While their friends were suffering feelings of despair, even guilt, all the while praying for miracles, Vin and Ezra were slowly making their way to water. Not even the cool night breeze could bring them any relief. Both men were exhausted. They were stumbling, practically dragging one another along. Having each one eye swollen shut made walking in the moonlight less than safe. It was downright dangerous. Even though Vin knew the area, he still couldn't stop himself or Ezra from occasionally stumbling and falling over rocks and brush along their path. Their clothes were becoming more and more tattered as they went along. Their coats had taken the most damage.
It probably didn't matter to Ezra that he would never wear his coat again, but Vin was very attached to his coat. He'd had it for many years now, and it had always made it through the worst of times. This time, however, he didn't think his buffalo jacket would survive the abuse of a rockslide and all the times Vin and Ezra had fallen since they'd dug their way out of the rubble. It was torn and ripped in half a dozen places.
The wife of Vin's best friend had made the jacket out of hide from the buffalo that Vin and the Indian tracker had killed together on their last hunt. It was a reminder from one of the few times when he had felt like he had a family. He hadn't realized how badly he wanted to feel part of a group again until he'd come to Four Corners and met Chris and the others. Even when he was with the Indians, he had always known he wasn't one of them. He shared many of their beliefs, but his differences from them had only been emphasized when the soldiers had come to force them onto the reservation. Vin had been immediately singled out because of his hair and his blue eyes. He'd watched in horror as the soldiers had held him back, and then they had killed his best friend and his wife. The soldiers had laughed at the murders and actually expected Vin to thank them for setting him free. They never truly understood that Vin had freely chosen to live with this tribe. So instead of dying with them, Vin left and became a bounty hunter. He used his skills in tracking down men who murdered, raped, and robbed innocent people. It was as if Vin felt this was the only way he could honor his dead friend. He couldn't save him, but he could save other innocents from people who didn't have the army to use as their shield from justice.
Sometimes Vin wondered what higher power had sent him to Four Corners. He had found there what he had missed since his mother had died. If anyone had told him that he would find a family in that tiny dustbin of a town, he would have laughed. Then he'd looked across the street into Chris Larabee's eyes. Vin didn't know why, but he'd felt an immediate bond with this gunslinger. He knew instinctively that here was a man he could trust with his life. Their friendship was unique in that they complimented one another. Words weren't necessary when you thought along the same lines. Vin also found similar beliefs in the other members of the Seven.
Nathan and Josiah were two of the gentlest men he'd ever known. They could comfort the weak and the helpless and then turn around and destroy the people who caused the suffering without batting an eye. Vin understood them and accepted them like they accepted him. None of these men would let a bounty come between them. Loyalty and friendship meant the same to them as it did to Vin. Even JD put his friends before his own safety. Vin would never forget the way JD was going to face down a marshal to save him. He was almost embarrassed when he discovered he was afraid for JD, but Josiah had stepped in to keep the kid safe. Sometimes he wondered which of the six of them worried about JD the most, but he came to understand that was how older brothers felt about younger ones.
Then, there was Buck. Buck could drive Vin crazy with incessant talking. At first Vin felt like Buck only talked because he liked to hear the sound of his own voice. Then he discovered it was more because life was fun and exciting, and Buck just had to share it with the people he cared about. He didn't mind hugging you in public if he felt it was something that had to be done. He was just so full of living that he had to share it with you whether you wanted it or not.
Vin was rudely thrown from his silent reverie as he stumbled again. Ezra kept him from falling this time, but Vin had to shake himself to get his thoughts back to the present. If he didn't pay more attention, he could hurt himself or Ezra worse than they already were. Vin looked over at Ezra and tried to thank him, but he saw a rather vacant look in the gambler's one eye. It was almost as if Ezra was caught up in his own remembrances to notice the present. Vin stopped walking in order to let Ezra come back to their present circumstances. Besides they could use a breather anyway. He listened to their labored breathing in the cool night breeze. At least the air was cleaner here and not filled with dust like back at the rockslide. Vin leaned a little away to take some of his weight off of Ezra.
The gambler was someone Vin had never thought to call friend. He was a con artist, a man who would lie and cheat to profit off of people. Ezra was also a man who loved children and would go to any lengths to protect them. He was a man who would run out in the middle of a gun battle to even the odds against men like the Nichols brothers. He was also the man who had loaned Nettie Wells the money she needed to buy her mortgage and save her home. Vin realized that once he made up his mind, Ezra was just as stubborn as Chris Larabee. Loyalty and friendship meant more to the gambler than he would admit, but his actions spoke louder than words.
None of these men were perfect, they all had their vices and secrets, but when push came to shove, every one of the seven were there for each other. That was the one thing that was constant for all of them. They could disagree, they could insult one another, but they would defend each other with their lives. That was what made them so formidable. Theirs was a family based on acceptance of each other. Most of all, they liked each other.
Ezra was slowly putting a part of his past back where it belonged. The loneliness of his childhood had reared its ugly head on this silent march to water. It wasnt as if they didnt want to talk. It was the simple fact that neither man could find the energy to talk. Actually, their silence was the only comfortable part of this hellacious trek, and Ezra liked comfort. He didn't like to dwell in the past at all, and one reason was that it was so depressing. Unlike Vin, Ezra's mother hadn't died while he was a child, but there were times that Ezra felt that he'd been just as much an orphan as Vin had been. He remembered being dumped on numerous relatives who had made it quite clear that he was the interloper, the one who was cared for only for appearances. He often wondered if his mother would have truly missed him had he run off or worse died from many of the numerous diseases that tended to claim many a child. Not one to thrive on self-pity, Ezra did acknowledge that his childhood had given him an excellent education and a very early awareness of when he was on to a good thing. He was on to a good thing here with the six men he had chosen to ride with. Like Vin, he had a deep-seeded need to belong to a family. He wanted to be part of a real family, not just a mother who taught him how to live off of the stupidity of others. He'd found a family in Four Corners.
It was an odd assortment of brothers fate had chosen for him, but Ezra recognized that these were just the sort of men he needed to teach him what a family was truly like. He might tease Vin about his buffalo coat, but he also couldn't imagine the man in fancy, elegant clothing. Vin didn't pay attention to fashion. If you were his friend you could wear homespun or silk; it didn't matter to him. His loyalty was absolute. And then there were Buck and JD. Those two were always picking at one another, but through it all there was an undercurrent of affection and loyalty for one another that was contagious and didn't stop between the two of them. The affection and loyalty were extended to the whole group.
Josiah, Josiah didn't judge people for their pasts or for any future failings. He accepted who you were and listened when you needed a good listener. His advice if he gave you any was to listen to your heart for what was right. He trusted you to find the right path, and that trust was all you needed as encouragement. If Ezra wanted advice, all he had to do was listen to Nathan. Ezra knew that even when Nathan voiced his most vehement opinion against one of Ezra's schemes, that he could always count on Nathan to still be there even if Ezra strayed from his chosen role as protector of his less than intelligent fellow man. Nathan was a nurturer who couldn't leave you alone if you were suffering from any pain, physical or mental. Then there was Chris Larabee.
Chris could scare a demon into turning tail and running, but Chris was also a man who few people had been privileged to know. Chris cared too much about the world around him. Ezra saw that and knew that the icy exterior tried to protect the vulnerable man who couldn't stand to see some innocent fall victim to violence. Some might call Larabee weak for his willingness to accept responsibility for the world around him. Ezra knew it took a man of considerable strength and character to be willing to carry that responsibility. He respected Chris, but he also knew that Larabee was no knight in shining armor. He was a man who had lived through hell and was willing to face it again and again to save others from it. His armor was tarnished, but he was a better man because of it.
Ezra realized they had stopped. His breathing wasn't as harsh. Neither was Vin's. He looked through his one unswollen eye into the one mischievous blue eye Tanner had directed on him. "May I ask if we have reached our destination, or have you decided this is where big brother will find our bodies?"
"I was waitin' to see if you're still alive, or if I been draggin' a dead body with me."
"I believe I am still among the living. And you?"
"Never better, Ezra." The snort he heard beside him almost set him off into a fit of hysterical laughter until his one good eye actually focused on what was in front of them. 'Thank God!' "Uhm, Ezra, we're here."
Once again one green eye met one blue eye. "Where are we?"
"At the stream. It's 'bout four feet in front of us."
He heard Ezra's mumbled, "Might as well be four miles."
Vin needed Ezra's sarcastic wit right now. "We made it this far, we ain't dying yet!"
"Death is beginning to sound like an attractive alternative to this. However, I'll wager I can crawl to it faster than you."
This time Vin snorted. They stumbled toward the waiting water. The four feet felt like an eternity, but they made it. They fell more than knelt by the stream and plunged their filthy, aching hands in the cold water. Then, with no regard for polite society, they plunged their swollen and bruised faces into the cold water and drank their fill. The cold water on their swollen eyes and hands was like heaven, and the water tasted better than anything either could remember.
"We'll just rest here for a while, OK?" Vin couldn't move. There was no way he could walk three and a half more miles tonight.
"Oh, I believe we have earned a respite, my friend. We'll move on in an hour or so. Certainly, by then we will have regained our strength."
Ezra pulled out a handkerchief and with a shaky hand put it into the water. He wrung it out and placed it on his swollen eye as he rolled away from the water. He lay on his left side where he could avoid putting his weight on his back and still tilt his head holding the wet cloth on his eye. Vin did the same with his bandanna. Both men fell asleep almost instantly. It was a little past midnight, and neither man had any idea that there were people digging through a hill full of rubble looking for their bodies.
Several hours after the two men collapsed into exhausted slumber, a miracle of sorts was becoming a reality at the site of the rockslide. None of the twenty men who had been digging would take more than a five-minute break before they returned to the rubble. They had managed to move and sift through almost all of the rocky debris. They were down to at least two sections that they attacked with a mixture of dread and excitement. No other bodies had been found in the debris in three hours since Gregson's body had been found. They located the two boulders, but they had found no other signs of the two missing men. The dark despair that had settled on Chris's heart as he sifted through debris and picked up rocks in various shapes and sizes began to be replaced by an almost frightened hope. He hadn't said anything, but he could feel that Buck shared his unspoken optimism. He jumped at the hand that settled on his left shoulder. He had been too wrapped up in his own thoughts to notice Tom Darcy walk up to him.
"We've managed to get through all this rubble, and we ain't seen no sign of those boys. You don't think that maybe?" Darcy was just as hesitant to voice any hope as the others. Around twenty-three men and women listened to the two men voice what they were all beginning to realize.
"We're just finishing this section. I think maybe they aren't here.' Chris smiled the first genuine smile he'd felt since the two horses had come running riderless and covered with debris into town. But if their bodies weren't here, where were they?
"Well, we know they were here cause TJ saw 'em runnin', but all we found were their hats. If they managed to get out alive, where are they?" JD voiced what everyone else was thinking.
Too many people were fighting against false hope. No bodies meant Vin and Ezra must have crawled out of the rubble alive, but where were they now?
"Surely, if they got out, they would have waited until help came?" It was the first time anyone had heard Casey speak all night long. She'd been unusually silent, but she had just asked the next question everyone else was thinking.
"Not if those two boys didn't know TJ had seen everything and was goin' for help. Were you in sight where Vin and Ezra could see you, son?" Chris could always count on Nettie to ask the right questions.
Larabee walked over to the wagon where the young man was helping pass out food and drink. He'd been too exhausted for anyone to let him do anything else. "TJ, do you think Vin and Ezra knew it was you that yelled to warn them?"
TJ thought carefully for a moment. Then he smiled brilliantly. His teeth were white against his dirty face. "We came up from behind 'em, Mr. Chris. I don't think they even knew I was here. I yelled and pushed Gregson just before the explosion. Might be they didn't even know it was me yellin'."
"Then they'd have no reason to wait on a rescue party, would they?" Mary's voice had been a little unsteady as she asked that question. A little ripple of excitement began to travel throughout the group. There had been no reason to assume that help was coming. That would mean that Vin and Ezra had probably decided to make their way back to Four Corners on their own. It was the only possible explanation.
"Then, why didn't we run into them on our way here?" Buck didn't want to ask that question. He didn't want to lose that feeling that his miracle had been granted, but he also couldn't understand why no one had spotted Vin and Ezra on the trail between the town and here. Two different groups had set out from town taking the same trail that Vin and Ezra had taken earlier that morning, or was it yesterday morning already? Buck had lost track of the time.
"It would stand to reason that someone would have come across them even in the dark. It'd be real hard to miss two men on foot if you're about to ride over them." Josiah was searching for possible explanations. He turned to see Chris and Nathan both frowning in deep thought. Everyone was waiting for a reasonable explanation, one that would keep hope alive.
"Nathan!" It was not quite a shout, more like a forceful request for attention, but everyone stopped to listen. "What are some of the things that could have happened to them?" Nathan frowned even more at Chris.
"Like maybe they got knocked on the head and wandered off?" Nathan wished he hadn't said that aloud, but it was the only explanation he could think of. "If that's true, then they could have gone off in any direction, Chris. They could be lyin' out there needin' help or worse." No one liked that possibility.
"Yes, but if they were hurt badly enough that they weren't aware of what they were doing, could they have gotten very far from this immediate area?" Nathan looked over and silently thanked Mary Travis.
"She's right. If they'd been knocked senseless, chances are they'd still be close 'round here." Josiah and Mary had both succeeded in giving Nathan a helping hand. It was up to him to resurrect hope.
"Well, I can't see them not being injured in some way. But, if they ain't here, that has to mean they were able to walk. They should be walkin' back home. Dependin' on how bad their injuries are, that's what'll decide how far they get. But that don't explain why no one saw 'em on the way here." You could only give so much hope before people had to face the truth.
Nathan didn't mention all the things that could have happened to two men on foot who were injured and disoriented. Everyone already knew the hazards of living in this area. There were too many dangers for healthy, well-mounted men. If Vin and Ezra were wandering out there on foot, they needed to be found fast. No one knew if either man could last another day without water or medical attention. The fact that they had gotten out of the rubble in one piece and managed to somehow walk away was in their favor. But, no one knew when their luck would run out.
"We need to know what direction they went in." Buck had one miracle; he wasn't about to let it get away from him. "Then we can go an' get 'em."
Everyone started talking about dividing up and searching, but Chris held his hand up, once. Everyone got quiet immediately. They waited for Larabee to tell them what to do. His calm attitude immediately made them calm down. Josiah nudged Nathan, then touched Mary lightly on the arm. They both looked up at the man and nodded their understanding. No one would ever know that Chris Larabee wanted to run and start looking immediately, but he knew they would never find the two missing men in the dark. He exuded authority, and everyone was prepared to obey without question.
"It'll be dawn in another two, three hours. We need to look for any tracks that might indicate where Vin and Ezra were goin'. Since we didn't see them comin' from town or Darcy's, we have to assume they were either between us or wanderin' around in the dark. We need five groups with all the lanterns we can spare till the sun comes up. Anyone see any tracks that look like two men on foot give a holler."
JD and Buck divided everyone into groups; each headed by one of the peacekeepers. None were as good at tracking as Vin was, but they knew enough to be able to recognize either man's boot print. They started sweeping the area around the rockslide using the moonlight and lanterns as their light. TJ got down from the wagon along with the four women present to help search. They were very slow and very careful, but no one had found anything yet, and it was nearly dawn.
Chris was getting impatient, but he knew that they had to be very thorough if they were going to find the missing men. He refused to even consider the possibility that they might not find them alive. He clung to the one fact that they had been able to crawl out of the rubble and walk away. They couldn't be that badly injured, and he knew if anyone could stay alive in the wilderness, injured or not, it would be Vin Tanner. Vin was just too stubborn to allow the elements to defeat him or Ezra. However, he knew they had already wasted precious time digging through the rubble. If it had been daylight when they arrived, they might have seen the tracks leading away from the rockslide sooner. His thoughts, usually so well concealed, had not gone unnoticed. Mary walked closer to him and spoke so softly only he could hear her words.
"We couldn't have known they weren't here. If they were fit enough to walk out of here then our chances of finding them alive are very good. Don't you think so?" She always seemed to know just what to say to him to make him feel like there wasn't anything he couldn't do.
Chris rewarded her with a smile, one he reserved just for her. It usually made a shiver of delight run right up her spine. She rather liked having this man make her feel special. "Oh we'll find 'em all right. And they'd better look tired and hungry and hurtin' all over, or I'm gonna make wish they were for makin' us dig up a hillside lookin' for 'em."
He didn't really mean it, but Mary giggled when he said it. He wasn't as angry or so full of grief he still couldn't threaten his two friends for being out here in the first place.
"You can't always keep the people you care about safe, Chris. Sometimes, despite everything you do, it's just not meant to be." Chris knew she was referring to her late husband and Sarah and Adam as much as she was referring to Vin and Ezra. He nodded, and she continued. "Do you really think that you could have stopped this from happening? Even if Vin and Ezra hadn't been here, we'd still be looking for TJ. And who knows, Gregson might have gotten away with killing the boy and still have found a way to get to Vin and Ezra."
"You're right, but that still doesn't make me worry any less. I thought they were dead for sure. Now I know they left here alive, but in what condition? We still may not. . ." Mary put her hand over his mouth to stop him.
"We will find them because you promised me I could help torture them for scaring the hell out of us." She grinned and felt Chris's mouth mimic hers before he took her hand in his.
"I never realized what a mean streak you had in you Mary Travis. Remind me not to ever make you mad at me." He never got to hear her answer because Buck interrupted them.
"JD and TJ have found some tracks, Chris. You best get over here."
Chris and Mary ran over to the group that had formed behind the young men; somehow no one considered TJ just a boy anymore. Josiah was leaning down with them examining the tracks. It was just dawn, and that light, plus the light of the lanterns had finally made the tracks visible. Josiah looked up at Chris and Mary as they came to an abrupt halt beside him.
"Tracks show two men on foot headin' south."
"South? Why south? That won't take 'em back to town." The livery owner was puzzled.
"Water. They went for water." Chris had taken the map out of his pocket that he had taken from Vin's room. He spread it on the ground and pointed to a spot on the map. "There's a stream 'bout a mile due south of here. Town's only three an' a half miles from there."
"Ain't that the same stream Vin showed us on that shortcut of his when we were comin' back from takin' that prisoner to Eagle Bend?
"Yeah, it is." Chris answered.
"That makes sense. They'd be needin' water, 'specially if they'd been without all day." Nathan was pleased Vin had been lucid enough to remember the stream. "Tracks show two men walkin', so's I don't think they're that bad off. We may just get to 'em fore anything worse happens." He looked over at his other friends and grinned. Hope was a very contagious feeling.
"We can catch up to 'em there." TJ felt really good all of a sudden.
"You ain't goin' nowhere 'cept home. Ma'am, it's bout time this boy was home in bed." Nathan knew how to deal with stubborn. His six friends brought a whole new meaning to the word stubborn, so one teenage boy was just an easy victory.
TJ didn't want to go home until Vin and Ezra were found, but he looked at his parents' faces and then at Larabee. There was no way they were going to let him go chasing after two injured men. He started to protest when Chris spoke to the whole group.
"We'll go on from here south to the stream. We think that's where well find 'em. What we need now is for everyone else to go back to town or back home."
Everyone started to protest at once. They had worked so long trying to find the missing men that they all wanted to be there when they were finally found. One group after another spoke up, and Chris listened with growing impatience until he just couldn't restrain himself any more.
"I understand, and don't think we ain't grateful for all you've done. But, we only think they've gone to the stream. We don't know for sure. If we can get everyone to fan out going back home, then we can cover the whole area between Darcy's spread and town. That way someone is sure to come across them."
No one had any argument against this plan. So, just as the sun began to rise on a new day, the searchers started on their ways home. They had fanned out in such order that there was no way two men on foot could be missed at any point from their starting point to Four Corners and Darcy's ranch. Anyone finding the two men were to fire three shots in the air to alert the others. Chris led his other four friends as Nathan drove the wagon. If Vin and Ezra were still at the stream or somewhere between the stream and Four Corners, the remainder of the seven would find them.