Five slow days had passed before the thump and rattle of an approaching buckboard alerted the small group left behind at the abandoned homestead to Josiahs return. Five days in which the group in the little farmyard had grown increasingly restless. Other than hunting and checking the snares Chris had set, there hadnt been much to occupy the four men. Even Vin was beginning to feel the effects of the enforced idleness. Several times, Nathan had threatened to tie down the tracker when hed caught him sneaking from his blankets. His pasty white complexion, the sweat beading his forehead, and the drunken angle at which he was propped against the wall hed just climbed up hadnt lent much weight to his vehement assertions that he was just fine and Nathan should go mother someone else. Ezra had managed to get Chris to place a bet regarding just which one was going to win this battle of wills, the healer or the tracker. Chris had placed his money on Vin being out of bed long before Nathan allowed it.
For now though, Ezras money was safe. Nathan had just taken the hurt young man some of the perpetual broth that he seemed to delight in pouring down Vins throat. Vin was usually unable to resist the sleep that he swore snuck up on him every time his guard was down. Hed even accused Nathan of putting a sleeping tonic in the broth at one point. Nathan had just quirked a grin at his patient and refused to be baited.
Josiah pulled the wagon into the abandoned farmyard and pulled the harnessed horses to a stop, mercifully quieting the squeak that had sprung up only hours before from a protesting axle. Wrapping the reins around the foot brake, Josiah stepped from the wagon gingerly trying to stretch out the kinks caused by the long, rough ride.
You made it, Josiah, Chris said as he stood up from the small fire where he was roasting what looked to be a rabbit and moved over to greet the preacher. A warm handshake and they moved over to the fire where Josiah helped himself to some coffee.
Rough ride? Chris inquired.
Josiah shook his head almost ruefully. Wasnt easy getting that buckboard over that trail. Well have to take it easy getting back out of here. Cant afford to break a wheel or axle out here. Looking around the forlorn yard he asked casually. Where is everyone?
Chris laughed softly, Nathan is currently torturing his patient to hear Vin put it. Hes feeding him. Ezras keeping an eye on both of them and his money. Josiah guffawed when Chris told him about the bet he had going with the gambler. Chris sobered slightly. You get the prisoners back to town? Does Judge Travis know about them?
Yeah, theyre cooling their heels in the jail as we speak. Judge Travis and some Marshals are on their way to collect them. Left JD and Buck behind to watch them while I came back here.
Chris nodded, relieved that Buck and JD were there to watch each other's back. Larabee didn't like the idea of the two of them watching the town and guarding the prisoners, but it couldn't be helped. Still, he'd breathe a lot easier, when they were all back in town. Hearing the normally patient healer's voice rising and the tracker's equally loud voice, Chris reflected with a grin, that he wasn't the only one who'd be glad to get back to Four Corners.
"Trouble in paradise, brother?" Josiah's eyes danced and his lips twitched with merriment.
"Yeah," Chris grinned back at him.
"Counting your money, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra suggested ruefully. At the rate Vin was recovering, he'd finish the ride back to town driving the damn wagon and cost Ezra ten dollars and a round of drinks.
"I'd better go see if I can stop Nathan from hog-tying Vin," Chris laughed, as he headed for the arguing duo.
" . . . ain't ridin' no horse and that's all there is to it," Nathan said adamantly.
"Ya said yerself, I was healin' up just fine," Vin's irritated drawl drifted into the camp.
"That's just it. I said you was healin' just fine. Y'ain't healt yet and if ya don't take care of yerself, y'ain't gonna heal proper," Nathan insisted.
Vin's eyes fixed on the black clad gunslinger strolling up behind Nathan. "Chris would ya tell 'im I can sit a horse?" he pleaded. His blue eyes looked up at Chris hopefully.
"Nope," Chris smiled as he crouched down beside the injured tracker. "We went to a hell of a lot of trouble to find your sorry ass and Nathan here, went to a particular lot of trouble to patch you up. The least you can do is act like you appreciate it and do what Nathan tells you."
Vin's mouth dropped open and his eyes narrowed and he looked so betrayed, that Chris laughed out loud. He patted Vin's shoulder and said in a genial tone, "I wouldn't worry about the ride home so much, if I was you cowboy. Looks like you got other troubles."
Indeed, Nathan was pouring a generous amount of the much hated and much maligned medicine into the battered tin cup. He'd long ago given up using a spoon to try to get the stubborn Texan to take the medicines he needed. Vin would invariably spill at least half of the spoonful and Nathan would have to go through the trouble of giving him another spoonful and cleaning up whatever mess the Texan had made. "C'mon Vin, just take this medicine without no fuss and I'll get Chris to help ya out into the sun 'til we're ready to go.
Vin's eyes narrowed. "Hell Nathan, that ain't nothing. Ya were already fixin' ta let me sit out in the sun."
Chris walked out of the shed laughing. "Pay up Ezra," he demanded as he strode over to the campfire.
The southerner calculated Chris's merriment and the fact that he'd just come from the shed and said disgustedly, "Remind me not to bet against our afflicted comrade in the future. Mr. Larabee, I'm afraid, I'm a little short until payday."
Chris looked at him hard and then spoke softly, "It's ok Ezra, I trust you for it."
Chris walked away, leaving the southerner standing there stunned. Standish knew that Chris Larabee, notorious gunfighter and resolute doubter of Ezra P. Standish's character, had just welcomed him into the small circle of men he truly considered friends.
"Chris," Nathan called from the doorway of the shed. "Vin done took his medicine without me havin' ta tie 'im down so come on and let's get 'im out in that sun."
"Allow me, Mr. Larabee," Ezra called and waved the blond off. Chris's eyes met his briefly, before his head jerked towards the shed and the black clad gunslinger turned to help Josiah pack up the camp.
An hour later, Vin was sleeping easily, with his face turned up towards the sun he craved and a blanket covering him. The other four men checked the camp to be sure nothing had been left behind. Josiah had saddled the horses including one for Ezra following a brief debate about whether the gambler was going to ride back to Four Corners horseback or in the wagon with Vin. Nathan had relented in an attempt to avoid yet another argument. Give him a few hours on the back of a horse and Nathan figured Ezrad quickly discover the tomfoolery of his actions. Nathan only hoped the fool man survived it.
Finally, satisfied that they had packed up everything and the fire was completely out, they turned their attention to getting Vin loaded into the wagon. Nathan checked the rear of the wagon one last time and then turned back towards the others. "Let's get 'im home," he suggested and the others immediately acquiesced. They were all heartily sick of this place.
"C'mon cowboy, time to go home," Chris said quietly, as he gently shook Vin's shoulder.
The blue eyes blinked up at him still cloudy from sleep. "Home?" Vin repeated.
"Yeah home," Chris said and lifted him gently from the bedroll. He hoisted one of Vin's arms over his shoulder. Ezra appeared and slipped an arm under Vin's other shoulder and together they moved the injured man into the wagon. Vin grunted slightly as Josiah and Nathan helped lift him on to the tailgate of the wagon. Ezra leaned against the rear wheel wheezing slightly. His soft drawl floated over the small group of men.
"Gentlemen, shall we depart the outskirts of hell?"
ONE WEEK LATER
For once, the town of Four Corners was unusually quiet. The delivery wagons that usually rumbled down the street were nowhere to be seen. A few lone riders could be seen making their way down the towns main street. A stray dog was flopped lazily in a pool of mud left by the previous nights rainstorm. His tail thumped lazily informing passerbys that while he was glad to see them, hed found a cool spot to nap and didnt want to be disturbed.
The soft scratching of a fountain pen on paper one of the few sounds Ezra heard as he quietly composed his letter. Hed retreated to the relative coolness of the saloons porch as the sun had begun its long slow climb and the day had progressively warmed up. His green frock coat was carefully folded over the arm of the chair he lounged in. He would periodically stop writing to take a drink from the beer glass placed on the table in front of him and to stare unseeing into the street.
His reverie was interrupted by the sound of booted feet descending the stairs from Nathans. Ezra was not surprised when he heard the town doctor s voice raised in warning.
Mind my words, Vin, ya get ta movin around too quick and youll end up flat on your back again. And Im sick of takin care of your sorry hide. The black mans voice had taken on a teasing quality as he softened his words.
Soon, two pairs of feet came into view as Vin was gently guided down the stairs from the second story clinic.
I aint plannin on doin no bronco bustin, Nathan, came the standard response from the Texan. Thats for sure, Nathan replied, cause you ain getting near no horse for at least another week.
Vins long suffering sigh caused the gambler to chuckle to himself. Ezra watched in silent amusement as Vin and Nathan made their way on to the porch. Vin was moving slowly but standing on his own two feet. Nathan fairly hovered over the tracker, his manner reminiscent of a mother hen Ezrad once seen clucking over her brood as shed guided them across the street. The tracker caught the gamblers amused gaze as he slowly lowered himself into the chair on the opposite side of the small table from Ezra.
What are you grinnin at? He glared at the gambler hotly, the ire taken from his words by the grin that lurked in his eyes. In the days since their return to Four Corners, Ezra had taken to visiting the injured tracker frequently. Hed often show up at the oddest times, his presence helping to alleviate the boredom that was beginning to drive the tracker crazy. Hed shared more stories of his childhood and Aunt Jeannine. The sharing of his few happy childhood memories had eased an ache inside of Ezra that hed never realized existed and given the ex-buffalo hunter an insight into a side of the man that he had never expected to see.
Nothin at all, my good man, nothing at all, Ezra laughed.
Vin stared at the gambler suspiciously as he slowly eased himself back into the chair. It felt so good to get outside even if he wasnt allowed near a horse or very far from Nathans watchful gaze. At least, he could feel the wind on his face sitting on the porch. He was going slowly stir crazy just layin around in Nathans cramped clinic. Nathan fussed over the tracker a while longer, insisting the injured man cover himself with a blanket despite the afternoon heat. Vin was secretly glad for the warmth of the quilt. Hed come a long way in the past week, but he still wasnt sufficiently recovered from blood loss to fight off the cold that had taken up residence in his bones. Much to Vins relief, Nathan eventually quit fretting over him and sank down in the chair opposite Ezra.
Time passed slowly on the porch the three men lost in their own thoughts. Vin was beginning to contemplate taking yet another nap when a loud crash from inside the saloon gave him a start. The attention of the three on the porch was instantly attuned to the swinging doors when they crashed open with a loud crack as they slammed into the wall. Inez irate voice let loose a string of Spanish as Buck burst through the doors onto the porch narrowly avoiding Inezs well-aimed broom.
And stay out!
All three burst out laughing at the indignation pasted on Bucks face. Only seconds later, JD came sauntering out onto the porch holding a glass of beer with a smirk pasted on his face.
Wow, Buck. She really didnt take kindly to you trying to help her behind the bar, did she? The boy asked feigning wide-eyed innocence.
Perhaps, if Mr. Wilmingtons hands had remained on the glassware and off of the proprietress, the assistance would have seemed more sincere. Ezra drawled in delight.
Bucks retort was cut off with the timely arrival of Josiah and Chris. The two men reined up their horses in front of the saloon just in time to hear Ezras comment. Grinning, Chris leaned forward resting his arms on the saddle horn.
Whatd you do this time, Buck? Chris grinned at the look of chagrin that crossed the gunslingers face.
JD snorted before Buck could answer, He broke Inezs favorite mirror trying to help her hang it behind the bar. Course, he might not have dropped the mirror if hed had both hands on the mirror. JDs implication was quite clear.
Seeing that the group ridicule was just getting underway, Buck hurriedly looked for a way to weasel out of the situation. Noticing the sheet of paper covered in Ezras handwriting the con man had been surreptitiously trying to hide under the small stack of paper hed brought with him, Buck leaned across the table and snatched it away from the gambler. Even Ezras quick reflexes failed to retrieve the paper.
What'cha got here, Ez? The gunslinger stated gleefully.
"Give it back," Chris said quietly and touched his hat towards Ezra, with the gambler's own two fingered salute.
"Awwww Chris, I was just funnin' him," Buck said and reluctantly handed the paper back to Ezra.
"It's alright Mr. Wilmington, if you must know, I was merely sending a long overdue thank you, to someone for providing the best accommodations they could for me," the gambler spoke cryptically.
The others eyed him speculatively, but soon turned their attention to other matters. Ezra relaxed, convinced that his letter was forgotten.
"Vanquishin' one of them ghosts, Ez?" Vin leaned over and whispered so that only he could hear.
"Indeed, Mr. Tanner," Ezra nodded.
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