Chris had always liked the dawn. He enjoyed watching the sun peek over the horizon lighting the landscape in pale translucent colors. He listened to the birds greet the day in their insistent voices. He filled the coffeepot with water and placed it on the fire. He added the coffee and, in a short time, the aroma began to rouse the others. Josiah was the first to wake. Chris watched as he stretched then sat up.
"Morning, Josiah," said Chris.
"Morning brother Chris.The Lord was being generous when he created coffee."
"Amen," Chris said with a smile.
Josiah glanced over to Ezra and Vin and smiled. He then joined Chris at the fire. He poured himself some coffee and sighed contentedly as he drank.
"You don't seem surprised," Chris commented with a nod towards Ezra.
"Nope," said Josiah in his deep voice. "Ezra pretends he doesn't care and that he doesn't need people. I think this became a survival instinct for him. If he doesn't care, then he can't be hurt."
"I reckon with a mother like Maude, you learned to care for only one person, yourself," agreed Chris. "Still doesn't explain why he picked Vin. They have nothing in common."
"They have more in common then you think," disagreed Josiah. "They both learned to fend for themselves at young ages. They both can read people. That's what makes Ezra such a good gambler and Vin a good judge of character."
"How is anyone supposed to sleep with you two yammering?" Buck asked accusingly as he sat up.
"Sun's up," explained Chris.
"I can see that," Buck commented. "What's that got to do with anything?"
"I think Chris means that we should be up, too," said a sleepy JD.
"I always said the kid was smarter than you, Buck," teased Chris.
Buck growled and grabbed JD's bedroll and unceremoniously dumped him out of it. JD yelped and would have started a wrestling match if Chris hadn't shushed the two of them.
"Keep it down you two," Chris hissed. "Let them sleep."
Chris waved his hand towards where Ezra and Vin were still asleep. Buck and JD noticed them for the first time. Buck laughed.
"Well, well if they don't look cozy," he chuckled
"Why the heck did Ezra do that?" JD asked a little surprised. "I didn't even know he liked Vin."
"It sure looks like he does," Buck teasingly. "Well, while the two of you wait for them to wake up, me and JD will start after those bank robbers."
"You never quit do you, Buck," said Chris in a steely voice.
"You know I'm right, pard," answered Buck. "Someone has to go after them."
"Like I said last night, you're no tracker," said Chris.
"A tracker is not needed gentleman," said Ezra in sleepy drawl.
"What do you mean?" asked JD.
"Mr. Tanner knows where the miscreants are headed," said Ezra whispered so as not to wake Vin.
"So where are they headed?" asked Josiah.
"He did not elucidate, Mr. Sanchez," answered Ezra. "All he said was that he owed them."
"Well, he can just go on owing them, because I'm taking him back to town," said Chris in a tone that brooked no argument.
"No, you're not," said a tired, but familiar voice.
The others crowded around Vin when they heard his voice. His blue eyes stared up at them from his sunburned face with determination.
"I'm going after those bastards," Vin said in a deadly voice.
"I doubt you can even stand," argued Chris.
"You don't ride a horse standing," smiled Vin. He quickly regretted it as his sunburned face protested the move.
"That's true," said Buck before Chris said something he would regret. "But you look mighty comfortable where you are. JD reckon Ezra would let me use him for a pillow?"
"You're not his type," JD and Vin said in unison. They all laughed while Chris just smiled.
"Gentleman," began Ezra, "as much as I have enjoyed being Mr. Tanner's down pilla I could use a hand extricating myself. I do believe my legs are asleep."
"Jeez, Ezra, I'm sorry," said Vin as he tried to sit up by himself but hissed in pain at the first move.
"Easy there cowboy," cried Chris as he moved to help Vin.
Buck got on Vin's other side and, the two of them helped him up to a sitting position. JD and Josiah helped Ezra to stand. Ezra moved like an old man as he stamped his feet to get the circulation going. Chris and Buck eased Vin back down onto Ezra's saddle.
"Want some coffee, Vin?" asked JD as he poured a cup for himself.
"That would be right welcome," said Vin. JD handed the coffee to Vin. "Vin, where are the bank robbers heading?" asked Josiah.
"They're headed for The Hole," said Vin as he sipped his coffee.
"And you want to go after them there?" said an astonished Buck. "How do you even know where it is?"
"Yes, I was wondering that also," asked and amused Ezra. "I thought only malefactors knew of its location, or have you neglected to tell us of a more colorful past."
"I went looking for a bounty," Vin explained in a rough voice. "He tried real hard to cover his trail, but it was easy to follow, and it lead right to the Hole. He came from a different direction then the Anvil. Cutting across the Anvil is actually a short cut. I realized that's where the bank robbers were headed. I can take you there."
"No you can't," argued Chris "Josiah and JD will take you back to town. You'll give the rest of us directions to The Hole."
"You'll never make it," said Vin in a steely voice. "You don't know where the water is, I do."
"You're not going!" yelled Chris barely holding his temper.
"You're not my keeper!" said an equally angry Vin.
"He's right, Chris," Buck said in a soothing voice. "If he knows the way across that hell hole, I say let him come."
"You're as insane as he is!" said a disbelieving Chris. "He can hardly move let alone sit a horse."
"I got all day to rest up," said Vin. "We'll cross the Anvil at night."
"Fine. You want to kill yourself I won't stop you!" yelled Chris as he stalked to his horse and began to saddle him.
"Chris, where are you going?" asked a worried JD. He hated when the others fought.
"Hunting!" he answered. "If were going to stay here all day, we'll need something to eat."
He finished saddling and bridling his horse, then rode away. The others watched him go but didn't try to stop him. They knew when Chris got into one of his moods there was no reasoning with him. Buck knew that he was just worried about Vin. They all were. He also knew that it was hard for Chris to care for someone again after Sarah and Adam were killed. Buck knew that Vin and Chris shared a bond that had been forged from the day they rescued Nathan. It was eerie how they knew what the other was thinking just by a look or gesture. Buck glanced at Vin and saw the hurt look in the tracker's eyes.
"Don't worry pard. He'll be back," said Buck reassuringly
"I know," sighed Vin. "He just makes me crazy sometimes."
"Amen, brother," agreed Joisiah.
"Are you sure you're OK to ride across the desert?" JD asked quietly.
"Not you, too?" asked Vin.
"Well," began JD. "Hell, Vin, I got sunburned once when my mama took to a lake for the day. It hurt like hell, and when I put on clothes, I thought I would die, and mine wasn't even as bad as yours."
"Don't remind me," sighed Vin. "These blankets are killing me, but if you tell Chris that, I will deny it."
"Then why would you even want to go after these criminals?" asked Ezra.
"It's the right thing to do Ezra," said Vin. "The took all the town's money. Without that, the town doesn't stand a chance. Besides, they have Sire and my gun. I want them back."
The day passed slowly. Chris had been gone for about four hours. They had moved Vin into the shade cast by the few pitiful trees around the pond. He had tried to remain awake to talk to Chris but he failed and was sleeping peacefully when Chris returned. He unsaddled his horse and brought the four jackrabbits over to the fire. Josiah helped him skin them. Once that was done, they spitted them over the fire. Chris kept glancing towards Vin. He noticed Ezra was sitting next to Vin watching him closely.
"I thought you were bad," comented Buck.
"What do you mean?" asked Chris.
"Ezra hasn't left his side since you went hunting," answered Buck.
"Ah, but there is a difference, Brother Buck," smiled Josiah. "Ezra is more subtle in his watching. You'll n notice when Vin wakes up Ezra will give him room."
"Where as I crowd him," commented Chris.
"No, you're just overprotective of Vin," answered Buck.
"No more than you are over JD," bit back Chris.
"Oh, heck, Chris, you ain't nothing compared to Buck," laughed JD. "He's like to smother me sometimes."
"Smother?" said Buck in a hurt voice. "I'll show you smother." With that, he grabbed a blanket and threw it over JD's head and began wrestling with him. Buck tortured him until a muffled "Uncle" could be heard and Buck released him. Their antics had the desired effect. Josiah laughed out right, Chris wore a rare smile, and Ezra looked at then like they had lost what little minds they had.
"You're crazy, Buck, you know that," accused JD as he straightened his clothes.
"I've been called worse," smiled Buck.
"Did Vin say how long it would take to cross the Anvil?" asked Chris.
"About nine hours," answered Josiah. "The watering hole's a little more than half way. He said we could stay there a few hours than have time to get to the Hole before dawn."
"We better all get some rest," said Chris. "We'll leave around six."
+ + + + + + +
The time to leave was approaching and the six of them were getting ready. JD and Buck were saddling the horses. Ezra was filling the canteens, while Josiah and Chris were helping Vin. They decided that Vin would be dressed in extra clothes from Josiah and Buck. Josiah had donated the pants, and they were huge on the slight tracker. Even though they were loose Vin winced every time they touched his skin. Chris saw his discomfort and winced every time Vin did.
"Vin this is crazy," said Chris. "This is going to hurt."
"Tell me something I don't know," Vin said with a smile to take away the sting of his words.
"Vin we know where they went now," argued Chris. "We can take you back to town, then get to The Hole from the long way."
"It would be too late," stated Vin. "I'll be fine. Quit your worrying."
Vin endured the shirt being put on, but barely. They didn't have an extra pair of boots, just some socks. Finally they were ready to go.
"I'll take Vin up with me," volunteered Josiah.
"No I'll take him," protested Chris.
"Chris, we have already had this argument once," said Josiah. "If he passes out, you'll have a hell of a time keeping him in the saddle."
"If Mr. Tanner loses consciousness, it won't matter who he's riding with because we will all be up the proverbial creek without a paddle," Ezra said dryly.
"Boys there is no need to fight over me," said Vin quietly. "I'll ride with Chris. It's going to be tough on the horses riding double. Me and Chris together are lighter than me and Josiah."
Chris and Buck helped Vin to his feet. He wasn't very steady so they each held one of his arms. JD brought over Chris' horse and they helped Vin mount. Mounting was total agony for the tracker. The clothes rubbed against his sunburned skin. Vin didn't cry out. He just held the pain in. The others looked on in sympathy, but there was nothing they could do. Once they got him in the saddle, Vin doubled over and laid his forehead on the horse's mane. He was breathing hard from the effort, and Chris saw that he had his eyes shut tight. JD kept hold of the horse as Chris swung up behind Vin. Chris gently laid his hand on Vin's back.
"Vin, lean back," Chris urged the tracker.
Vin slowly sat up and leaned against Chris' chest. Chris tried touching him as little as possible because even the slightest contact was painful. Vin laid his head back on Chris' right shoulder and Chris could feel Vin's ragged breath on his hair. They waited patiently for Vin to tell them he was ready. Chris finally felt him relax and prepared himself to accept Vin's weight. The tracker sighed and leaned more heavily on Chris.
"Damn, that hurt," said Vin.
"Mr. Tanner, I'm sure that's an understatement," laughed Ezra.
"Which way Vin?" asked smiling Buck.
"Head southwest," supplied Vin.
Chris tapped his heels into his horse, and they moved out. Vin winced at the movement but said nothing. They rode for about an hour when the sun started to set. It was an awesome sight to see the intense orange sun slowly sink below the horizon.
"Did you see that!" exclaimed an excited JD. "I've never seen anything like that before!"
"It's a sight to behold, isn't it, JD?" said Josiah.
"I'll say!" agreed JD. "Thanks Vin."
"Why are you thanking Vin?" asked a confused Buck.
"Well, if he hadn't convinced you guys to go after the bank robbers, we never would have come out here," explained JD.
"Anytime JD," said Vin in a slurred voice.
"Which way Vin?" asked Chris in concern. He could feel the tracker getting heavier as if he was falling asleep.
"We have to travel about three hours southwest," said Vin. "You should see a darker shadow in the distance that will become a rock formation. Head for it."
"I think we can handle that," said Chris. "Why don't you just relax and take a nap?"
"I'm fine Chris, stop worrying," sighed Vin.
"Suit yourself," said Chris.
They moved out, and Ezra nonchalantly moved his horse next to Chris'. They rode for about twenty minutes when Vin could no longer stay awake and slumped in Chris' arms. Chris thought he was ready but he could feel Vin leaning too far to the right, and it was becoming difficult to hold on to him. Ezra rode closer and steadied Vin while Chris shifted his weight so that Vin was in the middle of the saddle.
"Thanks, Ezra," said Chris. "He's heavier then he looks."
"I am aware of that Mr. Larabee," commented Ezra. "Our tracker may appear svelte but he is all muscle and bone."
"Yeah, you should know since you were his pillow last night," teased Buck.
The others chuckled as they continued. Ezra stayed close to Chris in case he needed any more help. Buck moved to Chris' left to lend his support.