Jeb Marlen watched from the deepening shadows of the alley opposite the hardware store as the ex-bounty hunter crossed the street from the saloon. He grinned without showing his rotted teeth, not wanting a sudden flash of light reflecting off his less than perfect smile to catch Vin Tanner's eye. He knew from experience that Tanner was no simple bounty. The man knew the ways of the Indians and probably would have smelled him and his gang if they had caught up with him outside the town. As it was, the stench of civilization hid Marlen and one of his men along with the shadows. He had left the rest of his men camping outside of the town, not wanting to raise suspicions should a large gang ride on in.
"That him, Jeb?" The coarse whisper came from further back and slightly higher up but it was low enough that it would not carry to the noisy street. Marlen smiled again. He had known Gregson from childhood and so he knew that man had sense enough to know when to keep still and when to keep quiet... and when to do both. It was part of the reason why Marlen liked Bill Gregson and allowed him to ride with the gang.
"Yep. That's him."
Marlen's mouth curled up in a malicious smile as he watched the lean figure clamber inside the wagon to bed down for the night. He turned slightly as Gregson spoke again.
"We gonna take him?"
"Not yet. Got other plans first. Gonna make him pay for what he did to my kin."
"Zack got what he deserved, Jeb."
Marlen grabbed his traveling companion by the front of his jacket, slamming him up against the wall then moved closer until their faces were only inches apart. He stared hard into worried gray eyes.
"Didn't deserve to hang like no dog."
Gregson nodded, stammering out a response that he hoped would placate Marlen and was relieved when the older man let go of his jacket. His knees threatened to buckle as he sagged in relief, only to righten himself when Marlen tilted his head on one side and looked at him askew.
"You ain't believing what that scum said about Zack, are you?"
Marlen nodded again, seemingly placated this time as he turned away to stare across the street towards the dark shadows that partially hid the wagon. Street fires illuminated part of the building opposite and from somewhere further down, the sound of a piano playing lively drifted on the cool night breeze. Gregson stared at the man's profile, recalling the younger brother who had always been such a hothead, drifting in and out of trouble for most of his short life.
The three of them had grown up in the same frontier town, watching their parents growing old before their time as they tried to tame the unforgiving wilderness. The soil eroded too fast, leaving nothing for the crops to root in and the prairie grass was too thick, and inedible to all but the hardiest of cattle stock. The local rancher refused them access to the water on his land during the dry season so most of the crop would wither and die leaving barely enough to keep the family fed through the harsh winter months. When Marlen's ma died giving birth to her sixth child, his pa lost all interest in both the land and the mouths that needed feeding, spending what little money remained on rotgut whiskey. The baby girl survived her ma by only a few days for no one would spare the milk to feed the wretched thing. No one cared. Everyone had their own problems, too many problems to take on another man's brood.
This harsh life had shaped the man standing before Gregson, and perhaps it was seeing this lack of concern for even that tiny new life when they were at such a tender age that had turned both the Marlen boys into such remorseless killers. Certainly, the harshness of life on the frontier had turned many a boy away from sweating and toiling on the unforgiving land. Most turned to the local ranchers, offering up their services as cowhands for a few dollars pay, punching cows for the rest of their lives. Others like the Marlens, and dare he say himself, rode away seeking their fortune elsewhere, though usually what they found was someone else's riches. Cattle rustling, horse thieving and robbery had become a way of life that, for all its danger, was far easier and pleasurable than the farm life they had left behind though, lately, they had taken to working as guns for hire.
As for the Marlen girls, they had disappeared one day and less charitable folk implied they'd been sold on to brothels like the tent city that had lain half a day's ride from this town only a year ago, before the so-called law in this town had killed Wickes. He and the Marlens had hired on for Wickes, helping him to keep the women under control and make sure the 'clients' spent every cent in their pockets on the gambling tables, girls and booze before throwing the drunken, destitute men out of the camp once they had nothing more to give. One or two of those men would end up walking away after losing even the horse they rode in on and no one cared if the desert swallowed them up, least of all Wickes. Once they had picked clean the men folk in one area, Wickes would order the tents pulled up and the caravan would travel across to a fresh killing ground.
It had been a pretty good life until Larabee and the rest of the town's peacekeepers turned up with guns blazing to rescue the Travis woman that Wickes had taken too much of a fancy to after finding her tending to one of his missing girls. Gregson always knew the fat man's insatiable desire for the weaker sex would lead to his downfall, with Wickes forgetting that no one gave a damn about a whore but decent folk would scream bloody murder if one of the respectable womenfolk from the nearby townships should come to any harm.
Gregson sighed, knowing that life on the frontier had become that much harsher once Wickes had gone. Yet, as far as Jeb Marlen was concerned, the only thing of consequence to come of that debacle was recalling a certain long-haired, buckskin clad bounty hunter among the peacekeepers; a man who had hunted down Zack Marlen and dragged him back to some backwater town in Texas where he was tried and hung before his brother, Jeb, could even reach the town boundary; a man who had then disappeared into the landscape. He and Jeb Marlen had arrived several hours too late, finding Zack's body still hanging by that short rope on the scaffold as a warning to any other folk who felt the need to slake their dark lusts on the bodies of innocent young girls.
That was Zack's problem though. Gregson knew there were plenty of whores in brothels like Wickes' town that Zack could have had but Zack never felt any thrill from taking one of those whores and paying for their services, knowing they were all no better than tainted goods. What he preferred was the sweet young'uns that had never been touched by a man; except he liked them a little too young and he liked to make sure no one else would want them after he was through with them.
Back a year ago, they had not known the scruffy tracker's name so thought none of it but one of the boys had a liking for those dime store novels and had picked up one battered old copy called 'The Magnificent Seven', bringing it to Jeb's attention when a name jumped out of the page at him. For all they knew, Tanner could have moved on from this frontier town many months ago but Jeb was willing to take a chance in case the man had not been so careful with covering his trail this time around.
"Let's head into the saloon now Tanner has bedded down for the night. I wanna check out those men he was riding with, especially that fancy gambler that took to women's clothing so readily."
Gregson sneered, recalling the less than lovely woman that had started the brawl in the tent city, creating a diversion that allowed Larabee and his men to get the drop on him and the rest of Wickes' hired guns. Yet he was not surprised that Jeb had noticed the taller, more powerfully built 'woman' for Jeb seemed to have a penchant for the bigger boned women that had often made Gregson wonder if Jeb's taste ran even stranger than Zack's, perhaps towards the more masculine looking of the ladies. Of course, he never raised the subject with Jeb, not wanting to end up on the wrong side of Jeb's six-shooter.
They ambled along the street slowly, trying not to draw unnecessary attention to themselves, and pushed aside the batwing doors. Inside the saloon the air was thick with the scent of sweat, leather, tobacco and booze. A lively crowd filled the saloon, talking loudly yet still unable to drown out the sound of the piano. Towards the back of the saloon, Gregson spotted a card game in play and he smiled as he recognized the fancy clothes of the gambler, catching a glint from a gold tooth as he smiled at the men seated around the poker table. He had to admit that, as a man he looked far prettier than when made up as a woman, with his lace-sleeved shirt and that green velvet frock coat that brought out the color of his eyes even at this distance. Only then did Gregson realize that the distance was not so great, as he had wandered right up to the table behind Marlen.
"Perhaps you gentlemen would care to partake of a game of chance."
The fancy words suited the man and Gregson watched keenly as Marlen looked towards the empty chair that the gambler indicated with a flick of his elegant, fine-boned wrist.
"Don't mind if I do," Marlen replied and drew back the chair. He sat down and pulled out the small purse filled with money he had taken from a recent victim's corpse. The man had made the mistake of traveling across this unforgiving land alone, losing his money, horse and his life to Jeb Marlen.
The gambler's eyes widened imperceptibly but Gregson knew greed when he saw it, even though this man managed to hide it quickly enough. He watched as deft fingers shuffled the cards and dealt out a hand to each player, listening to the soft southern drawl as the gambler set the terms of the game to his own obvious advantage. Gregson had no doubt that Jeb would walk away from this table with a far lighter purse but, strangely enough, he doubted Jeb actually cared all that much, not when he would be buying information concerning a certain ex-bounty hunter with that money.
Chris watched from his table on the far side of the saloon as the two scruffy looking cowboys wandered into the saloon. He recognized them immediately as former guns hired by Wickes and wondered what they had been doing since the day Wickes no longer required their services. 'Nothing good', he thought because there was something about these two that made his hair stand on end at the nape of his neck. Over the years he had learned not to ignore that feeling even if he could see no discernible reasoning behind it. His sixth sense had save his and his friend's lives on far too many occasions to be pushed aside with no regard to its worth.
Chris tilted his head as he watched Ezra interact with the men, seeing no sign of concern on the gambler's face even though Ezra was, generally, a good judge of character. However, he knew Ezra had, on occasion, been taken in by his own greed, too busy reading the cards and counting up the coins to take note of the intentions of his fellow gamblers. While Chris wondered what a scruffy looking cowboy was doing with a purse full of dollars, Ezra seemed concerned only with how to make that purse his own.
A sigh escaped him in the form of a stream of blue tinged smoke from the cheroot that he dragged upon. Carefully, he pinched the end of the cheroot, deciding to save the rest of the smoke until later, and placed it in his shirt pocket. Downing the last of the whiskey in his glass, he bared his teeth in almost distaste and pushed up from the table.
Whatever plans those boys were making, he could discern no immediate threat. They seemed far more interested in the game of chance and a drink than in causing any trouble. Nevertheless, Chris nodded to Josiah and Buck on his way out of the saloon, indicating towards the unknown pair of cowboys, and saw an answering response. As always, JD seemed oblivious to the undercurrents, still too young to have his hackles raised by a few strange faces in a crowd but Buck and Josiah knew better, and Chris felt all the safer from knowing his friends would be watching over the town this night.
Pausing on the boardwalk outside of the saloon, Chris took a moment to breathe in the scent of the desert air as it wafted along the main street on the night breeze. Tucked into that scent was a hint of the acrid smoke from the street fires and the pungent smell of whiskey and tobacco from the saloon behind him. He took another deep breath, savoring the familiar scent and stepped off the boardwalk, eyes scanning the shadows for any shape that ought not to be there but nothing seemed out of place. Ahead of him lay the side alley where Vin kept the old wagon that he had taken to sleeping in, hating to be cooped up in the boarding house room even if that did come as part payment for the peacekeeping work.
A soft snort of almost ridicule escaped from Chris and he shook his head in resignation, knowing Vin would see sense and seek the refuge of a warm room and comfy bed once the winter months set in. He only wished Vin would not wait until the snow was several feet deep in the hills before he saw common sense. Still, that hardiness had kept Vin alive when many a man had fallen by the wayside, unable to cope with the barren land with its desperately hot summers and bitingly cold winters. Chris shivered in remembrance, feeling the edge of the coming winter deep in his bones. He was tempted to pass by the wagon where Vin was - no doubt - wrapped up warm enough beneath piles of blankets, just in case his friend had changed his mind about sleeping outside and needed but a gentle nudge to get him into the boarding house. He paused about ten feet away and then shook his head again. Vin was no kid like JD. The man knew what he wanted and setting himself apart from the 'civilized' world of the town by holing up in his wagon was a small part of that but Chris could not complain. That independent streak had kept Vin alive, and Chris had no problems with that.
He turned towards the boarding house, silently contemplating the warm bed that awaited him there, and resolving to let Vin choose when it was time to come in from the cold - if ever.
Ezra leaned forward and scraped the pile of coins and notes towards the ever increasing size of his winnings, congratulating himself for taking at least half of the stranger's purse within just a few short hours. He had timed this particular hand to perfection as Inez called out a last warning for customers to leave. This gave him every excuse to walk away from the table with his winnings intact and with no one turning all their heated anger upon him. After all, it was hardly his fault that the saloon would be closing within a matter of minutes.
"Perhaps you would chance to win some of this money back tomorrow evening, gentlemen," Ezra stated warmly, even though he knew the outcome tomorrow would be little better for his less than lucky associates but mother had taught him to leave the gambling table with some offer of hope, an opportunity for the losers to win back a little of what they had lost though, in truth, his intentions were quite the opposite. By the end of another evening, he hoped to have the rest of that purse within his possession.
As the two cowboys drifted away with disgruntled murmurs, Ezra watched uneasily. The one named Marlen had left a little too easily considering the amount of money he had lost, leaving Ezra doubting if an interest in accumulating more wealth was all the man had in mind. Throughout the evening the man had dropped casual remarks concerning the town and, covertly, its protectors. Ezra had noticed one named dropped more casually and more often than any of the others - Vin Tanner - and it occurred to him that only one type of scruffy cowboy tended to have a pocketful of dollars and that was a bounty hunter, and a good one at that.
Ezra had noticed Chris leaving the saloon many hours earlier and was sorely tempted to forgo the luxury of his own accommodations above the saloon, with its fine feather bed, in order to apprise him of the situation but then he saw Josiah still seated in the shadows. The ex-preacher had kept a keen eye trained on the two cowboys as they exited the saloon, rising from his chair with a grace that belied his larger form to watch as they untethered a couple of horses and rode on out.
"Probably got a camp just outside of town," Josiah murmured as the pair rode out of sight.
"Heard rumors of a large group of men causing trouble just a little north of here," he rumbled softly. "Most will probably drift southwards into Mexico in a few more days."
Ezra nodded. "I tend to agree, Mr. Sanchez. The lure of that rat infested hole called Purgatorio seems particular strong to certain less desirable types. However, I have a feeling we may be required to be a little more persuasive in obtaining a similar outcome from the remainder."
Josiah turned, offering a bright, toothy grin. "Persuasion is my calling."
Ezra smiled in return, recalling how persuasive Josiah could be when he set his mind to it, yet the thought of those two and the other members of the gang they rode with filled Ezra with a sense of foreboding.
"The larger of the two showed a dismaying amount of interest in our esteemed tracker, Mr. Tanner."
Josiah's grin faded. "Maybe those boys have figured out a new path to riches." He sighed in resignation.
"No need to concern ourselves of that tonight, though it might be prudent for Mr. Tanner to leave the immediate vicinity until your persuasive efforts have procured the required result."
Josiah nodded sagely. "I hear Miss Nettie needs a fence fixing. Perhaps you can persuade Vin to take a ride out there with you tomorrow."
Ezra felt a moment of horror creeping over him at just the thought of manual laboring, and then he noticed the twinkle in the blue eyes, recognizing the teasing light. "I believe such a task would be better suited to our Mr. Dunne." With the slightest nod, Ezra bid Josiah a good night and started up the stairs, once more feeling the lure of his feather bed. He had played for hours without taking a break and felt mentally and physically drained.
Vin drew back the canvas on the wagon when he sensed the first gray light of the new day. Last night, he had felt uncomfortable as if weighted down by silent eyes watching his every move but he suspected that part of that was Chris Larabee. The man had taken to watching his back ever since his confession up on the bluff about the bounty hanging over his head. In the year and half following his admission, Vin had come to rely upon that welcome presence more and more, enough that he had only considered moving on without Chris by his side when he felt he had lost the man to one woman or another. The first time it had been Mary Travis out on the wagon train, seeing the way she practically begged Chris to court her by flaunting the love and proposal of marriage from another man in Chris's face. If he had not been so caught up in his sense of loss then he might have noticed sooner how unconcerned Chris seemed at the possibility of losing Mary to a rival for her affections. Perhaps then he might not have tried to smother that terrible sense of loneliness by courting another man's wife.
The second time brought back memories of Ella Gaines and the way she had manipulated Chris by offering him all his dreams of home and family, only to shatter them once she revealed her part in the murder of his wife and son. The bitch had wrapped Chris so tight around her finger that they had both lost sight of the friendship existing between them but that was exactly what she had planned, though by all accounts, her intention had been to see their friendship severed by death - his death.
Vin grimaced as he recalled the shocked expression on Chris's face when he came flying out of the house, shirt missing and guns blazing. Any sense of self-preservation seemed to have flown away, leaving him vulnerable to the gun aimed at him by Handsome Jack Averal, a man who had seen his opportunity to remove his rival for Ella's affection permanently for there was little doubt in Vin's mind that more than financial gain had motivated the man's interest in Ella and her intended husband, Chris Larabee.
Almost two months had passed since that terrible day and the memory of watching Chris fall to a bullet still haunted Vin by both day and night. In his mind's eye, he could still see the bullet slamming into the unprotected man, watching as if in slow motion as Chris fell to the ground, writhing in agony. Without sparing a thought to his own safety, Vin had leaped forward into the open, covering Chris's back with his own body. He knew he had been foolhardy. He had seen that in the eyes of their friends as they desperately sought to protect both him and Chris from what little cover remained to them. Fortunately, the death of Jack Averal sent his remaining men running, ending the fight before anyone else was injured or killed. Vin sighed, recalling that the expected explosion of anger towards him for breaking cover had never materialized, quickly forgotten as Buck grieved over Hilda and they all worried over Chris.
Guilt had driven Vin away once he knew Chris should live, setting him on the trail of the obsessed woman who had brought such horror into Chris's life not once but twice as she sought to destroy the second family he had created having already murdered the first. Perhaps if Vin had tried a little harder to convince Chris that the woman was no good then Chris might not have been shot, and he might not have seen his revenge thwarted once more as she evaded even Vin's tracking skills to disappear into the landscape. At least Chris could now put a name and face to the person who had ordered the murder of his wife and child, greatly improving the likelihood of finding her some time in the future, and hopefully before she figured out a new way to dispose of anyone standing between her and her unhealthy obsession for Chris Larabee.
His morbid thoughts ended when he reached the batwing doors of the saloon and pushed them open to reveal an empty interior apart from a lone figure seated near the back. Vin grinned at the sight of his friend working his way through a large breakfast. He crossed the saloon quickly and silently, slapping his hat down on the table as he took a seat opposite, knowing Chris would watch his back.
He grinned and shook his head as he stared at the piled-high plate, glad that Chris's appetite had returned as the wound in his side healed.
"Got to wonder where you put all that food, Larabee. That scrawny ass of yours looks like you skip more meals than you eat."
Chris raised both eyebrows, his expression saying far more than words as he eyed what he could see of Vin's body. Neither of them could be accused of having a little too much fat covering their bones. He smirked when a plate piled high with bacon, eggs and fried bread was placed down in front of Vin and Vin chuckled in return. They might only get a dollar a day from the Judge but the regular meals more than made up for the lack of a decent wage.
They ate in companionable silence though Vin could tell Chris had something on his mind but he knew better than to try to get it out of Chris before he was ready. Eventually, Chris pushed back his near empty plate and reached for his coffee, watching Vin almost covertly over the rim of the mug as he took several long sips. He replaced the mug on the table, licking a spilled droplet of coffee from his lips.
"Ezra says there are two men showing an unhealthy interest in you."
Vin nodded, now aware of the source of his unease last night. "They stay in the town last night?"
"Nope but Josiah reckons they're camped a couple of miles out to the north. Part of a larger gang."
"Ain't running, Chris," Vin mumbled around a mouthful of corn bread.
"Figured as much."
Vin nodded, knowing Chris would say no more on this subject because he knew Vin had spent too many months running after Eli Joe framed him for the murder of Jess Kincaid to want to go through that again. Then he had little choice because he was all alone. Now, he had six friends to watch his back while Judge Travis put the finishing touches onto clearing his name after interviewing the surviving members of Eli Joe's gang. Both Yates and another had given sworn testament that Eli Joe had bragged about the way he had duped everyone into believing Vin Tanner was the murderer just so Eli Joe could get Tanner off his trail. The sticking point was that it was only hearsay with Eli Joe unable to defend himself from the grave but Travis's word on Vin's character held a lot of sway and could mean the difference between living as a free man and facing the hangman's noose.
Not that Vin would ever be truly free for those bounty posters had a way of slipping through the cracks, and many of the men earning a living by bringing in criminals took 'dead or alive' as a reason to shoot first and ask questions later. Vin had come across a couple of cases in his time where a man's innocence had been overshadowed by a yellowing bounty poster in some avaricious hunter's pocket but, fortunately, he had not had to deal with that situation personally, preferring to take his bounty in alive - until Tascosa. Usually, the law tended to turn a blind eye to the murder of an innocent man who had been wanted formerly, saying it was an honest mistake and feeling the hunter was punished enough by having to walk away without the promised bounty that could go as high as a thousand dollars in some cases.
That changed for Vin in Tascosa. All Vin had for comparison was the gut wrenching discovery that the bounty he had found already dead and brought in to Tascosa was, in fact, an innocent farmer, murdered because he looked so much like Eli Joe, especially once dressed in the killer's clothing. Jess Kincaid had been well liked so none of the townsfolk were willing to accept an explanation, or even consider the unusual attire of the man they professed to know so well. Only now, having gone through the account several times with the Judge, had Vin seen the true significance of the clothing, seeing it as a means of casting reasonable doubt that, when combined with Yates' statement and Eli Joe's known crimes, gave greater credence to Vin's claim of being framed for murder.
Vin caught a flick of Chris's green eyes and sighed. "Guess there's no harm in lying low for a few days though, till they're persuaded to move on."
The small that lifted the corner of Chris's mouth made Vin grin too. Chris raised his eyes fully this time, taking another swallow of coffee before revealing the rest of a plan that he had prepared long before Vin walked into the saloon, no doubt.
"Josiah mentioned Nettie Wells needing a hand with some fencing again. Maybe you could take JD with you."
"Maybe I could... later." Vin shoveled in the last mouthful. "Got a couple of errands to run in town first." He took several long swallows of his own coffee before pushing back from the table and picking up his hat, knowing Chris would stay a while longer to enjoy another mug of Inez' coffee before sauntering out to check through the town.
"Watch your back," Chris stated though Vin knew he would not be the only one doing so. A certain gunfighter would also be watching it too.
Marlen spent all morning surreptitiously checking through the town but it became clear early on that his quarry had slipped away. If he had been a simple bounty hunter then he might not have been so concerned but Vin Tanner meant far to him than the five hundred dollar reward, dead or alive. The reward was just the icing on the cake as far as Jeb was concerned. First he would make sure Tanner suffered through seeing his friends hurt and then, when Jeb was good and ready, he would let Tanner feel the true weight of grief when Jeb took the life of whoever was closest to the ex-bounty hunter, so Tanner would understand how it felt to lose a brother. Only then, when Tanner truly understood the depth of pain he had caused to Jeb Marlen, would Jeb show a little mercy and haul the bastard back to Tascosa to watch him hang, just like Zack.
It was easy enough to figure out who was important to Tanner because the dime store novel had revealed so much more than its author had intended. It had revealed the depth of caring each of seven men had for one another, and how they had rallied around to help find justice for one of their number, ultimately failing but strengthening the bond between the seven nonetheless.
Jeb's eyes traveled the length of the town, stopping first on the old church where the ex-preacher worked out his penance, and then across to the livery, his eyes rising to take in the rooms of the healer, Nathan Jackson. Last night, as he gambled away half of the purse he had taken from the stranger he had murdered out on the trail, Jeb had taken note of the young city boy, JD Dunne, and of the tall yet graceful and charming Buck Wilmington as he wooed one of the ladies to his bed. The fancy gambler was harder to watch even though Jeb spent most of the evening separated from the man by just the width of a poker table. The green eyes were bright and could not conceal the intelligence lurking within a clever, fast thinking mind that seemed to read more than just the cards on the table. The almost effeminate gestures of hand and eye were meant to deceive an opponent and certainly, they had mesmerized Jeb, leaving him feeling a little light headed with unnatural interest. Barely had he resisted the smirk that came unbidden to his lips as he cherished the memory of this man clothed in a fancy green dress and plumed bonnet, and painted up like a whore. He could even recall the less than pleasant singing voice though, in hindsight, the attempt to hold higher notes would leave most mature men at a strong disadvantage so that voice was probably not so bad.
Jeb sighed. It would be a shame to kill or disfigure Ezra Standish so perhaps he would arrange a different kind of pain for the handsome gambler, one that would give obvious pleasure to Jeb Marlen.
Only one man remained on Jeb's list, the one whom Jeb believed to be the most important person in Tanner's life, a brother in all but blood. That man was Chris Larabee, the dark-clad gunfighter. Taking down such a man as Larabee would not be easy but Jeb had no intention of facing Larabee in a gunfight where the man's superior skill with a six shooter would end matters far too quickly and in altogether the wrong fashion. Jeb did not intend to lose his life over his desire for revenge. He intended to spend the rest of a long life glorying in the way he had brought frontier justice to the man who had sent his brother to the gallows.
Where to start though, he thought, and his smile grew as his eyes passed over the church once more.
Despite fears to the contrary, the two strangers made no obvious attempt to locate Vin during the day so Josiah began to relax, wondering if he and Ezra had made more out of the casual interest than was due. Now, as evening drew on, Josiah retired to the church, quietly lighting the few tallow candles scattered about the interior. The small glow from the candle light illuminated the high walls and ceiling, casting strange shadows around the large empty room that comprised the main part of the church. Wooden pews stood in regimented rows; their seats smoothed down and polished to a gentle shine while Nathan had put his exceptional knife skills to wondrous use by carving ornate designs into the once plain end panels of each bench. In the year and a half since he began his penance by working upon this old church, Josiah had been gratified by the way the battered and abandoned church had been restored to some of its former glory, enjoying the more positive aspects of his work that had lured some of the townsfolk back into its interior to join together in Sunday prayer.
He had spent most of the hot summer months working on the exterior, replacing rotted wood to ensure the church would keep out the rain and snow of a harsh winter, and rebuilding the small bell tower that had been close to collapse. A lick of white paint just a few weeks back had finished the work, setting the church back to gleaming as if pristine and new, and drawing a larger flock to service on the following Sunday. Rainy days, and those evenings where he had not sought out companionship and libation at the saloon, had been spent working on the interior and preparing a Sunday sermon for those few pious folk who made the effort to attend even though he was no longer a preacher in the eyes of The Church. His congregation did not seem to mind that he was no longer ordained, seeing beyond the words on paper to focus on the words he preached instead and forgiving him for those occasions when he displayed a less than holy presence in the town, mainly in its saloon.
Tonight had been one of those occasions when the call of a bottle and companionship outweighed the call of his bible.
He had seen Vin and JD riding back into town a few hours earlier, greeting them heartily and joining them in the saloon at their beckoning. Manual labor for a good cause always put a glow upon a man, and Josiah's young friends seemed to shine beneath their obvious exhaustion. Still, that did little to dampen JD's spirits as he recounted almost every minute spent at Nettie's, right down to the sumptuous repast she had prepared to reward the two hard working men. Josiah's spirits lifted too when Vin produced a peach pie that Nettie had sent back for the Seven men to share, and he grinned as Nathan took out a knife and wiped it down carefully before cutting the pie into equal segments with a surgeon's skill. Washed down with a cool beer, that pie was heavenly. He chased it all down with several tumblers of whiskey, the single bottle moving easily between seven friends though Buck would steer it away from JD more often than not, riling the kid.
During his years spent as a preacher, Josiah had forgotten the joys of friendship; forgotten the camaraderie as they talked and joked of inconsequential matters, of times past and of people and places they had known. Good memories were drawn back into the light, to be savored and shared for the pleasure of the others, and bad memories slowly lost their foothold upon each man's soul, the light of their friendship slowly eating away at the dark shadows.
Josiah knew it would not be this way forever for all things changed in time, but for now he reveled in the gift that had come to him during one of the darkest periods of his life, knowing God must have had a hand in it.
Although the whiskey burned through his blood, setting his head buzzing with pleasure, Josiah felt a desire to read from the good book and reached for the battered bible in his coat pocket. He let the book fall open to any page it willed and began to read in a soft, low tone as he recited some of his favorite Psalms while silently wondering at the significance of the bible opening on those particular scriptures. Love, friendship and brotherhood seemed to be the focus of those psalms, which seemed more than apt considering how he had spent this glorious evening.
When the soft tinkle of the piano disappeared from the night breeze, the town fell quickly into a deep silence as the last of the die-hards made their weary way to their beds. Josiah sighed again and placed his bible back into his pocket before moving silently through the small church, blowing out the candles until only one remained. This one he picked up and let it light his way into the room behind the pulpit that he had taken to using for his bedroom. He stripped off his day clothing swiftly and climbed into the cold bed, shivering slightly as he wet his fingers and pinched out the final light, plunging the room into darkness. His eyes adjusted quickly, shadows forming where the meager light from the street fires failed to reach too far into the small room, bleeding through the thin curtains. Josiah snuggled down beneath a thick blanket and closed his eyes, letting the warm fuzz of the alcohol remaining in his blood stream pull him down into a peaceful slumber.
His dreams were strange and terrifying, filled with an orange glow that flickered before his eyelids and with the increasing heat as Hell burned upon the Earth, scorching the ground with flames licking across the world. Josiah murmured a soft prayer, subconsciously trying to extinguish the hellish nightmare as it gained ground, threatening to smother him with thick acrid smoke. From a great distance he heard familiar voices, yelling in urgent tones, calling his name almost frantically. The sound of smashing glass made him fight towards consciousness and he tried, unsuccessfully, to push away the strong fingers clawing a hold on his body - devils' hands.
The cold night air felt like a vicious slap on the face and his eyes opened in shock, lungs suddenly laboring as his attempts to draw in fresh breath met with resistance. Josiah coughed harshly, his throat feeling ravaged and sore, and his mouth as dry as a bone bleached beneath the desert sun. Only now did he recognize one of the many voices and he raised his head to look into dark eyes filled with fear and concern.
"Josiah? Just take it nice and easy. Slow, deep breaths."
Nathan Jackson was kneeling on the ground right in front of Josiah, with his broad, strong hands clasped upon Josiah's shoulders, supporting him for fear he would topple over. Josiah raised his eyes a fraction more, disbelief filling his mind as he saw the horror of his nightmare relived within the real world as orange flames licked up the side of the church. Around him, men and even women had formed a human chain, passing bucket after bucket of water, hand over hand towards the church where silhouettes of Buck, Chris and Vin fought the fire raging inside the building.
"Damn lucky to be alive. If Vin hadn't have smelled that smoke then-"
Josiah pushed up to his feet, stumbling forward only a step before collapsing in a fit of coughs.
"Where you going? Josiah?!"
He tried to shake off the steadying hand, heart hammering in his chest in a mixture of shock and horror as pristine white walls blistered and burned. Dark smoke drifted up into the night sky, billowing in the breeze. The heat from the fire was incredible, driving the would-be saviors back and Josiah cried out in grief when they abandoned any remaining attempt to save the church, focusing on the wooden buildings close by to stop the spread of the fire before it engulfed the whole town.
Josiah fell back to his knees at the almighty roar as the roof collapsed inwards, with the bell tower, so lovingly crafted only months before, disappearing into an orange blaze as sparks flew high into the air to be caught up and swirled on the wind towards other wooden structures. Part of Josiah wanted to race into the burning church, wanting to end his pain within the dying building that ought to have been his salvation, his penance fulfilled. Another part of him had already died inside, watching all his dreams and visions for the future go up in flames. Nathan held back what was left, his strong arms wrapped around Josiah's shoulders now and Josiah turned to stare at Nathan's strong profile, seeing the despair and shock carved into his friend's face in remembrance of the work they had shared so joyfully as they rebuilt the ruined church, only to see it crumble and burn now.
Josiah was still seated on the hard ground when the first light of the dawn streaked across the sky, adding a new flush of sickly color to the orange and red embers still glowing in the destroyed church. A familiar lean frame was kneeling on the ground a little way ahead of Josiah, silhouetted against the glow of the new day with body slumped and head bowed as if filled with a sense of personal failure. Josiah felt a stab of concern, recalling the one other time when he had seen Chris Larabee in this light, as a livery burned with Cletus Fowler taking his dark secrets to the grave. Compassion for his friend almost outweighed Josiah's own grief when Chris looked back over his shoulder, his face pale and lined with exhaustion, smudged with streaks of soot. He watched as Chris pushed to his feet and staggered over, dropping with an innate gracefulness to the ground close to Josiah.
"Sorry, Josiah. Fire had taken too strong a hold," Chris stated in a gravel-soft voice that spoke of breathing too much of the thick smoke filling the air.
Another body slumped to the side of Josiah, between him and Chris, and Josiah could still not find any words as he watched Vin shake his head in sorrow. His shoulder-length curly hair was disheveled; his buckskin coat dusted in a layer of soot and, like Chris, his face was smudged, with noticeable track lines from tears most likely caused by the sting of the acrid smoke in his deep blue eyes.
"Josiah?" His soft voice was even rougher than usual, and he cleared his throat with the bark of a cough, accepting a canteen from Nathan before attempting to speak again. "Hell, Josiah."
"Yeah," Josiah murmured, finally finding his voice. "Hell on Earth."
Josiah could find no other words to describe how he felt at this moment, seeing all his work lying before him in ruin. Part of two adjoining walls remained standing but they swayed precariously in the night breeze and Josiah knew the town would have no choice but to tear these down too to make it safe. Like the old missionary just outside of the town, there would be nothing left standing and little left to salvage - and Josiah wondered if he had the heart and strength remaining to even try.
He looked down as a hand clasped his forearm before looking up the cinder-coated buckskin arm to the face of the younger man.
"We'll help you rebuild it... together."
Josiah looked beyond Vin to where Chris sat with his face seemingly impassive until he met the green eyes and saw the same promise written there too, knowing Chris did not give his promises lightly.
"Goes for me too, Pard," Buck breathed gently as he dropped down beside Chris.
"And I shall offer my assistance... for the less menial tasks."
Josiah could not help the slight quirk of his lips as Nathan snorted. "That's mighty charitable of you, Ezra."
"We'll all help out, Josiah."
Josiah laid a hand on JD's small shoulder as the youngest of the seven dropped down in front.
"I know you will, son," he replied somberly, though Josiah was uncertain if he could rebuild the church even if he wanted to try. He felt as if his redemption had burned up with the church, as if God had punished him for almost believing that his penance was coming to an end.
Chris climbed to his feet and slapped his hat against his thigh, causing a small cloud of soot to rise into the air around him. He coughed a couple of times and cleared his parched throat with a swallow of water from the canteen handed to him by Vin. He waited as Vin pushed up beside him and then turned away.
"Where're you going?" JD asked in surprise.
Both men stared at the church and Josiah could see the air shimmering from the heat still locked into the wood; they answered together, "Saloon."
Josiah watched the two walk away, his eyes drifting across to see Nathan staring at the smoldering ruins of the church thoughtfully.
"Chris is right. Ain't gonna find nothing to salvage in that heat. Better to wait for it to cool down some before we start." The dark eyes glanced back, passing over each of the remaining men in turn before finally resting on Josiah. "Saloon?"
With a slight nod, Josiah agreed, accepting the help from Buck and Nathan as they drew him to his feet. He turned back only once he reached the batwing doors, casting one final look at the destroyed church before turning away and pushing into the saloon where a bottle of whiskey and seven glasses already lay waiting.
Chris stood up and stretched, trying to ease the kinks out of his spine. So far he had found nothing to determine the cause of the fire that had destroyed Josiah's church leaving only the simplest of explanations remaining. Josiah must have left one of the candles burning when he went to bed last night and something, a rat perhaps or even a strong draft through one of the many cracks in the windows that had yet to be repaired at the time, had knocked the candle over. Still, it would take a lot of effort for a fire to catch even under those circumstances for there was little in the way of flammable material other than the wooden pews. The interior of the church was Spartan compared to a home. Compared to his home, he thought, fighting against the sudden constriction in his chest as he recalled the small ranch house filled with Sarah's beautiful linen and drapes, of the pretty though practical rugs covering the wooden flooring and the plump cushions on the couch that provided a touch of luxury as well as comfort for an aching back after a day of bronco busting.
He swallowed hard at the memory, wondering how quickly his home had burned once Fowler set the first match to dry tinder. What he tried never to think about was how quickly Sarah and Adam had died, not wanting to dwell on the possibility that they might have been awake, that they might have suffered, for madness lay down that path. Better to live in denial and believe that they had been asleep at the time and that the thick smoke had sent them slipping into death long before the first licks of flame reached them.
"You okay, Chris?"
Chris raised his head in shock, having not heard Vin's approach even though his friend would have needed to pick his way across the debris littered where the proud church had stood, leaving the ground dangerous under foot. He saw compassion mingled with pain in the deep blue eyes, nodding once in acceptance of the words that would not be spoken. Vin and the others of the Seven knew far more of his pain than could be found within the pages of the dime store novel written by Jock Steele. They had remained by his side long after Steele returned back east to write up a dozen more novels detailing his adventures in the west and in Purgatorio in particular. JD had stayed in contact with the man, receiving complimentary copies of his latest books, and there was always the threat of Steele returning to these parts one of these days. Yet, Chris had resigned himself to that possibility, no longer feeling any animosity towards a man who had seen his grief only as a means to make money.
He watched as Vin hunkered down amid the blackened remains of the church, lips twitching wryly as Vin pulled out a hymn book that was singed upon the edges but was otherwise untouched by the flames. He handed it up to Chris before standing back up.
"We'd all had a mite too much to drink last night," Vin spoke softly, "but I don't recall seeing any lights burning in the church when I turned in."
"Could have been mistaken."
Vin removed his hat and slapped it against his thigh to dislodge some of the soot. "Yeah. Maybe."
He looked up at the remaining walls that rocked precariously in the gentle midday breeze. Chris eyed the same walls uneasily, knowing they would have to come down before the evening breeze took up, and before anyone else took it into their head to try and sift through the cooling embers of the fire.
"I don't know, Chris. Something don't sit right with this fire."
He shook his head in frustration and Chris could see how deeply this had affected Vin. Josiah was a friend, a good friend and in some ways a mentor too, to each of them. When Josiah was accused of murdering that young seamstress, Vin had stuck by Josiah, accepting his word when all the evidence pointed to the contrary and even when Chris's belief had faltered. The depth of his loyalty to each member of the Seven astounded Chris but then, Vin was not the kind of man to give his trust and friendship easily. Though, once he did, he was the truest of friends.
Yet, Vin had given his trust easily to Chris. Vin had sized him up within a single glance across the main street, seeing beyond the outer coverings of a gunfighter to his very soul. Without a word, he had stepped off the boardwalk to walk alongside him, trusting him to watch his back when the bullets started flying as if they had known each other all their lives. More amazing was that Chris had felt that same certainty about Vin. Josiah had mentioned something about old souls reborn, and how they could recognize each other across the ages. It did not sound too Christian in its belief but Josiah was a far more learned man than most, having studied many religions.
As if mirroring Chris's thoughts, Vin cursed softly. "Ain't right, what's happened. Josiah didn't deserve to see all his work go up in flames."
"Not just his work. Seen you and Nathan up on that roof hammering nails."
Vin sighed, deflating a little after his outburst. "Yeah." He grimaced. "Ain't never been a part of something' before. Ain't never built anything so special-"
Vin nodded and chanced a look over his shoulder back to where Josiah stood like a broken man. "Ain't sure he's got the heart to rebuild. Put everything into this damn church of his."
"He will. Just give him time."
Vin snorted. "Sound certain of yourself, Larabee."
"Chris!" Nathan called out from beyond the smoldering debris. "We need to take down those walls before they topple."
Chris nodded and slowly made his way back to where Nathan and Buck were waiting with ropes and horses, with Vin right behind him. Along with several of the town's men folk, they lent their strength to pulling down the last remaining walls of the church but no cheers went up when, with an ominous creak and the loud splinter of damaged wood, what was left of the church tumbled to the ground. Chris looked back at the lone figure of Josiah Sanchez, only to find the slightest smile when he realized that Josiah was not alone. Ezra stood just a few steps back from the ex-preacher, close enough to reach out a comforting arm or offer soft words of consolation and, as he watched, Ezra did just that, leading Josiah away from the scene of destruction to the only other place of sanctuary he had known - the saloon. Reaching out, Chris laid a hand on Vin's shoulder, offering him equal solace by touch alone.
"Could have been worse, Vin. Josiah could have died in that fire if you hadn't pulled him out."
"Maybe he wishes he had."
Vin followed on behind Chris as they wandered back to the saloon, deciding to take a small respite before sifting through the debris of the church in earnest. His thoughts returned to last night, and the sound of two horses leaving town at a swift pace that had awoken him from his sleep...
That in itself was not unusual for many a rancher's hand had lit out in the early morning hours after tumbling between the sheets with one of the few working girls in the town, wanting to get back to the ranch before work began at sun up. Yet he found he could not drop back to sleep so he opened the canvas, nose twitching at the slight tang of wood smoke in the night air. Only then did he notice the increased orange glow from one end of the town, knowing it was too bright for a single street fire.
Dragging on his clothes swiftly, Vin jumped down and raced into the main street, turning towards the church.
"Fire! Fire!" He yelled as loud as he could and raced towards the burning church. "Josiah! Josiah!"
He could see no sign of the ex-preacher and fear crept into his heart when he realized Josiah must still be inside. Skirting around the outside, he made his way to the back where Josiah's small room would be located, banging hard on the high window before hauling himself up and cursing when the large, blanket covered lump in the bed made no movement. He dropped back to the ground, frantically searching for another way in but the front of the church was burning stronger, the heat and smoke almost unbearable. A familiar shadow ran towards the church, silhouetted by fire for a moment.
"Chris! Over here!"
Chris seemed to sum up the situation instantly, offering his joined hands as a boost up platform that allowed Vin to reach the window and smash through the glass before crawling inside. Inside, smoke was filling the room rapidly and Vin tied his bandanna firmly around his mouth and nose as he dragged back the blanket and tried to shake Josiah awake with limited success when Josiah began to fight back weakly.
"Vin! Josiah!" Vin could hear Chris yelling, could hear the fear in his voice that was usually so controlled but Chris Larabee had a good reason to be afraid of fire. It had taken most everything from him in the past.
He dragged Josiah's reluctant frame towards the window and, none too gently, pushed him through, hoping Chris was waiting to catch the larger man before he hit the ground and was relieved to hear Nathan's rich voice close by. Vin turned as the door leading into the church began to buckle and twist with the heat of the fire, the paint blistering off its surface, adding noxious fumes to the already foul mix. Without further thought, Vin plunged head first through the window, grateful for Chris's strong hands that caught at him and pulled him to safety. He wrapped his arm over Chris's shoulder while Chris's arm snaked around his waist, leaning into his friend fro support as they raced away from the burning church to slump onto the dusty ground twenty feet away.
Vin coughed and accepted the canteen with thanks, wetting his heat and smoke dried throat. "Josiah?"
"Nathan's tending to him."
"Chris! Need help with this line."
"Go on. I'll be fine."
Vin coughed again as Chris raced off after giving him one more worried glance, watching as the natural born leader organized the townsfolk as best he could as they fought back the flames that threatened to engulf the whole town...
His thoughts came back to the present and he accepted the beer with a nod of thanks that encompassed more than the beer in his hand. Once more, Chris seemed to understand, his lips twitching in a smile before he turned his attention to his own beer. An hour later, they were back sifting through the church, pulling out pews that had survived the fire with limited or repairable damage. He saw Mary Travis standing just off the boardwalk, flanked by a few of the women of the town, wringing her hands worriedly and he understood why. The presence of the church, even when dilapidated, at least offered the illusion of civilization and she feared the loss would send the town back into its former lawlessness but Vin was not going to let that happen, and neither would the rest of the Seven.
"Nathan? Where're you headed at this hour?"
Buck reined to a halt beside Nathan's big horse. He had stopped on his way to the livery, intending to leave his mare for Tiny to brush down and unsaddle while he dropped into the saloon for a well deserved coffee. Despite Vin's unease regarding the fire at the church, the early morning patrol of the town's boundary had proved uneventful as Ezra could also attest... though rather more vocally.
"Got a call early this morning from one of the Landry boys. Their ma had a fall and Old Man Landry wants me to go out and take a look at her foot."
"Want some company?"
"Hell Buck, Ma Landry is old enough to be your grandmother, and she never had no daughters."
"Them boys of hers found themselves some pretty wives-"
"Got enough to do 'round this town without spending time taking buckshot out your ass." Nathan grinned broadly to take the sting out of his words. "Tell Josiah I'll be back around noon."
Buck gave Nathan a respectful 'good day' and clicked loudly, nudging his horse's flanks with his heels to get her moving again. By the time he left the livery, Nathan was a dot on the horizon, heading out towards the Landry spread to the north-east of town. With a shake of his head, he grinned and set his feet towards the saloon and that coffee, and in the mood for finding some female company there too. Instead, he found Chris and Vin, and a disheveled Ezra Standish who was complaining bitterly about the ungodly hour and the dust before Chris placated him by indicating towards Inez who took the hint and brought Ezra a cup of freshly made coffee, setting it before him.
"Hmm," he murmured in approval, eyes closed as the aroma drifted up. "Heavenly," he stated as he took a sip though Buck had to admit that Ezra had a point. Inez made good coffee. Hell, she made the best coffee he had tasted, even better than his saintly ma's and certainly better than the burned excuse for coffee that Chris made.
With most of his wish granted as he bantered with Inez over coffee and breakfast, Buck relaxed in the company of friends.
"Where's Nathan?" Vin asked, and Buck knew the man's internal clock probably worked off the natural patterns of his companions, knowing Nathan tended to make an appearance for breakfast right about now.
"Saw him half an hour ago, heading out to the Old Landry place. Couldn't be too serious 'cause he was taking his time."
"Landry?" Chris frowned. "Thought they pulled up stakes and moved out when Guy Royal forced them off their land."
"Sure did but they returned after we sent Royal packing," reminded Buck.
"That was the Burgharts," Vin replied worriedly. "Mary sent word to the Landrys but they'd made a new home for themselves with their eldest boy out near Eagle Bend...decided against coming back."
"Mr. Joe Landry was in town earlier this morning. I distinctly recall the nervous disposition of the man... though most persons tend to be less than joyous when requiring the services of our esteemed healer at such an ungodly hour."
"Why come all the way to get Nathan when there's a doctor in Eagle Bend?" Vin asked, his concern rising.
"Maybe the Landrys prefer Nathan," Buck offered but, as skilled as Nathan was as a healer, riding close to twice the distance to seek basic medical help was a little unusual unless they had moved back to the old Landry place. He noticed the look Vin gave Chris and saw the flicker of sandy eyelashes in response. He envied the pair of them this silent communication, recalling a time when he had been more in tune with Chris's thoughts, though he had to admit that he had never shared such an empathy with his old friend as Vin Tanner. The pair seemed to be able to read the nuances of each other's body language, seemed to know how the other would respond to certain conditions or situations without the need for words. Simple hand signals, the flash of an eye or twitch of the lips seemed to guide them through and, if they ever teamed up around the poker table, Buck had a feeling they would truly give Ezra a run for his money.
For once, though, he was able to understand the thoughts passing between the two men because he had the same thoughts himself of riding out to check that all was fine at the Landry place. Except, his thoughts ran more towards ensuring Lucy Landry - Joe Landry's wife, a pretty filly with glossy brown hair that curled down past her shoulders, and a smile that would give the cock reason to crow - was in good mettle.
"Buck, you stay here and keep an eye on the town. Ezra, don't get too comfortable. You're riding with me and Vin."
Buck had to bite back a chuckle as Chris walked out with Vin on his heels and a complaining Ezra following on behind them. He wondered what had got into Chris, willingly taking a miserable and tired Ezra Standish with him, an Ezra that had been looking forward to a bath and his feather bed, in that order knowing the fastidious gambler. He sighed heavily, content enough to sit this one out even though he knew he would not relax completely until he saw his friends riding back unharmed and with sheepish grins for worrying unduly.
Nathan plodded along slowly, enjoying the solitude on what was turning out to be a pleasant day. With winter drawing close, days like this would be few and far between as the winds grew stronger and colder, bringing the rains and then the snow. For now, though, the sun was slowly climbing in the sky taking the chill off the early morning air. Part of him felt guilty for enjoying this moment of peace but, in truth, he had needed the respite after yesterday's terrible events.
Although the church was Josiah's domain, it had become a source of joy for Nathan too. He had enjoyed the camaraderie of good friends working together to build something wholesome and worthwhile, recalling snatches of days spent up on the top of the church in the summer, hammering nails into the roof, or long evenings filled with hearty companionship as he carved flowers into the end panels of the pews.
They had managed to save some of his hard work, pulling the blackened pews from the destroyed church and dismantling those where the bench seat could never be used again with a plan to rebuilding the pews using what they had salvaged. Surprisingly, the townsfolk and even people from outlaying areas had come to help sift through the mess. Part of Nathan hoped that these same people would be around when the time came to start rebuilding the church but most lived hard lives that allowed them little time to spare on all but the necessities for surviving on the harsh land surrounding the town, especially with winter coming and the last of their crops needing to be harvested.
His thoughts turned to the man he considered his best friend among the small group.
For the most part, Josiah had remained more silent than usual but, surprisingly under the circumstances, he had not sought solace at the bottom of a whisky glass. Nathan was uncertain if he ought to be worried about this or not. Time spent with the Seven had lessened the grief held bound within each man's heart to some degree. Certainly, the murders by the Pinkerton detective had laid open Josiah's wounds for the Seven to see; though Nathan doubted Josiah would have opened up if Vin had not already discovered the terrible secret that took Josiah on his pilgrimage to Vista City and sent him back in a black mood that drove him to the whiskey bottle for days following. Sharing that secret had lessened the ex-preacher's guilt for his insane sister and lightened his need for penance as he found compassion rather than pity within the Seven.
He stopped as he topped the last rise, seeing the old Landry homestead spread out before him. Smoke was rising from the roof and Nathan wondered if Ma Landry was up on her feet making bread and stew while chiding her men folk for making such a fuss over a twisted ankle. Nathan knew that it had to be a touch more serious than that or Joe Landry would have brought his mother into town on the small supply wagon. In the corral, Nathan could see a good half dozen horses milling about, all of them saddled, which seemed a little strange unless Ma Landry had visitors because of her accident.
Nathan shook his head. He would find out soon enough so he urged his horse onwards at the same slow pace, frowning when Joe Landry stepped out of the house and waved in a less than enthusiastic manner. Something was amiss here and Nathan hoped Ma Landry's leg was not worse than previously believed. He rode up to Landry at a slightly faster pace, more concerned than ever at the fear he read on Landry's face. The man looked pale and shaken, his eyes almost pleading and yet he barely moved a muscle as Nathan dropped down to the ground and walked towards him, leading his horse the remaining ten feet.
"I'm sorry, Nathan. I had no choice. They got my wife and kids."
Nathan's frown deepened, and he spun around, dropping the reins when he heard a gun cock behind him. Six men stepped out from various positions around the ranch, their eyes filled with an unhealthy gleam, mouths twisted in sneers.
"Got ourselves a nigger, boys. One that's got ideas above his station. Thinks he has the right to pretend to be a doctor and touch good honest white folk with them nigger hands."
Nathan straightened. He had heard remarks of this nature for most of his life and they never failed to rile him though he had the good sense not to show it.
"Ain't no doctor. Never said I was. Just a healer helping out folks when they ask."
He held his hands out wide to show that he meant them no disrespect or harm but Nathan was wise enough to know that these men had deliberately lured him to this remote ranch.
"Tell the truth. I don't much care what you are, nigger. Just got an old score to settle."
Gregson chewed on his lower lip as Jeb backhanded the healer. The man sagged between the two men holding him, most of the fight going out of him as soon as Jeb pulled Landry's pretty wife out of the house and put a gun to her head. He listened as Jackson pleaded for the Landrys but Jeb was not a man to be reasoned with once he had his mind set.
Gregson, however, did not like this. Stringing up the healer was one thing but hurting women and kids did not sit right in his stomach. Already the other men were eyeing the woman hungrily and he feared that Jeb would be callous enough to let them have their way with her before he killed her. He had little doubt that she would die for Jeb could not afford to leave witnesses, not even the young'uns, and all Gregson could hope was that it would be as quick and painless as possible.
"Tie his hands, and get that rope readied."
Jeb's ordered were carried out quickly as Jackson's hands were grabbed and tied behind his back securely.
Peters grabbed a rope and threw it over the joist used to haul grain up into the loft of the barn. He fashioned a noose with a slip knot and threw it towards Jeb, grinning as Jeb placed it over the healer's head to lay loose upon his broad shoulders, around his neck. Gregson could see the panic in the dark eyes as the man began to struggle, recalling the details in the dime store novel that told how this man come to be riding with the rest of the so-called Magnificent Seven. Larabee and Vin Tanner had saved him from a hanging, taking on the gang of soused up cowboys who had ridden into the town looking for a doctor to perform a miracle on their boss's damaged leg but even Gregson knew that once the gangrene had set in fully then there was no saving a man. He had seen some of it in the war, hearing the screams from the surgeon's tent as the sawbones took off the gangrenous limb before the blood poisoning could take hold and kill the wounded soldier, and all without Laudanum to ease the pain.
Jackson had survived that last hanging attempt but it looked like his luck had finally run out.
Gregson watched as the healer struggled some more, crying out in pain and anger as Peters tugged on the other end of the rope to take up the slack, which forced Jackson up onto a rickety wooden bar set on two legs that held it a foot off the ground. It was barely an inch wide and unstable as hell, making for a hard balancing act.
"My brother had it quick, so I've been told. Dropped like a bag of grain from the gallows, snapped his neck and killed him instantly." Jeb's smile grew but no joy filled his pale blue eyes, only excitement. "Ain't gonna give you and that bastard Tanner the same satisfaction. Gonna make sure you die real slow, squirming on the end of that rope till your eyes bulge and your face turns all blue." He laughed at the horror and fear that crept into Jackson's dark eyes.
"My pa once said he saw a man take more than twenty minutes to die by slow strangulation. Shame I won't be sticking around to see if I can do better than that hangman." His voice lowered menacingly, "but I know your gonna do your damnedest to hang around alive as long as you can 'cause as long as you live, they live."
Gregson frowned, not understanding the relevance of Jeb's words for Jackson could end his misery a lot faster simply by letting his feet drop from the bar. It would still be slower than a long drop on a short rope but far better than what Jeb had in mind. All became clear when he watched his associate set a lit oil lamp right beneath the rickety wooden bar that barely supported Jackson's weight. Beneath that, Jeb pooled some gunpowder and then slowly trailed it along the ground to the house where two small kegs of gunpowder stood on the porch.
On his orders, the rest of the Landrys were dragged out of the house and tied securely to both the kegs and the porch rail, and Gregson understood all too well the full horror of what Jeb planned. If Jackson tried to quicken his death then he risked smashing the lamp which would ignite the gunpowder and send Landry, his wife, and three children to their deaths. If he did not struggle and let the noose tighten slowly then, just maybe, he would buy them a little more time to figure something out to save themselves. Except Gregson knew that was useless because Jeb did not intend for any of the Landrys to live. He was simply playing on the healer's strong desire to save others even at the cost of self-inflicted torture before death claimed him.
Ultimately, Jackson would fail. He would lose his balance on that bar as the rope tightened around his throat, and he would fall and choke out the last minutes of his life with the image of Landry and his family blown to pieces before his eyes. Jeb would have it no other way, knowing how that would affect this man as he died, and how much it would destroy Tanner when he worked out what had happened to his friend and these innocent people.
With everything set up, Jeb ordered everyone to mount up. Although there seemed to be no reason for riding on, Gregson was glad he would not be around to see these people die, especially the kids, so he did not argue. Peters was not so happy about missing out on what he saw as all the fun.
"Ain't we gonna stick around and watch?"
"Got more important matters than to waste time on this sorry bunch. Probably hear the bang for miles anyways," he grinned maliciously and then slapped the reins hard before digging his heels into his horse's sides to get it moving. Peters grumbled as he rode off after Jeb but the rest followed meekly enough, barely sparing a backward glance as the children began to cry beside their sobbing mother.
Vin stifled a grin as Ezra continued grumbling about the dust and the loss of his feather bed as they rode out at a canter towards the old Landry place. For once, Vin felt a little sympathy for the gambler as Ezra had stayed up to the early morning at the poker table before taking over Josiah's night watch. It meant the man had been up for over a day and with little likelihood of finding any rest for at least another couple of hours. His horse stumbled a little and Ezra cursed, though in a far more polite manner than most everyone else Vin knew of in the town.
"Quit bitching," Chris growled and the loud rant subsided into murmurs of disapproval that barely carried across the distance between the horses.
Although Vin found he could read Chris for the most part, some of Chris's reasoning always managed to escape him, and dragging Ezra along with them was one of those times. In truth, even if Ezra had not been up all night, he was not a morning person, preferring to forgo the pleasure of watching the sun rise until after it had passed halfway across the sky.
To Vin, it seemed more reasonable to have taken Buck or JD with them and to leave Ezra to his creature comforts. However, JD had decided to stay overnight at Miss Nettie's to help her chase off a coyote that was attacking the hen house each night. She had lost two hens already and did not want to lose a third. Still, they would be passing within twenty minutes of her place so they could have rounded up JD on their way. As if reading his thoughts, Ezra piped up once more.
"I fail to understand why my services were required when Mr. Dunne is but a short ride away from this very point, and most especially when Mr. Wilmington expressed an explicit desire to accompany you on this ride."
"Don't want to waste twenty minutes riding out of our way to get JD, and I need Buck to watch over the town."
"Are you implying that I am incapable of protecting our small town in your absence?"
"Once you fall into that feather bed, it would take dynamite to get you out of it, Ezra. Buck's not such a light sleeper."
"Admittedly, I do drowse deep in the arms of Morpheus-"
"This Morpheus a man, Ez?"
Ezra went wide-eyed, mouth opening and closing like a fish as he took umbrage at the insinuation that he was sleeping with a man. Despite all his fancy ways and his genteel mannerisms, Vin knew Ezra preferred the company of ladies in the bedroom and could be as charming as Buck when he put his mind to it. He offered a pained expression when he realized Vin was teasing him.
"Ha ha, Mr. Tanner. With such fine comedic skills perhaps you should have taken to the stage."
Chris grinned, especially as this had stopped Ezra's complaining. They carried on in silence, keeping up a steady pace that would not tire the horses unduly and, eventually, they crested the final rise that looked down into a sweeping valley to where the Landry place lay nestled below. In the far distance, the railway line cut across the land and Vin recalled all the problems that railway had caused for the town, and especially for the Landrys who were forced off their land by Guy Royal. Royal had needed the parcels of land that would be crossed by the railway as he knew the railroad company would pay top dollar for the land - far more than he paid the Landrys. Except, when those land owners refused to sell, Royal persuaded them otherwise through intimidation and, eventually, through murder. However, they never found enough evidence to prove that Royal had ordered the killings so he managed to wriggle free of a prison sentence leaving Tophat Bob to face the Judge alone for the murder of Cody Porter. Judge Travis had passed sentence quick enough and, for once, Vin did not feel inclined to leave town when they hanged the man.
The cowardly, self-proclaimed lawman had hurt Ezra when he decided he liked the look of the fine coat that Ezra was wearing but, worse, he had called out Chris. Vin knew Chris was fast with a gun, faster than any man Vin had ever seen but there was always the chance that someone faster would come along one day. For that reason alone, Vin had hated Tophat Bob for it put him into a terrible position, unsure how he would react had the gunfight gone ahead and, heaven forbid, Chris had lost. The thought of losing his best friend had sickened Vin to the stomach then. Now, every time they faced danger, Vin felt more scared for Chris than for his own life. He wanted Chris to live. He needed Chris to live, finding that his life had ceased to have meaning beyond the friendship that had grown between them. That did not mean he wanted to die, only that life would hold little joy.
Vin knew he would have to examine these feelings one of these days but, for now, he accepted that the bond they had forged on that first day held them as close as any brother, and perhaps closer.
As they rode down the hill, Vin's concern rose and a glance sideways proved he was not the only one whose sixth sense was tingling madly. He could see the frown lines on Chris's face as he took in the small ranch lying ahead with its small house and barn and the empty corral. He wondered where Nathan's horse might be but had to admit that they were riding in from a disadvantaged angle with the barn concealing much of the house. Chris took the lead coming round the back of the barn, followed by Ezra while Vin hung back a little to watch their backs but he looked to Chris when he heard a curse fall from Chris's lips, followed by a shocked exclamation from Ezra straight after.
Chris leaped from his horse and kicked away the oil lamp as far as he could even as he grabbed Nathan around the waist to ease the strain of the rope upon the large frame. Without delay, Vin rode straight to the now slightly loosened rope, hunting knife out. He grabbed the rope, slicing through the tough strands while Ezra tried to loosen the noose pulled tight around their friend's neck. Nathan slumped once the tension in the rope was released; his fall eased by Chris and, together, he and Ezra lowered Nathan to the ground, pulling off the rope as Nathan gasped hoarsely for air. Vin took a moment to stare intently at his friend before heading across to where the Landrys were making frantic noises.
He scuffed the gunpowder as he ran, destroying any clear path to the family bound so securely on the porch, using his softest tone to quieten the frightened woman and children as he approached them with the knife in hand.
"Need you to keep still while I cut these bonds." He looked deep into the eyes of each of the frightened family, waiting for acquiescence before tackling the first of the rope bonds holding the family. As the last piece of rope gave way, Vin stepped back as the family embraced, with tears and stuttered thanks sobbed from the relieved husband and wife as they gathered their terrified children close. Vin left them to console each other, returning to his friends' side. He had questions for Joe Landry but they could wait until the man had composed himself and ensured his wife and children were fine.
Ezra had fetched a canteen from his saddle and he opened it quickly.
"Don't try to talk," Chris said softly as he braced Nathan against his chest. "Try to take a sip."
Ezra held the canteen to Nathan's lips, one palm cupped around Nathan's cheek in a comforting gesture that proved how far their friendship had come since its inauspicious beginnings.
Of all of them, Vin knew that Nathan and Ezra would have the hardest time learning to like and care for each other, for the slavery of the past was still too close to the surface for both men. Even though Ezra had never kept any slaves personally, his southern accent and mannerisms were a constant reminder to Nathan of all the bitterness and despair he had gone through in his life. They reminded him of his treatment at the hands of those who would call themselves master, and of the loss of his mother at a tender age; a loss that cut deeper than the lash marks striping across his back. Yet he and Ezra had formed a bond over these many months, one forged in adversity as they fought a common enemy, slowly learning to accept each other's flaws and take pride in their strengths.
One of Nathan's hands came up to weakly to rest upon Ezra's wrist as he silently demanded more of the tepid water to ease his raw throat. Vin looked across to catch Chris's eye, offering a tight smile that did little to appease the anger smoldering in the green eyes, anger burning for the men who had done this to Nathan. Vin's own anger seethed just beneath the surface, held in abeyance while they dealt with Nathan's immediate needs but, from the corner of his eye he saw Joe Landry step away from his family towards them. The nervous settler stopped just out of reach as if afraid to come any closer.
"I'm-I'm sorry. They had my wife and kids," he stated in a rush, his voice softening almost to a whisper. "He said they'd kill them for sure if I didn't find a way to bring Jackson out here."
Chris left Nathan to Ezra's careful ministrations and stood up, his lean frame radiating danger, and causing Landry to shift nervously from one foot to the other but the man, at least, tried to hold his ground. Vin reached out and laid a hand on Chris's arm, feeling the bunched muscles loosen a fraction beneath his touch as Chris realized that taking his anger out on Landry was no solution. Landry was not the one to blame for this. He had done only what any man would do to protect his family.
"They rode in a couple of hours before dawn and took us by surprise. Man held a gun to my youngest's head and said he'd kill her if I refused to do as I was told. I had no choice. He made me get dressed and ride into town, told me to concoct some story that would get the healer riding out here first thing." Landry turned beseeching eyes upon Vin. "I wanted to tell him the truth but one of them brought me into town and watched from a distance. The leader said he'd kill my family if his man saw anything out of place."
As Landry began to relate the rest of the tale, of how the man had set upon Nathan, intending him to hang slowly, Vin felt the shock of what had happened rippled through him. Not only had these men tried to hang Nathan but they had tried to increase his suffering tenfold by making him seem responsible for the deaths of this family too.
"Tell me all about these men?" Vin asked. Using all the skills gained from his bounty hunting days, Vin extracted as much information as he could and saw Ezra frown as one particular detail concerning the leader came up.
"If you recall, I spent an evening relieving one particularly odious man of the burden of his heavy purse. I believe this may be the person in question."
"Why though? Why Nathan?" Vin demanded.
"And Josiah," Chris added grimly, gaining a startled look from both Vin and Ezra.
"From your remark, may I assume that you do not believe that fire was an accident?" Ezra asked but before Chris could answer, Nathan began to struggle, reaching for Chris's arm when Chris hunkered down next to him.
"Said..." he choked hoarsely and Chris warned him not to try talking.
Chris took the canteen from Ezra and offered more of the tepid water to the stricken man.
"Wait," Ezra murmured upon seeing Nathan's frustration. He pulled paper and a pencil from his jacket pocket and handed them to a grateful Nathan. Nathan scrawled a few words onto the scrap of paper and handed it to Chris.
"Revenge?" Chris looked up in surprise, his green eyes turning to Vin. "Says the man wants revenge on you, Vin."
Vin frowned and shook his head. He had not spent too many hours in the town for days, recalling no new faces on those few occasions when he ventured into the saloon to sit and drink with Chris and the others. The description given by Landry was vague and, unfortunately, it could have fitted a dozen or more men that Vin knew would have reason enough to want to see him dead. He had made a number of enemies over the years, mostly during his bounty hunting days when grieving families promised to hunt him down and take their revenge upon him in the name of the loved ones that he had taken in to be hanged or imprisoned. Vin knew it was inevitable that his past would catch up with him some day but it had never occurred to him until now that there was far worse than simply being hunted down and killed to satisfy that lust for vengeance. Seeing his friends threatened and hurt tore at his heart and soul.
"Any idea who we're dealing with?"
Vin looked deep into Chris's eyes as Chris spoke, shaking his head in frustration.
"Not been around much these past few days so I'd not noticed anyone new around town."
Chris nodded, full lips pursing as if following a new train of thought.
"Perhaps I could describe the man further," Ezra stated, and Chris gave a slight shrug and a nod to tell Ezra to proceed.
"The man in question was Mr. Larabee's height, with sandy brown hair and cold, pale blue eyes. Thin lipped with a small scar just above the upper lip on the right and with a crooked nose, most likely broken sometime in the man's unfortunate past. Average build... and his first name was, I believe, Jeb."
"You had a name?"
Ezra looked slightly abashed and yet unrepentant at leaving that important piece of information until last.
"His companion called him by that name once during the game and I got the distinct impression that it was not appreciated. Jeb wished to retain his anonymity."
Chris turned back to Vin, his eyes narrowed questioningly. "Name mean anything to you, Vin?"
Vin shook his head even though something niggled at the back of his mind, some long forgotten memory, but he could not grasp it. Chris simply nodded in acceptance.
"This person targeted Mr. Jackson as a means of taking vengeance upon Mr. Tanner..." Ezra offered quietly.
"Which makes me wonder if he targeted Josiah too," finished Chris.
"The fire." Vin stated softly. "Said there was something not right about that fire, and I heard horses leaving town not long before I smelled the smoke."
Chris's eyes widened suddenly. "We need to get riding... Now!"
Vin startled at Chris's anxious tone but then realization struck. If this Jeb was looking to hurt Vin's friends as a means of exacting retribution for some supposed action in his past then his reasons for not sticking around to watch Nathan hang, and see the Landrys blown up, might be far more sinister. Buck was watching over the town, basically alone as Josiah had needed time to deal with the events of the other night. JD was either at Nettie's - placing both Nettie and Casey in danger too - or on his way back to town. Nettie's place was barely a half an hour's ride to the south-west of Landry's, though closer to the town. If Chris had not been so anxious to get to the Landry place, and rightly so under the circumstances, then they could easily have detoured to pick up the youngest member of the Seven.
"We head over to Nettie's first," stated Vin, seeing Chris's tight nod of agreement and catching Ezra and Nathan's shocked looks as both men caught on fast.
"Ezra, stay with Nathan and get him back to town."
For once Ezra did not argue, his mouth set in a determined line as he offered Nathan assistance in climbing to his feet. Vin offered one last concerned look before mounting up and riding out behind Chris as he raced off. This time they went to a full gallop, wanting to get to Nettie Well's place as fast as possible in the forlorn hope that they were wrong about the possibility of this Jeb going after all of the Seven.
As they raced across the scrub-filled land, Vin let his horse pick his own way through the thorny shrubs and potholes, using only the lightest touch of the rein to keep him following on behind Chris's black gelding. He leaned low in the saddle, stretched out across the horse's thickly muscled neck, and offering occasional verbal praise and encouragement. Although he had never ridden from the Landrys to Nettie's before, he recognized distant landmarks, gaging how much farther they had to go with relative ease. From time to time he checked across at Chris when they drew level, seeing the grim determination in his friend's face as he urged his horse onwards. Eventually, they came to the final rise and halted just beneath the ridge, wanting to check the lay of the land before heading down just in case this Jeb and his men were lying in wait for them although Vin did not believe so as he had seen no sign of any sentries posted to keep a watch.
Together, they crawled up the final ten feet and peered into the quiet valley below. Vin pulled his spyglass out of his pocket and checked the distant ranch house but nothing looked out of place. He saw Nettie come out of her house with Casey following a few steps behind, watching as they walked across the yard area towards the corral with their steps as purposeful and assured as ever. Vin saw no hesitancy at all as Nettie tended to one of the horses in the corral and gave orders to Casey.
"Looks peaceful down there," Vin remarked.
"Can't see JD's horse," added Chris.
"Unless he put his horse in the barn," Vin replied but both of them knew that was unlikely. There was a greater possibility that JD had already saddled up and left, probably heading back to town - alone.
"Nettie don't look too fussed so I don't think anyone's been bothering her or Casey."
Vin had to agree. "Riding down there to check that out for sure will use up valuable time," he stated, even though he hated the idea of coming this close to Nettie's ranch and yet not paying his respects to the older woman. However, Chris seemed to agree with him.
"Let's head back to the town... following the track."
Vin nodded. They had no idea when JD might have left but if he followed his normal pattern then he would have stayed for breakfast and then helped out with a few chores before heading out. Looking at the position of the sun, which still lay fairly low in the morning sky, Vin knew that would be right about now.
They mounted up and skirted around the ranch until they came upon the track Nettie used to go between her place and the town, and found fresh horse tracks that Vin reckoned had to belong to JD.
"How long?" Chris asked.
"Less than half an hour."
They kept up a fast pace along the well-worn track but Vin reined to a halt when he spotted a change in the pattern upon the ground, knowing something of significance had happened at this spot. Both men stepped down to check the ground, leading their horses along another twenty feet before a soft whinny came from off the track, answered by Chris's horse with a snort, which Chris quickly stifled with a firm hand upon his horse's mouth. Fingers danced close to weapons as a horse limped out from the blind side of a small rocky outcrop, its coat matted upon one side. It was JD's horse. Chris dropped the reins of his gelding and approached the nervous horse slowly, all the while making soft reassuring noises as he reached out, hoping the horse would remember him. Fortunately, JD's horse seemed to recognize him, standing still and only tossing back his head once Chris had grabbed the dangling rein.
"Whoa. There boy... there boy," Chris murmured. "Where's JD, boy?"
Swiftly he checked over the horse, running a hand across the withers and down the flanks before finally lifting the favored leg to check the foot. A sharp stone lay embedded in it and it took but a moment for Chris to dig it out while Vin turned his attention to the surrounding rocks, following the trail leading off the track. He spotted a discoloration on the edge of one shrub and dropped down, rolling the stained leaf between his fingers and holding it under his nose, his mouth tightening as the metallic tang assailed his senses - blood.
"Chris," he called softly, checking over his shoulder before moving onwards. Then his eyes caught the heel of a scuffed boot, Vin yelled louder and raced forward as Chris lifted his hand from the horse's side to find his palm covered in drying blood.
JD moaned softly as he heard a familiar voice, trying to find the strength to cry out for help but all he could do was rely on Vin's tracking skills to find him before he bled out. His head ached, his eyes barely able to focus on the dirt and sand ahead of him and his thoughts returned to earlier this morning....
The cock crowing brought him out of a deep sleep and JD moaned as he rolled over in the small bed that Nettie Wells had provided for him in the spare room at the back of the house. Muscles ached in places where he never believed he had muscles, complaining at the abuse taken only yesterday as he helped Nettie with some of the harder laboring jobs around the ranch. Her hired hand had moved on a month back and Nettie had yet to find anyone she could trust to replace him. After all, she had a young niece to protect... One on the cusp of womanhood, as Buck would say in his soft, all-knowing voice as he dwelt on his knowledge of the female form.
Of course, JD refused to admit that he had noticed this, not wanting to swell Buck's head any further or worse, allow him to believe that JD wanted even more of his advice on how to court a girl. After all, Buck might get the ladies into his bed but that was where his knowledge ended. Buck had never made a formal commitment to any woman, though he had come close once when one of his many girls had pretended that Buck was the father of the child she was carrying. To Buck's eternal relief, her claim had been an attempt to get the real father to make a commitment.
JD had been reluctant to commit too but, after the disastrous affair with Mattie left him with a gunshot wound that almost killed him, JD realized how lucky he was to have Casey. She had helped to nurse him back to health and they had grown far closer because of it, making JD realize that he did not want to sow any more wild oats. Least not when he had a girl like Casey who had proved she cared for him; a girl he intended to marry once he had made enough money to buy a small parcel of land and all the things needed to build a home for her upon it. However, with more settlers arriving all the time, carried on the new railroad, land close to the town was becoming harder to find, and he did not want to move too far from the place that had become his home.
Of course, Casey would not want to move too far from her Aunt Nettie either so that left but one option, to buy a piece of land here rather than travel further south like the settlers in their wagon train that had passed through the town most of a year back. JD wondered how they had fared during the hot summer, and how they would cope with the winter months ahead. Certainly, the gold rumored to be on the land had not panned out so there was no 'Californian Gold Rush' to cause them any problems. Chris said that was a good thing as gold and greed went hand in hand, and greed led to murder. Of course, JD had seen that first hand when Dickie O'Shea attempted to force the settlers to hand over the deeds to the land when he believed there was gold to be had.
JD tried to turn his thoughts away from the settlers and all the problems they had caused, especially with Vin running off with one man's wife, yet he could not help but wonder about that one incident. He had never seen Vin take any notice of the ladies in the town, not even the beautiful Ms. Travis. During the month that Wickes had his tent city set up but an hour's ride from the town, Vin had never taken advantage of it. At least, not to JD's knowledge, though JD had to admit that he had not thought of Chris frequenting that brothel until he and Buck spotted him with Ms. Lydia. Perhaps the same applied to Vin. He was such a private person that most everything JD learned about the man came as a revelation, though JD suspected he opened up to Chris more often.
Still, Vin had come back as soon as he learned that the wagon train was in danger, and her husband had taken her back quickly enough without a murmur from Vin. Perhaps nothing had happened between the pair after all. Or perhaps he had come back when he learned that Chris might be in danger, just as he had when Ella Gaines' henchmen tried to kill the rest of them so she could have Chris all to herself.
He shook his head, recalling the lure of good land, a fine house and fine horses that had almost given her Chris Larabee. Perhaps if she had not been so greedy, not wishing to share any part of Chris with another, even his friends, then she might have fulfilled her obsession and had Chris for her husband.
His thoughts came full circle as JD wondered what had happened to the land and those beautiful horses, wishing he could have afforded to provide Casey with something so grand. However, JD had heard a rumor that the old Porter homestead would be sold up early next year and he hoped to have enough saved by then to put down a deposit. Although he had never mentioned it to the others, especially Ezra who, though a friend, would have found a means to 'alleviate' him of his cash, he still had most of the money his ma had saved for his education. It had not been near enough to pay for schooling but it would be enough to start a home with Casey, if she would agree to be his wife.
During the few days spent at Nettie's over the past month, JD had made several comments to both Casey and Nettie, trying to gauge their reaction should he ask permission to court Casey formally. The answers he received from both women were, as Ezra would say, most favorable.
He dressed quickly and joined the ladies in the kitchen, offering to help out with some more of the harder workload as part payment for the large breakfast but Nettie would have none of it. In the end, he helped Casey with some of her daily chores before saddling up his horse. He had duties in the town after all.
"I could ride with you part of the way," said Casey but Nettie quickly interceded.
"Still got plenty of chores, Casey. Those chickens won't feed themselves and the vegetable patch needs tending. Though I reckon we could drive the wagon into town tomorrow to pick up some supplies," she added gruffly but JD recognized the warmth in her words and he grinned.
If he headed into town straight away, he could spend the day looking for the perfect courting gift for Casey at Mrs. Potter's store. Perhaps something a little more romantic than a frog gigger this time around. He set off at a quickened pace, waving once before riding out of sight of the small ranch.
It was a beautiful day with just the touch of a chill in the morning air to remind JD that winter was not far off. The land undulated before him with small rises and hollows as he followed the well beaten track towards the town. Small copse of straggly trees topped some of the rises and JD imagined spending a day lying beneath the sparse canopy of leaves with Casey by his side, her glossy brown hair dappled in sunlight. The sound of a single rifle shot stunned him out of his day dream a split second before pain flared in his upper leg. His horse reared, eyes rolling in fear and JD fought with the rein as he urged him onwards, leaving the track twenty feet up ahead and seeking cover behind a small rocky outcrop. Except another shot ricocheted off the rock, sending splinters and a small puff of dust that made his horse loose his footing. They went down, with JD tumbling off his horse's back. His last conscious memory was of sharp pain as his head hit the stony ground....
Now he could hear a familiar voice, and he felt the warmth of another body drop down beside him.
"S'Okay, JD. Need to know where you hurting."
"Leg... think someone shot me," JD felt the incredulity rise in his mind and voice, along with the sharp pain as he tried to jerk his leg away from the well meaning hands that probed the wound.
"Hit your head too," he heard, and recognized Chris Larabee's voice. He raised a hand towards the pain, hissing as his fingers found the ragged edges of a gash before other strong fingers drew his aside.
"Need to take a look at that gash."
JD hissed again as Vin used a knife to cut away some of the material from his pant leg. He groaned in pain as Vin applied pressure to the wound.
"Bullet's still in there but it ain't hit more than muscle. Still, we need to get him back to town fast."
"Nettie's is closer," Chris stated softly, and JD almost missed the look that passed between his two friends as they debated the two options.
"Casey," JD asked through gritted teeth, feeling fresh fear that overrode the pain in his body.
"We were there not fifteen minutes back and all was fine." Vin looked across at Chris. "Might not stay that way if we take JD back to Nettie's."
Chris nodded grimly. "Town."
JD could see concern in their eyes that went beyond his injuries, only then beginning to wonder what they had been doing at Nettie's only a short time ago. They could not have come up from the town or JD would have met them on the track, so they had to have ridden across country. But from where and, more importantly, why? Something else had happened.
"Chris? What's happened?"
Those eyes betrayed Chris again as they flicked to Vin for support or answers, or both but the hard grimace let JD know that Chris was not going to lie to him.
"Someone lured Nathan out to the old Landry place and tried to lynch him. Told Ezra to take care of Nathan and get the pair of them back to town as fast as possible."
"Is he all right?"
"Yeah... neck's a little stretched but we got there in time," Vin added.
JD could sense that there was more to this, and that Chris and Vin were holding back deliberately. Part of him resented the way they tried to over-protect him while another part relished the warm feeling of knowing they cared enough about him to bother. He cried out sharply when Vin tightened the bandage wrapped around his thigh, losing focus as dots danced before his eyes. For a moment, he thought he was going to lose consciousness but he felt a slight tap on his cheek and drank eagerly from the canteen held to his lips.
"Got to stay with us, JD."
He felt sick to the stomach when they pulled him to his feet, bending over and retching as he lost the breakfast Nettie had fed him earlier. Gratefully, he accepted the canteen and rinsed the sour taste from his mouth before nodding his head to his friends, letting them know he was ready. A moment's confusion sparked and then faded when he was helped up onto Chris's horse, feeling Chris mount up behind him to hold him fast. Only then did he recall that his horse had fallen and he whipped his head round to check, groaning as the throbbing in his head increased tenfold. Relief filled him when he saw his horse tied to Vin's saddle. Chris seemed to understand though.
"Dug a stone out of his foot but it looks bruised. Figured it better for us to double up than to risk your horse going lame."
JD started to nod and then regretted the action immediately, mumbling a thanks instead as Chris made several clicking noises and tapped the sides of his horse firmly to get them moving. The rolling gait of the horse beneath him made him nauseous but, for Chris's sake and for his own, he held on as the miles passed beneath the horse's hooves. When the town came into view, Vin digged in his heels harder and rode off, no doubt wanting to forewarn the others that they were coming in with JD wounded. Within a few more minutes, JD felt arms grabbing at him, pulling him from Chris's horse and he tried to smile to reassure the blue eyes that looked into his with grave concern.
"I'm okay, Buck," he said.
"Sure kid," Buck replied but the concern remained as Buck half carried him towards the steps leading up to Nathan's clinic. A second pair of arms came around the other side and JD grinned in relief as Josiah added his not inconsiderable strength.
When JD left for Nettie's yesterday, having already made a promise to help out at the ranch the day before the fire, part of JD had wanted to linger in the town instead, knowing Casey would understand. These men had become the brothers he had never had for real, and he hated to see the life and sparkle lost from Josiah's warm eyes. He had wanted to stay and offer what little he could to help Josiah through this awful time but Buck had insisted on JD keeping his word to Nettie, saying Josiah needed some time to come to terms with his loss and that Buck and the others would be around to watch over him. Reluctantly, JD agreed and he felt a little guilty now as he had almost forgotten Josiah's pain while his attention was so firmly fixed on Casey.
They set him down upon Nathan's spare cot and JD reached out to Josiah as the older man pulled away.
"It's okay, JD." His arm was patted gently and though JD could see the loss still reflected in Josiah's blue eyes, he saw a little acceptance there too. "The Lord must have had a good reason for taking away what I was building. Just got to figure it out," he rumbled softly and with a stoicism that made JD fully understand why Josiah was perceived as such a rock to the people in the community despite his occasional moments of drunken revelry.
Gritting his teeth once more, JD submitted to Josiah's gentle ministrations while he waited for Ezra to return with Nathan.
Chris stepped out onto the landing just outside of Nathan's clinic, leaning heavily on the wooden railing as he stared along the main street. Vin joined him, their shoulders rubbing as he settled in beside Chris but Chris had never minded Vin being in his personal space, not even from the start. For some reason, it seemed almost right to have Vin close beside him, to feel his presence with physical touch as well as that innate sense that came when two people knew each other well. Yet in reality, Chris knew very little about Vin Tanner. He knew little of what had shaped the man into the person who had watched his back and rode by his side for nigh on two years.
Looking sideways, he saw the tiredness in the handsome face and knew that Vin was feeling the strain from knowing his past might be responsible for all the disasters that had befallen the Seven over the past few days.
"I'm gonna ride out and meet Ezra and Nathan... just in case."
Chris nodded, having already decided to make that his next move once he had got his breath back from the last incident.
"I'll join you. Buck and Josiah can watch over JD till we get back with the others. Then we need to sit down and figure out how we're gonna stop this Jeb before he gets lucky and kills one of us."
Quickly, he stuck his head through the door and told Buck and Josiah his intentions.
"Watch your back, Pard." Buck held Chris's eyes for a moment, letting Chris see how much he meant his words and feeling the many years of their friendship warming him through.
Chris nodded just once, enough to acknowledge a friendship that spanned over a decade, and then he turned away, following Vin back down to where the horses waited patiently, still saddled. Vin tethered JD's horse to the hitching rail, knowing one of the others would take care of the horse. For now, though, he and Vin had more pressing issues to deal with.
They urged their horses into a canter and head out of town, aiming to meet Ezra and Nathan along the track leading to the Landry place.
Ezra guided Nathan's horse over to his friend and waited patiently, knowing Nathan would ask for assistance if he needed it but it hurt to see his friend in such pain. He could only imagine what it had to feel like to choke on the end of a rope and he rubbed his neck in sympathy, hoping he would never find out for real. For Nathan, though, this has been the second time someone had strung him up and both times, Chris and Vin were instrumental in freeing him.
His thoughts returned to the previous occasion. He had been in the town that day, having arrived the night before and finding a small number of marks that he could entice into a game of chance. By the end of the evening, he had won most of what was in their pockets, which admittedly was not much, helped by their distinct lack of concentration as they worried over their trail boss. The man had fallen during a minor stampede of the cattle they were herding east, managing to avoid being trampled to death but gouging his leg badly. Ezra had not paid a huge amount of attention to the details as such things turned his stomach. His mother had always called him a delicate child because of his squeamishness and sensitive nature though Ezra had learned to accept the harsher side of life that balanced out the finer aspects. Still, what he had overheard did not sound good.
Gangrene. The wound had become infected and none of the cowboys riding with him had known how to draw out the blood poisoning. Ezra doubted the man could be saved even if the healer was willing to amputate the limb. From what Ezra gathered from their talk, the gangrene had already spread too far.
He was sleeping off the excesses and fatigue from the night before, spending some of the little cash he had won on a fine, warm bed, when he heard the first gunshots. Rough frontier towns like this were often overrun by the bad element; cowboys fresh off the trail looking to cut loose and waste their hard earned dollars on whiskey, gambling and women, and drifters looking for a meaning to their miserable lives by seeking the same entertainments. Ezra smiled. He could, at least, relieve them of the burden of the extra dollars lining their pockets with an exciting game of poker, or any other game of chance that did not involve the possibility of personal injury or ruining his fine attire.
By the time the cry went up that the trail boss was dead, Ezra had moved back to the saloon and was eyeing up the clientèle with the intention of improving on his personal financial situation, which was deplorable at that time. He had arrived in town with very little cash in his pocket having fled the last one after some confusion over how many aces belonged in a single pack of cards. All in all, his recent luck had been terrible but Ezra had a strong feeling that it was about to change.
He was wrong.
From his window he saw the cowboys hauling the black-skinned healer towards the cemetery where they intended him to pay his last respects in person before lynching him. Part of Ezra tensed when just a single woman tried to stop the blood thirsty, vengeance-filled lynch mob. He had to remind himself that this was nothing to do with him, no matter how abominably they treated the beautiful woman and, dare he say, the healer. He was, after all, but one man trying to survive in a lawless world. Still, he hated turning away as the woman begged for someone, anyone, to stop this madness but Ezra had a healthy respect for his own neck, not wanting to see it stretched right alongside that black man.
As he was about to let the curtain netting fall back, his eyes caught the sight of two very different men walking purposefully down the center of the main street in the wake of the avenging cowboys. One looked rough and unkempt, with shoulder length hair and the other exuded a darkness that befitted his attire. No sign of nervousness existed in their steps, their hands steady, faces almost serene and Ezra knew that these two men had faced death before, not once but many times and had no undue fear of it beyond the basic and healthy instinct of any creature for its personal survival.
He followed their progress until they were almost out of sight and then allowed curiosity to overwhelm him as he grabbed his jacket and gun before rushing out of his hotel room to see how this incident would play out.
Arriving on the edge of the small crowd that had gathered in morbid curiosity, Ezra found a relatively safe place to view the proceedings, his heart tightening in his chest when the wagon moved, leaving the healer dangling from the end of the rope, the noose tightening around his neck. Ezra knew of no other man who could have made such a shot, the bullet splicing through the cords of rope, the very weight of the hanging victim adding to its separation. He breathed a sigh of relief as the gun battle raged on with the dark clad gunman proving he was as dangerous as he looked, fast and accurate.
As with all battles of this description, it was over with quickly with the survivors from the would-be lynch mob making a hasty retreat before they joined their fallen comrades and dead trail boss. Ezra took one last long look at the two heroes and offered a wry smile as the healer impatiently asked them to cut him loose after throwing his knife to prevent one of his rescuers from being shot by a man believed downed by a bullet.
Ezra sighed and turned back to the saloon now the excitement was over knowing these two men, in particular, had left a lasting impression upon his person. Within a short while, he managed to convince a group of men to play a game of skill, deliberately making them believe he was as drunk as they were, which was incredibly easy to do as no one seemed to notice that he took barely a sip of each tumbler filled with whiskey, surreptitiously disposing of the rest through slight of hand. All would have gone remarkably well if he had not allowed his ego to get the better of him. He might have continued to fool them with his drunken act but Ezra had never lost the desire to show off his skill with a gun.
Perhaps a subconscious part of him was dwelling on his inaction earlier, standing by while an innocent man was dragged off to be hanged. Perhaps he wanted to proof to himself that he had the necessary skills and the courage, though in a different form to the two men who had walked up the main street to save the healer.
Too intent on fleecing his marks, Ezra never noticed the two 'heroes' and the healer enter the saloon and, if he had not been in a predicament at the time then he might have lingered to know these men better. They piqued his curiosity. Although he had managed to grab the pile of dollars as he fled the saloon, he doubted he would be able to remain in the town without ending up tarred and feathered, or strung up like that healer. Except, Ezra doubted anyone would come to his rescue.
His thoughts returned to the present as he considered the dark clad stranger, Chris Larabee, who had seen right through him from the start. He had offered him a job that would not even cover the cost of his bullets, with such certainty that Ezra would show up at the appointed time. Ezra wondered what might have given away his destitution. Perhaps the cuff of his coat was a little frayed from hard riding and long nights at the poker table, or his shirt was not as pristine for lack of money to pay a laundress to boil it and scrub away the trail dust that found its way into the creases. Or perhaps he had seen the desperation in Ezra's very actions that revealed his sore lack of finances. Of course, getting out of town was another reason too, and it was a long way to the next barely civilized township when he had barely enough money to stable his horse for the coming night.
At first, he had not cared much for Nathan Jackson. The man heard his southern accent, saw his more gentlemanly attributes compared to the ruffians in the town, and judged him accordingly as some former slave owner. Admittedly, he did not make much of an effort to prove Nathan wrong, and his initial actions at the Seminole village in abandoning his watch to search for the gold were those of a cad. Still, he had tried to redeem himself and was almost grateful when Chris gave him that second chance.
However, Nathan had taken a long time to warm to him, finding fault in most of his actions. His attempts to find husbands for the ladies of Wickes town may have been fueled as much by personal greed as by a desire to help those even less fortunate than himself but he had, at least, intended to find them good husbands. He had tried to find them a better life than the one they had left behind in the tent city though, in the end, they chose to continue with the only life they knew. At least they did so on their own terms though and with Lydia watching over them he knew they would be fine.
With Li Pong though, Ezra had discovered someone for whom he would willingly give the last cent in his pocket. He wished Nathan had understood how much he had wanted her to stay with him - and letting her go was one of the hardest decisions he had ever made. She still wrote to him in her tiny, neat writing and he could tell how quickly she was learning English from the increasing mix of English words within the decorative Chinese script.
One day, he knew he would leave this town and head for San Francisco where the gambling was good and where Li Pong lived with her family. Yet, part of him did not want to leave this place. He had never known a true home, moving around from one place to another as his mother fooled first one man and then another into offering her their wealth before abandoning them when they discovered her ruse. Sometimes he was left with distant relatives or sent to spend a term at one fine educational establishment after another until he finally decided he had gained enough of an education and went his own way in life.
However, he spent many years with his mother learning how to grift, how to cheat at cards, how to turn one man's greed and stupidity into his own personal wealth but, unlike his mother, he knew he did not have the necessary hardness within him. Often she would accuse him of being soft, especially on those occasions when the victim gave far more than he could afford, depriving his wife and children of even the deeds to the land they lived on. His mother was livid on the one time she caught him giving back the deed. Part of him knew she was right for a man stupid enough to put his family's survival on the line would simply gamble it away again. The next winner would, most likely, not be so generous but at least Ezra's conscience was clear.
Nathan trembled as he tried to mount up, drawing Ezra away from his inner thoughts. Maybe they had not been close in the beginning but the intervening months had softened Nathan's attitude towards him.
Ezra smiled very slightly, wondering if Nathan realized that he was the physical embodiment of Ezra's conscience. Without making a fuss of it, he reached over and supported Nathan, taking some of the man's weight to help him lift into the saddle. Although Nathan gave no verbal thanks, Ezra saw the gratitude in the dark eyes and it was enough.
"What if they come back?"
"Rest assured...They won't," Ezra replied firmly. "They will not wish to return to the scene of such a crime immediately when they have other crimes to perpetrate."
"Won't be... coming back here," Nathan stated hoarsely.
Landry did not look too reassured but after what had happened, who could blame him. He looked to Nathan, eyes filled with a mixture of guilt and a need for reassurance and what he found in the dark eyes must have offered him a modicum of peace.
They rode away slowly, not wanting to aggravate Nathan's injuries too much. Ezra watched the healer from the corner of his eye, noticing the occasional grimace and the lines of pain around his eyes. This Jeb and his men had beaten Nathan before they strung him up and those injuries were causing Nathan discomfort now but Nathan remained stoic and uncomplaining. Of course, some might believe the silence was due to his sore neck and throat but Ezra knew better.
He saw Nathan swallowing with some difficulty and offered his canteen once more.
"We'll be back in town in no time, and then you can partake of the foul brews that you force upon the rest of us." Ezra grinned at the glare his words garnered but, beneath that look of disgust lay the humor that Ezra had come to expect from Nathan. A small grin followed that took the dourness of the man's face.
With the mood lightened a fraction, they traveled on in a silence broken only by Ezra's need to carry on talking to his captive audience.
"I hear Ms. Travis has acquired the services of a school teacher who will commence teaching the ignorant young of this township before the year is out."
Nathan grunted a response
"I had offered my services but Ms. Travis expected lessons to start at some ungodly hour."
Ezra could see the desperation in Nathan's eyes as he resisted commenting because of his throat so Ezra answered the unspoken retort that would have followed on a normal day. "Before lunch!"
Ezra stiffened as he saw the plumes of rising dust that heralded the approach of riders. He glanced across and could see Nathan squinting to see the figures so he could decide if they were friend or foe. They both relaxed as two familiar riders came into view, breathing a sigh of relief as Ezra let go of the tension holding him. Despite the words spoken to Landry, he had feared that this Jeb and his gang would decide to head back to the Landry place to check out their handiwork or, perhaps, take advantage of the food and shelter rather than camping out over night.
As Chris and Vin drew closer, Ezra raised one arm in greeting.
"Ezra, Nathan." Chris greeted them while Vin merely nodded, his blue eyes lighting on Nathan and holding fast until he had gained some form of reassurance from their friend.
They turned their horses and rode alongside, bracketing Ezra and Nathan between them and forcing them to pick up the pace. Ezra could feel the tension rolling off each man and knew without asking that trouble had found another of their number.
"Bastard shot him." Vin turned to Nathan. "Bullet's still in his leg, and he struck his head when he fell, Nathan."
"How ba-" Nathan coughed against the pain in this throat.
Vin answered. "Don't think the bullet tore more than muscle."
Nathan nodded, his mouth a tight line against the pain of his own injuries and his fear for their young friend. A leg wound could be fatal if it hit the femoral artery. A man could bleed out fast if there was no man with the necessary surgical skill to repair the damage. It wasn't a simple case of applying pressure to the wound in those cases. The stitches would need to be applied inside as well as out, and then there was still no guarantee that the repair would hold or they could stave off infection from keeping the wound open so that the surgeon could remove the stitches later. All in all, if it was just muscle damage then JD should be fine as long as someone was cleaning up the wound to keep the gangrene at bay.
"He's with JD."
Nathan sighed, relieved to hear that Josiah was tending to JD for more than just JD's sake. He had worried about the man since the church burned down. He knew how much that church had meant to Josiah, giving him a chance to work through his demons and pay a penance that Nathan did not believe was owed.
After the events with the Pinkerton detective, Josiah had become more open about his past, sharing some of its burden. They knew of his sister now, and of the illness that had stripped away her mind.
Nathan could put a name to that sickness, having seen it in the camps of whores that trailed behind the army wagons during the war. He knew how it was transmitted from person to person so he could understand Josiah's grief and rage that he had not been there to prevent his sister's fall from grace, even if undeserved. However, Josiah's frame of mind was still fragile where it concerned his sister, so he had feared for his friend when Josiah saw all their hard work go up in flames. He had hoped to spend more time with Josiah, not expecting to get called away and, certainly not expecting to find himself swinging at the end of a rope. It seemed strange how history had repeated itself, with his saviors the very same men who had cut him down before...though with one addition.
Ezra Standish was still a mystery to Nathan.
As he thought back to the early months of their acquaintance, Nathan felt a little guilt for he had been guilty of the same crime that he despised in others - prejudice. He had taken one look at Ezra and formed his own opinion based on the white masters he had known from his days as a slave on the plantations of Georgia. He had heard only his accent and seen only his fine southern ways before judging the man., and he had been wrong.
Ezra had never been offended by the color of Nathan's skin, nor had he ever doubted Nathan's healing skills despite occasional remarks about his obnoxious potions and teas. Even that first time when he set Ezra's dislocated shoulder, the gambler's reluctance for his assistance had nothing to do with Nathan's skin color or skills but rather Ezra's own fear of Nathan's prejudice adding rather relieving any pain.
A greater shame was that, once he had realized his prejudice towards Ezra, Nathan had tried to justify it rather than admit that he could be wrong. Time had shown him the error of his ways and, without ever needing to offer an apology, he and Ezra had finally slipped into a relationship of mutual respect.
The edge of the town appeared on the horizon and Nathan let his thoughts return to the problems ahead. His mind began to turn over all the equipment he would need to extract the bullet and stave off any infection, and his concerns for his own injuries were quickly forgotten until he dropped down from his horse and fell on his ass upon the dusty ground, too weak to support his weight.
Arms were holding him instantly, concerned faces blurring for a moment before coming back into focus.
"You okay, Nathan?" Vin asked, with worry coloring his voice and making it softer yet more gravelly.
"Don't try to talk," Chris added quickly as Nathan opened his mouth to speak so Nathan nodded and mouthed the words, I'm fine.
He let his friend's help him to his feet, gratefully accepting his hat from Ezra and finding the poker face missing. Nathan let one hand drop on Ezra's shoulder, squeezing gently for a moment before he turned away, using the banister to help him climb the wooden stairs to his clinic.
Chris raised the glass to his lips and took another sip of his whiskey. A brief glance around the strangely quiet table revealed the solemn and worried looks on every face. Despite his injuries, Nathan had worked into the night, extracting the bullet and tending to the gunshot wound. JD had been lucky for Chris had seen men bleed out in less than half an hour from similar thigh wounds. Fortunately, the bullet had not torn through the artery.
"Josiah?" Chris spoke softly, still concerned for the older man.
"Lord had his reasons, Chris. Still trying to figure out what they were."
Chris nodded without uttering the words reverberating around inside his head that Josiah's lord was just a mean sonuvabitch. He knew his opinion would not be appreciated and Josiah did not need any more grief right now. None of them did. He looked up from the glum faces on spotting Nathan, waiting for their friend and healer to take a seat before pushing a filled whiskey glass across the table. Nathan nodded his thanks and downed the shot in single swallow, gasping as the whiskey burned an already sore throat but looking grateful nonetheless. The satisfied look brought a smile to Chris's lips.
"Guess you needed that," Vin said with a smile.
"How's JD doing?" Chris asked.
"Mizz Travis is keeping a watch for fever but..." Nathan cleared his throat, rubbing it gently. "...otherwise, that leg's gonna be sore for a while and he'll need to stay off it while it mends."
Chris nodded, knowing it would not end there for it could take weeks of working that leg before JD was back to full strength. At least he knew JD had the resilience of youth on his side, as well as his own breed of stubbornness, and that would see him through the hard times ahead.
Ezra's green, intelligent eyes narrowed as he looked to Chris. "Three of our number has fallen prey to a man's need for vengeance, and I am particularly concerned that I might be the next target."
"Hell, Ezra, all they need do is put a tear in that fine coat for you to feel mortally wounded. Anyway, could go for me next," Buck murmured breathily as he joined them at the table, accepting a shot of whiskey with a slight nod of thanks and a twinkle of pleasure in his blue eyes.
The words were meant to relieve some of the fear emanating from Ezra as he worried about the fate that might be awaiting him beyond these walls but they only served to heighten everyone's awareness for those who had yet to suffer at this Jeb's hand. Chris could feel the tension increase in the lean man seated beside him, knowing how guilty Vin felt for bringing this down upon his friends. Buck downed his drink, slamming the glass onto the table.
"Ain't a man to sit around and wait for bad to happen. I say we go find this Jeb and settle the score."
Chris nodded, preferring to tackle his destiny head on rather than let it sneak up on him. So far this Jeb had managed to get to three of his friends and Chris had no plan to allow him to get to the others, or to finish what he had already started. He was painfully aware that this Jeb had expected Josiah to burn alone in his church, for Nathan to die on the end of that rope and for JD to bleed out before help reached him. Part of him wondered what fate the man might be contemplating for him and the others. Certainly, the man intended Vin to be the last of the Seven, wanting to see Vin brought to his knees before killing him too.
"Agree with Buck." He turned to the one person who would be able to hunt down the animal that had hurt their friends, and offered a predator's grin. "Vin? Up for a little manhunt?"
Vin stared at him for a moment and Chris could read the remorse in his eyes that he had been instrumental in bringing this grief upon his friends, seeming to forget how Chris's past had almost killed them all only a few months past when Ella Gaines came back into his life. Vin's eyes softened and his lips curved up slightly.
"Sounds good to me, Cowboy."
Chris grinned in response, willing to accept that nickname from no one but Vin Tanner. "Then I suggest we head out now... see if we can pick up their trail."
"JD?" Buck asked.
"Nathan and Ezra can stay behind and watch over him and the town."
"Wanna ride with you, Chris," Nathan stated sternly before deflating with a sigh, "but I reckon you're right. Won't be no help to JD if that fever spikes again and I'm out riding the trail with you."
"Ain't hearing no complaints from you, Ez." Vin glanced sideways with a mischievous glint in his bright blue eyes.
"Obviously, Mr. Dunne and Mr. Jackson require my services to ensure their protection while you and Mr. Larabee are seeking the miscreants who-"
"Get some sleep, Ezra," Chris murmured softly. "You look like hell."
"And you smell too," added Buck as he stood up, waving his hand under his nose. "Pooey!"
Chris, Vin, Buck and Josiah made for the saloon door, grinning wildly as an indignant Ezra lifted an arm to smell himself, his nose crinkling from the faint body odor and the sight of his rumpled clothing. If Chris's guess was right then Ezra had not seen a bed or a wash basin in the best part of two days.
Marlen watched as four of the Larabee gang rode off towards the north of the town, no doubt looking for the camp he and his gang had set up a few days back but Marlen had moved on since then. All that was left there was the remnants of another group he had ridden with for a ways and most of them had planned to ride on south into Mexico within a day or two. He grinned, knowing all was going to plan despite the unexpected survival of the preacher and the healer. As for the Kid, he had watched through his spyglass as they brought him into town, reading concern on the mens' faces but no grief. Perhaps he was hanging onto life too. Still, it didn't matter that much to him whether Tanner's friends lived or died, only that he had hurt them and through them, Vin Tanner. He wanted Tanner to suffer long before the judge in Tascosa placed a noose around Tanner's neck and hanged him. He wanted Tanner's last thoughts to be of the pain and suffering he had brought on his friends and to one man in particular, the one Tanner treated like a brother in all but blood.
Chris Larabee was the prize in this game. His pain and eventual death would break Tanner long before that drop snapped his neck.
"Which one are we gonna go for next, Jeb?"
"They done left that fancy gambler in town all alone with just the nigger and the kid," Peters stated slyly. "And those two ain't gonna be much up to much."
Marlen grinned, recalling the handsome gambler in his fancy clothes. "Guess it's time we went and paid Ezra Standish a visit."
They saddled up swiftly and rode down into the town, slowly to a sedate pace as they reached the outskirts. Ahead, Marlen could see the saloon and the sheriff's office. Both were quiet at this time of day. Marlen looked to Gregson as they pulled into the alley running down the side of the jail house, wanting to get out of view as quickly as possible. At this early hour, most of the townsfolk would still be eating breakfast but a few of the store owners might be up to rising a little earlier.
"Check out the sheriff's office."
Gregson dropped down from his horse and walked forward quietly, glancing into the dim interior. Marlen gathered that he could see no movement inside for his movements became bolder as he leaned right up against the glass, one hand shielding his eyes from the early morning glare. Gregson looked back towards his leader and shook his head.
Peters grinned like a maniac. "Then I reckon our prey is either in the saloon or tucked up in his bed. Don't think he got a whole lot of sleep over these past two days."
Peters looked perversely excited by this and Marlen had to agree that the man was a mite touched, and most likely insane. He knew the time would come when he had to put Peters down like a rabid dog but, until then, the man had his uses. Marlen looked back across the still deserted main street towards the saloon.
"Seem to recall him making up the saloon stairs when the saloon shut the other night... and I bet there's a back way up."
Trying not to draw too much attention to himself, he stepped down from his horse, tied it loosely and walked across the dusty street. Once in the shadows of the alley opposite, he motioned to Gregson and Peters, waiting impatiently for them to wander across. Together they moved along the day-lit alley, sticking to the shadows, and Marlen grinned when he turned the far corner to see the back staircase running up to the first floor. He looked Gregson in the eye.
"Stay here and keep a watch."
Gregson looked as if he would complain, opening his mouth to say something but he clammed up tight just as quickly, lips pursing in a mix of anger and concern. Slowly, Marlen made his way up the wooden stairs, lips tightening at every creak. He pulled open the door carefully and glanced inside. The corridor was deserted and Marlen could see a dozen rooms leading off it and he had no idea which was the Gambler's. He placed his ear against each door he came to, mentally crossing out those where he heard a man's voice that did not have a southern accent. Eventually, at the fifth door, he heard a man singing against the soft splash of water, smiling at a voice that was far sweeter than when Standish had tried to put on a woman's pitch. Marlen grinned at Peters, nodding towards the closed door. Slowly, he tried the handle and was strangely unsurprised when it turned easily; the door creaked as it opened.
"I presume you have more hot water for me, George."
Standish leaned forward in the bath tub as if expecting a cascade of heated water down his creamy-skinned back, muscles tensing when nothing happened. He turned his face towards the door, with green eyes widening and lips parting in shock. The sudden flurry of movement almost caught Marlen and Peters off guard but Standish was hampered by the bath tub and the deep water swirling in it. Marlen grabbed the fine boned shoulders and shoved down hard, holding Standish under the water while the Gambler threshed beneath his weight.
"Get the door," Marlen grated out, snarling in pleasure when he heard the lock snick into place above the dying sounds of struggle. He waited until Standish was almost limp and then dragged him out of the water to hang over the side of the tub. Terrible coughs and chokes wracked the lean, naked frame as Standish expelled the bath water and tried to draw in a decent breath. Before he could regain his senses, Marlen and Peters dragged him from the tub and threw him onto the bed on his stomach spread-eagled, tying his hands to the iron bedstead above and his feet to the wrought iron below. One of the man's fine linen handkerchiefs made an excellent gag when balled up and shoved inside the luscious mouth, effectively silencing his cries for help.
Marlen stood back and admired his handiwork, eyes traveling the length of a body that rarely saw the burning heat of the sun. Though his hands were a coarser shade of brown, the rest of his skin was as white as fresh-drawn milk. Marlen ran a hand along the creamy flesh, enjoying the way the Gambler squirmed, his words of revulsion muffled by the gag.
"Ain't gonna kill you, pretty man. Got more pleasurable ideas in mind... my pleasure."
Marlen's lips twitched in annoyance. Peters expected to have a turn at the pretty ass lying so exposed and tempting but Marlen didn't like to share.
"Why don't you go down and check all's right with Gregson? Leave me some time alone with this... man-whore."
"No siree. I ain't leaving until I get a piece of that ass."
Marlen stood up with a deep sigh. "Figured it might come to this sooner or later."
The knife flashed in his hand almost too fast for the human eye, the only sign that it had found its mark being the rounded eyes of shock on Peters' face before he gazed down at the knife embedded in his chest. He crumpled, dead before he hit the floor. Marlen looked at the bloodied heap with interest before flicking his gaze back at the man tied to the bed, seeing Standish frozen in shock with green eyes wide.
"Ain't into sharing," Marlen whispered almost seductively as he leaned down close to the Gambler's head. He felt the shudder race along the prone man's body as Marlen returned to their self-appointed task of mapping the creamy flesh on display. Muscles clenched and twitched in passing, hips trying to draw his body away from the roving hand that cupped a pale, rounded ass cheek and squeezed tightly, leaving an imprint of his fingers upon the firm flesh.
The muffled noises grew in intensity as Marlen stood up and removed his gun belt before drawing aside the fastenings to his pants and shoving them aside. He drew down his underwear pants, glad he had never taken to wearing one of them all-in-one union suits and knelt on the bed between the parted legs.
Chris rode back into town with the others late in the afternoon, face flushed with exertion from the long ride and from anger at finding nothing worthwhile at the end of it. They rode straight to the livery and, for once, Chris gave into the temptation to allow another to look after his horse for him, flipping a coin to the stable boy. What surprised him was Vin's identical action as he handed off a coin and walked away side-by-side with Chris.
"Ain't made the best start in finding these boys," Chris stated softly as they headed towards the saloon, taking a moment to glance up towards Nathan's clinic. He could see Buck heading straight up the stairs and knew Buck would come fetch him if there was a problem. Not that it would stop him worrying over JD. Josiah was heading up the stairs behind Buck, no bout intent upon giving Nathan a break from his ministrations.
Chris pushed aside the batwing doors and glanced into the slightly darkened interior, a frown of annoyance creasing his brow and tightening his lips.
"Where the hell is Ezra?"
"Probably still holed up in his room," Vin murmured as he carried on past Chris and up to the bar. He leaned on it and looked along the length towards the back room where Inez and her hired barkeep kept a small kitchen with a pot of coffee ready boiling. She bustled out with a cheery grin of welcome, wiping her flour-covered hands with a small hand cloth but Chris cut her off before she could offer them pleasantries and coffee.
Her eyes flicked up the stairs. "He asked for a bathtub in his room. George is about to take up more hot water."
"I'll be happy to oblige," Chris stated and saw her eyes narrow before they widened into merriment.
"Of course, Mr. Larabee."
Chris took the bucket of hot water from George and headed up the stairs with Vin following, knowing Vin would not want to miss out on the fun. With the image already fixed in his head, Chris reached the door to Ezra's room, turning the handle very slowly and carefully. He frowned when he realized the door was locked, momentarily confused. Why would Ezra lock the door when he was expecting more hot water? Chris had a bad feeling in his gut that had never led him wrong in the past and looked across to Vin to see his concerns mirrored in his eyes. Vin had tensed too, his hand dropping to the mare's leg and pulling it swiftly.
"You know he's gonna be real mad if we break down his door for nothing," Vin whispered but his chin flicked up at a sound from within that must have caught on Vin's sharp hearing.
The blue eyes, flicked to Chris, no longer filled with any doubt as Chris landed a brutal kick against the lock that splinted the door from its frame and sent him almost tumbling inside. A blur of motion and the smash of glass sent his eyes towards the window looking out onto the main street but a gasp from Vin brought his attention back to the room and its occupants. Sprawled on the floor, with blood pooling beneath his body, was a man Chris had never seen before outside of a wanted poster, knifed in the chest... straight through the man's black heart. Vin spared no attention to the dead man on the floor, instead crossing swiftly to where Ezra lay prone, tied spread-eagled to the bed and gagged. Chris had a moment to register the vulnerable position and the red streaks of blood oozing from between his pale ass cheeks before locking the image away so he could focus on a more pressing issue. He reached the window and caught sight of a man racing around the far corner into the alley running alongside the saloon. Chris lowered his gun with a snarl as the sound of galloping horses told him he was too late to catch up with the man. By the time he reached his horse at the livery, this man would be long gone with only Vin capable of following the trail. He swore vehemently and turned back to the scene inside the room in time to watch Vin remove the linen handkerchief used as a gag before slicing through the thin rope tying Ezra face down on the bed.
"Bastard cut him," Vin stated in a dangerously soft voice.
"Planned... far worse." Ezra's voice shook with shock and relief, his fingers strangely uncoordinated as he turned on his side and tried to grab for the bed cover, gratitude and embarrassment filling his green eyes as Vin drew them to him, allowing him to cover his dignity. Chris waited until Ezra had regained some of his composure, noting that Ezra did not attempt to stand or dress. He could see the fine tremble of shock and, most likely, of pain too that shook the gambler.
"Who was it?" Chris asked quietly, though he had a feeling he already knew the answer.
"My gambling... associate from the other evening, and no doubt the same man who tried to hang Mr. Jackson."
"Jeb," Vin snarled from where he had dropped down to examine the dead man. "Seen this face before on a bounty poster." He looked up at Chris. "We get his name then we can figure out who he was riding with."
Chris nodded, giving Vin the consent he needed before he was willing to leave Ezra's room and, at the same time, offering reassurance that he would watch over Ezra until Vin returned with Nathan. They both knew Ezra would never go to Nathan to have the healer tend to his injuries, though not because the southerner did not trust the former slave. No man wanted another to know how close he had come to being overpowered and sexually abused. If this Jeb had not used his knife to make his mark on the ass he intended to abuse then both he and Vin would have left Ezra with his tattered pride and their closed mouths. Instead, Chris knew from Vin's clipped words, and from the blood that was probably still running like a red ribbon over Ezra's pale flesh, staining through the crisp sheet, that the cut probably needed some cleaning and stitching to stave off infection.
Chris kept his silence, knowing Ezra did not need small talk even if Chris was of a mind to offer any. What Ezra needed right now was to feel safe while he lay so vulnerable, and Chris could give him that just by his presence in the room. Instead, Chris kept his eyes on the street below, letting his other senses monitor Ezra as the Gambler's soft, shuddering breaths slowed and evened out as the adrenaline and fear evaporated. Chris followed Vin's lithe frame as the sharpshooter headed for Nathan's clinic first at a fast pace, waiting patiently for Nathan to come into view a few minutes later, his medical bag hanging over his shoulder. As Nathan drew closer, Chris could read the very real concern in the tight features, aware that any residual animosity between Nathan and Ezra had disappeared months ago, when Ezra stepped in front of a bullet to save Mary Travis from the governor's assassin.
"Am I to presume that Mr. Jackson will be arriving shortly?"
Chris looked back at the bed, feeling the tightness of rage in his chest as he saw the pain and worry on Ezra's face.
"On his way up."
Chris angled his body towards the door, knowing Ezra was eyeing it with some trepidation. Even though he was expected, Ezra still flinched when the door opened suddenly as Nathan barreled in. The dark eyes went to the body on the floor first, appraising it with a medical eye before stepping past the obstacle to the bed. Chris averted his eyes from Ezra when he saw a flush blossom on the pale cheeks, not wanting to witness any more of his embarrassment as Nathan's sharp eyes surveyed the room, seeing the filled tub and the damp floor and bedding, seeing the blood seeping through the sheet wrapped around Ezra's middle and knowing where the injury lie on the man lying naked beneath that sheet. Instead, he looked to Nathan, catching the man's shocked expression before shaking his head a fraction to negate the fear lurking in there.
"Man cut him."
Nathan's eyes closed in momentary relief, and then he drew in a deep breath and stepped right up to the bed, partially pushing aside the persona of 'friend' to take on the mantle of healer.
"Gonna need to see that cut... See if it needs stitching."
Chris heard the rustle of the sheet being removed but kept his eyes on the street. If Nathan needed him then he'd ask for his help and until such a time as that, Chris would afford Ezra his dignity. He gritted his teeth when Ezra hissed in pain, head swinging towards the closed door at the sound of light footsteps in the hallway beyond. Two sharp raps on the door brought Chris over and he opened it carefully, lips twitching when he saw Inez standing just outside, a coffee pot filled with plain boiled water in her hand.
"Mr. Jackson asked for--"
"Thank you, Ma'am." Chris took the water and closed the door firmly, knowing Ezra would appreciate the privacy. He set the water down on the table close to Nathan, watching him pour out a full mug and sprinkle it with powders, herbs and a dose of Laudanum before pouring the rest of the water into Ezra's wash basin to cool. Chris returned to his sentry duty by the window, chewing into his lower lip as Nathan began his ministrations, cleaning away the blood and stitching the inch long knife wound that Chris had caught sight of on the inner side of Ezra's ass cheek. A few minutes later he heard Ezra's ragged sigh of relief and the creak of the chair as Nathan straightened back up.
"Well, you ain't gonna be wanting to go riding for a week or more... And you probably won't be wanting to sit for hours at the gambling tables, least not until them stitches come out and that cut has healed."
"Oh joy," Ezra stated in a droll voice, and Chris smiled for the first time since entering the room and finding Ezra trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey. If Ezra was back to his usual brand of sarcasm then he was going to be fine.
"I'll head over to Jacob's," Chris stated and strode to the door, knowing the undertaker would take care of the dead man for, if Chris was right, then the bounty would cover the expense of a pine box and a burial.
As Chris expected, Nathan grabbed the seat and drew it over to the bed, showing he had no intention of leaving Ezra unattended. Chris nodded his thanks and approval before stepping out. He met Vin in the saloon below, grabbing two shots of whiskey from Inez and passing one to Vin before taking the bounty poster from his friend's hand.
"Wiley Joe Peters," Vin stated. "Ran with the Marlen gang."
"That name mean anything?"
"Yeah. Took in Marlen's brother. Nasty piece of work that liked cutting up little girls after he'd used them."
"Yeah. One of them little girls was the daughter of the local sheriff. He made sure Zack Marlen hanged for what he did."
"Any doubt about it?"
Vin shook his head, knowing Chris was thinking about Vin's own predicament.
"Nope. He was caught red handed but managed to shoot a couple of the townsfolk and get away. I hunted him down and brought him back to see justice done."
Chris nodded, a tiny smile flickering at the corners of his mouth, knowing how obstinate Vin could be once he was on the hunt, especially if the bounty was a child abuser or killer. It had taken Chris a week to convince Vin to stop searching for Ella after she disappeared, and only then because he knew the black hearted woman would never stray too far because she wanted to be close to Chris. Eventually, she would draw even closer again, and this time Chris would be ready for her. One day he would have his revenge on her for what she did to Sarah and Adam and, no doubt, Vin would be by his side when that happened.
"Tracks led out of town to the south," Vin added.
"Most likely." Vin glanced back up at the rooms above the saloon, eyes immediately finding Ezra's room. "Gonna be three men down if we ride. Ezra won't be riding a horse real soon, and neither will JD."
"And Nathan'll be needed to watch over them in the town."
"He'll need someone else guarding them and the town in case Marlen double backs. What about Buck?"
Chris deliberated, aware that Buck would want to stay behind and watch over JD yet, equally, he would want to be the one to take revenge on the ones that hurt the Kid. Josiah would be a good man at their back when they reached Purgatorio but the fire had burned out more than just the church. Yet, the more he thought on it, the more Chris realized that this might be what Josiah needed to put the Old Testament fire and brimstone back into his blood. Sitting around the town brooding on his losses and on his wounded friends would not help anyone and, most likely, he'd end up in the saloon, too drunk to be of any use at all in protecting any of them.
"Buck's not gonna like it... Either way."
"Hell, none of us do, Larabee."
Chris snorted softly, trying to lighten the concern that had darkened Vin's eyes but he knew the toll this was taking on his friend. Vin had brought this vengeance-seeking man down upon them, bringing fear and pain to them all but Chris knew the ex-bounty hunter was not to blame. He could not blame Vin for this any more than the others could blame him for the obsession of Ella Gaines that had almost got them all killed. Chris just hoped Vin would see reason before he had to knock some sense into him, hoping Vin would not do anything stupid in the meantime, like try to go after Marlen alone.
"I'll let Josiah know we ride in an hour."
Vin nodded and walked off towards his wagon where Chris knew he would clean his mare's leg and prepare for several days away from the town.
An hour later, all three were saddled up and ready to ride. Chris nodded up the stairs towards Nathan and Ezra, having helped the gambler across to Nathan's clinic to make it easier for Nathan and Buck to watch over him and JD. Ezra still looked a little pale, with lips tightened against the pain from his knife wounding. Once they left town, Chris knew Nathan would be able to persuade Ezra to settle down and rest, knowing the movement had to be pulling on the stitches.
"Well, Chris. You know I ain't for this. Purgatorio is a hellhole at the best of times--"
Vin spoke up before Buck could get into another long debate over the wisdom of just the three of them heading out.
"Don't have time to wait for Ezra and JD to heal, Buck. Marlen could leach into the landscape and then we'd always be watching over our shoulder waiting for him to strike again."
"Hell, I know that, Vin. Don't mean I've got to like it though. Just... Watch your backs." His words encompassed all three of them.
Chris nodded as Buck released his grip on the reins of Chris's horse, urging the gelding to turn. Within a few minutes, they had left the town behind in their dust.
Purgatorio was every bit as rowdy as he recalled from his last visit here, with gun smoke curling lazily into the darkening sky from the dozens of rounds shot into the early evening air. The worst of the oppressive heat had gone from the air and Chris knew that it was only a matter of time before the evening breeze cooled the temperature down even further. At night, the town could get pretty cold though he had yet to feel it against his own skin for he had easily found a bed and a warm body to keep the chill form his flesh. Idly, he wondered if Maria was still here, still making a living from whoring among the desperadoes and other lawless men who brought what passed for prosperity to the town. If he had not come here with a sworn purpose then he might have been tempted to seek her out at the saloon, willing to pay for her services even though she had wanted no extra money from him last time. Except, as with Lydia, he wanted to keep their relationship strictly professional, not wanting to offer any false hopes that he might actually care for her beyond a desire for the warmth of her body pressed against his own. Anyhow, she was not in any position to turn down the offer of payment if she wanted to keep her room and put clothes on her back and food in her mouth.
He bit into his lower lip, feeling guilty for his lack of compassion but she was not the only person with a sob story and he could not afford to help them all. Sometimes, it felt as if he could not even afford to help even himself.
"You okay, Pard?"
Vin's low words traveled across to him from where they rode in side by side, legs brushing occasionally as their horses moved too close to each other. Chris darted a glance across. They had ridden hard to Purgatorio, wanting to get here while there was still a little daylight remaining but, now, both horses and men were exhausted. He wiped the sleeve of his jacket across his forehead, careful to avoid any sweat or grit falling into his tired eyes, and glanced around the busy town.
"Figure we should split up. Could cover the town faster that way."
"Don't think that's such a good idea, Chris."
"One man alone won't put the fear of God into Marlen and his gang," Josiah rumbled.
"And calling him out would just get you a bullet in the back from one of his gang while you're standing in the middle of the street," added Vin.
"Not planning on confronting Marlen alone, or calling him out. Just need to find out where he's holed up so we can set things straight."
"I'm all for setting things straight. Just wanna us all in one piece at the end of it, Cowboy."
Chris offered a contrite smile for he knew how hard Vin was taking all this, seeing friends suffer when the past caught up with him. He had been down this road himself, and not so long ago, when Ella's men tried to eliminate the final threats to her own perceived happiness - his friends. Chris had already driven Vin away at that point and could only be grateful that, once more, the sound of gunfire had brought his best friend back in his time of need. As if in sympathy, the old gunshot wound in his side began to ache, reminding him of how close he had come to dying that day.
"Still, Chris has a point," Josiah added softly to Vin before letting his gaze encompass both men. "Most of these men speak only Spanish, and most would be intimidated by a man such as yourself, Chris, or an ex-bounty hunter. Might be better if you and Vin holed up in the saloon while I ask a few discrete questions around the town."
Chris licked his lips in frustration but he knew Josiah was right. Both times when he came here seeking Cletus Fowler, no one had been willing to talk to him, though he had to admit that even Maria had found nothing the last time he was here even though Fowler was dead. Fowler had been a private man, though, keeping to the shadows, watching and waiting. Marlen and his gang would not be so private in their dealings around the town so there was a good chance that Maria could find them. Still, it made sense to allow Josiah to ask around too. He nodded his acceptance before indicating towards the saloon that he and the boys had checked out with Jock Steele. A flick of his gaze towards Vin revealed agreement on the tracker's face, the firm mouth riding into a small grin.
They parted company with Josiah with warnings to stay alert for danger and pushed into the saloon. The saloon was exactly as Chris remembered it but it was the sight of Maria rather than the anticipation of a whiskey that gave the most pleasure. She sauntered over, bottle and two glasses in hand, and with a smile of welcome remembrance dancing in her eyes.
"Senor Chris," she purred as she set the bottle and glasses on the table, ignoring the seat he indicated beside him to sit on his lap. Her eyes flicked across to Vin just once before seeming to forget his existence. Small, expert fingers began to delve into the layers of his clothing, seeking contact with skin and he placed his hand over hers to stop the inquisitive fingers. He was not foolish enough to assume that his one night of passion with her all those months ago was enough to form an intimate relationship that went beyond professional sex. That she remembered his name alone was more than a little surprising for he would have been one of many nameless men who had enjoyed sexual favors from her, both before and since his last journey here. Still, she had tried to find information for him once so perhaps she would be willing to try again.
"Looking for a man. Name of Jeb Marlen. You know where I might find him?"
She screwed up her forehead, shaking her head. "This name is not known to me. He is new in town?" Then she smiled softly at Chris's almost imperceptible nod. "I could ask around..?" She let her words drift off with a slightly avaricious glint in her eye, her smile broadening once more as Chris pressed some dollars into her hand.
He watched as she carefully concealed the dollars between her ample breasts before her lips took his in a deeply possessive, wet and open-mouthed kiss, her tongue sliding into his mouth enticingly before she drew away, leaving him licking his pleasure-tingling lips. His eyes met Vin's as she sashayed away, seeing the amusement dancing in them. Vin reached for the bottle and poured two generous shots, offering Chris a silent salute before downing his glass in one. Vin took in a sharp, deep breath and Chris laughed softly, knowing the rotgut whiskey would not take the smoothest path to his belly. They nursed the whiskey for another half an hour before Maria sidled up and slipped into the seat beside Chris.
"There is a man who knows where this Marlen has set up his camp outside of the town... but he does not wish to be seen with you."
"Where is he?"
"He is waiting in the alley outside."
Vin leaned in. "Maybe we should get Josiah--"
"This man, he will not wait long."
Chris looked to Vin, eyes hard and serious. "Don't see that we have much choice."
Vin nodded. "I got your back, Chris."
Vin waited until Chris had reached the side door and slipped outside before following, blue eyes darting across towards Maria, who had hung back to allow Chris to meet the man alone. The elongating shadows of the evening pitched much of the alley into darkness as the sun finally set but Vin could still discern a single figure waiting ahead of Chris and watched carefully, cradling the mare's leg in his hand in readiness. Another shadow moved unexpectedly, and Vin's heart and stomach lurching as he recognized the trap. He leaped forward, swinging up the mare's leg while simultaneously opening his mouth to yell a warning to Chris only to feel pain exploding against the back of his head. Vin fell, rolling onto his back and his last sight before darkness claimed him was of Maria's triumphant smirk as she stood over him, with the gun she had wielded like a club, gripped in her small hand.
Buck stared at the young man lying quietly on the bed, tucked up beneath the simple cotton sheet. Nathan had extracted the bullet and stopped the bleeding. Now, all they could do was watch over JD and hope he did not take a fever. So far, though, they seemed to have been lucky, with Nathan's remedies keeping any fever at bay. Nathan had cleaned and dressed the head injury too, leaving a bandage wrapped around JD's head like a turban, reminding Buck of Josiah's tales of Arabian Nights. Late afternoon sunlight shafted though the window, falling in a wide stripe across the room, catching the foot end of JD's bed and slowly moving away from the sleeping boy's face, otherwise Buck might have fixed the curtain and lit the lamp.
He glanced across the small room to where Nathan was stretched out on a second cot, his own injuries forgotten in the concern for his friends. More surprising was Ezra curled up on a lumpy mattress on the floor, with a tatty blanket pulled up to his shoulders. For once there had been no murmur of complaint as he settled onto the floor, leaving Buck to wonder what had happened in his room with Marlen. He considered the evidence as the stripe of weak sunlight crawled slowly up Ezra's blanket-wrapped body.
Finding Ezra asleep during the daylight hours was not unusual because the gambler was a night owl, plying his trade through the evening and well into the small hours of the night. However, seeing him curled up on a hard floor when his feather bed was but a few minutes walk away was a little disconcerting. Despite appearances to the contrary, occasionally, Buck was no fool. Nathan had raised a privacy screen made out of an old gray sheet while he checked Ezra's injury, leading Buck to believe that it lay in a more intimate place than Ezra would admit to.
He took a deep breath and blew out softly. Of the four of them, he was the only one still able-bodied should Marlen and his men double-back to the town. Chris had left the safety of the town to him and, more particularly, the protection of these men who had become family. Yet, all he could think of was Chris riding out after a sadistic sonofabitch, just a couple of hours earlier, with just Vin and Josiah to watch his back. Part of him had wanted to kick up a fuss and insist on Josiah staying behind to watch over the town and their injured friends but he had seen the plea in Chris's eye not to make a fuss.
As he was contemplating all of this, his eyes fell on Ezra as the fading sunlight finally reached the man's face, drawing him back from sleep. Ezra fidgeted beneath his blanket, first trying to pull the blanket over his face to block out the light before giving up and pushing the less than pleasantly smelling cover aside, nose wrinkling up in distaste. Buck offered a reassuring grin as Ezra's tired face appeared above the cover, eyes blinking away the little sleep he had gained. Buck saw a grimace of pain reach Ezra's face when he tried to roll onto his back, changing his mind abruptly to rise up on one elbow instead.
"I gather all is quiet in our fair town."
"Ain't heard a peep beyond the usual rattle of wagons and horses, mostly heading out of town."
Ezra nodded, eyes narrowing as Buck looked, restlessly, towards the door and window once more.
"I believe you are concerned for our associates, Mr. Wilmington."
"If you mean, am I worried about Chris and the others? Yeah. I am."
"Then perhaps..." Ezra trailed off meaningfully.
Buck felt tempted for a moment, eyes pulled to the outside world and the friends too far from his side for him to be of any immediate help should trouble find them. He knew he could leave JD in Nathan's strong and capable hands, knowing Ezra would back up the healer, but Chris would not have left him behind if he thought his protection of the others unnecessary. It was obvious now that Ezra was unfit to ride, or even sit. JD would not be moving out of that bed for a day or two at least, and Nathan was still having trouble swallowing around the vivid bruises and contusions circling his throat. Fortunately, Josiah had not inhaled too much smoke when the church burned down; otherwise, Chris and Vin might have been forced to ride alone.
No. His place was here, protecting his injured friends while they were not so able to protect themselves. He just had to hope Chris was being careful out there, and that all three were watching each other's backs.
Vin awoke to the sound of low moans, belatedly realizing they were falling from his own lips. Slowly, he forced open his eyes and tried to make sense of his surroundings. The mustiness of damp brick and earth offered little hope of figuring out where he was except it was cool. Too cool, reminding him of dank caves, yet this was obviously a home once upon a time. He could see nothing through the tiny windows, figuring that it was probably dark outside by now. Instead, he turned his head to look towards the small fire burning in a purpose-built alcove. The smell of burnt coffee tickled at his nose along with the aroma of chili. Vin blinked several times to clear the images in his head, eyes finally focusing on another figure lying on the floor across the large interior.
The light flickering off the fire illuminated confusing shadows on Chris's face until Vin realized he was looking at bruising. He gave a sour smile, seeing proof that Chris had not gone down without a fight.
The door slammed open suddenly, bouncing back from the side wall only to be caught by the bulk of a man standing in the doorway. His face was still cast in shadow, his form unfamiliar but, as he took another step forward into the room, the meager light from the fire lit his features. Similarities in mouth and eyes gave a name to this man as Vin recalled the brother, Zack, whom he had hauled in to face trial and execution.
"Marlen," he stated, with his voice low and rusty, and his fingers twitching from their unnatural place behind his back, forced together by the ropes bound tightly around his wrists. His sense of helplessness increased when he realized that Chris was not bound, his body sprawled haphazardly, legs and arms akimbo as if dropped to the floor like an open sack of potatoes, spilling every which way. Either Marlen was underestimating Chris, or the unseen beating was more severe than Vin had thought from the visible bruising.
Marlen noticed his look towards Chris, a wicked smile curling the corners of his mouth as he stalked over to the still form. His foot lashed out quickly, catching Chris under the rib cage and lifting him bodily from the force. A low, wracking cry, almost lost beneath the guttural roar of fear and anger from Vin, fell from slack lips. A twitch of limbs heralded the only movement as Chris's body slumped back into stillness.
Vin scrabbled at the damp earth beneath his fingers, trying to find purchase so he could lever himself up to block Chris's attacker but his body felt weak and lightheaded, senses spinning as he felt the itch of dried blood on his neck. He moaned, stomach emptying onto the floor in a stream of acrid bile that burned his throat but he had nothing more inside him.
Marlen called out two names and, by the time Vin figured out what was happening, his feet were dragging through the earth as two men pulled him up from his armpits and hauled him outside. The creak of a burdened rope caught at his hearing and he raised his eyes in fear, anticipating the worst, but the body hanging loosely, swaying gently in the evening breeze, was not bulky enough for Josiah, or any man.
Her chestnut hair framed her face; the pain contorted features were no longer pretty, with eyes bulging and tongue hanging lax upon open, painted lips. Her head lay tilted at an angle, cheek pressed against the strong rope that reached up to the thick branch of an old tree. Two other nooses swayed empty, awaiting a neck to stretch. His neck and Chris's.
"Take a good look, Bounty Hunter. Whore nearly deprived me of the pleasure of watching you while we hanged Larabee. Want to see your face when he's kicking and choking, and then I'm gonna string you up right alongside him." Marlen's lips parted into a rabid grin. "After that, I'm gonna go back and finish off the others, and this time I'll let them know why they're gonna suffer. Let them die cursing your name."
Marlen stepped forward until Vin could feel Marlen's fetid breath upon his face.
"And don't think that nigger and the kid are safe either, Tanner. Got plans for both of them."
"Both dead," Vin lied through gritted teeth, hating the word Marlen used to describe Nathan like he was something less than a man, but Marlen laughed in his face.
"Ain't a fool, Tanner. Didn't hear no explosion... and I saw you all ride back into town with the kid. Saw the pretty one helping the nigger."
Horror mounted in Vin's mind. Nathan had told him that Marlen had wanted to see him suffer before making him face the same fate as his brother, Zack. And he had suffered. He had seen the hope torn out of Josiah, burning to ashes alongside his church. He had seen the despair in Nathan's eyes as he balanced precariously upon that little wooden bar, knowing his death would bring about the mutilation of a young family. He had felt the flow of JD's blood between his fingers as he pressed hard onto the bullet wound, feeling the life flow out of the kid, and he had seen the fear and horror in Ezra's eyes as he lay trussed up, waiting to be violated. Ezra Standish, the pretty one, whose fate might be worse than the rest of them put together should Marlen decide to keep Ezra alive and finish what he had started.
Every emotion in the eyes of his friends had reflected back at Vin through Chris's green eyes; the fear and despair, and the rage and lust for vengeance. Only Buck had been spared so far but now Vin knew that was only a temporary respite unless he and Chris could find a way to stop Marlen. He flexed his hands, desperate to find some looseness in the rope binding him but the knots were too well tied.
"Take him back inside." He rubbed his hands together with glee. "Gonna have me some fun now."
Vin tried to resist as he was dragged back inside the small adobe, aware that time was running out for both him and Chris.
Josiah frowned when he saw no sign of either of his friends in the saloon. He was sure they meant to wait here for him, recalling the conversation distinctly despite the one or two drinks he had imbibed since then. Outside, the late afternoon had turned to dusk and the barman had started to light the small oil lamps scattered about the place, casting new shadows among the clientèle. Josiah checked into each corner but, finally, he had to concede that they were not here. He found a small table near the back of the large room and sat with his back to the wall, facing towards the main entrance. There was always a chance that they had needed to leave for one reason or another. Perhaps to use the outhouse round the back of the building, or to find a decent meal, he thought. Eventually, they would return.
Half an hour passed by slowly as he studied each and every face that came through the doors.
His earlier pursuit of information had revealed some knowledge of the Marlen gang and, in particular, where they tended to hole up when in the vicinity of Purgatorio. Their camp was less than an hour's ride due south in a small village that had been abandoned after the Apache killed all of the men folk and carried off the young women and children.
He let his thoughts dwell on that for a moment but could not find it in his heart to condemn the Apache for wanting to protect their land and their way of life. Of course, retaliation from the Mexican army had been swift and brutal but, according to the old man that Josiah had talked with earlier, no one returned to the village.
Josiah sighed into his whiskey glass as he took another small sip.
There were times when he had plenty of patience, spending many days in solitary meditation, but there were other times, like now, when his legs twitched from inaction. He wanted to ride into holy battle against the men who would dare to hurt those he had come to care about deeply. He wanted to spill the blood of those who had shot JD and left Nathan hanging, and who had cut Ezra.
For his own hurt he cared little, wanting to believe that God had some purpose in razing his beloved church to the ground. In hindsight, he wondered if rebuilding the church was his true penance, or if he had misunderstood completely when he saw the dilapidated building and started work on it rather than return to the pile of broken stone on the outskirts of the town. Perhaps God had never intended for him to work off his penance in manual labor. Perhaps his work had always been to save the immortal souls of the disparate group of men who had banded with him that day to protect the Seminole.
Whatever the case, he knew he had done good work for both them and for the townsfolk, and his heart still cried out at the destruction of his church and the pain inflicted upon his friends, both the physical and the mental trauma.
The door opened again and he glanced up, sighing heavily when strangers wandered in from the ever-darkening street beyond. Another glance around revealed no sign of any working girls, especially the one Chris had called Maria. No doubt she would appear soon to start working the slowly growing crowd of potential customers, seeking monetary compensation for the use of her body.
His lips tightened in remembrance of his sister, of the exciting young woman whose spirit had been crushed by their father, sending her headlong into the arms of strangers and the ravages of Syphilis. She had succumbed to her illness just a few months earlier and he knew he would have grieved alone, possibly drinking himself to death, had it not been for the friends he had made. They had seen him through the darkest moments following news from the Sisters in Vista City, continuing to be a source of comfort to him even as this second tragedy came upon him. Without Vin and Chris, Nathan, Buck, JD, and even Ezra, he might not have clawed his way back from this second loss. They had given him the strength to carry on where his own would have failed him, and he would not let them down now that they needed him.
His eyes narrowed as a young woman with a painted face and a low cut bodice sauntered into the saloon from a room at the back. He caught her eye by spinning a silver dollar on the tabletop. She settled into the chair beside him, red-painted lips pursed into a fake smile as her eyes flicked greedily towards the coin in the hope of gaining that and a few more dollars besides.
Her lips twitched in annoyance, quickly hidden. "No, I am Anita... but I can be Maria if you so wish?"
"I need to speak to Maria, about some friends of mine." He pressed the silver dollar into her small hand, holding the fragile fingers while he looked straight into her dark brown eyes. "Perhaps you've seen these friends of mine?"
Her eyes flicked away to check on who might be listening in before she smiled grimly.
"Maria left with two men earlier. Two gringos...One in black, the other wearing a buckskin coat."
"My friends," he stated upon hearing the description.
Suddenly, she seemed more nervous. "I do not think your friends are safe. Maria... She took money from another man. A bad man who calls himself-"
Her eyes widened. "Yes. You know this man?"
"I know him," Josiah replied gravely.
He let Anita go and sank back into his seat, pondering this news and the dilemma it caused. If Marlen had Chris and Vin then Josiah might be all that stood between his friends and death, but could he go up against half a dozen armed men alone?
Josiah scraped back his chair and stood up. In truth, he had no choice. There was no time to ride back to the town for help, even if Buck would be willing to leave the others with little protection. JD could not be moved, and Nathan would not leave his side while his young life hung in the balance. If Buck rode with him then that left only Ezra to protect them, but Ezra had his own injury to contend with, an injury that affected his ability to ride and move fast. This was the reason why Chris and Vin had left Buck behind, and it was a good reason.
Grabbing the reins of his horse, Josiah mounted up and turned to the south. He had a good idea where to find the deserted village and just had to hope the good Lord would provide a way in to save his friends once he reached it.
Chris heard a low moaning as he fought his way back to consciousness, breath hitching when he realized those pained sounds came from his own throat. He forced open his eyes, breath catching again as slight movement set up a burn in his ribs and belly. The pungent smell of piss and stale vomit assailed him all at once and he choked back on the gag reflex that toyed with adding to the smell in the air. He could taste blood in his mouth, coating his lips and he licked it away with reluctance, relieved that it did not send his stomach roiling again.
He knew that voice, wanting to relax into the security it had offered in the past but there was urgency and concern held within it so he forced his eyes open a fraction more, grunting as he turned his head towards the sound. It took more effort than he might have believed at any other time, his head throbbing and eyes losing focus momentarily until he willed them to look at his friend.
Vin was tightly bound, trying to inch his way across the dirty ground like a worm but he paused when their eyes met, partial relief filling them.
"Where are we?" The words fell from Chris's mouth as if drawn in slow motion, vowels rounding and stretching, slurred to the point where even he would have had difficulty understanding them had he not formulated them inside his own head first.
A single word but it told Chris all he needed to know. They were in deep trouble.
"Dead. Hanged by Marlen, but I ain't got a lot of pity for her. She set us up."
Chris squeezed his eyes shut, blaming himself for trusting her when he knew all too well the harshness of life out on the frontier, where a woman in her position had to fight to survive by any and all means. He should have foreseen the choices she would be forced to make and should never have relied upon her to give loyalty to him over any other man who offered her a few extra dollars. He couldn't find it in him to hate her for she had already paid for her treachery with her life. Still, her betrayal had put them in a bad situation, and unless he could find the strength to crawl over to Vin and loosen his bonds, then that situation was going to get a lot worse.
He gritted his teeth and forced his body to move, digging his elbows into the dirt floor to help propel him slowly across to the other side of the room where Vin lay helpless. Vin struggled against his bonds and tried to meet him partway, both of them grunting softly from the exertion, but they froze when they heard the sound of footsteps just beyond the door. The door swung inwards and Chris stared at the boots that lay in his line of sight, eyes slowly rising up the body to the man grinning down at him maliciously.
"Well, look who woke up."
Before Chris could raise a snarl in anger, two more men stepped into the room and grabbed for his arms, dragging him to his feet and supporting him when he could not seem to hold his own weight. His head felt too heavy but he forced up his chin, wanting to look his attacker in the eye with all the defiance he could muster.
Memories of the Warden at Jericho prison came back in a rush as he met cruel eyes, seeing the lust for inflicting violence smoldering in them. Instinct warned him of the blow before it landed, but his body was too slow from pain and disorientation to react fast enough. He felt the air rush from him with the body blow to the stomach and he doubled over only to have a meaty hand grab at the strands of damp hair falling over his face. His head was yanked back and it took vital seconds before he could open his pain-filled eyes to focus on Marlen. He glared at the man, throwing all his hatred into the pale blue eyes that appraised him so malevolently.
"By the time I get around to stringing you up, you're gonna be cursing the name Vin Tanner."
"Ain't nothing you can do to me to make me hate him. Nothing," he ground out in full resolve, taking pleasure in the anger heating the man's eyes from knowing Chris refused to be intimidated by him.
The anger faded as Marlen took his words on as a challenge, cruelty slashing his thin lips into the mockery of a smile. A simple nod from Marlen, and Chris felt his feet dragging in the dirt as Marlen's men bore him outside, pausing for a dramatic moment to let him take his fill of Maria's slowly spinning body. He felt a moment of confusion as they brought him beneath a second noose, lowering over his head and tightening it around his throat. When they let go of him, he collapsed, only to be brought up short by the rope biting into his flesh. He struggled for a moment, clawing at the air above him until he could grasp the rope and use it to get his unsteady feet back under him, adrenaline giving him strength where none had existed before. All the while, his ears rang with Vin's desperate cries of his name, knowing they had brought Vin out to watch.
Chris felt the rope slacken around his throat as he pulled at it, and he took a deep, needy breath before letting his eyes fix onto Vin's, offering him reassurance that he had his balance temporarily restored once more. The swish of metal leaving leather brought his eyes around to see steel glinting in the orange glow from the large fire. Flickering light cast devil shadows across Marlen's face, reflecting off eyes cast with blood lust.
He bit back a gasp as the first slice tore through shirt material to the flesh beneath; the sting of sweat trickling into the open wound setting momentarily numbed nerve endings on fire. The first flickers of fear reached him as he let go with one hand to grab at the wound only to find his legs giving way again, his remaining hand straining to keep a grip on the rope lest he fall. With a cry his hand flail to find the rope again, an uncontrollable whimper falling from him as the skin pulled open around the knife wound.
So this was how it would be, he thought, sliced up until he could no longer hold himself against the pain and fell, hanging himself.
"Got to hold on, Cowboy," Vin called hoarsely. "Got to hold on."
The second slice tore through the fabric and flesh of his thigh, his leg collapsing under him. He choked back a cry as his fingers tightened their death grip on the rope above his head, feeling the flow of blood as it trickled down his leg.
"Got to hold on," Vin cried softly, again and again, setting up a mantra of desperate hope, and Chris could see the tracks of tears glistening on his dirty face.
Marlen murmured his own mantra, mocking Vin, cursing Vin, and blaming Vin for all of this, whispering his words of hatred into Chris's ear as he walked around him, the knife's shine darkened by blood. His blood. Chris did not see the next slice but felt every agonizing inch as the sharp blade was drawn down his back from shoulder blade to waist.
"All his fault, Larabee. He done this to you. He brought you here to this." Marlen whispered into his ear with hot, fetid breath, though Chris knew the words would carry to Vin's sensitive hearing. "Curse him, Larabee. Curse him and I'll let you die quick by the knife rather than choking at the end of the rope."
"Ain't gonna... Vin! Ain't gonna..." He cried out, hoping Vin would understand that he would rather die slowly than give Marlen the satisfaction of hearing him use his last breath to curse the best friend he ever had.
"Chris," Vin choked back, and Chris knew Vin was losing hope, his heart and soul breaking from the torture of knowing he could do nothing to save Chris but Chris caught Vin's eyes again, forcing his will upon them.
"Got to hold on."
Suddenly, he was falling, eyes widening in shock and terrible expectation but he felt no small jolt from the rope pulling short. Instead, he crumpled to the ground just as gunshots echoed through the grisly scene. Through confused eyes, he saw Marlen jumping behind Maria, using her swinging body as a shield as two of Marlen's men jerked and fell dead to the ground. His eyes sought out Vin, finding him dragging himself towards Chris, his own guard having dropped him to return fire.
Chris knew the sound of the gun firing from the cover of the rocks, knew it from too many battles.
"Josiah," he whispered in triumph as he reached for the gun lying in the out-flung hand of one of Marlen's men, now dead. The gun felt warm in his hand, its weight familiar, and he knew without looking that it was *his* gun, stolen from him. He fired at the man creeping up on Vin, watching dispassionately as the man fell, dead before he hit the ground. Then he turned his attention back to Marlen, cursing as the man used the cover of Maria's corpse to shield his race for the horses tied up back. Unable to still the weak trembling in his hand, his shot ricocheted off a boulder barely an inch from Marlen's face, surprising the man.
Chris saw a blur of movement, arm spinning around to aim at it only to freeze on the trigger when he realized it was Vin. The blood-dulled knife glinted in Vin's hand, rope dangling from his wrists as he flipped the knife to hold the blade between his hands. A flash of spinning light and then Marlen arched, hand clawing at his back, and the knife buried hilt deep in it. He dropped to his knees, stilling for a moment before falling face-first into the dirt. Dead.
The sound of a horse racing away caught on his hearing but Chris could not raise any interest, all of his attention on the long-haired, buckskin clad, still bound man who had dropped to his knees in the dirt halfway between Chris and Marlen's corpse. He snapped out of his semi-stupor as a large hand grasped his shoulder, eyes looking up into the worried, compassion-filled ones of another friend.
"Josiah," he whispered in gratitude and pleasure, not needing any more words as light rekindled in eyes that had dimmed since the burning of the church. He knew, right then, that Josiah would be fine, and then he knew nothing more as he succumbed to his injuries as the last of the adrenaline left his body, leaving him slipping into darkness.
Josiah pulled medical supplies from his saddlebag, sending up a prayer of thanks to Nathan for insisting they carry supplies. He and Vin had carried Chris back inside the small adobe, laying him down on a clean blanket and leaving him unattended only for as long as it took for them to make preparations. He hesitated on the threshold, supplies in hand, as he caught sight of Vin gathering up the filled canteens from the now-ownerless horses. He had already banked the small fire in the adobe, setting up a battered tin pot and pan to heat up water for cleaning Chris's wounds.
Vin paused as he turned back with the canteens, nodding his head towards the dead bodies still littering the ground.
"They ain't gonna need 'em no more."
Josiah nodded, the ex-preacher within him hating the sight of the bodies but knowing he had to take care of the living first. Once he had tended to Chris and Vin's wounds, then he could tend to the dead. He knelt down beside Chris and pulled out the strips of white cotton for cleansing and bandaging, and dropping the fine needle and thread into a smaller pan of water to boil while the rags were placed in the larger pot. Nathan's books had a lot to say about infections and how dirty rags, needles and thread could hinder an open wound.
Vin dropped to his knees on the other side of Chris and, between them, they pulled away the sliced shirt, pants and underwear for easy access to the knife cuts. None were particularly deep, meant only to inflict pain rather than kill, but the edges needed to be sewn back together to aid healing. Once the water had boiled and then cooled to a tolerable temperature, they carefully washed their hands just as Nathan always insisted and began to cleanse the wounds, wiping away the dirt and blood.
Josiah let Vin sew the damaged flesh, his eyes no longer so good for close up work, and he grinned warmly at the care taken, with fine stitching that would barely leave a scar. When Chris began to moan in discomfort, they held his head and drizzled watered-down Laudanum into his mouth. Just enough to take the edge off the pain. Only then would Vin allow Josiah to tend to his head wound.
"Got a knot on the back of your head... size of a chicken egg."
Vin snorted. "Feels more like a goose egg. Hurts more like it too."
Most of the wound lay beneath the blood-matted hair so Josiah washed it out as best he could, smearing a special ointment onto the wound just as he had with Chris, one that Nathan believed would reduce infection. Josiah could see Vin's eyes drifting shut afterwards, knowing how hard Vin was fighting the need to rest for one look into his eyes had revealed the unevenness that spoke of a light concussion.
"Better get them bodies--"
"I'll handle them," Josiah rumbled. "Just wrap them in blankets and lay them out straight, ready to tie onto the horses tomorrow. You stay here and watch over Chris until I get back."
Vin nodded reluctantly, both of them knowing these men had a price on their heads and the bounty would be worth collecting, especially for Marlen.
"Okay...but I got one job I need to do first. I'll need your help."
Josiah nodded and followed Vin outside, eyes narrowing as Vin walked none too steadily to where Marlen lay face down in the dirt. He saw Vin stoop over to pull out the knife, wiping its blade on Marlen's clothing before he pushed at the body with his boot. Marlen flopped over onto his back, dead eyes staring unseeing at the stars above. Once assured that Marlen was dead, he turned back but did not head for the adobe and Josiah understood his intention long before he stopped beside Maria's body. Josiah held her firm while Vin sliced through the rope, taking her weight and lowering her to the blanket he had spread out on the ground beneath her. Vin looked down at her for several long minutes, seemingly deep in thought, rubbing his throat in sympathy for the rope burn marks on her delicate throat.
"Ain't got cause to hate her for what she did to Chris. We all make choices, for good or bad." He frowned. "She might be someone's mama for all I know."
"I'll ride back to Purgatory tomorrow. Find out if she's got kids."
That promise seemed to placate Vin for he knelt and pulled the blanket over her face. When he swayed on rising, Josiah reached out and gave him the support he needed, helping him get back to his feet before gently pushing him back in the direction of the adobe. Vin smiled his thanks, knowing he could trust Josiah to wrap up the dead.
Vin woke to the sound of soft whimpers, eyes quickly adjusting to the meager light thrown out by the fire and seeking the source of the pain-filled cries. He saw Josiah's large frame seated beside Chris, heard the older man murmuring reassurance as he wiped Chris's sweat-sheened forehead. Chris's head moved in feverish jerks, pale lips forming unintelligible words.
"How long's he been like this?"
"Couple of hours." Josiah looked up from his ministrations. "Been forcing some of Nathan's tea into him, to reduce the fever. Seems to be working."
Vin crawled over and took a place opposite Josiah, reaching for another cloth and wiping it down the fever-heated skin, skirting the slightly reddened knife cuts. He could see no sign of infection but reached for the ointment anyway, smearing more of it over the wounds.
Another two hours passed by slowly before Vin sensed the lifting of the darkness beyond the small windows. The first gray fingers of dawn crept into the room, forcing back the deep shadows. The only sound in the room came from the low murmuring as Josiah recited part of his holy book from heart, over and over, one that Vin recognized as a Psalm of David.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil..."
Vin listened to the low, melodic voice, feeling it soothe his raw spirit as, finally, Chris relaxed into a healing sleep beneath Vin's hands.
"This is all my fault. Brought it on us."
"Nobody's fault but Marlen's."
"He came for me."
"Do you blame Chris for Hank Connolly?"
"Then why would any of us blame you for Jeb Marlen?"
"You lost your church, Josiah. Hell, JD may be dead for all we know."
"A church can be rebuilt...and I have faith in the Lord, Nathan's skill and JD's strength."
Vin smiled wryly. "Got to hold on," he whispered softly and was rewarded when the first ray of sunlight penetrated the room, banishing the deepness of the night. He nodded down at Chris. "We should let him rest up a few more hours then head back to town."
"I'll head into Purgatorio and see if she had kids."
"We'll start out home once you get back."
"Home." Josiah gave him a toothy grin as Vin realized what he had said but it was true. Over the past two years the town had become his home, though Vin wondered if that would still be the case should Chris and the others choose to leave the town behind one day.
He watched as Josiah mounted up and rode off with a single backward wave before sinking back down, leaning against the door frame with his retrieved mare's leg balanced across his knees, wanting to keep a lookout in case of danger.
Buck stood on the balcony outside of Nathan's clinic, staring out along the length of the main street and straightening whenever a distant rider came into view. So far, his wait had been in vain for he had seen no sign of Chris, Vin or Josiah since they left the day before though he knew their self-appointed task might take more than a few days. Despite his laid back nature, he had never been good at waiting and even worse at doing nothing when he knew his friends might be in danger. Except he understood why Chris had left him behind.
JD needed him, and so did Nathan and Ezra and, as much as it pained him to admit it, he needed to be here for them, to protect them in case Chris failed to stop Marlen. He glanced up at the sky, noticing how low the sun was in the sky and knowing it would be dark before too long. If they were on their way back from Purgatorio yet still some distance away then they would set up camp for the night and head back at first light. Still, he would give them another couple of hours before he gave up on this vigil for the night.
Behind him, the door opened and he grinned across as Nathan leaned onto the rail next to him.
"Doing just fine. Sore but that wound stayed clean and the fever didn't take too strong a hold of him."
"Whining about that feather bed of his right up till he dropped off to sleep 'bout an hour ago." Nathan chuckled but sobered when he looked full on at Buck. "Might take them a few days to stop Marlen and his gang."
"Yeah," Buck sighed, knowing Nathan was referring to Chris and the others, but his eyes remained fixed on the horizon, eyes narrowing as he saw the plume of dust that denoted more than a single rider heading into town. When he flicked his gaze to Nathan, he saw that Nathan had noticed too, dark eyes trying to make out the numbers approaching.
"Must be one of them cattle drives passing close by. See a buckboard and a number of horses ranged around."
"Except most of them horses aren't carrying riders," Buck added as he moved to the stairs taking several steps at a time until he was standing on the dusty main street.
"One of them's Vin," Nathan called down and Buck heard Nathan clattering down the stairs behind him even as he started running towards Vin, making out Josiah's large frame driving the buckboard. His heart was in his throat upon seeing no visible sign of Chris, knowing he had to be on the buckboard but not knowing if his oldest friend was alive or dead.
Nathan caught up with him despite Buck's long strides, moving with enviable speed as they converged on the small train of buckboard and horses carrying the dead. Buck's gaze passed over Vin and Josiah swiftly, assessing their condition and knowing they were both fine, if a little worn from the ride. He acknowledged Josiah with a slap on the arm as he peered over the edge to find Chris lying on a small pile of blankets, face a shade too pale and eyes closed.
Nathan was up beside Chris before Buck could blink, his big yet gentle hands coaxing those eyes open as he visually inspected the bandages before glancing across at Vin.
"Marlen got a hold of him. Beat him up and cut him some. Josiah and I cleaned up the cuts and stitched up the real bad'uns."
Nathan nodded but Buck could see that he was itching to inspect their handiwork for himself and Buck needed no second asking to take Chris's legs while Nathan supported Chris's shoulders and head. As he looked up, his eyes widened in surprise when he met those of two small brown-eyed children huddled in the back but he had no time to question Josiah for Nathan called over to Vin, ordering him to head on up to the clinic and kick Ezra out of the other cot while he and Buck carried Chris up the narrow stairs.
Ezra was standing just inside the door when they reached it, rubbing sleep from bleary eyes but they widened in unguarded concern when Chris was brought in and placed upon the cot he had just vacated. Vin found himself explaining what happened again with his usual brevity and Buck knew he'd get little else out of him until he was certain Chris was going to be fine. He leaned up against the door frame, his blue eyes fastened on Chris as Nathan unwrapped the bandages and probed the wounds.
"Your fancy stitching, Vin?" Nathan asked, glancing back over his shoulder and catching Vin's nod. "Gonna get you to darn the holes in my shirts." He grinned up and Buck saw Vin's posture relax a fraction, knowing all was well if Nathan was smiling and cracking jokes.
Chris awoke to the scent of chicken broth and fresh bread. He cracked open one eye and watched Nathan thank Mrs. Potter and her daughter as he took the bread and covered pot from them.
"How are JD and Mr. Larabee?" Mrs. Potter asked.
"Doing well. Chris should be back on his feet in no time at all, and JD is doing real good though he's got some recovery time ahead of him yet."
"That's good news. Please give my fondest regards to both."
Chris saw her turn away, feeling a little guilty at not speaking up but he wasn't quite ready to face the world. His body ached with every beat of his heart, and the knife cuts throbbed along with it too making him wary of making any sudden moves. Even his eyelids hurt but as he recalled the blows to his face, he knew one eye was most likely swollen with bruising. Though he was tempted to lay quiet, feigning sleep, his stomach seemed to have other ideas and rumbled loudly, drawing Nathan's attention to him. A wide grin lit the dark features.
"Figured the smell of this fine broth would wake you soon enough," he stated, his voice rich with warmth and caring.
"Couple of days since Josiah and Vin brought you back."
Chris nodded and, instantly, he regretted the action, hissing through gritted teeth. "JD?"
"Tougher than he looks. Be up and about on that leg in no time."
Chris refrained from nodding again, gracing Nathan with a wry smile instead, and his one good eye flicked towards the door as he heard a light step just beyond. The smile turned to a tentative grin that threatened to pull on bruised flesh as Vin ducked his head round the door, catching Chris's eye immediately. Vin's answering, shy smile lifted a weight from Chris's chest that he had not been aware of carrying. Only then did he realize how concerned he had felt for his best friend, worried that Vin might bolt in some misguided notion that he would be saving his friends from further harm at the hands of other men baying for his blood. It was nonsense, of course. After all, they each had a past that could catch u with any one of them. Even JD - for all his innocence - had gained a few enemies from his time spent protecting this small town.
"Hey, cowboy," Vin murmured, sinking into the chair close to the cot and dragging the hat from his head at the same time. He placed the dusty hat on the bed cover, earning a scowl and a reprimand from Nathan before pulling it away with a contrite expression and letting it hang from the hands cradled over his knees. "Ain't looking so pretty right now."
"Don't look so fine yourself, Tanner," Chris retorted with a smile to take the edge of his words.
Vin glanced down at his bandaged wrists, from where the rough rope had burned, tearing skin as he tried to escape his bindings. In all other respects, Vin had got off pretty lightly, with just a headache that was no worse than a hangover. Yet, as he looked at the battered face of his best friend, he knew no physical pain could match the agony of seeing his friends suffer. He could only make silent thanks to the spirits that they had all come out of this alive.
Vin reached out and patted Chris's shoulder twice before letting his hand settle and squeeze, taking in the sheer pleasure of having his friend alive and well when, in his darkest hour, he had imagined Chris swinging next to Maria.
"While you're here, Vin, you can make yourself useful and help Chris with this here broth."
Nathan placed the thick earthenware bowl into Vin's hand and Vin caught Nathan's satisfied grin before the healer turned away.
"Don't need no help eating broth," Chris stated blandly but he did not complain when Vin let him take the bowl and spoon into shaky hands yet left his own hand beneath to support the heavy bowl.
Vin watched him eat, taking away both bowl and spoon when Chris's good eye drifted shut for the third time. He waited a while longer, until he was sure Chris was fully asleep and then allowed his own eyes to close. As he sank down into sleep, he smiled, knowing he and Chris were safe here, with their friends watching their backs.
Josiah stood at the edge of the rubble, hands on hips, and staring at the ruins of the church. He had put so much of his life into this small church, finding it part of his salvation, and partly his penance for sins in his past that he felt a need to atone for. With a deep sigh, he leaned over and picked up the first piece of splintered wood, knowing he needed to clear the ground before he could rebuild.
He turned upon hearing Mary Travis's soft voice, mumbling his greetings to the beautiful widow.
"Mr. and Mrs. Jamieson were never blessed with children of their own. They've taken in Maria's children."
Josiah grinned, recalling the quiet, god-fearing couple that ran the small restaurant and boarding house. He knew the children would be in safe and loving hands. His attention turned back to the scorched wood and earth that had once housed a proud building.
"Plan on rebuilding this church," he rumbled softly, making his commitment to the town through his words to Ms. Travis.
"We held a town meeting while you were away. We don't want the church here."
Josiah felt stunned and devastated by her words; his expression must have shown for her gray blue eyes widened in shock.
"I meant here by the livery, with the aroma of horse manure wafting in during Sunday sermon." She smiled this time, head tilting at a delicate angle, almost teasingly. "Never did understand what possessed the earlier townsfolk to build the livery and church so close together, and now we have the opportunity to change that." She glanced along the length of the main street to the far end.
Josiah glanced that way too and he was amazed to see a fair-sized crowd gathered over there. He took Mary's offered arm and escorted her along the main street towards the throng. The crowd parted before them to reveal a plot of cleared land and a steadily growing pile of timber sawn into lengths, lying in wait on the ground.
Tiny stepped forward. "We're here to help rebuild," he said. "Figured we would wait for your blessing first."
Josiah gazed around the crowd of expectant faces, eyes catching familiar ones from his Sundays at the pulpit, and from the friends he had made in this town. Ezra raised two fingers to the brim of his hat in salute; Buck tipped his hat cordially, while both Chris and Vin nodded with flickers of smiles gracing their faces. Only Nathan and JD were missing but he could feel their presence in his heart along with the others, lightening the burden of despair he had carried for too long in this world. Feeling strangely emotional, Josiah cleared his throat before allowing his voice to ring clear in prayer, eyes raised to the blue sky above his head.
"Oh Lord. Bless this holy ground that we might raise a church in thy name. Bless this town and your flock within it that they might come to know you in all your infinite wisdom." His lowered his eyes to take in the silent crowd. "Amen"
The echo of 'Amen' filtered through the crowd and he nodded as the townsfolk set to work, taking up the offered hammer and nails to join them. As the sound of hammering filled the air, Josiah paused for a moment to consider Jeb Marlen and his vicious need for revenge that had become his downfall but rather than dwell on that madman, instead he recalled his words to JD. 'The Lord must have had a good reason for taking away what I was building. Just got to figure it out.'
One man's desire for vengeance had served only to highlight the strong bonds existing between him and the six brothers he had discovered in this town. As he gazed at the people working hard around him, all remaining doubts and sorrow lifted from his heart as they began to raise a new church, together.