Written for: Oracle
Strange how he didn't hear the shot until after something had slammed painfully into him and he was thrown backwards off his horse. It was while suddenly being suspended in the air when he heard the sharp crack.
Then he slammed painfully against the earth and all thoughts were gone in favor of trying to get air into his lungs. Everything wavered before him.
"…is? Chris? Chris, do you hear me?"
What was Standish doing, standing there hovering over him? Wasn't he on his horse just a second ago?
Shit, what WAS Standish doing?
Anxiously Chris tried to get up. "Damn, Ez, get into cover!" he hissed. He'd meant to yell, but that's what it came out as, no more then a hiss.
"I do now what I am doing, Mister Larabee. I am keeping Chester between me and the sharpshooter who managed to injure you. I just hope he will not shoot at horses, but I do have to get you out of here."
"YOU have to get out of here!"
Oh, fuck. Was that the hammer of a gun cocking? Close enough to hear… not good, not good at all.
At the same time Chris brought his hand to his gun, trying to ignore the pain of the bullet hole high in his chest, just under his right shoulder, footsteps could be heard and harsh voices calling for 'hands up'. He managed to free his gun and was about to aim at someone coming from the right, rifle sighted on Standish, when a foot slammed down on his hand, hard, and Chris couldn't stop from crying out.
"Stubborn son of a bitch, ain't he?" a voice behind him said.
"Yeah." That came from above him, from the man standing on his hand. Chris looked up and saw someone he'd never met before, he was damn sure of that. Whoever he was, he didn't pay Chris no mind, his attention riveted on Standish.
"Who's he?" he finally asked, nodding towards the gambler. "He sure don't look like no ex buffalo and bounty hunter to me, he looks like some dandy gambler man."
"Yeah. Maybe he's changed his ways."
"Word was Tanner rides with Larabee and that definitely is Larabee. So, are you Tanner?" one of the men asked the gambler, shoving him.
Chris had had enough of being ignored. He still had his gun right beside his gunhand and he aimed to use it. The man on his hand stepped away just then, ambling towards Ezra. He made a kick at Chris' gun as an afterthought, but was too late. Chris had already reached for it and had it up, ready to fire.
Something smashed at the back of his head.
When he opened his eyes, his gun was gone and his hands were tied in front of him. Ezra was kneeling over him, pushing hard on the bullet wound.
"Ez? You alright? Aaaah! Son of a bitch, that hurts!"
"I know, but I do need to stop the bleeding, Mister Larabee. Please stop fidgeting! And may I ask what on earth you were trying to accomplish by going for your gun like that, with sufficient men around us to kill us ten times over?"
"Thought I saw a chance, seemed like I'd better take it. Ez, they want Vin. No telling what they'll do to you."
"Do not worry, I have already told them of that wonderful lady in Four Corners I have amended my savage ways for."
"I know, I am not really proficient in the ways of tracking or sharpshooting, but after ample consideration I have come to the conclusion that the chances of these men asking me to use my expertise is close to zero. Please Mister Larabee, such cursing is highly unfriendly, considering that all I am doing is trying to stop this excessive bleeding. Where was I? Oh, my talents and expertise in the ways of tracking and killing. Chris, why would they ask a man whom they are taking in for the bounty on his head to track for them? Or give him a lethal weapon while they so obviously already are in the possession of a skilled sharpshooter?"
"Ez, bounty says dead or alive! DAMN, stop!"
"I can not yet lighten up the pressure Chris, as you are well aware. This bleeding must be stopped. So, to continue the subject of our conversation, it seems to me that if these men had wanted Vin Tanner dead, I would no longer be breathing. Instead a bullet found you and no one even took a shot at me."
In answer Chris only screwed his eyes shut and gritted his teeth. Dire retribution was playing through his mind, retribution for the coward who had shot him from so far away.
Finally Ezra stopped the pressure and carefully looked at the wound. "It seems better, Chris. I hope they will let me bandage it. Gentlemen," he spoke up next. "If you would be so kind as to let me near my saddlebags, I could take out some bandages for my comrade here."
Someone waved disinterested at the gambler's horse and hastily Ezra went to Chester. He wasn't allowed to rummage through the contents of his saddlebags himself though. When he came back with the clean bandages Nathan insisted they all took along, he was definitely grumbling.
"You… alright?" Chris gritted out.
"Me? Mister Larabee, in contrast to your own bad state of health at the moment, I can convincingly state I am at the peak of well being. No, it is my saddlebags that are not alright! One of these unsavory characters has rummaged through my belongings, making sure every single one of my shirts now is wrinkled and stained! I shudder thinking about the state of the rest of my possessions! There, this bandage should hold for a while."
"Good. Help me… up!"
"Eh, Chris, as much as I admire your endurance, I do not think there is much merit in getting up right now. These… gentlemen… have made it quite clear they want us to stay put."
"I just want to sit, Ezra."
"Oh, oh off course. I will endeavor to help you up. Leaning against this boulder would be best for you, probably." While the gambler was helping Chris up and backwards until he could rest against a boulder, a horse came galloping right into the makeshift camp. Cursing could be heard from the men who had to jump out of the way. The next moment Chris saw the legs of a fine red mare right in front of his nose. Looking up he saw a man all dressed in buckskin. A shiver ran down his spine when he took in the long hair and slough hat.
God, did Vin have a brother?
The eyes looking down on him and Ezra weren't blue though, they were a dark brown and the long hair was coal black. In one fluent motion the man pulled his rifle and pointed it at the conman.
"Who's he?" he asked with a deep, dark voice very unlike Vin's soft drawl.
"He's the one who was riding with Larabee."
"Yeah, I know, I watched them through my rifle scope. Now, who is he?"
"I guess he ain't Tanner," someone called out.
"No, he ain't. He made you believe he was?"
"Nah. Couldn't be sure though, so we decided to wait."
"Mister, I can assure you…."
Ezra never knew what hit him. The butt of the rifle crashed into his face, hard, before he could finish his sentence. With a growl Chris tried to launch himself up to the man, but two of the gang grabbed him and forced him back against the boulder. Helplessly he could only watch while the man dismounted, descended on Ezra and started kicking him. Ezra was only half conscious after the brutal assault with the rifle butt and his attempts to defend himself were useless. Finally he rolled up in a ball to try and protect himself as much as he was able.
At last the man stopped, looked at the gambler with a cold expression on his face for a moment and then turned around to Chris.
"Who is he?" he asked, his voice barely containing his anger.
Chris spat at him. In two strides the man came close and gave him a vicious backhanded slap. Then he cocked his rifle and pointed it at Standish.
"Larabee, let's get one thing straight, I only need you. So?"
"Why you riding with him 'stead of Tanner?
Chris looked at the rifle still aimed unwaveringly at the gambler and swallowed his urge to spit at the man again. "Tanner had something else to take care of."
"So? Why you're not with him then? Word is where you are, Tanner is too."
"Had my own business."
Suddenly the rifle was aimed at him. "You and Tanner having a fall out?"
"Shit! That'd be just what we need. Now how we get Tanner to cooperate?"
"Don't get all jumpy," a soft voice said. From behind some of the men another man walked up, one Chris hadn't seen yet. He was leading a beautiful thoroughbred and although his clothing was made for working, it was clearly cut from more expensive material then the other men. He gave the reins to one of the men and walked over to Chris.
"My informer would have told me if they'd had a fallen out, Mercer. No, I think this was a last minute change of plans. Very unfortunate, we do not need a gambler after all. Or a gunslinger. He looked Chris up and down, his eyes settling on the empty holster.
"Where is his gun?"
The speed with which it was produced, together with the subdued silence of the outlaws told Chris more then words how totally this man was in control of the group. Looking at the sharpshooter he corrected his impression. This man and the sharpshooter were thoroughly in control.
"Will Tanner recognize your gun?" the man asked. Chris didn't answer and again the rifle was pointed at Ezra.
"Yeah," he gritted out. God, he was getting seriously angry with it all.
"Would he come?"
Chris' eyes went to Ezra and he found the gambler was looking at him. Their eyes locked. "Yeah," Chris said softly, hating having to do it. He couldn't let them kill Ezra though.
"Good." The man in charge turned around and settled his attention on the prone figure of the gambler. "I guess this one is excessive baggage we'd perhaps better expose ourselves of."
"Sure thing, Mister Landon."
Chris attacked. He didn't care he was held by two men, he wasn't going to just stand there and watch while one of his men was shot.
Again something smashed him on the back of his head. Not as hard as the last time, but enough to bring him on his hands and feet. Helplessly he watched while the sharpshooter took aim and shot.
"Ezra," he whispered. Then hands grabbed him and he was dragged towards Standish's horse. He fought, first silently, then cursing them all, but he did end up on the horse, hands bound to the saddle horn. When they took off he couldn't do anything about it. He forced himself to take a last look backwards, take a last look at the gambler.
"Mourning?" the sharpshooter asked him with a grin. Chris looked at him.
"Taking a last look at the reason why I'll take you down slow," he said softly. "Coward."
The sharpshooter's eyes narrowed and something savage and ugly seemed to lurk inside. "Mercer!" the obviously wealthy leader admonished, a hard edge in his voice that told the gunslinger he had experience with his sharpshooter's temper.
"We need him, remember?"
The savagery inside the man broke through for a moment in an almost insane smile. "But only so long. I'm looking forward to the moment we no longer need you, gringo."
Chris grinned back and the sudden sharp intakes of breath around him, coupled with the immediate dying down of Mercer's smile told him his was at least as insane.
"Me too," he hissed. Then he swiveled that same smile on the leader, making sure the man got the message he was just as much on Chris' hit list.
It came through, the man looked away but not before Chris saw a hint of uncertainty in his eyes. Before they went into the grassy hills he looked back one more time. He couldn't see the body of the gambler anymore though, only the two men that had stayed behind with him.
Vin Tanner was a happy man. At first he had been disappointed he couldn't come with Chris on the judge's business like they had planned, or that Chris could come with him. But the hunt had gone great and it had been good to be out on his own for once. It was something he hadn't done in too long, living in town, reveling in the company of friends, true friends.
The two coyotes who had been on a killing spree amongst the live stock of the people living around Four Corners had been smart, conniving animals. They had led Vin on a merry chase, testing his tracking skills to it's limits.
Exhilarating! That's what it had been! Vin grinned thinking about what he would tell the silent gunslinger who had become such a close friend. He knew Larabee would much rather have gone with him instead of going to the nearby town of Dry Gulch to make sure the newly appointed sheriff there got the message he had better not fool around when it came to justice.
The judge had been adamant Chris should go. Josiah would have been the logical second choice, that man could almost be as intimidating as Larabee on a good day. Or Buck, Buck could scare people to hell and back.
Vin grinned. So could he, but Standish? Nevertheless, Chris had had no choice in the matter. Josiah had fallen off the church roof and Buck had had a not so pleasant meeting with an angry father this time. So when it became clear Vin needed to go hunting, it had become a choice between JD and Ezra, because Nathan was needed for the two wounded.
Chris had had the look of a thundercloud around him when Vin departed. He hadn't said a word to Buck ever since the so called accident.
Oh yes, Vin was looking forward to swapping tales and telling Chris about the peaceful, silent nights under the stars, the merry chase the two coyotes had taken him on and the infinite satisfaction to finally sigh them through his rifle scope. And off course about the great meal he had had from Miss Nettie Wells, complete with apple pie! A far cry from riding with a gambler who never seemed to stop talking.
Suddenly his eyes narrowed. I rider was coming towards him, waving at him imploringly. He didn't seem to mean him any harm, but Vin made sure the straps on his mare leg were loose before he took his rifle in hand, scanning the surroundings for more movements. He spotted another man, but too far away to be able to shoot him and therefore not an immediate threat. It made him feel uneasy though.
"Tanner?" the guy shouted, "Vin Tanner?"
"Who wants to know?"
"Just someone who thought ya wanted ta know 'bout yer friend. Look, you recognize this?"
Immediately Vin aimed and cocked his rifle. He recognized Chris' gun and rig immediately. "Where is he?" he hissed.
"I'm supposed to bring you to him."
"NOW! Tell me where he is right now!"
"Sorry, no can do. And if you take a shot at me, or try and take me back to town first, my friend," the man moved his head backwards and to the left to indicate the person in the distance Vin had already spotted, "will ride off right now and tell my boss. I don't think you'd wanna know what 'll happen to that cocky gunslinger. I heard something 'bout sending him back to ya a small piece a time."
Although Vin was sure the man was exaggerating, Chris would probably be killed when he didn't come. But Chris wasn't the only one to worry about. If Chris had been taken now, it must have been while he was running the judge's errand and he hadn't been alone for that.
"The man who was with 'em?"
"You mean that fancy gambler?" The man shrugged. "Boss decided he only needed Lar'bee and the gambler would be too much trouble. So they killed him."
Vin almost shot the man after all. It was only by an extreme effort of will that he managed not to hurt him in any way. He still had Chris to consider.
But oh God, Ezra!
"How'd I know Chris ain't dead as well?"
"You don't, except that the boss wants yer services and he seems to think he needs something else but money ta convince ya to take it."
"Shit! Landon! He tried to get me to track his wife and sons down."
"Could be," the hired gun said indifferently. "Ain't gonna discuss his business with you. My job right now is to get ya to him."
"Bastard," Vin hissed. "Why can't he leave her alone? Wasn't like he wanted her around anyhow, the way he treated her. Yeah, I heard about how he hit her. So, we goin' to his ranch?"
"Nope. But first I'll take yer weapons, if'n ya please?" There was an ugly grin on the man's face while he held his hands out commandingly. Vin hesitated until his eyes fell on Chris' gun again. He knew he had no choice, he wasn't going to risk Chris' life as well.
God, Ezra, they'll pay. They'll all pay, I promise!
Reluctantly he gave the man his rifle and mare leg. "Knife too!" It followed, but when Vin slammed it down in the open palm, he couldn't help adding, "Take care of it fer me, I need it later on ta take yer scalp."
"So it's true. Vin Tanner is no better then the savages."
"Better 'n a stupid killer who yaps more 'n he should and leaps for someone else." His own rifle came rushing through the air and Vin hastily backed away from it. He couldn't prevent it from grazing his temple, almost knocking him out. When he was sitting again without wavering, he glared at the man.
"Yer a dead man walkin', ya know that, don't ya? 'Cause if'n Chris don't get ya, I will."
"I think yer all talk and no guts, Tanner. That's what I think. Just like those stupid savages you seem to like so much, judged on yer clothing. Mister Landon will soon have ya tamed though. Now, put yer hands on yer saddle horn, I'm gonna tie y' up, jist to be sure. Savages ya gotta be careful with."
Vin refrained from answering and only stared at the man. It made Landon's man nervous after a while, but he didn't stop tying Vin up thoroughly and checking his work afterwards. Taking Peso's rein he smiled at the glowering captive.
"Guess we'll tame ya yet, savage. Now, let's go and see if'n we can be on time to stop them from doing something to Lar'bee. Or maybe it would be fun to be a day late and see what they've come up with." Without waiting for any kind of reaction he kicked his horse and soon had them on their way in a wild gallop.
Vin held on stoically. He had to safe Chris, that was all there was to it. In any way possible. He knew they would be dead the moment Landon had his wife and sons back, but at least they would be alive for a while longer. Sometimes all it took was a little time to make things better.
He didn't regret giving up his guns, saving Chris was the only thing of any importance right now. He didn't think he could take it if he lost another friend. Especially the enigmatic gunslinger whom he had felt close to from the beginning.
But oh God, Ezra!
He didn't want to move, really he didn't. It was just that he had people depending on him now and he had to do something, had to help them.
What a mess. Mother would be appalled about this new attitude of his, but he wasn't going to let his friends be in danger without trying to do something about it.
"Get up, Ezra. You have to move even if it were only out of self preservation."
Opening his eyes was a chore, especially with the sun glaring down at him. He did hope those reprobates had left him his hat. He wouldn't put it past them to rob from the dead, they had seemed those kind of guys.
Gingerly he sat up and looked around. Ah, there it was. Good, the last thing he needed on top of his worries was a sun stroke. But first things first…. Moving gingerly he reached with his right hand into the inside left breast pocket of his coat and retrieved a beautifully crafted small silver looking flask. Underneath the top layer of silver could be seen the strong steel where the bullet had nicked the small flask and he sighed. Another scar to the dutiful task this small token had performed again so diligently, keeping a bullet from entering his heart. He looked at the dent right in the middle of it where it had stopped a bullet before. Then he looked at the wound where the bullet, pushed off course by the flask, had traveled through his flesh. Only flesh, thank God! It was bleeding profusely though and it hurt, it hurt severely.
Despite the pain and the way everything around him seemed to waver, he managed to get the flask opened and took a healthy swig.
"To you, Monty," he said softly, saluting the blue sky above him with the flask. "To you and your very sound advise all those years ago. The derringer and now also this little token of your affection have saved my life more times than I like to count." Another swallow and the flask was put back into place.
The movements tore at the ragged wound and Ezra grimaced. It might not be deadly, it wasn't good either. Actually he didn't know whether to be happy or not at this new course of events. The small, strong flagon had not stopped the bullet, only deflected it and thus having it make a wound after all. A wound hat was no small nuisance. On the other hand, the bleeding had convinced the outlaws he really was dead.
That, and the extreme arrogance of their sharpshooter. It seemed the man was not used to missing a shot.
Enough of this musing now, he had work to do! He had to try and safe his comrades. With a groan and a grunt and than with some more groans and some muttered curses about the unfairness of life and the particular unfairness of life to people associating themselves with a highhanded, ornery gunslinger and an equally unfathomable tracker, he managed to get himself on his feet and walking.
The two had managed to drag him into their mess and now it was up to him to try and get them out of it, whether he was hurting and bleeding or not. With a sigh he took out his new silk bandana and taking it in his right hand, he pushed it under his jacket and onto the entry wound, pressing hard to try and stop the bleeding. Trouble was that most blood probably came from the exit wound he felt burning and there was no way for him to reach there.
He pushed the bandana on the wound one more time and then clamped down on it with his left arm. Trying not to think about the blood, the way his ribs hurt and the numerous bruises he was sure were adorning his body, he kept walking.
Stumbling, almost falling and righting himself just in time so he didn't end flat on his nose.
Walking some more.
Walking…. No, wait, actually he was standing still, swaying slightly and feeling decidedly sick. That would not do. Lord knows it was still a good long way to Four Corners. Alright, it wasn't, but it was when one was on foot, dragging through this awful desolate country. All grass and hardly any trees as far as the eye could see. No building, no streets, no happy people walking around in their finery, no saloons filled with music and laughter.
Grass, all he could see was grass. And a horse.
Ezra stopped dead in his track, gazing at the dark apparition. After a while he moved again, carefully approaching the specter and the closer he came, the more convinced he was that it was indeed a horse. A very black horse, grazing peacefully.
No, not peacefully. It had seen him and immediately its head had snapped up, the eyes regarding him now with something he feared was akin to hostility.
A head with a white star on it.
"Pony? Is that you?"
Oh, it could be, it could very well be. When Chris had been shot and carried out of the saddle by the impact of the bullet, Pony had ran on, clearly unnerved by what was happening.
"Whoa, easy boy, easy…." Yes, it was Pony, no doubt about it, now that he was close enough to see him clearly. Ezra stood very quiet once again, trying to radiate calm and peace to the animal. He vaguely remembered Chris telling JD that a horse sensed your moods and a calm, peaceful demeanor came a long way in handling them. So he tried, he really tried, only he wanted so much to just run to the beast, grab him, mount and get to Four Corners, fast.
As soon as he approached the animal again, Pony danced away. Silently Ezra cursed him for being as cantankerous and bad-tempered as his boss. Now, his own horse, Chester, that was a whole different story. If ever there was a sweet horse to be found, it was his beautiful chestnut.
Taking a deep breath he tried again to radiate peace and calm, in the mean time whispering soothingly.
"Everything is fine, you idiotic savage of a beast. All is well, I am not here to hurt you at all, even though you are as evil as your boss. Whoa, whoa, easy, easy, boy. Don't you know we have to help that idiot of a boss of yours? Yes, we have to save his hide, you thick-witted, no good black devil. Hooo, hoooo, there! Now, was that so bad?" Triumphantly Ezra held the reins to the willful horse, but he knew he wasn't there yet. He felt weak and lightheaded, but he couldn't get around it, he had to climb this dark fiend. Keeping an eye on snapping teeth, he carefully approached the stirrup, only to have Pony turn away from him. This happened again and then again, leaving Ezra dizzy and about to fall flat on his face.
"Enough!" he finally yelled, yanking hard at the rein. This surprised the fierce gelding so much, he stopped dancing around long enough for Ezra to mount. Pony didn't seem happy to have him on his back and was turning around and around, fighting the bit until Ezra finally yelled "Stop it!" and gave another hard yank at the rein. Again it seemed to surprise Pony enough to stop his tricks.
"I wonder if that would help with your boss too? All the misery he would undoubtedly heap on my head later on would be worth the expression on his face when I would try this. Oh my, oh my!" Hastily Ezra urged the horse into a trot when he became restless again. It seemed to be the trick, because soon they were loping through the grassy hills.
Ezra turned Pony into a circle at first, unsure whether to follow the men who had captured Chris and see if he could free him, or to go to Four Corners post haste, to get help. For a moment he was at a loss what to do, but a wave of dizziness that nearly spilled him out of the saddle decided. He might catch up with the gang and Mister Larabee, if he would be able to try and help his unofficial leader once he was there, was another matter entirely.
He would probably just fall flat on his face and get killed after all. No, going to Four Corners and muster the troops was by far the surest bet of the two.
Kicking Pony into full trot, he was finally and truly on his way to Four Corners and to help for his two wayward friends. Perhaps with Pony under him he could even reach Vin before those miscreants could. It probably all depended on how long he had been unconscious.
And then he turned the reins again, hard. It just didn't sit right, leaving Chris in the hands of those murderers. He couldn't run out on him like this!
It might take him too long to get to Four Corners and then back again with the others. Telling himself he was a stupid idiot all the time, he nevertheless followed the trail the gang had left. It wouldn't be long before he would probably lose it, but he'd heard them say where the two men they'd sent to get Vin had to bring him.
Dawson Creek. He knew where that was.
Vin didn't like what he saw at all. Chris was laying all curled up near a tree he was obviously tied to and didn't even look up when he and his two guards rode into the small camp. Vin's attention was taken from the black clad gunslinger by an man in buckskin sauntering up, rifle in the nook of his arm.
"Mercer. I heard from these two you've become a murderer now."
"Really?" The man's dark eyes narrowed slightly when he looked at his two partners in crime. One of them, the one who had rode up to Vin, shrugged in obvious disinterest.
"He asked 'bout that gambler and I told 'im you shot 'im. Thought it gave him a good idea what we're capable off if he decided not to cooperate."
"Guess I can't fault ya for that," Mercer said ruefully. "Come Tanner, I'll introduce ya to yer new boss."
Vin snorted. He dismounted, but instead of following Mercer who headed off to the creek, not even bothering to look back and see if his unwilling guest was following him, he went to Chris. His friend's eyes were hooded, but coming closer Vin saw that his first impression had been wrong. Chris didn't show it, but he was taking in everything that was going on. He kneeled beside the gunslinger, putting a hand on his shoulder. A shudder went through the lean frame and he felt Chris try and twist his shoulder away, followed by a gasp and a groan.
Hastily Vin looked closer, pushing the long, black duster out of the way. He took in the blood soaked bandage and a sharp, hot anger rose up in him.
"Damn it Vin, I told ya to follow me!"
Mercer. Vin didn't think, but acted on all the pent up frustration and anger inside him. In one fluent motion he was up and pivoting around, landing his fist square in the middle of Mercer's face. A bone could be heard cracking, followed by a howl of pain. Mercer jumped back, his hand cradling his nose. Blood could be seen dripping through his fingers.
"You bastard," he shrieked. "You'll pay for that!"
Vin ignored him and kneeled back beside Chris, who was looking with intense satisfaction at the howling sharpshooter.
"We'll get them all, Chris. Right now I gotta take care of that wound."
"He's mine," Chris rasped softly, his eyes still on the now cursing man. Vin shrugged. "I'll jist get me some of the others then. I'm gonna take this off, Chris and get the wound cleaned. Bullet is out?"
"Yeah." Said breathlessly and Vin felt Chris shudder for a moment.
"I'll live. Watch it, there's Landon."
Vin looked back, curious as to what man would go to such lengths to retrieve his runaway wife. What he saw didn't make him feel any better about the situation. A man who was obviously wealthy and used to showing his richness off came over. But it was the cruelty he saw in the handsome face that made Vin shudder.
"Looks like bad news."
"Yeah, he sure is enjoying himself." There was something in Chris' tone that made Vin look back at his friend. The green eyes were glittering with a deep hate.
"Chris? What'd he do?"
"Oh, he prefers to watch. Lets the others do it." A moment of silence, then Chris added softly, "He ordered Ezra killed." The coldness in his voice made Vin shudder. Chris wanted this man as badly as he wanted Mercer, that much was obvious.
Heavy footsteps stopped right behind Vin. "Mister Tanner?" a deep, rich baritone asked. Exchanging one last look with his friend, Vin stood up and turned around.
"Landon? I see ya don't take no fer an answer?"
"I did point out to you in my second telegram how important this matter is to me. After all, the woman took my two sons with her."
"Word is ya beat her up and had started on her sons. I ain't helpin' ya with that."
"No, you rather beat up former friends, I see." Landon looked at Mercer who was still clutching his nose and shook his head. "We really can't have that, Mister Tanner. Didn't my associates explain the situation to you? You do as you are told and Mister Larabee here will stay relatively healthy. You don't and Mister Larabee is the one who will suffer. After all, I do need you in good shape, you have work to do."
The words and especially the satisfied tone in which they were said made Vin's blood run cold. "They only told me ya had Chris and if'n I didn't wanna have 'im killed, I better come with them. They didn't say anythin' 'bout… 'bout that."
"Ah. I guess it was a regrettable misunderstanding then," Landon said. He was looking at Chris with something like regret. "I had thought of having Mercer break your friend's nose in retaliation, but if you didn't know…. Ah well, I can't let this go unpunished. Mercer?"
Instantly Vin moved before Chris, while the gunslinger struggled to get into a sitting position, which wasn't easy with his hands secured tightly to the tree behind his back.
"I rather make Vin pay himself," Mercer said angrily. "Bastard just turned and hit! I wanna break his nose too."
"Curly, you come over here and look at Mercer's nose. See what you can do." The man then looked at Vin thoughtfully. "I do want him to be in good shape to do his job, Mercer." His eyes went to Chris who was sitting now and glaring at him. "So either you take it out on the gunslinger, or…. Yes, maybe Mister Tanner would agree to take the punishment himself after he has found my family for me. That way you can take it out on him like you wanted. Can you wait?"
Mercer's eyes glittered with rage from behind Curly. "As long as I can make him pay, yeah, I can wait. Aah, Curly, that hurt! But I think he should know what'll happen when he does something we don't like, Landon. Make sure he knows how things stand."
A smile creased Landon's face, a smile Vin didn't like at all, or the look he sent Chris.
"I did tell him, Mercer."
"Damn it Curly, are you done? Get yer hands off my nose! Ah! What did you do?"
"I set it," Curly said matter of factly. "You don't touch it, it should be alright. Should hurt less now, too."
"Curly, I swear, one day…. Damn, it does hurt less." Carefully wiping the blood from under his nose without touching his treated body part, he walked over to Landon. "Way I see it, Mister Landon, sometimes words ain't enough. I know Tanner, he'll defy you every way unless you make it very clear what'll happen if he does."
Landon nodded. "Perhaps you're right. Do it." A dangerous glitter had appeared in his eyes while he kept looking at Chris. With a desperate determination on his face Chris pulled up his legs, making himself as small a target as possible.
"Chris?" Vin asked hesitantly.
Chris didn't acknowledge Vin's questioning voice, his eyes were on Mercer and his body radiated readiness. When Mercer stepped up to him, Vin knew he wasn't planning anything good, so he kept himself between the man and Chris.
"Damn it, Mercer. What ya gonna do? How did ya turn out like this? We rode together, man! Now you murder people and even beat up on someone who's helpless?"
"You see, Mister Landon?"
"Mister Tanner, you better step aside. I told you, if you do something I do not like, your friend will pay. Curly, Thomason." With a snarl Vin jumped at Mercer, only to be grabbed by the other two men.
"Let me go! I'm gonna kill that murdering son of a bitch! I'm gonna make him pay for killing Ezra! And then…. No! You coward, leave 'im alone!"
Mercer had advanced on Chris. Chris kicked out, but Mercer avoided his legs easily. He stepped in, grabbed Chris by his hair and slammed the blond head against the tree behind him. Chris grunted and he grunted again when a fist connected with his abdomen.
"NO!" Vin yelled, kicking at the two men holding him.
"I'm afraid you're only making his punishment worse, Mister Tanner. Please behave. I had hoped to keep Mister Larabee in a shape he would be able to sit a horse unaided. Being thrown over a horse like a sack of grain seems so uncomfortable."
"Stop him, stop Mercer!"
"All I want is to ensure your cooperation, Mister Tanner. That is all I want." The way he was enjoying the beating Chris received said otherwise, but Vin could only grab onto the hope that in some way the man meant what he said.
"You… you got it," he whispered. "I'll track fer ya. I will! I… I'll do what you say."
"It is a deal?"
"Y… yeah, you bastard!"
"And can we conduct our business without the name calling, please?"
Vin glared at him, but when he heard again the sound of fists connecting with flesh and the involuntary cry of his friend he nodded.
"Do I take it that this was a yes?"
"Good. Mercer, you better stop before there is nothing left of Mister Larabee."
Mercer stopped. He stood up and smiled down on Chris. The smile was chilling and Vin felt a shiver run up his spine.
"Damn it, Mercer," he whispered. "Ya used ta be fun to hang out with, what happened to ya?"
"Revenge happened, Tanner. Revenge. You know the girl I was seeing? We were gonna marry, you know, but then she was murdered, murdered real viciously. People in town said she deserved it for loving some filthy half breed like me. Well, I've made them eat their words and then I tracked down her killers. Made them beg and beg again 'fore I finally left them to die and rot on their own."
"Chris never did anythin' to ya!"
"He's still a white man. Come to think of it, so are you, Vin. Ya can carry around a medicine pouch all ya want, yer still white and that makes all the difference, doesn't it?"
Vin swallowed. It did and he knew it. Still, it didn't change the fact that this man he had once considered a friend had now turned into a murderer and torturer.
"Landon's white," he said softly.
"Landon's the only one who took me in. After I revenged Rita's death, there was nothing left for me, nothing. I'd gotten hurt catching them and I'd done nothing for myself in all the time I made them bastards pay, so I was in a pretty bad shape. Truth to tell, I was ready to die, but then Mister Landon found me and took care of me."
"Oh, enough of that, Mercer. You do not owe that man you're life's story or any explanation. Come on, men, let's think about diner."
"You're right," Mercer said softly, giving Vin on last, scalding look. Then all four men left, leaving Vin behind. Hastily he kneeled beside Chris. Chris was down on his side again, curled up.
Dull green eyes opened and Vin hissed in dismay. "God Chris, I'm sorry, I'm so damn sorry!"
"Whadda ya mean, why? If it weren't fer me, ya wouldn't be here!"
"Didn't know you… for someone… talking n… nonsense."
"If I'd taken the job when that bastard sent me a telegram, this wouldn't have happened and Ez… Shit, he really dead like they said?"
Chris squeezed his eyes shut. He kept silent and Vin decided it would be better if he checked his friend out. Ignoring the bullet wound for now, he first looked for other injuries. Carefully he peeled the black duster and coal grey shirt further away, so he could see most of Chris' torso. The bruises he found made him wince. They weren't all from Mercer's beating either, some seemed older. There were bleeding cuts as well.
"Sick fucks," he hissed. Carefully he probed his friend, but at least nothing seemed to be broken. That brought his attention back to the bullet wound.
"I think I gotta give this a good look, Chris."
"I kn… know."
The answer startled the tracker. Truth to tell he'd thought Chris had lost consciousness, but apparently not. He tried to be careful with taking off the bandage, but the occasional hiss told him he was hurting Chris anyway. When he finally exposed the wound, he growled.
"God, Chris, what 'd they do?"
"Mercer… said he needed to… look for it, for… the bullet." Pain filled looked up at him. "I think he just… enjoyed d… digging in there." With an angry hiss he added softly, "Landon sure liked to w… watch."
Vin felt sick. The wound looked like someone had taken a knife and twisted it around in there, cutting every way.
Butchered, that was the only word coming to him.
Angrily he tried to wipe the blood from his hands on his pant legs. "Gotta get me some stuff to take care of it, be right back." He didn't get an answer and he didn't expect one either. He strode over to the fire Landon's men had made.
"Tanner, you care to join us?" the rich rancher asked. Vin looked at him and let all his hate pour out of his eyes. It only made Landon smile. "Please Mister Tanner, I have been on the receiving end of many a glare worse than that. Your friend has given me plenty of those as well. Please sit, we were about to play a game of cards until the stew is done."
For a moment Vin looked incredulously at the man. Then he laughed, a harsh laugh that didn't reach his eyes. "Yer funny, mister, pretendin' ev'rythin' 's alright. Ya don't even know yer a walkin' dead man."
"Oh, I'm fully aware that you would kill us all in an instance given the chance. We will just not give you that chance. Could we spare the theatrics now and get on with this business at hand as pleasantly as we can?"
Now Vin couldn't stop a smirk from appearing. "Ain't talkin' 'bout me," he said softly. "And I'm here ta get some stuff I need for Chris' wounds. I'll need some alcohol and bandages. I recognize those fine saddlebags over there. Seems y'all are thieves as well, stealing from a dead man. I know there's bandages in them."
"We know as well, the gambler had already pointed them out to us. You can see if there's still some left. Here's some rot gut, that'll do just fine. Oh, is there something else?"
"Yeah, I want him off that tree. Ya don't need to keep him chained up like that."
"Oh, but I think we do. As a matter of fact, we have a chain just like his waiting for you. As soon as you have seen to Mister Larabee and your own needs, we will chain you to a tree as well. I know we have a business arrangement, but I have the feeling you will try to get out of it. At least this way we all get to sleep tonight."
It took a big effort, but Vin managed not to jump the smug man. It was the thought that Chris would pay if he tried anything and couldn't pull it off that stopped him. He was seething though when he got back to Chris.
No words were spoken, they weren't needed. Vin cleaned the wound and gave it a thorough douse of whiskey. He made a pad of one bandage and bound it tight over the wound with another one, hoping it would stop the bleeding. Finally he got Chris up again and helped him drink all the rest of the whiskey. When he'd finished, Chris had a decidedly glassy look in his eyes, which suited Vin just fine. It would mean the man was in less pain. Thomason came over to give him some stew and Landon's message that he expected the tracker to keep himself in top shape for the coming job.
"Don't make no sense," Vin said softly to Thomason, looking at the stew. "Why all the trouble ta git his wife back? He don't even love her."
"Love's stupid," the man sneered, before he walked away. "He just wants his sons back," he threw at the tracker over his shoulder. "Can't fault a man for that!"
Vin turned towards Chris with the stew and saw the closed look on the gunslinger's face. A look Vin knew very well, it was the look he got when something remembered him of his lost family. "Don't go there, Cowboy," he firmly stated. "There's no way we'll let him get his hands on her and her kids, ya know that. Here, try and eat somethin'."
Chris shook his head and let himself slip sideways until he was laying on the ground again. His eyes closed and Vin shook his head. He knew Chris already likened the woman and her sons to Sarah and Adam.
"We'll get them for what they've done, Chris," he whispered. With a sudden pang he thought about Ezra. The man sure was something else, but damn if he didn't grow on you.
He couldn't believe he would never see him again, or hear him complain. He just couldn't.
Ezra Standish had had enough. Enough of the dust that had permeated his quality attire everywhere. Enough of the hunger in his belly the one hard piece of jerky he'd found in Chris' saddlebags had done nothing to alleviate. But most of all he had had enough of the black horse Chris so affectionately called Pony.
Pony! Ezra snorted. Black Devil or Satan would be far more appropriate names! At least he had managed to get back on after he'd decided he'd better stop and try and bandage his wound. Getting off had been no problem, getting back on had left him dizzy and in extravagant pain.
All thanks to this horrible horse that just wouldn't do what he wanted!
It had seemed so simple. Ride to Dawson Creek, try and get there before the two men who had gone and fetched Vin were there - and free Chris.
He had already seen the bulk of Mister Landon's men heading the other way, a way that probably would lead them back to the Landon Ranch. That had been surprising, until Ezra's own devious insight in mankind provided him with the answer. Whatever this man wanted Vin for, it promised a profit and the boss didn't seem willing to share.
The man had seemed too rich to be after a five hundred dollar bounty though and that left Ezra wondering. He had thought of numerous possibilities, but they didn't make sense, none of them made sense.
He was probably after Vin's tracker skills, that made the most sense as Landon already had a very good sharpshooter on his pay roll, a sharpshooter he thought could give Vin a run for his money. Then he remembered something Vin and Chris had been talking about, something about a telegram from a man who wanted Vin to track down his wife who had left him. Buck had heard enough of the conversation as well to barge in and tell Vin flatly that the wife had every reason to leave the bastard, who's name Ezra still hadn't heard, because he'd been beating up on her for years now.
"Tilly told me he's started on them two kids as well, so I guess that's why she finally decided to run. You don't help that bastard get his hands on them again, Vin! Or so help me God, I'll break your neck. Oh, maybe not your neck," he had amended after Chris' glare, "but I'll break something!"
Would that man be Landon, he now wondered. Determined to have Vin aid him despite his negative response to the telegrams he'd sent? Ah well, he would find out eventually.
He was close to Dawson Creek now. It was just that he was so tired. And it was dark, he never felt comfortable riding in the dark. He knew too well what mishaps could befall a man when he didn't have a clear view of the road he was traveling. Anything could make a horse fall down, anything that could be avoided during the daytime, but became an invisible pitfall in the black of night.
Still, he was so close….
Suddenly Ezra realized Pony was standing still. He swore. Why couldn't the beast stay on track and on the move like his own lovely horse would have done? It seemed to go out of its way to spite him! If he didn't know better he would have sworn he heard a soft snicker coming from the hell beast!
Strange, Mister Larabee never seemed to have any problems with him.
It was the wound, that was it! His wound, his bruises, his pain, his blood loss…. It all made him unable to deal with the steed. Looking around himself he decided that on second thought he could understand why Pony had stopped. It was pitch dark around him. With a sigh he realized it would mean camping. And that all by himself, with no one to share the burdens with….
God, how he detested camping! He should have stuck to his original plan and gone to Four Corners!
As if his thought conjured him up, he saw Chris before him, bound and bleeding and still trying to fight the whole gang in order to safe him. It had touched him, the desperate way Chris had kicked and fought, the anguish in his eyes…. Anguish for him.
He still couldn't believe he had seen that. He knew he had seen it, but he still couldn't believe it. Like he still couldn't get his mind around the fact that a man like Chris Larabee wanted to hang out with a man like him. Why had Chris asked him to come to the Seminole Village that day? And why had he given him a second chance and had never kicked him out of the group? They didn't have much contact, didn't talk much at all and mostly when they did it wasn't in the most friendly of way's, but still… Chris had been willing to fight for him. And he had practically shouted for Ezra to get to safety after he was shot.
The man was an enigma. An enigma he couldn't seem to get out of his thoughts from the moment they had met in the saloon and the gunslinger had told him he saw right through his little charade.
He would be damned if he let some lowlifes take Chris' life. Or the life of Vin Tanner for that matter, a man he had even less dealings with then with their unofficial leader. It was the other four in their group he had the most contact with. But still it felt like they were seven and he suddenly realized he liked to be part of this rag tag group of odd men, who all had something uncommon and strange about them.
Not unlike himself.
Actually, this last year had been the most fun he had had in his entire life. And he wasn't going to let a phony like Landon take it away from him.
With new determination he slit from Pony's back and took the horse to a nearby tree.
"I am sorry, friend, but I will not unsaddle you. One night in full tack won't kill you, but trying to saddle you in the morning will definitely kill me, I am afraid. I must say I am terribly happy you cannot talk though, as I fear Mister Larabee might kill me if he ever found out how I treated his horse. I will take out the bit so you can enjoy the meal of grass you are standing in and I will search Mister Larabee's belongings to see if he carries some oats for you."
Mister Larabee did and also an additional piece of jerky and even two dried apples. His bedroll was as Ezra had feared, Spartan. He had no choice though, his own fine woolen blankets had been on Chester and were out of his reach for now. Briefly he wondered if they would let Chris use them, but he feared not. Ah, and trust Mister Larabee, a bottle of whiskey! The cheap kind, but still a good remedy against the pain.
For a brief moment Ezra debated if he should take care of his wound again now, or in the morning. In the end fatigue won out, he just didn't have the energy for it right now. After having made sure Chris' rifle was within hand reach and after taking off his boots, he rolled himself in Chris' bedroll and soon fell into a feverish sleep, full of dreams in which he tried to free Chris and Vin, but failing miserably in each and every one of them.
The next morning the chains were finally taken off. Chris could barely get up, having stiffened up in the day and night he had been kept chained to the tree. Not looking at anyone he limped away to take care of himself .
He tried to ignore Thomason, who stayed embarrassingly near as he relieved himself. When he stared longingly at the creek water, so clear and clean, he heard the man's chuckles. "Don't think Landon would let ya do that. Or maybe he would, he'd sure like to watch."
Chris shivered, remembering those cold eyes in which something malevolent seemed to lurk and decided he didn't need a bath that much. There was something sickening in the way Landon seemed to enjoy watching others in their misery.
He would be damned if he'd let the bastard get his wife and sons back.
He did walk over to the creek and took a long drink of the fresh water. Thomason didn't seem to mind. He lounged on a rock nearby and stared at the rippling water where it reflected the sunlight.
"Why you ride with someone like Landon?" Chris asked softly. He had seen the cruel streaks of Landon and Mercer and he had the feeling Curly was the same, but this man seemed… normal.
"It's more then that. He didn't want the rest of his men to come on this trip, only you and Curly. So there's more connection here then money."
The head turned and lazy eyes looked at the gunslinger. A smile split Thomason's face. ,,Maybe I like to watch too."
The man looked away again. "Nah, not really. I just don't care, never did. He pays me and besides, he's family, my uncle. I don't care one damn about you, that tracker or Landon's wife for that matter." When he looked back at Chris, he smiled a lazy smile. "Not even 'bout his brats. Only thing that annoys me now and then is the screaming. I'll just take off if it gets on my nerves." He stood up and stretched. "Now let's get back to camp, Landon wanted to head out on time." With a snort he added, "His version of on time off course."
Chris wasn't chained to the tree again. Instead he was given a mug of strong, hot, very good coffee and some bread and meat. "Better eat 'n drink it all," Curly, who gave it to him, said. "We're moving soon."
While the other three kept a close guard on him, Vin was set free as well. Again it was Thomason who followed, when Vin went away to take care of morning business. Vin came back with his hair wet, he had obviously refreshed himself at the creek. He was told to sit on the other side of the fire, away from Chris. At some point breakfast suddenly turned into a hasty affair and soon everyone was busy taking care of the horses and getting the camp cleaned up. Everyone but Chris, who wasn't willing to move a muscle anyway.
Alright, it was more that he wasn't capable of moving a muscle….
Too soon Mercer came over. "Stand up," he growled. Chris looked up at him, estimating what it would cost him to jump on the man. A slow smile crossed Mercer's features.
"Why don't you?"
Chris sighed and got up. Mercer had his arm before he could topple over and end on the ground again.
"Whoa! We wouldn't want ya to go hurting yerself now, would we?" Again that self satisfied smirk, so Chris decided what the hell and butted the man in the face with his head. He aimed for the nose Vin had broken and felt a deep satisfaction when he did hit it. While Mercer let go of him, howling and holding his nose like he had yesterday, he gave the man a savage kick against his knee cap, hoping to do some real damage, hissed "That's for Ezra and it's just for starters" and then he limped towards Chester before one of the others could come at him.
He saw with some interest Vin was sitting on the ground, one hand rubbing his head. Landon, Curly and Thomason had their guns out and were covering his every move with them. He ignored them.
"Bastard over there," a curt nod was given in the general direction of Thomason and was immediately followed by a grimace of pain, "clubbed me from behind the moment you got Mercer."
Chris sighed and nodded. "They're all cowards, that's a fact. Don't worry, we'll get them eventually."
Vin grinned. "Don't doubt it for a minute, Cowboy."
"Good." After all, he always did get the ones he was after, even if it took him weeks like it had in Jericho. He would have been dead himself if his friends hadn't barged in just at the time he had managed to kill the Warden of the prison he'd been in and had escaped the hole, but he did get the bastard and his lackey Quince all by himself.
He had reached Chester and was looking with some dismay at the saddle. "I'll help." Vin was suddenly beside him, giving him a boost. When he was on the horse Chris squeezed his eyes shut and swallowed a couple of times until he was certain he wasn't going to get sick. He looked at Vin and then Vin was gone and Curly was looking up at him.
"I had to set Mercer's nose again," he said, disgust evident in his voice. "God, but that man can yell! Landon ain't pleased at all. Now he's gotta keep a tight rein on Mercer to try and stop him from killing you. He's already had ta promise Mercer he can have a go at you once this is all over. Alright, get yer hands on yer saddle horn, I'm gonna tie you up."
Chris was contemplating some more rebellion when Curly grabbed his hands with a savage pull that made him almost fall out of the saddle and wound some rope around his wrists. Not to gentle and damn tight.
"So why would Vin help Landon if you're gonna kill us anyway?" he asked when Curly was almost done.
Curly grinned. "Who says anything 'bout killing? But yer not gonna be the men ya was after Mercer's through with you. He really has it in for the both of you now."
"Mercer seems to like taking revenge." Chris remembered what Mercer had told Vin the other day, a story that had left him feeling cold all over. He'd been on that same road of revenge and Mercer's story had given him a vision of what could have become of him. It wasn't a vision he'd enjoyed.
"Yep, that he does. Yer hands are all tied up now and I made sure yer gonna wish ya didn't have hands by the end of the day. All nice and tight." Laughing the man walked off. Landon came over and looked at Curly's work, shaking his head when he saw the ropes cut into Chris' flesh.
"My, my. I guess I better keep an eye on you."
"I bet you would." Chris looked at the man beside him, the one who was the real problem here. He was the one with the appetite and the money to indulge in it, surrounding himself with men who liked the same things or simply didn't give a damn.
No, he wasn't going to have that sadist get his hands on his wife and kids. He looked over at Vin and found the tracker was already watching him. A silent nod and his mind was at ease.
Vin wouldn't let Landon get his family back either.
"Mercer, keep yourself in hand!" Landon called out before he threw the reins of Chester to the cursing man. Chris sighed. Even if he didn't get beaten up again, it would be a hard day.
"You gonna let him get away with this?" Mercer hollered.
"For now I am, Mercer. I want this show on the road. Tanner, I'll take you to the spot where my men and me lost the bitch. She hasn't gone to any of the nearby towns and villages, we checked those out. I guess she knows I would find her there. So this is the point from where you have to start."
He and Vin rode off, Vin giving him a last look before following Landon. With a sigh Chris settled himself for the abuse he knew would come now that Landon wasn't there to keep his men in line.
It didn't matter, he would survive. One way or another he would survive and make sure Vin would to. And he would take them all down.
Vin hadn't been sure at first what he should do. He had soon found the tracks of Landon's wife and sons. A carriage after all wasn't that difficult to follow, especially once it left the road, so it didn't take him long to discover their tracks again. He immediately saw that two horses had joined the carriage. It could have meant danger for the woman and two kids off course, but frankly Vin didn't think so. She had had help to cover her tracks from Dawson Creek until this point and that seemed to indicate friends had joined her.
Good, he hadn't liked the idea of a woman alone with two kids in the wilderness they were traveling to. Although, he thought grinning, if it had been Nettie Wells he wouldn't have had a worry in the world about it! Nah, he would have tracked her down and have her deal with Landon personally.
The thought brought a smile to his face, but when he looked back the smile was soon gone. Bastard Mercer, he was harassing Chris, he could see it. And Chris was in pain, he could see that too. He wanted to kill the man who had already murdered Ezra so badly, he could almost taste it.
Forcing himself to calm down and keep in mind his raging wouldn't do Chris any good, he again looked at the tracks. Was he going to follow them for a while to make it all look more convincing, or should he set them on another route immediately? He pondered a moment and then decided he could take a chance and follow the week old tracks for starters. They would make his apparent cooperation more believable and that would hopefully keep Chris off the hook for a while longer.
Although, truth to tell, he didn't think they would leave Chris alone come evening. Not after the stunt Larabee had pulled with Mercer. Damn that stupid, ornery bastard, when was he gonna learn to watch out for himself?
Landon rode up. "You found something?"
"Yeah. Here's where her tracks go on." He had decided not to tell about the two horses that had joined the carriage, he wasn't going to give the man any more information then he had too to keep Chris safe.
"Good, good, I knew you wouldn't let me down, Mister Tanner."
"Not yet, but I'm sure gonna try."
That made Landon laugh. "Fine by me, son, fine by me! I'll enjoy the show when Mercer works that cocky gunslinger over after your try." Still laughing he rode back to his men.
Cold hearted basterd….
Before Vin moved on he scanned his surroundings like he always did and something made him catch his breath. Had he just seen movement over on that hill? Neutrally looking away, he made another sweep over the area, but this time there was nothing to see. He shook it off and moved on.
Over the course of the day he became convinced he hadn't imagined things, he did spot movements from time to time. Sometimes to the left of them, sometimes to the right, but even if he didn't see anything for a few hours and he was ready to forget the whole thing, he would catch another glimpse.
At lunch break, while the horses were resting, he looked at Chris. They stared at each other for a moment and then Chris made a small movement with his head to the right and slightly behind him.
Yes, Chris had noticed their shadow as well and would be prepared.
As prepared as he could be, all tied up to his horse. Vin looked with dismay at the bleeding wrists of his friend, the deep, ragged lines where the ropes had bitten into the flesh clearly visible.
He shuddered just thinking what Nathan would say. Chris snorted and when he looked up he saw the understanding in the green eyes. They shared a silent laugh about their healer friend and then Mercer backhanded Chris savagely across his face, making his head snap back. Vin was already on his feet, but guns were drawn on Chris, so all he could do was stand there in silent rage while they forced the gunslinger back on Chester. He couldn't contain himself from running forward when he saw how tight the ropes were tied around those slender wrists again and how hard Chris tried not to cry out. Immediately Thomason and Curly stepped between him and his goal. Mercer looked at him with a small laugh. Then suddenly he slammed his fist in Chris' abdomen. This time Chris did cry out while he slumped over, trying to stay seated.
"You wanna try something more, Tanner?"
Vin stepped back, holding his hands up. Mercer still pulled his fist back for another blow, but Landon sharply called him to order and soon they were on their way again.
Damn, he knew he'd promised Chris Mercer was his, but it would be difficult! He really wanted that bastard for himself!
It was as if the carefree man he'd thought of as a friend had never existed. God, he was glad Chris had never turned into a monster like that during his own quest for revenge. He shook his head. Chris never could have turned into someone that mean. Truth was, while Mercer had been fun to be with, there had always been something shallow and egotistical about the man. He had always gone for his own goals and fun without thinking about the consequences for others. When someone else paid the price for something he had done, he'd simply not cared or turned on his charm. Vin knew, he'd gotten into trouble because of Mercer a few times himself. And every time it had been impossible to stay mad at the man. He would smile at you, make his apologies and his yokes and you couldn't help but like him.
Only Chris' innate sense of fair play, of what was right and what was wrong was enough to ensure the gunslinger would never have turned out the way Mercer had.
There was that shadow again! This time Vin was sure Landon or one of his men would see it. At the least Mercer would.
Behind him there was some commotion and Vin looked back at the group of men. Mercer was savagely yanking at Chester's reins and gave Chris an angry shove against his shoulder. The other three were watching with interest if Chris would fall to the side or would manage to stay upright. When Chris swung back up with a groan, the shadow was out of sight once again. While the men all laughed, Vin caught Chris' eyes.
Chris clearly didn't know who their shadow was either, judging by the slight shrug of his shoulder, but that hadn't stopped him from keeping the men occupied enough so they would fail to spot it. Vin's eyes went to the bound wrists. Even from here he could see there was more blood now and his lips thinned. All Chris gave him though, when he lifted burning eyes to his friend, was another small shrug.
Damn the man!
"Are you growing roots over there, Tanner?" Mercer called out while he rode up to the spot Vin and Peso were still standing. Vin didn't answer. He turned his gelding and went back to following the tracks, trying to ignore what was going on with Chris. If he didn't he was going to do something Chris would probably live to regret and he didn't want that, not again.
At the end of the day he led them to the remnants of a campfire. He was standing beside it when the rest of them rode up.
"They camped here?" Landon asked.
"Yeah, 'bout a week ago."
"Good spot, we'll camp here as well, it's getting dark after all. Mercer, take Mister Larabee down and shackle him to that tree over there."
"Right. Get down, you swine!" Vin gritted his teeth when he saw the man only cut the ropes loose between Chris' arms and the saddle horn, leaving the biting ropes still on the gunslinger's wrists. He pulled Chris off savagely, causing the black clad man to fall on the ground. Chris didn't try to stand up. Instead he curled into a ball and stayed down where he had fallen. Vin wanted to go to him, but a hand on his arm stopped him.
"You will be able to gain on them, won't you?" Landon asked. "She's in a carriage for God's sake, with two little boys tagging along!"
"She ain't alone though."
"What do you mean, she isn't alone, Curly?"
"Seems to me there's been some more horses on a picket line over here. Just look at the grazing spots they left. That's done by four horses, not two!"
"Damn, she got hold of her brothers after all. Why didn't you say anything Tanner? When you're reading tracks with the ease you seem to, you should have seen it."
Vin looked up at the man, his face like granite and his eyes hard. He didn't say anything.
"Right," Landon sighed. "Why don't you get a whip for Mister Larabee, Mercer? No, not that bullwhip, you idiot, I don't want you to kill him, remember? A riding crop."
"I assumed you knew," Vin said softly. "And if you so much as have one of your men touch Chris I won't track another mile for ya."
"Really? We could off course keep hitting him until you went back to service."
"The deal was fer me to track, I'm doin' that. And I thought ya knew what I was trackin'. Seems to me a man would know what company his wife's keepin'. Makes me wonder if it really is her brothers," Vin sneered.
For the first time since he'd seen the man, Landon became flustered. Finally he choked out, "Are you suggesting what I think you are suggesting, Mister Tanner? Do you think I'm not man enough to keep my own wife in line?"
"I don't know you at all, Mister, 'xept what I've seen yesterday and today. Which don't amount to much in my book." He stared at the fire again. "So I guess ya got no idea what they've been burning here either?"
"I don't like this condescending attitude, Tanner. After all you're no more than some illiterate, half savage…. What do you mean, burned something?" Suddenly Landon's attention was all on the remains of the fire and hurriedly he kneeled down to have a better look at it.
"Damn," he hissed, retrieving part of what once had been a very official looking piece of paper. He looked around, got up, grabbed a stick and started poking with it through the cold embers. More burned pieces of paper were visible and some that still showed part of what they had been about. Landon looked them over and then he shrieked, a shriek so full of rage and anger it made Chester shy away. Chris cursed when the horse started dancing, painfully trying to move away from the hoofs suddenly flying around right beside him. Mercer was cursing as well, trying to get the horse to calm down. Beside the fire Landon shrieked again.
"She burned them! All the bonds she stole from me, all the prove of the money people owed me, she burned them! She burned them all!" Frantically he was looking some more through the coals, finding other pieces of black flecked and burned paper.
"She did, she really did! She really burned them!"
"Seems to me she took more then her sons when she left," Chris said with an evil grin from where he had managed to struggle himself in a sitting position. "I guess she took yer money too and that's why yer so desperate to find them. Are you boys sure he's gonna be able to pay you?"
"Shut up!" Mercer yelled. Chris ducked, but he couldn't get out of the way of the riding crop suddenly descending on him. It made Vin see red and with an angry yell he ran right through the remnants of the campfire, intend on murder. He was going to break Mercer's neck! Then all hell seemed to break lose.
Bullets came flying from some point above them, Chester went absolutely wild and Mercer was screaming now and taking his riding crop to man and beast alike, swinging it from left to right. Then Chester reared and ran off, straight for the huddled form of Chris.
"Noooo!" Vin shouted, waving his arms to make the animal veer off. He saw Mercer go down and then he heard a gun cock behind him. When he looked back he saw Landon aiming at Chris and not having to think about it, he jumped before his friend.
His head hurt. Damn, his head hurt a lot! Carefully he moved and that was when he found out it wasn't only his head that was killing him, it was his whole fucking body.
Something cool touched him, something cool and soothing, traveling down his face. It felt good.
Shit, he was dead! He hadn't expected to hurt so much when he would finally die, though.
"Mister Larabee? Chris? Please, some intelligible reaction would be much appreciated at this point."
Yep, he was definitely dead. Strange, he'd always figured it would be Sarah and Adam waiting for him when he finally left this godforsaken life he had been trapped in after they died. On the other hand, they probably were in heaven and he didn't think he'd merit a place there. At least he was met by a friend even in hell.
"Mister Larabee, please. I need you to wake up! Please! I… I fear Mister Tanner needs you."
Mister Tanner… Vin? Something was wrong with Vin? Was that why he was hearing Ezra's voice, like some warning that he had to help Vin?
That stirred Chris up enough to open his eyes. It was difficult, but he managed. Only to immediately close them again.
"Oh no Chris, you don't!" an exasperated voice called out.
"Dead? I think you will find the stories of my demise have been vastly exaggerated. However, I am not all that well and I fear Mister Tanner might not be so lucky as to live if you do not give me a hand. Chris, please!"
Chris reopened his eyes and looked around a bit dazed. Then he saw the covered form of his friend. Determined he ignored the pain and staggered to his feet. If Ezra hadn't gotten up with him and had grabbed him by the arm to steady him, he would have ended up flat on his face again immediately.
"No. I don't think his chest would be moving if he was."
Silence, then Chris collapsed beside the tracker and so did Ezra. Leaning against each other they were looking at the unconscious man in front of them.
"Bullet's still… in?"
"Yes, and that is why I really need you, Chris. I… I would not know where to begin if I had to take it out."
"You treated my wound just fine."
Ezra snorted. "I managed to stop the bleeding, I did not take the bullet out of your flesh. Eh… it has been taken out, hasn't it? Chris? Why are you shaking now?"
"Nothing. Don't worry, it's… it's out." Chris looked at his hands. "I don't know if I can do it, Ez. I'm pretty shook up myself. And you? Are you really here? Is this really you?"
"I can assure you it is me in actual fact. Maybe this could convince you?" Ezra moved his jacket to the side and Chris saw a blood soaked bandage, looking rather dirty and not that well placed.
"Damn! That looks bad! I think I'll better take care of that first. Eh… can you get the brandy in your saddlebags? Or has Chester run off? I think I remember him rearing up, but Mercer…." Chris stopped talking and looked at his underarms where angry red streams could be seen. He had protected his head with his arms when Mercer started beating up on him. The rest of his body had luckily been protected by his duster, but the sleeves had slipped down. Together with the deep and bloody wounds in his wrists left by the ropes it sure didn't look like much.
Ezra sighed. "I do hope I did not make things worse. It did seem a good idea at the time to make use of all the commotion and…. Oh, if you must know, seeing that good for nothing miscreant hit you with his riding crop I just could not bear it anymore! That man has been treating you horribly all day and it was just too much. So I decided to shoot him."
"You killed him?"
"I am afraid so. He is over there and unlike these dim-witted men I checked thoroughly if he really was dead. He is. So is Landon. He… Chris, he was going to shoot you and… and Vin jumped between you two. I am not much of a rifle man, but with the two of you on the ground I shot every bullet I had at them."
Both men looked at the peacefully sleeping tracker.
"Curly?" Chris nodded at the third body laying in the grass.
"I hit him too, although I am afraid it took me more then one bullet to kill the man. That is when the last man decided to make a run for it. He jumped on his horse and rode off. I am sorry, Chris, but all I could think at that moment was 'Good riddance'! I desperately needed to see how you and Vin were doing."
Both men looked at the unconscious tracker.
"I wanted these men to be dead so badly, I could almost taste it, Chris," Ezra said softly. "When I saw you down and then Vin…. God, I just needed to kill them! I… I have never felt like that before."
"I have," Chris whispered, looking at the enigmatic man beside him.
"Yes, yes, I know. And I think I can understand your feelings about your family a little better now, Chris. Before I…." Ezra swallowed nervously and then bravely ventured on, "I thought you were vastly exaggerating, to tell you the truth. I could not imagine grieving over someone for such a long time." The jade green eyes met Chris' own and the gunslinger saw the seriousness in them. "I can now, Chris. The pain I felt inside when I didn't see you move anymore and when Vin went down, is not something I want to feel ever again."
"I didn't only feel it when I found Sarah and Adam, Ez. I also felt it yesterday morning, when you went down."
For once the flippant conman had no answer. Hastily he stood up and walked over to a pile of saddle bags. He started rummaging through them, took out some items and continued his surge in what Chris recognized as Vin's saddle bags. He thought he saw Ezra wiping at his eyes, but since the conman's back was to him, he couldn't be sure. Finally it seemed the gambler had what he needed, since he got up and came back.
Bandages, Chris saw, a bottle of whiskey and some other items. When he sat down before Chris, the man was trembling.
"Damn, Ezra, you're doing too much! That bandage looks soaked with blood! You still have the bullet in as well?"
"N… no, I haven't. I gather you would want me to take off my ruined jacket?"
"Yeah. I guess I should boil some water." Chris looked at the fire burning close to Vin. It looked miles away from where he sat. A pan was standing in it.
"I already took care of that, since I knew we had to treat Vin. Wait, I'll get it."
"No, I'll manage." Wearily he got up and took his bandana off. With it he managed to get the water from the fire and walk back. He put the pan down between Ezra and Vin and looked at the conman.
"You got a knife?"
"I had until those miscreants searched me."
Taking a deep breath and telling himself he could do this, Chris staggered to Mercer's body. He knew the bastard had a big hunting knife. Hopefully he would also carry a smaller, more thin one.
The man did. Trouble was Chris thought he'd never be able to get up again after his search of the body. A deep groan behind him made him move though, he had friends who depended on him.
Finally he had placed the knifes in the fire for when he was going to take the bullet out of Vin and was sitting with Vin and Ezra again. He took back the blanket to check the wound and sighed.
"Yes, it is bleeding again despite my best efforts. I think some haste might be in order, Chris."
"I know. You first though. I'm gonna need you."
"Oh joy," the gambler mumbled sarcastically and with some difficulty he took off his jacket. Chris stared at the place of the wound and shook his head.
"I can't believe a sharpshooter like Mercer missed you at such a short distance! He was so sure, everyone was, they didn't even check you out!"
"He didn't miss," Ezra said softly. "The gift of a friend from many years ago saved my life." Ezra showed the inner pocket of his coat, with the dented flask still in it. "Normally it is placed right over my heart, but after the beating Mercer gave me, my jacket was not aligned around my body the way it should be. So the flask wasn't entirely over my heart. It was enough though, the bullet hit the side of it and was pushed off course as far as I can tell. So it still penetrated me, but not where it would kill. I think all it penetrated was flesh. The trouble was I could not reach it properly, especially at my back."
"Better take that shirt off too."
Ezra complied, but in the end needed some help from Chris to get off the left side. Chris gave a low whistle. "You've sure lost a lot of blood, Ez. How did you keep standing? And how on earth did you manage to catch up with us? Can you turn? The exit wound is the worse, I'll start there."
"Merely because the fact is I was not standing, I was sitting. I found your horse, Mister Larabee. Why on earth you ever… ever… son of a bitch!"
"Ez? You alright?"
"No, I'm not alright! Do I sound like a man who is alright? I am being butchered by you and you ask if I am alright, what is wrong with you?"
"Ez, I'm only cleaning the wound."
"Only? Only? It does not feel like only cleaning the wound to me, Mister Larabee, let me assure you of that! Oh my God, that hurt even more! What are you doing to me? It feels as if you have taken some hot poker into it and are twisting it around!"
"Trust me, Ez, that's worse." Chris shivered, remembering the hot knife twisting in his own bullet wound. Damn, but he was glad Mercer was dead, even if he hadn't done it himself. He glanced over at the corpse and sighed. They would have to move the bodies or move themselves. He didn't think he'd have the strength for any of these options.
"I saw how… damn it all to hell, cut that out! Aaah! Shit, shit, shit!"
"Ezra, ya sure like ta git vocal… when yer h… hurtin'!"
Glazed blue eyes were looking at them. "H… hi guys, how's things? I th… thought it wasn't sup… posed ta hurt any… more when yer dead? S… sorry Chris, thought I was in… in time."
"Please Mister Tanner, not you too! I had that conversation already with Mister Larabee here. I'm turning, I'm turning. Although why I should do it is beyond me, seeing as how you will only torture me further."
Chris gritted his teeth together. He didn't know how long he was going to keep this up and Standish dragging things out was the last thing he needed. Without comment he started cleaning the entrance wound. Ezra hollered and Vin chuckled.
"Thought he'd… he'd be more… silent… in the after… life."
"Vin, stop it, I'm not dead! Although right now I could almost regret that fact!"
"Said… yer dead."
"Who? Those two miscreants that were sent out to get you? They only thought I was, no one checked, so they missed the little fact that I was still breathing. Thank God!"
"Y… yeah," Vin breathed, relief in his voice.
"What? Oh, oh no, I meant to thank our good Lord because Mister Larabee has finally decided to stop adding to my suffering. Aaah! Oh, oh, oh! It seems I was remiss in my assumption after all."
Chris had had enough. It had been damn hard for him to tie the bandage as tight around the two wounds as was necessary for it to help stop the bleeding, he hurt, he kept seeing flashes before his eyes and they still had to get the bullet out of Vin.
"Ez," he hissed. "You did good, but don't spoil it with all this whining."
"Whining? I am not whining, merely stating some facts! As for whining Mister Larabee, I can guarantee you…."
"Ez!" Vin's pain filled rasp cut in.
"Don't… alright? Chris is h… hurtin' too. Those b… bastards…, they…."
"They nothing," Chris hastily interfered. "Come on, Tanner. Seems we gotta get a bullet out of you."
"I saw some of it Vin, when I was following you all. It turned out I slept only a little further from where you all had made camp. You were already tracking with Mister Landon when I happened upon the camp and I saw how they treated him. Alright, I will endeavor to be less vocal about my ailments, taking into consideration that you two are hurt as well, but somehow lack the means to express yourselves about it. I should take this unfortunate shortcoming in the two of you into consideration, it is only fair."
Vin sputtered at this answer and Chris rolled his eyes.
In the end it was Ezra who got the knifes out of the fire, Chris who managed after a good swig from the bottle of whiskey to get the bullet dug out, Vin who passed out first, Chris who passed out second right after he triumphantly showed the bullet to Ezra, Ezra who managed to keep Chris from landing prone on Vin and placed him beside the tracker, Chris who came to again and yelled at Ezra long enough until he got another red hot knife with which he cauterized the wound, Ezra who caught him a second time and finally Ezra who managed to bandage the wound after he had put Chris down sufficiently out of the way.
Once he was done he decided they all needed coffee and they needed clean boiled water for Chris' cuts on his lower arms and wrists. He went to the creek nearby, got fresh water in the pan for cooking, got Chris' small kettle on the fire to brew some strong coffee and then he looked at the bodies laying around. Three.
No way in hell would he be able to drag them somewhere else. But it also was pretty clear Vin and Chris weren't moving from their spot right now. He looked at the problem from every angle and finally decided he didn't have horses around for nothing. Soon he had bound a rope around the feet of all three the bodies, had bound those ropes around the neck of one of the kidnapper's horses and then he led the animal away. One look backwards to see if this set up worked was enough to know he wasn't going to do that again. The three corpses bounded over the ground, landing with a sickening thud and got snagged behind every branch, boulder and bush they came across. The sturdy horse put his strength into it every time, dragging them free, but frankly Ezra wasn't too optimistic about the state of them when he decided they were far enough. He couldn't say for sure though, because he still refused to look. He cut the rope from around the horse and took the animal back to camp with him, without one backward glance.
When he approached his two friends, he saw that Vin had regained consciousness and was staring with evident worry at his friend. Ezra shook his head. The obvious and deep friendship between the two still puzzled him. As far as he could see, the two men had nothing in common. He had seen ample evidence to know Chris Larabee was a well educated and very well read man, who had had led his own business with apparent success before his wife and son were murdered. The man hardly ever spoke and kept his distance from everyone. Well, except Vin off course, a man who was illiterate, wilderness wise and before anything else a hunter and tracker, used to roughing it. He was also kind, friendly, with a nice word to everyone, easy going and with an optimistic outlook on life the gambler found refreshing in a way JD's enormous cheerful exuberance was not. That he found merely fatiguing.
Yes, these men were opposites in many ways and still they read each other so clearly it was astounding and bordered on the supernatural at times.
"Vin?" he asked softly when the tracker heaved a deep sigh.
"He don't look too good, Ez."
"I know. I have taken out the garbage and was just going to check if the water is boiling yet. Then I had better look after his wounds."
"Yer wounded too, Ez. D… don't think I d… didn't see them b… bruises when ya were h… hollerin'."
"Ah, yes, those bruises. I am afraid Mister Mercer wasn't very pleased to find me at Mister Larabee's side instead of the man he expected. By the way, Mister Landon was talking about an informant who kept him up to date regarding all our comings and goings. That is how they could find us all."
"Was wonderin' 'bout that," Vin whispered. His eyes hadn't left the lean gunslinger laying on his side and breathing heavily. It touched Ezra in a way he didn't want to think about. Like he didn't want to think about the ache he'd felt inside when he saw these two go down. Even if he didn't have as much contact with them as he had with the other four peace keepers, they were his friends.
"He won't like it t… that he couldn't kill M… Mercer himself. He really wanted h… him."
"I can understand that, I saw what Mercer was treating him today, during the ride. It was sickening."
"Nah, n… not for that. For k… killin' you. He took that real b… bad." Vin's intense blue eyes turned to him. "Me too, Ez. Can't… can't say in words what it means yer s… still with us."
Ezra blanched. Hastily he looked away. His eyes fell on the fire. "Oh, good, it seems the water is boiling. I had better s… start on Mister Larabee's wounds."
"Yes, Mister Tanner?" Ezra kept his back to the tracker's imploring voice.
"Ya know yer our friend, don't ya? Otherwise why'd ya… ya come after us instead of r… runnin' ta safety?"
"I merely felt I could not abandon such stalwart colleagues and have the town face a future without you two," Ezra murmured, feeling embarrassed. He hurried over towards the boiling water and carefully took it to Chris. Then he gently tried to take the duster off the gunslinger, only to be met with a fist flying inadequately to the vicinity of his face. Chris was staring at him blearily.
"Ez? What ya d… doin'?"
"I was trying to get this duster off, so I could treat you arms better. I would be very much obliged if you would refrain from trying to punch me, Mister Larabee."
A soft chuckle could be heard from behind Ezra.
"V… Vin?" Chris squinted and craned his neck to look behind Ezra. "How ya doin'?"
"I'm fine, Chris."
"Mister Larabee, if you could give me at least some cooperation, please?"
"He sure likes ta complain."
"Oh, for the love of…. Very well, you leave me no other choice." Ezra grabbed the duster and started pulling it off one of Chris' arms rather savagely.
"Now who's complaining?"
"Who says anything 'bout complaining, I'm just gonna knock you out. Damn you!"
They both heard Vin chuckling.
"I think Mister Tanner is way to amused with our plights. First mine, now yours."
"Yeah. Bastard took the easy way out himself, just passed out and that was that."
"He did look like a small child while laying there with his mouth open quite endearingly, didn't he, Chris?"
"Sure did, Ez. And that little trail of spittle."
"Not to mention the hair sticking to all sides. A nice hair cut at the barber's would do wonders for it."
"Hey, I'm a very sick man! Ain't nice ta make fun of me!"
Chris and Ezra grinned at each other. And then Chris cursed again when the rest of the duster was taken off. The long sleeved shirt was still in the way, so that followed too.
"Ez?" Chris asked, worried, when the gambler didn't move or do anything. He looked at the man with some anxiety. "Ez, you okay?"
"God Chris, is there one place on your body you do not have some kind of bruise?" the gambler asked in awe.
"You got some good ones too."
A bit selfconscious Ezra lifted his shirt and looked at the bruises on them. "I do seem to have some beauties," he admitted. "This one in the shape of a boot does have some style to it."
"I like that one, with all them colors," Chris grinned.
"Still, I am afraid you win, Chris. I could never top that mass of deep blue and even black you are sporting."
"He'll always be the best in pissin' people off," Vin chuckled behind Ezra. Ezra smiled and turned to the tracker, but before he could make a witty comment Vin's eyes fell on Chris' torso and he blanched.
"Ain't that bad, Vin," Chris said softly. "Ain't nothing broke 's far as I can tell."
Vin's eyes went from Chris' torso to his face. They were filled with an infinite sadness.
"Vin, you want me to hit it into you? This ain't you're fault! Landon was a bastard and it's his fault, not yours. Damn it, you hear me? Quit this stupid guilt trip!"
Yes, the man was sensitive as ever, Ezra thought with a smile, taking a strip of one of Landon'd clean shirts and dipping it in the boiled water. But again he seemed to have read Vin like a book, because something had eased in the tracker's eyes.
"Ya didn't threaten Ezra with violence when he was whinin'," Vin pouted, a glint in his eyes.
"That's 'cause Ezra always whines. Man needs it like breathing."
Both of them looked at him, anticipating some smart comeback. But then Vin started to cough painfully and Chris moved to get to him, which left him gasping in pain. Hastily and under dire threats from Chris to do something, Ezra settled Vin into a more comfortable position after having given him some water and then he was followed by Vin's curses to go and get Larabee taken care off.
A man just couldn't win being hammered between these two, he thought with a sigh.
Half an hour later any banter was gone from the three. Chris hadn't cried out once while Ezra cleaned out the wounds left by the ropes and riding crop. It had been hard, Ezra had had to pick out the little pieces of rope embedded in the wrist wounds and the small pieces of shirt stuck inside the welts from the riding crop. All the gunslinger had done was staring at the sky in silence. Afterwards he had put a salve over all the cuts Vin had told him to get out of his saddle bags and he was finally ready to take off the bandage and examine the gunshot wound.
"This is too weird," he murmured.
"Do you two realize you have a gunshot wound at exactly the same spot on your body?" Removing the bandage, he whistled. "Good heavens! How comes yours so ragged and… and…."
"Bastard enjoyed taking his time looking for the bullet."
Ezra looked at the white face with the closed eyes and sighed. "There are many forms of evil on this world, but the worst is the kind that takes pure pleasure in bringing evil upon others."
There was no answer and Ezra hurried. The light was slowly fading and he wanted to be ready before he couldn't see anything anymore. Luckily the wound might have been maltreated, there was no sign of infection and after ending the fast cleaning job with a nice measure of whiskey poured into the wound, he hastily wrapped a new bandage around it. He gave Chris water, he gave Vin water, he gave Chris some more and then he went to the bushes and was violently ill. With his last strength he collected the blankets from different places on the ground. All he had had the energy for after he'd stopped Vin's bleeding had been taking off the saddles and letting them fall where they wanted. Taking of the bridles had been more then he could muster, so he had used the reins to secure the horses to various places, silently promising them a better treatment later on.
He didn't have the energy now either. In fact, he thought he might faint any moment. His last strength was getting Chris wrapped in a bedroll, the gunslinger barely conscious while he helped shift himself and piling more blankets on Vin. Then he rolled into a bedroll himself, grabbed the canteen, forced some water into himself and went out like a light.
"I don't think he can ride, Chris. I think he has a fever."
"I myself would have expressed it less crudely, but yes, fuck."
"We can't stay here, Ez."
"I do not see as we have any other options left. This fever is high."
"You know, you look a bit feverish yourself, pard."
Vin opened his eyes just in time to see the smile of happiness bloom on Ezra's face after Chris casually called him 'pard'. Then his vision blurred and he hastily rolled on his side to throw up violently.
Not a good way to wake up.
After he was done and Chris had helped him move away from the offensive bile, he told his friends tersely, "I can ride."
Instead of answering Chris put a cold hand on his forehead and frowned. "Are there any shirts left we could use to cool him down, Ez?"
"Yes, there are. I personally recommend the quality shirts of Mister Landon himself."
Chris got up and stomped over to the saddlebags. Vin looked after him, concerned about the way Chris was swaying now and then, as if he was going to topple over. Damn, actually the whole world was swaying, come to think of it. Hastily he closed his eyes. He was not ready to puke again, that was for sure!
"Damn, the horses!"
"I am sorry Mister Larabee. I felt bad about it, but there simply was no more energy left in me to take better care of them."
"I understand, Ez. I'll do it. Here, can you cool Vin down?"
"I think I can manage that. It is not as if this will require a lot of moving around, right? Just sit here, dip Mister Landon's shirt in some water and wipe him down."
Vin thought he should say something now, but actually, he felt too lousy to care much about Ezra's ramblings or anything else that was going on. He closed his eyes and let himself drift off.
"Does it help, Ez?"
"I do not know, Chris. He is shivering now, so I thought it best to suspend with the cooling down. Chris? Sit down before you fall down!"
Chris sighed in frustration, but he did what Ezra told him. He was seeing everything double and had thrown up twice while tending the horses.
"Here," he said gruffly, handing Ezra the food he had found in what he supposed were Landon's saddlebags.
"Why, Mister Larabee! This is a regular feast. The bread is still very good and this ham is of excellent quality. At least they could offer you good food in your captivity."
"Who said they offered?" Chris asked bitterly. He grabbed his bedroll, pulling it closer to Vin and Ezra and decided laying down was just the thing to do.
"Damn Vin, don't you dare die from a bullet that was meant for me," he told his friend angrily, before falling into a deep sleep.
When he woke up again he saw it was dark. Ezra was sleeping beside him, exhaustion having made him topple over right where he had been sitting, tending to Vin. Chris felt instantly guilty. He had left it all to Ezra, while the man was wounded as well. He complained, but it was more out of some kind of habit. When it came to doing what had to be done, Ezra just did it.
Hell, he'd come after them when he could have gone to Four Corners. He didn't know if he and Vin would have survived on their own, but he did know he was glad that he hadn't been forced into another day with Mercer and the others. He had the bad feeling he would have been a lot worse if Ezra even had waited until the next morning. There had been something almost insane in Mercer that had chilled him to the core every time he had seen it.
He thought about his own quest for revenge and shivered. "I ain't gonna end up like that madman," he whispered to the stars above him.
"You'd never b… become like th… that," a voice rasped beside him. He turned his head and there Vin was staring at him, with eyes that seemed clear and sharp.
"Vin?" Carefully he laid his hand on Vin's forehead. The fever was gone and he breathed a sigh of relief.
"Chris, you'd never become like Mercer, ever. I k… knew him once. He was f… fun to be with, but he was also d… damn self serving. You ain't."
"Who says I ain't, Tanner?"
"Sarah and Adam," Vin said softly. "And Nate." Chris looked at him in confusion and Vin started to chuckle. "'Course Sarah and Adam tell me, Chris. The way you still love them and treasure their memories, hell, the way Buck treasures the memories of you three together, tell me there was a lot of love there. Mercer loved, but not like you, not that deep. And Nate… ya went out and saved him."
"You too, pard."
"I kn… know. But fact is, so did you. And when you saved that innocent man from going to Jericho, you were alone. You can't help but doin' what's right, Larabee, it's a part of who y' are. A damn deep part."
Seeing the sincerity in his friend's eyes, Chris suddenly felt a quiet peace come over him. To hell with all the what if's, Vin was going to live, Ezra wasn't dead, life was good right at this moment.
His eyes drooped and he fell asleep again.
The next morning all three friends were dreading the day. They knew they had to get on their horses and had to try and make it to Four Corners, but they all felt too bad to move. Vin's fever might have left for some time, in the morning his bright eyes and flustered face showed clearly some of it was back. Ezra was so exhausted and in pain he didn't know which way was up and Chris could hardly use his arms. His bullet wound hurt like hell, just like its counterparts did his friends. Every move made one of the bruises flare up, with which Ezra could completely sympathize. But his arms were the worst, definitely. The wounds were getting infected and that made it final. They had to get back to Four Corners, to Nathan.
Getting the horses saddled was hell, with Chris only capable of standing at the head and keep the horse still, while Ezra and Vin struggled with the tack. When their own horses were saddled, the saddlebags were put on top and they even managed to get their bedrolls back on, they took all the food they could find and filled all the canteens.
Then they freed the horses of Landon and his men, although it hurt Ezra to let their monetary value go to waist like that and managed to climber on. Ezra had refrained from taking the beautiful, but spirited horse Landon had been riding. After the trouble he had had with riding Pony, he had decided that at the time being a more docile steed was the prudent action to take.
Chris only managed because Vin and Ezra helped him. Then Vin only managed because Ezra helped him and Ezra only managed because Vin rode up and leaned over from his horse to haul him up.
They all knew they'd better stay in the saddle as long as they could.
The day was hell. Vin's fever came back again and Ezra finally tied him to his saddle, taking over the reins. The only reason he didn't lose consciousness was because Chris was riding beside him and nagged him awake as soon as he felt himself slip away.
"Why don't you pass out Mister Larabee, so I can peacefully follow you into oblivion?" he finally gritted out when a nudge had been a bit too painfully close to his bullet wound. Chris didn't answer, merely looked at Ezra. Tucking his arms close to him, the reins wrapped around his hands so they couldn't slip from his nerveless fingers, Chris nudged Pony again and they trotted off. Ezra looked after them in concern, but he knew Chris wasn't in any real danger, not on Pony. As cantankerous and difficult the horse had been with him, as easy and obedient it was with Chris. Ezra shook his head ruefully. Another of life's little secrets.
They didn't stop. At some point the horses stopped at a creek to drink and to graze for a while. Chris and Ezra let them gather some strength back, but were afraid of dismounting. Finally the moment came when Ezra silently glided of his horse, letting go of Peso's reins. Chris cursed and managed to take them before the cantankerous animal was gone. Trusting Pony to stay he dismounted and cut Vin loose. He managed to place Vin besides Ezra and get the bedrolls off the horses, the canteens too, placing them beside his friends and himself. Then he just piled blankets on everyone, settled in between them and let his consciousness slip as well.
They would die here without help, but they still had each other. It was some comfort at least.
"I'm in hell," Nathan said morosely, staring in his beer. "I am truly in hell!"
"Why, signor Nathan, what is wrong?" Inez asked worriedly. The black healer looked positively down and exhausted.
"I have to look after what must be the three worst patients imaginable!" Nathan told her sadly. "They won't listen to what I say, they try to get up every few minutes and the bickering! God, they bicker constantly, it drives me mad!"
"Really?" Inez asked, trying to keep a straight face. "So at least they are bickering?"
"They have changed it into a higher art form!" Nathan yelled angrily, thumping his mug so hard on the bar that beer splattered around. Inez was spared, because she had stepped away in time, her experience in reading the signs her customers gave off having made her a bit weary.
"So at least they are doing better?"
"They sure are better then when we found them four days ago, if that is what you mean!" Suddenly the healer sobered. "If Chester hadn't come to town, Inez and we had started a search much later, I think… I think they might have died. They all had lost way to much blood. And then there were the infections…."
"They seemed fine to me, Doc," a smooth and friendly voice said behind him, while a big arm suddenly found its way around his shoulders. "My dear Inez, you look positively radiant tonight!"
"Some of us at least do," she quipped almost automatically, looking him up and down as if finding some fault with his looks.
"They seem fine 'cause they're laying flat in bed, Buck! If they moved, they'd soon not feel that fine anymore!"
"Well then, let them move. They fall flat on their faces, you say 'I told you so' and everyone is happily ever after."
"Yeah, except that the falling ain't too good for them right now."
"There is always a downside, isn't there? Inez, could I persuade your fine shaped hands to pour me some whiskey?"
"But off course, senior Buck! As soon as I see the color of your money."
"Inez, you wound me deeply! I had thought you know you can trust me."
"Can I really, senior Buck? Here, senior Nathan, another beer."
Nathan sighed and shot it down his throat with relish. "Thanks, Inez. Yer a life safer. Anyway, I guess I'll have ta go back to the clinic 'fore all hell breaks lose. Josiah still with them, Buck?"
"Oh yeah, and he's ready to go Old Testament on them."
"O damn! I'll better go then. By Inez."
Four Corner's healer hurried away, muttering to himself and Inez had to shake her head. "Tell me, senor Buck, are they really so bad patients? All three of them?"
"Oh yeah! Chris and Vin 'cause they want out and curse every medicine he tries to give them and Ezra because he wants to be waited on head and foot while at the same time he's complaining about everything. The newest is that his bed ain't soft enough." Buck chuckled. "They're enough to drive a saint completely nuts! But hell, don't worry 'bout ol' Nate there. I remember when we found them four days ago. All we saw at first was the horses and then, that sight of all three of them laying there so quietly…. Hell, I think we all thought them dead. So he might complain, he's happy, Inez."
Lifting his glass, he toasted towards her. "We all are, damn, damn happy!"
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