Stand Firm

by Yolande

I'd like to express my gratitude to my betas:

 NotTasha and Mitzi who saved this story from the delete key.

Story moved to Blackraptor in October 2009

April's Challenge offered by Meg Tipper...

Some, one or all of the boys are on the edge -- not figuratively, literally. It can be the edge of a cliff, the roof of a building, the scaffolding on a skyscraper, a ledge on the side of a rock face -- you name it, so long as it is a long way down. They can be standing, dangling, falling, climbing, whatever works. How you get them there, and get them out of it, is entirely up to you.   You must use one, some or all of the following words in the story ~ birthday, chocolate, shower and fool. 




The mountain rumbled and groaned, the very ground trembled, shaking an angry fist while its bowels contorted and rolled inside.  Large masses of rock broke apart and fell, tumbling and spinning out of control.  The route was instantly littered with the projectiles, stamping and imprinting the track that wound high in the hills.  With a searing whine the trail ripped apart and the ice crusted top layer vanished into the newly formed chasm.   The earth moved violently, shuddering and hissing in retort to the resounding blast. 

The two mounts pawed nervously as the mountain shed its skin and hurled objects about them.  Their riders shared a grim look, hunkering low over the horses’ backs and attempting to urge them through the turmoil.  Soothing words were lost in the thundering roar and gone unheeded; each man fought a battle to control their mounts. 

The ice-slicked road moaned, cursing like a wounded hound and sinking several inches to form a depression.  When the weight of Vin’s black gelding side-stepped onto the hollow it opened, cracking and splitting under the sure tread of the animal. Peso whinnied in a high-pitched shriek, bucking and pawing at the widening hole.  The frightened horse lost traction with the terrain and tossed Vin in an attempt to remain on level ground.  Once the burden of the rider was removed from the saddle, the black gelding dug in his hooves and ploughed his way to firm footing.  

Vin Tanner immediately became airborne then plummeted with alarming speed into the ravine.  He clutched frantically at thin air, his stomach contents churning as gravity yanked on his airborne form.  He fell for what seemed an eternity, diving and tumbling into an unknown situation.  A long solitary fall finishing with a piecing scream that burbled from the depths. 

“Vin!” the Southerner screamed as the Texan disappeared from view. Ezra, by mere inches, managed to rein his mount away from the crumbling edge that engulfed Tanner.   As suddenly as the eruption began, the earth stilled and a hushed mood fell over the mountain.  

“Vin!” Ezra shouted again, finally shaking himself of the shock as he dismounted fluidly from Chaucer.  He skidded on the slick and iced path, eventually resorting to crawling on his belly to the edge where Vin had vanished.  Ezra peered down the steep vertical walls; dread at what he’d find tempering his movements.  “Tanner, answer me, God damn it!”  Why?  Why now?  When they were so close to home. 

Vin Tanner and Ezra Standish had been elected to visit the mining camp.  There had been a cave-in a week ago that claimed the lives of half a dozen miners; a dreadful incident to be sure, but the rumours had grown, implicating the foreman and his assistant with skimming on the shorings within the shafts.  Fights had broken out among the workers and the overseers and now, two of the rabblerousers had disappeared. 

Tanner and Standish had interviewed the suspects and many of the miners.  Nobody was admitting anything.  Unable to substantiate any wrong doings, they were forced to immobilize operations and declared the mine closed until further investigations were conducted.  A box of dynamite was confiscated and the foreman was instructed not do any further blasting. 

So much for following their directives. 

Standish wiped the hair out of his eyes and wriggled closer to the edge.  He could feel the bite of icy cold penetrate his overcoat and he sucked in a halting breath to adjust to the frigid temperature of the ground.  “Vin, don’t do this to me,” came the whispered plea.  “Come on, Tanner.  Show yourself!” the Southerner hollered.   How far had the tracker fallen?  How deep was the ravine?  Had he survived the fall? 

The billowing dust that rose in thick clouds impeded the gambler’s view.  He choked back a cry, but continued to stare helplessly down into the narrow fissure.  “Vin!”  Ezra crept nearer to the edge, but more of the unstable ground collapsed from the fragile rim, opening the mouth wider. The gambler quickly retreated, concerned and perturbed that he’d still not seen the Texan, nor heard Tanner’s voice.  He had nothing to confirm or refute Tanner’s death. 



Gravel, blocks of broken ice and dirt crashed down the tunnel, bombarding the semiconscious Texan.  Tanner peeled open his eyes in confusion and winced.  “Aw hell.” Vin gazed about the hole that had hungrily swallowed him up, a hazy cloud of dust and snow enveloped him and a sprinkling of pebbles continued to rain on his head. He stood upright in the tapered hole, wedged in securely and buried to the hilt; only his chest, shoulders, head and arms were exposed and free to move; funny how he’d landed that way.   He chuckled, a nervous overflow of adrenalin.  As more rubble and rock fell from above, the deeper he became buried.  Finally, if he weren’t removed, Vin would suffocate, buried alive in the yawning crevice, with his body acting as the plug.  The tunnel would fill, and he’d be lost.  

The walls crowded around him, pressing firmly against his chest and hips. Vin started to cough from all the dust and immediately felt the restriction against his chest.  He shovelled some of the larger pieces of rock to a better position and took a deep breath; he was relieved to find that doing so, caused no discomfit.  He wished controlling his erratic emotions was as simple.  At least the majority of his upper body was free to move.  Vin flexed his lower limbs and discovered his left leg securely wedged in between the rocks.  He bit on his lower lip, bringing blood to his mouth, and rode out the ensuing agony.  “Damn!” he hissed, that hurt.  His leg was busted for sure.  Vin rested his head against the wall and tilted it up toward the light; a mere dot of white sixty feet above.  His breathing was vibrating loudly in the narrow hole and he blinked back the sting of tears that threatened to fall.  How was he going to get out of this?  

In the corner of his mind he vaguely heard the gambler calling from above, but it seemed like it was coming from such a long way away, that until now, because of his foggy mind, he hadn’t acknowledged the frantic call.  “Ezra!” he called out weakly, but the feeble cry was hardly heard past the roar in his ears.  Vin licked his lips and ignoring the throb from his leg, tried once more.  “Standish!”  The plea for help went unanswered and Vin wondered if he hadn’t really heard anything and it was only his imagination playing tricks on his befuddled mind.  

“Ezra!” he shouted again, a touch of panic edging his voice.  “Don’t leave me down here,” Vin softly begged.  The tracker gripped at the shards of rock and attempted to pull upward in direct opposition to the force that held him, but his leg was trapped securely and the slight movement only caused more pain.  “Arggg!” he screamed.  

Vin flung out at the narrow walls, hitting them with demonic ferocity, until he was exhausted from the effort.  His breaths came in short gasping grunts, and he struggled to invite the necessary oxygen inside his lungs.  Chris?  Where are you?  Larabee wouldn’t leave him stranded.  Oh God! he despaired.  Would he know when the end was near?   Or would he slip away not knowing when his final breath was purged?  Hell what a mess. 



“Vin?” Ezra’s voice summoned urgently.  “Vin Tanner!” 

Tanner lifted his head upward, squinting, but remaining silent, as the gambler was nowhere to be seen.  He grimaced and cursed when a wave of pure torture reached his brain, he unconsciously bit the inside of his cheek, forcing tears to course down his cheeks.  He shook his head, attempting to clear the grey fog that pervaded his senses and rocked his upper body.   

“Dammit, Vin!  Are you all right?” the Southern accent echoed down the hole. 

“Ezra?” Tanner choked, his voice wavering with confusion and uncertainty.  Was Standish really up there?  He wasn’t really all alone?  “That you, Ezra?” 

“I’m here,” Standish assured quickly, hearing the note of fear in the Texan’s tone. “It is a little perilous to venture too closely to the edge.  I don’t want to collapse the wall around you.  But never fear, help is at hand.” 

Through the rising dust a rope slid down the crack. And a wafer thin smile touched the injured man’s lips.   By God, he was not about to die after all.  Standish had stayed to help him.  He was going to get out of this hell. 

“Vin, can you tie the rope around yourself?” 

Tanner did as he was instructed and ducked his head and shoulders through the loop.  He tensed his lean frame and tugged on the rope to alert Ezra that he was ready.  “Now or never,” he quipped.  It would be all over in a matter of minutes. 

Little did he know. 

The rope closed tightly around his chest and began to stretch his body upward.  The dirt and rocks that were packed in about his lower body began to quiver.  He could feel the displacing fragments shift and drop.  Vin thought how easily it was proceeding when the dull throb in his lower leg erupted into a flare of pain.   He bit the inside of his cheek, attempting to ride with the excoriating agony, but with each tug upward he felt his body tearing in two.  Unable to tolerate any more abuse he gripped the taut rope with both hands and pulled against the upward lift.  “AW HELL!” he screamed.  “Ezra, STOP!” 



Not considering the consequences of his reflex actions, Standish appeared at the opening, concern and worry for the tracker superseding the caution necessary for approaching the failing perimeter of the crevice.  “Vin, what is it?”  

Tanner panted, struggling to catch his breath.    He released the rope from around his chest and flung it irritably aside.  Resting his face against the cold rock, he commanded his body to relax, forcing the tremors to subside by sheer will. Not an easy exercise, he admitted.  Tanner choked down the nauseous sensations, finally remembering Standish was waiting for a reply.  “M’leg’s stuck good.  Reckon it’s broke.”  

After a prolonged pause, Ezra stated;  “I’m coming down.”  Though not without some trepidation.  He shucked off his heavy overcoat leaving on only his thinner jacket and shirtsleeves, loosened his gunbelt and removed the derringer rigging; they would only hinder his movements in the tight hole.  After recoiling the rope he knotted it around his middle.   He sucked in a long breath, steeling himself against the unknown. 

“What?” Tanner rasped in exclamation.  “Ain’t barely ‘nough room fer me down here.”  What could Ezra possibly expect to do once he was down with him?  Vin squinted up at the light, but once again the Southerner had vanished.  A shower of rocks and ice tumbled over the edge at the same time as Standish came head first over the side.  “Dammit, Ezra!  What are ya doin’?  Yer gonna get us both killed.”  Vin wrapped both arms over his head, protecting it from the falling debris.  

“That’s not my intent,” Standish grunted.  The blood rushed to his head, throbbing forcefully through veins as he repelled down the rope in an upside down position. He’d have had no chance of manoeuvring around in the narrow hole, so he had little choice but to descend in this unnatural state.   He focused his sights on the bottom, not daring to consider the walls that closed in around him.  It was Vin who couldn’t stomach small places, he reminded his errant mind. 

As the fissure became more tapered, and further from the surface, the tunnel darkened forcing him to slow down and feel the walls to guide his descent.  It wasn’t totally dark, but it was dim enough to require artificial lighting – and he had only a few matches to spare.  The crack delved into the earth at an incredible ninety degrees - straight down.  His fingers splayed wide tracing the route Vin Tanner had fallen through.  His breathing pattern altered, and it was an effort to gather in the essential gases.  He wondered how Vin was faring.  It was well known how the Texan hated being secluded in tight spots. 

When Standish had descended low enough that Vin could reach up and touch him, Ezra stopped his downward climb.  His head pounded with the rush of blood and his ears and nose also seemed to be affected.  He smiled a greeting; though he knew Vin could not see it.  He was thankful to find Tanner indeed alive, even though he’d acquired a serious injury.  He flicked a match to spark, flooding the tomb with an auspicious glow.  He did it for Vin.  Tanner liked wide-open areas, not crevices.  He gave Vin a measured look; Vin returned it with a stunned demeanour.   A startled doe! 

“Get me outta here, Ezra!” Tanner anxiously pleaded, abruptly gripping the Southerner in a strong hold and locking them tightly together, hanging on for grim death.  “Don’t leave me down here,” he choked. 

Ezra was fighting his own source of demons and when the Texan started to smoother him against Vin’s chest, he struggled to keep his hold on the line and from falling into Tanner.  That would have caused even greater problems for them.  Standish mumbled into Tanner’s thick coat, desperate to have some breathing space between them, but Vin hugged him tighter.  He wriggled and twisted, only burying his face deeper into the folds of Vin’s jacket in the effort to escape.  Let go, Vin! 

“Safe…” Vin mumbled, shaking and trembling to remain coherent.  “Gonna be safe now.”  Ezra’s gonna get me out.  Not gonna hurt no more.  His fingers dug deeply into the conman’s arms, and he let his head fall to Ezra’s chest.  He could hear the rapid heartbeat that thumped under his ear and it reassured Vin that he wasn’t alone.  If he listened closely, he could feel his own heart beating.  Vin held onto the gambler more fiercely.  The steady beat of Ezra’s far outpaced his, and the muffled cries and wrenching actions finally reached his hazy mind.  He jerked away, releasing Ezra with a guilty grimace.  

Standish ignored Vin, simply concentrating on his breathing.  The bounty hunter had almost suffocated him.  Nothing was said between the pair, as each came to grips with what had happened.  After several moments, when Ezra was more composed he asked; “How you managing?” his voice was not as steady as he’d wished. 

Tanner shrugged.  What did Standish expect him to say?   He’d totally humiliated himself in front of the Southerner.  Can’t even control his damned weaknesses!  “Fuckin’ great, Ezra!” 

Ezra nodded, accepting the sarcastic reply without commenting.  There was no need to remind Vin of what he’d done.  Perhaps, if he wanted, they could discuss it later, but Ezra wouldn’t push Vin to do so.  “Are both your legs ensnared?”  He struck another match and lowered the light to pass over Vin.  He frowned with worry; Vin was buried to his chest.  That had to be terrifying for the bounty hunter.  Like he didn’t already know that, he apprehensively shook his head.  

“Just my left.”  But he couldn’t move his right without causing more pain to his left.  

“You can feel your legs, can’t you?” Ezra queried, hissing as the flame burned down.  What if Vin was paralysed?  

“No doubt on that score,” he groaned. 

“Just checking,” Standish smiled, attempting to calm the tracker.  “Don’t get any ideas, here,” the gambler warned ruefully, sliding his arm down between Vin’s chest and the wall.  He grunted, equally uncomfortable with the close quarters.  “I can’t reach,” he admitted. 

“Said there weren’t enough room.” 

Ezra dropped a fraction lower and tried to reach past the tracker.  His arm rubbed painfully on the rocks, but he ignored this inconvenience.  A few bruises weren’t going to bother him.  “Can you give me any more room?” 

“I ain’t got nowhere else ta go, Ezra!” 

The Southerner struggled in the impossible position for ten minutes, before conceding defeat.  What was he going to do? 

“Just leave me,” Vin sighed in resignation. 

They were so close that Standish had no problem with hearing the Texan’s entreaty.  “I can’t do that, Vin,” he promised.  “I don’t have that many friends that I can toss them away so carelessly.”  Besides, how could he face the others and explain that he’d abandoned Vin?  He would be run out of town.  No, he’d either extricate the bounty hunter from the crevice or die trying. 

Tanner smiled at the sentiment – he’d hoped Ezra would say that.  “Then what do ya reckon we’re gonna do?” 

“Well…” he smiled smugly at Tanner.  “I do have an alternative.” 



“Dynamite?!!  Hell, Ezra!  You plannin’ on blowin’ up ma legs?”  Vin’s eyes widened, the pupils only a mere dot surrounded by blue, the fear and uncertainty crystal clear in the wild-eyed expression. 

“On the contrary,” Standish smoothly countered, “I plan on liberating you so we can depart this suffocating place.”  Thank the Lord, Vin had seized a bundle of dynamite from the miners; it would come in quite useful.  Although, one could only assume that it was the said miners who had set the charge and blown the mountain to shrapnel, thus resulting in Vin’s currant predicament. 

Tanner gulped nervously, eyeing the gambler with suspicion.  He considered himself a brave man, but he was being asked if he wanted to lose one, or both, of his lower limbs.  Maybe, his life. Could he depend on Standish to use the explosive without causing him more problems?  “I don’t…” 

“Vin, don’t worry…I shall shorten the stick, which will minimize the blast, and then position it so no further harm will occur to you.  Trust me,” he smiled warmly, hoping his poker face was not about to drop.  It was Ezra’s least favourite option and if Tanner realised his hands were sweating already, then the Texan would balk at his using it.  But by damn, it was the only solution, save abandoning the bounty hunter while he enlisted help. But what condition would he find Tanner in upon his return? 

Vin could hear the sincerity in the gambler’s voice and was convinced that Standish believed he could successfully pull this off, but Tanner wasn’t so confident.  He wished he could see Standish’s face more clearly.  Depending on only his hearing and vague shadows, forced him to accept the conman at his word.  Did he dare?  After all, it was his legs that were at risk.  “You couldn’t even reach my leg…how are you gonna expect to plant that piece?” he asked sceptically.  Vin didn’t want to contemplate how he’d cope with an amputation.  And what if he were to lose both legs?  His life as he’d known it would be over.  He’d be forced to depend on others, something he’d never had to do before.  How could be possibly remain in Four Corners?  There would be no place for him among the elite group of regulators.  How could he defend the town from a wheelchair?  His freedom to come and go would be gone, torn from his very existence.  He couldn’t, no wouldn’t, live like that.  His choices looked very grim. 

“I won’t do it from down here…” 

“Then where?” 

Standish adjusted the rope and pulled himself up a little higher.  “I shall plant it from over the side of the escarpment.  I can estimate the position to place the charge…” 

“What?” Tanner yelled in frustration, clearly alarmed at this admission.  “NO!  That’s a fool idea!  Ain’t gonna let you do it.  I refuse!  You hear me?  Either we come up with somethin’ better…or I’ll…” 

“Freeze to death?” Standish completed sarcastically.  “I wasn’t aware that you were a coward,” he taunted.  That’s it Standish, make him angry!  Fight Vin.  Fight for your life!  Don’t give up. 

Vin’s blue eyes flared with anger and he lashed out at the source.  He hit Ezra with everything he could muster, flailing his arms in the small ravine.  It lasted less than a minute.  He stopped when he realised Standish was not returning the blows, but valiantly trying to defend his face and chest while holding onto the rope.  Vin reached out to steady the swinging man only to snatch back his hand when something splashed on his knuckles.   In a daze he fingered the wet spot, rubbing it between his fingers, finally bringing it to his nose.   Blood!   His rain of blows had brought blood to the Southerner.  “I need some light,” he gasped.  “Ezra, I need to see you!”  Vin panted loudly, struggling to come to grips with what he’d done.  “Ezra, light a fucking match!” 

A crisp flame flared between them, Ezra holding the match off to the side. 

Vin’s eyes widened at the orange glow.   He grabbed the gambler’s hand and guided the dwindling flame over Ezra’s features.  A spot of blood dripped from Ezra’s nose and it landed on a shelf of rock that had been painted with snow.  The blood looked painfully stark against the white background.  Vin stared trace-like at the small pool of blood and turned with panicked eyes, meeting the Southerner’s hooded expression.  “God, I’m sorry, Ezra,” Tanner apologised mortified of his actions.  The flame died, leaving them in muted shadows once more. 

Standish wiped the bloodied nose on his sleeve, wary all the time that Vin might resume the attack.  He was lucky Tanner didn’t have the room, or the strength, to work up a sizable swing.  “Perfectly understandable, Mr. Tanner.”  Standish wrapped the rope around his right leg and pushed up.  It was going to be difficult to climb back out of the tunnel.  “I need to return above to reconsider our alternatives,” he added solemnly without meeting the tracker’s gaze. 

Vin touched Ezra’s shoulder.  “Reckon I freaked out some,” he admitted regretfully.  When Standish refused to say anything, he squeezed the gambler’s arm.  “Do it,” he ordered.  They would both die if Standish didn’t try this.  It was the best, even if it didn’t work.  He’d seen the determined look on the conman’s visage, in the short time the matched flared.  Standish had no intention of leaving until Vin was either out, or they were both dead. 

“Are you certain?” 

“Nope, but if that’s my only choice…” 

“There maybe another option…I just need to consider it for a few moments.” 

“It’s cold down here, Ezra.  We don’t have that much time.” 

Standish struggled in the awkward position and removed his coat.  “My apologies.  How thoughtless.”  Damn he didn’t even think to bring down a blanket.  “Here, use this.” 

“I’m already wearing mine.  And b’sides, yer gonna need yer coat…”

”You will need it more…Just don’t leave it down here when you are freed,” he added glibly.  On a more serious note he added; “You will be fine, Vin.  I promise.” 

“Sure.  I know.”  Damn he should never have disgraced himself in front of the gambler.  “Yer wastin’ time, Standish.  Go!” 



The Southerner rested flat on his back, with his arms and legs flopped at his side and stared up at the greying sky.  He lay that way for what seemed an eternity, but in fact was only a matter of minutes - just enough time to catch his breath.  God, he couldn’t stand to be down there a moment longer.  If their positions were reversed, Ezra admitted he wouldn’t cope.  Just being in the tunnel for the short time he’d been down had caused enough material to furnish his nightmares for years on end.  How was Vin going to suppress the images when they hit?  

Ezra dug a handful of ice and applied it to his swollen cheek.  At least his nose had stopped bleeding.  He couldn’t blame Vin for his behaviour; in reflection Standish probably would have reacted in similar fashion – possibly worse.  He held his hands up in front of his face; they were visibly shaking.  Did he tempt fate and proceed?  Perhaps Vin would survive in the bitter cold while he journeyed home to gather reinforcements.  With a grim nod, he already knew the truth.  Vin would not survive.  Standish was his only chance. 

Ezra rolled off his back and sat up, drawing his legs to his chest.  He had to admit it was more difficult extricating himself from the fissure than it had been to repel down and rubbed his calf vigorously where the rope had been spiralled around it.  It was good to be free of it; his toes had started to go numb.  He crawled over to the mouth. 

“Vin, I want you to slip the rope back over yourself,” he instructed, lowering the length back down to the trapped man. 

“Got it,” Tanner responded weakly.  

Ezra Standish wondered whether the trepidation in Vin’s voice was from the cold or fear of what he was about to undertake.  It could also be his leg that was troubling him – or a combination of all three.  “Vin, I’m going to be unable to communicate with you while I position the charge.  I’ll fire a shot into the air to let you know when I am ready.  Once you are free, I’ll have you brought back to the surface.”   God willing. 

“Fine, Ezra.”  Tanner rested his head forward; his neck was becoming strained from tipping it back to see up the ravine.  He wrapped the gambler’s jacket in tightly and tried to move in the cramped space.  He felt the broken bones in his leg grate together and let out a blood-curdling yell before passing out. 



Standish had just dropped over the side when he heard the pitiful cry that spewed from the hollow.  He hesitated for a moment and listened intently, but Tanner didn’t request his return.  Ezra was momentarily distracted, unsure of what he should do.  Did he continue down or should he return to check on the Texan?  The newly falling snow helped him to decide.  Tanner wouldn’t stand a chance once the hole filled with snow; he’d suffocate, if not freeze to death, buried in a wall of rock and ice. 

Ezra dropped along the line of rope, dangling; he clawed at the sheer rock face.  He glanced upward to the trail, estimating that this was the correct point that he should lodge the dynamite.  He’d measured the distance from the top with the rope, but he shuddered at the thought of causing Tanner bodily harm.  What if he wasn’t down low enough?  How could he look the tracker in the eye, knowing he’d been the one to disable his friend?  Tanner most likely would not consider him a friend if the occasion arose.  If, through this act he injured Vin more, Ezra would automatically lose his friendship.  Not only Vin’s, but ultimately, with the others also.  How could they not blame him? 

Standish dropped another two feet and searched for a crevice to place the explosive.  He fumbled with the stick, hoping he’d shortened it sufficiently.  In frustration, Ezra pulled his gloves off, using his teeth.  The gloves dropped to the ground more than five hundred feet below.  He blew on his hands, rubbing the cold that had quickly penetrated the appendages.  Standish pushed it in and briefly sent up a prayer.  “Hope Josiah’s God is listening.” He fired the derringer into the air; the promised warning for Tanner, then pocketed the weapon, hoping Vin was lucid enough to recognise the impending danger. 

“Now or never,” Ezra sighed, lighting the fuse.  He had only seconds before it detonated and he started scrambling up the cliff, shortening the rope as he went.  When it exploded Ezra was catapulted through the air and slammed violently up against the cliff face. He fell back down the short distance he’d scaled and jolted when the rope came to the end of its length.  The sudden stop forced the air from his lungs and he gasped painfully.  Ribs ground together, cracking under the sudden stricture. The rope bit tightly around his chest, compressing his lungs and making it difficult to draw in a much-needed breath.  

Huge chunks of granite broke off and fell to the distant basin and the explosion set off a cascade of rock and large masses of earth hurtling in every direction.  The mountain vibrated under the attack, coughing forth many projectiles. 

Ezra swung perilously at the end of the rope, the force of the explosion sending his lifeline into spasms.  He slammed hard into the rock wall and groped feverishly for a handhold, but his fingers were numb with cold and couldn’t hold on.  As he smashed flush with the steep rock face a protruding piece struck his forehead, cutting a deep gouge across his temple. The Southerner lost his tenuous hold on consciousness, and continued to swing dangerously backward and forward like a dying pendulum, his body crashing bonelessly into the wall unimpeded, until the rope ceased the momentum. 

And all the while snow continued to fall. 



Vin’s eyes fluttered.  He moaned as his head lolled listlessly on his shoulders and the pain flared.  His hips ground against an unseen rock and another bruise was formed.  He wanted the suffering to end, and he was pleasantly numb to it in the world of darkness.  Tanner longed to slide back into oblivion, but something nagged at him, drawing him up.  He blinked, catching glimpses of the rock enclosure that had him trapped.  With the return to consciousness, came a fresh bolt of pain.  His lean frame shook as he rode out the spasm. 

His eyes snapped fully open, and he gave himself a mental shake.  Ezra was planning to blow the wall away!  His body tensed.  Had the gambler already done it while he had been unconscious?  He hadn’t heard the warning shot Standish had promised.  Had it occurred while he was out cold?  His leg was still stuck, he noticed.  Maybe it hadn’t worked.  Fear and panic began to rise, his breaths came in short jolts and his vision swam.  What if something had happened to the Southerner?  He could have fallen…or worse.  Maybe Vin would die never having known.  Vin’s breathing caught in his throat, a small sob escaping his mouth. 

A distinct noise echoed high above him and a relieved smile curled his lips.  That was Ezra’s peashooter.  He was about to find out if Ezra’s plan was going to succeed.  Vin held his breath and covered his head under the borrowed coat.  And waited.  The time stretched interminably and nothing happened.  He could feel the rapid beat of his heart hammering in his chest and the firm pull of the rope snugly about his chest.  He wondered what Standish had found to attach the other end of the rope to; he hoped it was sturdy enough to take his weight.  He tugged on the taut rope and was pleased that it gave no slack.  

Vin gasped suddenly when the explosion came.  The tremors in his tomb radiated through him as the rock and shale fell from above and below him.  He winced when the harness tightened around him, taking his weight as he found himself freed.  The crevice split deeper, and the previously suffocating enclosure now gave way to a terrifying lack of support.  His arms flailed, finally griping tightly to the rope - his life dangled on a thin thread.  



A frigid draft whistled past him and he lifted his head from under Ezra’s jacket.  He shook the fragments of gravel off and tucked the burgundy jacket under his arm; it would not pay to lose the gambler’s clothing down the widening crack. Clouds of dust distorted his view, but he could make out the fissure he had been in had transformed, and was now torn open right through to the cliff face.   A small smile curled about the corners of his mouth.  It worked! 

Vin tensed as the rope dug into his chest, and gathering his waning strength, he pulled himself upward to reach a newly formed ledge.  It wasn’t very wide, but he could stretch out his legs and relax while he waited for Ezra.  He was eager to leave now that he’d been released.  Panting, and feeling woozy from the exertion, Tanner leant heavily on the rocky backrest.  His leg protested the change in position and for the first time since he’d fallen, he critically viewed his broken limb.  His beige trousers were ripped from the ankle to his knee, and his stomach churned with nausea at the odd angle the leg rested.  He was relieved to be able to feel the hurt in his leg; it meant that he was alive and that both lower limbs were still intact.  But for some reason, it didn’t bother him as much as he expected.  He was more relaxed; a sense of peace and serenity enveloped him.  He wondered if Ezra would set it before they started back up the incline.  He laughed - a hollow cry of release.  

He had been so scared.  He hadn’t figured that blowing part of the wall away would bring about his freedom.  Deep inside, he expected to die in that crevice. 

When the dust and rock finally settled, Vin got a clear picture of the devastation Ezra had triggered.  Looking up, he could see a wide breach in the path, extending from the sheer cliff on the left to a plunging escarpment on the right; there would be no circling around the crevice.  The passage through the mountains would not be transferable; they’d need to close off the route to everyday travellers. Other than that, from his position, it was a breathtaking view, and if not for his present condition he’d have fully appreciated it.   There would be time for taking in the beauty of the landscape when they were back on firm ground.  How much longer would he have to wait for Standish?  How much time had passed already?  “Ezra?” he called anxiously.  A shift in the breeze brushed against his cheeks, and Vin noticed that the snowflakes fell from the sky once more. 

Vin grunted; instead of keeping still, he twisted and turned searching for the overdue conman.  Seeds of doubt began to creep in.  “Standish!” he called more urgently, straining to catch a glimpse or hear a sound that verified that Ezra was coming.  But only the crisp snowflakes settled around him.  He closed his eyes and counted to ten.  

When he opened them he scanned the upright walls, eventually he also looked down.  He held onto the rope for balance and edged to the tapered end of the ledge.  A startled gasp choked in his throat.  Not far below him, the Southerner hung limply.  “Aw hell!  Ezra!” he shouted.  He wriggled to get in a better position, but bumped his leg, bringing about a wave of uncontrolled agony.  The tormented cry echoed loudly in his ears, and the reverberation caused more pebbles and rocks to slide over the unstable ledge.   He panted, grimacing.  His eyes screwed tightly, contorting his face and effectively revealing his distress.  It was several moments before he could take another look.   What had happened?  What had gone wrong?  Surely this hadn’t been part of the gambler’s plan?   This didn’t bode well for them - either of them…they were both in perilous danger.  How did he reach the Southerner?  Had Standish survived the blast?  Damn, it had been a stupid plan!   What had he been thinking?  To allow the gambler to pull such a stunt?  He should have ordered Ezra to go for help.  That’s what he ought to have done.  “Shit!  Fuck it all to hell!” 

He held his hand open, palm up.  A light dusting of snowflakes drifted into his gloves.  Tanner stared at the fresh snowfall, wondering how long it would last and what hope would they have if it began coming down in earnest.   



Ezra had the strangest sensation of flying, soaring on the updrafts and darting through the clouds.  But that was an impossible dream.  After all, he was sleeping in his feather bed, buried under his quilt, in his room above the saloon in Four Corners.  Only, he felt a shaft of incredibly frosty air prickle the skin on his face; so much so, that his cheeks were burning.  Good Lord!  He panicked, peddling his legs in midair only causing the rope to constrict more tightly around his chest and swinging him wide.  This wasn’t his room!  Far from it!  The miners!  Those Goddamn miners!  What had they done? 

Standish peeled open one eye, for some reason his left eyelid was difficult to open.  He lifted a hand to his face feeling the swelling around his eye, and the stickiness of blood that trickled from his hairline.  The gambler twirled in the rope and swung around.  He swallowed the thick lump in his throat and summoned the nerve to look down.  “Courage, Ezra, courage.”  A nauseous swirling knotted in his belly.  He closed his mind to the endless drop.  What he’d give, to be able to curl up in a ball, snuggled beneath a thick layer of blankets.  Anywhere but here. 

A rattle of pebbles plummeted over the side; a few shards fell directly on Ezra.  None were large enough to injure, but the collection made him bring his head up.  He craned his neck up the sharp incline; his head spun with a sickening dizziness.  With an audible gulp, the Southerner tempered the rising bile.  Although he was secured to the rope Standish was unable to loosen the hold his hands had tangled in the lifeline.  He knew it was not necessary, but the muscles in his forearms had cramped, locking his digits in a deathlike vice wrapped about the rope.  He gasped, surprised at how bitter cold the air was that rushed down inside his lungs.  The air seemed to crystallize, giving him the impression that his lungs filled with liquid instead of gas.  It was hard to catch his breath and even harder to force the unwanted gases from his body. 

“Standish!  Stop hanging around down there and get yer ass up here!” 

Vin? He knew for some reason, the tracker should be near.  “Vin?” Standish shouted, or he thought he did.  In actuality it came out little more than a whisper.  He turned urgently, trying to find the source of the Texan’s voice.  Why could he hear Vin, but not see the sharpshooter?  Had Tanner come back to haunt the gambler?  

“Come on, Standish,” Vin beckoned, his disembodied voice sprang from a hidden position somewhere above Ezra’s head.  “It worked!  Yer plan worked and got me free.  Now get yer lazy butt into gear and start climbing.” 

The gambler fought with the fog, but his body refused to follow simple commands.  He bumped into the wall, his legs tangling in a stunted tree root that sought purchase from the cracked wall.  His whole body spun, dangling, turning him away from the wall.  “Can’t.”  It was a whisper, more like a plea.  “Didn’t mean to kill you, Vin.”  Somewhere in his dazed and uncooperative mind he cussed at the malaise that smothered his body. 



Tanner balanced precariously above, wincing at the off key melody the Southerner broke into.  The haunting tune drifted up from the ravine, the words echoing, lazily overlapping each other.  Vin searched his mind trying to locate the source of the gambler’s jingle, but failed.  The tracker shifted uncomfortably, patiently waiting for Ezra’s senses to clear.  If only they had the time to squander.  He wondered if they would both survive the exposure to the icy conditions. 

“When is your birthday?” Ezra slurred.  He sounded drunk to Vin’s ears. 

“Ya talking to me?” 

“Yes.  Yes.  Whom else would I be conversing with?”  Yes indeed – with whom was he speaking? 

The irritation in his voice was amusing, considering how Vin was faring.  He didn’t give a razoo about yapping.  His leg was busted and he was hanging by a rope, stuck on a Goddamn ledge in the freezing cold no less, and talking to a concussed gambler who only wanted to sing and ask stupid questions.  Vin grunted.  Why couldn’t Standish just climb up and get Tanner out of this fix?  

“You do have one, don’t you?” Standish persisted.  Did apparitions have birthdays? 

One what?  “What the hell are ya talking about, Ezra?”  Tanner leaned to the edge of his crypt; he could see the top of the gambler’s head.  

“Nothing, nothing at all,” came the slurred Southern drawl.  

Tanner sighed deeply, hearing more in the resigned mumblings than Standish would ever admit to.  “Ezra?  Want to play a game?” 

There was a long pause.  Tanner wondered if Standish was still conscious.  “Is it fun?” 

“Could be.  Ya want ta?” 

Vin could almost imagine the dimples in the gambler’s cheeks accompanying the growing grin.  “Okay.” 

“Ezra?  Ya have to come here so I can tell ya the rules.”  

“Rules?” he sounded confused, even stunned at the stipulation.  “I can hear you quite well from here.” 

Tanner groaned.  “Can’t yell ‘em out.  Everybody’ll hear.  It’s a secret.” 

“Do I have to?” he whined. 

“Won’t take ya long…” 

“Why don’t you come down here?” Standish bargained, the slur still affecting his speech. 

Tanner growled; he wasn’t up to coercing the conman.  “’Cause it won’t work down there.”  


“Ezra?  Ya coming?”  Vin waited, holding his breath, straining his ears.  He sighed when Ezra’s ruffled mop of hair lifted into his view. 



The torn, bloodied and bruised face that popped over the edge had Vin staring wide-eyed at the gambler.  “Geez, Ezra.  Man, does that hurt?”  Stupid question. 

Standish panted as he crawled over the rim.  “Does what hurt?” 

Tanner raised his arm to point at the obvious, but on second thought lowered it.  He studied the wide open cut across Ezra’s brow and the matted hair with the congealed blood that hung into his eyes.  His left eye was swollen closed and a dark bruise marred his cheek.  “Get over here, and put yer coat back on.”  

“I don’t feel like playing now.”  It was hard work scaling the wall and the coloured dots that danced on the rim of his vision were becoming annoying. 

“That’s okay, neither do I.” 

“Want to go to sleep.”  Standish dropped the coat in his lap, and fell against the tracker’s shoulder. 

“Can’t go ta sleep.”  Vin prodded the gambler upright.  Hell, why did everything fall back on him?   Tanner was in no better shape than the conman, and certainly unable to, as Ezra would say, extricate them both.   “Let’s get ya in this coat.  Yer freezing.” 

“Better?”  Vin inquired after some minutes. 


“Ya thirsty?” 

“No…”  But Standish licked at his lips when Vin dapped snow to his open mouth.  “It’s cold.” 


Standish muttered tiredly.  “Never told me… the date… of your birthday.” 

“September second,” he smiled.  Vin draped an arm around Ezra’s shoulder and pulled the gambler snugly against him.  There was no way they could climb back up without some help.  “Reckon it’s just the two of us,” he whispered over the gambler’s head. 



Vin brushed the white powder from Ezra’s hair.  The conman had succumbed to the head injury and the cold, unable to keep his thoughts clear and the sleep at bay.  His pasty features were lax and his lips tinged with blue.  Vin rubbed Ezra’s shoulder, more for his own sake than for the unconscious man.  But perhaps on some level, the Southerner would find some measure of comfort knowing that he did not die alone. 

Tanner glanced at his broken leg, sometime over the last hour it had lost the urgent cry and now it was completely numb.  He felt slightly mollified that his last remaining hours would not be tempered with a haze of pain.  If only he could get them out of this.  He fingered the knot that had slipped under his armpit and adjusted the position; he snaked under Ezra’s coat and did similarly.  He wondered why he even bothered.  He should throw off the ropes; they were of no use to them now. 


The wind had picked up and brought with it a flurry of snow, Vin did the best he could in the circumstances, burying them both under his overcoat and huddling together to keep each other warm.  Standish stirred in his arms, groaning with the return of wakefulness.  “Hey.” 

Ezra returned Vin’s steady gaze, with a somewhat skewered look.  “Vin.” 


“Why’s it dark?” he slurred. 

“Just got us covered with m’ coat.” 

Ezra stared at Vin, finally jumping back from the close proximity they shared and dislodging Vin’s overcoat.  “Your leg?” 

“Can’t feel it no more.”  Tanner could see the cogs literally ticking over as Standish assimilated the information. 

“Not good.”  

Vin smiled wanly, shrugging his shoulders.  “Don’t hurt so bad now.” 

Ezra screwed his eyes closed, grimacing as the torn facial wounds pulled apart.  What he’d give for one of Nathan’s vile concoctions right about now.  Without opening his eyes, he asked; “Did it work?  Are you free?” 

“Yeah it worked, Ezra.  Ya done good.” 

Ezra shook his head and shifted against Vin, his limbs responding slowly; his brain registered how cold and numb each body part felt and protested.  “I bungled it royally.  A slipshod performance at best.  I ask that you could find it within yourself to forgive me?” 

“Ain’t gonna fergive ya fer nothing,” Tanner growled.  “Ya did everythin’ ya promised ya’d do, and I’m thanking you.  Ya hear me?” he lightly punched the Southerner in the arm. 

“But…” Ezra waved in frustration, glancing up to the track where both Peso and Chaucer waited.  

“No buts…least we ain’t alone.” 

After Standish slipped free of his hold on consciousness, Vin tucked his coat around them both.  He struggled with the icy tentacles himself, attempting to resist, but succumbed shortly after the gambler. 



When next he woke, Vin Tanner was once more aware of his damaged limb.  The broken bones howled mercilessly with an avenging wail and he was mindful of the shifting floor.   He shivered, hugging tightly onto the covering, not registering that the woollen blanket did not belong to him.  He rolled with the moving tide; jostled into the rhythm of the seesawing action and a barely audible moan brushed over his lips.  The heaving to and fro came to a stop. 

“Reckon it was ‘bout time you come to,” a dour voice greeted him, lifting off the blanket that had him cocooned.  “Yer friend was worried.  Told ‘im you’d be fine, though.  Fixed yer leg and splinted it.”

Vin jerked forward, sitting up on his elbows.  He frowned at the grizzly man.  “Who’re you?”  His face seemed familiar for some reason. 

“Name’s not important, but when I need one, I use Charlie.”  

One of the miners?  Tanner narrowed his eyes and deliberately gave the old-timer a calculated look.  Yes.  He recalled seeing the chiselled face among the men at the mining camp.   Friend or foe?   Could he trust this miner?  Tanner stared into the deep recesses that held his eyes.  He nodded briefly; Standish would have measured the man’s worth in a flash.  “Ezra?   Where’s Ezra?   He okay?”  Vin twisted about frantically. 

“He’s gone back ta sleep,” Charlie hobbled to the opposite side of the buckboard and lifted a fraction of the blanket off his other passenger, revealing the slack features of the gambler.   “Figured he needed it.” 

Vin eased back to the nest of blankets.  “Ya get us up?”  It seemed unbelievable that the ornery miner had rescued both Ezra and him. 

Charlie chuckled, showing the dark holes where his teeth used to be.  “Used yer horses.  They’re a might more agreeable than ole Henry.”  He nodded to the mule that was harnessed to the rig.  “Don’t usually come up this way, what with me arthritis playin’ up.  But figured it’d be quicker coming through the pass than goin’ around; just didn’t reckon on finding the track blown to hell.  Heard an explosion.” 

Tanner slumped further inside the hollow, his strength zapped from the little conversation.  He watched Charlie’s nervous glance back along the trail; this old man knew more than he was saying. Did he know who caused the explosions?  Were Vin and Ezra the intended targets from the blast?  “Where ya takin’ us?” 

“Yer friend, Ezra, he said ya were from Four Corners.” 


“Reckon there’d be some people there to help yas?”  

“Yeah,” Vin nodded drowsily.  

Charlie pulled out a dark coloured bottle and thrust it into Vin’s face.  “You better shruck down some of this ‘fore we get goin’.” 

Tanner eyed the laudanum suspiciously, considered refusing the offer, until he heard the muffled southern tones beside him. 

“Drink it, Vin.” 


“In the flesh,” he drawled thickly, “If not, the mind.” 

“We made it!” 

“That we did, Mr. Tanner.   Could you please lower your voice?” 

Vin griped the gambler’s hand and squeezed it.  “Chris is gonna be pissed.” 

Standish groaned.  “You had to remind me.” 

“Ain’t like yer gonna be grounded for weeks on end.  I ain’t gonna be able to escape ‘em with this bung leg,” he groused. 

Ezra chuckled.  “Drink up, Vin.  I want to be home,” he grumbled. “Preferably in my own bed.” 

Vin upended the bottled, swallowing a good portion of the opiate.  Anything to make the trip more bearable.  “Take us home, Charlie.” 

The End


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