For what seemed like the thousandth time that evening, the group of five riders stopped while their leader dismounted. Too slow, Chris thought desperately, as his eyes cast about for some sign of the rider's passage, we're too slow. They'd had to stop constantly while Chris dismounted from his horse to search for some sign of Vin's passage. Chris swore that Vin could track a man from a fast moving horse. However, none of the remaining five had been trained to track the way Vin had. Instead, Chris was reduced to stopping every few hundred yards to look for the next sign. Sign, he cursed himself mentally. The man's bleeding his life out and I call it a sign. Thankfully, the riders appeared to be staying on the trail. For now. Chris didn't want to contemplate what would happen if he lost the trail. He mounted his horse again. He turned to face the rest of the group. No one had broken the silence as Chris had searched for some sign of Vin. "We'll keep going in this direction. I don't see anything indicating they left the trail."
"Chris," Buck interrupted his thoughts. Chris pulled up his horse and turned to stare at Buck. "It's too dark to follow this kind of a trail right now. We need to find a place and hole up."
The other members of the group cringed inwardly. Everyone knew they would have to stop soon. They had gotten a very late start from town and the sun had already set. No one but Buck had the nerve to point it out to Chris though. Larabee was acting as though a demon was driving him. He hadn't said a word since the search had started, except to point out any blood when he found it.
Chris attempted to stare Buck down. He didn't want to admit that they would have to quit until the sun came up the next morning. Every second they wasted put Vin farther away from them. While they waited through the night, Vin could be dying somewhere. Chris refused to believe he might already be dead.
Pulling violently on his horse's bit he swung around to face Buck, "You want your beauty sleep, Buck? Stay here. I'm going on." Chris swung his horse back around only to find his way blocked by Josiah.
"Easy there, Chris. Buck's right and you know it," Josiah reached out to lay a hand on Chris's shoulder. Chris flinched away from him. Josiah let his hand drop to his saddle, "We can't track Vin in the dark. Vin needs us to be calm, Chris. We go off halfcocked and lose the trail it could be his death sentence."
"He's right, Chris," Nathan reined his horse up beside Josiah.
Chris's mind was screaming at him to keep looking. The indecision must have shown on his face. He felt Josiah's hand on his shoulder.
"We're not giving up, Brother. We're doing what needs to be done."
Chris met Josiah's eyes and sighed, "OK, we'll make a dry camp here for the night. We head out first thing tomorrow morning."
The small campfire was barely large enough to warm the water for coffee. JD reached over and replaced the pot on the fire. He looked where Chris sat away from the group almost outside the fire's light.
"He's taking this hard," JD told Buck.
"Yeah kid, him and Vin are good friends," Buck said throwing the last of his coffee into the sparse desert brush. There was a time when he and Chris had had that kind of a relationship. Before Sarah and Adam died. Buck was grateful that Vin had been able to reach the gunslinger when all of his own efforts had failed.
"Get some sleep, JD," Buck said moving over to his blankets. "Tomorrow's gonna be a long day."
Ezra awoke with a start. Vin had finally slipped into a fitful doze, about midnight. Ezra wished he had some laudanum to give the man. He knew Vin was finding it difficult to breathe. Between the knife wound, the hellish ride, and subsequent abuse the tracker was exhausted. Laudanum would at least allow him some respite from the pain. The tracker mumbled incoherently and jerked in his sleep. Ezra placed a hand against his forehead and spoke soothingly to quiet the man. Vin was hot, but Ezra didn't think the fever was too serious, yet. The night was beginning to cool off and he knew Vin didn't have the reserves to keep the cold at bay. Sighing, he shrugged out of his wool jacket and placed it over Vin.
When it appeared that Vin was going to stay asleep for awhile, Ezra leaned back against a rock and began to think about their situation. Their captors hadn't even bothered to feed them. After Colter's attack on the tracker, Ezra had lost his appetite. But now, he was starving again. Vin was right though, there was no way he was going to approach any of Colter's gang. Ezra sighed. If he'd been alone, he would have effected his escape long since. However, Vin was in no condition to move fast or quietly. Who am I kidding, he thought? If I'd been alone, our captors would have bound me hand and foot at every stop. The bastards are relying on Vin's helplessness to keep me in line. Somehow, they know I won't leave him.
Contrary to what he'd told Vin, it wasn't just that Chris Larabee's reaction concerned him. He also suspected the tracker saw right through his dissembling on the subject. Ezra wouldn't leave Vin for Vin's sake. There was no way he was going to leave a hurt, helpless man to the kind of animal Bob Colter appeared to be. Besides, ever since he'd woken up hungover the day after Vin had asked him for help with his poem, he'd been trying to find a way to apologize for his loutish behavior. As a child, he'd never learned to express his feelings. Maude had made it clear that feelings were something to be hidden away shamefully. If he couldn't tell Vin he was sorry for his behavior, maybe he could make it up to him by getting them out of this mess.
Ezra cautiously glanced around the camp. Three of the gang were asleep, one of them snoring loudly. Only Tom Polk was awake, and he appeared to be watching the trail. Ezra decided this was the right time. Discreetly removing one of the cards from his vest pocket, he moved closer to Vin and made as if to check the wound on his side. He carefully slid the card in the sand almost underneath Vin's body.
Pulling out his plug Tom Polk stuffed a wad of tobacco in his lower lip. His gaze traveled to the prisoners. He watched as the Standish took his coat off to cover Vin Tanner. His eyes narrowed as he studied the gambler. He was beginning to resent Bob Colter's coddling of the two. He had himself a notion to teach Ezra Standish a lesson. He glanced over at Bob Colter but the man appeared to be sound asleep. He turned his gaze back to the two prisoners, in time to see Ezra Standish burying something in the sand under the bounty hunter.
Tom Polk was a big man but when he wanted to, he could move lightning fast. He was on his feet and moving towards Ezra before the gambler had settled himself back in the sand. Ezra, who was watching Vin, never saw him coming.
Surprised by the swiftness of the unexpected attack, Ezra was unable to defend himself. He had just moved back to reseat himself against the rock, when a fist to the head jarred him. The blow knocked him sprawling in the sand, and was quickly followed by a boot to the ribs. Gasping, he attempted to get his feet under him and face his attacker. He had barely made it to his knees, when he was grabbed by the back of his shirt and hauled to his feet. Polk swung him around and nailed Ezra across the left cheek with a vicious backhand. When he saw the look of blind fury across Tom Polk's face he knew he was in serious trouble. However, still stunned by the previous blows, he was completely unable to mount a defense. Polk immediately followed the backhand by a swift uppercut into Ezra's stomach, knocking the gambler backwards.
Ezra tripped backwards over the sleeping tracker's outstretched feet. He did keep his wits about him enough to avoid actually falling on Vin. Vin was jerked out of his restless sleep when Ezra tripped over him. He was horrified at the scene that greeted him. Tom Polk appeared to be trying to beat the life out Ezra. Vin tried to move to help Ezra, but the pain that radiated from his wound was so intense, that he only succeeded in curling into a ball and clutching at his side.
Polk was on Ezra in an instant. Grabbing a handful of sand, Ezra flung it into Polk's eyes. It only seemed to enrage the man. Pulling his knife, he kicked Ezra viciously. Reaching down he grabbed the helpless gambler and hauled him to his feet, ready to slit the man's throat. Ezra's life was saved by the sound of gunfire.
Tom Polk paused long enough in his attack for Bob Colter to speak, "Enough. Fight's over." He knew Tom Polk had needed to work out some of his anger, but HE needed Standish alive. "Want to tell me what's going on?" His voice was icy.
Tom Polk shoved Ezra Standish away from him. The gambler sprawled in the sand desperately trying to get his breath back. Polk regretted not being able to kill him, but he had no doubt Colter would use the gun on him, if necessary. Turning back to Colter he spat, "Caught him hiding something in the sand." He moved over to Tanner and roughly shoving the tracker out of the way, causing the injured man to cry out. Polk ignored him, and pulled a playing card out of the sand. He showed it to Colter, who had moved up beside him.
Ezra had pulled himself to his knees one arm wrapped around his sore ribcage. He was breathing heavily. Colter moved over to him and roughly searched the gambler till he found the deck. He removed the deck of cards from Ezra's vest pocket. Ezra met the man's eyes refusing to be cowed by the treatment he'd received. Swiftly Colter counted through the deck. Only 50, including the one in his hand. He met Ezra's defiant stare, "I told you if you did anything stupid, Standish, your partner over there was going to pay the price."
Vin had just managed to get his breathing back to normal, when Tom Polk reached down and backhanded him across the face twice. Polk stood and kicked him viciously in about the same place Bob Colter had earlier. Vin was fighting the blackness, when he heard Colter's voice.
"That's enough!" Colter barked sharply. He noticed the helpless rage on the gambler's face and knew he'd made his point. No sense letting Polk kill the bounty hunter, when they were this close to Earl.
Shoving Ezra towards Vin, Colter told him. "Standish, that was your one mistake. Make another one and we'll kill you both on the spot. It might not be as pleasurable as letting Earl kill you both real slow, but you'll both be just as dead. You take my meaning?"
Ezra just nodded his head. He hadn't failed to notice that he was now included in Earl's sadistic little party.
"It'll be daylight soon. I wanta get back on the trail inside an hour." Colter ordered, as he turned towards his men again. "Polk saddle the horses. Jake, get coffee going. Zeke, I want you to make sure our fancy friend here didn't leave none o' his other toys laying around." The outlaws scurried to implement their bosses orders.
Colter faced Ezra and Vin again. "Standish, we're pulling outta here in an hour. You both best be ready to travel." With that he turned and stalked back to the fire.
Fighting nausea from the beating he'd just received, Ezra turned back to Vin. He was worried that Polk's treatment of the tracker might have caused serious damage. Vin was again curled up in a ball. This time his hands clutched as much at his ribs, as they did the wound in his side. Kneeling stiffly beside the tracker, Ezra eased him onto his back, and gently pried the wounded man's hands away from his injuries.
"Mr. Tanner we have no time for proper bedside manner." He whispered into his partner's ear. "I have to ascertain your injuries, and deal with them as hastily as possible. Our hosts do not appear to be the patient kind." Vin's eyes didn't open, but he managed a small nod, and the tiniest of grins. When Ezra gently ran a hand along his injured ribs, Vin gasped and his hands clenched into fists, but he didn't move
"It appears that Lady Luck has deserted you, my friend," Ezra told the tracker soberly, as he leaned back on his heels. "Two of your ribs are at least cracked. I think they may be broken."
"I~reckon~so." Vin managed to gasp out.
As quickly as his own injuries would allow, Ezra hurried to his saddlebags. He grimaced when the movement brought a twinge to his own ribs. He pushed the pain aside impatiently. Vin needed his help now. Hell, it was own damn fault he was in this condition. If he could be caught palming cards by some two bit, green toothed, uncouth saddle tramp, then his dexterity must be slipping. Ezra made a mental note to practice his card tricks when they got back to Four Corners. If they got back, he thought ruefully. Quickly searching through his saddles bags, he found what he was looking for. The white silk scarf Maude had sent him for his birthday. Maude would be horrified if she discovered what her son was about to do with her precious gift. He hurried back to Vin's side, and within a few minutes, Ezra's birthday gift was wrapped tightly around Vin Tanner's injured ribs.
Ezra watched Vin for a minute keeping a hand on his forearm. With the scarf supporting his ribcage, it wasn't long before the tracker's tortured breathing evened out. The gray skin of the bounty hunter's face was beginning to take on a little color.
When Ezra had finished attending to the tracker, he took a moment to assess his own injuries. Nothing appeared to be broken, but his lip was split, and his left eye was already swollen shut. He knew he'd find breathing painful for at least a week.
With a surreptitious glance at Bob Colter, Ezra hastily filled both his and Vin's canteens. He didn't know how long it would be before they stopped again, and he wasn't about to rely on the generosity of their captors. He secured the canteens on the saddles, and turned back to his injured partner.
"Mr. Tanner," he called softly, as he knelt down beside the tracker. "I'm sorry, but you're going to have to get on your horse now. I'll aid you as much as possible, but if you aren't mounted within a relatively short period of time, I'm afraid Mr. Polk will offer you his assistance."
Vin grimaced in pain, but put a weak hand on Ezra's shoulder. "I~reckon~I'd rather~ have~ your~ help." He gasped out.
As carefully as possible, the gambler helped Vin to his feet. The tracker couldn't bite back a hoarse cry of pain, as Ezra helped him onto his horse. He was sweating profusely, and the color drained from his face again. He reeled in the saddle, and even with Ezra's aid, would have fallen, if Tom Polk hadn't picked that moment to tie his wrists to the saddlehorn again.
Bob Colter rode up to Ezra as he mounted his horse. "Standish, I ain't gonna have Polk tie your hands, cause I need you to keep an eye on your friend. But mark me, you try anything at all, and I'll put a bullet in both your heads and leave you for the buzzards." Colter spat a stream of tobacco juice, and giving his horse a kick, started down the trail again.
Ezra glanced over at Vin, not liking the looks of the tracker at all. He didn't know how far away Earl was, but it had better be close, or Ezra knew he'd be the only guest attending Earl's party. Taking the reins of Vin's horse, Ezra gave his own horse a nudge, and followed Bob Colter down the trail.
JD swore he had just closed his eyes when a boot nudging him in the ribs woke him up. Blearily he turned his head to see who had interrupted his sleep. It was Chris.
"Get up. We're burning daylight," Chris told him gruffly before he moved on to wake the rest of the group.
"Huh?" JD was puzzled as he looked at the pitch-black sky. Dawn was barely a promise on the eastern horizon. Sighing, JD got up and stoked up the small fire to start coffee. He could hear the other members of the group stirring around him. Josiah was pouring a little water from the canteens for the horses.
"Hey, Buck," JD said when Buck joined him at the fire a few minutes later. "Coffee?"
"Yeah," Buck said as he handed JD his cup. The rest of the group, including Chris, made their way to the fire. Everyone was quiet though, lost in their worry over Vin.
Buck grimaced as he took a sip of the coffee. "Ugh, JD, this stuff is blacker than the hinges of hell."
JD just laughed, "Too bad Ezra ain't here. The one thing he could do was make good coffee."
"That's because he was afraid you'd make it JD," Nathan teased the boy.
"Enough!" Chris spat. "I don't want anybody mentioning that name in my presence. Hell, if it wasn't for him maybe Vin wouldn't be in this mess."
"How you figure that, Chris?" Nathan watched the blond gunslinger carefully. He wasn't particularly fond of Ezra but blaming him for Vin's mess was stretching it a little far. He was really beginning to worry about Chris. He was barely stable at the best of times. Vin's disappearance seemed about ready to push him over the edge.
Chris glared at Nathan refusing to answer.
"Chris," Josiah tried to get the gunslinger's attention. "Ezra is not to blame for what happened to Vin. Want to blame someone? Blame the people who did this to him."
Chris just glared at Josiah too, again refusing to answer. His only comment was to tell the group to get their horses ready. Reaching over he dumped the dregs of the coffee onto the small fire and then kicked dirt over the embers.
"Where you figure they might be heading?" JD asked, trying to distract the group. They had continued with the same stop and go riding as the evening before. Stopping every so often to search for signs of Vin's passage. Almost immediately after starting they had found signs where one or two more riders had joined up with the group near a stand of cottonwood trees.
"From the looks of the trail, I'd say they're heading towards Barrel Springs," Josiah commented. "It's the only water within 20 miles of here."
"Maybe we should head straight there. It's only a few hours from here. It's not like there's water elsewhere," Buck suggested.
"Can't take the chance," Chris said tersely. If we go there and can't pick up the trail again, we'll have to backtrack and by then the trail might be gone."
"Chris is probably right," Josiah spoke up. "This way might be slow, but we stand less chance of losing the trail."
Seeing the agreement written on the faces of the others, Chris reined his horse around and moved off slowly.
It was barely midmorning, but the day was already beginning to heat up. The trail had led them directly to Barrel Springs. As the five riders neared the springs, the horse's had smelled the water and stepped up their pace. The gunslingers dismounted, and began watering the horses.
Chris was on edge, willing them to hurry when Nathan spoke up, "I think we should take a break here, Chris. Give the horses a little rest and stretch our legs."
He saw Chris grimace at the thought of stopping for even an hour, but the gunslinger knew he was right. They didn't know how long it would take them to find Vin, and they couldn't just push the horses into the ground. Besides, Nathan knew that Chris hadn't slept the previous night. He was looking drawn and tired under his hat. If Nathan couldn't get Chris to stop for his own sake, he'd use the horses or one of the other men as an excuse.
When the horses were watered and grazing, the men filled their own canteens. Josiah took some jerky and cold biscuits from his saddlebag and the five settled on the rocks for a quick bite. Chris didn't manage to sit still for long though. He was up and searchin' around the springs for any sign Vin was still breathing. He was near the edge of the springs when he suddenly stopped and drew in a sharp breath.
"Chris?" Nathan asked, concerned.
"Look at this," Chris gestured, kneeling next to some rocks. He reached out his hands to trace something on a large rock. The rest of the group moved up behind him. Bloodstains. The dust on the rock had been disturbed and the rock was scarred with small white lines as though a boot or spur had been scraped across it.
"Looks like they took him off his horse and maybe patched him up," Nathan commented. "There ain't much blood here. Bleedin' might have stopped."
Chris just looked at Nathan trying not to let hope set in. If they were caring for Vin, it might mean they intended to keep him alive. That would give the remaining five a chance to find him.
JD moved to the edge of the rock, where something had caught his attention. When he reached down to see what it was, he discovered it was a playing card. JD just stared at the card for a moment, before he pulled it out. He was almost overcome by a giddy feeling, before he caught the attention of the rest of the group.
"Look at what I found," JD said excitedly, thrusting the card forward for the group to see.
The other four who had been studying the stains, didn't react to the playing card for a second. Finally, Josiah spoke softly, "Ezra. It's Ezra's."
Chris looked at him skeptically before reaching out to take the card from JD. He studied it, turning it over in his hand.
"It's a Stutz playing card. That's Ezra's alright," Buck agreed with Josiah.
They had all seen the gambler constantly play with that deck of cards. Even when he wasn't playing poker he was fiddling with the deck. Josiah had asked him why once. Ezra had claimed that it kept his fingers limber. Josiah privately thought Ezra used it as a way to calm his nerves and detach himself from any situation. Sometimes, the gambler seemed unable to deal with people on certain levels. The cards gave him a crutch. Something to capture his attention and keep him from meeting other's eyes.
"Looks like they've got Ezra, too," JD spoke up. He didn't want to say I told you so but he was feeling vindicated. However, given Chris's mood over the past 24 hours, he figured he'd keep that comment to himself.
Chris just continued to stare at the card. First, Vin. Now, Ezra. Chris winced inwardly remembering his vicious verbal and mental attacks on Ezra's character. He had a feeling he'd be trying to make this up to the southerner for a long time. If he was still alive. Chris derailed that train of thought. He had no intention of burying Vin or Ezra. They'd find them. They had too.
He looked up to find the group watching him closely. "How you figure they got him?" Josiah asked.
"Remember that spot where we thought the main group was joined by two riders?" Chris speculated. "Looks like maybe they ambushed him on the trail when he was on his way back to town."
"Who the hell are these people?" Nathan voiced the question that had been plaguing them since the gruesome discovery in the livery stable. "Why take Ezra, too?"
"We find the answer to the first question and that'll probably answer the second one," Josiah said unable to come up with a more reassuring answer.
"Most likely, Ezra was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
JD laughed, "Ezra always said Vin had impeccable timing. Guess he was wrong."
Buck just sighed at the boy's words. He had laughed at the tale Vin told about finding Ezra digging his own grave. Buck looked up trying to look Chris straight in the eye. Chris avoided Buck's eyes. However, Buck and Chris had been friends a long time. Long enough for the dark haired gunslinger to know that the blond man was taking on more than his fair share of guilt in this matter. Hell, Buck was feeling guilty too. He'd been just as quick to dismiss Ezra's absence. He hadn't felt the need to look for the missing gambler either. If they had gone after Ezra when he didn't turn up yesterday morning they might be that much closer to finding Vin. Buck didn't voice the thought. No need to remind everyone of what they already thinking.
Seeing that both Chris and Buck were going to allow themselves to be consumed by guilt, Josiah spoke, "We need to look on the bright side of this."
"What bright side?" Chris asked skeptically.
"If Ezra's with Vin, at least there's a friend to care for him. Neither one is completely alone."
Buck almost laughed out loud at the thought of the refined Southern gambler playing nursemaid. Nathan did laugh. If nothing else, Josiah's comment had lightened the group's mood some. Almost on cue, they broke up to collect their horses and renew the search.
JD watched Chris Larabee as he led the small group towards the next water and closer to Vin and Ezra. The gunslinger had been pushing the group as hard as he dared. He had refused all of Buck and Nathan's attempts to draw him into conversation. JD knew Nathan was worried about the man. The healer had kept a close eye on Chris since the day had started. Unlike JD, who had slept soundly for at least a few hours the night before, Chris had spent the night tossing and turning. When sleep had failed to come, he had kicked out of his bedroll and gazed into the darkness of the desert for the rest of the night. JD had seen Chris rebuff Nathan's attempt to have one of the other men take the lead for a time. The gunslinger had been quite curt when he told Nathan in no uncertain terms that he would continue to search out the trail.
JD dropped back where Buck rode drag behind the rest of the group. The normally affable gunslinger had fallen behind the rest of the group the last time Chris had nearly bitten his head off for some offhand remark. Hoping they were out of Chris's earshot, JD asked the question that had been bothering him most of the morning,
"What's wrong with Chris? I mean, he's getting meaner than a stepped on rattler."
Buck just sighed as he looked into JD's earnest face. Sometimes the kid was just too naive. "Chris has a way of taking things a might too personal. 'specially when something bad happens to someone he cares about," Buck tried to explain to the kid. His gaze traveled up to their leader who was studying the ground in front of his horse.
"It's not his fault what happened to Vin and Ezra," JD reasoned to Buck as though he had to convince the man. "We don't even know who them fellas are that took them."
Buck just grinned, "Don't matter to Chris. You hurt someone close to him, you better start runnin'." Buck almost felt sorry for the men they were chasing. Almost.
The trail they were following took the group straight to a small desert oasis. Chris reined his horse in when it eagerly tried to nose its way to the water. He studied the ground carefully. The area around the pond was churned up by the tracks of several horses. However, judging by the clearness of the water and the faded appearance of the tracks it had been sometime since the group they were trailing had passed through.
Nathan immediately dismounted and led his horse to the water. He signaled the other men to do the same. They all needed a break from the riding and heat. Chris stayed in the saddle a moment longer than the rest before climbing down. When his horse had drunk its fill, he looped his reins around a mesquite bush. The animal began eagerly nosing for the ever-present beans.
Chris was just about to begin his incessant pacing when Nathan stood in front of him. "Sit down, Chris." His tone brooked no room for argument. He handed Chris a canteen and some jerked beef. "I want you to drink all of that and eat." He glared at the gunfighter until Chris took the items without comment. He sat down under the shade of a stunted tree his thoughts turned inward.
Chris hadn't realized how thirsty he was until he took his first drink. It didn't take him long to finish off the rest of the small meal. He leaned his head back against the trunk of the small tree and he closed his eyes briefly listening to the quiet. The others were lost in their own worlds.
Nathan watched Chris secretly. He let a small smile of satisfaction across his face when Chris rested back again the small tree. He was worried about the gunslinger. Nathan didn't know when Chris had slept last. The challenge tonight was going to be to get the man to sleep. However, he was going to take it one small victory at a time.
Chris rubbed his hands over his face and opened his eyes with a sigh. He was watching his horse eat when something in the sand, almost under the mesquite, caught his eye. Drawing in his breath, he was instantly on his feet. His movement drew the group's attention. Chris carefully pushed the prickly brush aside and pulled out the playing card.
Chris regarded the card in his hand with a mixture of gratitude and misgiving. Gratitude that they were still on Ezra and Vin's trail and misgiving that two of his men and not just one was in trouble. The rest of the group moved over to where Chris knelt in the sand. Chris silently held the card out for them. Josiah took turning it over in his large hands. The seven of spades. Even in his absence, Ezra had found a way to talk to the group. Josiah smiled. Somehow, it reminded him of talking to God through a dog's form.
"Well, my friends, it would seem our comrade in arms is trying to tell us something," Josiah said unable to suppress the grin on his face.
"What do we do now, Chris?" JD asked their leader.
"We mount up and go after them," Chris said feeling slightly refreshed by the card. He took it from Josiah and placed it carefully in his shirt pocket with the first card. He wanted to make sure Ezra got them back.
"Let's go," he said heading toward his horse. The rest of the group quickly followed.
On the trail: Day two 4 PM - 8:00 PM
The discovery of Ezra's second playing card hidden at the little oasis, briefly energized the group. However, their euphoria didn't last long. The long hours of riding and the blazing sun took its toll on the group. As the riders moved farther into the desert, it begun to feel more like July than early May. The monotonous stop and go riding of the previous day was repeated. It was wearing on the group, especially it's leader. Chris didn't think he would be able to crawl back onto his horse many more times. He sighed to himself as he leaned against his horse preparing to mount again.
I'm too old for this, he thought quietly. He didn't share his thoughts with the rest of the men. If only they had started the search sooner. If only he had trusted the gambler. Chris quickly derailed his thoughts. There would be time enough for regrets and apologies after they found Vin. AND Ezra. He heaved himself into the saddle.
"We still goin' the right way?" JD asked. Of the five, his hopes burned the brightest.
"Near as I can tell," Chris answered. "We need to keep going. In this sand, all it'd take is a good storm to wipe out the tracks. Let's go." Clucking to his horse he moved out.
Chris became morose as the day wore on. They lost the trail once when the wind picked up, and blew through an arroyo the men they were following had passed through. The five peacekeepers suddenly found themselves backtracking, when it appeared that the trail had vanished into the desert. With those vanishing tracks, Chris was beginning to lose hope. An empty feeling settled into the pit of his stomach, and he wanted to scream his frustration into the hot desert wind.
It was Josiah who saved Chris and the others from falling into an abyss of grief they might never have climbed out of. It was Josiah who anchored the other four in the here and now and renewed the group's faith, if not in God, then in each other.
Josiah's rock steady faith in God gave him the patience and determination to carefully search for the slightest sign of the riders' passing. He found it in the broken branches of a mesquite bush and the trailing hairs from a horse's tail caught in a flowering yucca. Josiah had found the trail.
They found where the riders' crossed the arroyo. The lip on both sides was crumbled in from the passage of the horses. It appeared that Vin and Ezra's kidnappers had made their way back to the established track. It bothered Chris that the kidnappers appeared to be making a beeline for their intended destination, with no thoughts of hiding from pursuit. It was as though they didn't expect anyone to be able to follow where they were headed. Or worse yet, didn't care if someone did follow.
Buck rode up alongside Chris. He studied the man silently for a minute. The strain of the past 24 hours was showing in his face. The shadows under Chris's eyes hinted at the lack of sleep. "Where you think they're heading next?"
"I think they're keeping to the main watering holes. They really don't have much choice. Bonita Creek would be the next source of water." Chris looked over and met Buck's eyes.
They had been friends a long time. Sometimes, Buck felt like he could read the man's mind. "It's not your fault, Chris. Vin and Ezra can take care of themselves."
"Maybe," Chris said tightly. He moved his horse ahead of Bucks and returned his eyes to the trail. Chris didn't feel like arguing the point with Buck.
Comments to: Kim & Shawna