Maintain To The Last

by Kris

Disclaimer: They own them, I don't, I repeat this to myself daily. The story is just for entertainment, I want no profit from this story. Kristen created the name Chaucer for Ezra's horse, and frankly I can't think of him any other way.

Vin threw the reins over the horse's head, ground tying him as he quickly dismounted. He pulled his carbine right along with him as he stomped over to the saloon doors and pointed it at the burly sheriff. "Release that man."

The sheriff shook his head no, as he replied, "This here man is wanted in Fort Laramie, he jumped bail."

"You're mistaken, this man has integrity, and is a loyal friend. You have him confused with some one else. He is one of the lawkeepers in a town west of here. I won't ask again, and I don't take kindly to those that hurt my family, they don't live to tell the tale." Vin's expression was fierce for the usual low key tracker.

Ezra Standish had to work hard to keep his expression under control. The words his compatriot used almost shocked him into displaying some emotion on a face that usually wore none. He extended his hands, waiting for the cuffs to be removed.

The sheriff only looked at Vin for a second or two before he decided that this man would do exactly what he said. He leaned forward and unlocked the cuffs entrapping Ezra's hands. Ezra rubbed them a bit, more for effect than through discomfort.

Vin was surprised that the usually talkative conman had said nothing yet. Vin just hoped that his luck would hold, and that the gambler would continue to keep his mouth shut. "Let's get."

Ezra followed Vin as he headed for the horses. Vin grabbed the reins of his horse, a borrowed one until his was reshod. They continued on to the stable to retrieve Chaucer. Ezra paid the stable fee, mounted and followed Vin out of town.

They brought their horses to a walk after they had put several miles behind them. Vin turned his head slightly as he asked casually, "Why didn't you jus show 'em yer pardon?"

"I would hardly carry it on my person, to be pilfered or appropriated. I keep it in a safeguarded place. I was also under the impression that Judge Travis would clear it from the books."

Vin raised his eyes, but didn't say anything. They rode on at a slower pace, giving the horses a rest. A companionable silence. The sound of the hawks cry startled both men from their contemplation.

Ezra was still thinking about what Vin could possibly need that would bring him all this way to extricate him. "Is there some problem you were needing assistance with Mr. Tanner?"

"No, Ezra." Vin smiled to himself.

Ezra fell silent again. He didn't notice the reds in the late afternoon sky, didn't note the gentle breeze that captured Vin's attention. He still couldn't work out why Vin was here. He rode on, ignoring most of the happenings about him. But Ezra never quite blocked everything out, his antennae for self preservation were always on alert.

They watered their horses at a stream crossing, Vin filled two canteens and handed one to Ezra. Ezra nodded his thanks and they both mounted their horses. They headed the horses across the stream and up the embankment.

As Vin was adjusting his bedroll, Ezra asked, "how did you come to be here, Mr. Tanner?"

Vin paused and looked at Ezra, "After yer ma left you didn't look none to happy, and Yosemite needed more time with my horse. So, I figured I could use a long ride, anyway, someone needs to watch yer back."

"Thank you Mr. Tanner." Ezra looked at Vin, the expression was neutral, but in his eyes, Vin could see that the thanks was sincere.

They continued to walk the horses up the incline and Vin was able to watch Ezra out of the corner of his eye. He was surprised by the different emotions that played across his face when he thought no one was looking. Ezra seemed to doubt the simplicity of Vin's motivation.

"Ezra, we work together, we cover each others backs. You would for me, or for any of the others. Why not for you?"

"Mr. Tanner, ….." Ezra paused, searching for words.

"After what you did for that China girl, I reckoned you were a whole lot nicer than you let on.." Vin said softly, but clearly.

"You've obviously confused me with someone else." Ezra spoke looking directly ahead, not at Vin. He didn't want to read the truth of that in Vin's eyes.

Vin surprised him, "No Ezra, I haven't. I know you ain't comfortable with compliments, but I jus didn't want you to think I lied back there, talking to the sheriff."

It was few and far between when words failed Ezra, but he was having such a moment now. He was not accustomed to people caring, let alone caring enough to watch his back without an ulterior motive. Ezra just didn't know what to say in response to Vin's comment. Instead he lagged his horse behind, and continued thinking on a possible reason that Vin was out here.

Vin smiled to himself, he couldn't wait to tell Chris that he knew the way to get Ezra speechless. Compliment him. What a hoot. Buck was gonna love it too. Vin continued smiling as the breeze stirred his hair gently as he rode. He turned his head back towards Ezra and silently pointed out the bear easily lopping up an adjacent hill. Out of the corner of his eye, Vin caught movement. He reined in his horse, but not fast enough to avoid scaring the rattlesnake in the pathway. Vin's horse reared and misstepped his footing, causing him to falter and stumbled off the narrow trail and plunge into the gorge below.

Ezra watched as the horse reared, flinging Vin off and away from him. The horse fell below and Vin was to follow. Without even realizing what he was doing, Ezra leaped off Chaucer and grabbed for Vin's arm, before Vin too, fell to his death. Ezra's stomach and thighs thudded as they hit the ground, while his arm was nearly yanked from its socket as Vin reached for Ezra's extended hand. Vin hit the rock wall with the full force of his body, and the wind was knocked out of him, but he didn't let go of Ezra's hand. Ezra dug his toes in, as not to be pulled over. He held onto Vin's arm with every fiber of his being.

Ezra called out, "Vin, Vin are you with me?" He received no response, so he called out again, louder, "Vin. Vin." Still receiving no response, Ezra wanted to look over the edge, to check on Vin. He slid and wiggled his body toward a small stump protruding out of the ground. He hooked his knee around the stump, then leaned over the edge to check on Vin.

Vin's head rested limply against his shoulder, his legs appeared to be tangled among branches protruding from the canyon wall. Ezra was unable to pull him up with just the one arm, and he was afraid that if he shifted his body to use his other arm, he would be pulled over.

Ezra looked over his shoulder, called to Chaucer and the horse approached his companion. Ezra spoke to his horse, "Chaucer, go home. Go Home. Now," the last word was said with more urgency. Whether the horse responded to the words or the urgency of his voice, Ezra didn't know, but the horse snorted and turned to the direction of Four Corners and left at a canter.

A tug on his arm brought his attention back to Vin, "Vin," Ezra called out loudly. He was rewarded with a grunt, and at that moment, Ezra was elated with that simple sound. Ezra put his head over the side again, and looked down upon Vin. "Vin? Are you with me?"

"Ezra," Vin said the name softly, not wanting to expand his chest cause of the pain. "Don't let go.."

"I will hold on, no matter how long, rest assured Vin." The sincerity in Ezra's voice was unmistakable.

"…Think I broke my ribs, har….hard to breathe………think I'm stuck." Vin rasped while trying to get his breath. "Ezra?"

"I'm here…."

"Ez……I didn't lie." Vin slumped and Ezra felt him go slack. "Vin, Vin," Ezra said urgently, but no response was forthcoming from him. Ezra tightened his grip on Vin's arm, curling his knee more tightly around the stump. Ezra knew that his arm would eventually cramp, but no matter, he would continue to hold onto Vin. Ezra figured that he has been trapped in many tight and difficult situations, having to endure many uncomfortable positions to extricate his own hide. Well, now, he had someone special to save, someone worth enduring excoriating pain for, a friend.

Friend, when did he allow Vin in, to become a friend. For that matter, six friends. When had he dropped his guard, allowing himself to know someone well enough, that he would actually care what happens to them over his own well being. Ezra nearly lost his hold on Vin with the shock of what his thoughts reveled.

Oddly, enough, he did not believe that he deserved their friendship in return. He was not a trustworthy fellow. Actually, he knew that Larabee didn't think him friend, possibly trusted him in a fight, to watch his back, but not a friend. Larabee had given him a second chance, but it was to his own benefit and not due to some personal belief in himself. He also believed that Larabee would kill him if he let Tanner die, so it would behoove him to keep him alive.

But another honest truth stared back at him, he wanted to save Vin because he actually cared about the man. He could hear his mother now, "Ezra, how could you? Didn't I teach you better?" She did teach him, just not all she thought she did. She had taught him that without any real friends, one's life was truly alone. Here he was, probably for the first time, wanting to achieve that friendship, just not knowing how. Now, that would make his mother laugh.

Vin stirred so Ezra called down to him, "Mr. Tanner, have you returned?"

His faint voice returned, "Liked it better when you called me Vin."

Ezra was glad the Vin could not see him, not witness the stain of pleasure that crossed his cheeks at his words. Giving nothing away, Ezra said, "As you wish, Vin. How are you fairing?"

A little chuckle could be heard, "It's scaring me that I can actually understand your questions. Hurts to take a deep breath, otherwise can't complain."

Vin smiled as he heard Ezra's robust laughter float down from above. "Thank you, I needed that,….Vin. I apologize that I am unable at the moment to hand down a blanket for you, I fear that we will be spending the night in these positions."

Vin couldn't believe that Ezra was apologizing, "hell, Ezra, I wouldn't be here if it weren't for you."

Ezra interrupted the words differently than Vin intended, "Yes sir, I am aware that but for me, you would of never been here to have your life put in such danger. Again, I must ask your forgiveness."

"Dammit, Ezra,…" Vin paused as he began to cough, but he battled himself to continue. "Ezra, I meant you saved my life here today. And you will be just as cold as me, or maybe more. See Ezra, I was right, you are loyal." Vin coughed some more, hurting his ribs and groans followed his coughs. Vin struggled to stay awake, but the severe pain forced him into unconsciousness.

Ezra felt Vin slip into unconsciousness and tightened his hold on Vin's arm. His thoughts again turned to Vin's words, loyal, claiming that he saw Ezra as such. Vin was wrong, of course, but until Vin came to, Ezra figured he could enjoy the description for a short time.

As the night progressed, the air got colder, but Ezra still had to struggle to stay awake. He even resorted to biting the inside of his cheek to keep alert. The night advanced, increasing the pain and discomfort in Ezra's arm. Ezra was glad of it, for it would be hard to fall asleep now. To ignore the ache, he refocused his thoughts to the enigma of Vin. In some ways they were so similar, and other worlds apart. Vin's voice had seemed wistful on occasion, when speaking of mothers. Ezra laughed, if only Vin knew how much he envied him. He only had good memories of his ma, whereas, Ezra had memories of broken promises, and countless holidays spent with people who hadn't really wanted him.

Since his move to Four Corners, she has visited him more than in a decade past. Ezra shook his head, if she ever guessed that he enjoyed winning honestly, she'd probably disown him. He smiled ruefully at himself. He couldn't believe where his errant thoughts were taking him. Obviously, he was becoming delusional with worry.

Ezra stretched his neck to look over the edge at Vin, his arm was quite numb and he wanted to be sure that the tracker was hanging in there. Ezra chuckled aloud at his own thoughts.

"What's so dang funny up there?" The voice floated up.

Ezra just chuckled harder, then made an attempt to explain. "I wanted to check on you, make sure you were still hanging in there." Ezra started laughing again.

"Doesn't sound all that funny to me, Ezra." Vin complained, but there wasn't much sting in his voice.

Before Ezra could comment, horses running towards them could be heard. Ezra said instead, "I believe the cavalry has arrived."

Buck and Chris were in the lead, but Chris was off his horse first, "Where's Vin?"

Ezra knew it wasn't the most appropriate comment, but he couldn't help himself, "He's just hanging around, Mr. Larabee."

Buck chuckled too, "Dang Ezra, I knew ya had a sense of humor."

Josiah and Chris were leaning over the canyon edge as Buck and JD held onto their legs, just in case. They relieved Ezra of his burden and Nathan started checking Ezra, massaging his arm after he threw a blanket over his shoulders.

Vin groaned in pain as he was hauled up, Chris and Josiah laid him carefully on the ground and Nathan went to his side to check him out. "Broke a coupla ribs, but you'll live." The group sigh of relief was audible to all.

The dawn was just about to break, which made it easier to fashion a litter to transport Vin back. Vin asked, "How you'd all know to look for us and where?" Real puzzlement colored his voice.

"Josiah looked at Ezra before he answered, but Ezra was looking down. "Chaucer came into town without Ezra, and we all know how he feels about that horse, so we figured you guys were injured. He must run all the way, but he seemed so anxious that we took out right after him and followed him back here. Damm fine horse you have there, Ezra." Josiah directed his last comment to Ezra.

Ezra looked up and wore his crooked smile and nodded, "Indeed I do Josiah, indeed I do."

Vin caught Ezra's eye and said, "Thanks Ezra." But his eyes carried the real message for Ezra, thanks friend.

Ezra meet Vin's look and nodded slightly, acknowledging the message, but said aloud, "All in a day's work, Mr. Tanner. All in a day's work.


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Authors Note: Hi. Vin's borrowed horse fell into the gorge, but it just so happened that he fell into the deepest part, so he survived and floated down river. He's retired and is living happily in Florida.