The rain only lasted a few minutes, and then the sun returned to re-heat the barren terrain. It warmed Vin up enough that he stopped shivering, and what little color he still had returned to his gaunt features.
"We need to get him outa here," Nathan said to Chris.
Chris nodded. They'd spread their tack out to dry on the rocks because they wouldn't get back to town until the next day, and no one wanted to sleep in wet blankets when they made camp that night. In little more than an hour, the sun and the dry heat had baked all the dampness out of their gear, and they were getting ready to hit the trail again.
Nathan collected the skull he had wrapped in burlap earlier. Now that they knew for certain who it was, there was no reason to take it back to town.
He was angry with the dead outlaw. That made no sense, because Porter was only in an obscure, indirect way responsible for what had happened to Vin. It was a certainty that he would not have chosen to die where he had and rot in that hole. But, that didn't matter to Nathan.
He took the skull over to the hole and contemplated dropping it in, so that what was left of it would shatter into unrecognizable pieces.
Josiah joined him. "What are you doing, Nathan?"
Nathan shook his head. "I dunno. It just don't seem right to take him away from this place when part of Vin is always gonna be here."
Nathan knew he didn't a have to explain himself to Josiah. The preacher usually understood the thoughts and fears that motivated most men, even when he didn't agree with how they acted upon them. "I reckon the Lord intended for this to be his final resting place. No reason to change that now that I can see."
Nathan turned the skull over in his hands, and then called to JD to bring him some rope. The boy complied, and instead of tossing the skull into the pit, Nathan rigged a makeshift cradle and lowered it gently to the bottom.
Josiah blessed the open grave. "May God have mercy on his soul."
JD snorted. "I hope he rots in hell."
Josiah looked down into the pit. "I think he already did." He flashed a quick grin that made JD giggle. Both of them knew it wasn't a time to be joking, but there was already enough pain and grief to go around. Even Nathan smiled.
Josiah's gaze drifted to the floor of Vin's prison, to the spot where the tracker had scratched his name in the soft rock. Vin was just learning how to write, and Josiah was struck with an aching sadness as he looked at the uneven scrawl. He looked over at Vin, huddled lifelessly under Ezra's coat. Nathan was right. He'd left more than his name in that stinking pit.
Chris had Vin's horse ready, so Nathan went to help get the sick man mounted up.
He knelt beside him with a canteen. "Have some water, Vin," the healer said gently. He had to force him to sit up. He got the feeling that if they didn't make Vin move, he would stay right where he was until he died. He just didn't care anymore.
He held the canteen to the tracker's lips but Vin pushed it away.
"Vin, it's just water," he said softly, and then added, "There ain't nothin' in it. Just water...."
Vin didn't take the canteen, but he was thirsty. He allowed Nathan to pour the water into him a small sip at a time, although it was left up to Nathan to decide when to stop. The state Vin was in, he'd neither ask for more nor say when he'd had enough.
Chris joined them and squatted down beside Vin, trying to make eye contact with him. "Time to go, Vin." He put a hand behind the tracker's neck, and Vin looked at him, but his stare was vacant and soulless. His once vibrant blue eyes looked like clouded crystals. Chris took him carefully by the arm and pulled him to his feet with Nathan's help.
Vin cooperated only marginally. They got him standing, then got him up on his horse, but he sat in the saddle like a man beaten so badly that he was only waiting for the end. Chris shoved his feet into the stirrups and then patted his thigh when he was done. "You okay?" he asked him. Vin gave him a distracted nod. He didn't even attempt to take the reins of his mount. If they were lucky, he'd stay in the saddle without someone holding him there, but they were going to have to lead him.
Chris hated to do it, but he reached up and unfastened Vin's gunbelt and took the weapon from him. Then, he removed his rifle from its scabbard. Vin didn't protest or make any move to stop him.
Ezra walked up carrying his discarded jacket and Vin's hat. The sun was already behind them, so Vin didn't need the protection it offered. Ezra hooked it over his saddle horn where Vin could reach it if he wanted it.
Chris handed him Vin's guns.
The gambler was rarely at a loss for words, but he had no comments to make regarding the present situation. He could see the torment in Chris Larabee's face, and didn't envy the man having to make whatever decisions would be made regarding Vin.
Chris looked past him to where JD and Josiah were standing at the hole's edge. "Aw shit, I'm gonna kill those fuckin' bastards...."
Ezra turned to see Cole and Ramage riding up to the preacher and the boy, their clothes still damp and sticky from being drenched in the downpour.
"You ain't reckonin' on takin' him back to town, are ya?" Ramage said, indicating Vin.
"Of course we are," JD said, "and you'd best not even think of tryin' to get in our way." The boy took a threatening step in their direction.
Josiah pulled him back by his shirt collar. "Make your point, Ramage, so you can leave," the preacher said.
Ramage spit a stream of tobacco juice. "My point is that ain't nobody wants a lunatic walkin' the streets, and Mr. James ain't gonna let it happen."
Cole leaned forward and draped his arm over his saddle horn. "I hear tell they got places to corral folks like that. You know, got no mind left?" he chortled. "Reckon it's best you find him one and take him there."
"Fuck you!" JD's limp hindered him as he charged headlong into the side of Ramage's horse, but although his technique lacked finesse, it was effective. Ramage had to struggle to regain control of the startled animal.
Buck saw the confrontation in the making and hurried over to restrain the kid. He pulled him away from Ramage and encircled him in a bear hug that immobilized him.
"Goddammit, BUCK!" JD struggled and hissed, "LET ME GO!"
Cole laughed. "Larabee, you need to find yourself some new men. I think this whole lot has come down tetched with whatever's ailin' yer bounty hunter."
Chris had busied himself tying the lead to Vin's horse to his saddle horn, not wanting to give Cole and Ramage the satisfaction of immediately acknowledging their intrusion. The pair didn't have the balls to do anything that would get them shot, but they were just begging for a show of force, and there was no point in letting this go on any longer than it had to. He nodded at Ezra and Nathan to follow him, knowing the cowboys' bravado would quickly fade once they were looking down the barrels of six guns.
For Vin's sake, he would try to keep the confrontation at the level of a mere annoyance. Gunplay at that point would wreak too much havoc with the tracker's shattered nerves, and he'd already been through more than enough.
He approached Cole and Ramage and tried to look casual. "Why don't you boys just ride back and tell your boss to come and see me?"
"What if we don't want to?" Cole snorted.
"Yeah," Ramage chimed in. "We was thinkin' maybe we'd hang around a mite longer.... You know..." he spit tobacco juice in Vin's direction, "enjoy the freak show."
Chris's hand went instinctively to his gun, but he stayed calm. "You're gonna regret it if you don't leave. Count on that."
Ramage wiped tobacco from his chin. "You ain't gonna do a thing to us, Larabee."
Chris locked eyes with him. He'd never known a man who could stare him down. The corners of his mouth turned up slightly. "Not yet."
Cole and Ramage were not so stupid that they couldn't tell when they'd pushed things far enough. Cole straightened in his saddle, preparing to leave, but said, "Mr. James ain't gonna stand for havin' him around," he pointed to Vin, "and neither are a lot of other townsfolk, you mark my word."
Chris continued to stare at him, "You done?"
"There ain't no more to say, Larabee," Cole said.
But his words were punctuated by a loud crack and everyone ducked. Chris whipped around to see who had fired, but everyone still had their weapons holstered. Vin had either jumped or fallen from his horse and was cowering on the ground. He didn't have a weapon, anyway, so he hadn't fired either.
"What the hell..." Cole muttered. His horse skittered backwards, its eyes round with fright. Something was spooking the animal, and it reared unexpectedly, throwing him off. The thump of his backside hitting the ground was immediately followed by another sharp burst of sound.
Vin looked up, and Chris saw sudden realization and horror written on his face.
The tracker screamed "NO!" and Chris understood what was happening an instant before he realized it was too late to do anything about it.
He felt himself falling into darkness, dimly aware of the cascade of rock and bodies falling with him.
JD, Buck, Josiah, and Nathan stared in disbelief, momentarily paralyzed. Right before their eyes, the black lava had opened up and swallowed Chris and Ezra. Cole had disappeared, too. It was only after several seconds of stunned silence that they realized Ramage was clinging to the rim of a new sinkhole. The thin, porous rock, still laden with water from the storm, had not been able to withstand the additional weight of two horses and four men. Ramage's horse had somehow escaped going down and had trotted off to safety. Except for being badly startled, it appeared unscathed. But the neck of Cole's horse was wedged between two large chunks of rock, and its head lolled to one side, the eyes open and staring. The animal had died instantly.
Chris, Ezra and Cole were nowhere in sight, buried under a pile of volcanic boulders and a large slab of rock that had given way like a trap door.
"Oh, sweet Jesus!" Nathan exclaimed. His healer's instincts pushed his personal sentiments aside and he hurried to where Ramage was dangling precariously above a pile of razor-sharp fragments, holding on only by pressing his right arm hard against the flat surface to keep his shoulder joint at a right angle. A bone protruded from the flesh of his left forearm, so that limb was useless, and it was just a matter of seconds before his shoulder joint gave out and he plummeted to a nasty death.
"One of y'all give me a hand here!" Nathan shouted, grabbing onto Ramage's shirt.
The cowboy looked up at him, horrified and pleading.
"Don't worry," Nathan scoffed. "Much as I'd like to, I ain't gonna let you fall."
Josiah joined him, and together they pulled Ramage to safety. His arm needed to be set, but that would have to wait.
Buck had laid down on his belly so his head and shoulders hung down into the new hole. "CHRIS!!" he shouted. "CHRIS! Can you hear me?"
JD joined Buck. "EZRA!"
There was no sound except for a couple of falling cinders.
"CHRIS!!!" Buck shouted more urgently.
There was a faint grunting noise, and a bloody hand reached out from a craggy opening in the debris. There was no way to tell if it belonged to Chris or Ezra or Cole.
Buck was frantic. "CHRIS!!!" he shouted again.
They heard someone cough, but still could not tell who it was.
Buck ran to his horse to get a rope.
There was no way to lower a man down into the cavity. The cave-in had not taken out the complete ceiling of the hollow in the rock, and the result was an overhanging ledge that went almost completely around the rim. It was perilously thin, and its ability to hold a man's weight was impossible to determine without actually trying it, which was too dangerous. However, the largest slab of rock had fallen in at an angle so that one end of it rested on the floor of the hollow and the other leaned up against the side near the rim. It was positioned at a steep angle, but a strong man could rappel down its surface to reach the bottom. There, another slab had wedged itself against the opposite side of the hole. The hand had reached out from beneath the second slab, so there was a least one man trapped in the pocket formed by the smaller piece.
Buck didn't have to explain what he was going to do. Nathan, Josiah and JD held the top end of the rope while Buck made the quick descent into the rubble.
He pushed away some of the smaller rocks and was able to make an opening big enough to see into the space behind the slab. "It's Chris!" he called back. He peered into the opening. Streamers of light filtered through the crevices in the debris, and it was enough for him to see the knot on Chris's head. The blow that had caused it had left him temporarily disoriented, but he was coming round.
"How ya doin', ol' pard?" Buck tried to sound cheerful.
"I can't move my legs," Chris mumbled.
Buck relayed this information to Nathan, who told him to ask Chris if he could feel his legs.
"Yeah, I can feel 'em, but I'm pinned down. I can't move," Chris said.
Buck poked his arm through the opening. He could just barely reach the top of Chris's head, but he touched him reassuringly. "Don't worry, pard, ol' Buck'll get you outa this fix."
Buck went to work. He could have used some help moving the rocks, but there wasn't room down there for another man.
The sides of the hole quickly absorbed the sun's heat and in minutes, the pit was stifling. Buck struggled out of his shirt, because it had become saturated with sweat and was more of a hindrance that it was worth. It took him several minutes to make the opening big enough that he was able to see Chris clearly and assess his condition.
What he found was not good. Chris didn't appear to be too badly injured, at least, not the upper part of his body. But his legs were pinned under Ezra, and a heavy, flat section of lava was lying across Ezra's back. The gambler was lying in a pool of blood that grew bigger even as Buck watched. He suspected the blood was Ezra's, although he really couldn't tell. Chris was still mildly unfocused, but he didn't seem to be suffering from blood loss. Ezra, however, was pale and unconscious.
There was no way that Buck could get to either of them. He'd moved all the rocks he could, and the opening was still too small.
He tried to squeeze through it, anyway, the sharp edges cutting into his shoulders and back. If his shoulders had been just an inch or so narrower, he could have done it, but he was just too big.
He leaned back, exhausted, and his hand brushed against fabric. Looking down, he spotted the toe of Cole's boot. He wasn't sure why he should bother, but he pulled the rocks off of Cole's legs only to be met with the sickening discovery that the cowboy appeared to have been cut in half by a slice of rock that had fallen perpendicular to the bottom.
But he kept moving the rocks anyway, just out of pure frustration. He was almost relieved to discover his first impression of the situation had been wrong. The vertical piece was wedged snugly up against Cole's chest and abdomen, but it hadn't even crushed him, let alone cut him in two. Cole was conscious, but the rock was pushing on his chest so hard that he couldn't get enough air to speak. He was slowly suffocating, and he looked like he was scared enough to die from sheer fright.
There was no way to remove the piece that had Cole trapped, but Buck was able to wedge another rock under it so that it would at least not compress the cowboy's chest any further. In doing so, he saw that if someone could get on the other side of it, it could be pushed up and out of the way. That would not only free Cole, it would make it possible to get a rope around the rock pinning Ezra.
Unfortunately, the only way to get to it was the small opening that he couldn't fit through.
Reluctantly, he climbed back up to join the others.
"They're all three pinned down there," he reported. "Chris and Cole might be okay if we can get them out...". He shook his head. "Ezra's losin' a lot of blood, Nathan."
The healer took the rope from him. "I'm goin' down there."
Buck held his arm. "It's no good Nathan. There's an opening in the rocks, but it's too small. I couldn't get in and you're bigger than I am."
Nobody had to come right out and say that little JD was their only hope. Proportionally, his shoulders were broader than Buck's, but he was considerably smaller than average. There was a chance he would fit. The problem was, JD would need two good legs to climb down and back up again, and his injured knee was still healing.
"I don't care," JD insisted. "I can put up with a little pain."
"It ain't gonna be a little pain," Nathan told him. "It's gonna hurt like hell. And you start twisting that knee around enough, you're likely not to ever walk on that leg again."
JD contemplated that possibility for only a moment. "There ain't no other way," he said softly.
And everyone knew he was right.
They tied the rope around him and lowered him into the hole. JD tried to steady himself by pressing against the rock with just his good leg, but the effort was too much. He eventually had to use both legs, and the strain on his bad knee quickly took its toll. It buckled under him and he cried out as he slipped and slammed into the slab. The impact scraped the skin off his knuckles and the side of his face, and his knee twisted sharply at an unnatural angle. He screamed with pain, but managed to regain his footing somehow. His face mirrored his effort to withstand the agony, but he gamely declared that he was fine.
They all knew he was lying. His damaged leg looked practically useless and the kid's face had gone chalk white. But, he insisted he could keep going, even after he slipped a second time, this time cutting his forehead. Blood poured down into his eyes from the small wound, making it difficult for him to see, but he still refused to give in.
Buck had other thoughts. "Pull him back up," he ordered.
"NO!" JD insisted. "I can do it!"
The others watched him grit his teeth against the pain, knowing it was no good. Even if the boy could withstand the torture he was inflicting on himself, his knee wasn't going to hold up. Without two legs to steady him, he was swinging back and forth, dragging the rope along the sharp edge of the rim. It wouldn't take much to cut it, and when that happened, he'd tumble head over heels down the incline and be one more injured man to bring out.
They pulled him back up, and JD plopped down forlornly on the ground, tears of frustration and pain streaming down his face along with the blood. "I could have done it!" he snapped, his voice cracking.
Nathan wet a cloth and gave it to him to press against the bleeding cut on his head. The others knew they had to come up with another plan, and quickly.
"We don't got a lot of time, here," Buck snapped at no one in particular. He was ready to write off Cole, who had probably died from lack of air by now. But Ezra needed attention before he bled to death and Chris... What were they going to do? Just leave all three of them trapped there?
He sensed that someone was behind him, and he turned around.
It was Vin.
Without a word to any of them, the tracker took the rope that had been holding JD and slipped it around his chest, even though he was shaking with fear as he peered over the rim of that hellish opening in the earth.
The same questions raced through everyone's mind. Did Vin know what he was doing? And what was going to happen to him once he found himself at the bottom of another hole? Did he even have the physical strength to make it that far?
The answers didn't matter.
Vin was small enough to fit through the opening.
He was the only hope they had.
Vin managed the descent only with great effort. His thin frame no longer had the strength to cling easily to the rope and push his way down the incline with his legs.
When he got to the bottom, he just stood there, staring at the wall of lava that surrounded him with a dazed expression on his face.
He's remembering Nathan thought to himself. He has to be. When Vin had not moved for several seconds, the healer grabbed another rope. There wasn't really enough room for him, but Vin appeared paralyzed with fear. "I'm goin' down there with him," he said.
Vin looked up at the sound of his voice, and then down at the opening in the fallen rocks. He suddenly seemed to remember why he was there. He got down on his knees and put his head into the opening, but he stopped short of actually crawling into the tiny space. Clearly, it was a problem for him. Nobody could blame him, but they didn't have time to cater to his fear.
Nathan began the descent. God have mercy on them both, he'd shove Vin through the hole if he had to. He hated the very thought, even though he knew that there wasn't much more damage that could be done to Vin. It was their only chance of helping Chris and Ezra.
But as the others watched from above, Vin ducked down and eased his narrow shoulders into the passage. He went through easily, and by the time Nathan reached him, he was all the way inside.
Nathan peered inside and his breath caught in his throat. Vin didn't have room to stand or even get all the way up on all fours, the space was so confined. He had managed to avoid Ezra, but he was virtually on top of Chris, their torsos criss-crossed.
Chris lifted his head and opened his eyes. He frowned in disbelief. "Vin?" Then he looked accusingly at Nathan. "What is he doing here?"
"You hush, now," Nathan commanded him. "We're gonna get you outa here, right, Vin?."
Chris turned back to Vin, who was resting across his chest. He was taking short, panicked breaths and like before, Chris could feel his heart racing with fear. "Vin?"
"I'm okay, Chris," Vin assured him. "How you doin'?"
"I'm fine, I think. I'm just stuck." He sounded more annoyed than anything else which Nathan knew was a good sign.
"Vin, can you take Ezra's pulse? Can you tell me if he's alive?"
Chris felt Vin suddenly go tense with anxiety. He stopped breathing.
Chris was able to reach Ezra's wrist from where he lay. He touched Vin's back lightly. "I'll do it," he told him.
Ezra had a pulse, but it was weak. "He's alive, Nathan," Chris reported, "but he ain't doin' too good."
He moved his hand up to Vin's shoulder. "We gotta take care of Ezra, Vin. Can you do it?"
Vin nodded, but he was breathing too fast again. He was petrified. "Just keep talkin' to me Chris. I don't care about what."
Just so he knows he's not alone in here Chris thought. "I sure as hell ain't goin' anywhere, Vin, so I'm with ya. Just keep yer mind on that."
Nathan had to leave the reassurances to Chris. His priority was to get Vin to move.
"Vin, look around. Can you see what you need to do?"
Vin's turned his head upward and scanned the interior of the tiny space. Cole was unconscious or dead, but he could see the rock that Buck said needed to be moved sitting on his chest.
"I'm gonna try to push up on this rock." He patted it with his hand so Nathan would know which one he meant. "When I do, you're going to have to grab it from your side and hold it in place so I can pull Cole out from under it."
No matter how hard he tried, Vin couldn't keep the fear out of his voice. Nathan couldn't imagine how terrifying it had to be for the tracker to find himself once again in this hell where he had been hurt so badly.
"Vin?" Nathan said gently. "You're gonna have to try and calm down. Stop breathin' so fast. I know you're scared, but it won't do anyone any good if you pass out on me, understand?"
Vin nodded and then said, "Get ready, Nathan."
He shoved his shoulder into the rock, but he didn't have the strength to move it. He tried again, this time putting so much effort into it that he pushed himself backwards. "Aw hell," he sobbed.
"Vin, brace your feet against something," Nathan told him. Vin should have been able to figure that out on his own, but the man was so scared he wasn't thinking straight. "Hurry, Vin, c'mon."
Vin did what he was told. With the added leverage, the boulder moved upward about seven inches when he pushed it the third time.
"I GOT IT!" Nathan yelled.
Vin worked frantically to pull Cole out from beneath the boulder, but there was so little space that he had to kick and shove the cowboy's body to manipulate it out of the way.
Nathan could hear his breathing become harsh, wracking sobs.
"VIN! Calm down!" he yelled.
"HE'S DEAD!" Vin cried out in panic. "HE'S DEAD!"
"Oh Jesus," Nathan muttered, now certain that there was no way Vin was going to be able to see this through, not trapped in a tiny, hot, dark hole with another corpse.
He released the boulder and stuck his head through the opening as far as it would go. "It's okay, Vin," he tried his best to sound comforting, because he knew the only alternative was to let Vin crawl back out, leaving Chris and Ezra still trapped.
Then suddenly, miraculously, Cole started coughing, just a little sputter at first, but as soon as his body realized there was no longer a weight on his chest, he began to suck in greedy gulps of air.
"Hear that, Vin?" Nathan shouted. "He's breathin', understand? He ain't dead."
Vin nodded and managed to compose himself. He looked around, as if determining what to do next. "The boulder, Nathan. If I push it and you pull it, we can get it out of the way and lift this rock off of Ezra."
In minutes, they had the obstruction moved and were ready to lift the weight that was pressing down on the gambler's back. Chris kept up a steady stream of uncharacteristic chatter, encouraging Vin, giving him unnecessary advice, and even goading him.
"That's the most piss-poor job of knot-tying I've seen since the cat got in my granny's crochet basket," he remarked as Vin secured the knot around the slab of rock pinning Ezra down.
Vin tugged on the rope. "Well, you better hope it's good enough, cowboy, 'cause if it ain't, the shitpile don't get any deeper."
The slab was only about three feet wide, but nearly a dozen feet long, so they knew there was a very good chance it would crack in two when it was lifted, if the sharp edges didn't just cut through the rope. The other end would be tied to JD's horse, and there was also no way to keep it from dragging along the fragile, knifelike rim of the pit. It would fray dangerously, and there was a chance the ledge would break off and send piercing shards raining down on Nathan.
It was a bad situation, but they'd have to risk it. There was no alternative.
"You're gonna have to pull yourself free as quickly as you can," Nathan explained to Chris. "Probably ain't much blood in yer legs right now, so you probably ain't gonna be able to use 'em right away. Once that rock is off, you're gonna feel some pain, maybe a lot of it, and then you might pass out. You'll only have a couple of seconds."
Chris nodded that he understood. "I'm ready."
JD had the skill to coach his mount into pulling backwards against the weight of the heavy object. They only hoped the animal was strong enough.
"You all set, Vin?" Nathan asked.
Vin nodded, so Nathan signaled to JD.
At first, nothing happened, but then, the slab began to move slowly upwards.
Chris gasped in pain as the pressure was relieved and the blood suddenly rushed back into his legs, filling them with a fiery tingling sensation that made his eyes water.
"Pull back, Chris!" Vin shouted at him.
Chris pushed back with his palms and pulled his legs out from under Ezra. They were numb and useless, just as Nathan had said they would be, and he had to use his arms to pull them out of Vin's way.
Vin moved quickly to get a grip on Ezra. The rock slab began to make faint popping sounds as the stress caused minute fractures in the brittle lava. Vin realized to his horror that he might not be able to pull Ezra free before the rock collapsed and maybe buried them all.
"EZRA! C'mon!" he yelled hysterically at the unconscious man. "Oh, shit Ezra, MOVE!"
Then suddenly, there was another pair of hands pulling with him. Chris was dizzy and disoriented, but still managed to provide the additional strength needed to pull Ezra free.
Vin had no choice but to roll Ezra almost directly on top of Chris. Seeing this, Chris used his arms to pull the gambler towards him.
Vin hollered at Nathan to lower the slab back into place before it could snap.
There was now almost no room to move in the tiny space. They were packed in so tight that Vin barely had room to turn his head, and the heat was becoming unbearable. Vin's mind began to race with thoughts of the four of them remaining trapped there until they all stewed and rotted like Porter had. They wouldn't get out of his head, and made it impossible for him to think. Escape quickly became his sole thought, and it began to overwhelm him to the point where he forgot that Chris and Ezra still needed him.
Chris touched his arm. "Vin?"
Vin couldn't find his voice. Terror was overpowering him, and he didn't have the strength to fight it.
"Vin, listen to me," Chris said sharply. "Ezra needs your help.... I need your help, Vin. Don't cut out on me now."
Vin took a deep, steady breath and shook his head. "I ain't gonna do that, Chris," he vowed. He tried to sound sure of himself, but it took all his effort to keep his mind focused on what he had to do next...
He had to wriggle and squirm his way into place, but he finally worked himself into a position where he could help ease Ezra though the opening. Both Ezra and Chris were small enough that they would fit through it easily.
Cole hadn't completely regained consciousness so no one had needed to address the fact that he was probably too big to make it, not that anyone, except possibly Ramage, gave a damn.
Nathan worked from the other side, pulling Ezra through as Vin lifted him out. Vin knew he was reaching the limits of his endurance, both physically and mentally, but fear gave him additional strength. The sooner Chris and Ezra were safe, the sooner he could get out of there.
It was going to take both Vin and Nathan to get Ezra to the surface. Chris would have to wait, but a quick glance from Nathan revealed that the gunfighter wasn't seriously injured. His color was good, and the feeling was returning to his legs.
Vin crawled over him, ready to follow Ezra out.
Chris took his arm, and stopped him for a moment. "Vin, I know what it took for you to come down here...."
Vin smiled. "Save it 'til you see if I come back, cowboy."
Chris nodded, even though he knew Vin would be back.
Vin was back. The Vin he knew. This place scared the shit out of him, but the final victory had been won. The demons were still there, but they were no longer in control.
By the time Vin crawled out, Nathan was examining Ezra. The gambler's most serious injury was a small, deep cut on his arm that was spurting a small fountain of blood with each heartbeat. It didn't look like much more than a scratch, but Nathan knew that untended and given enough time, a man could bleed out from a wound like that. He asked Vin for his bandana and used it to tie a tight bandage around the limb that he hoped would staunch the flow. Ezra also had a nasty gash on the back of his head, but he did attempt to respond when Nathan called his name.
Supported by ropes around their chests, the two of them were working their way laboriously up the to the surface, dragging Ezra between them ,when the ledge around the rim gave way.
Vin and Nathan instinctively threw themselves on top of Ezra to protect him from the resulting rockslide. Luckily nothing big enough to do any real damage hit any of them, but now they knew that the ledge would not support the weight of three men at a time. Vin would have to bring Chris up without assistance.
Once they reached the top, Buck took Vin's place supporting Ezra and Vin rested for only a moment before he went back for the gunfighter.
It wasn't any easier to brave the small, dark pocket a second time, but Vin forced himself. Chris was able to use his upper body to crawl out, so all that Vin had to do was ease his legs through.
When Chris was all the way out, Vin looked back at Cole. The cowboy was conscious again, but not moving. He probably had a few busted up ribs. The two men stared at one another, each one's expression unreadable to the other. Neither one of them said a word, and finally, Vin turned and followed Chris out.
Chris was trying to stand up, but the feeling had not completely returned to his legs, and Vin had to steady him to keep him from falling.
"Easy, there, pard," he said. He got behind Chris and pulled him against his chest with his left arm to hold him up while his right arm worked the rope around their bodies. "Just lean on me and hang on...."
Chris grabbed onto the rope, and Vin gave JD the signal to start pulling his horse back. Josiah kept a close eye on the line, ready to grab it if it showed signs of parting.
Chris stumbled and his legs buckled on him a couple of times, but Vin managed to keep them both going. He was dripping with sweat and shaking with fatigue by the time he got Chris to the top, but it was an honest reaction to hard work, not fear.
Josiah pulled both men over the rim and untied them. He held Chris while Vin sat down hard on the rock surface and then lowered Chris down beside him. Vin was out of breath because of the effort, but that empty haunted look was gone from his eyes.
Jim Ramage sat off alone in the distance watching them, nursing his injured arm, and not daring to open his mouth. Vin stared at him, but said nothing, and Ramage kept his mouth shut for a change.
JD handed Chris a canteen and the gunfighter took a few swallows and then handed it to Vin, who took it without hesitation.
Chris watched him drink, noting that he did it eagerly, with no one having to coax him.
Vin noticed him staring. "You did good, Vin," he nodded.
Vin didn't exactly smile, but for the first time in weeks, he looked at peace. "Yeah, I reckon I did."
He wiped his lips with his shirt sleeve and stood up again. He took the ropes from Josiah, who, along with Chris and Buck, gave him a questioning look.
"Cole's still alive," he shrugged. He nodded a signal to JD, and then calmly lowered himself over the edge.
Cole was not so badly hurt that he hadn't managed to crawl to the opening and realize there was no way he was going to get through it.
The look on his face when he saw Vin peering at him from the other side was a combination of relief, embarrassment, and no doubt a measure of fear that Vin would just laugh at his plight, turn around, and leave him there.
Vin didn't say anything to him. For one thing, he wasn't sure yet exactly how he was going to remedy Cole's predicament. There was no way to enlarge the passage - Buck had already cleared away all the rocks that could be cleared.
He crawled back into the space with Cole and studied the problem. One small boulder appeared to be what was wedging most of the other rocks so tightly they couldn't be moved, and that boulder, in turn, was being held securely in place by the large slab that had pinned Ezra.
JD's rope was still tied to the slab. If it could be lifted far enough, it would release the boulder, and if Vin could crawl under it he could move the obstruction out of the way. Once that was done, enlarging the opening so that Cole would fit through would just be a matter of pushing two or three big rocks aside.
That was the good part. The bad part was that Vin wasn't sure the slab could be lifted high enough for a man Cole's size to fit under it, and if Cole had busted ribs like Vin thought he did, he might not be able to get the job done before the strain on the slab caused it to snap. Vin was going to have to do it himself.
Cole could see that too, and he was watching Vin, not even daring to plead for his life.
It didn't matter since Vin didn't wait for him to say anything else.
He poked his head through the opening. "We need to lift this slab again so I can get under it!" he called to the others.
Chris shook his head vigorously. "NO! It almost gave last time, Vin. It's too dangerous."
"Ain't no other way," Vin said.
"You could just leave him there 'til he's skinny enough to crawl out!" JD suggested, making sure he was loud enough for Cole to hear the remark.
Cole did, and Vin turned and looked at him long enough to make the cowboy wonder if he was actually considering it.
Of course, he wasn't. Although it was entirely possible JD was dead serious, there just wasn't any way Vin could leave Cole trapped and then live with himself afterwards.
He looked back up at the others. "Josiah, you best get to prayin' this thing don't break... JD, slow and easy, got that?"
JD nodded and limped towards his horse.
Chris's balance was still precarious, so he scooted on his belly to check the rope where it had dragged along the sharp edge of the pit. It was frayed about a third of the way through, but there was no way to get another rope around the slab now that it was lying flat.
He showed it to Josiah, who frowned deeply but only said, "I'll pray a little harder."
"VIN! You don't gotta do this!" Chris shouted. "Jus' give me a little time to get my senses back, and I'll come down there."
"Hell, Chris, what does it matter if it's me or you gets killed? It ain't like Heaven wants either one of us." He disappeared back into the opening.
"I'm ready when you are JD," Vin shouted from inside.
JD looked uncertain what to do. Vin had told him to move, but he wasn't about to go against Chris.
"Aw hell," Chris muttered, and then glanced skyward as if he was offering a prayer, too. Maybe he was.
JD took that as his cue that it was okay to proceed. He slowly urged his horse backwards. The animal was tired and resisted the weight, but he coaxed it with gentle words and exactly the right moves to get it to do what he wanted.
Inside the small cavity, the slab groaned and began to move. Vin and Cole both watched it rise from the floor and heard ominous popping sounds as tiny stress fractures weakened it further.
Vin had to force himself to stay close to it. If it buckled while he was under it, it would cut him in half like a knife. If the rope gave way and the whole slab fell on him, he'd be pinned down, maybe even crushed. And even if it missed him completely, there was the chance that it could break into smaller pieces and seal them inside.
He looked at the opening, fighting the urge to just leave.
The rock groaned and rose further. It was almost high enough that he could get under it.
If he could find the nerve.
He was sick with fear.
He could feel a cold sweat trickling down his back, and his stomach felt like he'd been kicked. He was beginning to feel light-headed, and then realized it was because he was breathing too fast, again.
He didn't care about Cole. He'd leave him. Nobody would blame him....
But even as he thought that, he was edging his way under the slab. It was almost as if he were watching someone else's shaking hands grab the little boulder. He tugged on it, but it was still stuck fast.
The slab rose a little further and there were more popping sounds, louder this time.
He tugged at the boulder with all his strength and it moved, but didn't come free.
He was dimly aware that he was shouting obscenities at it, and then he was just screaming. He couldn't get it loose. The slab needed to rise just a little higher....
But it was cracking. He could hear it. Not just little pops, but the sound made by a tree as it slowly toppled towards the ground.
He couldn't do this. He had to get out of there...
Then suddenly, it came free.
He rolled out from under the slab with it, and without pausing, he pushed it aside and bolted through the opening to the outside. He collapsed on his side, waiting for the crash that never came. Eventually, he realized that all he could hear was his own sobbing breath, and that he was lying on the ground like a fool with his arms over his head.
"VIN!" Chris shouted, bringing him out of it.
He opened his eyes and looked around, feeling really stupid. He got up and dusted himself off. "I"m okay," he said with a voice that was not as steady as he would have liked it to be.
The slab was only an inch or so off the ground when it finally broke. It landed with barely more than a soft, thumping sound and a little kicked-up dust. Vin felt his face redden with shame, knowing that panic had gotten the best of him.
But, why the hell shouldn't it have? He could have been buried alive. If that wasn't worth being afraid of, he didn't know what was. To hell with what anyone thought.
He began to pull the now-loosened rocks out of the opening. They came away easily, and he only had to move three to make a space big enough for Cole to get through.
The cowboy crawled out slowly, nursing his broken ribs.
Vin pulled him to his feet, and then slipped the ropes around the two of them so he could climb out while supporting Cole with his own body, the way he had with Chris.
The going was a lot tougher the second time. For one thing, Cole was bigger than Chris and considerably larger than Vin. For another, he had about reached the end of his stamina and was bone tired.
When they got to the top, he flopped face down on the lava, breathing heavily from the exertion.
Chris was next to him in an instant. He clasped his shoulder. "Not bad, Vin."
Vin wiped the sweat out of his eyes. "Damn, I was scared spitless down there."
Chris laughed. "You would've been crazy not to be," he said, and then immediately regretted his choice of words.
Vin didn't seem to mind, though. He raised his head. "How's Ezra?"
"Never better," the gambler mumbled, surprising them all. They had thought he was still unconscious. He tried to sit up, and then immediately thought better of it. "I take that back." He raised his hand to injured side of his head, but Nathan stopped him before he could touch the open gash there.
The size and shape of the wound was such that it looked like a third eye had opened on his scalp, and JD, with his usual talent for bluntness, pointed that out. "That's gonna need stitches," he added knowingly.
"Thank you for that unsolicited and extraneous observation, Mr. Dunne."
"You're welcome," JD said.
Ezra looked at the boy askance. His limp was worse than ever, but for some reason, he seemed inordinately cheerful. He had to close his eyes again. The daylight was piercing through his skull like tiny daggers. "What happened?"
"You had a nasty fall," Nathan explained. "You got yourself a concussion. You're gonna have to rest and stay quiet for awhile."
"You think that's possible for Ezra?" Vin asked.
Ezra was confused by the sound of Vin's voice. The last he could remember, Vin was almost catatonic. He was even more confused when he opened his eyes again and the tracker gave him a gentle smile.
"You hush, now," Nathan admonished him, and then looked at Vin. "Both of you. There'll be time to talk later."
With Buck and Josiah's help, Nathan tended to Ezra, then set Ramage's arm and bound up Cole's broken ribs. The two cowboys bore their pain in sheepish silence, which was just as well, since sympathy for them was in short supply.
With Cole's horse gone, they were one mount short. Ezra couldn't ride, but it didn't seem fair to expect a horse to pull the travois they rigged from the canvas tarp and carry a man on its back, too. No doubt even Ramage wasn't stupid enough to think any of the seven of them would trust him with their horse, never mind the colossal cojones it would have taken for him even to ask. He willingly gave up his horse so Cole could ride, and the seven others watched them leave.
"Strange how slime sinks to the bottom and then sticks together," Josiah observed.
They made camp that night by the little stream, with Nathan, Josiah and Buck doing most of the work. JD's knee was so swollen and painful that Buck had given him numerous medicinal sips of whiskey, and now the boy was calm and deliriously happy, but completely useless to anyone. His contribution was to supply a steady stream of cheerful background banter without any regard for whether or not anyone was actually listening to him.
Ezra was feverish and slipping in and out of consciousness, but he was lucid when he was awake and despite the fever, he seemed to be improving instead of getting worse. He roused briefly when they stopped, long enough to demand that his bloody shirt be exchanged for the clean one in his saddlebags. Nathan used water from the stream to clean him up, and once that had been done, the gambler drifted off again. It would probably be a day or two before he was completely alert for any length of time, but so long as he kept improving, and the wound on his arm didn't reopen and cause him to lose anymore blood, Nathan was reasonably sure he'd recover completely.
Nathan had insisted that Chris rest, too, but the gunfighter had almost all the strength in his legs back and was feeling fine.
He helped Vin spread out his bedroll beside his own. The tracker was exhausted, but unlike before, he only looked tired, not beaten down and defeated. When he sat cross-legged on his blanket and began methodically going through his belongings with the same disquieting determination Chris had seen before, though, the older man found it disturbing.
"What are you looking for, Vin?" There was an implied warning in his voice that he expected a straight answer this time.
Vin looked up, and then sighed in resignation. Much to Chris's relief, he appeared annoyed, but nothing more. "My damned harmonica. I reckon I musta dropped it somewhere," he indicated the direction of the malpais, "out there. I ain't seen it since... what happened."
Chris nodded, relieved that even though Vin still wasn't comfortable referring to the awful thing that had happened to him, he obviously remembered it now, and it was no longer a nameless pain. "Hate to say it, Vin, but I've heard you play and it's probably better this way."
Vin smiled and shrugged. "Don't matter, I reckon." He folded everything back together and stretched out next to Chris. They lay there without any need for more words to pass between them, Vin watching the stars, and Chris occasionally watching Vin.
The real Vin. The man he knew and could trust with his life.
In a few minutes, the tracker was asleep. Truly asleep, not trapped in some tormented mockery of slumber. Chris knew he still had a little ways to go before he was completely out of that darkness in which he had been so lost for so long. But Vin Tanner had walked through hell and come back again, this time to stay.
* * * * * * *
A fortnight passed and even though the change was gradual, everyone sensed it. Vin, with his quiet courage, had found the strength to look the same townspeople who had ridiculed and doubted him in the eye and refused to sacrifice his dignity to them. He remembered the way he had been, and like a raw wound, facing them again had been painful, but he'd done it.
It didn't hurt his cause any that JD was more than generous with the details of how Vin had risked his life to save Chris, Ezra and Ted Cole, but oddly enough, in his enthusiasm, the boy seemed to completely overlook the fact that he had saved Vin in the first place.
Vin hadn't forgotten though.
Chris watched his two youngest companions from the saloon window as they headed towards the place. JD still needed the walking stick because he'd messed his leg up so bad that it had needed to start healing all over again. He didn't seem to really mind it much, though. There was still just enough child in him that a funny hat, a silver-handled walking stick, and his imagination could whisk him away from his physical discomfort to a world where Four Corners was Dodge City, and he was Bat Masterson. Chris smiled at that thought, but hell, for all he knew, the man JD would become would create his own legend. He could see it happening.
Vin ambled alongside his younger companion, taking shorter, slower steps than his long legs normally would so that the kid could keep up with him. When they reached the steps leading into the saloon, he offered JD his arm for support without hesitation. He was eating again, and even though he was lean by nature, he now had some meat on him and supported JD's weight effortlessly.
The two of them joined Chris at his table, after nodding a greeting to Ezra, who was nearby relieving a couple of newcomers of their worldly assets. Buck was playing, too, but, he wouldn't pay up because he knew Ezra cheated.
Josiah was at the bar, but when he saw the three men at the table, he secured a deck of cards and sat down with them, shuffling the deck without asking if the others wanted to play. They always played cards at this time of day, if they weren't busy. Vin's attention would still drift away from the game occasionally, but it happened less and less often, and for shorter periods of time. If outsiders played with them, they usually didn't even notice it.
Nathan joined them when they were on their second hand. As Chris shuffled the cards, the healer slipped something from his pocket and put it on the table. "I almost forgot I had this," he apologized. "With all that went on, I never thought to give it back to you."
Vin picked his harmonica up off the table. His blue eyes mirrored his delight and relief, even though he tried to sound casual. "Been lookin' for this," he nodded. "Where'd you find it?"
Nathan wasn't ashamed to admit the truth. "I took it for safekeepin' when I thought I'd never see you alive again."
Vin acknowledged the statement with a nod, pleased that Nathan had wanted to remember him, but knowing that neither man saw the need for him to say so.
"'Course, now you got it back, I don't expect you to be blowin' it in my ear until someone teaches you how to play the damn thing," Nathan admonished him.
Vin smiled and turned the harmonica over in his hands a couple of times before tucking it into his shirt pocket.
"Aw shit!" JD blurted out.
They turned to see what he was looking at. Cole and Ramage had just sauntered through the batwing doors. The pair hadn't seen them yet, but they would.
Ramage still carried his splinted, bandaged arm in a sling, but it was a testimony to Nathan's skill that his protruding fingers were a healthy color and he could move them. It wasn't unusual for a fracture like he had suffered to result in a limb that was virtually useless or worse, in need of amputation.
Cole's ribs had healed enough that he had resumed his usual cocky, swaggering gait. They could see that when the pair turned away from the bar and started walking toward their table.
Nobody was actually afraid of them, but they just seemed like such a piss poor excuse to ruin a nice, quiet afternoon.
They pretended to ignore them as they approached, even though at the next table, Buck and Ezra had stopped playing and were waiting to see what their next move would be.
Chris continued to deal the cards, and only when they were right up to the table itself did he look up and acknowledge their presence. "You boys want something?"
Ramage set two silver dollars on the table in front of Nathan. "That's for the doctorin'," he said, as if the words would choke him.
Cole had a full, unopened bottle of whiskey dangling from his left hand. He set it on the table in front of Vin.
Vin looked up questioningly, and their eyes met for just an instant before Cole looked away. The cowboy tipped his hat a fraction of an inch and before he turned to leave said, "See you around, Tanner."
|Beyond the river of darkness
In the land of shadows
I gather the pieces of my stolen soul
And return to walk in the light
Of those who know my heart
The keepers of my spirit
[Poem contributed by Debra Katayna]