've ever won. A barrel of cool, clean water."
The horror of their circumstances obviously disturbing Ezra as much in his sleep as it did when he was awake, Vin wistfully rasped, "I like yer dreams, too, Ez."
A whip cracked, the tip slicing into Ezra's shoulder.
"Git ta work you two or there's more where that came from." The guard pulled the lash back, flicking it threateningly.
Worriedly eyeing the thin line of blood seeping from the fresh wound, Vin gently pushed Ezra ahead of him. As they joined the line for their morning's ration, he wondered if it would be their last day on Earth.
Dust blew down the deserted street. Tumbleweeds rolled unimpeded until coming to rest against a dilapidated building. Chris decided Boomtown needed to change its name to Ghost Town. Reining in his horse, he was tempted to keep going. There wasn't anything here to have kept Ezra and Vin for longer than overnight. But this was where the last telegram from Ezra had been sent. If they didn't uncover any leads here, he didn't know where to look next.
Without a word, each man guided his horse to a specific destination, just as they had in all the other towns they had passed through on their quest. Josiah headed for the church, Buck the saloon, Nathan the general store and JD the livery stable. Laying the left rein on his mount's neck, Chris jogged to the sheriff's office. Studying the weathered structure, he felt his body start to tingle. Wondering if he was coming down with something, he dismounted and tied his horse to the hitching rail.
Entering the office, he felt unsettled. Confused by the conflicting emotions, he rested his hand on the butt of his pistol. It was a position that always steadied him. With his other hand, he tipped his hat at the man sitting behind the desk. "Sheriff."
"Somethin' I kin do fer ya?" The chair squealed in protest as the overweight man leaned back.
"I'm lookin' fer two men."
"Strangers pass through here pretty near every day. I can't remember 'em all."
"I think you'd remember these two. One has long hair, wears a buckskin jacket and rides a black gelding with a white blaze. The other is a flashy dresser who likes ta gamble."
The sheriff shook his head. "Ain't seen no one matchin' them descriptions. Town ain't what it use ta be. Most folks jus' pass on through without stoppin' these days."
"Looks like you've fallen on some hard times," Chris agreed.
"This town'll live up ta its name again," the sheriff boasted.
Hearing his name, Larabee looked out the window to see JD hurrying across to the jail. The boy's gun was drawn, aimed at the back of a young stable hand. "Chris," JD unnecessarily repeated, as he entered the office, "Peso and Chaucer 're in the stable."
In the blink of an eye, Chris' gun was in his hand and pointed at the sheriff's heart. "Ya haven't seen 'em, huh? Where are they?"
"What the hell do ya think yer doin'?" Despite the bravado of his words, sweat rolled down the officer's temples, showing his fear. "I'm the law in this here town."
"I don't like to repeat myself." Chris fired his gun. The bullet smacked into the wall next to the sheriff's head.
Cowering, the man grumbled, "I don't know nuthin', I tell ya."
"I won't miss with the next one," Chris warned, undeterred by the thundering footsteps approaching the building.
Guns drawn, Buck, Josiah and Nathan entered the jail. Taking in the scene, each wordlessly moved into position to help; Buck joined Chris in front of the cluttered desk; Nathan covered the front door; while Josiah guarded the back.
"Is there somethin' the rest of us should know, Chris?" Buck asked, never taking his eyes off the sheriff.
"JD found Vin and Ezra's horses in the stable."
Buck backed up to glance into the jail area. "Cells are empty."
"I'm not askin' ya again, Sheriff." With a glare that threatened retribution if his request was denied, Chris repeated, "Where are they?"
Opening a closet in the corner, Buck pulled out a buckskin jacket, a Mare's Leg, a worn calvary hat, a scarlet coat, a pistol and a derringer. Dropping them on the desk in front of the officer, he growled, "Do these jog your memory?"
Shaking so violently the chair beneath him rattled, the sheriff whined, "Them boys broke the law and were duly sentenced by Judge Tyrone. It's all legal and proper."
"What law did they break?" Josiah demanded, his attention split between the conversation inside the jail and any possible threat from outside.
His voice quivering so it made him stutter, the sheriff revealed, "D-disorderly c-conduct. They started a fight in the saloon."
"I don't suppose they had a little help?" Buck snarled, having been railroaded himself in the past.
"I don't care," Chris roared. "I want ta know where they are."
His eyes scanning each of the men, the sheriff finally admitted, "They're on a work crew."
"Doing what?" Though the words were spoken barely loud enough to be heard, the tone was more threatening.
"Buildin' a bridge north and east of town."
"Josiah, go find that judge and bring 'im here."
"Sounds like he's just as corrupt as these two, Chris," Josiah agreed, waving his gun at the lawman and the stable hand.
"That's why we're gonna lock him up with 'em." As the preacher rapidly exited the jail. Chris continued, "JD send a telegram to Judge Travis. Ask 'im ta come here and bring some marshals with 'im."
His hand on the door knob, JD paused, "Should I tell 'im why?"
"He kin find out when he gits here."
"Come on, you." Nathan prodded the stable hand with his gun, guiding him back toward the jail cells. "Reckon ya could use a rest."
"You too." Buck waved his weapon at the sheriff.
"Dammit, Seth," the sheriff swore at the stable hand, "I told ya ta git rid of them horses."
Fingering his torn shirt, Seth groused, "I couldn't git that black devil out of his stall."
"Vin's gonna owe Peso a whole bushel of carrots for this." Buck grinned.
Chris solemnly nodded. "And apples, too."
Sweat poured into Ezra's eyes, making them burn. As he waited for Ted to prepare the other set of ropes, he looked out across the desert, praying he would see five riders. He wasn't sure how much longer he could hold on. His head throbbed with a force that made him nauseous. Every muscle in his arms, shoulder, back and legs were on fire. But that was preferable to the numbness of his hands. Even if they were rescued now, he wasn't sure if he would ever be able to deal a deck of cards again. A week ago, he would've found such a prospect frightening. Now, he knew there was something more important - staying alive. And, equally as crucial, keeping a friend alive.
Glancing over the edge, Ezra tried to catch a glimpse of Vin. He had always admired the tracker, but this morning, Vin's fingers had still been so swollen he couldn't tie the rope around his own waist. Ezra had been forced to do it for him or watch one of the guards push him off the bridge to his death. The only words Vin had spoken as Ezra reluctantly completed the unpleasant task were, thank you. Ezra was sending him to hang at the end of a rope for long hours in the hot sun and he had thanked him. It was a surprise to the gambler when he realized he was angry with Vin. He would have found cursing easier to endure than placid acceptance.
An ominous crack was his first and only warning. As the boards beneath his feet dropped away, Ezra desperately threw himself upon them. Fingers he couldn't feel frantically scrambled for a hold. Screams from the bodies falling past him made him wish he could close his ears as he had closed his eyes. The section he clung to swung back and forth, but stayed attached to what remained of the structure.
His heart beating against his chest with a strength and speed that threatened to dislodge his precarious hold, Ezra fought to draw a deep breath. Fright seemed to have obstructed his throat, making it difficult for air to reach his lungs. If he lost consciousness, his grip would automatically release and he would fall to his death. The only thing that made his predicament bearable was he wouldn't be aware of his fate as he fell - unlike the other poor souls who had preceded him.
"Grab the rope."
The words barely penetrated Ezra's terrified stupor. When rough hemp grazed his fingers, he became aware of the salvation being offered to him, if he had the courage to take it. What if his numb, bloated hands couldn't take a firm grip on the rope? Or the chains around his wrist interfered with his ability to move fast enough? He would join his comrades at the bottom of the canyon. The same fate awaited him anyway if he didn't accept the deliverance. He had one chance and he had to take it.
Alternately praying and cursing, he grabbed the rope with his right hand and then his left. Dangling over the canyon, he wondered how long his abused appendages could support his weight as the rope slowly inched upwards.
Finally pulled onto the relative safety of what was left of the bridge, Ezra lay panting and shaking. When someone pried the rope from his hands the pain focused his thoughts. "Vin?" Sitting up, Ezra grabbed the person closest to him, relieved to see it was Brad, one of the men they had shared a fire with for the past week. "Where's Vin?"
"His rope is still attached to the section of the bridge you were hangin' from. Don't know how long b'fore it falls though."
"We gotta pull 'im up." Ezra scrambled to the edge on his hands and knees.
"Ain't no way ta reach his rope."
Ezra could see Brad was right. Vin was hanging limply at the end of the segment swinging brokenly, threatening to join the portion that had already fallen. "Get me the rope," Ezra ordered. "You can lower me down until I can reach Vin's line."
"It would be suicide. That piece is gonna give any minute. B'sides, he looks like he's already dead."
Wrapping his fist in Brad's shirt and pressing his knuckles against the man's Adam's apple, Ezra growled, "He isn't dead."
"If he ain't, he's probably hurt bad. They'll," Brad indicated the remaining guards, "put 'im in the cage and he'll die anyway."
Every word Brad had spoken made sense. But Ezra wouldn't - couldn't - leave his friend. However, no matter how much he was willing to risk his own life, he couldn't do it alone. "Please, help me."
"Yeah, OK, I reckon yer crazy, but I'll do it."
Keeping his mind focused on Vin, Ezra beat back his fear as he was lowered over the edge. If the remainder of the bridge fell, he and Vin would go with it. Strangely, Ezra found it to be a comforting thought. His mother would be horrified and terribly disgusted with him if she ever discovered he would rather die trying to save a friend, than live with the guilt of standing by and doing nothing.
Resolutely keeping his gaze from the canyon floor far below, Ezra looked for any sign of life in the limp body. While his eyes stayed glued to Vin, his hands found the knot securing Vin's rope to the bridge. Wishing he had a knife, his fingers desperately worked at the taut hemp. He was choked with despair, certain he would fail his friend when he felt it loosen. Working harder, his tender fingers tore under the abuse. Blood marked the trail of his attempts.
The knot finally unwound with an abruptness that almost made Ezra lose his grip. Twisting Vin's rope around his bleeding hands, he croaked, "Up."
He wasn't sure Brad heard or understood until he felt himself slowly start to rise. When he reached the edge, eager hands lifted him over taking the rope from his hands. Lying on the bridge, Ezra watched anxiously as Vin was pulled up and carried over to join him.
Appalled by the waxy pallor surrounding the bruised flesh on Vin's face, Ezra's trembling fingers searched for a pulse. He couldn't believe it when he found one. It was fast, but strong.
"His arm's broken," Brad pointed out in a horrified whisper.
Ezra glanced down to see a bone poking through Vin's skin just above the left wrist. Ezra had saved his friend - or had he?
"This one can't work anymore."
A shadow fell across Ezra. A boot slammed into Vin's side, eliciting a groan.
"Put 'im in the cage," Vern ordered.
"No!" Ezra cried, as two guards reached for Vin.
"Would ya rather see 'im dumped in the canyon?"
Eyes desperately searching for five riders, Ezra shook his head. He had to keep Vin alive as long as he could. "No," he whispered.
"Git back ta work."
Watching as Vin was dragged away, Ezra protested, "On what? The bridge is all but destroyed."
"Then start buildin' it again."
"Hey, Vern," a guard shouted, "there's another hanger down there."
Ezra looked over to see a guard pointing over the side of the broken structure.
"Is he alive?"
"Can't tell. He's jus' hangin' there."
Ezra felt sick as the guards laughed at the macabre joke.
"Cut 'im lose. He's probably hurt anyway and we only got the one cage."
"I can't reach the rope."
"Then shoot 'im down. Ya need the target practice anyway."
Closing his eyes, Ezra knew he would have been sick if there had been anything in his stomach to bring up, only bile filed his throat. He choked it down as shot after shot echoed down the canyon. He counted five before the guard crowed in triumph.
"Now that's what I call shootin'," Vern praised.
The guard agreed, "I'd like ta see anyone do better."
For once, Ezra kept his mouth shut and looked over at a man he knew could've done the deed with one bullet. But Vin had a compassionate heart that never would have allowed him to be so cruel. As he viewed Vin's unconscious body curled inside the cage, Ezra silently begged, "Don't wake up. Please, don't wake up."
The first thing he became aware of was the pain engulfing his left arm and side. To distract his mind, Vin tried to remember where he was; it might give him a clue as to how he had been injured. He sifted through the other clues: a raging thirst, an empty stomach and a brain that felt it was swimming through quicksand as it searched for answers.
A cramp seize the calf of his right leg. He bit down on his lip, unwilling to vocalize his agony. His enemies would not be given ammunition to use against him. Enemies? Why did he think there were enemies close by?
To ease the spasms, he tried to stretch his leg out. His foot encountered a barrier. A clanging sound echoed around him. His mind flooded with the memories of Ezra, Ted and Joe; of hanging over a deep canyon; of a bridge collapsing. His eyes flew open, revealing his worst nightmare. He was in the cage.
Heedless of the damage it caused to bone and flesh, he kicked at the door. Shaking the bars with his good hand, he screamed, "Let me out."
As he continued to cry out his rage and fear, his voice cracked, becoming hoarse. But he kept on screaming, praying someone would listen.
The bars closed in on him until he couldn't breathe. Shutting his eyes didn't help. He knew the walls still encircled him. There was no escape. At least, no physical escape.
Chris had to fight the urge to kick his horse into a canter. They had been riding hard for days now. That, coupled with the dry desert heat and hot midday sun, was forcing them to walk at a soul-breaking pace.
Standing up in his stirrups, he wished he had Vin's spyglass. The shimmering heat made it difficult to focus, but he thought he could see a camp ahead. The inhospitable conditions made it a certainty that it was the work camp they were seeking. No sane person would willingly live out here.
"How do ya wanna play this, Chris?" Buck asked.
"Keep yer guns holstered and spread out. Try ta git as close to the guards as ya can. Make 'em think we're here ta talk."
Checking the chambers in his pistol, Josiah pressed, "What if they don't want to talk?"
"They'll be sorry." Grim determination forged Larabee's face into a mask that would make any normal man think twice before challenging him.
As they drew close to the encampment, each man eased his horse away from the others. By the time they reached the tents, they had formed a semicircle around the camp. The guns in their hands weren't all that distinguished the guards from the prisoners. Well fed and clothed, they were a sharp contrast to the raggety skeletons laboring on a rickety wooden structure that had little or no resemblance to a bridge.
"This is a prison work area," one of the guards growled. "Visitors ain't welcome. Ya best be on yer way."
"Everyone's jus' been paroled," Chris quietly announced.
The guard started to bring his rifle to bear. "I don't know who you think you are, mister –"
His gun appearing in his hand with a blinding speed, Chris put a bullet in the guard's hand, making it impossible for him to grip his weapon. "Drop yer guns," Chris ordered, already training his pistol on another guard.
Gazes shifted from the man in black to the other four men on horseback. Their guns drawn, each looked formidable. Holding his bleeding hand, the injured guard moaned, "This is Judge Tyrone's project. He ain't gonna take kindly ta yer interferin'."
"Ya kin tell 'im when ya join 'im in jail." Turning his attention to his own men, Chris instructed, "JD collect their guns."
While one side of Chris' brain continued to assess the situation and formulate plans to free all the prisoners and keep them safe, another part of it desperately searched the dirty, bearded workers for Vin and Ezra. His stomach twisted into painful knots as each man was studied and rejected.
"Chris," Josiah called, "there are men hangin' over the side of the bridge."
"Git 'em up."
His gun steady on the guards JD was herding into the center of the camp, Chris kept an eye on the men Josiah pulled up. It wasn't until the third man lay panting on the unstable frame that he started to find a measure of relief. Ezra.
"Get him out," Ezra begged, as Josiah quickly untied the rope from the gambler's waist. "Please, get him out."
Puzzled when Ezra pulled away from the preacher's supporting hand, Chris dismounted. "Where's Vin, Ezra?"
"Get him out." Stumbling as though he were drunk, Ezra crossed to a cage and tugged at the heavy lock securing the door.
Chris could see there was a man inside. "JD, see if you can find a key."
Ezra tugged weakly at the secured door. "Get him out."
"Ezra," Chris put a trembling hand on the gambler's shoulder. "Where's Vin?"
"Get him out."
Surprised by the pleading he heard in the normally assured voice, Chris looked closer at the incarcerated man. The face was buried in the crook of an arm, under long, brown hair that was matted and greasy. "Ezra, is this Vin?"
"Get him out."
Finally feeling the other man's urgency, Chris fired at the lock with one smooth motion. The broken mechanism fell apart, allowing the door to swing freely. "Vin?" When he got no response, Chris gently pulled his friend from the torture chamber. Fingers desperately sought a pulse in the sunburned neck.
"Well?" JD anxiously demanded.
"He's alive," Chris relayed with a sigh of relief. "Nathan."
The healer quickly joined them. Even without a cursory examination, Nathan knew what had to be done. "Help me git 'im into one of the tents. This sun is killin' 'im."
"These men need water," Josiah indicated.
A small grunt escaping his lips as he lifted Vin's legs, Nathan cautioned, "Don't give 'em too much or you'll make 'em sick. Then find the keys and git these chains off 'em."
"I already got 'em" JD held the piece of metal so everyone could see.
Without a word, Ezra crossed to the boy and held out his hands, his silent request obvious. As soon as both sets of manacles had been opened, Ezra picked them up and crossed to Vern. His eyes speaking volumes, he closed the bloodstained cuffs around the injured guard's wrists. Ignoring the man's angry protests, he secured the ankle chains before following Nathan, Chris and Vin into the nearest tent.
From his position at Vin's side, Chris watched through the open flap as one by one the prisoners transferred their bindings to the guards. When all the former jailers were secure the remaining chains were thrown off the bridge into the canyon.
"JD, in here." Chris motioned for the key. As soon as he held it in his hand, the gunslinger unlocked Vin's manacles. Handing them to the boy, he ordered, "Git rid of 'em, JD."
"Gladly." Anger and compassion flashed across the young face as JD gingerly carried the bloodstained bindings from the tent.
Brushing a strand of dirty hair off the bruised and sunburned face, Chris asked, "How is he, Nathan?"
"So far I've found a broken arm and some broken ribs." Nathan licked his lips in frustration. "Vin and most of these men need more help than I kin give 'em with what I got here. We gotta git 'em back ta Boomtown. They got a doctor there."
Crossing to the opening in the tent, Chris called, "Josiah, git them wagons hitched up."
"We ain't gonna be able ta take 'em all in those two wagons," Nathan observed.
"We'll take the ones you think are in the greatest need. We kin send the wagons back in the mornin' fer the rest."
"What about the guards?"
"They kin wait, they ain't' goin' nowhere." Chris grimly smiled. "Buck and JD kin stay behind ta keep the guards from endin' up at the bottom of the canyon."
"And," Nathan added, "make sure the prisoners we hafta leave behind don't make themselves sick by drinkin' or eatin' too much."
"Why don't ya go see which ones ya think should go back tonight?" Chris suggested.
Giving Vin's shoulder a gentle squeeze, Nathan nodded. "Call me if ya need me."
As soon as the healer was gone, Chris focused his attention on the other man they had sought in their desperate search. A man who had barely spoken, except for the same three words since their arrival. "Ezra, are you all right?"
Ezra nodded in the affirmative.
The gesture worried the gunslinger. Ezra was a man who loved the English language. He used words to express his feelings, thoughts and ideas as creatively as an artist used paint. Putting a hand on Ezra's shoulder, Chris was surprised when the weak man pulled away. Waving at the cot on the other side of the tent, Chris encouraged, "Why don't ya go lay down, Ezra?"
Placing a mangled hand next to Vin's arm, Ezra shook his head.
"Ezra, ya look like yer ready ta drop," Chris gently pressed.
Another negative shake was the only response.
Frightened by the gambler's obvious physical and psychological impairments, Chris looked down at the man laying motionless on the narrow cot. If Ezra was finding it difficult to interact after their shared experience, how much harder would it be for Vin?
The last rays of the setting sun highlighted the tangible faults of the decaying town. Ezra found the differences much easier to endure this time around. It was the depravity of its population he could not forgive. Even those not in Judge Tyrone's inner circle must have become suspicious when so many men had been arrested and then disappeared. Yet no one had wired another judge or the marshals. They had turned a blind eye.
The wagons pulled up in front of the saloon, the largest building in Boomtown. None of the normal sounds associated with such an establishment spilled out onto the street. Looking around, Ezra realized Boomtown was now a ghost town.
Climbing down from the buckboard, Chris walked to the batwing doors. "Anyone here?"
There was no reaction Ezra could hear.
With a shake of his head, Chris crossed to the wagon bed where Nathan was tending Vin. "It looks like there's no one home. So, I reckon they won't mind us turnin' the place into a hospital."
"Josiah," Nathan immediately took charge, "see if ya kin find the doctor. Chris, help me git Vin up to a bed. This night air ain't good fer him."
Once Vin had been lifted from the wagon, Ezra started to follow, intent on remaining at the tracker's side.
"Ezra," Nathan admonished, "you wait there 'til one of us kin give ya a hand."
Lingering only until the healer's back was turned, Ezra awkwardly climbed down from the wagon. It was a difficult process since his hands were virtually useless, and every muscle in his body felt like it was on fire. But he was more than willing to endure any pain to stay near Vin. He wasn't sure why close proximity to his friend was so important to him. There was very little of this last week he understood, particularly in regards to his own actions. This was just another item to add to the list.
On the second floor, at the head of the stairs, they discovered a room very much like the one Ezra called home in Four Corners. Feeling helpless, Ezra watched as Nathan and Chris got Vin settled.
Feet pounding up the stairs drew their attention and Chris' pistol. Josiah appeared in the open door. Leaning on the jam, he breathlessly disclosed, "The doctor's gone. So is everyone else in town, except our special guests in the jail. It's a good thing we took the keys with us."
"We need ta git those injured men inside before it gets dark and cold," Nathan insisted.
Already heading for the door, Chris reassured, "Josiah and I kin take care of them. You take care of Vin."
"I'm gonna need whatever supplies the doctor left behind," Nathan called.
A worried gaze resting on the still figure beneath the healer's hands, Josiah nodded, "I'll bring whatever I can find."
Taking scissors from the bag he used to carry his meager medical supplies, Nathan cut away the rags covering Vin's bruised and battered flesh. "Ezra," he pleaded, "will ya sit down before ya fall down?"
While Ezra's spirit wanted to ignore the request, his body was betraying him. His legs were trembling violently beneath him. If he didn't comply, he would collapse. Then Nathan would feel it his duty to assist him rather than Vin. Ezra would allow nothing to distract the healer, certainly not his own weakness. Muscles protesting his every move, he slowly sat down.
"Ezra, kin ya tell me what happened?"
Whatever information he had to impart seemed unimportant - or was written on Vin's body - so Ezra disregarded the plea.
"Knowin' what happened ta Vin would help me know how ta treat 'im."
Green eyes suspiciously rested on the healer. While Ezra was fairly sure the appeal was a ploy to force him to talk, he wasn't one-hundred percent certain. Wondering why it appeared so important to his friends that he communicate, he nonetheless would do nothing to endanger Vin. "Some of the bridge supports collapsed."
"Where was Vin?" Nathan tossed the dirty rags that had once clothed his patient, into a corner.
"He was a hanger. He was one of the ones constructing the trestle."
"Here's some hot water." Josiah entered the room, a pot in one hand, a bag in the other. "And here are all the supplies I could find in the doctor's office. As soon as we get the other men settled, I'll check the general store."
"Thanks, Josiah," Nathan called after the departing man. Checking the bag, he softly swore. "Damn, no laudanum."
Realizing there was nothing he could do to assist his colleague, Ezra studied Vin. No clothes to cover them, every bump and bruise was visible beneath the dirty flesh. Crusted blood, seeping from the rope burns, circled the narrow waist.
His horrified gaze cataloging each injury, Ezra blocked out the insistent demand.
"Ezra," Nathan forcefully growled, "where were you when the supports gave way?"
"On the portion of the bridge that collapsed." Ezra was surprised he could relay the terrifying moment with such equanimity.
"Then what happened?"
"I was rescued by some of my co-workers."
"Was anyone else on top of the bridge saved?"
Closing his eyes to block out the image of the bodies hurtling by him, Ezra shook his head. "I don't think so."
"Mr. Jackson," Ezra angrily protested, "I fail to see how these questions are of any assistance in Mr. Tanner's treatment."
A sad smile curving his lips, Nathan whispered, "Welcome back, Ezra."
His knees pulled to his chest to protect himself, Vin looked around. There was nothing to see. He seemed to be in a box. But for some reason, he wasn't frightened. He knew he should be. Ever since he had been locked in a closet at the orphanage, he had hated small, closed in places. However, he didn't feel scared, he didn't feel pain. It was nice here. No one needing him or wanting something from him. Staying seemed like a good idea - at least for a while.
A yawn threatening to crack his jaw, Chris looked around the room. The saloon wasn't full yet, but it would be, once the remainder of the ex-prisoners were retrieved. Shaking his head, the gunslinger wondered how they were going to cope. He and Josiah had managed to find enough cots and blankets for everyone, though the men had seemed unconcerned, ready and willing to sleep on the floor.
After getting Vin and Ezra taken care of, Nathan had worked all night cleaning and bandaging each of the men's hands and other wounds. Chris sighed as he realized the healer barely had enough supplies to take care of the men already here, much less the ones still to come. They would all need baths and food, too. It was a daunting task for five men.
His pistol appeared in his hand at the sound of horses. Waving Josiah to a window, Chris crossed to the batwing doors and glanced outside. This time, his sigh was one of relief when he saw Judge Travis. Badges on the chests of the other four men identified them as marshals.
Holding one door open, Chris holstered his gun. "Welcome, Judge."
"Chris." Squinting against the early morning sun, Travis dismounted and stepped inside. His gaze swept over the injured men. "You want to tell me what's going on?"
Quickly explaining the situation, Chris finished, "Judge Tyrone, the sheriff and the livery man are locked in the jail. Everyone else in town has taken off. They ain't left us with near enough clothes, food or medical supplies ta take care of these men."
One of the marshals stepped forward. "I'll wire Liberty. They're the closest town. If they're willin' ta help they could be here by late afternoon."
"Good idea, Jack," Travis acknowledged.
Chris watched the young officer hurry away, relieved to have one worry alleviated. "Me and Josiah were just about ta head out ta bring back the rest of the prisoners and the guards."
"Do you mind if I accompany Mr. Sanchez?" A marshal about Chris' own age looked to the judge for permission. "I'd like ta get a look at the camp."
Short tempered even when he had enough sleep, Chris felt his fingers twitch as they rested on his pistol. It wasn't often Chris Larabee was ignored.
A brief smile curving his lips, Travis waved a hand at the gunslinger. "That's up to Chris."
Though still burning from the slight, Chris was more than happy to relinquish the bone-jarring journey. "It's all right with me, if it's all right with Josiah."
The preacher nodded his agreement. "We better head out before Buck and JD start to worry."
"Judge?" Another marshal drew their attention from the departing men.
Chris studied the tall, thin man. There was a melancholy about him that raised Chris' hackles, adding another worry to the stack he already carried.
"What is it, Luther?" Travis turned his attention to the younger man.
"Seems ta me a bridge is gonna take a lot of timber ta build." Luther took off his hat and scratched his head. "I was jus' wonderin' where that lumber was comin' from."
A feeling of sorrow swept over Chris. "There must be another camp up in the mountains."
"That's what I was thinkin'. I reckon Wyatt and me should have a little chat with Judge Tyrone and find out where the camp is."
"Keep me informed," Travis said, in approval. As the last two officers departed, the judge regarded Chris. "How are Vin and Ezra?"
"I was jus' gonna go up and check."
Brushing dust from his coat, Travis decided, "I'll come with you."
Feeling as old as the man following in his wake, Chris slowly climbed the stairs. The other times he had checked on Vin's status there had been no change. A breath hitched in his chest as he entered the room, afraid of what he might find.
"Sh, sh, sh," Nathan cautioned, putting a finger to his lips. He nodded to the cot Josiah and Chris had placed in the corner of the room.
Chris was encouraged to see Ezra was fast asleep. Shaking his head, the gunslinger regarded Nathan with admiration. First, the healer had gotten the gambler to talk. Now, he'd finally convinced him to get some sleep.
"It wasn't my doing," Nathan spoke softly, correctly interpreting Larabee's expression. "He passed out. All I did was pick him up off the floor and put him to bed."
"I'm surprised he didn't collapse sooner."
"Who would've guessed he would be so tough?"
Keeping his own voice low, Chris admitted, "I wouldn't have."
"Nathan," Travis stepped closer to Vin's bed and looked down at the injured man. "How are they?"
"Better than they've got any right to be."
"They're both dehydrated and their hands were torn to pieces."
"According to Ezra, their first job was to lower logs down to the hangers, the men who were building the supports."
"Their first job?"
Compassionate eyes resting on Vin, Nathan's Adam's apple bobbed violently as he spoke past the lump in his throat. "When one of the hangers was killed in an accident, Vin volunteered ta take 'is place."
"Why would he do that?" Chris' voice rose in anger.
With a quick glance to check Ezra, Nathan managed to convey his own indignation, while keeping his voice down. "Because the man the guards picked for the job was afraid of heights."
Chris knew he shouldn't be surprised by the revelation. It was typical Vin Tanner behavior. Thinking of others before he thought about himself.
"Will they be all right, Nathan?" Travis persisted.
"Ezra will be."
Fear grabbing his stomach and twisting it, Chris choked, "What about Vin?"
"He's got some cracked ribs, a broken arm and crushed bones in both feet." Nathan fingered a glass of water. "But it's the dehydration that's killin' 'im. Unconscious, I can't git enough water in 'im ta keep 'im alive."
"Is there a head injury?" Travis asked. "Is that why he isn't waking up?"
"I don't think it's that simple. He's got a knot on 'is head, but it don't look bad. I'm thinkin' he don't wanna wake up."
"That's crazy," Chris growled.
"Is it? Think where he was when we found 'im."
"Vin ain't suicidal."
"No, he ain't," Nathan agreed. "But ya know he don't like bein' closed in. Fear kin make a man do things he normally wouldn't do. Or act in a way he normally wouldn't act."
Fear. It was a difficult reaction for Chris to connect with Vin. The tracker had always appeared so fearless. A small smile curved his lips as he remembered Vin's whoop of joy after their fight with the men from Eagle's Bend. Vin was probably the only one who hadn't thanked Nathan's father for his intervention. Now, looking at the man lying motionless in the bed, Chris saw him through different eyes. Vin had a strength Chris had always thought could never be broken. It looked like he had been wrong.
"Ezra and I have tried talkin' to him," Nathan continued. "I want ya ta give it a try, Chris. Maybe he'll listen ta you."
Chris ruefully shook his head. "He's ignored me as often as he's heeded me."
"If he don't wake up soon, he's gonna die."
"I'll try," Chris reluctantly relented.
Every once in a while, Vin would hear voices calling to him. At first, they had been easy to brush aside. He hadn't felt this safe since his mother died. It was a relief not to be scared. At five, his world had been taken from him. He had learned to be strong to save himself. He had continued to be strong for the sake of others; his comrades in arms during the war who depended on his skill with a rifle; the soldiers in a fort who counted on the buffalo meat he provided; and, most recently, the six men and the little town he had sworn to protect.
But he was tired.
He wanted to rest.
Why couldn't they leave him alone?
Hadn't he done enough?
One voice in particular persisted. Vin could hear it had grown hoarse. This scared him. Suddenly, it didn't feel so safe here. There was no one to cover his back.
He was lonely.
He had forgotten how it felt.
He didn't like it.
It was time to leave this place.
Chris gratefully gulped down the glass of water Nathan handed him, wishing it was something stronger. His throat was raw from use. These last three years, he had let his glare or his gun do his talking for him. They were often more effective than words.
"Why don't ya let me give it a try again, Chris?" Nathan offered. "Josiah, Buck and JD are back. Maybe, they'll git through ta Vin."
"I'm all right," Chris croaked.
"Ya missed lunch," Nathan pointed out. "Ya shouldn't miss dinner. I don't need another patient on my hands."
"I ain't hungry."
"Well I am," a cultured voice interjected. "Mr. Jackson, would you be so kind as to procure nourishment for this invalid?"
Nathan smiled at Ezra. "Even without the use of your hands, I would hardly consider you crippled, Ezra."
"My mind is still a bit muddled." Ezra frowned, waving a bandaged hand at the side of his head. "Was that a compliment?"
"If you like." Nathan's grin grew broader.
A soft groan from the bed halted the verbal sparing. Leaning in close, Chris urged, "Wake up, Vin."
The shaggy head moved toward the voice.
"That's it, Vin," Chris encouraged.
Bruised eyelids slowly rolled back to reveal dull blue eyes.
As his own gaze met his friend's, Chris felt a chill. He had looked into those eyes many times in the last few months and had seen them reflect joy, sorrow, fear and anger. He had never seen them empty.
"Chris," Nathan urged, "git 'im ta drink some water." The healer handed the gunslinger a glass.
Grabbing the container, Chris pressed it to Vin's lips. "Drink, Vin."
There was no recognition the request had been understood.
"Vin," Chris didn't even try to keep the desperation from his voice, "ya gotta drink."
The eyes continued to stare blankly, but the lips parted slightly.
Taking advantage of the small opening, Chris tilted the cup. Small rivulets of water streamed from the edges of the cracked lips. Swearing softly, Chris coaxed, "Swallow, Vin."
Again, there appeared to be no comprehension.
Gently lifting Vin's head, Chris slowly poured. Forced to swallow or choke, Vin downed the remainder of the container's contents. The last drop had barely rolled down his throat when his eyelids slowly slid closed.
Frightened, Chris demanded, "Nathan?"
One skilled hand searched for the pulsing carotid artery under a slack jaw as the other wrapped around a bandaged wrist. With a sigh of reassurance, the healer soothed, "It's all right, he's asleep."
"Ya reckon he'll make it now?" Chris eased the heavy head onto the soft pillow.
Nathan cautiously replied, "He's got a good chance."
Chris looked down at the vivid bruises still marring one side of the handsome face, more covered the lean torso, arms and legs. The patches of discolored flesh enraged the gunslinger. No man, especially this one, deserved such brutal treatment. Chris yearned to make those responsible pay. It was a good thing two of the marshals and Travis had packed Tyrone and his minions into one of the wagons and taken them away. They would not have lived to see another dawn.
But Vin would. And one day those blue eyes would sparkle with contentment once again.
Ezra rolled over, relishing the feel of the thin canvas as it conformed to his body. Simple things he had once taken for granted now had a greater meaning. A cot was as comfortable as a feather bed; the taste of water was sweeter than the finest French wine; the coarse cotton sheets beneath him were softer than the smoothest silk; broth tasted juicier than the thickest steak. Ezra knew he dared not confess his feelings to his comrades. Nathan would check him for fever, while the others would simply think he'd lost his mind. Only the men who had survived with him would understand.
A soft sigh emptied his lungs. It was partially born of frustration, partially contentment. It was several minutes before he grasped it was the only sound in the room. Something else he had learned to appreciate since the camp - silence. All day there had been guards screaming orders; while all night, prisoners moaned in pain. Ezra lay quietly enjoying the absence of any noise, until he realized it was wrong. In the days since their rescue, one of the others had always been present, always talking. First, trying to persuade Ezra to speak; then, trying to entice Vin to wake up. Voices droned day and night in an effort to reach their friends. Once Vin had awakened, they had not ceased. Only the words had changed as they fought a different battle. The same one they had struggled over with the gambler.
Ezra knew the conflict to get Vin to talk would be much more difficult. The tracker was normally reticent. That, coupled with the physical and mental trauma he had endured, would make it difficult for him to express himself.
Opening his eyes, Ezra was surprised to find the room empty, except for Vin. As his eyes met the intent stare, Ezra sent what reassurance he could through the connection they had forged in the last few weeks. He knew it could express more than words. A softening of the frightened gaze told him he had been successful. It was all they had needed in the camp to give each other courage, and it was all they needed now.
Chris looked around the empty saloon. An overturned cot here, a bloody bandage there, were all that was left of the twenty-seven men who had survived Judge Tyrone's get rich scheme. Men from Liberty had arrived the day before. After resting their horses overnight, they had packed the injured in the wagons they had brought and the remaining wagon from the camp and headed home. Their compassion and efficiency had been a balm to the ex-prisoners and the five exhausted lawmen from Four Corners.
Suppressing a yawn, Chris stepped out onto the porch to join his men. The deserted streets had a ghostly feel that sent a chill up his spine.
"Now what?" JD asked.
Chris cocked his head in puzzlement. "What do you mean?"
"When do we head home?" JD elaborated, a nervous glance showing he was equally affected by the abandoned buildings.
"When Nathan says Vin and Ezra are well enough to travel."
Turning his attention to the healer, JD pressed, "How long ya think it'll be, Nathan?"
"If they don't try ta do too much, they're both well enough ta be moved now," Nathan reluctantly conceded. "But that ain't the problem."
His face lined with exhaustion, Buck lowered himself onto a step. "Whaddya mean?"
"The problem is how ta git 'em home. Neither of them can hold their reins."
"We could lead their horses."
Ignoring the interruption, Nathan continued, "Vin can't put his feet in the stirrups and tryin' ta ride with them broken ribs would be pure agony."
Wincing as he remembered a time when he had been forced to ride with a cracked rib, Chris suggested, "What if we went ta Spring Grove or Liberty and got a wagon?"
"If we made the bed real soft that might work," Nathan agreed.
Josiah shook his head. "A wagon took them out to that . . ." Pausing, he finally growled, "Camp. Both of them are already fighting demons that remind them of what they endured. What do you think spending days in a wagon will do to them?"
Chris was surprised to see a visible shudder wrack Nathan's lean frame as he guiltily dropped his head. Shame washed over the gunslinger. He had been thinking of himself and his desire to leave this dead town. After his own experience in Jericho, he should have been the first to realize how something that seemed so innocuous could cause so much mental anguish.
"Then how do we git 'em home?" JD demanded.
"Stagecoach," said Buck, jumping to his feet.
Turning his attention to the healer, Chris pressed, "Nathan?"
"It wouldn't be easy on either of them," Nathan warned.
His voice softened by compassion, Josiah inquired, "Would it be harder on them than staying in the town that imprisoned them? Their bodies may heal, but not their minds."
The memory of haunted blue eyes making his chest ache, Chris didn't wait for Nathan's decision. "When's the next stage due?"
"According ta papers I found in the General Store," Buck explained, "day after tomorrow."
"Nathan, can you have them ready to travel by then?"
"I'll do what I can," Nathan agreed, obviously unhappy with the arrangement.
"You'll be going with them."
"There ain't much they kin do fer themselves. Vin can't even walk."
Realizing the two men would be too much for the healer to handle alone, Chris ordered, "Josiah will go with you, too. The rest of us will follow with the horses."
"Let's jus' hope Peso let's us take 'im out of that stall," Buck ruefully noted.
"Chris," Nathan shifted uncomfortably. "I think Vin would do better if you rode on the stagecoach with us."
Though well aware Nathan was right, Chris had wanted to avoid the truth. Every time he looked into Vin's empty eyes it hurt. It made him feel he had failed his friend. Every time he asked a question that was met with silence, it jangled his nerves. Right now, he needed to be away from Vin almost as much as he had needed to find him less than a week before. Certain no one could understand how he felt, he compromised, "We'll see how full the coach is."
Vin pretended not to notice the activity going on around him. Just like he ignored everything else. Or at least tried to. He'd taken care of himself since his Ma died. Now, he had to depend on his friends for everything. He couldn't feed himself, or even piss without help. The only way he had been able to endure the embarrassment was to divorce himself from the reality of his situation.
He knew Chris, in particular, was having difficulty being around him. He wanted to do something to make it easier on his friend, but he didn't know what he could do. . . so he did nothing.
They had revealed to him that the stagecoach would be arriving soon and that all of them, except Buck and JD, would be taking it to Four Corners. As Nathan spelled out their idea in detail, there was one thing Vin hadn't needed pointed out - how painful the journey would be. He wished he could ease the healer's fears, explain to him the physical pain of his injuries would be easier to endure than the mental. But he knew he wouldn't be believed.
He also knew his continued silence was frustrating and frightening his friends - all but Ezra. The gambler understood and never tried to force Vin to speak. Chris, on the other hand, was obviously becoming more and more uncomfortable in his presence. The gunslinger's visits were shorter and quieter. Vin regretted the estrangement. If he thought mere words could repair it, nothing could stop him from talking. But it wasn't the silence that was coming between them. It was something else, only Vin wasn't sure what it was.
"Time to go, Vin." Josiah threw back the blankets and bent to lift the injured man.
Vin closed his eyes, not to conceal his pain from his concerned friends, more to hide his shame at his helplessness. Would he ever be able to look these men in the eye again as an equal?
The stagecoach swayed wildly on the curvy road. Ezra put a hand to steady the slumped man sleeping against his shoulder. He envied Vin. Sleep was the only escape either of them had from the pain of the bouncing vehicle. When Vin bit through his bottom lip to suppress the cries of agony, Nathan had sedated the injured man with laudanum. Though he had fought it, the tracker had spent most of the ride in a drugged haze.
Ezra stared out of the coach window in an attempt to veil his face from probing eyes. His hands and chest burned and throbbed with an intensity that reminded him of the camp. He knew all he had to do was ask, and Nathan would provide him with the soothing drug. He resisted for two reasons. First, there wasn't much left after treating the survivors of that hellhole. Ezra wanted to be sure there would be enough for Vin.
Second, and admittedly his primary reason, Ezra didn't want to relinquish control of his life again. For him, and he suspected for Vin, the physical pain had been easier to endure than the loss of freedom. Being told where to go, when to eat, how much he could drink had been bad enough. But to sit and do nothing as friends died had been intolerable.
The stagecoach rolled to a stop to give the horses a short rest and the passengers a chance to stretch their legs. This span between Rippley and Four Corners was the longest without a relay station.
Ezra knew it would be a short reprieve. Once they continued, the excruciating pain would resume. But that was something else he had learned in the camp. Be grateful for any deferral from the pain and horror.
His voice low, Nathan offered, "Ezra, I'll take Vin so ya kin git out and walk around a bit."
"It's all right, Mr. Jackson," Ezra hastily interceded. "If you move him, he might wake up."
"Brother," Josiah appeased, "Vin wouldn't want you to sacrifice yourself for him."
Ezra winced, even as he agreed. Vin would sacrifice himself before he would allow another. He had proved that at the camp. "It's not much further to Four Corners," he argued. "I'll be fine."
With a reluctant nod of agreement, Nathan carefully stepped off the coach. Josiah followed on his heels. Chris had been riding up with the driver on the full stage. Certain the gunslinger would come to check on Vin, Ezra waited for him to appear. His wait was in vain.
Looking down at the bruised, pain-lined face pressed against his shoulder, Ezra wondered what could have come between the two men. In the camp, Ezra had been certain they would be rescued because of the bond existing between Larabee and Tanner. Now Chris seemed to avoid any contact with Vin, while Vin acted like it didn't matter.
A soft growl of rage slipped past Ezra's lips. Vin had been through enough in the last few weeks, he didn't need to be ostracized by his best friend. Ezra didn't care if he couldn't use the gun strapped to his waist. He would confront Chris Larabee, fast gun be damned. He owed it to Vin.
Vin stared out the window. In an attempt to take his mind off the pain, he tried to gauge where they were. Unless his memory was as faulty as the rest of his body, they were almost to Four Corners. Every time Nathan had poured the laudanum down his throat, Vin had fought the healer. Even among friends he could trust, he hated relinquishing what little control he had left of his life. Physical pain was so much easier to endure. But the only one who seemed to know how he felt was Ezra.
After his experience in Jericho, Chris should understand. Instead of the similar experiences bringing them closer together, it was coming between them. This hurt Vin more than any of his wounds.
The stagecoach slowed as it reached the edge of town. Vin closed his eyes, pretending to be asleep. The coach had only been stopped for a few minutes when he felt one of Josiah's arms circle his back and the other slide under his knees. Embarrassed, Vin tried to bury his face in the preacher's chest.
"It's all right, Vin," Josiah softly soothed. "No one's taking any notice."
Vin almost laughed in disbelief. The whole town treated the stagecoach's weekly arrival like it was a major event. Mary would be there to report on any new arrivals for her newspaper. Mrs. Potter was probably waiting for a special delivery, and Elmer Reynolds, the mail. Everyone would see Josiah carry him through town like he was a baby.
"We've stopped right below Mr. Jackson's clinic, Vin," Ezra whispered, seeming to read his friend's mind. "Mr. Larabee arranged it."
This information more than anything else eased Vin's troubled heart. Maybe Chris hadn't abandoned him? Maybe there was hope for their friendship?
Despite the reassurance, Vin kept his face hidden as his strong friend carried him up the stairs. If he saw even a flash of pity in anyone's eyes, he would never be able to walk these streets again. Never feel he could protect the people who had come to depend on him.
When Josiah finally lowered him onto a soft bed, Vin couldn't suppress a sigh made up of equal parts relief and agony. He was sorry he couldn't have been stronger when the preacher profusely apologized.
"I'm sorry, Vin."
Vin clutched a powerful forearm, hoping the feeble grip of his bandaged hand could convey his forgiveness and appreciation.
"Vin," Nathan said, "you've had a lot of laudanum the last few days. I'd rather not give you more right now, less'n ya really need it."
Vin nodded his head in understanding. It wasn't that he enjoyed being in pain, he just hated not being in control.
A sad smile on his face, Nathan interpreted, "You're sayin' yer fine."
A quick nod replied in the affirmative. Vin was surprised to realize his friends understood him so well. He had thought the closeness was something he had only shared with Larabee. While it was a bit frightening to find out it wasn't, it was also comforting. Especially now that he had driven Chris away.
Chris filled the shot glass with whiskey. Instead of swallowing the contents in a single gulp as he normally would have, he sat staring at the golden liquid. At this time of day, the saloon was almost empty, its few patrons had quickly deserted the premises after one look at his face. He didn't feel any remorse. Being alone was exactly what he wanted. Sometimes his reputation came in handy.
Sometimes it didn't.
According to the others, he was the leader. The group's strength. What a laugh. He couldn't even help his best friend. Instead of offering what support he could, he was avoiding what made him uncomfortable. Hiding out in a saloon ready to drown himself in a bottle of whiskey. What kind of leader did that make him?
His right hand slid towards his holstered weapon. By sheer force of will, Chris halted the motion. His anger flared as he watched his fingers tremble in a pool of spilled alcohol. Ezra Standish's behavior had often made Chris wonder if the man was a fool or had a death wish. When a chair scraped against the floor as it was pulled away from the table, he decided it was the latter.
"You can try to ignore me, Mr. Larabee, however I will not retreat."
Glaring at the spilled liquor, Chris realized he didn't want the gambler to go away. In fact, Chris was glad he was here. Raising his head, he caught Ezra's eyes with his own. "What happened in that camp? Why won't Vin talk?"
"Unlike some," Ezra stared pointedly back, "I am incapable of deciphering Mr. Tanner's mind."
"OK," Chris conceded, changing tactics. "Then why wouldn't you talk when we first rescued you?"
Ezra broke eye contact, shifting his gaze to his bandaged hands. "I felt guilty."
"I knew Vin's greatest fear was being incarcerated in that cage."
"They had the guns. You couldn't have stopped them."
"When the bridge collapsed, I discovered Mr. Tanner's rope was still attached to a segment that hadn't fallen into the canyon. I coerced some of the other prisoners into lowering me down to attempt a rescue."
"That was very brave."
Continuing as if he hadn't heard the praise, Ezra's voice cracked, "I knew Vin was badly hurt. And, I knew if I brought him up the guards would place him in that receptacle. If I had been his friend, I would've let him fall to his death."
"That's not a friend," Chris contradicted with certainty. "It's because you were a real friend that he survived. A friend sometimes knows us better than we know ourselves."
Self-loathing twisting his face, Ezra growled, "I didn't save Vin because I was afraid of you. I certainly didn't save him because it was what he wanted. I was being selfish. I saved him because I couldn't have lived with myself otherwise."
A wagon rumbled down the street drowning out all other sounds. Chris waited for it to pass, knowing what he had to say would be important to the gambler's peace of mind. "Seems like a good reason ta me."
"How can you say that after seeing what he did to himself inside that edifice?" The horror in Ezra's voice was reflected on his face.
"We can't help him if he's dead."
Ezra nodded agreement, his unfocused gaze on the whiskey bottle in front of the gunslinger. "We can't help him sitting in a saloon, either."
A genuine smile curved Chris' lips. Pushing his chair back, he rose. "Good point, let's go."
"I believe you would be more effective without my presence."
Chris had been trying to avoid Vin the last few days, but even with short contact, he had seen the trust and mutual affection that had developed between the tracker and the gambler. If he was going to get through to Vin, it would only be with Ezra's support. Standing behind the younger man's chair, Chris pulled it out and helped the weak occupant to his feet. "I don't."
His hands burned, his feet and arm throbbed, and his chest felt like Josiah was sitting on it. Vin knew he could stop his suffering. He wouldn't even have to use his voice, Nathan had become adept at reading his eyes. One look and the healer would give him some laudanum. Why was he being so stubborn? Was it pride? Did he even have any left?
The floorboards rattled as a heavy weight crossed over them. There was no soft clang of spurs accompanying the footsteps. When Nathan sat in the chair next to his bed, Vin kept his eyes closed, hiding the pain of his injuries and the ache in his heart. He'd learned at the age of five not to trust anyone but himself.
"Vin," Nathan softly explained, "I'm gonna put some ointment on them burns."
Unlike Ezra, Vin had been careful to keep his sleeves down protecting his arms from the harsh rays of the desert sun. But without his hat, there had been nothing to shield his face and neck, or stop the chaffing of the rope that had been tied around his waist. Vin welcomed the cooling sensation as his tender skin soaked up the healing lotion. He felt bad that he couldn't thank Nathan for the soothing relief. Lord knows, he owed the man a couple thousand heartfelt thanks.
He started to relax under the comforting ministration when he heard footsteps on the stairs leading to the clinic. This time, they were accompanied by the familiar jingle he associated with Larabee. Tensing, he pulled away from Nathan and opened his eyes, unwilling to appear helpless in front of the gunslinger. Maybe he had some pride left after all?
Larabee entered the small room first, followed closely by Ezra. Vin relaxed slightly when he saw the gambler. He knew his reaction was the reverse of what it would have been a few weeks ago. He couldn't understand why. It wasn't a surprise that what he and Ezra had endured had brought them closer together. But why had it worked the opposite with Chris?
A tentative smile of greeting on his face, Nathan rose. "Do ya need somethin', Chris?"
"Just ta talk ta Vin. Is he up fer it?"
Stepping away, Nathan suggested, "Why don't ya ask him?"
Anger flashed across Larabee's face. A hand on his arm banked the fire.
"Mr. Tanner may not talk with his voice," Ezra quietly explained. "However, he is quite capable of communicating."
Vin's nerves were stretched to the breaking point. He was relieved to see Ezra's words had cooled the gunslinger's ire. He didn't feel up to dealing with the Larabee temper.
Taking the seat Nathan had vacated, Chris took off his hat, spinning it nervously in his hands.
Unable to take his eyes off the unusual display, Vin realized this was the first time in their acquaintance he had seen Chris Larabee nervous. He wasn't sure if it was something that should make him feel happy or sad.
"I'm sorry, Vin."
Vin hadn't known what to expect when the gunslinger entered the room. But an apology hadn't been high on his list.
"I thought you weren't talkin' 'cause you were mad at me. That I had let ya down. Ezra set me straight." His hands stopping in mid-motion, Chris shifted his gaze to his injured friend. "It don't matter ta me if ya never talk again. I jus' want ya ta git better."
There was a sincerity in the green eyes Vin couldn't miss. His throat closed around the grief that had threatened to choke him since the bridge collapsed. For this man and for the other five who had shown him such compassion, he knew he had to work past it. In a voice made raspier than usual from disuse, he admitted, "I saw his face as he fell."
"Whose face?" Chris quietly demanded, unable to hide his shock.
If Vin hadn't been so tormented, he would've enjoyed the older man's astonished appearance.
On the heels of Larabee's inquiry, Ezra gasped, "Oh, my God."
"Ezra?" Larabee's gaze shifted from the tracker to the gambler.
Ezra's mouth opened and closed several times before he looked away. A single tear rolled down his cheek.
Obviously shaken by the gambler's rare emotional display, Chris glanced back at Tanner. "Vin?"
Though his eyes were fixed on his friend, Vin wasn't seeing him. He was envisioning a gentle man with a stutter and a fear of heights. "When a hanger got killed, the guards ordered Ted ta take his place. I knew Ted was afraid of heights, so I offered ta take the job. Ted was on the section of the bridge that collapsed. I saw his face as he fell past me."
The devastated look on Vin's face tore at Chris, making him bury his own anguish at the revelation. "You were tryin' ta help him."
"I made him live his greatest fear."
For a moment, Chris almost wished Vin hadn't started talking again. Then his stomach wouldn't be threatening to empty its contents, and he wouldn't be searching for a way to console his friend. "Ezra told us bein' a hanger was the hardest job. You got less time to rest, and most of your water rations spilled on the way down to ya."
"There weren't no good chores in that place."
Shuddering at the dead timbre in the whispery voice, Chris pressed on. "What I'm sayin' is, ya couldn't have known the bridge would collapse."
"We all knew it," Vin contradicted in the same lifeless tone.
"Ya didn't know where or when," Chris insisted, putting a hand on a trembling arm. "You are no more responsible for Ted's death than you are for any of the other prisoners who died out there. The men who are liable, are sitting in jail in Clark City waiting for their trial."
"He was so scared." Vin sighed.
"As were we all, Mr. Tanner," Ezra quietly reminded. "As were we all."
Though he now understood why Vin had found it so difficult to talk, Chris was at a loss as to how to help his friend. Understanding the reason didn't give him any insight into how to take the pain away. "You did what you thought was right, Vin. I'm sure Ted appreciated your sacrifice."
"He did," Ezra confirmed.
"Sacrifice?" growled Vin, ignoring the gambler. "I'm alive and he's dead. What did I sacrifice?"
"You tell me." Chris held his breath as he waited for an answer. Looking into the tortured blue eyes, he knew this was where Vin would come back to them - or be lost forever. They had freed his body from that cage but not his soul.
It was so quiet in the room, Chris was certain Ezra and Nathan had stopped breathing. Now he wished he had let Josiah steer the conversation. He was certain the preacher would have done a better job.
Positive he hadn't heard the softly spoken reply correctly, Chris stuttered, "W-what?"
"I didn't sacrifice nothing. I had nothing to give him."
"You're wrong," Chris contradicted, gently rubbing the arm beneath his hand. "You gave him your friendship. There is nothing more precious to me."
"And me," Ezra quickly added.
"And me," Nathan and Josiah echoed.
This time, when Vin looked at him, Chris saw peace in the troubled gaze.
"You're pretty good at this guilt stuff," Vin noted.
Thinking back on the years of remorse he had experienced over Sarah's and Adam's deaths, Chris admitted, "I should be."
"Perhaps Mr. Sanchez could correct me if I'm wrong," Ezra said. "I believe there's a quote in the Bible that pertains to this situation superbly –"
"Greater love hath no man than this," Josiah recited, continuing when he received a nod of confirmation from the gambler, "that a man lay down his life for his friends."
Stepping into the cool gloom of the saloon, Chris paused, allowing his sun-blinded eyes to adjust. A beer would go a long way to quenching the desert in his mouth and throat. Finally able to see, he crossed to the table in the back corner. It was the only one where he could keep his back to the wall and his eyes on the entrances. A place where he could relax, at least a little.
With a tired sigh, he leaned back in his chair silently acknowledging the other occupant at the table, Nathan Jackson. Inez appeared at the gunslinger's shoulder with a beer in hand. Placing it in front of him, she returned to the bar. Not a single word passed anyone's lips.
Chris had drained half his drink before he realized something was bothering the healer. "Nathan, what's wrong?"
"Vin and Ezra ain't eating."
"Yeah," Chris nodded, "I noticed. They're embarrassed. They hate having to be fed like they were babies."
"Once they kin feed themselves, they'll eat normal again."
"If they live that long."
Fear quickly replaced Chris' nonchalant attitude, making him sit up. "What do you mean?"
"Their bodies need nourishment to heal."
"Which they aren't givin' 'em?"
Nathan answered the diagnosis with an unhappy sigh.
"What're ya gonna do?" Chris tentatively pressed.
"The only thing I can do, take the bandages off their hands."
"Will that be such a bad thing?"
Nathan swallowed the remainder of his beer in one long gulp. "It's too soon. Their hands could end up with permanent damage."
Now Chris understood why Nathan was in the saloon drinking alone. His hand shaking, Chris picked up his own mug and drained it. He glanced at the bar, tempted to ask Inez to bring him a bottle of whiskey. Too bad he'd found out a few days ago that he couldn't drown his worries in alcohol.
With the tip of his raw fingers, Ezra nervously picked at the frayed edges of the bandages wrapped around his hands. Soon he would know if he would have to seek a new profession. He couldn't be a gambler if he couldn't handle a deck of cards, or a peacekeeper if he couldn't hold a gun. To his consternation, he realized he would miss the latter position more than the former. His mother would be horrified if she discovered he had been corrupted by his associates.
Even more surprising was how little the prospect bothered him. He was far more concerned with performing the simpler tasks in life, like feeding himself or holding a beer glass. Just a few short weeks ago, he had taken so much for granted. While he wanted to think he never would again, he knew enough about human nature to know that wasn't true.
"You first, Ezra."
As Nathan sat in front of him with a small knife, Ezra glanced across the clinic to the bed in the corner. The occupant was shrouded in deep shadow, but Ezra didn't need to see Vin's face to know how the tracker was feeling. There was little doubt they were experiencing the same emotion - dread.
"If this hurts at all, let me know," Nathan pleaded.
"I assure you," Ezra encouraged, "I will."
Layer by layer the gauze was unwound and cut off. For the first time in weeks, blood flowed freely through the once damaged veins. Ezra bit his lip to redirect the pain. He hadn't intended to deliberately deceive the healer. However, he also wasn't prepared to wait any longer to know his fate. If he professed his agony, Nathan might decide to postpone the unveiling. Ezra was willing to endure a little discomfort to know the truth about his future.
"Done." Nathan sat back in his chair.
Ezra stared at the scarred, unnaturally white flesh. It almost seemed as though the appendage belonged to someone else.
"Try wiggling yer fingers," Nathan instructed. "Only a little."
Surprised by the fear that gripped him, Ezra fought it back to comply with Nathan's request. He winced and took a deep calming breath as pain coursed from his wrist to his fingertips. It all seemed unimportant when his fingers responded to the commands from his brain.
"Yer hands are still gonna hurt fer a while," Nathan warned, patting him on the shoulder. "Them muscles were pretty tore up. But if'n ya do what I tell ya, you'll be cheatin' at cards in a couple of weeks."
Without conscious thought, Ezra indignantly snapped, "An artisan with my skills has no need to resort to dishonest methods to prevail."
Smiling, Nathan rose. Lighting a lantern, he carried it to the darkest corner of the room. "Yer turn, Vin."
His own worries forgotten, Ezra watched anxiously as Nathan repeated his ministrations on his other patient. There was no expression on Vin's face, but Ezra knew the tracker was just as scared as he had been. Possibly even more. Unable to use his hands or feet, Vin was as helpless as a newborn baby. To regain even a modicum of control over his own body would go a long way to raising the injured man's spirits. And, consequently his friends.
"Just try ta wiggle yer fingers a little, Vin," Nathan prompted, "like Ezra did."
When nothing happened, Ezra felt his relief evaporate like water in the desert. His own fortuitous healing would mean very little if Vin was not equally as blessed.
"It's all right, Vin." Though Nathan's words were reassuring, his voice didn't hold the same optimism. "The muscles are tight, it may take a while longer ta loosen 'em up."
Ezra could see sweat beading on the younger man's face as he ignored the healer and continued to try to bend his fingers. Despite his vast vocabulary, Ezra couldn't find a single word he thought might give his friend hope.
The little finger on the right hand moved.
The motion was so infinitesimal, Ezra at first thought it was wishful thinking on his part. Then, the index finger wiggled. Ezra quickly turned his face away to hide the tears pooling in his eyes. They had beat the odds - again.
Following Nathan back into the clinic, Chris enviously watched the healer crawl back into his cot. A yawn stretching his mouth until his jaw cracked, Chris pulled two blankets off Vin's bed and carried them out onto the porch.
Still embarrassed by his weakness, Vin would only allow them to carry him outside in the early hours of the morning, before most people in town were awake. The moment the town started coming to life, Vin would insist on returning to his sickbed. Knowing those few hours in the open air was the best medicine his patient could get, Nathan had reluctantly agreed.
Throwing one of the blankets across Vin's lap, Chris wrapped the other around the frail shoulders. Now that he could use of one of his hands to eat, Vin was finally putting on a little weight, but he still had a long way to go before he came close to where he had been before his fateful trip.
The early morning nip in the air snapping at his exposed flesh, Chris carefully tucked the blanket across Vin's chest and stomach. Straightening the lap robe, he wrapped it around the thin legs.
"Chris," Vin softly chastised, "stop fussin'."
Making a few last unnecessary adjustments so it wouldn't appear as though he was taking orders from the tracker, Chris growled, "I'll make ya a deal, you put some meat on them bones, and I'll stop fussin'."
"When Nathan says yer fine, then I'll believe it."
"You callin' me a liar, Cowboy?"
Hurt was clearly audible in the raspy voice. Wincing, Chris shook his head. "I jus' think your definition of fine is different from Nathan's. And I agree more with Nathan's."
"If it's up ta Nathan, I'll be spendin' another month in that bed." A hand peeked out from beneath the covers to point toward the clinic.
Quickly repositioning the blanket, Chris sat in the chair next to Vin. A heavy sigh emptied his lungs. "Vin, yer mind and body have been through a lot. They ain't gonna heal in a few weeks."
"I hate bein' helpless," an anguished Vin whispered.
"I know ya do, pard."
"So what do I do about it?"
"Live with it," Chris gently reminded. "There's only one alternative. None of us, least of all Nathan, is gonna let ya die. You've been through so much already, ya can't give up now."
Vin laid his head back against his chair and closed his eyes. "I want to."
"What makes ya so sure?"
"Yer a Tanner."
"I reckon ya think ya know me pretty well." A corner of Vin's mouth curved into a half-smile.
Putting a hand on a thin shoulder, Chris gently squeezed. "I'm gettin' there."
Opening his eyes, Vin glared at the gunslinger. "Then ya know not ta ask me ta ever go ta Yuma again."
"I know," Chris sadly agreed. "Nobody is. From now on, they kin come and git their own damn prisoners."
Vin nodded. "Sounds good ta me."