They had crossed the river. It had been a desperate move with the rapids and icy temperatures and darkness, Tanner observed as he realized that his friends must have risked that watery gauntlet in the night. Even in the daylight it had been treacherous. And freezing. But it may have worked, by damn, and at least one of them was still alive. The multiple tracks of Miller and his men had continued downstream on the far side of the water. And yet there was Buck's easy-going mare, neck bowed and still, but giving some hope to the search.
Vin saw it as soon as they got close to the big mare. She wasn't putting any weight on her left leg. None at all. He went to the gray like Nathan would to a wounded man. JD untangled the reins from the scrub brush that had kept the horse from moving. There were scrapes and cuts along the lower legs, but nothing serious enough for her to keep the weight off ...
"Vin?" JD left the question hanging. His eyes were taking in the same things as the tracker. Vin forced himself to examine their surroundings for threats before he checked on the animal. There was no one around.
Josiah and Nathan stayed on their horses looking for trouble, looking for some signs of the fate of their friends. Finally Vin joined the youngest of the peacekeepers where he was now speaking gently to the gray as he stroked the neck.
"Vin?" JD repeated.
"I don't know yet," the tracker replied. He carefully picked up the leg and turned it so that he could examine the sole of the hoof. JD continued to speak soothingly to Paladin, but she seemed content to be surrounded by the familiar humans.
"Aw, hell,"Vin muttered. Nathan reacted by instinct and dismounted. It was an injury, maybe he could help.
Vin ran his finger gently over the sole of the hoof. When the horse tried to jerk away in response, Vin and JD both had to gentle her down. At last the mare was again still. Vin turned to the healer. "Let me see one of your knives, Nathan," he asked distractedly.
The knife was in his hand in an instant. Tanner took something between the knife blade and his thumb. He began a steady pull and pull and pull. At first the healer thought the poor animal had stepped on a nail as the hard, mahogany object continued to come out. While it's two inches was close to the length of the nails used on the church's roof, this was a little thinner, the point much sharper. A mesquite thorn.
Nathan's mind flashed back. They had made flour from mesquite beans and a sweet jelly that tasted more like honey. Using the wood in the cook stove or campfire gave meat the best flavor. He remembered his momma and other women he had lived with had used the thorns for sewing needles. The ones this size could be used as leather awls. But there was one other thing. The level of infection from the thorn in a given year would tell how dry a summer they would have. Many of the people believed there was some sort of poison on the things. He could tell by the look on Vin's face that he held the same belief.
"You get it all out?"
Vin nodded. "But she's dragged dirt into it. Who knows what else. Or how long it's festered.
"I saw punctures at the stables back east,"JD's voice was full of fear and sadness. Vin had been regretting the implied question. Nathan's expression said he didn't understand why they were so concerned about a simple puncture wound.
"The People, when I lived with them, said it was because the hoof doesn't bleed and bleed out the poison." It would be some time before modern science would learn how true the folklore was. It was, in fact, poor blood circulation that gave such a wound a guarded prognosis. Nathan looked at the small wound and wondered that it could be so deadly. "It could be worse, but ..."
"Nathan, can't you do something? You've got to do something,"JD whispered. It was an entreaty. Beyond the fact that he was deeply attached to the big, gentle mare, to the boy, the horse was an extension of his missing friend. Losing the animal would be like failing Buck.
Nathan looked at the horse. He still didn't allow himself to get attached to his animal that way. He still had a hard time believing someone wouldn't come and tell him he had to let it go like had happened so many times when he was a child.
Larabee considered his horse a tool and he took care of it like he did his gun. They both kept him alive.
Josiah saw his as one of God's creatures, whatever that meant to him. Tanner saw his as one of nature's creatures and appreciated his personality and cantankerous ways. JD loved his horse, but the attachment was new and still growing since his arrival in Four Corners.
But Buck? He knew that, like Ezra, he saw that horse as a friend he could rely on when maybe no one else was that true. They both spoiled their animals unabashedly. So, more similarities between the rascal and the conman.
Nathan cringed again remembering the hurtful words he had thrown out at Wilmington because, at the time, it had been like attacking Standish; somehow he'd known that the same words that would reach and hurt the Southerner would do the same for the scoundrel. And attacking Standish had become almost a habit. Nathan still didn't know how to heal what those words had broken. He didn't know where his friends were or what physical injuries might need mending. It would soothe his troubled conscience to do what he could for the gray.
"Vin, you and JD talk your magic to that animal and keep her gentle. I'm gonna try to bleed this hole; make it bigger, get some of that dirt out..."
"Ya cain't bleed it," Tanner's drawl became deeper, a sure indication the situation would get worse before it got better.
"You just said the reason it's dangerous is 'cause it don't bleed."
"It don't bleed like the rest of an animal's body."
Nathan frowned. He was falling back on what he knew. If Vin was telling him already that wouldn't work ... "Any ideas?"
"Curette the sole down to open up the wound. About fingernail size around and deep only a fraction." It was clear the tracker was describing something he'd seen before.
"Might drain any abscess, give the poison somewhere to go," the healer pondered the logic of the native ways in relation to what he knew. "If we could draw the infection out somehow ..."
"That stuff you use on us all the time,"JD upped as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
"Magnesium sulfate. Don't have no way to hold the liquid around the hoof, JD." Then an idea hit him. If they were using native ways, so be it. " Josiah, find me some prickly pear. We'll peel off the skin. I've been told the meat can pull out infection as it dries." He didn't sound hopeful, he was guessing, but, "We'll do the best we can, JD."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra was fascinated by the velvety soft lips that nuzzled his neck. Sensuous. He'd never felt anything so soft. He felt a soft breath behind his ear as the lips nibbled in his hair. A sudden desire to remember the beauty and see who shared his bed dragged him back from the comfortable darkness of sleep. He opened his eyes and found he was lying on his side. Fine blades of fresh green grass were magnified by their nearness to his nose. He could smell the grass and felt it comfortably padding the ground beneath him.
An outdoor rendezvous? He struggled to recall what feminine wiles could convince him to engage in some tryst here instead of the comfort of his feather bed.
The lips were at the nape of his neck now, nipping a bit. Had he been drinking? He found himself wondering why it was almost impossible to get his sore, aching body to move.
But the anticipation was too much and he forced himself to roll onto his back. With a surprised yelp, he had suddenly moved three feet away from the other body with no conscious effort. A horse. It was a horse. And not any horse, but Larabee's black hellion. And it pulled that velvety nose back to show teeth in what Standish could only compare to its owner's rare, mischievous smirk. The damn horse was laughing at him?
But then the events of the recent past came back to him. Fear, panic, anger, regret. Buck. Chris. He looked around quickly. The jerky motion sent a jolt of pain into his head.
The horse nudged his shoulders as if trying to draw his attention to something. Low thunder reverberated along the ground. Horses hooves. Riders coming. Too many horses to be his friends.
Ezra's thoughts swirled. Chris and Buck. Where were they? Old habits kicked in -- a sense of self-preservation developed to the point that it had become an art form. He wouldn't rely on anyone to save him. He wouldn't be a handicap; taken again and used against his friends. It wasn't their responsibility to watch his back.
The small Southerner pulled himself up by the stirrup of the black. The riders were closer now. A sudden wave of vertigo convinced him that he couldn't outrun them; wouldn't even be able to stay in the saddle if he made it that far. Carefully he took the reins and staggered in front of the animal so that as it followed him it would conceal the human tracks made by his boots. He'd been here before, alone, hurt and on the run. But in the past he'd had more to show for it - a pocket full of folding money or double eagles.
He made it to the edge of the river. Remembering the noxious stagnant water of a few hours ago he was grateful that when he arrived at this section of the river's edge, it sloped down to clean, slow, smooth running shallows. He waded into the cattails, twisted off one of the hollow reeds and, using it as a straw, submerged himself below the surface. Now, if the riders would just move on before he passed out ...
+ + + + + + +
Some instinct had awakened Chris Larabee. He hadn't realized he had dozed, but pure exhaustion had taken the matter out of his hands. He wasn't comfortable. His shoulders were stiff from where his bound hands had held them pulled back. His clothes had dried tacky and stiff to his body. Despite all that, he had to admit he felt better for the rest.
The clouds and fog hadn't let go of their hold on the land, but the sense he got of where the sun was led him to believe he'd lost two or three hours.
Then he became aware of what roused him. The foreman stood over him with a lethal Bowie knife in his hand. He tensed, prepared to fight off the attack. Then he saw bandages, a canteen and a jar of salve in the other hand and relaxed a fraction.
"I'll tend those wounds long as you don't try nothin'. And you understand I'll gut ya like a fish if I have to." The man waited as if having given the offer, he didn't care if the answer was yes or no.
Larabee glared at the man in silence.
<Damn, stubborn, prideful gunslinger> Buck thought. <Would rather die of blood poisoning than ask for help.> "He's got a right nasty cut on that leg beside you." Wilmington motioned to Red with a nod toward Chris. "Didn't have nothin' to get it cleaned up proper."
Larabee turned his glare on his old friend. The look turned to one of worry. Buck didn't look any better. He was leaning against the boulder, watching them with heavy-lidded eyes. His hair was plastered down, framing his face. There was something familiar and bothersome in the way the mustached man was leaning against the rock. But the gunslinger was in the forefront of Larabee's personality now. The friend he was or was supposed to be, as was too often the case, was pushed out of the equation. Larabee turned his glared back on the big, red headed man.
There was a hint of humor in Red's eyes. He even shared the look with Buck. He recognized the similarities between Larabee and Jason, too. And he knew he could take the man's silence as permission to continue. The gristled older man knelt and cut the ropes from around Larabee's ankles. Then he pulled back Larabee's already slit pants leg for a look. "No real scab yet, just old, dried blood." Larabee moved cautiously so as not to present a threat, but needed to adjust his position to look for himself. The area was swollen and red, but only in the immediate area of the wound.
"It's got a fever, but I don't think it's spread. How do you feel?" There was no answer. Red looked up to see more anger and threat in the hazel eyes than pain and took that as the answer. "Looks like it's trying to heal over before it heals down deep. I want to pull off the dead blood, bleed it, squeeze the pus and infection and dirt out. I may have to make a couple of cuts." Larabee realized the man was asking permission, maybe even reassuring him that he only meant to help.
"Larabee ain't known to take help graciously," he heard Buck say when the silence stretched too long. "But we'd be obliged for the help."
Without another word the big man began to pick at the scabs with the tip of his knife. The dried blood pulled at some of the hair on the leg, but other than that the big meaty hands had a surprisingly gentle touch.
Buck laid his forehead against the cool granite despite the nip in the air. Chris scowled when he saw this, but before he could ask, Red did it for him. "How 'bout you, youngster? That scattergun do much damage to your back?"
"Been better, been worse."
"Whoa, whoa." Red grabbed Larabee's leg when he would have headed over to his friend. "I'll see to it next. Move again like that it won't be my fault if this knife slips."
"Why didn't you say something?" Larabee hissed at Wilmington.
"When did I have time?" He responded with a sincere laugh.
"Make time," the gunfighter growled with a protective tone. Buck nodded weakly, appreciative of the concern. Red watched the two of them for a moment but couldn't understand all that was going on.
The darker man glanced at the foreman. "You know they're wrong about Ezra," he stated flatly.
"Known those boys since ... maybe the older ones had a mean streak, a little one their daddy encouraged, but they were good to each other. Losing those brothers ... you can't imagine."
"Reckon I might could,"Wilmington mumbled. "But I can tell you that lettin' 'em kill an innocent man ain't gonna make it right. They ain't never gonna be like they were."
Red looked up and tried to read where the sadness in the voice came from. He sounded like he really knew what he was talking about. The blonde was listening, but he didn't seem to know where the conversation was coming from, either. Red decided he had imagined the quality in the voice that made him feel like this man understood. Finally he went back to what he was doing; wrapping a clean white bandage tightly against the other man's leg. "That gambler ain't innocent," he said, trying to salve a guilty conscience.
"Innocent enough,"was the reply.
"Why are you defendin' a man who left you to face Jason Miller's anger?" He was reading more of a threat to the two men being here than he was saying.
"Reckon young Miller left you alone here with Chris in the state he's in. Ain't no difference."
Red was distracted by the implication that the man in the dark clothes could be as dangerous as Jason. As he leaned forward to lever himself off the ground, it was what Larabee'd been waiting for. He kicked out with both legs. They hit Red hard in the jaw. The man had never suspected that his prisoner could work past the pain such a move would cause.
The older man fell to his hands and knees; shook his head to clear it. Larabee struck again, jamming both booted feet into the man's side and the part of his stomach he could reach. Red fell to his side, fighting against the pain and for the air that had been knocked out of his lungs.
Chris quickly propped his back against the granite boulder and inched his bound hands under his butt until, when he sat down again, his hands were in front of him, under his bent knees. It was a move that took no more than a little flexibility and the knowledge that it could be done.
Next it was a simple matter to pull his right leg in close and run his tied hands under then over the boot. It took a little more time to force himself to pull the injured left leg in tight for the maneuver. The gash was bleeding through the bandages from the abuse. Larabee hissed in pain and clenched his eyes shut to get his hands out from under the injured leg. But in a space of a few breaths, Larabee had his hands in front of him. He crawled over to their captor and inter-twining his fingers together, delivered a final blow to the man's temple that sent him crashing to the ground like a sequoia.
The peacekeeper grabbed up the Bowie knife, steadied the hilt between the toes of his boots and used the sharp blade to quickly tear through the ropes that held his hands. Then he scurried over to his friend.
In the back of his mind there was a niggling concern that Buck hadn't made any move to help him. Buck was still leaning against the rock. Chris cut the ropes holding the other man's hands then the ones at his legs. "Right. Let's move." Chris had a hand under the other man's upper arm to help him up. But Buck didn't move. "Buck, damn it,"
"I can't make it just now, Pard."
"The hell you can't." Immediately Larabee's focus changed. Wilmington never said he couldn't do something. Reflexively the older man's hand went to the brow then the cheek of the other's face. "Jeez, Buck, you're on fire." There was no response, although he knew that he had been heard.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra Standish had had fun, and this was not it. The horsemen had ridden by without a glance at the water. He would count that as the good news. He figured he was due for Lady Luck to smile his way. He suspected it was more of a smirk because although he was safe, he was cold and wet and exhausted and alone. He grabbed for the grass on the bank to pull himself out of the water. His hand squished into the mud at the roots of the plants. What he was sure was that the last civilized cell functioning in his brain notified him that he would never get all of that ooze out from under what had recently been perfectly manicured nails. His knee reached the bank and he felt the liquid and wet earth seep into the material. He grabbed again, this time with his right hand. More mud. He rested his forehead on the back of his hand. Rest. Just for a moment. Then he would continue. He'd find it in himself to pull himself to his feet and get himself out of this mess like he'd done so many times in the past. On his own. By himself.
But first, just to spite them of course, to make sure that they knew he had survived on his own, perhaps he should ride back into town. He would make sure that Mr. Tanner wasn't still lying unconscious in the jail cell. And that Chris and Buck had made it back. And that young Mr. Dunne wasn't worrying himself unnecessarily. Just to spite them of course. <Was he rambling? Talking to himself and on a tangent?> He moved a little further up the bank.
He was losing track of time but the horses had been gone for some time, hadn't they? Damn, it was cold. He shivered. <Where was I? Oh, yes, saving myself.> But I didn't really, did I? Messrs. Larabee and Wilmington had been a little help. Alright, more than a little. But where were they now? <Where were they now?> The question was like lightning down his spine. He tried to rise, but felt nauseous and weak, and all over miserable. His back hurt. His arm hurt. Nathan had scolded him once, like a child. Had said 'pain is nature's way of tellin' you somethin' is wrong. You need to pay heed.' Well, he'd like to pay heed, but the realization that Buck and Chris were missing was growing to something near panic. He wanted to be thinking. Decisions needed to be made - all he could keep coming back to was the explosion, the horses bolting and danger. Where were Buck and Chris?
A hand came down on his shoulder. When he tried to fight he was as effective as a newborn kitten. To make things worse, his stomach roiled. The sudden cramps led to dry heaves and left him coughing, dizzy and trying to swipe salvia from his mouth with his filthy sleeve. He was kneeling on the bank now. And again the touch of those hands registered. One was rubbing his back to ease the tension there and the other had a hold of his shoulder to help support him. Finally a voice broke through the gray cloud of pain that had settled behind his eyes.
"Ezra? C'mon, Ezra, breath through it. Try to tell me what's wrong."
"Easy." He felt a canteen touch his lips and the cool, clean water rationed to him carefully. <What are you doing Mr. Tanner, I'm trying to examine the reasons to give up on my most recent situation, the most obvious one being that ya'll have already given up on me, and here you are.> He felt the buckskin jacket wrapped around him and was amazed how warm it was what with its residual body heat. He wanted to tell them all that had happened; that they needed to look for their friends. All that came out of his mouth as he felt the warmth drag him into sleep, was, "Chris ... Buck ..."
"I know, Ezra, I know." Tanner found his mind drifting back to the two unmarked graves and pulled the barely conscious man closer to him. The small body tremored with the wet and cold. "I know." Tanner looked up at Josiah standing over them protectively and saw a sad acceptance reflected in the older man's eyes. Josiah cursed the fog that refused to let go of its hold on the land.
+ + + + + + +
Larabee suddenly remembered what had been said about a scattergun and rough, calloused hands moved and lifted his old friend's shirt. There were pellets embedded beneath the skin and damage where others had hit. The wide pattern and relatively mild damage told him the blast had come from a long distance off and lost much of its impact before it found its target. He thought back on the fetid water that Buck and Ezra had fallen into and the dirt and sweat that had to be adding to the damage.
But still and all, the infection and redness didn't seem to account completely for his friend's weakness. Again he grabbed his friend's arm and pulled. "Let's get you out of here." The forced movement was more than Buck could handle. His stomach revolted against him in painful heaves. Chris, fighting down a panic that came from worry and knowing their time was limited before the others returned, ran for a canteen and returned quickly. He doused some of the nearby bandages with the water before he handed the container to the younger man.
Buck took the canteen and rested it on the ground for a minute before trying to bring it to his lips. It was as if he didn't have the strength to do both in one smooth motion. Larabee, with a tenderness mastered when his child was young, wiped the cloth across Buck's lips then helped him take some of the water. He wet more bandages and ran them across Buck's brow and down his neck. "We gotta move," he explained as if that would make it happen.
"I ain't leavin' you!"
"Hell, Chris," The other man caught a breath to continue. "You ain't leavin' me. You're goin' for help." Larabee looked around his surroundings as if something somewhere would give him a direction; a course of action. "You gotta find Ezra."
"The hell with ..." Buck's look turned black and bitter. "What I mean is, I know where you are and you need help."
"He's alone, Chris, and he's hurt. You gotta find him before Miller and his men do."
Larabee wanted to find Ezra; wanted to tell the damn Southern cuss they were worried about him. Larabee had spent three years living in the past. It was new to be forced to see how his actions and words would affect the future. It was in the future he didn't want to hurt ever again like he had when he lost his family. But he'd gotten a glimpse of that pain when he had thought Buck was dead. And surprisingly, damnably, it had been just as painful to think he'd lost the gambler. To save himself from repeating that pain, he had been determined to save the men.
Now he was forced to choose between which one to save. Was there any logical way to decide? Buck couldn't move at any speed. To try would mean only a matter of time before Miller's gang caught up with them again. If he could find Standish, the two of them could come back and help Buck. And take care of these men who had threatened his friends once and for all.
A fiery hatred and need for revenge began to stoke itself within his heart. Where once it had been merely a matter of removing a threat before him, now these men were making him chose between two of the handful of people he had come to care about. He didn't know how they'd worked their way into his heart. God knew he had fought it.
The notorious gunfighter wished for a moment that he'd never stopped that day in Four Corners. But where, in the not so recent past, that thought would have stayed with him, now it filtered in and was rejected. He knew now he was thankful for what he had in this upstart town.
He looked at his friend who was keeping a watch on him by force of will alone. The midnight blue eyes, hooded and tired, wanted nothing more than to closed and rest. Buck would never forgive him and never understand if he didn't go look for Ezra. Just as he would never forgive himself if anything happened to his easygoing friend because of the choice he was about to make. With a heavy sigh, and a warm hand comfortingly around Buck's neck, he conceded, "I'll be back."
"I'll be here."
+ + + + + + +
Josiah watched the tableau before him and wondered at the contradictions with a sort of numb acceptance.
Ever since he and Vin had gone scouting for clues and come upon their lost Southern lamb, there had been more questions than answers. The way that Ezra had called weakly and helplessly for their two missing friends had torn a painful swath of resignation through the hope he had dared hold out. It had been more true for him on behalf of the tracker. Until that moment. the faith that things would work out had emanated from Tanner like a physical force; moreso even than young JD. For the finality to come to Vin first, as he tried to warm and comfort Standish, tested what little renewed faith Josiah had found. Someone, anyone should have been able to deal with the loss first and soften it for the tracker.
So now they all knew, though no one spoke the words, who lay beneath the two unmarked graves. So now they all stayed nearby seeking solace that at least one of their family was back with them. At the same time they distanced themselves from each other through diverted glances and silence.
As thankful as they all were that Ezra now rested, even uneasily, among them, each fought the guilt as they wondered about the others, about "what if" and "how could this have happened".
They all wanted their friend to rest and recover his strength but the also needed him to awaken and tell them what had happened. Then, back around again, they realized the longer he slept, the longer they could avoid the story they were bound to hear.
Josiah stared at the campfire and watched the thin tendrils of smoke fight their way into the mist that still surrounded them. Finally his sad eyes rested on his injured friend who always seemed to cultivate his black sheep reputation. Too bad he couldn't see the dread and worry and concern in the faces of the others now or when they had ridden back into camp.
JD had been so proud of himself. He had cut the arm off of a rain slicker, tied one end tight and filled it with the magnesium sulfate Nathan dissolved in warm water. Then they had lightly bound the sleeve to the shank of Buck's mare's injured hoof. It successfully held the liquid around the puncture so it could do it's magic and pull the infection from the perforation.
Josiah would never forget the brief enthusiasm that had been on the boy's face when they rode back to camp and he thought to share his ingenuity. Josiah would never forget how that expression fell when he saw Ezra's battered body in the Preacher's arms. He would never forget how the expression and the boy folded in on themselves as the ramifications set in. Now that Ezra was cleaned up and safe, JD spent a lot of time with the gentle, easy-going mare.
The wounds on Ezra's body told a story. Only it was a mystery and the clues weren't adding up. The wet and tattered gray shirt that had once been spotless and white was noticed first. JD gasped when removing the shirt revealed the rope burns around his throat. There was no doubt what caused those. Josiah and Nathan exchanged puzzled glances. How could he have survived such a near death experience when the others ... Nathan turned his attention from that thought. He noticed the fever when he tried to wash the dry gray silt from Standish's body. The dried mud turned noxious and black when the water touched it.
Tanner moved closer to examine the shotgun pellets as Nathan deftly removed the ones still embedded in the skin. The healer made a poultice of the same magnesium sulfate they'd used on the horse to draw out the poisons and sighed. With the possible exception of JD, they all knew the rough triangular shape wasn't the usual pattern for a shotgun blast. Something, or someone, had absorbed part of the blast. Nathan had been dismayed to find the second wound to his friend's back.
Josiah gently held their unconscious friend to keep him clean and dry and warm while their healer worked on his back. All the while Ezra seemed to fight to awaken to say something. Slowly they meticulously cleaned and doctored the other cuts and bruises.
Finally Nathan sat back on his haunches and forced himself to meet the eyes of the others. "The shotgun took him from a distance. Both barrels. It'll be painful like ..." He couldn't bring himself to verbally acknowledge the rope burns. "It needs to be kept clean ..."
"But?" Tanner urged the rest of it.
"Don't none of it account for him bein' as sick as he is."
"Maybe from the explosion in town?" Josiah suggested.
"I don't know." The dark brown eyes regretfully drifted back to the unconscious man.
"You should know." The voice grated and didn't seem to belong to JD who was usually enthusiastic and ebullient.
Nathan looked up to meet the other's brown eyes as if he'd been slapped. What he saw there was deep, painful loss and an anger that things shouldn't be the way they were. "You should have been there to help him."
"You made him think you didn't want to help him." Nathan stood up and stared at the boy. Josiah stood up and moved to intercept their youngest. But he was sidestepped and JD moved to face Nathan eye to eye. "He was innocent. You didn't care. How can you fix that?" Josiah touched the brown tweed sleeve. JD jerked away and gave him a glare of defiance that came from somewhere most people wouldn't guess existed within the gentle soul. It filled the preacher with regret. "Then you turned on Buck 'cuz he knows how to be a friend and stood up to you and Chris both. Both of them ... Ezra and Buck ... they know ... knew ..."
JD stopped himself with the realization of what they may have lost that day. The young man staggered back, his eyes blinking wildly as he searched the ground for something to focus on. It was like another boy, not the angry one but their own, familiar JD stood before them. There were two boys in that body, fighting to see which one would grow up.
"Josiah?" The voice sounded small now. It no longer held the angry ring of a Chris Larabee. It didn't reflect any of his friends or what he'd learned from them. He sounded lost and alone.
"What you said about anger? Why does it have to hurt so bad? Is that why Buck and Ezra let people get mad and don't say nothin' back? They don't want to cause that hurt?"
"I'm so sorry, son." It sounded hollow. But Josiah had no answer. They may have lost the chance to ever have the answer. The young one nodded as if he hadn't expected any more from these men any longer, and walked slowly back to his friend's horse.
Josiah turned to Nathan, "He didn't mean ..."
"He's right, Josiah." Nathan didn't want someone to make excuses for him.
"No one knew all this could happen."
"But I sure as hell have to live with it now, don't I?" The preacher opened his mouth to speak. Nathan held up a hand to silence him. "I'm thinkin' I don't deserve any different." He too turned his back on the other peacekeepers and went to set vigil over his patient.
Vin Tanner watched in silence. To him anything that might be said would be too much and not enough. Nathan was being subjected to his raw feelings for his friends. The layers of prejudice and his past were stripped away and he remembered only the true sense of comradeship, of shared danger, shared accomplishment that couldn't be put into words. Now, was it too late?
Josiah seemed resigned to everything. If the tracker had thought to be angry, he would have directed his anger at that one. He had shown no hope from the beginning, insulating himself from this moment. But then the anger faded. Vin Tanner himself had held much the same attitude until the last three years gradually changed him. He felt sorry for Sanchez that he seemed beyond being able to learn to hope again.
And JD? Hope personified, innocence lost. There were two spirits struggling for that one right now. Chris and Buck. Two widely different life choices. For the one moment Vin had feared Chris's influence was greater as the boy unleashed his feelings of loss on the healer. But maybe a part of Buck had stopped him. It was certainly Buck's influence that had him seeking comfort by tending another living thing to distract him from his own hurt. Vin watched the boy stroke the mare, check the boot he'd made to help her heal. There was a struggle in that boy that would continue for some time.
Vin shut down when his mind started to touch on his own emotions. Live for the day, Tanner. All things, all events, are a part of the cycle of life. Stay in the moment, not how it effects the future. He looked up at the wide, wild sky and open range. In the past they had offered a sense of freedom. Now they made him feel so very small and alone.
He scanned the horizon again with a lost look in his eyes. At first it was just a movement. Down there, by the water. The tracker had insisted that they camp on the first high rise above the water source. It took away the easy proximity of the water, but gave them the high ground and a view of all around them. It was a precaution instilled in him by years of living with the People.
Vin straightened from where he'd been leaning against his horse and lifted his hat brim. His eyes focused like a terrier ready to go after a rat. There it was again. Movement. A sole rider pulled his big red gelding up to the water. Tanner barely took his eyes from the man as he mounted his own black.
Josiah, then Nathan and finally JD noticed the focus and determination that fairly thrummed through the tracker. "Stay here." It was an order. And he took off down the slope.
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