DISCLAIMER: The following story is a work of fan fiction. It is not intended to infringe on the copyrights held by John Watson, Trilogy Entertainment, MGM, or any other powers that be. The characters, concept, and setting are not the property of the various authors involved in this story, but the authors do retain any rights to the story itself. Please don't reproduce in any way or sue without permission from the authors.
Vin's eyes tracked Buck as he headed to the church. Chris relaxed back in his chair and started chuckling.
Startled, Vin turned to look at his friend. //It was nice to see him in good humor. Chris had taken the incident with Hank and the memories it brought back badly. Just when it seemed he had reached some acceptance about the deaths of his wife and son. Well, maybe not acceptance, but some peace. Something always seem to happen to prevent him getting past it.//
"I was just imaging Buck arranging JD's wedding. Like he has any kind of experience. Never seen a man run faster or farther away from altars." Chris grinned at Vin.
//Buck's not the only one...Guess it will never happen for me now. Except for the occasional companion, I've been avoiding getting involved. Just wouldn't be any point. Never could commit to anyone with this bounty over my head.// Vin thought morosely.
"Has Buck ever been close to that walk?"
"There was that incident with Lucy."
"I don't think that counts. It wasn't his baby." Vin stated matter-of-factly.
"Funny, if he ever decides to settle down, Buck would probably be a great husband and father." Chris mused.
Vin's eyes scanned the quiet street. //Hell, is this what we've become. Old gossips sitting on the porch. // Vin thought disgusted. His eyes scanned the quiet street. //Since the Nichols incident, been awfully quiet.//
Vin rubbed his stomach. "Think, I'll see about getting' some grub."
Chris and Vin sauntered down the sidewalk towards the restaurant.
Buck caught up with Vin and Chris just before they entered the restaurant. Chris took one look at him and knew something was wrong.
"We got trouble, Chris," Buck said and there was a tension in him as he said it as if it was too hard to stand still and talk when action was the only useful thing to do. Talking was just another waste of time. "The Nichols brothers. They're out of prison. And," he looked over his shoulder as if he could see something past the buildings on the other side of the street. "J. D. and Casey are out there."
"Hell!" said Vin. "Buck and me, we'll get the horses," he said, stepping off the walk.
"Wait!" Chris said. Buck was already in the middle of the street and he stopped and turned reluctantly, his hand gripping the butt of his pistol. "You remember what they did to that shopkeeper. And that the farmer fixin' his windmill. We can't leave the town wide open."
Buck looked at him for a minute. "I'm goin,'" he said and started again toward the livery, his long stride carrying him quickly away from Vin and Chris.
Chris nodded at Vin and without another word exchanged between the two of them, Vin headed toward the livery after Buck.
The sound of other boots on the board walk made Chris turn away. Josiah, Nathan and Ezra approached.
"Buck tell you?" Nathan asked.
"It appears our recent enemy has made a reappearance," Ezra contributed.
"Yeah," Chris said. "Shoulda' known it wouldn't be over. Vin and Buck have gone after J. D. and Casey. We've got to get ready here." He started toward the jail.
"You really think they'll come into town?" Josiah said. "There's only four of them now. It won't be like the last time."
"No," Chris said grimly. "This time they've got nothing left to lose. This time it'll be worse."
"What are you doin', Vin? You ain't even lookin' at the ground!" Buck had to spur his gray to catch up to the tracker to complain, and the other man didn't even draw rein enough to look sideways at him.
"Can't pick up JD's trail on this road, Buck; too many prints." The rough edge of Vin's voice sawed up and down as the wind whipped it from his throat. "We gotta' track Casey instead -- from Nettie's place. We find her, we find JD." He pulled his hat down more firmly as he settled lower into the saddle and leaned into a faster gallop. Buck nodded and pressed his lips together, felt his jaws tighten. All right then. That made sense. He raised his hands farther up the gray's neck, silently urging him into a faster gait.
They were still three miles from Nettie's when Vin sat his black down into a slide and leaped to the ground while the animal was still bouncing. Buck spun his gray on its haunches and grabbed the pommel as the animal shied sideways from the suddenness of the move. Vin squatted, touched long fingers to the ground, then looked up towards the southeast and nodded to himself.
"Casey?" Buck's gray backed nervously against the bit and Buck looked around beneath the trees as he questioned the tracker.
"Yup." Vin swung into the saddle again as he answered, and gathered his reins. "Three hours ago maybe, headed that way." He gestured with his head. "JD was with 'er."
Buck shook his head and told himself three hours wasn't all that long a time for a morning ride. Hell, the kids were probably sparkin' somewhere. . .
"Comin', Buck?" Vin's voice was so soft that it startled the lean gunman more than almost anything else would have at that point. He looked up to see the other man regarding him silently, and shook himself.
"Yeah. Yeah, let's go."
Vin led off at a jog, his eyes scanning the ground this time, and breaking off from time to time to run across the trees and rocks around them, coming back always to the ground just to his left and in front of him.
"OK so far," he observed, pointing a finger at the marks. "They were jus' goin' along at a walk." He legged the black into a more extended gait, and Buck followed suit. They'd ridden nearly four miles when Vin held up his right hand and turned a troubled face to Buck as he drew rein.
"What is it, Vin? What's wrong?"
"Dunno." Vin' eyebrows were drawn together into a scowl, and he ran his gaze along the ridgetops nearby with a sudden intensity that made Buck's hair rise along the nape of his neck.
"God damn it" Chris muttered as he watched Vin and Buck leave town. //Josiah's counsel was right. They couldn't all leave town or assume that anything was wrong with JD or Casey. It would be a mistake to send all their resources after them when they might be just sparkin' somewhere.//
Chris scanned the faces of his friends. Obviously worried about the implications of a loose Nichols gang, they were somber, each lost in their thoughts.
"We need a plan." Ezra seemed to recover from his initial stupor.
Chris nodded. "Ezra, wire Yuma. Let them know what we suspect. Also, wire Kansas City and Eagle Bend. Find out anything you can about the Nichols. Nathan, you best prepare for the comin' war. Let's initiate 24-hour patrols. And no man rides alone."
Chris surveyed his friends for any dissent. But all seemed to concur. Ezra headed to the telegraph office while Nathan hurried toward his clinic.
"Preacher, let's ride."
Buck was starting to feel it too, now -- the prickly sense of Something Not Right that had made Vin pull up and look carefully at the surrounding bluffs and trees. He laid his hand gently on the butt of his pistol as he felt his breathing quicken.
"Buck. Over there." Vin's gaze had zeroed in on something far enough away that Buck wasn't even sure what he was looking at, but he wasn't about to ask questions at this point. It took only a few strides of his gray for even him to see what Vin had spotted: a wide trail of freshly turned-over earth where a number of horses had passed through a shallow creek and come out the other side. Buck reined in and turned in his saddle to look back uneasily at the trail they'd been following. Who had made this one? And why did it make his stomach crawl up and down his backbone? He turned back at a low sound from Vin that was indefinably horrified. The tracker was kneeling on the ground and looking up at Buck with a face gone gray.
"They've got Casey."
"WHAT?" Buck was off his horse and standing next to Vin in the space of the single heartbeat between nervousness and terror. He stared at the ground as Vin traced the marks with a finger that shook almost imperceptibly.
"Casey's horse," he said. "That little chestnut of hers turns its right forefoot out like that." He rose to his feet, his eyes still scanning the ground, and then he looked up again at Buck. "JD's horse isn't here."
Buck felt the air chill so suddenly so that it clapped against his skin like a blast of ice. He wanted to ask "Are you sure? Are you positive, Vin?" But the words died in his throat as he looked into the tracker's troubled eyes and then looked back down at the ground numbly. He realized suddenly that water was seeping into the hoofprint directly beneath him as he looked at it, the mud slowly sagging from the raised edge towards the center. He looked up sharply at Vin only to see his friend nod silently. It was that fresh. They were that close.
"I'll trail 'em, see if I can find Casey before -- in time. You find JD. Then get Chris." Vin was mounting even as he spoke, his voice soft and heavy with grief. Buck stood there another eternity looking at the other man, feeling the meaning of his words sink into the cold marrow of his bones, and then he nodded.
"Be careful, Vin." He mounted up and took the tracker's hand in his own. "But you find that little girl."
The two men regarded each other silently a final brief instant as they clasped hands, then turned their horses and rode in opposite directions, guns drawn and hearts heavy as headstones.
Vin rode slowly and silently this time, reining his black well to one side of the trail he was following and choosing the ground he traveled with care. He was close enough on the Nichols' heels that he didn't fancy their hearing the sudden ring of a horseshoe on stone behind them, or the crack of a dry branch, for that matter. He reined in briefly to turn in his saddle and look back to see if Buck was still visible, but only the long low valley met his eyes, and the dark traces of the men's trail leading from God only knew what horror they'd left behind them for Buck to find.
Vin turned his eyes back to the ground and softly clucked to his horse to move on out again, his mind turning back to his own thoughts of just that morning. Could it have been just today that he'd sat talking to Chris, feeling almost bitter for that one instant -- bitter that he could never have what JD and Casey would have? Vin heard his mind choke to a halt at the thought, swallowed against the sudden pain that burst in him as the sentence rearranged itself without his being able to stop it: what JD and Casey WOULD HAVE HAD. The tracker shook his head slightly to himself, urged the black on a bit faster as the trail sheered away from the creekbed and headed up a low incline onto rocky ground. If the brothers were going to start paying attention to the kind of trail they left, he thought, it meant they were acting more like he'd predict. That was somehow reassuring, and it made him stretch his legs against the stirrup leather and sigh softly, glad not to be off-balance for a little while at least.
The tracker's eyes moved continuously around the area as he rode up the incline behind the riders he knew were less than an hour ahead of him, habit drawing his gaze to anything out of the ordinary: a tattered branch, bent grass, turned-up leaves. He found his hand reaching out to the gnarled arm of a catclaw bush before he even realized what he'd noticed there: a tiny bit of torn cloth. Vin plucked it from the thorn that had snagged it, and rubbed the fabric between his thumb and forefinger as he ran his eyes on up the trail and then looked back at the cloth. It was calico. And it sure wasn't from anything any of the Nichols' boys was wearing. Casey's image flashed suddenly, vividly into Vin's mind, and almost immediately a series of the possible outcomes: of bringing Casey back to Nettie Wells dead. Or hurt. Or shattered and lost and out of her mind. He knit his brows and pressed his lips together tightly, his jaws growing white with the fury banked inside. "I'll find her, Nettie," he promised silently, "I'll find her. She's still got a future, an' I aim to see she gets it."
He looked down at the places where iron horseshoes had slipped on the granite, scarring it with long white streaks. "An' ridin' over rocks ain't gonna' lose me, boys," he said softly.
Buck couldn't think of any time but one that he'd felt so scared about simply riding on. But that other time he'd seen the low, white, fire-long-gone-out smoke and known in his gut that what lay ahead would change everything, forever.
He felt the same bone-numbing way now.
It wasn't at all hard to follow the trail the Nichols had made when they'd taken Casey and left JD behind. They obviously hadn't thought anyone would be along this soon, or maybe they just hadn't cared. Buck felt like he followed the dark lines of meandering prints and broken grass and torn sod clumped with black mud for hours, and then he stopped. The air crystallized around him into solid ice as he froze in his saddle, his hands clenched unconsciously in his horse's mane, his eyes going from glassy to anguished in a single instant. Then he was at JD's side, not even knowing how he'd gotten there, and cutting him down gently from the cottonwood they'd hung him from, his hands wrapped tightly in rope, his face pale and still.
"Oh God, JD." Buck wasn't sure if he was cursing or praying, but he couldn't stop. "Oh God," he murmured, over and over. "God, JD." He laid the youth gently on the sandy ground beneath the tree, and pressed trembling hands to JD's throat to feel for a pulse. When he realized he was shaking too hard to feel anything but his own movements, he tore off his hat and laid his ear to JD's chest. For a long, agonizing minute he strained to tell what might be the sound of JD's heart from the terrified hammering of his own, and then he sat back on his heels with a sigh.
"God, ya' scared me to death, there, JD." The gunslinger shoved his hat beneath the younger man's head, talking to him even though he knew the youth could not hear him. "You wait right there an' I'll get some water. We'll get you back to Nathan an' you'll be all right. You'll see." He rose to his feet, stumbled to his horse and took the canteen from the saddle with shaking hands. Came back, still shaking, still talking. "You're gonna' be all right, JD. An' Vin's gettin' Casey. It's all gonna' be OK."
Ezra walked down the main street of Four Corners, a sheaf of telegrams in his hand. He caught up with Nathan carrying a box of bandages and other supplies from the general store. "Mr. Jackson," he said as he fell into step with Nathan, "we have trouble."
"Well, we know that Ezra," Nathan said brusquely. "Hell, we've known _that_ all afternoon."
"Well, we'ah in worse trouble then. Or at least, we know more what trouble we're in. I've got telegrams back from Yuma, from Kansas City, hell, from all sorts of places. The brothers left behind quite a trail of destruction when they left Yuma. Not only escaped themselves, but let half the other prisoners out along with them. We can't expect much help from them. Or much of anybody," he added, "all the towns between here and there figure there are a multitude of murderers and cutthroats headed their way. No one's leaving anywhere within a hundred miles of here to look for the Nichols' brothers."
"Won't be easy," Nathan said as they turned into his rooms. "But, hell, Ezra there's only four of them. There's seven of us after all."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Ezra paced the length of the room and back again. He looked out the window for a minute then turned and looked Nathan square in the eye. "I just got a telegram from Kansas City. You remember that I told you the Nichols' brothers ran a crime syndicate back there? Well, it seems three days ago, twenty of the Nichols' brothers' top 'employees' left town rather suddenly. Would you care to hazard a guess where they might be headed?"
Nathan didn't say anything and after a minute Ezra said out loud what they both were thinking. "We have to end this quick, if we expect to end it at all."
Chris pushed his horse at a steady canter. He knew it wasn't the careful way, it wasn't the wise way, hell, it wasn't even the right way to patrol the area around Four Corners, but he didn't care. He'd told Hank Connolly that he'd never forget, but he'd wanted to at least set the Nichols' brothers aside for awhile. To slide them down into the deep dark place below his heart where he kept all the bad things, where he knew they fueled his anger and his dark haunting need to keep pushing himself into the path of danger. But now, damn! They would not get away with this!
"Easy there, Chris," Josiah said when Chris's horse stumbled crossing a creek bed. "You lame that horse and we're going to have a real slow ride back."
Chris took a deep breath and let it out, his horse dancing along the bank of the creek. "Hell, Josiah. How could this have happened?"
Josiah was quiet for a minute as they rode along at a less jarring pace. "I wish I knew, Chris. I'd have said it never would have happened. I'd have said that she changed out there on the street, looking at her sons dyin' like that. I'd have said it was over." He shook his head. "I don't like seein' how wrong I can be."
"We'd better get back," Chris said, reining his horse to the right. "Buck and Vin should have turned up something by now."
They hadn't ridden more than half a mile when they caught up with Buck and J. D. Buck had fashioned a travois out of his blanket and some tree branches and was leading his horse with J. D. behind. He was unconscious, but muttered constantly to himself in a long uninterrupted string of unintelligible words.
"My god," said Josiah, dismounting. "What the hell did they do to him?"
"Strung him up to a tree," Buck said, his voice so low and harsh it was hard to hear. "Strung him up and left him there."
"Where's Vin?" Chris asked sharply. He had knelt down beside J. D. to examine him closer. He put a hand against the boy's good shoulder to try and quiet his agitation.
"He went after Casey. They've got Casey."
"He can't do that alone!"
"Well, hell, Chris! Don't you think I know that? What did you expect us to do?"
Chris stood and faced Buck, then took a deep breath and forced himself to step back. Fighting with each other wasn't going to do them any good.
"I'd best go find him then," he said.
"I'll go with you," Buck said quietly.
Chris didn't say anything, just looked from Buck to the boy strapped to the travois. Josiah began, "Buck, don't you think..."
"Look," Buck's face was dark, as dark as Chris had ever seen it and his voice was so quiet that it seemed almost not to come from him at all, carried on the wind from some place cold and far away. "You don't know how to find Vin. I do. And we need to move fast." He looked at J. D. and his face grew even darker. "There's nothin' I can do for J. D. right now, except find the bastards who did this and make sure they can't ever hurt anyone else again."
He knelt beside J. D. and laid a hand on his arm. "I gotta go, kid." And he felt the failure inside him, that he was better at action than he was at comfort, that J. D. needed him maybe, but so did Vin, and that this was the choice he was making.
Josiah handed him the reins to his horse and accepted the reins of the big grey in his turn. Buck swung up into the saddle and he and Chris left without another word.
Nathan and Ezra were returning from a second trip to the general store to pick up more boxes of ammunition and some blasting caps, for which Ezra insisted he had a completely safe plan. Halfway back to Nathan's rooms, they heard a loud crash from the alley to their right.
Ezra looked at Nathan. He nodded. Ezra drew his revolver and started down the alley, leaving Nathan watching closely from the entrance. He'd barely gone six feet when he heard a soft sound to his left. Before he could turn, an iron bar came down across his arm, knocking his revolver from his grasp. He looked up into the eyes of Peter Nichols.
Peter grinned at him. "We told you what would happen if you lied to us," he said.
Ezra turned and saw a second Nichols brother standing just inside the alley entrance with a gun at Nathan's head. They were no longer wearing the black mourning clothes that had so distinguished them the last time they'd been in Four Corners and they'd walked right into town and no one'd noticed.
Ezra's heart sank. How could this be happening? "You won't get away with this," he said.
"Don't worry," Peter said. "We already have."
Ezra heard the sound of a wagon approaching. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the flash of a rifle butt. Before he could even raise an arm to protect himself it connected and he fell crashing to the ground in the sharp white pain of nothingness.
Vin wasn't sure why he knew it was time to get down and go on foot, but he had learned long ago not to question his hunches. He dropped his horse's reins to the forest floor and crept through the mixed cedar and pinon of the ridgetop with his mare's leg drawn. Even as his eyes raced around him at each step, his mind was racing round the thoughts he had been turning over and over for miles now: why was the trail headed back towards town? Why would the Nichols' take Casey and kill JD and then head back to the one place where they were likely to encounter a fight over it? Granted, Four Corners was still distant, and the circle they were taking to come back on it from the northwest was a big one, but there was no mistaking the fact that that was just what they were doing.
A sound. Vin crouched low instinctively, and froze. Listening.
A low wind hummed through the cedar branches and waved pinon clumps up and down above his head. A junco hopped to the stony ground nearby, chirruped twice, and flew away in a tiny burst of dark wings. Everything else was still.
Then he heard it again -- very low and distant. Thready.
A single, heartbroken sob.
Vin felt the blood in his arms and legs drop and turn over as something settled deep into his gut. He'd found Casey, and God only knew what was going on with her. It could be a trap that needed care to avoid, or a crisis that needed speed to avert. There was no way to know. The tracker stepped forward carefully, checking the ground where he placed each foot, watching the branches and plants he had to touch to slide past or through, making sure he didn't roll a stone or frighten birds into sudden calls or flight. Casey, wherever she was, didn't repeat the little sob, but he knew where to go now. He had it fixed in his head and in his gut, the direction and the distance, both. And he'd get there or die trying.
He'd gone maybe 40 yards down the slope when he caught a movement that was blue calico and dropped almost to the ground and froze again. He waited while his eyes picked out the bits of what he was seeing, still a good distance off and partially blocked from view by the cedars. The blue moved again, twisted in a way that made the sun flash white off folds of the material, and Vin realized that Casey was standing up, and trying to get loose of something. He eased around to his right, starting to circle her to see what the lay of the situation was. She had to be tied up somehow. A quarter of the way around the circle he caught clear sight of her face, red with suppressed emotion, and saw that she was gagged. He pressed his lips together tightly at that, shoved the anger down that threatened to rise up inside him. Caution would save her now, not anger. He kept working the circle, his eyes darting back and forth to her as he slipped through the trees. Halfway around the circle he stopped.
A strange man, not one of the Nichols', was kneeling behind a pinon with his eye to the sight of a long rifle that was trained on Casey. Vin blinked slowly and looked again. Who the hell was that? And where had he come from? He was clearly waiting for Vin to show up, at which point he would kill both of them when the tracker went to the girl to cut her loose. Vin frowned in thought. The thing to do was take this man out -- whoever he was and wherever the hell he'd come from -- but there had to be others around, too. The Nichols' wouldn't set a trap like this and walk off leaving only one man to spring it. The tracker looked carefully at each stone and each tree in a place likely to hide a second shooter, but saw none. Then he looked back at the first man, and saw that he was waiting with the calculated patience of a sniper. Vin felt a chill run down his back. No matter what else happened, this man would kill Casey the moment he knew Vin had showed up.
Vin holstered his mare's leg silently and drew his knife from its sheath with a long, slow gesture that made no sound. He took several deep and steady breaths, felt himself center in on this one moment, this one act, and started slipping carefully around behind the sniper. It wasn't until he was close enough to see the weave of the man's wool coat that Vin knew he was going to win it, and it was with a burst of cold determination that he clapped his left hand in a lightning move over the man's mouth as he plunged his knife silently into his heart from the back. Silent death.
Vin looked down at the limp body as he guided it slowly to the ground so it would make no sound, disturb no branch or stone. Then he looked back at Casey, who still didn't know he was there. The question was, who else didn't know he was there? And who did he not know about?
A sudden crash of brush downslope behind him made his heart jump, and he dropped almost to the ground, listening. Horses. Many of them. Vin looked back at Casey and realized that whoever else was here, more were coming. A lot more, and quickly. He looked back down the slope towards where he'd heard the horses, and caught a flash of movement maybe two hundred yards down. Sun glinting off bits and gunbarrels. Shit.
Vin looked around the little clearing where Casey was tied, and willed it to happen. It had to happen now. Right now.
He burst from the tree where the sniper had been hidden with a speed meant to get to Casey and cut her loose before any other possible sniper would realize what had happened. Vin caught only a glimpse of the girl's round frightened eyes before he slashed apart the ropes that held her to the tree with a knife still slick with the sniper's blood, and then he grabbed Casey's arm and jerked her into a run. She didn't need any more than that, western girl that she was and no shrinking violet. Nettie didn't raise ninnies.
Casey was running like a jackrabbit in a heartbeat, and pulling off the gag so she could breath better as she did so. Vin was running behind her, turning around moment to moment to look behind. It had been seconds since he'd burst from cover, maybe 10 of them, then 15, and Casey had reached denser cover and was running in the dark shade of it, and he felt a blow that was sort of a heavy push, a sharp and hard tap, and stumbled a step and then kept running as he heard the crack of gunfire behind him. He whirled to fire at the man who was rising even at that moment from a clump of manzanita, his rifle to his eye, and Vin dropped him before he'd even finished standing up all the way. The ground rumbled, then, as the horsemen downslope who'd been coming heard the gunfire and pushed their mounts into a gallop. Vin caught up with Casey, shoved her up onto his horse, grabbed the reins and vaulted up behind her even as he realized there was blood on her.
"You hurt?" He grabbed her face and turned it to his own, his voice husky with urgent concern.
"No." The girl looked past him as she spoke and her eyes flashed. Vin turned back around and fired more on instinct than on sight, as another man was leveling a pistol at them. He wrapped his left arm around Casey to lift the reins, and spurred the black gelding into a leaping gallop that exploded pale stones from beneath its hooves. Behind him he heard shots and yells of outrage that quickly grew more distant and then were blown away by the wind of their own passage.
The black ran like a tornado, Vin pushing him with his back and legs and will and hands. Casey leaned forward low over the animal's neck and held tightly, long strands of her hair streaming back where they'd come loose from her tie-back. She was so small, Vin thought. He leaned closer to her to shield her thin shoulders and her dark head from anyone behind them, glanced over his shoulder to look at their backtrail, holstered his mare's leg, and wrapped his right arm around the girl's waist to steady her for the ride they were about to have.
The black dodged then, at Vin's guiding, and weaved, and leaped small gullies choked with stone and flew down slopes too steep for running. Vin sent him across smooth hard outcrops of limestone, down creekbeds, and across dense mats of pinon needles under silent groves of tall trees. And all the time the tracker steadied Casey against the sudden turns and feints and sideways slips and bursts of speed and sudden stops that could throw a person right out of a saddle if they didn't know they were coming.
Until finally he reined in the sweating, heaving horse, who tossed his head against the suddenly loosed reins and blew noisily and then stood still, white foam slowly slipping down the glossy sides of his neck. Casey half-turned in the saddle to look at Vin, and he shook his head at her silently. Wait, he was saying. Just a minute.
She heard, and waited.
Nothing. No sounds of pursuit, of gunfire, of calls or of horses. Vin slid down the crupper of the black to he ground and stepped far enough away from the animal to hear without its heavy breathing. Silence. They were in the trees on a high slope, and he ran his eyes down and along the trail anyone would have to take to follow them here. No movement. No gleam of sun on metal.
Vin looked at Casey and smiled for the first time.
"Looks like we shook 'em," he said softly.
The girl slipped to the ground in a single movement and stood with her arms around herself, biting her lip, her eyes averted.
"I reckon we work our way back to town." Vin came up to the girl and looked down at her. "You ok?"
"Yeah. But JD ain't." She was looking at the ground, and Vin knew she was trying to pull her nerve back together.
"Brace up, Casey," he said softly. "You've done good." Vin frowned, then, looking again in consternation at blood that shone on the girl's shirtsleeve and back. Was she hurt after all? "Casey . . .?"
She looked up at him then, really faced him for the first time, her eyes red from crying, and she choked back a sob that was almost the dry hiccup of a miserable child. It made his heart squeeze to hear it, and he reached out a comforting hand to her shoulder. Saw her eyes widen as she looked at him. Wondered why she had that particular look on her face, why she was reaching out to him with sudden clasping hands, saying his name in a shaking voice.
And realized in sudden surprise that the ground wasn't staying where it was supposed to. It was coming up to meet him.
Casey Welles was sixteen years old, and well aware of the fact that her Aunt Nettie had been married at that age. Her own mother had married before she reached 18. Casey took a deep breath and reminded herself of that now. She was a woman, full-grown, and capable of doing any of the things a woman might be called upon to do on the frontier.
But Casey Welles felt like a child right now. She so desperately longed to be folded into someone's arms to be comforted, to let herself go, to have a good cry against a safe shoulder, that for a long moment she was caught between the two poles of herself, child and woman, and incapable of moving a step. Then she closed her eyes, took several more deep breaths, clenched her fists, and did it.
She knelt down next to Vin Tanner to find out whether or not he had just died on her.
The girl reached out one hand, tentatively at first, and then with more confidence, and shook his arm. "Mr. Tanner? Vin?"
The man groaned and started to roll to his side, his eyes fluttering opened as a look of confusion ran across his face. Casey released her breath in a long sigh of relief and and caught his upper arm more firmly in her grasp and steadied him so that he stopped moving.
"Hold still a minute," she said. "Just hold still, Vin."
"Shit." Vin's voice was rough and soft, and Casey knew if he'd realized he'd said that word in front of her he'd have apologized for it. That was how all those men were, as if she'd never heard those kinds of things. He started making moves to sit up, and she shook her head in frustration and raised her voice more insistently to get through to him.
"Vin! Sit still or you'll likely make it worse."
"What?" His voice was confused and distant, but Casey was encouraged that he'd apparently at least heard her this time. She leaned down so that her face was closer to his, even though she had to put it almost sideways to look into his eyes and try to get his attention.
"I said sit still." She used her best Aunt Nettie no-nonsense voice this time, and it worked. She felt a little shock run through Vin's arm under her hand, and he looked up at her with a sudden clearing of his expression that made her really glad. She wasn't as happy, though, when she saw a glaze of pain run through those eyes almost immediately on the heels of returned awareness. He looked away from her immediately and shook his head as though to clear it more quickly.
"What the he--" he paused. "What happened?"
"I think you musta' been shot by one a' those fellas back down . . ." Casey's voice trailed off as she tried to think of how to refer to the place she'd been set out as bait. It made her skin crawl even to think about it, much less give it a name. She heard Vin breathe out heavily all of a sudden as he pulled himself up into a full sitting position before she could stop him or say anything. His head sagged down, though, after he did it, his hair hanging against the sides in his face and hiding it from view. She saw that he was leaning on his right hand and had his left across his middle, all the way around to his other side, low, just above his gun. He was quiet a long moment, his breathing going from quick and uneven after he sat up to steadier and deeper, and then he looked up at her without moving anything but his neck. Casey caught her breath when she saw how pale he'd gotten.
"Get the box of ammunition outta' the saddlebag," he told her softly, his voice steady, "an' reload my gun." He pressed his mouth tight as he said it, sitting up straighter and using the hand he'd been leaning on to pull the mare's leg from its holster and lay it on the ground in front of him. Then he put his hand back where it had been and leaned on it again, looking tired.
Casey went to the black and started to unbuckle the flap on the saddlebag, then paused and looked back at Vin. "Should I unsaddle 'im? He's gonna' have to cool off before we can go anywhere."
Vin nodded, then added, "Ammunition first, though."
The girl quickly opened the leather satchel, removed the heavy box of shells inside, and came back to kneel in front of the tracker and slide six of the cartridges into the magazine. Then she worked the action once to load the first shell, and laid the weapon back down on the ground, uncertain that she should give it to a wounded man who might fall and discharge it by accident. Vin smiled faintly and looked up at her.
"Reckon you know how to use that if ya' gotta'. Leave it where we can both get to it for now."
Casey nodded and rose to go back to the gelding and remove his tack. She stood the saddle on its pommel so the underparts could dry off, but left on the bridle to be safe. Then she took the canteen, a blanket, and the saddlebag back to where Vin was still sitting quietly. As far as she could tell, he hadn't moved so much as an inch in all this time, and that worried her. She knelt in front of him once again, swallowed her nervousness, and said what she'd been thinking she needed to say. Someone had to do something, after all, and night was coming.
"How bad is it, you think?"
"I was hopin' --" Vin broke off with a short laugh, then continued with is eyes looking into her own, "not to have to think on that."
Casey smiled. "Well, it's gonna' get dark soon, an' we can't just stay here."
"I know." Vin's face moved in on itself in a way that told Casey all of a sudden that he was going to try to stand up, and her heart leaped into her throat.
He looked up at her, puzzled.
"I--" Casey paused, uncertain of her words all of a sudden. She found herself wringing her hands, and felt tears sting the corners of her eyes. Dang! She looked at the ground, and her voice was soft. "I'm scared."
"I'm sorry, Casey."
It was probably the last thing she'd thought she'd hear right then, and it made her look up in surprise at the tracker. He was regarding her with a look of unutterable saddness in his eyes, and she felt the tears swim higher in her own in response.
"You don't need to be --" Her voice broke.
"This is real hard for you, I know." Vin paused a long moment, so long that Casey closed her eyes, knowing what he was going to say next. "JD an' all." Another long pause, and Casey felt a sob push its way up out of her heart and break opened on her lips. She squeezed her eyes more tightly, willing herself not to lose her composure now, not right now. She opened her eyes again to look at Vin, and saw that he had looked away to give her some space, some room for her grief. "I'll get you back to your aunt's, Casey. I promise." He looked back at her then, his face almost hard with determination, and Casey nodded.
"We'll make it together," she said. "But first we've gotta' fix you up. You've gotta' let me help you."
"I'm pretty sure it went all the way through," said Vin softly. He was pulling loose his bandana as he spoke, and folding it one-handed into a thick pad. "If you'll just give me somethin' to hold this on it to stop the bleedin'--"
Casey reached to Vin's hip and slipped out his knife, cut the sleeves off her shirt without a word, and handed them to him with eyes gone dark with seriousness. He took them and started to wrap the bandana to the place on his side that was still bleeding, but when she saw how his hand was shaking she took the strips of cloth from him gently and did the job herself.
"They can't have gone this way, Buck," Chris protested as Buck led them up a narrow trail.
"This is where the track goes, Chris." Buck's tone didn't brook much argument. "Vin made sure we'd be able to spot it. You can see his horse went this way." Buck urged Josiah's horse into a trot.
"Buck," Chris swung his own horse up beside him. "We're headed back to town. They can't have come this way."
Buck shifted in the saddle and Josiah's horse edged nervously to the left. He tightened the reins and the horse backed and fidgeted. "Look, Chris, you can see the trail. It leads right up into them trees. I don't care what direction it's goin' in. All I care is that we find Vin and Casey. Now you comin' or not?"
Chris didn't see a lot of choices, but that didn't mean he liked the one they had. He knew Buck counted on him to be the cautious one in situations like this and if he could have thought of another way, he'd have insisted on it. But sometimes Buck was right, sometimes the only way to go was straight ahead.
The trail was open to their left, but lined with tumbled rocks and debris fall on their right where a cliff rose up sharply to meet the forest at the summit. Josiah's horse kept edging to the left and Buck would urge her back to where he could see the outline of horses hooves that they were following.
Buck was concentrating on the horse and settling her into a smoother, steadier pace when he heard Chris. "Buck..." And something in his voice made Buck instantly alert. He turned to look at Chris, the horse reared with the shift in weight, gunfire rang out from above him, the horse tried to turn and bolt at the same time, stumbling on loose debris and falling on its side on top of Buck
The horse scrambled to its feet and galloped down the trail, loose stirrups flying. She probably wouldn't stop until she reached Four Corners. Pain stabbed through Buck's knee when he tried to rise, but several rifle shots kicking up dust around him made it easy to ignore the pain as he scrambled to join Chris behind a rock outcropping.
"You okay, Chris?" Buck asked.
"Fine." Came the grim reply. "You?"
"I'm okay." Buck put his hand against his leg. He stuck his head up just above the rock and a half dozen shots rained down on them. "Hell," he said, sitting on a rock. "There's only four Nichols' brothers. Who the hell are all those guys up there? And how the hell did they know we were coming?"
"They don't have a good angle on us," Chris said. "Somebody musta' been a little over excited. We wait a little bit, it'll be dark and we can get out of here."
"You reckon they got Vin?" Buck asked.
"I don't know, do I?"
"No, reckon not. And us bein' pinned down here ain't gonna' help things any." Buck's frustration was clear in his voice. "Hell, Chris, you gotta get back to town, you gotta bring the others back here and we gotta end this now."
Chris's eyes narrowed. "I ain't leavin' you here," he said.
"You ain't got a choice." He moved his hand from his leg and showed Chris where it was bleeding, sliced by a shard of rock. "I think I twisted my knee, too. I can't run Chris and I'll only slow you down. But," he grinned. "Give me your rifle and I reckon I can hold these fellas awhile. Keep 'em from doin' damage to anybody else while you get the others."
Buck would have been happy fighting at the Alamo, Chris figured--lousy odds, four hundred Mexicans. It was his kind of fight. Someone needed to get everyone together, to focus their skills and end this thing. And if anyone could do that, Chris was the one. Still...
Buck took the rifle out of his hands and gestured to his horse. He slipped off his hat and settled the rifle against the rock. "Just go, goddamnit," he said.
If Buck had been looking at him, even he might have quailed at the terrible look on Chris's face. "I'll be back," Chris said.
The trip to town with J. D. was slow. Josiah tried not to jostle him, but the road wasn't smooth and it was amazing how many rocks there were on a road that got used as much as this one did. J. D. continued muttering to himself, mostly unintelligibly, though sometimes Josiah could make out single words. 'Casey.' 'No!' 'No message....can't do it.'
By the time he entered Four Corners, Josiah's mood was black and grim. Damn those Nichols' brothers, he thought. Damn them! To go after a boy. To kidnap a girl. What kind of men were they? Too afraid to take anyone straight up? This was way beyond an eye for an eye. There was no forgiveness for what they'd done to J. D. and to Casey. They wanted Old Testament? The wanted the Apocolypse of Justice? Well, Josiah's hand gripped the reins of Buck's horse so tightly that the horse jumped slightly, Josiah would certainly be willing to give it to them.
Josiah looked up to see Mary Travis running toward him. "Thank goodness you're here. They've taken Ezra and Nathan. They walked right into town and took them. Where were you?" She looked around, suddenly becoming aware that Josiah had Buck's horse and that J. D. was strapped to the travois behind it. Her hand went to her mouth. "Oh my god!" she said. "What's happening?"
Josiah took her arm and turned her away from J. D. "Mrs. Travis," he said. "Tell me that again."
Mary took a deep breath. "The Nichols brothers. They walked right into town. No one recognized them because they weren't dressed in black and we weren't expecting..." She took another breath, forcing herself to get to the point. "They've got Nathan and Ezra and they left...well, they left a message.
Nathan kept Peter Nichols in sight as best he could as the miles rolled by, but the man was as elusive as a will-o'-the-wisp. One moment he'd be riding far ahead of the group of men and the wagon, and then suddenly he would be only a few yards away, his dark face burnished with the heat of unspoken inner thoughts. He'd catch Nathan's eye on those occasions, and it seemed to the healer that he saw the deep reaches of hell smoldering in the young man's black eyes each time when he looked into them. It made him edge closer to Ezra, protectively.
Ezra. For probably the twentieth time, Nathan looked down at the gambler and laid two fingers gently against his throat to check his pulse. It was still steady, but Nathan was worried about the length of time Ezra had been unconscious. He looked at the sun, estimating time, and then glanced back down at the other man's still face before he shifted his gaze to search out and track Peter Nichols again. He fingered the makeshift bandage he'd wrapped around Ezra's bleeding temple when the men had first thrown them roughly into the back of the wagon, and was pleased that at least the bleeding hadn't started up again. The wagon jostled so much over the enormous stones of the mountainside they were ascending that he'd been worried about that, too. A sigh from the wagon bed drew his attention back down to Ezra with a snap. The gambler was staring at him with a deeply furrowed brow and eyes darkened by pain.
"Welcome back," said Nathan gently as his eyes softened. "Glad to see you're made a' stronger stuff than I thought."
Ezra groaned and closed his eyes, then opened them again. "Must you torture me with this infernal banging and rattling?" he asked.
"Sorry, Ezra. Ain't my idea." Nathan inclined his head towards several of the nearest riders alongside, and Ezra's gaze followed the motion. When he saw the men, his eyes widened, and Nathan saw remembering flood into their brittle green depths. The gambler squeezed his eyes shut tightly for a moment, then opened them once more to look earnestly into Nathan's face.
"What's happening?" His voice was low and still weak.
"Don' know exactly." Nathan shook his head slightly and looked up, his eyes wandering purposefully over the group of men until he found Peter Nichols again. He kept looking at the man as he continued. "They took us outta' town 'bout three hours ago, near's I c'n figure. We've been headed up into the mountains the last hour or so." He cast a quick glance down at the gambler again and then returned his gaze to the man he distrusted in a way that couldn't even be described. "They've got some a' those big city fellers with 'em, that work for 'em."
"Already?" Ezra's voice cracked in his surprise, making Nathan smile a little to himself. He looked back down at the gambler more steadily then.
"Seems your information was a little off somewhere," he said, "or they had some kind a' slick city horses."
"Great." Ezra rolled his head about as he rubbed the back of his neck with a well-manicured hand. "Do we know where Chris and Josiah are? Or Vin and Buck for that matter?"
Nathan sighed. "Nope. Casey ner JD, neither." The two men looked at each other silently for a long moment, and then the wagon leaped into the air and crashed down as it rolled over a low ridge of granite. Ezra yelped involuntarily and grabbed his head as he bounced up and then banged back down against the wooden slats, and Nathan leaned over him even though he nearly fell to the wagon bed himself from the turbulence. He saw that the fresh blow had knocked the gambler out again, and looked up furiously as Peter Nichols showed up once more alongside the wagon.
"There's no call t' bang a man with a head injury aroun' like this!" Nathan's voice was belligerent and angry, and it made Peter rein in his horse with a look of mock astonishment on his face.
"Jim!" he yelled, "whoa up!"
The wagon driver stood up and drew in the team as he set the brake with his foot. Nathan stood up in the wagon, his hands making loose fists at his sides, as Peter Nichols rode up closer.
"You have a complaint about my treatment of this --" he paused, ran a disgusted look across Nathan's limp form, and looked back at Nathan. "-- this inveterate LIAR?"
"You keep bouncin' 'im aroun' like this an' it'll kill 'im."
Peter sighed and smiled mirthlessly, his eyes drawing into hard and brittle points of obsidian. "Well. If it does, he'll be the LUCKY one," he said softly. Then he raised his voice. "Jim, get on up there!" He spurred his horse cruelly so that it half-reared against tight reins, its mouth opened against the bit, and Peter swiveled his head about to address the entire group of men. "We're less than two miles from the meeting place. Some of you ride ahead and find out what we've caught --" he paused to turn gleaming eyes at Nathan, and the healer saw them widen with madness, "-- with our lovely, lovely bait."