Four Corners looked like a ghost town early the next morning. Tumbleweeds bounced down the deserted streets. A howling wind kept the inhabitants of the town securely inside, except for five men. Chris was the first out of the sheriff's office carrying extra gear. He went to his horse and tied everything in place. The others came out and headed for their horses. Ezra was the last to exit. He took a look at the dark sky and sighed This is not going to be a good day he thought as he went to his horse and mounted. Chris wheeled his horse and headed south. Mary met them on their way out of town.
"Be careful," she yelled over the wind.
"The Lord watches over fools," replied Josiah.
Chris put two fingers to his hat then spurred his horse into a gallop. The others followed. Mary stepped back onto the boardwalk and watched them ride away. She prayed they would be all right.
+ + + + + + +
Chris pulled his horse to a stop about a mile out of town. The wind had picked up and was blowing sand and debris in every direction. The others pulled up also and formed a tight circle so they could hear each other over the wind.
"Spread out and look for any sign of Vin," Chris yelled over the wind.
"Look for what?" asked JD confused. "The wind would have blown away any trail."
"I do believe our intrepid Mr. Tanner would have left something more tangible than a few footprints from his trusty steed," explained Ezra.
"Like what?" asked JD.
"Kid you ask too many questions," said an exasperated Buck.
"Look for anything out of the ordinary brother JD," said Josiah.
They each moved off in different direction and began their search. They had been looking for fifteen minutes when Ezra noticed something odd. There were two flat stones piled on top of each other. He walked over to them, knelt down and lifted the top stone. Scratched into the other stone was an arrow, pointing south, with the number seven below it.
"Over here!" yelled Ezra.
Chris was the first one to arrive and he knelt down to get a closer look. The others arrived and Buck looked over his shoulder.
"That was clever of him to put the seven," said Buck.
"What do you mean?" questioned JD.
"Well, the seven refers to us," explained Buck.
"Vin was always a clever one," said Chris. "The arrow tells me all I need to know," With that, he headed for his horse and mounted. "Are you coming?"
The others mounted and they headed south. They all kept an eye out for markers. Ezra seemed to have the most luck spotting them. Chris finally put him in the lead after the others had passed three of them. The wind was becoming a problem. Visibility was very limited and Chris was afraid they would miss one of Vin's markers. They had no choice but to keep going. They rode until noon; it had been about an hour and a half since JD had found the last marker. Chris was becoming worried that they might have missed it and decided to back trail.
"Chris, we need a break," pointed out Buck. "We have been going since dawn. The horses need a rest, and so do we."
"We can't stop now!" complained Chris. "Vin could be in trouble."
"We won't be any help to Vin if we collapse," reasoned Josiah.
"No, we're going to backtrack a ways and see if we missed a marker," Chris went to wheel his horse, but was stopped by Buck.
"Don't be a fool Chris!" he challenged. "Look at us."
Chris looked at the others. Buck was covered in tan dust that had turned his dark hair and mustache to a lighter shade. Josiah looked like a train robber. He had pulled a bandana over his mouth to keep out the dust. JD had followed his example but he looked a child pretending to be a robber. Chris finally turned to Ezra. He seemed to have gotten the worst of the dust and wind. His black hat was now a dull gray. His once immaculate red coat was now an ominous shade, the color of old blood. Ezra himself looked completely done in but determined to continue. Chris realized he must look just as bad and finally relented.
"There's nowhere to stop out of this wind," he said. "If I remember right there should be a waterhole about a mile from here."
"I think it a little more to the west," confirmed Josiah.
"But if we head west how will we pick up the trail again?" asked a tired JD.
"We'll worry about that after we take a rest," said Buck.
Chris took the lead and headed west. They traveled for half an hour when they saw a cluster of trees, through the swirling dust. Once they were among the trees the wind died down. A short way in they found the spring. They all dismounted and let the horses drink. Ezra stepped away from the others and tried to dislodge some of the dust from his coat. After awhile he realized it was a loosing battle and gave up. He sat down on a log and removed his boot. He turned it over, and a stream of sand poured out.
"I do not appreciate riding in a dust storm," he said irritably.
"Oh, and you think we do?" asked Buck.
"Well, Mr. Wilmington, I'm sure you are more accustomed to disagreeable weather, where as I prefer to remain indoors," he said.
"Nobody forced you to come," said an angry Chris.
"Easy, Chris. I don't think he meant anything by it," said Josiah. "Besides, without him we would have missed most of the markers."
"You're right," agreed Chris. He nodded to Ezra then went to check his horse.
Ezra realized the nod was Chris way of apology and he accepted without comment. JD sat down next to Buck and began to squirm.
"What's the matter with you, boy?" said Buck as he shoved JD off the log.
"I have sand in places I didn't even know I had," he complained. "I wish this wind would stop."
After an hour Chris decided they had stayed long enough. He went to check on the horses. JD and Buck filled the canteens with fresh water while Josiah nudged Ezra awake with his boot. Ezra lifted his hat and glared up at Josiah.
"Is it time to leave this Garden of Eden?" he asked.
"We are being forced out just like Adam and Eve," said Josiah pointing to Chris.
"Well, Mr. Dunne it would appear your wish fell on deaf ears," commented Ezra dryly.
"Reckon so," JD said with a sigh.
Just then the wind blew in through the trees with a vengeance. They all buried their faces against the horses to keep from being blinded. Just as suddenly as the wind kicked up it died. The clouds began to break up to reluctantly reveal the sun. The men looked around in amazement.
"What the hell was that!" exclaimed Buck.
"God works in mysterious ways," said Josiah.
"Amen, brother," agreed Ezra.
They mounted their horses and rode back to the last marker. From there, they headed in a southerly direction with Chris in the lead. They all kept an eye out for anything out of the ordinary. They rode for about a mile when Ezra noticed something.
"Mr. Larabee, just a moment," Ezra called. He pulled up his horse and dismounted.
Chris and the others stopped as Ezra bent down to brush away sand from a pile to reveal two rocks stacked together. Ezra lifted the top rock to find an arrow pointing south.
"How in tarnation did you spot that?" wondered Buck.
"I'm a gambler, Mr. Wilmington," began Ezra. "You learn to notice things out of the ordinary."
"Let's ride," said Chris.
For the next two hours they rode south finding anything along the way. After an hour of riding without finding a marker Chris called a halt. The others pulled up around him. Ezra took a drink from his canteen, while Buck dismounted to check his horse's feet. Josiah looked around at the terrain in recognition. "Chris," said Josiah. "There's only one place they could be heading"
"I was afraid of that," sighed Chris.
"Where?" asked JD curiously.
"The Devil's Anvil," said Josiah. "You won't find a meaner stretch of desert for miles"
"Are you sure?" asked Buck in concern. "I've heard some terrible stories of that place."
"I'm not completely positive," began Josiah. "But if we keep heading south for another five miles, we come to the last waterhole before the desert. Then travel a short while beyond that and you hit the desert."
"I realize these gentleman are deranged but why would they head for the desert?" asked Ezra. "Besides, we haven't found a marker for some time. Maybe they went a different way"
"I reckon they could have, but the last marker still pointed south," commented Chris. "We'll head for the waterhole and have a look around."
Buck was finished picking a small rock out of his horse's hoof and the others waited while he mounted. Once he was up they moved. As they trotted off, Buck's horse kicked up a familiar object buried in the sand. Vin's harmonica lay glinting in the sun.
As they got closer to the waterhole, JD noticed some buzzards off in the distance. He pointed them out to the others.
"I think they are flying over the desert," said Josiah. "It's tough to tell."
"Probably a poor unfortunate animal," added Ezra.
"Let's get to the waterhole before it gets dark," said Chris.
After riding for another half hour they saw a small stand of trees. Among the trees was a small spring. As soon as they arrived, they saw hoof prints and the remains of a campfire. They all dismounted and looked around. Chris and Buck headed to the fire. Chris put his hand out over the coals, and they were cold. He picked up one of the pieces and broke it.
"I'm guessing they stopped here last night," he said.
"The tracks look old also," said Josiah.
"Set up camp and check for any signs of Vin," said Chris. "I want to take a look at the Anvil."
Chris mounted and headed south. He went only a short distance when he came to a rise. He saw one of JD's buzzards flying overhead. He trotted his horse up the rise and was completely shocked. Ezra had been wrong. It wasn't a unfortunate animal but Vin. He had been staked out on the desert floor spread eagle. They had stripped him of his shirt and his pants were in shreds. Chris could see the stains of blood on what remained of the pants. To Chris' horror, two buzzards were hopping towards Vin. Chris let out a shriek, like a banshee, and ran down the hill firing his gun.
+ + + + + + +
Back at camp, Buck and JD were gathering firewood. Josiah was taking their bedrolls and saddlebags off the horses, and Ezra was filling the canteens at the spring. Buck moved close the spring and started setting wood in the cold fire left by the robbers. JD came back with an armload of wood and dropped it close to Buck.
"Watch what your doing kid!" yelled Buck. He was still grumbling when they heard gunfire.
"That's coming from the direction Chris went," said JD in concern.
They all scrambled for their horses and rode after Chris.
+ + + + + + +
The startled buzzards flew off at the first gun shot. Chris pulled up his horse and dismounted. He grabbed the canteen and rushed to Vin's side. Chris checked for a pulse and was relieved when he found one. He poured some water into his hand and dribbled it over Vin's lips. There was no response from the tracker and that worried Chris. He tried again and sighed in relief when Vin swallowed. Just then Chris heard the others thunder over the rise and pull up next to Vin.
"Sweet Jesus!" exclaimed Buck.
The others were as shocked as Buck. Vin had been tied to four stakes. His pants had been cut away to reveal his legs. Dried blood could been seen staining the shredded pants. They all jumped off their horses and ran to Vin. JD and Buck went to cut the rawhide from Vin's legs.
"Damn it!" yelled Buck. "This stuff is stretched so tight I can't even cut it."
"Wet it first," said Chris throwing him the canteen.
"How did it get so tight?" asked a subdued JD.
"They wet the rawhide before they tied it on," said Josiah who was cutting the rawhide from Vin's hands. "As it dries in the sun, it shrinks causing the rawhide to tightening pulling on the limbs."
"A primitive form of a medieval rack" commented Ezra as he helped Josiah
Chris waited impatiently as the others cut Vin loose. Buck noticed the look in Chris' eyes and realized he was blaming himself for what happened. Buck watched as Chris tried to get Vin to drink.
"Vin," Chris called. "Come on, pard, drink this."
Chris held the canteen up to Vin's parched and bleeding lips. Most of the water poured out of his mouth, but he did swallow some of it. Chris gently lowered his head back to the sand and looked up to see Buck staring at him in concern. Chris quickly looked away.
"Aren't you done yet?" he asked angrily. "We, have to get him back to camp."
"These rawhides are tough," said Buck. "I'm trying not to pull them any tighter."
Just then Josiah and Ezra got his hands free. They put his arms down at his side, and Josiah covered him with his serape. Buck cut through the rawhide on Vin's right leg then he tried to loosen the slipknot around his ankle. This wasn't easy because the rawhide had cut into the skin and was covered in dried blood.
"Leave them, Buck. We'll soak them with water when we get back to camp." said Josiah.
"JD?" asked an angry Chris.
"Got it!" cried JD as he finally cut through.
"Chris, I'll take him up on my horse," said Josiah.
"No!" said Chris possessively. "I'll take him."
"Don't be stupid Chris," said Buck "Vin's the same size as you and a dead weight. He's going to be tough to hold on to. Josiah's bigger let him take Vin."
Chris reluctantly agreed. Josiah mounted his horse and the others handed Vin up to Josiah. Vin didn't stir once while they moved him. Josiah cradled Vin like a child. The others mounted and rode close to Josiah. Buck took his horses reins so that he could hold Vin with both hands. As they moved out, Vin's head slipped off Josiah's shoulder and hung over his arm at an uncomfortable angle. Ezra moved his horse close to Josiah and gently pushed Vin's head back on his shoulder. He gently stroked Vin's hair before he pulled his hand away. Josiah was surprised to see the worry in his eyes. Ezra realized Josiah was looking at him and he quickly looked away. They rode back to camp in silence. When they arrived Chris and Buck took Vin from Josiah and placed him next to the fire that Buck had laid. JD added some more kindling then started the fire. Ezra took the horses and removed their tack. Josiah took out a small coffeepot from his saddlebags and went to the spring to fill it. When he came back, he placed it on the fire.
"Are you sure he's alive?" asked JD. "He hasn't moved."
"He's alive," growled Chris.
"What can we do for him Josiah?" asked Buck.
"First we wash him down and get the blood and dust off him," began Josiah. "Then we can put aloe on the sunburn. But mainly we have to keep him warm."
"All right," said Chris. "Ezra you gather the aloe for Josiah."
"I am a gambler, Mr. Larabee not a botanist," replied Ezra.
"Are you telling me you won't do it?" stated an angry Chris.
"Not at all," Ezra commented dryly. "I wouldn't know an aloe plant if I trip over one." Ezra did not back down from Chris' angry glare.
"That is what it looks like brother Ezra," said Josiah as he pointed to a plant by the spring.
"A succulent?" said Ezra. "How will this help?"
"A suck you what?" asked JD.
"When crushed, it forms a juice that will soothe Vin's sunburn," explained Josiah ignoring JD.
Ezra took a branch from the fire and went in search of the plant. Once the water was warm, Josiah began to bathe Vin with Chris' help. Buck pulled JD to the other side of the fire and they prepared dinner. A full moon was rising over the subdued camp, lighting it with its pale glow. JD watched as Josiah cut away what was left of Vin's pants, revealing the knife slashes on his thighs. The same slashes could be found along Vin's ribs. Chris soaked Vin's wrist to remove the rawhide ties. Once the rawhide was off Chris carefully bathed Vin's wrists then the cuts on his ribs. The cuts were deep and Vin moaned when he touched them. Chris was relieved because it was the first sign of life from the unconscious tracker. Josiah removed the rawhide from Vin's ankles. Once they were clean he wrapped them with the bandages Nathan insisted they take. He also wrapped the knife wounds on Vin's thighs. Josiah handed Chris what was left of the bandages. About an hour later they were finished and Josiah covered him with a couple of blankets.
"Why did they cut his legs and chest like that?" asked JD.
"To draw the buzzards and other animals," explained Josiah. "The Indians use this as a slow torture. Not only are your limbs pulled apart, you also have to worry about wild animals but, usually the sun kills you."
"How long do you think he was out there?" wondered Buck.
"I'm guessing they caught him last night and staked him out early this morning," said Chris.
"How did they catch him?" asked JD. "Vin is too smart to be caught."
"I think that blow to his head was causing him trouble," said Josiah. "We found a nasty lump on his right temple."
"Where's Ezra?" asked Chris.
"He's been gone for quite awhile," said a worried JD.
"I'll go look for him," said Buck. He headed for the horses when something stepped out of the shadows and he jumped pulling his gun. "Jesus, Ezra, that's a good way to get yourself shot. Sneaking around like that."
"I didn't realize I was sneaking," said Ezra as he walked to the fire. "I hope this is what you were looking for," he said as he handed Josiah his hat.
"Perfect," said Josiah pulling the aloe out of Ezra's hat.
"Now what do we do with it?" asked Chris.
Josiah took a piece of the aloe and moved to Vin's side. He held it over Vin's chest and squeezed it until some of the juice dripped on to Vin. He then spread it with his hand over the sunburn. Vin started to stir and tried to move away from Josiah's hand.
"What's wrong?" asked Chris in a worried voice.
"I don't know," answered Josiah. "This should soothe the burn" Josiah tried again and Vin moaned and tried to move away again.
"I think I understand Mr. Tanner's discomfort," stated Ezra. "Let me try."
He took a piece of the aloe and followed Josiah example. Vin lay quietly as Ezra spread the juice gently with his hand.
"I don't get it," said a puzzled JD.
"It's because I'm a gambler, Mr. Dunne," answered Ezra as he continued to spread the aloe.
"Huh?' said JD.
"He's hands are smooth," teased Buck. "Just like a lady's."
Ezra gave Buck a dirty look, then turned his attention to what he was doing. The others settled down to eat, but Chris kept an eye on Ezra. He was surprised to see how gentle Ezra was being as he spread the aloe over Vin. Ezra took his time around the gashes on Vin's chest trying not to get anything in them but he wasn't completely successful and Vin squirmed but didn't make a sound. Finally Ezra had only Vin's face to do and Chris watched as Ezra gently spread the juice. Chris got up to check on the horses.
"Brother Ezra is full of surprises, isn't he?" said Josiah as he walked up to Chris.
"Yes he is," said Chris as walked back to the fire.
"Hey Ezra, if I ask you nice will you give me a rub down," teased Buck.
"Sorry, Mr. Wilmington, you're not my type." smiled Ezra as he covered Vin with the blankets and moved to the fire to get something to eat.
"We'll head back to town at first light," announced Chris.
"What about the bank robbers?" asked JD.
"After we bring Vin back we'll return and see if we can pick up their trail." said Chris.
"Chris you know any sign will be gone by the time we get back," pointed out Buck.
"And your point?' as Chris in a deadly voice.
"Me and JD will follow them," said Buck undisturbed by Chris' anger.
"No!" said Chris emphatically. "I won't have you and JD end up like Vin. Besides you're not a tracker."
"Me and JD will be fine," Buck insisted.
"You want to go on a wild goose chase, be my guest," replied an angry Chris. Buck was about to answer when Josiah spoke up.
"I think we should sleep on it. We are all tired, and if we argue, we might say something we'll regret"
"Mr. Sanchez is right," agreed Ezra. "I will take first watch since going to bed this early would be against my nature."
"All right," agreed Buck. "but I won't change my mind."
Chris took his bedroll to the other side of the fire, closer to Vin. The others took various positions around the camp. Ezra propped up his saddle next to Vin, then tried to get comfortable. Once he was settled, he took out a deck of cards and began to shuffle them to keep his fingers nimble. Ezra liked the night. Many flaws could be overlooked in the darkness. He put down his cards and stared up at the stars. The night was quiet except for an occasional yip of a coyote and a snore from Josiah. He loved the look of the stars; they reminded him of diamonds. He glanced around the camp at the others. JD and Buck were asleep side by side. He always wondered about their relationship. Buck was too overprotective in his opinion and should let the boy make mistakes sometimes. Ezra had to learn that way and he didn't think he had suffered from it. He looked over at Josiah who was snoring softly. Ezra was truly amused by him, an ex-preacher who was a deadly shot. He glanced to where Chris was asleep on the other side of Vin. Ezra didn't know what to make of their enigmatic leader. Chris appeared hard and unfeeling but Ezra had seen another side of him today. Chris was truly worried about Vin. Ezra had noticed subtle things that Chris had done to show his deep concern for the bounty hunter, a soft touch here, a reassuring caress there. Ezra looked at the last of the group. Vin lay quietly next to him. His sunburned face looked painful but serene, as if he knew he was safe. Ezra figured he had the most in common with the tracker. Both had been "abandoned" at an early age. Both were content with their own company. The one big difference was that Vin was a loner and Ezra liked to be around others. Ezra looked up again at the stars trying to figure out, for the hundredth time, what drew them all together. He sighed realizing he'd never know but that he was content with his inclusion in the group. He lay watching them for a few hours when he heard a voice next to him.
"Pretty ain't they?" said a soft voice. Ezra sat up and looked at Vin. He was awake and looking up at the stars. "Some water?" croaked Vin.
Ezra quickly grabbed a canteen and lifted Vin's head to drink. When he drunk his fill Ezra laid his head gently back down.
"Thanks, pard," smiled Vin. He instantly regretted it when his sun parched lips cracked and began to bleed.
"I suggest you don't try smiling for at least a fortnight," suggested Ezra as he gently wiped away the blood with a wet cloth.
"You might have a point. Are the others all right?"
"We are fine, Mr. Tanner. You are the one who decided to take a holiday out in the desert," Ezra teased. "How do you feel?"
"Is there anything I can get you?" asked Ezra in sympathy, "Some food perhaps?"
"No," he said, "I'm just so cold."
Ezra hadn't noticed that Vin was shivering. He covered Vin with his own blanket but it didn't seem to help. He moved closer to Vin to add the warmth of his body.
"Better?" asked Ezra.
"A little," replied a weary Vin "What's Chris' plan?"
"Well, our fearless leader has decided to take you back to town," began Ezra. "After that I have no notion."
"We have to go after the bank robbers," said Vin venomously. "I owe them."
"Well, you can discuss that with Mr. Larabee in the morning," said Ezra "Why don't you try to go back to sleep?"
"Can't. Too cold" said a shivering Vin.
"I can only think of one solution," said Ezra dryly. "All I ask is that you respect me in the morning."
Ezra gently lifted Vin to a sitting position and got behind him. He put his legs on either side of the tracker and sat down so that Vin was in front of him. He arranged his saddle so that he could recline then pulled Vin into his embrace. Vin hissed in pain only once when Ezra touched the slashes on his chest. Then he settled against Ezra's warmth. Ezra pulled the blankets up and got comfortable.
"Smell nice, Ezra," said Vin with a mischievous smile.
"Go to sleep, Mr. Tanner. You're delirious," replied Ezra with a smile.
After a few minutes, the tracker's breathing became slow and steady and Ezra knew he was asleep. At first he didn't think this had been a good idea. He figured Vin would have protested because he didn't like people getting too close. Ezra was also worried about what the others would say, and then he realized he didn't care as his eyes slowly closed. He never intended to fall asleep.
Chris woke with a start. Something was wrong. He lay with his eyes open but didn't move. Never let them know you were awake was one of the things that had kept him alive. He listened to the sounds of the camp, and when he was satisfied all was quiet he sat up and looked around. JD and Buck were asleep side by side. Josiah was just a little beyond them. Everything was quiet, too quiet. Damn Chris thought I'll kill you for falling asleep on watch, Ezra. He angrily looked to where the gambler had been and was surprised at what he saw. Vin lay contentedly against a sleeping Ezra. Ezra had his right arm protectively around the tracker, derringer in hand. Chris moved closer to check on Vin. He cautiously placed his hand on Vin's forehead. He was warm to the touch but Chris wasn't sure if it was the heat of the tracker's sunburned skin or a fever. Chris removed his hand and slowly backed away. He didn't want to disturb the gambler and be accidentally shot. His was surprised at Ezra's protectiveness towards the tracker. They had never seemed close. Chris didn't care Vin was sleeping comfortably and that's all that mattered. Chris looked up at the sky and guessed dawn was about four hours away.