The Journey Begins, part 4

Disclaimers, etc. in part 1

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 flame’s 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. "Don’t look so worried, JD, it’ll take more than a cat to bring down someone like Ezra."

"How is he?" Chris asked Nathan.

"We got the bleeding stopped so he won’t 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. "Where’s Buck and Vin?"  

"Hunting," Chris simply answered.

Josiah glanced sharply at him. "They went after it?"  

"Yep."

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.

Vin’s jaw muscle clenched as he shook his head. "Nothin’. It’s like it disappeared into thin air."

"Now don’t 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 it’s hurt."  

"Ezra musta shot it with that pea-gun of his." At Vin’s 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. "More’n likely." His hazel eyes turned inward. "Wonder how he’s doin’."

"Nathan’s takin’ care of him. He’ll be just fine," Buck reassured. He glanced up at the angle of the sun. "We’d 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 ain’t comin’ after us."

Buck studied the ex-bounty hunter; Chris was right, Vin wasn’t acting like his usual self. "Look, Vin, it’s an animal. It don’t think like we do. He’s probably dyin’ someplace from that gunshot wound."

"He ain’t losing that much blood. You can go back; I don’t 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, I’d rather face that cat than Chris when he’s got a burr under his saddle."

Vin smiled slightly, the first smile Buck had seen on his face since the cat’s 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 they’d left the others. By the time they arrived, the moon had risen.

"I thought you said you’d 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. How’s Ezra?"

"He’s 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 don’t set in. Could you tell where the cat was headed?"

"Hard to say. It seemed to be movin’ away, but I don’t 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 wouldn’t 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 you’re sayin’ is this cat has some kind of bad spirit in him that’s 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. "It’s out there and it ain’t far away. Don’t ask me how I know, I just do."

Although Buck didn’t 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, c’mon and get something to eat," Chris suggested.

Buck’s stomach growled, reminding him it had been a long time since breakfast, and the piece of jerky he’d had during the day hadn’t done much to keep his belly from shaking hands with his backbone.

That night the men were subdued as they ate their meal. Ezra’s 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 couldn’t 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 don’t have to play mother hen," Buck threw Vin’s own words back at him, but a smile tempered his words.

Vin grinned wryly. "I’m just makin’ sure you and JD get them dishes clean."  

Buck snorted and elbowed JD. "Next time we’ll just let him take care of’em."

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.

"Let’s 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.

"It’s 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 Vin’s senses. He lifted his head, closed his eyes, and sniffed the air. The best hunter of the Indian tribe he’d 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 hadn’t been able to get a better grasp of the scent. He looked around to see everyone’s 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 I’ll take first watch again. The rest of you get some shut-eye. We’re 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 didn’t close their eyes right away.

"I’ll 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 won’t hesitate to attack a single person at night."

Chris smiled slightly, reassuring him. "Don’t worry. I’ve 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 Ezra’s still body. "Or we’d all be apologizin’."

Vin watched Chris walk into the darkness and lean against a tree trunk. His figure blended with the tree’s shadow, nearly rendering him invisible. Vin turned his attention back to Ezra’s pale face that reflected the fire’s flickering flames. He picked up a cloth that lay in a basin of water, and squeezed the moisture from it then laid it on Ezra’s forehead. The gambler moaned from someplace deep within him, and Vin swallowed hard, empathizing with his pain.

As time dragged, sweat appeared on Ezra’s face and Vin wiped it away with the cool cloth. Ezra began to thrash about, and Vin carefully restrained him so he wouldn’t break open Nathan’s precise stitches.

"Take it easy, Ezra," Vin soothed. "You’re 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."

"That’s what I figure."

"It’s time to get Josiah and Nathan up for the next watch. Nathan can keep an eye on him," Chris said.

"I’ll take an extra shift since we’re a man short and --"he paused. "I ain’t gonna sleep anyhow. Wake Josiah to take your place and I’ll sit with Ezra a while longer."

"You sure?"

Vin nodded.

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 isn’t anyone’s fault, it just is. Don’t 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.  

"I’ll 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 Ezra’s face when the gambler’s eyes flew open.  

"Ezra?" Vin said softly.

Ezra blinked, and found Vin’s oval face in the dim light. He squinted at the man, noting he’d removed his slouch hat and his hair looked unkempt and tangled. "Vin?"

He smiled in response. "How’re you feelin’?"

Ezra thought about that a moment. How did he feel? His stomach burned like he’d 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 aunt’s good china.

"Like hell," he managed to croak out.

Vin’s 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 Ezra’s 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 couldn’t 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 Ezra’s bandaged chest and his fingers curled into fists of helplessness.

"I’m gonna get the cat that done this to you Ezra. I swear it," Vin vowed in a low voice.

An hour later, Nathan took Vin’s 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 he’d 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 who’d 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 you’re half a step away from dead."

"Don’t 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 didn’t 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 ain’t what I meant, JD. It’s just that he attacks Ezra when we’re all close to him, but you’re alone and he doesn’t do anything to you."

"Maybe it figured he wasn’t even big enough for a snack," Buck teased, a twinkle in his dark eyes.  

"That ain’t funny!" JD growled.  

"Take it easy, JD," Chris soothed. "Let’s 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 couldn’t blame him – to look into the killer cat’s eyes and wonder if he was going to end up like Ezra. Or worse.  

Vin angled away from them, heading toward the horses.  

"Where’s he goin’?" Buck asked, puzzled.

"To get himself killed," Chris replied tersely. "You two go on back, tell the others what happened. Me and Vin’ll be along."  

JD stopped and opened his mouth, but Buck grabbed his shoulder and pulled him along. "C’mon, kid, let’s see how Ezra’s doin’."  

JD glared at Buck, but didn’t 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 I’m 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 don’t 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 cat’s got a taste of blood, and the only way to stop him is to kill him," he stated.  

"So you’re gonna take care of him yourself." Chris’ tone was brittle. "Even if it means settin’ yourself up as the bait."  

Vin’s hazel eyes didn’t waver. "If that’s what I have to do."  

Chris held his gaze, seeing the determination in the younger man’s face. He nodded slightly. "All right."

Vin’s expression eased. "You know why I got to do this."  

Chris shook his head and frowned. "No, I don’t."

Vin glanced down, threaded the leather reins between his fingers, then looked back at Chris. "All of you are here ‘cause of me. I ain’t ever had friends like that afore."

"Would you have done the same for any of us?"

"Sure, but it ain’t the same."

"Yeah, it is." Chris took a deep breath. "Ezra gettin’ hurt wasn’t your fault, just like whatever happens on the trail to Tascosa isn’t gonna be your fault. We’re all in this together, Vin, whether you like it or not."

Indecision clouded Vin’s unshaven face, then a small, rueful smile lifted one corner of his lips. "Maybe, but this cat’s 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 don’t 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, I’d best get my bedroll and saddlebag or it’s gonna be a mighty cold huntin’ trip."

"Or a damn short one," Chris added, a smile tugging at his lips.  

Vin ground tied Sire’s 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 I’d 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 don’t see any crows."

Vin’s brows drew together questioningly.  

"Death comes on the crow’s 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 one’s gonna die?"  

Josiah inclined his head slightly. "I’m saying that for a man trying to kill himself, you’re 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 ain’t gonna get myself killed – I aim to kill the cat."

Josiah arched his eyebrow, but didn’t comment. Vin’s 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.

"Don’t wait up for me, boys," he said lightly.  

"You ain’t 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 can’t let him go," Nathan spoke up. "What if that cat turns on him? There ain’t 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. "We’ll give him a fifteen minute start, then a few of us’ll follow him."

Buck studied Chris a moment, then grinned and slapped his thigh. "Vin’s gonna be madder’n a stepped-on rattler when he sees us behind him. I’m lookin’ forward to that – I don’t think I ever seen him real riled before."  

"You’d 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."  

"Aren’t you comin’ with us?" JD asked.  

Josiah shook his head. "I’ll 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 wouldn’t 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 he’d been hunting on his ranch had become the hunter. Frowning inwardly, Chris reminded himself that the cat was far ahead of them – they’d caught occasional glimpses of a paw print alongside Vin’s horse’s tracks. Still, something didn’t 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 JD’s horse tugged at the bit as if sensing JD’s nervousness. The boy’s hand hovered near his revolver’s 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 cat’s."

"It ain’t Vin’s, is it?" JD asked in concern.  

"No. We would’ve 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 we’d better catch up to Vin before that cat decides on his next victim."

He nudged his horse’s 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 didn’t want to miss any of the fun," Buck spoke first.

Vin’s eyes glittered dangerously as he fixed his gaze on Chris. "I told you that cat was mine."

Chris shrugged. "Like Buck said -- "

"This ain’t fun," Vin said curtly. "I said I’d take care of the cat myself."  

"We only came to help," JD said simply.

"I don’t 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 don’t 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. We’re close, damned close."  

"We know – we saw the blood," Chris said. "I didn’t think we’d 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. "Where’s 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 Vin’s back and he pushed away from the rock. "I don’t like this."  

"Buck!" Chris called out. "Buck, where are you?"  

Vin lifted his head, and sniffed the air. His apprehension tripled. "The cat – it’s here. Close by." He spun around. "Buck!"

Go to part 5