There was movement once more by both the hand and the foot. It had been almost three hours since the blast that had brought down the overhanging rock. It was two oclock in the afternoon, and the sun was at its hottest point. Sound accompanied the movements of both hand and foot. The rock that the hand had tried to move so feebly right after the blast was finally moved to the accompaniment of several grunts and groans. Without its encumbering load, another arm, then two shoulders, and a head appeared. Vin had been knocked face down into the debris. It was the only thing that kept him from suffocating on the dirt and rocks that could have clogged his air passages and suffocated him. As it was the debris consisted mostly of different sized rocks. The dirt was really minimal compared to that. That was another reason he hadnt suffocated by now.
The debris shifted, and Vin slowly pulled himself free of his burial mound. He remembered Ezra, and frantically started tearing at the rocks and the dirt with his scratched and filthy hands. He refused to allow the pain and dizziness to stop him.
"Ezra! Ezra!" The rubble around him shifted again and this time he saw the foot move again. It was on his right side, and from its position, Vin realized that Ezra had also been knocked face down. He estimated where he thought Ezras head was, and he began to attack the dirt and rocks with his hands. He found the problem almost immediately. Ezra had fallen between Vin and the big boulders they had barely made it to before the rocks and debris of the blast had overtaken them. He looked like Vin felt; but like Vin, he was alive. Barely. Vin had fallen partially on top of Ezra, and until he moved, Ezra was just as trapped as Vin had been. The two men looked at one another after Vin finally extricated Ezra from their would be tomb. Both were covered with dirt that had dried to give them each a pale, grayish complexion. Vins left eye was almost swollen shut. Ezras right eye looked exactly like Vin's swollen eye. Their hands were badly scratched. If they looked under their clothing, they would both find that their knees had taken quiet a beating. In fact each would probably be one massive bruise in another couple of hours.
"Can you tell me what just happened to us?" Ezra seemed unable to recall the exact events that had occurred to leave both men in such dire straits.
"I think I saw that wrangler from the Darcy spread. He yelled right before that overhang came rumblin' down on us."
"That mendacious bastard tried to kill us, didnt he?"
Vin would have nodded, but his head hurt too much to do it. For once, talking was easier. "Almost did, too. At least were here, an he aint nowheres round."
Ezra acknowledged the validity of Vins statement with a satisfied grin that turned instantly into a grimace as the muscles on the right side of his face protested the movement.
"That had to hurt." Vin was sympathetic. He slowly turned his head to take in their surroundings with his right eye. Nothing, no one was around. The horses had bolted, and it would be dark in about three more hours. The rubble shifted again. Both men looked at one another.
"I believe we should extricate ourselves from this premature burial mound before it becomes permanent."
"Ezra, you ever say anything that dont sound like ya paid five dollars a word?"
"I said," Ezra was going to explain to his friend what he had meant when Vin cut him short.
"Cmon, lets get like you said." Vin managed a slight grin at Ezras raised eyebrow, and the grimace that instantly followed it. He very carefully rose to his feet, testing to make certain everything was in working order. He hurt all over, but it still didnt stop his sense of humor. "I understood. I was just wonderin if ya ever talked like normal folk?"
The gambler rose as carefully as Vin. "I shall never succumb to barbarism, my dear Mr. Tanner. Civilization is always present when one remembers ones language." Ezra paused. "If you are feeling in any way as battered as I, you have my sincerest sympathies."
Vin wrapped his arms around his middle as he started laughing. "Hell, Ezra, I feel like you look right now."
Ezra repeated Vins movements and laughingly replied, "Then we must appear to be the two most miserable people in the world. Maybe that fact will deter big brother from killing us."
"I doubt it, but lets go on and get outta here."
They gingerly held on to one another, one supporting the other as they very carefully slipped and slid over the rubble and shifting rocks and debris. It took them almost twenty minutes, as they had to stop at brief intervals to adjust to the shifting rubble. They didnt need to fall and cause any more damage to their suffering bodies, but a fall or two was inevitable. They got up each time just as gingerly, trying to avoid the moans that would slip out occasionally. Both men tried to refrain from making sharp movements that might jerk them or force them to breathe too deeply. Breathing was a chore already in the hot, dusty air. There wasnt even a small breeze to cause the dirt they were inhaling to dissipate.
Finally, as they made it to ground that no longer moved under them, another big chunk of rock fell victim to gravity and caused yet another slide. Looking back, both men saw the area where they had been trapped. That area and the path they had just traversed had been covered yet again by the debris from the second slide. Vin and Ezra stumbled further away from the slide before they slowly sank to the ground to try and recover. At least Chris had gotten his wish. Their big brother wasnt aware of his small victory, but Vin and Ezra were thoroughly miserable wishing they had never begun this little adventure. They hurt all over, and they were exhausted, filthy, wet from sweat, and parched. It wasnt until they sat down upon the hard ground that they began to assess their injuries in earnest. Their hands looked as if someone had deliberately tried to scrape the skin off and appeared a raw, ugly red. Bruises were certain to follow. There was no blood, however, because no matter how badly scraped they were or how badly they hurt, the skin had not actually been broken.
The sun was rapidly going down, and Vin knew that they would not fare well if they waited until morning. They had to chance walking back to Four Corners in the dark. Neither man felt up to it. Vin was hindered as much as Ezra by the injuries they had sustained. None were bad, but there were so many minor injuries that even the mere act of breathing was uncomfortable. The fact that they hadnt broken any ribs didnt mean much as they both realized they had badly bruised them. If they stayed out in the night elements, they could end up battling the chills or worse, pneumonia. There was no wood from which to build a fire, and they only had their weapons they had been carrying when the rockslide had hit. Vins rifle was in the scabbard on his saddle, but he had his mares leg. Ezra had his gun and derringer nothing else. Theyd lost their hats; their clothes, especially their coats were torn in different spots. Neither man had any idea that there were in fact two rescue parties already half way to their present location. As far as Vin and Ezra knew, the only man who knew exactly where they were was buried under the full load of rubble from two rockslides. They had not seen young TJ, and they had been too far away to recognize the kids voice. Their would be murderer lay dead under the burial mound he had tried to create for the two peacekeepers.
Ezra was the first to break the silence. "Did you perchance let slip our destination to JD this morning?"
"I wish now I had, Ezra, but you heard what I told him. Even if they wanted to look for us, no one would know where to start."
The gambler sighed. "That was my supposition as well. You are saying then that we are going to have to walk back to Four Corners?"
"Walk or crawl, we aint got no one that knows where we are. If were gonna get back home, were gonna walk. Its gonna be up to us to get outa here. Alls I know is we cant stay here. To stay here is to die. You up to it?" Ezras answer was a nod then a question.
"Can you make it, Vin?"
"Question is can we make it, Ezra?"
"Well, since I cannot under any circumstances return to face Chris without you, we shall make it."
"Yeah, like hes not gonna have my hide if I get back without you. I guess were in this one together." Vin put his hand out to shake Ezras, but they each took one look at the others hands and jerked both hands back. "Aw hell, we aint gonna be doing much of anything for a while."
"That, my friend, is an understatement. Shall we follow this facsimile of a trail?"
"Well, if youre game, we can go 'bout a mile south 'fore we turn back east to town. Theres a small stream where we can get some water and rest. Then its bout 3 an a half miles to town from there."
Ezra was game. "Anything that gives us less to walk and some water as well is all the incentive I need, Mr. Tanner. As my former colonel would say, Onward, my friend."
Vin matched Ezras positive attitude with one of his own. "That mean the same as lets go?"
"My, my, your vocabulary has increased at an astonishing pace since our acquaintance, Vin. I feel just like a proud older brother."
Vin snorted and with a flourish that cost him a matching grimace in sympathy from Ezra, he waved his imaginary hat towards the south and the necessary water. Neither Vin nor Ezra had any idea that they would pass almost exactly a mile between their friends and Darcys men. Both search parties would miss them. If it had been daylight, it would have been easy to spot two men on foot, but even in the moonlight, two men on foot would be invisible at a distance of a mile. No tracks would be spotted leading south until morning. The cold, anxious night would serve only to fuel the despair in the hearts of five men and one young boy.
Chris and the other four men from Four Corners reached their destination to find half of the rock structure piled upon the ground. Darcy and his men had reached the area shortly before the rest of the seven. Lisa Darcy sat on the wagon seat with her arms wrapped around the blanket that surrounded her exhausted son. There were lanterns placed at different spots around the rubble, and men used to herding cattle and breaking horses were holding numerous shovels and several pickaxes in their gloved hands. TJ started when he saw Chris Larabee leading the rest of his heroes. He took a deep breath and started to speak, but his father beat him to it.
"Larabee, you get my message?"
Chris shook his head and dismounted as he strode toward Tom Darcy who had motioned the gunman away from his son. Buck, JD, and Josiah joined them while a torn Nathan succumbed to his calling. He went over to check on the battered boy, trusting in Chris and the others to fill him in as soon as possible.
"TJ saw that son of a bitch Gregson steal that mare I gave your boys here and went after the thief. We were all out on the range. The man kidnapped TJ. Threatened to, well it just ain't decent or normal what that animal threatened to do before he killed him. Then he caught sight of Tanner and Standish down here. TJ said the man was so intent on killing the two that he ignored him. TJ waited till the bastard was leaning over to light the fuse on the dynamite he had," Darcy paused to take a breath, a little frightened of the scowl on Larabees face. When he realized it was directed at Gregson and not TJ, Darcy continued, "TJ says he rushed Gregson from behind yelling at the top of his lungs to warn the boys below. Fuse must have been awfully short cause it went off just as Gregson went over the edge. TJ got knocked backwards, and when he finally got back to the edge, everything was covered in rock. He was scared, but he said he didnt see anyone movin fore he lit out for home. Boys scared bad and thinks hes in a world of trouble since he couldnt save Tanner and Standish. He insisted we come out here and look."
Chris suppressed the rage and despair he felt. "Find anyone yet?" When Darcy shook his head no, Chris looked over where TJ sat, letting Nathan fuss over his bruises and split lip. TJ appeared to be telling Nathan the same story, since the healer looked over at Chris, despair written all over his face. Chris swallowed the lump that was threatening to choke him, and he patted Darcy on the back. "Lets go set that boys mind at rest." The others, having heard everything, pulled out their gloves and took two pickaxes and a shovel out of their wagon to join the other men.
Josiah looked at Chris, "You go on over. Well join the rest to see if we can find. . . ." He couldnt even bring himself to say the word out loud. Even Buck couldnt find anything to say to try and comfort Chris. The despair he felt threatened to overwhelm the normally fun-loving man. And poor JD was just speechless with shock. Hed been scared for his friends before, but there was no way he could see how Vin and Ezra could still be alive under all this rubble. He just wanted to sit down and cry, but he took his shovel and started toward the rubble. He straightened his shoulders and looked back at Josiah and Buck.
"Im gonna move every rock I can till I find em. They didnt deserve this, and I aint leavin em here with the bastard that killed em."
Chris heard and turned to look at the youngest of their group. He was so proud of JD that he almost choked, but he didnt. He looked the man in the eye and spoke to him in a voice that was huskier than usual.
"Thanks, JD. Vin and Ezra would appreciate that. I do."
JD didnt puff up with pride, but tears formed in his eyes. He didnt trust his voice anymore, so he nodded to Chris and started back toward the rubble. Josiah and Buck, proud of their youngest, followed him. They would find their friends and give them the respectful burial they deserved. It wouldnt ease the pain in their hearts, but they would feel better knowing they had done right by their friends.
The short walk over to the young boy was one of the longest Chris had ever made. He knew he had to comfort this young man and convince him none of this was his fault, but Chris didnt know if he could. The situation looked hopeless. There was no way Vin and Ezra could have survived this long under all that rock and debris. He knew they would find their bodies beneath all of the rubble, just as dead as his childhood friend had been when they had pulled his body from under the rubble that day. It was back during the war when carelessness had caused ten men to die. He remembered Jake as clearly now as he had the day he died.
Jake had been his best friend since they were both seven. He had blue eyes, blonde hair, and a grin that knew mischief personally. Jake and Vin had a lot in common, but were still different as night and day. But both men had instantly found a way through the aloofness that hid Chriss vulnerable nature. But only Sarah and Vin had always seemed to know what Chris was thinking behind those cool green eyes. Very much like Bucks devil may care exuberance Jakes friendship had always been fun and full of boyish pranks.
Jake had joined the Union Army the same day as Chris, but his engineer father had arranged for Jake to work with him blowing up enemy bridges, train tunnels, and any Southern ammunition or supply depots. One of the men had gotten cocky, and Chris had watched from the cavalry unit as the train tunnel had blown prematurely. Jake had been one of the ten men Chris had drug from the rubble. The other dead men were tattered, torn, and mutilated, but Jake hadnt had a mark on him. Chris remembered that more than anything else, and he had hated dynamite and any man who was careless with it ever since.
If he hadnt had Bucks loyal friendship, Chris didn't think he would have gotten over Jakes loss. Buck had been there for him when Sarah and Adam had been murdered, too. Now Buck was here again, but Chris knew that Buck needed him just as much now. Vin and Ezra had been Buck's friends, too. They had been friends, no a family to all of the five men left behind. It was a small comfort to know that the rest of his family was here to help him grieve for their fallen two. They had to be strong in their grief for each other. JD was right. They had to find the bodies and give them a proper burial. If they hadnt been so sure that Chris would hate what they had been up to, would he be here now looking for their bodies? Were their deaths his fault, too? He couldnt dwell on that right now. He had to deal with TJ. The boy didnt deserve the guilt he had taken upon his shoulders.
"You okay, son?" TJ nodded yes. Chris continued, "I want to thank you for tryin to help Ezra and Vin."
TJ jerked his head up and looked in disbelief at his hero. Hed heard all the rumors drifting around through the town about his past, but Larabee had always been honest and even gentle with him, so when Larabee spoke, TJ tended to believe him just as much as he believed in his parents. How could Larabee thank him? Hed only succeeded in getting three men killed; one deserved it, but Ezra and Vin didnt. Larabee spoke again.
"TJ, you did the only thing you could, son. Vin and Ezra wouldnt have wanted anything to happen to you. You understand? They would have done exactly what you did if theyd been in your shoes. What we need to know is what was goin on before the explosion and rockslide. Can you tell us?"
TJ hesitated at first; but, once he got started, the words just spilled out of him. He remembered more now than when he had tried to get his father and the others to come with him and see if anyone was still alive. "You should have seen em, Mr. Larabee. Mr. Standish would shoot the dynamite into the air with a slingshot, and Mr. Tanner never missed a one. They exploded right where he wanted em. It really made that Gregson mad." TJ had almost forgotten; he was so caught up in the expert marksmanship of his hero.
Chris smiled to encourage the boy. Thats what they had been up to! They were trying to use the dynamite and slingshot in a way to help even the odds. It was dangerous, but Chris instinctively knew that Vin and Ezra had not been playing around. They had diligently been trying to find a way that would help keep their friends alive. The plan was simple but brilliant in its execution. Chris knew how good Vin was with a rifle. He knew that his friends had treated the dynamite as a tool, not a toy, and for doubting them he felt guilty. But he wasnt to blame for their deaths. This time it was some twisted horse thief who had no regard for anyone or anything but himself.
Chris turned his attention back to TJ. He looked over and saw Nathan was thinking exactly what he was. They had doubted their friends intelligence. They should have known better, but even if they had known what was going on and any of the others had accompanied Vin and Ezra, Gregson still would have tried to cover up his crime. Then, Chris would be mourning more than two of his brothers right now.
"I tried to stop 'm, but that Gregson hit me. I didnt even see it comin. Then he tied me up and started pullin out dynamite and tellin me what he was gonna do. I, he, uh, . . ." TJ didnt want to repeat what Gregson had threatened to do to him, what the monster had wanted to do to Vin and Ezra. It made him sick. He'd only understood a little himself when he'd told his dad, but is dad's reaction had confirmed what TJ thought Gregson had wanted.
Mrs. Darcy sent a pleading look to Chris and Nathan, and both men assured TJ they understood how he felt. "You did the only thing you could do, TJ. None of us would have done anything different." Nathan finished replacing the bandage TJs mom had put on the gash above the boys eye. "Hell be fine with some rest, maam. You want to get someone to take yall on home, now."
"No!" TJ wasnt going anywhere right now. "I cant. I got to see this through." The adults all looked at one another. It was a shame that another boy had to grow up fast, but that was this territory. Its harsh rules took innocence and destroyed it quickly, but there were too many people who cared about him to let TJ become another victim. He had his parents and five other men to see to that personally. They would make certain he got through this, just like they would make certain they would all get through this. Chris hadnt realized until now just how many people in this area considered the Seven as part of their community. Vin and Ezra would be missed, but somehow they would all get through it together. That didnt ease the pain much, but it made Chris even more determined that the rest of his family would remain there for one another. The only consolation Chris had was that they hadnt died alone. They had died together, both doing something they thought would save lives.
If someone had told Chris in the beginning that the quiet bounty hunter would have gotten so close to the flamboyant gambler, Chris would have laughed in sheer disbelief. But, over the 10 months, Chris had come to know Ezra as well as he knew Vin. It hadnt been easy, but Chris had come to see the similarities in all the men. The one thing that held them together was the simple fact that they needed one another. They needed to know that they had a family, and each man had chosen this diverse group as his family. Now they had lost two of them, and Chris meant to see that their family held together. They would get through this together. Vin and Ezra would expect that of them. He was startled by the shout from the pile of rubble. Someone had discovered something or someone. Chris and Nathan rushed over. They didn't have to take a second look. It was Vin's hat. The men began concentrating on that one area. Chris looked over at TJ, and the boy pointed to where the two large boulders had been.
"They were runnin' to get behind those big boulders. You know the ones that used to be right about there." TJ motioned again with his finger, pointing to the spot where the boulders should be lying under all of the debris.
Men began picking up rocks and shoveling debris in that area. They discovered Ezra's hat next, but still there were no bodies.
"Hats can travel far when they ain't got a body attached in all that movement from a rockslide." Darcy looked at Chris. He really didn't know what to say to Larabee to ease his pain. His boy was alive, but it was at a price that Darcy knew was causing great pain to more than just this man. Even Darcy felt the loss. He'd really liked those two boys a lot. Hell, he liked every one of the Seven.
These seven men would never truly know that the people of Four Corners considered them to be true heroes. They constantly faced trouble head on, never asking for hero status or even believing they deserved it. The Seven did what they did because they knew it to be right, and they never rubbed anyone's noses in it. Darcy liked that, and he knew Larabee had lost more than some folks could live with, but here he was telling TJ that he'd done the right thing. Darcy knew that Larabee probably wanted to rip someone or something apart with his bare hands. The other men probably wanted to do the same, but here they were trying to find the bodies of their friends. If nothing else, they would give them a decent burial and show TJ just what the word friendship meant. It only made the men helping them more frustrated that they would only find bodies. Suddenly, there was another shout.
"We've found one of 'em!" One of Darcy's men had found a body.
Buck wanted to fall on his knees, throw his head back, and literally howl at the moon. He kept praying over and over, 'Please God, dont let it be them.' He didn't know that he'd begun to say it aloud until he felt an arm go around his shoulders. It was Josiah. His face told Buck all he needed to know. They were both praying for a miracle that somehow they would find their friends alive. Neither one felt like he could look at whose body it was alone, but as they felt JD, Nathan, and Chris move closer to them, they knew they could look together. The men who were digging the debris and carefully moving it to an area they had already gone through finally uncovered the body. It was bloody and torn, mutilated almost beyond recognition as the dynamite and rockslide had both torn up the body. Five men held their breath collectively until their eyes had traveled over the corpse. Finally, Chris exhaled slowly, and the others followed suit. It was Gregson. They could tell by the boots he wore. Buck gave a sloppy half smile to JD, and picked up his shovel. Josiah and the others weren't fooled, though. They knew Buck was still praying for miracles, but that was okay. They were praying for miracles, too. Their thoughts and prayers were interrupted shortly by the sound horses and at least one wagon coming.
Chris walked toward the sound as a wagon emerged from the darkness followed by several riders on horseback. Nettie Wells and Mary Travis sat on the wagon flanked by Casey and half a dozen men from town and led by Hank Sutton. He was the ranch hand Darcy had sent to bring the news to Larabee. Chris shook his head in disbelief as everyone dismounted and started pulling shovels, pick axes, and torches from the wagon. Ed Bradley, the livery owner, tipped his hat to Larabee.
"Thought you could use some help." Bradley pulled his gloves on and walked over to the pile of rubble. "We got coffee and food in the wagon. Some of you boys wanna take a break while we spell ya?"
"You bring any water?" One of Darcys men asked that question.
Nettie Wells answered, "We got water and coffee. We even have some medicinal whiskey to pour over anybodys cuts." Chris grinned at that. He wondered if Nettie would believe he had a small cut inside his mouth. Mary caught his eye as the activity increased. She didnt say anything as Chris helped her down from the wagon; she just held on a little longer than usual when she got to the ground.
"We found Gregson's body, but we haven't found anything but their hats." Chris didn't need to mention whose hats they were. Mary wouldn't let go of his hands.
"What were they doing with the dynamite?" Chris smiled at her. She needed to know what their friends had been doing, and not just because she ran the newspaper.
"I think they were tryin' to find a way to help us out if we got stuck in a situation where seven just ain't a good number." Mary frowned not understanding. "They were tryin' to see if usin' dynamite could help even the odds. From what TJ says, they had a really good idea."
"You mean they just weren't playing around with it? They found a way to use it to help?"
"C'mon, I'll explain what I think while I'm helpin'." They walked together hand in hand toward the pile of rubble. Chris was explaining as they went. Some people, especially four men and one older woman, noticed their closeness and would have been pleased had they all not been so upset about Vin and Ezra.