Wounds of A Friend
by THE BUFFALO GALS
The four men made good time as they sped north towards the Cerrillos Hills. Without the hindrance of a pack mule, they could halve the time it took the other three to get there. Chris was more withdrawn than usual and even Buck was quiet, so it was left to Nathan and Josiah to keep whatever conversation there was, going. Nathan had made sure they were carrying as many medical supplies as the horses could carry without too much inconvenience, as he was uncertain as to what they'd encounter once they found the mine.
None of them had taken much notice of Ezra's map, but Buck could remember the one hill framing the other and a river passing between them. Whether it was a long time dried up river was another unanswered question.
Chris wished he'd invested in a spyglass like Vin. It would make life a lot easier, and as they reached the foothills he told the others to keep a careful look out for any landmark they could recall from the map.
Nathan's eyesight was especially keen and he scanned the horizon continually.
"Maybe we should get nearer the Lord." Josiah said as they trotted along the dusty trail.
Chris reined back and ambled along side the gentle giant of a man. "What's your plan, preacher?"
"A couple of fit young men could reach the apex of that hill over there and survey the lay of the land."
"Not volunteering yourself then." Chris asked deadpan, relaxing slightly in Josiah's amiable company.
"I think not. I prophesize a man in black and a black man, enjoying a nice perambulation in the early evening sun, while their two illustrious companions make camp, over yonder." He pointed to a small copse to the right of them.
"You been takin' lessons from Ezra?"
"I watch and learn, brother."
Chris chuckled then glanced upwards. The hill was small compared to some of the others, but the ground was unlevel and rocky, unsuitable for the horses.
"Nathan, you and I been volunteered to go up there. Think you can make it?"
"Why me? I ain't no mountain goat!"
"Neither am I, but preacher man here says we got to get nearer to God."
Grumbling as he dismounted, Nathan said, "I'm as near as I want to get."
Buck was about to make a comical remark but the withering looks from Nathan and Chris dissuaded him.
"Dammit Chris! Don't ask me to do this ag'in." Nathan was still grumbling as they reached the summit of the hill.
"Hey, don't tell me, complain to preacher man." Chris pulled the canteen from around his neck and took a good swig of refreshing water, noticing that Nathan was doing the same.
"Vin and JD would probably scamper up here..." Nathan stopped. He'd promised himself not to mention the missing men in front of Larabee, but it was difficult not to when the three were constantly on their minds.
"S'okay, Nate. You can talk about 'em." Chris replied sensing the other man's uneasiness. "And, if we find 'em fit, happy and playin' with that Goddam mine, you'll be busy, 'cause by the time I've done tanning their hides they'll need yor tendin'."
"Not so certain that I won't help ya first," Nathan replied with a weak smile. "I ain't never done so much worryin' and doctorin' since I met up with you boys."
"Guess we do take some lookin' after." Chris wiped the sweat from his eyes, "Let's see if we can find some kind of landmark."
Josiah unsaddled the horses and gave each of them a good grooming, knowing the tired animals would appreciate the welcome attention. Meanwhile, Buck began to make camp, silently gathering wood for the fire before searching through the saddlebags for coffee and food for their meal.
Josiah found Buck's silence unnerving; he was used to the broad shouldered man being loud and boisterous. His topics of conversation flitting between women and JD's adventures. The preacher suspected that all thoughts now were firmly on their youngest cohort.
"Shhii..sugar! " Buck cursed as coffee beans spilled over the dirt, "What the hell is wrong with me?"
"Nothin' that findin' a certain exuberant young man, wearing a strange hat, wouldn't put right." Josiah said from his location under the trees.
"Damn right there," Buck agreed as he carefully picked up the coffee and placed it in the can, ready to wash through with clean water. "He gets under my skin... like an itch. But boy, do I miss his chatterin'."
"We all do Buck. I miss his non stop talk, Ezra's eloquence and Vin... guess I miss him the most, 'cause I never know when he's there."
"I have to search out Mr. Tanner, even if he's with us. You say JD's like an itch. I feel the same about Vin. He's an itch I can't scratch."
Buck thought for a moment before agreeing with Josiah, "Never thought about it like that. Hell, Josiah, I hope we get them back in one piece."
"Amen to that, brother."
By the time they returned to the camp, Nathan and Chris were exhausted. The sun was setting and a deep red hue covered the skies. At any other time they'd class it as a beautiful evening, but only Josiah stepped back and admired the splendour of it and he felt saddened that the circumstances precluded his three companions enjoying it.
"See anythin' useful?" Buck asked as they poured themselves a cup of coffee.
"Yep... them two hills ain't far away." Nathan replied before he sipped his drink, "Hey, this is good."
Buck looked at Josiah and smirked, "Thanks, Doc. Glad you appreciate it. Chris' always complainin' about it."
"Because it tastes like sludge..." Chris took a drink and was quite pleasantly surprised, until he nearly choked... on a pebble. "What the!"
Ignoring it, Buck just shrugged, "You wanna complain to Mrs. Potter when we get back to town. Here, have a biscuit. Tastes real good."
Glancing at Josiah, Chris wondered why the preacher wasn't drinking any coffee.
The midday sun burned into the backs of the slaves working the mouth of the mine shaft, making their tasks harder as they toiled in the baking heat. It was the first time Ezra had seen the light of day since the enforced bath and he was horrified by the sight of his friends, as he knew they must be of him.
Vin was bloodied and thin, his hair hanging in dirty ringlets around his unshaven face. Despite this, he worked tirelessly, the slightest in a team of six of the strongest slaves, yet the whip never touched his heated flesh.
JD's beard covered most of his pale face and his eyes were shadowed by dark circles. His nerves had taken a beating; he jumped every time the whip cracked, almost blacking out, once the moment had passed. Ezra stuck by him, hoping his presence by the youngster's side would be of some comfort. He didn't speak, he was too damned parched to do anything but struggle along with his burden.
Back and forth they went, hour after hour until the shadows stretched and the slaves wondered if they'd ever get a break.
Ezra looked around him as the guards changed over. He slid his tongue over his cracked lips; a drink now would be good, but only those who actually worked down the mine were allowed to stop for a respite, when the children struggled along with their water buckets
Ezra glanced down at his hands. Dark splinters cut his palms and swollen fingers trembled with exhaustion; in fact he was trembling all over as his muscles battled with exhaustion. Beside him, JD was listening to one of the other slaves. He moaned softly at the man's words.
"Aw Ezra..." He limped over to the southerner. "Out here, on this job, we don't stop 'til it's dark." He leaned heavily against Ezra's side, "I'm so tired."
Ezra eyed the approaching guards, his eyes cold. "They cannot expect us to continue without water," he whispered, his tone menacing.
JD caught hold of his arm, "Let it go, Ezra. I'll get by."
Ezra looked back at the boy; he was half dead. He turned back towards the guards, straightening his back as best he could. The lead guard was Stone, one of Ezra's tormentors; that was just too bad. The man unhooked his baton and came at Ezra, rapping it in his hand as if imagining he was hitting Ezra in the face. Ezra swallowed dryly, his green eyes never leaving the man's face.
"Got a problem, Fancy Pants?" Stone growled, his words catching Vin's attention on the hill.
Vin turned and wiped a greasy hand across his eyes. He'd long since stopped sweating but the dust still gathered in his eyes, forming an abrasive surface to torture him, now that the sun had done its worst. He looked down at the gathering just below his position and willed Ezra to back down. He glanced back towards the guards; they were just as engrossed in the situation as he was. He dropped the pickaxe and crouched down, his knuckles white as he watched the horror unfold.
Ezra's chin was up, he waited for Stone to stop then he said in a steady voice, "We need water."
The guard glared at the southerner, "What did you say?"
Ezra held his stare and said in a clipped tone, "To continue work, we need water."
Stone grinned horribly, his foul breath touching Ezra's cheek as he spat back, "Work or die!" He glanced around at the horrified slaves, "Well?"
The slaves turned back to the wood pile; all except JD. He stood motionless, his eyes staring emptily at the guard.
"Get back to work," Ezra's tormentor hissed at the kid. One of the other guards grabbed JD roughly by the arm and pushed him back towards the wood. JD shuffled to the pile and mechanically gathered the pieces to him.
Ezra lowered his head, his heart sinking. These were not men, they were animals. There would be no reasoning with them.
A cruel hand pulled at his hair, yanking his head back so that Stone could see his face. Ezra tried to claw free
but had his arms forced up his back by a second guard.
Stone now had his attention. "Threats don't work with me." He backhanded the southerner across the face, cutting his lip.
Ezra ran his tongue along the cut, tasting blood. The guard waited for Ezra to gather himself, then punched him in the guts. Ezra went down on his knees with a grunt, feeling acid burning its way from his stomach to his throat. He hardly heard his tormentor for the roaring in his ears.
"Let that be a lesson to you. Now get back to work!" He kicked Ezra on the shin as the other guard dragged him to his feet and swung him around.
Ezra ploughed head first into the wood pile to the delight of his captors. He flailed wildly, trying to get a footing in the loose wood. His attempts drew more laughter and caused more injury. Eventually, he was able to stand, albeit shakily and gather an armful of logs. Before he could straighten up, he was shoved hard in the back and sent crashing down into the pile again. He put his hands out to save himself but they wouldn't support his weight and he fell, head first, into the wood, his few logs, scattering by the guards feet.
"Pick 'em up!" Stone yelled kicking Ezra in the ribs and toppling him to his side.
Ezra struggled back onto his hands and knees, listing wildly as the ground tipped and swayed before his eyes. He gathered his load and clutched it to his chest, trying and failing to get to one knee. As he strained against his exhaustion, he felt a trickle of fluid slip from his temple and down his jaw. It wasn't sweat that gathered on his torn shirt, it was blood from a gash on his head. He sat with his chin on chest, watching his blood drip from his cheek onto his shirt. His head swam, and somewhere, a long way away, Stone was cursing again,
"Get up, damn you!" He yelled, dragging the gambler to his feet like a rag doll.
Ezra swayed precariously, gasping audibly as the guard loaded him up with logs, laughing in his face as he slammed the pieces against his chest.
Vin's restraint finally snapped. He made for the rise, intending to drop over and push the guards away from the gambler and hopefully take some of the heat. As he got to the edge, his fellow slaves grabbed him by the arms, fighting to keep him away from the trouble below.
"Let me go!" Vin growled, using all his remaining strength against the men who sought to save him.
"You can't help your friend now." One of them was heard to say.
Vin stared down at the scene below, his heart twisted in agony as he considered his friend's pain.
"I have to try," he whispered, hoping to reason with them.
"You haven't got enough, yet." Stone said, enjoying Ezra's pain as the bundle in his arms grew. "Here..." He thrust a last piece almost in the gambler's face and Ezra found himself back on his knees, the logs strewn around him.
"Well, well." the guard laughed, "We'll just have to start again." He pulled Ezra back to his feet, but the weakened man slipped to his knees as soon as Sone's cruel grip was released.
The edge's of Ezra's vision began to swim and blacken; he knew he was close to collapse. He offered no resistance as Stone hauled him roughly upwards, shaking him until he managed to find the strength to stand on his feet, somehow.
"Leave him alone!" JD cried, breaking free of the returning slaves to run to his friend's aid. He almost made it to Ezra's side before he was grabbed from behind by another guard and held, a grizzly arm around his neck, choking him.
JD gagged, but managed to cry out again, "Let him go!" His eyes rounded as Stone stepped away from Ezra and backhanded the youth across the face.
"Get back to work, sonny." He spat, grinning horribly when he saw the terror in the youngster's eyes.
JD stared across at Ezra; though barely standing, the southerner had turned towards his tormentor and was
hobbling in their direction.
"Ezra!" JD called out, as another guard hit his friend across the back of his neck with a cosh.
Ezra sank down to his knees, his mouth uttering a silent scream as the pain burst into his head. Stone turned and put a boot against the base of Ezra's neck and tipped him onto his face in the dirt, his boot anchoring him there.
JD tried to pull free of his captor but failed,
"You're killin' him..." He moaned, his face creasing into tears as the gravity of the situation hit him.
Ezra tasted the parched dirt on his lips and twisted his head to look at the youngster. His eyes pleaded with JD to stop his protest and go about his business; the look just upset the kid further. Stone shifted position slightly, the edge of his boot pinching Ezra's ear and making him flinch.
"You do as you're told sonny and your friend lives." He offered, knowing full well Rafter would be angry at him for wasting a healthy man. He waited, enjoying the feeling of power over the heaving body under his boot. JD finally conceded, offering up his wrists to the guards; despairing as the manacles were placed back on.
It was the last straw for Vin. He bodily threw off the men who fought to restrain him and jumped over the edge of the drop, onto the guard who was chaining JD. They in turn, knocked over another guard; the four men rolling around on the ground as more guards poured into the fray.
Eventually Vin was overpowered and with a guard on each arm was dragged to his feet. Vin spat and cursed at the men, hoping to swing the attention away from his weakened friends. The plan worked to some extent; his vile curses drew the attention of Rafter who'd just walked out of his cabin.
The thick set man strode across the dusty ground, calling his foreman.
"Stone! What the hell is going on in here?" He looked down at the crumpled form under Stone's boot and waited for an answer.
"This one's a trouble maker, sir. " Stone said smoothly, using his toe to turn Ezra like a carcass. Half closed green eyes stared emptily up at the head man. Rafter huffed,
"Yeah, I remember this scum." He nodded to one of the guards, "Bag him and chain him to the pole; he can stay there until the shift ends."
"Yes sir." The man nodded as he and a colleague dragged Ezra away from the foreman's feet and sat him by some logs.
As Rafter turned to JD the two men put a sack over Ezra's head and tied it around his neck. Rafter then turned his attention to JD; studying the wild eyes and split lip; again he awaited Stone's explanation.
"He's one of them sir, he was shooting his mouth. He's already taken his punishment."
Rafter nodded, "Get back to work." He spat, adding "Any more trouble from you and you'll take your friend's punishment." He nodded over to where Ezra was being chained to eight foot pole so that he was left to hang by the arms as the late afternoon sun beat down upon him.
JD trembled at the sight, his eyes filled with pity for his friend.
Satisfied by the boy's response, Rafter turned to Vin. Vin's eyes flashed with hatred; he strained to be free of the guards, his fists clenching against his sides.
Rafter felt the muscles of his upper arms, "He's strong." He said to Stone, "It would be a waste to kill him."
"Go to hell!" Vin spat, trying to tug himself free.
Rafter laughed, a hard, hollow sound. He placed a hand on the muscles of Vin's shoulder, then as quick as lightning, punched him hard in the gut.
The force knocked the wind out of Vin and put him on his knees. As he struggled to get his breath he was pulled back to his feet, only to be punched again. This time he fell against his attacker, his arms still held by the guards behind him.
Rafter put a meaty fist in his hair and pulled his head back,
"I won't break a strong man, there's not enough of you left." He glared down at Vin, seeing a knot in his jaw as Vin fought with the agony.
"When he's finished here, take him back down the mine. He'll work until midnight, the extra load should tame him..." He pushed Vin off, chilled by the cold glare the younger man gave him.
"Yes sir," said Stone, grinning at the pained man before him. He followed Rafter back to the cabin and sat a while, taking food and water with their leader.
Vin was marched back to resume his work. The other slaves looked at him with pity in their eyes but Vin refused to acknowledge any of them. He agonized over the treatment of his friends and his failure to protect them. Lifting the pickaxe, he felt his tender ribs protest but he paid no heed to his injuries.
JD blinked away his tears and struggled to gather logs; it was a more difficult task now, because his wrist restraints had been placed back on. The other workers gathered around him and supported him as best they could through his ordeal. He was severely unnerved by Ezra's cruel torture and his resolve all but abandoned him. He worked the last few hours in an almost catatonic state, the only sign of conscious thought, a glance at the chained figure by the mine entrance.
Ezra came close to blacking out as he hung by the wrists in the dying sunlight. He was in excruciating pain and thirst was driving him insane. He fancied he would die this night and put an end to his suffering. If he'd chance to reason with himself he might have asked if anyone would miss the charismatic gambler, but even this was denied him. The sack over his head took away the last of his senses, leaving him in a place that might as well be hell itself.
After an age, which in fact was less than two hours, the whistle blew and the slaves breathed a collective sigh of relief. The tired guards gathered the men into lines and drove them back towards the mine. Rafter walked out of his cabin and called out to them,
"Take that scum with you." He glared at the weary procession and watched as some of them made there way to where Ezra hung.
Very gently, Vin and another slave lifted Ezra from the hook that held the chain. The gambler moaned softly as his arms fell into his lap, folding up in Vin's arms as he and the other man carried the gambler inside. When they reached the entrance to the cavern, Vin placed Ezra on the floor then very gently unfastened the suffocating sack and carefully pulled his friend free of it. He wanted to do more; desperate to make sure Ezra would be okay, but the guards pulled him away and started pushing him down the mine to start his next shift.
"Take care of him, JD," he called, before disappearing into the darkness of the shaft.
JD nodded and was thankful when two of the slaves picked Ezra up and carried him into the cavern where they 'lived'. Once inside, the bigger of the two men shoved the workers already inside the chamber aside and placed the southerner on a rare piece of soft earth.
One of the slaves nudged JD and passed him a mug of water. "Here, drink this, we'll tend to your friend."
"No, thanks... Vin said I'd gotta to do it." JD drank some of the water then finished unfastening the rope from around Ezra's neck.
"Ezra?" he called softly.
Green eyes gazed back at him from under half closed lids. "A'hm alright, son." he croaked, wincing as JD slipped a hand under his head and raised him enough to place the mug to his lips.
Ezra swallowed greedily; the tepid water tasting finer than any French champagne. He took his fill of it and quickly felt strong enough to try and sit up.
"No." JD warned him as he tried to get on his elbows, "Vin said you should rest."
Ezra wasn't about to complain; he felt like hell. He shifted his tingling hands on his chest then looked over at his friend.
"How do you feel?"
JD's lip quivered, his voice sounding strangled, "I hurt... I'm scared. " He checked back the threatening tears, "And you're covered in blood." He looked away, brushing his eyes with the back of his hand.
Ezra sighed, he didn't really know why, but it afforded him just a tiny bit of release.
"Help me up, JD, Ah don't want to miss supper time." He held out his manacled hands to the youngster and with JD's help managed to sit up. His head swam, but he paid no attention to it, there would be time later to lick his wounds.
Ezra's bravado helped to perk the kid up. He ripped a hem from his shirt and damping it with water, set about cleaning up Ezra's head wound.
The attention hurt the southerner more than he would say; at least it sharpened his mind, especially when JD turned to Ezra's bloodied hands and began to take the multitude of splinters out of them. .
By the time the meager offerings were served up, Ezra was hungry. He took all that was offered to him then turned to JD.
"Try and save something for Vin." He slipped his bread from the plate and under his shirt and nodded with approval when JD did the same. Once the meal was over Ezra made sure they both drank their fill of water then settled down on the damp earth to sleep. They were too exhausted to let their minds worry about the day and despite their guilt at the thought of Vin toiling away for hours yet, they fell into a deep sleep.
Chris Larabee lay on his back and gazed up at the star filled night. His body ached from long hours in the saddle and the strenuous walk up the hill. At any other time he'd joke about getting too old for the job, knowing that Vin, especially, would keep the joke going.
If the three young men were held prisoner and used to work a mine, he pondered how Vin would cope with the incarceration. The tracker held a fear about being trapped within four walls and although he tried to keep the fear under control, it sometimes flared. Even in Four Corners, Vin slept in his wagon, whatever the weather. He'd been so used to living on the edge of flight, Chris doubted the young man would ever truly relax even if his name was cleared and the bounty was taken off his head.
Chris wished he could pray for the safe return of their companions, like Josiah was doing, but he'd lost faith in God after his family was murdered and he was finding it difficult to locate again. But maybe the stars would listen to him.
"Watch over our friends, they mean a great deal to us," he whispered, slipping under the blanket and settling down for the night.
Lying on the cold, dirt floor amidst a sea of sleeping bodies, Ezra was not surprised to find himself awake after a few hours exhausted sleep. He found it impossible to be still for long, his injuries painful enough to make frequent movements necessary. Trouble was, each time he moved, he brought forth a whole new sensation of pain from protesting muscles.
Eventually he rolled onto his back and stared up at the cavern roof, wondering if its moving rippled surface was caused by the candlelight or a trick of his mind. He took a deep breath and brought his hands up to lie on his chest. No one had released him from his chains so he still wore the wrist manacles as well as ankle restraints. He arranged the chain links against his chest so that they didn't sit over a bruise then laughed softly to himself. The mirth did not last long; as the fleeting moment passed he screwed his eyes up against the rising emotions and growled low in his throat,
'Get a grip of yourself, Ezra.' he silently scolded himself, wincing as JD squeezed his arm.
"Ezra, look. Vin's back," JD whispered, struggling to lean over the gambler's side.
Ezra followed his gaze. He could see Vin in silhouette, his lean figure stooped in the entrance of the cavern, swaying slightly as the guards released him from his wrist restraints.
"No food for this one!" The guard warned everyone before pushing Vin forward.
JD sat up and helped Ezra into a sitting position as Vin picked himself over the sleeping bodies on the shadowy floor. He slumped to his knees before them, a ragged breath escaping his lips,
"Ah, boys," he whispered, "You saved me a feather bed." He let JD help him to sit up then looked at his friends.
JD's relief was tangible, he shook with it, wrapping himself around Vin's shoulder as Ezra passed the bounty hunter water.
Vin nodded his thanks to Ezra, watching the gambler closely.
"We were worried." JD told him, "You've been so long."
Vin smiled tiredly and winked at the boy, turning his attention back to his drink.
"Take what you need." Ezra said in a tired voice, "There's plenty."
Vin downed the liquid and passed it back to Ezra for refilling. He turned as JD placed bread in his hands.
"We saved you supper... but it's more like breakfast now." He rubbed tired eyes.
Vin took a bite of the bread then patted the earth, "Lie down, JD, try and get some sleep." He held the bread up, "Thanks fer this."
JD lay down on his side and curled up, closing his eyes. He didn't need any persuading.
Ezra passed the refilled cup back to the bounty hunter and sat quietly, watching the muscles in Vin's back spasm as he raised the food and water to his lips. There was a lot Vin wasn't telling about his punishment. Ezra reached out with his fingers, and careful to keep his wrist chains away from Vin's back, he gently kneaded the bunched muscles in his shoulders.
"Oh Ezra..." Vin sighed softly, "Ya missed your callin'."
"Don't go telling anyone," Ezra whispered, his fingers teasing muscles into submission until Vin's head lolled forward, chin on chest.
Ezra moved away and Vin gingerly eased himself to lie down on his back. He looked up at Ezra's tense form,
"You too Ez..." he said firmly, noting how the gambler acceded to his command and despite the discomfort, lay down.
Ezra turned away from Vin and tried to make himself comfortable.
Vin closed his eyes and slowed his breathing the Indian way. He was almost on the edge of sleep when he thought he heard... Another stifled sob escaped the southerner's lips. Vin rolled onto his side and squinted in the darkness.
Ezra's shoulders shook gently as he fought against the tears. It was a losing battle, the days event and his misery at the pain he'd caused his friends, rose inside him until he could no longer hold it back. He jumped as Vin's fingers closed on his shoulders.
"Don't cry, Ezra." Vin soothed, gently rubbing the back of his neck.
"It's nothing," Ezra lied, "Ah'm tired that's all." He squeezed his eyes shut, willing himself to be still as Vin's fingers worked comforting circles upon his flesh. But the tears would not go away; another sob slipped through his lips and Ezra found himself being turned and gathered against Vin's shoulder, the bounty hunter's fingers caressing his temples.
"Hush," Vin whispered, settling Ezra against him. "Go to sleep," he told him, his breath fanning the gambler's eyelids, "I got ya."
Ezra sighed deeply and curled into Vin's embrace. For the first time in hours he forgot the aches and pains and slipped into a dreamless sleep.
Holding his injured friend close, Vin closed his eyes and felt the anger inside him rise. Any thought of sleep disappeared as he mulled over his revenge against Rafter and his men. He was still brooding when the whistles blew and his friends stirred and the next day began.
Stone slid into the cabin and without being asked, sat down opposite Rafter.
"Charlie said ya wanted to see me?"
"Yes..." Rafter ran a finger over his moustache as he pondered the situation. "It's time to move out. The mine's drying up, the workers are half dead..."
Stone smirked every time he heard Rafter call them workers; they were slaves, whether he liked it or not.
"And Reece has brought me news from town. Seems like a Judge Travis is asking a lot of questions about missin' folk..." Rafter lit one of his cigars, not offering one to Stone. "And there's talk that the army might be called in to help with the search."
"Why's this Travis interested?"
"Seems that three of his friends have gone missing... they came this way lookin' for a lost mine!"
"Fancy Pants and those two pretty faces... has to be..."
"Sounds like it. Hell, we knew our silver lining wouldn't last forever..."
"What's your plan?" Stone knew as well as Rafter that they couldn't leave any witnesses.
"Over the next few days we'll start moving the rest of the silver out... pack up the wagons. Keep the workers inside the mine, I don't want them seeing us..."
"We blow the mine... it's a perfect grave."
"You meant to do that all along."
Rafter finally offered Stone a cigar, smiling as he said, "It's clean... I don't have the stomach for executions."
Stone wasn't bothered how they died, but this was a cleaner way and saved on bullets. "I'll get right to it. One thing though, how you goin' to plant the explosive when they're always in the mine?"
"I thought a nice party, cheer 'em up. I'm sure they'll enjoy it..."
"A goin' away party!" Stone laughed harshly, "I like it..."
"Tell your boys, they can either wait for me to exchange the silver, or they can be paid by it..."
"I'll talk it over with 'em..."
"We'll also split the profit we make on the horses and other stuff. Just make sure that if anything has a name on it or something that can lead it back to one of those folk out there, destroy it... we leave here clean.."
"Understood." Stone would take that assignment on personally. There were a few personal items that had taken his eye, especially the little pop gun that fancy pants used.
"Oh no, not another communal bath..." Ezra groaned as the workers were herded outside.
"Don't think so, Ez... we're stayin close to the mine... and I smell..."
Before Vin could finish JD squeaked, "Bacon! and bread!"
"And coffee..." Vin concluded. "Guess we're goin' to have a feast tonight," he quipped. "And we get to sit outside."
To Vin, this was more important than the food. The last few days had been a nightmare for him as Stone had kept all of the slaves, except the children, inside the cavern, apart from today when the women had been allowed out.
During the day, the work had been enough to control Vin's irrational fears, but the nights had been stifling. He'd spoken to Ezra about his fear of being closed in and the southerner had told him he maybe suffered with something called clausphobe... or something like that. Knowing that he wasn't alone in suffering this panic, helped him a little, but not much.
Ezra smiled at Vin's childlike enthusiasm for being outside. He understood the terrible torment the tracker was going through being trapped inside every day.
JD was so consumed by the thought of eating a decent meal he didn't take much notice of Vin's reaction.
Once outside they were all herded together and the men's eyes lit up as they saw the poorly constructed trestle tables, laden with the food the women and children had been making all day. Everyone lined up and walked past the tables; they were allowed biscuits, two pieces of bread and a slice of bacon each, plus a small mug of coffee.
"Hardly the finest French cuisine, but compared to what we've been eating it's a veritable feast. Wonder who's birthday we're celebrating?" Ezra looked at the biscuits suspiciously, "Don't think they're poisoned do you?"
JD stopped mid bite through his first biscuit and looked worriedly at his friends. Ezra was still inspecting his, but Vin was eating as if there was no tomorrow.
"Hell kid, poison cain't be worse than what we've been eatin'."
JD had to agree with him and began to eat voraciously.
After a few moments Ezra shrugged his shoulders then joined in with the feast.
After the meal they expected to be herded straight back into the cavern again, but Charlie informed them that they could stay out for a little while longer. JD hoped that the meal might help lift everyone's spirits, but only a few people got together to make conversation.
The children were also uneasy, they'd forgotten how to play and enjoy themselves and were just as afraid of the guards.
Lily gravitated towards her three favorite friends. "Hello JD," she said coyly. Although she adored Vin and Ezra, her girlish crush was on JD.
"Hello angel, did you get somethin' to eat?" Like the others, JD was concerned about the children's welfare.
"Yes... Momma gave me some of hers, too." She turned and smiled at Ezra, "Are you goin' to tell me a story tonight, Ezwa?"
"If that's what you want, my honeychile!" He grabbed hold of her and tickled her tummy until she squealed with delight.
"Hey Vin! You still got your harmonica?" JD asked brightly. "It might cheer folk up if they here some music."
Vin dug deep in his pocket, searching out the instrument, ignoring Ezra's remark about Vin being tone deaf.
"Yep," he said as he pulled it out. "What should I play?"
"Somethin' we could dance to... cos I'm invitin' Miss Lily for a dance."
Soon, the not too mellifluous sounds of Camptown Races was wafting through the canyon.
Lily dragged Ezra and JD to their feet and began to dance with them both. It wasn't long before all the other children and some of the couples were also dancing.
Oh Susanna! came next with everyone joining in with the chorus. Everyone was relaxing and beginning to enjoy themselves; their trials and tribulations forgotten, until Thomas Rafter, flanked between two guards walked amongst them, his blank look causing everyone to cease their frolicking.
"I'm pleased to see you all enjoying yourselves," he said smugly. "Because happy workers make good workers..." His laugh was cold and humourless, "And that means better productivity."
"Ah knew there was an ulterior motive," Ezra whispered, having learnt not to draw attention to himself.
Rafter walked towards Vin, his smile never faltering, "I had no idea we had a musician in our midst. Such a waste of talent." Mindful of the trouble Vin had caused since his incarceration, Rafter wasn't surprised to see the fight still there in the young man's startling blue eyes,
"You really are something special, Mr...Tanner, isn't it? I wonder what it would take to diminish your spirit..." Before anyone could react, he'd grabbed hold of JD and placed a gun to his head. "Would killing this boy make you flinch... or maybe that little negro child who's always following you around?"
Without thinking of the consequences, Ezra picked Lily up and handed her back to her mother.
"You sir, are a tyrant. Haven't you inflicted enough pain on these poor people. How can a man stoop so low as to threaten the life of a child."
Vin cast a warning glance at Ezra; couldn't the gambler see the madness in Rafter's eyes? One wrong word and JD would die.
Rafter noticed the look between the two men and realized that Tanner was strong because of his innate sense of duty at protecting his friends; but what if he were forced to hurt one of them? Still firmly holding onto JD, he ordered his men to move the slaves to one side, except for Ezra and Vin.
"I think it's time to continue with the entertainment. It's a different kind of dance... If you're not quick on your feet, you're beaten to a pulp... and our first... our only two contestants are..." He beckoned for Stone to do the announcement.
"Pretty Boy versus Fancy Pants!" Stone called out, using his own names for the two men.
"I won't fight," Vin said adamantly.
"Yes you will, or your young friend dies and then I'll search out the little girl..."
"Ah was wrong sir, tyrant is too nice a word for you..." Ezra seethed, his sore hands clenching into a fist.
"It's your choice..." Rafter ignored Ezra's jibes.
"Don't do it!" JD screamed, his concern for his companions outweighing his own safety.
"Shut up sonny, or the first contest will be you against Mr. Stone... would you like that?"
"I ain't scared of him, or you."
"Well that's foolish, because you really should be..." Rafter shoved JD towards Stone and the large man began to crush him in a bear hug so tight the youngster could almost hear his bones cracking.
Vin took a step forward, but half a dozen carbines pointing his way stopped him. He looked from JD to Ezra and saw the slightest of nods from the southerner.
"Very well, we'll fight, so call off your guard dog..."
"I want a proper fight or the boy will suffer."
"You'll get it... now let him go."
Rafter nodded to Stone who loosened his grip on JD but still retained a hold on him.
"Are there any rules to this altercation?" Ezra asked sublimely as he rolled up what was left of his sleeves.
"None at all. Last one standing, wins." Ordering everyone back, Rafter told the two combatants to begin.
Vin had participated in many fights during his life. He was tall and rangy and he held little body weight normally, now, though the muscles were still there, due to the work he did every day, his frame was thin. Ezra, smaller, stockier, had also lost weight, but like Vin he still held muscle and his body was firm. He also knew how to fight, but it was more controlled than Vin's technique, having been taught as a child, by a very pugnacious uncle.
Vin hoped to overpower Ezra quickly as he didn't want to hurt his friend, but they had to make the fight look good for Rafter and his thugs. But as soon as the fists began to fly he realized his mistake in underestimating the gambler. Ezra was good and he'd found strength from somewhere.
Tumbling them both to the ground, Vin hissed, "What'cha doin?"
"Ah am fighting for what's left of mah dignity." Ezra replied before smashing his right fist against Vin's jaw. The action causing as much pain to him as his opponent.
Vin shook his head, stunned. He tried to throw Ezra from him but the smaller man was like a dog with a bone and he wasn't about to let go. Two more crashing blows and Vin's frail hold on consciousness snapped and he flopped back on the ground.
Realizing what he'd done, Ezra struggled to his feet and glared at Rafter. "Does that satisfy your bloodlust, sir?"
"Not bad... I'da bet my money on him..." Rafter walked over to the unconscious man and kicked him savagely in the ribs, "Just makin' sure he ain't playin possum."
"Bastard!" JD screamed as he yanked out of Stone's grip and ran over to his injured friend.
"I'm not the only one... " Rafter replied as he glanced around at the excited faces of nearly everyone watching.
Lily pushed through the adults and went to join JD. When she looked up at Ezra, his heart constricted. His angel no longer loved him; it was a heavy price to pay for winning the fight.
Deciding that they'd had enough entertainment for the evening, Rafter told the guards to return the slaves to the mine.
Ezra knelt down by Vin, wiping blood away from the young man's face. "Go and fetch some water, JD!" He ordered the youngster without actually looking at him, afraid he'd see hatred in his eyes too.
Instead, JD's shaking hand reached down towards him. "S'okay Ezra, Vin'll understand... so do I."
The southerner looked up, shocked to see the tears streaming down JD's grubby face. It was all becoming too much for the boy and Ezra wondered how much longer they could all hang on.
'Dammit Larabee!' he cursed silently, Vin's so certain you'll come looking for us; don't let him down.
He was so busy tending to his injured friend, he didn't notice a tiny figure walk up to him until she was standing in front of him. "Lily... let me ex..."
Slap! The little girl had smacked him across the face, "Hate you Ezwa! You hurt Vin..." With that, she stomped off again.
How could he explain to her? Children understood black and white, no in betweens. Hopefully, once Vin recovered, he'd help Ezra out with her, that's if he understood himself.
He turned back to Vin, patting the side of the injured man's face with his open palm, "Vin, can you hear me? Vin?" He reached down to pat his face again but was pulled roughly away by a guard. As he shied away he heard JD's indignant cry. Before he could stop them, the guards back handed JD across the face, throwing him onto his butt in the dirt. Ezra gasped in horror, pulling away from rough hands, trying to reach Vin before anymore harm could befall him, but as he scrambled towards the prone body one of the guards threw a bucket of water over the tracker, laughing at Ezra's futile efforts.
The gambler was mortified; he ignored the taunts and crawled through the wet sand to kneel beside Vin who was writhing and gasping.
"Easy Vin." He said in his steadiest voice he could muster, "Lie still for a moment." He looked up as JD crawled along side them, his mouth spilling blood.
"You all right son?" Ezra asked, wincing as Vin's fingers bit into his wrist.
"Wh... what happened?" Vin gasped, accepting Ezra's help to sit up.
"You were out." Ezra told him flatly rubbing the tracker's back as Vin coughed.
Ezra jumped when one of the guards passed by and slapped JD around the head.
"Move it, runt!" the man spat, staring at the boy. JD scrambled to his feet and linked arms with Vin.
"Let's get out of here!" he said urgently enough to have Ezra on his feet and hauling Vin up to. The tracker wobbled precariously then sank back to his knees.
"Whoa there!" Ezra called out, steadying Vin's fall before renewing his efforts to get him back on his feet. With JD's help they stumbled inside, weaving like drunks as they strained to get an almost conscious Vin back to the safety of the cavern. Despite their best efforts they collapsed in an undignified heap in the middle of the chamber, poor Vin on the bottom, groaning fit to bust.
JD was the first to untangle himself; he helped Ezra to sit up then the two men turned the tracker onto his back. Vin coughed, spitting blood over the two men who watched over him. Ezra winced in disgust and looked at the dark haired youngster.
"Could you procure us some water for washing, JD?" he asked gently, avoiding the boy's eyes.
JD got to his feet and shuffled away towards the doorway where the water barrels were. Ezra leaned over the tracker and cupped the side of his face,
"Ah apologize for hitting you," he breathed, knowing Vin would not answer, even though he was still conscious. Brushing unruly hair from the injured man's face, Ezra studied the injuries he'd inflicted upon him. Each cut and bruise he could own, he berated himself for, his heart aching as he twisted his imagined knife inside. He didn't realize he'd faded away until JD tugged at his arm,
"Ezra, where are you?!" the kid cried, breathing hard as he fought to swallow his panic. Lily was standing beside him, her chubby arms around the youngster's neck as he crouched at Vin's side.
Ezra shook himself and took up the washcloth JD had found. He squeezed out excess moisture then laid the dirty linen against Vin's brow, tenderly wiping away the congealed blood and dirt. Vin moaned softly as the cloth pulled against the edges of his cuts, but he didn't open his eyes. Wanting to apologize, Ezra found his courage had deserted him. He put down the washcloth and turned to JD,
"Would you watch him for a while?" he asked, his voice cracking just a little as Lily turned her head away from him, hiding in the hair at the nape of JD's neck.
JD nodded, looking no more than a teenager himself; his face streaked with old tears.
Ezra got stiffly to his feet and moved away, finally sitting down an arms length away from the back wall of the cavern. He wrapped his arms around his legs and rested his forehead on his knees, feeling wretched.
He feared he'd broken the fragile trust that had grown between them, and this, should they leave this God forsaken place, would taint the relationship he shared with the other six.
'You blew it!' He berated himself, 'And now you're alone again.'
Somehow that fact was more unbearable than the punishment he and his friends were suffering. Listening to the sounds of the slaves settling down for the night, Ezra remained in his tight shell.
Vin came to with a jolt, waking JD who'd curled up by his side. The tracker raised himself on his elbows and squinted, trying to make out the shapes in the gloom.
"What happened?" he rasped, studying JD's tear streaked face.
His grief forgotten, JD leant on an elbow and tiredly replied, "Ezra knocked you out. Do you remember coming back down here?"
Vin raked back over recent memories, "Some..." he admitted, looking around. "Where is he?" he asked of Ezra.
JD nodded over Vin's shoulder and following his gaze the tracker was dismayed to see Ezra's slumped form over by the far wall.
"What's he doin'?" he asked breathlessly.
JD watched the gambler for a moment, his own heart heavy. "He's ashamed."
"Why?" Vin asked too quickly.
JD's look gave him the answer he didn't want to hear.
"That's crazy," he grumbled, getting JD's agreement by a nod. He struggled to sit up and gathered his legs underneath him.
"What are you goin' to do?" JD asked, eyes following the tracker to his feet.
"Come on, I'll show you," Vin said determinedly, turning to stagger towards the lonely figure.
JD got to his feet and followed, shaking his head in wonder.
Ezra ached just enough to keep sleep at bay. He leaned back against the cold rock wall, curling his legs under him so that he was half sitting, half lying. He wrapped his arms as far around his body as his chains would allow and squeezed his eyes shut. He missed his companions, they made this hell almost bearable. Laying his head against a rock he fought against the whisperings in his mind and tried to sleep.
Vin padded as softly as his chains would allow, over to Ezra's side, and looked down. The sight of the southerner curled up uncomfortably at the base of the rock tugged at his heart.
Ezra's brow was furrowed with pain and his face bore witness to the blows he'd received during the fight. Motioning for JD to make space and lie down, Vin dropped to his knees and leant forward, placing one hand on Ezra's shoulder, the other massaging the base of the gambler's neck. Ezra stirred and struggled to straighten, turning and freezing as he saw Vin before him.
The tracker smiled sadly. "Me and the kid couldn't sleep on our own. Mind if we join ya?"
Ezra gazed gratefully at Vin, then turned to look at JD. The kid had taken Vin's advice and now lay curled on his side, looking up at the gambler.
"Ah would be happy to share mah humble abode with you." He smiled back at Vin, easing himself away from the wall to lie down beside JD.
The youngster closed his eyes, Ezra did likewise, listening to Vin settling down behind him. Fingers entwined with his own and Ezra opened his eyes to see JD's hand resting lightly on his hand. He sighed contentedly and closed his eyes again, warmed by his friends comfort and reassured by the gentle caress Vin laid upon his shoulder.