Mary hadn't kept track of how long Chris was gone. Her mind had been racing. Her thinking was all muddled. About him. About the others. Would they survive this? The uncertainty. How would all this change them? Crisis always changed things. Would the men change? Their relationships?
Mary looked down at the cabin. Chris was coming back up the hill to the watch point. He had a couple of biscuits in his hands.
Mary nodded and stood. "I think I'll get a bite to eat."
"Don't come back out. I can manage the watch. Try to get some rest."
Mary nodded and started down the hill.
"Mary . . . " She looked back at him. "We need to talk."
"I know. Just not now."
Mary was relieved Chris let it go at that. Mary continued down the hill and into the cabin.
Mary's shoulders drooped with fatigue. She entered the cabin and Nettie was stirring a pot at the stove. Mary walked up to her wrapped her arms around her waist and peered over her shoulder at the pot. "Do you only feed your boyfriends or do you think a girl can have some of those chicken and dumplings."
Nettie chuckled. "I think I can find my way to give you a plate. Do me a favor first? JD has been asking for you. Do you mind feeding him some broth?"
"Sure, no problem." Nettie set up a tray with a cup of broth for JD and a cup of tea for Mary.
Mary carried the tray into the bedroom.
Initially, she thought JD was sleeping but his eyes snapped open as she entered the room. She placed the tray on the bedside table.
"Tell me about Nathan?" JD asked solemnly.
"Nathan?" Mary's hand rubbed her forehead. She started to answer and say something to placate him. But one look at JD and she knew he wasn't going to buy that. "The Nichols brothers came into town today. You know about the church. They also kidnapped Nathan and Ezra."
"Ezra," JD gasped. Obviously realizing that he was a particular target of the Nichols brothers.
Mary nodded. Neither said anything for several minutes. Mary couldn't offer any reassurances that either was okay. Besides Chris, she had only seen Josiah since early morning. She knew nothing of Buck and Vin except they were out there trying to rescue Casey.
Mary decided to distract JD. "I have some broth."
"Broth. I don't want broth. I want chicken and dumplin's. I know Miz Nettie has been cookin' some up."
"JD. You can't have chicken and dumplings. Now drink this." She brought a spoon to his lips.
JD closed his lips tight and wouldn't open his mouth.
"JD. Open your mouth."
He shook his head no.
"JD, stop this. Now come on, drink some broth."
"I want chicken and dumplin's " JD pouted.
Mary sighed. "I will let you have a little. I mean it, JD, a little chicken and dumplings after I know you can keep some broth down."
"How long do I have to wait?"
"Eat this now. And after I've had some supper, I'll bring it into you." Mary wagged her finger at JD. "Only if you eat all your broth now."
Mary fed JD the broth. After he was finished, JD reclined back on the bed and closed his eyes.
Mary picked up the tray and set it in the kitchen. Mary swatted Nettie's arm. "Thanks a lot. You knew he wanted chicken and dumplings."
Nettie chortled. "Yup. Did you get him to take some broth?"
Mary sighed. "Only by promising I would come back with some chicken and dumplings after I had some dinner?"
"He'll fall asleep."
"I wouldn't depend on it," Mary stated resignedly.
Mary wearily sat down at the table and Nettie served her dinner.
As soon as Mary had swallowed her last bite, there was a call from the bedroom.
"Can I have my chicken and dumplin's now?" JD called.
Mary eyed Nettie pointedly. "Told you so."
"Not nice to point out the errors of others."
"Consider it payback for not feeding JD his broth."
Nettie chuckled. "I will take the young man some chicken and dumplin's."
"Oh sure. Take the easy job." Mary huffed.
And the cabin filled again with Nettie's cackling laugh.
Chris had known he wasn't going to sleep but he hadn't figured that he wouldn't even be able to sit still.
J. D. had fallen asleep almost immediately after supper and Chris had been heartened to see that his breathing was slow and even. Real sleep. That would help him more than anything, though Chris guessed it'd be awhile before he was really functional.
Damn those Nichols' boys, he thought. Damn them! And damn Hank Connolly for bringing them to Four Corners. Chris pulled the front door of the cabin open and stepped out into the night darkness. He couldn't pace in the house, couldn't move around the way he wanted to without waking the others. And besides J. D., Nettie and Mary needed their sleep too. They might be safe tonight. In fact, he was pretty sure they were. If the Nichols' brothers hadn't found them yet they were likely safe until morning. But tomorrow was more time passing, more time for the Nichols' gang to come to town, to start asking questions, to get information from Casey or Ezra or Nathan.
Chris quickened his pace, making a quick circuit of the barn and the corral. Horses moved softly in the darkness. One of the them nickered at him as he passed. They were all out there. All of them. Casey. Ezra and Nathan. Vin. Josiah. And Buck...
He'd promised Buck that he'd be back. Well, not promised exactly. He hadn't used that word, 'promise,' but he'd said it--'I'll be back.' And he figured Buck would take it as a promise, that he'd believe with his last dying breath that Chris was on his way. Damnit! Goddamnit to hell, anyway!
He turned back toward the barn. Well, hell, if everyone was safe here until morning, then why not leave right now? He could be back to where he'd left Buck just as dawn was breaking. Anything could be going on out there. All of them could be waiting for help. Vin...Vin would be back by now if something hadn't happened. And Ezra...the Nichols' boys had promised, what was it? 'Excruciating pain' if he lied to them. He could be in big trouble. And Casey...god, Casey didn't deserve any of this. She'd never done anything to anybody.
He stood at the barn door for a minute with his right hand on the latch and his left hand flat against the rough wood of the door and his head bent. After a long minute he raised his head and looked back toward the house, nothing but a tall black shape in the murky night. But...what if the Nichols' brothers _did_ come. They'd burned Josiah's church. What would he do if they burned Nettie's farm? What would he do if something happened to Mary? To J. D.? To Nettie Wells?
On the other hand, what about Buck? What about Casey and Vin and Ezra and Nathan and Josiah? Maybe they needed him too. He thought about the Nichols' boys. About the way they twisted the Bible to justify everything they did. What would they do to Casey? If any sin could be justified, hell, if they could burn a _church_ then what would stop them from doing _anything_.
He slammed his fist into the side of the barn. Hell, they were out there. All of them. Out there. And he was here doing nothing. He walked behind the barn, out to the edge of the paddock to check the wires he'd placed with Mary earlier. He ranged up to the top of the small hill behind the house, moving faster and faster, but never even stumbling in the dim light from the clear night sky. He checked the entire perimeter of the farm and he was breathing hard as he came back into sight of the solid dark silhouette of the small ranch house.
And then, he saw it, right in front of his eyes, the picture that never really went away. The picture he'd never actually seen, but, nevertheless, would not forget until his dying day. The ranch house as it burned. Sarah and Adam inside. And Chris. Chris hadn't been in that picture. He hadn't died with them. He hadn't protected them. He hadn't been there. And as he looked at Nettie's house he knew that to keep one promise, the one he'd made to himself and to Sarah after she was gone, he had to let go of another--the one he'd made to Buck that afternoon. Buck would understand. He'd seen the ranch house. He'd helped dig through the debris. He'd have helped dig their graves if Chris had let him. Buck would forgive him.
Question was, would Chris forgive himself?
Josiah had been sitting so still for so long in the silence of deep night that his first thought on hearing the sound behind him was that somehow the Nichols’ had managed to find a way up the cliff face. He whirled around with his rifle raised, only to see that the sound was instead the light sliding of blankets and cloth where Vin was struggling to sit up. Josiah hurried over and knelt down, taking the tracker’s arm to help ease him up and slide him into a position where there was a rock behind him he could lean against. Vin shifted a little further so he could do that, swallowed, then looked up into Josiah’s worried face.
The preacher nodded. "You should try to get some more rest, Vin."
The tracker’s eyes roamed briefly over Buck’s sleeping form, then Casey’s, and came back to focus on Josiah. "I’m a lot stronger now than I was last night," he said softly. Then he grinned slyly. "Besides, you know I’m an early riser."
Josiah chuckled softly. "Yeah, I know that." He sat down next to Vin and laid his rifle across his legs, then looked at the tracker’s pale features in the dim light. Stronger he might be, but not by half enough.
"Where’s Chris?" Vin turned his head to look directly at Josiah and his gaze grew more penetrating.
Josiah’s reply was interrupted by a sharp wordless cry from Casey, who leaped to her feet at the same instant, flinging her blanket to one side. She stood in the starlight silently for a long moment, her chest heaving and her eyes wide, as Josiah rose to approach her.
She blinked, looked at the preacher, laid a shaking hand to her chest.
"You have a bad dream, Child?"
The girl nodded, then looked at Vin, then back at Josiah. "I guess --" she choked a moment, then went on quickly, "I guess some of it was real, though." She looked to her other side at Buck, then swallowed fearfully. "Josiah, did Buck say JD was alive -- or was that a dream, too?"
The preacher went to the girl and hugged her to him, sideways. "JD’s alive, Casey. I saw him myself."
The girl sighed enormously and relaxed against the big man, then pushed away from him to bend down and retrieve her blanket from the little heap it had fallen into. She was folding it as she stood up again.
"Why don’t you get a little more sleep, Casey? Mornin’s still a ways off."
The girl shook her head firmly. "Nope. Back home it would be time to feed the chickens about now. I always get up this time a’ day." She handed the folded blanket to Josiah and looked down at Vin, then squatted next to him. "I’m glad to see you sittin’ up," she said softly.
The tracker smiled slightly at that and gestured towards Josiah with a nod of his head. "You ought t’ ask that big preacher fella’ if he ain’t got some loaves an’ fishes in his saddlebags. I’m bettin’ you need a little somethin’ in your belly after all the adventures you had yesterday."
"Loaves and fishes, eh?" Josiah chuckled as he went to the place he’d stacked their gear the night before. "How about some biscuits an’ jerky? Think that’ll do?" He looked at Casey as he started rummaging through the satchel and winked at her.
The girl grinned. "Sure. I guess I am hungry, at that. I usually don’t eat ‘til after I’ve done my chores, but --"
"But you usually have dinner the night before," finished Josiah for her. He came over and held out some biscuits to her, and a long piece of jerked beef. The girl accepted it with a look that reminded both men of the wonderfully reliable appetite of youth, and then she offered some to Vin. The tracker shook his head slightly, and Casey frowned.
"You need to eat to keep up your strength," she said practically.
"Girl’s right," said Josiah.
Vin blinked slowly and shook his head again. "Maybe later," he said.
"Well, I’ll take some." Buck’s voice sounded cross and bleary at the same time, and Josiah snorted.
"I didn’t think you even knew this time of the day existed, Buck, much less that you woke up in it."
The tall gunman sat up rubbing one hand through his hair and grimaced. "I don’t. But you all are worse than a fox in the henhouse for makin’ noise when a man’s tryin’ to sleep." He reached out to accept the piece of jerky that Casey tore off and handed him. "And besides, I feel like I been dragged by a team a’ mules. I think I wanna’ go kick some serious butt and get even for it."
"Well, then I need to fill you all in on what’s goin’ on," said Josiah softly. There was a somber tone to his voice that made all the other three look at him sharply. Buck sat up straighter and bit off the end of the jerky, and Casey settled into a cross-legged position to listen.
"By now, Chris has taken JD and Mary to Nettie’s place," began the preacher. "At least, that was the plan the last time I saw Chris."
"When was that?" Vin’s voice was low, intent.
"Yesterday evenin’," replied Josiah. "I’d come out to find ‘im just as he was comin’ to town to get some help for Buck, here, who was pinned down -- as you know."
"Where’re the others?" Buck’s voice had dropped in a way that told Josiah he was already putting the pieces together and coming up two short.
"Nichols came to town yesterday, took ‘em." Vin swore softly, and Buck looked away.
"Were they ok when they left?" Vin asked.
"Mary said they cold-cocked Ezra pretty hard, but she only saw part of what happened."
"Were you in town then?"
"No. I was still on the trail bringin’ JD back to town. I got there after it happened."
The group was silent a long moment, its members turning over the implications of this new information. Finally Vin spoke, his voice rough with emotion and fatigue. "So we really don’t know for sure where Chris is. He was headed to town, but he might or might not have gotten there."
"I hate to say it, but yes."
"An’ JD an’ Mary might still be in town, or even taken by the Nichols’ by now, instead of at Nettie’s."
"Vin, you can’t go assumin’ the worst." Josiah started to lay his hand on the tracker’s shoulder, but the younger man stopped him with a penetrating look that had both weariness and pain visible beneath it.
"We’ve gotta’ assume the worst to beat the odds," he said. "We need to get Ezra outta’ there. They’ll kill ‘im, an’ not short an’ sweet, neither. An’ we can’t count on Chris to help."
Buck was nodding his head, and now he spoke. "Sounds right," he said. "But if it turns out the worst has happened, we may just have to come back after we get Ezra and Nathan and clean out that nest a’ rattlers for good an’ all."
"I’ve been thinkin’ on that very thing most of the night," sighed Josiah. He stood up to pace over to the place where he’d sat so many hours watching their backtrail, then turned around to regard his friends. "Is there any high ground around the Nichols’ campsite?"
Vin nodded. "If they haven’t moved, there is."
"Then maybe we stand a chance." Josiah came back towards the others and sat down between them so that he made the group into a circle. "See what you think..."
"I hope you brought some extra ammunition with you, Josiah, ‘cause I’m about out." Buck was sitting on a large stone, his face dark in the starlit early morning, and he broke opened the chamber on his rifle with a scowl.
"Casey, you mind takin’ this box a’ shells to ol’ Buck, there?" The big preacher stopped saddling long enough to take a heavy box out of the saddle bag and hand it to the girl who had run to him immediately to take it. Then he turned back to pulling up the cinches and locking in the buckle tongue on his horse’s saddle, which he was tacking up for Buck. He looked over his shoulder at the gunman as he tucked the extra leather into the billet, and saw him take the box of shells from Casey with a smile. Good, thought Josiah, that’s more like it. When Buck got mad enough to get cross and testy, he could get reckless. Josiah didn’t think he wanted reckless going on today on top of everything else. The preacher gave the saddle a hard shake to make sure it was secure, and moved to get the bridle. "Right caliber, Buck?"
"Yep." The tall man was already loading the rifle, and he snapped it shut abruptly almost immediately, then started filling his pockets with extra ammunition. "You got some I can use in my pistol?"
"Probably." Josiah pointed to a different saddlebag that was lying on a pile of gear. "You wanna’ grab that an’ look through it to see what’s in there, Vin?"
Vin nodded silently and reached over the 18 inches or so between where he was sitting and the pile of gear to pull the bag over to himself. Josiah watched carefully out of the side of one eye to see how easy or hard that was to do, and frowned when he got his answer. Vin was going through the bag like nothing was wrong, though, digging out boxes and turning them this way and that to catch what light there was so he could see, until finally he just started opening them and fingering the shells inside. Almost immediately he grunted and closed one of the boxes, then looked up at the gunman sitting across from him. "Heads up, Buck." He threw the box of shells in a low arc that fell several feet short of where Buck was sitting, so that the box burst opened and spilled out shells that rolled off in every direction.
"Damn, Vin," Buck leaned down to stop several that were rolling past his foot as he spoke. "It’s a good thing your aim with a rifle is better than your throwin’ aim."
"I’ll get ‘em." Casey scurried in between Buck and Vin and began to pick up the shells, blowing dirt off the ones that had rolled, and glanced back over her shoulder at Josiah as she did so. The preacher saw the look on her face, and knew it was only a matter of time before she braced him about the whole thing. He finished adjusting the bridle headstall on his horse and moved to Vin’s, throwing the saddle blanket in place and smoothing it out with a practiced hand before he bent to pick up the saddle. He heard Casey give Buck the box of shells that had spilled, and Buck’s soft thanks; stole a quick look at Vin while they were talking and saw that the tracker had leaned his head back against the stone behind him and closed his eyes.
"Don’t look so worried, Casey, Honey. Everything’s gonna’ be all right." Josiah looked back at the other two when he heard Buck speaking, and saw that Casey was standing in a posture of dismay and that Buck was sitting up straighter and had a gentle and goofy grin plastered across his face. The preacher shook his head and started cinching up Vin’s saddle. Good ol’ Buck, he thought.
"Now, has ol’ Buck ever steered you wrong? Huh? Have I?" The gunman was lowering his face to look into the girl’s, and Josiah laughed sharply.
"I wouldn’t use that particular question to reassure her, Buck."
"Well . . . Accidents happen. But I was still right. A dress IS a--"
"Buck!" Casey’s voice was almost outraged, and the gunman raised his hands, palm out to her.
"Don’t get riled at me, Casey. My point is that fightin’ is somethin’ I know about. Really."
Casey was silent a moment, and Josiah looked over at the two of them again, then got Vin’s horse’s bridle. "He does know fightin’, Casey. I’d have to agree with ‘im there."
"You see? An’ it’s gonna’ be fine. Don’t you worry. In fact . . ."
Uh-oh, thought Josiah. Here comes reckless.
". . . I betcha’ Chris already cleaned ‘em out. Maybe didn’t even leave us any bad guys to fight."
OK, thought Josiah, straightening the reins on Vin’s horse and wrapping them once around the saddle horn. That’s not bad as reassurances go. He turned around to see how Casey was reacting and saw that she wasn’t buying a word of it though. She was just too down-to-earth. Josiah shook his head to himself and grinned. He patted the black and bent over to slip beneath its neck to go to the off side so he could check Vin’s rifle in the scabbard there. "Casey, you wanna’ get my rifle from over there and bring it here so Vin can have it as a back-up?"
"Sure, Josiah." The girl darted to the place Josiah had leaned his rifle, and was holding it out to him an instant later.
"You always run everywhere you go, or do you walk sometimes?" Josiah grinned at her, and she smiled shyly.
"Just tryna’ help," she said softly.
"I know." Josiah looked her full in the face as he took the rifle from her. "Doin’ a real fine job of it, too." He looked over the top of the saddle at Vin and called to him. "Vin, you want me to put the extra shells for this in your saddle bag, or do you want them somewhere else?"
He saw the tracker look at him, and nod slowly. "Saddlebag’s fine."
"I’m gonna’ fix my rifle to your saddle by tyin’ onto the latigos, but that means you’ll have to ride with one leg over it. That ok?"
Vin nodded again. "Fine with me. Will it bother you to have it there, Casey?"
"No." The girl bit her lip and threw a glance at Josiah that was pure frustration, and the preacher sighed. He just hoped when she blew up it wasn’t in earshot of the others. The way she was looking, he might have to take her off to fill the canteens or something to make sure of it.
"Josiah," Casey’s voice was suddenly a low and desperate whisper. "You can’t put that there. Vin can’t hardly stay in the saddle as it is."
"Where do you want me to put it?" The preacher looked down at the girl’s upturned face as he tied off the leather strips of the latigo into a square knot at the front of the saddle skirt, and saw that her brow was puckered in consternation.
"How about tiein’ it across the back on the bedroll straps?"
"Won’t work, Casey. That’s where you sit." Josiah started knotting the back latigo leathers through the trigger guard.
"I c’n ride behind you."
Josiah stopped working and looked down at the girl with a deep sigh. She was staring at him with a look that he was pretty sure she’d learned from Nettie, and it was darned effective. He raised his voice so the other men could hear him, and said, "Be back in a minute, fellas. Casey an’ I are gonna’ go fill the canteens at the spring." He ducked behind the horses to grab a handful of canteens, tossing two of them to Casey, and led off with the sound of her little feet pattering behind him, three steps to each one of his. He hadn’t gone far when she ran up next to him and grabbed his arm to make him stop walking.
"Well?" she demanded.
"Can I ride behind you? That’d solve everything."
"Then I could put the extra rifle behind Vin’s saddle," said Josiah.
"So he could ride easier."
"Yeah . . ." Casey was suddenly guarded, sensing that Josiah was headed somewhere with this that she really didn’t want to go.
"So he can go pick off Nichols’ men alone -- ridin’ comfortable, but without any help."
Casey opened her mouth like she was going to answer, then closed it.
"And you’d ride behind me," added Josiah, "right back into Nichols’ camp."
The girl suddenly looked miserable, Josiah thought, and he felt sorry for her. She couldn’t be more than 15 or 16 years old. Too young for all this.
"Ain’t there some other way, Josiah?"
The preacher winced at the wistful pathos in her voice, the hope of youth that if you could just think about it long enough it would work out all right, have a happy ending. He shook his head slowly.
"You don’t have to go with him, Casey. Although Vin does feel responsible for you. But we have to go get Ezra and Nathan. We can’t leave ‘em there." Josiah was silent for a long time, waiting for her to respond. After a while he said, "If we had another horse I’d let you hightail it for home, but--"
"No!" Casey’s voice was plaintive with hurt. "That’s not what I meant at all!" She wrung her hands and looked around her like maybe she’d see an answer somewhere in the dark landscape, then looked back at Josiah with glistening eyes. "They’re both--" her voice broke, and she started over. "They’re both--" Her voice broke a second time, and Josiah’s heart missed a beat at the look of pure anguish that suddenly corded her features.
"I know." He put a calming hand on the girl’s shoulder and willed calm to flow into her, peace to fill her. He took a deep breath as she started to speak again.
"And Buck’s not as good off as he says he --"
"I know that, too, Casey."
The girl looked up into Josiah’s face and swallowed. "What’s gonna’ happen, Josiah? How can we go through with this?"
"Got no choice."
Casey stood there thinking about that for a minute. She remembered suddenly all the stories Aunt Nettie had told her about the early days, terrible things that had happened and things she’d had to do. So many times, when Casey had asked her: How could you do that? How’d you be so brave? -- those were the words she’d said: "Had no choice." They’d seemed too simple then to account for such things. But now--
"Kinda’ surprisin’, what it comes down to sometimes." Josiah’s voice was low and steady. Casey looked at him again.
"Yeah." Her voice was somber, heavy. Josiah patted her shoulder twice, started walking towards the spring again.
"Reckon you just grew up some, Casey."
The girl looked down at the ground as she hurried to keep up with him. "If it’s all the same to you, I think I’d rather have been home just feedin’ the chickens."
"You know, so would I." Josiah stopped to lower an opened canteen into the pool where the spring overflowed. "And I ain’t even got any chickens."
"Luke, pull up." One of the Nichols gang yelled. "You're going to kill the horses."
Luke reined his horse hard. They had left Four Corners in a full-out gallop and the horses were lathered and breathing hard.
He looked back in the direction they had come from. Where had all that gunfire come from? Well, there weren't any options. There were only six of them. They were going to have to hook up with the rest of the gang before facing them again.
One of the men collapsed from the saddle. Luke was turning his horse to continue on, leaving the man.
Jim shook his head disgustedly. //F**k you.// He dismounted from his horse to check the man. "He's dead."
"Leave 'em," Luke said curtly.
"No." Jim replied.
Another man dismounted to assist Jim to secure the dead man to his horse.
Luke was livid at being ignored. Luke caught Jim's arm to stop him from returning to his horse. "You’re walking a fine line old man."
Jim yanked his arm away. "Listen, BOY. It is out of loyalty to your father that I ride with you. He was a good man."
"Good man." Luke sneered. "Jack Nichols was a crook who was caught and died in prison."
"He was honorable and loyal. He would never, NEVER, leave one of his men."
"Fine,fine" Luke acquiesced. "It's seems were not being followed. But don't fall behind. I'll kill you if you do. Let's get back to camp."
Nathan guessed he had dozed off for a few hours. He looked up at the sky. Moon was awfully bright. It was as if God had lit a lantern in the sky. Most nights Nathan would have been happy for the light. Tonight was not one of them. The camp had been quiet. But Nathan could hear footfalls close by and knew he and Ezra were regularly checked. Nathan didn't want them to realize he was awake so he kept his eyes shut and his body still. But his mind was filtering through escape possibilities. They had to get out here soon. Even with the moon, night offered the best opportunity.
"Nathan, slip out now." Ezra spoke on his exhaled breath so softly Nathan barely heard him. A soldier's trick.
Nathan followed Ezra's lead. "No."
"Don't be obstinate."
"Yes." Ezra hissed.
"Drop it. I won't leave you."
"You could get help."
"Not in near enough time. We're at least two hours from Four Corners." Nathan took another breath, exhaled and continued in the softest whisper. "That's assuming anybody is even there. They're probably not. Then, where would I look."
After a long pause, Ezra murmured, "I'd have to concur with your assessment."
They stopped their conversation as they heard several men approached them.
The blanket was pulled off Ezra and he was pulled to his feet. Ezra heaved. "Gentlemen, I fear . . . " Ezra vomited. His stomach contents splattered one man's boots. It earned him a backslap to his already abused face.
Nathan sat up; thinking it was pretty futile to pretend he was sleeping.
"Won't be long now," Nathan stated matter-of-factly.
"What's that healer?" John Nichols demanded.
"Start of the death rattle." Ezra gave Nathan a skeptical look. "Saw it in the Army. Men with head wounds . . . starts with the vomiting .. . then the delirium . . . terrible and painful way to die."
Ezra moaned convincingly at that point.
"I want him to suffer." Peter Nichols demanded.
"Oh, he will." Nathan affirmed.
"Yes, he certainly will."
"He won't know what you're doing," Nathan tried to stop them from whatever unpleasant plans they had for Ezra.
"You will." Peter's evil laugh sent shivers down Nathan's spine.
Peter nodded at his men and Ezra was led to the middle of the encampment.
"Matthew cut away his jacket and shirt."
Nathan knew Ezra would protest.
"Gentlemen, that is really not necessary. I can just remove them for you. I am quite fastidious about my wardrobe."
//Damn it, Ezra. Couldn't you for once keep your trap shut?//
"You with us, Mr. Liar," Peter drawled.
Ezra gave Peter Nichols a sick look.
Peter gave a low laugh. "Mr. Liar. Go ahead remove your jacket and shirt."
Ezra removed his jacket and deliberately folded it. Looking around there was no where to place it. He inclined his head back to the blanket where he had slept.
Peter shrugged. So Ezra walked back towards Nathan. Ezra's eyes held Nathan's. "Leave Nathan, save yourself." Ezra said it so softly no one else could hear.
Ezra stood and removed his shirt and again deliberately folded it and placed it on the blanket. He didn't look at Nathan.
In a defeated tone, Ezra added, "Do it for me."
Ezra walked slowly to the center of the encampment.
Matthew delivered a blow with a wood baton to Ezra's kidney area. The blow sent Ezra to his knees.
"Very good, Mr. Liar. That is where I want you."
Peter deliberately walked around to the front of Ezra and pulled his head up by the hair. "You are being given the opportunity to make amends."
"Now, tell me about Miss Welles?" Peter asked softly.
Ezra looked up in confusion. "What?"
Peter mockingly shook his head. "Tisk, tisk. That is not the correct answer."
Matthew delivered another blow with the baton. Ezra doubled over from the pain in his stomach.
Peter slowly walked around Ezra. He seemed to be considering the problem of how to get Ezra to talk. He put a hand out and one of the men placed a bullwhip in it. Peter unfurled and snapped it just missing Ezra's face. Peter indicated to two men that they were to pull him back up to his knees and hold his arms.
Ezra looked up at Peter Nichols as he slowly circled him, playing with the whip.
"Now. I want to know about Miss Welles. Her family. Her friends? Where she lives?"
"He ain't gonna tell you anything." Nathan looked at Peter Nichols and realized that Peter knew that as well. He looked over at Nathan, smiled slowly, and snapped the whip on the ground again as he walked behind Ezra.
"He saves all, but converting some by punishment," Peter paused and looked deliberately at Ezra, "and others who follow by their own will-that every knee may bend to Him, of things in heaven and earth and under the earth." Peter quoted.
"St. Clemens of Alexandria," Ezra said.
"Very good, Mr. Liar. Now. This is how it works. I ask you a question. You answer it. If I believe your lying, Mr.Liar, well, you'll just have to atone for your sin. Ten lashes each time you fail to answer a question or lie. Will continue till death. NOW, answer me."
"When the sanctified dead rise from their graves to receive judgement, they won't know the answer," Ezra drawled.
"Smart mouth." Peter's arm raised to deliver the first lash.
As the whip came down, Nathan sprinted across the camp and threw himself between Ezra and the lash taking it himself. His momentum slammed both them to ground when the men holding Ezra let go.
"How touching," Peter mocked. "The slave saving his master." Peter turned to his men. "Stand them up."
"Riders coming in. It's Luke." John Nichols called out.
"Damn, Luke. You trying to kill the horses," Matt commented.
"Trouble?" Peter asked.
A weary Luke dismounted. "Yeah, trouble."
Peter nodded at the wrapped body.
"You men, take care of the horses. Get these two shovels." The men holding Nathan and Ezra released them so they could take the shovels.
"Known Earl a long time. He'll have a proper burial. Dig the grave."
Jim walked past Luke giving him a smug look. "Come on you two." Jim pointed the way with a rifle. At the edge of the camp, he stopped. "Here." He pointed to the ground.
"We don't have time for that," Luke exclaimed.
Peter pulled Luke off his horse and brought him to his knees. "We will make time."
John pulled Peter off Luke. "Stop it. Just stop it."
"Brother Luke, my apologies. Now, where's that boy, JD?"
"Went to the tree where we left him and he'd been cut down."
"THEY FOUND HIM."
"He was a message. You wanted them to find him." Matt stated reasonably.
"The good news is he might be alive. Someone built a travois and hauled him back to town."
"Luke, why didn't you just go get him."
"John, I tried."
"But whoever had him was getting help from the town folks."
"Do we have enough people now, Peter?" Matt rubbed his head in frustration. "Can we just kill these two and end this?"
"NO, NO, NO. This does not end till I say it ends. And it doesn't end till they've suffered, died, and been buried."
"Them or us?"
"Matthew. Most assuredly them. Those town folks are lambs. Kill one and that will be all the persuasion they need to deliver the boy to us." Peter clapped Matt on the shoulder. "We outnumber our enemy at least three to one. And believe me, those town folks will not take up the fight for them. They didn't before, they won't today. We'll convince them of that."
Matthew nodded his head at his brother. "What's the plan?"
"After Earl's burial, you and I will ride to town and get the boy." Peter smiled.
After the grave had been dug, Nathan and Ezra were kept under guard during the funeral service. As Peter Nichols droned on for over an hour praying over the dead man, even his brothers, got fed up and chorused "AMEN" to shut him up.
"Amen." Peter concluded the service. "Jim, have those two fill the grave." Peter inclined his head at Nathan and Ezra. "Matt, round up some men. We're going to town. Luke, you're in charge here. Watch those two. I have plans for them. If you have to move, we'll use the hanging tree as a rendezvous."
"Any questions?" There were negative shakes all around.
"Matt, let's move out."
Vin, Casey, Josiah, and Buck rode out just before dawn.
There'd been a brief moment of silence when they'd all realized that the rifles were loaded, the horses were saddled, the blankets were rolled and tied. Casey hadn't said anything since she and Josiah had returned with the canteens and she wouldn't even look directly at Buck or Vin. Josiah watched her as she held the reins of Vin's horse, waiting and watching, and his heart broke just a little to see the change in her. The Nichols' family had stolen a part of her innocence. It had begun when Peter Nichols' flirted with her, when they beat J. D., when they hung him from a tree, when they'd kidnapped her, shot Vin, and hurt Buck. It had ended this morning when she'd stood on the bank of the creek with Josiah. Maybe they couldn't take any more from her this time, but once a piece of innocence was gone there was just no way to get it back again.
Buck checked his revolver one more time, donned his hat and picked up the reins of Josiah's horse. He swung up into the saddle as if it were the easiest thing in the world and he backed the horse up between the rocks to make room for Casey to bring in Vin's horse. Josiah saw Buck look at Vin, who returned his gaze evenly, giving him a slight nod. Jesus, boys, Josiah thought, but in that moment he couldn't think of anyone he'd rather be riding with.
In another minute all of them were mounted and ready--Casey up behind Vin, Josiah on his livery mount, and Buck on Josiah's horse.
"Sure hope this horse does better for me today than she did yesterday, Josiah," Buck said to break the silence.
"She's always been a steady horse for me, Buck," Josiah said, careful to keep his voice light. "Must be the rider."
Another brief silence descended and Josiah said. "Everyone clear on what we're doing?"
"If the camp ain't where we think it is, this whole plan's gonna fall apart," Vin said in his slow soft voice.
"It'll be there," Josiah said firmly.
"They could have moved," said Casey.
"They haven't moved. They'll be there. And I'll tell you why."
"Why is that, Josiah?" Vin asked and Josiah could hear the slight smile in his voice.
"'Cause things have been goin' bad for us for too damn long, my friend. Somethin's got to go our way and I reckon it might as well be this." And on that note of blind unblinking faith, they rode out.
They'd covered maybe a mile and a half through the woods, mostly in silence when Vin held up his hand. "Should be a quarter mile that way," he said and pointed.
Josiah dismounted and handed his reins to Buck. "Be back in a bit," he said and he set out through the woods.
Twenty minutes later he was back. He paused for a minute back in the trees to look at the others. Vin was talking quietly to Casey, keeping her busy, keeping her from thinking too much. And all the time his eyes were scanning the area, back and forth, back and forth, keeping track of everything within range. Buck was watching too. His right hand rested against his revolver and his horse, Josiah's horse really, danced slightly back, sideways, forward, as Buck watched the trees. Neither one of them looked as if they'd been so used up and worn down last night that they hadn't even been able to bother to move to a safe high location to make camp. But they had. And whether they wanted to think about it or not, Josiah would do well to remember.
He whistled and walked into the small clearing. Casey, Vin, and Buck looked at him expectantly.
"Well?" said Buck impatiently.
"They're there," said Josiah. "Looks like a bunch of them are heading out. Don't know where exactly and that's a bad thing. But it cuts down the odds against us considerable, which, right now, can't be anything but good." He looked at Vin. "How long you reckon it'll take you and Casey to get into position?"
Vin was quiet for a moment, thinking. "Give us a good half hour, we should be fine."
Josiah heard a soft noise from Casey, but he ignored it. "You sure? We can give you a little longer. We want to be sure those fellas that are leavin' are good and gone."
"Half an hour." Vin said it quietly, but firmly. "However long it takes you after that, we'll be ready."
"Okay," said Josiah.
Vin looked at Buck. He looked at Josiah. "Be seein' you a little later," he said and reined his horse to the right. Casey looked back once before they disappeared, but Vin never did.
The slope was long but not too steep, considering the rest of the terrain, and covered in long grass that waved like a pale sea in the pearlescent light of early morning. Vin's horse bowed its neck to the climb, its bit and bridle fastenings jangling as its head bobbed up and down with each step. Casey looked up the slope to where the crest of it seemed to drop off against the sky. Pale streamers of coral and rose were starting to curl up above the rim as the sun rose and progressively colored the clouds. She smelled the fresh grass smell coming up from beneath the horses' hooves, heard the damp chirping of the crickets hidden in it, saw that the translucent colors of sky and cloud were even now spreading over the top of her head and stretching long streamers towards the mountains behind them. She shook her head to herself about it, that the morning could be so pretty in the middle of all this. Didn't seem to fit somehow.
Vin reined in far enough from the top of the slope not to be visible from below, and reached down to untie the front latigo on Josiah's rifle without a word. He grunted as he started to move his leg to reach the rear latigo while holding the barrel of the rifle up in his other hand, and Casey slipped to the ground and darted around the horse to help him. She laid a small hand on Vin's knee where it laid across the rifle barrel and shook her head.
"Let me do that," she said. "Just sit there a minute an' I'll get it." Her fingers were nimble, and in a moment more she had slid Josiah's rifle from the saddle, and then Vin's rifle out of its scabbard. She started to lay the heavy weapons down in the grass to get out the ammunition, but Vin stopped her.
"Dew'll ruin 'em, Casey. Make 'em stick. Take 'em on up there an' lay 'em on a rock or somethin'"
Casey nodded mutely, turned, and worked her way up to the crest of the hill, dropping into a crouch as she neared the top. An enormous flat shelf of pale limestone seemed a perfect place to lay the rifles, but when the cold metal barrels hit the stone they rang with a sound that seemed to travel miles. Casey froze, her hands still on the guns, and waited for an eternity for everything to end.
When it didn't, she swallowed her heart back down out of her throat and went back down to Vin. He'd dismounted in her absence, and was leaning up against the patient gelding with one arm over the saddle seat, his fingers wrapped in the rigging of the off side. He grinned weakly at Casey when he saw her.
"Take up playin' the piana', did ya'?"
"Vin!" Casey laughed softly in spite of herself as she came around to his left side to slip his arm over her shoulder. "This ain't no time for jokes." Vin just smiled in reply. She came around to his left side and slipped his arm over her shoulder, wrapped her right arm around his waist and grabbed hold of his gunbelt as he let go of the saddle. She felt his weight drag against her a moment while he fought for balance, and then he got his feet under him and they were slowly climbing the slope with short steps. His breathing grew heavy much faster than it seemed it should, and Casey was beginning to wonder how he'd ever get down again when suddenly an expanse of nothing yawned before them and Vin was dropping to the ground with a gesture to Casey to do likewise.
The girl knelt at the edge of the brush that fringed the top of the slope, and looked down. She could see them clearly, although a good distance away: several smoldering campfires, a cluster of men barely visible to one side, a mass of horses along a picket line directly opposite. She looked over at Vin, laying in the long grass now on his stomach and surveying the camp with sharp eyes, and touched his arm. He turned his light eyes on her and waited.
Her voice was barely a whisper, and her heart was in her throat. "How can you hit anything from here?"
Vin smiled slowly, until the corners of his eyes crinkled up. "With a long rifle, little sister. That's what it's for."
Casey shook her head. "If you say so, but --"
"We'll have to chuck rocks at 'em, though," said Vin, still smiling. "unless you can sneak back down --" he paused to take a quick breath, and Casey noticed suddenly that there was a rivulet of sweat running down the side of his face out from under his hat, "--an' get 'em off that piana' stool you left 'em on."
Casey made a face at the tracker and slid backwards until it felt safe to rise into a crouch, then hurried down the slope to the rock where she'd laid the rifles. She held her breath a minute when she got to the big rock, and picked up the rifles carefully so that their barrels did not slide against or bang the stone this time. When she got back to Vin she was surprised to see that he'd taken off his heavy coat and spread it out next to him on top of the long grass.
"Lay 'em on that," he said softly.
Casey nodded and did as he'd asked. He turned away from the camp he'd been studying to look at her again, and this time he wasn't smiling.
"We need the shells, too," he said.
Casey got those, too, and this time when she came back she saw that he had worked things around so that his own rifle was in place against his shoulder already, the narrow barrel projecting out over the edge of the slope, its metal gleaming softly in the rising light. He spoke to her without looking away from the camp this time, and Casey felt her heart sink into her boots as she listened carefully to every word.
"When Buck an' Josiah open up," he said, "I might have to shoot kinda' fast. I need you to sit on my right side an' take the empty rifle when I run outta' shells an' hand me the other. Then reload the one you take an' be ready to do it again. My rifle's made for this an' Josiah's ain't, so try to keep mine loaded as fast as you can. His is back-up."
Casey nodded, realized he need her to respond vocally only when he craned his head around to try and catch sight of her. She forced the words through dry lips.
"I will, Vin. You c'n count on me."
Vin made a strange noise, then, as he moved to pull his mare's leg from the holster on his hip, and Casey realized he was shutting his mouth against a hurting sound that had come out when he'd done it. She felt her heart jump up to bang against her ribs and looked down at his side to see that a red stain was slowly spreading across the new bandage Josiah had made. The girl shuddered and closed her eyes.
She opened her eyes to see that he was still looking down at the camp, but that he had pushed his mare's leg closer to her.
"Things go wrong, take this an' head for my horse. Ride like hell an' don't stop 'til you get to your aunt's."
Casey felt flat-out fear clutch her gut when he said that, and she started to stammer. Vin's even voice smoothed right through it like he hadn't even noticed.
"JD an' your aunt'll be waitin' for ya' there. You need to let 'em know you're ok." He paused for such a long time that Casey began to think he wasn't going to say any more, and then he did. "You're a fine girl, Casey, an' you've done real good. Gonna' be a damn fine woman." He turned his head just far enough to look at her, his eyes pale in the sudden flood of light that poured over his face as the sun rose above the horizon. "Don't you ever forget that." He looked back at the campsite, settled his hips against the ground to brace against recoil, and grew very still, watching.
Casey Wells didn't know what to say, so she laid down in the damp grass near Vin and put her face on her hand like it was a pillow. And waited.