Characters: Vin, Buck, Chris
Reining in his horse with one hand, he reached for his canteen with the other and took a long draw of the sun-heated water. The liquid soothed his dry throat but did little to quench his desire for something stronger. Wiping his sweat-dampened forehead with a dirty sleeve, he squinted, bringing the wavy silhouette of distant buildings into focus.
Dressed head to toe in black, he felt the sweltering heat in every pore. Hot rays pounded his head, making it ache. Driving his heels against his mount’s side, he urged it forward. While not yet ready to terminate his crusade, he desperately needed a respite. Maybe in this town, he would find it. There had to be some oasis unsullied by southern devils. Though he longed to find this paradise and settle down, he had a mission. His dead brothers screamed for him to administer their revenge, the retribution they were unable to attain themselves. Their voices gave him the strength to continue his quest. Franklin Turner was not a man to renege on a promise.
Buck Wilmington flopped into the chair in front of the saloon. He wanted to pace, but to do so would reveal his displeasure. He refused to give Chris Larabee the satisfaction of knowing how much his rejection hurt. If the fool was willing to unreservedly trust a murderer, Buck wouldn’t stand in his way. However, he also wasn’t willing to let Vin Tanner cover his back and fill it with lead.
As his anger cooled, Buck’s puzzlement intensified. They only had Chris’ conviction Vin had been framed for the murder of Jess Kincaid. While the scruffy tracker’s word was apparently enough for Larabee, it wasn’t sufficient reassurance for Buck. Thus, he had suggested Vin be accompanied on his patrols until they could be sure the wanted man wouldn’t back out on his duties. Chris rejected the proposal without thought or hesitation. Feeling betrayed, Buck had slammed down his half-finished beer and stormed from the saloon. This chair was as far as he would permit his temper to carry him. He and Chris had been friends for too long to allow a stranger to come between them. The gunslinger would come to his senses. Buck wanted to be close by when he did.
The crack in Buck’s heart ebbed. JD would commiserate and stand at his side. “Whaddya want, JD?”
“Ya didn’t really mean it when ya said you didn’t trust Vin, did ya?”
The crack grew wider than ever. “Ya think I said it cause I like ta hear myself talk?”
“I jus’ don’t understand,” the boy nervously pressed, taking off his bowler and rolling the brim through trembling fingers. “After what he done savin’ Nathan’s life, at the Seminole village and at Stuart James’ place, I don’t see how ya kin think Vin would run out on us.”
“It’s hard ta depend on someone you’ve only known a few days.”
“Does that mean ya can’t rely on me, or Nathan, or Josiah? How about Ezra, he did run out on us?”
“You all ain’t got a price on yer heads.”
“Vin was framed.”
“So he says. Ya got any proof?”
JD frowned and shook his head. “Guess I don’t need none.”
“Well I do.”
“I’m sorry fer ya.” JD turned to reenter the saloon. One hand on a batwing door, he shoved it with an unnecessary force making it swing violently. Twisting on his heel, he crossed to the jail.
Buck sadly watched the young boy enter the sheriff’s office. He knew he had disappointed the naive easterner. The discovery hurt more than he was willing to acknowledge. Snorting derisively, he realized he was two for two, first Chris, now JD. The admission made his heart ache, but didn’t change how he felt.
What was there about Tanner that made Chris unconditionally trust him? That made him willing to abandon twelve years of friendship? Buck reluctantly admitted to himself, he hadn’t spent much time with Vin, he’d been too busy renewing his friendship with Chris and watching out for JD.
Over a year had passed since he had last seen Larabee and they had exchanged angry words and matching black eyes. Buck honestly never expected to see his friend again. Certainly not any semblance of the Chris Larabee he had known before Sarah and Adam were murdered.
Yet, when he rolled off the roof a few days ago and landed at Chris’ feet, he had immediately detected the difference in his friend. It had made him so happy, Chris could have asked him to walk through fire and he would’ve done it. Then, this stranger in a buckskin coat with a Mare’s Leg strapped to his hip, appeared, standing at Chris’ shoulder looking like he belonged there.
In the following days, Buck’s impression of the young interloper altered with his mood. He’d felt sympathy when he realized Vin was much younger than he had originally believed. A lifetime of experience shone from the bright blue eyes, making Buck feel like an adolescent. Vin was obviously a man with a history. A past that could place those around him in jeopardy. Though he was angry with Chris and JD for not realizing this fact, Buck wasn’t willing to see either of them get hurt, physically or emotionally. A man with a five hundred dollar price on his head made himself and those around him targets.
And if Vin was guilty of murder, who was to say he wouldn’t kill again? Or take off when he was most needed? Chris had warned Ezra not to run out on him. Why couldn’t he at least caution Vin?
His brain formulating arguments to persuade the others to listen to reason, Buck stared sightlessly down the bustling street. His mind registered a rider dressed in black, mounted on a black horse. For a moment, he wondered how Chris had gotten out of the saloon without being seen. When he realized the stranger was much stockier than his friend, he focused his full attention on the rider and allowed his hand to rest on the butt of his pistol.
“Buck Wilmington, is that you?” The cowboy reined in a few feet away.
Squinting against the bright sun haloing the black hat and framing the face in shadow, Buck slowly rose and took a step to the side, allowing him to put a name to the familiar voice. “Frank Turner? You ol’ son-of-a-gun.” Buck jumped off the porch and crossed to his old comrade, shaking the offered hand. “I thought ya went back ta Indiana. Whaddya doin’ out here?”
“Whoever said ya can’t go home again was right.”
Buck was surprised by the bitterness dripping off every word. Despite the depravities they had seen in the war, Frank had always been optimistic, even after the devastating losses at Spotsylvania and Gettysburg. Forcing a smile, the ladies’ man slapped a dust-covered leg. “Let’s git yer horse taken care of and then I’ll buy ya a drink. Ya ain’t gonna believe who else is here.”
Long after Buck and JD stomped out of the saloon, Chris stared at the whisky rippling gently in the shot glass sitting in front of him. He knew he hurt his old friend with his uncompromising loyalty to Vin. He had been surprised to find Buck’s usually tender heart inflexible when it came to the tracker. His head warned him he should heed Buck’s advice. They had nothing but Vin’s word he had been framed. Yet, it was all Chris needed.
Though it felt like years it was only a few days ago he had watched with mild interest while irrate drovers dragged a black man from the room above the livery stable onto a wagon. The victim was a healer, who had failed to save their boss. The color of his skin and his inability to bring a dead man back to life had been reason enough to hang him. Only one person in the entire town had tried to stop the travesty. She was knocked off her feet and her shotgun plucked from her hands.
Chris had watched, his conscience torn until his gaze lifted to connect with the determined blue eyes of a young man loading a rifle. A spark of life ignited inside him. He hadn’t needed words to trust the younger man to watch his back. Without hesitation, he stepped out into the street, knowing he would not be alone when he faced the murderous cowhands. It had been over a year since someone had walked at his side. And the first time in three years he felt alive.
Throwing back a shot of whisky, Chris savored the taste as it rolled over his tongue and down his throat. Without looking at the man sitting to his left, he asked, “Do ya think Buck’s right, Nathan?”
Jackson’s long agile fingers played with the handle of his beer mug. “Vin saved my life. I don’t reckon a man guilty of murder is gonna risk ‘is life fer a stranger, a black man ta boot.”
Why can’t Buck see that?” Chris sighed and refilled his glass.
“Brother Buck is worried about you.”
Shocked, Chris shifted his gaze to let it rest on Josiah Sanchez. “Worried about me?
“After believing in no one for three years,” Josiah softly explained, “you have complete faith in a man you know nothing about. A man accused of murder.”
Chris ran a finger around the rim of his glass. He’d know these two men less than a week. Yet, he trusted them, not just with his life, but with his feelings. Something he had never thought would be possible again. However, there was still only one man he entrusted with his soul. Buck had seen it the minute Vin had crossed to stand at his side.
“Trust one who has gone through it,” the preacher softly quoted.
A half smile curved Chris’ lips. Obviously, his new compatriots understood him better than he understood himself. “Amen, Brother,” Chris softly acknowledged.
The sound of the batwing doors swinging open drew Chris’ attention. In his profession, he’d learned to keep his back to the wall and always check anyone who entered the room. He wasn’t surprised to see it was a smiling Buck. The man was incapable of holding a grudge - unless you tried to hurt someone he cared about. However, Chris was stunned to see the black-clad figure following on the ladies’ man’s heels. Slowly rising to his feet, he walked around the table, his shocked gaze never leaving the other man’s face. “Frank?”
“Buck said he had a surprise fer me,” the newcomer gasped, “but I never thought it would be you, Major.”
Though similar in dress the two men were far different in build. Chris felt as though he was being swallowed as Turner engulfed him in a welcoming hug. A mild case of panic consumed him, making him push against the barrel chest. Gaining his release, he quickly took a few steps back. To cover his unease, he introduced his companions. “Frank, I’d like ya ta meet some friends, Nathan Jackson and Josiah Sanchez.”
As the men exchanged handshakes, Chris quickly returned to his seat, waving a hand at the bartender. “Sit down boys, I’ll buy the next round.”
“You always were the best commanding officer in the whole damn army,” Frank praised, taking the chair next to Nathan.
Wiping beer foam from his top lip, Nathan probed, “I take it you all fought in the war together?”
“‘62 ta ‘64,” Buck revealed, “‘til Frank here went ‘nd got hisself captured at Cold Harbor.”
“He got tired of listenin’ ta Buck’s stories,” Chris quipped, the smile on his lips not reaching his eyes.
Turner threw back a shot of whiskey and immediately poured himself another from Chris’ bottle. “Got a lot more tired of the stories I heard in Andersonville.”
“You were a prisoner in Andersonville?” Nathan sympathized.
“I sure weren’t no guard,” Frank bitterly snapped.
Though disturbed by the sarcastic response Chris didn’t say anything, hoping Nathan would see the lack of censor as a sign of support.
After a quick glance at Larabee, an obviously relieved Nathan explained, “It’s jist I know somethin’ of prison camps. I tried ta help at Elmira.”
Chris wasn’t sure what astonished him more, the rage twisting Frank’s features until they were almost unrecognizable, or the discovery that Nathan had assisted confederate prisoners. He knew little to nothing of these men he had agreed to lead. Clearly, he better become accustomed to surprises.
“I’m a healer,” Nathan clarified. “I tried ta help the wounded and sick.”
“Ya shoulda let the murdering bastards die.” Frank spit on the floor, showing his disgust.
“Many of them did,” Nathan sadly murmured, staring blindly at his drink. “Most wouldn’t let a black man touch ‘em. Some who did, were so far gone, I didn’t have the medicine or the skills ta save ‘em.”
Though moved by Nathan’s account, Chris’ eyes automatically went to the batwing doors upon hearing them swing open. When he saw Vin and JD enter, he couldn’t think of a worse time the Texan could have chosen to arrive. Buck’s enmity had been bad enough, but combined with Frank’s open hostility towards his former enemies, Chris felt as though he was sitting on a powder keg. “Frank,” Chris softly presented, “I’d like ya ta meet two more of the men who help ta keep the peace in Four Corners. The scruffy lookin’ one is Vin Tanner and the one in the bowler hat is JD Dunne.”
“Who ya callin’ scruffy, cowboy?” Vin mockingly scolded, offering his hand to Turner. When it wasn’t accepted, his gaze rested quizzically on Larabee.
Chris wasn’t pleased by the snub. It also wasn’t unexpected. Hoping to avert further trouble, he suggested, “Sit down, boys, I’m buyin’.”
When Vin pulled out the chair next to Josiah, Frank rose. “Where ya from, boy?” His eyes rested on JD, before shifting to Vin.
“I’m from Boston,” JD readily supplied, the frown creasing his brow showing his confusion.
Frank glared at Vin. “And you?”
It was clear Frank hadn’t needed the confirmation. The tracker’s slow drawl had already provided the answer. “You were a thievin’ reb.”
“The war’s over, Frank.” Chris quickly rose, ready to defend Vin if it became necessary. “It don’t matter what anyone was, it only matters what they are now.”
Switching his smoldering gaze to Larabee, Turner snarled, “I wonder if you’d be sayin’ that if’n you had been in Andersonville?”
“Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times? Jesus saith unto him I say not unto thee, until seven times: but until seventy times seven.” Josiah softly recited.
“How much forgiveness would ya find in yer heart, Mr. Sanchez after seeing yer friends starved and tortured?”
“We can’t change the past, brother,” Josiah gently counseled. “We can only keep history from repeating itself.”
Fists clenched, Turner stared at the wall above Josiah’s head. “It’s been a long day. I think I’ll find myself a room and turn in.”
“I’ll show ya around,” Buck offered. He was halfway out of his seat when a hand pushed him back down.
“I kin take care of myself,” Frank reassured. A sneer on his lips as he regarded Vin, he suggested, “Why don’t ya stay and have a drink with yer friends?”
As he watched Turner walk out of the saloon, Chris realized Frank had the same face and the same build as the soldier who had fought at his side in battle after battle. But he wasn’t the same man. The Frank Turner he had known had compassion and forbearance. This man was a stranger.
“Ya jus’ had ta cause trouble, didn’t ya, Vin?” Buck snapped, pushing his half finished beer so hard the liquid sloshed over the rim, splashing on to the table.
Staring down the older man’s glare there was sadness in Vin’s eyes as he mildly pointed out, “I can’t change where I was born.”
“Buck, lay off,” Chris ordered. “It’s not Vin’s fault Frank hasn’t stopped fighting the war.”
“So yer taking his side again.” Buck angrily waved a hand at the tracker.
“I’m not taking anyone’s side.”
“Then what do ya call it?”
Sighing heavily, Chris sat and leaned back in his chair. “We already fought the war once. I don’t want ta fight it again.” Catching Buck’s eyes with his own, he gently insisted, “I don’t think you want to either.”
It was always easy to read Buck’s emotions, they were telegraphed across his face. It was clear he agreed with what Chris said, but he wasn’t willing to betray a man he had fought beside for two years.
For the second time in less than an hour, Buck rose to his feet his face twisted with hurt, eyes misty with betrayal. “Unlike some, I don’t desert my friends.”
Anger swamped the sorrow the despondent face had invoked. Green daggers drilled into the ladies’ man. Chris could see what was happening. Buck was trying to force his hand. Make him choose one friend over the other. It was not a choice Chris found difficult to make. Yet, he was unwilling to verbalize his decision. Despite his indignation, he wouldn’t publicly humiliate Buck, nor could he deliberately hurt him.
“So that’s the way it is,” Buck whispered, disappointment allaying his wrath.
“That’s the way,” Chris acknowledged with alacrity, astonished that Buck knew his decision without verbal confirmation. Buck wasn’t usually so intuitive. Chris felt a pain in the vicinity of his heart. Despite, or maybe because of their history, Buck should have known what his answer would be. Still, Chris knew better than anyone how strong emotions could prevent someone from thinking straight. He just had to hope Buck would regain control before he did something he would regret.
Standing at the top of the stairs, Ezra looked down into the saloon below. He carefully inspected the faces of the patrons, first to see if there might be someone who bore a grudge, second to identify the easy marks. While he enjoyed the challenge of a game of chance, he preferred the odds to be in his favor.
As he slowly descended the crude staircase, he was surprised to find himself feeling wistful. Here, in Eagle Bend, he wouldn’t enjoy the autonomy he had so recently attained in Four Corners. There was no one here to watch his back. He could almost believe his association with Larabee and the others had been a dream. Never in his life had he experienced a consanguinity with anyone. To find such a relationship with six relative strangers was still hard for him to comprehend or accept.
Thus, his compulsion to escape their presence. He needed to reevaluate where he was going and who he would be going there with. This was something he couldn’t do in the figurative bosom of his comrades. News of a momentous poker game in Eagle Bend, couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment. It wasn’t difficult to get Vin to agree to take his patrols. The tracker actually seemed to enjoy riding the godforsaken countryside. With everything covered, Larabee had reluctantly consented to give Ezra a few days off.
Which was another source of irritation to the gambler and a major reason why he was contemplating his future. He had never answered to anyone but himself - and occasionally his mother. Now, not only was he subjecting himself to the whims of a man he knew practically nothing about, but five other men as well. One of them wanted for murder.
Strangely, the latter revelation hadn’t troubled Ezra. There was something about Vin Tanner that had made him implicitly trust the tracker, despite the evidence against him. If he rode out, Ezra would miss that faith; just as he would miss Josiah’s offbeat humor, Buck’s gregariousness, JD’s enthusiasm and Nathan’s compassion. He would, he supposed, even miss the Larabee glare, notwithstanding the number of times it had been directed his way.
Confused, Ezra realized he needed to clear his head. The best way to do that was in the complexity of a poker game.
Walking up to a table with an empty chair, he grinned, revealing his gold tooth. “Gentlemen, may I join you?”
This time, Buck didn’t stop outside the saloon to allow his anger to dissipate. Chris hadn’t expressed in words that he would choose Vin’s friendship over Buck’s. He hadn’t needed too. To others, Chris’ face was an emotionless mask. To Buck, the chiseled features were as easy to read as a book. Such familiarity had become a necessity during the war, a convenience after.
The sun slipped below the horizon, wrapping the mountains in a crimson halo. Locked in his distress, Buck watched the sunset, never really seeing its fiery beauty as he softly swore at Larabee. He hadn’t done this much soul searching since the day he understood what his mother’s profession entailed. The strange thing was he liked Vin, he just didn’t trust him. If he forced Chris to choose between them, he would lose. It was a difficult truth for him to grasp. More than twelve years of friendship; of watching each other’s back; assuaging each others’ heartache, was to be pushed aside to allow another to take his place.
Buck’s vision blurred as his eyes filled with tears. For the sake of their friendship, he had left Chris once before when nothing he said or did could ease the gunslinger’s destructive grief. Though he desperately tried to find another solution Buck realized he might have to leave again, or chance doing irreparable harm to the relationship they shared.
Angrily wiping a dirty sleeve across his eyes, he turned away barely glancing at the sliver of red streaking the horizon, and made his way to the hotel. Discovering Frank’s location, he slowly climbed the stairs, giving his ravaging emotions time to bury themselves in the holes he had dug when he was a child. It had not been easy growing up the "son of a whore."
When he was back in control, he stopped at the room number he had been given and knocked. “Frank, it’s me, Buck.”
The door slowly swung open. Turner hadn’t lit a lamp, leaving himself and the room in deep shadow. “I was just about to turn in, Buck.”
“I jist wanted ta check on ya,” Buck explained, frowning. The man still wore his coat, boots, hat and guns, making his words a lie.
“I’m fine, I’ll see ya in the mornin’.”
Buck put a hand up to keep the door from closing in his face. “That was another reason I stopped by. I got mornin’ patrol, so I won’t be back ‘til around noon.”
“Whaddya do on these patrols?”
There was a spark of interest in the deep voice that puzzled Buck. “I jus’ ride out ta some of the out lying ranches and make sure everythin’s all right.”
“Do ya ride alone?”
“Mind if I come with ya?”
The request destroyed the distrust Buck had felt niggling at his mind. Riding the patrol together would give them a chance to get reacquainted - and, give Buck the opportunity to test a new direction. When Frank was ready to ride out, Buck decided he might just go with him. It would make leaving Larabee a little easier. “See ya at the livery at dawn.”
Hiding his excitement, Frank closed the door in Buck’s face. When he heard the big man’s heavy footsteps descend the stairs, he threw the lock. Satisfied no one could invade his sanctuary, he returned to his vigil at the window.
When his prey emerged from the saloon, he pushed the sheer curtain aside to get a better look. This man’s crimes were double those who had come before him. Not only was he a Reb, he dared to ingratiate himself with two men Frank respected. Two men who had fought at his side to squash these demons.
Vin Tanner must suffer for his sins, as no man had suffered before him.
Weary to the bone, Buck pulled the saddle off his horse and hung it on its rack. The ‘morning’ patrol had lasted most of the day. Frank had insisted on checking every unusual formation, every abandoned dwelling, anything that caught his eye. Buck estimated they had traversed twice the territory he normally would have covered.
Buck’s misery had known no bounds when Nettie Wells invited them to lunch and Frank refused. Before the famished ladies’ man could stammer a protest, Turner had already kicked his horse into a slow canter. Loyalty quelling his hunger, Buck had ridden after him even though his stomach felt as though his throat had been cut. No longer able to growl in protest, it ached incessantly, throbbing in cadence with his head.
“I’ll see ya later, Buck.”
Astonished to see Frank had already brushed and grained his horse, Buck felt compelled to inquire, “When?”
“The saloon tonight. I guess I owe ya a couple drinks after makin’ ya ride all over creation.”
Though the smile on Turner’s face lacked sincerity, Buck returned it. “I’m thinkin’ ya owe me more n’ two.”
“You got it.” With a wave of his hand, Frank walked out of the stable.
As his heavy arms brushed the sweat and dust from his mount’s hide, Buck realized one good thing had come out of the tiring day. If he rode away from Four Corners - and Chris, he would be riding alone. Frank wasn’t the man he remembered. With a sad shake of his head, Buck realized he wasn’t the same man Turner had known. No one could live through a war and come out of it unchanged.
Vin smiled as he watched a cowboy cross the street rather than walk in front of the glaring Larabee. Sitting outside the saloon, the gunslinger’s countenance screamed anger, warning everyone to stay clear.
Vin Tanner wasn’t everyone.
He saw fear flash across more than one citizen’s face as he pulled a chair next to his friend and sat down. Amused, he knew anyone watching was certain he had just signed his death warrant. He knew better. “Ya might wanna consider findin’ another place ta sit. Folks are gittin’ a might thirsty.”
“What?” Chris turned his scowl on the tracker.
Any other man would have been quaking in his boots, Vin grinned. “When’s the last time ya seen anybody go in or out of there?” A thumb indicated the batwing doors to the saloon.
An indifferent gaze followed the specified direction. “Ain’t been payin’ attention.”
“Yer probably the only one.”
“Ya think I care?” Chris hissed.
Studying the cross face, Vin asked, “Ya wanna talk about it?”
“About whatever’s got ya mad enough ta swallow a horn-toad backward.”
“In that case,” Vin rose, “I’ll go tell the bartender he might as well close for the night.”
The words were spoken so softly they would have been inaudible to most human ears. A hard life had given Vin enhanced senses. But they were also the words he had expected to hear. Though he had tried not to, Vin knew he had caused trouble between the two old friends. Which meant he already had the solution to their problem. “I’ve been thinkin’, it’s time I moved on.”
The belligerence on Larabee’s face turned to fear. Rising, he growled, “Ya jus’ told the judge you’d stay.”
“I changed my mind. Ain’t smart ta stay in one place with this price on my head.” The calm that settled over the gunslinger disappointed Vin. He had expected anger, even bitterness, but not acceptance. Once again, it appeared he had sought friendship where it wouldn’t be reciprocated. It had happened so often in his life, he was amazed he kept on looking.
Hooking his thumbs in his gunbelt, Chris leaned most of his weight on his right leg. “Where we goin’?”
Though his heart had soared at the gunslinger’s question, Vin shook his head. Leaving would not solve Chris’ problem with Buck. It would only make it worse. “I don’t remember askin’ ya ta come along, Larabee.”
“I don’t need an invitation.”
Exasperated, Vin turned a glare on his companion rivaling the gunslinger’s. A little boy walking towards them quickly turned and retraced his steps. “Anyone ever tell ya yer a stubborn cowboy?”
“Not more’n once.” Chris put a hand on Vin’s shoulder and pushed him through the batwing doors into the saloon. “Come on, I’ll buy ya a drink.”
“Wait a minute,” Vin resisted, shaking the hand off his arm. “Nothin’s been settled.”
“Yes, it has.”
Vin reluctantly allowed himself to be pushed over to their regular table. Maybe alcohol would fortify his courage, giving him the strength he would need to leave. It would be hard. He was more attached to these six men than he had been to anyone in his adult life - and it scared him. Something he had learned when he was very young hadn’t changed. Nothing good lasts forever.
He didn’t want to keep his promise. Sitting in his room, formulating his plans would be a far more enjoyable evening than matching Buck Wilmington drink for drink. But he couldn’t afford to antagonize his old friend. Besides, he needed information. The alcohol would loosen Buck’s tongue. Frank smiled. The ladies’ man hadn’t changed much since the war. Loyal and trusting, he would never know how he had been used to destroy one of his comrades.
Entering the crowded saloon, Frank saw Chris Larabee sharing a corner table with Tanner. The plans he had made for the Texan kept his hand from drawing his gun. A bullet to the heart was too quick, too easy. Tanner had to suffer for his arrogance. Joining Buck at the bar, Frank threw back the shot of whisky waiting for him.
“I was beginnin’ ta think you had changed yer mind,” Buck shouted, fighting to be heard above the noisy clamor.
“Nah, I jus’ lost track of the time,” Frank lied.
“Do ya wanna join Chris?”
Though Buck had made the suggestion, Frank could see it was a proposal he hoped would be refused. Uncertain whether he would be able to keep from shooting Tanner, he shook his head. “It don’t rightly look like they want company.”
“Yeah.” Buck’s unhappy glance rested on the pair as he poured himself another drink.
Slumping against the bar so he blocked Buck’s view, Frank said, “I wanna thank ya fer lettin’ me ride along with ya today.”
“It was right nice havin’ someone ta talk too.”
“Do ya always ride the patrols alone?”
Buck shifted, glaring over at Larabee. “At the moment.”
“Hey, Buck.” JD clapped his hand on the taller man’s shoulder in greeting. “Nice ta see ya again, Mr. Turner.”
“Make it Frank, son.”
Leaning his hip against the bar, JD asked, “Where ya been all day, Frank? I was lookin’ fer ya. Thought I’d show ya around town.”
Frank tried to hide his revulsion at the thought of spending an entire day in the boy’s company. The very suggestion made him ill. The outcry of suffering prisoners continually filling his ears, made him seek solitude. “Sorry I missed ya. I spent the day on patrol with Buck.”
His eyes flicking from one man to the other, JD straightened and backed away. “Guess ya have a lot ta catch up on. I best leave ya to it.”
“It’s all right, JD.” Buck’s hand snagged the boy’s arm and pulled him back up to the bar. “I reckon we said what we had ta say.”
An uncomfortable silence fell between the three men. Clearing his throat, JD stuttered, “What ya been doin’ since the war ended, Mr. Turner?”
“Frank,” Turner impatiently corrected.
JD uneasily repeated, “Frank.”
“I tried goin’ home but my folks had died and my girl married someone else. Weren’t nothin’ there fer me, so I lit out.” Though annoyed to find himself answering questions instead of asking them, Frank knew better than to reveal his resentment.
Sadly shaking his head, JD confessed, “When my Ma died, I came west too. As soon as the stage hit Four Corners, I knew this was where I wanted ta stay, at least fer a while.”
“Funny,” Buck elbowed his young friend in the ribs, “lynchin’s usually have the opposite affect on me.”
Glad to have the focus of the conversation off himself, Frank probed, “There was a lynchin’?”
The excitement of that day still visible on his face, JD explained, “Some drovers got angry when Nathan couldn’t heal their boss and they tried ta string ‘im up. Chris and Vin stopped ‘em. I ain’t never see nothin’ like it.”
This was not something Frank had expected to hear. A Reb had risked his life to save a black man. This fact should have changed how he felt, what he did next. But he couldn’t let it. One heroic act would not redeem his intended victim after years of fighting to keep Nathan Jackson and those like him slaves.
“So, what towns have ya been to, Frank?” JD curiously inquired. “Were ya tempted ta stay in any of ‘em?”
Frank absently reeled the names of a few towns off the top of his head. Each one had something he had found desirable - until it was revealed they were harboring murderers. “Fairfield, Stokes, Peabody.”
“Hey, I remember passin’ through some them,” JD excitedly exclaimed. Taking a swig from his beer, he continued, “Tell me . . .”
“It’s been a long day,” Frank interrupted. Though he was disappointed he hadn’t gotten all the information he wanted from Buck, he knew he couldn’t tolerate the gregarious youth any longer. “I think I’ll call it a night.” Startled when he saw the relief on his old friend’s face, he slapped Wilmington on the shoulder. “I’ll see ya tomorrow, Buck.”
As one of the young saloon girls sidled up to him, Buck smiled. “Make it late tomorrow.”
Trying not to smirk, Ezra laid down his cards. The three queens and two four’s were more than a match for the other hand lying on the table. “Gentlemen, the ladies have been felicitous for me once again.”
“If ya ask me, they been likin’ ya a little too often all night,” one of the players complained.
Aware he had no one watching his back, Ezra chose to ignore the remark. Raking in his winnings, he saw sunlight streaming across the dusty saloon floor. “As much as I hate to call it a night, my presence is expected elsewhere.” Rising, Ezra tipped his hat. “Until another day, gentlemen.”
More experienced than he cared to admit concerning disgruntled opponents, Ezra wasn’t unduly perturbed by the grumbling following him out of the saloon. He could have stayed longer. Vin had agreed to take his morning patrol. But Ezra had learned it was best not to be obligated to anyone for anything. Then, you were not expected to reciprocate at a future date. At least that was what he wanted to believe was his reason for returning early.
As he saddled his horse, he was surprised by the blithe anticipation he experienced at his imminent return to Four Corners. It wasn’t the town but the people he looked forward to seeing. Particularly the six men he had allied himself with to keep the peace in the lawless borough. He had never had friends. Never had someone he could trust to watch his back. Now, he had six. While he enjoyed the relationship he was developing with each one, it also terrified him. Just as he depended on them, they would rely on him. Another new experience for the gambler, and the main reason why he was returning to Four Corners days earlier than he had originally planned. He would have plenty of time on the ride home to formulate an excuse for his premature arrival. Heaven forbid they should think he missed them.
Sipping from the bottle he had bought to quiet the voices demanding vengeance, Frank looked out his window. The sun was peeking above the horizon, sending its rays across the desert and along the town’s main street.
As usual, he had found it impossible to sleep with the screams echoing in his head. The only time they were silent was when he was drunk or fulfilling their desire for retribution. Since it might be several days before Tanner went on patrol the only place he could find solace was in alcohol.
Movement on the deserted street below caught his eye. Vin Tanner was crossing the street to the livery. Frank’s hand trembled as it longed to pull his pistol. It didn’t stop until his prey disappeared inside the stable. He knew the Texan would have to reemerge. Minutes, feeling like hours, ticked past. His palms grew sweaty. Eventually, Tanner reappeared. Laying his left rein on his horse’s neck, he turned right. The gelding immediately broke into a canter. Tanner didn’t rein him in, allowing him to have his head.
Frank watched until they disappeared. From what he had learned the day before, it looked like the Reb had the morning patrol. Once again, he had gotten lucky. He wouldn’t have to wait to implement his plan. It could be done today, in a few hours. Tonight, the voices would be silent and he would sleep.
The exuberance Peso had displayed when they rode out of town early that morning dissipated under the hot sun. Wiping the sweat from his brow with his bandana, Vin pulled the horse to a stop and dismounted. Unhooking the canteen, he poured some of the lukewarm water into his hand and offered it to his mount. The rough tongue rolled across his palm, licking off every drop. With an indulgent smile, Vin offered another handful.
The sound of hooves beating against the hard ground made him drop what little moisture remained to pull his Mare’s Leg. For a brief second, he thought the black clad figure approaching him was Chris Larabee. But the feeling of belonging that usually washed over him when Chris was near was missing. He understood why when he identified the rider as Frank Turner. He continued to hold his gun, reluctant to put it away. There was something about the ex-soldier he didn’t like and it had nothing to do with the man’s blatant antagonism.
Despite the voice in his head warning him to keep his guard up, Vin knew he couldn’t go on showing hostility after the pleasant greeting, so he holstered his weapon. Turner was an old friend of Buck’s and Chris’. He didn’t want any action of his to cause strife between the three men. Buck was already having trouble trusting him.
Hoping to hide his wariness, Vin poured another handful of water and offered it to Peso. “What brings ya out here on a day like this? It’s hot enough ta wither a fence post.”
“My work, Tanner.”
“Reckon I ain’t heard what ya do fer a livin’.”
“I redeem the souls of the dead by sending their murderers to hell.”
By the time Vin heard the sound of a gun leaving its holster it was already too late. “Yer a bounty hunter.” Vin squinted as he glared up at the man towering over him.
“I guess you could call me that. My reward isn’t monetary however, it’s spiritual.”
Puzzled, Vin demanded, “If it ain’t the reward yer after, what do ya want?”
“I want my fallen brothers to find the peace in the hereafter you Johnny Rebs never gave them on Earth.”
The craggy face was hidden in the dark shadows cast by Turner’s hat, but Vin didn’t need to see the smoldering eyes to know he was in trouble. The voice dripped with hatred. Despite the sweltering heat, Vin felt a chill creep up his spine. There was a more than even chance he would not leave this encounter alive. Deciding he would rather die fighting then standing meekly in front of his executioner, he dropped the canteen and reached for his gun.
The move was so unexpected and so fast the Mare’s Leg cleared his holster before Vin heard the discharge of a weapon. In the wake of the echoing blast, he felt the bullet rip into his right shoulder. The force sent him stumbling back against his horse.
Already unnerved by the gunshot the blow to his chest made Peso dance nervously. Inflamed daggers stabbing along his right chest and arm, Vin slapped the animal on the neck. He couldn’t take a chance Turner would kill the proud black. With an angry cry, Peso reared, spun on his heels and cantered away.
“Now that was stupid,” Turner swore, watching the gelding disappear. “Looks like y’all hafta walk now.”
Prepared for the second bullet that would finish him off, it took Vin a moment to interpret Turner’s words. “Walk where?”
“Yer gonna kill me anyway. Why should I torture myself by walkin’ in this heat?”
“Because yer a coward, Tanner. Cowards will do anythin’ ta stay alive.”
Reaching into his saddlebags, Turner pulled out a handful of rusty chains and tossed them to his captive. “Put these on.”
Dismayed by the weight, Vin awkwardly untangled the bindings with his good hand. He found a set of shackles and a set of leg irons. The former were much the same as those used by Anderson when the seven was captured helping the Seminole Village. The latter reminded him of another place, somewhere he would rather not remember. Bending made him dizzy, so he sat on the burning sand. “These,” he shook the leg irons, “won’t fit around my boots.”
“Then take yer boots off.”
“I ain’t gonna be able ta walk far with nothin’ ta protect my feet.”
“Ya shoulda thought of that before ya stampeded yer horse. Now put ‘em on or,” Turner aimed his pistol at Vin’s right foot, “I’ll make it even harder fer ya.”
With a glare Larabee would have envied, Vin toed his right boot off. He found it much harder to pull the left one off with one hand. Unwilling to show any weakness, he stifled a moan when he jostled his injured shoulder. Finally accomplishing his task, he found his vision blurred by the sweat dripping in his eyes and the incessant agony of his wound. Snapping the leg irons around his ankles, he wrapped the shackles over his wrists. The hot metal burned the tender flesh underneath, making him wince.
“Very good, Tanner.” Turner waved his gun. “Shall we go?”
With a resigned sigh, Vin awkwardly climbed to his feet, finding it difficult to keep his balance. Untying the bandanna from around his neck, he folded it into a pad and placed it over the bleeding hole in his shoulder. Gritting his teeth, he took a step in the direction Turner had indicated.
He wanted to live. Did that make him a coward? This wasn’t the first time he had faced death. It wasn’t even the first time he had faced it alone. But it was the first time he would be leaving behind someone who cared what happened to him.
Larabee’s image flickered in the heat waves, giving him strength whenever he faltered.
The sun was high overhead when Buck stepped out of the boarding house, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Hours ago, the shining ball had been a soft glow in the morning sky when Lily gently kissed him on the lips and slipped out of his bed. The click of the door closing behind the saloon girl had echoed around him as he turned over and went back to sleep.
He would still be sleeping if JD hadn’t pounded on his door, asking him if he wanted to go to lunch. The hollow feeling in his stomach and the accompanying growl had made his decision for him. Throwing his clothes on he had checked to see if Frank wanted to join them. He hadn’t been surprised to find his friend’s room empty. Wondering why he wasn’t disappointed, he had headed outside. It was possible Frank was already at the hotel eating.
“Come on, Buck.” JD shouted, walking backwards to his destination. “I’m starvin’.”
“So, what else is new?” Buck grumbled, good-naturedly, his own complaining belly making him pick up is pace. His long legs quickly brought him to the boy’s side. “Have ya seen Frank?”
“Nope.” JD turned so he was walking beside his friend. “Ezra came back this mornin’. I went ta help him with his horse. Frank’s was gone.”
Ezra! Buck closed his eyes and softly swore. Frank had been angry enough with Vin’s presence. What would he do when he heard Ezra’s southern drawl? There were times, Buck decided, when it just didn’t pay to get out of bed.
Entering the hotel dining room, he was delighted to see Nathan and Josiah were already present. In the short time he had been riding with the two men, he had come to appreciate their gentle humor and abundant compassion. Simply put, he enjoyed their company. Something, he suddenly realized, he could no longer say about Frank Turner. The men he rode with now watched his back. It was all he had ever asked of a partner - a friend. He wasn’t sure Frank understood that. His friends shouldn’t have to feel defensive because of their birthplace, because of things they may or may not have done in the past.
Not even Vin.
Everyone had done something they lamented. Buck knew he had more regrets than he could count. He had no right to judge Vin the way he had.
“Where’s yer friend?” Nathan asked.
Sliding onto the chair next to the healer, it took Buck a moment to figure out who Nathan was referring to, since he had redefined his definition of friend. Shrugging his shoulders, he admitted, “Ain’t seen ‘im since last night.”
“His horse is gone,” JD supplied.
Josiah took a sip of his coffee. “Do you think he left?”
“He wouldn’t leave without sayin’ goodbye,” Buck confidently stated. “He went on patrol with me yesterday. Said he likes bein’ alone in the wide open spaces ever since Andersonville.”
A frown creasing his brow, Nathan shook his head. “Well, one thin’ we know fer sure, he ain’t on patrol with Vin.”
Talking about his old friend made Buck feel uneasy. He couldn’t believe he actually looked forward to the day when Frank would leave. Or, that he had ever considered riding with the man. Frank put him on edge, making him doubt every word, every action. With Chris, JD, Josiah, Nathan and even Ezra and Vin, despite the former’s desertion at the Seminole Village and the latter’s murder charge, he felt safe. It had been three years since he had felt that way. This time, he wouldn’t let it slip from his grasp.
A rock slashed the tender sole of his right foot. Vin winced but didn’t have the energy to inspect the damage, even if Tuner would have allowed him the time. It didn’t matter. There was nothing he could do for it or any of the other cuts scoring the bottom of his feet. Looking behind him, he saw blood red drops staining the sand, marking his passage.
Another step caused the right leg iron to dig into his ankle. The pain it caused was minor compared to the fire burning in his shoulder and the dry desert inside his mouth. His only moisture came from the blood seeping from his cracked lips. But the salty, metallic tasting fluid only amplified his thirst, it did nothing to quench it. He deeply regretted not taking a drink when he watered Peso.
“I’m sure you’ll be happy to know we’re here.”
Vin had been concentrating so hard on putting one foot in front of the other, he took several oblivious steps forward before Turner’s words registered in his sluggish brain. Lifting his gaze, he saw they were at the old Fields ranch. It consisted of a well, a barn and a partially built house. Joshua Fields had abandoned the homestead when his well went dry and he couldn’t find another ready source of water. Moving on, he had better luck with a piece of land adjacent to Cody Porter’s place.
Turner dismounted and tied his horse to the unfinished house.
Knowing this might be his last chance to escape, Vin launched himself at the bigger man. A fist impacted his jaw before he made contact. Slumping to his knees, he would have fallen flat on his face if a hand hadn’t torn off his hat and grabbed a fistful of hair. Jerked upright, Vin tried to stifle a groan when a punch caved in his stomach. More blows to his head and mid-section brought him to the edge of unconsciousness, but wouldn’t let him step across.
Hauled to his feet, he was dragged across the yard and thrown against mortared rocks. Dazedly, he realized it must be the well. His fettered arms were wrenched above his head. This time, he couldn’t suppress a scream as pain ripped through his injured shoulder.
The chain connecting his shackles was looped over a hook. The sharp edge scratching the palm of his left hand. He was lifted until he found himself suspended over the gaping opening of the well. The cold air wafting up from the deep hole cooled his feverish flesh. It would have felt soothing if the rest of his body hadn’t been in such agony.
The rope jerked and he found himself slowly descending into a cold, dark hell. When he reached the bottom, his legs wouldn’t support him. The slack on the rope released his arms. With no muscle control, he fell against the wall, ramming unyielding stone into his bad shoulder. Spots danced in front of his eyes as a red cloud blurred his vision. Disheartened, he watched the rope snake up to the light where Turner’s smiling face appeared.
“I’ve been to hell,” Frank cackled. “Now it’s yer turn.”
Chris leaned his chair against the jail wall and stared down the road leading out of town - the direction Vin would be returning when he finally ended his patrol. Taking a puff of his cheroot, Chris knew he was the epitome of the bad element Mary Travis had labeled him in her newspaper. His demeanor did not induce friend or foe to approach, a facade he encouraged.
He wasn’t in the mood to talk. While this wasn’t a rare occurrence, right now his temper was shorter than usual. The blame lay in many directions. Buck Wilmington for his hard headed distrust of Vin; Frank Turner for his gruffness towards the tracker. And, Vin himself for his late return from patrol.
Earlier, fear had driven Chris to the wagon Vin insisted on sleeping in instead of the room in the boarding house Judge Travis rented for him. He was afraid Vin had decided to leave rather than cause more trouble between Chris and Buck. Some of his worry dissipated when he saw Vin’s possessions scattered inside the wagon.
Though one fear had been alleviated, another still remained. Vin had ridden the morning patrol. He should have been back before lunch. It was nearly dinnertime and there was no sign of the tracker.
Normally, Chris wouldn’t be concerned, realizing the younger man enjoyed the wide-open spaces and being one with nature. Even in these few short days of acquaintance, Chris knew the town and its teeming populace sometimes suffocated Vin. However, there was a voice inside telling him something was wrong. Not understanding it or the feelings it evoked, Chris tried to ignore the persistent murmuring. He hadn’t had a link with Sarah and Adam, the two people he had loved more than life. He hadn’t even known they were dead until he saw their charred remains. How could he have such a connection to Vin? A man he had only known a few days.
The sound of horses' hooves striking the hard ground made him fight to focus through eyes that had become misty. His hopeful gaze quickly turned to terror when he saw Ted Fleming riding towards the livery, leading a black gelding behind him.
“Peso!” Chris hissed, the front of his chair slammed onto the boardwalk. Barely feeling the jolt racing across tired muscles, he rose and hurried across the street to intercept the farmer.
“Mr. Larabee.” There was more than a touch of nervousness in Fleming’s voice as he addressed the gunslinger. “I found Peso in that grove jus’ outside town. As it’s gittin’on ta night, I figured I best bring ‘im on in.”
“Was there any sign of Vin?” Chris took Peso’s reins and carefully inspected the black horse. A white outline of salt residue around the saddle and chest were proof the animal had been ridden hard long before his arrival in the grove.
Fleming swallowed before admitting, “There was no sign of Mr. Tanner. I looked fer tracks, but there weren’t none. The wind musta blowed ‘em away.”
“Chris?” A walk that was faster than normal, showed Josiah’s alarm as he approached. “What’s going on?”
Taking deep breaths to dispel the shadows bordering his vision, Chris quickly explained before ordering, “Git the others, Josiah. We gotta ride.”
With more courage than most men would display, Josiah put a hand on Larabee’s arm, preventing him from rushing into the stable and saddling his horse. “It’s going to be dark soon, Chris. We go out now, we could destroy any tracks that might lead us to Vin.”
“Vin could be dying while we sit around waitin’ fer the sun ta come up.”
“He could be dead already.”
“He’s not.” Chris didn’t know how he knew with such certainty, but he did.
Surprise shining from his clear blue eyes, Josiah demanded, “How do you know?”
“I’m not sure,” Chris awkwardly revealed. “I jus’ do.”
The wise gaze studied the gunslinger closely before the graying head nodded. “I believe you do. However, we still have to wait until morning to start the search.”
Though he didn’t want to admit it, Chris knew the preacher was right. Now more than ever, he regretted not following his instincts and setting out earlier to look for his missing friend. He would rather have a live Vin sitting at his side, laughing at his crazy notions, than a dead Vin being fitted for a coffin.
Ezra snapped the tiny derringer, strapped to his wrist, into his hand. He conducted the action several times until he was confident the mechanism was operating perfectly. This was a ritual he always performed before leaving his room to venture down to the saloon, seeking opponents for a game of chance. The precaution wasn’t as necessary in Four Corners as it had been everywhere else he had traveled. For the first time in his life there was someone to watch his back - six someones. He would feel safe when he stepped out of this room. It was a feeling that would extend through all his activities, whether he chose to simply share a drink or engage in a high stakes poker game.
Tugging at the pleated cuffs of his shirt, he made certain the correct amount of white fabric was showing below the red hem of his coat sleeve. The one thing he had learned from his mother that he actually appreciated was to always appear perfectly attired. Appearances were everything. Certain he would pass even Maude’s closest inspection, he exited his room. Only then did he perceive the clamor of the clientele as they immersed themselves in the evening’s recreation. Similar sounds had played around him from his earliest days. It had been the only lullaby he had ever known.
Descending the stairs, his quick mind noted the existence of two poker games and which one appeared to be more lucrative. He also noticed the proximity of his fellow peacekeepers. The absence of Vin Tanner and the presence of a stranger didn’t unduly affect him. In their short acquaintance, he had already observed the tracker’s distaste for crowds. However, the grim continence on the remaining faces made him quickly cross to their table, all thoughts of engaging in a game of chance forgotten.
“Gentlemen,” Ezra greeted, hiding his concern, “you all look as though you have lost your best friend.”
As soon as he said the words, Ezra knew his figure of speech had struck a nerve. Larabee winced as though he had been struck. Downing his drink in a single gulp, he rose and walked away without replying.
“Ezra,” Nathan growled, “has anyone ever told ya, ya got a big mouth?”
Josiah put a hand on the healer’s arm. “Easy brother, Ezra doesn’t know what’s happened.”
“Would someone be gracious enough to enlighten me?” Ezra inquired, cold fear making him weak in the knees. To hide his frailty, he dropped onto the chair Chris had so recently vacated.
When no one spoke up, JD explained, “Vin didn’t return from the morning patrol. Mr. Fleming found his horse grazing in Simpson’s Grove.”
Pulling a deck of cards from his pocket, Ezra absently shuffled them. The familiar activity kept his mind focused. Later, when Vin was safe, he would wallow in the guilt assailing him. It was an emotion he had rarely felt. In fact, one of the infrequent times was when he was riding away from the Seminole Village, listening to cannon balls exploding behind him. Having so recently experienced the feeling, he had no difficulty defining it now. Vin had disappeared while executing his patrol.
“We’re riding out to look fer him at first light,” JD continued, when no one else offered the information.
“I’ll be ready.”
“We don’t need yer kind of help.”
In his distress, Ezra had relegated the dark-clad stranger sitting next to Buck from mere curiosity to inconsequential. The newcomer’s dismissal grated on nerves he was already unaccustomed to dealing with. “Excuse me?”
“Ezra is one of us,” JD defended the gambler.
Glancing around the table, Ezra was gratified to see anger on Josiah’s and Nathan’s faces - and it wasn’t directed at him. Buck stared at the drink in his hand with unusual intensity.
“Ezra Standish,” the ladies man finally established, “this is Frank Turner an old friend of mine and Chris’.” Pleading blue eyes lifted to meet Ezra’s. “We fought in the war together.”
Normally, the social graces drilled into Ezra on his mother’s knees would have elicited a polite response. For one of the few times in his life, he found himself unable to lie, even to appease Buck. Rising, he touched two fingers to his hat. “I will see you gentlemen at dawn.”
“I think we should all call it a night,” Josiah agreed, pushing back his chair.
As he walked away, Ezra could feel Frank Turner’s gaze burning a hole in his back. He might have felt frightened if not for the obvious support of his friends. Their succor made him determined to be at the stable when the first rays of the sun peeked above the horizon.
Tremors initiated by cold and fatigue, coursed along Vin’s muscles, making him lose his grip. For the third time, he fell to the bottom of his prison. He didn’t even try to suppress his discomfort when his wounded shoulder impacted the hard ground. The scream of agony echoed around him and up into the night. But there was no one to hear.
Each attempt he had made to climb out of the well ended with the same result. The moss coated rocks, the chains restricting the movements of his arms and legs and the bullet imbedded in his shoulder were combining to make escape impossible. He was endangering himself further by the futile effort. His head throbbed where it had struck the wall when he fell. He closed his eyes against the pounding in his skull. An unquenchable thirst reopened them. Scraping the moss from the rock, he licked the moisture, ignoring the dirt and pebbles coating his tongue. With this disgusting act, he was again displaying he was willing to do almost anything to survive. Was he the coward Turner believed him to be?
Resigned to his fate, he curled into a ball, preserving what little heat his aching body could muster. He tried not to imagine why Frank Turner was keeping him alive. As he had done on the torturous walk to his present location, he summoned the figure of Chris Larabee. The spark he had felt when their eyes met that first day helped to keep him warm. He had never received nor granted such instant trust with anyone in his life. That he had basked in the relationship for such a short time made him feel cheated. That he had experienced it at all made him feel blessed.
Another one! Frank paced angrily across his room, too agitated to sleep. How could men he had called friends ally themselves with not one but two of the Reb devils? While he was gratified another of the souls crying out to him would acquire peace, he was distressed that men he had fought beside were associating with the evil that had battled to extinguish their lives.
Had they been deceived?
First, he would exact his revenge on the southern demons. Then, he would decide if their control had swayed Buck and Chris to their way of thinking, making the gunslingers a danger too.
His right arm resting against his saddle horn, Buck held his reins loosely in his left hand. Outwardly, he appeared calm ready to spring into action when Chris or JD discovered Peso’s trail. Inside, his emotions were at war.
After the fuss he had made concerning Vin’s reliability, he should feel vindicated by the tracker’s disappearance. Though, even he had to admit a person wouldn’t get very far without a horse, especially in this heat and this type of terrain. Buck was trying hard not to let the others notice his concern. It didn’t make any sense to him, so why should any of them understand?
The first time he saw Vin Tanner, Buck resented the man and the obvious influence he exerted over Chris Larabee. At least, he had tried to tell himself it was righteous anger. Vin had done what no one else could. He had made Chris whole. When he realized he had been superseded in Chris’ affections all Buck could think about was how to get rid of Tanner. A close relationship with a wanted man couldn’t be healthy. Death, however, wasn’t one of the methods of removal he had contemplated.
“Nothing this way,” JD reported, a wave of his hand indicating the area he had searched.
Trotting up from the opposite direction, Chris confirmed, “Looks like sand has covered the tracks.”
“What do you suggest we do?” Ezra pulled his hat lower, shielding his eyes from the blinding sun.
“Backtrack,” Chris growled. Dismounting, he drew a circle in the sand around a rock. Making a small indentation in the ground, he explained, “This is the grove. The rock is the town.” Drawing another circle a few inches from the first, he ran lines between the two wheels. “We’ll split the search area into six sections . . .”
“Seven,” Turner corrected.
Buck glanced at Frank as surprised as everyone else at the offer. It made him uneasy. He was under no illusions concerning his old friend’s attitude towards the Texan. “You wanna help?” he incredulously demanded.
“I don’t wanna help Tanner,” Frank admitted, the hostility in his voice audible. “I’d be doin’ it fer you and Chris.”
“That’s good enough fer me.” Buck could tell by the way Chris stiffened his back he didn’t agree. But the gunslinger didn’t voice a protest.
“I’ll take that section.” Frank pointed to one of the segments leading west from the grove. “It’s an area I remember from when I rode patrol with Buck. I wouldn’t wanna git lost. Ya don’t need ta be lookin’ fer me, too.”
Chris glared at Turner a long time before finally yielding. “All right. Ezra, you take this portion.” The gunslinger tapped the next slice with his stick. Touching each element in the circle, he assigned each man his sector. “Josiah, you’ll take the region next to Ezra, then, Nathan, JD, Buck and I’ll take this one.” Rising, Chris placed his foot in the segment to the right of Turner’s.
“How far do we go out, Chris?” JD asked.
Mounting his horse, Chris reasoned, “Vin wouldn’t have gone more than a half day’s ride, neither should we.”
Buck watched as each man rode away to begin their search. Nathan and JD had the furthest to go to reach their assigned sectors, which meant they also were the least likely to find anything. But with no tracks to guide them, it was impossible to tell where Peso might have come from. It was improbable, though not inconceivable, the horse would circle the town to reach the grove. Knowing it was impossible to predict what an apparently frightened animal would do, Chris’ plan covered every contingency. This was the Chris Buck remembered from the war. He was already distancing himself from the men around him and the object of their search. It was a personality trait that had always grated on Buck’s nerves. He had a feeling if they didn’t find Vin alive this was the Chris Larabee who would sit across the table from him in the saloon; the Chris Larabee who would ride at his side. It would be the same Chris Larabee he had known after Sarah and Adam were murdered. A man more dead than alive.
Eyes accustomed to studying the backs of cards rather than hills and valleys, swept the hot sand for any trace of passage. Even if he found a hoof print, Ezra knew there was no guarantee it belonged to Tanner’s mount. Still, any sign would be encouraging.
While guilt certainly played a role in his desire to locate the missing tracker, there was a stronger motive for his actions. Vin Tanner made him feel safe. When he first met the scruffy younger man, he had just won a bet. Believing the contest to be rigged, his opponent had taken exception when Ezra attempted to gather his winnings. Out of the corner of his eye, Ezra had seen a buckskin-clad arm reach for a Mare’s Leg strapped to a narrow waist. The gesture could have easily been made by foe rather than friend. Yet, Ezra instinctively knew Vin was the latter. The display he enacted, watching his front as well as his back as he exited the saloon had been for Chris Larabee’s benefit as a bid to impress the dark stranger who had guessed his secret. Ezra had known he could have walked out with his gun holstered. Vin was watching his back.
While he had fooled even his subconscious into believing he had accepted Larabee’s offer to help the Seminole Village because of the gold statuette tendered as payment, he unconsciously knew better. He had never felt protected before. Never had anyone to watch his back. He had appreciated the feeling then, but depended on it now. That initial trust had since extended to the other five men who rode, figuratively if not literally, at his side. It was the first time Ezra had been accepted for who he was, rather than as an unwelcome houseguest for an endless procession of relations.
While one side of his brain contemplated his relationship with Vin Tanner, the other side continued to search for any sign of their missing friend. Thus, Turner was almost upon him before Ezra noted the ex-soldier’s approach. Hoping the man had found something, he touched his heels to his mount’s sides urging the animal towards the advancing rider. When he was close enough, he shouted, “Did you find, Mr. Tanner?”
“Yeah,” Frank acknowledged. “He fell down a well. I need help gittin’ him out.”
“Is he hurt?” The knot in his stomach twisted, causing Ezra considerable discomfort as he anxiously awaited the answer to his question. It was a feeling he had never experienced before and wasn’t sure what was causing it.
“He hurt ‘is ankle, so he can’t climb out of the well.”
Relief making him dizzy, Ezra ordered, “Lead the way, my good man.”
Barely noticing the dirt flying into his face as he followed the older man, Ezra couldn’t help thinking how capricious life was that the man who had so brazenly demonstrated his hatred for Vin Tanner should be the one to find him.
Though Chris could sense something was wrong with Vin the connection they shared consisted of vague impressions, nothing more specific. Just enough to make him worried sick, not enough to tell him what he was uneasy about. He wanted to scream his frustration. Instead, he softly swore at the injustice. What good was this link if he couldn’t use it to save his friend?
It didn’t seem fair. Vin had done what no one else, including Buck, had been able to do. After three long years in a living hell, Chris had finally met someone who could smother the Devil’s fires, freeing him.
Chris couldn’t explain why he had looked into those blue eyes and chose to live again. An ironic decision, considering the first thing he did with this newfound freedom was engage in a gun fight.
One of these days, he was going to have a long talk with Josiah concerning the man upstairs. If he was one of God’s children, why pull him from the depths of despair one day, allowing him to breathe fresh air instead of Satan’s throat choking sulphur; only to plunge him back into hell? What had he done to make God so pissed at him? First he had taken Sarah and Adam, and now he wanted Vin. Why didn’t God punish him instead of those who were closest to him?
With the well in sight, Ezra kicked his horse, overtaking his guide. Mere feet from his destination, he reined in causing his mount’s back legs to slide across the loose shale. Dropping his reins, he leapt from his saddle and raced to the retaining wall. “Mr. Tanner?”
Rays from the bright overhead sun penetrated the dark interior lighting the crumpled figure below. Dismayed, Ezra saw bloodstains on the shoulder of the ragged shirt and bruises on the upturned face. As momentary confusion turned to understanding, Ezra’s right hand inched towards his weapon.
“Drop your gun, Standish.”
Ezra froze, his quick mind examining his options. Placing his faith in the small weapon hidden up his sleeve, he dropped his Colt and slowly turned to face his adversary. A bullet plowed into the ground at his feet, halting his pivot.
“Buck told me all about that fancy little gun. Drop it next to the other or the next bullet won’t be a warning shot. You won’t die, but you’ll wish you had.”
The glimpse he had of Vin Tanner’s battered body made Ezra hesitate. If he relinquished his gun, he and Vin would be at the mad man’s mercy. But they would be alive. If he confronted Turner and one or both of them were killed it could also cost Vin his life if no one found him in time. As long as there was breath in their bodies, there was a possibility the five men scouring the countryside would rescue them. Death left no alternatives. Surprised at the faith he had in those men, Ezra jerked his arm, dropping the pistol into his hand. His fingers opened, allowing the tiny weapon to drop.
“All you Johnny Rebs 're cowards. Now step away.”
Stiffening at the insult, Ezra obeyed. His hands in the air, he spun to face his captor.
“Now put these on.”
A tangle of metal straps and chains hit Ezra in the chest. Barely catching them before they could fall, he discovered he was holding a set of leg irons and shackles. Keeping a watchful eye on Turner, he leaned against the well and pulled off his boots. The leg irons were almost too large, hanging heavily on his ankles. Tugging his shirtsleeve down to help protect the tender flesh, he snapped the shackles around his wrists.
“Very good, Standish. Now, swing that chain between yer shackles over that hook.”
Seeing the angle on the end of the rope that had once held a bucket to draw water from the well, Ezra reluctantly sat on the wall and swung his legs over the edge. Following the explicit orders, he threw the short chain over the hook.
Realizing how much it would hurt when the weight of his entire body adhered to the laws of gravity, Ezra attempted to wrap his fingers around the pieces of chain spilling over the ends of the hook. Taking a deep breath, he gritted his teeth as he slid off the ledge.
The pain as the metal cuffs bit into his wrists was even worse than he had anticipated. A scream rose in his throat, begging for release. Swallowing hard, he fought it, loath to give Turner the satisfaction.
The ominous sound of snapping leather froze his blood. He had scant seconds to prepare himself before the whip bit into his back tearing fabric and the thin skin underneath. Blood filled Ezra’s mouth as his teeth tore into his lip. Blow followed blow until a hoarse scream rent the air. Ezra recognized the cry as coming from his own lips but wasn’t sure how it had escaped. The punishment immediately ceased.
“That’s enough fer you today.”
His whole body quivering from the agony, Ezra felt the rope jerk, intensifying his pain, before he was slowly lowered into the well. Numb feet touched the bottom but they were too shaky to support him. Gasping, trying to gain a semblance of control so he could check Vin, he was shocked to hear Turner’s next command.
“It’s yer turn, Tanner. Put yer chain on the hook.”
In the dim light, Ezra’s tormented gaze met Vin’s. Spitting blood, he shook his head.
“Do it now, Tanner. Or I’ll put a bullet in yer friend.”
A soft groan whispered from Vin’s lips as he raised his hands to slide his chain over the angle.
“No.” Though Ezra tried to roar his denial the protest came out as a soft croak. Ignoring the searing blaze burning along his lacerated back, he raised his hands to prevent Vin from sacrificing himself. But it was already too late. Bloodless fingers grabbed at the swaying legs as they rose. Tears in his eyes for his friend as well as for himself, Ezra could only watch as the bloody and torn body ascended.
The sound of leather meeting flesh echoed around him, making him cover his ears. Yet, he could not tear his eyes away from the horrific sight. He watched as Vin’s teeth tore at the thin fabric of his shirt to contain the cries begging for release. Even as he admired his friend’s courage, Ezra cursed it, knowing Turner would continue his abuse until he broke the proud man.
“Scream,” Ezra softly pleaded. When his entreaty was ignored, he raised his voice uncaring who won the contest of wills, his only concern was to keep Vin alive. “Please, Vin, scream.”
A soft whistle as the leather strip flew through the air was followed by a slap as the strap tore into flesh.
Finally, an unearthly howl reverberated around the stone walls, tearing into Ezra and making him physically ill. He swallowed the bile in his throat and waited as the still body was slowly lowered. Had his plea been heeded in time? Or would he be sharing his prison with a corpse?
Periodically spaced lanterns cast a dim light along the dark street. Hungry, thirsty and more tired than he could ever remember being, Chris rode towards the livery. Miles back, he had given his horse free rein, allowing the trusty animal to find their way home in the darkness. He didn’t want to stop looking for Vin. Circumstances had given him no other choice. Even if he could do without food and water, his horse couldn’t, nor, could he see in the dark.
When Pony stopped in front of the stable, Chris wearily dismounted and loosened his cinch. Leading his horse inside, he threw some grain into a bucket and listened as the strong teeth crunched enthusiastically. Tapping into his last reserves of energy, he brushed the sweat encrusted hide. Exiting the stall, he tossed a couple flakes of hay into the hungry horse. As he did so, he absently glanced around. Tired horses munched happily in every cubicle except one - Chaucer’s stall. A new worry filled Chris. Given what he had learned about the gambler in their short acquaintance, he would have expected Ezra to be the first to return.
Fear pushing away his exhaustion, he quickly made his way to the saloon. As he had anticipated, Buck, Josiah, Nathan and JD were sitting at the corner table the seven lawmen habitually occupied. Their drawn faces and weary movements illustrated their failure to locate their missing friend.
Quickly crossing to the table, Chris demanded, “Where’s Ezra?”
“Evenin’ ta you, too, Chris,” Buck sarcastically returned.
“We figured he went straight to his room when he got back,” Josiah provided, ignoring the ladies’ man. “You know how he hates to get dirty.”
Leaning on the table, Chris growled, “It would be a little hard for him to be in his room, when he isn’t even in town.”
“What!” Josiah pushed back his chair and half rose, obviously intent on verifying the gunslinger’s revelation.
His anger dissipating as fast as it came, Chris pressed the tired preacher back onto his chair. “His horse isn’t in his stall.”
“Are ya thinkin’ Ezra’s missing, too?” An incredulous sigh escaped Nathan’s lips.
Dropping onto the empty seat next to the healer, Chris nodded “It looks that way.”
“You just got in yerself, Chris,” Buck protested. “How ya know Ezra ain’t just callin’ it quits and headin’ back now?”
“Yeah,” Buck reluctantly conceded. “I guess that is askin’ too much.”
Throwing his fork down in frustration, JD demanded, “Why? Why are Vin and Ezra missing?
“If we could figure that out, son,” Josiah soothed, putting a comforting hand on the youth’s shoulder, “we might know where to look for them.”
“Sheriff?” The telegraph operator, a boy about the same age as JD, approached the table. Brown eyes nervously rested on Larabee, before returning to Dunne.
“What is it, Roger?” Buck impatiently demanded.
“I - I got s-some answers ta them t-telegrams S-Sheriff D-Dunne sent,” the boy stuttered.
What little patience Chris had was long gone. “Then I suggest ya give them to him.”
“Yes, sir.” Pieces of paper fluttered onto the table in front of JD as Roger completed his task and made a hasty retreat.
Josiah leaned over to help Dunne gather the scattered telegrams and place them in a neat pile. “What’s all this, JD?”
The young sheriff glanced nervously at Buck and Chris before dropping his gaze to the slips of paper. His tongue whipped out to wet dry lips, but no words issued forth.
“It’s best to just spit out, son,” Josiah gently advised.
Squaring his shoulders, JD raised his head and locked eyes with the man who had saved his life. “When Vin didn’t come back last night, I had Roger send telegrams to Fairfield, Stokes, Peabody…”
“Hey,” Buck angrily interrupted, “those are the towns Frank told ya he visited.”
“Yer checkin’ up on a friend of mine?”
Breaking eye contact, JD softly acknowledged, “Yeah.”
“Why you . . .” Chair legs protested as a seething Buck pushed away from the table. “I don’t drink with no traitors.”
Chris put a soothing hand on his old friend’s arm. “Easy, Buck, let’s hear ‘im out.”
“It appears there’s mor’ ‘an one traitor at this table.” Buck jerked his arm free.
Green eyes flashing, Chris’ hand dropped to rest on his pistol.
“JD,” Nathan calmly interceded, “what did ya say in them telegrams ya sent?”
“I asked ‘em if they had any unsolved murders or missing persons and if the victims were from the South.”
JD quickly scanned the messages. “And they all do.”
Taking the slips of paper from nerveless fingers, Josiah read the succinct replies. “There are more then three telegrams here.”
“I sent some ta other towns in a line with Fairfield,” JD explained.
Buck rested his eyes on each of the men sharing the table with him. “Ya can’t think Frank killed them people ‘cause they was from the South?” Or that he’s responsible for Vin and Ezra disappearin’.”
“He was abrupt with both of them,” Josiah reminded him, “for no reason.”
“Chris,” Buck appealed to the only other man who really knew Frank Turner. “There’s a big difference between bein’ uncivil and murder.”
Though he wanted to support Buck’s belief and preserve their fragile friendship, Chris couldn’t. The evidence was convincing. Trying to placate Buck could cost Vin and Ezra their lives - if it hadn’t already. Once again, he was choosing Vin over Buck and once again, the ladies’ man would realize it. “I’m sorry, Buck.”
“Ya jus’ ain’t fergiven Frank fer the way he treated Vin the other night.” Rising, Buck sneered, “Off with the old and on with the new. Is that where yer loyalties lie these days, Larabee?”
“This ain’t a question of loyalty.”
“Then what is it?”
“It’s concern for two lives.” Chris pushed back his chair and slowly rose. Exhausted in mind and body, he felt a hundred years old. “Let’s talk ta Frank.”
Buck put a hand on the gunslinger’s chest. “Chris, don’t do this.”
The warning was clear in the low voice. If Chris questioned Frank, he would lose Buck’s friendship. They had been together a long time. Chris knew it would hurt to lose what they had shared for so long. But it would kill him to lose Vin. If he had a chance to save Vin and Ezra and didn’t take it, he would regret it the rest of his life.
Gently lifting Buck’s hand off his chest, Chris ordered, “Let’s go, boys.”
Heat radiated from the body in his arms, keeping him warm. It was ironic. The very thing that was preventing Ezra from freezing was slowly killing Vin.
Ezra tightened his hold, willing some of his own strength into the fading soul in his arms. He had known Vin Tanner for only a short time. Why did the possibility of the tracker’s death affect him so strongly? They had nothing in common.
“How ya doin’, Ez?”
Surprised, not just by the fact the questioner had the fortitude to inquire about his health, but that he obviously cared enough to do so. It took Ezra a few seconds to come out of his shocked state and formulate a reply. “I am doing much better than you, Mr. Tanner.”
“That wouldn’t take much,” Vin admitted. A soft chuckle mixed with a raspy cough issued from the blood-flecked lips.
The truth of the statement made Ezra tighten his grip, as though all that was keeping Vin Tanner on this Earth were the arms wrapped around the narrow chest.
The feathery moan of pain chilled Ezra, but didn’t make him ease his hold. It was the first time Vin had vocalized his agony since the inhuman howl wrung out of him when he was being whipped. “Did you by any chance ascertain the justification for Mr. Turner’s acrimony?”
“Iffn’ ya want me to answer any questions,” Vin panted, “ya best ask ‘em in English.”
Glad the smile on his face wasn’t visible to the man in his arms, Ezra mentally rephrased his question. He wasn’t sure if Vin would realize his reaction was one of indulgence, rather than amusement. The last thing he wanted was to make Vin think he was being laughed at. “Why is Mr. Turner torturing us?”
“Ain’t it obvious?”
“If it were apparent,” Ezra huffily asserted, “I would not be asking. I met Mr. Turner briefly last evening. He was quite offensive, but hardly the Marques de Sade.”
“Ya know he’s friends with Chris and Buck?”
“They fought in the war together,” Ezra acknowledged.
“Turner was captured and imprisoned in Andersonville.”
“Dear God,” Ezra gasped. “I was unaware of those unfortunate circumstances.”
“I reckon, they’re our unfortunate circumstances now,” Vin said, each word a breathy expulsion.
“Would you care to elaborate?”
Vin shifted in the cramped space. A choked cry of pain escaped the bruised lips.
The movement causing his aching back to scrap across the cold, rough rocks, Ezra bit his lip, unwilling to reveal his own agony.
“It seems,” Vin wheezed, his voice quivering, “Turner wants all Southerners to pay fer what he had ta endure. He wants us to suffer as he suffered.”
“The man is demented.”
The chuckled response elicited a groan. “Ya wanna hear somethin’ funny?”
“Mr. Tanner, I would like nothing better,” Ezra sincerely stated.
“I was in a Union prison camp in New York. ‘Cept fer the walk across the desert without my boots, he ain’t done nothin’ ta me that ain’t been done before.”
Barely able to speak past the lump in his throat, Ezra whispered, “Mr. Tanner, you have a strange sense of humor.”
Buck trailed after the men he had thought he could call friends. It felt like a knife stabbing his heart when Chris had chose Vin’s friendship over his - again. But he had expected it, so it wasn’t a surprise, or at least that is what he tried to make himself believe. Discovering JD didn’t trust him, had in fact gone behind his back to check on Frank, really hurt. And, if that weren’t enough to damage his pride, Josiah and Nathan appeared to agree with Chris and JD.
He was alone.
It wasn’t the first time. But it was the first time it really hurt. An easygoing guy, he had always had friends - or so he thought until he teamed up with these men. Now, he knew he hadn’t really known what friendship entailed. He no longer had to continually watch his back, someone was watching it for him. The relief, the trust made him feel alive. The horrors of the war were almost forgotten. The grief of finding Chris’ wife and son dead had diminished. All the ghastly incidents that had scared his life were no longer in control. He was.
When Chris’ hand pounded on the door to Frank’s room, Buck began to wonder if he was the one whose loyalties were in question. On the patrol they had ridden together, he realized Frank wasn’t the man who had fought at his side. Turner had changed. But how could Buck condemn him when he had changed himself.
“Who is it?” Turner demanded, his voice penetrating the thick wood of the boarding room door.
The sound of a bolt sliding back, preceded the quick opening of the door. “‘bout time ya come ta see me, ya old . . .” Frank’s greeting trailed off as he eyed the group outside his room.
“We got some questions fer ya, Frank.” Chris led the way inside. The others followed, situating themselves in strategic locations. JD and Nathan stood in front of the windows, Josiah the door.
Outwardly unaffected by their presence, Frank crossed to his bed and dropped onto it. “Shouldn’t you all be in bed? We’re gonna make an early start.”
“Where are Vin and Ezra?” Chris demanded, his hand hovering over his pistol.
Calmly retrieving a cheroot from his bedside table, Frank struck a match on the bottom of his boot. “If I knew, would I’ve spent all day lookin’ fer Tanner?”
“Did you? JD sent telegrams ta some of them towns where ya said you’ve stayed. They all got unsolved murders and all the victims were from the south.”
“Have you ever heard of coincidence?”
“Twice, maybe even three times is a coincidence, five is substantiation.”
“We fought a war together, yet yer ready ta believe these sheriffs ya don’t even know, over me?”
“Yer not the man I struggled beside. That man died in Andersonville.”
“Believe whatever ya want ta believe.”
“I believe,” Chris hissed, his hand sliding over the grip of his pistol, “that you killed those people in them towns. And, I believe ya kidnapped Vin and Ezra.”
Drawing smoke into his lungs, Frank let it out slowly as he met Chris’ eyes. “Are you expectin’ me to confess?”
Buck stared in shock at the man he called friend. The man he had trusted even more than he trusted Chris. How could he have been so wrong? And if he had been mistaken about Frank, could he have misjudged Vin Tanner?
A dark skinned hand gently gripped his arm, guiding him to a chair. His knees buckled as he reached it, depositing him onto the plush seat. Numb in body and mind, Buck stared at the two men he had most trusted in this world. Both had turned against him in their own ways.
In a voice that would make a sane man quake in terror, Chris ordered, “Tell me where Vin and Ezra are, Frank.”
“I can’t do that.” Turner puffed on his cigar.
Chris’ hands circled the defiant man’s throat, pulling him up and throwing him against the wall. “Can’t or won’t?”
“Their deaths may finally silence the voices.”
Hope audible in the deep tones, Josiah said, “Then they’re not dead.”
“They have not suffered enough for their sins.”
“Where are they?” Chris roared. When Turner remained silent, he threw a punch to the weak jaw, knocking the unresponsive man to the floor.
“Chris.” Nathan grabbed Larabee’s arm before he could plant another blow. “Ya won’t get no answers this way. He’s done been tortured by the best.”
Panting from anger rather than exertion, Chris growled, “Then how do we find Vin and Ezra?”
“He went on patrol with Buck the morning before Vin disappeared,” JD offered.
Josiah crossed to kneel in front of the ladies’ man. “Buck did Frank seem particularly interested in any one place you showed him?”
“No.” Buck dazedly shook his head.
“Think,” the preacher anxiously pleaded, “there must have been some place that made him happy or excited.”
Buck continued to shake his head, even as he mentally reviewed that day. Frank appeared to be interested in everything, checking every valley, every outcropping. The haze hanging over Buck’s thoughts suddenly cleared. The revelation was so strong, it forced him to his feet. “Fields’ ranch, he spent a lot of time checking it out.”
“Traitor,” Turner snarled at him, pushing away from Chris only to be intercepted by Josiah.
Cringing at the epitaph, Buck remembered when he had accused Chris and JD of the same crime.
“JD, start saddling the horses,” Chris ordered. “Josiah and I’ll join you as soon as we git our prisoner locked up. Nathan, git whatever supplies ya think ya might need. No tellin’ what he’s done ta Vin and Ezra.”
As the others rushed to complete their assigned tasks, Buck stood, staring after them. Why hadn’t Chris given him a duty to perform? Did his old friend think he couldn’t be trusted? Could he think he had helped Frank kidnap Vin and Ezra? Shaking off the shock paralyzing him, he almost ran from the room. He didn’t need to be told where he would be most essential. With five horses to groom and tack, JD would be in the greatest need of assistance.
Ezra licked the wet rock. The deed disgusted him, but the moisture took the edge off his thirst, making his cracked lips and raw throat bearable. He wished there was some way to transfer the liquid to Vin’s swollen mouth. The tracker had finally succumbed to his injuries and lost consciousness some hours before. At least, Ezra thought it was hours. With no method of telling time, it could have been mere minutes. He was well aware fear and pain could turn minutes into hours, hours into days.
His stomach rumbled, adding another affliction to his growling list. Though nothing, not even the welts on his back perturbed him as immeasurably as his own thoughts. Vin had taken his morning patrol and Vin was dying.
A soft glow in the night sky announced the approaching sunrise. How long before Turner returned to persist in his quest for vengeance? Ezra shuddered as he wondered what abasement would be directed against their persons this time. Would he be able to protect Vin from further assaults? He had quizzed the tracker, trying to discover what else Turner might have endured in Andersonville that could be used against them. Vin refused to answer. The very silence had been more terrifying than words could ever have been.
Feeling the life force of the man in his arms slipping away, Ezra searched for a pulse. It was so weak and thready it was almost non-existent. His dehydrated body found the moisture to form a single teardrop. It was the first time he could ever remember shedding a real tear. When he was young, he had learned how to manipulate people with them. As he grew older, he had found they were a liability. He had determined to restrict his crying to inside his mind where no one else could see, or try to use them to manipulate him.
Yet, here he was, crying for a man he had met only days before. And not ashamed of his conduct.
Thin rays of the new sun burst above the horizon, casting their light across the land. Now that it was safe, Chris kicked his horse into a canter. He had kept his mind on finding solid passage for himself, his horse and the men following him. It served no purpose to wonder what they would find when they reached their destination.
Even after all he had seen in the war, his faith in God had not shattered until his wife and son were taken from him in such a brutal fashion. Now, unable to pray to a benevolent god he no longer believed in, he hoped Josiah’s conviction was strong enough for both of them.
As they approached the abandoned ranch, Chris shouted his orders, “JD, search the house, Josiah and Nathan, check the barn.”
Each man split to cover their territory. Chris didn’t need to look to know Buck would accompany JD. In fact, he had counted on it. He didn’t feel comfortable addressing the ladies’ man directly. Not because he was angry at Buck. On the contrary, all he felt for his old friend was compassion. Buck had no inkling Frank had become a murderer when he took him on patrol. However, still hurting from Buck’s accusation of being a traitor, and his enmity towards Vin, Chris was reluctant to ask for assistance. Right now, there was too much between them for either to pretend everything was normal.
Despite the bonds the three ex-soldiers had formed in battle, Chris knew if Vin was dead, he wouldn’t wait for a court of law to judge Turner guilty. Frank would never leave his cell alive. He also knew, he would never be able to forgive Buck for the unwitting role he had played in contributing to Vin’s death. Their long friendship would be irrevocably over.
“Ezra’s horse is here.” Josiah called from the entrance to the barn.
The discovery lifted Chris’ spirits. At least they were looking in the right area. Now, all they needed to do was find the missing men.
“Nothing here,” JD reported, carefully exiting the partially built house.
Chris pulled down his hat, shielding his eyes from the glaring sun and carefully studied the desolate ranch. The sound of stone scrapping against stone drew his attention to the dried up well. “Over here,” he shouted, knowing even before he looked they had found their friends. But what condition would they be in if they couldn’t call for help?
He leaned over the wall, willing his eyes to adjust so they could see into the diffused darkness below. Relief was a momentary reaction when he saw Ezra’s pale face gazing up at him, disappearing as if it had never existed when he saw Vin’s head buried in the gambler’s chest.
Shedding his hat and gunbelt, Chris grabbed the rope. Pulling out his knife, he cut the nasty hook off and tied the line around his waist. “Lower me down.” Sitting on the wall, he swung his legs over the side. Josiah and Nathan barely had time to snatch the other end before he slid off his perch.
As he descended, the cold air brushed against his sun-heated skin, cooling it. Though it was a relief to him, Chris knew it had made the night unbearable for the two men forced to sit in its confines. He could see Ezra’s teeth chattering. He wanted to ask if Vin was alive, but was afraid to hear the answer.
Ezra’s lips moved but no sound emerged. Realizing the gambler had probably screamed for help until he no longer had a voice, Chris desperately tried to read what the swollen lips were trying to convey. Finally, he realized Ezra was repeating the same two words over and over. ‘He’s alive.’ In that moment, Chris forgave the conman for running out on them at the Seminole Village. He would never mention the incident again.
Barely able to slide his feet between the injured tracker and the wall, Chris pulled on the rope, giving himself some slack. He fought the renewed rage welling inside him when he saw the lacerations on Vin’s back. Glad his friend was unconscious and wouldn’t feel the agony he was about to inflict, Chris wrapped his arms around Vin’s chest. “Pull,” he shouted. Meeting the gambler’s pain filled eyes, he pledged, “I’ll be right back fer ya.”
A hand partially rose, two fingers together with the others folded back. A sad smile twisted Chris’ lips at the attempted salute.
Lifting his gaze, Chris was relieved to see Nathan peering over the edge at him. He knew it meant Buck and JD had joined Josiah. Not even the preacher was strong enough to pull up two grown men. “Vin’s hurt bad, Nathan.”
“I’ll take care ‘f ‘im,” the healer reassured.
There weren’t many men Chris trusted more than Nathan Jackson. Still, he was reluctant to relinquish his precious burden. Only the promise he had to keep gave him the strength to do so.
A soft moan issued from Vin’s cracked lips as he was shifted into the strong, gentle arms of the healer.
With one last anxious glance, Chris ordered, “Lower me back down.”
His thoughts with Vin, Chris was barely aware of his actions as he repeated his journey, the rope under his arms starting to chafe. This time, it was Buck who waited for him at the top of the well. The anguish in his dark blue eyes made Chris catch his breath. He was obviously blaming himself for Vin and Ezra’s injuries. Though Chris wanted to ease his old friend’s pain, he knew words wouldn’t be enough, not at this moment and not from him.
Allowing JD to help him out of the well, Chris untied the rope from his waist and hurried over to the half finished house where Nathan was kneeling at Vin’s side. Joining the healer, Chris whispered, “How is he?”
“He’s been shot, beaten, whipped and he’s dehydrated,” Nathan angrily revealed, “How do ya think he is?”
Chris knew Nathan’s anger wasn’t directed at him but at the man and the circumstances that had led to his patient’s condition.
His deep voice compassionate, Josiah asked, “What can we do, brother?”
“Git my bag.” As JD hurried to Nathan’s horse, the healer continued, “Git some water boilin’. I gotta git this bullet out and clean them cuts ’fore infection sets in, if it ain’t already.”
Josiah quickly moved off to gather wood for a fire. Though he hated to leave Vin’s side, Chris crossed to the horses to gather the canteens. He hoped there would be enough water for Nathan to complete his ministrations.
“Buck,” Nathan called, “How’s Ezra?”
“He’s been whipped, too.” The rage in the scoundrel’s voice was clearly audible. “He keeps tryin’ ta talk but no words’re comin’ out.”
“He’s probably dehydrated too. Give ‘im some water, but not too much at a time. Ya don’t wanna make ‘im sick.”
Chris dropped three of the canteens next to Josiah. The fourth, he handed to Buck. For a moment, their eyes met over the injured gambler. Chris hoped Buck could see forgiveness rather than the fury seething below the surface for the man responsible for Ezra and Vin’s suffering. When the blue gaze abruptly broke contact, he knew he had failed.
“Chris,” Nathan called, demanding the gunslinger’s attention, “give Josiah this willow bark. Tell ‘im ta make some tea.”
Dropping the last canteen next to the healer, Chris took the package and crossed to the fire where Josiah had two pots boiling. Without a word, the preacher took the packet. Tearing it open, he poured the contents into the smaller pot. Chris was relieved he didn’t need to relay Nathan’s instructions. There was a lump in his throat making speech nearly impossible.
As he turned away, he felt a hand briefly grip his shoulder, offering him strength. Grateful to the generous man for his understanding, Chris returned to help Nathan. Kneeling next to Vin, he asked, “What can I do now?”
Shaking the chain limiting Vin’s arm movements, Nathan growled, “We gotta git these off. I can’t lay his shoulder flat enough to git that bullet out.”
Despite the suffocating heat, Chris felt a chill go through him. “Nathan, place his hands as far from his body as you can.” Rising, Chris slid his gun from his holster. What he intended to do wasn’t safe. He could as easily put another bullet in his friend as split the metal chains. However, without a key there were no other options available.
His mouth opening to protest, Nathan caught his bottom lip between his teeth and silently pulled Vin’s arms away from his body, ignoring the hoarse cry of pain his conduct elicited.
Taking a deep breath, Chris released it slowly. Repeating the action, this time he held the air in his lungs as he fired two quick shots. He could tell by the sound he had struck his target. What he couldn’t tell was whether or not he was successful. He waited anxiously for Nathan to tell him.
Gently lifting Vin’s freed arms, Nathan laid them at his sides. “We’re still gonna need ta git these shackles and leg irons off fer me ta treat the wounds underneath.”
“Ezra’s wrists and ankles are pretty tore up, too,” Buck’s tremulous voice revealed.
“JD.” Chris looked around for the boy. “Git back ta town and find the key. Search Frank’s room. If ya don’t find it there, have Yosemite give ya a hand ta search Frank. Do whatever ya gotta do, but find that key. When ya come back, bring a wagon.”
JD crossed to his horse determination visible on his face. Uncharacteristically, a nod of his head was his only acknowledgment of the order.
“Take Ezra’s horse,” Josiah suggested. “He’s rested.”
Quickly switching his saddle to the gambler’s mount, JD found Chaucer’s bridle where Turner had carelessly discarded it and slipped it over the bay’s head.
Finding the boy’s familiar activity had a calming affect on his nerves, Chris watched until JD threw himself onto the saddle and cantered away. With nothing else to distract him, Chris returned his attention to Nathan and the gravely injured man at his feet.
“See if ya can git some water in him,” Nathan encouraged, mixing some of the precious fluid with the carbolic to dilute the acid.
Gently pushing long strands of dirty, matted hair behind Vin’s ears, Chris retrieved the canteen from the healer. With infinite care, he cradled Vin’s head in his arm and slowly lifted. A soft moan made him pause, his mental anguish as great or greater than the physical pain he was inflicting. Well aware dehydration was as deadly as any bullet, he ignored his own and his friend’s distress. When Vin was at a sufficient angle to allow water to flow down the dry throat, Chris held the canteen to the blood caked lips.
Aware of how invaluable even a drop of water was in these conditions, Chris carefully tipped the canteen. He felt a small measure of relief when he saw the bruised throat undulating with the liquid rolling down it.
Unwilling to add to Vin’s problems by making him sick, he pulled the canteen away when he felt a sufficient amount of its contents had been dispatched. With a tenderness his opponents would never have attributed to the gunslinger, he gently lowered Vin’s head to the blanket. “What now?”
“Now,” Nathan swallowed, causing his Adam's apple to violently bob, “I git this bullet out.”
Frank stopped pacing the small cell and studied the huge blacksmith sent to guard him. He had to get control of his anger. One thing he had learned in Andersonville was to hide his real feelings, especially rage. Manipulation worked much more efficiently if you appealed to a person’s sympathies. “Did ya fight in the war, Yosemite?”
When there was no response to his inquiry, Frank realized his "guard" was asleep. Angrily kicking and shaking the bars of his prison, he quickly regained his composure when Yosemite snorted loudly, waking with a jerk that almost tipped his chair over. “What’s goin’ on?”
“I apologize,” Frank insincerely confessed, “I accidentally kicked the bars.”
The blacksmith stared at his prisoner with unblinking eyes before settling back in his chair.
Though relaxed, Frank could see his guard was now awake and alert, giving him the opportunity to make his move. “Did you fight in the war, Yosemite?” he repeated.
There was no reaction to the question, verbal or otherwise.
Unwilling to fold, Frank played his ace. Once the large blacksmith discovered what Frank had already endured, he would unlock the cell door. He was as sure of this as he was that the sun would set in the west. “I fought fer two years myself, ‘fore I was captured. They put me in Andersonville.”
As expected, Yosemite reacted to the revelation. His feet dropped off the desk as he sat up in his chair.
“We were beaten, starved.” Careful to keep the triumph from his face, Frank detailed the horrors. “There weren’t enough shelters. We froze at night and cooked in the blistering sun by day. If you went to close to the fence, a guard would shoot ya. The devil hisself would’ve tried ta escape that hellhole.”
Leaning forward, Yosemite stared at the floor, his hands braced on his knees. “My brother was in Andersonville.”
“Then ya know what I’ve been through.” Frank’s chest swelled. Nothing would stop him from completing his task. By the time he was done there wouldn’t be a Reb west of the Mississippi. “Ya understand why those southern devils gotta die.”
Yosemite’s gaze shifted to rest on the captive. “My brother was beaten by a fellow prisoner. They wanted his bread. Now, he’s barely got enough teeth ta eat with. They done somethin’ to his throat so he can’t talk good. It seems the big, strong prisoners preyed on the small and weak.”
“Because there weren’t enough food ta go around.” Frank held the steady gaze for a few seconds before quickly dropping his head, afraid the blacksmith would see the truth in his eyes. “Everyone did what he had ta do ta survive.”
“Not everyone. I reckon them southern guards weren’t the only devils in that camp.”
Shocked, Frank stared at the huge man. He had lost. Yosemite would never understand he was avenging the wrongs done to men like the blacksmith’s brother.
The jail door flew open, slamming against the wall with a force that rattled the windows. JD breathlessly entered. Taking several deep breaths, he panted, “I need yer help, Yosemite.”
“Did ya find Tanner and Standish?” The blacksmith rose and walked around the desk.
“Yeah, they’re hurt pretty bad. Turner locked ‘em in shackles and leg irons. I searched his room fer the key, but it weren’t there.”
“He must have it on him.”
“That’s what I figure.” As both men turned to look at the prisoner, JD drew his gun. “Ya gonna give us the key, Turner?”
Crossing his arms over his chest, Frank smirked. “What do ya think?”
“Put yer hands on the bars,” JD instructed.
“And if I don’t?”
“I’ll shoot ya.”
“Kid, ya ain’t got it in ya ta shoot a man in cold blood.”
“A few hours ago, I couldn't've,” JD acknowledged, thumbing back the trigger on his gun. “I saw what ya done ta Vin and Ezra. Ya don’t deserve ta live.”
A derisive laugh rose in Frank’s throat, but never escaped his lips. The simple human decency glowing from the boy in their previous encounters had become muted. He would kill the unarmed man in front of him with little or no regret. Conceding defeat, Frank put his hands through the bars and stood quietly while Yosemite searched for the key. He kept his eyes on the boy, waiting for him to waver, giving him an opportunity to escape. But the brown eyes stayed locked with his own. Frank had never felt so subjugated, not even in Andersonville.
Blood covered Nathan’s hands. Vin’s blood. Buck looked away, feeling sick. It wasn’t the blood itself making him ill, he’d seen far worse on the battlefield. However, in the war, the men he had killed had been his enemy. It was kill or be killed. What had been done to Vin and Ezra was inhuman. And it had been done for no logical reason, by a man Buck had trusted.
A soft moan drew Buck’s attention to the gambler leaning against his chest. To be honest, Buck had been surprised by the man’s stoicism. As soon as Ezra’s voice returned, Buck had expected to hear a steady stream of complaints. He had been wrong again. The only words spoken were inquiries into Vin’s health and requests for water. Buck realized he had misjudged Ezra. If he had done it once, it was possible he had done it twice.
A cough, more felt than heard, made Buck reach for the canteen. Uncapping it, he gently rested the edge against the cracked lips and carefully gauged how high to raise it so Ezra would receive enough of the live saving liquid without drowning in it. The container was considerably lighter when he felt a tap on his leg signifying his patient was sated.
With Ezra’s needs attended to, Buck’s eyes involuntarily lifted to fasten on Nathan’s face, trying to ‘read’ the healer. The normally generous man was sporting a poker face that would make Ezra proud. Buck longed to ask about Vin’s condition, but didn’t feel he had the right. A hand touched his shoulder, making him reach for his gun.
“Easy, brother,” Josiah soothed.
An agonized cry from the man he had seen as his rival, made Buck doubt he would ever relax again without guilt gnawing at him. Would he ever be able to trust his own judgment?
“This isn’t your fault.”
Stunned, Buck stared at the preacher, wondering when he had learned to read minds.
“The good book says we’re our brother’s keeper, but we can’t be held accountable for everything they do. Eventually they must take responsibility for their own actions.”
“Vin and Ezra did, and look where it got ‘em,” Buck bitterly pointed out. “Frank got the drop on ‘em ‘cause they trusted him. And they trusted him ‘cause he was my friend.”
“You don’t know that.”
Blue eyes glistening with unshed tears, Buck shook his head. “Yeah, I do.”
“Don’t forget, he was my friend, too.”
Chris’s unexpected support caught Buck by surprise. He lifted his gaze, allowing it to rest on the one man in this world he completely trusted. The realization struck him like a fist in his gut. Even if he didn’t have faith in Vin, he should have relied on Chris’ insight regarding the tracker.
“You were right about something else,” Chris added.
Buck’s surprise turned to puzzlement.
“Two men should ride the patrols. If they hadn’t been alone, Frank wouldn’t have gotten the drop on Vin or Ezra.”
“Ya know that ain’t why I thought someone should ride with Vin.”
“The reason don’t matter anymore.”
“Yes, it does.”
“No.” Chris wiped a blood-covered hand on his pants. “It doesn’t.”
Looking at the wet stain on the black fabric, Buck conceded defeat. Reasons weren’t important, only results. From what little he could read on Nathan’s face, Vin might not live long enough to care who believed in him - and who didn’t.
“Buck.” Nathan briefly looked up, the hands stitching a cut on the lacerated back of his patient, stilled. “How’s, Ezra doin’?”
“Drinkin’ water like it’s that fancy French liquor he likes.”
“What about his back?”
“He ain’t bleedin’ no more, but he’s gonna need stitches and a couple places look like they could be infected.”
“I’ll check ‘im out as soon as I can.”
Feeling a tap on his leg, Buck looked down. The light thump, turned to a hard whack as the head on his chest rolled back and forth in protest. A raspy, “No,” issued from the bloody lips.
“Take it easy, Ezra,” the ladies’ man soothed.
“What’s wrong?” Nathan demanded, starting to rise.
“I think Ezra’s tryin’ ta tell you he’s fine. He wants ya ta take care of Vin.”
The sweat-soaked head stopped rocking from side to side and started nodding up and down. An indulgent smile on his lips, Buck gently cradled the damp locks with a large hand, forcing the movement to stop. With a touch of admiration in his voice, he whispered, “Has anyone ever told ya, yer a fraud, Ezra?”
Chris could feel a muscle in his back twist into a painful knot. He longed to shift position to ease the pain, but the precious bundle in his arms prevented him from seeking relief. He would grit his teeth and bury his agony. The muscle spasm was nothing compared to what Vin and Ezra had been forced to endure.
Soaking the cloth with the little water they had left, Chris gently wiped the flush face resting against his chest. Once all Vin’s wounds had been stitched and cleaned, Nathan suggested his patient might find it easier to breathe if they could locate something to raise his upper body. Chris had promptly volunteered to be his friend’s pillow. Despite the restrictions placed on him and the heat radiating from the fevered flesh, he didn’t regret his offer for a minute. At least, he could do for Vin what he had been unable to do for his wife and son - provide a safe haven.
Movement to his left caught his attention. Ezra was tossing restlessly in his sleep. Dropping the moist cloth across Vin’s sunburned neck, Chris laid his hand on the gambler’s shoulder. Careful to avoid the broken and swollen cuts, he gently squeezed hoping the act would translate into reassurance. Ezra immediately settled. A soft sigh whispering past his lips, Chris glanced over to where Buck, Josiah and Nathan were sleeping. The heavy breathing and muted snores indicated they had not been disturbed by Ezra’s nightmare. Chris was relieved. With no sleep last night and another sleepless night looming ahead, it seemed prudent everyone get as much rest as possible. Knowing the responsibility propped against his chest would prevent him from closing his eyes for longer than a few minutes, Chris had taken first watch, with no intention of waking anyone to relieve him. He had never been able to sleep while the sun was shining anyway.
When he had confessed his guilt to Buck concerning Frank Turner, he hadn’t done so to make his old friend feel better. Without having talked to either man, he knew Frank had been able to get the drop on Vin and Ezra because Turner was his friend.
Vin meant so much more to him in just these few days of acquaintance, than Frank ever had. Yet, that first night when Turner had been rude to the tracker, he hadn’t spoken a word of reproach. If he had supported Vin then, would they be here like this now? Or, would Frank have moved on, continuing his killing spree in another town? One good thing had come out of all this, the murderer had been stopped. Chris knew Vin would consider his life a small price to pay to end the senseless killings.
In this instance, Chris didn’t agree.
He didn’t just want Vin to recover, he needed it. Just how badly scared him. Standing over Sarah’s and Adam’s graves, he had sworn never to let anyone get close to him again. Though it had taken a while, he had finally driven Buck away. Not once in the intervening years had he been tempted to break his oath - only to have it shatter when he looked across a dusty street into solemn blue eyes. He couldn’t shut Vin out, he hadn’t even tried.
“Ya want me ta relieve ya, Chris?”
Buck’s sudden appearance at his side surprised Larabee, resulting in an automatic, “No!” to the suggestion.
Unable to hide his disappointment, Buck nodded, “I understand.”
“Buck,” Chris hastily put a hand on the scoundrel’s arm to prevent him from leaving. “I’m not mad at ya. I jus’ need ta be here.”
“Why? Because you weren’t there for Sarah and Adam?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“It won’t bring them back, pard.”
“I owe him.” Chris looked down at the flushed face. He could feel the slow beat of the giving heart against his chest. “He brought me back.”
The hurt in Buck’s voice was clearly audible. “Why him? Why now?”
“I don’t know.” Chris lifted his gaze, catching Buck’s eyes with his own. “But just because I have Vin, it don’t mean I don’t need your friendship.”
“Ya coulda fooled me.”
Chris winced at the bitterness in the quivering tone. “I can understand if yer hurt and ya wanna strike back, Buck. But, I’m the one who’s earned yer wrath, not Vin.”
Sad blue eyes rested on the battered face of the man cradled in Chris’ arms. “He didn’t deserve any of this, my mistrust, yer sheltering, or Frank’s vengeance. That boy didn’t do nothin’, yet he’s the one sufferin’.”
“He wouldn’t have it any other way if it meant keepin’ any of the rest of us from harm.”
“He ain’t got a selfish bone in his body,” Buck agreed, shaking his head in amazement.
“Sounds like ya know ‘im better’n ya thought.”
Laying a hand on Vin’s leg, Buck whispered, “I jus’ hope I git a chance ta git ta know ‘im even better.”
The rattle of a wagon assaulted Chris’ ears, breaking a heavy silence. Without conscious thought, he reached for his guns with one hand, while tightening his grip on Vin with the other.
Rising, Buck crossed to the partially collapsed wall of the old ranch house and looked out. “It’s JD.”
“Buck, see if he done brought water.”
Nathan’s voice rang out, devoid of sleep, making Chris wonder how long the healer had been awake.
“All right.” Buck moved away from the protection of the wall.
“Then, tell ‘im ta unhitch the team and let ‘em cool down in the barn.”
Surprised by the order, Chris argued, “I thought ya wanted ta git Vin and Ezra back ta town?”
“It’ll be better for ‘em not ta have that sun beaten down on ‘em.” Nathan laid a calloused hand on Ezra’s forehead, checking for fever. “We got enough blankets ta keep ‘em warm and the wagon will be goin’ slow. It should be safe enough ta travel at night.”
Chris had to fight his own instinct to protect Vin and reluctantly bowed to Nathan’s expertise. He just wished he didn’t feel so helpless.
The moans and groans of the two injured men echoed in Buck’s ears as he helped Nathan carry Ezra up the stairs to the room the healer used as an infirmary. The sun was just peeking above the horizon, warming the chill air. It had been a long, slow journey. With each mile, Buck’s guilt intensified until he felt he would drown in it.
With Vin already occupying the only bed, he and Nathan gently eased Ezra on his stomach on a pile of blankets JD had prepared as a temporary bed.
“I’ll go find somethin’ more comfortable fer Ezra,” JD offered.
Nathan nodded assent as he checked his patients.
“Well?” Chris demanded, hovering protectively over Vin.
Hooking a sweat-soaked lock of long hair behind Vin’s ear, Nathan sighed. “Fever’s got a hold of both of ‘em.”
“It means we keep tryin’ ta git fluids down ‘em ta keep ‘em cool.”
“I’ll get some water.” Josiah grabbed the pail by the door and emptied it into the washbasin before heading down to the pump to get more of the precious liquid.
Wanting to help, but unsure if he would be welcome, Buck watched as Nathan handed Chris a rag and put the filled basin between the two injured men. Wetting the cloth he had retained, the healer knelt at Ezra’s side, wiping the flushed face with the cool rag.
The twin moans tore at Buck. Unable to watch the suffering, he swallowed the bile in his throat and rushed out of the clinic nearly knocking Josiah over in his mad dash. Mumbling a hasty apology, he tripped down the stairs.
At the bottom, he held on to the railing to keep from collapsing and looked around. When his eyes rested on the jail, the weakness deserted him. Anger putting strength back in his legs, he crossed the street.
With barely restrained rage, he threw the door open. Fixing his gaze on the man occupying the nearest cell, he addressed the blacksmith. “Thanks fer yer help, Yosemite. I’ll keep an eye on the prisoner now.”
Rising from the chair behind the desk, Yosemite asked, “How’re Mr. Tanner and Mr. Standish?”
“Hurtin’.” Buck didn’t trust himself to elaborate.
“I’m sorry to hear that, them’s good boys.”
Buck didn’t acknowledge what he had only learned himself in the last few days. How had this man, a virtual stranger seen what he hadn’t? No, he silently corrected, he had seen it, he just hadn’t accepted it. He’d let his head rule his heart.
After the blacksmith shuffled out the door, Buck closed it behind him. He didn’t want any witnesses. Two nights of no sleep had left his eyes burning in protest. He rubbed them, hoping to keep exhaustion at bay for a little longer. “Why, Frank?”
“You of all people can ask me that?” Turner rose from his bunk, glaring at Wilmington. “You traitor.”
“They’re my friends.”
“Ya can’t be friends with murderin’ Rebs.”
“The war’s been over a long time, Frank. They ain’t our enemies any more.”
“How kin you believe that?” Frank crossed to the bars, gripping them with a strength that leached the blood from his fingers. “Ya saw what they done.”
His voice so soft it was almost inaudible above the crashing of a passing wagon outside the jail, Buck sadly regarded this friend who had become a stranger. “I also saw what we did. We weren’t no better or no worse.”
“They deserved everything we did to ‘em.”
“Why?” Buck held Turner’s eyes with his own.
“Because they’re devils.”
“Vin and Ezra don’t look no different than you or me.”
Frank turned away, returning to his bunk. “Then yer blind as well as dumb.”
“Ya killed innocent people, Frank.
“There is no such thing as an innocent devil.”
“According to one of the wires JD got, one of those devils ya killed was a six-month-old baby.” Buck’s voice cracked. Wiping at his tear-filled eyes, he hissed, “She hadn’t lived long enough to be anythin’ except an angel.”
“She would’a bred more devils. I couldn’t let that happen.”
Buck stared at the embittered face in horror. So much evil couldn’t be the product of a year in a prisoner of war camp. It had to have been there long before. Why hadn’t he seen it? He had heard stories of how some of the men in Andersonville had preyed on their fellow inmates. Now, he knew Frank had been one of them, willing to do anything to ensure his own survival. Though it was stifling hot, Buck’s body shivered when he remembered his first sight of Vin and Ezra as Chris hauled them from the well. He felt no pity for their tormentor.
“We already wired Judge Travis,” Buck revealed. “He’ll be here in a few days.”
“Only someone who has suffered as I have can judge me.”
“It don’t matter who’s on the bench. You’re gonna hang.”
For the first time, Turner’s face showed real fear. “I can’t. The devils haven’t been vanquished. My job ain’t done. Ya gotta help me, Buck.”
“Goodbye, Frank.” Buck pivoted away from the mad rambling. Opening the door, he stepped outside and took a deep breath. He felt dirty, all the way down to his soul. Dropping shakily onto the chair by the entrance, he wondered if he would ever feel clean again.
No matter where he went or how he tried to get away from it, Vin couldn’t find a place to ease his suffering. Hellmira. It was a fitting bastardization of the prison camp’s name. Inside the buildings the heat was suffocating. Outside, every piece of shade had been claimed by other prisoners. Vin could feel his lungs fighting for every breath. His chest ached in concert with the other muscles of his body. He couldn’t remember when he had been so miserable.
“Come on, Vin, try to drink some of this.”
He knew that voice, trusted it, but he didn’t know why. Cool metal touched his bottom lip. He jerked in surprise. A moan he couldn’t trap in his throat escaped. Fear filled him, he had shown weakness.
“Please, Vin, ya need ta drink.”
The sweet taste of water filled his mouth. He eagerly swallowed it, desperately seeking more.
“Easy now, there’s plenty more where this came from.”
He shouldn’t believe the voice. It wouldn’t be the first time he had been lied to so someone could take advantage of him.
“That’s it, yer doin’ fine.”
Chris. He could put a name to the voice. But, Chris shouldn’t be here, not in this hellhole. He fought the hands holding him, determined to save his friend. Chris didn’t belong here. He wouldn’t know how to survive.
“Easy, Vin, no one is goin’ ta hurt you.”
He fought harder, ignoring the reassurance. He didn’t care what they did to him, they couldn’t be allowed to hurt Chris. A scream of rage echoed in his mind.
“It’s all right, Vin. No one will hurt us.”
A hand pushed his hair back as it gently massaged his temple. Though he tried not to let it, the lulling motion soothed his aching head. Against his will, he relaxed, confident Chris would watch his back.
A soft cry broke through Ezra’s exhausted slumber. Fighting the weights pulling at his eyelids, he slowly lifted them to see Vin fighting Chris Larabee. Angered by the sight, Ezra tried to rise. A hoarse cry of agony greeted the movement. Fire scored a path across his back and wrists.
“Let that be a lesson to ya.”
Through pain blurred vision, Ezra saw Nathan’s concerned face. He was surprised that this man he had initially treated so shabbily should be solicitous of his welfare. However, Ezra’s main concern was for the injured man in the next bed. A man he had tried so hard to keep alive in their dank, cold prison. “Vin?”
Nathan glanced at the struggling pair. “His fever’s still high. He keeps having nightmares. We aint’ sure of what.”
Though he was fairly certain he knew where Vin was visiting in his mind, Ezra didn’t reveal his knowledge. It was Vin’s story to tell, or leave untold if he wished. If the others knew Vin thought he was back in a prison camp it wouldn’t make a difference in his medical treatment. However, it could affect his emotional recovery.
“Ezra, I’m gonna turn ya on yer side so’s ya can drink some tea fer me.”
Even as he dreaded what was to come, Ezra eagerly anticipated the after effects of the beverage Nathan was offering. He knew from experience it would ease the discomfort of his wounds and help him fall asleep. In the oblivion of slumber, he could forget the damage done to his flesh and his soul.
Even foreseeing the pain, he was unprepared for the degree of agony that assaulted him as Nathan lifted him. Wishing to escape his pain wracked world, he allowed his gaze to rest on the man he had so recently been incarcerated with. Somehow, Chris had managed to assuage Vin’s fears. The tracker lay quietly, resting against Chris Larabee’s chest. Ezra enviously watched as a hand that could draw a gun faster than seemed humanly possible, gently stroked the sweaty brow. Ezra knew he would never in his life see a friendship such as this one. He felt privileged to be in their company.
Walking out of the small infirmary, Chris staggered to the railing. Resting his forearms on the top, he leaned heavily on them squinting against the bright sunlight. It had been two days since he had been outside. Two days of coaxing Vin out of one horror filled nightmare after another. The few intelligible words that passed the cracked lips only added more mystery to the younger man’s past, never any insight.
His eyes closed, Chris scratched at the scraggly blond beard covering his jaw and chin. The persistent itch was enough to drive him crazy. Why Vin would habitually go several days without shaving was beyond him. Obviously, the younger man’s irritation level was at a much higher threshold. From the nightmares he had witnessed, Chris knew Vin’s tolerance had come at a high price.
Breathing deeply of air untainted by the various odors of the medicines Nathan was administering, Chris watched Mrs. Potter go into the general store; JD come out of the saloon; Yosemite cross to the livery. Life kept going on while Vin and Ezra were fighting for theirs.
The crack of a whip echoed through the air, making him flinch. He had seen first hand the damage the cruel instrument could inflict in the wrong hands. Following the reverberation to its source, he saw the stage roll to a stop in front of the newspaper office. Her hair in disarray, Mary Travis walked out to greet her father-in-law. Dust coated his black coat and craggy face. Chris’ gaze shifted to the jail as he equated the judge’s visit with their prisoner.
Frank Turner would hang. There was no doubt in his mind. Often, as he had helped ease Vin through the terrors of his past, Chris had cursed his old friend’s name. Faced with the reality of Frank’s fate, he found his emotions were mixed. He growled, angrily pushing himself away from the railing. How could he empathize with a murderer? Why should he care what happened to the man who nearly destroyed the life he had just started to live again?
The door behind him opened. The smell of carbolic and mint accompanied Nathan as he stepped outside, carefully closing the door behind him.
“Their fevers are down and they’re both asleep,” the healer softly revealed, leaning on the railing next to Larabee.
Staring at his hands, Chris asked, “Are they goin’ ta be all right?”
“They’ll live . . .”
“No,” Chris interrupted. He had seen the extensive damage done to both men’s wrists and ankles. With barely controlled anger, he repeated, “Will they be all right?”
“I don’t know,” Nathan confessed. “Some of them cuts ‘re real deep.”
That was what Chris had been thinking. Having it verified by a man qualified to expertly diagnose their condition, stole the air from his lungs. What would Vin do if he couldn’t walk or hold his gun? Ezra’s life was his hands. What if he couldn’t deal cards? Would either of them have the courage to accept help. This was all so new to all of them, did they realize their friends would be there for them no matter what?
Eyes on the man greeting his daughter-in-law, Nathan said, “I think Judge Travis should see what was done ta Vin and Ezra. Give ‘im an idea of the type of man he’ll be sentencing.”
“I guess yer right.”
“It should be done while they’re asleep. You know how Vin can get. The Judge should see them bruises on his torso.”
Unable to hide how distasteful he would find the chore, Chris nodded. “I’ll git him.”
As soon as the door closed behind Nathan, Ezra opened his eyes. His hands were positioned on the pillow beside his head, facilitating the experiment he wished to conduct. Gritting his teeth, he sent a signal from his brain to the fingers on his left hand, ordering them to oscillate. When they grudgingly complied, a tiny piece of the wall of fear surrounding him collapsed. But there were more challenges ahead, more chances for failure.
The next command was directed to his palm. Make the fingers fold. Though the pain was much more intense, the command was obeyed.
Panting in reaction to the self-inflicted hurt, Ezra lay quiet, allowing his body to heal. When he felt sufficiently recovered, he initiated the last experiment. Manipulate the thumb. This action, for more than one reason, caused his eyes to fill with tears. The unbearable agony was accompanied by intense relief. At least he would have use of one hand.
As he turned his head to repeat the maneuvers on his right hand, he pressed his face against the pillowcase, wiping away the evidence of his attempts. Steeling himself for what was to come, he sent the first order to his fingers, so intent on the results, he didn’t hear the door open.
“Don’t, Ezra.” Nathan’s fist gently wrapped around the gambler’s. “Ya have ta let the muscles heal. Ya use ‘em too soon ya’ll could cause more damage.”
The chink Ezra had made in his wall of fear was reinforced by Nathan’s words. Hoping to distract the healer, he asked, “How is, Mr. Tanner?”
Nathan frowned, glancing over at his other patient. “Hopefully not as good at faking sleep as you are.”
“Why is that, Mr. Jackson?”
“Chris is bringing up Judge Travis. I think it’s important fer him ta see what Turner did to ya’ll.”
Uneasy at the healer’s evasion, Ezra had to agree. “I concur, an informed judge is a just judge.”
“Don’t reckon there’ll be any justice here. Ya can’t torture a man who’s already been ta hell. Hangin’ ‘im is too easy. He ain’t gonna suffer like he made you and Vin suffer.”
“At least he will no longer be able to prey on innocent citizens.”
“Now that’s what I call justice.”
Screams of agony echoed around him. Vin covered his ears with his hands, trying to block out their cries. The train bringing the latest shipment of prisoners had crashed early that morning. The dead had been thrown into a mass grave. The injured were carried into the prison camp, their wounds untreated. Those who still had voices begged for death.
“It’s all right, Vin. There ain’t no one here ta hurt ya.”
He knew that voice. How could Nathan lie to him? He had seen what they would do. A whimper escaped Vin’s lips. Fearful the sound would draw attention to himself, he drew his legs up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them in an attempt to make himself as small as possible.
“Vin, calm down, you’ll hurt yerself.”
Calm down? How could he calm down? He could see the strong preying on the weak. The poor bastard with the mangled leg had already lost his shirt, now someone was trying to take what was left of his pants. They didn’t even have the courtesy to wait for him to die. Vin put a hand over his mouth to suppress the sob of sympathy for the nameless soldier.
Footsteps approaching his position made him curl tighter into himself. What would they try to do to him this time? Half-starved, how much longer would he have the strength to fight them off?
Would this nightmare ever end?
Chris set a pace that would be comfortable for the older man walking at his side. The chance to continue his association with the six men who had fought at his side in the Seminole Village had been his initial reason for accepting Travis’ offer to keep the peace in Four Corners. Respect for the judge limping beside him, had been his second. Even at his advanced age the man exuded power. However it was yielded with prudence and impartiality.
“Mr. Larabee, are you sure this can’t wait until after I’ve had a chance to clean up?” Travis brushed at the front of his dust-covered coat.
“They’re both asleep. Nathan seems ta think it would be better if they were.”
“Better for them or me?”
A corner of Chris’ mouth twisted with amusement. “Better fer Vin. He’s got this thing about lettin’ people see him without clothes on.”
“The shy type.”
“Seems unnatural from a man who is so intimate with nature.”
Chris had never thought about it before, but the judge was right. Being naked was natural, only humans chose to cover their flesh with artificial coverings. When the Indians searched their souls in a sweat lodge, they first shed the trappings of the flesh.
“Makes you wonder what happened to him to make him so modest,” the judge reflected.
Another mystery to uncover concerning his friend. Chris had a feeling the answer would not be forthcoming from the reserved man, now or ever. And if it was the cause of Vin’s reticence, did he really want to know the details?
A second sense, made Chris start to run when he saw Nathan appear at the door to the clinic.
“Vin’s havin’ another nightmare,” Nathan shouted. “I can’t git I’m ta settle down. He’s gonna hurt hisself further.”
Taking the stairs two at a time, Chris breathlessly entered the small room and hurried to Vin’s side. Having learned that holding the agitated man down merely made him grapple harder, Chris put a hand on a fevered brow and softly tried to get Vin’s attention. “Easy, cowboy, I’m here. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
The body stopped struggling but the fear on the young face remained. His stomach twisting at the petrified expression, Chris silently swore he would kill whoever put it there - if he ever discovered who it was. “That’s it, cowboy.” Chris’ fingers gently massaged the taut temple, eliciting a soft sigh. “See, it doesn’t hurt so much when you don’t fight.”
Chris was aware Judge Travis had arrived, panting from the exertion of climbing the steep stairs. He ignored him, just as he had learned to tune out Nathan and Ezra. His full attention would remain focused on Vin until the younger man’s fever went down and he escaped his nightmare.
When he saw Chris running, Buck took a few steps, intent on following, only to realize he probably wouldn’t be welcome.
“I’m sure your assistance would be appreciated, brother.” Josiah’s huge hand rested on Buck’s shoulder, offering comfort.
Snorting, Buck shook his head. “I’m the enemy.”
Troubled blue eyes shifted to the preacher’s puzzled features. “The man who tortured them was my friend.”
“Chris is your friend, too, the man you still ride beside. If you are to be judged for who your friends are, I’d say Chris is a mighty convincing character witness.”
“I don’t think Chris’ll be wantin’ me ridin’ with him no more.”
“I haven’t known the man long,” Josiah conceded. “But, I haven’t noticed he hides his feelings. If he didn’t want you around, you’d know it.”
A tight smile curled one end of Buck’s mouth. “Yer right, preacher. Ya kin learn a lot about Chris on short acquaintance.”
“I’m sure Ezra and Vin don’t blame you either.”
“They should, if I had trusted Vin none of this would’ve happened.”
“Turner tortured Vin because he was from the South, not because of your feelings towards him.”
“Why, Josiah?” Buck locked his gaze with the older man’s.
“I don’t know why Turner . . .”
“No,” Buck interrupted, shifting his gaze to the clinic. “Why do ya trust Vin? Why did you all trust him and I didn’t?”
The tone of his voice as soothing as a cool breeze on a hot day, Josiah disclosed, “Because you were scared.”
“Of Vin?” Buck snorted.
“Of Vin’s power over Chris. Vin did what no one else has been able to do in three years. He made Chris want to live.”
A sob caught in Buck’s throat. “I couldn’t do that fer him.”
“I guess I was a little jealous,” Buck ruefully confessed.
“Not just jealous,” Josiah gently corrected. “You wanted to protect Chris, try to keep him from being hurt again. That’s a good friend.”
“I did a lousy job.”
“Then you’ll just have to do better in the future.”
“If they’ll let me.”
“Mutual forgiveness of each vice, such are the Gates of Paradise,” Josiah reassured.
Frank tugged at the ropes securing his hands behind his back. His eyes searched the crowd as he was led slowly through them to the gallows. They couldn’t kill him. His mission was not yet completed. There had to be someone who believed in his cause. Someone who would save him so he could continue his vengeance.
But all those brave enough to meet his eyes were hostile - even Chris Larabee. The gunslinger stood by a wheelchair, one hand resting on its occupant’s shoulder. The gambler barely seemed to notice. His gaze was fixed on the noose.
Frank’s heart was filled with despair. Not only had he failed to kill the Southern, he permitted a man he had called friend to consort with the Reb devils. He should have killed Larabee, instead of allowing the sickness to spread.
Stumbling as he was led up the stairs, Frank looked for a friendly face. He was sure Buck would be here. Wilmington was his salvation, his last hope. Buck wouldn’t let him down.
Glancing at the sleeping tracker, Buck rose from his chair and crossed to the window. Vin’s fever had broken the night before. He was finally sleeping peacefully.
When the judge had passed his verdict finding Turner guilty of murder and sentenced him to hang, no one had been surprised. Despite what Frank had done, Buck knew he couldn’t attend the proceedings. So, he had volunteered to watch Vin, allowing Nathan and Chris to witness the execution. Both had suffered along with their patients and needed the closure. Anger burned deeply in both men. Maybe watching the man responsible for their rage hang would sooth their ravished souls.
Surprised, Buck turned to see confused blue eyes trained on him. Nathan had assured him Vin would sleep until he returned. Trust Vin to do the opposite of what was expected of him. Forcing a smile on his face, Buck slipped back onto the chair next to the injured man’s bed, a seat still warm from Chris’ many hours of occupation. “Welcome back, pard. I’ll go git Nathan or Chris.”
The raspy voice slicing his tender heart, Buck retrieved a cup of water and held it to Vin’s swollen lips. “‘Cause they’ll wanna know yer awake.”
“Where are they?” Vin sucked weakly at the drops of water clinging to his lips.
Wanting to wait until Vin was stronger before revealing Turner’s fate, Buck hedged, “They’re jus’ outside. I’ll git ‘em.”
The panic in the hoarse voice keeping him in his seat, Buck soothed, “He’s with Nathan and Chris. He’s all right.”
“Turner whipped ‘im.”
Barely able to get the words past the lump in his throat, Buck acknowledged, “I know.”
“I’m sorry, Buck.”
“What?” Buck stared at the bruised face, seeing the sorrow Vin could not hide. “What have you got ta be sorry fer?”
“I took yer friends.”
Unable to understand what Vin was trying to say, Buck shook his head.
“First Chris, now Frank. They’re hangin’ ‘im, ain’t they?”
“He deserves it, Vin,” Buck softly admitted. “Not jus’ because of what he did ta you and Ezra. He’s killed people in other towns for no other reason than they were from the South.”
“Thought he might’ve.”
Buck looked at his hands. “As fer Chris, ya didn’t take ‘im from me. I lost ‘im when Sarah and Adam died. I was jus’ too stubborn ta see it. Yer the best thing that’s happened ta him in three years. I shoulda been grateful to ya, instead of suspecting ya.”
“Right surprised anyone trusts me with this price on my head.”
Offering the weak man more water, Buck shook his head. “What is it ol’ Abe said? Actions speak louder than words. Reckon a president should know what he’s talkin’ about. Ya saved Nathan--”
“I had help.”
“Ya saved them people in the Seminole Village--”
“Weren’t like I done it alone.”
“And, ya saved Chris.”
Blue eyes, dulled by pain studied Buck’s face. “He save himself, Buck. I was jus’ there.”
“Thank ya fer being there.” Realizing how tired the younger man was, Buck pulled the blanket up to the bruised chin. “Now go back ta sleep ‘fore ya git me in trouble with Nate and Chris.”
Eyelids, so pale the blue veins were clearly visible, obediently rolled down. Buck smiled sadly, grateful the tracker was too exhausted to fight his suggestion. He would take any victory he could get.
Chris listened at the infirmary door before slowly opening it. When he saw Buck quickly put a finger to his lips, requesting silence, he closed his eyes in relief and rested his head against the door frame. Muscles that had been taut since Vin first disappeared, finally started to relax. Aching and heartsick, he collapsed onto a chair Nathan kept on the porch and closed his eyes. Resisting the urge to open them, he used his other senses to keep track of what was around him. He heard the soft click of the infirmary door and closing and followed the rattle of spurs across the porch. A scrapping sound indicated Buck was dragging an empty crate. A soft thud indicated he had placed the makeshift chair next to Chris’. He kept his eyes closed. There weren’t many men he trusted enough to leave himself so vulnerable. The silence between them was comforting, undemanding. A big difference from just days ago.
“I’m sorry, Chris.”
Hearing the mournful note in the ladies’ man’s voice, Chris thought carefully before replying. He didn’t want to say anything that would make his friend flee. “Ya got nothin’ ta be sorry fer.”
“Almost gittin’ Vin and Ezra killed is somethin’.”
“I didn’t see ya shoot Vin or whip Ezra.”
“I might as well have.” His arms resting on his knees, Buck hung his head. “Vin woke up while you were gone. He knew, Chris, he knew it all and he wasn’t mad at me.”
Chris looked out onto the busy street below. “‘Fore Frank took ‘im, Vin was talkin’ ‘bout leavin’ Four Corners.”
“Why would he do that?” Buck looked up in surprise.
“He knew he was comin’ between me and you.”
Buck stared down at his hands. “How’d ya git ‘im ta stay?”
“Told ‘im if he was leavin’, I was goin’ with ‘im.”
“I thought ya would.” Buck tried and failed to keep the disappointment from his voice.
“Buck,” Chris’ tone was gentle as he pointed out, “we aren’t the same men we were three years ago. We can’t wipe out what’s happened and go back to the way things were. The strong foundation of our friendship is still there, but the walls can never be rebuilt.” A silence fell between them. Finally, Chris whispered, “There is hope we can build new walls.”
Forcing a smile, Buck shook his head. “Damn, Chris, I think you’ve been spendin’ too much time with Josiah.”
“There are worse things I could do with my time.”
“As long as ya don’t learn ta cheat at cards like Ezra, I guess we’ll be all right.” This time, the smile on Buck’s face was genuine.
“I heard you slurring my good name, Mr. Wilmington.” Ezra was leaning heavily on Nathan as the healer helped him up the stairs.
Quickly rising, Buck moved to take Ezra’s other elbow. “Ain’t exactly a secret.”
“I don’t cheat,” Ezra indignantly denied. “It’s call skill. I you had any, you would know what I was talking about.”
“Hey, I’ve won my share of games.”
“Against amateurs, no doubt.”
Winking at Chris, Buck snorted, “Are you challenging me?”
“Only if you have the currency to support your claim.”
Chris softly groaned as he allowed his aching body to meld with the chair. The combatants lowered their voices as they entered the infirmary. The quiet banter relieved his raw soul as the chair had done for his body. After what had transpired, he had expected Buck and Ezra to leave Four Corners. Buck had lost a friend. Ezra, very nearly his life. Both valid reasons to want to brush the dust of this town from their clothes. Yet, their plans for the future included each other. So, he only had to worry about a stubborn tracker.
“Well, Ezra,” Nathan sat up straight, pulling the blanket back over the gambler’s chest. “I think ya kin sleep in yer own bed tonight.”
“It’s about time,” Vin cheered, throwing off his covers.
“I said, Ezra,” Nathan emphatically repeated.
Vin slumped back onto his pillow a soft moan escaping his lips when his back made contact with the bed. “How come he kin go and I can’t?”
“'Cause you still got a hole in yer shoulder and with them feet of yers, ya can’t walk across the room much less to yer wagon.”
“Not without bustin’ my stitches. I ever tell ya what I do ta people who destroy my handiwork?” The two men exchanged glares. Nathan broke eye contact first. “I’m gonna go over to the hotel and git yer breakfast. Don’t do nothin’ while I’m gone ta piss me off.”
“Ya said it yerself, what kin I do?” Vin innocently inquired.
“With you, I kin only imagine.”
Ezra waved a hand towards the door. “You may rest assured, Mr. Jackson. I will keep an eye on your recalcitrant patient during your absence.”
“Yeah.” Nathan shifted his gaze to the gambler. “And who’s gonna keep an eye on you?”
“I assure you, I haven’t been in need of a babysitter for many years.”
His eyes resting on one man, then the other, Nathan growled, “I’f’n you all wanna leave this room before yer old and gray, you’ll be in those beds when I git back.”
“On my honor as a gentleman.” Ezra held his hand up, reinforcing his verbal pledge.
As the healer backed out, closing the door behind him, Ezra released a sigh of relief. In the almost two weeks he had been incarcerated in the small infirmary, he had never had a moment alone with Vin. Now, that moment had finally arrived and he wasn’t sure how to proceed.
“Jus’ spit it out, Ezra.”
Shocked, Ezra stared at his companion. “I beg your pardon?”
“Somethin’s been gnawin’ at ya. Ya best say what’s on yer mind and say it fast. I don’t reckon Nathan’s gonna be gone long.”
“Both of your observations are correct, Mr. Tanner.” Ezra looked at Vin as though he had never seen him before. “Though, I’m at a loss to understand how you came to such logical conclusions.”
Exasperated, Vin growled, “Will ya jus’ git on with it?”
“Certainly.” Taking a deep breath, Ezra admitted, “I wanted to apologize.”
“To you, of course.”
“Ain’t no of course about it. I reckon ya ain’t done nothin’ ta be apologizin’ fer.”
Ezra bit his lip and looked away. “You were riding my patrol when Turner captured you.”
“What difference does that make?”
“You can’t be serious?” Ezra looked up, expecting to see derision on the tracker’s face. Instead, he saw genuine puzzlement.
“It don’t rightly matter where I was, or what I was doin’, Turner woulda tried ta kill me.”
“I agree, but . . .”
“Way I sees it, ridin’ that patrol coulda saved our lives. He didn’t kill us right off. It gave the boys time ta find us.”
Ezra looked at his companion with new eyes. From the first moment he saw Vin, he knew this was a man he could trust. However, he had been deceived by the ratty clothes, long hair and frontier pronunciation into believing Vin to be unversed. Obviously, what the man lacked in the way of a formal education he made up for in common sense.
Nodding his head, Ezra conceded, “I bow to our impeccably judicious deduction, Mr. Tanner.”
“Does that mean ya agree with me?”
“I best enjoy it then, I reckon it ain’t gonna happen again.”
“I would be very astonished if it did.”
Chris locked his arms with Nathan’s under Vin’s knees and along the healing back. As gently as they could, they lifted the weak man and carried him out to the chair they had prepared for him on the porch. Thick pillows along the back, sides and seat would cushion the maimed body. A box, covered with a thick blanket, would support the tender feet, preventing them from bearing any weight.
“One hour, Vin,” Nathan reminded, “then it’s back ta bed.”
“Aw, Nate, it ain’t like I’m ridin’ a horse here.”
“By the end of the hour, yer gonna feel like you’ve ridden fifty miles. This is the first time ya been outta bed in over two weeks, yer gonna tire easy.”
“I’ll keep an eye on ‘im,” Chris promised.
Nathan scowled. “With this one, ya need ta keep both eyes on ‘im.”
Ducking his head to hide a smile, Chris reassured, “I’ll remember.”
As Nathan descended the stairs to the street, Chris pulled a chair close to his friend and sat down. A relieved sigh escaped his lips. Though there were still some worries nagging at him, he allowed himself to relax and enjoy the quiet companionship. It had been too long since they had looked out on this street together.
Concerned by the pain he heard in the raspy voice, Larabee partially rose. “Ya need, Nathan?”
“No.” Vin covered one of Chris’ hands with his own. “I’m fine.”
“Ya don’t sound it.”
“Chris, do ya think I’m a coward?”
Vin looked away, blushing. The red spots contrasted sharply with his pale face. “Don’t make me say it again.”
Confused and angry that Vin could believe for a single minute he had been a coward, Chris forced his voice to remain neutral. “Why would ya think such a thing?”
“Turner. He seemed ta think wantin’ ta live made me a yellowbelly.”
Wondering if the man’s ghost would haunt them forever, Chris shook his head. “First, Frank was crazy. Ya can’t believe anythin’ he said. Second, he was a coward himself. Do ya think ya can compare yerself ta him?”
“I’m guessin’ Frank’s so-called quest came from a guilty conscious. Yosemite’s brother was in Andersonville. He said the strong prisoners preyed on the weak. Their worst enemy wasn’t the guards or the lack of food and water, it was their fellow prisoners. We’ll probably never know fer sure, but I’m bettin’ Frank did whatever he felt was necessary to survive.”
“Jus’ as I did.”
“You didn’t hurt no one ta save yerself,” Chris growled, angry that Vin would compare himself to a demented murderer.
A haunted look on his face, Vin stared sightlessly down on the busy street.
Taking several deep breaths to bury his rage, Chris softly observed, “A man who hurts others so he kin live is a coward. A man who endures whatever life throws at him without retaliating is a hero in my book.”
Gratified to see some of the pain disappear from the sharply defined features, Chris decided now was a good time to air his own concerns. “Me and Buck talked.”
“He understands you got nothin’ ta do with how I feel towards him.”
“Did he believe ya?”
“Why shouldn’t he? It’s the truth. Buck and I got too much history. We’ll always be good friends. But he accepts the fact we can’t never go back to the way things were. We’re different men.”
“Ya mean ya didn’t always have a glare that could make most men shake in their boots?”
Biting his lip to keep from smiling, Chris grunted, “It don’t seem ta affect you.”
“I reckon, I ain’t most men.” A smile of satisfaction on his face, Vin carefully leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.
“Ya got that right, cowboy,” Chris softly whispered.