Casey laid the side of her face on her knees and watched Chris while Nathan said all they could do now was wait. She saw the little skitter of pain run across his features fast as a scorpion on hot sand, and it made her heart kick up in fear. Chris knew a lot about things, and it seemed like he'd heard more in Nathan's words than just what the healer'd actually said. The girl's dark eyes slid up to the healer to see that he was looking at Chris, too, and that the gunman had glanced over sidelong to meet his gaze with one of those looks adults sometimes used to communicate silently when kids were around. Casey jerked her head up at that, and then jumped to her feet so fast that both men turned startled faces to her.
"I ain't no kid," she said hotly, "so if ya' wanna' talk private, just say so." She whirled, pony tail flying, to storm into the house, leaving the two men sitting on the steps in quiet astonishment. She paused just inside, and flushed when she heard their low, soft chuckles a moment later through the broken-out window. Then she leaned her head back a bit as they began to speak in even lower, somber voices. She caught only a few words: "fever" and "laudanum" and some that sounded important but eluded her. Then she jumped as other words sounded much louder, right behind her, in a tone of shocked dismay:
Casey spun around towards the fireplace, her heart in her throat, ready to explain to her aunt that she hadn't really planned to eavesdrop, but her aunt wasn't even paying attention to her. She was looking into the Spencer's chamber with shaking hands.
"Oh, Aunt Nettie. You should sit down." The girl hurried to her aunt's side to pull out a chair and press the woman gently into it. Nettie looked up at her and smiled, laid a trembling hand on the side of Casey's face.
"I'm all right, Child. Just got a kinda' shock I guess." She held the carbine out to her niece and nodded at it. "Do me a favor an' look in there and tell me what you see. I'm thinkin' maybe I'm so tired I'm cross-eyed."
Casey picked up the Spencer with a puzzled look at her aunt, peered into the breech, and then frowned. "It's empty," she said.
Nettie closed her eyes and a long shudder ran through her thin body. When she opened her eyes again, tears stood in them. She nodded to herself as the front door opened and she heard Chris and Nathan come in, the scent of earth and smoke and gunpowder rich on them.
"Well, Chris Larabee," she said straight off, "You want to know how close I come to givin' you your everlastin'?" She looked up at the tall man as he came to stand with one hand on the back of her ladderback chair. He bent his head a little to smile at her sadly, and his voice was gentle and tired.
"How close, Nettie?"
"Not close at all." Nettie cackled and her eyes snapped suddenly. "I was outta' ammunition. Looka' there: empty." She nodded her head towards the carbine in Casey's hands. "If you hadn't come when you did, that last fella'..." She let the sentence trail off, unfinished. Chris pressed his lips together into a thin line and touched his thumb lightly to the edge of the knot on the woman's temple.
"It was too close all around," he said softly.
"That it was." Nettie nodded brusquely and made to stand up, but Chris moved his hand to her shoulder and gently restrained her. He looked at Nathan.
"Shouldn't she be layin' down or something?"
"Told her that a good half-hour ago," replied Nathan. He was standing in the bedroom doorway watching something with a worried expression. He tossed a quick glance at Nettie, then, and his eyes widened as he raised an admonishing finger at her. "I'm gonna check on Buck an' then I'm comin' back out here to check on you. An' if you ain't asleep on one a' them pallets by then, you'n me are gonna' have words." He shook his head, muttering darkly under his breath, and went into the sickroom where they heard him take up something with Mary in a rapid tone. Nettie regarded Chris with surprise.
"Well. He's kinda' pushy, ain't he!"
Chris smiled slowly. "He keeps us no-goods in line, Nettie. I wouldn't go up against him if I was you."
The woman laughed softly, a sound rich with secret delight. "Well, I'll save it for another day at least. If you don't mind --"
"I'll help you, Aunt Nettie." Casey stepped in quickly to slide one hand beneath her aunt's elbow and another around her shoulders with a sharp look at Chris. The tall man nodded to her, a hint of a smile tugging at the corners of his lips.
"Your aunt's lucky to have you around, Casey."
The girl looked at the floor quickly, embarrassed, as Nettie laid her other hand over the girl's where it curled around her forearm in support. She patted it. "She's blessed my life, Chris Larabee."
"Ladies." Chris nodded to Nettie, his eyes darkening, and stepped back, then turned to follow Nathan into the bedroom. Casey could hear them talking in there in low voices again as she helped her aunt across the room to lay on the pallet JD had occupied only that morning. Nettie started to shake her head suddenly, and drew back.
"There'll be glass on it."
"No, Ma'am. I shook it out real good and used the rug beater on it."
Nettie stopped dead-still. "When did you do that?"
"While you were gettin' water for Nathan, an' then cloths." Casey leaned down to draw back the top cover of the bedroll and Nettie lowered herself to the pallet stiffly. She looked down, then ran one hand cautiously across the floor as Casey pulled the cover up over her aunt's legs and torso. "I swept the glass off the floor too. You won't get a sliver." Casey flashed a shy smile at her aunt's face, tried not to notice the tears that trembled on the old woman's lashes. "You go ahead and sleep, like Nathan says. Someone real wise always tells me that if you do, things always look better in the morning." Casey smiled impishly a brief instant, then leaned down from where she knelt on the floor next to her aunt to lay a gentle kiss on the woman's forehead.
"You know," said Nettie softly, "you'd better not go gettin' married an' leave me too soon, young lady."
Casey laughed, startled, and then blushed. "Now I know you got hit a good one," she said. "Imagine me, married!" The girl rose to her feet in a fluid motion and turned away as Mary came to the bedroom door to ask her something in a low voice. Nettie watched the two women moving around silently getting things for Nathan, noticing the grace with which Casey moved -- a grace that wasn't that of a child at all.
She thought of JD, and smiled, and closed her eyes to sleep.
Casey had swept up the glass and bits of splintered wood from the window, some of it on the floor inside the house and a great deal of it on the porch where the concussion of Buck's shotgun had blown it. She'd swept up the amazing debris of dust and slivers of wood that had rained down to the floor from the place Buck had shot through the roof. Once she could tell that her aunt had fallen asleep, she quietly got the bucket and scrub brush and got down on her hands and knees with Nettie's good lye soap and started scrubbing the blood off the floor. She found herself mesmerized by the the sight of the bristles running up and down in the woodgrain, scraping off the long furrows of darkening red, and realized after a long time that there was something comforting in the rhythm of the movement, the rocking as she scrubbed forward and then back and then forward again, both hands on the brush, cleaning up the mess. The low conversations here and there in the house around her, first to one side and then another, her own memories and flashes of isolated thought ran in and out of the scrub brush rhythm as she worked.
Swish. ". . . somethin' under the foot a' this mattress here, get his feet up higher than 'is head." Scrub. The thunder of Buck's shotgun overhead, the immediate shattering of glass and wood over the top of it. Swish. "You sure look pretty in that dress." Scrub. "No, not that one. Chris, I need . . ." Swish. Tree trunks flying past like a string of fenceposts, the wind tearing the breath out of her, a ringing of hoofbeats that vibrated all the way through her. Scrub. "Casey an' me are gonna' go fill the canteens."
Casey sat back on her heels and wiped a strand of hair off her forehead with the back of her wrist. She looked around at the job she'd done and decided it was good enough. Looked back over her shoulder into the bedroom, still sitting there, and just watched a minute. The lamplight was a little higher now, both the cabin's lamps having been moved into the one room so Nathan could see better. He was leaning almost directly over one of them at the moment, and it threw brightness against his throat and the planes of his face from the bottom and side as he looked intently at Buck a moment, his hands moving with quick, sure skill while the rest of him stood as still as a listening deer. He was listening, too, Casey realized suddenly. Somehow listening through his hands to Buck.
She looked quickly to Chris, standing just behind Nathan and a bit to one side. The gunman's eyes were shuttered -- against the brightness of the lamp maybe -- and his mouth was set in a line that looked a bit like he could still smell the blood on the floor in there. Casey frowned a little; she hadn't been able to work in that room like she wanted to; there was just too much activity in there, and it wasn't like she could ask people to get out for a while so she could clean the floor. It did still smell like blood, but it was going to have to wait to get fixed. The girl sighed, glanced quickly at her aunt sleeping peacefully on the pallet several feet away, and stood up with the bucket handle in one hand to carry it out to the yard to dump it. The heavy toss and the long arc of the dirty water into the bushes felt good, and she straightened her back and stretched after she did it, looking up at the stars that were brightening as the moon set. It would be morning soon, she realized, impossible as it seemed that could be.
Wonder where JD is right now.
She'd seen him so briefly when they'd come to check on things. And she'd seen the way Chris had looked when he went out to talk to them. Grim. It had scared her at first, wondering if there was trouble again, but Mary had said not to worry, that everything was all right. Casey shook her head, thinking about it, and turned back to the house. "All right" didn't seem to fit the world any more, she thought. Not since she'd seen Peter Nichols shoot JD down right in front of her eyes. Not since she'd seen them tie his wrists together and --
Casey shook her head, set the empty bucket on the porch with a clatter, and dropped into the old rocker that was out there. She rubbed a tired hand over her face as she closed her eyes and realized suddenly that it was the first time she'd really been alone since everything started. Well. That was odd. Casey laid her head against the back of the rocker and let her hands drape down the arms of it, and gently started rocking. It hadn't even hit her until now that she'd not been alone in all this time, until now. And it was only two days -- not even quite two whole days and nights yet. Seemed like a month. A year. The girl stopped rocking and just sat there quietly, feeling the night breeze trail across her hot face sweaty from working, smelling the heavy soil and the green growing things, hearing the little frogs that sang like crickets down along the creek bottom behind the barn. Everything seemed like normal, like it had been two nights ago and ten nights ago and forever. But it wasn't the same now -- and yet somehow the cattails and the cows and the little frogs didn't know it.
She heard a bang behind her, from inside the house, of someone dropping something on the table. Buck's voice -- weak, querellous with fever and pain -- rose in words she could not distinguish, and then fell as it was comforted by Nathan's heavier baritone. Mary said something, her voice light and soft, -- Casey could almost see how she was standing, with her hands wrapped around her own arms like she was hugging herself. "Chris," she was saying, and Casey blushed when she realized she could hear, that they had moved close to the window not knowing Casey was out there. "Chris, I just felt so helpless down there." A sob, the sound of cloth moving as people drew together. Casey could hear Chris's voice soft in reply, barely saying words, but the ones that came out the same over and over, "It's all right, Mary. It's all right."
Casey frowned. The window was broken, and it was letting the things that were inside the house just come right outside the house, too, and it didn't seem right. Not right at all. She sat on the porch and thought about how she ought to board up that window to keep all the sounds and words and life left in there from leaking out. For a moment she even pictured herself finding a piece of wood in the barn, getting the hammer and the nails, fitting the wood into what was left of the frame. But then she thought about the roof over the table, and the holes in it that went right on up to the sky itself, and she shivered and knew she couldn't ever patch it up good enough. The rain would come in now, and the cold. And the light and the words and the things like a man and woman hugging one another and thinking they were alone in it, those things would just spill right out and be lost.
"We gotta go with them." JD was frantically looking around for a horse to jump onto.
"Hold up, JD," Josiah's laid a firm hand on JD's shoulder. "We have work here. We need to make sure there are no more of the Nichols gang to find another day."
"No. We have to go and make sure they are all alright." JD jerked his shoulder away from Josiah. "What about Casey? Vin? Buck? We gotta back 'em up." JD pleaded. He turned and looked beseechingly at Ezra. "Ezra, you agree with me?"
"No, Josiah's right. We have to finish the job here." Ezra's somber tone indicated the price of duty. "I'll take the north perimeter. JD, check the south." Ezra pointed to the area he wanted JD to check.
Ezra was having a hard time tamping down his own anxiety. JD wasn't the only one feeling anxious to jump on a horse and check everybody at Nettie's. He could hear JD as he hurried around the perimeter checking that there weren't any of Nichols men left. Ezra was a lot more deliberate. His pistol was in his right hand and he swept the area for any stragglers. The moon made for decent light but there were a lot of shadows. The trees rustled in the breeze. There was still an acrid odor to the air from the explosions. Ezra felt the memories rush back with sickening dread. The War and point on patrol. . .
Walking point was the most dangerous job on patrol. You were the first guy in line. The first to be shot at. The first to trip a booby-trap. The first to die. You were the man responsible for all the rest. To have your eyes and ears open. To hear the faintest sound that would indicate the enemy. Protect the men. Protect yourself. Maybe you'd get lucky and not be killed. Maybe by some miracle you make it back to your own lines. You didn't get assigned the job because you were good. The decision was always political. You wouldn't see any of the rich plantation boys pulling point. Ezra shuddered. He despised those moments before they would move out and the Captain was looking for a point. He was often the one picked.
Ezra found himself slowing his steps. Lightening his footfalls. Bending his knees so he could hit the ground should the enemy find them. The trees rustled. Some animal howled. Oh, Lord. It had been so long. He didn't have nightmares anymore. Didn't dream of some young Union soldier jumping out of a bush at him and the only reason he wasn't dead was the soldier's gun failed. That soldier wasn't as lucky. Ezra's gun worked just fine. The blood. The screams. The pitched battles. Ezra had lived it over . . . and over. . . and over again. At some point the nightmares faded. And here he was. How long before these new nightmares faded? How long before he wouldn't imagine the next night battle against an enemy that not only wanted them dead . . . but to suffer. What kind of men were these Nichols?
Ezra cautiously continued the sweep. Are there anymore of you out there? Is this done?
Ezra started counting. Cole Preston - dead, killed by Chris. Luke Nichols - dead, killed by JD. Peter Nichols - left for the cabin. Chris, you better get that bastard. Matthew Nichols - captured. John Nichols - the young one who had broken his arm. Where was he?
Ezra dropped to a knee and listened intently. His stomach was churning. Are you out here? There was no one. So where?
Ezra stood and immediately started running. He pulled a second pistol so he had two hands to shoot with. He had no interest in being quiet. He raced as fast as he could. Come on. Faster. Run Ezra, run like you've never run before. Damn, damn, damn. He should have realized.
As he returned to camp, he could hear JD's young voice. "No one out there. They ran like yellow-bellied cowards. Can I go now?"
Ezra could sense rather than hear the deep rumble of Josiah's voice. "As soon as Ezra . . ."
Ezra came over the rise, his guns blazing. "Down, down, down," he yelled frantically.
Ezra dived and landed on his belly, sliding down an incline but he didn't stop firing till his pistols were emptied. His every shot was returned five-fold. He hid behind a rock. He had a general sense of where Josiah and JD were and they were managing to return fire. He quickly started to reload his pistols. He had chambered three bullets and quickly flipped it closed and shot the three bullets extremely quickly.
There were a couple of startled cries. Ezra jumped as a body fell less than three feet from him. Another man was on his knees and a third had his hands raised. Ezra could feel JD come up behind him, his guns drawn.
"John Nichols," JD said with awe. "How did you know?"
Ezra looked down at JD. "In my profession, Mr. Dunne. It pays to have an aptitude for mathematical formulations."
"I can count to five," Ezra commented dryly.
"And a good thing too," JD commented so matter-of-factly that Ezra started to chuckle.
"Let's have John here join his brother." Ezra and JD directed John Nichols and the other gunman down the hill to where the rest of the prisoners were being held.
"What do you think?" Ezra directed the question at Josiah as they bound the arms and feet of the new prisoners.
"Any others ran. Doubt they'll try again. We'll have to risk it. Best get to Nettie's and see if they need back up."
"JD, mount up."
"I can hold them." Josiah extended his hand to Ezra. "Thank you, brother." Simple words. Ezra looked up at Josiah conveying that there was nothing owed; he was almost too late. Josiah smiled and shook his hand.
JD was already on his horse and held the reins for Ezra. Ezra quickly mounted and together they began a furious ride to Nettie's. Would they be in time?
Both JD and Ezra were riding low over their horses' neck urging as much speed as possible. The ride out seemed so much shorter than the ride back. As fast as they were riding, Ezra wanted to yank the reins and not face what might have happened at the cabin. Vin, Buck, the ladies? Did Peter Nichols have too much of a lead. Chris and Nathan may have got there in time to confront Nichols but would it have been in enough time for their friends. Ezra was trying to hold on to hope but it was faint, a distant light that was fading. Soon to be extinguished.
"JD, pull up," Ezra called. Ezra was furious when JD ignored him that he spurred his horse to greater speed to grab at JD's reins. He managed to slow them both down. "Pull up." Ezra tight, furious voice insisted.
JD swung at Ezra. "We have got to get there now."
"If we ride in like this, we will be cut down. Either by Nichols or by Chris because he doesn't know its us."
JD lowered his arm and dropped his head in shame. "I'm sorry, you're right."
"You go in by the barn. I'll cover you from the other side of the cabin. When I give the signal, call out for Casey."
"If she's safe, she'll call out. If not, I'll know. Be on your guard and keep your head down."
JD nodded affirmatively. He quickly dismounted and sprinted to the side of the barn, out of sight of any cabin occupants.
Was it a good sign there was no gunfire. Ezra couldn't be sure. He assured himself his guns were fully loaded and then signaled JD with a low whistle.
"CASEY." JD called out.
The front door of the cabin flung open. "Oh, JD," Casey called.
Ezra couldn't recall the last time he had heard a sweeter sound. JD rushed forward and Casey flung herself into his arms.
Chris had followed Casey onto the porch and he nodded as Ezra descended the slope.
"Vin? Buck? The ladies?"
"Nettie and Mary are fine." Chris was quick to assure Ezra but tone quickly turned somber. "Vin and Buck -- well, it's too early to tell." He led Ezra to the back bedroom.
Nathan was kneeling by Vin's bed. "Mary, hold firm pressure. We have got to stop the bleeding." There was no color to Vin's face. Nettie was at Buck's side. He was alternately restless and very still. There was a bowl on the nightstand and she was obviously trying to cool him down. Nettie saw him in the doorway. Ezra clenched his fist in rage when he saw the bruise that darkened her forehead. Nettie smiled as his reaction. "I'm fine," she said softly. "Thank you."
Ezra nodded and backed out of the room. It looked very bad.
Chris followed him out into the main room.
Ezra didn't need to ask anymore questions about his friends - he knew it looked grim. "We had some trouble after you left," Ezra reported, all business. "Captured two more men including John Nichols. The others escaped but we need to get back to Josiah and transport the prisoners into town."
"I've already loaded the dead from here into a wagon. I'll help you hitch it and you can use that."
"I'll get JD to help me." Ezra dissented. He looked back at the bedroom. "Find out what supplies we need to bring from town."
Ezra could hear Casey and JD's voices as he approached the front door. There were also long pauses. Ezra sighed wistfully. What he wouldn't give to have that kind of homecoming. He paused at the cabin doorway and cleared his throat to warn JD and Casey of his presence.
At his warning, JD released Casey and looked up at him.
"JD, we need to get back to Josiah."
JD clasped Casey's hands. "I'll be back. We'll talk when I get back." Casey nodded her understanding.
Ezra and JD headed to barn and hitched the wagon. Chris met them as they pulled out and handed Ezra a list of needed supplies. "Get back as soon as you can." Ezra realized it wasn't so much for the supplies as maybe a last chance to see their friends alive.
Ezra nodded somberly and urged the wagon forward. JD rode ahead to give report to Josiah. Upon Ezra's arrival, they quickly loaded the dead and prisoners and headed to Four Corners.
As they approached Four Corners, Ezra could sense the pall that hung over the town. The barriers were still established at both ends of the town. A weary group of men was manning the barricade. As they recognized three of their seven men approaching town, they worked quickly to dismantle enough of the barrier so they could pass through with the wagon.
Josiah drove the wagon on through with JD following. There were respectful nods from the townsmen as they passed. The men looked into wagon. They noted eight prisoners mostly with their heads down and the burlap wrapped bodies. So many of them.
"You all that's left?" One asked.
Ezra reined his horse. Shook his head slowly, no.
Ezra looked down at the anxious gathering. The men looked tired. Several fingered guns nervously. They had endured so much over the past two days. They hadn't asked for this. It wasn't their fight but they had stood up for them. He was trying to integrate that these men cared and weren't just gossips seeking the latest news to pass around. He saw true concern.
"Mrs. Travis, Mrs. Wells and Casey are fine. So are Mr. Larabee and Mr. Jackson." There were audible sighs about the news that Nathan was well. The town realized how much they had come to depend on him.
"But. . ." the liveryman asked.
Ezra looked over at him with a slight smile. "But Mr. Tanner and Mr. Wilmington are both wounded and in grave condition." There were murmurs of dismay at this news. "We need to garner some supplies and get back to Mrs. Wells' cabin."
Ezra dismounted and the liveryman took the reins. JD was securing the prisoners in the jail cells as two men took up guard duty. The telegraph operator was opening his office to send needed telegrams to Judge Travis and Fort Yuma. Josiah had moved the wagon to the undertakers where men were assisting him to remove the dead.
"How is the town?" Ezra asked as he walked beside the liveryman.
"Scared. Is this done?"
"I sincerely hope so," Ezra responded fervently.
"Hell of a thing."
"I have some supplies for you all at the livery." Ezra raised his arm to stop him. He couldn't afford to do that. But Ezra slowly lowered his hand, he knew better. He wasn't allowed to refuse. Ezra smiled in wonder at the generosity of the townspeople.
When the duties were accomplished, the three regulators and the townspeople met by the telegraph office.
"Keep the barriers up, just in case," Josiah directed. He had a sheaf of telegrams in his hand. "Troops are being sent for the prisoners, should be here no later than tomorrow."
Ezra and JD were already mounted. Josiah wearily mounted his horse.
"Tell your friends, our prayers are with them," a townsman called out.
"AMEN," was chorused.
"Thank you, brothers, thank you." Josiah raised his head smiled gratefully at the gathered men.
Josiah, JD, and Ezra kicked their horses into a gallop and rode briskly back to Nettie's cabin.
Upon their arrival at Nettie's the three men rushed in. Chris was sitting at the table nursing a cup of coffee.
"Any change?" Ezra asked.
Chris shook his head morosely.
"Josiah, why don't you head on back," Ezra suggested. Josiah looked up at Ezra and nodded his appreciation.
JD was distracted. He saw Nettie sleeping by the fireplace. He went to the doorway of the bedroom. His heart tightened in pain. They looked really bad. JD didn't think he had ever seen anybody as near dead as Vin and not be dead. Buck was still and Mary was placing wet cloths on his forehead and under his arms. Fever. That couldn't be good. He scanned the room again but there was no Casey. He retreated back to the main room.
"She's outside. Something about taking care of the chickens," Chris informed JD with a slight smile.
Chris nodded. "Think you need to help her."
"With the chickens?" JD squeaked.
Chris smiled broadly. "No."
JD looked hard at Chris. Now, what did that mean? But Chris was obviously not going to tell him so he stepped out onto the front porch. He could hear Casey's voice and followed the sound around the side of the cabin.
"Come on." Casey was trying to coax a chicken from under a bush. JD watched her appreciatively. She was down on all fours and as she cajoled the chicken, her hips swayed enticingly.
"Casey, need a hand there?"
"Oomph." Casey startled and hit her head on a low hanging branch, which in turn startled the chicken. Casey groaned as the chicken started to scoot away. "Come back here." She turned and threw a clump of dirt at JD in frustration. "Thanks a lot."
The agile JD easily avoided getting hit and was able to grasp the chicken as it tried to run by. JD chuckled at how easily he caught it much to Casey's obvious chagrin. "Is that the last of them?"
Casey sat back on her haunches. "Yeah, " as she made a tired swipe at hair that fell over her face. JD laughed and returned the chicken to the coop.
JD could feel Casey's eyes on him as he returned. She looked up and down his body then dropped her head. JD could sense her melancholy.
"I . . . " Casey started to answer. "It's nothing." She turned away from him.
JD frowned. "Say it."
Casey bristled at the order. "Look, JD, you might think you're in charge. But you're not. I can take care of myself." She stood and wagged a finger at him.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa. That's not what we're talking about, is it?"
Casey shook her head dejected.
"Why don't you tell me what's really bothering you?"
Casey looked up at JD. "I haven't had anybody but Aunt Nettie for a long time. I can ride. I can shoot. I can throw knives better than you." JD smiled at that comment. "I was pretty confident in my abilities to take care of myself. I had to be."
"And that's changed?"
"I am helpless," Casey started to cry.
JD pulled Casey into his arms. She burrowed his head into his chest. Though her words were muffled JD could understand her.
"They tied me in an open area and then set up snipers. Vin came by himself and cut me lose. He was shot and now he's dying." Casey sobbed and sobbed.
JD felt helpless to ease her pain. He rubbed her back and squeezed her tight. "Oh, Casey. You didn't fail him. I did. If I had been more alert. If you never were captured. If I had given you a chance to escape."
"JD, I don't feel that way. I know Vin doesn't."
"And you think Vin blames you?"
"No," Casey said in a small voice. "I do."
"I know you do, honey. But it wasn't your fault. Have you ever though that maybe the only reason he has this chance, that he's even still alive is because of you."
Casey shook her head vehemently.
"Think about it. If you didn't know what to do for a gunshot wound -Vin would have died. When you were racing here, you kept Vin on the horse as long as possible. That might have made the difference in getting him to the cabin. And as he lays here so hurt and injured, whose voice more than any other comforts him." JD loosened his grip on Casey and gently nudged her face to look at him. "You're pretty amazing."
Casey smiled tremulously at JD.
"Very amazing," JD's voice dropped as head bent to brush his lips against hers.
They both pulled back slightly. Casey bit her lip in doubt.
"JD. Has how you feel about me changed?"
JD pondered the question. He cared for Casey. He seemed to spend hours seeking advice how to approach her and let her know his feelings. He practiced what he would say. He really cared for Casey. Wanted her for his girl. Maybe, his wife. But that hadn't changed from two days ago.
"Not really," JD eventually answered.
Casey stamped her foot in frustration. "Oooooh, you're impossible." She pushed away from him and stalked back to the cabin.
JD was flabbergasted. "What did I say?" He called after Casey's retreating back.
Casey threw her hands up in frustration and she passed Josiah on the front porch of the cabin.
"Well, damn." JD muttered but knew better than to chase after Casey.
"Why don't we bed the horses?" Josiah suggested.
They went to barn and started removing saddles.
"What did you say to upset that little girl?"
"Me, ME. I can't help it if she's totally unreasonable." JD objected. Then he looked sheepishly at Josiah. "I don't know."
Josiah laughed heartily. "So you admit it's your fault."
JD hung his head, "Yeah, I'm sure it was."
Mary stepped out of the bedroom after Casey came in to relieve her. She rolled her aching shoulders and rubbed her neck. She scanned the main room of the cabin.
Nettie was asleep on a bedroll. Bet it's the first real rest you've had in two days, Nettie. She was an amazing woman. From watching her, Mary knew she could continue after her husband's death. Live their dream. She had living proof a woman could do it. Whenever she doubted it, she'd only need to share a cup of coffee with Nettie to be assured she was doing the right thing.
Ezra Standish was also lying down on one of the bedrolls. Mary looked at him for a long time. He was flat on his back. One forearm was across his eyes. You could see the bruises and cut to his face that marred his handsome cheek. Mary smiled at her characterization of his face. He moved in a world so different from Mary's that in normal circumstances they would never converse. And that would be a shame.
Mary smiled as she remembered the times Chris and Nathan would rant in frustration over some uncaring thing they thought Ezra had done. //How can you make money off someone else's back.// She could hear Nathan now like they were having the conversation.
What kind of man are you, Mr. Standish. You believe and care about what Chris and Nathan think. And you think they're right. But they're wrong, Ezra, and I think you'll be surprised when you find that out. Because I think although you don't know, Chris and Nathan do.
Mary startled as she felt Chris's intense stare on her. She ducked her head embarrassed. //Did you know what I was thinking?// she wondered. Mary peeked at Chris beneath her lashes.
"Mary," Nathan called.
Mary pushed away from the wall. After a long look at Chris, she returned to the sickroom.
"I need your help here."
Mary sighed. When would this be done?
All was darkness.
It had been dark for a long time now, and Vin was beginning to wonder if there had ever been such a thing as light. The swirling streamers of ebony still spiraled past his shadoweyes, wrapping themselves around his conciousness, trying to pull him down. And he was seriously beginning to wonder if he shouldn't just give in to their call.
Still, something nagged at him. Were the others OK? Had they made it through? Were Mary and Casey safe? He'd be damned if he wanted that girl to die. He'd sworn he'd bring her home safe, and he didn't want her to die like that, his job unfinished. Hell, he didn't want ANY of them to die.
Did he want himself to die?
Vin knew that was what the obsidian curling through his conciousness meant. He knew that if he let them take control, let himself be lulled into their promise of rest and absence of pain, then he would die. At the moment, nothing was exactly prompting him to stay.
And everything was sure as hell telling him to go.
Nathan sat by the silent tracker's bed, hunched over at the waist, hands clasped loosely in front of him where his arms rested on his knees. Head bowed. Eyes closed.
He knew Vin wasn't out of the woods yet. Hell, the man wouldn't be out of the woods until he was up and walking on his own with a good meal inside him and no one trying to blow his head off at every turn.
Nathan half chuckled. //Guess he's gonna be in the forest for a LONG time, then,// he thought wryly.
But his levity was short lived as the reality of the situation settled on his shoulders. Vin was sick. Real sick. And there wasn't anything that he could do about it.
The healer slumped a little farther forward in his chair.
The black streamers were more abundant now. //Hmmmm, maybe this means somethin'// Vin thought absently. He couldn't exactly run from the storm that suddenly surrounded him. Soon enough it would engulf him and he would have no choice in the matter. It was fight now, hurl himself through the swirling fog, and break free, or let go and stop the battle all together.
But what did he have to fight for?
Casey sat anxiously by Buck's bed, now and then holding her hand to his forehead to check for a reoccurence of fever. Luckily, it hadn't returned yet, and she silently thanked God for the umpteen-zillionth time. Now if he'd just wake up......
Her attention was drawn away now, pulled from one weak and helpless man to another. Vin lay, utterly motionless, in the next bed. //Vin, you're gonna be all right, right?// She'd asked the question a million times- to Miz Travis, Nathan, even Aunt Nettie. They all told her the same thing- that it was up to Vin now. That all they could do was wait.
Well, doggone it, she was plumb sick of waiting!
It made her stomach fluttery and anxious. Because she knew that them saying all they could do was wait meant that there was nothing they could do to help him. And the way it looked to her, Vin didn't seem to be helping himself any. He looked paler and paler everytime she glanced in his direction.
//And it's all my fault!// She quickly quashed that thought, remembering how Nettie had explained to her earlier that it WASN'T her fault. That it was them damn Nichols brothers who caused all the trouble. And Casey understood that.
Still, it wouldn't make her feel any better if the man who had saved her life died himself.
So she asked it again, silently, fighting back the tears that threatened to fall. //You're gonna be all right Vin, ain't you? You have to be.//
Sire needed him. No one else knew how to take care of that horse like he did. He was a fine animal, and Vin was proud to have owned him. //Own. Own him. I still own him. I ain't in the past yet.//
Still, Nathan could probably handle Sire just as well as Vin did. He had a compassionate soul. So did Josiah. Hell, all his friends did, or else they'd have trussed him up like a hog and hauled him away to Tascosa a long time ago.
Nettie watched her niece anxiously. The girl seemed to be retreating into herself, and the elderly woman could see the self-blame growing ever more obvious on her young features. //Ah, girl, I thought I'd explained it to you. It isn't your fault, honey.//
Her eyes were pulled from the niece she thought of as a daughter to the man who was almost her son. //Vin. Oh, Vin. Why so pale?// Well, that was a stupid question. She knew damn well why so pale. Nathan had explained several times how much blood the tracker had lost, and how much time it would take to get it back. And time was something Vin seemed to be running short on.
She turned away from the bed and walked out the door, brushing past Mary as she left.
//My guns. Gotta think about my guns.//
Absolutely. That was it. That rifle, that pistol, his trusty mare's leg-they'd gotten him through so many life and death situations, it would be damn near blasphemy to just give them up to someone else's care. How many times had they saved his life? How many times had they pulled him or one of his friends from the brink of disaster?
//How many times did I kill a man with them?//
Mary stood in the doorway, wiping her dishwashing hands on the simple white apron around her waist. //God, he looks so weak!// That was something Mary Travis had never associated with Vin Tanner. Weakness.
//Which was probably why I gave him that damn gun!// she thought angrily. //Stupid me didn't consider the fact that Vin Tanner is only mortal.//
That gun. The widow's eyes went to where it sat, in its previous position on the dresser. She shuddered, remembering the blood that had bubbled on the tracker's flesh from the recoil of the mare's leg. Blood he couldn't afford to lose.
Visions flashed through her mind. Holding that bandage to the tracker's wound as Nathan worked fervently to save both men. Vin's blood seeping onto her hands, between her fingers. //I wanted to put it back, Vin,//she thought absently. //I truly did.//
She was wiping her hands fervently on the small white apron around her waist now, rubbing them almost raw. Scrubbing them. Twisting the cloth between her hands, pulling it through her fingers, digging it into her palms. She could almost still see the red blood on her fingers, beneath her nails.
//God, Vin,// she sobbed silently, //please come back! I don't want this anymore!//
//Dammit, there has to be something!//
Vin was not going to just give in like this. He was stronger than that. His ma had told him he was stronger than that. Hadn't she?
But the black fog was coalescing now, closing in on him like he was at the center of a tornado. Was there really any reason to fight it? Was there really any reason to try and go back? What waited for him there but pain and weakness? He hated being weak. It meant he had to be dependent, and Vin Tanner was not a man to act dependent on anyone.
Besides, the others were probably dead.
Three down. Though he couldn't really remember what that third one had been.
Buck thrashed around in his mind as memories whirled past him. //What the hell is going on? Where the hell am I?// He could see himself as he fell off his horse, remembered the nagging pain that still throbbed in his leg. Mary and Casey going down into the root cellar. Nettie was falling, hitting her head mighty hard, and Buck just knew that couldn't be good. He had to help her. Had to get to her. Had to get that man away.
//What the-?// He wasn't near Nettie anymore. Where was she? OW! Damn, that hurt! On the floor now. Have to get up. Have to stop him.
Now where had that come from?
He was aiming it at Buck's head, and the gunslinger knew it was all over. Well, at least he'd get to see his momma again. He'd missed her for so long. It was a shame he'd failed the kid, though. //I tried, JD. I really did.//
Explosion so loud it knocked the thoughts clear out of his head and sent them tumbling.
//WHAT THE HELL?? gun vin just fired his gun where the hell did he get that ow ow OW damn that hurts he's bleeding again must have hurt like hell gotta help him can't move have to move why the hell can't I move just gotta sleep yeah sleep//
//Thanks Vin, buddy.//
For a moment the swirls of blackness stilled, and Vin saw with complete clarity.
Had Buck survived? Had Mary and Casey made it to the root cellar? Were they found out? And what about Nettie? The woman might have been hell with that Spencer carbine, but she wasn't invincible. Hell, were ANY of them still alive? //Did I let them down? They were countin' on me. Did I fail them?//
Vin didn't know if he wanted to live if they were all gone. He'd come to care for his newfound friends like a family. They meant as much to him as his mountains and the open prairie. //But, dammit, if they're gone, I ain't just gonna let that go!//
And the swirls began to waver.
Chris had only ever felt so lost in his life once before, and he didn't want to feel that way again.
Sarah and Adam. When they'd left him, he'd thought he couldn't go on. Thought the life he'd lived till then was all he was good for. So he crawled into a bottle and acted out the rest of his days, just another player on the stage, a faker and a hack.
Now he was feeling that way again, only he wasn't on the stage. He was trapped in the curtain and fighting to find the split to let himself out.
//Vin. God, don't you do this to me, too.// He knew he couldn't take it if they died. If even one of them left this earth, Chris knew he'd crawl right back into that whiskey bottle and let the liquor drown him. And it hurt like hell to know he was that weak, that dependent on anyone.
But he cared about them. Try as he might, he couldn't force himself to lie about that fact. These men, all six of them, meant a great deal to him, and they had reawakened a part of him that had lain facedown in a puddle of whiskey since that day he'd seen the smoldering ruins of his home and the two charred bodies of his wife and son.
//So don't you die on me, you hear?// He spoke silently, his eyes fixed on Vin's motionless body. //Because I ain't strong enough to handle all this alone. They look at me like a leader. You think I wanted that? I didn't! But dammit, I'm committed now. And I don't think I can protect them if you die. You know me better than I know myself, you know that? How the hell you pulled it off is a mystery to me, but, by damn, you did. You've gone and become my best friend, and now you're up and dying on me, and I don't think I can take it if you do.// He choked a little on his silent words. //Because you dragged me back from that hellpit of a life that even Buck couldn't pull me out of, and where will I be if you ain't there to do it again?//
He sat down heavily in a chair beside Vin's bed, across from Nathan. The healer looked beaten, and Chris felt a knot of dread burn in his stomach.
Vin wasn't going to make it out of this thing alive.
//God, did I fail?!?//
Vin could feel his silhouette-self struggle against the blackness that surrounded him like a suffocating black cloud. //I will NOT let them down!// he screamed at his protesting psyche. //Dammit, I OWE them!//
Waves of pain began to crash down on him, but he fought against the surf and tore through the tide, dragging himself ever closer to that pale gray horizon that seemed just beyond his reach.
//Chris, are you all right?// he thought frantically. //I tried. I did!//
Muscles flex, sinews work.
//Mary, Casey, I have to know that you made it!// His body began to tremble. His TRUE body.
//Buck!// he screamed inwardly. //Buck, you aren't dead! You can't be....!//
"DEAD!!" The sheer force of the bounty hunter's cry made everyone take a step back.
The tracker's body arched as his lungs expanded, his heart pumped, and his muscles worked reflexively. Another cry escaped him as he collapsed to the bed. "BUCK!!"
There was utter stillness for a moment.
Then the room exploded with motion.
Nathan was beside the bounty hunter in a flash. "Vin? Vin, can you hear me? It's Nathan. Open your eyes, Vin." He spoke softly but firmly.
Mary still stood in the doorway, and she felt the three men and one old woman who waited in the next room come crowding around the door behind her. She could almost see the anxious lines that crossed their faces. They all held their breaths as Nathan bent over the tracker.
"N-Nathan?" Vin croaked.
The elation on the healer's face was mirrored by everyone in the circle around the bounty hunter's bed. "Yeah, Vin," he replied, and Mary could hear the joy in his rich voice. "It's me."
"I'm here, buddy." All eyes whirled around to look at the other bed, where Buck lay, eyes open, weak smile on his lips.
Attentions were torn between Buck and Vin. Mary finally let her eyes rest on the weakened tracker. Nathan was checking the bounty hunter's bandages to make sure his histrionics hadn't reopened the wound.
Mary breathed a sigh of relief when the healer stood. //No more blood.//
Nettie spoke then. "They're all right, Vin." Mary looked up and saw that there were tears shining in the old woman's eyes.
When she looked back, Mary saw that an almost restful look had suffused Vin's face. "'Sgood," he mumbled, already beginning to slip into sleep.
Nathan said softly, "You just rest now, Vin. Everyone's OK. You done good."
The tracker murmured something else, but sleep claimed him before he could finish the thought.
Nathan looked up from his patient, his eyes scanning all the inhabitants of the room. "I think we should let them sleep," he said softly. "So, if y'all would just step outside." His tone showed he'd brook no argument.
Mary turned to follow the others out of the room. She was overjoyed that both men had finally awoken after such a long time, but they were so weak! She felt Casey brush by her into the next room to stand beside JD, and Mary noticed that both the youngsters wore glowing smiles; they were positive now that Vin and Buck were going to make it. She noticed, however, that the others in the room did not look so assured. Yes, they appeared more relaxed and the tension had been assuaged somewhat, but Mary recognized those guarded looks that she knew must be mirrored on her own face. //Progress, but we haven't reached the end yet,// she thought with a pang of dread.
Someone was missing from the quiet group gathered outside the bedroom.
Turning, Mary saw that Chris stood looking down at Vin. She paused in the doorway, deliberately untying the apron from around her waist so that she could watch his reaction.
Chris' face was partially obscured, but Mary was almost positive she saw a tear slide down his cheek. He didn't smile, and she knew he wouldn't until both men were up and walking again. He wouldn't allow himself to open up his emotions fully until he was sure they'd be all right.
But there was something on his face that hadn't been there even a few minutes before. Something for which Mary silently blessed Buck, Vin, and God.
"Come on," she said softly. "Let them rest. They'll still be there in a few hours."
Chris didn't argue; didn't say anything at all. He just turned, nodded, and slipped out the door, followed closely by Mary, who closed it gently behind her.
Nathan sat on the porch steps with his arms resting on his knees and watched the sun creep toward the horizon. It had been a long couple of days and he was tired. Casey was watching Buck and Vin. There wasn't much to do just now, just be there if they woke or come and get him if, for some reason, one of them took a turn for the worse.
Each man had pretty much driven himself to his current precarious medical condition--wouldn't rest, wouldn't stop. Neither one of them. But, Nathan couldn't help asking himself, what would he have wished? That Buck hadn't been here last night to protect Nettie and Mary and Casey? That Vin hadn't shot the man who'd been about to kill Buck? Where was the choice? Not to ride out after J. D. and Casey? Not to split up when the trail diverged? Not to rescue Casey? Not to help Buck at the ridge or come after him and Ezra? And Buck's damn fool stunt on the way to the cabin, jumping off his horse to tackle the man shooting at Nathan. Could Nathan honestly say he wished Buck hadn't done it? When _could_ they have stepped aside? And Nathan had to smile grudgingly to himself because he knew enough of Vin and Buck to know that the answer was simple--never.
There was a soft rustle of skirts behind him and Mary came out onto the porch and sat beside him on the steps. For several minutes she was silent, just sitting and watching the sun as it set. When she spoke, her voice was soft.
"I gave him the gun," she said. "Vin, I mean...I gave Vin the gun. And now...if he dies...."
Nathan looked at her. He could see the strain of the last few days showing itself in faint lines near her eyes and in a certain tightness around the corners of her mouth. He thought that there were times when she must feel as if the whole weight of the world were sitting on her shoulders. Well, he thought, this surely didn't need to be one of them. "First," he said. "Vin ain't gonna die. Not if I have anything to say about it. Second, if I was gonna blame someone it sure wouldn't be you. Blame the fella who shot him in the first place. Blame Buck for needin' his life saved. Blame Vin himself for not knowin' when to quit." His own thoughts from just minutes before echoed back at him and he said, "When was Vin ever gonna do it different?"
Mary gave him a faint smile. "He'd have gotten that gun himself if I hadn't given it to him, is that what you're saying?"
"You know what they're like," Nathan said with an answering smile.
Mary put her hand on his arm. "I know what _you're_ like," she said. "All of you. You, Nathan, I..." She shook her head and wiped at something on her cheek. "I don't know what angel led the seven of you to come here," she said. "But I'm eternally grateful to each and every one of you."
She rose and left, walking down toward the barn where J. D. was feeding the horses. Nathan was thankful, at least, for that. She'd left him without anything to say.