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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
So much for
following their directives.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
Ezra’s voice summoned urgently. “Vin Tanner!”
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
Are you all right?” the Southern accent echoed down the hole.
Tanner choked, his voice wavering with confusion and uncertainty.
Was Standish really up there? He wasn’t really all alone?
“That you, Ezra?”
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.”
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
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,
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?”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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
“I ain’t got
nowhere else ta go, Ezra!”
struggled in the impossible position for ten minutes, before conceding
defeat. What was he going to do?
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?”
smiled smugly at Tanner. “I do have an alternative.”
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.
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.
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?
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
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…”
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…”
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’
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
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
A crisp flame
flared between them, Ezra holding the match off to the side.
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.
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.
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
“Nope, but if
that’s my only choice…”
another option…I just need to consider it for a few moments.”
down here, Ezra. We don’t have that much time.”
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…”
know.” Damn he should never have disgraced himself in front of
the gambler. “Yer wastin’ time, Standish. Go!”
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
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.
Tanner responded weakly.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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?
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
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.
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
Yes. Whom else would I be conversing with?” Yes indeed –
with whom was he speaking?
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
“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 at all,” came the slurred Southern drawl.
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?”
Ya want ta?”
Vin could almost
imagine the dimples in the gambler’s cheeks accompanying the growing
Ya have to come here so I can tell ya the rules.”
sounded confused, even stunned at the stipulation. “I can hear
you quite well from here.”
“Can’t yell ‘em out. Everybody’ll hear. It’s a
“Do I have
to?” he whined.
you come down here?” Standish bargained, the slur still affecting his
he wasn’t up to coercing the conman. “’Cause it won’t work
Ya coming?” Vin waited, holding his breath, straining his ears.
He sighed when Ezra’s ruffled mop of hair lifted into his view.
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.
as he crawled over the rim. “Does what hurt?”
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.”
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
okay, neither do I.”
“Want to go to
sleep.” Standish dropped the coat in his lap, and fell against
the tracker’s shoulder.
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
Vin inquired after some minutes.
But Standish licked at his lips when Vin dapped snow to his open mouth.
muttered tiredly. “Never told me… the date… of your
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.
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.”
Vin’s steady gaze, with a somewhat skewered look. “Vin.”
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?”
it no more.” Tanner could see the cogs literally ticking over as
Standish assimilated the information.
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
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?”
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.
Ezra waved in frustration, glancing up to the track where both Peso and
buts…least we ain’t alone.”
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
forward, sitting up on his elbows. He frowned at the grizzly man.
“Who’re you?” His face seemed familiar for some reason.
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
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
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.
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.”
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?”
Ezra, he said ya were from Four Corners.”
there’d be some people there to help yas?”
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.
flesh,” he drawled thickly, “If not, the mind.”
“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.”
groaned. “You had to remind me.”
yer gonna be grounded for weeks on end. I ain’t gonna be able to
escape ‘em with this bung leg,” he groused.
“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.”
Hope you enjoyed reading.
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