Wounds of A Friend
by THE BUFFALO GALS
Nathan's lasting memory from this adventure would be when Vin exited the mine, hardly managing to take one step in front of the other, holding a child to his chest. The healer had rushed to take the injured girl from his friend but Vin had pushed him away as he'd carried on walking past Chris, Buck... everyone. Only stopping when his legs finally buckled underneath him. He knelt, head bent over the girl, weeping softly.
Eventually Nathan and Josiah had quietly persuaded the young tracker into giving up his precious cargo. Nathan had already suspected there was something not quite right with the child; she'd been so still and quiet and when he'd placed her tiny body onto the ground, everything became clear. She was dead. He'd glanced at Josiah who was already saying a prayer for the child, then he heard Ezra who'd been watching the poignant scene with great interest, cry out in disbelief before turning, running over to the rocks and vomiting violently. JD had wanted to look at what was happening, but in his weakened state he'd been easily held back by a very subdued Buck Wilmington.
No one dare touch or speak to Vin Tanner, still kneeling, his hands wrapped around his waist, an eerie stillness surrounding him. The elation Vin had been showing since realizing they were going to be saved had dissipated as their freedom beckoned; now he felt an empty loneliness and a sense of failure. He'd been unable to save his angel.
Deciding to leave Vin with his thoughts for a while, Nathan and Josiah tended to the wounded slaves, horrified at the state the people were in, wondering how they'd survived not only the explosion but the months of hard labour and torture leading up to it. Jacob had asked if he could help, wanting to pay the men in some way for saving his life. Nathan had been glad of the assistance. Though everyone was safe now, there was a subdued atmosphere in camp as everyone came to terms with their freedom.
Once he was satisfied that everything was in order, the healer returned to his friend, still kneeling on the hard ground. He hunched over Vin's bleeding body as one of the mini sandstorms blasted them both with razor sharp grains.
"I gotta get you some cover," Nathan told the tracker, quickly pulling his dirty shirt around him and raising him to a sitting position. "Can you walk?"
"I got this far." Vin groaned as Nathan hooked him under the arms and hauled him to his feet.
"Good, this way." He bodily dragged Vin over to the shade of the rocks and carefully lowered him to sit against its cool surface. Turning, he almost collided with Ezra. He gripped the southerner's arms, alarmed by the empty expression on Ezra's dirty face.
"Steady up there, Ezra..." he gasped. "I almost knocked you over."
He waited for the gambler's reply but instead was troubled by Ezra's physical response to him. Ezra pulled away sharply, almost falling over. When Nathan put a hand out to stop him, he recoiled.
"I ain't gonna hurt you." Nathan told him, his eyes filled with concern.
"Come here, Ez." Vin whispered in a tired voice. He patted the ground by his side.
Without a word, the southerner limped to his friend's side and sank to his knees, laying his forehead on Vin's shoulder. Nathan saw Vin wince in pain at the contact, but his voice didn't betray him.
"Nathan won't hurt ya, " Vin told him. "He's gonna fix ya up some."
Ezra raised his head and looked at the tracker; " We... I... thought... Glad you're alive, Mr. Tanner." There was the weakest of smiles from the southerner. His joy at seeing Vin walk unaided from the mine had been tempered when he saw Vin carrying Lily. Why was it always the innocent who suffered?
Vin nodded knowingly, "Wasn't sure 'bout ya. Just hoped... Where's JD?"
"With Buck... He kept saying you were alive..."
"Got good instincts." Vin closed his eyes, breathing in the fresh air and allowing the late sun to settle on his face. He was alive... they were alive.
Nathan watched them for a moment before going to check up on JD. Buck was with the boy, damping his brow as JD slept. Nathan touched his shoulder.
"I'd like to get him behind cover," he said. "He shouldn't wake if we carry him beyond the rocks."
"All right." Buck agreed, getting to his feet. He carefully lifted JD and together, he and Nathan carried him to a secluded spot so that his sleep would not be disturbed. Buck was immediately back at his side, tenderly nursing his injured friend.
Chris walked over to Vin and Ezra and knelt down beside them. "Good to see ya, pard, he directed at the tracker.
"You too, cowboy." There was the weakest of smiles as Vin referred to their little joke. "Missed me?"
"Yeah, 'specially all that chatterin' you do!" Chris wanted to gather the younger man in his arms and hug him, but now was definitely not the time or place. " Wish we could've got here sooner." He didn't mention the little girl, but Vin knew what he meant.
"Weren't to be. But I ain't restin' 'til I hunt Rafter down and kill him."
"Not alone, pard. We're all in this... so no hero stuff..." Chris patted Vin on the knee and nodded to Ezra, "Best see what we can do for these folk... "
"Thanks Chris... they deserve all the help they can."
Larabee went in search of Josiah; the preacher was already organizing water and making camp for the night.
Nathan gathered his needle and thread then returned to Vin. He sat down the opposite side of Ezra who was now resting against the rock, his forehead on his knees.
"I need to stitch that arm." Nathan said, pointing to Vin's left. Vin nodded weakly and closed his eyes, trying to blot out the pain. Nathan's touch was gentle but the heat seared nerves in Vin's arm and soon killed his resolve; he cried out as the needle bit into his flesh one more time.
"Nearly there Vin," Nathan told him, looking up as Ezra came back to life by the tracker's side. The gambler reached out and wrapped his arm around the trembling man, tucking him close by his side,
"Hang in there, partner," Ezra soothed, the contact giving Vin the strength he needed.
Nathan nodded his thanks to the southerner, though he doubted Ezra could see anything other than the man he held so tightly. Hearing voices coming from their original position Nathan left the two men and walked out from the rocks holding up a hand to Josiah and Chris.
Josiah sighed heavily and picked up the weighty buckets, calling over to his friend, "Tell me you don't need any more."
Nathan laughed fondly at the preacher, "You strugglin' there, old man?" He reached out and took one of the bucket's from Josiah.
"This old body grows tired so quickly." He followed Nathan over to his injured friends. "How are they doin?"
Nathan shrugged, "I hardly know yet." He set down the water and waited until Josiah and the brooding Chris had done the same. "I need to get them cleaned up some," he said. "How much stuff did we bring along?"
Chris straightened up, his eyes on the tracker, "We have enough blankets to double up; did anyone bring a change of clothes?"
Nathan and Josiah shook their heads.
"Buck?" Chris called over, knowing the other man had heard the conversation.
"I have a shirt." he said, adding grimly, "But it ain't fresh."
"Don't matter." Chris said with a nod. He turned to Nathan, "The serape's rolled up with my bed roll."
Nathan considered for a moment, "How about the mine... and cabins. Maybe somethin' there."
"Good idea." Chris said, "I'll take a look."
"Wait up..." Josiah called. "We need to think about food. Dried biscuits and jerky ain't enough to feed our boys and..."
He nodded over to the cover of trees where Jacob was doing his best to tend to few remaining slaves.
"You're right," Chris sighed. "Tell you what, you go take a look at the cabins and I'll find us supper." He looked expectantly at the preacher.
Josiah shrugged, "Well, you'd be waiting a long time if I had to find supper!" He slapped Nathan on the back and followed Chris back into the searing heat.
Nathan turned to Buck. "Hey Buck, if I get this water to boil do you think you could get JD stripped and washed?"
Buck looked up, his expression one of surprise. "Is this the time?" he asked, his voice filled with worry.
Nathan grimaced. "No. But if we don't get some of this dirt off we might miss gangrene or somethin' settin' in. I ain't had a proper chance to check over Ezra and JD yet"
Buck sighed and reached down to touch JD's face. "You're right, just get me some water and I'll do it."
Nathan moved away to start a fire. It had been a long day, his own body ached from toiling away at the mine's entrance; he could only imagine to the atrocities his friend and seen and suffered and it made him angry. Greed as usual had been the incentive for the cruelty inflicted upon these people; it was always greed.
Once the water had heated, it was shared up between Nathan and Buck. Nathan settled down to next to Vin while Buck moved back to JD.
"What are you doing?" Ezra asked from behind Vin's shoulder as the healer carefully lifted the shirt from the semi conscious tracker.
"I got to get him stripped and washed 'fore anythin' sets in." Nathan explained, as much to Vin as the gambler.
For a moment he thought Ezra would protest but eventually Ezra helped him to lift the torn shirt from Vin's flesh. Underneath, Vin was a mass of cuts and bruises. Together, the two men washed away the thick grime, each touch bringing Vin back to life, piece by piece. Once his upper body was clean, Nathan wrapped a blanket around him then gently rid him of his lower garments. Unashamed, Vin closed his eyes and allowed Nathan tend his wounds, smiling softly at Ezra who had moved to wash his face.
A few feet away, Buck was having a less happy time. JD had woken at Buck's first touch.
"Get off me, Buck!" He spat, one hand holding his head, the other pushing Buck away.
"Hey, hey!" Buck protested, sitting close to his charge. He ran his fingers along the kid's jaw and turned his face so that JD was looking at him. "I'm going to get you cleaned up, make you feel more comfortable like." His tone was gentle, his expression filled with sympathy. It made JD's blood boil.
"I don't need fussin' over. I can look after myself. Leave me alone!" He pulled away and tried to get to his feet, overbalancing into Buck's arms.
"Take it easy, kid."
"Leave me alone, I said!." A fist shot out and connected with Buck's nose. Buck flopped onto his back, holding his nose and yelping. JD shifted away and covered his face with his hands.
From across the clearing, Vin called out to him, "JD?" He waited until the youngster looked up. "It's all right. You'll feel better after. Let Buck clean ya up." His eyes implored JD to do the right thing.
JD hurt inside, a nagging pain that he knew being washed on the outside by Buck wouldn't ease. He did as he was bid very ungraciously, complaining at each request and being as difficult as possible.
Buck carefully undressed his young friend, smarting at each and every bruise. He nursed JD's wounds with a tenderness that turned a lump in the kid's throat. He lay down and covered his face again.
"Does your head still hurt?" Buck whispered softly.
JD nodded under his fingers.
"Lie on your side and try to rest." He helped JD to turn over then continued to cleanse the battered body. Looking over to Nathan, the healer gave him a curt nod of approval.
Nathan's task had been so much easier; Vin had almost enjoyed his wash. Now he'd finished, he wrapped another blanket around Vin and turned his attention to Ezra. The southerner took a moment to understand the look but once he did he shifted away to sit by Vin's side.
"Ah cannot partake in this particular activity," he said, his bravado betrayed by his flat tone and his refusal to make eye contact with the healer.
"You're a mess." Nathan said with his usual frankness, irritation slightly evident in his voice. "Now let's hear less of this nonsense." He moved towards the gambler.
Ezra cowered behind Vin. "Tell him Mr. Tanner, tell him Ah don't need no nursing."
"Like hell you don't," Nathan said, setting the hot water down and arranging the blankets. Vin took hold of Ezra's arm before he could flee. The southerner's body was shaking.
"Ez, I swear, you're as grizzly as a bear." He smiled fondly at the gambler's hurt look and squeezed his arm reassuringly. "Come on. Nathan ain't gonna hurt ya," he reminded him.
Ezra lowered his head, close enough to whisper in confidence to Vin. "Ah can't let him see me," he said.
"Why not?" Vin asked, puzzled by Ezra's bashfulness.
Ezra didn't get a chance to answer, Nathan's strong fingers closed around his shoulders and tore the thin fabric of his shirt away. Ezra curled into Vin's arms, the healer's sudden action making him afraid. Nathan gazed at the whip marks on the gambler's back, regretting the pain he was causing his friend.
"Hell Ezra, why didn't you say?" he asked gently, taking up the cloth and carefully wiping away the congealed blood.
Ezra felt Vin's hand stroking his hair and held on for grim death. "Ah didn't want to upset you," he said dully.
Nathan sighed deeply. "That's the craziest thing I ever heard," he told his friend, his tone warm.
"Me too," Vin added, pulling the man's body closer.
Ezra couldn't look at either man as he was stripped and washed; he hid his face inside the folds of Vin's blanket until Nathan half lifted him to wrap his own blanket tightly around him. Then he lowered Ezra onto Chris' bed roll, and Vin onto Josiah's.
"Get some rest. I'll wake you when Chris brings some supper."
"Thanks Doc," Vin said, his voice sleepy. He looked down as Ezra turned on his side and curled up then he settled down and gathered the tired man against his chest.
Buck had also settled JD into his blankets and was now stroking his fingers over the young man's neck.
Happy at last that his charges were resting and that they were safe, Vin closed his eyes and settled down to sleep.
Nathan raised his eyes to heaven and thanked Josiah's God for a few moments of peace. He gathered the dirty rags and pushed them into a pot of boiling water that bubbled over the fire. The sun was still quite high and the rags would dry over night and be fit to wear in the morning. He had a lot of work to do on the three men, but for the time being they were at least clean and in a better condition than when they'd found them. He looked up when Josiah returned from his scavenging foray.
"Find anything?" he asked, putting another pot of water to boil as he still had the rest of the injured to attend to.
Josiah sat heavily and studied the sleeping bundles around him. "Not much, apart from some cloth to make bandages."
Nathan grimaced, "Pity, the rags I've taken off them ain't fir to wear."
Buck ambled over to them and sat down. "Same here..." He passed JD's pathetic excuse for clothes over to Nathan.
All three sat in companionable silence, caught in their own thoughts. The original relief at finding their friends alive was now tinged with sadness and regret for their suffering.
When Chris returned, they were sharing a bottle of rum Josiah had found. His initial anger was replaced by understanding. He set down the fish he'd caught and took his share of the liquor, silently toasting to the sleeping tracker. To you Vin ... and freedom.
Jacob, having tended to those around him, sat down to watch Nathan and the others working. He recalled how Ezra and Vin had been so certain their friends would come looking for them. To have such friends was priceless and Jacob's only wish was that they'd arrived a few days earlier; his heart was heavy as he glanced over to where the bodies had been placed; his eyes resting on Lily.
She looked so peaceful now as did the other two children. He wondered where the others were; had they managed to escape, or were they entombed in the mine along with many others. He'd heard Ezra mumbling about the other slaves that had survived going off in search of help and the gambler saying they'd gone in the wrong direction. Nothing could be done for them now, but hopefully, he and the few around him would make it back to civilization
By the time Vin surfaced again, breakfast was cooking and the camp was alive with the scent of herbs. He reached out to Ezra's empty blankets, struggling to sit up when he realized the gambler was missing. Blinking against the brightness, he glanced around the clearing. Closest to him was JD, he sat by the fire, his legs clasped to his chest and his forehead resting on his knees. Buck was by his side, rubbing the boy's back in comforting circles. Vin bit his lip; from what he'd seen of JD the lad was in a mess. He hoped Buck was making progress getting through to him.
Off to the right of the fire was a sunlit rock and resting against that was Ezra pleading with Nathan, Vin tuned into their conversation.
"Ah just wish to borrow your knife for a short while, Nathan. Ah promise no harm will come to it..." He turned his face up to the healer, feigning hurt when Nathan's face filled with distrust.
"I don't know Ezra, I ain't sure this is such a good idea." His fingers closed around the knife as if he expected Ezra to lunge forward and grab it. "You gonna tell me what you want it for?"
Ezra ran his tongue over his chapped lips, his eyes crinkling in anticipation. "Ah wish to complete mah ablutions with a shave." He grinned up at the healer, "Ah have already purchased soap."
"Pur... chased my foot!" Buck exclaimed. "You cheated me out of it."
Ezra looked innocently up at Nathan. The healer frowned, but he relented a little, after all, Ezra had been to hell and back these last few weeks.
"All right." He agreed, cutting off Ezra's expected outpouring of gratitude. "But I will shave you. Your hands are in no state to hold a knife as sharp as this." He held up a hand to silence Ezra's protests, "No arguments. You either let me do it, or you stay lookin' like that."
Ezra digested the information then nodded, his face losing his forced brightness, becoming weary and tired once more. Nathan passed him the water, then fastened a cloth around his neck.
"Get yourself soaped up, I'll be right back."
Vin sighed deeply, running his fingers over his own thick stubble. A shave right now would feel really good. He watched as Nathan got his knees by Ezra's side and slowly drew the knife over his face.
Ezra sighed, the knife slipped over his skin leaving his nerves tingling where it passed.
Nathan's hand was as steady as a rock and he worked the knife with a practiced movement, chuckling to himself at the obvious pleasure he was giving the gambler. When he'd finished, he patted Ezra's face dry with a cloth. "Feel better?"
"Much. Thank you, kind sir, that was the best shave Ah ever had."
Nathan looked down at the man, doubt in his eyes, but Ezra's words were sincere and Nathan believed at that moment the gambler meant every word.
After Vin had seen to private matters, he wandered back to the camp and settled once more under the rocks, picking up a plate of food from one of the women who were once more in charge of meals. There wasn't much choice, but that didn't matter; he was a free man again and that helped to make what there was taste delicious. Once he'd finished the meal his eyes wandered over the camp, searching out Chris.
Larabee smiled, then decision made, walked over to the tracker, carrying two cups of freshly made coffee. The gunslinger passed Vin one of the cups, then settled down on Ezra's blanket.
"How you feelin' this mornin'?" Chris asked, shielding his expressive eyes from view.
Vin half smiled, hearing the concern in his friend's voice. "I'll live."
Turning serious Chris said, "We're burying the dead today, including the little girl. You up to it?"
"Lily," Vin corrected, feeling his heart ache at the mention of her name. He considered Chris' question, turning to see Larabee studying him. He looked over to Ezra who was now running blistered fingers through his hair. "I'll be there. I'd like to say good-bye."
Chris didn't push the issue, just sat quietly at Vin's side. He followed his friend's gaze and watched Ezra sit by JD, pouring himself a coffee. Without the cuts and bruises he could be the same Ezra that graced the saloon every night. The ready smile was missing, also the wit but he was essentially the same man. Time would heal his wounds and his heart, but what of the man beside him?
Vin seemed to sense Chris' thoughts and gazed sadly at the blond. As if to break the melancholy, he turned back to look at Ezra, then turned longing eyes on Chris. It took the gunslinger a few moments to get the gist of the silent question, then he understood. Smiling to himself he unsheathed his own knife and checked the blade with his thumb.
"Do you think Ezra has any of that soap left?" he asked Vin as he climbed gracefully to his feet.
"Worth a try," the tracker smiled, content to let Chris go and check out the gambler.
He watched as Chris walked up to Ezra's side, noticing the gambler flinch away from the offered hand. A sadness settled over Vin, he hadn't protected either of his friends from the indignities Stone and Rafter had handed out. He remembered lifting Ezra from his hanging place outside the mine and removing the sack they'd tied over the gambler's head. Ezra had clung to him then, so afraid that more pain would be inflicted. Tears blurred Chris' outline as he returned to Vin's side; he should've taken better care of them...
"Vin?" Chris called softly to him, setting down slightly behind the tracker, his back against the rock.
Vin blinked away his tears, turning his head towards Chris. "How we goin' to do this?" he asked, his voice husky.
Chris put his hand on the tracker's shoulders, pulling him back so he rested against his chest.
Vin struggled against Chris' hands, eventually giving in with a sigh. "Must look awful funny," he said, closing his eyes.
"Relax, will you." Chris smiled, damping Vin's face before rubbing the soap into the flesh with his fingertips.
Vin had to admit that lying in the safety of Chris' arms felt good. He gave into the sensation of deceptively gentle fingers working over his throat and settled down.
Soon Chris tilted Vin's chin upward and placed the cold steel against his flesh. "Don't move," he said unnecessarily, drawing the knife upward in one fluent motion.
"I won't move," Vin teased, smiling as he heard the curse under Chris' breath as he just stopped short of cutting him.
"And shut up!" added Chris, amusement in his soft voice. He turned Vin's face slightly and let the sharp blade work over the younger man's cheeks. Vin sighed contentedly as Chris scythed away the rest of his beard.
When he'd finished, the blond dabbed away the remaining soap and looked down at his friend. Vin lay quietly in his arms; his expression was disarming. He looked as young as trusting as a child. Chris touched a dark bruise on the tracker's face and frowned, whoever had done this to him would pay dearly. He glanced down and saw Vin smiling at him.
"Something wrong, Cowboy?" Vin asked, enjoying Chris' exasperated look. He sobered as he watched the gunslinger eyes, there was a deep sadness there and Vin knew where it was rooted.
"You should sleep now, for a while..." Chris whispered solemnly. "Don't want to miss the funeral." He glanced away from Vin then, not wanting to see the misery his words would unleash.
Vin sat up with his assistance and said, "I'm all right Chris, I can do this. " His fingers curled around the other man's arm, "But stay close." He searched Chris' face for confirmation. The gunslinger nodded curtly then got to his feet.
Before Vin settled back down on the blanket, he called out to his departing friend, "Hey, thanks for the shave." The edge in his voice telling of his pain.
Chris ambled over to the fire and sat down next to Ezra. He didn't miss the veiled look the gambler threw his way; Ezra's green eyes were filled with irritation and distrust. Chris poured himself another coffee and stared into the cup; seemed some things never changed.
Larabee was dreading the coming hour. Any funeral was overwhelming, whether it be close friend or distant relative, but this was going to be particularly difficult because although he knew none of the dead, his heart bled for them all.
The fittest members of the group, in between tending to the sick and wounded, had scouted the area in and around the mine and were sickened to find eighteen bodies, including the three children.
Nathan, Josiah and a willing Jacob, had been given the unenviable job of using whatever material they could find to make shrouds for the bodies, while Chris, Buck and a few of the stronger men struggled to dig two graves; one large enough to hold the adults, a smaller one for the children.
Vin and Ezra had wanted to do their share of the work, but the idea had been negated by Chris and Nathan simultaneously. They'd been told to stay with JD who'd become almost catatonic.
Buck was finding JD's silence unbearably sad. He wished he could take the youngster's pain away, but until JD let him in, it was an impossible feat.
Now, as the bodies were laid to rest, Chris' own memories of that terrible day he'd buried his beautiful wife and child attacked him with a vengeance, and he only hoped he could get through the service without breaking down himself.
Josiah, Nathan and Buck placed the children close together, then Nathan knelt down and placed a rag doll that he'd found in the rubble, with them. No one had dared to ask Chris to assist with the children, knowing how close to the edge he already was.
When everything was done, the remaining workers gathered together at the graves, while the seven men stood abreast in front of them, bestowing a silent tribute to the dead. Chris had made sure the three injured men were flanked each side by one of the others, just in case they stumbled.
Josiah stood in the center, his voice deep yet gentle as he said a few words from the bible over the adults grave before turning slightly to where the children lay. He found it difficult to keep his composure as he said, "Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not; for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven."
Through teary eyes, Chris saw that JD was swaying, which was hardly surprising; the poor kid didn't even realize he was standing and never flinched when Buck placed an arm around his waist to hold him up. Next to Chris, Vin was also tilting slightly, but he refused any help from either Chris or Nathan. Chris was proud of his young friend, yet like Buck was with JD, he wished the kid would let him help in any way he could.
The blond gunfighter glanced at Ezra who stood between Nathan and Josiah and for one moment he thought the gambler was going to tip over as he took a wobbly step forward, then he realized Ezra had something to say; maybe a prayer, Chris wasn't sure.
After taking a few moments to steady himself, Ezra said with great dignity, "A simple child that lightly draws its breath and feels its life in every limb. What should it know of death..." He glanced into the grave and whispered, "Good-bye sweet angel." Then with Josiah's help he stepped back into line and everyone bowed their heads as once again the preacher spoke.
"The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them."
The moment finally got too much for Vin and he turned his head and buried his face against Chris' chest, startling the older man, who, after a moment's indecision, pulled the tracker close to him and hugged him fiercely.
The small congregation broke up and the strongest of the group once again picked up the shovels, this time to fill in the graves. Ezra and JD were led back to the shade, but Vin was taken away by Chris and they found themselves sitting by the edge of the river, listening to the gentle water rippling over the rocks.
Vin was still wrapped in Chris' arms; he hadn't spoken or cried, just laid his head against the blond's chest, being lulled by the water on one side, the steady heartbeat of Larabee on the other. He felt safe, locked inside a cocoon of strength and power that the quiet man in black and the eternal flowing river, spun.
Chris was at a loss. Did he stay quiet, or attempt a conversation. He'd never known his companion to be so still. Vin was a quiet person, but this was unnatural. As the silence grew, he wondered if his young friend had fallen asleep; but after a while, Vin said softly,
"Night afore the explosions, they allowed us out... probably that's when they planted the dynamite..." He took a deep breath as he gathered his thoughts, "The women had made us all a proper meal and families were allowed together for a time..."
He moved out of Chris' arms and stared at the water. "JD made me play the 'monica. Lily, danced with Ezra and JD... laughin' and gigglin'..." He turned to face his silent friend, tears trickling down his face, "For a short while, she was a normal little girl again and I felt good, 'cause I helped to make her smile... and now she's gone."
Vin bit down on his lip, determined not to break down, but it was a hopeless gesture; he leaned forward, arms resting on knees, head resting on folded arms and quietly sobbed.
Chris placed a hand on Vin's back and rubbed the tense, aching muscles of the young man. He felt inadequate, and wished for Josiah's presence. The older man would always do and say the right thing. All Chris could do was ride out Vin's emotional storm and be there to pick up the pieces.
As soon as Josiah had finished helping with the unenviable task of filling in the graves, he washed the dirt from his hands and face then went over to his injured companions. JD had fallen asleep once more, and Ezra had eased the boy down so that his head was resting on the gambler's leg.
"May I sit with you for a while?" Josiah asked, not wishing to intrude.
"You are most welcome, sir," Ezra replied, smiling faintly as the larger man settled next to him. "Ah wish Ah could have assisted you," Ezra apologized, he could see how much the distasteful task had taken out of the preacher.
"It's more important that you stay here with our little brother; he needs the rest, as do you, my friend..." Josiah picked up Ezra's hands and studied them, horrified by the damage inflicted upon them. He remembered sitting at the poker table, admiring Ezra's well manicured fingers and wondering how he kept them so clean. "Didn't you wear your gloves?" he asked as he massaged each knuckle, surprising Ezra with his magical touch.
"For a time, but we passed them onto the ladies, their fair skin needed more protection than ours."
"A noble gesture, brother," Josiah said as he turned his ministrations from one hand to the other. "Ezra... those words you spoke at the funeral, they were beautiful..."
"William Wordsworth. A renowned English poet." Ezra chuckled as he recalled the title of the poem, "It is called 'We are Seven'."
Josiah shook his head in amazement. "Most appropriate... do you remember any more?"
"It is a long poem and at the moment mah mind is still bemused. Ah wasn't certain Ah'd remember that." The gambler frowned as he tried to clear his thoughts. " Only one piece comes to me at the moment, 'still the little maid would have her will and said, nay, we are seven.'."
"Ezra, why does a man of your intelligence waste his life out here in this hellhole of country. Earning money by gamblin' when you could be livin' back East, teachin' or, with your talent, actin'."
"Acting! Now there's a thought. Gambling is the only life Ah know. Ah was taught from the earliest age... Anyway, Josiah, you're not so dumb yourself. Why do you keep on preachin' to the seditious. Is it worth it?"
"I look upon the world as my parish."
"Ah, the words of John Wesley... how succinct." Ezra sat back and closed his eyes. "Ah look upon the world as my own personal poker table!"
"Then heaven help us all brother!" Josiah said lightly as he joined the two men in their quiet repose.
The funerals had dulled everyone's senses and they each sought out comfort from amongst their own group. The workers, apart from Jacob, had hardly spoken to the men who'd rescued them. It wasn't that they weren't thankful, but they were still too shocked to put their gratitude into words and they could see that the four strangers needed to be with their three friends as if in mutual healing.
Chris, Buck, Josiah and Nathan were discussing their options now that the dead were buried and the injured were fit enough to travel.
"Chris, we need to get these folk to the nearest town as soon as possible."
"I agree Nathan, but we only have four horses... how we gonna do it?"
"There's a broken wagon, down by the corral, maybe we could repair it," Josiah replied. He and Nathan had already discussed their predicament, "We should be able to harness the horses up to it.."
Chris nodded, it was a sound idea, apart from one important thing. "It means traveling back. I don't want Rafter and his thugs to get too far in front... they already have a three day start."
"Chris, I want to find them too... but they'll keep. These folk won't. Includin' our boys." Nathan glanced over to the rocks where Vin was lying curled up, probably asleep, while Ezra and JD sat each side of him.
"The Doc's right, Chris. I want revenge but not at the expense of any more lives." Buck said as he joined in the conversation.
"Very well, we'll get the wagon fixed today, then make an early start in the mornin'." He stood up and dusted off his pants, "Nathan, will you and Josiah go and tell Jacob and the others what we're plannin'. I'll go parley with our boys."
The first thing Chris noticed when he reached the trio was that JD had fallen asleep where he sat. The boy was hunched in an uncomfortable position and Chris doubted he'd stay asleep if he were left that way, so, indicating to Buck, they carried him over to lie close to one of the fires, Buck covering him up with a blanket. Then Chris returned to Ezra and Vin to tell them of the decision.
"You go back if ya want, Chris... but I aim to follow Rafter." Vin said on hearing the news.
Ezra stayed quiet, but the look in his face said he was in complete agreement with Vin.
"We need the horses to get you all back to Willow Springs." Chris replied calmly, not intending to get in an argument with either man.
"Ah think three steeds would suffice to pull the wagon. Mr. Tanner and Ah will double up on one horse."
"Jesus, Ezra! Look at y'self. Look at Vin! You ain't well enough to ride and you ain't goin' after Rafter on your own."
"You won't stop me."
Chris crouched down beside the two men, understanding and sharing their pain, but not having his mind changed by it. "I will stop you Vin, even if it means puttin' those damn shackles back on."
Unaffected by the threat, Vin relied coldly, "Don't try to stop me, Chris... I'm warnin' ya."
The threat stunned Larabee. He'd not expected such determination. He wasn't concerned about the threat, but he was worried about Vin's state of mind. Nathan wanted the men rested, not harassed, so, hoping to placate them, Chris said, "We'll talk about it in the mornin'. I need ya to get some sleep now."
Staying close to Vin, Ezra settled down and within seconds was fast asleep.
Vin reached out and stroked Ezra's hair. "S'okay to rest, pard. "
"Vin the same goes for you. I'll sit here and watch over you both." Chris sat down next to Vin's head. "You don't have to take on the responsibility no more."
"Had to protect them Chris..." Vin's eyes flickered to a close. "Just wasn't good enough..." He said sadly as he joined Ezra in sleep.
Larabee settled back on the rocks and sat with them until Josiah came along late in the evening to do his sentinel turn.
Ezra woke up just as Chris and Josiah were changing shifts. It comforted him to know that the preacher would be close. He turned slightly to check on Vin. The younger man's hand was still reaching out to him, but he was asleep.
"Would you like a drink of water?" Josiah asked him.
"Anything a little stronger?" Ezra asked as he pulled himself into a sitting position.
"Sorry, I have strict instructions from Nathan. No whisky."
"He certainly knows how to spoil a party." Ezra shivered in the cool night air. "A shot of whisky would surely bring back some warmth to mah body right now."
"Go and sit by the fire, I'll stay with Vin."
Ezra shook his head. "Thank you, but no... Ah'll stay here."
"Thought you would." Josiah took off his coat and wrapped it around Ezra. "If you want to talk, I'm willin' to listen."
"Ah appreciate the offer and the coat..." Ezra's eyes sparkled with unshed tears. "Ah never thought we'd survive. There were times Ah didn't want to... He..." Ezra patted Vin's hand. "Kept me alive. How do Ah repay that, Josiah?"
"That's easy son. Just be there for him. Vin's hurtin' inside. We can all help by watchin' over him."
"Faithful are the wounds of a friend," Ezra whispered. "Where did Ah read that?"
"It comes from Proverbs. Your youth wasn't so misspent."
Ezra smiled at Josiah's gentle humor. "Not entirely, Ah had mah moments."
"The little girl was special." The preacher suddenly changed direction.
"Special? She was an angel..." Ezra answered without hesitation. "The sweetest angel... If Vin got me through this hell, she did him. Ah've never seen him show so much of himself as he did with her. Josiah..." The southerner looked towards the preacher with hope, "God will look after her, won't he?"
"He will; your little girl will sit at his side and continue to watch over you, Vin and JD."
The words comforted Ezra a little and he settled back down to sleep under the preacher's watchful eye.
Unnoticed by the two men Vin had lay listening to their conversation. He wasn't angry about Ezra's tribute to Lily. They'd all doted upon her. But Vin couldn't truly lay his 'angel' to rest until he'd destroyed the men who'd killed her. And unlike Ezra, he wasn't mollified by Josiah's pious quotes. Vin couldn't forgive God for taking any child's life and Lily's death weighed heavily on his conscience. Whilst Ezra slept deeply and Josiah cat napped, Vin stared into the emptiness of the night. His spirit had been dimmed by the snuffing out of Lily's effervescent star
The wagon was finally patched up and once Josiah and Jacob had checked over it, they pronounced it safe enough for the sick and injured to travel in. The fittest would have to walk. It was a four day trek back to Willow Springs, but Chris thought the bigger town would be more suitable for taking in the injured plus it had a telegraph office. He wanted to report to the judge what they'd found and that they were going in search of Rafter and he also wanted to inform Mary Travis that they were all alive. She could pass the news onto the townsfolk and give the glad tidings to Nettie and Casey Wells.
They'd managed to gather together enough provisions to last their journey and the water barrels had been fixed and placed onto the wagon. As the horses were led up to the wagon to be placed in the harness, Chris saw Vin and Ezra walking slowly towards him.
"Howdy boys, ready for goin'?"
"Not goin' back Chris, not until this is finished."
Chris sighed, he'd half expected this, but he'd also hoped they'd come to their senses. "Vin... I promise..."
"Not good enough Chris... Cut us a horse out, we'll ride double."
"And what do you do when ya catch up with Rafter and his men? " Chris shook his head. "Have you seen yourselves lately?"
Ignoring the question, Ezra said, "If we cannot procure one of the equines then we'll be forced to walk."
By now the other four men had joined them. Nathan was all for roping Ezra and Vin and throwing them in the back of the wagon. JD, looking as if he was going to drop at any moment wanted to join them in their task, but Wilmington soon put a stop to that.
"Don't be a fool kid. You cain't hardly stand! How the hell ya gonna ride or walk!"
"If Vin and Ezra can..." JD replied angrily, just before slumping into Buck's arms.
Chris was watching Vin carefully and recognized the determination in the troubled blue eyes. "It ain't gonna work pard."
Larabee closed his eyes, attempting to avoid the 'look'. When he opened them, Vin still stared at him and Ezra had acquired the same soulful countenance in his sad green eyes.
"Dammit!" Chris cursed under his breath, his defenses weakening.
"No..." Nathan, realizing what was happening walked over to Chris and stood determinedly in front of him. "They ain't well enough, Chris..."
"You goin' too!"
"Nathan, I understand what you're sayin', but... Buck, cut our horses out."
Wilmington was caught between wanting to stay with JD or going and beating the crap out of Rafter and his men, but the decision was made easier when Josiah clamped a large hand on his shoulder, "I'll take care of the boy."
"Thanks." The ex lawman released the two horses from the harness an saddled them up before saying a quiet good bye to the youngster.
Chris filled their saddlebags with a few provisions, filled the canteens then checked their ammunition, handing Vin one of his guns.
"Thanks cowboy..." Vin replied unsteadily.
"I'm warnin' you, fall off the horse and I leave you."
For the first time in many days, Vin smiled, the gesture lighting up his handsome face. "Don't worry, I'll hang on tight."
Before the two groups split up, Vin and Ezra bade Jacob and the others farewell. Jacob shook their hands warmly,
"You boys take care of y'self."
"You too..." They replied in unison.
"It's been an honour to know you, " Jacob said before he jumped into the back of the wagon.
The words cut into Vin's heart and as he climbed on the back of Chris' horse, he slipped his arms around the gunman's waist and buried his face into the black duster.
"You okay there, pard?" Chris asked.
"Yeah..." Vin replied shakily. "Just hangin' on, like I said."
Ezra clung onto Buck's jacket. He couldn't wait to get away from the hated place and never wanted to see another mine.
Josiah and Nathan sitting up front in the wagon, tipped their hats to the riders before clicking the remaining two horses forward, it was going to be a long haul to Willow Springs.
"We'll be joinin' ya as soon as we can, boys." Josiah called to them.
Chris silently hoped it would be sooner than later. God alone knew what the four of them were heading into.
As the heat of the day bore down on them, Vin and Ezra's meager strength was sapped away. They never complained, but by mid afternoon, Chris and Buck mutually agreed to call a halt when they reached the cover of a cluster of trees. Ezra managed to dismount from the horse with a reasonable amount of decorum. Vin slithered to the ground in a heap.
"Damn!" Chris swore as he dismounted, then knelt next to their long haired tracker. The gunman was having doubts about allowing Vin on the arduous trip and voiced his worries to Buck.
"Maybe we should go back..."
Buck considered for a while before replying," I think we should leave it to our boys to decide."
"Buck, look at 'em!" Chris settled Vin against him and placed the canteen of water to the younger man's lips. "Come on pard, take a few sips..."
Ezra joined them on the ground, taking the canteen from Chris, "Ah'll take care of him..."
"Ezra, you ain't well enough."
Ignoring Buck and Chris, Ezra spoke softly to his friend. "Sip this... slowly."
Vin opened his eyes and smiled at the southerner. "Thanks..." After a few moments they got to their feet; holding each other upright.
"What a combination, huh Chris?"
Larabee, though still very worried, grinned at Buck, "Rafter doesn't stand a chance." They led their horses to the strongest shade, leaving their companions to follow when ready.
Settling down against a tree trunk, Larabee pulled his hat low over his eyes. A short time later he felt movement next to him as someone else relaxed under the wide spread branches.
"Why we stopped Chris? " Vin's voice was raspier than usual.
"The horses need to rest. So do I."
"We're wastin' time."
"Ain't listenin' Vin. We need the horses to stay sound." Larabee shoved his hat back with one finger and his straight blond hair fell loose over his piercing eyes. "We'll find Rafter, pard. I promise you that... but I ain't killin' us and the animals in the process."
"Hope that bastard Stone's still with him."
"Stone? What did he do?"
Vin gazed over to where Ezra lay already asleep as his body enjoyed the cooler air. "Don't like talkin' about him in front of Ezra."
"He hurt him bad?"
Unwilling to go into any more detail, Vin nodded, whispering, "Yeah."
"We'll get them all Vin. But it won't take away the hurt y'all suffered and it won't bring Lily back."
"I know..." As soon as Vin closed his eyes, Lily's face came back to haunt him. She'd been so special; everyone adored her, but once she'd set her eyes on the three young men her tiny heart belonged to them. They were her heroes.
"I brung you some water."
Vin smiled at the child, recalling her from the day before when Rafter had threatened to kill her.
"Why, thank you Miss." He replied politely.
The little girl giggled, "My name's Lily, what's yours?" She poked him lightly in the chest as she asked the question.
"Vin... what's yours?"
"Lily Cooper," She replied proudly. "Are you goin' to have a drink?"
"Sure am..." Vin dropped the pickax he was wielding and clumsily placed the tin cup of water to his lips. "I saw your Momma yesterday. What about your Pa?"
The bright smile faded dramatically. "He died..." She pointed down the mine's depth, "Rocks fell on him."
"I'm sorry. What does your Momma do here?" Vin wanted to say more, but couldn't find the right words.
"She cooks... sometimes has to help in the mine... me and the other kids see to the water..."
"How many more children?"
Lily thought for a while, then counted slowly on her fingers. " There's Jody... Aaron... Pedro, he's from Mexico, wherever that is... Martha... don't like her."
"And Jimmy!" Lily looked at her fingers, "That's... five... right?"
"Five, plus you... that's?" Vin waited for her to answer.
" Six!" Suddenly distracted by someone asking for water, Lily wandered down the poorly lit mine. She was confident in herself, but every once in a while she'd turn and smile shyly at her new friend.
Once the sun began to set, the four men mounted and continued their journey. During the daylight hours it was easy to follow the trail left by the wagons, but with dusk it became more difficult. Chris and Buck led the two horses finding it easier to discern any tracks when they were closer to the ground. During the day they'd also had the distasteful task of burying the remains of four people. Vin had recognized what was left of them as workers from the mine.
Ezra had shook his head. "Ah told them they were traveling in the wrong direction."
It was nearly midnight before they made camp for the night.