Wounds of A Friend
by THE BUFFALO GALS
The explosion had caused enough confusion for Rafter and his cohorts to leave the scene without any of the slaves trying to fight back. The few people who'd escaped the mine were still wandering around in shock. Some searching for their families, others wondering what they were going to do, now that they were free.
Ezra, after making sure JD was comfortable, gathered them all together. It was a pitiful sight. No more than a dozen people stood before him. dazed, hurt, angry. Two of the women were crying uncontrollably; their husbands trapped behind the rubble that covered the mine entrance. One of the children wept; both her parents were missing.
Ezra was holding back his own pain. Vin Tanner was also missing. After the first explosion, Vin and Ezra had helped to carry some of the wounded outside, including JD, who'd been flung across the cavern like a rag doll. Once they were certain he was alive, Vin had told Ezra to stay with him, while he returned back into the mine; at that moment, the second explosion had occurred, blocking off the mine entrance. Ezra had watched in horror as he'd clung on to the younger man; there was no way Vin could possibly survive that.
Without Vin to guide them, Ezra was at a loss. These people wouldn't follow him; they'd seen his spirit weakened by the constant abuse inflicted on him . He was no guiding light, but someone had to try.
"Ah suggest we collect together what useful items we can. Plus we need to find food."
"What about those trapped in the mine?" one bedraggled woman asked.
"We will see what can be done," Ezra replied, hoping to hide his doubts.
"We should go and find help!" someone shouted. "Not wait around here, to die like those poor souls."
There was a murmur of agreement from some of the others and Ezra could already feel his tentative hold on the leadership slipping.
'Well, Mr. Tanner, you'd be very proud of me.' he thought dryly. 'Ah obviously do not imbue confidence in the masses.'
"Now, now..." He tried again to take control, "We have no means of transport. Do any of you know where the nearest town is...?"
"You stay here if you want to." The voice belonged to a man about Chris' age and stature. "You won't last long anyway, not with that long haired fellah dead, and the kid not far off. All we got to do is follow Rafter's trail. We can fill the canteens, take 'em with us!" He rallied to the raggedy bunch of starving, confused people. "Who's with me!?"
Everyone, except the two distraught women agreed to go with him.
Ezra made one last attempt at making them see sense. "At least if you're leaving, go the other way. There's a town, not three days from here. Willow Springs. Following Rafter is foolish. Who knows where that trail will take you."
"Listen Mr. Fancy Pants..."
Ezra cringed at the label, even those as unfortunate as himself were using it.
"We're goin' that way! Come on folk, let's see what we can salvage. Then hit the trail, 'fore the wind blows it away."
Ezra sat back down and gathered JD close to him. "Seems we're on our own, Mr. Dunne. Ah wonder what Vin would do in this situation?"
JD opened his pain filled eyes. "You'll do fine, Ezra..." He turned his head slightly, wincing as he did so. "What about Vin?" Tears welled up; he tried to quell them, now was not the time to act like a baby.
Ezra sighed as he wiped the gritty sweat from his eyes. "Ah don't know. Ah'll take a look, once Ah've made you comfortable."
"No... go now... I'll be all right. Please Ezra, we can't give up on him... he..." JD couldn't continue, his head hurt too much.
"He wouldn't give up on us, I know that son..." Weakly, Ezra got to his feet, made sure JD was in the strongest shade, then trudged over to the devastated mine entrance.
The two women who'd lost their husbands, were there, pulling away at the rocks, their hands already a mass of blood. He looked at them pitifully. What chance did they have of ever removing the death wall in front of them. What chance did he have? He was about to ask them to stop, but the faraway, hopeless look in their eyes told him it would be a wasted gesture. They wouldn't be whole again until they'd joined their menfolk in the next world.
Ezra scrambled over the rocks, searching for the slightest aperture that might lead back into the mine, but it was a hopeless search. Even if Vin and the others had survived the initial blast, there was no possible way out, and eventually any survivors would perish, either through starvation or lack of oxygen.
By the time he returned to JD, the youngster had passed out. Perhaps nothing could be done for Vin, but JD was another matter. The first priority was water, of which there was an abundance. Ezra scanned the area, latching onto an upturned bucket; the problem was, another man had seen it and was hurrying towards the precious item. Ezra scrambled over the scattered debris, his fingers latching onto the handle at the same time as his opponent.
"Give it to me!" the man screamed. "We need it to survive!"
"And Ah need it to help my friend." Ezra clung onto the bucket as if it were a pot of gold, his eyes boring into the other man's, willing him to let go.
He wasn't about to let JD down. The boy needed him now and Ezra couldn't bear the thought of losing another of his friends.
His opponent growled and snarled, but too many months of food deprivation had weakened his resistance and he was unwilling to continue the fight.
"Bah! You can have it... If you're stayin' here you'll need it..." He let go of the handle and Ezra almost fell backwards.
"Thank you, sir," he replied sarcastically as he turned away.
He made the trek through the canyon to where the lazy river continued to flow, its own path uninterrupted by the life and death episode being acted around it. Some of the others were there too, filling canteens and buckets, ready for their long trip ahead.
Ezra shook his head. He knew little about frontier life, but one thing was sure, the people were heading in the wrong direction and they had little chance of survival. Despairing for them, Ezra washed himself down, drank some of the water, remembering Vin's warning about over drinking, then after filling up the bucket, he made his way back to his injured friend, careful not to spill any of the precious liquid.
Vin's head hurt; a booming sound reverberated through it. And there was pain shooting up his back; why? Where was he, and why was he lying on his belly? The darkness surrounding him was confusing, but as he lay on the uneven floor of the cavern his eyes closed and his mind cleared. There'd been two explosions; the second one occurring just as he re-entered the mine to help with the injured.
Ezra and JD! Where were they? His fears abated when he remembered he and Ezra taking JD out of the mine just before the second explosion. They were safe; hopefully. But he wasn't so sure about himself. He wanted to stand, but something kept holding him down.
Carefully he moved his hand across his back to feel what the problem was. A wooden beam was lying across it.
"Damn!" he muttered, hoping he'd be able to dislodge it easily.
But before he had chance to try any further movement a vague figure appeared at his side, and a friendly voice said,
"Hold on, son."
"Jacob! You hurt?"
Though Vin couldn't see him, Jacob was smiling. The younger man always thought of others first.
"I'm fine, Vin. Just a knock on the head... and that won't do me any harm. Let's help get this off you."
After a few minutes of struggling, Vin was free of the beam and was sitting next to the friendly black man.
"We gotta find survivors then try and get out of here."
"Already been checkin' son. Don't look too good. We're blocked in, behind and front."
"Eleven of us... Vin, Lily's hurt... bad."
"Where...?" Vin's heart constricted at the thought of his angel hurting. He'd promised her she'd be free once his friends arrived. A promise she reminded him of every day. He followed Jacob over to where the others had gathered and saw, huddled in the corner, the little girl. One of the few lanterns still working had been placed next to her.
'Nathan, what do I do?' he thought as his calloused hands reached down to her. "Lily, can you hear me, Angel?"
Her eyes flew open at the sound of his voice and she whispered, "Pick me up Vin. It hurts... make it go away."
Gulping down threatening tears, he glanced over to Jacob. "What should I do? I could hurt her more."
Jacob shook his head, "It don't matter anymore, son."
For a few seconds the words didn't register, then Vin reached out and pulled the child towards him. "How long do you think she has?"
"Cain't tell. I ain't no doctor," Jacob replied somberly, his heart bleeding for the both of them. "See if you can get her to sleep, then we'll try and find a way out of here."
"Found her... dead..."
"I ain't leavin' her alone," Vin said as he rocked the child. "You look for an escape, you don't need me."
"Yes I do... we all do. Vin, these folk see a strength in you... they'll work for you."
"What are you talkin' about? I ain't no leader."
"No? Then look around."
Stroking a hand through Lily's blood matted hair, Vin glanced up and was shocked by what he saw. Jacob was right, the few survivors were looking at him, a faint sign of hope in their eyes.
Ezra, lying in a deeply shaded area under the rocks, watched impassively as the last remaining workers picked up their pathetically few supplies and canteens of water and began their solemn journey in search of help. The gambler had given up trying to tell them they were going in the wrong direction, they weren't listening to him, a man they'd regularly observed being beaten and humiliated by the guards.
If only Vin were here, he thought. They'd listen to him.
But Vin wasn't with them any longer, he lay trapped, probably dead, behind a ten foot wall of debris. Suddenly, guilt overwhelmed Ezra. It had been his blind greed that brought them here and his selfish nature that had cost Vin his life and nearly killed JD. How could he ever face Chris and the others again and how would Chris cope, losing someone who meant so much to him?
A raspy coughing noise brought him out of his miserable reverie. He turned to JD. The younger man was staring at him strangely. Did he already hate the gambler? Ezra was surprised when JD said,
"It wasn't your fault. None of this." He coughed again, so Ezra carefully eased him into a sitting position against the rocks and passed him a cup of water.
"Thanks Ezra... I came here cos I wanted to... so did Vin..." JD's friendly brown eyes deepened when he saw the people leaving, "Where are they goin?"
"The wrong direction," Ezra replied simply. "Ah tried to warn them."
"Are we alone now?"
"Yes, except..." Ezra nodded towards the two women who were still industriously pulling away at the rubble.
A madness had seeped over the women, something intangible. Ezra knew his breath would be wasted in trying to stop them. They would die under the blistering heat, but they were so far gone in their madness they neither knew nor cared.
"Can't we help them?"
"They died in the explosion JD. But their bodies haven't registered death yet. Ah would not be heard if Ah spoke to them."
JD thought he understood, but his head hurt too much to sift through Ezra's explanation. Tears sprung unbidden into his eyes as he said pitifully, "I miss Vin..."
"As do Ah, my young friend," Ezra replied tiredly. He was desperate for sleep, but until he knew the others had left he couldn't let his guard slip.
He'd scavenged, along with the rest of them, during the afternoon, yet never wandered far from his injured companion. He'd managed to acquire a few strips of beef jerky, a tin of beans and half a loaf of stale bread. More importantly, he'd found a canteen and a broken knife. It was a pitiful selection, but it would have to do. He'd already decided that he and JD would leave the following morning, going back in the direction they'd come, even if it meant carrying the younger man.
Ezra woke up with a start! He couldn't remember falling asleep, but the rest had cleared his aching head. The sun was close to setting and the temperature had dropped rapidly. He'd have to get a fire going soon. He turned to check on JD and was horrified to find him missing.
"JD! Oh Lord... JD!" Ezra couldn't believe the boy had gone too far, the youngster was sick. He scanned the area, the dusky light making it almost impossible to see any movement. Then he saw him. JD was on the pile of rocks blocking the mine entrance and was industrially pulling them away. Both women were close by; they'd fallen from exhaustion and were now unmoving.
"Oh no..." Ezra scurried towards the rocks, carefully picking his way over them.
"JD... son... what are you doing?"
"Vin... I can hear Vin... can't you, Ezra?" JD never turned away from his work, it was important he remove this blockage, Vin needed him.
"No... Ah can't hear him," Ezra replied as he caught hold of the boy's hands and pulled him away. "You can't do this alone. We have to find help."
"No!" JD's face was ashen, with dark smudges under his sunken eyes, "I can hear him... I gotta find him."
"Tomorrow, when we're rested." Ezra replied, attempting to placate his friend. If he could get JD to rest through the night he might be more lucid in the morning.
"Can't leave him... can't..."
"Just come and get some rest, then we'll try some more." Ezra led JD away from the rubble. He needed to find somewhere comfortable for JD to relax. Rafter's cabin was close by and had been unaffected by the blast. JD stumbled along side him, unaware of where Ezra was leading him.
The cabin had been stripped apart from the bed, and also a stove in the corner.
"Let's get you onto the bed..." Ezra manhandled JD carefully until he was resting on the mattress, "Good boy..."
There were no blankets, but hopefully the cabin would warm up once the stove was working. It was an hour before Ezra could sit down and eat a mouthful of bread and a strip of jerky. He offered some to JD but the youngster just turned and faced the wall, not out of anger, just apathy.
Deciding it would be unwise to force the youngster, Ezra quietly picked at his own meager meal before readying himself for sleep.
Suddenly he remembered the two females, still outside on the rocks. He hurried over to them and gathered the first woman in his arms only to discover she was already dead. He'd noticed a large gash to the side of her head, probably sustained during the blast. Accepting there was nothing to be done for her, he laid her back down and turned to the second woman. She was alive... barely. The sun had done its worst to her during the day and she was dehydrated as well as having suffered injuries to her head and body. Gathering her up he carried her back to the cabin and placed her on the floor near to the stove. In the dimly lit cabin he tried to make her as comfortable as possible but Ezra instinctively knew that the effort was in vain; he doubted she'd survive the night.
Once he'd checked on JD again and was happy that the boy was sleeping normally, Ezra lay down on the floor next to the bed and was soon in a deep sleep himself.
Chris Larabee was certain the noise he'd heard the day before was an explosion of some kind. But the grouping of the hills meant it was difficult to discern exactly where it had come from. Yet the whole day through he'd been unsettled, as had the other three riders.
They'd rode long into the night, finally having to stop when Josiah's horse had stumbled causing the preacher to jar his back and complain that his ass was now the same shape as the saddle! But as soon as dawn broke they were riding again, the two hills that were their destination drawing nearer and nearer.
"If there's trouble ahead Chris we oughta be ready..." Buck Wilmington reasoned as he rode along side his friend.
"What you suggestin' ?"
"I ride ahead, take a look around."
Buck smiled his easy smile, "My horse is the youngest and freshest. We could be there and back 'fore noon."
Larabee admitted it was a sensible idea though he hated sending Buck or either of the others when he should be doin' it himself. "Very well, but watch your back... if there's somethin' happenin' at the mine we don't know how many we're up against."
"Careful's my middle name," Buck replied with teasingly. He turned to Nathan and Josiah, "See you boys later." With that he kicked the grey into a lope and was soon just a dot in the distance.
Chris kept worrying that if he'd made the wrong decision they were now down to three, and against who knew how many odds.
It was late morning by the time Ezra awoke. The sun's rays were seeping through the cracks in the cabin's door, their tendrils catching Ezra's skin and warming him. He sat up carefully, his body complaining at every movement. Turning towards the bed, he found it empty. He'd not heard the youngster get up and why hadn't JD woken him? Of course there was always the simple explanation that he'd gone outside to tend to his personal business.
The room was quiet now apart from Ezra's own unsteady breathing, and it took him a moment to realize the woman was silent; too silent. Crawling over to her, he turned her over. She looked asleep and her body was still warm, due to its proximity to the stove, but she was dead, probably had been for many hours.
He pushed away the soft curls that framed her face and held her to his chest.
"At least you're at peace now..." He whispered; angry at himself for never finding out her name. Maybe she had family somewhere; perhaps waiting for news of her?
"Ah'm so sorry..." he said as he laid her back down on the floor. "Ah will remember you, Ah promise."
There was nothing more he could do for her, but he could keep JD alive, he owed it to Vin. Tanner had been instrumental in keeping him alive this long, now it was up to Ezra.
Before going in search of JD, Ezra drank some of the water, now tepid after being left near to the stove all night and ate a mouthful of food, remembering that the youngster hadn't eaten anything since yesterday morning.
Outside, the heat of the sun was already soul sapping and once he'd located JD, Ezra was determined to take him to the river to cool off. But first he had to find him. It wasn't a difficult task. JD was back at the mine, throwing rubble to one side in his feeble attempt to rescue Vin.
Ezra groaned in disbelief. He'd hoped a good night's sleep would bring JD out of this insanity, but by the looks of him, the boy had been hard at work for hours. Sweat poured off him, drenching his filthy hair and incongruous beard and as Ezra reached him he could see the almost vacuous look in JD's rich brown eyes.
The gambler's own fragile hold on sanity was beginning to slip as he heard the youngster's continuing mantra.
"Find Vin... gotta find Vin... must find..."
"JD..." Ezra placed a hand on the youngster's arm, "You must come with me."
"No!" JD snatched his arm away, "Got to find Vin..."
Trying to placate the boy, Ezra said calmly, "Ah'll help you search for Vin, but have to take a drink first, then we'll find you something to cover your head."
"No..." JD turned to face Ezra, tears streaming down his dirt streaked face, "No time... I can hear him Ezra... can't you?"
'Ah wish Ah could,' thought Ezra. But still placating the boy, he replied, "Ah do, but if we're going to rescue him from this tomb we have to be strong."
JD squinted at Ezra and asked uncertainly, "You'll help?"
"Ah will son." The southerner placed an arm around JD's shoulder and began to pull him away from the rocks.
"Where's everyone gone?"
"They left... we're the only ones here now."
"We're not leavin'!" JD pulled away, "I ain't leavin' Vin."
Ezra glanced back towards the mine; Vin's coffin and said resignedly, "No JD, we're not leaving Vin."
Still determined to get the youngster to the river, Ezra led JD away from the mine, towards the ever welcoming water. They both walked like old men; their bodies stooped, their clothes in tatters and they clung onto each other in desperation.
Buck rode quietly into the canyon, gun in hand. He'd scanned the vicinity from the rocks above and had been shocked to see the blast damaged mine and area around. He'd hoped to see his friends, alive and well, but the stillness surrounding him as he rode in, was eerie.
He dismounted his horse and wandered over to the blocked mine, wondering if this was the reason for their disappearance. Had it been a rock fall or something more sinister? Chris had been adamant he'd heard an explosion. If Vin and the others were trapped inside, where were the horses? The corral was empty. There were too many unanswered questions.
Then, he saw, at the far end of the devastation, a scrap of red material, not unlike Vin's red shirt. A cold dread passed over him as he scrambled across the rocks towards the fabric. As he got nearer, he could make out the figure of a woman. Feeling guilty about the relief sweeping over him, Buck gently turned the female over. He reeled back when he saw her face; it had already been attacked by the insects and small creatures that inhabited the area.
"Oh God..." He groaned as he backed away; his stomach flipping over at the sight. More questions entered his head. Who was she? Why was she there? Where the hell was JD?!
"Dammit kid, I ain't never lettin' you out of my sight again!" he growled as he began to search the scattered buildings, finding the body of another woman inside one of the cabins.
"What the hell happened here?"
He walked back to the mine, deciding it would be a futile effort to start removing the debris himself, before noticing a patch of rubble that had already been disturbed. Had the woman done all this before she died? Walking back to his horse, Buck pulled the canteen from his saddle and took a good swig of water from it,
"Well boy..." He spoke to the docile creature, absently stroking its nose, "What do..." He whirled around having heard voices coming towards him from around the rocks jutting out on the far side of the mine. His gun nearly slipped through his fingers when he saw two raggedy figures shuffling his way,
"JD! Ezra!" He called in amazement as he ran towards them.
"Buck..." Ezra managed to say before dropping to his knees, the relief at seeing his friend overwhelming.
Buck reached out to give JD a hug and was shocked when the youngster pushed him away.
"Don't... have... time... gotta find... Vin..."
"Where?" Buck didn't have to ask, he knew. About to reach out to the boy again he stopped when Ezra said,
"He doesn't like being touched."
"What the hell happened here?" Buck growled as he turned his attention to Ezra, dragging him to his feet and shaking him.
Ezra tried to squirm away from him; Buck was an imposing sight when he was riled, much like Stone; but then he gathered himself together when he saw the matching terror in JD's eyes. The boy was safe now and Ezra had to make him comprehend that.
"Mr. Wilmington, if you wish to gain JD's acceptance, you must calm yourself. He's suffered many outrages these last few weeks... we all have."
"Where's Vin... is he dead?"
"Ah hope not sir, but Ah do fear for his life."
At the mention of Vin's name, JD wandered past them and back to his self appointed assignment, muttering, "Find Vin... gotta find Vin..."
"Is Nathan with you?"
"Huh? What..." Buck stood watching JD in horrid fascination, "They're about ten mile back... Ezra, do you feel strong enough to ride my horse?"
The gambler looked down at his bloodied hands; could he hold the reins and of course there was also the slight problem of the chains. He pulled up his tattered pants legs and said, "How do Ah ride with these on?"
"Ezra!" Buck had been so concerned about their health, he hadn't noticed the manacles around their legs, "There should be an axe around here... or somethin' else to break the chains."
While Buck searched for something to free Ezra from the manacles, the southerner collapsed down on the rocks and watched JD as the boy sifted through the rubble, this time in a different place.
Ezra began to laugh; the whole situation was unreal, in fact he was beginning to wonder if the whole thing was just one long nightmare! The laugh became hysterical, then the tears began to flow. It was too much ... all too much. When Buck stomped over to him, large rock in hand, Ezra grinned maniacally at him,
"You sir are an illusion... a... mirage." Wiping the tears from his face he continued to laugh until Buck slapped him harshly across the face.
"Don't you go crazy on me now, Ezra. I got enough on my hands with JD." He order the younger man to sit down, "Put your legs out and stretch the chains tight."
"Taut... the word is taut," Ezra explained as he numbly did as he was told.
"Whatever..." Buck grumbled, then raising the rock high, he smashed it down onto the chain. At the third attempt the links shattered, "There... you're free."
"That sir, is a matter of opinion," Ezra replied shakily as he got to his feet.
"Stand still for a moment." Buck knelt down in front of Ezra and fastened the two loose lengths of chain tidily around Ezra's ankles, explaining, "We don't want them slapping against his flanks or he'll gallop until he drops. Now, lets get you on board." He hoisted Ezra onto the gray, "Don't worry about steering, just hold onto him, he'll take you back to the others..."
"Ah can't go."
"Why the hell not?"
"Ah cannot leave JD, he needs me to be here."
"Ezra, I don't quite rightly know what's been happenin' here, but I'll look after JD 'til you get back."
"He needs something to protect his head... can't find his hat..."
Angry at himself now, for ever presuming that Ezra had hurt JD, Buck warned the southerner once more to hang onto the horse, then he slapped the animal on the rump and sent it on its way. He held his breath as Ezra wobbled precariously in the saddle for a few moments before finding some semblance of balance, then he returned to JD, placing his wide brimmed hat on the boy's head.
She was dead. He'd been unable to save her. Vin held the tiny body against his chest and began to sob. In the darkness of the cavern, others began to weep; except for Jacob. He began praying for Lily, the child who'd just died, asking God to take care of her.
Hearing the words, Vin stopped crying and said angrily, "What kind of God would do this... what she do to deserve death so young?"
"God did not cause her death, my friend, man did."
'Yeah, this man.' Vin thought, accusing himself.
The others trapped with him, had made Vin their leader because they'd seen how he stood up to Rafter and how he'd run back into the mine to help them. But they were confused, hurt... and now dying because Vin couldn't save them.
Although Jacob couldn't see Vin, he knew where his thoughts were, "Don't blame y'self, my young friend. Direct it to Rafter."
"If ever I get out of this place, I'm goin' to find that piece of scum and kill him... slowly..."
"Like he was doin' to us? No son, you're a good man, you'll do the right thing."
Tears formed again when Vin realized that everyone was depending on him to save them. The responsibility became too much and this time he sobbed for himself.
Chris was determined to reach the mine during the afternoon. He wanted to get there and find his friends safe and alive, then he was going to kick their asses so hard... yet the nagging doubt in his head wouldn't go away. Vin was in danger... Scanning the trail ahead, he could see dust billowing up as a horse galloped towards them.
"Ain't that Buck's horse?" Nathan asked unnecessarily; everyone knew Buck's striking gray gelding.
"Yeah, but it ain't Buck on board." Josiah replied.
They were all amazed to see a raggedy clothed creature bouncing all over the saddle like a rag doll and obviously hanging on for dear life.
"Fan out and get ready to slow 'em down." Chris ordered, "Don't look as if he's got strength to pull the horse up."
They started to move towards the oncoming creature and breathed a sigh of relief when the horse began to slow down of his own accord as it recognized the equines in front of him. Nathan jumped from his own horse and grabbed hold of the grey's reins, looking up towards the filthy creature; only realizing who it was when he saw the startling green eyes.
"Mr. Jackson, mah disguise did not fool you." Ezra managed to say before falling unceremoniously towards the ground.
Nathan caught the falling man and sat him down on the ground, resting Ezra against him.
The gambler, half dead with exhaustion, smiled as he said, "Ah now know how Paul Revere felt ." Then he fell into a dead faint.
Josiah handed Chris the reins of his horse, then ran over to Nathan to help him carry Ezra to a rocky outcrop where there was a small amount of shade. Chris quickly ground tied all the horses then hurried over to them.
The gambler was just coming around and was taking a drink from Nathan's canteen. "Thank... you..."
Larabee had no time for niceties and politeness. "Where's Buck?!"
Ezra flinched away from the dark shadow looming above him, "Sent me... to hurry you... along... gentlemen."
"Sure you're not runnin' out again?!" Chris spat, his anger irrational and unwarranted.
"Chris, that wasn't called for!" Nathan reprimanded him. "Ezra... what happened?"
"No time... to... talk..." Ezra gasped sharply. "Must... get back... to the... mine..." He reached up to Josiah, needing to see a friendly face and wondered why they all gasped at what they saw.
Nathan caught hold of the wrist manacles, horrified by the damage they'd inflicted on Ezra's flesh. "Ezra... we need to get these off..."
The gambler frowned as he looked at Nathan. "No time for them... more important we get back..."
Chris, as shocked as the others by Ezra's vile embellishment, agreed with the gambler, and dragging him harshly to his feet said, "You fit to ride?"
"Ah am Mr. Larabee..."
"Wait!" Nathan stood up and pulled Ezra away from Chris' painful grasp. "He needs to rest awhile... If this were Vin..." He didn't need to go on, he knew he'd hit a nerve.
"Then you stay with him... I'm riding on." Chris stormed over to his horse and threw himself into the saddle. "You comin' Josiah?"
The preacher wanted to know first; no one had asked the pertinent question.
"Are JD and Vin alive, son?" He asked carefully, aware of Ezra's fear.
The southerner glanced nervously at Larabee. "JD is alive, that's why Buck stayed. Vin... there was an explosion at the mine... Vin and the others... they're trapped... Ah cannot say if they're alive."
Chris stared at the gambler, hearing the words, but not truly listening. " You comin' preacher? Need your strength if we're goin' to move a mountain."
" Movin' a mountain... we do that every day of our lives..." The preacher hauled himself onto his horse.
"We'll get there as soon as we can. " Nathan told Josiah, not sure how is friendship with Larabee stood; he was surprised when Chris rode up to him and Ezra, saying,
"Take care of him."
The healer nodded, leading Ezra back to the rocks while the other two men rode off.
Buck kept glancing at JD as they worked together at removing the debris. He was amazed by the boy's stamina and wondered how he kept going. Buck had tried on a couple of occasions to force the youngster to take a break, but JD's only concession was to keep drinking the offered water.
There was a change in JD. Imperceptible, but it was there and Buck could see it. He was no longer the happy go lucky spirit, who'd endeared himself too and irritated everyone. The beard was only a small part of his transformation. The eyes held a lot of pain and grief. Buck could only wonder at the suffering the boy had been through. He wanted to ask so many questions but accepted that it wasn't wise to do so. Trying to cheer the boy up, Buck straightened his aching back and enthused over the work they'd accomplished.
"You're doin' fine, JD... sure ya don't want to sit out of the sun for a while? We could..."
"Have to keep workin'... they hurt you if you stop... hurt Ezra real bad... and Vin. They beat 'em... where's Ezra?" JD glanced around in panic, he'd just realized he was alone, "Ezra..." He wandered away from the rocks calling out for his friend, "Ezra! Don't leave me!"
"He's comin' back JD. He's gone to get Chris..." Buck forgot Ezra's warning and took hold of JD's arm, "Let's go sit..."
JD released a piercing scream, then pulling free of the astonished Buck, ran off as good as his hobbled legs would allow. Not sure where he was going, he ran towards the canyon's entrance, stumbling as he kept glancing back at Wilmington who was slowly following, keeping his distance, not wanting to spook the youngster any further.
JD's panic was in full flow; he didn't hear the horseman riding in or see Larabee's black gelding until he stumbled in front of it. Chris reined the horse in so sharply, he nearly tumbled out of the saddle. The youngster shied violently away from the rider and ran straight back into the arms of Buck who'd rushed forward when he saw the impending accident,
"Whoa there, kid."
"Lemme go! Lemme go!" JD struggled hopelessly against the larger man's superior strength and when Larabee's dark clad figure loomed next to him he fell into a dead faint. Buck caught him easily and carried him over to the shade of the rocks.
"Who the... JD?!" Chris hadn't realized the scruffy creature running around like a lunatic was the youngest member of the group. The young face was hidden behind a filthy beard. "How is he, Buck?"
"He's fainted. Poor kid. He's half out his mind!" Buck noticed that Josiah had rode in with Chris and was taking care of the horses,
"Where's Nathan? Could sure do with him."
"He's comin' back with Ezra and leading your horse."
"Ezra found you, thank God. Wasn't sure where he'd end up."
"Yeah, but he's too exhausted to make it back here alone... he told me about Vin.." Chris' eyes clouded over as they searched out the mine entrance, "I can't believe he's dead."
"Then don't! JD don't... he's been toilin' away fer hours, keeps sayin' that Vin's alive... dammit Chris, I'm beginnin' to believe him."
"Then why are we standin' here, jawin'!"
Josiah had already walked over to the debris, debating whether to continue working where Buck and JD had already started or if there was a more suitable place. He was stripping off his shirt when Chris reached him.
"Whad'ya think, Josiah?"
"The labours of Hercules..." the preacher replied, fastening a bandanna around his head. "We will have to pace ourselves."
Chris nodded in agreement, "At least you ain't sayin' it's a futile attempt."
"We have to know, whatever the answer is."
Chris stripped his own shirt of and began to work by the larger man's side
Buck was slowly bringing JD out of his faint, hoping the youngster would be more lucid, once he recovered. Resisting the temptation to hold the boy, Buck sat quietly by his side, a canteen of water, ready and waiting. The older man twisted his neckerchief nervously, worry masking his usual cheerful demeanor.
"Wish I could've been here for ya, kid... I don't know what's been happenin' and I don't know who's to blame... yet ." He twisted the material tighter, "But when I do..." When he looked down at JD he was surprised to see the younger man looking up at him.
"Rafter." JD said hoarsely. "His name was Rafter... and... and... Stone." JD started to shake, "He kept hurtin' Ezra... and Vin... always hurtin' them."
"Did he hurt you?"
"Sometimes... he hit me... but Vin was always there... Where's Ezra?"
"Won't be long. He's ridin' in with Nathan... Are ya missin' him?"
"We... we watch out for each other... have to..."
"You done good kid. Just wish you hadn't had to suffer. There we were, thinkin' you were havin' the time of yer life."
JD snorted, and under the beard there was a hint of a smile, "They were gonna make me do all the work."
"Ezra 'n Vin! Said that's why they'd brought me along!"
"Thought ya knew that." Buck replied with a smile.
"Guess the joke was on them..." JD began to get to his feet.
"Where ya goin'?"
"Back to work... Vin..."
Buck gently caught hold of JD's arm, "Let the next shift do some work." He pointed towards the rubble.
JD brightened immediately, "Chris! Josiah!"
"Yep... so you just sit there and keep a look out fer Ezra and Nathan."
"I believe ya, kid." Buck replied honestly. The kid was so serious, he had to be believed, "I'm gonna help the others. You stay here..."
"Sure..." JD sat back and closed his eyes, ready to let someone else take the strain.
"Can't we go any faster?" Ezra asked as he clung onto Nathan's back. "Ah need to get back to JD."
"Goin' as fast as sensible. You ain't that strong. Buck's horse needs a rest. My horse ain't used to two on its back."
"Ah am fine and the horses can rest when we get there."
"Who's the Doc?"
"And who's in charge of the horse?"
"Ah bow to your superior knowledge."
All work had to stop when Ezra and JD were finally reunited.
" Anyone would think they ain't seen each other in years, not a few hours," Buck said to Chris as they picked up their canteens and poured the water over their heads.
"Makes you wonder what they've been through... " Chris' eyes wandered back to the rocks behind them.
They'd managed to make an impression in the rubble, but would they have enough daylight hours left to break through, or have to start again the next morning? Josiah had been a tower of strength, never once using his age as a reason to slow down or rest. But Chris would insist that he did, now that Nathan was here and Ezra also looked rested enough to do some work.
Before he could start calling out orders, Nathan had taken charge and was demanding they all take a break for at least one hour before resuming their task. Unwilling to stop, Chris argued but eventually common sense won out.
Vin knelt down to check on one of the injured women. She was asleep or maybe unconscious, he wasn't sure; but she was alive and he intended keeping her that way.
Three people including Lily had died, two more clung to life. Only Vin, Jacob and one other man still found the strength to carry on with their desperate, futile attempt to free themselves from the mine. And Vin was beginning to waver, not through lack of food and water or the stale air they were having to breathe. His problems lay in his head. The suffocation he felt was caused through the cavern walls closing in on him. He'd go insane long before he starved to death.
While he stroked the woman's damp hair away from her face, Vin noticed a single strand of light stroking her pale lips. Light... sunlight... for a moment it didn't register, then he glimpsed over towards the wall of rubble and saw the faintest ray of sunlight filtering through.
"Jacob! Jacob, look!" He pointed towards the light, "Sunlight!"
Everyone looked towards where he was pointing.
"Dear God. You're right!" Jacob cried excitedly. "That wasn't there yesterday." He pulled Vin towards the rocks, "Climb up there... you're the fittest... someone has to be out there!"
To Vin, the strip of light was like a rope thrown to a drowning man. He carefully scrambled upwards, not wanting to disturb the rockfall.
It was the smallest of apertures but it was there, and if the sun was catching the mine entrance it meant it was late afternoon. They'd been trapped inside the cavern for well over a day!
"Can you see anything?" Jacob called up to him.
"No... but I can hear voices!" Vin replied joyfully. "I can hear... " He placed an ear to the crack and listened intently. He couldn't make out what the voice was saying, but he knew its cadence,
"Buck... Buck, can ya hear me!" Vin's voice, always quiet, was even more subdued due to the lack of water and air, "Buck! Please hear me... please..."
They'd worked tirelessly through the day, taking shifts, including the gambler, who'd insisted on doing his stint in between keeping a watchful eye on JD. Chris was surprised by how easy Ezra sifted through the rocks, it was if he were back down the mine again.
Buck started his second shift just as the sun's rays began to hit the mine entrance full on. This was the worst period; the most draining. He and Nathan were just having one of their water breaks when Buck stopped, allowing the water to dribble down his mouth. He cocked his head towards the rubble.
"What's wrong Buck, you hurt?" Nathan couldn't understand the look on Buck's face.
"Must be the sun... thought I heard Vin's voice... guess I just wanted to." Buck shook his head to rid the unwanted demons.
Nathan sat down on one of the rocks and wiped away the sweat from his face. "Think we're all the same. Buck, I'm gonna need you and Josiah to help me if we find Vin dead. Those three down there aren't gonna make it otherwise."
"Think ya can handle Chris? I want to be there for the kid and I know Josiah keeps a watchful eye over Ezra."
"Do my best. He'll either shoot me or himself." Nathan shrugged, not looking forward to either outcome. "But..."
"Shush!" Buck knelt down onto the rocks and placed an ear to the rough ground. "I ain't goin' mad. I can hear him... come here..."
Nathan sank to his knees and listened silently with his companion, wondering about Buck's mental state; maybe there'd only be him and Josiah to take care of everyone! "Buck ... I cain't ..." Nathan stopped, hell, he was going crazy too! "I hear somethin'." He shook Buck's arm, " Someone's callin' your name. Shout back to them."
"Vin! Vin! Can ya hear me son?" Buck's booming voice echoed around the canyon and three of the four men down at the camp shot up, looking towards Wilmington.
"Vin..." Ezra, forgetting Nathan's warning about what he'd do to him if Ezra didn't rest, scrambled to his feet and began running after his companions. Even JD sat up, a sense of relief flowing over him.
Chris reached his friends first. "What's goin' on... why?"
"Shush!" Both men ordered together.
Chris did as he was told, but knelt down next to them and mouthed, "What?"
Nathan pointed to the pile of rocks and mouthed back, "Vin's voice..."
As all three men listened, they could very faintly hear someone calling out,
"Buck... Buck... please hear me..."
"Vin... it's got to be Vin!"
By this time, Ezra, with Josiah's help had joined them. Josiah saying a silent Thank you, Lord.
"Try again Buck; he has to hear ya... he has to have some hope..."
Buck had worked out approximately where the voice was emanating from and knelt over the position, using every ounce of strength to yell back, "I can hear ya Vin... we're all here... gonna get ya out real soon."
"Buck... people... people are dyin' down here... please hurry..."
"We're goin' to. Vin, move everyone back... put 'em somewhere safe... don't want no rocks fallin' on 'em."
"I will... Buck... are you all... is Ezra and JD..?"
"Right here, son. Now you move back..." There was a pause and a muffled "What?" Then Buck was back, "Chris wants to talk to ya..."
Buck moved away, knowing that Chris wouldn't rest until he'd spoken to his friend.
"Vin... Oh God, Vin..." Tears streamed down the blond's face, surprising them all; the only time he usually showed any emotion was at the mention of his wife and child.
"Is that you, cowboy?" An equally strained voice was heard replying.
"Hang on Vin... soon get you out."
Without saying another word, Chris began flinging away the debris haphazardly, until Josiah told him to slow down; that they'd have to be careful so as not to have it all falling in on the trapped people.
Vin and Jacob helped to move everyone, living and dead, as far back in the mine as possible. Vin wanted to help, but Jacob said it was wiser to let those outside deal with all the debris, they'd have a better chance of making it secure.
The small group huddled together and watched in awe as more and more sunlight streamed into their tomb. Emotions ran high and tears were shed openly. Vin wandered off to where the dead had been placed and picked up the little girl. She'd been covered up as best they could manage but Vin could still see her smiling face and hear her fragile voice. He didn't hear the laughter and sounds of excitement as the others scrambled to the opening and freedom. Only when Jacob placed an arm on his shoulder did he look up.
"Time to go, son... we're all free now."