Wounds of A Friend
by THE BUFFALO GALS
JD stared down at the plate of food before him and could feel his stomach turning over. "I can't eat this," he stated simply, placing the dish on the floor and kicking it away. "I'll throw up."
'Not an appealing thought,' mused Ezra as he picked at his own meal, trying to quell his own nausea.
They both glanced at Vin who was eating the food without complaint.
"How the hell can you eat that?!" JD asked loudly, attracting the attention of Charlie who stood by one of the large water barrels, quenching his thirst.
Vin glanced up at JD, "Gotta survive kid. Ate worse than this..." He smiled as he watched Ezra chew on something disgusting. "Ain't your usual fare, is it?"
"Ah have tasted better, Mr. Tanner. Ah wonder why our fine cuisine has taken a turn for the worse?"
The meals had never been tasty, but they'd been suffice to keep body and soul together, but during the last few days they'd deteriorated badly.
On hearing Ezra's question, Jacob hunkered down beside them. "I heard they're waiting for the supply wagon comin' in. Stone was grumblin' that they weren't eatin no better than us."
"Mah heart bleeds for them."
Vin picked up JD's discarded dish, "You goin' to eat this?"
"No. Don't tell me you are?"
Vin shook his head, "No, the kids don't get nearly enough to keep 'em alive. I'll wait 'til I see Lily, she can share it 'tween 'em."
But before Vin could stash the dish away it was snatched from his hand.
"Not allowed to hoard food, you know the rules." Charlie grumbled, "Whose dinner is this anyways?"
"Dinner!" JD's voice was growing stronger, "That ain't dinner. I wouldn't feed it to a dog!"
"That so?" Charlie wandered off, dish in hand.
Ezra doubted they'd heard the last from him, "JD, don't antagonize the guards. Their intelligence is low, which means their tolerance is zero!"
"Don't care. I'm hungry, aren't you?" JD asked , hoping for some sympathy, "They can't expect us to work on that.."
"They can and do. Remember what Vin told you about keeping a low profile."
"We could escape."
"No!" Vin and Ezra replied at the same time.
"No JD." Vin explained, "If we try and fail, they'll punish these folk and kill us."
"We won't fail." JD said with cock sure arrogance.
"Then they will kill everyone, cos they know we'll go for help. I don't want their deaths on my conscience, do you?"
"No!" JD was horrified at the suggestion, "But, I'm so hungry Vin. Never been without food before." He smiled tearfully as he recalled his childhood, "Though we were poor, my mother always made sure we had food on the table, she said you couldn't do a good days work without food in your belly."
"You were lucky, JD." Vin replied as his own unhappy childhood was brought into focus, "After my Momma died, I had to fend fer myself. Orphanage food were no better than this... and the scrawny kids, like me, we never could fight for what was ours."
Ezra stayed silent, not wanting to venture into the past. He'd never starved, or wanted for anything, apart from love, especially a mother's love, but he did feel sympathy for JD; the youngster was remembering the good times in his life, not a particularly wise thing to do while they were incarcerated in this hell hole of a mine and if the boy did starve himself, he'd soon lose strength and sense. The three of them needed both if they were to stay alive.
"JD, from now on, whatever they give us, you must eat, Ah cannot see starvation as a suitable option."
"Ezra's right, kid. Just hold onto the fact that Chris, Buck and the others will come looking for us. Buck ain't goin to be happy if you've turned into a skeleton!"
"I'll try, Vin. Don't know if I'll have the strength to... But..."
Anything else JD was about to say was cut short when Stone, who'd arrived on the scene unnoticed, hauled him, by his hair, to his feet.
JD screamed out in pain and swung round at Stone, "Leave me alone!" He tried to kick out, forgetting for a moment his manacled feet.
"Feisty little brat, ain't ya? Want some of that knockin' out of ya."
"Suppose you think you're the man to do it?" JD retaliated, angry, frustrated and hungry!, "Well you don't scare me!"
Both Ezra and Vin clambered to their feet, determined to help their young, impetuous, friend, but were held back by Charlie and three other guards.
Charlie laughed at Stone, taunting him, "Look like you got your hands full there, ain't you strong enough to tame him?"
In answer, Stone raised his hand, smashing it against JD's head, sending him spinning to his knees. "Hear you got a complaint about the food, boy?"
Face still stinging from the slap, JD snarled back, "It might be fit for fat pigs like you, but we can't work on empty stomachs!"
Ezra shut his eyes and groaned; things were going to get ugly, and like Buck, he hated ugly.
Stone lifted his hand to strike again, but this time, Vin, yanked himself away from restraining arms and threw himself at Stone,
"You leave him alone! He ain't but a kid!"
Thrown off balance, Stone stumbled backwards onto the ground, causing everyone, except Vin and Ezra, to laugh. Hauling himself back to his feet, he ran at Vin, smashing him against a jagged rock. Vin yelped as the rocks scraped the skin off his aching back.
Pulling out a gun, Charlie ordered JD and Ezra to stand still, while the others grabbed hold of Vin and held onto him tightly. Stone's anger had now turned into a frenzy of hatred. Every time he faced the long haired young man, he ended up being humiliated, but this time he'd get his own back on him. Rafter wasn't due back from town until tomorrow, by which time Stone would have avenged himself.
"Take him down to the lower level of the cavern, his friends too. They all need to learn a lesson."
"We cain't kill 'em..." Charlie argued, not wanting to face the wrath of Rafter, "We're short of workers as it is."
"Ain't goin to kill 'em, just teach 'em who's boss around here." Stone placed an affectionate arm around Charlie's shoulder, "Come on, it'll be fun. Long time since we had some fun."
"Yeah, that's true... don't know why Rafter won't let us have the women."
"We'd only fall out over 'em. Wait til you get your money, you'll have all the women you need and they'll be prettier than this bunch."
Thinking of the future, Charlie smiled amiably, "Let's have some fun then... but no killin' ."
After making sure there were still some guards to watch over the rest of the slaves, Stone, Charlie and couple of other mean looking guards holding onto lanterns, frog marched the three young men lower down into the mine. All three were manacled hand and foot, to curtail any ideas of escape.
Vin could hear water in the distance and presumed there must be an underground stream nearby. Normally, the thought of finding somewhere like that would excite him, but now the excitement was tempered by fear.
The grotto was a beautiful as he imagined. The rock formations were exquisitely formed and the flickering lanterns caused the stalactites and stalagmites to cast eerie shadows across the cavern floor. And taking their breath away was a cataract, not large, cascading gently down to form a pool, that Vin presumed fed another river, perhaps on the far side of the hill.
"Pretty, ain't it boys?" Stone said as he watched their awe inspired faces, "Betcha'd just love to go skinny dippin' in that!"
They remained silent, Ezra through sense, JD through sullenness and Vin through uncertainty. He still couldn't read Stone's intentions, but he didn't have long to find out.
"Take him." Stone ordered Charlie and Bryn.
The two men pulled Vin along and dragged him towards the waterfall, standing him under the center of it. Then Bryn reached up and hooked Vin's arm restraints over a protruding spur of rock, leaving him to hang there, his feet hardly touching the ground, struggling for breath as the water crashed down upon his head and shoulders.
Ezra and JD were forced to their knees and ordered to watch their friend.
Each time Vin thought his chest was going to burst through lack of air, Charlie pulled him back from the water and gave him a few moments to catch his breath, then he was forced forward again, to go through the same ritual. His eyes stung from the powerful stream of water hitting them and his body began to shiver as the cold seeped into his skin.
"You said you wouldn't kill him!" JD screamed as he watched his friend being systematically tortured.
"Shut up little boy, I ain't gonna kill him... this is called learning a lesson. If he's a good boy, this'll be the only time he visits this place... same for you too. Or would you like to join him under the water, feel your lungs bursting. Open your mouth and let them fill with water ..." Stone hauled JD to his feet and dragged him towards the waterfall, "Is that what you want?"
"No... No!" JD tried to dig his feet into the ground to stop the forward momentum. He was scared, more scared than he'd ever been in his life. More scared than when they'd all sat in line waiting for Colonel Anderson to kill them, but if Vin and Ezra could keep their composure, so could he. "You're a bully! Nothin' brave about you."
Stone spun him round and threw him to the ground, "Bah! You're no fun. What about you, Mr. Fancy Pants? Do you want to join your friend?"
"It would be an honour to die by his side. But what do you know of honour? JD, come here and sit by me." Ezra was shaking as much inside as Vin was outside, but he wouldn't show his fear to Stone and he couldn't show it to the boy.
"You're so cocky, the three of you... but... by the time I've finished with ya, you'll be shakin' in your boots."
Stone wandered over to the cataract and watched smugly as Vin struggled. The tracker's clothes clung to him now and his long hair was plastered to his face and neck. "Another few minutes and I think he'll have had enough." He pointed a warning finger to Ezra, "Better make sure he's workin' tomorrow, or you'll have to do his work as well as your own."
"He'll be there... take more than this to put Mr. Tanner down." Ezra replied with certainty.
Stone snorted angrily; his ploy hadn't worked, but he would make their lives hell, he was an expert at torture and it would give him great pleasure turning these arrogant upstarts into sniveling, cowering dogs.
"Charlie! let him down." He stalked off, arrogance in his every step; there'd be another day.
The hotel restaurant was doing a fair trade. Each week, more and more people arrived in town as its reputation as a safe haven, grew. It's reputation was due to the seven men who protected it.
Chris saw the judge and Mary sitting at the window table. He walked over to them, impressing Mary by his attempt at dressing correctly for dinner.
"Howdy Judge... Mary." Chris took his hat off and hung it over the back of his chair. Mary smiled as his unruly blond hair leapt forward over his piercing eyes. He looked so much younger and far less intimidating.
"I'm glad you could join us Chris," the judge said as he indicated for the waiter to come and receive their order. "I've been wanting to talk to you, but I've been so busy."
"Damn drovers." Chris looked guiltily at the petite blonde, "Sorry, Mary..."
"I've heard worse," she replied lightly, "Mostly from those... damned drovers!"
"Well at least they didn't overrun the town... guess they'll think twice about causing trouble here again."
"That's what we're here for, Judge, make people think..." Chris waited for the food to be ordered before continuing, "Why do you want to see me?"
"I see your boys aren't back yet. Don't get me wrong, I ain't angry about that." Oren Travis sipped at the glass of wine he and Mary were enjoying; Chris had decided to stick to beer.
"Then what is it?"
"You worried about them, Chris?" Travis inquired, carefully watching the younger man's expression.
"Yeah, I am. They should be back by now." Chris studied the judge, there was a troubled look in the old man's eyes and Chris' instincts told him it was to do with the three missing men, "Spill it, Judge."
Travis put the glass down and sat back; he knew if he told the quiet gunman his story, there'd be a great possibility the town would be without any law for the next couple of weeks. But it was a price that had to be paid. The town owed the seven men everything.
"I met an old friend of mine the other week. He'd been working a gold mine 'til it finally dried up. He'd heard a story about some strange goings on in and around the Cerrillos Hills..."
Chris leaned forward, "What story, Judge?"
The meal was forgotten as the two men talked intently, late into the evening.
As Ezra and JD helped Vin back to the main cavern, they could hear his teeth chattering and his whole body shook uncontrollably. Ezra had told Stone that Vin would be ready for work the next morning, but as he glanced at the young man he wasn't so sure. If they didn't warm him up soon there was a strong possibility he'd catch a fever, or worse. Once they'd found their way back to their corner of cave, Ezra turned his attention to the tracker.
"Vin... Vin... can you hear me?" He asked as he wiped the damp curls away from his friend's face.
The tracker's eyes flew open and he gasped for air. " 'm cold, Ezra. So cold.."
"Ah know, but, if you'll permit me Ah know a method of warming your body up."
There was the slightest of nods.
Ezra ordered JD to lie down flat on his back, his shackled hands above his head. The boy was curious but said nothing. It was his fault that Vin was suffering. His own big mouth; from now on he'd learn to keep it shut.
Once he was comfortable, Ezra turned Vin over to partially rest his body against JD's, telling the boy to place his arms around Vin's shoulders. Then he snuggled up behind the tracker, using his own body as a blanket.
JD could feel Vin's sodden clothes soaking into his and for a while he didn't think Ezra's idea was going to work, but slowly their body temperatures evened out and Vin stopped shivering as he felt the warmth seep through him.
When the tracker woke up during the early hours of the morning, he was confused and unsettled by the closeness of the two bodies; one of them snoring loudly into his ear.
"What the hell!" He sat up, dragging JD with him and throwing Ezra's snoring form away from him.
JD clumsily untangled his arms to free his friend, relieved at getting the weight of Vin's head off his chest.
"Are you all right?" He asked the tracker.
"Yeah. Wh..?" Vin was confused; the last thing he could recall was half drowning under the water, "How long?"
"Four or five hours I guess. Ezra, what you doin' back there?" JD could just about make out Ezra's silhouette as he scrambled to his knees.
"Mr. Tanner no longer requires a blanket."
"Ain't that. You were snorin'!"
"Huh! Compared to the bizarre noises you two make when you're asleep, Ah probably sound like a linnet!"
Chuckling to himself as he realized why they were in such close proximity, Vin impulsively pulled his friends into a hug. "Thank you... Thought I was goin' to die back there."
"Ah have more faith in you Mr. Tanner. But, please do not reveal to anyone how we have spent this night, especially mah mother."
"Oh, I may have to blackmail you over that, what do ya say, JD?"
The youngster couldn't see anything humourous in the situation. "I'm sorry Vin for puttin' you through that. Won't do it again..."
Releasing Ezra from the hug, Vin slipped his manacled hands over the boy's head and held him close, saying, "I don't blame you.."
"You're just sayin' that."
"JD, I don't say much. When I do, believe it."
The words seem to pacify the youngest member of the group, "If you want, you can use me as a pillow again."
"Do you snore?"
"Don't think so."
"Then swap duties with Snorin' Standish so I can get some sleep."
"A man saves your life and that's how you treat him." Ezra said with mock hurt as he lay back, grumbling about the stones biting into his sore back.
Vin shuddered slightly as he rested his head against the gambler's chest.
"Are you still cold?" Ezra asked with concern.
"No... just thinkin' how lucky I am to have good friends like you and JD."
"Friends..." Ezra mulled over the word, "Ah have never been close enough to anyone to call them a friend."
"You're close to me..." Vin joked. "But, I know what you mean. Til we all joined together I never knew what it was like... to have someone watch my back... care enough about me..."
"Mr. Tanner, you are worth caring about. It is a privilege to know you and call you... mah friend." Placing his shackled hands around Vin's frail shoulders, Ezra motioned for JD to curl up behind the tracker.
Their breathing soon became as one and the warmth led them back into sleep.
Buck spotted Chris at the back of the saloon and sauntered across, gathering a glass on his way. Chris seemed unaware of his arrival, so engrossed was he in pouring his next shot. Buck sat down heavily opposite his friend and pushed his empty glass towards him.
"There enough in the bottle for me?" He asked gently.
Chris poured a measure into the glass and put the bottle down in the middle of the table, nodding to the ever vigilant Inez for a replacement.
Buck raised a glass. "Salut!"
Chris reciprocated, knowing his friend was studying him.. "I ain't drunk, Buck. Ain't no law says I can't take a drink."
"Hey, that's fine by me. I just think there's something on your mind." Buck leaned back in his chair and downed the drink in one go, " Does it have somethin' to do with your dinner with the Judge?"
"Yeah... it does." Chris started to pour himself another drink then stopped. He needed a clear head if he was going to hit the trail come morning. "I changed my mind." He threw Inez enough money to pay for the drinks. "There's work to do." He glanced at Buck, "You comin'?"
Still completely in the dark as to what the problem was, Buck bounced to his feet and followed Chris from the saloon, winking to Inez as they passed.
Oren Travis hugged his Grandson close, promising to visit him soon, then he dispatched another hug to Mary,
"You take care of yourself."
"I will." Mary smiled brightly at the man she loved like her own father, "Things should quiet down here for a while."
"I used to worry so much about leaving you here, but nowadays..." The old man hauled himself into the stage.
"Nowadays I have seven guardian angels."
"Yes, you do... though I'm more than worried about the three missing boys at the moment."
"Do you think it's true then, about people going missing?"
Oren leaned out of the stage window to take one long look at his family, "The man who mentioned it to me is trustworthy, he doesn't go around spreading gossip. I wouldn't have mentioned it to Chris otherwise."
"If anything's happened to them." Mary didn't want to consider the despair Chris and the others would go through if their friends were dead. The black clad gunslinger was already biting everyone's head off and Buck's infectious smile had long since disappeared.
"Nothin' more I can do Mary 'cept give them my blessing to go and search for those young men." Oren moaned as he was yanked back into his seat by the forward movement of the stage. "Keep me informed!" He shouted as the coach rumbled out of Four Corners.
Mary and her son waited until the stage had disappeared from view, then she took hold of Billy's hand and led him back to the Clarion office.
"Is Chris going away?" Billy asked. He'd made a special connection with Larabee and treated him like a favorite uncle.
"He has to. JD, Vin and Ezra may be in danger. He's worried about them."
"Oh... Have they run away, like I did?" Billy still remembered the time he'd run away from home to protect his mother from 'the Devil'.
Mary ruffled his hair and smiled, "No, I don't think so."
"Good, cos Chris would sure be mad if they had." Billy looked at his mother with wide eyed innocence, wondering why she was laughing at something so serious.
Four men exited the saloon, their grim faces a warning beacon for people passing by. Chris Larabee had suppressed a smile when Judge Travis had given him permission to go looking for their colleagues. Chris liked the judge well enough, but when it came to looking out for his six friends, no one could tell him what and what not to do.
It had been just over three weeks since the younger men had gone off in search of the silver mine. In that time, Chris and the others had successfully guarded the army payroll and dealt with a couple of dozen drovers who'd hit town on their way home from a long cattle drive. Chris hadn't been worried when the trio had failed to show up to deal with the drovers, but he'd felt disappointed. When the judge had told him of the stories circulating about folk going missing in the same area that Vin and the others had gone, and that there was a mine being worked by slaves, doubts had been placed in his mind and he'd decided to take a ride out that way and search for the errant young men.
Buck was already concerned about JD and needed no cajoling into the journey and the mere mention of slaves to Nathan set his eyes on fire. Josiah refused to be left out; his concerns for the missing men were as deep as theirs.
As they rode out of town, they passed the Clarion office and each of them tipped their hat to Mary Travis, who stood on the doorstep watching them go by. She would pray every night for the safe return of all her 'guardian angels'.
Vin's ears picked up the sound of the whistle, long before JD and Ezra. He let his pickax drop to the floor and straightened, wincing at the pain in his spine. He stepped back from the rock face and turned to search for his friends. Ezra and JD were lifting a heavy pan of ore into a rail truck, both struggling under it's weight. He let them finish the task before calling over to them,
"Hey, shift's over." He rubbed a grimy arm over his forehead then shuffled towards the exit, joining the two men as the whistle sounded again. The other slaves dropped their tools and followed; the column of men moving slowly up the shaft towards the cavern in the hill that they used as a living chamber.
Vin slipped an arm around his two friends shoulders, helping them to keep up with the group rushing towards their resting places. They joined the back of the queue moving into the chamber. The line in front of them began to break up in confusion and Vin strained to see why. He pushed past his friends and put himself between them and the danger up front. Before they turned into the cavern, the line had to pass the guards, a man apart. Vin turned to the two young men behind him.
"Just do as they say." He told them.
"What's happenin'?" JD's shrill voice reached him over the panic up front.
"Ain't sure." Vin answered, trying to sound calm for the youngster's sake, "Seems we're goin' to the surface."
"A favorable alternative." Ezra said dully; like Vin, he was wondering if a bullet was waiting for them outside the mine.
They reached the line of guards; Vin and JD went through without resistance, but Ezra was caught roughly by the arm and swung round. He came face to face with Charlie.
"Hey, ain't this one of them girls!" The man laughed harshly, enjoying the distaste on Ezra's face. His friend joined in the laughter, his amusement growing as Ezra broke free of the guard and melted into the line of dirty, ragged men, making for the surface. He was now some way behind his companions, but he could hear JD up ahead.
Vin stepped out into the bright sunlight and shied away from the glare; the sudden heat draining his last reserves of energy. Behind him, JD gasped in pain, his eyes watering and blurring as he fought to adjust to his new conditions.
"Don't look up." Vin told him, trying to shuffle forward without falling down. JD caught hold of the back of Vin's shirt and followed him like a blind man. They were herded around the edge of an escarpment that housed the mine and led down a single path.
Behind, Ezra was just breaking into daylight, feeling the same disorientation as the others. Staying close to the man in front, he staggered along, his eyes streaming in the glare.
Vin quickly adjusted to the new conditions and almost immediately understood the reason for the journey. Below them, a lazy, fat river oozed over the rocks and twisted around the escarpment. He'd been correct in his assumption about the underwater lake feeding a river. Through the sparse pines, Vin could see the twinkling of standing water; there was a small lake below them. His body tingled with anticipation; they were being taken for a bath.
JD struggled along behind him, his hands knotted in Vin's torn shirt.
"JD... " Vin couldn't help himself, "They're taking us to a lake."
"Lake?" JD puffed. "Why?"
"Wait'n see." Vin teased, wishing the line ahead would hurry.
Ezra's eyes were adjusting to the brightness, but he didn't have Vin's intuition. He squinted at the sky, stumbling over the loose rocks. He grabbed the man in front shirt to save himself from falling and was appalled by what he saw. The man cursed him, but was soon forgotten as Ezra studied his hands. His once elegant, manicured fingers were blackened, swollen and bleeding; the nails he had left, split and torn. Down in the darkness of the mine it was impossible to make out injuries or localize pain; he hadn't realized he was so badly hurt. The sight of his hands shocked him to the core. Ezra was so engrossed in his disfigurement that he turned his ankle and fell to his knees, halting the line behind him.
The men behind him shrank back as the guards marched forward to see what the problem was. Urgent whispers reached Ezra's ears as he stared at his damaged hands.
"Get up, guards are comin'!" The slaves pulled at his filthy clothing, trying to get him on his feet, but Ezra was rooted.
He heard the crack of the whip but was not prepared for the hot, slicing cut of the leather laid on his back. He cried out in agony, his hands forgotten. Two guards swooped down and grabbing him under his arms, and dragged him to his feet.
"Walk or die." One guard snarled as he spat on him; his spittle sliding down Ezra's jaw.
Disgusted, Ezra pulled free and forced himself down the treacherous path towards the other slaves.
Vin bit back his curses. He hadn't realized it was Ezra struggling, until he heard his cry; now he was angry at himself for not waiting for the southerner. JD seemed unaware of Ezra's plight, and Vin decided to leave it that way. The twenty or so men were gathered together on the shoreline and Vin was able to maneuver himself and JD to the back of the group and there they waited for Ezra. The gambler came down the hillside like a ghost. Vin tried to catch his attention, but failed. In the end he grabbed the man's arm and dragged him through the barrier of slaves to stand with him and JD.
Ezra didn't resist the rough treatment and barely acknowledged Vin, once he realized who had taken hold of him.
"Ezra, are you all right?" JD asked, grimacing as he saw the bloody mark on the gambler's back.
"Ah am not." Ezra replied dully, his breath hissing through his teeth as JD touched the broken flesh.
Vin squeezed his friend's arm, "You'll feel better, real soon." He promised, watching the men in front line up to have their chains removed, before pulling off their boots and wading out into the clear, blue water. Soon the group was moving forward.
"What is going on?" Ezra grumbled, shuffling forward unwillingly.
"We're havin' a bath." Vin told him, already anticipating the cool liquid.
"How uncivilized.." Ezra drawled, "To share one's ablutions with so many others..."
Vin hooked the gambler's arm, "Don't go all prissy on me now. Ya got to lose your airs'n graces and start acting like a regular slave." He was partly teasing, but the message was clear; they must not stand apart from the others.
"Ah just knew you were going to say that." Ezra huffed, allowing Vin to push him forward. JD was already unchained and pulling off his boots, when the two men reached his side.
The guard shoved them roughly to the floor and unchained them, "Boots over there!" He pointed to the growing pile of leather, "Get in the water and get your clothes cleaned. You can dry your stuff on the rocks."
Vin nodded to him, then pulled the gambler to his feet.
"Ah cannot believe Ah'm doing this." Ezra grumbled as he pulled off his ruined boots, carefully hiding them in a bush, not only because they were still in good condition compared to some of the others, but he still had his little nest egg hidden inside them and he realized the money might come in handy at some time.
Vin located JD treading water in the shade of an overhanging rock.
"Come on." He said, walking into the cool, clear, depths.
Ezra followed more sedately, the water felt cold after their hot journey and he didn't care for the sensation. He didn't care for sharing his bath with the other slaves, either.
"Keep movin'!" A guard called from the rocks, unrolling his whip. Ezra hastened forward before the guard could ready himself. Passing Vin, he dog paddled over to JD.
While the two men waited for Vin to join them, they sipped the cool water, filling their stomachs with enough fluid to drown them. Vin looked on disapprovingly; he'd taken water himself, but knew not to drink too deeply.
"Enjoying it, boys?" He asked, shaking his head at their antics.
"It's cold!" Ezra snapped, standing shoulder deep in the water by JD's side.
"Isn't it glorious!" JD said, pulling his shirt over his head and unbuttoning his pants.
"What are you doing?" Ezra asked sharply, staring as JD stepped out of his pants and began pulling off his underwear.
"You heard the man." JD said, " He said, we've got to wash our clothes."
"Yeah, come on Ezra..." Vin quipped, pulling off his own clothes, "Off with the rags."
"Gentlemen." Ezra announced, revived by the cool water, "Ah assure you, Ah will not be disrobing in this... rabble." He smoothed down the front of his filthy shirt.
Vin shot him a warning glance, "Ezra, get out of them clothes, or me'n JD'll just take 'em off ya."
JD and Vin were now naked, their clothes, a dirty, wet bundle in their hands.
"It's against my religion.." Ezra insisted.
Vin looked up at one of the guards standing on the rocks, "They don't care none for your refinements."
Ezra followed his gaze, his own face setting in a frown, "This is so humiliating." He grumbled, carefully unbuttoning the rag that used to be his fine shirt. He removed the garment and bunched it in his hands.
"And the rest." Vin warned.
"Ah object most vehemently, Mr. Tanner. This is not the comportment of gentlemen."
"Look around ya," the tracker whispered, noting with satisfaction that the southerner was now undressed. "I don't see no gentlemen."
Angry, Ezra wrinkled his nose at the dirty rags in his hands and thrust them at Vin, "And what sir, do you expect me to do with these?"
Vin took hold of Ezra's arm and with his own clothes bunched in his free hand, ran them like a washcloth over Ezra's back, shoulders and neck. Ezra pulled away as the fabric pulled at his cuts and turned to face Vin, his expression defiant.
"Now you do the rest." Vin told him, moving across to JD and washing his back like he had done Ezra's.
Ezra slowly and mechanically began to wash himself, all the time watching Vin and JD helping to wash each other down. He was appalled; suffering this humiliation was worse than working the mine.
Once the other two men were clean, they showed Ezra how to get the dirt from his clothes and the reluctant gambler followed their lead. Soon the rags were as good as they could get them, and the three men were becoming chilled.
JD sighed, "It would be good to take a swim now."
"Save yer energy, " Vin told him wisely, grabbing Ezra's arm and stopping him from stepping into his wet things.
"What are you doin'?"
Ezra turned his gaze on the naked men leaving the water to sit on the surrounding rocks. "Ah disapprove of this indecorous behaviour and Ah refuse to participate," he said, his jaw set stubbornly.
"Oh yes you will." Vin snapped.
JD added, "You'll just bring us trouble. Ain't no one goin' to be lookin' at you. 'Cept us!" He grinned, quickly losing the expression under Vin's dark glare.
"It is not being unattired that bothers me." Ezra drawled, "Ah have principles."
"Principles or not, you're leavin' this water in your bare skin, or so help me, I'll knock ya out and you'll leave bleedin'" Vin threatened.
"Ah resent that." Ezra growled, squaring up to the tracker.
JD pushed between them, "Hey, break it up. The guards!" He warned.
Vin gazed impassively down on Ezra's furious face. He knew the gambler was already seeing sense, no matter how much he hated it.
Ezra turned and strode through the water, emerging defiant and naked on the shore. He turned back towards his friends, "Well, are you coming?"
Vin and JD shared a smile before moving towards Ezra's receding back.
Mortified by his forced actions, Ezra slumped down on an outcrop of rock and drew his knees up to his chest. Never in his life had he felt so humiliated. He laid his forehead on his knees and tried to blot out the terrible truth.
Vin and JD walked out of the water and made for their miserable friend.
"Why does he fuss so?" JD asked the tracker. He was entirely happy at his nakedness but he saw no reason to make such a stink of it as Ezra had.
"He's got breedin'." Vin relied, "Folks with breedin' don't like this sort of stuff."
JD accepted Vin's explanation and shut up as they were close to the southerner.
Vin sat down by Ezra's side and unwound his friend's clothes on the rocks, shaking out his shirt. He had to offer the gambler some sort of dignity.
"Ezra..." he called softly to him. "You'll burn in this sun. Put your shirt on," he said, offering the garment as Ezra raised his head.
He took the shirt quickly, pulled it on and buttoned it up across his stomach.
"Thank you." He whispered, watching as JD and Vin spread their clothes across the rocks to dry. Once this task was complete the two men slipped lower down, onto a surface in the shade. There, they stretched out to doze, unconcerned by their naked state. Ezra watched them dispassionately, pulling the damp cloth close around him. He soaked up the sun until his shirt was dry, then he padded down the rocks to lie between the two friends and was soon asleep.
The quietude, didn't last long. Soon there were shouts from the guards, then rifle shots were heard. Everyone sat up and stared to where the noises had come from. Down below, the river that only a short time ago had welcomed them with open arms, now turned red as the bodies of two men emptied their life blood into it.
Vin shook his head in disbelief. It had been a foolish move to attempt an escape down the river. The guards could view the water and its shoreline without difficulty. He groaned as he grieved for the loss of two more souls. Then he turned to the guards nearest him and asked a silent question. The two men nodded, understanding the question in his eyes.
"Come on, JD..." He nudged the younger man into moving. A few minutes later, under the watchful eyes of the guards, the two young men brought the bodies back to shore.
Stone walked down the hillside and looked with distaste at the two dead men.
"Get 'em buried soon as you can. Stupid fools, where did they think they could run to?"
Vin clenched his fists; he wanted to spread the man's nose all over his ugly face.
"You didn't need to kill 'em." He said calmly, just about holding onto his temper.
JD and Ezra flanked him, providing a combined strength.
Ignoring their cold looks, Stone replied, " Wounded men ain't no good to us, yet they need feedin' and tendin', better off dead. " He poked Vin in the chest, knowing how much it aggravated the younger man, " You dragged 'em out, you and your friends can bury 'em."
Vin took a step forward, then changed his mind. How could he protect the others if he were dead? "Come on boys, we got some more diggin' to do."
They dressed quickly, then with the help of a couple of more men, they took the bodies down to an area of land, that was slowly turning into a graveyard.