Dust floated on the cool breeze, landing on a bright red coat. Ezra's face twisted with annoyance as he brushed it off and backed further away from the source. Remembering what had happened once before, he stayed close enough to keep an eye on Jacob. While usually reliable, the stable boy was not averse to assisting Buck Wilmington in one of his pranks. The last one had included a burr and a strategically placed manure pile.
A crooked smile on his face, Vin shook his head as he continued to groom his own horse. "Why ya insist on wearin' such fancy clothes on patrol is beyond me, Ezra."
"I have a reputation to maintain, Mr. Tanner."
"I reckon a reputation can get mighty expensive."
"You have no idea."
The sound of gunfire echoed into the stable from the street outside. His wardrobe forgotten, Ezra pulled his gun and followed Vin to the barn entrance. Positioning himself on the opposite side of the door from the tracker, Ezra cautiously peered out. They saw two men disappearing down the alley beside the general store and a man was lying face down on the sidewalk. Blood stained the back of his shirt. A familiar red bandanna around his neck identified him as Sirius Lindstrom, a local rancher.
The sound of horses' hooves on the hard ground relaying the murderer's location reached Ezra's ears as Chris Larabee ran to the stricken man's side. He knelt, putting a hand against a wrinkled neck.
"He's dead," the black-clad gunfighter shouted. Rising, he waved a hand in the direction the killers had taken. "Vin, Ezra, get after them."
Holstering his gun, Ezra quickly returned to his mount to find Jacob picking the gelding's hooves in anticipation of the hard ride ahead. Running a hand under Chaucer's belly to check the cinch line for dirt, Ezra lifted his saddle and blanket in one experienced motion and threw it across the chestnut's back. Lacing the cinch, he retrieved the bridle and slipped the bit into the open mouth. From the corner of his eye, he could see Vin following the same routine. For once, Peso wasn't giving the tracker any trouble. The horse must have sensed the urgency in his master's movements.
Ezra tightened the cinch one last time before leading the animal outside. Mounting, he frowned as dust from Peso's rapidly receding hooves settled on his coat.
"Ya best git goin', Mr. Standish," Jacob advised. "Or yer gonna lose Mr. Tanner. Don't reckon Mr. Larabee would be too happy if'n ya did."
"Out of the mouths of babes."
Laying his heels to Chaucer's sides, Ezra raced out of town, pursuing Vin Tanner. He cursed as his red coat turned a dingy shade of brown. It seemed to be his lot in life to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Why couldn't someone else have been scheduled for patrol?
Ezra caught up with his companion when Vin was forced to ease down to a walk. The dry ground was revealing fewer and fewer signs of passage. Ezra settled gratefully into his saddle, only to stiffen again when the weather abruptly changed from mildly cool to freezing cold. Snow started to fall lightly from gray clouds, melting instantly when it encountered warm flesh.
Pulling the collar of his coat around his neck, Ezra miserably demanded, "What the hell just happened?"
"Indians call it a chinook wind." Vin continued to stare at ground quickly disappearing under a carpet of snow.
"Which means the weather changes suddenly."
"I determined that," Ezra sighed. "What is the literal meaning of the word?"
"Can't rightly say. I only know it's what they call sudden changes in the weather."
Exasperated and realizing he wasn't likely to get the answer he was seeking, Ezra asked, "When will it change back?"
"Very funny." Frozen hands gripping his reins, Ezra hunched over his saddle horn. Moisture seeping through his coat to his shirt finally encountered his skin. His teeth chattering, he shivered. He couldn't remember ever being so miserable. What had ever induced him to stay in such a godforsaken region? A sense that Vin Tanner was actually enjoying their predicament only added to his displeasure. "Mr. Tanner, thanks to your chinook wind there is no trail left for you to find. Thus, I think it would be prudent for us to expeditiously return to the warm domicile of hearth and home."
Vin didn't reply as he dismounted. Bending, he brushed snow off a section of dirt with his boot. The terrain showed no signs of passage.
"Mr. Tanner," Ezra hoarsely repeated. "A sagacious course of action would be to return to town and send a telegram to the sheriff of Eagle Bend detailing the villains' descriptions. In this weather it is doubtful they will attempt to camp on the prairie."
"Hired guns usually like their comfort," Vin softly agreed.
Barely able to keep the surprise and relief from his voice, Ezra sighed. "Then you concede? We should return."
"Well, you should," Vin drawled, pulling himself back up into the saddle.
Alarm drove the discomfort from Ezra's body. The tracker's stubbornness was a particularly vexing feature to the gambler and to anyone else who knew the young man. "You do not intend to pursue those miscreants unassisted?"
"Nope," Vin soothed with a smile. "By the looks of things, we're in for a bad storm. I'm gonna check on Larsen's place. It might be my last chance for a while."
Ezra was torn between his desire to return to a warm fire, a stimulating drink and a challenging card game, and protecting his companion's back. Vin Tanner was one of the most capable, independent men Ezra had ever met. The sharpshooter's confidence contradicted the pieces of his past he would inadvertently reveal in idle conversation. However, he was also a man with a five hundred dollar bounty on his head. An ex-bounty hunter who once did the hunting had now become the hunted.
"Mr. Tanner, your duty towards Mr. Larsen is admirable. But might I point out, you and Mr. Sanchez assessed Mr. Larsen's ranch only yesterday. I doubt things have deteriorated in the last twenty-four hours."
"I made a promise."
Knowing he would be wasting time arguing further, Ezra wiggled the numb fingers on his left hand in the direction they would have to take to reach Larsen's ranch. "Then we should be on our way. The sooner we proceed, the sooner we will arrive."
"You don't think I'm going to let you sally forth unattended?"
"Don't think," Vin agreed, his face impassive. "Know."
The crisp reply jangled Ezra's strained nerves. Sometimes, he wondered if the tracker deliberately used as few words as possible in a conversation knowing how it grated on the gambler's sensibilities. To him, language was as much a skill as shuffling a deck of cards or firing a gun.
"You," Vin continued, a knowing smile on his face, "need to go back to town and send that telegram."
"I believe it would be safer if we remained together. Mr. Larabee . . ."
A flash of anger darkened the blue eyes. "Despite what Chris seems to think, I don't need a damn baby sitter. I'll bet there isn't a bounty hunter within fifty miles."
"That is one wager I have no desire to cover," Ezra heartily vetoed.
"I'll see ya back in town."
When Vin kicked his horse into a slow canter, Ezra was tempted to follow. The sharpshooter's wrath wasn't half as formidable as Chris Larabee's. Respect overcame self-preservation. Vin often felt boxed in by their concern. If they weren't careful, they would drive him away. The seven would become six.
Laying the right rein on his horse's neck, Ezra turned. In the distance columns of smoke swirled into the gray sky, marking the location of the town. As eager as he was to sit in front of a warm fire, he dreaded his arrival. Chris Larabee would be waiting.
Vin didn't check to see if Ezra was following. He didn't need his eyes to tell him what his ears already had. On the one hand, he was sorry. He knew the reception the gambler would receive. However, relief outweighed his sympathy. There were times when Vin felt like a prisoner. While he appreciated his friends' wariness, they were beginning to make him feel trapped.
Enjoying his freedom, he took a deep breath. The cold air seared a path from his nostrils to his lungs. Snowflakes became trapped in his eyelashes, blurring his vision. He stuck his tongue out as he'd often done when he was a child. The cold flakes melted instantly.
Less than a mile from Larsen's ranch the wind picked up, driving the snow before it. The gentle flakes became shards, stinging exposed flesh. Vin was tempted to turn back, but stubbornness and pride kept him moving. There was one consolation: the wind would be at his back when he rode home.
His hat pulled low, he raised his eyes to check the area. Almost lost in the white blanket swirling around it, Vin could see a large, pastel, two-story frame structure. Larsen had built the fancy house for a wife who had died only days after its completion. Grief-stricken, he had taken her body east to bury her near the ocean she had loved. He would return in the spring to sell the ranch that had been his dream and his nightmare.
Vin shook his head. When Death took a life, he destroyed many others. For the first time, Vin regretted sending Ezra back to Four Corners. Chris had barely survived surrendering his wife and son to the Grim Reaper. Losing a friend could destroy his fragile control.
Resolving to complete his task quickly, Vin touched his heels to Peso's sides and guided him towards the barn. They'd only taken a few steps when he felt the air around him shift. Instinct told him he wasn't alone. He reached for the Mare's Leg strapped to his hip.
The roaring discharge of a firearm reached his ears before he felt the bullet tear a path into his right shoulder. The force drove him off the back of his horse. Peso reared, his nostrils flaring. Feet danced dangerously close to his fallen rider. Another shot skimmed across the animal's flank. Whinnying in pain and fear, Peso cantered away. Bullets followed the frightened horse.
Chris stood at the jailhouse window, looking out upon the almost deserted street. The weather had driven most of the townspeople inside. The coffee he was sipping warmed his body but not his heart. What had possessed him to send Ezra with Vin? Two guns against two professional killers.
It had happened so fast, Chris didn't have time to think, only to react. Vin and Ezra were preparing to go on patrol. They were the logical ones to purse the killers, the only ones with a chance of capturing the fleeing felons. The hard ground and low clouds had told Chris they didn't have time to wait for the rest of the seven to gear up. Even a tracker as good as Vin couldn't follow an invisible trail.
Aware of JD sifting through wanted posters at the desk behind him, Chris silently swore at the fates. Why did it have to be Ezra who had drawn the morning patrol? Ever since the gambler ran out on them at the Seminole village, Chris had found it difficult to trust him. It didn't matter that Ezra had turned back and attempted to redeem himself by rescuing them. Chris' memory tended to be critical. When it came to watching Vin's back he was very selective. Ezra didn't meet his high standards. The man was too self-serving.
A lone rider appeared out of the gloom and entered the livery stable.
Chris pressed against the window, straining to see who the snow covered horseman could be. His hot breath fogged the cold glass. Disgusted, he pulled his coat around him. "Someone just rode into the livery."
Rising from behind the desk, JD crossed to stand at the older man's side. "Who was it?"
"You don't think it's one of them killers, do ya?"
"Not likely." Chris frowned at the boy in exasperation.
"It's jus' the storm and all," JD stuttered, defending his theory. "Takin' his chances with a jury might seem more appealin' than freezin' ta death on the prairie."
Checking the chambers in his sidearm to make sure each contained a deadly missile, Chris suggested, "Why don't we go find out?"
The wailing wind concealed any sign of their approach. Motioning for JD to cover him, Chris entered the barn. The identity of the rider made his blood boil. He quickly holstered his pistol before he was tempted to use it. "Ezra, where's Vin?"
The gambler shook off the snow layering the shoulders of his coat. Holding his hands to his mouth, he blew on the frozen fingers. "Playing Robin Hood."
"You best start speaking English if you want to walk out of here alive," Chris warned, noticing JD was moving to a position where he could stand between the two men if necessary.
Daring to incur their leader's wrath, the boy asked, "What happened to the killers?"
"We lost their trail. Even Mr. Tanner couldn't follow prints lying under an inch of snow." Though he answered JD's question first, Ezra's eyes remained locked with Larabee's. "Vin decided to check out Larsen's place. He said this storm is going to be pernicious. He might not get a chance to go out there again for a while."
Venom dripping from every word, Chris demanded, "You let him go alone?"
"He insisted. Rather forcefully, I might add." Shivers wracked Ezra's body as his numb flesh thawed. "It appears the miscreants are headed for Eagle Bend. We decided I should return to Four Corners and send a telegram to the sheriff, warning him of their impending arrival."
"Yes, Mr. Larabee, we."
"Obviously it never occurred to either of you that I'd send telegrams to every sheriff of every town within a hundred mile radius."
Wet shoulders slumping in defeat, Ezra acknowledged, "Obviously not."
Anger increased Chris' heartbeat, pumping blood through his veins at a rate that caused his vison to blur and muffled the sounds around him. His hand inched towards his gun.
Thundering hooves penetrated the cottony barrier enveloping him. It wasn't unusual for a rider to canter into town. But there was something different in the beat of the hooves striking the hard ground. Uncertain why the resonance worried him, Chris exited the livery stable.
His gaze strained to see through the snowy curtain. Out of the white cloak, a black horse suddenly appeared. Chris lifted his arms, waving them to draw the animal's attention. The gelding slowed, its sides heaving. Dancing in place, he allowed Chris to grab his bridle and lead him into the warm stable.
"It's Peso," JD unnecessarily supplied. His gaze shifted from Ezra's fear lined face to Larabee's cold green eyes. "But where's Vin?"
"Good question," Chris growled, looking at Ezra.
Crossing to soothe the weary horse, JD noted, "He's been ridden hard. He's also been shot." The boy held up a hand to show the proof of his statement; bright red blood coated his fingers.
Air became trapped in Chris' lungs, starving his body and his mind of oxygen. He couldn't think what to do. One minute all he could see was Vin lying on the ground slowly disappearing under a shroud of snow. The next, he envisioned his friend's body draped across the back of a horse, heading for Tascosa and the five hundred dollar bounty.
"JD," Ezra ordered, taking charge in their shocked leader's stead, "get Buck, Josiah and Nathan. Tell them we have to ride."
JD started running towards the door but stopped at its threshold. "Billy's sick. Nathan's been lookin' after 'im."
"Judging by this wound on Peso's flank, I'd say Mr. Tanner will be in greater need of Mr. Jackson's skills. I'm sure Mrs. Travis will understand."
The boy nodded before bolting outside to complete his mission.
Patting Peso on the neck, Ezra lifted a stirrup and hooked it to the saddle horn. Continuing to use his voice to calm the restless horse, he unlaced the cinch. Placing his hands on the front and back of the sweat-soaked blanket, he pulled the saddle off the injured animal.
"You ain't comin' with us." The menace in Chris' tone was clearly audible.
Outwardly unaffected by the voice or the green daggers shooting from the emerald eyes, Ezra dropped the saddle on a rack. Brushing the dirt from his hands, he softly noted, "Last I heard, Mr. Larabee, this was a free country."
Pain radiated from Vin's right shoulder. The fierce fire at its center sent tendrils of agony down his arm and into his chest. He reached across his body with a trembling hand and pulled his Mares Leg from its holster.
The gun had barely cleared leather when the sharp toe of a boot drilled into Vin's wrist, paralyzing its muscles. The weapon fell from numb fingers. Vin stared up at the two faces he'd seen briefly in Four Corners. There was no fear in his eyes, only disgust. Their crime had been heinous and cowardly. Besides being old and unprepared, Sirius Lindstrom had been unarmed.
"How did he find us, Frank?" The shorter of the two men trapped Vin's arm to the ground with a booted foot. The heavy weight threatened the fragile bones in the struggling limb. "You said no one would look fer us here."
"Shutup, Roger." A slap across a bearded face re-enforced the order.
Massaging his stinging cheek, Roger grumbled, "Now we can't stay here. Can we?"
"Of course we can't, ya dumb coot. You let the horse git away." Frank pointed his gun at Vin's head. His thumb pulled down the hammer.
Vin's blood ran cold at the action. He sent a mental apology to Chris. The telepathy they had shared since their eyes met across a dusty street a month ago had never been tested at such a distance. But, Vin had to try. Chris would blame himself for this. The Chris Larabee Vin knew would cease to exist. The friend he had valued would be irrevocably changed.
"It's gonna be cold campin' on the prairie," Roger whined, scratching his chest.
Staring at the gun pointed between his eyes, Vin had never realized the bore could look so big. A part of him wondered if it would hurt when the bullet entered his brain.
Frank eased back on the hammer. "If'n we gotta suffer, it seems only right the man responsible should suffer too."
His foot stomping on the arm beneath it, Roger cackled, "What ya got in mind?"
Vin bit his lip. He instinctively knew a verbal indication of his pain would entice his captors to increase the torture. This wasn't the first time he had encountered bullies. No matter where he went, there always seemed to be someone who thrived on inflicting pain on others.
Black eyes studied the buildings visible through the overcast. They finally rested on a high stone circular wall. "We'll throw 'im down the well. The water will be colder 'n a witch's tit. Even if someone comes lookin' fer him, they'll never think ta look there."
"Damn." Roger giggled, holstering his gun. "Someone is shore gonna be surprised the next time they fetch water."
In spite of the pain constricting his lungs, Vin knew he had to fight. Lifting his right leg, he kicked out. The action was done blindly out of desperation. A howl from Roger made the pain Vin endured worth the effort, when the killer bent over, clutching his privates. Vin's initial delight at the sight disappeared in a blinding pain as he felt the butt of a gun connect with his temple. Dazed, he tried to get his limbs working again.
"Give me a hand here," Frank ordered, gripping Vin's left arm.
"I can't," Roger moaned. "I'm hurtin' too bad."
"I'll show ya real hurt if n' ya don't git over here and give me a hand."
Vin screamed, almost passing out when Roger squeezed his right shoulder. He could feel the warm blood running down his chest and arm. Another cry died in his raw throat. His heels scraped across the hard ground as he was dragged to the well. He briefly lost consciousness as he was lifted, but regained it when he felt himself falling head first.
Cold water swallowed him, stealing his breath away. Self-preservation took control of his numb senses. He kicked out with his feet, trying to swim in the cramped confines. His fingers raked across smooth stones, guiding him.
Breaking the surface, he filled his starving lungs. Each breath became more labored as the cold water reclaimed the air. Grabbing a jutting rock with his good hand, he wondered which would claim his life first, the water or the freezing cold.
If looks could kill, Ezra knew he would have died a thousand deaths before they reached the Larsen ranch. He didn't need to see Chris Larabee's eyes to know they burned with a desire to see the gambler dead. What the gunslinger would never believe was Ezra was more angry with himself than Chris could ever be.
Ensconced in a warm coat and gloves, Ezra was more miserable now than he had been the last time he rode this trail. He yearned for the physical discomfort he had felt then. It was preferable to the mental anguish he now endured.
Chris Larabee was their leader. No vote had ever been taken, electing him to the position. It was unnecessary. The man had an ingrained control that was as much a part of him as the gun strapped to his hip. Despite this, his disposition depended on whether Vin Tanner was alive or dead. Alive, things would eventually return to normal. Dead, these men Ezra had come to look upon as family would go their separate ways. Chris would crawl back into the bottle he'd only recently vacated. He wouldn't let anyone draw him out again. His association with the others would become too painful for him to bear. Ezra knew this like he knew a deck of cards.
"Buck, JD," Chris ordered, "search the barn. Nathan, Josiah, check the house."
Ezra looked up, astonished to discover they had arrived at the Larsen ranch. He wasn't surprised however, when Chris didn't relay orders concerning the area the gambler should survey for their missing comrade. As far as the gunslinger was concerned, Ezra Standish didn't exist.
Dismounting, Ezra studied the ground, searching for any sign that would help him locate Vin Tanner.
Vin knew that voice as well as he knew his own. Chris Larabee was here.
His teeth had stopped chattering, but he still found it impossible to make his frozen lips announce his presence. A frantic cry whispered from the back of his throat. A sound issued from the constricted organs, but it was barely audible to his own ears.Chris, look in the well.
Vin sent the desperate message across the invisible telegraph he shared with the gunslinger.
"Nothing in the barn." Buck shouted his report.
Chris didn't need verbal confirmation from Josiah or Nathan to know they had been equally unsuccessful. The slump in their shoulders was proof enough. Shielding his eyes against the blowing snow, Chris spun on his heel. When his seeking gaze rested on the well, he knew. He didn't know how he knew. He just did.
Dropping his reins, a silent command to his horse to stay, he started running. "Buck, get a rope."
Buck's mouth opened in protest but the words went unspoken. The futility of the requested action was clearly written on his face. At a far slower pace, he crossed to his horse.
"Vin?" Chris stared into the dark depths; straining eyes fell upon the ashen face of his missing friend. "Hurry, Buck."
Joining the other men ringing the reservoir, Buck gasped, "Well, I'll be damned."
"I wouldn't be a bit surprised," Josiah muttered. "Why should you be any different from the rest of us?"
Uncoiling his lariat, Buck threw one end down the shaft. Josiah's strong hands joined his on the other end.
Vin released his grip on the wall, reaching for the lifeline. His frozen fingers wrapped around the hemp, but they had no strength to grip it. When Buck and Josiah started pulling, the cord slipped from Vin's grasp.
"Bring it up," Chris ordered.
Buck glared at his friend in confusion. "Chris?"
"Someone's going to have to go down after him." Chris shrugged out of his coat. His hat, boots and gun belt joined it on the snowy ground, making it clear who would be the one to make the descent.
"JD," Nathan instructed, joining Buck and Josiah. "Git a fire goin' in the house. Collect some blankets and towels."
The young man glanced into the well before reluctantly running to obey.
The rope knotted securely under his arms, Chris sat on the edge of the pit. "Ready?"
"Ready," Buck acknowledged, planting one foot against the stone enclosure encircling the spring.
Pushing off the wall, Chris hung suspended above the dark hole. He shivered as the cold air blew through his thin shirt. Fear squeezed his heart as he watched Vin flounder in the murky water. His descent too slow for the panic gripping him, Chris shouted, "Faster."
When his legs entered the glacial water, he found it impossible to speak at all. His lungs heaved, unable to process air. The level rose to his waist. Numb, Chris wrapped his arms around Vin. He longed to whisper words of reassurance to his friend. The cold body pressed to his stole his breath. His teeth were chattering too violently to allow words to pass his lips. A different kind of fear gripped him when he realized there wasn't enough air in his lungs to scream at Buck to pull them up.
"Start bringing them up."
Chris was surprised to hear Ezra issue the command he could not verbalize himself. It was even more surprising the words had been few in number and simply spoken. It was an audible indication of the gambler's distress. For a brief moment, Chris regretted his treatment of the Southerner. A soft moan from the body in his arms dampened his forgiveness and renewed his anger.
Stones abraded Chris' back. He gritted his teeth against the pain and tightened his grip around the injured man's chest. Wind swirled around him, telling him they had reached the top before his eyes registered the fact. The water clinging to their clothes and skin turned to ice.
"Buck, Josiah, can you all hold 'em?"
Nathan's question was quickly followed by hands reaching out to take Vin.
"Ya kin let 'im go, Chris, I got 'im."
The words registered in Chris' sluggish brain. Dazed eyes stared at the healer. Nathan was asking the impossible. He couldn't let Vin go. The black abyss waiting below would swallow them both.
Warm hands pulled Chris' cold ones apart. Panic seized him as he felt his grip around Vin loosen. "No!"
Other hands trapped his arms.
"Mr. Larabee, allow Mr. Jackson to assist Mr. Tanner."
Despite his anger with the gambler, Chris found solace in his words. Nathan would save Vin. Reassured, Chris eased his grip. The weight disappeared, making his arms bereft. He reached out, seeking the body that had given him life again. There was only air. "Vin?"
"Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sanchez have taken Mr. Tanner to the house."
Fingers tugged at the knot securing the rope around Chris' chest. A part of his brain was aware of Buck and Ezra pulling him from the well. However, it wasn't the part that could offer assistance.
"Get his stuff, Ezra, and let's git 'im in the house."
Buck's gruff voice cracked as he issued the order. Chris wondered why as he felt the dead weight of his arms being lifted and slung across warm, dry shoulders. One was much higher and broader than the other.
The house, which had seemed so far away, grew progressively closer. But Chris was certain his legs weren't bearing his weight.
"It's all right, Chris. We've got ya."
Buck's reassuring voice soothed Chris' fears. His old friend wouldn't let him down. He was so tired. If he just closed his eyes for a few minutes maybe no one would notice.
The arm around Ezra's shoulders started to slip. Though one hand was laden with Larabee's clothes and gun belt, Ezra managed to grab the sliding limb with the other. He had known the gunslinger was only half-conscious when he offered his support. In his present state of mind, Chris would never have allowed Ezra to touch him. This caused the gambler more pain than he had expected.
To this day, Ezra couldn't explain why he had joined this group of men to help the Seminole village. Certainly the specter of a gold mine had enticed him. However, there was no explanation for why he had stayed after finding it was played out.
Or why, he continued to stay.
His mother had taught him to seek friendship only when it would prove profitable. Not one of the other men had a dime. Yet, one by one they had broken through the barrier Ezra had placed around his heart.
Josiah had been the first. The gambler had found the preacher's unorthodox view of the battle they were about to wage against the mad confederate general and the deaths it would cause, refreshing. He had looked forward to and had since enjoyed many lively conversations with the preacher. Josiah's faith in an unseen deity made Ezra wish he'd spent more time in a church and less in gambling halls. Unfortunately, it was too late to redeem his sinning soul.
The next person to breach his defenses had been a surprise. One reason Ezra had initially hesitated joining the mercenaries was due to the presence of the black healer. All his life, Ezra had been taught to see the white man as superior to the slaves who labored in their fields, cleaned his house and prepared his meals. Even though he had been rudely dismissed, Nathan's compassionate heart wouldn't allow the Southerner to suffer. With a pull and a twist, Jackson had replaced Ezra's dislocated shoulder. Not seeking, nor expecting so much as a thank you in return.
From the start, Ezra had found Buck and JD's playful antics amusing. Jealously would eat at the gambler's ego when he observed their brotherly affection towards each other. Would anyone ever care for Ezra the way these men protected each other?
Vin had been the hardest for Ezra to understand. Men like him didn't frequent gambling establishments as a rule. It didn't help that the tracker rarely spoke. Shame filled Ezra as he remembered the one time Vin had asked him for a favor. Ezra's inebriated state had found it ludicrous that a man of the prairie, a man like Vin, could write poetry. Days later, after he'd read, 'A Hero's Heart' in the Clarion, Ezra had wanted to apologize. But he didn't know how. It was a new experience for him to lament his actions. He had never done so before, because there had never been anyone whose respect he had wanted to garner. Until now.
Stumbling up the steps to the front door of the ranch house, Ezra didn't know how to classify the man whose weight rested heavily on his shoulders. The gunslinger was an enigma. The heart that was still in pieces three years after the death of his wife and son seemed to slowly be mending. He had a family again, giving him a reason to keep living. Sometimes, Ezra felt he was a part of that family. Other times, he felt like a trespasser.
A trail of warm air led them to the large living room. A fire roared in the fireplace. Nathan and Josiah were laying Vin on a blanket in front of it.
"You all get those wet clothes off Chris."
Watching as the healer started to do the same for Vin, Ezra shifted uncomfortably. He was sure Larabee would resent the gambler's assistance, fueling an already barely controlled temper.
"Why don't ya help Nathan and Josiah?" Buck softly suggested. "JD can give me a hand."
Ezra didn't even try to hide his gratitude. After helping Buck ease their burden onto a blanket, he stepped aside to allow JD to take his place. Shrugging off his coat, Ezra hurried over to where Nathan and Josiah were working on Vin.
Kneeling, he started to pull off Vin's waterlogged boots. Suction was working against him. It wasn't until Josiah lent assistance that he finally succeeded. Gripping Vin's left leg, Ezra allowed his gaze to wander. With the buckskin coat and shirt removed, he saw the bullet hole in the right shoulder. Little blood oozed from the wound. His knowledge of medicine limited, Ezra wasn't sure if this was a good or a bad sign.
When his eyes rested on the deathly pale face, Ezra received his answer. Vin's blue eyes stared at him, but they were glassy and unfocused. Despite the almost suffocating heat of the roaring fire, a chill crept along the gambler's spine.
With a sucking noise, Vin's other boot slid off. Water poured over the edge before Josiah turned it upright.
Ezra had Vin's belt unbuckled by the time Josiah had returned from placing the boots near the fire. Together, they pulled off the wet pants, followed by the underwear and socks.
Towels appeared at Ezra's side.
"Start drying 'im off," Nathan directed.
Ezra avoided Vin's eyes, unwilling to see if the tracker knew what was being done to him. It would be a mentally painful procedure for the intensely private man.
"Josiah," Nathan asked, "can ya lift Vin so's we can put dry blankets under him?"
"It would be my pleasure, Brother."
Throwing aside the boot he'd just removed from Chris' foot, JD stood. "I found a small mattress in one of the bedrooms upstairs." JD crossed to the couch, retrieving his find. With Nathan's help, he rolled it out on the floor in front of the fire.
With infinite gentleness, Josiah laid Vin on the bed.
"Ezra, start rubbing his feet." Nathan threw a blanket across the naked body.
Surprised at how cold the flesh beneath his hands was, Ezra started to massage the flaccid limb. Chilled by the foot in his hands, he trembled. Fear coursed through him when he realized Vin wasn't shivering. It wasn't natural. It was almost as though Vin's body was dead.
The crack of a log splitting in the fire almost drowned out the softly spoken complaint. Shocked, Ezra's hands halted their movement. He stared at the pale face.
"I know you are, Vin." Nathan soothed. "We're trying to warm you up."
****Sweat trickled down Vin's brow as he poured grain into Molly's bin. It was the last of the feed. Come morning, there would be nothing to give the hungry animals.Soon after his mother took sick, Vin had started to cut down the portions he served, hoping to make the supply last until his mother was well enough to go into town. But she had gotten worse, not better. The deep snow prevented Vin from turning the animals loose to let them fend for themselves. Half-starved, they would die faster in the cold and snow than here in the relative warmth of the barn.Feeling the hot breath on his neck, Vin dropped the empty bucket and braced himself against the wall. A soft muzzle kneaded his shoulders before the bony head pressed against his back. Vin giggled, unafraid though the huge horse's head was almost as big as the five-year-old. The back rub complete, Vin patted a satiny shoulder before exiting the stall. His teeth worried his bottom lip, listening to the crunching as the horse consumed the meager portion of grain.Weary in mind and body, he pushed outside through the narrow opening he'd managed to trample in the deep snow. The sky was gray, threatening another storm. Trudging down the path, he sighed. The snow was already up to his waist. Much more and he wouldn't be able to reach the barn and the animals inside who depended on him. Maybe, if he tried pleading again, his mother would allow him to ride into town for supplies. He was five; he wasn't afraid to make the three mile journey alone. At least not too afraid.His stomach growled, demanding attention. Entering the house through the kitchen, he didn't bother to look for something to eat. The pantry was as empty as the grain bin. The only thing left were staples such as flour and sugar. Vin knew his mother could make something edible out of the ingredients, but he couldn't.Shedding his coat, he walked down the hallway, past his own bedroom to his mother's. The smell filled his nostrils. It had started several days earlier. Now it was so bad, Vin was finding it difficult to breathe. Once, a similar odor had permeated the barn. After searching every nook and cranny, his mother had finally found the source, a dead racoon. Remembering that episode, Vin had looked everywhere in the bedroom, but couldn't find anything that had died.He stomped his feet as he entered the room. Up until now, he had been trying not to disturb his mother, letting her sleep as much as possible. While he was sure he could go several more days without food, the animals couldn't.The smell was so overpowering, it forced him to breathe through his mouth. Laying another log on the fire, he held his hands out, allowing the blaze to warm his numb flesh. He stared at his mother buried under a mound of blankets. She looked so peaceful. He was tempted to hop on Molly and ride into town without permission. However, his mother had raised him to be obedient and respectful. Such an action would be contrary to everything he had been taught."Mama." Vin crossed to the bed. "We've run out of feed, Mama."When his verbal plea yielded no reaction, Vin put his hands on her arm. Despite the blankets and the fire, her skin was icy cold. "Wake up, Mama."Denying the truth his mind had accepted, but his heart couldn't, Vin shook the limb with all his strength. "Mama, wake up."
"Mama, wake up."
The heartbroken plea tore into JD. His eyes strayed to Vin. The normally passive features were twisted with an anguish JD remembered seeing on his own face only months before. His hands shook as he pulled Chris' boot off. The same cry had issued from his own lips and still echoed in his ears.
****He yawned, his mouth opening so wide it cracked his jaw. There wasn't enough strength in his body to lift his arm to cover the gaping hole with his hand. The manners his mother had instilled in him were being put on hold by his exhausted body.The bills had been piling up ever since she had taken ill several months ago. JD took extra work whenever he could, though it often meant he would go without sleep several days in a row. Rent was due at the end of the week and he was still short. He would go home, get a couple hours sleep, then return to the stable. With any luck, he would pull another double shift.It hurt leaving his mother alone for such long periods of time. But he didn't know how else to keep a roof over their heads and food in their bellies.JD paused at the bottom of the tall flight of stairs leading to their apartment. His legs shook, already protesting the task they were being asked to perform. Gritting his teeth, JD put his hand on the banister and lifted his right leg. Muscles spasmed as he put his weight on them. The throbbing got worse with each step. By the time he reached his destination, he could barely stand.Staggering into the small apartment, he hung his cap on a hook. His jacket quickly joined it. "I'm home, Ma."Unconcerned when there was no reply to his greeting, he entered the kitchen. Filling a kettle with water, he placed it on the stove. His mother loved a hot cup of tea in the morning. Rolling his shirt sleeves to just below the elbow, he washed his hands and face. No matter how tired he was, this was one ritual he would not forego. The first thing his mother would do was inspect his nails.Satisfied he would pass inspection, JD crossed the small living room to the apartment's only bedroom. His eyes strayed longingly to the couch, which served as his own bed. "How are you feeling, Ma?"As soon as his gaze rested on her unseeing eyes, JD knew there would be no answer to his question. Tears rolled down his cheeks unchecked. He wasn't ashamed of his reaction. He had loved her. Though he knew there would be no response, he couldn't resist putting a hand on her arm and gently shaking it. "Wake up, Mama."Unable to bear the thought that she had died alone, he shook a little harder. "Mama, wake up."Legs no longer able to support him, JD collapsed on the edge of the bed. His fingers trembling so violently he could barely control them, he rolled the eyelids down over the blank eyes. His other hand snaked under the mattress and pulled out a bulging wallet. Putting it in his trouser pocket, he rose. Dazedly walking from the room, he paused long enough to switch the stove off and retrieve his cap and coat before he left the apartment. Her mortal soul was gone. But her dream for her son was still alive in the money she had worked so hard to save.Lacking the funds to take public transportation, JD walked the three miles to the Boston College campus. His mother's last wish was that he go to the school. No matter how destitute they were, JD had been forbidden to touch the money she'd set aside for his education. Though his own dream was to go west, JD would not dishonor her by pursuing his fantasies.The sidewalks were bustling with the mid-morning crowd. It made his progress difficult as he was forced to slow his pace to match the person in front of him until there was room to pass. He constantly rubbed shoulders with the elite as well as the common laborers. For the first time, he noticed how the former would disdainfully brush their clothing whenever it came into contact with the latter. The dust, rising from beneath the wheels of the passing carriages coated everything unable to distinguish the rich from the poor.The campus was a blessed relief from the sights and sounds of the busy city. JD had lived his entire life in Boston but had never felt at home here. Students strolled by, their arms laden with books. Their suits and bowler hats were a sharp contrast to his own dirty work clothes.For the first time since his mother disclosed her dream, JD felt excited at the prospect of attending the prestigious school. The bowler hat was worn by one of his heroes, Bat Masterson. It was something tangible that would represent his own dream along with his mother's. The cool, tree-lined sidewalks and lush green grass of the school grounds felt a world away from the bustling city.Seeking directions to the administration building from a passing student, JD ignored the sneer on the thin lips and the look of disdain in the pale eyes. Soon, he would walk among them as an equal.The stand of trees abruptly ended, revealing the building he sought. JD stared at it in wonder. Its size and design were more sophisticated than those in the city. He was overwhelmed when he realized it represented his future.Inside the structure, he followed the signs to the admissions office. Fingering the thick wallet hidden in his pants pocket, he vowed he would make his mother proud. Squaring his shoulders, he opened the frosted glass door and entered the busy office."Can I help you?"Tears filled JD's eyes as they rested on the woman standing behind a tall counter. She reminded him of his mother. The same gray hair, the same build, the same work worn face. Pulling the money pouch from his pocket, he laid it in front of her. "I'm John Dunne, and I want to enroll in your school."Hands hesitantly flipped back the flap and counted the bills inside. "I'm sorry, son." She slid the wallet across the counter. "This isn't enough to cover tuition for one semester much less the eight you would need to graduate. Then there's room and board, plus books."JD stared at the pouch, his mother's dreams for him destroyed in less time than it had taken him to traverse the beautiful campus. He felt numb. The future his mother had envisioned for him was as dead as she was."I'm sorry."Embarrassed by the compassion in her eyes, JD lifted his head. "I'm not."His gaze was drawn to a painting depicting a buffalo hunt, and he realized he was speaking the truth. If he couldn't fulfill his mother's dream, then he would satisfy his own. Once she was properly buried, he would board the first train heading west. He would ride until he found his destiny, the place he belonged.
"There's no exit wound."
Wrapping his blanket tightly around his naked body, Chris allowed Buck to help him walk the short distance to Nathan Jackson's side. The healer was inspecting the hole in Vin's shoulder.
"I gotta get this bullet out."
Knowing how often Nathan had performed the operation, Chris couldn't understand his reluctance. "Then do it."
"It ain't that easy. He's very weak."
"Can you wait 'til he gits stronger?"
"If I do, it could become infected."
Josiah's deep voice spelled out the consequences. "Either way, Vin could die?"
"Seems to me," the preacher advised, "ya need ta weigh the advantages of waiting against the disadvantages."
Speaking more to himself than to his companions, Nathan outlined, "In his condition, I can't give 'im any laudanum so it might be less painful for him now since he's only semi-conscious. Plus, the cold water has thickened his blood. He's less likely to bleed so much. Extensive blood loss could weaken his heart, even stop it."
"What would be the advantages of waiting?' Josiah prompted.
"He'll be stronger, more likely to live through the operation."
Chris dropped his gaze and let it rest on his best friend's pale face. Listening to Nathan, he knew the advantages of waiting were fewer than the disadvantages. He was no doctor, but he knew what had to be done. "What do you need, Nathan?"
"Hot water, bandages and you all holdin' 'im down. This is gonna hurt."
Though his strength was returning, Chris knew he wasn't strong enough to immobilize an arm or leg. Vin was a fighter. Even half-frozen with a bullet in his shoulder, he would rail against every knife stroke, every cut Nathan was forced to inflict.
Gently brushing back the wet strands of long hair clinging to the pale cheeks, Chris cupped his hands along the sides of Vin's head. Josiah had already positioned himself at Vin's left shoulder while Buck and Ezra kneeled at the injured man's feet. JD scurried to collect the items Nathan requested.
Warmth flooded through Chris on a tide of anger when his eyes rested on the gambler. The necessity of their actions was caused by Standish's avaricious predisposition. This was the last time any of them would suffer due to Ezra's selfishness. As far as Chris was concerned, the seven were now six.
Nathan folded back the blanket, exposing Vin's chest and the ugly wound scarring the smooth shoulder.
****The icy wind moaned as it passed through the gaps of the poorly constructed shed. Vin huddled under the thin blanket, its threadbare fibers and the man curled next to him his only source of warmth.Groans punctuated the darkness cloaking the small building. Injuries or illness accounted for only a small portion of the suffering. Empty bellies were the main source. Hunger was the universal hardship all the prisoners shared. Though they had been comrades-in-arms on the battlefield, here they were individuals doing whatever was necessary to survive. The prisoner of war camp had been nicknamed Hellmira, a fitting title for a hell hole.Vin shivered as the cold wind rustled his hair. The body next to his had stopped radiating heat. The Texan had barely entered the camp when Rupert Johnson had appeared at his side. An Englishman by birth, a Virginian by choice, he had been willing to share his food, his small space in one of the sheds, his blanket and his soul.Several months after their initial meeting, Vin had asked the Englishman why he had chosen to help a skinny kid from Texas. Johnny had been quiet so long, Vin had decided he wasn't going to answer. Embarrassed, he'd silently cursed himself for the insensitive question. Then, Johnny softly revealed, "You looked like you needed a friend."Sliding a hand across his companion's broad chest, Vin held his breath, waiting for his fingers to feel the rise and fall of expanding lungs. There was no movement. His initial belief that Johnny's fever had finally broken died as the flesh cooled quickly in the frigid air. Vin had touched death before. The first time was when he was five years old. Since then, he'd seen its face often, most recently at Sharpsburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.Pulling away from the chilling body, Vin huddled under the blanket that belonged to him now - if he was willing to fight for it. Since the alternative was to freeze to death, he would fight. He closed his eyes, knowing it would be the last chance he would have to sleep for a while. Tomorrow, he would be no one's friend.Morning sunlight, as dreary as the gray sky from which it issued, glowed through the gaping boards and dirty windows. Guards shouted orders in the compound. Rising, Vin wondered if there would be food for breakfast, and if so, if there would be enough for everyone. Folding the blanket, he wrapped it around his waist, tying it the way Johnny had showed him. The ragged fabric was the most precious possession he owned.Though his small frame was half the size of his deceased friend's, Vin put his hands under the stiffening body. Dragging it towards the door, he wasn't surprised when his path was blocked. A soft sigh of resignation escaped his lips. The few hours since Johnny's death were all Vin would be allowed to mourn his friend. Even that time had been granted out of ignorance rather than compassion."It looks like the kid has lost his bodyguard, boys.""It's better than losing my brains like you have, Crowley." Vin tensed as he felt the bullies take positions at his back and on each side."Ya got a big mouth, kid.""You've said that before.""I think someone needs ta shut it fer ya. Permanently."Vin eased his grip on Johnny's body, knowing he would need his arms and hands to fight. He was outnumbered three to one. Even emaciated, each man outweighed him by a good fifty pounds. But he wouldn't back down. They would remember the name Tanner.A sharp pain near his right shoulder was the first indication Crowley intended to fight with more than just fists and size. Dropping his friend, Vin turned to the man on his right and kicked him just below the knee. Almost before that foot had touched the floor, he was planting the other in the second goon's stomach.Crowley stared in shock as his two accomplices moaned, hands protecting their injured areas from further harm.Ignoring the blood dripping from his arm and off his fingertips, Vin faced the last man standing. "It's jus' you and me and yer knife, Crowley. I reckon ya got the advantage. But then, I don't know much 'bout gambling.""Seems to me, ya already beat the odds, kid." A man, the flesh on his bones proof he was new to the prison, leaned against the doorjamb.Vin kept his eyes on Crowley as he addressed the newcomer. "I don't play games of chance, Reynolds.""Life is a game of chance, kid. Yer jus' too young ta know it. What're ya, ten years old?""Twelve," Vin indignantly snapped.With a snort of disbelief, Reynolds crossed to stand at Vin's side. "Crowley, go pick on someone yer own age and size."Faced with an opponent who still had the strength to defeat him, Crowley backed down. Hiding his homemade knife in his boot, he glared at Vin before striding from the shack."I coulda taken care of myself," Vin protested, scowling at Reynolds."I know, kid. I broke up the fight ta help me, not you."Though he'd never had the chance to go to school, Vin knew he wasn't stupid. Yet, no matter what angle he looked at it, he couldn't figure out how Reynolds could benefit from Vin's victory. "What're ya gettin' at?""If Crowley kills ya, he gets the blanket.""So yer gonna kill me for it?""Nah. I'm willing ta share."There was a smile on Reynolds's face, but it didn't reach his eyes. Vin sadly regarded Johnny's body, remembering the man's unselfish companionship. Would he ever have such a friend again?"Come here, kid, let me look at that shoulder.""I can take care of it." Even as the words left his mouth, Vin knew they were a lie. He could neither see, nor reach the knife wound. Now his adrenalin rush had subsided, it had started to throb. Still, he was unwilling to show any weakness, especially in front of this man.Reynolds shrugged his shoulders. "Suit yerself."****Nathan visually inspected the bullet wound as he waited for JD to return with the boiling water. The deeper the slug, the harder it would be to extract. He could only hope no muscles would be permanently damaged during the operation. The price on his head made Vin's skill as a sharpshooter essential.Attuned to his patient, Nathan was surprised to see Vin's left hand moving slowly towards the blanket the healer had pushed out of his way. Red, swollen fingers twisted around the thick fabric. The effort reminded Nathan of another time, another place. A place where a blanket meant life and death. A place he never wanted to go back to, not even in his memories.****An odor so offensive it made his stomach twist pushing bile into his throat greeted Nathan upon his arrival. The gates to the prison camp hadn't even opened, and he was already regretting his temporary transfer."Dr. Jackson."Nathan shifted his attention to the black trooper only a few years older than himself. "I ain't no doctor.""Would ya follow me to Colonel Tracy's office?" The trooper stumbled, trying to find an appropriate title for the private standing in front of him. "Sir."Though uncomfortable with a station he associated with his former masters, Nathan simply nodded and followed his guide. When Tracy had first contacted him, Nathan had been surprised to learn a colored troop had been assigned to guard a Confederate prison camp. He had been even more shocked when the colonel had requested he be temporarily transferred from the medical unit he was attached to. Nathan had no training as a soldier. He didn't belong here.The administration building was little more than shacks thrown together. The commanding officer's office was one of the tiny buildings. It only had enough floor space to accommodate a desk, two chairs and a file cabinet.Pushing aside the paperwork lying on the desk in front of him, Tracy motioned for Nathan to take the other chair. A wave of the hand dismissed the trooper. "Thank you for coming, Private.""I didn't have much choice." Aware of the single stripe on the sleeve of his uniform, Nathan hastily added, "Colonel."Regret reflecting on his face, Tracy dropped his eyes. "I'm sorry about that, Jackson.""I'm not a soldier, Colonel," Nathan insisted. "All I've done in this war is work with a medical unit.""Those are the skills I need." Tracy rose from his seat to stare out the small window on the back wall. "Elmira was built to house five thousand rebels. We have over nine thousand. The prison hospital has admitted over two thousand patients. Seven hundred of them have died. There are four hundred and fifty men in the hospital on any given day, with another six hundred injured or ill in quarters."Realizing where the colonel was leading, Nathan fearfully interrupted, "I'm not a doctor, sir.""If you were, you wouldn't be here."More confused than ever, Nathan stared at the officer with unblinking eyes."Chief Surgeon Sanger won't allow a doctor to treat prisoners of war.""That's crazy.""The policy is in retaliation for the way Union prisoners are being treated in Confederate camps."Horrified, Nathan shook his head. "Never much cared for that eye for an eye mentality.""Good." Tracy turned from the window to regard Nathan. "I've got prisoners with clothing stuck to open cuts, untended broken bones and every disease known and unknown to man.""I ain't no doctor, Colonel," Nathan repeated, dismay making it difficult for him to breathe.A pleading note in his voice, Tracy pointed out, "Ya got more knowledge, more skills than any of my men. My men are black. I can't transfer a white medic to my unit." The voice dropped to a whisper. "Even if only a few lives are saved, maybe I won't feel like an executioner.""I'll try, sir," Nathan reluctantly agreed. He didn't have the proper training. He could kill as easily as he healed. He would be the one to live with that on his conscience, not Tracy. "I'll need equipment, medical supplies.""Everything should be in the building next to this one." Tracy gestured to his left. "If ya need anything let me know. I'll see what I can do to get it. I can't make any promises, but I'll do my best."Nathan rose. "Thank you, sir.""One last thing." Tracy avoided Nathan's gaze. "You'll have to treat the prisoners in the compound. I can't take a chance Dr. Sanger might make an unscheduled visit."The odor permeating the air was all the proof Nathan needed to know how unsanitary conditions were inside the camp. The expression twisting the colonel's features told Nathan any protest would be futile. "I'll get started right away, sir.""Make sure a guard can see you at all times."Nathan felt shell-shocked as he exited the office. In his years as a slave and then on the battlefields of this war, he thought he'd seen the worst of man's inhumanity to man. Never could he have imagined that medical aid would be deliberately withheld, be used as a tool against one's enemy. He thought educated men were above such barbarism.Absently following Tracy's directions, he entered the building housing the meager medical supplies. He could tell at a glance there wasn't nearly enough to treat half the prisoners he'd been told to expect, much less the entire camp. Despite the colonel's assurances, Nathan knew more would not be forthcoming anytime soon.Finding a small knapsack, he put a variety of instruments and medicines inside. With a dread that had nothing to do with the prisoners themselves and everything to do with their possible illnesses and injuries and his lack of skills to treat them, Nathan walked to the main gate. Would he do more harm than good? With a nod of reassurance from the guards in the towers, he waited expectantly as the gates were opened.Men lay in the trampled snow in various stages of dress and undress. Several had obviously lost their minds, many more their lives. His hot breath blurring his view of the horrors laid out before him, Nathan bit his lip. This was even worse than he had imagined. The utter disdain shown towards the corpses stacked like cordwood around the compound unnerved him.Forcing himself to concentrate on the living, he crossed to a man with a nasty cut on his forehead. "Here, let me take a look at that.""Git yer hands offer me, nigger." Skeletal hands swatted away Nathan's offer of assistance.Seeing the hatred on the faces around him, Nathan was tempted to retrace his steps. Go back to the world where his skills were more important than his color. Swallowing his pride, he explained, "I've got some medical training. I can help you."The dirty, emaciated faces continued to regard him with hostility."Kin ya fix this arm of mine?"Nathan searched the masses, looking for the body accompanying the voice. A young boy with long brown hair and startling blue eyes was making his way towards Nathan. Patches of skin, white from the cold, showed through gaping holes in his tattered clothes. A filthy, threadbare blanket was wrapped around the thin waist. The fingers of one hand were twisted around the shredded fabric in a desperate grip Nathan knew would be difficult to break, even though the boy was half-starved. When he reached Nathan, he turned, revealing a deep cut running the length of his upper right arm."Well, whaddya think? Can ya fix it?"The demand, spoken in a raspy voice with a slight lisp, tore Nathan from his shock. Gently examining the wound with his fingers, he reached into his knapsack and drew out a bottle. "I kin help, but I gotta cut away this infection. I got some laudanum to help with the pain.""No drugs." The boy pushed the bottle away.Nathan opened his mouth to protest when a tall, brutish man reached out to grab the boy."Don't touch me, Crowley."Cowed by the warning he heard in the cracking voice, Nathan wasn't surprised when the larger man backed away."Ya can't let no nigger doctor treat ya, kid," Crowley sneered.The boy shrugged. "Didn't notice his color.""What're ya, color blind?""Reckon I must be." Blue eyes rested on Nathan's face. "I'm ready when you are, Doc."
Nathan stared at the white fingers clutching the blanket. Already knowing what he would find, he inspected Vin's upper arm. Puckered flesh denoting a scar, greeted his searching touch. How could he not have recognized Vin? Granted, it had been over ten years since that day in Elmira, but how could he not have remembered his first patient? Vin's faith in his skills had given him the ambition to continue studying and learning all he could about medicine. Vin had been the first white man to look past Nathan's color to the man inside. To see the person he was.
Nathan put his warm hand over the cold one gripping the blanket. Leaning close to Vin's ear, he reassured, "It's all right. No one will take your blanket."
The fingers relaxed but maintained their hold on the soft quilt.
"Here's the hot water you wanted, Nathan." JD carefully lowered a pan. The steam rising above it coated his face with a fine mist.
"Thanks, JD." Throwing the instruments he would need into the water, Nathan checked to be sure he had enough bandages and towels to absorb the blood and cover the wound.
If it was possible, he wanted Vin to live now more than ever. He was curious and a little hurt. Had Vin recognized him that day in Four Corners? The day that had brought these seven men together. Is that why Vin had risked his life to save Nathan's? It grated on Nathan to think Vin had acted out of gratitude rather than a sense of justice. Nathan had never asked for nor expected anyone to feel obliged to him. He took up medicine because he liked to help people, not because he wanted to become a pseudo master.
"We're ready when you are, Nathan."
Nathan met Chris Larabee's questioning eyes. Did the gunslinger wonder why the healer's hands were shaking? Looking at the ashen face of his patient, Nathan tried to see the man who had become his friend. Not the man whose friendship was now in question.
Taking a deep breath, he extracted a knife from the cooling water. Focusing on what he had to do, he forgot whose shoulder lay beneath his hand. He forgot the five men anxiously watching his every move. The only thing that was important was extracting the bullet before it caused any further damage.
While his hands completed one task, his mind planned the next procedure. His forceps were closing around the mutilated bullet when he heard a pounding noise. It wasn't associated with what he was doing, so he ignored it.
The thud of a fist impacting the wooden front door echoed through the house. Chris jumped, reaching for the gun usually strapped to his hip. When his hand encountered the soft, fuzzy fabric of a blanket instead of cold, hard steel, he remembered he'd left his holster lying in the snow by the well. He started to rise, intent on retrieving it when Vin moaned, rolling his head to try to escape the pain.
"Hold 'im still," Nathan anxiously ordered.
Chris quickly returned to his position. He was more vulnerable than he had ever been. Partially because he was unarmed, mostly because he was Vin's friend. He'd forgotten how hard it was to watch someone he cared about suffer.
One hand lifting from Vin's ankle to rest on the butt of his gun, Buck suggested, "JD, see who's at the door." As the young man hurried to comply, Buck anxiously warned, "Be careful."
JD nodded his understanding as he pulled his gun.
His eyes following JD, Chris saw his holster hanging from the back of a chair. He was relieved to know it wasn't lost in the snow, but it might as well have been for all the good it did him right now. He'd already discovered he couldn't let Vin go for even a second.
Nathan's excited declaration was accompanied by the clang of metal meeting metal. Chris looked in at the small piece of lead lying at the bottom of the basin. It was hard to believe something so small could do so much damage.
"It's Tommy Baker," JD declared, sliding his gun back in its holster as he led the teenager into the warm room.
The snow coating the boy's shoulders instantly began to melt.
"What're ya doing out here, Tommy?" Chris demanded, sitting back on his heels as he watched Nathan mop up the blood around Vin's wound.
"Mrs. Travis sent me."
"Nice of her ta worry about us," Buck smiled slyly, glancing at Chris.
"She weren't worried about you," Tommy corrected, moving closer to the fire. "Billy's gotten sicker. She asked me ta fetch Mr. Jackson."
Pouring carbolic acid into the gaping hole the operation left, Nathan shook his head. "I can't go anywhere. Vin's bad hurt."
Chris bit his lip, fighting his conscience. He knew what Vin would want, but it wasn't what he wanted. Wiping a sweaty lock of light brown hair off his friend's pale face, Chris whispered, "Ya gotta go, Nathan."
"If I go, Vin could die." Nathan defiantly glared at the gunslinger.
Even pitched low, Josiah's voice seemed to fill the room. "Brother Tanner would never forgive himself if anything happened to young Billy."
"Without me, he may not survive to feel guilty," Nathan brutally returned.
"The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away."
Shifting his attention to Larabee, Nathan outlined, "The wound could become infected. He's got frostbite, patches of skin could become gangrenous and need to be removed."
With every word Nathan spoke, the lump in Chris' throat grew larger until he thought it was going to choke him. "Go."
"Chris," Nathan protested, "the circulation in his feet is so bad they might need to be amputated. If they're not, he'll die."
For the first time since Tommy announced his reason for seeking them out, Chris felt confident with his decision to let the healer go. Vin wouldn't want to live as a cripple. More to the point, he couldn't. The price on his head would make it impossible. "Billy needs you, Nathan."
"So does Vin."
Flinching, Chris asserted, "Billy needs you more."
"We'll see." Nathan finished stitching the wound and climbed to his feet.
The healer pulled on his coat and tied a scarf around his neck. Chris only partially listened as he issued instructions for Vin's care. Someone else would have to carry out the treatments, Chris was too tired, physically and mentally. Only one other time in his life had he felt this helpless.
****The scent of burned wood filled the air. Chris' smile was indulgent as he sniffed the breeze. When her husband was away, Sarah spent her time baking. She said it made her miss him less. The heavily perfumed air told Chris she must have cooked enough to feed a town. A glow on his face, he glanced over to the man riding at his side. It had been a long time since the two old friends had gotten time to sit in a saloon and have a drink. With the coins jingling in his pocket from the sale of his horses, Chris had gladly submitted to Buck's desire to indulge themselves. It had seemed like fun when Buck first suggested it. But Chris had spent most of the night wishing he was sitting at home in front of the fire with Sarah cradled in his arms, telling Adam a story."It was like old times, 'eh, pard?"Though he rarely lied, Chris did so now, unwilling to hurt his friend's feelings. "Yeah.""We're gonna have ta do this more often.""Sounds good." Even as he spoke the untruth, Chris' mind was formulating excuses to prevent such an occurrence."Did ya see that Betsy? She couldn't keep her hands off me."Chris rested his hands on his saddle horn and laid his tired body against them. "Why should she be different from any other woman?""Except Sarah," Buck corrected. "Once she laid eyes on you, no one else existed.""Sarah ain't like no other woman," Chris softly asserted.Buck nodded. "I'll grant ya that, pard."The fingers of Chris' right hand pinched the tender flesh of his left. It was a validation he often performed whenever he wondered how he had gotten so lucky. As impossible as it seemed in a few months, he would be even happier. He hoped the baby would be a girl and that she would have Sarah's curls and fiery disposition. Chris would want for nothing else. His life would be complete.As eager to reach home as the men on their backs, the horses broke into an easy trot. When the land started to slope up, they lengthened their strides into a canter.Reining in his mount at the top of the hill, Chris' yearning gaze looked out over the valley. Wisps of smoke rose from a burned out hulk that had once been his home.Faint with fear and despair, he spurred his horse, screams of denial dying in his throat. The animal whinnied in protest, rearing at the brutal treatment before racing down the hill."I'm sure they're all right, Chris. They must've gotten out in time."Buck's shouted reassurances were ignored. Somehow, Chris knew Sarah and Adam had been in the cabin when it burned. Were still in the cabin. He'd known the minute he saw the smoldering ashes. The connection he had cherished since his eyes first met Sarah's had been severed. He was floundering without his life preserver.His horse started prancing nervously as it approached the smoking ruins. Chris threw himself from the saddle, crossing the remaining distance on foot. Heedless of the hot embers searing through his boots and brushing against his clothes, he searched the debris.In the section where his and Sarah's bedroom had once stood, he found what he was looking for. The charred corpses would've been unrecognizable to anyone but him.His soul died, devoured by a fire as destructive as the one that had killed Sarah and Adam.
"Fire," Chris softly whispered.
Josiah gently wiped Vin's perspiring brow. "It does feel as though Brother Tanner's flesh is on fire."
"Nathan warned us Vin might develop a fever," Buck reminded his colleagues.
Continuing to rub Vin's cold feet, Ezra inquired, "Should we perhaps retrieve Mr. Jackson?"
"Not yet." Josiah lifted Vin's head. Placing a cup of warm broth against the chapped lips, he carefully poured the liquid into the lax mouth. "The fever isn't high enough yet to worry about."
"When will it be time to worry, Mr. Sanchez?" Ezra sarcastically demanded. "When the man is consumed by a conflagration?"
****Vin shyly hid behind his mother's bed, even though he recognized the men who had invaded his home. Spencer owned the ranch next to theirs. To Vin's five year old eyes, the man's attempts to court his mother were heavy-handed and loutish. He mistakenly assumed his attentions would be welcome because he was rich.The second man was the town blacksmith. Barnes frequently repaired their wagon and other equipment, charging little or no money for his services. Vin had always wanted to watch the big man work, but whenever an opportunity presented itself, he would timidly scoot behind his mother's skirts."She's dead," Spencer announced.Holding a handkerchief to his nose, Barnes agreed. "By the looks of things, she died a few days ago. Guess Paul was right ta be worried when she didn't come in fer supplies.""Wonder what she died of?""Reckon I don't wanna git close enough to find out.""Then ya know what we gotta do?"There was anger in Barnes' voice as he replied, "I don't care what them ole biddies in town think. Mrs. Tanner was a decent woman. She deserves a decent burial.""Who all you gonna find ta give that Christian burial?" Spencer demanded. "It ain't safe ta get near her when we don't know what she died of."Vin listened to the conversation, grateful to the blacksmith for defending his mother. He'd seen the looks and heard the whispers whenever they were in town. Once, he had even asked his mother what a bastard was. It was the only time he had ever seen her angry. She had told him it was a name given by narrow-minded people to children whose mothers didn't marry their fathers. She had reassured Vin they could call him the name all they wanted. It didn't make it true."Now we know what's happened," Barnes protested, "we can't jus' leave her here.""You got a wife and kids.""What's that got ta do with anythin'?""Have you ever seen smallpox?""Enough to know that ain't what Mrs. Tanner had.""What if it was somethin' else?" Spencer hissed. "Somethin' that could kill yer wife and kids, the entire town."Though their faces weren't visible to Vin, he could hear their fear. His love for his mother had taught him to listen for emotion in the tone of a person's voice, as well as look for it on their faces. The only time he had ever heard fear was when he did something his mother considered dangerous."What're ya suggesting?" Barnes suspiciously inquired.To Vin's ears, Barnes sounded like he'd just eaten something he was having trouble swallowing."We gotta burn the house down with her in it.""We could git the doc," Barnes argued.The thud of a foot on the floorboards, indicated to Vin that Barnes had taken a step away from the rancher."There isn't time. 'sides, she's already dead. It ain't like it's gonna hurt her.""What about the boy?""We ain't seen hide nor hair of that little bastard since we got here. I reckon he took off when the food ran out.""Where would he go? He was only five.""Not our worry, is it? The whore shoulda gotten married when she had the chance."His hands curling into fists, Vin gritted his teeth to keep from attacking the big rancher. That was another bad word his mother had told him to ignore. He didn't know what it meant; he only knew it made his mother sad."I don't know, Spence, it don't seem right.""When yer wife and kids are lying on their death beds, you tell them it didn't seem right to burn a house and the dead whore inside."Needing an outlet for his anger, Vin pounded his fists into the mattress. He would not disgrace his mother by going against her wishes and confronting the man directly."All right.""Start pouring the kerosene from the lamps on the floor and walls in the kitchen and the other bedroom. I'll do this room and the hallway."With one ear, Vin followed Barnes' tread down the hall to his bedroom. Glass shattered, signaling the blacksmith was following orders."Ya can come out now, ya little bastard."Spencer's voice was pitched low, barely loud enough for Vin to hear."I know yer in here."Vin wrapped one arm around his bent legs. His other hand snaked under the covers to rest on his mother's arm. The flesh was stiff and cold. It felt nothing like the arms that had conveyed her love in the comfort of a hug."When ya see yer ma, tell her she shoulda married me."The tinkle of disintegrating glass was immediately followed by the overpowering odor of kerosene."Ya done, Barnes?"Vin's head jerked up at Spencer's demand. He understood only a little of what the two men had been discussing. He wished his mother would wake up to tell him what he should do. But he was beginning to realize there was no dead animal in the bedroom."Yeah, I'm done.""Go on outside. I'll take care of the rest."Words formed on Vin's lips to call for help. They remained unspoken. The dry desert of his mouth made yelling impossible."So long, ya little bastard."A gentle whoosh was quickly replaced by a roar as flames enveloped the kerosene soaked wood. Heat and light expanded until it was difficult to breathe or see. Smoke trickled down Vin's throat, making him cough. It burned his eyes, causing tears to stream down his cheeks. Embarrassed by the weakness, he scrubbed his face with a sooty fist."Mama, wake up. We gotta go." Vin tugged at the arm under his hand.Light reflected from the metal surface of the harmonica lying on the dresser. Vin crossed to the tall bureau. Pulling out the bottom two drawers, he climbed to the top. Heat scorched the tender flesh of his fingers as they wrapped around the musical instrument. He quickly slid it into his pocket along with his mother's locket before jumping to the floor.Gasping until his chest ached, he crawled under his mother's bed and pushed aside the piece of wood covering a hole. Fresh air blew against his face, cooling his hot skin and fanning the flames licking at the bedspread.With a forlorn whimper, he dropped into the tunnel. An adult would've had to crawl through the narrow passage. Small, even for someone his own age, Vin barely had to bend his head. When he reached the end, he climbed up the ladder built into one wall of the shaft. At the top, he pushed aside the dead twigs hiding the opening. He was proud of his father's foresight in ending the tunnel under a huge fir. The sweeping branches of the tree had protected the shaft opening from being buried under the snow. Peering through the branches, Vin could see the flames consuming his mother, consuming his life.A hand covered his mouth as an arm wrapped around his waist. He struggled against the strong embrace."It is all right."A calm voice whispered reassurances in his ear."Your mother sent me."Vin stopped fighting. The arms released him, allowing him to turn. When he saw it was an Indian, he knew he should be afraid. The tunnel had been built in case of an Indian attack. Instead, Vin felt safe. "They burned my mother and my house.""You will come to my home.""They had no right.""The white man does not need a reason to do what he does." Gently touching the trail tears had made through the soot on Vin's face, the old man translated, "War paint."
Josiah gently stroked the sweat soaked head, trying to soothe his restless patient. Though he'd fought it, exhaustion had overtaken Larabee. Leaning against a chair, he had fallen asleep. Buck was on guard at the front door, JD at the back. It was conceivable the men who had shot Vin would return, seeking the only shelter for miles. Only Ezra remained, his strong fingers honed by hours of card playing continuing to massage Vin's cold feet.
"Ezra," the preacher whispered, "why don't you let Buck or JD take over for a while?"
The succinct reply compounded Josiah's worries rather than alleviating them. "This wasn't your fault."
"No, I don't think you do." Rinsing the cloth he was using to wipe Vin's throat and chest, Josiah squeezed out the excess water. "The Indians have a story they tell about a strange creature called the Huluk. It dwells in a lake."
"Where else would an anomalous parasite reside?"
The sarcastic tone didn't deter Josiah. "One day, a little boy, a little girl and an older boy were digging roots near the lake when they saw the red and white spotted horn of the Huluk. The two younger children started laughing and decided they wanted the horn. The older boy tried to stop them, but the Huluk scooped up the little boy, then the little girl. They went into the water riding the horn. As the creature slid into the lake, the older boy could still hear his brother and sister laughing.
"He ran home to tell his mother and father where the boy became ill. The father put on his best clothes and went to the edge of the lake where he found tracks. He followed them into a cave. On the other side, he found a strange land. The sky was made of shimmering earth. The trees were growing downward from the roof of the sky.
"In the distance, he saw his laughing children clinging to the Huluk's horn. The father pursued the slow moving creature through the dismal world. He called to his children, imploring them to let go of the horn. They clung tighter and yelled back, 'Father, we are different, different, different.'
"For five days, the father stayed in the strange land, begging his children to come to him. Their answer was always the same. Finally, the Huluk's trail vanished on a lava bed. The father emerged into his own world.
"While the older boy lay sick with fever, the father fell asleep at his side. The next day, he awoke and told his wife, 'I have seen them in my dream. I will try again to bring them home.'
"He tied one end of a long hazel rope to his waist and the other end to a tree. Swimming out to the middle of the lake, he peered down and saw his children, clinging to the monster's horn. He begged them to let go and swim up to him. But their reply was the same as before, 'Father, we are different, different, different.'"
Josiah paused, giving Ezra an opportunity to comment on the fanciful tale. But there were no snide remarks, no sign the gambler was even listening. No longer certain his friend would find solace in his story, Josiah hesitantly continued.
"As he swam, the father prayed to the good spirits for assistance. He prayed to the clouds, the lake, the mountains, the trees, the birds and the kindly spirit he met when he became of age. He would've drowned if his wife hadn't pulled on the hazel rope, drawing him from the water.
"The next morning and for five mornings after that, he returned to the lake calling to his children. Their answer was always the same. Then, he noticed they were changing. Their hair was gone. Their eyes were half-globes of darkness without lids. Their bodies had merged into one speckled body with two heads. He called to them, 'Children, swim up here to me!'
"Both heads spoke at once, 'Father, I am different, different, different.'
"The father's prayers aided the older boy's recovery. On the last day, he helped his mother pull his father from the lake. All the grief-stricken man could say was, 'Weep, my wife, weep, my only son; weep for they are different, different, different."
His story complete, Josiah fell silent. A smile curved his lips as his eyes rested on Ezra's frowning face.
"Was there a point to that rather lengthy narrative, Mr. Sanchez?"
"Only if you care to see one, Brother."
Ezra wasn't sure if he cared to or not. He thought he understood what Josiah was trying to tell him, in the preacher's own unique way. However, Ezra had always known what it was to be different. It was the changing part he was having trouble with. He'd always been alone, even when he had been with his mother. But now, he was one of seven. Seven different human beings who sometimes seemed to merge into one, that was different, different, different.
****The bell clanged, signaling the end of the recess. Ezra joined his friends, laughing and talking as they slowly walked into the school. The break had been far too short. Though he derived pleasure from learning, Ezra reveled in being with his friends more. This was the first time he had been in a school long enough to have confidantes. It was a novelty that made every day exciting. In his entire academic life, he had never risen from his bed eager to face the day - until now."Hurry, boys."Normally, the admonishment from a teacher would have Ezra dropping his head in shame and quickly obeying. Mr. Trachsell deserved neither his respect nor his obedience. Though only twelve, Ezra already knew more in the way of book learning than the so called educator. How the man had secured his position was a mystery."Take your seats, boys. I won't tell you again."But he would, again and again and again. Ezra wasn't the only one who had a low opinion of the teacher. Trachsell didn't find apples on his desk; he found mud pies. Slates were used to make caricatures of the portly man, not to add sums.When the other children suddenly became quiet, Ezra lifted his head to discover the reason. A policeman stood at Trachsell's shoulder, whispering in his ear. Even before the vindictive eyes rested on him, Ezra knew he was the reason for the officer's visit. He felt the smile on his face become stiff, before fading completely. What had his mother done now?"Mr. Standish," Trachsell called.Ezra didn't acknowledge the summons. He stared into the teacher's eyes, hate gnawing at him when he saw the jubilation glowing from the brown orbs. The Lord might have said vengeance was his, Trachsell obviously felt different."Mr. Standish," Trachsell repeated, sneering at his young charge, "your presence is required at the police station. It seems your mother has been arrested for solicitation."A snicker from the boy sitting next to him told Ezra at least one of the other students understood what his mother was accused of doing. Even though he knew the allegation couldn't be true, Ezra didn't try to deny the charge. No one would believe him. This was the one time they would listen to Trachsell. Not because he was more trustworthy, but because it was more exciting. By humiliating Ezra, the teacher had won a measure of acceptance from his other students. It didn't seem to matter to him that he'd destroyed a woman's reputation in exacting his revenge. Once the word was spoken it had become true. Ezra knew his mother would sell almost anything, including her son. Her body, however, was not nor ever would be for sale. Strange as it sounded, Maude did have standards.Finally rising, Ezra threw back his shoulders and walked to the police officer's side. Carefully keeping his gaze straight ahead, he avoided the scorn he knew would be present on his friends' faces. His former friends, he mentally corrected himself. There was no question in his mind; he knew they would no longer associate with him. This wasn't the first time Maude's actions had disrupted his life. It was just the first time he cared.
Shaking his head to dispel the painful memory, Ezra allowed his gaze to rest on Chris Larabee's face. He wasn't surprised to find the man's eyes were open, staring at him with green daggers that could slay a dragon or cut a mortal's soft flesh.
His lips barely moving, Chris promised, "If Vin dies, so will you."
"If Mr. Tanner dies, all that will remain of me is my physical body. Mr. Larabee, you are welcome to do whatever you please with it." Ezra spoke without pretense, knowing in his heart the truth of his statement. He had spent most of his life without friends. Wondering but never really knowing what he was missing - until now. These men wouldn't have abandoned him because of a small indiscretion of his mother's. They would have stood at his shoulder, lending support because they were different, different, different.
****The saddle horn pressed painfully against Vin's thigh. He shifted, trying to ease the discomfort. A hand slapped against the side of his head, halting his attempt."Didn't I tell ya ta sit still, ya mongrel?"His head ringing, Vin rubbed an already swollen ear. He could ride better than any of these soldiers. It didn't make any sense to him. Why wouldn't they let him have a horse of his own? Were they afraid he would try to escape? He had nowhere to escape to. They had destroyed the only home he had known since his mother died. The snow of the village was stained red with the blood of the People. Only three had been spared. Three whose skin was white.Muscles aching from sitting immobile for so long, Vin sighed with relief when the barricade circling the fort came into view. The heavy gates swung open, evidence the patrol had been sighted.Fearing what awaited them inside, Vin chanced incurring the trooper's wrath to look back at White Feather and Standing Deer. He mentally berated himself. He would have to start thinking of the girls by their white names, Ruth and Clare. With hair so blond it was almost white, Ruth's Indian name was more appropriate for the young girl. The fine strands would often stand straight up like a feather or a headdress.The fear on Standing Deer's face made Vin wish he could comfort her. Found by the People when she was a baby, she didn't know the language or customs of her birth. The only family she had ever known lay dead in the snow, her Kiowa mother, father, sisters, brothers, husband and infant son, killed because of the color of their skin.Voices from the compound echoed around them, rejoicing in their arrival. Vin was glad someone was happy.The parade of horses walked into the fort through a gauntlet of soldiers and civilians, cheering their accomplishment. What honor, Vin wondered, was there in a victory against old men, women and children? Guns against bows and arrows?A hand clamped around his shoulder, squeezing until pain coursed along the nerves leading to his chest, back and right arm. He bit back a cry of agony, unwilling to show any sign of weakness. Practically thrown from the saddle, he landed on the ground with a jolt that rattled his teeth.Still reeling, Vin suddenly found himself engulfed in arms smelling of cinnamon and lavender. Pressed against an ample bosom with a force that took his breath away, he weakly struggled to free himself."You poor, poor child. The torture you've been forced to endure. Those heathens will pay for what they've done to you."Vin wanted to tell the woman the people she called heathens had been nothing but kind to him. They hadn't been the ones who burned his house. They hadn't been the ones who tried to murder him. For three years, they had treated him as if he were their own. And they had paid for their kindness with their lives."Please, Mrs. Baker, the children are still feeling a bit overwhelmed." The officer who had led the attack intervened.Released from the enveloping arms, Vin's empty lungs desperately sucked in air. Though he loathed the very sight of him, Vin meekly accompanied Reilly across the compound. Searching for White Feather and Standing Deer, he was relieved to see they were being escorted to the same building. As soon as he could, he broke away from the lieutenant and ran to Standing Deer, taking her hand in his. A trembling smile thanked him for his daring.Entering a small office, the three were lined up in front of an ornate desk. The officer sitting behind it, laid down his pen. Folding his hands on top of the report he had been writing, he smiled. Vin knew the sentiment was fake, displayed on the thick lips but not in the black eyes."Welcome to Fort Cobb. I'm Colonel Dean. Before I let you return to lives so brutally interrupted by your captors, I need to ask you a few questions."Vin stared at the officer without blinking. Nothing these men had done so far had earned his co-operation or his respect."Lieutenant Reilly reported they found few warriors in the village. We need to know where the rest are."The smile slowly faded as silence filled the room. "You," Dean pointed to Standing Deer, "Clare, isn't it?" You're the oldest. Why don't you tell me what I want to know?"Afraid the young woman might be punished when she didn't answer, Vin explained, "Her name is Standing Deer. She don't speak white man.""All right." A brief glare rested on the boy before shifting to White Feather. "Ruth, why don't you tell me?"Though considerably taller than Vin, White Feather moved to hide behind him. A trembling hand rested on his shoulder."She . . . ""Her name is Ruth Cooper." Dean interrupted Vin's attempt to protect the young girl. "This is Clare Winslow, and you're Vin Tanner. You're back with your own people now. Remember that."Vin defiantly regarded the officer. "It's hard to remember what you've never had. Standing Deer came to live with the Kiowa when she was just a baby. White Feather was only seven when she was took. She's spent more'n half her life with 'em. You haven't brought us back to our people. You took us from 'em."Fingers curled into fists on the desk, the only manifestation of the colonel's anger. A belligerent gaze resting on Vin, he noted, "Since you've elected yourself spokesman, you tell me where the warriors went."Vin tried to copy the derisive smile he had seen on Dean's face earlier. He wasn't sure if he was successful. He'd never learned how to lie from the People. He was mastering the white mans' ways fast."Sir." The officer who had rescued Vin before stepped in again. "The children are very tired. They might be more compliant after a good night's sleep.""Very well, Lieutenant, but I don't want them fed.""Sir?""Empty bellies may make their tongues a little looser.""Yes, sir."Vin was a little surprised by the reluctance he heard in Reilly's voice. Catching Dean's eyes with his own, he allowed a genuine smile to curve his lips. The colonel was about to discover something else the children had learned from the Kiowa - strength. It would not be the first time they would go to bed hungry because of the white man's actions.Keeping a firm grip on Standing Deer's hand, Vin followed the lieutenant outside. The soldiers and the adult civilians had returned to their chores. Only the children remained. A few stared at them with curiosity, the rest with sneers and disgust. Vin lifted his head high, proud of the buckskin coat and pants he wore proud of the long hair reaching past his shoulders proud to have been able to call himself Kiowa."Filthy savages."Looking at the boy who muttered the derogatory remark, Vin tilted his head in puzzlement. The colonel had said they were white. But this boy considered them Indian. Both could not be true. Yet they were. Vin was white by birth, Indian by choice. A choice that had been stolen from him.The hostile stares only disappeared when they entered a long low building. A narrow corridor stretched in front of them with many rooms leading off it. Gesturing to the chamber on the right, the lieutenant instructed, "You girls will sleep here. Vin, you'll be in the room next door.""We'd rather stay together, sir," Vin politely offered. His mother had once told him you attracted more bees with honey than with vinegar."You're in our world now, son. You need to start living by our rules."Vin didn't object further; he merely waited. When the officer tried to separate the three, the girls started screaming and wailing. Finally, in desperation, Reilly pushed Vin into their room. Throwing their arms around the boy, the girls fell silent. Vin spoke soothing words only they could understand. But as he looked into their terrified eyes, he knew words wouldn't be enough to help them adjust to their new world. Maybe nothing would.
"Rider comin' in."
Buck's soft warning pulled Chris to his feet. Swaying, he strapped on his holster and pulled his gun, checking the chambers. His gaze dropped to Vin's sweat-sheened face. His friend had already suffered enough. He would not suffer any more, not as long as there was breath in Chris Larabee's body.
"Stay with Vin, Josiah," Chris quietly ordered noticing, but not acknowledging, Ezra's drawn weapon.
Joining Buck at the front door, Chris strained to see through the curtain of snow. His vision impaired by the dense whiteness, he relied on sound to identify the approaching visitor.
"If my ears aren't deceivin' me, I'd swear I hear a sleigh," Buck revealed.
Chris listened, nodding agreement. "The only person in these parts with a sleigh is Yosemite."
"Unless Santa Claus is makin' an early visit." A corner of Buck's mouth lifted as he enjoyed his own joke.
Green eyes aflame at the facetious remark, Chris called, "JD, you keep yer eyes and ears open 'til I tell ya different."
The smile disappearing, Buck asked, "Ya think it's them back shooters returnin'?"
"I'm assuming so, 'til I know better. Ya live longer that way."
The vague outline of two horses pulling a sleigh appeared. Chris lifted his gun, thumbing down the hammer. If it was only his own life at stake, his gun would still be in its holster. He wasn't willing to take even the slightest chance with Vin's life or any of the others.
Air trapped in extended lungs by anger and fear hissed from Chris' compressed lips at Buck's revelation. The gunslinger's abused body swayed in relief. Shaking off his old friend's concerned grip, Chris returned to the living room. "Nathan's back."
"Good," Josiah softly acknowledged. "Vin's stopped shivering. Don't know as that's good though as he's developed a fever."
Chris crossed the room on trembling legs. Kneeling, he put a hand on the tracker's sweating forehead. "He's burning up."
Nathan entered the house, brushing snow from his shoulders. Speaking through chattering teeth, he advised, "Chris, you all gotta come back ta town, now."
"Is there trouble?" Buck demanded.
"No trouble," Nathan soothed, "'ceptin' this here storm. Won't be long 'fore everythin's snowed in."
Josiah squeezed excess water from the cloth he'd been using to cool his patient. "Vin's got himself a fever. Wouldn't it be dangerous for him to travel in this weather?"
"Not any more dangerous than you all stayin'."
"I'll stay with Vin," Chris announced, a hand resting on his friend's shoulder. "The rest of you head back to Four Corners."
Exasperation on his dark face, Nathan shook his head. "That's a noble gesture, Chris. But all you'd be doin' is killin' yerself and Vin. It could be weeks 'fore ya could leave. Even if Vin survives, there ain't enough supplies ta last ya both or yer horses for that long. Billy Travis is doin' better, but some of the other kids are sick. I can't stay."
"I ain't askin' ya ta stay." Chris' eyes remained on Vin's face. Only his words acknowledged the healer's presence.
"Ya think I wanna take him out in this storm? It could kill him." Raw pain punctuated each word Nathan spoke.
"I'm tellin' ya, ya don't have ta."
Nathan closed his eyes and blew on his frozen hands, visibly controlling his temper. "If'n that fever gits bad enough, Vin could have convulsions. Ya gonna know what ta do fer him?"
"Will you?" Chris lifted his gaze to meet the healer's.
"A damn sight more than you will."
Chris stared into the compassionate brown eyes. No matter what he did there was no guarantee Vin would live through the ordeal. To make his decision, Chris would have to ignore what he wanted to do. Ignore what Nathan was telling him he should do and make his verdict based on what Vin would want. Chris knew he wouldn't be able to handle saving Vin's life only to lose his friendship by making a selfish choice. Their bond was strong enough that Chris knew Vin would never forgive him if any of their friends died making an heroic gesture to save Vin's life. Shifting his gaze to look out the window, Chris knew anyone who stayed would die. This wasn't the first time he'd seen a storm this powerful.
Barely loud enough to be heard over the crackling fire, he relinquished his leadership. "What do you want us to do, Nathan?"
"Buck, JD, saddle the horses," Nathan immediately instructed. "Ezra, git all the blankets ya can find. Josiah, help me git Vin dressed."
Chris was aware of the activity around him, but for once, he had no interest in participating. He wasn't sure whether he could blame his listlessness on his immersion in the well or the fact he no longer felt fit to lead. He had once sworn he wouldn't let personal feelings impair his judgement. It was an oath he would gladly violate if it would save his friend's life. Would Vin's face soon haunt him as Sarah's and Adam's did, along side faces with no names?
****"Chris Larabee, I'm callin' you out."Chris reluctantly pulled his gaze from the whisky bottle in front of him to the boy standing over him. Having a reputation as a fast gun was both a blessing and a curse. The former because it kept people from bothering you and the latter because it attracted anyone seeking notoriety. They wanted his reputation, not his life. But they couldn't have one without the other.Several times, Chris had come close to leaving his gun in his holster, giving his opponent what he wanted and finally putting an end to his own pain. However, the need to avenge his wife's and son's deaths were powerful motivators. At each encounter, the pistol would slide into his hand in a motion too fast to see. Another would be gunslinger would lie dead or dying in the street, adding to Chris Larabee's legend."I said I'm callin' ya out." A dirty hand slapped Chris' table, rocking the bottle of whiskey.Steadying the liquor, Chris poured himself a shot. Downing it in one quick swallow, he advised, "Go away, kid, while ya still can.""Yer afraid ta face me." A scornful laugh rumbled past the boy's lips. "The great Chris Larabee is afraid to face me."Unaffected by the boy's attempt to provoke him, Chris lied, "All right, I'm afraid to face ya. Now go away.""I can't do that. No one will believe me when I tell 'em you were scared to draw on me.""Not much I can do about that, kid.""Which means ya gotta face me.""It don't mean no such thing.""I'll tell everyone Chris Larabee is a coward."Pouring himself another drink, Chris shrugged his shoulders. "Ya say what ya like. Words don't make somethin' true."Frustrated, the boy stomped over to the bar and ordered himself a drink. It was clear by the way he choked down each shot he was unaccustomed to alcohol.Though he had been ready to leave when the boy confronted him, Chris stayed in his seat, unwilling to initiate another challenge. The boy was pursuing a reputation. He wouldn't leave until he'd completed his goal.When two cowboys started teasing the boy, Chris knew someone would die. The kid's lightning draw cut down both men before their guns had cleared their holsters. Surprised by the boy's speed, Chris realized he might have lost if he'd allowed himself to be called out.Arrested for murder, the boy was hanged two days later. He might have received leniency if one of the cowboys hadn't been the son of a respected local rancher.Chris left town the day of the hanging without ever learning the boy's name. If he'd done things differently, would there be only one new tombstone in the graveyard instead of three?
"Chris, douse the fire."
Nathan's command pulled Chris from his black thoughts. Grateful for any activity that would push back the painful memories, he crossed to the fireplace. Retrieving a poker, he separated the logs before pouring the contents of the ash bucket over the flames. Smothered, most of the fire died instantly. Retrieving the buckets JD had left in the kitchen, Chris threw the water over the smoldering embers. A drop of the cold liquid ran down his arm, reminding him where it had come from and what had almost been taken from him. What could still be taken from him.
"These are all I could find, Mr. Jackson." Ezra dropped a pile of blankets onto the settee.
Lips moving silently, Nathan counted the bundles. "Everyone gets one. The rest we'll use on Vin."
"Mr. Tanner can have my blanket," Ezra quickly offered.
"There are plenty of blankets to keep Vin warm," Nathan contended, shaking his head. "That snow's gonna soak through yer clothes in no time. Ya won't be doin' Vin no favor if'n we have ta stop 'cause yer froze and fell off yer horse."
Ezra threw back his shoulders in indignation. "I assure you, Mr. Jackson, I will not fall off my horse."
"Yer keepin' the blanket, Ezra." Though his voice barely rose above a whisper, there was enough force behind Chris' order to make Ezra concede defeat without further argument.
A door slammed against the wall, announcing Buck and JD's return. Chris was relieved as the room had cooled perceptibly in the short time since the fire had been extinguished. The sooner they left, the sooner they could get Vin in a warm, comfortable bed.
"Damn!" Buck grumbled, shaking the snow from his hat. "I ain't never seen nothin' like this storm. Had trouble gitin' the barn door open."
"We got the horses saddled outside," JD informed them.
"Good work," Nathan praised, wrapping a blanket around Vin. "Each of you grab a blanket, and we'll be on our way."
Chris held up a hand to forestall Buck and JD's protest. "Don't argue, jus' do it."
Buck's mouth opened to disobey his friend's directive only to close when he saw Chris throw a blanket around his own shoulders.
"Chris," Nathan continued, "you'll ride in the sleigh with Vin."
"I can ride my horse," Chris protested.
"Someone's gotta hold Vin. I'll be too busy drivin the sleigh."
Chris was tempted to ignore the directive, until he admitted Nathan was placing him where he wanted to be anyway - at Vin's side. Only a fool argued when there was nothing to argue about. Chris had been called many things, but never a fool.
"Buck," Nathan wrapped another blanket around Vin. "Tie one end of a rope to the back of the sleigh and the other end around your saddle horn. Use another rope to link yerself with JD, then Ezra and Josiah. Ya can't see much further than in front of yer face out there. We don't want no one gettin' lost."
"How are you gonna find yer way back, Nathan?" JD asked, a worried frown on his face as he glanced out the window.
"Yosemite said all I gotta do is give the horses their head. They'll find their way home."
His big hands tucking the warm quilts tightly around Vin, Josiah said, "Let's hope, Brothers, those horses have as much sense as Yosemite has faith."
As Josiah lifted Vin to carry him out to the sleigh, Chris took a last look around, partly to ensure the fire was completely extinguished, partly because the house had become a refuge. Here, Vin was still alive. There was no guarantee that would be true when they reached Four Corners.
Josiah waited patiently for Chris to take his seat in the wagon. When the strong arms reached for the unconscious man, the preacher reluctantly relinquished his burden. He knew there was no assurance he would see Vin alive again.
Unable to see his horse, Josiah put a hand on the rope linking the riders to the sleigh. Using it as a guide, he followed it back to his mount. Brushing a layer of snow from his seat, he pulled himself up into the saddle. His foot searched for his right stirrup as he shouted he was ready. He heard Ezra and JD relay the information. Buck's acknowledgment was lost in the howling wind. A tug on the rope around his saddle horn confirmed Nathan had received his message.
Hunched under his blanket, Josiah realized he had never seen a snowstorm of this magnitude in his travels. He was just grateful the snow was white. Once, not so long ago, he had seen it stained a bright red.
****Ducking his head so the raised collar of his coat covered his cold ears, Josiah was grateful for the full beard warming his face. Engrossed in his studies with the Cherokee Holy Man, he had concentrated on finding his spirit. His body he had neglected, except for the necessary functions he could not disregard. By the time he left the Indian village, winter had set in. It seemed prudent to keep the beard at least until spring.Allowing his horse to pick his way slowly through the deep snow, Josiah tried to decide where he would go next. He had learned a great deal from the Cherokee, but he had not discovered where to find the peace of mind continuing to elude him. He'd studied Buddhism with a Chinese monk, Catholicism with an Irish priest, Judaism with a Russian Rabbi. And still the demons raged inside him, demanding penance.His horse reared, almost unseating him. A soft nervous whinny was accompanied by the animal backing away. Josiah lifted his head, his left hand automatically going to the gun at his side. But there was no danger ahead. Now. It had been and gone. Nothing living remained.Broken tepees lay crushed, their contents scattered across the ground. Blood stained snow showed where the inhabitants had fallen, the patches too numerous to count.News had traveled swiftly among the tribes detailing the Army's raid on a Kiowa village to retrieve three captive white children. Josiah hadn't realized they had killed an entire band to achieve their goal. Though there were no bodies, the evidence was irrefutable.Sickened, he considered changing his plans. He had intended to spend the night at Fort Cobb. After seeing confirmation of their latest 'battle', he wasn't sure he would be able to hold his temper when confronted by a bragging soldier.A cold breeze blew across his shoulders.Shrugging fatalistically, he decided a few days in the guardhouse and a sore fist would be small payment for a warm bed and a chance to close a few windbags' mouths. It wouldn't be the first time he and the Army didn't see eye to eye.His anger seethed below the surface on the long ride to the fort. By the time he arrived, his indignation was high, his hands already curled into fists. There was no longer any question, he would sleep in jail tonight.The guard at the gate opened the barrier wide enough to allow Josiah to enter. Snapping it closed on the horse's heels, he took refuge behind a support post.At the sound of gunfire, Josiah understood the unusual behavior and slid out of the saddle, finding shelter behind a wagon. When a rifle-laden soldier joined him, Josiah inquired, "What's goin' on?""'bout a week ago, we liberated three white kids from a Kiowa village. Appears they ain't too happy at bein' rescued. The boy done got hisself a gun, and they's holed up in their room.""Has anyone tried to talk to them?""Colonel Dean done tried. Reckon that boy don't wanna listen."Unbuckling his holster, Josiah hung it on his saddle horn. Handing his reins to the soldier, he instructed, "Keep an eye on my horse.""I wouldn't go in there if'n I was you." The soldier put a hand on Josiah's arm. "The colonel don't like civilians interferin'.""I don't care what the colonel likes or doesn't like. All I care about is those children." Pulling his arm free, Josiah walked boldly across the compound. Something inside him was telling him this was why he was here. This was why he hadn't turned back when confronted by the Army's conduct at the Indian village. The prospect of dying at the hands of a half-savage boy was less terrifying than not trying to help at all.He crossed to enter the small building where the sound of a discharging weapon still echoed within its walls. A man stepped in front of him, halting his advance. The eagles on each shoulder identified him as Colonel Dean."Where do you think you're going?""I'd say that's rather obvious." One look had shown Josiah this was not a man to be respected. The shaking gun in the flabby hand was the physical embodiment of the ignorance on his face."I can't let a civilian go in there. The boy has gone crazy.""I'm a preacher. Maybe I can talk to him?""Sir," a lieutenant whispered from his post near the entrance, "the boy might listen to someone who's not in uniform. It won't look good if we have to kill him."The workings of Dean's mind were almost visible as he contemplated the statement. "You get that gun away from him. We'll take it from there."The terms were unacceptable, but Dean stepped aside before Josiah could voice his objections. Halting outside the building, he stood beside the lieutenant as he called, "I'm a preacher. I'm unarmed, and I'm comin' in."Without waiting for permission, Josiah raised his hands and walked into the building. His heart was beating wildly, but no gunfire greeted his arrival. Following the smell of cordite, he stopped outside the nearest room. One of the cots had been pushed on its side. Though there was no indication, Josiah knew the besieged children must be hiding behind it. He discovered his assumption wasn't totally accurate when he stepped inside. A twisted sheet around her neck, one of the girls was hanging from the rafters. She was clearly dead.Bile rose in Josiah's throat. He was too late to save her, but he wasn't too late to save the other two. "I'm a good listener if'n ya wanna talk.""Talkin' ain't done me much good so far.""It is province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen." Silence met Josiah's quote. Smiling sadly, he encouraged, "Why don't ya try talkin' ta me?""Whaddya wanna talk about?"The voice was young, yet filled with strength. There was no sign of fear. Impressed, Josiah softly suggested, "Why don't we talk about why you have that gun?""Standing Deer is dead.""I can see that.""That there colonel won't let her go join her people."Puzzled, Josiah slowly dropped his hands to his sides. "I'm sure Colonel Dean will allow her body to be shipped to her family back east." "Them ain't her people."There was a sadness in the boy's voice that broke Josiah's heart."The Kiowa were her people. She had parents, a husband and a son. To join them, her body must be burned on a pyre. Colonel Dean won't let me do that for her. It's not civilized."A high-pitched giggle from a closet brought a frown to Josiah's face. It was clear where the other girl was hiding. The knowledge only brought more despair. It wasn't the first time he had heard the sound of madness."Hush, White Feather. Everythin' will be all right."Despite the boy's reassurance, Josiah knew everything wouldn't be all right. The dead would not rest easy as long as their wishes went unfulfilled. "If I give you my word I'll make sure Standing Deer receives a proper burial, will you give me the gun?""Can I trust you?""Yes. Oh Lord, let thy mercy lighten upon us: as our trust is in thee."Surprised when the gun came sliding across the floor towards him, Josiah picked it up, seeing it not as a weapon of destruction but a sign of faith. The demons inside him grew quiet. Though he knew it was a temporary reprieve, he rejoiced. It gave him hope that someday he would find a way to silence their voices forever.
The memories faded, drifting with the swirling snow. In the ensuing furor, Josiah never met the boy he had saved, who in turn had saved him. Despite Dean's attempt to prevent him, Josiah kept his promise. He returned Standing Deer to the ghosts of her village. Silently praying to whichever god would listen, he watched the flames consume her body.
His only regret was that he was unable to help White Feather. Ashamed of their crazy savage relation, he'd learned her family had committed her to an asylum.
Josiah never discovered what happened to the boy. He'd caught a brief glimpse of the young face before they took him away. It was clear the Kiowa had named him well, Gui-pago, Lone Wolf. Strangely, Josiah never worried about him. The strength in the young voice had been clearly audible. He was a survivor.
A shout lifted Josiah's head. Shielding his eyes from the stinging shards striking his face, he saw Ezra motioning. Though he couldn't determine what the gambler was saying, he didn't need to. Dark shapes in the white blanket, indicating the presence of buildings were barely discernable.
Cold water trickled down Vin's face. Welcoming the coolness on his overheated body, he tried to push away the cocoon embracing him. Strong arms held him tightly, preventing him from attaining his goal. Only once before had he been this hot. Then, heat had been the least of his worries.
****In the shelter of a tree, Vin cleaned his rifle and looked out across the wheat field. Lee's orders had been clear. General George Pickitt's corps would cross the barren expanse and attack the Union Army at the center.Throughout the long war, General Robert E. Lee had achieved victory after victory in battles where he was badly outnumbered and poorly supplied. Like most of the Confederate Army, Vin was in awe of the brilliant strategist. But no matter how he tried to deny it, he knew crossing that field would be suicide. Studying the faces of the men around him, he saw he wasn't the only one to reach that conclusion. Yet, no one protested or attempted to desert.The boom of long range artillery fire shattered the peace of the summer's day. Shell after shell shot from the bore of the Confederate cannons in rapid succession, raining down to soften the Union line.As the lone Texan among General Armistead's brigade of Virginians, Vin had never felt accepted by the soldiers he fought beside. They tolerated him because he was a deadly shot, but no one had ever tried to befriend him. Vin tried to tell himself he preferred it that way. It wouldn't hurt so much when a man died if that man wasn't his friend. Along with that awareness came the realization no one would care if he died."Whaddya thinkin' on, Tanner?"Unwilling to reveal his true feelings to Sawyer, a man who had barely spoken to him in the past, Vin tugged at his jacket collar. "I'm thinkin' it's hot enough ta make me feel I'm back in Texas."Sawyer slapped him on the shoulder as he laughed. "Reckon ya got that right."Surprised by the man's sudden interest in him, Vin asked, "What're you thinkin' on?""I'm thinkin' I ain't never gonna see my ma and pa again." Sawyer lifted his eyes, fixing them on the Union line a mile away.Despite the heat, Vin shivered. This wasn't the first time he was afraid. It was the first time he'd had time to contemplate his coming demise. In an effort to distract his thoughts, he hoarsely asked, "What is yer ma like?"Vin listened to Sawyer's descriptions of his family, partly out of envy, mostly from necessity. He was afraid if he looked across that wheat field one more time, he wouldn't have the courage to cross it. Wouldn't have the courage to rise to his feet when the order came.Cheers rose from the waiting men as Lee rode through the ranks. His presence instilled confidence in the soldiers. The impossible became possible."Virginians," Armistead's voice rose above the fading ovation and the continuing artillery fire. "Remember your wives, your sisters, your mothers and your sweethearts."Roaring approval, the men formed into two long lines behind their commanding officer. Vin's strong arms easily handled the weight of the rifle that was taller than he was. He looked to his left at the wave of humanity spread along the tree line. Fifteen thousand men waited for the directive to attack."Fix bayonets."Vin rested the rifle butt on the ground and pulled the knife from his belt. Stretching his arm, he slid the weapon onto the barrel of his gun."Move out."Drums beat a triumphant tattoo as Kemper and Garnet's troops obeyed the orders and marched without hesitation into the wheat field. Vin could feel the men on either side of him shifting in frustration. Relegated to support, Armistead's brigade would bring up the rear. Unlike his companions, Vin didn't mind. He was in no hurry to die."Virginians," Armistead's hoarse voice commanded, "for Virginia."As if they had a mind of their own, Vin's legs marched to the beat of the drums. Ahead, he could see the lead brigade succumbing to the withering Union artillery fire. Scores of men fell under the heavy barrage, but the line didn't falter. Amidst the smoke and dust, the regimental flags flew proudly.Progress was hampered by a wooden fence. Forced to climb the obstacle, the men were prime targets for the cannon and sharpshooters. Mesmerized, Vin watched as one by one they breached the barrier to form on the far side of the fence.A blue column rose from behind a stone wall. The sun glared off their rifle barrels. Puffs of smoke billowed from the muzzles in rapid succession. The advancing rebels fell like straw dolls under the hail of musket balls.Undeterred by the fate of their comrades, more soldiers breached the fence. Stepping over the fallen men they continued their relentless advance. Their courage gave Vin strength. He was proud to be one of them.Vin saw General Garnet ride up to the walking Armistead. He couldn't hear what the two men were discussing, but he didn't need to. Though trained by experience, rather than books, he could see the other brigades needed assistance and they needed it now.When Garnet rode away, Armistead thrust his hat on the end of his sword and held it aloft. "Virginians, double quick."His clothes already soaked with his sweat, Vin broke into a slow jog. A shell exploded in front of the column, sending the man in front flying backwards into Vin. Slammed to the ground beneath the heavier body, he fought to refill his empty lungs. Hands frantically pushed against the dead weight. Finally free of his prison, Vin gasped, sucking in the scorched air that had eluded him.Dazed eyes focused on the corpse. Sawyer had been right. He would never see his family again. He wouldn't see anything again. He had no face. Stomach heaving, Vin scrambled to find his gun. Rising, he ran to rejoin his detachment, more certain than ever he would never see another sunrise.
So cold he could barely feel his legs and hands, Buck dropped his reins and slid off his horse. His numb feet tingled painfully when they encountered the hard ground. Shaking the snow from his shoulders, he quickly crossed to the sleigh and took the struggling tracker in his arms. "It's all right, Chris. I've got him."
A soft sigh of relief whispered on the wind. "Thanks, Buck. Don't rightly know what's gotten into him. He's been tryin' ta throw off his blankets."
"Fever's got 'im feelin' hot," Nathan explained. "Buck, git 'im up to my room. I need ta git that fever down."
Eyeing the slippery stairs, Buck suggested, "Josiah, you best follow close."
"He saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him," the preacher softly quoted.
Buck smiled wryly. He hadn't needed the words to verify Josiah's compliance. He would never forget the way the older man had used his body as a barrier, protecting him from Anderson's army at the Seminole village. Buck knew there was no man he trusted more than the preacher, not even Chris or JD.
The weight in his arms growing heavier with every step, Buck climbed the stairs. Near the top, his foot slipped on an icy patch. His arms tightened protectively as he fought to regain his balance. A steadying hand on his back provided the support he needed to continue.
The muscles in his arms and legs were quivering when he finally took the last step. Trembling so violently he could barely control his limbs, he stumbled into the room Nathan had set up as a clinic. The healer already had a fire blazing in the fireplace. Crossing to the bed, it took all Buck's strength not to drop his burden. He was grateful when Josiah lent his considerable strength to the task of easing their friend down to the bed.
"Get those wet blankets off 'im," Nathan ordered.
Buck stepped aside to regain his energy as Josiah and Ezra obeyed the healer's instructions. Even through the thick blankets, Buck had felt the feverish heat consuming his young friend. Once, he had felt that hot and that helpless. It was a time and place he had never wanted to revisit. Not even in his mind.
****Cowering behind a stone wall, Buck covered his head with his arms. His uniform was splattered with the blood and brains of a man he had called friend. He was forced to lie in a puddle of the dead man's blood. To move, was to expose himself to the same danger that had claimed his friend's life. Torn flesh had already turned putrid, swollen with flies. Cannonballs exploded around him, each one a missile of death. He was in hell.It seemed to Buck as though the shelling wouldn't stop until every Union soldier lay dead. The sweat trickling down his brow and soaking the collar of his uniform wasn't entirely a side effect of the heat. Buck was scared, and he didn't care who knew it. Anyone who said they weren't was a liar or dead.A shell struck a wagon, spraying him with shards of wood and bits of flesh. Buck closed his eyes. But he couldn't close his ears to the sound of the screaming cannonballs or the terrified cries of the victims. This wasn't his first battle. He'd been at Fredericksburg and Bull Run. Even knowing what to expect, it didn't get any easier. He hoped it never would."Buck, get ready. Here they come.""What!" Questioning the sanity of his actions, Buck lifted his head. His eyes followed Chris Larabee's gaze to where men were emerging from the trees a mile away. They marched in rows of two and three across terrain that would afford them no cover. "Are they crazy?"Ducking a mortar whistling over his head, Chris shrugged his shoulders. "No crazier than we are, I guess."Buck wasn't totally sure he agreed with his friend's assessment. It would take more than an order from some general to get him to commit suicide. This attack couldn't possibly succeed. The Union Army had more men, more guns and more importantly, the high ground.The shelling tapered off as the wave of soldiers advanced. Climbing over their dead comrades they breached a wooden fence. In a daze, Buck obeyed the order to fix bayonets. He tore open a cartridge and poured the powder down the muzzle. Discarding the empty packet, he rammed a slug to the bottom of the barrel. Placing a percussion cap on the hollow nipple of the weapon's lock, he rose to his feet. Tucking the stock into his shoulder, he squinted one eye as he peered along the barrel and picked a target, preparing to fire as soon as the word was given.Through the smoky haze, he studied the man he was about to kill. Only it wasn't a man. It was a boy. He couldn't be more than twelve years old. An old calvary hat hid his eyes, but Buck couldn't miss the determination on the young face. A cannon shell landed behind the boy, spraying him with rocks and dirt. He didn't even flinch. Admiring the youngster's spirit, Buck realized he couldn't be the one to end the young life, though he knew the boy would not hesitate to take his. Shifting to his right, Buck found a new target. This time, he didn't look at the man's face. If he did, he knew it would haunt his dreams forever."Fire."Obeying orders, Buck squeezed the trigger. The rifle slammed into his shoulder, making it ache. Without checking to see if his shot had been successful, he dropped to one knee. As he reloaded, the men behind him rose to discharge their weapons. Despite the withering fire, the rebels continued to advance.The barrel of his rifle hot to the touch, Buck no longer had time to admire his opponent or marvel at the small miracle as they breached the stone wall. Igniting his last round, he switched his grip. Ignoring the searing pain as the hot metal burned his flesh, he swung the rifle, using it as a club to knock out the man about to run Chris Larabee through with his bayonet."Thanks, pard," Chris panted.The butt of a rifle slammed into Buck's back, preventing him from replying. Dropping to his knees, he rolled, bringing his gun up to block another blow. A hole appeared in the man's forehead. A shocked expression on his face, he collapsed on top of Buck."Guess we're even, pard," Buck breathlessly acknowledged, noting the smoking pistol in Larabee's hand.Though they fought valiantly, the confederates were badly outnumbered. Those few who were not dead or wounded were quickly surrounded and forced to surrender.Exhausted, Buck sat on the stone wall and peered through the smoke of the wheat field, hearing the pleas for water among the moaning of the wounded men. Limping and crawling, stragglers struggled to make it back to their own lines. No one attempted to stop them. Feeling a tap on his shoulder, he looked up to see Larabee."We've been ordered to check for wounded." Chris gestured towards the quiet battlefield.Wearily climbing to his feet, Buck followed his friend. Checking one body after the next, he desperately searched for life. They were no longer his enemy. They were just men. He was dismayed , though not surprised, when he tripped over the boy he had first targeted. Lying lifelessly on his stomach, the side of his face was covered with blood. Certain he wouldn't find one, Buck fumbled for a pulse. Underneath the gore, he found one, a strong one. Surprised, he shouted, "Over here."Two men converged on his position. As soon as the stretcher bearers walked away carrying their charge, Buck renewed his search with new hope, and a touch of regret. Even if the boy lived, it was likely he would spend the rest of the war in a prison camp. Buck had seen one of the camps. It might have been more humane to let the boy bleed to death in the wheat field.
Ezra tugged the last blanket from Vin's body. The flesh beneath his hand still felt cool to his touch. Unconsciously hugging the soggy fabric, he studied the pale face. In repose, with sweat trickling down his brow, Vin Tanner's features had an ethereal quality Ezra found unsettling. It was as though his time among them, his soul, was as incorporeal as his body.
"Ezra, help me get these wet clothes off," Nathan ordered.
Dropping his bundle, the gambler quickly moved to comply, only to find a shoulder pressing against his, pushing him away.
"Git yer hands off him," Chris growled. "I'll do it."
Ducking his head to hide his hurt and anger, Ezra backed away, biting the inside of his mouth to keep from screaming.
A comforting hand squeezed his shoulder, making him look up in surprise. Offering an encouraging smile, Buck patted his back before crossing to the fire. It wasn't until warmth from the flames struck him that Ezra realized how the cold had insinuated itself into his bones. He took a step towards the welcoming blaze but no more. A gurgling noise issuing from the man on the bed stopped him.
Chris Larabee's cry was filled with a fear Ezra had never heard in that particular voice before.
Vin's body stiffened, then started to shake. The motion was so violent, it shook the bed.
"He's having a convulsion," the black healer shouted. "Help me hold 'im down."
Ezra forgot his own problems and moved to restrain the jerking feet. One slipped from his hand and kicked him in the stomach with a surprising strength. Gasping, Ezra's vision blurred as he captured the wayward limb.
As frightening as the episode was, Ezra was more scared when Vin suddenly went limp. Ezra's eyes rested on the narrow chest, relieved to see it rise and fall, though alarmed by the length of time between each heart beat.
"I gotta git this fever down." Nathan handed the gambler a large basin. "Ezra, go fill this with snow."
Though he found the request unusual, Ezra didn't argue. He'd noticed when they entered that a drift had formed in the corner where the staircase joined the building. Its size was considerable, partially blocking the door.
Snow whipped around him, stinging exposed flesh as he bent to his task. The cold wind cut through his clothing, sucking the warmth from his body. Returning with the bowl piled high with clear, white snow, Ezra handed it to Nathan.
Throwing back the blanket covering his patient, Nathan dumped the snow along the right side of Vin's body. Handing the basin back to Ezra, the healer ordered, "Fill it again."
"Mr. Jackson, is this application prudent?"
"If I don't git this fever down, Vin will die or worse."
"What could possibly to be worse than death?" JD demanded, horrified.
Without further hesitation, Ezra refilled the basin. Though he knew he would prefer a changed Vin to no Vin at all, he also knew what the tracker would want. Ezra couldn't blame him. He'd seen what happened to people who weren't right in the head.
****Ezra hesitated, his hand on the door knob. He wanted to be certain the wall around his heart was strong and unburdened before he entered the asylum. Experience had shown him that any sign of distress would be detected by his cousin, causing her to tremble and cry in fear. Ezra loved Ruth, his visits were intended to bring her joy and the knowledge someone still cared about her, not to terrorize her.To gain entrance to the hospital, Ezra had been forced to lie about his age. It was the first time he'd actually blessed his mother for the skills she had taught him. This was one instance he was sure Ruth's father would've approved of Ezra's deception.A sad smile curved his lips. When he was six, Maude had left him in the care of her younger half-brother. Jacob Cooper had many of the same physical qualities as his sister but lacked her avaricious tendencies. His children had never touched a deck of cards or told a lie - until Ezra came to live with them. When Jacob caught the boy conning peppermint sticks for himself and Ruth from a clerk at the general store, he had made Ezra repay the cost of the candies with physical labor. It was the last time he had defied his uncle.The year he had spent with Jacob and his cousins was the happiest of his childhood. Jacob's decision to move his family west had brought Maude back into Ezra's life. He'd sadly watched as the only family he had ever known packed a wagon and rode away.Several years later, when Jacob's homestead was attacked by Indians and his family killed, Maude's only sign of remorse was to tell Ezra how lucky he had been. If not for her, he would have died with them. Sometimes, in the years that followed, Ezra almost wished he had.Several months ago, Jacob's remaining family had been surprised and pleased to learn Ruth had survived the slaughter and had been living with the Indians. However, when they discovered her mind was gone, they'd hidden her away. As far as they were concerned she was dead.Ezra didn't agree. He visited her as often as he could. Sometimes, when she would smile at him or touch his hand, he was sure he was making progress. He was certain that someday she would walk out into the world with him.This wasn't that day. Maude was moving to St. Louis and forcing her son to go with her. On the one hand, Ezra was glad. His mother's reputation had once again made life unbearable with his classmates. On the other hand, he would be leaving Ruth alone with no one who cared if she lived or died.Bracing himself, Ezra turned the knob and threw open the door, entering the asylum. The smell of urine and unwashed bodies filled his nostrils as screams of madness tore at his eardrums. Scrawling his name in the visitor's book, he nodded to the orderly on duty. Ezra had hoped he wouldn't see Collins again. Though he couldn't prove it, he was sure the man was abusing his patients."Yer gonna have ta wait here, Standish. The doctor's makin' rounds."Ezra was relieved; he had wanted to talk to Ruth's doctor. "I'll go wait outside the ward."Hoping Ruth wouldn't pay for his defiance, Ezra walked away. Almost feeling the mental daggers thrown at his back, he climbed the stairs. He avoided touching the balustrade, knowing from experience it would be dirty and sticky.He arrived outside Ruth's door just as the doctor was exiting. "Dr. Newcombe."The old physician turned at the sound of his name. "Mr. Standish, it's nice to see you.""Doctor," Ezra paused. For the first time in his life, he found it difficult to find the words he needed, "I'm moving to St. Louis. This is my last visit for a while."A benevolent smile graced the wrinkled lips. "I'm happy for you, son.""Ruth . . .""Won't even know you're gone," the doctor soothed.Not trying to hide his despair, Ezra pleaded, "Isn't there anything that can be done for her?""Nothing. It's time you realized it and got on with your life."Hating the man's condescending attitude, Ezra turned away and entered the ward. Though there must have been fifty women in the room, he easily found Ruth. Her fine, white blonde hair stood out in any crowd. Knowing how terrified she would become if she didn't hear his approach, he started talking long before he reached her. "Hello, Ruth, I'm back. It's your cousin, Ezra."Keeping the words simple, he repeated his litany until he reached her bed. Dismayed by her unwashed clothes and greasy hair, Ezra knew better than to complain. He wouldn't be the one to suffer the staff's wrath.Though it disgusted him, he picked up one of her filthy hands. He was encouraged when her fingers wrapped around his. Despite what the doctors said, he was sure there was still some part of her that was sane. Talking in soothing tones, he told her whatever came into his head.Finally, it was time to leave. Time to say goodbye. "Ruth, my mother is moving us to St. Louis. I won't be able to see you for a while."For a brief moment, Ezra thought her hand tightened around his. He searched her face for a sign she understood."I'm sorry. If I could take you with me, I would."Were those tears in her eyes? She blinked. When Ezra looked closer, green eyes, so much like his own, stared blankly back at him."As soon as I'm old enough, I'll obtain guardianship from your Uncle Gerald. I'll get you out of here. I promise. You just have to hang on for a few more years."Ezra knew he was asking a lot. One day in this place must feel like a year. Peeling Ruth's fingers from his hand, he blinked back tears. "Don't give up. I will be back for you."
A tear froze on Ezra's cheek. He scrubbed at it with a trembling fist. He'd lost count of the number of times he'd refilled the basin. The muscles in his arms and shoulders ached, a testament to his achievement.
He had never returned to the asylum. Never saw Ruth again. Several months after he'd left, his mother had received a letter from Gerald. A woman in Ruth's ward had acquired a knife. She'd killed several of the other women, including Ruth, before killing herself. Sometimes, Ezra felt relief, knowing his cousin was no longer suffering. Other times, he raged at the injustice. Ruth hadn't deserved what happened to her.
Just as Vin Tanner didn't deserve what was happening to him. In both cases, Ezra had two choices to make. Each time, he'd chosen the wrong path, causing someone else to pay for his poor judgment.
"Ezra, you can stop now."
Despite the request, Ezra mechanically bent to fill the basin with snow.
"Vin's fever broke, Ezra." JD's voice softened. "Nathan don't need no more snow. Come back inside."
Hiding his face in his raised arm, Ezra nodded. "I'll join you shortly, Mr. Dunne."
"Don't be long." JD shivered. "It's freezing out here."
As soon as JD closed the door, tears fell on Ezra's sleeve, instantly turning into ice. He couldn't rejoin the others until he had a semblance of control over his emotions. He didn't want nor desire anyone's pity.
"This wasn't your fault, Ezra."
Ezra jerked as though he'd been struck. The softly spoken commiseration tore at his conscience. "You expressed that opinion on a previous occasion, Mr. Sanchez."
"It's worth repeating. Maybe you'll finally believe it."
"I assure you that eventuality will never transpire." Ezra wiped his runny nose on his sleeve. A deplorable action he normally would never sanction.
Josiah leaned against the icicle laden railing. "Ezra, what do ya think would've happened if you had gone with Vin to Larsen's place?"
Looking at the preacher as though he was deranged, Ezra stated, "I would have terminated the miscreants."
"How?" Josiah folded his arms across his chest. "Vin didn't detect their presence before they shot him. Do ya think you would have?"
"Possibly." For the first time, Ezra contemplated a different scenario. One in which he had accompanied the tracker.
"But not likely," Josiah insisted, speaking the words Ezra apparently couldn't. "If you had followed Vin, you would both be dead. We wouldn't have known you had gone to Larsen's ranch. We would've had no reason to look for ya there. If you hadn't died from a gunshot wound, you would certainly have died in that well."
Ezra shivered, not from the cold wind chilling his body but the thoughts hardening his soul. Josiah was right. Peso's abrupt arrival had told them Vin was in trouble. But only Ezra knew where to look for their friend. "Thank you, Mr. Sanchez. Your logic is impeccable."
"It's too bad our Mr. Larabee hasn't your deductive skills." Ezra sighed, affected more than he was willing to reveal by the green daggers Chris still directed his way.
"Don't worry about Chris. Once Vin is all right, he'll see reason."
"Let us hope he hasn't decided to ventilate my person before that eventuality materializes."
"If we don't get back inside, you won't have to worry about Chris. We'll both have frozen to death."
His movements stiff as he turned to follow Josiah inside, Ezra realized the preacher's comment wasn't made in jest. The memories and guilt that had kept him warm were slowly dissipating, leaving him vulnerable to the storm's attack.
The heat from the roaring fire struck Ezra like a fist as he entered the infirmary. The lamps had been dimmed. By the light of the flickering flames, he saw Buck and JD had placed their bedrolls in front of the fire. They appeared to be sound asleep. Pulling off his boots, Josiah softly crossed to join them.
Approaching the only bed, Ezra saw Vin was lying quietly beneath a mound of blankets. Chris was asleep in a chair at his side. Nathan sat in his rocking chair in the corner.
The healer beckoned Ezra over with a wave of his hand. "That snow did the trick," he whispered.
"Ironic, isn't it?" Ezra kept his voice low. "The very thing that almost takes Mr. Tanner's life ends up saving him."
His feet stopping the gentle rocking motion of his chair, Nathan rose. "Could you all watch Vin fer a while? I need to check on Billy and the other kids who are sick."
Noticing the gray exhaustion on the healer's face, Ezra protested, "Mr. Jackson, you are greatly fatigued. I suggest you rest or you will be joining Mr. Tanner."
A yawn cracked Nathan's jaw as he stretched. "I'll be fine."
"I beg to differ."
"I'll git some sleep as soon as I come back." Nathan smiled. "Is that all right, Doctor?"
The gentle teasing told Ezra as plain as any words Nathan didn't blame him for what happened to Vin anymore than Josiah had. A mocking sternness in his voice, Ezra warned, "See that you do."
"Send someone for me if Vin takes a turn."
"You have my guarantee."
As Ezra took the vacated seat, his eyes rested on Vin's pale face with a mixture of relief, joy and a degree of guilt. Despite Josiah's conviction, he couldn't quite shake the belief he was partially responsible for the tracker's suffering. Apparently, he would have to learn to live with it. Just as he'd learned to live with all the other times he'd failed the important people in his life.
Vin moaned, causing JD to sit forward in his chair. An action he had performed many times since he'd taken over for Buck. Nathan had warned them to be alert. There was no telling when Vin would finally regain consciousness. But when he did, he was sure to be disoriented. JD was determined to be there to help him make the transition.
This routine was all too familiar to him. In the weeks his mother had been sick, JD had spent what little spare time he had at her side. Sometimes, when she woke, she would talk to him as though he was still a little boy. Other times, she would call him by his father's name. These episodes would generally end in her cursing her husband's existence. Angry at the man who had given him life and his mother so much pain, JD would gently shake her shoulder to wake her from the nightmare experience.
Springing from his chair, JD knelt beside the bed. He could feel tears welling in his eyes but he didn't care who saw them. "Vin?"
It took JD a minute to interpret the question, the voice was so raspy. "You're in Nathan's infirmary."
Wondering how much he should reveal JD kept his eyes on the pale face so he could gauge the injured man's reaction. "You and Ezra went after two killers. They shot you and threw you down a well."
Panic shook the weak body. "Ezra?"
"He's fine." JD put a soothing hand on Vin's shoulder. "You lost the killers' trail. Ezra came back to Four Corners while you went to check Larsen's ranch. That's where you were ambushed."
Quickly rising to his feet, JD retrieved the medicated water Nathan had prepared. Gently lifting Vin's head, he placed the cup against the cracked lips. "Nathan would like ya to drink all of this if ya can."
The container was only half empty when Vin shook his head, causing drops of water to trickle down his chin. "Enough."
Placing the glass back on the table, JD picked up a towel and wiped Vin's mouth.
"Not baby," Vin angrily protested.
"Until you get yer strength back, you might as well be." JD hated being so brutally honest. With Vin, he felt it was necessary. The tracker could be incredibly stubborn, especially when it came to accepting help from his friends. He might as well realize now he would have no choice in the matter.
A pout twisted the thin lips as heavy eyelids slowly rolled down. "Sleepy."
"Don't fight it," JD advised. "It's the best thing for ya."
Remembering how his mother would calm her restless son when he was ill, JD gently rubbed Vin's chest. He quickly pulled his hand back in embarrassment when the hinges squealed, announcing someone's arrival. He looked up to see Nathan and Ezra entering.
"How's our patient?" The black healer inquired.
"He woke up, Nathan," JD excitedly reported, rising. "He drank half of the glass of water you prepared."
"I'd rather it was the whole glass, but considering it's Vin, I guess I shouldn't complain."
"Did Mr. Tanner say anything?" Ezra hesitated before clarifying. "Was he lucid?"
A puzzled frown on his face, JD shook his head, "Don't rightly know if he was lucid, but he was worried about you."
"Me?" Ezra tapped his chest in disbelief.
"Yeah, he couldn't remember what happened to him. After I told him, he was worried you had been hurt too. When I told him you were all right, he went back to sleep."
"Best thing for him," Nathan said, pulling his chair closer to the bed containing his patient. "You did good, JD. I'll take over for a while."
JD beamed as he cheerfully slapped Ezra on the shoulder. He hadn't been able to help his mother, but at least he'd been able to help Vin. He knew his mother would be proud.
Putting the extra pillow against the backboard, Buck moved around in front of Vin. Sliding his arms under Vin's armpits, he shoved them up until his hands were supporting the weakened man's head and injured shoulder.
"I kin sit up on my own," Vin angrily protested, slapping the supportive arms.
Backing away, Buck smiled, folding his arms across his chest. "I'd like ta see ya try."
Vin dug his elbows into the soft mattress. There wasn't enough strength in the incapacitated limbs to lift his head, much less his whole body. A tear of frustration rolled from the corner of one eye.
"It's all right," Buck gently soothed, wiping it away. "Give it time."
With practiced ease, the mustachioed man replaced his arms under Vin's shoulders and lifted him until he was resting against the pile of pillows. Retrieving the tray he had brought, he sat on the edge of the bed.
"Miss Nettie sent this over for ya." Buck filled a spoon and carried it to Vin's lips.
Vin disgustedly wrinkled his nose. "Broth is broth. Don't matter who makes it."
"You wouldn't want to hurt her feelings." Buck smiled. "Would ya?"
Turning his head away, Vin grumbled, "How's a body supposed ta regain his strength when no one will give 'im anythin' decent ta eat?"
A memory stirred, making Buck's hand tremble. The hot broth spilled onto Vin's chest. The resulting cry of pain pulled Buck from a place he had never wanted to revisit. Replacing the memory behind its protective walls, he mopped up the spilled soup. "Sorry, Vin."
Buck had never discussed the war, not even with Chris who had fought at his side. There were too many things he didn't want to remember, unspeakable things he'd done, unspeakable things he'd seen. He'd always known if Vin and Ezra had fought, they had done so for the Confederacy. But he was sure both men had been too young, despite the fact he'd seen soldiers on both sides as young as twelve. Maude would never have allowed Ezra to become a common soldier. With no family, would Vin have joined the cause? Buck stared at the light brown hair, curling against the white pillowcase.
"Are you all right, Buck?"
Vin's worried voice dragged Buck from his horrific thoughts. The wounded boy he had discovered in the wheat field at Gettysburg couldn't have been Vin. The color of the hair, the similarity of the builds was a coincidence. That's all it was. He couldn't have sent Vin to a prison camp. To hell.
"I'm fine," Buck impatiently replied, refilling the spoon with the cooling broth. "Let's try this again."
"Think ya could hit my mouth this time?"
Grinning at the plaintive appeal, Buck shrugged his shoulders. "Let's give it a shot."
It was on the tip of Buck's tongue to ask Vin if he had been at Gettysburg. But why ask a question when he had no desire to know the answer? The war was long over. What happened now was important. Who they were was no longer important. Sometimes, it was better to leave the past in the past.
Josiah glanced out the window. He could see by the dimming light in the gray sky it was time for Vin to exercise. As far as Vin was concerned, his recovery was taking too long. As far as the men who were assisting his rehabilitation, who had been at his side when he came so close to dying, his recovery was a minor miracle. However, it was also painful for everyone, physically for Vin, emotionally for his friends. The struggle had been long and hard, with a longer, harder road ahead.
Forcing a smile to his lips and a cheerfulness to his voice, Josiah rose from his chair. "Time to work those muscles again, Vin."
"Don't feel much like it." Vin turned on his side, away from the determined preacher.
"Too bad." There was no sign of commiseration as Josiah threw back the blankets.
Vin rolled on his back, replacing the covers with his good hand. "Go away."
"You know that's not going to happen. Why don't you just surrender now? You can't win."
Blue eyes filled with defiance and resignation stared up at the tall man. "You don't play fair."
"You want rules, you talk ta Ezra," Josiah chuckled.
He got no resistance when he threw back the covers this time. With a hand on the tracker's back, he lifted Vin into a sitting position. Putting slippers on the cold feet, he swivelled the legs until Vin was sitting on the side of the bed.
"I've been meaning ta ask ya," Josiah said, grunting slightly as he pulled Vin to his feet. Placing a supporting arm under Vin's good shoulder, he started to walk slowly across the room. "Did ya by any chance meet a beautiful woman in white when you were in that well?"
Vin stumbled. Looking at the older man as if he was crazy, he rasped, "No. Why? Have you met a beautiful woman dressed in white at the bottom of a well?"
Hiding a grin, Josiah shook his head. "The Japanese have a legend. It seems these two woodcutters, Mosaku, an old man and his apprentice, Minokichi, a lad of eighteen were in this forest working. The forest was about five miles from their village. To get there, they had to take a ferryboat across a wide river.
"One cold evening, they were on their way home when a great snowstorm overtook them."
Interested, Vin glanced up at his friend. "Do they have Chinook winds in Japan?"
"I reckon." Heartened by the younger man's curiosity, Josiah continued, "The ferryboat was already across the river, the boatman nowhere in sight. So, the two men took refuge in the ferryman's hut. It had no place to build a fire and only had a flimsy door and no windows. But the two men felt lucky to have any shelter at all. They thought the storm would soon be over.
"The old man fell asleep. The wind howled, slashing snow against the door as it continually grew colder. Shivering, Minokichi finally fell asleep as well.
"He was awakened when snow fell on his face. The door had blown open. There was a woman all in white, bending over Mosaku. She was blowing her breath upon him. It was like a bright white smoke. Then, she turned and stooped over Minokichi. He tried to cry out, but found he couldn't utter a sound. She was very beautiful, though her eyes made him afraid. Looking at him, she smiled, "I intended to treat you like the other man. But I cannot help feeling some pity for you, because you are so young. You are a pretty boy, I will not hurt you now. If you ever tell anybody about what you have seen this night, I shall know it; and then I will kill you . . . Remember what I say!'
"With these words, she turned and left. Minokichi jumped up and followed, but she had disappeared into the storm. He secured the door and then crossed to Mosaku. Touching the old man's face, he found it was ice. Mosaku was dead.
"By dawn the storm was over. The ferryman returned and took care of the shocked Minokichi. As soon as he was well enough, he returned to work, never speaking of what he'd seen.
"One evening the following winter, he was on his way home from work when he met a tall, slim girl with a voice as pleasant as a songbird's. Her name was O-Yuki. She had just lost her parents and was on her way to Yedo to stay with poor relations and hopefully secure a position as a servant."
Vin excitedly interrupted, "Was she like Li Pong, that Chinese girl Ezra helped?"
"Why don't you listen to the rest of the story and judge for yourself?" Josiah suggested, smiling. "Minokichi asked her to stay with him and his mother for a while and rest. As the old proverb declares, 'when the wish is there, the eyes can say as much as the mouth.'
"They married and O-Yuki bore Minokichi ten children. She was loved by her mother-in-law and the other country folk in the village. Even after ten children, she seemed as young as the day she first arrived.
"One evening, while she was sewing, Minokichi said; 'To see you sewing there, with the light on your face, makes me think of a strange thing that happened when I was a lad of eighteen. I saw somebody as beautiful and white as you are now - indeed, she was very much like you.'
"O-Yuki responded: 'Tell me about her. Where did you see her?
"Minokichi told her about that terrible night. O-Yuki flung down her sewing and shrieked into his face, 'It was I - I - I! I told you then I would kill you if you ever said one word about it! But for those children, I would kill you this moment! Now, you had better take very, very good care of them; for if ever they have reason to complain of you, I will treat you as you deserve!'
"As she screamed, her voice became thin, like the crying of wind. Then she melted into a bright white mist that spiraled to the roof-beams, and shuddered away through the smoke-hole. Never again was she seen."
Though he hadn't uttered a word of complaint, Josiah could see Vin was exhausted. Taking more of the tracker's meager weight on his strong shoulder, the preacher decided, "That's enough walking for today."
Practically carrying Vin back to the bed, Josiah gently eased him down onto the soft mattress. Swinging the thin, pale legs under the blankets, he pulled the warm covers over the lightly sweating form. Worried they had overdone it, he put a hand to a flushed cheek. It was warm, but not alarmingly so.
Noticing the puzzled blue eyes resting on his face, Josiah sat in the chair next to the bed. "Yes?"
"If I had met O-Yuki in that well, do ya think I woulda told ya? We ain't had no ten kids to keep her from killing me."
"No," Josiah ducked his head, hiding his smile. "I reckon you ain't."
His arms laden with a tray of food, Nathan shivered as the cold wind blasted by him into the warm room. Fed by the swirling breeze the dying flames in the fireplace sprang to new life.
"Hey," Vin's irate voice rose above nature's din, "were ya born in a barn?"
Kicking the door closed behind him, Nathan softly admitted, "Now that you mention it . . ."
"Aw, geez, Nathan, I'm sorry. Ya know I didn't mean nuthin'."
"Jesus was born in a barn. There ain't nuthin' ta be ashamed of."
A thoughtful frown twisted Vin's face. "Ain't never looked at it that way before."
Despite Vin's apparent acceptance, Nathan could see the young man was troubled by his thoughtless remark. Hoping to lift his patient's spirits, he sniffed at the plate on the tray he was carrying. "I got real food fer ya this mornin'."
"No more broth? No more mush?"
Nathan almost laughed out loud at the tone in Vin's voice. "Not if yer stomach has no trouble digesting this."
"It won't." Rubbing his hands together, Vin winced as he aggravated his sore shoulder. Ignoring the pain, he asked, "What is it? Chicken? Ham? Steak?"
"See fer yerself." Nathan placed the tray across Vin's lap and whipped off the towel covering the plate.
Vin stared at the food in disbelief. "Runny eggs? You call this real food?"
"It ain't broth, and it ain't mush."
"How da ya expect me ta regain my strength eatin' slop?"
His amusement slipping, Nathan fought to contain the anger that had as much to do with the past as it did with the present. "I reckon you'll gain more weight eatin' slop then ya will pukin' yer guts out."
Avoiding the healer's eyes, Vin suggested, "You best leave, 'fore I say somethin' else stupid."
"Actually," Nathan sat in the chair next to the bed. Worrying the worn arms with his big hands, he admitted, "I need ta git somethin' off my chest."
A shutter sliding across his face, Vin laid back against his pillow. "Go ahead."
"That day we met here in Four Corners. The day you and Chris saved my life, did ya know I was the Union soldier who helped you in Elmira?"
"That day," Vin shook his head, "no."
The anger Nathan had felt believing Vin had saved his life out of gratitude dissipated, replaced by curiosity. "But you did realize it sometime. When?"
"When I saw ya healin' those folks at the Seminole Village."
"Why didn't ya say somethin'?"
Vin looked down at his hands. "You weren't treated very well in Hellmira. I reckon I was hopin' ya wouldn't remember I was one of 'em."
Day after day for a month, Nathan had stumbled through the prison camp accompanied by derogatory remarks concerning his color and his birth. Even those inmates who allowed him to help had shown him little regard. Only one man, one boy had given him the respect he deserved. "You weren't one of them, Vin."
"Yeah, I was." Vin's voice grew softer, more raspy as though something was blocking his throat. "I had a knife wound you stitched up. Don't ya remember?"
"Oh, I know you were there," Nathan corrected the younger man's misinterpretation. "But you weren't one of them. I remember how ya treated me and what ya said that first day. Ya didn't even notice the color of my skin. Ya made me believe I could go on bein' a healer after the war. That maybe some folks would accept me fer my skills."
"Never did understand what the color of a body's skin's got ta do with the brain in his head." Vin shook his head, his lips twisted in puzzlement.
"Yer a rare man, Vin Tanner." Noticing the embarrassment on the tracker's face, Nathan cleared his throat. "And a stubborn one. Ya best eat those eggs 'fore they git any colder. Maybe in another week, we'll try some meat and potatoes."
"A week! I'll be skin and bones by then."
"Whaddya mean, will be? Ya already are."
"And whose fault is that?"
Regarding the scowling face, Nathan wondered why it had taken him so long to recognize Vin. There wasn't much about that time he wanted to remember. It had been hard watching men die who could've been saved. Children grew up without fathers; mothers waited for sons who would never return all because of politics and prejudice. Still, looking at Vin, Nathan realized the man was not very different from the boy. A boy who hadn't seen the color of Nathan's skin but had seen a chance to live. And even in a hell hole like Elmira had fought for that chance. A factor Nathan knew he owed his life to.
Ezra deftly dealt the cards. For once his keen eyes were more interested in his opponent than in the hand he was holding. Gambling was one of the few activities Vin could participate in without exerting himself. Still very weak, he tired easily but was too stubborn to admit it. Ezra had learned to read the tracker's hands. The first few games, Vin would hold the cards close to his face. When he began to grow fatigued, his arm would gradually drop. Right now, it was practically resting on the blanket spread across his chest.
"If it's all the same to you, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said, suppressing a yawn, "I believe I will call it a night after this hand."
The mischievous smile on Vin's face shone through his exhaustion. "I reckon ya need yer beauty sleep."
It was times like this when Ezra realized how much he would've missed the tracker. Feeling the tears welling in his eyes, he dropped his gaze and searched desperately for the witty remark he knew Vin was expecting in reply to his taunt. For once, Ezra's facility with words deserted him. They had come too close to losing this man to take anything for granted. The fear was still too close to the surface for him to find anything amusing.
The door flew open, slamming against the back wall. A black-clad figure liberally covered with white, accompanied a swirling draft of snow into the room. "Damn!" Chris swore, quickly closing the door behind him. "It's snowing again."
"What was your first clue, cowboy?" Vin asked, smiling at the disgruntled gunslinger.
"Don't git smart-mouthed with me, you sorry assed tracker." Chris grumbled, brushing the snow from his clothes. "Or, I'll throw ya back down that well."
"Ya'd jist have ta come git me again."
"Nah. This time, I'd be smart enough to leave ya there."
Ezra's heart ached as he listened to the banter. Now that Vin was better, the gambler knew it was time he moved on. Larabee would never trust him again. The gunslinger had warned him at the Seminole Village. The promise of retribution was made apparent, if Ezra ever ran out on him again. The crime Ezra was currently accused of was far worse in the eyes of Chris Larabee. Ezra had run out on Vin. That indiscretion would never be forgiven or forgotten.
Gathering his cards, Ezra slipped them into his pocket. "Gentlemen, I'll be on my way."
"Not so fast," Vin growled. Puzzled blue eyes rested on each of his friends before he demanded, "I wanna know what's goin' on with you two."
Though he knew what Vin was asking, Ezra played ignorant. "I don't comprehend your concern, Mr. Tanner. Now, if you'll excuse me."
"I wanna know why you and Chris can't be in the same room together. Why you can't even look at each other."
"I believe you are imagining things, Mr. Tanner." Ezra felt panic rise within him. His decision to leave had been too dilatory. Now he would witness Vin's disappointment when Chris explained the circumstances of their disagreement.
"Since I only understand half of what Ezra says anyway, why don't you tell me, Chris?" Vin's gaze shifted to the gunslinger with a determination that made it clear no one was leaving the room until his questions were answered.
Emerald eyes glowed with rage as they rested on Standish. "He left you."
"Who left me? Where?"
Ezra's astonished gaze switched to Vin only seconds behind Chris Larabee's.
"I thought you said you remembered what happened to ya," Chris demanded.
"Then ya gotta remember Ezra leaving ya to face those killers alone." Chris' hand pushed back his duster so it could rest on the butt of his pistol.
The gesture said more to Ezra than words. All that saved him from feeling hot lead enter his body was the presence of the man lying on the bed. Though too sick to fight with his body, Vin could battle with his mind.
"What are ya gettin' at? I lost those hombres' trail long before I sent Ezra back to Four Corners."
A disbelieving sneer in his voice, Chris confirmed, "You sent him."
"Ya," Vin firmly acknowledged, a touch of anger in his tone. "He wanted to come with me to Larsen's. I wouldn't let him."
Chris' hand slashed the air in exasperation. "Why did you do that when you knew those killers were out there?"
"The last I saw of their trail they were headed for Eagle Bend." Vin sheepishly ducked his head. The fingers of his good hand played with the frayed edges of his blanket. "Reckon it never occurred to me they'd know the Larsen's place was empty."
"Damn stupid thing ta do. Checkin' a place in the middle of a blizzard."
"Weren't no blizzard when I started."
"If someone had been with you--"
"They'd be dead," Vin softly interrupted. "And I probably would be, too."
Ezra turned his face away, afraid someone might see the relief blurring his vision. Vin didn't blame him. This knowledge would make it easier to bear Larabee's wrath.
Flopping on the end of the bed, Chris rubbed his face with his hands. "That's what Josiah thinks too."
Ezra's anger at the man's stubbornness clashed with the budding hope that all would be forgiven. "But you still believe Mr. Tanner's ordeal is my fault?"
"Yes. No." Chris shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know."
"It's easier to stay mad at Ezra," Vin softly interpreted, "than it is to admit yer wrong and apologize."
Embarrassed, Chris agreed. "Somethin' like that."
When a comfortable silence filled the room, Ezra realized the two men were still communicating but only on a level they could obtain. He envied the nature of their friendship. It was this bond that had saved Vin's life.
"I'm sorry, Ezra."
Never expecting to hear those words come out of Chris Larabee's mouth, Ezra stared in shock at the older man.
"What?" Chris angrily demanded. "You didn't think I could admit I was wrong?"
Ezra edged towards the door. "Forgive my presumption but frankly, no."
A snort of laughter escaped Vin's lips. "Ya can't con a conman, cowboy."
Chris watched Vin trudge down the snow packed path to the livery. His steps were slow, lacking the easy gait that was normal for the tracker. Even as worry nagged a corner of his mind, Chris drank in the sight of his friend. It would be many more weeks before Vin had his strength back. But he was alive. At the moment, that was enough for Chris.
At this time of the morning, the saloon was quiet and practically empty. Steam from the coffee cup in his hand fogged the window, blurring his view. Panic gripped him, making his hand shake. Hot liquid spilled onto the tender flesh, burning it. Sucking the stinging wound, he frantically wiped the window clean. His observation of Vin unobstructed, he relaxed.
It was going to be hard letting the sharpshooter out of his sight again. But Chris knew if he tried to tie down the free spirit he could lose his friend. That was a risk he wasn't willing to take. Somehow, he would have to find a way to keep Vin safe while keeping himself happy. A daunting undertaking but one he would have to achieve if he ever hoped to find peace.
"Would you care for a game, Mr. Larabee?"
A soft sigh escaped Chris' lips. At least he wasn't alone. There were five other men ready and willing to aid him in his mission.
"Deal me in, Ezra."
Vin could feel Chris' eyes on him as he crossed the wide street. He knew every fear, every concern plaguing the older man because he'd had them himself. He wanted to set his friend's fears to rest. However, the only way he could do that was to relinquish his freedom. Something he had never contemplated doing for anyone - until now.
Opening the door to the stable, Vin was greeted by warmth and a perfume of hay and manure. He breathed deeply of the familiar smell. Contentment settled over him as he crossed to Peso's stall. Murmuring softly to the big black, he slowly entered the small enclosure.
A nose nuzzled his pocket, begging for the carrot inside. Smiling, Vin removed the treat. Breaking it in half, he offered the smaller portion to the questing mouth. The crunching of the vegetable followed him as he ran his hand along the horse's back to his flank. Knowing fingers investigated the scar tracing the path left by Roger's bullet. The white hair replacing the black would always be a reminder of how close man and horse had come to death.
Vin shivered. He felt the cold more now than he once had, but his reaction wasn't caused by his body's soreness. It came from his mind. In the hours he had spent pursued by the Grim Reaper, it felt as though he had relived his past. A shudder shook his aching muscles. Surviving those years had been hard enough once; he didn't need to retrace that path. The one good thing that had happened to him, that he was sure would last, was the day he looked across a dusty street and met the green eyes of a stranger. That moment in time had led him to Nathan Jackson, Buck Wilmington, Josiah Sanchez, Ezra Standish, JD Dunne and Chris Larabee. Though he hadn't realized it at the time, it was his first step towards forfeiting his independence.
A soft whinny reminded Vin he still had a piece of carrot in his hand. Patting the silky neck, he offered his impatient mount the remaining treat.
"That's all fer today. I'll bring another one over tomorrow," he promised.
Exiting the stall, Vin was surprised by his longing to reach the saloon and the acceptance waiting for him inside. Maybe giving up a little of his freedom wouldn't be so hard after all.