Dawn was barely breaking over the eastern horizon when Chris had the other four men back out on the trail. A quick search of the Creek bed and campsite had failed to yield another of Ezra's playing cards. Nathan had tried to reassure Chris by pointing out that Ezra may not have had a chance to let slip another card. There hadn't been any obvious signs of violence around the creek. At least, there was no fresh blood, or worse. Chris had just grunted to himself and hurried them onto their horses.
It was another long hot day in the saddle spent following the blurred indistinct trail Ezra and Vin's captors had left behind them. The heat, sun, and the endless trail they followed were wearing down even JD's irrepressible nature. Their breaks were spent in almost complete silence. Each man concentrating on the cold biscuits and water that constituted lunch. After a short break, the ride would begin anew.
The sun was well past its zenith when Chris called the party to an abrupt halt. Rolling hills dotted with scrub brush, yucca, and mesquite spread endlessly around them. Chris ignored the splendor they rode through and studied the tracks in front of them. He pushed up the brim of his hat and scrutinized the area in front of them.
"What's up, Chris," Buck said softly as he reined his tired horse in beside Chris' black.
Chris studied the horizon for a moment more before letting his gaze fall to rest on the tracks. "I think we found 'em."
Ezra was worried. Since Tom Polk had stolen Vin's locket, the tracker hadn't said a word. He'd slept badly, and he was awake almost as soon as Ezra had pulled the blanket up around his neck. He was obviously still exhausted, but he wouldn't close his eyes. And he staunchly refused to touch the food Polk had left.
Ezra checked the bandage and was disturbed by how angry the wound looked. And Vin's fever was getting higher. He wished hopelessly for something, anything, to clean out the wound. Vin was moving restlessly. He was obviously in pain, and Ezra cursed Tom Polk silently. The oaf knew how to use that vile knife of his, to inflict the maximum amount of discomfort, without actually killing his victim. Ezra cast about desperately for something to take the tracker's mind off his pain.
"Mr. Tanner, how long did you reside with, I believe you said, Two Feathers was your Indian mentor's name?"
Vin sighed, he didn't have the energy to try to figure out, what Ezra's motives for asking about Two Feathers were. "I stayed with him, from the time he found me by that water hole, till I was 16. He was the only person, 'cept my ma, ever give a damn, what happened to me."
"He was a real good fella too. He took care of me, real good. Taught me to hunt, and to track. He was the best tracker, I ever seen in my life. It was like he could feel where something had went. And, he fed me, even when he didn't have enough for himself."
Ezra could hear the wistfullness in the gravelly voice, and he pretended not to notice, when he heard that raspy voice break. "I'm surprised you ever left them," Ezra threw out, giving the tracker a chance to recover. He meant it. If he had lived the life Vin Tanner had, he would have stayed with the tribe forever.
"Weren't no choice," Vin's voice was rough with emotion.
His eyes were liquid and Ezra discreetly busied himself, pouring some of their precious water supply onto the rag he was using to bathe Vin's face. They had less than a half a canteen left, and Ezra was determined to stretch it as far as possible. The Colter brothers would be, how had Vin put it, oh yes, favoring them with attention, soon enough.
Vin managed to get his voice back to it's usual raspy drawl, as he gave the gambler another glimpse of how truly hard his life had been. "I'd been off with a huntin' party. It was the best hunt we'd had in six months. Weren't gonna be nobody going hungry for at least a month. We rode back, laughing and carryin' on somethin' fierce. We was havin' a hell of a time. Then we rode over a hill, into that camp, and straight into hell. Christ Ezra, there was bodies everywhere. We rode through, just starin' with our mouths hangin' open. They was dead. Every single person we left behind in that camp. All o' the women and the kids." Vin had to swallow hard, and his voice became almost audible. "And all o' the old people. I found him. He was on his back, in front of a burned out teepee. God, the things them bastards did to the bodies." A tear slipped out of the bounty hunter's eye and his voice broke, as he met Ezra's eyes. "I keep seein' him Ezra. It's like a ghost runnin' around in my head. No matter how hard I try, I can't get the picture of him layin' there, all cut up like that, outta my head."
Ezra sighed, as he used the rag to bathe Vin's face again. "Sometimes, Mr. Tanner, the ghosts of memory are the hardest to vanquish. You should try to rest now." He expected an argument from his stubborn partner, but Vin just nodded and closed his eyes. The emotional strain of reliving his past had exhausted him.
Ezra reflected on the things he'd learned about his partner since they'd been thrown into this shed. Vin Tanner was normally the most private and least talkative person, Ezra had ever met. However, let him be seriously injured and he talked almost as much as JD. Ezra knew that Vin had no family. Perhaps, he speculated, when facing death, Vin wanted to be sure someone would remember he had lived. Well, my friend, there's no need to fear on that account. There are six men who will never be able to forget Vin Tanner lived.
Sighing, Ezra leaned up against the wall near the sleeping tracker. He closed his eyes and waited for sleep to overtake him.
Ezra woke up with a start. He hadn't meant to take more than a short nap, but from the amount of light in the shed, it was obvious several hours had passed. Vin was awake, and moving restlessly. He was obviously hurting badly. Ezra put a hand on his forehead. Vin was burning up. The gambler wet a rag and began to bathe the tracker's face. At the same time, he searched his mind for something he could use to distract the sharpshooter.
"Mr Tanner, you don't seem like the kind of man, who takes up a profession as disreputable as bounty hunting," Ezra observed, as he wiped the tracker's face. Vin didn't answer, and Ezra saw that his eyes were closed. Good, Ezra thought. Sleep's the best thing for him. He put the rag on top of his saddlebag, and moved to check the bandage covering the tracker's side. He was relieved to see there wasn't much fresh blood on it. However, the heat pouring from the wound and the angry red color of the surrounding skin, alarmed Ezra considerably.
Vin's voice startled him as he replaced the bandage. "I ain't like you Ezra," he began candidly. "I never had no schoolin'. The only learnin' I ever got, was from Two Feathers. He taught me how to hunt, and how to trail things. After he died, I tried huntin buffalo for awhile, but that weren't huntin. It weren't nothing, but a bunch of rich fellas killin just to be killin. After a while I got sick of it. I reckon I started bounty huntin, cause it was the only thing I knew how to do. Sides, them fellas I was huntin, did lots worse things than any of them buffalo ever did." Vin's blue eyes searched Ezra's, as he waited for the gambler's response.
Ezra considered his response to his partner's words, and decided that for perhaps the first time in his life, honesty was his only recourse. Sighing deeply, he began quietly. "Perhaps we're more alike than one would think, Mr Tanner. My chosen profession is also, as you so succintly expressed, the only thing I knew how to do."
Surprise was evident on Vin's startled face, as the gambler continued. The idea that two men as different as they were, could have the same reasons for what they did had never occured to him. It was pretty much general knowledge that Ezra had followed in his mother's footsteps. However, Vin had never thought about why Ezra had done so. Hell, he'd never given much thought to anything Ezra did.
"Yes, I was well educated, but for a specific purpose. My mother trained me from the time I could talk, to assist her with her endeavors. Did you know I could stack a deck of cards, by the time I was six?"
The southerner rarely invited such familiarity from anyone and Vin wasn't sure how to respond to Ezra's question. He watched the emotions playing across his face, as Ezra was caught up in the memories from his past. Vin was relieved when a soft chuckle from his partner saved him from having to answer. Ezra licked his lips and spoke again, "Maude, for lack of a more eloquent expression, lacked maternal instincts. A child was simply an encumberance in her rather ardorous pursuit of financial gain.
Ezra stopped, his eyes not meeting Vin's. He shifted back away from the tracker and settled himself against the support post. Vin winced as he shifted on the hard pallet, trying to find a relatively pain free posistion. He wasn't the sort of man to pry into his friends' personal business, but it seemed like Ezra really needed to talk, and all he needed was a little push. So Vin decided to give him that push. Besides, he was curious to hear what Ezra had to say. "What about your pa? Weren't he around?" Vin asked softly.
Ezra shook his head; "He left us when I was little more than a baby. I don't remember much about him. After that, Maude took to dumping me at every aunt and uncle's house she could find. Unless she needed me. For a con."
Vin was surprised at the bitterness he could hear in Ezra's voice. He remembered a game of cards he and the other boys had played with Maude. She had told them a funny story about Ezra and a little dog. Ezra had not been amused when he had collected his Mother following the game. Obviously, the story was not true. Vin wondered why Maude felt the need to lie about her relationship with her son. "If Maude didn't teach you, where'd you get your schoolin' from?" Vin asked, a little surprised that he was genuinely interested in what the gambler had to say.
"My Aunt Jeannine. My father's oldest sister. She was what you would term a spinster," Ezra smiled, he hadn't thought of his "auntie" in years. "She was a feisty woman."
"Like Maude?" Vin interjected.
Ezra almost laughed. It always amazed him the way Maude charmed other men, men like Josiah, he thought ruefully. "Like Maude," he affirmed. "She adored children though. She taught school when she was younger. I learned to read and write and love the English language during the time she cared for me. Her home was filled with books and laughter."
"What happened to her?" Vin asked softly knowing this wasn't going to have a happy ending. He wondered if these stories ever did.
"Consumption," Ezra said simply. No other explanation was needed. He blinked rapidly several times. He didn't think he would ever forget the sound of his Aunt's tortured coughing as her lungs slowly filled with fluid. Or the way she seemed to waste away before his ten-year-old eyes. Ezra had never felt as helpless as he had watching her slowly die. Vin watched as the gambler rubbed his eyes with his right hand.
Vin had just opened his mouth to try to console Ezra when a sharp stab of pain from his middle took his breath away. He gasped convulsively as he wrapped his arms around his stomach. Ezra was at his side instantly. He murmured soothing assurances to the tracker while he gently rubbed Vin's shoulder. When the attack passed, Vin fell back limply against the pallet.
"Better?" Ezra asked simply. Even he knew the bounty hunter might not be up to deciphering his extensive vocabulary.
"Yeah," Vin's gravely drawl was a whisper. His eyes were already closing of their own accord.
Ezra watched as he lost the battle against sleep. "Get some sleep, Vin," he whispered softly as he drew the blankets up around Vin's shoulders.
Ezra watched the tracker's face for a few minutes but Vin showed no signs of discomfort or pain. This time, Ezra thought he was truly asleep. The gambler got up stiffly from his position beside the makeshift pallet and attempted to stretch his legs. He wished again that he could see outside the little window, but it was out of his reach. He paced the small room restlessly for a few minutes, but the lack of space only added to his growing frustration. That and the protest sent up from his bruised ribs. He'd been having trouble taking deep breaths but, he had managed to hide his discomfort from Vin. The tracker had enough to worry about. He stopped pacing when he heard Vin moving restlessly. No doubt, the man was being hunted even in his dreams. Ezra leaned against the wall of the little shed and watched Vin.
The tracker mumbled unintelligible words before he quieted again. Ezra sighed and rubbed his face tiredly. What he wouldn't give now for the comfort of his down pillow and featherbed. He slid down the wall until he met the floor. He wondered what had truly possessed him to tell the bounty hunter about his Aunt Jeannine. She was his most cherished memory and he had never shared her with anyone.
Another thing he had in common with Vin, Ezra couldn't help noticing. They'd both been raised by women they adored, only to lose them to illness at an early age. Of course, Ezra had still had relatives to care for him, even if it was grudgingly. And, Ezra thought with a trace of regret, for the relationship he missed out on with her, he did have Maude. Ezra was still watching the bounty hunter when he heard the door next to him open softly.
Chris shimmied up on his stomach to the top of the small rise with Josiah close beside him. They carefully surveyed the small ranchyard. Now would sure be a nice time to have Vin's spyglass Chris thought to himself.
Josiah spoke softly, "I make out about a dozen horses in the corral. Too far away to spot Vin's or Ezra's."
Chris just nodded in agreement. "We can figure on a man for every horse. The house ain't big enough for all of them so they must be quartered in the barn."
"Where you figure they're keeping Vin an Ezra?" There was very little movement in the yard below them. The horses swatted and stomped at flies lethargically. There were one or two men on the porch of the house and a ew others lounging under a shade tree. However, none of the buildings seemed to be guarded.
"Don't know," Chris said, "maybe they'll show us." He settled in for a long wait. There was no point in running into this situation unprepared. It would only serve to get someone killed. Most likely, Vin or Ezra or both.
Somehow, Ezra was not surprised when Tom Polk stepped through. He had no idea why the man had formed such a fixation on his person but it was becoming annoying. When Polk grabbed him by the elbow and hauled him to his feet with a wrench, he changed his assessment. It was far more painful than annoying. He made a mental note to try not to annoy the man further. Ezra's mouth got the best of him, though, as he was hauled out into the yard. The brute ignored Vin's sleeping form.
"Is there by chance, something I can help you with today?" he asked Polk in complete seriousness.
Polk shoved him down into the dirt of the barnyard. He was enjoying himself immensely. Tom Polk grinned a tobacco stained smile at the hapless gambler, "Tell me, you got any more of that purty jewelry on you?" The uncouth man was already eyeing the ring on the gambler's finger.
Ezra had not actually been comforted by the failure of their captors to search them for money or valuables aside from removing their handguns. It meant these men had a far more personal interest in Vin and himself. Ezra had taken that as a bad sign. Now, it appeared that at least one member of the group was out for monetary gain and not just good old-fashioned revenge.
Chris and Josiah didn't have long to wait. A man came out of the dilapidated house and moved swiftly across the yard to a small storage shed. He wasn't out of sight for long before he dragged a figure out of the shed. With a start, Chris recognized the object of the man's attention. There was only one person he knew who wore a swallow-tailed red jacket. Josiah placed a hand on the gunslinger's arm warning him not to move. He wasn't sure that Chris would be able to keep his temper under control. It wasn't his strong point.
Josiah could see the silent fury and the hate building on Chris's face. He tightened his grip on Chris's arm and Chris nodded grimly to him. Both men helplessly watched the scene unfolding below them. A deadly calm washed over Chris, as the icy rage built inside of him. Josiah saw the look on Chris's face and almost felt pity for the men in the hideout. Almost.
Polk reached down and twisted the ruby ring off Ezra's finger. Ezra started to put up a fuss but was quickly silenced when one of Polk's meaty fists connected solidly with his jaw. He sprawled helplessly in the dirt. The men lounging about the yard jeering him and egging Polk on. Ezra was definitely not happy about being the afternoon's entertainment. He rubbed his now aching jaw with the back of his hand and eyed Polk carefully. The brute was examining his prize. He leered at Ezra as he stowed the ring away in a shirt pocket. His eyes fell on Ezra's gold pocket watch, the chain hanging out of his vest pocket. Ezra sighed. He knew he should show good sense and just let the man have the watch. However, he knew Polk was enjoying the abuse he was doling out as much or more than the theft. No amount of cooperation on his part was going to appease the fellow.
Polk dragged the gambler to his feet by his shirt collar. He reached in the sheath at his side and slid his knife free. Ezra groaned inwardly. Lord, he was tired of that knife.
"Your reliance on that ridiculously large knife, leads me to conclude, that you feel the need to make up for other more personal, shall we say, deficiencies?" Ezra scoffed, boldly looking Polk up and down.
He didn't instantly regret the remark but he paid the price for it, as the bewildered look on Polk's face was replaced with anger. Roaring, Polk sent a right hook crashing against Ezra's already sore jaw The blow sent his head ringing, and was followed by a knee to his gut. He dropped instantly gasping for breath, clutching at his bruised ribs.
Once more it was Colter's interference that saved him from a thorough beating if not worse. Colter had heard the commotion in the yard. By the time he made it outside to investigate, Polk had already done quite a number on Standish. Swearing loudly, Colter moved into the yard. He was forced to pull his gun and let loose a shot into the air to get the attention of the group across the yard. Startled they pulled away from the two men.
"I told you, Polk, to leave him alone. I don't want neither one of them dying. till after the job and our little party." Colter didn't immediately re-holster his gun but held it loosely while he judged the big man's reaction. Polk scowled at him but shoved the gambler away. "You two," he indicated two of the watchers with his gun, "put him back in with Tanner. Polk, inside, right now!" Without waiting to see if his orders were carried out, Colter holstered the weapon and moved back into the house. The problem with being an outlaw, he thought as he went inside, was the class of men you had to associate with.
Ezra felt himself unceremoniously picked up by both arms and shoved through the doorway to the shed, the door slamming behind him. He sprawled out on the dirt floor trying to steady his breathing. He dimly heard Vin's voice.
Vin had been jerked out of his sleep by the gunshot. Looking wildly around he had been unable to locate Ezra. He heard Colter yelling at someone in the yard and before he could manage to get up Ezra was pushed through the door. The gambler wasn't looking so good.
"Ezra?" he called out, "Ezra, you okay?" When the gambler didn't immediately answer, he tried to pull himself to his feet. However, Ezra's voice stopped him.
The gambler's voice was thick with pain but between gasping breaths he managed to reassure Vin. "I assure you, Mr. Tanner, there's no permanent damage. Except, perhaps to my pride."
"What happened?" Vin asked trying to orient himself. He was fading in and out so much he'd lost all track of time.
"Our knife-wielding friend decided I was the afternoon's entertainment. Fortunately, Colter disagreed," Ezra was finally able to pull himself to a sitting position. He leaned back against the shed wall. Vin studied the newest bruise along his jawline.
"What'd you say to him?" Vin asked peering at Ezra. Sometimes Ezra's mouth had a tendency to get him into serious trouble.
"I merely questioned his manhood," Ezra shrugged. Vin would have laughed aloud if it didn't hurt so much. Leave it to Ezra, he thought.
Josiah had to forcibly pull Chris away from the small knoll and back to where Buck and the others waited. They took no comfort in the fact that they hadn't seen Vin. For all they knew, he might already be dead. When the giant in the yard had begun beating the gambler, Josiah had actually been thankful that it was Ezra down in the yard. If it had been Vin receiving that beating, he didn't think he'd have been able to stop Chris from intervening. It would have got them all three killed.
"Are they down there?" Buck asked. He saw the inarticulate rage on Chris's face and Josiah's grim look.
"Ezra is," Chris spoke shortly, "Along with about a dozen men. Maybe more."
"Vin?" Buck asked softly looking at Chris with concern. Chris didn't answer.
"We didn't see him," Josiah spoke. He described the scene they'd witnessed to the three other men. Josiah waited out the small storm of protest his description received.
"You think they've been receiving that kind of treatment the entire time?" Nathan asked worriedly. From what he'd seen in the livery stable, Vin had lost a lot of blood. Without the proper care, he'd probably continued to lose it. He wouldn't have the strength to withstand any beatings. Nathan reluctantly pushed thoughts of injuries and what he could do for his friends to the side. That would have to wait until they got them out. If they got them out. "How we gonna get them out?" Nathan asked glumly. "They're probably holed up pretty good down there. We won't have no cover."
"Yeah, sounds like an all out frontal assault might not be such a good idea," Buck added.
"We'll have to sneak them out. Provide a diversion to get some of them away from the ranch." Chris had been trying to think of a way to free the two men the entire ride. So far, nothing had come to mind.
"Too bad Ezra ain't here to wear that purple dress. He was right pretty in it," JD joked lightly. The memory of Ezra in Wicke's Town wearing that outlandish outfit even caused Chris to relax and smile slightly.
Josiah cuffed JD lightly, "Pray tell, Brother Ezra doesn't hear you say that, JD."
"Sneakin' 'em out, ain't gonna work," Nathan told them flatly. "Vin ain't gonna be able to move too fast, if he can move at all. Fact is, as much blood as Vin's lost, it ain't a good idea for him to move at all. Ezra might not be too fast on his feet, neither, from what ya'll are tellin' us. We gotta plan on them both needing help."
"If we can't sneak them out, what the hell are we gonna do?" Buck demanded.
"I ain't got no idea, of what we're gonna do. I'm just tellin' ya'll what we can't do," Nathan responded calmly. "We'd have to ride like hell, and Vin ain't up to that. Ezra probly ain't up to it neither."
Buck started to say something else, but Chris cut him off.
"No sense sneaking them out, if we're just going to kill them on the trail. We go in shooting. Kill as many of them as we can, as fast as we can."
JD and Buck exhcanged uneasy glances.
Josiah spoke up softly. "That's liable to get all of us killed, and Vin and Ezra too, Brother Larabee."
"You got a better idea, I'll take it. Otherwise, we ain't got much choice." Chris answered wearily.
"I ~I might have a better idea," JD volunteered hesitantly. He knew these men were much more experienced then he was, but they couldn't just ride into that ranch shooting everything that moved. Quiet reigned as four pairs of eyes fastened on JD. The boy swallowed and started in on his plan.
"First thing I think we gotta do, is wait till dark. They're bound to have a couple guards posted, but Nathan and Buck oughta be able to get close enough to take 'em out real quiet." He rounded on Buck almost shaking with excitement, "Buck, you think you can get close enough to start a fire in the barn, without them spotting you?"
Buck smiled evilly and started to answer, when Josiah interrupted. "I picked up a little somethin' at Potter's before we left town, that might just make that a might easier." Josiah noted the puzzled looks on the other's faces, and quickly added "Dynamite. The lord helps those who help themselves, brothers."
JD continued, "We could post someone on the hill where you and Josiah just were. Josiah's the best shot we have without Vin. He could keep those bastards away from the shed while we take care of the rest of 'em," JD's voice was vehement as he tried to convince the others the validity of his plan.
"Just might work," Nathan mused, as he pondered what JD had just told them. "Course, it would depend on Josiah keeping everyone away from Vin and Ezra." Nathan caught Josiah's eyes.
"With the good Lord's help and my Winchester I can do it," Josiah's deep voice was quiet and sure. "Nobody will get within ten yards of that shed. Nobody."
Josiah settled down on his stomach under the scant protection of a scraggly scrub brush to wait for dark. Even the desert plants refused to flourish, he thought dryly. This was truly a God-forsaken place. He placed the open box of cartridges carefully on the ground near his left hand. The Winchester held 9 shots and he'd need to reload quickly. He sighted down the barrel of the gun carefully. Thankfully, the shed where they'd last seen Ezra only had one entrance.
The preacher watched the activity in the small yard. Whoever these men were, they were at ease in this place posting no more than a token lookout. They obviously didn't stay here for more than short stretches. There was little forage for the horses. Something else was missing, the preacher thought. Women. There was no way the type of men in the hideout below would go without a woman to warm their beds for too long. Abstinence just wouldn't be in their nature.
He watched a figure exit the house carrying a large object, which turned out to be a bucket of water. The man emptied the tub with a splash Josiah only dimly heard. He stopped and lit himself a smoke taking a few puffs before returning to the interior of the house. Chris hadn't been able to get an accurate tally of the numbers they faced. There could be as many as thirty men down there. Josiah smiled to himself as he changed positions and eased his grip on the gun. It was their kind of odds.
Buck and Nathan eased their way foot by foot closer to the old ranch yard. Chris and JD were doing the same thing from the opposite direction. The plan was for Buck and Nathan would use their knives on the two guards. They each had a specific job after that. It would be up to Buck to flush the men out of the house with the dynamite. It was JD's job to stampede the horses in the rope corral. Nathan would be sure no one came out of the back of the house. Chris had assigned himself, the dangerous task of getting into the shed. He would keep the outlaws from getting to Vin and Ezra, so Josiah could concentrate on taking out as many of the outlaws as possible, from his vantage point. They all carried their long guns. They'd use the more accurate rifles, until they were forced into using the handgun's, that close quarter's shooting required.
Chris tried not to think about what could go wrong with a plan like this. Vin and Ezra would be helpless and trapped in a rickety wooden shed, that looked like a stiff breeze would push it over. At least he hoped Vin and Ezra would be trapped. He hadn't seen Vin, and didn't know for sure that his best friend was even still alive. And if he was still alive, was he strong enough to stay that way. And would they rescue Vin and Ezra, only to lose one of the others. "Damn!" Chris swore and pushed the morbid possibilities out of his thoughts. At least Josiah hadn't mentioned any crows. Right now he had to concentrate on staying alive and making every bullet count. And getting into that broken down shed.
Chris felt a hand squeeze his shoulder. He turned to meet Nathan's dark eyes. The healer nodded to him reassuringly before moving off to rejoin Buck. The five men waited for the sun to sink behind the far off desert horizon, each lost in his own thoughts.
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