Ezra looked up through the swaying pinon branches over his head at the indigo sky and noticed that stars were starting to gleam there. It had gotten so dark that the bunches of long pinon needles and the supple branches on which they were clumped were entirely in silhouette, the sky much lighter behind them. Ezra watched them dancing lightly in the evening breeze for several moments, felt the dizziness start to roll over him again, and shut his eyes. He hoped the sound of boots on gravel that he heard approaching him from the right was Nathan, but knew that if he turned his head to look he’d regret it.
"Ezra?" Nathan’s deep voice was suddenly concerned.
"Just another dizzy spell, my friend. No cause for alarm." The gambler answered without opening his eyes, and felt Nathan’s warm hand against his face and forehead as the healer checked the bandage and the purple bruise spreading out from beneath it once again.
"Well, I got some water at least. Think you can sit up enough to take some?"
"As soon as this particular spell passes, yes. I would be delighted."
The two men sat in silence for a time, the low sounds of Nichols’ men setting up camp making clacking and thumping noises all around them in the gathering dark. Here and there a fire was springing into life, the yellow tongues of flame standing out in the deep blue air that seemed to have thickened as night drew on. Nathan rubbed the bridge of his nose with the thumb and forefinger of one hand, and sighed softly. He’d managed to scrounge up a blanket to wrap Ezra in earlier, and now he’d gotten some water by volunteering to carry buckets for a man who didn’t want to do it himself. But it was precious little for an injured man to recover his strength on, and it was going to be a long night. He looked at the gambler and shivered, wondering where Vin was right now, and Casey. His gaze wandered across the clearing, looking for Peter Nichols out of habit by now, and he thought about what he’d seen when he’d gone for the water and to see what he could find out about what had really happened.
"Have you able to ascertain whether the individual who claimed Vin was shot effecting Miss Welles’ escape was telling the truth?"
Ezra’s voice suddenly speaking to the very thought Nathan had been turning over in his mind made the healer look over at him quickly. He was barely able to see Ezra’s face in the dusk but saw that he still had his eyes closed. Nathan looked down at his own fingers, laced together loosely in his lap, and sighed.
"Yeah." He looked up again, watched Peter Nichols sit on a log and drink some coffee out of a tin cup across the clearing. "For sure someone took a hit an’ left a blood trail." The healer’s voice was tired. "If it was Vin--" His voice trailed off and he looked away.
Ezra was silent for a long while, then said softly, "It has to have been. We heard his gun. And they described him perfectly." The gambler opened his eyes and rolled his head slowly and carefully towards Nathan. "Has it occurred to you that there may be a similar reason no one has shown up to effect OUR release?"
Nathan nodded. "Yeah, I been thinkin’ the same thing. If they had Casey, an’ it’s clear they did, then --" he hesitated, then hurried on softly, "--then they got JD. An’ it sounds like they got Vin one way or another, too. Somebody’s pinned down on the ridge, whatever ridge that might be, an’ there’s only three of ‘em left -- at most." He looked at Ezra in the dark, his face gleaming in the distant firelight. "An’ there’s at least 15 a’ Nichols men there by now."
The silence between the two men was longer this time, broken only by Nathan giving Ezra some water. He laid the man’s head back down on the worn blanket and wondered why the Nichols’ hadn’t tied them up. His gaze wandered back to the man he never let out of his sight for more than a few minutes at a time. Maybe it was that Nichols knew Ezra couldn’t move quickly enough to get away, and that Nathan wouldn’t leave him there alone.
"Do not underestimate Chris Larabee, my friend," said Ezra softly at last. "I for one would not wish to be in the position of trying to attack him, outnumbered or otherwise, if he was angry."
Nathan thought about Chris having found out about JD and Casey, maybe even about him and Ezra, and felt hope try to rise in his heart. Then he looked at Peter Nichols again and saw that the man was staring at him this time, his eyes gleaming like black coals, and Nathan felt a chill run up his spine. Ezra was helpless if Nichols decided to push anything, and he had to have taken them from town for a a reason. He remembered how Ezra said the brothers had threatened him when he’d given them directions to Chris’s place --directions that had been false. And Nathan felt hope sink again and drop from his heart into the that of the stoney mountain beneath him.
Buck looked at Casey. You idiot, Buck! he thought to himself. There's no sense yelling at her. He crossed the short distance between them and gathered her into his arms. "I'm sorry, Casey. It's okay," he said. "I wouldn't have scared you for the world."
Casey sniffed and after a minute she stepped away from him. She pushed her hair away from her face and rubbed her hand across her cheek. "It's not that," she said. "It's just--"
Buck heard the slow sound of a horse approaching and stiffened. Casey grabbed his arm. "No!" she said urgently and Buck could tell he _had_ scared her whether she'd admit it or not. "Don't shoot! It's Vin."
Buck could tell as soon as he saw Vin that something was wrong. His horse was moving too slowly, the way he held himself was too stiff and too still. He started to move forward, to catch him maybe if he should fall, but he forgot for a moment about his own injuries and almost fell himself.
Casey grabbed his arm. "Oh my god, Buck! You're hurt."
Buck gave her a wry half-smile, grateful underneath for the support of her arm. "I been better," he said. He turned to Vin. "That you up on the ridge just now?"
"Yeah." Vin's voice was low and quiet as if he didn't have the energy left to speak any louder.
Vin answered him with a tiny smile that turned into a small grimace at the end. "Damn, Buck, you're a hard man to back up, you know that. What were you thinkin' down there?"
"Thinkin' I was runnin' out of choices. What happened to you?"
"Got Casey back."
"Yeah." Buck looked at him for a minute trying to figure exactly how much that simple statement hid. "Look we better make camp here tonight. I ain't got a horse and you're sure not lookin' good, pard."
"Where's Josiah?" Casey asked suddenly.
"We saw his horse over yonder. Figured he'd be with you. Where is he? Is he hurt too?" Casey's voice rose toward the end as she willed Buck not to say that Josiah was worse than hurt, not to say that he was dead.
"Damn!" Buck said. "That's the best news I've had all day. Figured that horse was long gone. If it ain't too far, reckon we ought to go get it."
"_I'll_ go get it," Casey said firmly."You need to sit down, Vin. And you too, Buck," she said before he could add anything. "And then, you've got to tell us, where's Josiah?"
"Well, he ain't here," Buck said. He waited while Vin dismounted and found a relatively comfortable spot and he himself leaned against a large rock which allowed him to take the weight off his bad leg.
Casey held Vin's horse and looked at Buck expectantly. "Well, if he ain't here," she finally said impatiently, 'then why's his horse here?"
"I found J. D. where they left him," Buck's voice hardened as he spoke. "and I cut him down and I was carrying him back to town when I met Josiah and Chris. That's when--" Buck broke off as he realized that Casey was crying again. "Casey, honey," he said, reaching out and pulling her toward him. "What's wrong?"
"I knew he was dead," Casey said. "I mean, I saw him. And I knew there wasn't any hope. But I thought...I mean I hoped...I mean it was just hearin' it like that--"
"Wait, wait, wait," Buck said. "J. D. ain't dead! Least he wasn't when I left him. He wasn't in good shape. But he was a ways yet from dead."
Casey stopped crying abruptly and looked up at him. "Not?"
"No, darlin.' I'm sorry, I'd have told you sooner if I'd known you thought..."
For the first time in a long time, Casey smiled. "Thank you, Buck," she said. She grasped both his hands and squeezed them. "Thank you!" She looked from him to Vin, taking in the bone weariness of both of them and even seeing that, she knew that she'd be safe tonight if she just stayed with the two of them. "I'm goin' to get that horse now," she said. She vaulted easily onto Vin's horse, pulled the reins and trotted away.
Vin watched her until she disappeared into the darkness. "Reckon we should have let her go off like that?" His voice sounded a little stronger than it had, now that he was sitting more comfortably and no longer trying to move.
"Reckon we had a choice?" Buck said with a small laugh.
But neither of them really relaxed until they heard, not ten minutes later, the jingling sound of bridles and the tap of horses' hooves as Casey rode back into their rough camp.
Judging by the positions of the stars, it was about an hour after midnight when Nathan woke up stiff with the night's cold, realizing that he needed to slip into the brush for a moment. The healer looked at Ezra sleeping next to him, listened to his steady breathing for a moment, then rose silently on long legs. A watchman coughed softly to let him know he was seen and being watched, and Nathan looked towards the man and nodded silently to acknowledge that the threat was understood. He cast a final look at Ezra, then stepped through the cedar to a spot that was secluded enough for his purposes
He'd just finished buttoning his fly when Nathan heard low voices approaching, and the soft sound of footsteps. He froze. One of the voices was unmistakably that of Peter Nichols, and the furtive tone of the conversation bore such darkness in it that the healer suspected it was one that Nichols would be dangerously unhappy to have interrupted by the presence of an enemy. He crouched silently in place, praying the two men would pass on by without ever realizing he was there. Instead, they stopped not 15 feet away, so close that he could see the top of Peter's head against the pale glow of the banked fires of camp behind him.
"-- seven already, that we know about," the Nichols that was not Peter came into earshot mid-sentence, "and we've probably lost some more at that ambush on the ridge trail by now. If this keeps up--"
"It won't." Peter Nichols' voice was abrupt and sharp. "And we've got plenty of men anyway. It doesn't matter in the slightest."
"It matters to ME," said the other man. Nathan saw Peter turn to regard his brother more steadily and seriously than he had before, and then relax.
"Matthew, I understand your concern, but we pay these men to do this work."
"We don't pay them to kill each other." Matthew's voice was bitter.
"No. We don't." Peter's was cold. "We pay them to do the work we give them, and to do it correctly. If they don't, we really don't need them on the payroll. Do we."
The two men were silent for a moment, and then the younger man spoke again.
"The seven we lost are all from the group Mother sent to bust us out of Yuma Prison. How many came up with you today, the new group that just got in?"
"Twenty," said Peter simply. "And with the three we had remaining, that gives us twenty-three. Plus the four of us." His voice was smug as he added up the numbers. "Twelve are on the trail and getting that accursed boy's body to bring back. Fifteen are here. You should have paid more attention to ciphering in school, Matthew." He laughed then, a short and mirthless laugh. "But the numbers I like best are these: two of them captured, here in our hands. One of those no longer healthy, and soon to be a lot less so." Nathan felt his blood run cold. Peter kept right on explaining to his brother, his voice growing more animated. "The boy: dead. The tracker: dead by now. Whoever is on the trail: dead. We're winning."
"That's just the point, Peter. We're NOT winning."
"How can you--"
The younger man's voice exploded in a low growl of frustration and anger. "How do you expect us to run a syndicate the size of ours with half our men gone? Is it really worth it to you just to kill these seven stupid--"
"Yes." Peter's voice was a hiss, deadly and lethal and a threat if Nathan had ever heard one. "It's a matter of pride now."
"Pride? Walk away from it, Peter. Finish off these two you have, leave the others be. What's that leave: three of them? Go home and get back to business. It's enough, and we have work to do."
"It's NOT enough. It's NOT." Peter's voice was ragged with rage. "No one treats us like that and gets away with it. NO ONE. How do you think we would be treated in KC if they learned that you can do this kind of thing to us and get away with it? Eh? How long?"
"Who's to tell them, Peter? You?"
"They'll know. That kind of thing travels fast, and you know it."
"We're losing, Peter. We're going to lose everything Father built for us, and for nothing but your pride."
"As long as we go home leaving seven bodies here, we win. I don't care how many other bodies we have to leave behind to escort them to hell. And," Peter paused for a long moment charged with menace, "if you can't see that, then maybe you don't need to be on the payroll anymore, either."
Silence settled over the two brothers. A nightbird called from somewhere down the mountain, and was answered by another farther off. Finally Matthew spoke again, his voice defeated and shaken. "I acquiesce. You're the oldest. You're the one Father left in charge." Nathan heard him turn and walk off. Peter remained where he was for several more minutes, and Nathan wondered what he was doing, standing there alone. He began to worry that his presence had been discovered, then realized that he was hearing a low voice droning under its breath, on and on. Peter's voice.
Nathan closed his eyes and swallowed, and finally Peter finished and moved off. Nathan waited a long time before he stood up and made his way back to the place he'd left Ezra. He leaned down to check on the gambler, and was relieved to see that he was still sleeping well. He laid down himself and curled up on his side facing his friend. He could still hear Peter's voice in his head: "one of them no longer healthy, and soon to be a lot less so."
He had to do something, and soon.
Meanwhile, several hours ago. . .
Luke Nichols and five men were riding to where JD had been left.
"Thought Peter said to go help with the shoot-out on the trail," one of the men had the temerity to ask Luke Nichols.
Nichols reined his horse. Leaned over and grabbed the man by his shirt front.
"You questioning my orders?" Nichols demanded.
Obviously nervous, the man stammered, "No Mr. Nichols."
Nichols winked at the man. "Thought not." He said in an ominous voice.
"Should have killed that boy this morning? That would have been a message." He muttered. "Now move out, let's go get 'im."
After an hour's ride, they found the tree where JD had been left. And it was empty. He'd obviously been cut down.
"Damn, damn, damn." Luke Nichols futilely kicked the tree trunk.
The men looked at each other uneasily.
"Why the f**k did we leave him here in the first place." Luke Nichols ranted.
"Guess we should go tell Pete."
Luke backhanded him across the face and the man fell to ground holding his cheek. "You f**kin' nuts. No way. No way in hell." He paused and took a deep breath before continuing. "Which on the other hand, if that's where you want to go." He flashed a wicked grin. "You just go back. Go ahead and tell Pete that his bait is gone." Luke looked at the group of men surrounding them. "Any takers?"
The men either looked at the ground or shook their heads no.
"Then I suggest you find the trail," Luke Nichols directed softly.
The men quickly fanned out.
After 30 minutes of futile searching, the frustrated Luke Nichols was ready to kill the bunch of 'em.
Not one of 'em a tracker.
They'd been pokin' around all over the place. Even by his untrained eye, he could tell they went over the same ground over . . . and over. . . and over again. Geesh. I could do a better job and I'm a town boy. Don't know nothin' about trackin'.
There was a sudden shout. "Mr. Nichols," a man rode up fast, "Got it. They're headed toward the town."
"Town. You said town. AND WE COULDN'T FIGURE THIS OUT THIRTY MINUTES AGO," Luke screamed.
"Didn't think they'd be that stupid. First place we'd look." Another man said.
"First place we look, huh." Luke's fist crushed the man's nose.
"AHH. AHH." The man moaned in pain. "DAMN Luke, you broke my nose."
"Are we certain that's where the trail leads?" Luke asked the man who reported the trail.
"I'm certain. Followed the trail. One horse obviously pulling a travois."
"Travois, huh. Means he's alive. If he was dead, they'd have just slung him over the back of the horse." Luke's eyes gleamed. "Might yet, get to kill that boy."
Nichols mounted his horse for the hour ride to Four Corners.
"Let's go get 'im."
Back in Four Corners at the Clarion
Chris had assisted JD to the kitchen table. Chris noted his pallor had increased with the short walk. Bruises marred the right of his face and stood out in stark contrast to his pale skin. One eye was near swelled shut.
"Yeah," JD choked out. His voice affected by the near hanging.
"Can you do this?"
With obvious effort, JD lifted his head. "Got no choice in the matter."
At that moment, JD seemed very old and wise.
Mary walked into the kitchen then. She had changed into pants. JD's jaw dropped. Noting his shocked expression, Mary smiled. "JD," she chided. "Casey wears pants all the time."
"You don't." JD mumbled, dropping his head in embarrassment.
Chris had said nothing. He deliberately surveyed Mary from head-to-toe. He noted the way the pants framed her long legs. Her narrow waist. The curve of her hip.
Chris slowly smiled, then nodded and proceeded to check the weapons.
Satisfied with their weapon status, he took one last look around their office. A shadow of a gun warned him of the impending attack.
"DOWN!" The warning was an instant before the first shot.
Chris leaped across the table to push Mary down.
JD dove right pulled a gun and fired at the shadow. The window in the front office shattered and there was a shout of pain . . . THUD
Chris had his gun out and Mary wriggled out from under him and reached for one of the guns that had been on the table.
Shots erupted from the street. They were too numerous to count.
Chris was considering a plan. There were obviously too many for the three of them. Had to think of Mary. Had no business being in the middle of this. Maybe she could be saved . . .
As quickly as the volley erupted, there was quiet.
"Stay down." He ordered JD and Mary. "I'll check it out. If I don't come back, JD you lay cover fire and Mary you run for it. There are horses out back. Head to Nettie's . . . the boys will find you." Mary raised stricken eyes to Chris. "Promise," he asked solemnly.
"Promise," Mary softly replied.
"JD." JD nodded his understanding. He reached over for extra loaded weapons.
"Let's do this."
Chris let out a warrior yell as he dashed for the front door.
No shots. Still quiet.
He turned the lock on the door and pulled it open suddenly. Quickly ducking in and back, he scanned the streets.
Suddenly, men on horses rode out from the alley by Nathan's clinic. They randomly shot about but were obviously intent on escaping the town. Chris shot at them but they were too far down the street from his position. He was tempted to go after them but realized he had to finish the job he had started. Get Mary and JD out of here.
Chris returned to the kitchen and put an arm around JD assisting him to his feet. "Let's go."
At the back door, Chris released JD to check the back alley was clear. From the shadow's, Mr. Wickham, the bank manager stepped out, a rifle in his hand.
"Mr. Larabee. It's clear."
Chris nodded his appreciation. "Come on." He wrapped an arm around the fading JD. Mary walked around to the other side.
As they exited, Chris scanned the back alley. There was Edwin, the night clerk at the hotel. . . Mr. Skaggs from the mine office . . . Mr. Watson from the hardware . . . As they approached the wagon, the liveryman was there to assist with JD.
Chris inclined his head. The liveryman smiled slightly and ducked his head in embarrassment. Chris made it a point to make eye contact with the men that clearly had intervened on their behalf, acknowledging their help. Realizing there were many more he wouldn't be able to thank this night.
No words were spoken. None needed.
Chris assisted Mary into the back of the wagon with JD. He exchanged a firm handshake with the old man and then quickly mounted and whipped the horses into a quick trot out of town.
He looked back as they were making the last turn before losing sight of town. There were men with tree branches obliterating their trail. Chris shook his head in wonder. You just never knew . . .
After setting a false trail, Chris turned the wagon toward Nettie Wells' place.
After a thirty-minute ride, they pulled into the yard. Nettie was on the front porch pacing back and forth.
"I'm not a worrier by nature . . . but you've should've been home a long time ago girl."
Chris assisted Mary from the wagon. "I'm not Casey, Nettie." Mary reported solemnly.
Nettie's head jerked up. "Where's my niece?" she directed the question to Chris.
"Nettie . . . " Mary tried to answer.
Nettie stopped her with a raised hand. "Mr. Larabee. Answer my question." Nettie's fist was clenching and unclenching. She was biting her bottom lip and there was an occasional ragged intake of breath.
"Casey was kidnapped by a gang called the Nichols." Chris started to explain.
"Boys, that killed Hank Connelly." Nettie inquired evenly. She wasn't looking at Chris anymore. Swallowing hard, she refused to let herself cry.
"Yeah. Vin has gone after her."
"Good man, Vin Tanner," Nettie stated with a quaver.
"The best." Chris affirmed.
"Mrs. Wells. I'm sorry about Casey. All my fault." JD confessed from the wagon.
Nettie had walked to the back of the wagon and gasped at the condition of the young man. She quickly grasped the horrid nature of his attack. "None of that now. What were the odds? I'm thinking something like four or five to one." She offered in her I want no nonsense from you young man voice.
JD offered a shaky smile. "Something like that."
"Let's get 'im inside."
With Mary's help, Chris lifted JD from the wagon and started to carry JD. "I can walk." Chris wasn't about to argue with him and eased JD to his feet. JD put his hand on Chris' shoulder to steady himself.
"What now, Mr. Larabee," Nettie asked.
"We wait. Made your place the rendezvous point. Until we get further word, we wait." Looking at Mary and Nettie, "I'll need one of you to help me set a perimeter."
Nettie straightened up. "Pretty fair shot with this Spencer Carbine." She patted her weapon. "Best be me."
"Wait a minute." Mary wasn't about to have her skill with weapons denigrated. "I've been working hard on my shooting. I've been having regular lessons."
Chris startled at Mary's announcement. //They hadn't been lessons from him.//
"Think I've notched a few more kills, Mary."
Chris attempted to break the stalemate. "Actually Nettie, I was kind of hopin' you whipped up a batch of your chicken and dumplings." Chris stated, flashing his most charming grin at the older woman. "Haven't eaten since yesterday."
Nettie beamed. "Got all the fixin's for tomorrow. Won't be no trouble at all." She turned to enter the cabin.
Mary glanced furiously at Chris. "You prefer her cooking to mine," Mary demanded. She didn't give Chris a chance to respond before pivoting to follow Nettie into the cabin, stomping up the stairs.
"Man, Chris, remind me never to ask you for advice about women." JD shook his head in disbelief. "I thought I was bad. Even I could have done better than that."
Chris pursed his lips. "Yeah, bet you could've."
Josiah Sanchez was beginning to feel like he was caught in an eternal limbo of night and horseback and grief and worry. His mind went around and around the images and thoughts -- JD’s battered face, Chris’s grim one, Vin and Casey missing, Ezra and Nathan in the hands of men they already knew for cruel sons of bitches bent on revenge. Buck helpless somewhere and under attack. The burned-out shell of his church.
It always came back to that.
Josiah reined in and looked up at the night sky with a deep sigh that shook his frame right down to the core. Maybe it was a sign, he thought, a clear picture of who and what he was, himself: hollow, burned-out, no good to anyone any more. The horse he had borrowed sawed up and down on the reins as it pulled against the bit, and Josiah relaxed and let the animal have its head. Why not? He couldn’t see where he was going very well now that it was dark, had no earthly idea where the trail was that Buck had taken. The horse plodded softly and carefully on, and Josiah relaxed into the slow sway of the gait and let his mind wander farther, back to long ago images and hurts and worries. But always it came back to now, to the men he called friends and who felt like family, and to the girl who was so young and innocent and maybe dead by now.
"Lord," Josiah said out loud, "I reckon we’re all a bunch a’ rabble-rousin’ sinners if you get right down to it, but that little Casey Wells ain’t, an’ you know it." He looked up into the sky again as piercingly as if Orion might suddenly roll back and show him the face of God himself, listening. "She’s innocent. Seems to me you ought to pay attention to that."
The horse snorted, and Josiah chuckled. "Amen, Brother," he said, patting its neck with a large hand. He looked up again.
"See? Even this horse here agrees with me. If a poor dumb creature--"
Josiah broke off at the sound of a horse neighing in the distance, and reined in. Stillness. He listened, his heart hammering from the suddenness of it, and heard it again. Then his own mount startled him by replying, its chest expanding and then shivering between his knees under the saddle as it sent a long, drawn-out cry into the hollow darkness. Josiah shook his head and gathered the reins as he addressed the horse.
"Couldn’t you have just restricted your comments to the ‘amen’ part?" he asked.
Buck sat up straighter and took up the rifle he’d propped next to him against the stone. He looked at Vin to see that the tracker was staring out into the darkness with an alert expression Buck wouldn’t have thought was possible five minutes ago. Casey’s voice was a soft whisper, shaking a little.
"Was that a horse, answerin’ ours?"
Buck put his hand out to her, to signal that she should remain silent, and the girl wrapped her arms around her knees and hugged herself against them to keep from shaking. Just a horse, she said to herself over and over. Horses just naturally do that if they smell another one. No need to get all worried about it.
Except it was obvious that Vin and Buck were taking it pretty seriously.
There followed a long time of absolute quiet, not even a night animal calling. Buck pushed himself over farther so that he could turn around and face the direction they’d heard the sound come from. He heard Vin draw his Mare’s leg, behind him. They waited.
"Josiah here, Buck." The three people in the camp started at the sudden baritone of Josiah’s voice almost directly on top of them, and looked up to see him in silhouette, picking his way down the slope of the ridge from a position he’d taken up in the rocks maybe 20 feet above them. Buck grinned as he set his rifle back against the rock behind him.
"Hell, Josiah, you’re gonna’ owe me a beer for scarin’ me like that."
"Yeah, well--" the big man grunted as he stepped over a particularly rough place at the bottom of the slope and came out into the little area where the three were resting, "--I’ve gotta’ tell you that your taste in campsites could be a lot better. If I was Peter Nichols you’d be in trouble right now." He looked around in the dark and then startled and smiled broadly. "CASEY!?"
The girl stood up, nodding. Josiah leaped across the space between them to wrap her in a bear hug that swallowed her small form completely. "Thank GOD, Girl! We’ve been so worried about you all day!"
"I’m ok, Josiah." The girl panted a bit as he released her, and ran a shaking hand against her hair. "But Buck an’ Vin are--"
"Vin’s here, too?" Josiah whirled around to peer intently into the shadows and nodded when he saw the tracker looking at him silently. Something was wrong there. He looked back at Buck as he heard Casey’s voice behind him, trying not to waver and not succeeding very well.
"They’re both hurt, an’ I don’t know what to do." Josiah took several steps towards Vin, trying to figure out what looked so odd about the way he was sitting, as Buck’s soft voice joined in:
"Josiah, you’ve gotta’ get Casey out of this deathtrap."
Josiah hesitated and stood looking into Vin’s face, heavily shadowed by night and his hat brim, and then he turned to face Buck.
"That I agree with," he said. "But we’re all goin’." He turned to the girl, gesturing as he did so. "Casey, my horse is out yonder. Find ‘im and get the others and bring ‘em in."
The girl darted off into the darkness. Josiah turned to Buck. "How bad are you hurt? What happened?"
"Your horse and I had a disagreement about battle tactics, and I lost. Sprained my knee and cut my leg on a rock. I’ve been better, but I’ll live. I think Vin needs some help, though."
Josiah walked closer to the tracker, not at all reassured by the fact that he continued to remain silent. He hadn’t even responded to Buck’s statement that he needed help. The big preacher knelt next to Vin and looked at him carefully.
"Vin? That so?"
The younger man sighed and spoke very softly. "We gotta’ get Casey back to Nettie. Get her outta’ here."
"Get Casey back home." Vin raised his face and Josiah saw starlight gleam off of eyes that were filled with patient and resigned determination. No arguing with that, he realized. He stood up.
"All right. We’ll get up to some higher ground so we’re safe the rest of the night and you two can get some sleep. Then we’ll plan what to do next."
"Get Casey to Nettie’s, Josiah." Vin’s soft voice was insistent.
"We all will, Vin. That’s one of the things we’re doin’, is meetin’ Chris an’ Mary an’ JD there in the morning." He looked at Buck. "But we need to plan some things first, and before we do that we need to get you people out of this trap."
It wasn’t easy to get Buck into a saddle, and the tall man let out a sharp groan even though he tried not to when he finally went up. He sat there a long moment with his eyes closed in a suddenly paled face, and Josiah stood silently with a steadying hand against him until Buck took a deep and shuddering breath and relaxed a bit again. He looked down at Josiah and nodded. "OK," he said softly.
"All right, Vin. You’re next." Josiah walked over to the tracker, who hadn’t moved a muscle during the time Casey and Josiah had been saddling horses and gathering the few things spread about the impromptu campsite. He bent down to wrap a strong arm around the smaller man’s shoulder and got a good grip on him. Casey approached with the reins of Vin’s horse in her hands, and bit her lip, watching. Josiah raised Vin to his feet, and the younger man gasped and then swayed slightly as he got his feet under him and stood up. The preacher pulled one of the injured man’s arms over his own shoulder just as Vin sagged again a moment, and caught him. Then the tracker started slowly making his way to the waiting horse, his steps weak but steady, the preacher supporting him. Josiah had caught his breath as Vin had faltered, though, thinking he was about to go down, and the tracker had heard it.
"I’m ok," he said softly, his voice rough.
"Yeah, I see that." Josiah’s voice was dry enough that even Vin couldn’t miss it, and he laughed very, very softly. "What’s so funny, Vin?"
Vin wrapped his fingers around the saddle horn and looked over his shoulder at the bigger man. "What’s NOT funny?"
Josiah boosted Vin up, and Casey ran to the offside when she realized she needed to grab his leg as it came over and steady him so he didn’t fall. She fitted his boot into the stirrup as Josiah chuckled from the other side of the horse, where he was doing the same kinds of things to get Vin securely seated. "You know, your sense of humor is almost as incomprehensible as Ezra’s."
"Might have to shoot you for that one, Josiah." Vin gathered the reins in one hand and leaned against the pommel on the other. "When I’m feelin’ better."
The preacher smiled up at Vin and nodded. "Save your ammunition for now," he said, "We’re not done yet." He nodded to Casey, who mounted up behind Vin’s saddle and exchanged a secretive look with Josiah. It was her job, he’d explained, to try to keep Vin in the saddle and to at least make sure they knew about it if the tracker slid off to the ground in the darkness somewhere along the way. He winked to her, and was rewarded with a quick smile that lit up the girl’s weary eyes for a moment just like the old days.
The old days. Josiah turned to mount his own horse and shook his head to himself. Like yesterday. He sighed, gathered up his reins, and legged the horse he was riding out of the circle of rocks and towards a safer place they could hole up. It was always astonishing, he thought, just how much hell could break loose in the span of a single day. He looked back to see Buck riding behind him, obviously uncomfortable but at least holding his own, and Vin’s black behind that, its two riders’ heads lower than Josiah had hoped. Casey was just small, but Vin was already starting to bend over the pommel in a way that made Josiah hurry.
Josiah stood leaning against the largest of the rocks, looking down the slope they’d come up, making sure no one and nothing interrupted the rest the others had to have right now. He’d wrapped Buck’s knee tightly, and bandaged the long, deep gash in his thigh. The gunman had acted like it wasn’t all that bad, but Josiah could tell he’d lost quite a bit of blood and that the knee problem was bad enough that Buck wasn’t going to be able to do much more than hobble for a good long while. The preacher shook his head when he remembered how Vin was by the time they’d gotten there. The man was just plain used up, and he’d come down off that horse limp as a bag of beans. Josiah had redone the crude bandage Vin and Casey had made and then covered the tracker with the heaviest blanket he had. His eyes wandered back over the group of sleepers and he saw that Vin was still just as he’d left him then, and Casey, too. The girl was exhausted in body and soul, and she’d been asleep almost before Josiah had finished wrapping her in his own blanket. He sighed, feeling the weight of all that had happened settling down on his shoulders. Well, he thought, maybe that’s why the good Lord put me here. I’ve got big shoulders. I may not have much else, but I’ve got that.
He looked again at the sleepers as Buck stirred and sighed in his sleep, the sigh turning into a soft moan of pain at the end, and Josiah wondered what on earth he was going to do tomorrow. He’d turned the thing over and over while he’d stood watch, weighing the pieces and trying to figure out how to fit them together. Ezra and Nathan were still somewhere out in the mountains with the Nichols, and he had to do something about that. But Vin and Buck needed to get to Nettie’s and someplace safe to hole up and heal. Then there was Casey. Josiah shook his head to clear the confusion he always hit at this point, when the thought popped up that what he should do was send Casey to Nettie’s with Vin and Buck, and go after Ezra and Nathan himself. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t get Ezra and Nathan loose by himself, and if he took Buck with him that left just Vin to get Casey back safely to Nettie’s. Which didn’t seem at all like a good idea.
He started over. He couldn’t send Casey anywhere by herself. They knew where she was now, at least, and he didn’t want to undo that. Plus she would probably refuse to go at this point. He couldn’t just take everyone to Nettie’s and leave Ezra and Nathan helpless; they’d be dead before he could get back to them -- provided they were still alive at this point. He couldn’t get Chris to help him, because he was probably to Nettie’s with Mary and JD by now, and going there took him right back to the problem of leaving Nathan and Ezra in Peter Nichols’ hands. It always came back to the same thing: the four of them were going to have to stay together, rescue Ezra and Nathan, and then go to Nettie’s.
The question was: how?
Josiah rubbed his forehead and sighed. Maybe if he went over it again, he’d find another solution this time. Buck wasn’t going to be able to walk for a while, but he could ride. . .
Chris assisted JD walk up the cabin steps.
"This way," Nettie directed.
She nodded at Casey's bed and indicated to Chris to put JD there.
"Umph," JD groaned, as he gingerly sat at the bedside. Chris knelt as his feet to remove his boots. JD eyed Chris. He wanted to savor Mr. Larabee on his knees assisting me. //Who would of thought.//
Chris put an arm around his back and JD swung his feet onto the bed.
"Gun." JD demanded.
The stare Chris gave JD indicated he should rest. JD didn't care. Wanted a gun at his side. He lifted his chin, and stubbornly insisted on a weapon. "I ain't goin' to be a sitting duck."
Chris stepped out of the room for a minute and returned with a pistol for JD.
JD took the Colt in his right hand. Stroked the polished handle with his thumb. He spun the barrel and satisfied that it was fully loaded, laid it on the bed beside him.
Nettie's gravelly voice directed Chris to tend to the watch. "We can manage from here."
Nettie inclined her head to show she had her Spencer Carbine right by her.
"I'll call when dinner is ready."
Chris went out to the main room of the cabin.
Mary was standing by the table. She was buckling a holster around her slim waist. She secured each holster to a leg. With her right hand, she picked up a pistol from the table, efficiently checked it was loaded and holstered it on the right. Using her left hand, she picked up another pistol and repeated the procedure, holstering it on the left. She reached for a rifle and placed a box of shells in her pocket.
She looked up at Chris. "JD settled."
Chris shook his head in wonder. //Where the hell had she learned all that? For that matter, from whom?//
"Yeah, he's fine," he said gruffly. Let's go." He opened the door for Mary.
"Show me around," Chris directed Mary.
"Don't you think Nettie would do a better job at that?" Mary retorted exasperated.
"If I wanted Nettie, I would have arranged to have Nettie?" Chris stalked to hill at the back of Nettie's cabin.
He could hear Mary mumbling behind him. Probably had something to do with how much she'd like to deck him right now.
"JD, let's check those dressings?"
JD eased himself up. //God, that hurt.// He was about to swear and remembered his manners. He pressed his lips together till the spasm of pain eased.
Nettie efficiently unbuttoned the shirt. "Which arm hurts less?"
JD chuckled ruefully. //Neither.// He made some tentative twisting motions with his arms. "The right," he said, "took a bullet in my left shoulder."
Nettie assisted JD to remove the shirt from his right arm first, and then she easily slipped it off his left arm. "Dressings look dry. Nathan do these."
JD's head bobbed at the mention of Nathan. //Where the hell was Nathan? Mrs. Travis was obviously upset at the mention of his name before. Had something happened to him? Stupid. Obviously something happened. Was he even alive? Must be. If he had died, Mary - for that matter, Chris - would not be able to hide their grieving.//
"No," he responded slowly, "Mrs. Travis."
"Guess she's been paying attention when Nathan works."
"That's what she said."
Mrs. Welles let loose with one of her wonderful cackles. "Yes, she would get a lot of practice hanging around you lot."
Nettie helped JD to lay back down. "I'm going to start dinner. You rest now."
Chris couldn't stand it. Mary barely said a word as they surveyed the property. Chris frequently stopped to set up trip wires to give at least a little warning of attack. But it was really bugging him. Who had been giving Mary lessons?
"Hadn't realized you got so handy with guns?"
Mary stopped. She indicated a rock. Chris nodded and she sat. She looked up at him, her face solemn. "You haven't been around."
"You could have come over to my place."
Mary snorted (in a ladylike way). "Never invited."
"I feel like I don't really know you."
"You don't. You're not around town as much since you've built that cabin. And you've been telling everyone you built it so you can have some time alone."
Chris digested what she said. //That cabin.// "Does that bother you?"
"The cabin. No. Not at all. It allays my worst fear."
"Your worst fear?" Chris probed.
Mary couldn't maintain eye contact with him. On a dry sob, she started to answer, "That you . . . " She swallowed hard and tried again. "That you would just not be here one morning. That you would just up and leave, because there was nothing and no one to keep you here."
"Mary." He reached for her.
Mary pushed his arm away. Mary's broken voice wretched at his heart. "Chris, I just can't deal . . . "
"Dinner." Mary was interrupted by Nettie's soft call.
Mary dashed some tears from her cheek. Regaining her composure, she nodded at Chris. "I'll keep the watch. Go get something to eat."
"No, you eat first."
"Chris, I had dinner. Don't keep Nettie waiting after you insisted she cook for you."
He hated it when she was right. "I'll be back in a bit."