In the Year AU
"Train's been derailed," JD Dunne exclaimed excitedly as he raced into the Saloon's restaurant where the other six men were eating their breakfast.
Flower and Heather tangled around his legs trying to calm the excited teen.
JD unconsciously patted Ezra Standish's big cats on their heads as he made his way to the table.
"Where'd it happen?" Chris Larabee, unofficial leader, asked as he began to quickly finish his breakfast.
"Other side of 3C, in that canyon, umm Prospector Canyon. The engine is alright but the cars went off, some into the stream."
Josiah Sanchez asked, "Anyone hurt?"
"There was a car with some passengers; I couldn't hear if there'd been any deaths, radio was breaking up."
Vin Tanner finished his coffee as he stood up with Buck Wilmington beside him. "I'll get the horses ready. It'll take us a good six or more hours to get there, best see if you can get more information," he said.
"I'll do that. JD you help Vin with the horses," Buck said. At the look from Chris he smiled, "I have a way with radios, sometimes."
At Chris' nod he rushed out the door with JD and Vin on his heels.
"Ezra, can you get us some food provisions? Nathan, Josiah, medical supplies?"
"On it Chris," Nathan Jackson answered as he rose with Josiah at his side.
Within minutes of receiving the message the seven men had left the restaurant and were gathering together things they needed. Chris headed to the jail to get the weapons they would need. While Buck worked on the radio, Chris collected the rifles and ammunition. He laid out extra charged battery packs for the blasters.
As he finished, Chris heard the crackle of the radio and then Buck calling to 3C for more information.
The reply was one death and several injuries. The passengers were robbed at gun point after the crash happened. Buck told them help was on the way, though it would be several hours. The radioman replied that any help would be appreciated, there were others coming to help but peacekeepers would be
needed to look for the bandits. A camp was being set up near the wreck.
Chris glanced out the window as Buck finished; Vin was riding towards the jail, three horned horses on leads behind him. JD followed him leading the other two. Chris went out to meet them.
"Yosemite will keep an eye on things," Vin said as he dismounted and took a rifle and ammo from
Chris. As he helped Chris attach rifle scabbards to the saddled horses, JD left to help Ezra with the supplies.
The horned horses' were showing their excitement in various ways; Peso was growling and pawing the ground. Pony like several others chomped at his bit and tossed his head. Tails were swishing and heads nodding as the horses' bits jingled. Even though the big horses were excited they took extreme care not to hurt each other or their beloved riders. The saddlebags and packs were loaded, they were ready to travel.
Nathan and Josiah had quickly gathered medical supplies from the clinic; Nathan attached the large bag to his saddle.
Finally, twenty minutes after Buck's radio contact the seven mounted their anxious horned horses' and thundered out of town, leaving Yosemite, Mary Travis and Rain Jackson in charge.
Five hours later they by-passed the small town of 3C that lay to the northeast of 4C, heading directly towards Prospector Canyon.
As they approached the canyon, Vin signaled for them to slow down and he began to look for signs of horses' in the area, though they were still several miles from the site of the accident.
The day had turned chilly and grey, orange colored clouds were building in the east, bringing the promise of rain to the dry land soon. Vin knew he needed to find the trail the robbers left before the rain fell. Riding left then right of the train tracks he looked for signs of hoof prints in the grass.
There was only three ways out of the canyon, Vin didn't think most men would take the trail up the side of the canyon unless desperate. He found no tracks that would indicate anyone leaving in a hurry. Casting his eyes towards the mouth of the canyon he tried to picture where a train could be stopped.
The canyon was about three miles long with a stream hugging one side. A high cliff on the north had stunted trees growing from cracks. The rock face went up straight then curved to the north, a long box canyon opened up through a wide slash in the rocks. On the other side of the canyon's mouth the cliffs twisted and turned as it followed the stream at the foot of them. After its contorted path it finally turned due north for a quarter of a mile then after a horseshoe curve to the west it turned east and flattened out.
The south side of the canyon stood 200 to 300 feet from the north cliffs, the ground was flat enough for the train to work its way through, hugging along the side the stream. Some trees grew along the stream bed though a fire had gone through the canyon and destroyed most of them sometime before. The south side rose up like giant steps to the top of the 1000 foot cliff. There was a twisted trail that went up the side to the first two flat areas that looked like steps then from there it made its way to the top. The ground on the top was rugged for miles in all directions. Vin shook his head, he could follow a track up there but it would be hard if there was a lot of brush and old grass. After a ways, the ground rose to over 5,000 feet, he could see the mountains in the distance.
Signaling the others to him, Vin led the six riders into the end of the canyon. The seven rode for several minutes before they spotted the train engine on the tracks, then wagons and people going back and forth to the stream on the right side of the train. The injured were sitting under a few trees along the stream and Nathan and Josiah went directly to them. The others continued on to the wrecked cars that were swarming with men moving supplies from the cars to the wagons.
Chris and Vin found the man in charge and talked to him. They found out that the engine and two cars had gotten beyond a point before the explosion derailed the remaining cars with the last two going into the stream. The passenger car was half in the stream when men had ridden up before anyone could get out. The passengers called for help, only to find guns and blasters pointed at them. While one bandit held the engineer at gun point the others robbed the travelers, killing the man who'd tried to resist them. They were informed that the dead man was a peacekeeper heading for the Western Coastal Region.
It took an hour before help arrived. A couple cared for the injured as best as they could, while a team started to quickly unload crates filled with food and perishables stacking them on dry ground. As more men arrived with transportation the supplies were loaded into wagons. Since everything was for the towns along the train route no one wanted the food damaged to where it wasn't useable.
More wagons and men arrived while the three men were talking. Chris met with the new arrivals, knowing two of the men were peacekeepers from 1C. Chris signaled Vin and sent him back along the tracks to see if he could find anything in regards to the robbers.
It was late afternoon when Vin returned with more men and wagons. Chris seeing Vin riding towards him went to meet him and spotted Joe Banks, the head peacekeeper from 2C heading his way.
Vin and Peso halted in front of Chris as Joe stepped to Chris' side. Dismounting he spoke.
"They came from the other end of the canyon, but didn't leave that way," Vin's blue gaze was going over the rocky cliff near them. "There's one trail up through the rocks. I'll check it out, but I have a feeling that's the way they went."
"Any idea how many?" Joe asked.
Never taking his gaze from the rocky terrain, Vin replied, "Seven horses, though two moved lighter, maybe a third. Too many tracks here now to tell anything."
"Well we know what they did. Killed a man, robbed and injured a bunch of people, and " Joe's voice trailed off as he looked at the derailed train cars.
Vin shuffled his feet in the fine gravel and with a look at Chris said, "I'll check out the rock trail and see if I can pick up their trail above. Lot of places to hide up there. Only other way up is almost a six hour ride from here."
"You're not going alone Vin." Chris stated, his gaze traveling over the men working close to where they stood. He spotted Ezra putting a box into a wagon and called out to him.
Ezra hurried over to the three men. "You require me Mr. Larabee?"
Chris nodded. "Ezra, you're going with Vin, get your horse."
"I'll be delighted to go with Mr. Tanner. Where are we going? I have a radio to keep in touch with you also." Ezra replied, looking at Chris then Vin.
Vin pointed at the rocky cliff a little way from them. Ezra's green eyed gaze lifted to the rocks and he blinked and looked at Vin. At Vin's nod he shrugged his shoulders and turned to where the horses' were waiting.
"Keep in contact with us if you can. Radio 3C if you can't reach us and have them pass the message to us," Chris told Vin as they waited for Ezra to return.
"We will Chris. Might take us a day or two to report in, don't expect us back for several days. We've got supplies, there are some old ranch ruins, and it'll take time to check them out. Be a couple of days though." Vin replied as he looked up at the sky a slight shiver went through him. He turned to Chris and Joe.
"Get done as fast as you can. Storm's coming, might last a couple of days. Lightning too, it won't be good to be in this canyon." Vin said as he checked Peso's cinch.
Joe looked at the sky then at Chris and Vin as the two men gazed at each other for a moment before both men nodded their heads and Vin turned to his black horned horse. Joe wondered a moment about the look the two men had exchanged, as if they were brothers, he thought Larabee didn't have family. With a shrug he watched as the long haired young man mounted his horse and turned it towards the other man coming their way on a bright colored bay horse.
Ezra halted his horned horse beside Vin and then with a nod to Chris he followed Vin's lead towards the wall of the canyon and the hidden trail that lay somewhere in the rocks.
It wasn't long before Vin found the deer trail up through the rocky steps that sat against the foot of the south cliff. Disturbed dirt showed them someone had used it recently. Ezra radioed Chris and told him they had found the robbers trail and were going up. Then he concentrated on the narrow and steep trail his horse was maneuvering.
The trail snaked back and forth through the rocks and across small grassy patches where they could see deer tracks intermingled with horse tracks. As they went higher the view of the canyon became clearer and they could see the hard working people. Reaching the top of the cliff all they could see of the rescue were a couple of loaded wagons heading towards 3C
Pausing at the top Vin stepped off Peso and looked closer at the ground while Ezra radioed Chris to let him know they'd made it safely up the cliffs. The sun was almost down and darkness only an hour away when Vin mounted and set off. Ezra followed a few steps behind and to the left of Vin, giving Vin room to maneuver over the area without him interfering with any tracks or sign. He thought he could see a few tracks but he had no idea if they were fresh. He was happy that Vin knew what he was doing, he didn't have the ability to track.
As they rode the trail climbed higher, and minutes later they stopped on a small hilltop that faced a long wide valley with hills on each side. Ahead of them, several miles away, was a high rocky ridge with higher steep hills beyond; all shaded by a towering peak. The valley floor was lifeless. Dead grass and weeds mixed with sagebrush that reached above the horses backs. They spotted some burned out buildings before they dropped off the slight incline. Ahead a deep dry creek bed twisted and turned through the valley, by the looks of it, no water had flowed in it for some time as brush was growing in parts of it. Beside the creek bed was what could have been meadows years ago, as the sagebrush wasn't as tall in that area for some distance.
Vin looked around, the sun had disappeared and soon it would be totally dark, they needed a place for the night. He tried to remember the ruins scattered throughout the valley, it was a long time since he'd been in the area. He knew there usually were some wolves around and he didn't want to have to fight them, as the noise of gunfire would carry in the valley and he didn't want the men they were tracking to know they were behind them.
Peso pulled at the bit and shook his head; his grumble was echoed by the bay horse beside him. Chaucer was as tired as Peso was and they both wanted food and water.
Vin finally saw what he was looking for, the old rock and timber barn built into the side of a low hill. He turned Peso towards the building and with Ezra beside them they headed for the shelter just as the sky lit up with a flash of lightning announcing that the storm had reached them. Deep darkness fell as they reached the old barn. Vin dismounted and with the next flash of lightning brightening the sky found the door and pulled it open, they quickly led the willing horses inside. Within minutes Vin had found the pitch and weed torch that hung near the door and lit it, illuminating the inside as thunder crashed and the sky opened up with rain.
Ezra shivered as he pulled the door closed behind Chaucer. It was a lot colder since night had fallen and he was happy they were inside. He helped Vin gather some chunks of old wood that were scattered around. Within a short time a fire had been built and they were unsaddling the horses. They turned the horses lose and with the torch Vin moved around the barn, checking that it was secure.
In one corner, the part of the barn that was buried in the hillside, a trough was placed and a slow stream of water flowed from the rocks into it. A pipe from the trough carried excess water through the wall where it fell into another trough outside in what once was a corral before it overflowed making the immediate area green.
The horses' were fed with some of the grain they carried, and then the horses nibbled grass and weeds that someone had cut and stored in the corner away from the water.
Vin started a pot of coffee as Ezra pulled some food supplies from their saddlebags. Before long strips of bacon were frying and a pan of biscuits were cooking. Smoke from the campfire curled lazily around the dark roof before finding its outlet at the boarded up window near the door.
Ezra leaned back against his saddle as the food cooked and lightning and thunder crashed overhead. The rain pounded the roof of the barn, dripping onto the ground in a couple of places.
"How did you know of this place Mr. Tanner?" he asked listening to the storm around them.
"I came through a few years ago. There are two other ways into this valley, but I came over the mountains to the east. Checked out this valley and got stuck here when a storm came in. The rocks in the hills around here must have something in them; lightning was striking them with almost every flash. If it hadn't been raining this would have burned."
"Do you have any idea where the men we're following might have gone?"
For a minute Vin stared into the fire. "Well, they could be north or south, this valley runs east and west. I don't think they'd go east over the mountains," Vin shrugged. "But they might have."
"Will you be able to pick up tracks after this storm?"
Ezra served the food and they ate in silence, listening to the storm that seemed to be right over them.
"There's two old roads out of here, one hard to find the other one a little easier. The easy one isn't far from here, we'll check that one first." Vin poured the last of the coffee into their cups. "Might as well get some sleep. This barn's safe, and the horses will warn us if somthin's out there."
"I agree Mr. Tanner; it has been a long day. See you in the morning." Drinking the last of his coffee Ezra rolled into his blankets.
Outlaws and Train Wrecks
Vin led Peso out of the barn and as soon as Ezra and Chaucer were out he shoved the door closed. He didn't like the looks of the orange-grey sky; it was going to be a wet day. The dark grey clouds flew by overhead pushed by the wind that was brought in with the storm and hadn't left.
Ezra pushed his hat harder on his head and followed Vin who was angling across the fields heading for the hill across from them. In the odd light, the trees on the hill looked stark and threatening. Many trees were black and dead from a fire he figured, that had come through within the last few years.
When they reached a flat area, Ezra could see that it was the remains of an old dirt road. Vin rode along it slowly, his gaze shifting back and forth looking for any sign of horse's passing.
They followed the overgrown road, another field opened off to their right, into a shallow valley. Vin dismounted and walked along the opening a short distance before mounting and continuing. In a narrow cut between a steep hillside and a rock cliff, was a small lake that wasn't more than a half acre in width at the foot of the cliff. Brush and stunted trees surrounded it on three sides and once again Vin dismounted and walked around looking for a sign.
Ezra wondered how the young man could see anything in the wet. He couldn't see anything that could be a trail to him.
Vin straightened and smiled, he'd found a couple of horse tracks that the rain hadn't wiped out.
"They came this way Ez."
Ezra looked at him in disbelief, "Are you sure Mr. Tanner?"
"Yep. Three tracks here in the mud and grass. Looks like one horse almost got stuck in the mud. We're going the right way. Can you raise Chris and let him know?"
Eyeing the cliff and steep hillside around them, Ezra pulled the radio out and clicked it on. He didn't think he could reach anyone but would try. A loud burst of static sounded in the quiet cut and after one try he turned it off.
"As I thought, the cliffs are too close; we need to get into the open."
Vin, having mounted nodded and turned Peso back onto the overgrown road, they moved along at a faster pace. Ten minutes later they were out of the steep cut and riding between two hills. The road followed the curve of the left handed hill, the right side dropped off into a steep ravine. They saw that the side of the old road dropped off into the ravine in several places.
The road came out in another valley and the two riders stopped again. Vin began looking for tracks, to figure which way the robbers had gone. Ezra pulled the radio out and tried to call Chris and was surprised when Larabee's voice cut through the low static. He quickly filled Chris in as to where they were and when Vin pointed he let him know which way they were heading next.
When Vin mounted, Ezra ended the call and followed his friend as he wondered where the trail was leading them. They were heading slightly southwest on the unkempt road. Rounding a hill they could see the road going towards an abrupt cut between the close lying hills. Below them a sluggish stream of water flowed from another cut along the foot of the hills. They made their way carefully down to the water and paused long enough for them all to drink. Once done they climbed the steep slope back up to the road.
It was easy to see the tracks of the riders they were following on the road this time. It seemed not to have rained in this area. The tracks led into the cut.
Halting Peso, Vin gazed into the opening. The two hills came together; the right side was rocky cliffs. The left was not quite as rocky or steep, though the hillside dropped off into the cut. He had a bad feeling and the hair on his neck was standing up.
Peso was pawing the ground, head held high as he scented the breeze. With a growl he shook his horned head; he could smell horses' ahead of them now. Chaucer stood quietly beside Peso and gazed towards the opening, his nostrils flared.
Pulling his blaster, Vin saw Ezra do the same. With a nod he eased Peso ahead, into a slow walk. They entered the cut cautiously, Ezra staying to Vin's left and back a little ways, giving him room to fight if need be.
They stayed on the road that snaked through the narrow canyon. The right side of the crumbling road dropped off into rocks and broken trees. The other side was a steeply cut bank, the road having been cut through and into the hill that loomed over them covered with brush, sagebrush and spindly trees. Vin kept Peso to a walk as he looked over everything he could see ahead of them. Rounding a curve he halted the black as he glanced all around the area. Not seeing anything he let the horse move forward. The wind had come up and was blowing from behind them, covering any sound ahead of the riders.
Vigilantly they worked their way through the canyon and a while later they could see the end of it. The cut opened to a long abandoned crumbling farm house and buildings on the right that sat overlooking a wide valley with a dry riverbed cutting through it. Another house with a dilapidated barn was tucked into a small opening on their left; the road they were on went straight down the side of the hill to the valley floor. From their vantage point they couldn't see any sign of the men they were following, though the tracks led on down the hill. Vin looked around, still the bad feeling hung onto him.
Before starting down the hill Ezra made a short call to fill in Chris and then they started down the hill. Vin turned his gaze to the ground to study the tracks, to see if any turned off to one side or the other.
Peso, very alert suddenly roared a loud challenge and was instantly answered just as blaster bolts and bullets began to fly around the two riders.
Vin twisted around in his saddle and fired where he saw a blaster flash. Something struck him in his back near his left shoulder and his arm instantly went numb, reins dropping from nerveless fingers. Something slammed into Vin's head and he fell, senseless to the ground at the same time that Peso lunged forward as a blaster sounded close to his ear
Ezra pulled Chaucer to the side so he could protect Vin when he saw him fall. He was able to get several shots off before a searing pain went across the left side of his head and dropped him from his horse's back.
Peso and Chaucer raced down the hill amongst the noise and gun and blaster shots at them,
leaving Vin and Ezra lying on the road. Three riders came from the hillside they'd been hiding on, converging on the downed men.
Vin felt the ground shake as the riders rode up and struggled to get his legs under him and stand. He made it to his knees and glancing around saw Ezra lying nearby, his face covered with blood. With an effort he lifted his right arm, blaster in hand as horse legs moved around him.
A laugh sounded from behind him and Vin tried to raise his arm and blaster higher so he could fire it. His head throbbed and he was still unable to move his left arm.
"Send a boy to do a man's work. Really stupid," a voice said followed by a cruel laugh.
Again Vin tried to lift his gun higher and his head, squinting as the orangeish-grey light hit him in his face. 'I'll show'em who the boy is,' he thought. His arm finally listened to his head and came up, he tightened his fingers on the blaster but a moment before he could pull the trigger someone hit him on the back of his head and a blanket of blackness dropped over him. His instantaneous thought as he crumbled to the ground was, 'Sorry Chris.'
"What do you want to do with him Gus?" The man standing on the ground behind Vin asked.
"He looks familiar. Take'm; maybe we'll get some money for him. What about the other guy?"
The man nudged Ezra with his foot but got no response, looking at the blood that covered his face he turned away.
"He's dead, or will be in minutes. Bullet's in his head."
"Leave him, wolf bait. Get the youngster on a horse and let's move. We still have a ways to go," Gus told the man as he holstered his gun and gathered his reins, his dark gaze on the road where the two men's horses' had disappeared. "We'll pick up their horses when we get down the road. They should bring some money when we sell them."
"Here Brad, take him," the man on the ground had picked Vin up and handed him to the third man who laid him across his saddle.
"Damn, why do I always have to have blood on my saddle?"
"Quit bitching Brad. Chuck get Andy's horse and the others, we need to get out of here," Gus ordered and watched as the man on the ground walked to the black and white horned horse that stood beside the man Vin's shot had killed. Three other horses' stood beside the pinto their leads tied to the pinto's saddle. Chuck gathered the pinto's reins and led him with the others to his horse and mounted. Leading the pinto he followed the other men down the old road.
Ezra heard the hoof beats move away from him and slowly turned his head and opened his eyes. He saw the riders and horses' heading down the hill and watched their progress while he stayed where he was, gathering his strength and fighting the massive headache that was drumming in his head.
Blinking his eyes Ezra saw one rider turn off the road and go up the hill, and then gunshots and yelling rang out. The man reappeared, his arms gesturing in anger, yelling something that he couldn't make out before riding back to the others then they all continued on their way. For a moment he wondered what the rider had been doing, he closed his eyes a minute, he couldn't think through the headache.
As soon as the men were out of sight Ezra pushed himself to a sitting position and sat with his head down. He wasn't sure how long he sat there fighting the nausea that rolled through him, his head felt as if it was cracked open. Finally he fumbled in his pocket and pulled his handkerchief out and wiped his face. Gently he probed the wound that was across his forehead just below the hairline above his left eye. The graze felt about two inches long but the bleeding had slowed.
Wiping his face again to clean as much blood from it as he could, Ezra then tied the cloth around his head over the wound. After several minutes he slowly rose and spotting Vin's guns on the ground he picked them up, he tucked the blaster in his belt but carried the old mare's leg in his hand. With a glance around, he ignored the dead man and started to walk down the road after the riders.
Ezra covered almost 100 feet when he heard a grumble from a horse and stopped. Moments later Chaucer emerged from the brush on the hillside and clamored down to the road. Ezra smiled and whistled to the big bay horse.
Swinging his horned head, Chaucer roared a low greeting and trotted to his man. As Ezra greeted the horse and fished a little treat out of his pocket for him. Another crashing in the brush was heard and Ezra watched, knowing if it was something other than Peso, Chaucer would have turned to fight.
Peso jumped off the bank and walked to Ezra and Chaucer, his head turning, nostrils wide as he scented the area looking for his rider. The large horned horse walked back to where they'd been ambushed, his nose a foot above the ground as he walked, his long black tail swished in anger.
Ezra watched the big black as he sniffed the ground where Vin had been laying, a low roar came from him as he moved around the spot. When the horse got close to where he stood, Ezra grabbed the closest rein and pulled the horse away from his hunt. Peso grumbled loudly but obeyed, he raised his head and sniffed Ezra, then roared his displeasure as his dark eyes fixed on the road going down the hill.
"Hush Peso, I don't want them coming back and I have a headache. Now be good, I need to call Mr. Larabee and then we can leave." Ezra told the anxious black, feeding him a treat then tying him to his saddle. Taking the radio from his saddlebag, Ezra placed Vin's weapons into it then keyed the radio and called Chris as he eyed the sky. He could see rain moving into the area and hoped he'd be able to follow the bandits.
He told Chris where he was, which direction the riders had gone, and that he was following them. He clicked off before Chris could inform him to wait there for them to catch up. He hung the radio on his saddle and dug around until he found the roll of bandages that Nathan insisted they pack. With his canteen in hand he quickly washed his head wound after discarding the makeshift bandage. Digging out the salve he rubbed it over the graze then wrapped a piece of the bandage around his head. Tucking the items away he picked up his hat and placing it on his head he mounted and headed down the old road. Peso, satisfied they were going after his rider, followed quietly alongside.
Several miles ahead of Ezra the bandits slowed their mounts to a running walk. Brad heard a low moan come from the man draped over his saddle and before he could do or say anything the man groaned louder then began heaving.
Vin woke to pain and nausea, all he could see was brown hair and leather, his arms dangled below his head. His ribs ached and he realized he was lying over a saddle and it was a long ways to the ground that was passing dizzily below him. The nausea got worse and with a groan he felt his stomach rebel.
Barely feeling the horse under him come to a halt, Vin heaved the small amount of food left in his stomach. As he tried to stop he felt a tight grip on the back of his coat that pulled him hard over the saddle. His skull hit the saddle and fireworks erupted in his aching head. He felt himself falling and an instant later he hit the ground, his legs buckled as he landed heavily on the rock strewn ground.
Pain flared through his wounded shoulder and took his breath away. Vin rolled and barely managed to get a little upright before he was vomiting again. He could hear someone laughing as dry heaves overtook him.
Finally he edged away from the small mess and collapsed, pain taking its toll.
Vin heard footsteps as he lay where he'd landed. He ignored them as his mind worked through what was wrong with him. His back, near his left shoulder was a mass of fire and when he glanced at his arm he saw that blood had soaked his sleeve and it looked as if the blood had been dripping off his fingers. He could see no blood on the front of his shirt and coat and realized the bullet was still in his shoulder. Lifting his right hand he felt his head and found a lump on the back of it and a bloody graze at his hairline above his right eye. Before he could do anything he was grabbed by his shoulders and hauled up. A scream of pain escaped from his tightly closed lips as he was lifted, one hand was over the wound. Blackness slammed into him and he went limp in the man's hands.
"Well don't just stand there, get him mounted and let's go," Gus snarled at Bard and Chuck.
"I'm not having him over my saddle again. I just got it cleaned up," Brad stated surly.
"Then tie him on one of the other horses. I don't care, we need to get moving."
Brad and Chuck carried Vin to the black pinto and after growled words to each other, they sat him in the saddle. Chuck pulled a piece of rope from a pack and cut off several lengths, giving Brad one he then tied Vin's legs to the horned horse's saddle. Brad pulled Vin's hands together and tightly tied them to the saddle horn.
The pinto growled and pawed the ground not liking the scent of blood on this strange rider. Blowing loudly through his nose, he tossed his head and looked over his shoulder at the man slumped over his neck.
"Stop that," Brad shoved the horse's head around and gripping the pinto's reins mounted his horse. They followed after Gus with Chuck and the other horses trailing behind.
Rain began to fall. For the first hour it was a steady drizzle then it turned to harder rain and within minutes the damp men and horses were soaked.
Gus led his men to where the road ended at an old concrete bridge that was missing the middle section. It spanned a mostly dry riverbed, only a foot wide and inches deep creek moved sluggishly through it. The steep bank had a trail down to the creek and up the other side to a ghost town of falling down businesses and houses. None of the remaining buildings had roofs, and some were just skeletons of old wood or rocks. Nothing in the ruins could be used for shelter from the relentless rain that was coming down.
With barely a glance at the old town, Gus urged his horse down the bank and into the riverbed. He stopped long enough to let the horses' drink from the tiny creek then moved on, riding in the dry riverbed they turned south.
Vin roused when the horse stopped. He wished they'd stop so he could tend his wound, then groaned when the horse stepped out again. The way his head ached he was sure he had a concussion and needed to stay awake, or wake up often. He figured if he slept he might not awaken when he needed to. The way his head felt he didn't think he could stay conscious much longer; blood was still making its way down his arm. Vin could feel himself getting weaker and the bullet felt like it was grinding into bone with each of the horse's steps bringing flashes of black spots across his vision.
When they left the riverbed sometime later Vin was barely hanging onto consciousness. With the horses rough, pounding jumps up the trail agony shot across his back and through his shoulder. He collapsed on the horse's neck unconscious.
Brad, leading the horse laughed in the rain when he heard the strangled cry from their prisoner.
Outlaws and Train Wrecks
After they'd moved out of the riverbed, up a hill and across several miles of flat land, darkness fell on the dreary wet day as the trail led the robbers to the outskirts of another abandoned town.
The town sat above another mostly dry riverbed. A few small pools of water dotted the bed with steep trails winding back and forth down the two banks that were well over 50 feet high and rocky.
Gus led his men towards the heart of the dilapidated town where several of his men were waiting for them . They slowed when they neared the buildings that were still mostly intact. Several men stepped out of the dark shadows, guns drawn until they recognized the riders. They waited for the riders to halt their horses while greetings rang out in the wet night. Laughter sounded as the riders told the others about how easy it had been to derail the train and rob its passengers.
Vin was vaguely aware that the horse had stopped. Minutes later he was cut loose and dragged off the horse. His legs buckled but someone was holding him as he was hauled up a step and into a building. As he was pulled along he bit his lip to keep from crying out as the bullet ground against bone again.
The two men dropped Vin near a back corner and walked away. Firelight flickered from two fires lighting most of the interior, both were contained within stone and rock rings. Vin shivered as he curled up, trying to ease the pain shooting through him. He was soaked and the blood loss made him colder, a sudden sneeze then cough overtook him and he couldn't stop the groan of pain that escaped his lips.
A man stood over the wet prisoner and watched him writhe in pain until the coughing stopped. He could see fresh blood coloring the back of the man's soaked coat. He turned his head to the men who just walked into the building moving to the closest fire.
"Hey Gus, who's this guy? Want me to bandage him? He's bleeding," he asked.
Gus left the fire, walked over to the injured prisoner, nudged him with his foot and rolled him onto his back.
In the silence that fell over the gathered men, Vin could hear his own ragged breath and feel the heavy pound of his heart as he lay curled in a fetal position. He was vaguely aware of a man standing above him. He didn't see the man's foot before it connected with his side then pushed him over. Pain raced through him as he was forced onto his back. With a scream, he attempted to roll onto his side. His hand strained to reach the foot on his chest.
The man standing over him laughed. He held his foot heavily on Vin preventing him from moving. Staring at the writhing young man for a moment he grinned over the pain he was causing then looked at Rick.
"Yeah, bandage him up Rick. I need to find out who he is, he looks familiar. We could make money off him. Don't let him die." With a snicker Gus ground his booted foot into Vin's chest before he walked back to the fire.
Rick moved away to gather what he'd need. He called to another man to get him some hot water. Once he had his saddlebags he returned to Vin's side. It was too hard to see in the semi-dark corner, so
he dragged Vin to the closest fire and laid him on a blanket another man threw on the floor for him.
Vin groaned as rough hands began to pull his wet coat off and he struck out weakly with his right fist. His hand was grabbed and he was pulled to a sitting position as the man laughed.
"Hey Rick, looks like he doesn't want your help. Why not just let him bleed to death?"
"Shut up Jace. Just hold him up while I get him stripped down," Rick said as he worked Vin's coat off his shoulders and dropped it to one side. He began to work a shirt off and discovered the young man was wearing three, so pulled them over his head at once. He paused a moment when the long haired man's head fell forward onto his smooth chest, unconscious.
"Damn, bullets still in him, in his back."
"So? Dig it out," Jace replied.
"I'm not a doctor. I don't have anything to use to get it out with."
"Who cares? Use your knife."
For a moment Rick thought on that as he began to wipe the blood from Vin's back. His mind went over the knives some of the men carried and he shook his head.
"Lay him on his stomach Jace, then take his clothes and see if you can clean them."
Jace laid Vin down and turned him over. "Why do I need to clean his clothes? He's a prisoner, Gus doesn't care what condition he's in."
"Wolves, they can smell blood a long ways. Now just do what I said, and bring me another blanket before you leave."
Grumbling, Jace stood and went for a blanket that he dropped near Rick, grabbed the wet shirts and coat and walked out the door. A couple of snickers followed the man out as the outlaws relaxed around the larger campfire. They were glad they didn't have to do the cleaning.
With a sigh Rick continued to wash the blood off the young man's back then cleaned around the bullet hole as best as he could. In the firelight he picked out the threads and cloth he could see in the wound. Once it was as clean as he could get it, he poured a little whiskey over the wound, placed a pad of cloth over it and tightly wrapped a bandage around the slight body to hold the pad in place.
By the time he finished, the unconscious man was shaking. Rick grabbed a folded blanket from the nearby pile and covered his patient. He could tell that the young man had a fever, but he was more worried about the head wound. Rising he picked up the bucket of soiled water and dumped it out the nearest window. Refilling it from the large kettle of hot water beside the campfire he carried the bucket to the prisoner's side.
It didn't take Rick long to clean the head wound and place a small bandage over it. He found a lump on the back of the man's head and thought he possibly had a concussion. With a shrug he pulled the blanket around the still shaking body and went for some cold water.
As Rick placed a cool rag on Vin's head, Jace returned, a disgusted look on his face. Rick looked
up at the dirty, smelly, thin man.
"Here's his stuff. Best I could do with all the blood in them,' Jace almost threw the clothes at Rick, but changed his mind seeing the look on the man's face and handed them to him.
Rick took the shirts and coat, rose and walked to where a board stuck out of the wall and hung them over it to dry then returned to Vin's side.
Gus walked up and looked down at them, "How's he doing?"
Rick laid the cool rag over Vin's forehead before he answered. "Bullet's in his back near his shoulder blade, I can't get it out. Has a graze on his head and a lump on the back of it. Concussion I'd guess. Why is he here? We don't need him."
"Don't worry about that; just keep him alive for now. I've got some plans for him. We're pulling out tomorrow."
"Gus, he isn't in any condition to ride, he'll just slow us down. If you want him to live that means we need a doctor. This will fester and he'll end up with blood poisoning or something worse. He's already got a fever."
"There's no doctor around here, not sure where there is one. But we can't go into a town asking for one, you'll just have to do what you can."
Rick gazed at his cruel boss then glanced down at the wounded man. "There's a clinic and a doctor in the town of 4C."
Gus stared at Rick a moment. "How do you know?"
"Was through there about a year ago and seen it."
For several minutes Gus stood thinking as he stared at the flushed face of his prisoner. "I think 4C is to the west of us. Not sure it's worth the risk though."
"Thought you wanted him alive?"
With a shrug Gus looked at Rick. "Until I can find out more about him, where I've seen him and if there's a reward for him."
"How long will that take?"
"As if it's any of your business," snarled Gus in anger. "A few days. I'm looking through the mail we took, and as soon as we get back to our hideout I'll check what I have there. Now get to work," with that he stomped off.
Shaking his head Rick sat back down. "I'm not a damn nurse," he complained to the man's back.
"Mr. Larabee, I am cold and wet and out in this exposed godforsaken countryside praying that no canines are in the region. I have had a hellacious time following our young compatriot thus far. Are you coming? There are too many miscreants for me to take on unaccompanied to liberate Mr. Tanner. If he is still with us."
"Ezra, we are coming. We've found the dry riverbed and are on the north bank. How can we find you in the dark?"
Ezra sighed in relief at hearing Chris' voice. The day had been hell for him. He wasn't a tracker but following the tracks the robbers made hadn't been too bad, until the rain came. Once it started to come down the tracks disappeared under the pounding. When he reached the flat riverbed he debated what direction to go. It was then that Peso more or less took over. The big black's head went down, stretching the rein that was attached to Ezra's saddle and he realized the horse was sniffing the ground like a dog. With a low roar Peso began to move along the riverbed. With a glance to the sky, Ezra hoped that the rain wasn't enough to cause a flash flood; he was in a bad place if that happened. He looked around but the riverbed seemed to have only a narrow channel in it where water flowed when there was enough to bring it alive.
Realizing that he'd either have to turn the horse loose or ride him. Ezra pulled Peso to a stop and patting the arched neck slipped across onto his back. He turned Chaucer loose to follow. He let the black have his head knowing even in the rain the horned horse would be able to pick up the scent of the robbers for a time.
He held Peso down to a canter as they wove their way through the riverbed then up a bank onto another rocky level area. Ezra hoped the horse knew where he was going because he sure didn't know. When the wet, dark day started to turn into nightfall, he spotted the trail Peso was following and slowed the horse to a walk along the old, worn track. He saw horse tracks and breathed a sigh of relief; the rain hadn't wiped them out yet.
Peso grumbled when Ezra turned him up onto a hill. Ezra spotted several abandoned houses ahead and thought they were close to a town. His head was pounding and he didn't want to have to fight anyone in the dark, also, he had no idea who or how large a population might live in this town. He hoped it was just ruins, he couldn't remember anything about a town in this area from the conversation he and Vin had as they followed the outlaws. As dark fell, he found a rock wall on the top of a low hill and looked down towards the pale riverbed; he noticed several lights flickering in the darkness. He thought it had to be the buildings of the town and maybe the men had taken shelter in there. With such few lights he realized there couldn't be many people there.
"Ezra? Ezra, are you there?" Chris' voice called out from the radio.
"Sorry Mr. Larabee. I am here. I am north of the ruins of a town, above the riverbed. This rock wall seems to extend north. There is a rock bluff extending for quite a distance; I dare not build a fire. I will have to trust Chaucer and Peso to alert me when you get near. Your horses should sense us also. Stay close to the rolling hills not the riverbed."
"Will do. I'll call you when we get nearer," Chris replied.
Ezra leaned back against the wall and rested his pounding head against the cool wetness as his eyes drifted closed. He shivered and opened his eyes to Chaucer snuffling his face, blowing his warm breath across his face. With a smile Ezra patted the horse's nose and wished he'd brought a heavier coat. The rain had soaked through his slicker and provided no protection or warmth from the stormy weather. He settled in a small niche in the rocks and hoped the guys weren't that far away. He grinned as Chaucer moved in front of him, blocking some of the rain. Within minutes his head dropped to his chest and he slept.
Chaucer and Peso stood guard over the wet and exhausted man. Their ears and eyes were constantly moving, totally aware of everything around them. Peso suddenly snorted his head going as high as he could reach and turning back and forth. Chaucer's head also came up and he blew loudly through his nose.
The radio crackled loudly waking Ezra from his doze. Grabbing it out from under his slicker he keyed it on.
"I'm here, I'm here," he said blinking his eyes against the rain water dripping into his face.
"Ezra, we're near I think. Can you give us a light or something so we can find you?" Chris' voice asked as Ezra rose to his feet and glanced around.
He found that the rain was a drizzle now and though it was late at night some shapes could be seen in the darkness. Ezra looked down the hill towards the town but no lights or shadows could be seen. Carefully, he climbed to the top of the wall and peered around again. He could only make out the rock shapes closest to him.
Both horses head's turned to the south and they stood side by side in a guard stance.
"Mr. Larabee, I believe you are to the south of us, the horses are facing that way on alert. I can light a small flare to guide you to me. It will be fast, I do not want those below to see it. Just a moment."
Ezra turned his back to the town and pulled the box of matches from the small tin that protected them from the weather. He didn't have anything else dry to light and hoped the riders would see it when he lit them.
"Mr. Larabee, I am lighting all the matches I have, hopefully you will see them," and he struck a match against the tin and lit all of the matches at once.
For two minutes the flames lit the darkness around his hand and arm before they flickered and extinguished.
The radio came on, "Seen it Ezra, we'll be there shortly."
"I will be waiting." Ezra answered as he dumped the used matches and climbed down off the wall.
Chaucer nuzzled his shoulder but never took his gaze off something Ezra couldn't see in the dark.
"It's just our compatriots coming boys. You don't need to be upset. Stand down Chaucer, help is almost here." The big bay horse relaxed but still gazed into the darkness.
Peso was grumbling and Ezra patted his shoulder. "No Peso, its friends. Stand down boy. Come on it's alright," he told the horse hoping his grumble didn't get louder and felt Peso nuzzle his shoulder. He knew if Peso roared there was a chance of him being heard in the town. No one knew they were here and he wanted to keep it that way.
Both horses snorted and Peso's grumble got louder as he lifted his head as high as he could again. Ezra finally heard the clunk of hooves coming in his direction. Hand on his blaster he kept patting Peso, trying to keep him quiet.
A low rumble came from the darkness and Peso answered then dipped his head and relaxed. Ezra breathed a sigh of relief. Pony had calmed Peso and a few minutes later he could see the forms of horses and riders coming towards them.
Ezra relaxed as he leaned against Chaucer when the riders halted their horses. Chris and Buck were off their horses and at his side in a moment. Buck took one look at him and called out, "Nathan, Ezra needs to be checked out."
"I am fine Mr. Wilmington."
"You don't look it Ez. Let Nathan check you out." Chris told him as he moved away.
Nathan was there, his medical bag in his hand. "Is there somewhere we can go where I can get some light to see by?" He asked when he saw the bandage around Ezra's head.
"I " Ezra started, but was cut off by Chris' voice.
"Over here Nathan, this wall makes a turn. It should work."
Ezra looked past Nathan and Buck to where Chris could barely be seen standing about twenty five feet away.
"Didn't know that was there," Ezra said as Buck took his arm and helped him over to where Chris stood. He shook his head at what Chris had found and wondered how he could have missed it. He then noticed that the wall made a ninety degree turn and went for twenty five feet or more before straightening out and continuing its march up the hill. He wondered what was on the other side of the wall to have caused it to be built with the corners.
Within minutes a small fire was built from dry wood the others had brought with them, water and coffee were put on to heat. Nathan was working to get the bandage off Ezra's wet head.
While Nathan worked, Ezra filled his friends in on what happened since he and Vin had left them, and asked if they had something he could eat, he'd been too weary to look for food when he stopped.
JD handed Ezra a cup of coffee and a piece of dried meat. While Nathan cared for Ezra's wound, a meal was rapidly prepared. While they ate and drank plans were made on how to rescue Vin and capture the robbers.
The fire was put out as soon as they had all finished eating. They went to sleep under the clearing skies. Several lightning flashes had lit the countryside before the rain stopped, but all was quiet. In a few hours they would put their plan into action.
Outlaws and Train Wrecks
Daylight was an hour away when Josiah, who was on watch, woke the peacekeepers. He whispered that lights were seen in one building.
The six men tightened girths and repacked the pack horse they'd brought with them. When they were ready, they mounted and moved down the hill towards the town, their plan was set into motion before the day dawned.
As Chris and Nathan passed a building an unseen horse roared a greeting. With pats to their mounts and a tightening on the reins they kept their horses from answering.
Chris groaned and slumped to one side. Nathan reached out and grabbed his arm to keep him in the saddle; they heard laugher coming from a building ahead of them. Flickering light could be seen through the windows.
Nathan whispered, "Chris, are you all right?"
"Vin, in pain," Chris gasped, with a grimace he concentrated to block the pain he felt flowing through him. and at the same time tried to reach Vin through the connection they had.
The radio on Chris' saddle clicked two times. Chris straightened in his saddle, took several deep breaths and grimaced at Nathan. "I've blocked the pain for now. He's in serious trouble; we need to get to him fast." Nathan nodded and waited for Chris to continue. "Buck and JD are in place," he said. The radio clicked again, four times, and he grinned tightly, "Ezra and Josiah are ready too. Let's go," Chris nudged Pony and they continued. Beside the lit building he and Nathan dismounted and moved closer to the doorway. They could hear the men laughing and Chris knew that Vin was in there too.
A kick to his lower back woke Vin and he moved into a fetal position.
"Wake up, we're getting ready to pull out and you're walking out of here." The rough looking man standing over him said.
Vin snarled, "Go ta hell."
He was rewarded with another kick that rolled him onto his other side. He moaned as tearing pain flashed through his back and shoulder.
Men laughed and one said, "Hey Gus, looks like he wants to stay here as wolf bait."
"Get him up; he's going to saddle a horse if he plans to ride." Gus kicked Vin again to try to get him moving. "Or kid you can run behind my horse, or would you rather be dragged behind him?" Gus laughed as he turned away.
Rick bent over Vin, "Come on kid, let's get you up before he does more damage."
Still trying to breathe through the pain rolling through him, Vin nodded his head and Rick took his good arm and pulled him to a sitting position. Vin groaned as he moved, then felt the quicksilver connection he had with Chris come alive. Gritting his teeth he kept his head down not wanting to show anyone that something was about to happen.
Rick helped him to his feet and Vin leaned against the warm body for a moment. He felt cold and hadn't realized he was shaking so violently. The warmth helped him get his mind centered on functioning.
"Go get your horses saddled, time to leave," Gus ordered the men and watched as they left the building. "Jace put out the fires, I'll take him to get his horse," he said.
"Sorry kid," Rick whispered as Gus stomped to their side and grabbed Vin's arm as Rick left with the others and Jace went to get water to put the fires out.
**Leader's got me, coming out** Vin sent to Chris, hoping he was close enough to hear him as Gus pulled on Vin's arm and dragged him towards the door.
Vin stumbled and worked to get his legs under him, he didn't want to fall, for fear the big man would enjoy dragging him bodily by his hair.
Gus stepped out the door and jerked his prisoner to a halt beside him as he had a feeling that something wasn't right. He looked around expecting to see some of his men bringing the horses, there was no one anywhere nor hoof beats. A shiver went through him, there wasn't even any bird noise; it was like the town was dead.
Vin felt Chris' presence and thought fast. He had to distract the man. With a moan he let his knees buckle and he started to slump to the ground.
Gus looked at the young man when he moaned and an instant later the kid was going down pulling on the arm and hand that was gripping him. With a curse, he reached for his prisoner with his other hand to keep him from taking himself from falling with him.
**Now** Vin sent as Gus grabbed him with both hands.
A black shadow materialized behind Gus and a gun was shoved into the side of the man's head.
"Let him go and freeze," Chris snarled in a low deadly voice.
Gus looked over his shoulder making out the dark shadow of a man behind him. His hands tightened on Vin cruelly and he smiled as the kid gasped in pain. Slowly he pulled Vin to his feet then gripped him over the wound.
Vin couldn't help the cry that escaped him as intense pain lanced through him so fast he couldn't do anything. His knees buckled and as he started to fall. He felt an arm come across his throat that stopped him from sinking to the ground.
Gus grinned as his prisoner cried out and dropped. He moved his right arm so fast the man behind him didn't have time to react. He got a choke hold on the kid as he dropped.
"Drop your gun or I'll break his neck," Gus said calmly as Vin's right hand landed on the burley arm across his throat.
Chris knew the man wouldn't let Vin go and growled as he took a step back, "Let him go or you're dead."
Gus laughed as he turned a little and glanced towards the man in black, almost invisible in the semidarkness. "He's going to die anyway. Throw down your gun mister."
Several things happened in a blink of an eye.
Vin lost consciousness and slumped toward the ground, his hand falling away from Gus' arm. Chris, his gun already cocked, stepped forward and aimed at the big man's shoulder. Jace, who'd been putting out the fires, heard voices and silently moved closer to the doorway drawing his gun. Seeing the black shoulder of a stranger he fired.
Chris was struck in his left shoulder, just as he was pulling the trigger. His bullet struck Gus in his neck at the juncture of spine and head. The man slumped over Vin taking him the rest of the way down, pinning him under his body. As Chris went to his knees, Nathan having a clear view, shot his blaster into the building. Buck came running from the large barn, blaster drawn, ready to fire.
Nathan saw Buck coming and yelled at him, "Bring my horse." Buck slid to a stop then darted toward the hidden horses.
Nathan, pulled Gus off Vin letting him fall in a heap. Then he straightened his young friend out on the ground, his hands swiftly going over him, checking for broken bones. He saw the bandage on the back of his shoulder was slowly turning red. Making sure Vin was breathing easy he turned to Chris, still on his knees, watching Vin.
"Chris," Nathan said as he eased him into a seated position and began to open his shirt, glad Chris had left his coat on his saddle.
Chris looked up at Nathan, pain in his green eyes. "I'm all right, tend to Vin."
"Let me see. You're bleeding more than he is right now. It's a through and through. Looks like it missed any bones," Nathan stated as he probed the bullet hole.
Buck arrived riding Nathan's horse and leading his and Chris'. He grabbed Nathan's first aid pack as he dismounted. He grinned tightly at Chris. "Plan worked, we caught all the men in the barn, tacking up horses. Well I guess not a couple," he looked at the dead man beside Vin and spotted the feet of the man still in the building.
Taking the pack Nathan opened it and grabbed what he needed, "See to Vin while I get Chris taken care of."
Grabbing a canteen, Buck knelt beside Vin and carefully eased him up, getting him into a sitting position he wrapped his arms around the shivering body.
"Damn it Nathan, he's burning up."
"I know, the bullet's still in his shoulder, probably infected by now."
Ezra, Josiah and JD arrived, bringing their horses and the pack horse. JD had a grin on his face, and his hat was dust covered. Ezra sported a bruise on his jaw and was brushing dirt off the arm of his jacket. Josiah smiled, the plan had worked perfectly. The outlaws in the barn had been totally surprised, and not a shot was fired. It was a good beginning to the day.
"See if you can get a fire going inside and more light. I'm going to need hot water too," Nathan told them as he finished cleaning Chris' wound and began to bandage it. "I'll stitch this once I get Vin taken care of," he told Chris.
Within a short amount of time two fires were burning inside, lighting up the front half of the dark building. Only one fire had been completely out, water standing in the pit covering the coals, a new one was built several feet from the shallow pit. Bed rolls were laid by the larger fire, ready for Vin, as a couple of pots of water began to steam beside it.
Chris, with a hand from Josiah, rose and watched as Buck and Nathan gently carried Vin inside. Following, he lowered himself onto one of the blankets. He was feeling weak, nauseated, and in pain but, until Vin was improving he wouldn't rest.
Buck and Nathan had laid Vin on the other pile of blankets, and while Buck held Vin upright Nathan quickly cut the bloody bandage off him.
"Lay him face down, easy," Nathan directed.
With Josiah's help, Buck eased Vin over then down onto his stomach.
"Damn," Buck muttered seeing Vin's back. The hole just above Vin's shoulder blade was red, inflamed and seeping. Vin's lower back was bruised in several places and changing colors.
Nathan quickly laid out the instruments he would need to remove the bullet and clean out the infection. He prepared a sedative and shot it into Vin's upper arm, then went for the hot water.
Making sure the sedative was working, Nathan cleaned around the wound in Vin's upper back and began to work. After cleaning out the wound, ridding it of imbedded cloth and infection as much as he could, he had Buck and Josiah hold Vin down as he began to dig for the bullet.
Though sedated Vin groaned and began to fight the holds on him, his head thrashing about.
**You're safe Vin, we're here. Nathan is trying to help you. Don't move. You're safe, its Nathan, don't move.** Chris thought hoping he could reach Vin.
**C riss hurts **
**I know pard. He's almost done. You'll feel better in a minute. Rest **
With another moan Vin's eyes shot open and he looked frantically around. His gaze fell on Chris as he heard Chris' voice again then felt his hand on his head.
**You'll be fine in a minute, let Nathan work, almost done. Relax, we're here.**
**K ** with a pain filled moan Vin's eyes slid closed and he went limp.
For a moment three men's gazes locked on Vin's face, their thoughts churning.
"He's all right, just passed out. Hold him, I've found the bullet," Nathan said to the men. Once Buck and Josiah's grips tightened again, Nathan worked the misshaped piece of lead from Vin's back and dropped it onto a piece of bandage.
Sighs of relief sounded as Nathan began to thoroughly clean the bullet hole.
"Damn, that's a big slug," Buck was staring at the chunk of lead Nathan had pulled from Vin's back.
"He's lucky, it didn't break anything, it was lodged against his collarbone. Could have easily broken it, well shattered it, and puncture his lung if it had a little more velocity." Nathan informed them as he worked.
Chris, sitting beside Vin, his hand still on Vin's head, shuddered thinking of the mess that the bullet could have caused if it'd gone through the thin sharpshooter. Hearing footsteps he glanced towards the door and saw Ezra and JD walking through it, he had forgotten that they'd gone to care for the prisoners when Nathan began to dig for the bullet in Vin.
"Mr. Larabee," Ezra started before JD could start talking. "We have seven men tied up; they won't be going anywhere until we let them. Unfortunately we will have to supply sustenance for the incarcerated. The bodies have been moved to another abode."
"We found all kinds of things they'd taken too, from mail to money to belongings. One guy showed us where they had it all stored. They were packing some on their pack horses," JD excitedly added before looking down at Vin. "How's Vin doing?" he asked glad to see the bullet was out.
"He'll be all right once I get this all cleaned out. Ezra, sit down. I'll check you next."
"Mr. Jackson, I am fine, it is nothing."
Before Nathan could say anything but send a glare at Ezra, JD asked, "Should we get breakfast going? I could eat."
Chris chuckled and glanced up at the teen. "Did you find food too?"
With a grin JD nodded his head. "There's enough to feed us for a week or more."
"Josiah, see if you can find something to make a soup. I don't think Vin's had much, if anything, to eat. First meal would be better if it's soup," Nathan said as he continued to work on Vin.
"Come on Josiah, I'll show you," JD was already moving towards the door. Josiah rose and followed JD out the door.
"Ezra, you stay put "
"I plan on it Mr. Jackson. I feel the need to sit awhile," Ezra dropped onto a blanket on the other side of Vin and stretched out. Within minutes he was asleep.
Buck opened another bedroll and covered the sleeping man before moving to add more wood to the fires. The large room began to warm as Nathan finally sat back on his heels.
"Nathan?" Chris looked at the handsome black man.
"He should be, fine, as you all say, in a few days. I've got the wound cleaned as much as I can. I stitched it up so I can keep an eye on it and left a small opening for it to drain if need be. Once we get home or to another clinic, I'll laser it closed if it's stopped draining and there's no infection. I've put salve on his lower back; he'll be sore and probably pass some blood for a few days. He was struck there several times from what I can tell. He's also got a mild concussion," Nathan sighed as he looked over his battered friend. "Lucky we got here when we did, another few days and he'd have been full of gangrene. Now I want to check Ezra's head. You three," Nathan shook his head and grinned. "I wish we were home, but we'll make do."
Rising, the tall man covered Vin then picking up his medical supplies he'd been using, he moved to Ezra's side. His gentle touch didn't disturb the sleeping man as he checked for fever and then his pulse. He found that Ezra was slightly warm but it wasn't enough to be alarmed over. He would keep an eye on him.
Buck picked up the bloody bandages and tossed them into a fire then got the other pot of hot water for Nathan. As he placed the water beside the two men, Josiah and JD walked in, arms loaded with food supplies and cooking utensils.
By the time Nathan finished checking Ezra, Chris, and then Vin again, there was a thick soup bubbling over the fire and a large pan of biscuits cooking in a covered pan. A third frying pan held thick slabs of sizzling bacon.
Before long they were all eating. Chris still sitting beside Vin finished his soup and was taking a bite out of his meat wrapped in a biscuit when he saw Vin's eyebrows pull down into a frown. With a grin Chris passed the empty dish he was holding past Vin's face and saw his nose wrinkle. The biscuit was passed near Vin's nose next and with a smile Chris pulled it away as Vin's arm came up grasping for it.
"Open your eyes then you can have something to eat Pard." Chris said as a few chuckles sounded around them. Chris grinned at the men whose attention had been caught by Vin's movement.
Vin opened his eyes then blinked as he saw Chris sitting beside him, smiling.
"Well You gonna let a dying man starve?"
"Mr. Tanner, you are not dying, and we are not able to feed you while you are taking your beauty rest."
The blue-eyed gaze shifted to Ezra. "Ez, you're here. Are you alright? Boys find you?"
"I am fine Mr. Tanner, better than you, a little headache. I managed to follow you, with your devil of a horse intact. We all met last night," Ezra told Vin as the blue gaze swept over him taking in the clean bandage on his head.
"I'm happy you're alive Ezra. Didn't know, last seen you on the ground, all bloody."
"I assure you I am fine."
With a nod Vin turned his head slowly and looked over the other men in the room, finally he turned to Chris. His eyes widened as he spotted the bandage under the open black shirt. Guilt washed over him as he thought Chris had been hurt on his account.
Chris saw the look on Vin's face and knew instantly what was going through his head. He placed his hand on Vin's shoulder, squeezing it gently.
**Not your fault, a back shooter. I'm fine. No more thinking like that. Here comes your breakfast** Chris told him as Nathan and Buck came towards them. Buck carried several blankets and Nathan carried a deep sided plate for a bowl.
"Hold this a minute," Nathan handed Chris the plate of soup and with Buck's help, moved Vin into a sitting position. Buck dragged a saddle behind Vin and then the extra blankets were placed behind him to pillow Vin's back. They then eased Vin against them.
"Can you feed yourself? I can do it for you," Nathan said as he took the plate from Chris and held it over Vin's lap.
"Think I can do it," Vin answered and Nathan sat it on a folded blanket on his lap. Handing the spoon to Vin he watched as Vin began to slowly spoon the thick soup into his mouth.
Outlaws and Train Wrecks
Vin forced the pain back as he shakily spooned the thick soup into his mouth. Pain radiated from the back of his shoulder down through his lower back. He ignored the throbbing in his head as he slowly ate. After several bites he stopped, his stomach was churning and he felt nauseous. Dropping the spoon into the plate he moved it off his lap. With closed eyes he tried to breathe through his queasiness. He vaguely felt Chris touch him then help him to lie flat, the hand on his right shoulder comforted him. He knew it was Chris. He could hear his voice as he drifted into sleep.
"We should stay here Chris, let Junior rest, and Ezra and you too," Buck said as he draped a blanket around Chris' shoulders.
"I believe we could all use a day of rest Mr. Wilmington. It has been numerous demanding days," Ezra stated from his blanket near the fire.
"What about the prisoners? We can't leave them tied up in the barn." JD asked as he helped clean the used plates.
Chris looked up at the teen then around at his men. His brothers, he corrected himself. For a moment he thought about the men in the other building, his gaze on the sleeping man beside him then he looked up.
"Check and see if there's some place they can safely be locked into. Feed or tack room in the barn or another building, no windows or a very small one. Door needs to be able to be secured somehow. See what you can find."
"I'll find something Chris," JD said as he headed for the door then paused, and turned around looking at Buck. "You going to come help me?"
With a grin and shake of his head, Buck rose and walked to JD's side his long arm snaked out and circled the teen's shoulders, "Come on kid let's get this done so I can get my beauty rest for a few hours. It's been a long time since I, we, got a decent amount of sleep."
"You're full of crap Buck," JD said as they walked out the door, the men left behind grinned.
Chris laid down facing Vin and closed his eyes, his right hand on Vin's left arm. Moments later he was asleep.
When Buck and JD returned, they sat near the larger fire. Ezra, woke and he sat up, Josiah and Nathan listened as the two told them about the tack room they had made into a jail cell, but being cautious they left the men tightly tied. They took their horses into the large barn and made them comfortable and feeding them some of the hay and grain that was stored there. Before they left they made sure the doors were secured.
After checking Chris and Vin, Nathan got cold water and began placing cloths on Vin's forehead, chest and across his neck to fight his fever. Glancing at Ezra he shook his head, the stubborn young man was still sitting at the fire, staring at the flickering flames.
"Ezra, lay down for awhile. You need the rest."
"Mr. Jackson, with the nap and that warm repast, I feel much better. But, since you are adamant I will relax for awhile," Ezra replied and promptly lay down, pulling the blanket over him.
"You might as well sleep for awhile too," Nathan said shooting a glance at Buck and JD as he placed a cloth on Chris's forehead.
"You two rest, I'll help Nathan for now. You can take over later," Josiah said rising. He got another bucket of cold water and walked to where the wounded men lay.
Buck and JD were soon rolled into their blankets and Nathan and Josiah were seated, one on each side of Chris and Vin. They talked in low voices as they bathed the fevered men.
Several hours later Josiah insisted that Nathan go lay down, Chris was cool and he could tend to Vin. Nathan felt Vin's head, then rose and stretched. A sudden thought struck him and he moved quickly over to his medical pack and began digging through it.
"What are you looking for Nathan?" Josiah asked from his position next to Vin.
"Geze, what kind of a doctor am I? I have two men with fevers and I forgot I'd packed this medicine for fever. This will help." Nathan replied in dismay.
"You've had a lot to think about and do Doc. It's been a long week and we are all tired and worried. At least you brought your pack." Josiah grinned at the dark man as Nathan shot a thunderous look at him.
"And you haven't had a lot to think of on this trip?"
Josiah replied, giving his friend a wide, toothy grin, "Oh yes. But you had people to care for at the wreck, and now these two, well three, to care for on the trip home. You'll need all your strength for this one. You know he'll ride so we'll have to watch him."
Nathan lifted a small package from the pack and smiled. Rising he went to the fire and got a cup of hot water and placed a little amount of the medicine from the packet into it. Stirring the water he walked back to Josiah.
"We need to keep an eye on both Chris and Vin. Ezra should be all right to ride but I want to be sure. Continue to wake Ezra every two hours and ask him a couple of questions. He's got a mild concussion but it should be better by tomorrow, headache maybe, but he ought to be fine to ride. Give this to Vin when he's awake enough to drink it, doesn't matter if it's hot or cold. It'll help with the fever." Nathan paused and looked at the food pack, then went over to it. A smile crossed his face as he found what he was looking for.
Carrying the small container he returned to Josiah's side and poured some into the cup of medicine. At Josiah's questioning look Nathan grinned and held up the container.
"Sugar. Know how Vin drinks his coffee, if he can get it. This will make that taste better and he won't fight drinking it."
Josiah laughed quietly. "Smart man Doc. Now Nathan, go lay down and get some sleep. I've got these guys covered."
With a, "Wake me if you need anything," Nathan, paused only long enough to throw wood on the fires then moved to where his bedroll was laid out. Moments later he was lying down and his eyes slid closed.
Two hours passed as the men slept. Josiah managed to get the cup of sugared medicine down Vin when he woke. Vin wrinkled his nose, but drank the drink, moments later he was asleep. Josiah kept busy changing the cloths on his patients when they grew warm. After an hour, the big man's eyes were blinking, his chin dropped to his chest in sleep.
The loud roars of the horses startled the men awake. Buck and JD were moving before anyone else, followed moments later by Josiah and Nathan. Guns and blasters in hand they rushed to the open door.
Buck was the first out the door and slid to a stop, his reflexes so quick that he grabbed JD as he stopped him from crashing into his back. His eyes scanned the darkness that had fallen.
"Get back inside, quick," he shoved JD back into Josiah and Nathan as they reached the door. The three stumbled back into the building as Buck shouted at them.
"Wolves. Close the windows check the back door." He was trying to close the heavy door as howls of wolves sounded nearby.
"Here brother," Josiah lent his strength to get the door closed. They dropped the bar across it just as a large body hit the heavy wood door. Guns in hand they listened as howls and growls sounded on the other side of the sturdy wooden barrier.
A heavy thud behind them had them swinging around aiming their guns towards the noise. Buck raised his gun and sprinted to where JD and Nathan were working to get the large window opening covered.
Josiah ran to where Ezra was struggling with a small door. The door was halfway closed when a wolf appeared. Josiah fired his blaster into the animals face as he threw his weight against the door. The wolf fell back as the door slammed shut. Ezra leaned against the door as Josiah found the bar and dropped it into place. For an instant the two men looked at each other. Ezra nodded his thanks and then they rushed to help the others.
As Josiah arrived, the window cover jammed and he ordered, "JD get out of the way. Shoot at whatever appears in the opening."
The teen scrambled away grabbing the blaster from Josiah then aimed at the opening.
Two wolf heads appeared at the window, their big ugly muzzles dripping saliva as the long sharp teeth snapped open and closed as they attempted to get through the opening.
JD fired at one then the other as they moved to jump through the window. Blood splattered the window frame as they disappeared. They were instantly replaced by another wolf that he shot in the face as the window slammed closed. Nathan dropped the bar in place as something hit the other side of the wooden cover. Growls and howls sounded around the building then what sounded like fighting.
The four men backed away from the window then slowly walked towards the fire. Their guns were still aimed towards the shuttered opening as the noise outside preceded them. They found Chris and Ezra standing over Vin holding their guns ready.
Buck laughed at the two men and said, "Hey Chris, Ezra, thanks for backing us up. Listen to those wolves, I think they're eating their dead, getting a meal and not us. Now sit down you two. We're safe for now."
Chris holstered his gun as he nodded then dropped onto his bedroll. Ezra replaced his gun and blaster and looked around.
"I'd like a drink, where is the water?"
"Would you like some coffee, Ezra?" Josiah asked as the younger man slowly sat down.
Ezra smiled as he shot a glance at the sleeping Vin, "As long as Mr. Tanner hasn't made it."
Amid laughter, Nathan and Josiah stepped to the fire. Josiah grabbed the coffee pot as Nathan held out a cup; he then carried it to Ezra as Josiah poured Chris a cup.
After handing the cup to Ezra, Nathan moved to Chris and quickly examined his wound finding that it hadn't bled from his movements.
"Prisoners?" Chris questioned.
"They're safe, no way to get into that tack room. There's only a small window in the door and it's inside the barn. And yes, the horses are safe, we made sure the place was closed up," Buck answered handing Chris the cup of medicine laced water Nathan had passed to him.
Chris drank the water down, making a face then took a drink of the coffee. "No sugar?"
Buck burst out laughing, seeing the expression on Chris' face. Josiah chuckled and the others grinned.
"Sorry stud, have to save the sugar for Junior," Buck told him as he took the empty cup. JD took the cup from Buck and filled it with water and handed it back to the black dressed man.
"Nothing but water Chris," he said as Chris hesitated, looking into the cup suspiciously.
With a nod Chris took the cup, "Thanks JD."
"Might as well get something to eat, I think it'll be awhile before we can settle down for the rest of the night," Josiah said as he moved to the pack of food. Buck and JD followed to help him as howls rang throughout the area. They wouldn't cook; it would just antagonize the wolves, but hoped some of the provisions didn't need heating.
Nathan knelt down beside Vin, who was laying on his side, and began to check the wound in the back of his shoulder. He could tell Vin's fever was less and he was relieved. He uncovered the ugly wound and found signs of mild infection. He gently cleaned the wound, then packed it with antibiotic salve and carefully bandaged it with sterile bandages.
As he leaned back he heard a raspy, "Thanks Nathan."
"You're welcome Vin. Would you like to sit up and have something to eat?"
" 'm starved."
Grinning Nathan patted Vin on his hip as he rose. "I imagine you are. Stay still a minute and I'll get something for you to lean on." He pulled the blanket over Vin's shoulder and turned to the saddle still close to Vin. With little effort he pulled it into place and grabbed a bedroll to pad the saddle with.
Nathan found a shirt and pulled it over Vin's head. Vin eased the shirt down over his chest once Nathan had it past his head. Once settled Vin sighed in relief as the blanket was placed back over him.
Looking around at his friends, noting where each man sat. His blue gaze met the green one a couple of feet away.
**I'm fine** he said to Chris.
**Uh huh?** Chris raised one eyebrow. **You look a little rough**
**Looks ca'in be des dis .. deserving**
Chris grinned **Deserving? Think its deceiving**
A slender hand waved in the air **Deceiving, deserving, whatever, I feel better**
Shaking his head Chris' grin widened at his soul brother. **Good. We're leaving in the morning**
Vin cocked his head listening a moment. "Hope the wolves are gone by then," he said out loud.
JD looked over at the wounded man, "You can hear them? I thought they left."
"Heard them before, thought I was dreamin'. Heard them howlin' an' a blaster firing." Vin's gaze swept over his friends making sure they were all right.
"We are all fine, Mr. Tanner. All safe in this abode," Ezra held a cup of coffee out for Vin who took it with his right hand.
"Thanks Ez, 'preciate all ya did for me."
"I did nothing but follow," Ezra answered as he sat down near the fire.
"Thought ya was dead. Sorry ya got hurt."
"Mr. Tanner it was not your fault what happened. We were both taken unawares."
"Should 'a been more alert, had a bad feeling about that road."
With a sigh Ezra studied the battered young man; he had known Vin would blame himself for them riding into the ambush.
"Vin," Ezra's sudden use of his given name had Vin's head coming up, the man never used first names unless he was making an important point.
"Those men were well concealed, the wind was blowing the wrong direction, even Peso and
Chaucer didn't sense them until the last second. You know our mounts would have alerted us of the miscreant's presence if they had. It was fortunate that we managed to defend ourselves as well as we did. Our steeds came back to me so we could pursue the kidnappers and robbers. We are alive and safe with our brothers."
"I am fine Mr. Tanner, to use your words. Now eat, rest, and we'll be home in a few days." Ezra's steady green gaze met the troubled blue one for a long moment. He watched as the blue orbs cleared and a small smile crossed his friend's thin face. He tipped an invisible hat at Vin who smiled wider and nodded his head.
A plate holding a sandwich made of slices of bread slathered with butter and pieces of meat was handed to Vin and he began to slowly eat. Chris watched him for a minute before he started eating his own meal.
Outlaws and Train Wrecks
As everyone concentrated on their plate of food, silence fell. They could still hear the howls from the wolves outside the barred window and doors over the snapping of the campfires.
"We might have to fight them to leave," JD said as a howl sounded outside the door.
"They'll leave, they usually don't hang around too long in one place once the food's gone," Vin answered, handing his empty plate to Nathan who exchanged it, handing Vin a cup of the fever medicine laced with sugar.
"Drink it all," Nathan ordered and watched as Vin drank the concoction down in three long swallows.
With a shudder and shake Vin handed the empty cup back to Nathan before looking at JD again.
"If food isn't easy to get to, a wolf pack will leave after a couple of hours. They'll come back in a few days or weeks to see if there's food here again. As long as they know there was food here they'll come back off and on." Sighing heavily Vin leaned back and let his eyes slide closed, feeling the medicine in the drink beginning to relax him.
"They'll remember people were here and they lost some of their pack. They couldn't get the free food offered by the people and horses. Possibly only come back one more time," Chris finished as he watched Vin's eyes blink several times as he fought to stay awake.
**Sleep Pard, we've got your back**
Blue eyes blinked a moment, **Am tired** Vin answered then slipped into a healing sleep.
Nathan eased Vin down on his side and gently covered him. Returning to the fire he picked up another cup and walked to Chris.
"You're turn. Drink this and rest."
"I'm f "
"Just do it. Tomorrow's going to be a long day and you don't need to ride with a fever."
With a grumble Chris drank the drink down, then laid down and minutes later he was asleep.
Morning dawned, the sun made its appearance and chased away the rain and orange colored clouds. The land was quickly drying out. The wolves had left before dawn as Buck found out when he checked. The only thing stirring in the deserted town were the noisy birds.
Nathan checked Ezra and was happy to see the gash in his head was beginning to scab over. As he examined first Chris then Vin, the others made breakfast. Those not making breakfast began to roll bedrolls and pack everything, readying for the ride back to their home. Once they finished eating, the prisoners in the tack room were fed. While the prisoners ate under the watchful eye of Ezra and Buck; Josiah and JD packed their saddles and bedrolls to the barn, saddled their horses and readied the pack horse they'd brought with them.
Once their mounts were tacked up, JD led them outside and over to the building that had sheltered the men during the night. Buck and Josiah let two of the robbers out of the tack room and watched as they saddled all of their horses and put pack saddles and panniers on their pack horses.
The two peacekeepers then loaded the stolen items into panniers. Five horses were loaded down with the robbers loot. Once all of the panniers were covered and tied down, they let the robbers out of the tack room two by two; had them mount up then tied them to their saddles. When the men were mounted and tied, their horses and pack horses, were led outside and over to the other building. Peso, Chaucer and Pony had their ears flat against their heads and shook them as they threatened the strange horses, keeping the robbers horses away from them.
Ezra and JD mounted. They kept their guns aimed at the tied men, watching them as Buck and Josiah entered the building to help Nathan with the two wounded men if it was needed.
Chris and Vin were up and though Vin was shaky, he walked out of the building beside Chris. Nathan followed carrying his medical pack that he quickly tied to his saddle as the two wounded men were steadied by Buck and Josiah while they mounted.
From Pony's back Chris looked at the outlaws.
"Buck, tie three of their horses together and give the lead to one of us, so they won't try to escape."
With a nod Buck and Josiah went to work, a short time later the seven robber's horses were tied three together, with the last man's horse tied to one of the pack horses. As an afterthought they also tied the pack horses together, so they wouldn't stray. The horses with no riders were also tied into the strings. Everyone but Vin had a lead rope, either leading the robbers or pack horses. Chris and Nathan would be behind Vin who was in the lead, as he knew the fastest way to 3C. JD and Josiah rode after them with Buck and Ezra following a little behind everyone, leading pack horses so they were mostly free to keep an eye on the robbers in case someone tried to escape.
At the nod from Chris, Vin headed out, it would take most of the day to get to 3C. The riders lined out behind him leaving the silent, dead town with its losses behind.
JD turned to Buck as they cleared the ruins of the town. "Buck, what about those dead guys? Shouldn't we see to them?"
Buck shook his head, "Forget them."
"We should take them, or bury them."
"JD remember where we put them?"
JD nodded his head.
Nudging his grey into a trot, Buck replied, "It wasn't wolf proof."
A look of horror crossed the teens face as his horse stepped out faster. With a glance back towards the buildings, JD shuddered and turned away.
**" 'm tired. Shoulder's paining me a little** Vin replied shifting in his saddle so he could look over the sun drenched countryside as the sun edged towards the horizon. Carefully he took his canteen off his saddle and took a deep drink as the other men rode up and halted around them. It was late in the afternoon; the day had become exhausting for Vin.
"How much father?" Buck asked looking at Chris and Vin, noticing they both were pale. Vin's hands shook on the reins.
"Vin I've " Nathan started to say.
" 'm alright Nathan. We're almost there, about three miles from 3C. I'll rest there." Vin stated and urged Peso into motion.
Buck and Nathan exchanged a look then followed their companions, slowly moving back into place as Chris and Nathan moved closer to Vin. JD had taken the lead rope from Chris earlier freeing him to ride with Vin.
Several of the robbers were complaining that they needed another break and water. Buck tossed his lead line to Ezra and reined his horse ahead, pulling to a halt facing the men Josiah had on a lead. His blaster aimed at the most outspoken man's face.
The rider's shut up and before the man could say another word Buck told him, "Go ahead and complain. I told you before to shut up, now you're getting on my last nerve. It will get ugly if I have to shoot you dead, and I hate ugly. Do you understand?" He growled.
A hasty nod was Buck's reply as the bearded man clamped his mouth shut though his eyes shot spark's at Buck.
"Now you boys just relax, we'll be to town shortly and you'll have better accommodations than last night. If you keep quiet..." Buck glared at the men. The few complainers met Bucks cold gaze then looked away. Silence fell over the men and Buck reined his horse back to get his lead from Ezra before moving up by Chris. The thud of hooves, creaks of tack and the occasional snort from a horse was all that was heard for the rest of the journey. Chris grinned at his long time friend as Buck rode beside him. With a wink Buck looked ahead.
When the town of 3C came into sight the seven peacekeepers breathed a sigh of relief. Buck eased his grey to Vin's side as the younger man reeled in his saddle. With a determined look on his thin face Vin found the last bit of energy he had and straightened in his saddle.
It was almost dark when the riders rode into town and within minutes people were converging on them and the pack horses.
The town's three peacekeepers met them at the jail and with the help of several townsmen they quickly had the robbers jailed. The train robbers horses and the free ones were led off to the livery where some would be sold to pay the expense of keeping the outlaws until their trial.
The pack horses were being unloaded when Vin turned Peso towards the hotel. Chris followed and moments later their friends were with them.
Vin was exhausted, his head ached and his back and shoulder were on fire. All he wanted to do was to stop moving and sleep. He sat on Peso unsure if he could get off without falling. A warm hand on his leg had him blinking and he slowly looked down, seeing Buck standing next to him.
"Come on Junior, let's get you inside," the ladies man said with a gentle smile.
Nodding, Vin started to dismount, but as he moved pain flashed through him then blackness took over and he collapsed into Buck's arms.
Buck gathered the limp body carefully against his chest, and with a glance at Chris who was being helped by Josiah he headed into the hotel behind Ezra. JD held the door for him and waited for the others to follow.
Nathan was right behind Buck after making sure Chris was able to move on his own, though he was happy that Josiah was beside the lean blond. He was worried about Vin and hoped that he was just wore out, but he needed to examine him to be sure.
Ezra turned from the desk as the others reached him. "Rooms 2, 3, and 4, upstairs," he quickly led the way. Opening one door after the other he waited as Buck carried Vin into one and placed him on a bed. Chris, with Josiah's strong arm around his waist, followed them in and over to the second bed.
"JD let us see if we can obtain some water and sustenance for us before we retire to our accommodations." Ezra said to the teen who was standing in the hallway in front of the open door.
JD glanced into the room where Buck and Nathan were working to get Vin's shirt off and Josiah was helping Chris. He shook his head; he didn't really want to see Vin and Chris hurting so much.
"Need to take care of the horses too," he told Ezra as they turned to the stairs.
Ezra paused at the desk long enough to order hot water and food for them all before walking out the door to tend to their horses.
Surprise crossed Ezra and JD's tired faces when several townsmen came forward to help them. With the townsmen's help their eight horses were, stabled, unsaddled, brushed and fed in a short amount of time.
When JD asked why the men helped, he was told that they knew the seven had helped at the train wreck and now had brought in the robbers and everything that had been stolen, not only from the area but from several other towns also.
As they walked back to the hotel, the men carried their saddle bags for them and the supplies that their pack horse carried.
Ezra was called over to the desk when they arrived as JD led the men upstairs to drop off their belongings. Ezra was told the water had been delivered and there was plenty of hot water if more was needed, and a bathing room had been prepared with towels and amenities if someone wanted to bathe. The food would be up in a short time.
"Thank you Mr. Hendricks. How much do we owe you for the accommodations?"
The man smiled, "Nothing. My wife and daughter were robbed on that train. You and your men helped and we are having the stolen items returned. The town appreciates all of you for what you have done; we are taking care of the bill for you Mr. Standish."
Ezra blinked in surprise and was wordless for a moment. "I, we, thank you Mr. Hendricks. This is very generous of you, the town."
"I have also called in Doctor Daniels to help you. I noticed you have several injured men."
"No need to have "
"Doc is here now, why don't you take her up, she is very good."
"Hello Jim, what room do I go to?" A musical voice asked from behind Ezra.
Ezra turned towards the woman and a grin crossed his lips, he quickly took his hat off. "I will escort you to my friends Miss Daniels," he said to the nice looking woman standing next to him as he nodded at her.
She was a little taller than him, heavier with dark red hair lightly streaked with grey, a splash of freckles crossed her nose and cheeks, bright jade green eyes had laugh lines at the corners, and her long hair was pulled back and tied with a ribbon that matched the color of her eyes. Ezra smiled back as her wide smile drew him in. He noticed that she smelled of honeysuckle.
"Thank you, I'm Doctor Colleen Daniels, and you are?" She asked holding out her hand.
"Ezra Standish, Doctor Daniels," he shook her hand, surprised at the woman's firm grip, and motioned her towards the stairs.
"This way Doctor Daniels."
"Please call me Colleen, my dad was Doctor Daniels, and I'm not him," she replied as she went up the stairs beside him her medical bag hooked over her shoulder.
"Room two, our doctor, Nathan Jackson, is with Misters Larabee and Tanner. I believe Mr. Tanner is exhausted, though he did have an infected wound in his upper back."
Ezra knocked on the door and it was immediately opened by Buck who instantly smiled when he saw the handsome woman.
"Ma'am, can I help you?"
"Mr. Wilmington, this is Dr. Daniels she is here to help Dr. Jackson. Mr. Hendricks summoned her when he saw our wounded companions."
Before Buck could say anything, Colleen brushed past him and went straight to the bed Chris was sitting on.
Nathan turned to see who was there from his place beside Vin. A wide smile crossed his face when he saw the woman.
"Colleen, so nice to see you! You're the doctor for 3C?" he asked and started to get to his feet.
Colleen's hand went to Nathan's shoulder to halt him. "Stay put Nate and continue. Yes, I am here in 3C for the last year. It's good to see you. Now what can I do to help you?"
Buck and Ezra exchanged puzzled looks and Ezra shrugged his shoulders. He had no idea the two doctors knew each other.
"Would you check Chris, he's got a through and through, left shoulder. I think Vin and him are good, just tired from the long ride today."
"Of course. Is there anything you need? My clinic is only a few doors away."
"Your laser to seal these wounds maybe," Nathan said as he cleaned the wound in Vin's back, inspecting it closely for any sign of infection.
"Done. I'll get it as soon as I finish with this wound," Colleen answered as she gently helped Chris out of his shirt and began taking off the bandage. She could tell the handsome blond was distracted as he closely watched Nathan working on the younger man through half closed green eyes.
As Colleen worked she explained what she was doing to Chris who seemed to ignore her. She worked quickly; her gentle hands were sure as she checked the ugly holes that were in front and back of the man's shoulder. Within minutes she finished, placing a pad over the holes she bandaged it lightly.
Feeling Chris's forehead she found it was warm to the touch, he had a slight fever. Rising she went to the picture of water and filled a glass. Moving to her bag that sat on the end of the blonds' bed she reached in it and found the small bottle of medicine she wanted and added a few drops of it to the water then carried it to Chris.
"Drink this all down, it will help with the fever," she said as she handed the glass to Chris.
Chris looked at the woman then the glass she was holding out to him. Finally he took it and drank it down with several long swallows.
"Good. Now lay down while I help Nate," she ordered.
Buck, Ezra, Josiah and JD who recently entered the room, held their breaths as Colleen gave the order to Chris, wondering what he'd do. He usually gave orders, but normally listened to good advice. This time it was very good advice, they hid their smiles and watched,
Outlaws and Train Wrecks
Chapter 7 - Epilogue
Chris was tired, and his shoulder ached. All he wanted to do was lie down and sleep. His thoughts and gaze was on Vin, he barely paid attention to anything around him. He heard a woman's voice and felt her hands as she worked on his wound. Her musical words just flowed over him, with no meaning. When the glass appeared in front of his face, he started and then had to think of what she had said to him. He couldn't remember, but figured she wanted him to drink the water. He took the glass, and drank the liquid. When he finished with the water, he looked at her. Her jade green eyes bored into his as she ordered him to lie down.
For a moment Chris stared up at the older woman as she stood in front of him, one hand on her hip. Chris sensed she would wait until he did what she ordered from the look on her face. He wasn't going to argue and he lay down, turning so he could watch Nathan as he tended Vin.
Colleen looked at the other men in the room and pointed at Ezra. "I want to see what is under that bandage." She hid a smile at the look on the young man's face, and thought he probably hoped she wouldn't have noticed the bandage. He was wrong; she smiled as she pulled the blanket up over the man she just finished with. Once he was covered she turned to Nathan.
"I'll go get my laser. Is there anything else you need?
Nathan replied naming a couple of medicines that he needed.
"I'll be back shortly." Colleen hurried past the quiet men standing around the room and out the door. Buck hurried out behind her, volunteering to bring back the needed supplies.
Patting Vin on his shoulder, Nathan covered the wound with a temporary bandage. When Colleen returned with the laser, he'd finish the project. He nodded to the men around the room. "No infection." They all sighed.
While they waited for Colleen to return, the men talked quietly. They noticed that Chris was asleep. Nathan was glad to see that. With Chris sleeping, he might not notice the pain when the wound laser was used on him.
Colleen rushed into the room with Buck behind her. She laid the laser on the small table between the two beds and took the medicine and other items from Buck. While Nathan checked the laser, she prepared things for him. Checking Chris, she made sure he was deeply asleep and unaware of the actions of those around him. She had Buck hold his arms down once Chris was rolled onto his stomach and the bandage removed. Cleaning the wound to be sure there were no blood flakes or hidden dirt, she swabbed it with antiseptic then nodded at Nathan that she was ready for him. She pressed tightly on Chris' shoulder as Nathan, with laser in hand, bent over Chris.
It took less than a minute for Nathan to close the wound. Colleen quickly rubbed healing salve over the closure, covered it with a sterile pad and taped it down.
Together, she and Buck turned Chris over and she once more cleaned around the larger exit wound then moved out of Nathan's way as he approached.
This time it took longer to close the large wound but once it was done Nathan was satisfied. It
was clean and infection would not be a problem. Once again the same routine as before was done.
Turning to Vin, Colleen removed the pad and cleaned the area. She moved as Buck stepped in to hold Vin down. As soon as Nathan sealed the wound, she finished with salve and bandages as she had done with Chris.
Buck pulled the blankets up over Vin and backed away. "How are they doctors?"
"They are doing well; the wounds are very clean and closed now. Though they're exhausted, they should be up and ready to leave in a day or two," Nathan told his friends as he and Colleen picked up the used bandages and other supplies they had used. Colleen nodded and smiled in agreement.
Then she turned to Ezra, "Mr. Standish, it is your turn. Let me look at your head."
"It is fine Ms. Colleen." Ezra replied.
At her steady gaze, Ezra finally moved to the chair she's indicated and sat down.
With deft hands, Colleen quickly removed the bandage and thoroughly checked the wound. Satisfied that it was healing, she covered it with the salve and taped a small pad over it. She smiled at the chestnut haired man.
"Mr. Standish, that is healing nicely, and with the salve I used it should heal quicker. You shouldn't have a scar. But you might have a few days with headaches. They shouldn't last more than the next couple of days. Take it easy and get plenty of sleep."
"Yes, madam I will do as you propose." Ezra said with a smile as the others chuckled. His friends knew he usually got plenty of sleep as he was usually not up before the sun rose, thanks to his late night poker games, or his business' paperwork to date.
A knock on the door drew everyone's attention and JD opened it before Josiah could reach it. Mr. Hendricks was there and told them their meal was ready to be served.
Josiah, standing next to JD, opened the door wider and smiled. "In here would be fine," and waved his arm for the man to enter.
Mr. Hendricks turned and motioned to the waiting staff to enter. Hendricks watched as several serving women moved into the room where they quickly set up the food on the table that sat in the corner. Once they finished he escorted the women from the room.
;Buck, JD and Josiah hurried to the other two rooms and collected the chairs. Minutes later the men were enjoying the savory meal while Colleen helped herself to a cup of coffee. They ate and talked while Chris and Vin slept.
Two days later, Chris, Vin, Nathan and Buck were on their way home. Josiah, Ezra and JD had left the day before, taking some of the stolen items with them. The three had been asked to go through what the outlaws had taken with the peacekeepers from 1C and 3C. It was found there were items from several train robberies. There were many labeled letters and packages, many taken as far back as three months. The men would see that the stolen property was returned to the rightful owners in their area.
The bus was due in 4C in two days. The men hoped to get home in time to ship some of the
stolen items. The Potters would help as they had the records of the many people traveling. They handled all of the mail for both the bus and train.
Chris looked across at Vin as they rode out of 3C and turned southwest towards 4C.
**I'm fine Lar'bee. I'm good ta go** Vin smirked at his soul brother.
**You still look like a wild cat dragged you in** grinned Chris.
**Ya need ta look in a mirror cowboy. No, better not, ya might break it, that's seven years bad luck I think** Chris laughed out loud as Vin smirked at him.
Behind them Buck and Nathan exchanged smiles, glad to see both men in a good mood after being confined to bed for the last couple of days.
Before Ezra left with Josiah and JD, Nathan verified that his head was healing nicely and wouldn't cause him any problems. Nathan knew Ezra wanted to get back to see his cats and make sure his business was running smoothly. He knew too, that Ezra didn't like having to leave Inez alone too long, the business, saloon, restaurant and hotel was a lot of work for one person to keep up with. Inez, Nathan was sure, could take care of everything without any problems. But Ezra always worried about her, and believed Inez shouldn't have to handle any trouble that might arise. It was his business. He was responsible, and also wanted to get home.
Nathan had let Ezra go and hoped that everything was going smoothly for the lady. He'd grinned to himself as he and Buck watched the three men leave. Nathan wondered if Ezra was a little taken with the pretty Mexican gal, he knew his wife, Rain, loved her like a sister.
After closing Chris and Vin's wounds, the two men had slept well into the next day. Nathan enjoyed the time visiting with Colleen. She told him of her being out of town when the train was wrecked, and had returned a couple of hours before the seven had arrived. She informed him that she was engaged and the wedding was planned for next month. Her fianc้ was out of town right now, though he'd be returning in four days. They caught up with what they'd been doing for the last year, since they left the university. She invited him and Rain to her wedding and promised to keep in contact with him.
Nathan was happy for Colleen, they'd become friends while attending medical school, being lab partners and often studying together. He had a lot of respect for her, she had a level head and a no-nonsense attitude, but she could joke and horse around with the best of them. She could ride as well as shoot and was an excellent doctor to boot. Nathan hoped they could get away to attend her wedding, he would like to meet the man who had stolen her heart. The date and time were written down and safely tucked into his pocket.
They passed the hills and mountains that protected the Larabee ranch as they got closer to 4C. The entrance going over the ridge to the valley showed one set of horse tracks and Vin determined they belonged to Yosemite. The big man, who owned the livery in town promised Chris that he'd look in on the ranch while Chris and Vin were gone. Before going home to the ranch, they needed to check in with the town.
Forty-five minutes later they cantered into 4C. With welcome smiles on their faces, JD and Josiah greeted the men as they slowed their horses and rode past the jail. Once their horses were tended to, Chris, Buck and Nathan made their way to Ezra's establishment. Vin stayed behind at the stable for a couple of minutes to give Peso some needed attention. Ezra had told him of how his black horned horse followed the trail of the outlaws who'd taken him, and how tired Ezra was by the time the rest of the men reached them. He spent some time brushing the big horse as Peso nibbled at his hair and waited for his rider to give him the treat he scented in his coat pocket. Finally, Vin fed him the brown sugar lumps he picked up in 3C.
The black greedily accepted the treats and nuzzled his man as a low happy rumble came from him. Vin smiled and scratched him around his horns causing the dark eyes to close in ecstasy, a double dose, sweet treat and a wonderful scratch.
Vin grinned, he was sure the rumble coming from Peso would put a cat's purr to shame. Finally Vin stopped and brushed the long forelock back into place and with a last rub to Peso's head he left the stall, latching the stall entry, he then headed for the restaurant. His thoughts touched on the last days, the train wreck, getting hunt, being kidnapped, meeting a woman doctor that was as good as Nathan. He shook his head as a small smile crossed his lips as he made his way to the restaurant. He was happy that everything had worked out, none of them had been badly hurt, robbers were captured, mail and other items were returned to rightful owners and Nathan found an old friend. They were home where they were supposed to be. His world was in order once more, now he wanted coffee and dinner.
Entering the restaurant that was part of Ezra's business, Vin was greeted by Ezra's two large cats who came running to him. Flower and Heather, a short time earlier had been greeting Chris, Buck and Nathan, moving from one to the other swatting at their boots and weaving around their legs. Loud purrs sounded through the room, it was their way to greet their friends. Vin reached down and patted the colorful heads before he joined the men at their table.
As soon as he was sitting down, the two felines went from man to man again for pats and praise before settling once more under the table at the men's feet. Vin could feel one of the cat's heads on his foot and smiled. The cats knew he had treats in his pockets, and patiently waited.
Inez was already there with coffee and when Josiah, Ezra and JD joined them they ordered dinner. Chris and the returning men were filled in on what was happening in town and the surrounding area. Rain joined them for a cup of coffee over dessert. Nathan gave her a warm kiss and felt his checks flush when Buck hooted and clapped him on his back. He promised Rain he would return to the clinic with her and fill her in on the wounded men, now healing, in his care. The returning men were happy to hear that the stolen property had been returned to its rightful owners. A few items were still left to send out as soon as the owners were located. In the months since the first robbery, several people had moved.
Chris leaned back in his chair and looked around the table, his green gaze taking in each of his friends as it moved from one to the other.
**We're all good** he heard and smiled at Vin who's tired eyes met his.
**We are, and are all together again** he answered and raised his cup as Vin raised his in an unspoken toast.
Flower and Heather exchanged looks then moved as one and began to rub their heads against Chris and Vin's legs. They sensed the men's brotherhood and showed their approval, and the joy to have their seven friends home and together again. Together the sisters moved to Ezra's side and laid down beside his feet, one on each side of him. With a look that only cats can do, they began purring as they listened to their favorite humans talk. They were content.
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