Working together, Chris, Vin, and Nathan were able to get Ezra up on Vins blaze-faced black gelding. Vin hauled himself up into the saddle behind him and wrapped his arms around Ezras middle, heedful of the deep gashes on his torso.
He took the reins in one hand. "Ill go on ahead. Ill be goin easy-like so you can catch up."
Chris laid a hand on Vins leg and looked up at him. "This wasnt your fault, Vin."
"Tell Ezra that," Vin stated bitterly, and urged his horse into a slow walk as not to jar his badly hurt friend any more than necessary.
His horse picked its way up the switchback, its shoes ringing on the rocks. Vin kept a watchful eye out in case the cat returned to finish the job hed begun on Ezra.
The gambler groaned and shifted, only to moan even louder.
"Take it easy, Ezra," Vin soothed. "Were gonna get you fixed up real soon."
"Wh-what happened?" Ezra managed to ask.
"The cat jumped you."
"The mountain cat, remember?"
After a moment, Ezra nodded nearly imperceptibly, but Vin felt the movement against his shoulder.
"How bad?" Ezra asked with a pain-roughened voice.
"It aint good," Vin said bluntly. "I dont know if your purty red coats gonna make it or not."
"You do know how to cheer a fellow," Ezra managed to say.
"I try my best." Vin kept a firm hold on Ezra and he could feel his friends warm blood dripping on his hands and wrists. How much blood could a man lose and still keep on breathing?
"You just hold on, Ezra. Nathans gonna take good care of you," Vin reassured.
"Uh, hmmm," Ezra mumbled.
His head lolled against Vins upper arm, telling him that Ezra had lost consciousness.
A few minutes later the sound of horses alerted him to the arrival of the others, and the trail opened to a wide flat plateau with scrub brush, jack pine, and some sturdy hardwoods growing up from the rocky soil. A small mountain stream tumbled over the rocks, and would be a good source of fresh water. Vin halted and waited until Josiah and Chris came over to lift Ezra down from the saddle. Then Josiah cradled Ezra in his arms as if he were a child and carried him to the blanket Nathan hurriedly rolled out. He gently laid him down and helped Nathan take care of the injured man.
Vin remained mounted. "Ill be back." He reined Sire around to go back the way theyd come, but Chris grabbed the horses bridle.
"Youre not going out there by yourself," Chris said flatly.
"I aint sittin here while that killer cat is roamin around free," Vin stated, his tone as determined as Chris.
"Its only an animal, Vin. It aint like a man who knows the difference between right and wrong," Chris exclaimed.
Vin glanced up to see Buck had joined them, wearing his blood -Ezras blood - smeared coat. "Ill ride with him," Buck volunteered.
Chris shook his head in disgust. "And how are you two going to find it? You got to scramble down that hill where it took off from and trail it from there."
Vin shook his head, and searched the area around them. A chill rippled through him. "Hes close, Chris, closern we think."
"And how do you know that?" Chris demanded.
Vin brought his steady gaze to bear on him. "Just like you knew."
Chris studied him a long moment with narrowed eyes, then nodded reluctantly and released the bridle. "All right."
"Well be back fore nightfall," Vin assured. He glanced at Ezra and his fingers tightened around the leather reins.
"Nathanll take care of him," Chris said, reading Vins thoughts. He stared at the two men, his eyes speaking his worry for them.
Vin nudged his horses flanks, and Buck moved to follow, but Chris stopped him.
"You keep an eye on him, Buck," Chris said in a low voice. "Hes gonna do something to get himself killed if he aint careful."
"Dont worry, Chris," Buck said with uncharacteristic somberness. "Ill take care of him."
Chris nodded as he watched him follow after Vin, then shook his head at the irony. Usually Vin was the level-headed one, and Buck the reckless one. It was strange Chris had seen Vin face death calmly, with a wry sense of humor, but this cat had somehow gotten to him. Chris had to admit, hed never known an animal to act so brazen before, and it was damned eerie.
A feeling of dread settled at the base of Chris neck. Who wouldve figured only a day out of Four Corners theyd run into trouble? So much for a nice, uneventful trip to Tascosa. He turned to glance over at Nathan and Josiah who worked intently on Ezra. Figuring hed just distract them if he checked on Ezra now, he walked over to JD who seemed more than a little lost.
"Whered Vin and Buck go?" JD asked as Chris approached him.
"After the cat."
"You figger theyll find him?"
Chris shrugged. "Hard to say."
JD took a deep breath and snatched his hat off his head, then turned the brim around and around in his hands. "I aint never seen so much blood from one person before, Chris. Not even when we were in that Seminole village. How do you get used to it?" He gazed imploringly at Chris, like a kid begging to be reassured that Santa Claus was real.
Chris shook his head slowly. "You dont. You just learn to deal with it. And Ill tell you something else, JD, the day you do get used to it is the day I stop ridin with you." Chris paused to let his words sink in, then suggested. "Why dont you take care of the horses while I get a fire goin? Then we can put some coffee on and make something to eat. Looks like Nathan and Josiahll be busy for a time."
Go to part 4