The men pulled their guns from their holsters and pressed through the underbrush, ignoring the thorns that tugged at their clothing and scratched their hands and faces.
They found Buck walking toward them, buttoning his pants.
"Cant a man get any privacy around here?" he groused.
The cats growl answered him as the furred animal launched itself from behind some thick underbrush at Buck and knocked him to the ground.
Vin raised his sawed-off carbine and scrambled around, trying to get a clear shot of the cat as it and Buck rolled back and forth across a pile of snow. Bucks grunts and the cats inhuman snarls threatened to break Vins concentration. Chris and JD were also trying to find a clear target, but they, too, were scared theyd hit Buck instead of the cat.
Suddenly JD moved in close and before Chris could haul him back, he kicked at the enraged cat to draw its attention from Buck. The animal swung a sharp-clawed paw out that caught JDs boot and knocked him to the ground. The diversion was enough to give Vin an open target and he fired at the killer. The cat was punched forward by the bullet, and he staggered a few feet away from Buck. JD raised his gun and shot the animal again. It fell to the ground, and after a few moments, lay motionless.
Heavy silence surrounded the men, broken only by Bucks ragged breathing and the delicate sound of snowflakes landing on the ground. JD was the first to move and he scurried over to Bucks side.
"You okay, Buck?" he asked anxiously.
"I think so, kid," Buck replied.
JD helped him to a sitting position.
"I dont see any blood," Chris said, squatting down beside them.
Buck looked down at his chest, then his legs and arms and grinned widely. "Hey, Im not bleeding."
"Your heavy coat mustve protected you," Vin said. He shook his head. "Ezras blood musta set him off." He looked over at the dead cougar and took a deep breath. "I guess it dont look much like an evil spirit, does it?"
Chris shook his head. "Only a mountain lion."
He and JD each took one of Bucks arms and helped him up. He groaned and wrapped an arm around his chest.
"Even though you dont have any wounds, Nathan should take a look at you and make sure you dont have a cracked rib or two," Chris suggested.
"Good idea," Buck said.
As the three other men moved off toward the horses, Vin walked over to the dead animal. He stared down at it, trying to figure out why a wild animal would turn killer. He hunkered down, saw where his and JDs bullets had gone into the cat, finally bringing it to ground. Frowning, he rolled the still-warm body over, searching for the wound where Ezra had shot it. His frown grew, and his palms moistened. He couldnt see any other holes in the cat besides those from his and JDs weapons.
Slowly, he stood and pivoted in a full circle, looking, trying to see beyond the curtain of snow and trees and rocks. His nose twitched from the smell of death, but there was something more, something he hadnt even considered.
Vin raced to the horses, where his friends were trying to calm the skittish horses. His arrival brought the fresh scent of the cat, and the animals rolled their eyes and jerked their heads up in fear.
"We gotta get back to camp," Vin stated urgently.
"What?" Chris demanded.
Vin swallowed hard. "Theres two cats, not just one." At their puzzled looks, he continued. "That cat we killed doesnt have an old wound. The one that attacked Ezra is still out there somewheres."
Without another word, the four men quickly soothed their horses and mounted up, then followed the trail theyd just come down.
After Josiahs experience in the Indians sweat tent, hed had a profound change in his way of thinking. Not that anyone had noticed it outwardly, but Josiah had felt it, like a bath from the inside out. All the anger and bitterness toward his father had been cleansed from his heart, and with that acceptance came an ability to sense things more clearly things like changes in nature and people around him.
Things like good and evil.
A shiver skated down his back, but the sensation came less from the cold and more from an inner chill. Maybe he didnt have Vins knowledge of wild animals and their ways, but for what he sensed he didnt need it. Something evil skulked in the periphery of his awareness; something that bespoke of crows and death.
Nathan dropped an armload of wood on the ground and brushed the wood chips and fresh snow from his coat sleeves. He moved to their injured friends side and knelt down to examine him. "Is Ezra all right?"
Josiah, standing over Ezra and Nathan, nodded. "I think his fever may even be down some."
Nathan laid his hand on Ezras brow and a smile lit up the dark mans features. "I think youre right. That means there probably aint any infection." He tilted his head back to gaze up at Josiah in the fading light of the day. "So whats botherin you?"
"Spirits." Josiah glanced down at Nathan and smile ruefully. "And I dont mean the kind in a bottle."
Ezra coughed, drawing both mens attention. Josiah hunkered down on the other side of the gambling man. Ezra opened his eyes and blinked a few times, but he appeared more lucid than he had since the cats attack.
"Welcome back," Josiah said in a low, gentle voice.
Nathan laid a hand on Ezras shoulder. "You stay right there and dont move. Im gonna get you some water and somethin to eat."
Josiah watched Nathan carry out his tasks, until Ezras weak voice brought his attention back to the wounded man.
"We still in the mountains?"
Ezra raised his eyes to gaze at the snow that feathered down from gray, pillow-like clouds, then looked around the nearly deserted camp. "Where is everyone?"
"Hunting the cat that did this to you," Josiah replied.
Ezra frowned as if trying to remember something. "Vin, he said hed make the cat pay."
Josiah nodded, not surprised. "Hes been takin what happened to you mighty personal."
Ezras chuckle was followed quickly by a grimace. "Thats our Mr. Tanner someone should tell our champion of justice that he is not responsible for all that occurs in this world, especially not for the actions of a creature of capricious nature."
Six months ago, Ezra wouldve blamed Vin and everybody else for the misfortune. Josiah studied his pale, whisker-shadowed face of all the seven men, including JD, Ezra had grown the most. When theyd first met him, hed been a liar and a cheat. Since hed joined the group, Ezra had unearthed another man hidden beneath the glib con man exterior. That man possessed courage and loyalty, and had laid his life on the line for his friends. Out of the seven, Josiah suspected Ezra was the most surprised to find those traits within himself.
"I think you should tell Vin that yourself," Josiah said softly. "I have a feeling itll mean the most coming from you."
Ezra stared at Josiah a long moment, then nodded slightly.
"How long have I been this way?" Ezra asked.
"A day and a half."
"Has anybody else --?" he suddenly asked, his eyes wide.
Josiah shook his head. "Not yet."
Ezras sigh of relief again reminded Josiah of the transformation Ezra had gone through since joining the group. Six months ago, he wouldnt have cared what happened to any of them.
Josiah looked up to see Nathans figure approaching in the scant light hampered by the increasing swirl of snowflakes. He held a canteen in one hand and a plate in the other. A movement to his left stopped Josiah cold and he found himself staring into the mountain lions devilish red eyes.
"Dont move," Josiah ordered in a low urgent voice.
Nathan halted in mid-step and his dark eyes shifted from left to right. "What is it?" he whispered.
"The cat," Josiah responded, keeping his body motionless. "Hes about six feet from you."
The mountain lion growled, revealing his position.
Josiah glanced across the fire to see his gun lying on his saddle where hed left it earlier. He debated his choices he could go for the weapon and chance the cat attacking him or Nathan or Ezra, or he could simply remain still, waiting for the animal to make the first move.
The cat made the decision for him and began to slink closer toward Nathan, its eyes reflecting the orange flames and giving the beast an unnatural glow, like a spirit come back to earth.
Nathans eyes widened, but with his hands full, he couldnt get to his knife before the animal could jump him. Josiah had to make a lunge for his gun and hope he could shoot the cat before it hurt Nathan too badly.
Suddenly, the cat sprang. Nathan reflexively dropped the canteen and dish. A gunshot sounded from beside Josiah. The animal dropped to the ground a few inches short of Nathan, who stared at it as if not believing what he saw. At first, Josiah didnt know who had shot the mountain lion, then he glanced at Ezra who held a revolver limply. The sweat droplets glistening on his pale face told Josiah how much effort it had taken the wounded man to raise the weapon and fire it.
Nathan stepped over to Josiah and Ezra, his hands trembling. "Thanks, Ezra," he said, his words heartfelt.
"My pleasure," Ezra responded faintly.
Josiah smiled as he took the gun from Ezras loose grasp. Yes, Ezra had come a long way from the man whod refused to join them when he learned Nathan, a former slave, would be riding with them.
Lifting his face to the pure snowflakes, Josiah allowed the peace of the quiet evening to flow into him. The evil that had disrupted the balance had been vanquished. At least for a little while.
Vin halted his horse and tilted his head slightly. "Did you hear that?"
Chris nodded tersely. "Gunshot."
The four men spurred their horses on faster despite the fading light and the damp, penetrating cold that cut to the bone. Vins heart thundered in his chest had the cat doubled back to their camp? Everything he understood about wild animals told him no, but the mountain lions hadnt acted like normal creatures.
The campfire was barely visible through the drapery of snowflakes, but as they drew closer, Vin could see Nathan kneeling beside Ezra. Where was Josiah?
Vin reined Sire in about ten feet from the fire, and spotted Josiah coming out of the underbrush. He heaved a sigh of relief.
"We heard a gunshot," Chris stated curtly.
Josiah tipped his wide-brimmed hat back off his forehead. "That was Ezra sending the devil back to Hades."
"The cat came back?" Vin asked.
"It was comin at me when Ezra shot it," Nathan replied, and shuddered. "If he hadnt, Id probably be in the same or worse shape than Ezra."
"I highly doubt that would be possible," Ezra spoke up from his prone position on the ground. Although weak, his voice carried characteristic wryness.
"There were two cats, werent there?" Josiah asked softly.
Vin frowned. "Howd you know?"
Josiah tipped his head and smiled mysteriously. "Balance, my friend, balance."
Four days later, Ezra was well enough to travel and the men, restless to get moving, saddled their horses in the early morning chill. As Chris readied his horse, he listened to Ezra and Buck engage in another battle of wits. Buck had unbuttoned his coat and shirt to show Ezra the saber scar hed received saving JDs life.
"I dont see what the problem is," Buck was saying. "Women loveem."
Ezra, standing stiffly but on his own, stared distastefully at the long puckered scar across Bucks chest. "Perhaps the fairer sex you are acquainted with prefer a man with such blemishes."
Buck leaned closer to Ezra as he re-buttoned his shirt, and winked. "It makes a woman want to make it all better, if ya get my drift."
Ezras lips twitched as if he were holding a smile at bay. "I most definitely get your drift, and would ask that you kindly use the stream to remove said drift from your person."
"He means you need a bath," Nathan translated with a crooked grin as he finished tying his saddlebag to his saddle.
Buck appeared indignant, and JD laughed aloud. Buck glared at him, but that didnt stop the younger mans mirth.
Buck turned back to Ezra. "If thats the thanks I get for tryin to cheer you up, Im not even gonna try anymore."
"Alleluia," Ezra said.
"Amen, brother," Josiah added.
Chris allowed a small smile at his friends antics. Everyone had remained in fairly good spirits and no arguments had erupted between the men since both mountain lions had been killed. But Chris knew that wouldnt last forever. Restlessness and boredom sooner or later would combine to make tempers hair-trigger short Chris had seen it happen before and he didnt want them to end up the same way. It was time to move on.
He glanced at Vin whose quiet, self-assured manner had slowly returned. A few times, however, Chris noticed him watching the others, a distant look in his eyes. He knew Vin still blamed himself for what happened to Ezra and what had nearly happened to Buck and Nathan. Chris had said everything he could to him, and even then hed felt like a hypocrite. Who was he to be telling a man how to deal with guilt when Chris himself had lived with that cancer eating away at his insides ever since Sarah and Adam had been killed?
Chris took a deep breath of the fresh, crisp air and lifted his gaze to the clear sky. Maybe someday he would wake up and the vision of Sarah and Adam waving goodbye wouldnt be the first thing hed see in his minds eye. Maybe someday .
He spoke over his horses back in a low voice to Vin. "Well have to go slow for a while."
Vin nodded, his hazel eyes somber. "Tascosa aint goin anywhere." He finished with his saddle and moved over to help Ezra.
Ezra laid a hand on his horses arched neck as Vin lifted his saddle onto the mares back. "When are you going to stop blaming yourself?" he asked softly.
Startled, Vin shot him a glance, then gave his attention back to his task. "I shoulda seen it comin."
Ezra arched a sandy eyebrow. "If I had known you were a clairvoyant, I would have employed your services myself to become a wealthy man."
Vin scowled. "I had a feelin about that cat, but I didnt listen to my gut."
"Ah, a feeling. Now there is something I am somewhat familiar with in my profession." Ezra carefully dug a deck of cards out of his green jacket pocket.
Vin tightened the saddle cinch, then dropped the stirrup down and rested his arm on the saddle seat. "That aint the kind of feelin I meant."
Ezra shuffled the cards with less efficiency than usual, but he managed to mix them up then fanned them, face down. "Pick a card."
Puzzled, Vin reluctantly took one but didnt look at it. "Now what?"
"What is it?"
Vin turned it over and revealed the seven of spades.
Without looking, Ezra pulled the ace of spades out of the deck and held it up. "And therein lies the difference between you and I, Mr. Tanner. It is your nature to assume responsibility, and it is my nature to remain solitary. I have learned that one cannot live alone in this world without losing something more valuable, and you, my friend, must learn that the world is not your cross to bear alone." Ezra deliberately lifted his gaze to Chris, then Josiah, Nathan, JD, Buck, and finally came to rest on Vin again. "Companions one can rely on are a rare gift indeed in this life, and I for one do not intend to dispose of such extraordinary benefaction. What about you, Mr. Tanner?"
Vin stared at Ezra, thinking about what hed said. Hadnt Vin himself thought the same thing a week ago when theyd all rode out of Four Corners to help prove his innocence? Everybody had chosen to come with him out of friendship and loyalty commodities that couldnt be bought or sold. It had been earned, just as the six men had earned Vins friendship and loyalty.
He grinned crookedly at Ezra. "As soon as I figger out what you said, Ill let you know."
Ezras expression didnt change, but his eyes smiled and he nodded.
Later, as the seven men continued their journey to Tascosa, Vin brought up the rear, keeping an eye out for any dangers along the trail. However, the guilt had left him, and in its wake he found gratitude for the friends who rode with him.
His gaze found Ezra who rode near the front of the line of men, and thought of the seven of spades. Then he smiled to himself.
"Me neither, Ezra," Vin gave his answer softly, "me, neither."
The End of Story One
The Trail to Tascosa #2: The Tennesseee Stud
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