Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.
Note: For LT, happy birthday. Betaed by and contributed to by Kerry.
Delivering prisoners to Yuma was never a popular job, it was a ten day ride in the summer, two weeks in the winter, when the trails through the high hills were closed by snow. Chris insisted that one prisoner needed a three man escort, two prisoners needed four, more than that and the judge would have to send the federal marshal and his prison wagon or the army.
Buck, Vin and Ezra had escorted one Fredrick Miller, convicted rustler. It was an uneventful trip; Miller had been sentenced to three years and apart from spectacularly bad breath, gave them no trouble. When they left there was too much snow to take the shorter high trail, but by the time they were headed home the spring thaw had set in and most of the snow had gone. It remained on the highest summits and on sheltered north facing slopes, but other than that the land had been liberated from its winter covering.
As dusk began to fall on the three riders, Four Corners lay to the east of these hills, no more than two days ride away.
"Guess we need to make camp," Buck commented as they emerged from the trees into a clearing.
"Looks like a good spot," Vin agreed. "Ain't gonna be easy to find any dry wood."
The weather had been mostly dry and when the sun shone, warm. It was this sudden warm spell that had accelerated the spring thaw, saturating the ground, and Ezra had complained bitterly about the freezing melt water that was forever dripping on him from the trees. Of course it dripped on Buck and Vin too, but they didn't feel the need to complain, after all there wasn't anything they could do about it. It was also the sudden thaw that had diverted them to this clearing. The trail was bisected by a stream, in summer it was no more than a trickle, often running dry, and even in spring, there was normally no more than two feet of water in it. When they reached it now, it was a raging torrent. The deep, racing, water was the milky blue colour of freshly melted snow and no doubt so cold it would freeze your foot off as soon as it hit the water. Any attempt to cross it was clearly suicidal, even if they could have persuaded the horses to try. Beau, honest and loyal, would probably have tried, Peso - stubborn and ornery - and Chaucer - pampered and spoilt - would have refused, at least in Buck's opinion.
Unable to cross this stream, they had diverted to the south.
Buck dismounted. "I'll take care of the horses, Ezra you get the wood," he suggested.
"Why should you be the one to see to our mounts?" Ezra asked.
"Because you did it last time," Buck pointed out.
"And the time before that," Vin added.
Ezra looked from Buck, who was looking at him with a distinctly smug expression, to Vin, who was grinning at him like the cat who stole the cream.
"Why not Mr Tanner?" he asked.
"If you want more than jerky for supper, then I got to go shoot it don't I?" Vin pointed out.
With a dramatic sigh, Ezra conceded, dismounting and handing his reins to Buck.
Buck saw it happen and knew it was his fault, how could he have been so stupid? He had just secured the last horse to the line he'd strung between two trees when he heard a cry of alarm. As he spun around, gun in hand, he saw both men disappear, swallowed up by the ground.
Buck had once worked for a mine. He hadn't worked underground, his job was to bring in and guard the payroll. None the less he'd been around mines long enough that he should have recognised the signs, the clearing were none should occur naturally, the undulations in the ground, why hadn't he warned them? Why hadn't he seen what was right in front of him?"
Shouting desperately he ran to the spot where they had disappeared, careful not to get too close to the hole. There was no reply to his calls - no matter how loud he shouted. Lying on his belly, he looked down into the hole. All he saw was blackness. Even in the failing light, it was clear to him that this was an old ventilation shaft, there was only a minimum of boarding at the sides and it was narrow, though not so narrow it hadn't just swallowed up his two friends. The sides, saturated with water and lacking proper bracing, were still crumbling.
Buck shimmied back from the edge before he stood, then he ran back to the saddles and began to rummage though Vin's saddlebags. Vin always carried a tomahawk; it was as good as any hatchet for cutting fire wood, but smaller and lighter. With the weapon in hand, he hacked at a sturdy low hanging branch. Once he'd cut it free, he dragged it to the hole and pushed it in at an angle, so that it was wedged across the hole, needle covered branches and all. He repeated this operation three more times. Had someone else, someone not familiar with mines, seen his friends disappear into that hole they might have been tempted to try and pull them out thought the same hole. Buck knew better. He'd seen vertical shafts collapse before; he'd seen how much ground had fallen in after his friends. The only chance they had, assuming they'd survived the fall and hadn't been buried alive, was for him to locate the horizontal adit tunnel the ventilation shaft was serving. Before he could do that he had to stop any more debris falling in. The branches he'd wedged in should stop a full scale collapse and catch most of the loose soil and small stones that were still falling.
One moment they had been walking across the clearing, headed for a spot where Vin had spotted what looked like a good amount of dead wood they could use. Ezra was still protesting.
"Why do I need to walk all the way over there? There is plenty of wood all around us."
"Will you quit it," Vin protested. "It's a whole branch, see it? You just need to pull it back to the campsite and hack it up. Since it's under that big old tree, it should be dry."
The next moment they were falling. Darkness suddenly surrounded him, there was only time to be surprised, no time to be scared, no time to react, no time to try and save himself. Almost as soon as he began to fall, Ezra landed, the wind knocked out of him. No more than a heartbeat later something heavy landed on him.
He was vaguely aware of a voice, but at that very moment he couldn't work out who it was or that they were saying. All he knew was something had hold of his arm and was pulling on it.
"Move Ezra!" the voice bellowed, then there was an explosion of pain in his shoulder.
Suddenly finding himself trapped underground was Vin's worst nightmare, but there was no time for fear. He was used working in the dark, used to calling on his other senses to assess a situation. Mud and stones were falling on him, not only that, but it was falling at an increasing rate. He had to assume that his fall was broken by landing on Ezra. He couldn't see what it was under him, but it had to be Ezra and they had to get away or be buried alive. Frustrated that Standish wasn't responding to him, he grabbed the first limb that came to hand, not caring what it was, and pulled him away from the cascade of mud.
The sudden cry of pain told him Ezra was awake, but didn't stop him, he had to get Ezra away before he was buried. He almost made it. Ezra cried out in pain again as he stopped moving.
"My legs!" he called out, apparently realising what was happening.
Vin dropped his arm and thrust his hand into his pocket, desperately searching for his matches. With a match in one hand he reached out with the other to find the wall. It didn't take long, but it was wet, everywhere he touched was wet, finally, in desperation, he struck the match against his own belt buckle. Aware he only had seconds of flickering light he moved down beside Ezra. Even in the limited light, it was clear his lower legs were buried under the edge of a huge pile of mud.
"Oh dear Lord," Ezra gasped, as he looked own at his own feet.
Just then the match burnt down to Vin's fingers and he dropped it. It died instantly as it hit the wet ground.
"I'll dig, you do yer best to pull out," Vin told him.
Not waiting for a reply, Vin began to dig at the mud around Ezra's feet. The mud was so wet it was almost liquid, as fast as he dug more fell down.
"Are yer pullin'?" he asked, since Ezra's feet hadn't moved.
"I am doing my best," Ezra ground out, his voice tight and his delivery staccato.
"You hurt?" Vin asked, recognising the signs.
"We're trapped in a mine and you're half buried. You've got a real interesting definition of 'fine' there Ezra. So, are you hurt?"
"I think my shoulder is dislocated, again."
"Reckon that was my fault, sorry."
"Don't even mention it, you were trying to save my life, for which I am grateful. Now, if you would continue to dig, I'll do my best to extricate my self from this predicament."
Vin redoubled his efforts, while Ezra did his best to get enough purchase to pull his legs free. Eventually the two of them managed to get one foot free, with that, Ezra had sufficient power to pull the other one out.
"I'm out!" he shouted.
Vin stopped his frantic digging and, on hands and knees, groped his way around to Ezra's shoulders.
"We need to get further back. Reckon it could all fall in at any time," he announced.
With that Vin stood up for the first time, only to hit his head on the ceiling with a sickening thump.
"Are you okay?" Ezra asked.
"I'll live," Vin assured him.
"Might I suggest another match?"
"Ain't got many."
"I have some and it's better than injuring ourselves further."
Vin said no more, he just struck a second match on his belt and looked behind them. There was a tunnel stretching into blackness, the roof looked to be just high enough to allow Ezra to stand up straight. Water ran freely down the walls and along the floor.
Buck didn't think he'd ever felt so alone. It would be dark soon, there was no one for miles and he had no idea where the mine entrance was, always assuming it hadn't caved in as well. The normally calm and patient Beau snorted and fidgeted as his reacted to Buck's mounting panic as he tried to saddle him.
"Stand still damn you!" Buck griped at his horse, his raised voice only alarming the horse more. "Damn," he cursed again more quietly. He took a deep breath, getting his horse so scared he couldn't saddle it wasn't helping any.
Once he had the saddle on, he threw saddles and packs on the other horses and mounted up. Once up on Beau he took a long hard look at the lie of the land. The extra height and the fading light helped him to assess the situation. The setting sun cast long shadows over the clearing, accenting the contours of the land. The shaft had looked deep, so the entrance to the mine had to be some way below him. Keeping the dying sun to his back, he set off down hill, scouring the land around him for signs of mining activity.
Gold prospectors had been finding small deposits in the local streams ever since men returning east after the California gold rush had spotted something glistening in the waters. The streams were quickly panned out and the prospectors turned their attention to mining. These were always small-scale operations, most found nothing, those that did find gold, never found much. No motherlode was ever found and the last mine was abandoned during the war. Mother Nature had quickly reclaimed what was hers and little or no sign of the mines were now visible, unless you knew what to look for. Buck knew what to look for, he had just forgotten to do it, for which he would never forgive himself.
It was almost dark as he reached a point where the ground dropped steeply. He was alone; the chances of finding what was almost certainly a small, overgrown mine entrance, in the dark was next to impossible. On top of that, he had to pony two horses, as well as his own, down a steep slope with no proper trail, a tricky thing at any time, but in the dark; it was just too dangerous. As much as he wanted to find his friends, as much as he knew that every second counted, he had to stop, he had to wait for daylight.
With a sick, tight feeling in his gut and a heavy heart, he dismounted. Working mostly by touch and memory he unsaddled the horses and secured them, then he ate some jerky and lay down under the nearest tree, with all three bedrolls, to wait for the first paling of the eastern sky.
Vin and Ezra had had a small piece of good luck, hanging on a rusty nail, just two matches up the tunnel they found an old lamp, with oil still in it. The metal was so corroded it had taken some time to get the glass to lift, but when it did, they managed to light it. The old oil and poor wick gave off a weak yellow light, but at least it lasted longer than a match had.
Vin lifted the lantern and looked critically at Ezra and at his shoulder in particular. "I ain't Nathan, but if you know what to do and tell me, I'll have a go at puttin' that right," he offered.
"I assure you that won't be necessary," Ezra told him.
"Oh come on now Ez, this has to be what? The third time this has happened, I've seen Nathan do it. You need both arms working."
"I know, am aware of the problem. I am also well aware of the consequences if it is not done correctly. I know what I need to do." With that Ezra turned his back on Vin, took a moment to pick out the correct bit of rock and then swung his injured shoulder at it with as much speed and force as he could mange. He made no effort to hold back the bellow of pain that accompanied his this action, but at least his shoulder was back in its socket.
"Holy crap! Are you okay?" Vin gasped.
"Not really, but I will be momentarily."
"You might have warned me you were going to do that!"
"Sorry, but if I'd stopped to do that, I might never have had the courage to do it at all. Let us proceed."
Vin though Ezra looked like hell, but then he guessed he did to, and since there was nothing he could do about it, he lifted the lamp a little and led them up the tunnel.
Up was the operative word, the tunnel rose steadily, it wasn't steep, but there was definitely an upward incline. The water continued to run down the walls and over the walls. It was unbelievably cold in their prison, cold and wet and dark. They walked as far as they could; hoping to find another way out, another ventilation shaft, but there was none, all they found was a dead end.
"This can't be all there is?" Vin insisted. "I mean, who the hell digs a mine that just stops?"
"They clearly found nothing of any value, or at least of no value to them." Ezra took the lamp and lifted it, studying the tunnel wall.
"What ya lookin' at?" Vin asked.
"This greenish blue tinge in the rock."
Vin peered over his shoulder. "Copper?"
"Correct, perhaps silver too, maybe someday it will be worth enough to make digging it out profitable."
There was nothing for it but to turn around and head back to the fall in; perhaps they could dig their way out. It wasn't that they doubted Buck was trying to find them, it was just that they needed to help themselves. As they made their way back down to the cave in, it became clear how much the ever present water was becoming a factor. Their smooth soled boots gave no grip on the wet rock under foot and they both slipped and fell more then once.
Vin tried to stand, having crashed the ground for a second time, only to slip again.
"God damn it! No wonder they quit this place! No amount of gold is would be enough to make me work in this place!"
"Never say such a thing Mr Tanner. Though I must admit the profit margin would need to be considerable to induce me to engage in manual labour in such a place." Ezra reached out his hand. "Let me assist you."
"No I can do it, don't want you crashing down again on that bad shoulder." Using the wall for support, Vin slowly made it back to his feet. "I guess we dig."
"So it would seem."
Buck didn't sleep much; he was awake long before the eastern sky began to pale. As soon as there was the first hint of pink in the sky he was chewing on some jerky and saddling the horses, not that he was going to be riding them, it was safer to lead them. Picking his way slowly, three horses following on behind him, he made his way down the steep slope. You could normally count on Peso and Chaucer to kick up a fuss when being led, especially if their masters weren't around, but not now, it was as if they could sense the gravity of the situation. Beau of course was the very model of equine good manners; he trusted Buck and would follow him anywhere.
As the light improved Buck was able to make more progress, picking out his route in advance. By the time he made it to the bottom, where the ground levelled out, the sun was fully risen. With well practised efficiency he let the horses drink from a fresh pool of melt water that had collected in a small hollow, then tethered them to a line where there was good grazing. That done he set out to explore the base of the slope, that was where experience told him the mine entrance was most likely to be located.
The sick feeling in his gut hadn't gone, but at least now he was doing something. Buck was not a man to sit back and watch, he wasn't one to give orders, he was one for doing, get up and get stuck in, that was Buck. Having picked up a long stick he began to probe the undergrowth. Mines were notoriously easy to miss, he remembered losing two bank robbers once. One moment they were there, right in front of him and Josiah, then next they were gone. It was only hours later, having searched the whole area, that the miscreants gave themselves away by making a break for freedom. They had managed to hide, horses and all, in an old mine entrance that was totally hidden, unless you knew where to look. He wasn't going to make that mistake again, this time he would search on foot, slowly and methodically.
Ezra and Vin worked for hours, though they had little concept of the passing of time. With only their bare hands they worked at the top of the cave in. Even working as hard as they were, it was cold, everything - including them - was wet. It hadn't taken long for Ezra's hands to be raw and bleeding, Vin's - tougher, more used to such work - lasted a little longer, but not much. As fast as they dug, more debris fell, but they refused to give up. Only when Ezra's shoulder was so sore he could hardly move it, did Vin call a halt.
"I can dig one handed if needs be," Ezra had protested.
"We both need a rest, just a short one," Vin insisted. "Come on, won't do no good if we fall down on the job."
Ezra conceded. Only then, only when they stopped, did they realise the water was almost up to the tops of their boots.
"That wasn't there before. Was it?" Vin asked, seeking conformation.
"No, the cave in is acting as a dam."
Vin waded up the tunnel far enough to be out of the water and squatted down, he didn't like to sit on the wet ground, even though he didn't think were was a part of him that wasn't wet. Retrieving the lantern from the small rock ledge it was sitting on, Ezra followed him, holding his arm across his chest, to ease the pain in his shoulder.
"The water might work in our favour," he announced, having studied it as best he could in the weak light."
"How?" Vin demanded, clearly not seeing any upside to this development.
"Well it was no doubt excess of moisture that caused the cave in the first place, perhaps more water will do the same for our prison wall."
Vin looked at the ever growing pool of water. "Well I guess it might, but right now I think we should dig while we still can."
Buck worked methodically until it was past noon. He'd found nothing, so he returned to the horses, put the saddles back on and moved them further down the ridge base to a new search area. By his watch it was past three when he stopped to take a drink. As he tilted his head back to take a pull on is canteen he spotted something. On the slope above him and to the left was a small waterfall. While water in a mine was bad, outside the mine it was essential, you needed it to work the sluices, you need to drink, to cook and wash with. As fast as he could he tracked the water to the point were it met the flat ground he had been searching.
There it was, overgrown, half hidden, but there, a miner's camp. He could make out where the small stream had once been dammed, there was the remains of a stone hearth, probably all that was left of the cookhouse. He was close, he had to be! It didn't take long to find the mine; it was, as he knew it would be, at the base of the slope, not one hundred yards from the camp. A quick trip to the horses later and he had a torch, made by winding strips of Ezra's spare shirt around the end of a sturdy branch and lighting it, with the aid of Ezra's whisky.
The tunnel was wet and low, he had to duck to avoid hitting his head. It had been well made, with heavy timbers, but the water, which seemed to be everywhere, had taken its toll. Almost every timber he looked at was rotten or showing signs of rot. It was a miracle it had stayed up as long as it had. Running as fast as he dared, Buck headed along the old mine tunnel. He had a fair idea how far he'd need to go back before he reached the collapsed ventilation tunnel. Always assuming this was the same tunnel, for all he knew this hillside was riddled with tunnels and shafts.
Don't think like that! he chided himself. This is the one, it has to be.
Ezra and Vin had worked all night and all day, now they could work no longer. It wasn't that they were so cold they could hardly move or think, it wasn't that Ezra was in so much pain he wanted to cry, it wasn't even that they were tired and hungry, it was the water that defeated them. It was now chest high, there was no earthly way they could continue to work. Besides, what had their heroic efforts achieved so far? Nothing, not a damn thing. For every handful of mud they pulled away, another two fell to replace it.
"I fear there is nothing more we can do to save ourselves," Ezra announced.
"We can't quit," Vin stated, sounding more then a little frantic.
"We must, to work further would be to risk everything."
"If we don't get out, we're dead anyway," Vin remained him, trying to keep his teeth from chattering.
"Buck will find us, I have faith in him."
"Sure, so do I, but he's just one man, we have to help ourselves."
"How? The water is too deep and too cold, we have worked for hours and for what? Nothing. We can do no more."
Vin slumped, apparently admitting defeat. "I can't stay in here Ez, I just can't."
"We have no choice. Buck will find us, of that I have no doubt, never have I met a man so loyal to his friends and so determined. The only question is how long will it take him? If we are very lucky, he'll find us in it time, if not. . ."
"Don't talk like that."
"Why ever not? It is more than likely that this is where we'll die, trapped down here. We may die of cold, or lack of air, we may drown or just starve to death. I put the odds on the first three at two to one, starving to death, ten to one, and the odds of getting rescued at, fifty to one."
Buck's calculations were almost spot, on and he pulled up in front of the cave in right were he expected it to. Along the way, he had found two old lanterns hanging from rusty nails. The first was empty, but he managed to light the second. He lifted the lantern and examined the mound of wet earth before him, it was bigger then he'd been expecting, maybe his branches hadn't done the job?
"Dig boy, it's all you can do," he told himself out loud.
As well as the makings of a torch, Buck has also retrieved their frying pan. It wasn't as good as a real shovel, but it was better then bare hands. He set to work there and then, using his height and long reach to start working at the very top. More then once he forgot to keep his head down and hit it on the roof. The backs of his hands scraped and banged on the tunnel roof continually. Despite the cold and damp, Buck was forced to shed his coat after less then an hour, after six hours he stepped back and pulled his canteen out ready to take yet another drink, only to find it was empty.
There was water every were, running down the walls, but there was no way to fill his canteen, so he either ran outside to refill it, or he licked the walls. Once outside he stood up straight, trying to work out the kinks in is neck, then as fast as possible,
Then while all three canteens refilled in the stream, he shed his gun belt.
Why the hell did you take it in the first place, what were you gonna shoot? he asked himself, as he tucked it out of sight in his saddlebag.
Leaving his coat and shirt with the saddles, and with suspenders now back on his shoulders over his faded red underwear and full canteens in his hand, he headed back into the mine.
Vin looked up at Ezra. "Yeah?"
"I feel we should put out the lantern."
"Why?" Vin asked, a hint of panic in his voice.
"There is very little oil left. We may need it later. All we can do now is sit and wait." Ezra could see Vin was about to protest. "We have plenty of matches, there will be no difficulty when we come to re-light it."
"If it's dark we can't see were the water is."
They had been forced too move higher up the tunnel, to avoid the rising waters.
"We can feel and hear the water, a simple match will tell us if we need to move. Come now, I'm going to turn out the light."
"No!" There was a familiar sound and movement as Vin pulled his mare's leg.
"Are you really going to shoot me?" Ezra asked calmly.
"If I hav' to t' keep that light."
Ezra remained calm. "No you won't. If we don't put it out now, it will go out soon enough, and there will be no relighting it. Sooner or later we'll be in the dark." Vin's gun wavered a little. "Besides, that gun is so dirty, it will in all likelihood blow up in your face and bring down the whole mine upon on us."
Vin looked down at it.
"I will be here, I'll protect you," Ezra assured.
"I don't need no protection! I. . .it's just. . ."
"No," Vin denied. "I ain't afraid of the dark, it's just. . .I've always had this nightmare."
His voice trailed off.
"I am going to put out the light now, then you can tell me of you dreams and nightmares and I will tell you some of mine, it will help to pass the time." Ezra looked up at his friend. "It is the only thing we can do to help ourselves now." With that he lifted the glass and blew out the light, plunging them into darkness.
"Oh God!" Vin whispered.
"So, tell me."
Vin looked up, toward the voice, expecting to be able to see something, an outline, a shadow, but there was nothing but darkness. "It's not the dark, I was never afraid of that. My father died before I was born, Ma died a few years later. We had a small ranch, not much more than a homestead really, there were vegetables growing behind a fence, a barn, corral and cattle; they must have been grazing on open range. Ma worked so hard to keep food on the table and raise me after she was widowed. There was no money to burn lamps or candles though the night, if there was no moon, there was no light, not once the fire died down. Then she got sick, putrid fever. I was six, almost seven, I helped her the best I could, and she fought it, but it got her in the end and I was all alone."
Ezra audibly gasped. "You were alone with your mother's body?"
"Yeah, I knew I should bury her, I even tried to dig a grave, but I was just a little guy, real skinny and the ground was so hard. In the end I got up on one of the horses and rode over to the next ranch."
"How far was that?"
"Took me the best part of a day."
"If you were so isolated, where did your poor mother get this infection from?"
"I kinda remember some soldiers passing though, they stopped for water I think."
"And you never became ill?"
"Nope. Don't know why, just lucky I guess."
"What happened when you reached the neighbours?"
"The man went back there. He told me he buried Ma. I don't remember much about what happened, except I never saw any of my stuff again, 'cept for a few clothes. They put me in a mission school. I hated that place, can't tell you how much. It was inside a big wall and we kids was never allowed outside, it was like being in prison. I was used to being able to see for miles, no walls, no fences, just land and sky and wind, forever."
"I can well understand how you would come to fear confinement."
Vin shook his head, then realised Ezra couldn't see him. "Don't you? Don't everyone? It's this, but that's not what gives me the shivers. They used to lock you in a closet, if you did something wrong, after you got good beating with a switch. It was tiny, even a small kid like me couldn't stand up or lie flat in it. I was always gettin' in to trouble, don't remember what for. Then they'd lock me up, and I was so scared they'd forget, that no one would ever come back. Since then I've had this fear, that this is how I'd die, trapped in the dark, alone, forgotten."
"You may be trapped, but you are not alone and we are not forgotten," Ezra reminded him gently.
"How did you get out of that place?"
"I was eleven, I think, they decided to move the older boys to some other place, don't know were, all I remember was we were loaded on to wagons and set out, heading north. The very first night we camped I snuck away. All I wanted was to get away, by the time the sun came up, I was in the middle of nowhere, I just kept walking until I ran out of water. The next thing I know I'm on a horse with a young Comanche warrior and he's pouring water down my throat. His name was Black Dog, his father, Two Feathers, became my father, the only one I ever had."
Ezra had known Vin had spent some time with Indians, but this was the first time he'd heard him speak of it.
"Did you have a Comanche name?" Ezra asked.
"Well?" Ezra prompted.
"Most apt." There was a short silence, then Ezra spoke again. "Can I ask you something else?"
"Sure, don't seem like the time to have secrets."
"How old are you?" he asked, having realised he had no idea.
"Not rightly sure, twenty seven or eight, I think."
"Do you know when your birthday is?"
"In the spring, after Easter, that's all I can remember. What about you?"
"Thirty two this September. I too have always feared dying alone, at least that isn't going to happen to either of us."
"Well not if Buck doesn't get to us in time. Of course if he saves us, we may yet die alone in the dark, just not here."
"If it means we get out of here alive, it may be worth it."
Buck was getting increasingly desperate, he had been working for hours, how many hours he wasn't sure, and so far his efforts had only achieved a heap of wet mud at his feet but no apparent effect on the wall of mud in front of him. He had eaten all the food they were carrying, if he wanted more, he'd have to shoot something, and he wasn't prepared to leave his task for that amount of time. It was hard enough for him to break away and leave the tunnel long enough to refill his canteens and see to the horses.
He stood at the tunnel entrance, steeling himself to go back in. When he'd come out he had been surprised to discover it was dark outside, a steady rain was falling. It had taken only minutes to complete his chores, now he was ready to head back into the tunnel. He turned his face up, he opened his mouth and swallowed some rainwater, taking one last deep breath of clean, cold air, he headed into the cold, wet tunnel. It had been cut on a slight upward gradient, it wasn't much, but that slight slope seemed to make all the difference as he hurried along, stooping to avoid hitting his head on the uneven roof. His chest heaving, he arrived at the fall in and returned to his task.
"Oh a Bachelor's life is merry and gay,
He sips from each flower he meets in his way,
The nectar he quaffs while embracing the thorn,
He leaves the poor Benedick hanging forlorn.
He sang, with as much gusto as he could muster. Singing, he'd discovered, kept his spirits up and helped him to maintain a steady rhythm. He'd run though his somewhat limited repertoire of songs he knew by heart, excluding the slow ones and Christmas carols, at least three times, The Bachelor's Life was one of his favourites.
"As pleasantly o'er the bright world he goes,
Beloved by his friends, caring not for his foes,
Through each passing moment some happiness gleams,
Which night but recalleth in pleasanter dreams."
As it got harder to work, he sang louder, as the cold and the damp penetrated, he sang louder, as his legs shook with exhaustion, he sang louder. But still it made no difference. With each dig of the frying pan wet earth fell, covering his boots and making them just that little bit wetter then they were before, and as it fell, more took its place. Digging became a mechanical process, he dug and he sung. After hours of this he wasn't even looking at what he was doing, that he was digging in near darkness didn't help.
"Go ask the poor henpeck'd unfortunate wight,"
He didn't see the trickle of water that was now fell from sight of his digging.
"If aught in the wide world can give him delight;"
He didn't see it get stronger and wash way almost as much mud as he shovelled.
"He sadly reverts to the days of his bliss,"
He didn't notice that he was now standing in water not mud.
"And sighs that his birthright was sold for a kiss!"
Vin and Ezra had talked for sometime, there was nothing else they could do and it helped to keep them awake, that and the ever rising water. Three times they had been forced to move further back up the tunnel. Precious matches had been sacrificed to ascertain that the waters had not only reached the top if the tunnel, but were still rising.
"What do you figure the odds now?" Vin had asked though chattering teeth.
"Drowning two to one, asphyxiation three to one, rescue a hundred to one," Ezra told him with out a second thought.
"Yeah, that's about that I figured. Them folks in the orphanage, they were always tellin' us we'd go t' hell and it was of a burnin' pit of fire. Well they were wrong, 'cause hell is cold and wet and dark."
"You be sure to correct Mr Sanchez when you see him next," Ezra had instructed.
They were cold, hungry and so tired even thinking was almost getting difficult.
"I have always assumed I would die alone, it is not something I fear, just regretted. Now I . . ."
"Hush!" Vin cut in sharply as Ezra began to admit to his own fears.
"Mr Tanner, I listened when you confessed your deepest fears, I feel the least you can do is. . ."
"Ezra shut up!" Vin barked. "Listen."
Responding to his friend's tone of voice Ezra closed his mouth and listened.
"What is that?" Vin asked.
"It sounds like. . .like. . ."
"Someone blew off in the bath tub," Vin supplied.
"I was going to say Buck's rabbit stew as it comes to the boil."
The gurgling, popping sound intensified. Suddenly there was a particularly loud gurgle and then the unmistakable sound of rushing water.
"The light, get the light!" Vin shouted.
"I have it, strike a match!"
Hampered by Ezra's injured arm, numbed by cold and fatigue, they struggled to perform the simple task. By the time the weak, yellow light illuminated the immediate area the water was receding fast.
Walking proved to be more difficult then before. Where before the ground had just been wet, now it was wet and covered in a film of slick liquid mud. In their weakened state, both men were forced to cling on to the walls just to stay on their feet as they inched, with painful slowness, toward the fast disappearing water.
"See, see," Ezra announced with as much glee as he could muster. "I told you the water would save us, it's washed out the blockage."
"I'll be impressed once we get out of here," Vin told him, shuffling a little further out of their cold prison.
It took them a very long time to cover the relatively short distance, yet as slow as they were moving the tunnel still seemed too long.
"Why haven't we got to the end yet?" Vin finally asked.
"Lift the lamp higher," Ezra suggested.
Vin did his best, but all it revealed was more darkness. Just as he was lowering it, the light flickered, its already small circle of light shrank. "We better hurry, while we still got light," he encouraged.
"I am endeavouring to do just that. It can't be long now, the end of the tunnel should be visible soon."
The lamp lasted a few for a few more minutes, before it finely spluttered its last and died. The darkness was once more all encompassing. Vin strained his eyes, trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but there was nothing but blackness.
"Possibly the tunnel bends?" Ezra suggested, as if reading his mind.
"Maybe, let's go."
They had stumbled on for only a short distance, when Vin suddenly stopped. "Feel that?" he asked.
"Feel what? The water, the cold?" Ezra muttered miserably.
"The wind, it's not enough that I'm cold and wet, now it's going to be draughty as well?" Ezra quipped sarcastically.
"If we can feel the wind, we must be close to the entrance."
Had there been any light, Vin would have seen Ezra all but bang his head on the wall. "Of course," he finally admitted. Damn I'm in bad shape! he admitted to himself.
It soon became clear why they couldn't see the light at end of the tunnel, there was no light. The emerged into an inky black night and steady rain.
"Well this experience just gets better and better," Ezra announced, trying to see something, anything in the darkness.
"We best stay here," Vin announced, though chattering teeth.
It hadn't escaped Ezra's notice that Vin has been audibly shivering for sometime.
"On the contrary, I think we should build a fire as soon as possible and get yourselves warm."
"And just how do you intend to do that?" Vin asked him. "We can't see shit, it's pouring with rain and we have no idea what the lie of the land is out there. For all you know there could be a hundred foot drop just a few feet in front of us."
This time it was Ezra who was forced to accept a logical necessity over a very natural desire. Vin hated to feel trapped and alone, he hated the physical discomfort of being cold and wet. Nonetheless Vin was right, they needed to wait until they could see something, anything. Their wait didn't last too long, the rain stopped and within a short time, the brisk wind and blown the clouds away and the moon had appeared. It gave enough light to at least see they weren't on the edge of some precipice. Despite the poor light and deep shadows they could make out the heap of debris in front of them, washed out of the mine no doubt."
"Do you think there is sufficient light to build a fire?" Ezra asked.
"Reckon. Think you can make it over to them trees?" On their right was a stand of tall, sturdy looking pine trees.
"If it means getting dry, I can walk all the way to Four Corners."
Despite his word and Vin's unspoken confidence, they took some time to cover the short distance to the trees. Normally, even at night they would have had no problems with the uneven, slick ground, but battered and weakened by cold and hunger, they seemed to trip and stumble over every obstacle. Every fall, however small, felt as if they'd just been bucked off a particularly big and angry Mustang and once down, getting up seemed to be an almost Herculean task. Yet they made it, and summoning their last reserves of strength, pulled together enough dry brushwood and kindling from under the trees to start a small fire. With the addition light they managed to gather enough rocks to enclose the fire and build it up.
Bathed in soft light, warmed by the fire, they stripped down to their underwear, or at least Ezra did, not at all ashamed of his linen draws and undershirt. True they were stained with mud, the wet fabric clinging to his body, but when it came to his personal comfort, undressing in front of a trusted friend was no hardship. As he began to drape his other clothes of the near by branches to dry, he noticed Vin had done no more than take off his coat. Maybe Vin was waiting for the fire to build up some more.
"Are you not going to rid yourself of your wet clothes?" he asked.
"Mr Tanner, our situation is perilous enough, with out you catching pneumonia as well."
Even by firelight it was possible to see Vin blush.
"You do have something on under all those clothes, don't you?"
Ezra raised an eyebrow.
"Ain't got fancy one's like them." He gestured to Ezra's under things. "An' I never did cotton to them things Buck wears."
"So you're wearing?" Vin just stood there. "We have to get dry, the fire it well alight, our clothes will dry quickly enough." Still Vin didn't make a move. "It's just us here, no one else. So unless Buck walks in on us, the only person who will see whatever you have on, is me and I will take it to my grave."
"Ah hell!" Vin began undressing.
Light, Vin became aware of light, not the flickering orange glow of the fire, but real light. Reluctantly he opened one eye. Yup it was light. Slowly he opened the other eye and took in his surroundings. It took him a while to work out were he was and why. The mine, the cave in! He tried to sit up, and instantly regretted it. He ached, he ached all over, his aches had aches. Slowly he managed to roll, wincing as he put pressure on his knees. Now on his hands and knees he took a long deep breath, his back protested that action. With great determination and a huge effort he managed to get up onto one knee, then he reached up and took hold of one of the branches they had sheltered under and used it to aid him as he rose to his feet. Rose to his feet was a misnomer, since, while on his feet he was still bent double. In this strange ape like posture he made his way out from under the tree and slowly, very slowly, stood upright.
His back had been hurting while they were in the mine, but no more than it did after a long hard ride or a full day's hard manual labour, something he'd lived with all his life. They had sat by the fire holding their shirt and pants up to the fire until they dried, then after beating off the worst of the mud, they'd dressed and lain down by the fire. Sleep came almost as soon as they lay down. After a long night, on hard, damp ground he'd stiffened up to the degree that he could hardly move.
Once he'd taken the time to get the pain under control he looked up at the sky, trying to locate the sun among the patchy, threatening clouds. By his reckoning it had to be no more than two hours to noon, they had slept late. Ezra was still asleep, and would probably remain so for sometime, unless Vin woke him. Turing his attention back to their surroundings Vin took a good long look. There was a clearing in front of him, he could see the mine entrance and mud and debris in front of it, this trail of destruction extended across the clearing and into the trees on the opposite side. Beyond that, his keen eyes picked out signs of human disturbance. He stood and listened, it was good to hear birdsong, the rustle of the wind in the trees and a horse. Horse? Buck?
"Buck!" he hollered at the top of his voice. "Hey Bucklin, you out there?" There was no response, not even from Ezra.
Moving stiffly he moved back enough to give Ezra a nudge with is boot. "Ezra! Come on wake up!"
Ezra muttered rolled away from him.
"Come on Ez, up, you need to get up now!" Vin shouted.
"Why?" Ezra asked bitterly.
"'Cause I think Buck is around here someplace."
"So fire a shot, he'll come running." Ezra hadn't even opened his eyes.
"Not such a good idea, you were right about the guns."
Ezra extended his arm and flexed his muscles, sending his Derringer into his hand. "So it would seem," he admitted, looking at the mud caked state of his small gun. "Can't you go and find him?"
"Ezra just get the hell up!" Vin poked him with is boot again.
Only then did Vin remember Ezra's injured shoulder. Considering how hard it had been for him to get up, Ezra was going to find it almost impossible.
"Ah jeez Ez, I'm sorry. I'd offer you a hand, but I'm. . .."
Ezra groaned as he sat up. "I can manage thank you."
"Don't be so sure, hardly made it myself and I don't have a busted shoulder."
"My shoulder is not broken, it was dislocated, I put it back."
"And it's been so sore ever since that you can hardly use it," Vin pointed out.
It took him some time, but Ezra too made it to his feet, although putting boots on took both of them more time than a three year old trying to do up his boot laces.
Peso had been tied to a line strung between two trees for a long time. There was good grazing under foot, but he couldn't reach most of it and Beau had eaten some of it, despite his attempts to stop him. No one had come to take him to the stream to drink, no one had come to groom him or give him treats. Peso wasn't a patient horse, he liked attention and treats, so when he finally heard a familiar voice, the voice of the one who rode him and fed him and gave him apple slices, he greed it.
"That sounds familiar," Vin commented, heading toward the sound.
Though better mannered than Peso, Chaucer, was also not happy at the lack of attention and didn't want to be left out, so joined in.
"Indeed," Ezra agreed.
The horses were okay, bored, probably hungry and thirsty, but they were okay. The saddles, saddlebags and even Buck's gun belt, shirt and jacket were under one of the trees. But there was no sign of Buck.
"He must still be looking for us," Vin realised.
"Clearly, but where?"
Vin attempted to pulled Buck's big Colt from his holster, but couldn't bend down far enough to reach it.
"Allow me." Ezra pulled the gun and fired three evenly placed shots into the air. "Although if we have his gun, how is he going to respond?"
"By coming here?" Vin shook his head.
"Why don't you wait here, I'll water the horses," Ezra offered.
Ten minutes later, Ezra was back and there was still no sign of Buck. They decided to split up and start searching for him. Vin took the Colt, Ezra collected his own rifle, their agreed signal system was, to fire three shots if they found him and we're headed back to the horses, or two shots, if they found trouble.
Buck had done a good job blocking the ventilation shaft, his branches had stopped much more debris falling in. The blockage in the tunnel didn't extend more then a few feet up into the vertical shaft. Vin and Ezra had removed some of this, Buck and his improvised shovel and moved a good deal more. Had he known about the wall of water that had built up behind it, he might have dug with more care. But he didn't know, all he knew was his friends were in trouble, they were relying on him to save them, they might be injured, possibly pinned down.
When it happened, it happened so fast he had no time to react. Engineers call it a catastrophic failure. The water pressure pressing on the dam found the weak point, the point were Buck was digging. Some of the water flowed down the far side, un-noticed by Buck, but not all of it. Some of it seeped down, deep into the pile of mud. That was all it took, the straw that broke the camel's back, the mud dam gave way, sweeping Buck down the tunnel before he even knew what had happened. He felt himself trouble, he tasted the water and mud in his mouth, felt it flood his eyes before he could close them. He felt himself thud into something, then he rolled, hit something else, then there was an explosion in his head.
Vin had called and searched as best he could, in truth he was moving very slowly, every step sent a dagger of pain up his spin. He'd headed out from the place where they'd found the horses, searching the base of the ridge, Ezra had gone in the opposite direction. Now he was headed back and he was worried. Wherever Buck was, he was unarmed and on foot, not to mention shirtless. There was no food in the saddlebags and no canteens, even Ezra's hip flask was missing.
Where the hell are you Bucklin? he asked.
He stopped. In front of him was debris from the mine, washed out by the floodwater. It was just a pile of mud and timbers and. . . he stopped and stared at the object in protruding from the mud. With difficulty he bent and pulled it free. It was a canteen, he stared at it, they had found a lamp in the mine, why not a canteen, except... The metal parts had no corrosion on them. The more he looked at it, the more he though it looked like Ezra's canteen. He lifted Buck's gun and fired twice. Then he began to search the mud more carefully. A little further on, his keen eyes spotted something metallic sticking out of the mud. It proved to be their frying pan. Despite the pain in his back he began to move more quickly, fear now gripped him, where once there had just been worry.
"Ah hell, Bucklin!" he swore out loud.
Ezra had been searching along the stream that ran just below the ridge they had emerged onto. He'd reach a point were the stream suddenly dropped down, running in a steep gully, down into the steep valley below. He could go no further and had seen no sign of his friend. He flinched at the first shot, his hand going to his gun before he'd even heard the second shot. Turning faster then was wise, given his aching muscles and the rough ground he nearly fell. Once he got his balance, he headed back the way he'd come, heading for Vin.
He'd just crested the ridge and was about to call to Vin, in order to assertion his exact location, when he heard an second pair of shots.
"I'm coming as fast as I can!" he shouted.
"Over here!" Vin bellowed.
"And were would 'here' be?"
"The trees directly in front of the mine."
There was an urgency on Vin's voice that had Ezra moving faster.
"What have you found?" he asked as he approached.
"Buck, he'd in a bad way."
Ezra ran the last few yards, dropping to his knees beside Vin. "Oh dear Lord," he gasped.
Buck was lying on his side, all but wrapped around a small tree. He was covered in mud, streaked with blood. His face, what they could see of it was covered in cuts and horribly swollen and discoloured by bruising.
"Is he. . .?" Ezra hardly dared ask the question.
"He's still breathing," Vin told him. "We need to get him some place we can make camp, closer to the water."
"There was a clearing by the stream, close to were the horses are now."
"Good. We can't move him ourselves." Vin looked up at Ezra. "We're both hurt, ain't no good pretendin' like we ain't."
"Agreed. What do you suggest?"
"Go back to the horses, saddle up Beau, bring him, a rope and Buck's slicker."
Ezra wasn't sure what Vin had in mind, but this was his area of expertise and he had come to trust him. On his return, Vin tied each end of the rope to the sleeves of the exceptionally large coat. Buck boasted that he'd won the coat in a poker game from a man three inches taller then him, who'd had it custom made. Ezra had doubted the tale, until he saw Buck in the coat for the first time, it all but touched the ground and was very loose on even Buck's broad shoulders. With the coat on the ground and the rope secured around the saddle horn, the managed to pull Buck's dead weight onto it. Using this improvised travois, they dragged him to the new camp sight. Once they arrived, Ezra quickly untied the rope and then set out to collect the other horses and all their gear, while Vin did his best to asses just how badly Buck was hurt.
"How is he?" Ezra asked, even as he was securing the horses and unloading the saddles.
"Hell, I ain't Nathan, I don't know. His face is all beat up, he's got this big gash up here on his head. Looks like his ribs took some damage, don't know what else."
They worked together to make their injured friend more comfortable, removing his filthy clothing and cleaning what wounds they found as best they could. A long gash to the side of his head was caked in dried blood, indicating it had bleed freely for sometime. Bruising was already evident on his chest. His left wrist was swollen and felt hot to the touch.
"I believe this to be broken," Ezra announced.
"Most likely." Vin eased Buck's boots off. "At least he didn't loose these, and. . ." He pulled Buck's think winter socks off. "that was a good thing." Buck's feet and ankles looked to be undamaged.
"There can only be one explanation for Mr Wilmington's injuries," Ezra commented solemnly, helping to ease Buck out of his filthy, mud caked trousers.
"I know." Vin looked up at Buck's battered face. "Using a frying pan to dig, good thinking Bucklin."
"Frying pan?" Ezra asked.
"I found it with your canteen, he must have used it as a shovel. I wonder how long he was on the other side, diggin'."
"Does it matter? However long it was, we both know he wouldn't have given up, no matter how long it took."
They worked on, moving Buck onto his bedroll, under a tree, then covered him with Ezra's bedroll, which was thicker and softer than any of the others. While Ezra collected wood to build a fire, Vin continued to work on Buck.
He was most concerned about the head injury, it was a deep and gaping gash, at least the evident heavy bleeding would have gone a long way to washing out the wound.
"It really should be Ezra doing this, he's got the - what does he call it? - oh yeah, tactile sensitivity, but I reckon I can manage, not that different than tying a fly, and I make a right pretty fly, has them fish fooled real good."
He knew Buck couldn't hear him, but some how it helped to talk as he carefully tied strands of Buck's own hair together to pull the wound closed.
"I seen braves do this, their woman folk too and it works. Of course they got much longer hair than you. Not that yours is short, good thing you didn't go to that barber in Yuma, like you said you were gonna. I guess you were too busy with that little senorita, what was her name? Roseanna? Roseata? Something like that. She was a pretty little thing, I give you that."
Ezra came back and dropped another load of wood.
"Any change?" he asked.
"Nope." With great difficulty and evident pain, Vin got back on his feet. "I'm gonna set some snares, hopefully catch you something to eat, then I'll head out for town, bring back some help," Vin announced.
Ezra looked up at him critically. "It has not escaped my attention that you are not moving with your usual grace."
"If'n that's some fancy way to say I'm a mite stiff, you're right, but I can still ride."
"Are you sure?" Ezra asked.
"One of us has to go, I'm not gonna be much help here."
"Very well, how long do you think it will take you to get back here?"
Vin grimaced in pain as he arched his back. "Don't know how long it'll take me to get down off this ridge, once I do, it's a good hard day's ride to the town, and another back. Can't see anyone getting back here in much under three days"
"We will be here, both of us," Ezra assured.
Buck wasn't aware of much, but somewhere in the darkness all around him there was a sound, it was someway off, almost beyond his hearing, but not quite. It was too far off to identify, but he clung to it, for even a vague, far off sound, was better than nothing. The far off sound came and went, then it changed, it became softer, thinner, but it was still there. Suddenly there was a white hot flash of pain, he couldn't tell were it came from, only that he wanted it to stop.
"Buck?" Ezra turned from his task as Buck flinched, uttering a soft moan. "Can you hear me?" So far he hadn't reacted at all, to any of their ministrations.
The pain faded and the distant sound was still there, so Buck relaxed again - and yet. . . the sound was louder and it sounded familiar.
"Buck, come on, open your eyes," Ezra encouraged. "It's me, Ezra." He fancied that Buck recognised the voice, he convinced himself he saw the battered face tuned a faction toward him, but nothing came of it.
Reluctantly he went back to splinting the wrist, taking extra care not to cause any more pain.
"I do apologise my friend, I had thought to ease your pain not add to it. I am no doctor, indeed Mr Jackson has in his little finger more medical skill than I have in my whole body. Nonetheless, I do have a certain manual dexterity and I have seen this done on more than one occasion, though thankfully not on myself."
It had taken a near superhuman effort to get up on to his horse, and Vin was fully aware that if he got down he probably wouldn't be able to remount. It had been mid afternoon when he set off, and since it was a full day's hard ride to Four Corners, and that was if all went well, it would be well past midnight before he made it home. He was banking on finding the Yuma road - the one they had left on - and once he did, he could count on Peso to find his own way home, for it was a route they travelled often.
In his current state he hadn't risked trying to find his way down on instinct, it was too risky and he was in no state to deal with any really rough terrain. So he backtracked and looked for a way to go back up to the clearing where it had all started. From there he knew how to get down on to the main trail. Going uphill wasn't too hard on his back, leaning forward slightly was actually less painful than sitting up straight.
He wasn't to know it, but his path up to the clearing was almost the same as the route Buck had taken down. Had he been more alert, he might even have seen the signs of Buck's passing, as it was he was just relieved to have found the clearing at all. He gave the old ventilation shaft a wide berth, but did notice the branches sticking out of the top.
"Smart thinking Bucklin," he commented out loud, causing Peso to flick his ears.
Growing downhill proved to be torture. He had been able to lean forward on the flat, but it just wasn't fair to Peso to do it going downhill, it would put too much weight on his front legs, and over rough ground he could fall, it could even cause a spontaneous leg break. So Vin sat up, on the really steep parts he forced himself to lean back. Sweat beaded on his forehead, as he took a white knuckle grip on the saddle horn. With no one to see or hear him, he made no effort to hide his pain, letting tears fall as he cursed and even screamed.
By the time he reached to bottom he was just holding on and letting Peso set the pace and direction, but at least he was down. All he had to do now was head south, at some point he'd hit the Yuma road. Overhead, thunder rumbled ominously.
Ezra looked up as lightning lit the sky, he began to count silently until the thunder rumbled. The storm was still some way off, it might not even reach them, but he wasn't going to take the chance. As fast as he could he checked the snares Vin had left, elated to find a somewhat scrawny rabbit in one of them. As soon as he was back at camp he built up the fire and pulled as much firewood under the tree that was sheltering Buck as he could.
All this had been relatively easy to do using mostly one arm. Skinning and gutting a rabbit one handed proved to be more difficult. Even using a large flat stone as a chopping board, pain gripped his shoulder as he held the carcass down, but he persisted. He chuckled to himself, little did his friends know he could do all this. Necessity was a wonderful teacher and on occasion it had been necessary for him to live off the land, he didn't enjoy it, but he could do it. Yet when it came to such dirty and unpleasant tasks, he always claimed he was a city boy, ignorant of such skills.
He'd taken the time to clean the frying pan, melted some of the fat from the rabbit before frying the meat. As the sun began to set, he looked around at what he'd achieved and allowed himself a moment of self congratulation. It was short lived, as thunder once more rumbled overhead and a single heavy raindrop landed on his cheek.
Chris came out of the saloon, behind him Josiah was helping Inez to lock up. Taking a pull on his cheroot, Chris watched the rain run off the roof, forming a curtain of water in front of him, making the lighting of any watch fire pointless and turning the normally hard baked, dusty street into a quagmire of mud. The thunder was moving away now, so with any luck, perhaps by the time he'd finished his current smoke, the rain would ease up enough for him to make it to the boarding house with out getting soaked.
Josiah, carrying a lantern, came to stand beside him.
"Glad I'm not out there tonight," he commented.
"Glad I don't have to ride those roads tomorrow," Chris added with a grin.
"Ezra isn't going to be happy when he gets home."
"It's part of the job, he has to take his turn."
"Oh I know, I'm just saying he won't be happy."
Even in the dark, Chris could see Josiah's teeth flashing a smile at him. The two of them stood there and watched the rain for almost half an hour.
"Looks like it's easing off," Josiah finally commented with a yawn.
"Yup," Chris agreed.
Both men turned to walk down toward the boarding house, not wanting to cross the muddy street until they absolutely had to. They were about to cross, when something moved in the darkness caught both their attention. In the darkness it was hard to say what it was, so lifting up the lamp, and with hands on guns, they moved forward.
There was a horse, standing in front of the livery barn doors. As they got closer it lifted a hoof and banged on the door.
"There is only one horse that does that," Josiah commented, picking up his pace.
"Peso! Shit!" Chris was now running.
As they got closer they could see a hunched figure in the saddle, the long coat unmistakable.
"Vin?" Chris pulled up beside the horse as Josiah pulled the barn doors open. "Vin?" Chris called again, as Peso made his way to his stall.
"Yeah?" came a hoarse reply.
"Come, get down from there, we'll take care of the mule."
Vin didn't move. "Can't."
Josiah hung the lamp on a nail and lit a second one.
"Can't what?" he asked.
"Can't get down, Buck's hurt, have to get Nathan, take him back to them."
From the look of it Vin had been on the road and in the rain for sometime. Wherever Buck and Ezra were, clearly it would take some time to reach them. If Nathan needed to come to Buck, he wasn't in any condition to ride, which meant it had to be bad. Buck hated being helpless, he hated people fussing over him, he hated to be dependent. Chris had seen his friend work when he was so sick he could hardly stand, seen him ride with a broken ankle, if Buck couldn't ride . . . well he didn't want to think about the implications. As much as he wanted to grab Pony and head out with Vin and Nathan and find them, Chris forced himself to stop and think.
"Get down and tell us what's going on, you look like shit and Peso's done in," Chris ordered.
It was dark, even had it been light, the rain meant there were no tracks to follow and there was no way Vin or his horse were in any state to just turn around and head out again.
Vin wasn't moving.
"Come on man, we need to get Nathan and see to your horse!" Chris was getting impatient.
"Can't," Vin stated.
Chris was about to protest again, when Josiah placed his big hand across his arm. "Vin?" he asked softly, stepping past Chris. "You okay?"
He had seen more than just a man who was cold, wet and tired. Vin's face was ashen, his features were pinched, his body held in an unnaturally tense and awkward position.
"M' back," Vin finally admitted.
All his friends were aware Vin had problems with his back. They knew that he found it more comfortable to slouch rather then stand straight, that he always took long, hot, baths after long a long time in the saddle, that he hated the cold and always wrapped up warmly and that he occasionally went to see Nathan, coming away with the unmistakable scent of liniment clinging to him. They might know all this from observation, but Vin himself had never admitted anything, and what ever Nathan knew, he never shared.
"We need to get you off the horse, if I catch you, can you just slide to the side?" Josiah asked.
Vin turned his head to them for the first time. He nodded, slowly lifting his feet from the stirrups. "Don't drop me." He managed to add with a slight smile.
It wasn't a dignified process, but when it was done, Vin was on his feet - just. He was facing Josiah, who was supporting him under the arms, his head resting on the big man's shoulder, breathing in hard, uneven pants, fists clutching on to Sanchez's coat.
"Get Nathan," Josiah told Chris, almost silently.
As the storm became more intense, Ezra began to worry about keeping Buck dry. The large pine tree they were sheltering under was keeping them dry, so far, but this storm was no passing shower. He considered trying to spread Buck's big slicker over the branch directly above them, but he had not way to secure it, he could barely reach it, even with both arms working properly. He felt so helpless, the rain was getting heavier, and while it wasn't falling on them yet, the fire was beginning to spit and rivulets of water were running down the slight slope, threatening to soak the bedroll Buck was lying on.
All he could think to do was to somehow divert this water. Ignoring the constant ache in his shoulder and the sickening stabs of pain that shot down his arm if he moved it too high or too far out from his body, Ezra P Standish set about building a mud dam. Like millions of small boys all over the world, he sort to control nature and divert the waters. Had Ezra ever been allowed to be a small boy, he might have had some experience in this activity. As it was he learned as he went along. At first he had too many pine needles in his wall and the water just ran under it. He quickly learned to gather purer mud and build his wall higher. Absorbed in his task, almost happy that there was something, however small, that he could do to help, he didn't notice new layer of mud he was adding to his already ruined clothes.
"I have, on occasion, see children do this, in small streams, even on the beach," he told Buck as he worked. "As a small boy I longed to join them, but I was never permitted to engage in any pursuit which was not educational or involved dirt. Then as I grew older." He stopped to brush the hair out of his eyes, smudging his cheek and forehead with mud. "Mother convinced me that such pursuits were ungentlemanly and I disdained them. Now I find it quite therapeutic."
Placing stones at the base of his dam seemed to be effective in diverting the water and reinforcing the mud walls, so he stepped away to fill his pockets with more. The fire was dying down but there was no more dry wood to feed it with, unless he darted out into the deluge and foraged for more under other trees. Returning to Buck he added the stones to his wall, satisfied to see the rivulets of water run harmlessly either side of his patient.
"There, it works," he announced triumphantly.
"I'm proud of ya Ez."
It took Ezra a second of two to realise what had happened, then his head whipped around. "Buck?"
He scrabbled to his friend's side, wishing desperately that he'd gone for more wood and there was more light.
"You're awake, how do you feel? What happened?"
Buck didn't respond, Ezra could make out his eyes, staring up at him. "Buck?" he prompted.
"Feel like crap," he admitted. "Don't remember what happened."
Ezra mentally kicked himself for the stupidity of his questions. "Sorry, I wasn't thinking. Would you care for some water?"
"Thought you'd never ask."
Before Ezra could get to him, Buck tried to prop himself up on his elbows. His gasp of pain had Ezra hurrying to him.
"Don't, let me help you."
"I can do it," Buck all but growled.
"Vin believes your arm to be broken, not to mention several ribs, so I very much doubt you can do it. That is why I am here, to assist you." With that he positioned himself behind Buck, propping him up on his knees, before holding the canteen to his lips. "I would advise sipping," he added.
"No shit," Buck ground out as the act of swallowing sent a stab of pain across his chest.
After the second sip, Buck lifted his good hand to take the canteen.
"I thought we had established that I am doing this," Ezra chided good naturally.
"I told you I got it," Buck's response was anything, but this time it was good natured.
Ezra forced himself to remember that Buck was badly injured and no doubt in a lot of pain.
"Very well, but I will be here if you need me."
As he watched Buck lifted the still heavy canteen, it shook as his hand trembled with the effort, but he made it, finally letting it all but fall to the ground. Breathing a silent sigh of relief, Ezra prepared to move back so Buck could lie down.
"No," Buck put his good arm on the ground and tried to sit up further. "I need to sit up."
"Buck I really think. . ."
"I need to sit."
There was something about the tone of his voice that told Ezra he had to make this happen. Not that it would be too difficult, the tree trunk was only a foot or two behind him. Ezra's carefully built mud damn would still protect him from the running water.
"Very well, can you move your legs?"
So far Buck hadn't moved his legs, Ezra had no idea if he could or if he had any leg injuries other then the cuts and bruises they had seen. As he watched, his friend lifted one knee, and froze.
"Are you in pain?" he asked.
"Oh, yes, your clothing was wet though and covered in mud."
There was a long silence. "Where are they?" Buck asked in a low voice.
"Hanging on a branch above you, I'm afraid the rain may have. . ."
Buck wasn't listening anymore. "Get my underthings."
"I don't. . ."
Wisely Ezra didn't argue, he just grabbed the long set of faded red underwear. It was hard to watch him struggle to get into it, one handed and clearly in a lot of pain, but he knew any help would be refused. Finally he had them on from the waist down and in the process had moved himself and the bedroll back enough to enable him to lean up against the tree trunk. Ezra had watched his friend change, from normal, easy going Buck - albeit hurting Buck - to a totally different person, a Buck he had never seen and never wanted to see again. Most people would have seen someone who was angry and aggressive, Ezra, schooled in the art of reading people, saw fear, deep, uncontrollable fear. Logically Buck must know he had nothing to fear from Ezra, so this fear had nothing to do with logic and that made it dangerous.
Deciding to leave Buck to rest and regroup, he pulled on his own rain slicker and pulled a bushy branch from the tree above them.
"I'm going to gather more dry wood," he announced, thrusting the branch into the dying fire until it lit, providing him with a make shift torch.
"'Kay," Buck acknowledged.
By the time he got back, with a his precious bundle of dry wood under his coat, Buck was asleep or unconscious, Ezra didn't know which and short of trying to wake him, had no way to tell the difference. He built up the fire and sat down on his bedroll. The next thing he knew it was morning and the sun was shining.
Getting Vin up to Nathan hadn't been easy, if anyone had any doubt that Vin could curse, they knew now, and he did it in three languages. Once they had him upstairs and on the bed, Nathan went to work, shooing them out of the way.
"Nate we need to know what happened to Buck and Ezra," Chris pointed out.
"What ever happened, we can't do much about it the dark and the rain. Let me get him at least a little more comfortable - okay?"
Chris wanted to protest, but the sight of his young friend, lying on his side, still grey with pain, but beginning to look more relaxed changed his mind. "Don't let him go to sleep until he tells us what's happened."
As Nathan closed the door, Chris turned back to Josiah. "Wake up JD, we need supplies for at least four days."
"Four days? How do you figure that?"
"No way he rode more than two days like that, he tough, he's not that tough. We're gonna need lanterns, I'll let you know what else as soon as Nate's though with Vin, okay?"
"You got it."
Nathan helped Vin undress, then roll onto his stomach, a pillow underneath him, which rounded out his spine into the most comfortable position. A gasp of pain that died down to a sigh of content accompanied Nathan's placing of a hot towel along Vin's spine.
"Better?" Nathan asked.
"Ain't never been this bad before," Vin admitted.
Vin gritted his teeth a moment as a stab of pain shot down his leg. "Get Chris in, I don't want to tell this twice."
When Chris opened the door, he caught a glimpse of Vin's naked back as Nathan replaced the towel with a fresh one. He'd never really looked before, now that he did he could clearly see that Tanner's spine curved to the left just below his shoulder blade before curving back to his neck. It was no wonder the man had backache so often.
Vin told him what had happened.
"You'll never find them with out me," he insisted.
"Vin you couldn't walk right now if you tried, let alone ride, no way you can go," Nathan pointed out.
"I can. . ."
"No you can't," Chris told him firmly. "We'll find it, Ezra's hard to miss, man couldn't be inconspicuous if he tried."
"It's hard to find," Vin insisted.
"And you'd slow us down," Chris pointed out bluntly.
If Vin was unhappy he was being left behind, JD was spitting blood. Buck was hurt, Ezra too, and he wanted to be there to help, he needed to be there. The trouble was he had no argument to counter Chris' logic. Someone needed to stay in town, not only because it was their job, but also because someone needed to watch Vin's back while he was laid up.
"It's just be his luck that some bounty hunter comes to town while we're away and he can't move," Chris pointed out.
"Some one needs to help him," Nathan reminded, "He won't like it, and it should only be for a day or two, but he'd never gonna let Mary or Inez do it, and even if Nettie was in town, she's not strong enough to help him if he fell."
"I know," JD protested, "but why can't Josiah do all that?"
"Because Buck is a lot bigger than Vin, and you're a lot smaller than Josiah or even me," Chris told him flatly.
JD looked devastated.
"I'm sorry JD, but it's the truth, if we need to lift and carry Buck, and it sounds like we may have to, Josiah is better able to do that," Nathan added more sympathetically. "I know how you feel about them, especially Buck, but Vin needs you right now and we need to know someone is here, taking care of things."
JD looked at all three of them, then nodded.
It took Ezra a moment or two to remember were he was and what was going on. When he did remember he sat up and spun around, instinctively using his left arm as a pivot. He gasped as pain shot across his shoulder, forcing him to pull it in and cradle it protectively. Moving more slowly he finished turning around to check on Buck, cursing himself for falling asleep.
Buck wasn't where he had left him! He looked all around, no Buck. The bedroll was there, the mud dam, but no Buck. Ezra stood up and was about to start searching, when he heard a noise. Seconds later Buck walked out from behind a nearby tree. Perhaps walk was too strong a word, it was more like shuffled, very slowly. He still wasn't wearing his boots, but he did now have his shirt on, and one of his suspenders was now over his shoulder.
Ezra moved toward him, intending to give assistance.
"I'm okay," Buck told him before he'd moved three paces.
"Really, have you seen yourself. Let me assist you."
"Made it this far on my own, I can make it back," Buck all but snapped. Then he seemed to soften. "Sorry Ez, I really am okay, got a broken wrist and some busted ribs, bunch of bruises, I've had worse." By now he had reached Ezra. "What about you?" He gestured to Ezra's cradled arm.
"I dislocated my shoulder - again, although I have managed to put it back in, it is still somewhat painful," Ezra explained, hoping his candour would encourage Buck to be more honest about his own injuries.
"I'll bet," the big man sympathised.
The two of them made their way back to camp, where Ezra watched Buck ease his way down the tree to once more sit on the bed roll.
"I'm going to fill the canteen and check on the snares Vin, set."
Buck looked up and smiled. "I could eat," he admitted.
By the time Ezra returned, with another rabbit and a full canteen, Buck as on his feet again, dragging a dead tree branch toward the fire with his good arm.
"What the hell are you doing?" Ezra demanded.
"Fire was dying, it was just lying over there."
"Drop it! Drop it now!" Ezra snapped.
"What's the matter with you?"
"YOU! Standing there, looking like death! Why the hell can't you just admit you are hurt and need help? Why? What is so difficult?" Ezra ranted, his anger driven by fear and frustration.
Buck dropped the branch.
"Now just sit down and let me look after the fire and the food!"
In a tense and uneasy silence Ezra watched Buck once more ease himself down, before handing him the canteen. It took some time for him to hack off a few branches and add them to the fire, then skin, gut and fillet the rabbit. The silence continued as they ate.
"So are you going to tell me now?" Ezra finally asked, glancing at Buck.
"Tell you what?"
"Why you won't let anyone help you. I have seen it before, at the Seminole village you couldn't get away from Nathan and onto your horse fast enough. It was the same after your duel, you behaved as if those injuries were nothing. I have seen such injuries, they were not the 'little scratches' you called them. And if Josiah hadn't pointed it out, I believe you would never have let Nathan know that Mr Connolly shot."
Buck chewed on his last bit of rabbit, it hurt to chew, he'd broken ribs before, but it had never hurt as badly as it did now, but he hadn't let Ezra see that. In the same way as he was hiding his splitting headache.
Ezra looked away, he hadn't expected to get an answer. "Mother taught me the three rules of survival - 'never show any weakness', 'never let your guard down', 'never let them see you bleed - unless you can use it to your advantage'. Of course she also convinced me that illness is just a matter of imagination. I have lived by those rules for a long time, almost as long as I can remember and they have served me well, I am still here, still alive, relatively unscarred. I have also spent the better part of my life alone. However, since that fateful day, when Mr Larabee and then the Judge 'persuaded' me to take up a career in law enforcement, I have come to see that when you are with friends, with people you trust, really trust, you can let your guard down.
"Dear Maude was wrong; I used to think she knew everything, but she doesn't. You shouldn't hide it when you bleed - at least not from your friends."
Ezra glanced back at Buck and then turned his attention to the fire, tossing on another branch.
"My mother wasn't wrong, about anything," Buck stated softly. "She was a saint. And. . ."
"Yes?" Ezra encouraged, when Buck did not continue.
"People used it, her goodness. . .her kindness and generosity. . .they used to exploit her and hurt her."
Ezra looked at Buck with new concern, his breathing had become more laboured.
"That is human nature. I am ashamed to say I have done it myself."
"No. . .no you haven't. . .not the way they did. . .you couldn't."
Ignoring this comment, though gratified in Buck's probably misplaced belief in his integrity, Ezra moved away from the fire, coming closer to Buck. "You seem to be having difficulty breathing?"
"I'm o. . ., yeah a little, reckon m'. . .ribs are . . .stiffening up."
"Maybe you should rest? I saw some pigeons yesterday, I intend to see if I can relocate them and shoot some."
"I'll be fine," Buck assured him.
"Do not gather any more fire wood - please."
Buck nodded, closing his eyes and resting his head back.
By the time Chris, Nathan and Josiah had their horses and supplies together the rain had stopped and the clouds parted.
"Guys. . ." JD began.
"We will," Chris assured, knowing what it was JD was trying to say but unable to.
"Take care of Vin," Nathan instructed him. "Don't let him do too much, make him drink the tea, the one I showed you how to brew?"
"I will, don't worry about us, just bring them home."
There was sufficient moonlight to navigate the well used road, and by the time they reached the turn off, it would be dawn. Josiah didn't recognise the description of the mine, but he did know the ridge where, from the sound of it, their friends were waiting for them.
"How much longer?" Chris asked as they headed up into the mountains.
Sanchez shrugged. "If I remember it right, it'll take at least five hours to reach the ridge, to the mine? I don't know, the ridge is at least four miles long. It could be anywhere."
"Come on." Nathan urged his horse on. "We're not going to get there talking about it."
Chris and Josiah exchanged looks as they followed him. Nathan rarely took the lead and when he did it was because he was seriously worried about something and right now that had to be Buck. Not good, not good at all!
Ezra had shot one pigeon, but with no scatter gun, his first shot had scared the others away before he could get off a second shot, but at least he had one, and he'd picked the fattest looking one. Feeling very proud of his achievement, he hurried back to camp.
Buck was where he left him, he looked even paler than before, which he honestly hadn't believed possible.
"You get. . .one?" he asked, his voice no more than a hash whisper.
"Indeed, pigeon for supper."
Ezra was about to ask how Buck was feeling, but the answer was all too clear. He was alarmed at how fast his friend's condition had deteriorated. When he'd first seen Buck walking back after answering the call of nature, he'd been prepared to believe the man did only have a broken wrist and ribs. He'd looked pale and clearly stiff and in pain, but none of that seemed life threatening, gasping for breath was, and he was scared.
Hurry Nathan, hurry! he silently pleaded.
"You've been. . .hiding thing. . .s from us," Buck commented as he watched Ezra pluck and gut the pigeon.
"Necessity is the mother of invention and butchery skills."
"So you'd rather. . . get yer hands. . . dirty than. . .starve?"
Dusk had been falling when the three men from Four Corners made it to the bottom of the ridge, by the time they reached it, it was all but dark.
"See anything?" Josiah asked, as Chris scanned the forest before them.
They had all been scanning the trees for a tell tale wisp of smoke, but so far they hadn't spotted anything. Not that this was significant, Vin had described the campsite and fire as being right under a large tree, in such a location smoke could dissipate before it cleared the treetops.
Chris pulled his gun and raised it above his head. "Let's try this." With that he fired twice.
Then they waited, in tense, uneasy silence, they waited, so tense, that Pony began to play up, pawing the ground with his hoof. Then came the answer, the distinctive report of Ezra's Remington, two shots. As one they wheeled their horses to the left and set off. It wasn't easy, the light was fading fast and there was no path or trial though the trees to follow, all they could do was keep their heads down and trust in their mount's superior night vision. After half an hour they stopped again and called, there was no reply, so Chris fired two more shots. These were answered almost instantly, now very much closer.
"Do you hear that?" Ezra asked, but Buck didn't respond.
As the day passed Wilmington had found it harder and harder to breathe. At first he'd been able to talk, he even eaten a little of the pigeon meat.
"You know?" he had gasped. "Ma and Maude. . . they're the . . .same."
Ezra smiled and shook his head. He knew nothing of Buck's childhood or family, but given the man he was, he seriously doubted the big Lothario's mother was anything like Maude.
"Yeah. . .they both. . .. ha. . .d no man. . .an' a kid t' supp. . .ort. They just. . . did what. . . they had t'."
It had never occurred to Ezra that Buck, like him, was an only child of a single mother. Somehow he'd always imagined Buck growing up in a big family, with lots of siblings. The way he had taken young JD under his wing, Ezra just assumed Buck was used to being the big brother. Well he'd been wrong, Buck had a way of surprising him and he'd just done it again.
"That is true," he conceded. "For a woman alone in this world, life is not easy."
Even as he was speaking Buck closed his eyes, his head resting back against the tree. As he watched him Ezra thought about what had just learned about his friend and his past, the more he thought, the more he realised there was only one way Wilmington's mother could have earned her way in the world and that piece of information explained a lot. On the good side it explained his way with women, not only his success, but also his respect, care and even veneration of women, on the bad side it also might explain the fear he had seen earlier. It wasn't a pleasant thought and he didn't like to dwell on it, but it meant that in his own way, Buck has just been as candid with him as Vin had been in the mine. These were both very private men and yet they had confided in him, Ezra P Standish, which meant they trusted him not just to watch their back in a fight, but with their fears, a rare trust indeed.
Buck had gone downhill from then on. By the time the light had faded his lips were tinged with blue, he no longer spoke, his breathing was rapid, uneven and clearly increasingly painful. As night fell his eyes closed and Ezra was no longer able to rouse him. He wasn't a religious man, he never had been and while he had no inclination to call on God now for assistance, Ezra offer a silent prayer to the fates to bring him some help. He wasn't used to feeling so helpless; he was used to living off his own resources and initiative. He was intelligent, resourceful and multi skilled, but there, alone in the forest, as his friend and rescuer fought for every breath, his strength ebbing away, Ezra was totally helpless and he hated it.
Never had two gunshots sounded so welcome.
After the second shots, it had only taken a few shouts to locate Ezra. Nathan had handed his reins to Josiah, grabbed his bag and run to Buck's side.
"Light, I need light!" he called.
Even as he did, Chris was by the fire, lighting the lanterns they had brought with them.
"Here." He stood over Nathan, holding up the light.
Nathan just nodded. "Buck?" he called softly.
"I haven't been able to rouse him for some hours," Ezra told the healer. "He was doing okay, until this morning, then he started to have trouble breathing."
Nathan just nodded, acknowledging that he'd heard. His hand reached out, two fingers resting on the side of Buck's neck. After a few moments he shook his head and moved his large but infinitely gentle hands down to part Buck's unbuttoned shirt.
"More light," he called.
Josiah carried the second lamp over. With the shirt pulled back, and the added illumination of the second lamp the extent of bruising to Buck's ribs was frighteningly apparent. Nathan let his skilled fingers trail over the damage, paying particular attention to the nearly black area of intense bruising.
"Damn," he cursed as he examined the area.
Nathan's investigation produced a moan of pain from Buck, who began to stir. "Ez. . .?" he gasped.
"It's me, Nathan. Just lay still and breathe."
"Where's Ez?" Buck gasped out.
"He'd here, don't worry about him, just stay still."
When Nathan was in full on healing mode, he had a tone to his voice they had all learned to listen to. Buck stilled, turning his head to find Nathan's face.
Nathan looked over his shoulder at the three man behind him. "Can you hang up one of the lights and give us a moment?" he asked. "See what you can do about boiling some water, and don't let Ezra use that shoulder until I get a look at it," Nathan called without looking around.
"I'm fine. . ." Ezra began to protest.
"I don't have time to argue with you!" Nathan snapped.
Chris just shook his head. "The man misses nothing."
Josiah and Chris worked in near silence, Ezra, sitting back against a tree let his eyes close. They had barely got the water on before Nathan came over to them.
"Well?" Chris asked.
"I need to operate and I need do it soon."
"Operate?" Josiah asked, with clear incredulity. "Out here?"
"No option." Nathan lifted his hands so they were touching fingertip to fingertip. "When you break a rib," he let one hand dip down. "The bones spring back into place." His hand rose again, once more touching the other. "But occasionally, the rib doesn't spring back." He let his hand drop again. "Then the end of the bone presses on the lung, it can even go through it. He's damn lucky it hasn't already. If it does, he'll bleed into his lung and drown. I've seen it happen and even if you've got a real doctor most folk 'll die. As it is, he can hardly breathe now."
"But he seemed to be breathing normally, until today," Ezra pointed out.
"That rib is banging on his lung, it's like a bruise, takes time for the swelling and the stiffness to develop, plus he's getting more and more tired. If I wait, the rib 'll puncture his lung or he'll just get too tired to breathe any more."
Chris stood up. "Tell us what you need."
Nathan placed his scalpel, needle and thread in a dish of alcohol, then began to scrub his hands with the hot water. While he did this, Chris helped his old friend out of his filthy shirt and draped one of the boiled sheets Nathan had brought with him over his shoulders. Josiah squatted down in front of Nathan.
"You got any laudanum?" he asked.
"Yup, but I can't give him any."
Josiah frowned, clearly not understanding.
"Laudanum makes you sleep, it slows down breathing, he can hardly breathe now. . ."
"Ah, right, so what are you going to use?"
Nathan looked up sadly. "Nothing."
They hadn't moved Buck, he was better off sitting up and the cover of the tree was the best shelter they had for now. As well as covering him with the sheet, a well padded bedroll was slipped down between his back and the tree, there was little else they could do to make him more comfortable.
"Right." Nathan stood up. "Ezra and Josiah you hold the lights, Chris. . ."
"Hold him down."
Chris was still kneeling beside Buck, who was conscious and listening, but unable to do much more than breathe.
"Ready pal?" he asked.
Buck gave the barest nod.
Nathan knelt at his patient's side. "Okay Buck, you remember what we talked about?"
Buck nodded again.
"Try to keep still, Chris is here to help you, don't fight him."
"Trust. . .you. . ." he gasped out.
Now it was Nathan who just nodded, reaching out and picking up the scalpel. It wasn't easy, even with the lamps, there was barely enough light. He made one sure cut at right angles over the depressed fracture. He forced his hand not to tremble and not to be too cautious, he didn't want to have to do it twice. He felt the resistance as metal touched bone, after a half inch more he pulled the blade back and dropped it in the bowl. With his left hand he inserted two fingers into the incision and scissored them to open up the wound until he could see the yellow bone. Then he inserted the little finger of his right hand and crooked it under the depressed bone end and, holding his breath, lifted it to meet the other broken end. The two ends matched up perfectly. Now he held his breath and after a second or two, withdrew the finger. The bones stayed in place.
"Thank you," Nathan muttered, lifting his eyes heavenwards.
With sure hands he set to work doing what he knew best, stitching the wound closed.
Chris was kneeling on the ground, his arms wrapped around his oldest friend, praying to a God he hadn't believed in for years. Praying because he couldn't conceive of his life without one Buck Wilmington. Even in the years after Sarah and Adam died, after he'd finally driven Buck away with his drunken rages, he'd always known Buck was around, somewhere. In this past year that they'd been back together, their friendship had - after a shaky start - returned to somewhere close to its old footing. It would never been the same as it had been, back when life was perfect. There were five other men now, and one scruffy Texan in particular. There was no Sarah treating Buck like her long lost brother and no Adam, calling him Uncle Buck, but come what may Buck was a rock in his life, an anchor to his past he wasn't prepared to let go. The injured man's head had lolled over to come to rest on his shoulder, a sure sign that he'd passed out again.
As Nathan's cold blade cut him, a shudder rippled through Buck's whole frame and his eyes opened.
"Easy Big Dog, easy," Chris coached. "Just keep real still and it'll all be over soon." He tightened his grip, but there was no real need, the man was beyond tired.
"Don't . . .let. . .go," came the barely audible response.
"Never, I've got you, just keep still and keep breathing."
As Nathan's finger grazed against his abused chest wall Buck wasn't able to hold back a muted cry of pain, before gritting his teeth.
"Easy, easy, keep breathing," Chris encouraged.
"Nearly there," Josiah told them both.
Buck grunted as the first stitch went in, and the second, then he fell silent, buy the time the last one was in, his head was once more resting on Chris' shoulder, eyes closed. Chris took a strange comfort in the shallow, uneven breathing, a constant reassurance that Wilmington was still with them.
Chris looked over at Nathan, who was now sitting back, wiping his hands. "What do we do now?"
"Not much, he needs rest, a lot of rest and we need to keep him still, until the bone begins to heal, until it does there's a chance it could slip again."
"What about his head and this?" Chris indicated the makeshift splint tied onto Buck's left wrist.
Nathan looked down at the splinted wrist then parted Buck's matted hair to examine the head wound that Vin had closed by knotting his hair.
"Looks to me as if Vin and Ezra did a good job on both of them, best leave them be for now." Nathan gave Chris as reassuring a smile as he could manage.
Ezra was experiencing some very mixed emotions. He had been so relieved to hear those shots. Nathan and the others riding into camp was about the best thing he'd ever seen, and yet. . . He'd been looking after Buck, keeping him warm, dry, fed and watered for what felt like forever. He'd been the one trying to stop the man hurting himself further. He'd sat there with his friend, listening to his ragged, irregular breathing, wondering if each breath would be the last, wondering if he'd last long enough for help to arrive, willing him to hang on just a little longer and now. . . now he wasn't needed.
Nathan had walked in, diagnosed the problem and done something about it - just like that. Chris had not just held his friend though the ordeal, Buck had actually asked him not to let go. Ezra felt deflated, he was just the substitute until the real saviours arrived. He'd survived the mine, the water, been washed out in a sea of mud, made camp, made a fire, gutted a rabbit and a pigeon, he'd even built a mud dam, and no one said, 'well done Ezra, good job Ezra, have a drink Ezra'. Nathan had been so caring of Buck, all he'd done for Ezra's shoulder was snap at him. It was stupid and petty and childish, and he hated himself for it, but he couldn't help how he felt.
He turned way from Buck and sat down by the fire.
"Here." Josiah held a lantern and pair of saddlebags out to him.
"What is it?"
Sanchez smiled. "Clean clothes."
Ezra looked down at his filthy attire and smiled ruefully, maybe someone understood, a little at least. By the time he was back from the steam, washed, shaved and in clean clothes, he was feeling a lot better. The aroma of fresh coffee greeted him, not to mention bacon, biscuits and beans, all of which were cooking on the now much larger fire.
"How's Buck?" he asked.
"Resting," Nathan told him. "Time for me to look at your shoulder."
Ezra fixed him with a look. "It came out - some days ago now - I was able to put it back in place, it is still somewhat uncomfortable, what else would you like to know?"
Nathan stood in front of him, viewing his stance critically. "Okay, but you need to rest it, we're here now, so you can take it easy, have some food, get some sleep." Nathan's normal 'concerned healer' face broke into a smile. "You did well, Buck owes you his life."
"No, we owe him ours." It seems like a lifetime ago now, but Ezra hadn't forgotten that Buck had been hurt saving him and Vin from a slow, miserable death, in the flooded mine. "Did Vin tell you what he did?"
"We gave up, he didn't."
"The way Vin told it, you were defeated by the water. Buck was on the dry side and he had something to dig with."
"He kept digging until he was washed away," Ezra reiterated, looking over at the sleeping Wilmington.
"Buck never gives up on anyone." Chris was still sitting beside his friend. "Thank you, for not giving up on him."
"Come and eat," Josiah called to all of them.
Ezra had to admit the food was very welcome, although the bacon wasn't as tasty as his pigeon breast.
"Feeling better now?" Josiah asked softly as they ate.
"I expect you were feeling left out and unappreciated, the way we swept in and took over." Ezra didn't respond, poker face firmly in place. "It would only be natural, we do understand what you've done for him, you and Vin."
Ezra's mood had been improving, now he realised he hadn't even asked about Vin.
"Don't," Josiah instructed.
"Go beating yourself up for not asking after him, you knew he'd made it to town in good time and was able to tell us were to find you - how else did we get here? He's sore and he isn't going to be sitting a horse for a while, but nothing that a good rest won't cure - according to Nathan. Young JD will watch his back while we're here." With those words Josiah pulled out a small bottle of whiskey and offered it to Ezra.
The next thing Ezra knew, he was waking up, the sun warming his face. Somewhere, someone was chopping wood, he could hear the steady 'clock, clock' sound of an axe on a tree trunk. In front of him the fire had died down a little, but the coffee pot was still sitting on a flat rock beside it. Slowly, stiffly he sat up and looked around for Buck, who was right were he'd left him, propped up against the tree trunk, wide white bandage now visible under his open shirt, twinkling blue eyes watching him with amusement.
"Afternoon," Buck greeted. His voice sounded breathless, but at least his lips no longer looked blue.
"Afternoon?" Ezra looked at the sun.
"Near. . . enough. There's coffee in that pot."
Ezra lifted an eyebrow. "Really, is that a hint?"
"Well . . .if you're pouring one. . ."
Ezra poured two mugs of coffee and moved to sit beside his injured friend.
"You look better."
The chopping sounds stopped and were followed by the sound of a tree falling. "What is happening? Where are the others?"
"Not sure where . . .Nathan went . . . Chris and Josiah are . . . building some kind of shelter."
"And why would they be doing that?"
"Nate won't let. . . me ride. . .for a week." There was no way off the ridge other than to ride or walk, so if Buck couldn't ride, he'd just have to say were he was until he could ride. "Nate and Josiah. . .are gonna stay with. . . me."
"I too will stay," Ezra offered.
"Nah. . . you need t' get . . .back, take a . . .bath."
Ezra feigned hurt. "Are you saying I smell?"
"Don't know. . . I stink."
That was true enough, but it was hardly Buck's fault. "There is a stream below us, I found it a most refreshing spot for a bath." Buck lifted his good hand to his stubbled chin. "I would be happy to help you with that, if you'd let me."
Buck looked at Ezra for a while then nodded. "I'd . . . 'ppreciate that."
"It would be my pleasure."
"Can't thank you. . . enough."
"I'd have. . . given up. . . if you hadn't . . . been here."
"I did very little really."
"You played . . . in the mud . . . for me, gutted a rabbit."
"And a pigeon," Ezra reminded.
"Right, so I'm say. . .ing, thanks. I won't . . . forget it." He rested his head back against the tree, eyes closed, what strength he had used up - for now, coffee forgotten and undrunk.
"And thank you, I too will not forget," Ezra told him softly, knowing Buck was once more asleep.
Josiah and Chris had built a sturdy lean-to shelter, with a thick waterproof thatch of pine branches and a raised floor to keep it from getting damp. They added a small pile of logs to act as a back rest and padded the whole thing with moss, before covering it with a slicker and finally two bedrolls. There was room for Buck but no one else, the other three had to make do with sheltering under the trees. The next day Chris left for town to bring back more supplies.
It had taken some time, but little by little Buck's chest had healed and his breathing had retuned to normal. By day four it was getting hard to keep him still. Luckily Ezra had asked Chris to collect his current book from his room. The gambler would read aloud to Buck, often for hours. To be honest he found the book fairly boring and mostly incomprehensible, but it helped to pass the time, often lulling him to sleep.
"Don't worry," Nathan would tell the dismayed Standish, "sleep's good for him."
On the morning of day six, Nathan proclaimed Buck well enough to ride, so long as they kept to a walk. So it was, one sunny evening, Nathan, Josiah, Ezra and Buck rode slowly back into Four Corners.
Chris tipped his hat and Vin waved from the sidewalk as they passed. Tanner was back on his feet, though still moving stiffly. JD came out of the jail and ran to greet them, patting Beau on the flank as he walked beside him.
"Good to see you back," he greeted. "Both of you," he added, looking over at Ezra, before turning his attention back to his surrogate big brother. "You look good."
"I've told you before Kid, I always look good," Buck joked.
JD suddenly realised they had ridden right past the livery. "You 're not going to the livery?"
"Saloon, I need a drink." Buck winked at JD then looked over at Nathan, who was frowning at him. Ignoring this he looked at Ezra and smiled. "And I owe Ezra a drink. Inez's best bourbon."
Ezra smiled and tipped his hat. "Let me return the favour - whiskey?"
Buck raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. "You offerin' to pay Ezra? You sure you didn't get a bang on the head back there in the mine?"
Ezra pulled a face. "Fortunately not. And there are some circumstances where, like some other people I could name, I am prepared," he winked back at Buck, "to dig deep in the cause of friendship."
Buck grinned widely. Sometimes Standish had a real way with words.