The Past Redeemed
Parts 1-4 | Parts 5-8 | Parts 9-13 | Parts 14-17
Parts 18-21 | Parts 22-25 | Parts 26-29 | Parts 30-33 | Parts 34-37
The rest of the day passed quickly for Hanley's gang as they continued to shadow Larabee's group, careful to avoid any patrols as they prepared for their upcoming attack. Dusk soon fell, and as the outlaws made camp in the rocky caves, they each readied their weapons and eagerly planned the next day's ambush. Ezra was sent out to patrol as planned, and he soon found himself riding the twilight-hued plains, alone with his still-confused thoughts.
The sun was beginning to set, and Ezra stared at the early evening sky, its canvas awash in hues of purple and pink and gold. The sight was awesomely beautiful, but to Ezra it only held the awful promise of the day which would soon follow. Tomorrow Chris and the others would be slaughtered. Time was running out.
He guided Chaucer over the rough grasses and sharp rocks, but paid little heed to where he was going. A strange heaviness overwhelmed him as he contemplated what he wanted to do, and what he knew he should do, and how little time there was to choose between them.
Anger still lay burning in his heart, although the pain had softened some. Maybe it was the passage of time, maybe it was the snippets of regretful speech he'd heard from JD and Josiah, or maybe it was something he couldn't find a reason for at all. But it was still there, and Ezra knew that there would be neither full trust or forgiveness on his part towards them for a long time. He had held his dreams too dear to endure their destruction so casually.
Doubts had begun to creep into his resolution, however. Perhaps he could have admitted to the others that he needed help, as JD suggested. They may have simply not known how desperate his situation was. True, he had never appealed to anyone for assistance before, but then he had never had anyone to appeal to. They may have just assumed he didn't want their help.
He looked around him at the desert, still and quiet in the gathering night. It reminded him of another desert ride he'd taken long ago, from the Seminole village; he had deserted the others to search for gold, but returned when they were in danger. Chris had overlooked his mistake and given him a second chance then.
Should he give them a second chance in return?
Ezra scanned the horizon, then looked over his shoulder. He was alone out here; Hanley and the others were holed up on the caves, hiding from any patrols that might be around. He could find Chris and the others and warn them, and return without detection. It would not be difficult, they had been keeping a close eye on them all day.
He sat quietly as he contemplated this action. How was he going to explain his presence here? Could he really face them again, after the violent emotions he'd been subjected to caused by their actions? This was not going to be easy. But would standing by and allowing them to be killed be any easier?
As Ezra stared out at the setting sun, a powerful tide of feeling swept over him. For a brief moment he was seized by the notion that saving them was as crucial to his own life as it was to theirs. A certainty formed in his baffled mind, that their journey together was not yet done, and to allow it to end now would be a sin far greater than any committed by them or himself. It seemed to him to be the voice of fate.
It went away as quickly as it had come, and Ezra almost reeled as he recovered from the strength of it. He glanced back once more at the rocks in which Hanley and the others were hiding, then turned his face to the hills before him, his mind set. Chris and the others had to be warned. He could sort out the rest later.
Besides, he told himself, how would he be able to flaunt his future success in their faces if they all died tomorrow?
With resolution he spurred Chaucer into a trot and rode out to find Chris's camp.
Pony sat by the mouth of the cave, idly cleaning her gun and watching the sun set with distant eyes. Behind her, the rest of the gang was discussing the upcoming fight with bloodthirsty eagerness. Normally she was just as excited as they were about the prospect of some action, but this time she found little joy in her work.
She turned to see Trent sauntering towards her, holding his newly cleaned Remington in one hand and his battered top hat in the other.
"You been mopin' out here since we arrived, gal," Trent griped as he leaned against the wall next to her, his hands fiddling with his gun. "You losin' your taste for fightin'?"
"Hell, no," was the quick reply, as she hastily resumed her efforts. "Just don't feel like howlin' with you mangy dogs tonight, is all."
"Oh, we're gonna do more than howl," Trent said proudly, holding up his gun and smiling as he examined it. "Larabee an' his crew won't know what hit 'em. You better be pretty fast tomorrow, else you won't get the best pickins after we put 'em all in the ground."
She shot him a sour look. "Ain't I always the fastest one here?"
Trent studied her for a moment, then laughed as he put on his hat. "Hell, I guess so. Seem a mite off your feed tonight, though."
Pony shrugged and dropped her gaze to her work. "Just...thinkin', that's all."
"Huh." Trent grunted, twirling his gun casually. "Yeah, I used t'think, too. But then I found that shootin's a lot more fun. What the hell is there t'think about?"
Pony sighed and looked up at him, her large brown eyes confused. "Trent, you ever think about not killin' an' robbin' no more?"
Trent stared at her, then began to chuckle. "What the devil you talkin' about, gal?"
She hesitated, then turned away. "I - I dunno. Just feel like I might be gettin'...sorta tried of livin' this way. That's all."
Trent nodded, his expression serious. "Uh - huh, well, you better drop that feelin' pretty quick. Only way out of here for you or any of us is a pine box. You know that."
Pony gave a quick sigh as she looked out over the desert, now draped in a blue-purple glow as the night came on. "Yeah, you're - you're right. I - "
She stopped suddenly, her gaze riveted on the horizon. With one swift, graceful motion she rose, the gun now gripped firmly in her hand.
"What is it?" Trent asked, studying the horizon over her shoulder.
Ignoring his question, Pony turned and yelled to the group inside the cave, "There's a rider comin' this way!"
The air snapped with tension as Hanley and the others gathered behind her, all armed and ready for battle. The muffled sound of approaching hoofbeats filled the air, and in the twilight gloom a dark shape could be seen riding towards them.
"Shit!" Lew said.
"Shut up!" hissed Hanley. "Everyone get back inside! Trent - you get behind a rock an' let us know when they've gone. It might be one of Larabee's scouts."
As the others dashed deeper into the cave, Trent palmed his gun and clambered onto the rocks, ducking down as the rider drew closer. The campfire was doused with dirt, and the small group waited in darkness, watching Trent's black form, now silhouetted against the violet evening sky.
The hoofbeats drew closer, until they could be heard passing the mesa housing the cave. All held their breath, guns at the ready; but none of them were prepared for what Trent said next.
"Hey," he shouted, "it's Gray!"
The gang as a whole stood and looked at him in confusion.
"Gray?!" Hanley spat, pushing towards the front of the hideout. "What the hell!"
As they spilled out onto the desert floor, they could see the rider now doubling back in answer to Trent's shouts. In the dying light they could see it was indeed Gray, dusty and exhausted but still recognizable.
"Thought I wasn't never gonna find you all," Gray was saying as he reined in and dismounted with a plop. The campfire inside the cave was rekindled, its glow filtering out onto the desert.
"Gray!" Hanley barked, enraged as he approached the older man. "What the hell are you doing here? You're supposed to be keepin' an eye on the law in Four Corners!"
Gray grinned as he shook his head. "I done killed the law back there, Hanley. He won't be comin' after us."
Hanley stared at him for a few seconds, his eyes wide with rage. "Now why in the name of God did you do that?" he finally bellowed. "Don't you know they'll come after you for killin' a lawman?"
"Ain't nobody after me," Gray insisted as he knocked the dust from his clothes. "An' that lawman deserved what he got. Now Larabee won't have nobody t'help 'im, an' you got one more gun t'wipe 'im out for good."
Hanley glared at him for a moment, then gave an angry sigh. "All right. But next time, dammit, don't go shootin' down the law."
Gray scowled at him, the took a few steps towards the cave. He stopped when Lew appeared, hands on his gunbelt.
"Hired some guns, huh?" Gray grunted, scratching the dust out of his hair.
"What? Oh yeah, that's Lew," Hanley said casually as he waved at the mercenary. "We got another too, Standish, he's out keepin' watch for Larabee's men."
They all moved into the cave - all, that is, except for Gray, who stood frozen in place, his eyes wide. Once this was noticed, the last few of the group turned and looked at him.
"Comin', Gray?" Hanley asked in an irritated tone.
"Standish?" Gray asked.
"Yeah, so?" was Hanley's angry reply.
Hanley growled in exasperation. "You turn idiot or something, Gray? Yes, Ezra Standish, now get your ass in here."
Gray still hesitated. "He a Southern boy, about so high, with a red coat an' a gold tooth?"
They all turned to look at him now in surprise.
"Yeah, you guys follow Bobby Lee together or somethin'?" Trent asked with a grin.
Gray sputtered for a moment, his thin fists pounding the air in frustration. "Gol darn it all, ya idiots - he's law!"
Instantly the entire group was seized by a sense of shock, and they crowded back towards Gray, shocked questions on their lips - all except for Pony, who stood wide-eyed and speechless.
"Fella at the bar back in town told me," Gray spat, his voice becoming thin with agitation, "one of Larabee's men was a Southerner with a gold tooth an' a red coat, name of Ezra Standish. I asked around town t'see if any more of Larabee's men was there, an' that's one name I heard a lot. It's sorta odd so I remembered it. He's one of Larabee's men, boss!"
Hanley stood still, his entire body trembling with rage. Finally he exploded with a single bellowed word, its furious tone encompassing the wrath of a powerful man realizing the extent of his betrayal.
The western horizon was still tinged with the pink remnants of daylight as Nathan went through his supplies by the flickering light of a lantern. Behind him, the rest of the group was enjoying dinner around the small campfire, but the healer was too worried - about many things - to feel much like eating.
He sighed to himself as he went over the contents of his tattered canvas bag. His resources only went so far, and a confrontation would likely exhaust what supplies of bandages and medicines he had on hand. He loathed the thought that he might not be able to save all of them should trouble break out, and pushed the frightening idea as far away from his mind as it would go.
The problem was, as soon as that disturbing idea was set aside, another took its place. The fight he'd had with Ezra right before they left still bothered him, although he wasn't quite sure why. He'd done all he could to make things right with the headstrong gambler - it wasn't his fault Ezra was too stubborn to sit still and listen to an apology.
Nathan's conscience prodded him painfully; well, maybe he had needled Ezra a bit too much about his gambling ways, and it was a mistake to bring up the demise of his saloon when the pain from it was still so fresh for Ezra. But, Nathan thought to himself, it had been Ezra who had walked out, Ezra who had refused to listen to any more talk. If he truly did not want to discuss it, that was fine with Nathan. He would simply have to accept the fact that perhaps they really never would get along.
For one brief moment, a flash of sorrow stabbed at Nathan's heart. The shame he felt over his employment under Maude still stung him, and there seemed to be an odd connection between winning Ezra's forgiveness and being able to forgive himself. But Ezra had not seemed to be in a forgiving mood. So, fine, Nathan assured himself as he picked through his supplies. He was pretty sure he could find a way to live without begging any more favors from Ezra Standish.
Nathan looked up to see Vin approaching him, the tracker's slim form silhouetted against the fire's glow.
"Reckon y'could look me over?" Vin continued. "I want t'be ready if any fuss breaks out."
Nathan hastily put his thoughts behind him as he nodded, relieved at the distraction. "Sure, Vin, c'mon over. I was just finishin' up here anyway."
The examination was brief, and Nathan nodded as he finished retying the last of Vin's bandages.
"You're healin' right good, Vin," Nathan said as he tied off the last knot. "Reckon that ridin' you did today didn't hurt you none."
"Good," Vin rasped as he sat up and shrugged his shirt back on. "Don't think I could take bouncin' around in that wagon no more."
Nathan chuckled as he packed up his tattered medical bag. "Won't be no more of that if'n you stay out of trouble."
His friend shook his head as he began to rebutton his shirt. "Trouble an' me seem t'be ridin' the same horse these days."
Nathan cast a serious glance at his friend. "Maybe that'll stop once you're a free man," he said as he tied his bag closed.
"Sure hope so," Vin replied, staring towards the glowing circle where the rest of their comrades were sitting. "If it don't..." his voice trailed off, and he dropped his gaze to where his nimble fingers were working the last of the buttons.
"Hey, don't you go thinkin' like that," Nathan chided, concerned at Vin's anxiety.
Vin sighed and lifted his head again, his blue eyes searching the darkness beyond the reach of the warm pool of light. "Can't help thinkin' on them men that attacked us, Nathan. They're still out there somewhere, an' until we know what they're up to, can't none of us breathe safe."
"Maybe Chris should've had Buck an' Ezra come along," Vin was saying as he put his weathered hat back on. "Sure could use a few more guns."
Nathan shrugged. "Buck had t'look after things back in town, an' Ezra..." He shook his head. "Hell, who KNOWS what he's up to."
"Trouble with his ma in St. Louis, if I remember right," Vin gasped as he stood with Nathan's help. "Prob'ly got in some scrape with the law."
Nathan scowled. "More likely he was just lookin' t'get away an' do some gamblin' 'stead of helpin' us out."
The tracker peered at him, then gave a very small shrug. "Don't rightly know, Nathan," Vin said thoughtfully as they slowly began walking towards the campfire. "He seemed mighty troubled t'me."
"Yeah, well, I spoke to 'im before we left," Nathan said in a voice laced with irritation. "Only thing he seemed troubled 'bout was how much he could blame other folks for his problems."
Vin glanced at him. "Maybe that's just his way of dealin' with it. Some pain's so bad, the only way t'get rid of it is t'give it t'other people."
Nathan winced inside, remembering their last conversation, and his apology which was never delivered. Mingled with that memory was the anger at Ezra's accusations, their truth making them even more unbearable. He shook his head.
"I can tell you one thing, I don't want it," Nathan declared firmly. "Got enough pain of my own already."
Vin nodded. "I know, Nathan," he said softly as they drew closer to the campfire. "But I reckon that's between the two of you, an' when we get back home you can both sort it out among yourselves. If we make it back alive, that is," he added dryly, glancing at the surrounding hills as he spoke.
Nathan's expression flickered with a concern which mirrored Vin's, and he nodded slowly. "Whatever's comin', I s'pose we'll be ready for it. But I don't guess Ezra's got anythin' t'worry about - he's probably holed up in some St. Louis hotel havin' the time of his life."
Ezra cursed the dry, sharp prairie grass as he crept forward a few more inches, swearing to himself that once this was all over he would never crawl through another patch of the stuff again.
He sat up and brushed the prickling blades from his sleeve, looking ahead at the small dot of light in the near distance and trying to still the hammering in his chest. It was the fire of Chris's camp - he knew that much -and he'd been trying to decide the best way to approach them without getting shot at. Simply riding up wouldn't do - Chris would be on alert after the earlier attack, and they would likely just shoot him from his horse. A more subtle tactic would be needed.
Dread clutched at him again as he realized that gaining safe access to the camp would not be the most difficult aspect of this task. Coupled with the desperate desire to warn his friends was the difficulty in explaining his sudden appearance in their midst - he was, after all, supposed to be in St. Louis. And how would he adequately explain his knowledge of Hanley's plans anyway? Would they even trust him? Could he bear, once more, to see the shadows of doubt and rejection on their faces?
He sighed and rubbed his face with one elegant hand, feeling a familiar tug at his heart which said, Just forget this, ride off, why help them when they refused to help you? Hanley will be too busy to follow you now, and you won't have to face the pain.
Ezra had no answer to this; he simply knew it was impossible, as it had been impossible to abandon them at the Seminole village. This would be damned difficult and awkward, facing them again when there was still such hurt burning in him, but it had to be done. He could not stand by and allow them to be slaughtered.
He looked one last time at the tiny star-like glow, and with new resolve determined to ride on ahead, slowly, so as not to alarm them. He rose to mount his horse, and was halfway to his feet before his instincts suddenly caught fire. He was being watched.
His hand went for his gun and he turned, instantly alert. He only saw a blur, a quick impression of a tall figure in brown with long blonde hair. Fear flashed through him as he realized it was Dark Sun, but he only had an instant to experience it. Then something hard crashed across his head and he plummeted towards the ground. As he fell he caught one more glimpse of the small, promising light in the distance before its beckoning glow disappeared in a sudden descent of painful darkness.
Buck cursed to himself as he spurred his horse relentlessly on in the moonlit darkness. There seemed little chance now he'd find the others in time.
He had been riding like a madman, changing horses at every available small town on the way, but now he could not shake the feeling that his efforts would be in vain. A thrown shoe had delayed him, and his wounded arm was proving to be an agonizing distraction. Several times he had found himself drifting off through pain and fatigue, and realized that he had lost the trail. It had taken time to find it again, time Chris and the others didn't have.
But he was on the right track now, he knew it, but was he too late? There was nowhere now to find fresh horses or supplies, only the broad expanse of the empty desert beneath a pitiless moon. And the burning in his gut which told him that he was going to find and warn his friends, or commit himself to the pursuit and destruction of their murderers.
He rode on.
"All right, get him up."
Ezra barely heard these words as he tried to struggle back from the thick fog he'd been trapped in. At first all he wanted to do was open his eyes, get his bearings, find out what the hell was going on. Then as more memory broke through the thickness in his brain, he realized he was probably better off unconscious. But it was too late for that now.
Thoughts tumbled through his mind, disorganized and urgent. Chris, he had to warn Chris and the others - they were in danger, they were going to be killed. He tried to move, and found he couldn't. Then he recalled what had happened, and his heart sank; he was in danger now, too. Damn.
He was lying on a stone floor; that much he could tell, and it didn't take long for him to notice that his hands had been tied very securely behind him. They had stripped him of his guns and his red jacket, and most likely all the money he had hidden in his boot. His ribs and arms were sore; he had most likely been dumped here none too gently. He stirred a little, licking his dry lips and trying to gather his wits together, when someone grabbed his collar roughly, hauled him up and slapped him fiercely across the face.
The force and sharpness of the blow startled him into full awareness, and he opened his eyes with a start. His gaze met the furious eyes of Trent, who was holding him, the young man's mouth bent into a chilling smile. Ezra's eyes quickly swept the scene; they were in the cave, now lit only by the campfire. He was at the center, and around him on all sides sat the members of Hanley's gang, including some old man in a tattered gray Confederate coat whom Ezra had never seen before. Pony was not there. They were all staring at him with violent hatred, but the only one who moved was Hanley, whose huge form now stood before him, looking particularly murderous.
Oh *hell*, Ezra thought. He licked his lips again and said, in as indignant a tone as he could muster, "What is the meaning of this?"
"Drop 'im, Trent," Hanley commanded. Trent grinned at Ezra and released him. Ezra dropped back to the hard floor, suppressing a moan as his shoulder slammed onto the unforgiving rock.
"Well, we've run into a little problem, Standish," Hanley said in a casual tone as he crossed his arms and stepped over to where Ezra was sprawled. He looked over at the older man. "How about it, Gray?"
The old man nodded vigorously. "That's him all right, Hanley, jus' like that fella said."
"Uh - huh." Hanley nodded, then looked back at Ezra, and his manner was quite matter-of-fact and very deadly. "Gray here tells me you're one of Larabee's dogs."
Ezra was not very surprised at this - it had seemed pretty obvious when he awoke - and he slid on an air of utter insult. "Sir," he replied, trying to sit up, "I must protest this heinous accusation. Your associate here is clearly mistaken."
Hanley paused and gave Ezra a cold smile before viciously driving his boot into the gambler's stomach. Ezra tried not to groan at the explosion of pain, but it was impossible to completely suppress the agonized sound.
"Shut up!" Hanley barked as Ezra gasped for air. "I didn't ask you if it was true, did I?"
Ezra's breathing calmed a bit and he looked up at Hanley, his mind furiously working on how to get out of this.
Hanley crouched down in front of Ezra's supine form and grabbed him by the collar, pulling him a few inches closer. "See, Standish," he continued in a calm, icy voice, "I know Gray ain't the smartest gun I've ever worked with, but I trust him a hell of a lot more than I trust you at this point. You being one of Larabee's men explains a whole lot of things, like your clumsiness at the stakeout the other day." His grip tightened and he drew Ezra closer. "That wasn't an accident, was it? You were trying to *warn* them, you traitorous son of a bitch."
Ezra shook his head slightly. "This is an out - "
Hanley's fist closed even tighter, and he stood, hauling Ezra almost to his feet. Ezra choked, his throat nearly closed off in the vise-like fury of the huge man's grip. Hanley's enraged countenance was now a mere few inches from Ezra's, and the expression he saw there was brimming with wrathful suspicion.
"I don't want to hear one more damn word out of you, Standish," Hanley said in a lethal whisper. "It would be better for you to save your breath. You won't have it for too much longer."
He threw Ezra back to the floor, not even looking to see where he landed. Ezra collapsed on his side, and lay still for a moment while the room spun around him. For one terrifying second he couldn't breathe; then everything slowly, painfully righted itself. Which was not, he realized, exactly an improvement in his situation.
"Now Gray may very well be mistaken," Hanley was saying as he walked back and forth in front of Ezra, hands clasped behind his back like a schoolmaster explaining a complicated problem to a child. "Maybe you aren't the Ezra Standish who's got a gold tooth and a red coat and takes blood money from Chris Larabee. But I can't afford to take that chance, you understand. As you've seen, I don't have a lot of patience for men who might cross me."
Ezra thought of the hired gun who'd tried to leave, and who had died from a bullet in his back, courtesy of Hanley. He fought to control his fear, but things were not getting any brighter. But there had to be a way out of this -
"Now," Hanley said, coming back to stand in front of Ezra, "there's still the matter of what to do with you. Trent, of course, had a few ideas, since you did almost get him killed."
Ezra glanced at Trent; the young man was staring at him and not smiling.
"I must say, I had some very creative suggestions," Hanley smiled. "We're pretty experienced in dealing with those we don't like. And right now, we don't like you."
He squatted down in front of Ezra, and the gambler felt his gut tighten at the realization of how much Hanley was enjoying all of this. "Now, we could of course just shoot you. But we have to save our bullets for your friends, don't we? Those Goddamned gutter-crawling horse shit friends you didn't get a chance to warn this time. Why, Gray even helped us out by killing one of them already."
Ezra's blood turned to ice; my Lord, he thought, staring at the smugly grinning old man. Oh, Hell. Who...
Gray looked overjoyed at Ezra's shocked reaction. "Yup," he nodded, pulling out his gun, "shot 'im with this gun right here. Saw 'im die myself. Wasn't nothin' you could do about that, was there? Gunned 'im down right there in th' boardin' house. Ha!"
The boarding house - it must have been back at the town. But the only one left in town was...
Buck. Oh Lord. Sorrow swelled through Ezra's chest, flooding him with an icy ache.
Hanley's laughter pierced his agony. "Heheh - looks a mite broke up, don't he, Gray?"
Gray's response was a contemptuous chuckle.
"Well, don't you worry, Standish," Hanley said with a smile as he stood, "you won't have long t'grieve for your worthless dog of a friend. You're all going to be in Hell by tomorrow night. But I've decided to let you have a little taste of what's waiting for you in eternity."
He gave Ezra one last look of pure anger, then without turning said, "Dark Sun?"
Ezra watched as the young man in buckskin with long blonde hair and haunted eyes came forward, face impassive as always. He had recovered fully from his injuries, and was studying Ezra in a perfectly calm manner, the wild light behind his blue eyes eerie with anticipation.
"Before this night is over, Standish," Hanley went on, still gazing at him with complete hatred, "I want you to be sorry you ever tried to help those God- damned friends of yours. I want you to know that you couldn't beat us, and you never will. We might just be scum to you, but scum always rises to the top." He grabbed Ezra by the hair, pulling his head up slightly and giving him a smug grin. "Doesn't it?"
Ezra peered back at him as he quietly gasped for breath. "I believe your associate Eli Joe had the same belief."
The other man grunted. "Eli Joe had his chance, now I have mine. Your chances, on the other hand, have run out."
Hanley turned a little to Dark Sun. "He's all yours," he announced, and strode out of the cave. The others rose and followed.
"I want t'stay an' watch this," Lew, the hired gun, was whining. "Ain't never seen Injun torture before."
"You don't wanna see Dark Sun work," was the nervous reply of Stan, the escaped convict. "Believe me."
And they were gone.
Ezra's heart was racing as he tried to twist out of the ropes; he could feel the rough hemp tearing his skin but they were too tight for him to budge. He had to find a way out of here and warn his comrades. The anger he had felt towards them was gone for the moment, replaced only with a vital, all - consuming urgency: he could not fail them, there was no one else to help. There had to be a way.
Dark Sun simply stood there, staring at Ezra, as still as a statue, his blue eyes wide and wild in the flickering firelight. Ezra shuddered; he'd seen eyes like that in the South, after the War, in the faces of people who had seen such horrors that they went mad. He inched away a little instinctively before bumping into the unyielding rock wall, his concern for Chris and the others now replaced by a paralyzing terror for himself.
Dark Sun walked towards him and slowly drew out his knife.
"The spirits have told me," he said in a soft, even voice, "that I must begin now."
Josiah had always loved the early hours of the morning, when the darkness had been dispelled but the sun had not yet shown its face over the eastern horizon. But now, as he trotted his horse over the dry, cool desert, keeping a lookout for trouble, he eyed the gray dawn sky and felt only trouble in his heart.
Vin had recovered; that was certainly something to be thankful for, but the danger was far from over, and Josiah had been visited by disturbing dreams which hinted at worse tribulations to come. He had said nothing to the others, preferring to contemplate the message privately, and the long dawn patrol had given him the perfect opportunity to do so. But he had found no answers.
He drew back and sighed as he surveyed the sunrise, the sky just beginning to turn from dull gray to light pink and blue. Lord, he thought, I s'pose I ought t'thank you for this day, an' for allowin' us all t'see it from the land of the living. If you could just see your way clear t'lettin' our luck continue, I know I for one would be mighty grateful.
He guided Prophet down a shallow, rocky hill. Lord, he continued, I know I ain't exactly in the best position to be askin' no favors of you, but I don't reckon it'll take up too much of your infinite time t'hear what I got t'say. We're mighty grateful you saw fit t'spare our brother Vin's life, Lord. He's a good man - got his faults like all of us but he's tryin' t'make things right. Sure would appreciate it, Lord, if you could help him on his way an' give him some peace of mind at last.
Then there's Chris, Josiah thought as he eased prophet over a rather rough patch of desert grass. Lord, he ain't talkin', but I can tell somethin's eatin' at his soul. Thought he was about t'bust when Vin was hurt. There's a fire behind him, Lord, an' I can't tell what it is but it's drivin' him somethin' fierce. If Vin don't make it through all this, I don't think Chris will either. Ease the fire in his soul, Lord, an' maybe they'll both live t'go back home as free men. I'd sure be obliged to you for that.
And JD, now, there's a young man with a heavy heart, Josiah mused as he rode along. The sky was brightening now, the glow to the east announcing the approach of dawn. Lord, you an' I both know JD's got just about the best heart in the Territory, an' right now that heart needs some lookin' after. He hasn't learned yet how to ignore the pain of other people, an' with your help maybe he won't ever learn. Give him the strength to face his mistakes an' make 'em right, Lord, while he still cares enough to want to.
Now Nathan - he seems to be doin' all right, Lord, but I know he's worried about what might happen. He never thinks he's done enough, even when he's given more than most men would even think of. I sure hope he won't have anything else to worry about on this trip, Lord, but if he does, I'm askin' that you give him the ability to see it through, an' not to be too hard on himself for what he can't fix.
Reckon JD an' Nathan are still riled about Ezra, too, Josiah mused. I am too. Still kickin' myself for not havin' the guts to talk to him before he left town. An' I still feel like a blind fool for not seein' the pain Ezra was goin' through. Damn hard t'see, with Ezra, sometimes, but that's no excuse. I believe you brought us together to be each other's keepers, Lord, an' now that I've caused my brother pain I got to set it right. Lord, give me the wisdom to know how to do that, an' give Ezra the patience to hear me. It would do both our hearts a world of good.
Josiah smiled to himself a little as he guided his mount along a dry creek bed. For myself, Lord, he thought, I'd just ask that you just point me the way I'm s'posed to go and give me the strength to get there. You've brought me among these men for a purpose, an' I'm trustin' that one of these days you'll let me - let all of us - in on what that might be. We know I'm not the best man to trust their souls too, Lord - my own's so heavy it's all I can do to hold that together, let alone six more. It's a burden I know they have, too. Maybe that's why we're all here, Lord. So we can make the weight a little easier to bear by bearing it together.
Josiah sighed and looked again at the sky; the sun had begun to peep over the horizon, its fiery light slowly spreading over the sleeping landscape. It would be time to move soon. Reluctantly he turned from his contemplations and spurred Prophet back towards the camp, hoping that his prayers would be heard.
Had Josiah looked down as he rode through the rough prairie grass, he would have seen a golden object blinking back at him. If he had studied it, he would have recognized it as a gold - plated cufflink, identical to the kind Ezra wore, and in fact engraved with the initials EPS.
But Josiah's mind was full of the day's occupations. He rode ahead, oblivious to the small gleaming object hidden in the grass, and heedless of its fate as it was swallowed up and obscured by the choking weeds which surrounded it.
Pony stared at the new dawn with exhausted eyes and thought, *Damn*.
She sniffled and wiped her nose on her hand, looking back to make sure no one was watching her as she sat close by the cave. But they were still asleep, curled up among the rocks some distance away, getting plenty of rest for the day's battle. Today they would kill Larabee and the rest, get their revenge, and ride for Mexico free and happy.
Pony felt anything but free and happy.
She sighed, scowled and kicked herself. Dammit, she thought, stop it, stop caring. You're making a fool of yourself, he's just a damned liar like all of 'em. It's your own fault for trustin' him and thinkin' he meant what he was sayin' about honor and there bein' good folks in the world. This just proved there really weren't, didn't it? You couldn't even trust the ones who swore up an' down about it.
She bit her lip as the sad anger swelled in her, disgusted at herself. She'd been telling herself such things all night, but they hadn't helped. She still felt sorry for the poor guy, even if he was a lawman and a liar. When he'd talked to her, he seemed so sure about it, and Pony could usually tell when she was being lied to. It had happened often enough. But maybe he was just real good at it...
She glanced again at the cave and shivered. How could the others sleep, knowing what was going on in there? She'd run away, at first, unable to bear being close. It was quite handy to take patrol duty and ride off, though it felt as if no distance was far enough. But she had to come back, and she'd dreaded it, because she didn't really want to hear him scream. Funny thing was, even after she came back, she never heard him scream. Not once.
She saw movement at the mouth of the cave, and ducked down. Dark Sun's thin form emerged, appearing as calm as if he'd just come out of a night of pure, unbroken rest. That light was still shining in his eyes, however; Pony could see it even from a distance. That restless, haunted light which could never cause enough pain and suffering to quench it. With casual strides he walked from the cave, and Pony knew he was going to seek guidance from the spirits who spoke only to him, as he did every morning at sunrise. He would be gone for a little while, but not for long.
She silently stepped over the rocks towards the cave, steadying the swinging canteen she carried. At the mouth of the cave, she hesitated, suddenly afraid. She didn't want to see Ezra like this. But she had to see him, to talk to him, before it was too late. And it would be too late very soon.
Pony crouched down and entered the mouth of the cave; it was quite shallow, and a few more steps took her into the heart of the den. The fire was still burning, very low now, and its light was so feeble that it took her a few moments to see in the half-darkness. After a few moments she found what she was looking for, and hurried towards it, her heart rising in her throat. She had seen Dark Sun's work before.
He was lying on his side, motionless, and Pony thought at first that he was probably dead. Even in the dim, flickering light she could see the black-red stains soaking his tattered clothing; it seemed to be everywhere. She knew by watching that Dark Sun knew exactly how and where to cut to cause the most pain and bleeding, but not death - at least not too quickly. As she drew closer she saw a slight movement stir the bloodied form, and realized that Ezra wasn't dead just yet. A strange sorrow accompanied this thought; it only meant that his suffering would continue.
She hurriedly knelt by his side. The light was dim, but she didn't need it to know how brutally Ezra had been treated. His body was covered with deep, painful cuts executed with the precision and skill of a practiced hand. Small trails of blood trickled down his face from hidden cuts on his scalp. There were dark bruises on the temples, the arms, the chest - anywhere where pressure would bring the greatest amount of agony. Such sights had never disturbed her before, but now they turned her stomach. With one quick glance back at the mouth of the cave, she reached out and gently touched his shoulder.
Ezra gasped and jerked a bit, uttering a strange choking noise. His arms strained against the bonds which still pinned his hands behind his back, but the weak effort lasted only a moment. He gulped for air as his eyes convulsed open, staring at Pony in a brief burst of panic as he struggled out of one nightmare into another.
She jumped in sympathy at his reaction. "Hey, don't fret, it's only me," she said, trying to ease the half-conscious fear in his eyes. She unscrewed the canteen top and held the mouth to his lips, tilting it back. "Here, I figured you'd need this. It's got somethin' in it for the pain."
Ezra needed no further urging; he quickly drained the container, as Pony knew he would. Men who lost blood always wanted lots of water, and she knew he hadn't had any all night.
When the canteen was empty she put it away, watching Ezra with worried eyes. He gasped a few times and licked his lips, but said nothing.
"I thought you was dead there for a minute," she said as she eased him upright and leaned his back against the rock wall, to make him more comfortable.
Ezra shook his head, the sweat on his face glistening in the wan firelight. "I do not believe that is in your comrade's plans," he whispered in a light, panting breath. He opened his eyes a little more, looking around.
Pony sighed. "He went out t'pray to the spirits, like he does every mornin'. He won't be gone long."
Ezra leaned his head back and closed his eyes, apparently in despair at the thought of Dark Sun returning. After a moment the green eyes slid open again, and he looked at her. "Does Hanley know you're in here?"
Pony snorted. "No. An' if he finds out, I'm dead."
Ezra's eyes widened. "I must commend your courage, my dear."
Pony snorted. "Courage, hell! I don't know why I'm even bothering with you." She paused, then continued, her voice becoming edged with confused anger. "It's true, isn't it? You're one of Larabee's men. He an' them men, they're the friends you was tellin' me about, that crossed you."
Ezra said nothing. He only gazed at her with exhausted eyes for a moment, but they were full of enough pain for her to guess the answer.
She let out a quick breath and stared at him, her brown eyes upset and confused. "What, did they plant you back at that saloon so you could follow us? Were you gonna turn us all in, or have us killed?"
His eyes opened wider now, and he struggled to sit up, an intense desire to be understood clear in his face.
"My child," he said softly, "you must believe me when I say I had no intention of infiltrating your group. When you found me I was trying to put as much distance between myself and those men as possible."
She stared at him, then leaned closer, crouching down on her heels. "Good, then maybe this'll work. I was thinkin', if you can give Hanley somethin' that'll help him get those men - some weaknesses, maybe - he might let you go without killin' you."
Ezra gazed at her without saying a word for a moment, then shook his head and whispered, "No."
She cocked her head and frowned. "But you're done with 'em any - "
This only increased her puzzlement. She sat back on her heels and shook her head, hopelessly bewildered. "Why the hell not? They ain't nothin' to you no more."
Ezra dropped his gaze to the ground for a moment, then slowly brought his eyes up to meet hers, a small smile on his face.
"I wish I had an answer for you," he said, between gasps for air. ""But...when I thought of leaving them to be killed, something stronger than my anger at them made that idea abhorrent to me. Perhaps I wanted to spare them in the name of whatever once bound us together."
Pony furrowed her brow. "That don't make no sense."
Ezra smiled at her, a remarkably tender expression on his face considering the excruciating amount of pain he had to be in. "I know you don't understand it, my dear. Hell, I don't understand it either. But I cannot betray them and carry their blood on my hands for the rest of my life."
She was open-mouthed with surprise. "Then - you're just gonna sit here an' let yourself be killed? Just t'save their sorry asses? They'll just die anyhow."
Ezra sighed and leaned back against the stone, a great weariness spreading over his body. "Then perhaps all of our sins will be purged."
Pony sat up, her teeth gritted with determined anger. "Not if I can help it. Look, dammit, you're delirious. Here." She pulled out her gun and held it up. "You seem like a decent feller, even if you're full of wild ideas. When Dark Sun comes back he ain't gonna let up on you one bit." One slender finger slid over the trigger. "I - I can stop that, if you want."
Ezra frowned at her. "They'll surely notice if you shoot your comrade, my dear."
She gave him a serious, level look. "Not him, Ezra. You."
His head came up with a snap, and he stared at her dumbfounded.
"You won't feel a thing, I promise," she said quickly, climbing to her knees. "I - I just don't want to see you go through this no more. I'll say you tried to escape, Hanley won't care. It's - "
He found his voice, and it was for the first time strong and decisive. "No. Pony, I cannot allow you to do this."
Pony was skeptical. "You'd rather be tortured to death?"
There was a long moment of silence, during which Ezra seemed to be weighing the question very seriously. Pony glanced towards the entrance to the cave; Dark Sun would be coming back soon. Why the hell wouldn't he let her do this for him?
"it is not a pleasant thought, certainly," Ezra said at last, his voice weak, "but it is more attractive than allowing you to take my life. I have been a coward for most of my life, Pony, and if it is to end this way I would rather face it as I believe my friends would - fighting to the last. It is the only honorable thing to do."
"Honorable!" Pony spat, her gun dropping into her lap. "What the hell good is honor, Ezra? Look at you! Trussed up like a pig on a spit. Dark Sun ain't even started on you, believe me, an' you're here talkin' about honor. Hell of a lot of good it did you."
They sat together without saying a word for a few long minutes. Finally Pony sniffed and wiped one hand across her nose.
"Hell," she said softly, throwing a contrite look at Ezra. "I - just - I don't understand why you're doin' this all, for them. Part of me thinks you're the craziest man I ever met, an' the other part..."
Her voice trailed off. She didn't want to admit that she deeply wanted to believe such things were possible, because those thoughts were soft and weak, and she could never be weak and survive. He had friends, friends he was willing to suffer and die for even though they hurt him - what was that like? It seemed both insane and wonderful. She could remember a time, when she was little, when such love was part of her life -
She sat up quickly, shaking her head. No time for that now. "Look, he'll be back any minute. Please, let me end it all for you, you don't know what he's capable of."
His gaze on her was weak but steady, the green eyes firm. "I can hardly stop you," he admitted, "but it would be against my wishes. And I believe, my dear, that there is enough honor in you to respect those wishes."
She hesitated. He was right, she could do whatever she wanted, he couldn't stop her, but - Honor? In *her*? Nobody had ever said such a thing.
She drew a deep breath and reluctantly holstered her gun. "You're a damn fool," she said.
"There are many who would agree with you, including Larabee and his men," Ezra replied. He began to cough; the coughs became racking, and in alarm Pony knelt by his side, supporting him as he struggled to breath. His clothes were rough and stiff from the dried blood, and as she eased him back she saw how pale his skin was, the several bruises standing out ugly against the clammy whiteness. If only she had more water...
"Pony," he gasped, as the coughs subsided, "Pony, if you wish to ease my suffering in a less...fatal way, you must promise me something."
She eased him back against the rock, smoothing his hair and wiping his face with the hem of her shirt. "What?"
"When Hanley goes to attack Chris and the others," he whispered, "I would very much appreciate it if you did not join your comrades in fighting them. You can surrender quickly, and they will protect you. Otherwise, they will not fail to defend themselves, as much as they will loathe firing on a woman of your age."
Pony laughed softly, her eyes hard. "Yeah, I bet. They got no reason t'let me live." She narrowed her eyes at him. "I almost think this is some kind of trick. Like you was tryin' t'get me killed."
Ezra coughed once and shook his head, the words coming slowly and with great effort. "You don't deserve to die in some Godforsaken desert shootout. There is still a chance for you to break free from this life, if you will only trust these men. It will ease my suffering to know that you, at least, have a chance for escape."
She stared at him. With all that was happening to him, he was worried about her? He had to be delirious. She stood up quickly. "I can't," she said in a hurried voice, settling the canteen over her shoulder. "Hanley would kill me sure, even if they didn't. It's - it's too dangerous."
She looked over her shoulder. "I have to go, before they find me." She stood awkwardly, clenching her fists in agitation. "Look, I - I'll try not t'shoot none of your friends. An' I'm right grateful for how nice you been t'me. Nobody ever gave a damn about me since I was little. I..." She stopped, unable to think of anything else to say.
She drew a deep breath. "Goodbye," was all she could say before she turned and ran out of the cave, overcome with anger and a strange, burning sorrow. She couldn't look back to see if he was watching her.
Pony stumbled onto the rocks and looked quickly around. Dark Sun was nowhere in sight yet, and Hanley's camp was just stirring. She quickly clambered down the rocks, her mind a whirl of grief, pain and confusion. She didn't want to think about what Ezra had said, it was too risky and crazy. She couldn't trust him, trust anybody, no matter what he said about them.
Even if they were men he was willing to die for...
Even if he had seen honor in her.
She leaned against the cold rock wall and fought the tears which threatened to consume her.
It was Trent's voice, from far away, at the camp. He was waving to her. She sniffed, shaken, and leaned out.
"Let's have some breakfast, gal!" he hollered to her. "We got a big day ahead!"
The other men whooped and laughed, the noise wafting easily towards her on the cool morning breeze. She slumped against the rock, suddenly very weary, and looked up towards the open desert. The slim form of Dark Sun was visible, approaching the cave in a firm stride full of purpose. The spirits must have spoken to him again.
Pony sighed and straightened; they couldn't ever know. Drying her eyes she withdrew her gun and checked the chamber.
"You got it, boys," she yelled back, hoping they didn't notice the break in her voice. "Same as always."
And went off to hunt. And think.