An hour later, JD dropped an armload of foraged wood on the ground a few feet from the fire Chris had started earlier to heat water for Nathan. JD paused and glanced at Ezra who lay about six feet from the flames warmth.
Josiah finished tying off the last of his bandages and wiped his brow with the back of his wrist. He glanced at JD and sent him a reassuring smile. "Dont look so worried, JD, itll take more than a cat to bring down someone like Ezra."
"How is he?" Chris asked Nathan.
"We got the bleeding stopped so he wont bleed to death, and I got him sewed up good. If no infection sets in, he should be ready to travel in four or five days as long as he goes easy-like," Nathan replied. He glanced around, and his brow furrowed. "Wheres Buck and Vin?"
"Hunting," Chris simply answered.
Josiah glanced sharply at him. "They went after it?"
Josiah looked around and hunched his shoulders as if chilled. "I got a bad feeling about that animal, Chris."
"After what it did to Ezra, we all should," Chris stated, then moved away to keep an eye out for any uninvited guests.
Buck handed Vin the reins of his horse and waited until the tracker mounted back up.
"Find anything?" he asked.
Vins jaw muscle clenched as he shook his head. "Nothin. Its like it disappeared into thin air."
"Now dont you go and make a bogeyman out of this cat," Buck stated. "It probably just jumped up onto some of these big rocks."
Vin looked around at the cabin-sized boulders surrounding them. "Maybe. But we know its hurt."
"Ezra musta shot it with that pea-gun of his." At Vins questioning look, Buck went on, "His sleeve gun was out when I went down to get him, and one of the shells was missin."
Vin nodded in agreement. "Moren likely." His hazel eyes turned inward. "Wonder how hes doin."
"Nathans takin care of him. Hell be just fine," Buck reassured. He glanced up at the angle of the sun. "Wed best head back."
Vin shook his head. "I want to make a wider pass to see if I can cut his trail. I want to find out where that cat went, and make sure it aint comin after us."
Buck studied the ex-bounty hunter; Chris was right, Vin wasnt acting like his usual self. "Look, Vin, its an animal. It dont think like we do. Hes probably dyin someplace from that gunshot wound."
"He aint losing that much blood. You can go back; I dont need a mother hen."
Buck grinned. "Maybe not, but if I go back without you, Chris is gonna chew my butt out good. And believe me, Id rather face that cat than Chris when hes got a burr under his saddle."
Vin smiled slightly, the first smile Buck had seen on his face since the cats attack on Ezra. Vin was a good man, but sometimes he took things a mite too personal.
They continued on, letting their horses pick their way across the rocky slope. For two more hours they searched for a sign of the mountain lion, but the animal had gotten clean away. With a resigned sigh, Vin led them back toward the plateau where theyd left the others. By the time they arrived, the moon had risen.
"I thought you said youd be back before nightfall," Chris said sharply as soon as they dismounted.
Buck glanced down, not about to betray Vin, but Vin spoke up. "I talked Buck into stayin out longer. Hows Ezra?"
"Hes still alive," Chris replied tightly.
Buck and Vin let out twin sighs of relief.
"Nathan and Josiah sewed him up and the bleeding has pretty much stopped," Chris went on. "We just have to keep an eye on him to make sure infection dont set in. Could you tell where the cat was headed?"
"Hard to say. It seemed to be movin away, but I dont know " Vin shrugged as he gazed off into the darkness.
"You got some kind of connection to this cat, Vin?" Buck asked. "Ever since it showed up last night, you been actin like a girl at her first dance."
Vin glared at him. "You wouldnt understand, Buck."
Buck shifted his stance and hooked a thumb in his gunbelt. "Try me."
Vin glanced at Chris then back at Buck. "The Indians I lived with believed in ghosts and bad spirits that came back in animals to haunt the livin."
Buck pursed his lips. "So what youre sayin is this cat has some kind of bad spirit in him thats makin him attack us."
Vin shrugged, and stubbed his boot toe into the earth. "Somethin like that." He lifted his wary gaze to the surrounding blackness. "Its out there and it aint far away. Dont ask me how I know, I just do."
Although Buck didnt believe in Indian superstition, he did feel a shiver chase up his spine. Damn, Vin was starting to get to him with his spook stories.
"As soon as you two get your horses taken care of, cmon and get something to eat," Chris suggested.
Bucks stomach growled, reminding him it had been a long time since breakfast, and the piece of jerky hed had during the day hadnt done much to keep his belly from shaking hands with his backbone.
That night the men were subdued as they ate their meal. Ezras battered body and occasional groans reminded the men how close death had come to them again. And the unknown location of the cat only increased their uneasiness.
Vin couldnt shake the feeling that the animal was toying with them, like a cat with seven cornered mice. When it was time to clean up their plates in the nearby stream, Vin joined JD and Buck.
"You dont have to play mother hen," Buck threw Vins own words back at him, but a smile tempered his words.
Vin grinned wryly. "Im just makin sure you and JD get them dishes clean."
Buck snorted and elbowed JD. "Next time well just let him take care ofem."
JD smiled weakly.
Vin noticed an unnatural silence to the night. It was as if all of nature was holding its breath, waiting for something to happen. A twig snapped, sounding like a gunshot in the quiet. Buck and JD came to their feet instantly, and Vin straightened, straining to hear something, anything to identify what had made the sound. Utter stillness met their ears.
"Lets get back to the camp," Vin said softly.
The three men quickly gathered the plates and moved back to the security of the fire and their companions.
"Its out there," Vin said, his voice pitched low.
They moved Ezra a little closer to the fire and tightened the circle around him. The wind began to sigh through the trees, rattling the dead leaves still on the branches, and sharpening Vins senses. He lifted his head, closed his eyes, and sniffed the air. The best hunter of the Indian tribe hed lived with had been able to identify the scent of an animal on the breeze and Vin had learned how to do it also, although not nearly as well as his friend.
He concentrated on separating out the smells of the coffee, the nearby horses and their droppings, and the earthy odor of soil and decaying leaves. A flicker of something else drifted to him, and his eyes flew open. He looked in the direction the wind came from, searching the shadows.
"What is it, Vin?" Chris demanded.
Vin shook his head, frustrated that he hadnt been able to get a better grasp of the scent. He looked around to see everyones attention centered on him.
"I thought I smelled it," he stated without embellishment.
"The cat?" JD asked in disbelief.
Vin nodded somberly.
The fire crackled and sent a shower of orange embers upward into the night sky. The tension around the men was thick enough to cut with a bowie knife.
"We need to get some sleep," Chris stated. "Vin, you and Ill take first watch again. The rest of you get some shut-eye. Were going to have some long days ahead of us."
Nobody argued, and they crawled into their bedrolls. Vin noticed, however, that everybody kept their weapons close at hand and they didnt close their eyes right away.
"Ill take a spot a little ways from the camp to keep an eye out. You stay beside Ezra," Chris said.
Vin grabbed his arm. "Be careful, Chris. If it attacked Ezra in broad daylight with all of us close by, it wont hesitate to attack a single person at night."
Chris smiled slightly, reassuring him. "Dont worry. Ive had some experience with mountain cats."
Vin released him sheepishly. "Guess you have. Sorry."
Chris shook his head. "No need to apologize for worryin about a friend." He glanced at Ezras still body. "Or wed all be apologizin."
Vin watched Chris walk into the darkness and lean against a tree trunk. His figure blended with the trees shadow, nearly rendering him invisible. Vin turned his attention back to Ezras pale face that reflected the fires flickering flames. He picked up a cloth that lay in a basin of water, and squeezed the moisture from it then laid it on Ezras forehead. The gambler moaned from someplace deep within him, and Vin swallowed hard, empathizing with his pain.
As time dragged, sweat appeared on Ezras face and Vin wiped it away with the cool cloth. Ezra began to thrash about, and Vin carefully restrained him so he wouldnt break open Nathans precise stitches.
"Take it easy, Ezra," Vin soothed. "Youre safe here."
Chris neared them and Vin glanced up. "How is he?"
Vin shook his head. "He got a fever."
Chris jaw muscle knotted. "Might be the first sign of infection, or it could just be his body tryin to heal."
"Thats what I figure."
"Its time to get Josiah and Nathan up for the next watch. Nathan can keep an eye on him," Chris said.
"Ill take an extra shift since were a man short and --"he paused. "I aint gonna sleep anyhow. Wake Josiah to take your place and Ill sit with Ezra a while longer."
After Chris had awakened Josiah, he laid down to sleep, and Josiah paused by Ezra.
"How is he?" Josiah asked quietly.
Vin shrugged. "Not any better."
Josiah studied Ezra a moment, then glanced at Vin. "Some times things happen that nobody can explain. It isnt anyones fault, it just is. Dont blame yourself for what that mountain cat did."
"Anyone ever tell you you sound a lot like Chris sometimes?" Vin asked with a half-hearted smile.
"Ill take that as a compliment, my friend." Josiah said warmly, then moved off to stand guard on the camp.
Half an hour later, Vin was dabbing away the sweat on Ezras face when the gamblers eyes flew open.
"Ezra?" Vin said softly.
Ezra blinked, and found Vins oval face in the dim light. He squinted at the man, noting hed removed his slouch hat and his hair looked unkempt and tangled. "Vin?"
He smiled in response. "Howre you feelin?"
Ezra thought about that a moment. How did he feel? His stomach burned like hed gotten a hold of some bad liquor and his chest felt as if someone had taken a whip to it. For a moment, he wondered if his uncle had punished him again for touching his aunts good china.
"Like hell," he managed to croak out.
Vins crooked smile looked familiar. "Well, you look like hell, too."
"Thanks a lot, friend," Ezra said in a pain-husky voice. "Thirsty."
Vin reached for a nearby canteen and poured some water into a tin cup. He placed his hand behind Ezras head and raised him up slightly so he could drink without choking. Ezra swallowed painfully, but the liquid felt good going down and his parched mouth appreciated the wetness.
He couldnt drink all the water, and Vin seemed to understand and withdrew the cup. He gently laid his head back down on the makeshift pillow.
"Better?" Vin asked softly.
Ezra nodded. "Thanks." His eyelids felt like someone had tied anvils to them. He closed his eyes and drifted back to sleep.
Vin pulled the blankets up over Ezras bandaged chest and his fingers curled into fists of helplessness.
"Im gonna get the cat that done this to you Ezra. I swear it," Vin vowed in a low voice.
An hour later, Nathan took Vins place and Vin slipped into his bedroll, but his mind remained wide awake. What if some restless spirit had come back as a mountain cat and was avenging some wrong? Why had it chosen them?
Vin closed his eyes, and in his mind, he saw the two red glowing orbs hed seen the night before. Was it only last night the cat had first shown itself? It seemed longer. A whole lot longer.
Gunshots brought everyone instantly awake. Chris, sitting with Ezra, glanced around, accounted for everyone but JD whod been on guard with him. Chris pulled his revolver from its holster, and hurried in the direction of the gunshots. He was gratified to see Buck and Vin close behind him, leaving Josiah and Nathan with Ezra.
"JD!" Buck hollered, more than a tinge of worry in his tone. "Where are you, kid?"
"Over here," came his faint reply.
They followed his voice, and found him sitting on his backside next to the stream, his gun in his hand. Buck and Chris hunkered down on either side of him, and they were shocked to see how white his face was.
"What happened?" Buck demanded. "You look like youre half a step away from dead."
"Dont say that," JD snapped. "It almost got me."
"The cat?" Vin asked, standing like a sentinel above the trio.
JD nodded. "I was splashin some water on my face, when I look up and see it starin at me. I kinda fell back and pulled out my gun. I shot at him, but he was gone."
"He didnt attack you?" Chris asked, puzzled.
JD stared at him in disbelief. "No. But maybe if you all go back to camp, you can give the cat a second try."
Chris laid a light hand on his shoulder. "That aint what I meant, JD. Its just that he attacks Ezra when were all close to him, but youre alone and he doesnt do anything to you."
"Maybe it figured he wasnt even big enough for a snack," Buck teased, a twinkle in his dark eyes.
"That aint funny!" JD growled.
"Take it easy, JD," Chris soothed. "Lets get back to camp."
Chris and Buck straightened, then Buck lent JD a hand up. Chris could see the boy was still shaky, and he couldnt blame him to look into the killer cats eyes and wonder if he was going to end up like Ezra. Or worse.
Vin angled away from them, heading toward the horses.
"Wheres he goin?" Buck asked, puzzled.
"To get himself killed," Chris replied tersely. "You two go on back, tell the others what happened. Me and Vinll be along."
JD stopped and opened his mouth, but Buck grabbed his shoulder and pulled him along. "Cmon, kid, lets see how Ezras doin."
JD glared at Buck, but didnt argue, and allowed Buck to drag him away. Chris followed the ex-bounty hunter, and found him where he knew he would.
"Goin someplace?" Chris asked calmly as he watched Vin saddle his horse.
"You know damn well where Im goin," he replied, his mild tone contrasting with the blunt words.
"How long you gonna track him? A day, two days, a week? Maybe a month, or more?" Chris shook his head. "Hell, why dont you just forget about Tascosa altogether and dedicate your life to huntin down every single cat in these mountains."
Vin tightened the saddle cinch then turned to stare at Chris, his drooping hat brim shading his stony expression. "That cats got a taste of blood, and the only way to stop him is to kill him," he stated.
"So youre gonna take care of him yourself." Chris tone was brittle. "Even if it means settin yourself up as the bait."
Vins hazel eyes didnt waver. "If thats what I have to do."
Chris held his gaze, seeing the determination in the younger mans face. He nodded slightly. "All right."
Vins expression eased. "You know why I got to do this."
Chris shook his head and frowned. "No, I dont."
Vin glanced down, threaded the leather reins between his fingers, then looked back at Chris. "All of you are here cause of me. I aint ever had friends like that afore."
"Would you have done the same for any of us?"
"Sure, but it aint the same."
"Yeah, it is." Chris took a deep breath. "Ezra gettin hurt wasnt your fault, just like whatever happens on the trail to Tascosa isnt gonna be your fault. Were all in this together, Vin, whether you like it or not."
Indecision clouded Vins unshaven face, then a small, rueful smile lifted one corner of his lips. "Maybe, but this cats mine. He made it personal when he picked me out, starin at me in the dark like he done."
Chris studied him a long moment, then nodded. "All right. Why dont you get some breakfast before you head out?" He paused, remembering something Josiah had told him. "You know, breakfast is the most important meal of the day."
Vin stared at him a moment, as if trying to decide if he was crazy. He shook his head, but his eyes twinkled. "I guess you got a point there. Besides, Id best get my bedroll and saddlebag or its gonna be a mighty cold huntin trip."
"Or a damn short one," Chris added, a smile tugging at his lips.
Vin ground tied Sires reins, then he and Chris joined the others.
Buck glanced up, his expression revealing his surprise that Vin had returned with Chris. "I thought you were hellbent on goin after the cat."
Vin nodded resolutely. "I am. But I figgered Id best get my gear." He glanced at Josiah who stirred a big pot of bubbling porridge. "That about ready?"
"A couple minutes more." He gazed at Vin, then looked upward. "I dont see any crows."
Vins brows drew together questioningly.
"Death comes on the crows sable wings." Josiah poured Vin and Chris each a tin cup of coffee.
Vin accepted his cup with a nod and a quirked smile. "You sayin no ones gonna die?"
Josiah inclined his head slightly. "Im saying that for a man trying to kill himself, youre going to have a mighty tough time of it." He paused. "Of course, I did see those crows the morning we left Four Corners."
Vin frowned. "I aint gonna get myself killed I aim to kill the cat."
Josiah arched his eyebrow, but didnt comment. Vins scowl deepened.
Chris looked from Josiah to Vin and back. Sometimes Josiah talked in circles, just like the preacher he claimed not to be anymore.
Josiah dished out breakfast and the men ate quickly and silently. Vin finished eating, then threw his saddlebag over a shoulder and picked up his bedroll.
"Dont wait up for me, boys," he said lightly.
"You aint goin after that cat by yourself, are you?" JD asked in disbelief.
Vin nodded slowly. "Got to, JD."
He turned and walked toward the horses.
Buck snorted. "I thought I was the crazy one!"
"You cant let him go," Nathan spoke up. "What if that cat turns on him? There aint gonna be no one around to look out for him."
Chris took a sip from the steaming coffee, and savored the warmth as it slid down his throat and into his belly. "Well give him a fifteen minute start, then a few of usll follow him."
Buck studied Chris a moment, then grinned and slapped his thigh. "Vins gonna be maddern a stepped-on rattler when he sees us behind him. Im lookin forward to that I dont think I ever seen him real riled before."
"Youd best keep your eyes open for the cat instead of watching Vin," Josiah began. "He was right that cat has some bad spirits in him."
"Arent you comin with us?" JD asked.
Josiah shook his head. "Ill stay here with Nathan and Ezra. Who knows, that animal may pay us a visit."
Fifteen minutes later, Chris, Buck, and JD rode after Vin. The tracks were easy to follow and the men held back so the ex-buffalo hunter wouldnt spot them right off. They continued further into the mountains and Chris kept a vigilant watch, especially on the boulders alongside the trail. He had the same type of feeling he had when he first realized the cat hed been hunting on his ranch had become the hunter. Frowning inwardly, Chris reminded himself that the cat was far ahead of them theyd caught occasional glimpses of a paw print alongside Vins horses tracks. Still, something didnt set right.
He looked back at Buck who, at first glance, appeared relaxed with his right hand tucked into his waistband as they rode, but Chris caught the slight narrowing of his eyes and the clenched jaw muscle as he searched their surroundings. Buck caught his eye, and tipped his head minutely.
Chris noticed that JDs horse tugged at the bit as if sensing JDs nervousness. The boys hand hovered near his revolvers handle, and his gaze roved about anxiously. Chris felt the same jumpiness, but the years had tempered his ability to handle it, just as it would do with JD after he gained some more experience.
Chris turned forward once more and noticed a shiny red drop on the ground. He halted his horse and dismounted, then hunkered down to get a closer look at the blood.
"What is it?" Buck asked.
Chris straightened and looked around. His shoulders tensed, and his stomach curled with unease. "Blood. Probably the cats."
"It aint Vins, is it?" JD asked in concern.
"No. We wouldve seen some sign if it had gotten him," Chris replied. He stuck his foot in the stirrup and hauled himself back into his saddle. "I think wed better catch up to Vin before that cat decides on his next victim."
He nudged his horses flanks, and his mount jumped ahead. Hooves on the hard ground told him Buck and JD were right behind him. Off the switchback trail and into a narrow valley, Chris followed the tracks until he spotted a Vin on horseback a few hundred yards ahead of them.
Although the air was cold, patches of snow melted under the warm sun, making the ground muddy and slippery. Chris allowed his horse to pick his way toward Vin who had seen them and waited. The three men drew up to Vin and stopped.
"We didnt want to miss any of the fun," Buck spoke first.
Vins eyes glittered dangerously as he fixed his gaze on Chris. "I told you that cat was mine."
Chris shrugged. "Like Buck said -- "
"This aint fun," Vin said curtly. "I said Id take care of the cat myself."
"We only came to help," JD said simply.
"I dont want anyone else gettin hurt on account of me."
Buck rolled his eyes heavenward. "Damn, I knew you were spendin too much time with Chris."
Chris sent Buck a sharp glare, then turned back to Vin. "Four men will have a better chance of cutting his trail and tracking him down. You know that as well as me, Vin, so dont you use that misplaced guilt to get yourself killed."
Vin studied Chris for a minute, his expression hewn in stone. Then slowly, he relented and nodded shortly. "All right, but you all keep your eyes open. Were close, damned close."
"We know we saw the blood," Chris said. "I didnt think wed catch up to him this fast."
Vin nodded in agreement, and urged Sire ahead. Chris, Buck, and JD had no choice but to follow him. As they traveled further into the valley, more snow littered the trail, slowing the horses. They spotted only one more drop of blood that shown starkly against the pristine white snow.
Mid-afternoon found them near a mountain stream, and they let the horses drink as the men stretched their legs. Vin leaned against a boulder and chewed on some jerky as he surveyed the area around them. Gunmetal gray clouds had come in over the mountains, obliterating the sun, and a few snowflakes began to drift down and powder the earth.
"How close are we?" Chris asked.
Vin shrugged. "We shoulda caught up to him by now. That wound should be slowin him down."
Chris glanced around and frowned. "Wheres Buck?"
"Takin care of business," JD replied off-handedly.
The horses lifted their heads from the creek and began to move restlessly. Their eyes rolled, and they whinnied and snorted nervously.
Alarm rifled down Vins back and he pushed away from the rock. "I dont like this."
"Buck!" Chris called out. "Buck, where are you?"
Vin lifted his head, and sniffed the air. His apprehension tripled. "The cat its here. Close by." He spun around. "Buck!"
Go to part 5