the Magnificent Seven are owned by MGM, Mirisch, Trilogy and were developed by John Watson. No infringement is intended, and no money
will be made from this.
Notes: I dreamt this one up months and months ago, started writing it, then got distracted. It is sort of a sequel to Three of a Kind, but it's not necessary to have read that first. I just realized I'd forgotten to mention that before.
Description: Vin's having nightmares, and they're killing him.
To be above it all, and yet immersed at the same time. It made no sense. Well, yes, it did.
It was a dream.
He imagined the way his body must look right now, tossing and turning in the blankets, his face twisted by a dark frown, all his muscles tense and ready to spring, unable to find an escape. He knew what he looked like because almost every time he’d woken up in the last few weeks his body had been sore, as if he’d been in the saddle all night, and his jaw muscles ached. And this dream, this nightmare, was one he was becoming horrible familiar with.
He was flying, lighting across the red and brown landscape with ease, his wings barely moving as he glided from one hot air pocket to the next. He’d wing to the left, then the right, his sharp eyesight focused on the small wooden town in the distance. A golden eagle, free and fast.
Then he was there, above the dirt street, invisible to the people below. In his guise as an eagle, he’d see himself, leaning against the jail, watching the town lazily, scratching a buckskin coated arm just above the elbow. Seconds later, he was inside the body, looking out at the world through those familiar gray eyes, absorbing it. The wind howled about his ears, blowing his long light brown hair across his face where it wasn’t tucked inside his hat. He ignored it.
Inside, he was screaming at himself to move. He knew what was coming….Why wasn’t he doing anything to stop it?
The body continued to just sit in the wooden chair, feet propped up on the banister that ran between the boardwalk posts, not reacting to anything. He could hear the way the chair squeaked as he rocked it slowly back and forth on its back legs.
And Chris would emerge from out of the saloon, the tails of the long black duster lifting with the breeze to whip around the thin legs. The man in black would look at him a moment, and tip his hat in hello, before setting out down the street towards the livery.
Move! He screamed at his inert body. Do something! Stop him NOW!
But all the body did was lift a hand to tip his own hat, no more.
The rider came out of the dust and the wind, invisible one minute, and there the next. Like a ghost or a vision, it formed from nothingness, without warning. But HE had known it was coming. Had known, but did nothing….
He felt the body drop its legs to the ground and stand in response to the sudden threat, but it was too slow, and, as always, too late. The rider, whose face shifted -- sometimes a woman’s, sometimes a man’s -- would raise the rifle to aim at Chris’s unprotected back. Before Chris could even turn around, the bullet that would end his life cut him down, killing him instantly.
He heard his body yell, saw the world tilt crazily around him as the townsfolk screamed. Out of the corner of his eyes, flashes of red, hunter green, and dark brown tickled his blurring vision as the others came outside. But, like him, they were too late.
Chris was dead. The proud man’s greatest fear come true – shot in the back. Never given a chance to face his killer, to know his face, to have the opportunity to fight back, even if only in vain.
And the murderer himself…herself?…was gone back into the dust. Lost. Free and clear.
Inside the imprisoning body, Vin’s spirit screamed. How could this happen? How could he let it happen! He knew, he knew! And yet….
And he was flying again, away from the town, away from the images of his best friend lying face down in he dirt. Just another one gone. The golden eagle’s wings beat viciously, angrily. A dream. A horrible senseless dream.
Please…don’t let it be a vision.
But, though he wanted to, though he pushed the eagle to fly as far from the town as possible, it didn’t matter. In every direction he turned, there it was again. The wooden clapboard buildings calling him back, dragging him back.
Wake up, please, wake up.
He was in town again. It was empty. No one walked the streets, not a dust swirl rose from the ground. No dead body on the ground. It looked normal….
The eagle lit again on the rooftop above the jail and inspected the street.
Maybe this time…maybe the dream won’t continue. Control it, he demanded himself. This is your dream – you must control it. Wake up. Just open your eyes, damn it. You do it everyday…just open your eyes.
The sound of creaking leather and steel shod hooves pushing against the dirt ended that hope. The nightmare would go on until it was finished. And here was part two.
Aw Hell. Why won’t my damned eyes open?
Desperately, the eagle’s body that he dreamed in tried to lift off. Tried not to look in the direction of the rider coming in, in the dream. But his talons were glued to the tiles, and the beautiful brown head turned, unable to fight the force of his nightmare. He knew what he would see, and yet….wake up. Please, to anyone out there, wake me up!
rode slowly into town on
Don’t turn around, Josiah. Don’t turn.
But the preacher always did.
The eagle pulled at the sticky tiles, the hot tar fastening his claws to the building as surely as if they had been nailed down. He had to…to…
Josiah turned around and looked out at the town. Surprise was the first emotion, then denial…and finally, absolute despair. The roar of agony that the large man emitted echoed up into the heavens, blasting the eagle’s senses. Unable to stop himself, Vin turned the eagle’s head to look again at the town, which was empty no longer.
bodies lined the ground, scattered haphazardly across the dirt, and the
buildings surrounding them were burning.
Helpless, he watched as Josiah staggered forward, making a beeline for the man in black first. Chris was sprawled on his side, and Josiah knelt down next to him. A hopeful hand was pressed to the pale neck, but of course, there was nothing there.
Josiah was crying and muttering now, the cadence of his voice rising and falling in the stillness. With his eagle’s hearing, Vin had no trouble hearing the man’s words.
“I’ve done it again. I’ve failed again. Why wasn’t I here? I should have been here…to die with them. God, no, not again…I can’t have done this again….” Over and over, the preacher said these things, and the self-hatred that filled the normally gentle soul started to consume him as swiftly as the flames licked up the sides of the buildings.
The eagle watched as Josiah stepped over to where the tracker’s (his?) own body lay and, after once more testing for a pulse, lifted the buckskin clad form into his arms. Holding the body close, as if it weighed no more than a child, the preacher carried it back to where Chris lay and put him back down. Above, the eagle screamed, trying to tell his friend that he wasn’t dead. Josiah! It's just a dream! That’s not me! I’m here! Above you, here! But Josiah didn’t look up, and his usually soothing voice was cracking under the strain.
“Together…two men with the same soul…you should always be together….” The priest muttered to the mismatched pair on the ground, and placed a hand on the tracker’s arm. “I’m sorry Vin, Chris…I’m so sorry….” With a shaky breath, he stood and walked across to the next body.
Buck lay with an arm across his face and one outstretched, as if sleeping. Kneeling, Josiah watched him for a moment, then peered through the bright air until his eyes caught the brown clad form of the boy. Still muttering his oaths and apologies, he got to his feet with a grunt and made his way to JD. The kid was slumped over a banister in front of the burning clerk’s office.
As with Vin’s own body, Josiah lifted the boy up and carried him over to Buck. “As close as brothers…I was jealous of you, my friends. You were so lucky to find…to find family again.” He put the kid’s body next to Buck’s, nestling the boy’s head so that it rested in the crook of Buck’s outstretched arm. After wrapping Buck’s arm around JD’s still form, the preacher raised his head once more.
Nathan’s body lay close by, the healer’s face turned into the dirt where he lay on his stomach, his shirt ripped out of his pants making the whip marks on his back obvious to the world. Josiah tipped him over, and ran a hand down the unlined face. Brushing away the dust, he wondered at how young the healer’s face looked.
“My old friend…the moral center that I so wanted to be like. How did you survive so long? And now, because of my failure, you too…you too….My fault. Lord, I can’t.…” Unable to continue, Josiah leaned down and gathered Nathan’s body up, pulling the dead man to his feet. For a moment, the garish scene of the preacher holding up the dead body in a hug caused Vin’s eagle’s body to shudder.
Beneath his claws, the flames rose hungrily…getting closer and closer.
Slowly, as if his feet were embedded in molasses, Josiah dragged Nathan across to the others. He placed the former slave’s body in the middle, the center once more, and bowed his head in the direction of the tableau.
When he looked up again, Vin helped him search with his sharp eyes, looking for the final figure on the ground. When his eyes caught the purple coat over by the saloon, it seemed the last bit of light in the preacher’s eyes disappeared.
Heavy steps took the older man across to where Ezra sat, the gambler’s back propped up against the saloon wall, his chin to his chest. Josiah squatted before him and reached a hand out to raise the young man’s head.
Ezra stared back at him…and blinked. With a bullet hole dead center in his forehead.
Josiah gasped and fell backwards onto his rear, his hands flailing and failing to catch him.
“Ezra?” He asked, “You…You’re…Are you?”
“Alive?” Ezra’s mouth asked.
Josiah’s mouth shut firmly. The voice that came from the gambler’s lips was not his own. A grim smile lifted Ezra’s features.
“No, Josiah, I am not alive. I’m dead. We all are.” He paused, and blinked again, his green eyes empty. “Where were you?”
“Where was… Ezra, you know where I was. Son, please, I didn’t know…how could I have known….You must believe me.”
“You should have been here. You failed us, Josiah. You let us die.”
“Let you…No, Ezra, no, please don’t say that. I just stopped to have one more drink, how could I have known? One more drink….”
“Just like Hannah, Josiah. You let her fall into madness, let father beat her until there was nothing left. You weren’t there….”
“No, no,” Josiah gripped his head in his hands, trying to cover his ears from that hateful voice. He knew that voice…it wasn’t Ezra’s, but he knew it. Knew it and hated it. All his young life that voice had tormented him with its preaching….
“Just like your son, Josiah. You let him face those gallows without a word. Let him die. You weren’t there to take care of him when he was growing up…too lost in the bottle to care. Is that where you were today, Josiah? Were we less important to you than your own comfort? One more drink?”
“Ezra…no…stop…This isn’t you….please, stop.”
“Stop? I trusted you, Josiah. I thought you would be there. You said you would be there, even when God was not….remember? You said that to Buck, and you let him die. And to JD. And Vin and Nathan. But you weren't, were you? You betrayed us, Josiah. I should have known….You always betray. Always fail….”
“NO!” Josiah lurched to his feet, spinning around off the boardwalk drunkenly. “No more, please God, no more!” He was crying, falling down in his effort to get away. When he finally had the courage to turn around again, Ezra’s head was sitting back on his chest as if it had never moved, his eyes closed, his limbs lifeless. Around him, flames licked the wooden walls of the saloon he rested against, catching his clothes.
Crying out in fear, Josiah ran forward, heedless of the fire, and lifted Ezra into his arms. Cradling the man to him, he made it back into the street, screaming in agony and despair. His mantra of self blame was back, and he apologized over and over again to them all, and for the man in his arms he cried the most.
Finally, just as the fire started to light the roof upon which Vin’s eagle sat, Josiah lay Ezra’s body down next to Nathan’s. Gently, he stroked the young man’s head to brush the hair away from his face – a father’s touch. He was bidding his son goodbye, again.
Above him, the eagle screamed. He knew what was coming.
Slowly, Josiah lifted the heavy Smith & Wesson from out his holster.
“Lord,” the preacher called, looking upwards at the smoke filled sky as he stepped backwards into the street. “I tried. I tried to commit my penance. To make up in what little way I could for the death I have wrought, but I failed. I failed again. I failed my sister…my son…my friends….” He looked down at the figures before him, his voice shaking, then he looked at Ezra, “and I betrayed my second chance…. I do not deserve the peace that penitence brings, Lord. I only deserve torment. I deserve hell.”
Vin pulled and pulled against the sticky tar, the flames rising around him. No! Josiah, no!
With a steady hand, Josiah brought the ugly pistol to his head, and with one last look around at the burning town, pulled the trigger.
And Vin was flying again, his wings pumping furiously at the still hot air of the desert. The town faded into the distance behind him, but the screams followed him wherever he went. They were his own screams.
How no one could hear his screams was beyond him. Surely someone passing the wagon must hear? Why wouldn't someone wake him up from this?
He was winging over the prairies and plateaus, heading towards nothing. The eagle’s burn faded to blisters, his singed feathers repaired. Whole again, he was once more aloft.
Ready to travel into the third level of his own personal hell.
In the distance a speck appeared on the otherwise empty plateau. He already knew who it was, but he could no more avoid going there than he could avoid watching Josiah pull that trigger. Or stop that nightmare figure from shooting Chris in the back.
Flying more swiftly now, he circled around the man lying face down in the dirt below, the tails of his red jacket flapping in the breeze around his legs. Next to him, Chaucer's blood mingled with his master's, the loyal mount riddled with bullets from when he had tried to protect what was already lost.
No one else was visible for miles. Ezra had died alone in the desert. Completely alone.
Winging down, the eagle settled next to him, shrieking challenges at the vultures and condors circling above. He would never be able to fight them off, they were too big. Didn't matter. He'd try anyway.
Tears ran down the sleeping Vin's face as he cried out silently in agony.
The eagle turned around, surprised. Ezra looked back at him, green eyes still bright with life, though probably not for long. The eagle hopped from foot to foot, beak opening and closing, his feathers fluffing in agitation. Ezra had never been alive in the dream before. The gambler smiled back weakly, watching him.
"I thought you were....I thought I heard his voice....But I was only dreaming. I only seem to dream out here. I keep thinking I hear you and the others coming. I mean, Vin and the others. But, at least...at least...." he continued to smile, but the light faded from his eyes, "at least they're not dying with me...because of me...."
The eagle shrieked again as Ezra coughed, and shut his eyes. He jumped forward onto the gambler's arm, digging his talons into him, trying to remind him not to give up. Very little reaction met his efforts. The eagle jumped backed off, wings stretched out and flapping, trying to get Ezra to open his eyes again.
Silently, Vin whooped with success as they did. Ezra blinked up at him tiredly, his voice barely a whisper.
"You going to irritate me until I die, bird? Seems fitting. But...better than being alone. I didn't want to die alone."
The eagle bobbed its head, then shrieked as a powerful wind blew abruptly across the plain, throwing him backwards and lifting him off that ground. NO! He knew what was happening, and, worse, he knew why. The nightmare couldn't even let him have this. No! Don't take me away from him! No!
He could see Ezra still watching him, then those pale green eyes closing sadly as the eagle was forced aloft by the wind. Vin fought against the dream with every breath, wings strained to their maximum. Up above, the condors and vultures laughed, their calls as fingernails on a chalkboard.
Last thing he heard was Ezra's whispered word, "Alone."
"NO!" Vin sat bolt upright, sweat pouring down the sides of his face in rivulets, his matted hair clinging to his face. Sunlight streamed in through the flaps of the wagon, brighter than it would be if it were just early morning. Every muscle ached with pain, every breath for air seemed to burn his throat more. Pulling on his pants and boots, he ran a hand through the sickly looking hair to get it out of his face and pushed out of the wagon.
One look at the sky told him it was already late in the morning, nearly .
Upset, he stumbled a bit, trying to get his balance. Equilibrium seemed to be failing him lately, as his sleep had become more and more like being in a war. Reaching the corner of the building next to the wagon, he peered down the much too bright street, looking for his friends. His heart hammered in his chest as he realized he couldn't see anyone but Buck and JD.
The kid was laughing at something, gesturing with his hands, while Buck listened with a smile.
"Vin? You all right there, son?"
The tracker spun around, eyes wild, and cowered back a bit. Josiah frowned, his approach slowing to a stop.
"Vin? My God, boy, you look terrible!"
"Josiah?" the name came out in a croak, and Vin swallowed, wincing at the pain it caused. Josiah came up beside him, reaching out to take Vin's naked arm. His frown deepened as he felt the heat coming off of the young man.
"Vin, you've been ignoring us all week about this. You must let Nathan see to you. This is getting ridiculous."
The tracker wrenched his arm free and backed up, shaking his head. "He can't help, Josiah. This isn't something he can cure. It's not something anyone can cure."
"Vin, please, at least let's get you to take a bath. Something. We're all worried about you."
Vin smiled at the comment, though it stabbed at something deep inside of him. Pain rippled around his neck, and he had to bend over slightly, but he still managed to back up some from Josiah. The preacher shook his head.
"At least tell me what is wrong. I promise, I won't tell the others."
Vin's lower lip trembled, and he shut his eyes. When he opened them again, they seemed to have regained some of their coherence.
"Visions," he whispered, "I'm having visions. Horrible, horrible visions." Suddenly, without warning, he sprung at Josiah, gripping his shirt. "Promise me, preacher, promise me you won't go away by yourself anymore. Promise me that."
Josiah frowned, his large carpenter's hands wrapping around Vin's as if to pry them off. "I don't think I can, Vin."
"Please," Vin buried his head in Josiah's shirt. Trying hard to hide his shock at the normally taciturn tracker's behavior, the preacher reached around tentatively to brush down the man's hair.
Vin sniffed and nodded, then, as if realizing what he was doing, let Josiah go. The preacher tried to hide his continuing frown.
"Is there anyone who might be able to help you? Anyone? You can't go on like this, Vin."
"You think I don't know that?" Vin spat back, leaning against the building. Looking up at the sky, he watched the crows jump from roof to roof. The preacher lowered his eyes, sighed, and looked down the street where he saw that Buck had noticed him talking to Vin. The ladies man raised his chin in a question, and Josiah shook his head. Clearly disappointed, Buck scratched at his face and looked back down at JD.
"Josiah?" Vin was looking at him again, "Just...out of curiosity, where are Chris and Ezra?"
The preacher stopped, and scratched at his head. "Chris, well, he's out on patrol somewhere. And Ezra...well, I haven't seen him since he lit out of here this morning."
Vin's eyes flew open, and he turned sharply to look at Josiah. "What do you mean, lit out of here this morning?"
Josiah shrugged. "A couple of hours ago, the telegraph operator ran to wake him up. Next thing we know, Ezra is throwing a saddle on Chaucer and taking off in the direction of Scrub Creek."
The question was delivered so tensely, Josiah began to worry himself. "Yes, of course. Just told Chris he'd be gone a couple of days and went. Come to think of it, he did seem out of sorts a bit."
"What was he wearing?"
"What was he wearing?" Josiah repeated.
"Yes. What was he wearing, damn it!"
"I don't know...red, I think. His red jacket."
Vin's eyes widened, "I have to go after him, Josiah. I have to!" the tracker shoved himself off the building...and would have collapsed forward if the preacher hadn't caught him. "No, no, he's in trouble, preacher. I have to help him!" Vin muttered, hating being so weak and trying to pull himself out of the other's hold.
Josiah stood him on his feet, "Listen to me. You're not going anywhere like this."
"Then you go after him, please Josiah. Someone has to. He can't be alone, you understand? Please."
Josiah tensed his jaw, and finally nodded. "All right, but only if you let Nathan look at you."
Desperate, Vin nodded. "Fine, just go. Hurry."
his arm under Vin's
shoulder, the preacher half dragged, half pulled him across the street to
Nathan's clinic. The healer had been
leaning on the railing of his balcony, watching. When he saw Josiah bringing Vin across the road, his lips curled into a large smile and
he raced down the stairs to meet them.
Josiah explained the situation, passing the tracker across to him, then
went into the livery below to get
Leaning morosely on Nathan's arm, the tracker wouldn't let the healer take him upstairs until he saw Josiah head off. Once he did, Vin lowered his head and let Nathan take over. He hoped Josiah would be in time.
Chris played with the small fire he'd lit, taking advantage of the quiet morning to spend some time away from the town...away from Vin. He had said he'd be on patrol, but really he'd just followed Ezra out of town until breaking off to reach the top of a small, tree-covered butte. There he set about lighting a fire for breakfast while Solon wandered off to graze. Leaning back against a tree, he watched the end of the small green branch he'd been using to poke the fire fade from red to black in the cooling wind.
Son of a bitch tracker. Why the hell wasn't he going to Nathan for help?
The sound of thudding hooves caused him to look back down the valley to the road, curious to see who was riding so quickly away from town. The answer puzzled him.
was galloping full out on
Ezra had a good two hours start, and had himself been
riding quickly, though not at a gallop.
Ezra had been riding at a trot, clearly in a rush, but not wanting to
push Chaucer more than the horse was able.
Josiah, on the other hand, seemed to have no qualms about pushing
Chris sighed and got up, heading towards Solon.
If Josiah was willing to push
Vin drank the tea Nathan had given him, grimacing at the taste. "What is this?"
"Syrian Rue. Its supposed to revive you," Nathan replied, "give you strength. You look like you need it."
"Yeah, well, too bad. Drink it, then I want you to tell me what the hell is going on with you. I can see your sick, but last time you were sick you saw me before it got too bad. Why have you been avoiding me this time?"
Vin looked over at him from shadowed eyes, his skin unnaturally pale, "Because you can't help me."
"Because it's not my body that's making me sick."
Nathan grimaced, "What does that mean? Your body looks plenty sick to me. Have you been eating?"
"Nathan, you ever have a vision?"
It was an odd question. Nathan frowned for a moment before answering. "What's a vision?"
"Like a bad dream, except that these ones come true."
Nathan frowned more deeply, "I don't believe in that kind of stuff, Vin."
Vin just nodded, knowing this already, and looked away. He was obviously finished speaking to Nathan about what was wrong with him. The healer shook his head, annoyed at himself. He didn't mean to be so dismissive, but it was a hard habit to break, speaking his mind like that.
"Look, regardless of what you think may be making you sick, visions or no visions, fact is, you are sick. You're not sleeping, that's obvious, and I'm guessing food isn't staying down. So, let me help you."
Vin glanced across at him, then looked back down at the mug in his hands. He'd managed to drink about a third of it. That was enough. Setting it down, he stood up off the edge of the cot he'd been sitting on.
"Whoa!" Nathan shot up and put out a hand, "Where are you going?"
"You can't help me, Nathan."
"Wait! You didn't even let me try!"
"You gave me a drink to revive me. It revived me. I'm going to go now."
"Where? Vin, you can barely walk. Please, stay here a while. At least let me give you a sleeping draught for you to take tonight. You need rest!"
"A sleeping draught?" Vin shook his head. "I don't want to sleep, Nathan. And I can't rest. Not anymore."
Nathan gritted his teeth, watching uselessly as Vin weaved his way to the clinic's door. "You promised Josiah you'd let me look at you, Vin."
The tracker stopped, looking back with tired eyes. "And you looked. All you can offer is something to make me sleep and some foul tasting drinks. I don't need or want either. So, I'm going to go now."
"Vin! Damn it to hell, you need help!"
Vin stopped in the door, leaning against the frame and letting the cool autumn air brush back his hair.
Nathan sighed, "There has to be someone who can help, someone you can talk to."
Vin shook his head, "There's no one here who can do that," he replied quietly.
"So you're going to let this thing just kill you? Waste you away to nothing?"
Vin looked back at him with haunted eyes, and shrugged. "See ya, Nathan." With a nod, he disappeared from out the clinic door.
Nathan sat down heavily and put his head in his hands.
Ezra slowed Chaucer down, looking vaguely around him at changing landscape. He'd headed north along the road, taking the occasional fork, during which the red dust and heat of the plains had become a green landscape of mesquite and juniper. He'd ridden up into the foothills of what, for lack of a better term, could be described as mountains, and hardy firs gathered thickly against the leeward sides. The early fall air had become noticeably cooler up here, and he thanked his foresight for telling him to wear his red woolen coat.
Chaucer was panting heavily, unhappy at the pace he'd been forced to keep for such a long length of time, and snorted a few times to show it. Patting the chestnut on the neck, Ezra dismounted and walked alongside the horse for a while.
"I'm sorry, old friend," he soothed, one hand scratching at the horse's withers, "but there is a need for speed. We need to get to Scrub Creek by this evening or I may not be in time." In response, Chaucer merely snorted again, bobbing his head up and down, and Ezra smiled.
"Sometimes, Chaucer, I almost think you understand me. Something very few others do." Again, Chaucer nodded his head and snorted, probably to dislodge some flies but it still made Ezra smile again. Shutting his eyes, he let Chaucer lead him for a while.
After about ten minutes, he remounted and kicked Chaucer into a fast trot, aiming towards a place where the firs opened up to admit the road. He knew that about halfway into the forest he'd reach a fairly large stream where, as everyone always does, he'd water Chaucer and eat a quick lunch.
looked impatiently into the distance, trying to spot a sign of Ezra's red
then, he thought he saw a flash of red as it neared the edge of the
trees. Smiling, and estimating that he could only be about an hour behind
Ezra now, he kicked
Solon was now a pretty old horse, but he was still strong despite years of hard work. Chris patted him affectionately on the side and continued in the steady trot he'd maintained as he followed Josiah and Ezra's trail. Part of him wondered if he might be intruding on something, following them like this, but part of him was also pumped up with adrenalin at the chase. Fact was, even if nothing was wrong, he was actually enjoying himself for the first time since Vin had started to get really sick.
Grimacing slightly, the gunslinger wished it didn't bother him so much to see Vin getting sicker and sicker while all the time shutting them out. Of course, had he thought about it, Chris might have realized that it was something he did often himself, but it was always different seeing it in someone else. Especially Vin. The man was quiet, and it was not often that he let something get so close to him that it showed visibly on his face. For all the Ezra prided himself on having an excellent poker face, when it came to hiding things, Vin had the gambler matched. But something was bothering the tracker so much that it was visibly and literally eating away at him, and nothing the others had said or done all week had been of any help.
So, any distraction at this point was a good distraction. Smiling, he encouraged Solon to pick up the pace a little.
Vin wandered slowly through town, ignoring the fact that most of the townsfolk were now giving him a wide berth. Rumors that the tracker had consumption or the fever circulated widely, and many of the folk covered up their mouths or turned away as he passed.
Feeling more and more like a leper, Vin wished he had the energy to get on Peso and ride the hell out of this blasted town. But then he couldn't be sure that his visions didn't come true. And he was going to do everything in his power to make sure that they didn't come true.
If they didn't kill him first.
Looking up, he realized his wanderings had taken him to the edge of town, and to the steps of Josiah's church. A small smile lit upon his lips at almost the same time that a wave of dizziness swept over him. Gripping the stone railing on the side, he stumbled up the steps and into the cool interior.
Ezra slowed down once he was in the forest, his eyes watching the road for the holes and ruts hidden by the trees' shadows. Now that he was almost halfway to Scrub Creek, he found himself thinking more and more about the letter he'd received. He had avoided thinking about it the entire ride, but the quietude of his surroundings and the fact that he was keeping Chaucer to a slow walk forced his mind to wander.
It was pretty straightforward, sent by the sheriff of Scrub Creek, but its subject matter had chilled him to the core. A woman had been found dead in a stagecoach accident outside of the town, and his name had been found on an envelope in her belongings. The described her as an older woman with blond hair and blue eyes, probably in her late fifties, and among her things were several letters all addressed to Maude Standish. The assumption was made, therefore, that it was his mother. According to the letter, Ezra had until tomorrow to go and identify the body and pick up her things before they interned her in the ground and gave her things to charity.
He'd instantly telegrammed to say he'd be there this evening then ridden off before they had a chance to reply.
up at the trees, he tried to hold onto his emotions until he knew for sure.
But all he could think about was that she might be gone.
After about ten minutes, Josiah stopped and looked back up at him. "Ready?"
"Not long now, young 'un," Josiah promised, swinging up into the saddle. Kicking the unhappy horse into a trot, the preacher looked down at Ezra's trail, noting that it looked like the younger man was walking Chaucer now. Grinning, Josiah estimated that he'd catch up to them at the stream.
Chris entered the foothills just in time to see Josiah's form disappear into the trees in the distance. The gunslinger was impressed, amazed at how fast the preacher had to have been moving to be that far ahead. Josiah was probably closer to Ezra than Chris was to Josiah now. Smiling, Chris kicked Solon to move faster and the horse responded instantly. He could feel his rider's excitement and was more than willing to run if he wanted him to.
Vin looked up at the rafters of the church, surprised at the number of cobwebs he could see up there. He guessed that Josiah wasn't too concerned with the spiders, especially if they ate the ants and other pests that ate away at the Church's wood supports.
The door creaked open and the tracker shut his eyes. He'd come in here to hide, thinking it would be the last place any of his friends would look for him, but apparently he was wrong.
"Vin?" Nathan's voice was clearly worried, something which made the tracker feel even worse.
"Yeah, Nathan. I'm here."
"I have an idea. Since I know you won't talk to anyone here in town, I thought maybe you might be able to talk to someone from outside. Such as someone from the Indian village? Maybe they'd understand these visions of yours better than me."
Vin hummed a little, thinking how best to reply. He'd had the same thought, but, as he didn't really know the tribe all that well, he didn't feel right about asking them for help. Plus, they didn't know him, other than the couple of brief visits he'd had with them because of Claire Mosely, so he wasn't sure they could really do anything. On top of that...he just didn't feel well enough to go anywhere.
"I was thinking," Nathan continued, coming around the edge of the front pew to see Vin lying there, "that maybe I could get Kojay to come here. I know you're not well enough to move, so I...."
"Kojay? The chief?" Vin tried not to laugh, especially since his chest hurt so much. "Nathan, you'd have to be someone really special to get a chief of a tribe like Kojay's to venture into a white town to help a white man."
"But you saved his son," Nathan was not about to be put off.
"It was my fault his son was nearly lynched in the first place. They probably wouldn't have found them if it wasn't for me."
Nathan shook his head, "You're not the only tracker out there, Vin. And would any other tracker have brought him back alive?"
Vin shook his head, then stopped when the movement made it ache loudly. "Listen," he said, his anger at being bothered seeping into his voice, "I don't even know Kojay, Nathan, except for meeting him that one time. Plus, he's not a healer, he's a leader."
"Josiah told me that Kojay helped him see some things more clearly. Perhaps he can do the same for you?"
"Josiah...knew them from before, Nathan. You forget that both you and he lived here before the rest of us came. Plus, he spent time out there with them when that whole Mosely thing was happening. Me, I'd feel like an intruder trying to get help when I barely know them."
Nathan shook his head and gave an exasperated sigh, "So what do you suggest? That we do nothing? I can't do nothing, Vin!"
The order was sharp and curt, and blood red eyes challenged the healer's annoyed ones.
"Fine. Be an idiot and die in misery," Nathan replied, slamming a fist into the side of the pew Vin was lying on and marching out. Vin sighed and shut his eyes. When the action threatened to bring back the images of his nightmares, he opened them again to stare up at the ceiling. At least the spiders didn't mess with his head.
Outside, Nathan looked disgustedly around at the town. Buck wandered up with JD, the two eyeing him with questioning looks.
"Any luck?" Buck asked, indicating the church.
"He's about as responsive as a log," the healer replied.
JD smiled, "Does that make you the beaver?"
Both men turned to look at him with a strange look.
JD smiled, "Gnawing away at the log. The beaver. That's what they do. They gnaw at logs. Get it?" He looked at them both expectantly. When they continued to look at him oddly, he threw up his hands.
"Oh for...just forget it."
Buck shook his head and looked back at Nathan, who had turned to stare at his feet.
"So what now?"
Nathan shrugged, then turned to look at the livery. "Stay here and make sure he doesn't go anywhere. I'm going to find someone to help." Nodding at them both, he strode purposefully towards the livery to collect his horse. Buck smiled faintly, happy to finally see someone doing something. He just hoped whatever Nathan was thinking would work.
Ezra dismounted as he reached the stream. It was almost dry at this time of year, coming off the end of a long, dry summer, but it still flowed. Most of the riverbeds down on the plains dried up completely, not to be filled again until the winter.
Kneeling down, he scooped some of the icy water into a chafed hand and splashed the liquid across his face. Next to him, Chaucer leaned down to take a drink and Ezra smiled at his loyal horse.
Suddenly the horse's head shot up and looked behind him.
The movement startled Ezra enough that he nearly lost his balance. Catching himself on one arm, he turned to see what the horse had heard.
The road behind him was quiet as it wound out of the trees towards the fjord, but, if he strained out the sound of the rushing water, he realized he could hear hoofbeats coming towards him.
Standing, he pulled his rifle off of Chaucer's back and nestled it casually against his shoulder, pointing down the trail.
few minutes later, Josiah came out of the trees on an exhausted horse.
"Josiah? What are you doing here?" he demanded sharply. “Has something happened?”
his head, the tired preacher dismounted and slapped
"I'm catching up with you, that's what. What do you think I'm here for?"
Frowning, Ezra walked over to Chaucer and stuck the rifle back into the rigging on the saddle, his concern replaced by annoyance. "Well, go home. You're not wanted."
"Ouch," Josiah touched a hand to his chest and did a poor job of trying to look hurt. It was his way of saying that he wasn't going anywhere.
Rolling his eyes, the gambler knelt back down to clean more of the dirt off of his hands and face. The two horses moved a little further downstream. At one point, Chaucer looked up and around him again as if he heard something, but, seeing nothing immediately amiss, went back to his drink. Ezra shook his head at his blurred reflection.
"What do you want Josiah?"
"Honestly, Ezra, it wasn't my idea to follow you. I came because Vin insisted."
This got the gambler's attention, and he turned to look at Josiah with concern again, "Vin?"
"He went a little crazy when I mentioned you rode off this morning. I had to promise to come after you so that he wouldn't get on a horse and come himself." Josiah smiled, "I even got him to see Nathan as part of the deal."
Ezra absorbed this for a moment, before sighing and standing, "He was worried about me? Why?"
"No idea, but, truth be told, he was so earnest in his conviction that it spurred me to actually work hard to catch you. I admit I feel a little ridiculous now."
looked at the sheen on
Josiah's face screwed up a little, "Yes, I know."
"I don't have time to wait for him to recover sufficiently for you to travel the rest of the way with me, Josiah. So, best if you just go home. Tell Vin you saw me safely this far and that I was well. That should be enough. Glad you got him to see Nathan, though. That was good of you. Not that I imagine it will do much good."
pursed his lips and looked across at
Ezra just arched an eyebrow. Josiah smiled.
“Will you tell me why are you in such a rush to get to Scrub Creek?"
The gambler didn't answer immediately, a little surprised by the plain spoken question. He’d expected Josiah to approach it more carefully, though he had known it was coming After a moment, he reached into his pocket to retrieve the letter he'd gotten this morning. Walking over, he handed it to Josiah then turned away, crossing his arms over his chest, his chin dropping to his chest.
"Oh…," the preacher whispered as he read the note. "Ezra, son, I’m so sorry. I can’t believe...." He paused before finishing the sentiment, and Ezra looked back at him curiously.
“Hold on a moment,” Josiah scanned the note several times before frowning in confusion. Finally, he looked across at the younger man. "Ezra? Did you see who signed this?"
The gambler turned back to face Josiah, then took a couple of steps to look over the man's shoulder at the note.
"Sheriff Teeley. So?"
"So that can't be right."
Ezra looked up at the older man, who was frowning deeply now.
"Why can't that be right?" he asked, watching Josiah's eyes carefully.
"Because Scrub Creek doesn't have a sheriff. You know that, don't you? It's a large enough town that they were actually awarded a police force last spring by the governor. The chief constable is a man by the name of Grayson. Remember? Mary ran several days of articles on it, as a sign that our area of the world is growing and settling."
Ezra grabbed the paper back out of Josiah's hands and reread it.
besides," Josiah continued, "I thought you told me your mother was
"Well, yes, but, you know how she is, she often shows up in unexpected places, although...." Ezra's face was completely confused now.
Maude can't move so fast as to be in
Ezra looked up at Josiah, his brow deeply knitted, "I don't think I understand."
"Not sure I do either, but I know that there is something wrong with that letter."
The gambler's jaw tensed, and he looked back at Chaucer. For the first time, he noticed the horse seemed agitated by something. "What is going on, Josiah?"
must be a hoax, son. A
cruel hoax. I think you've been
had." Josiah's face was cold. Ezra's eyes darted around, looking around at
the trees. Chaucer was walking back to
his rider's side, followed by the younger
"Josiah, I think we should get out of here," the gambler hissed quickly, moving to take hold of Chaucer's bridle.
"Hands away from the guns, both of you!" a voice boomed from nowhere.
Before either man could react, five men stepped out from behind the trees, guns trained and ready. In the middle, one man stepped forward to point a rifle directly at Ezra's head.
"Well now, I'm guessing you'd be Ezra Standish?" the man holding the rifle asked. Ezra’s eyebrow rose in response as both he and Josiah held their hands away from their sides.
"Ezra Standish? Oh no,” Ezra replied slowly, “I’m someone else entirely. The man your looking for is about 6 foot four, red hair and wears a lot of denim. Head west…can’t miss him.”
The man holding the rifle chuckled. "Ah now, that's what we like to see, eh boys? A sense of humor in a man about to meet his maker.”
“Oh, well, I’ve plenty more where that came from,” Ezra replied, talking very fast. “How about I tell them to you over dinner sometime…maybe seventy, eighty years from now?”
The rifleman chuckled again, and Ezra risked a half hearted smile. Josiah sighed heavily and looked skywards.
“I’d love to, but I’m afraid you’re not my type. Nevertheless, seeing as your such a good sport, falling into our trap so nicely and all, I'm willing to offer you the choice of how you die." The black barrel of the rifle shifted position up and down with the options. “Head…or heart?”
Ezra swallowed, eyes glued to the rifle. "Um, neither, if you wouldn't mind. And, uh, seeing as your being so gentlemanly about this, if you'd be so good as to let my friend go, I'd be much obliged."
The smile fell slightly form the bandit's face, and he glanced at Josiah. "No, sorry. Not my fault this idiot decided to follow you." He scowled at Josiah, who was staring blankly over the rifleman’s shoulder. "Should have left when Standish here told you to, old timer. We gave you every opportunity." Josiah's lips lifted into a small smile, then he returned to staring blankly.
Ezra, meanwhile, continued trying to talk their way out of this.
"Josiah's not worth the bullets, good sir. Believe me. Perhaps we could make a deal here?"
The bandit turned back to him, the smile back in place.
"Well, hell, seeing as your about to die, boy, I'm not sure what kind a deal you could make."
Ezra's lips twitched, "If you let him go....I can tell you where you can find almost a thousand dollars in cash."
"A thousand?" That perked the man up a bit, and he looked across at Josiah. "Just for him?"
"It's not far from here, in the town I just came from."
Ezra frowned, "Not even for a thousand dollars?"
The bandit laughed, "Well, seeing as we've been paid three times that to kill you, I think we can live without it."
Both Josiah and Ezra's eyes widened, and the preacher looked long and hard at his companion. Ezra just stood with his mouth open.
"H....how much?" the gambler gasped.
The bandit's smile deepened, threatening to become a smirk, "Three thousand.”
“Three…thousand…dollars, just for me?” Ezra was clearly having trouble processing this. “But…”
“Just you? Oh no,” the rifleman. “Not just you, Standish.” The man’s eyes changed, from warm to ice cold as Ezra watched. “We were hired to kill you and your horse…the horse first."
Ezra’s eyes widened, and he was momentarily struck dumb as he looked at the man, then at Chaucer and back again.
Then all thought fled as his hands went to his sides, and probably would have reached his guns if Josiah hadn't been ready to grab his arms. Fighting the bigger man's hold, Ezra yelled in frustration and glared at the assassin with a now uncontained fury. The assassin was chuckling again, not surprised. He'd guessed from the orders he'd gotten that the gambler's horse had some sort of special meaning for him.
"You bastard! My horse? You can't!" Ezra continued to fight Josiah's hold, “Damn it, let me GO Josiah!” Upon hearing Ezra’s command, the preacher let him go. He had just wanted to make sure the gambler didn't make any stupid moves. Ezra was calm enough now that, though he was still visibly shaking, he didn't look ready to go for his guns again.
"Well, isn't that interesting, eh boys? Someone grab the beast, will ya? Bring him over here?"
flinched at the command, but he didn’t do anything more than grip his hands
into fists as he watched one of the other assassins move to gather up Chaucer,
who was standing a little off to the side with Quincy. When the man got close, the chestnut reared
up angrily, forcing the man back.
"No! Chaucer!" Ezra's hands itched to grab his guns, "Chaucer, stop!"
The command had an immediate effect, and the chestnut backed up, shaking his head slightly and whinnying angrily. The downed man looked across at his leader, who was frowning but shrugged. Sighing, the man got up, put his gun away and, more tentatively this time, reached in and grabbed the reins. Chaucer bared his teeth, but suffered himself being led next to where Ezra and Josiah stood.
"Good boy," Ezra said quietly as Chaucer looked at him. The horse snorted, bowing his head to eat a small tuft of grass hidden inside spattering of dead leaves. The man holding his reins jerked the animal's head up roughly, and Chaucer fought the hold, ready to challenge him again. Ezra shouted his name again, which caused the unhappy chestnut to give him a somewhat baleful stare, but he didn’t fight anymore. Ezra, his voice weaker now, looked back at the leader.
"Why him? He’s not a threat to you.”
The assassin shrugged, "I assume because he's a part of who you are. You do seem to be attached to him. You weren't nearly so reactive when I said I'd have to kill your friend here." He jerked his chin in the direction of Josiah.
The gambler looked at Chaucer, then sideways at the preacher before looking back again at the leader. The assassin seemed to be enjoying his captive's distress and let Ezra gather his thoughts. After a moment, more composed, the gambler spoke again.
"Can you at least tell me who?"
"Who ordered you to kill me and my horse. And why?"
"Does it matter?"
"Yes. After all," Ezra reached a hand to brush along Chaucer's hide, the surrounding assassins watching him like a hawk, "it is possible you have the wrong man. I admit I find it hard to believe I am worth three thousand dollars."
head assassin smiled. "Oh no, it's you, boy. I quote: Ezra Standish, sometimes Spencer,
sometimes Simpson or Solomon, the gambler of
"Don't know?" Ezra tried to still his shaking hand as he continued to find support in Chaucer.
"We were hired by someone who looked like a butler. A man in a dark suit, nothing particularly special. He was a real stiff character, though, had one of them English accents. All proper sounding. He hired us. Told us to bring you and the head of your horse back with us."
"The head of..." Ezra shook his head. Next to him, Josiah had shifted slightly so that one arm brushed against the younger man's. Ezra didn't notice. Instead, he shut his eyes, then opened them to look back at the assassin, "What if...what if I could get you two thousand dollars? Would you let Josiah and my horse go?"
thousand...? Back in
"Yes. And I could potentially get you another
thousand, though I'm not sure where that money is at the moment. Wouldn't be hard to find
though. And that would not be in
"Wow, three thousand dollars? And all we'd have to do for two thousand of that is get past Chris Larabee?" The man laughed again. At the sound, Ezra felt any hope dwindle. The assassin shook his head. The gambler licked his lips and tried to look encouraging.
"Mr. Larabee...does not know how long I am to be gone," he tried. "If you were fast, he might never notice."
"Fast?" the assassin's eyes narrowed and he looked at Josiah. "Tell me, Standish, who do you think this one would go to first if we to let him go? Not to mention that, since I'm assuming you sent a telegram to Scrub Creek, your friends have probably already learned of the hoax, or will soon, from the real sheriff," he looked with irritation at Josiah again, "sorry…chief constable…of Scrub Creek. There's no time, Standish. And as for fast, we all know that Larabee is probably faster than all of us."
"You could...you could tie Josiah up and leave him here. And Chaucer...."
"The horse is part of your price, Standish. Your body and his head. And I'm afraid both your times are up. I choose the head, Standish, that way you'll die the same way as your horse." Grinning, he raised the rifle up to point at Ezra's head, and barked one last order to the man holding Chaucer.
"Kill the horse. And use the gambler’s own rifle."
The man holding his reins dropped them, reaching for the rifle tucked in the saddle. Chaucer let him, then started backing up to get away from the stranger, as if he sensed what was about to happen. His large eyes were fixed on the assassin as the stranger pulled back the hammer and lifted it. The leader smiled as he saw Ezra’s breath quicken. The gambler’s mind was racing…he had to think of something…he had to think of SOMETHING….
"Wait!" Ezra threw his hands up, just as the area filled with gunshots.
The leader went down first, the bullet entering his skull with pinpoint accuracy. Almost simultaneously, the one holding the rifle on Chaucer fell as a bullet ripped through his back. It had happened so quickly, the other three killers could only gape as Chris Larabee emerged out of the trees like a wraith, his long black duster blown up like angel wing's behind his back, the gun in each hand smoking, thumbs pulling back the hammers to fire again.
Josiah -- who'd seen Chris signal to him just before attacking -- pulled out his old Smith & Wesson and started shooting at the man nearest to Chris’s position. The gunman crumpled into the river, a bullet to his leg and one to his gun hand.
Ezra, who'd not seen Chris nor noticed Josiah's attempt to alert him, had stepped backwards in surprise as the leader fell at his feet, then stumbled as he felt a bullet enter his right shoulder, shot by the fourth gunman. With a yell, he pulled out his colt with his left and fired…and was slightly surprised to see the shooter fall. Ezra hadn’t even aimed.
meanwhile, had been forced to duck behind a tree as the last and final gunman, screaming
something unintelligible, sprayed all his bullets at him and Josiah – who dived
to the ground -- before turning and
running for Quincy. The young gelding
had retreated further down the stream, and the gunman saw him as his best means
And it was over.
Ezra fell back on one knee, hand gripping his bleeding shoulder. His pained eyes found Chris, watching as the gunslinger walked among the downed men like Hades around a battlefield, checking to see who was alive. Josiah got down on his knees next to him and tried to see the extent of the gambler's wound.
"Let me see," the preacher said softly, putting his hand on top of Ezra's as the gambler continued to ignore him and watch Chris. The words seemed to bring Ezra back to the present, and he slowly lifted his hand up as Josiah peeled back the red jacket. Chris, meanwhile, was kneeling next to the one Josiah had hit. The man was moaning incoherently, holding his bleeding hand to his chest and staring up at Chris with wild eyes.
"Where were you hired," Chris hissed, grabbing the man’s collar. “What town?”
The assassin blinked up at him a few times, tears rolling down his face from the pain. After a moment, his red face began to smile and he shook his head. Chris gritted his teeth and grabbed the man by his jacket collar, pulling him up. The man groaned and shut his eyes.
"I can make that pain ten times worse, and still you won't die," he promised harshly. "Tell me what you know!"
The man opened up his eyes and smiled again. Chris shook him a little, and the man cried out in pain, his mouth opening. Chris stopped, looking inside the man's mouth as the killer kept it open for him.
"God in Heaven," the gunslinger whispered, shoving the man roughly back down to the ground into the water. The killer was making a sound like he was laughing now. Chris turned to look at Ezra, who was still watching him as Josiah bound some cloth around his shoulder. Chris shook his head.
"Ezra...this man has no tongue."
gambler just stared at him, having absolutely no answer for that. Part of him had begun to wonder if any of
this was really happening. Josiah had
stopped wrapping the gambler’s shoulder at the news, and he looked at the
gunslinger as Chris walked over to the man
"Chris?" Ezra got back up to his feet with Josiah's help, watching as Chris stood in the middle of the mess running a hand through his short cropped hair. The gunslinger dropped the hand and looked back at Ezra.
“What the hell are you into?” Chris asked darkly.
Ezra just stared at him, non-plussed. He looked down at the carnage, then up again at Chris. He shook his head slowly.
“I…have no idea. Really. None. This…this has to be a mistake.” He swayed a little, and Josiah wrapped an arm around him. The fact that Ezra didn’t refuse proved how out of sorts he was.
Chris sighed, blowing the air out his cheeks, then shrugged, looking at the leader. "Well, we’ll take these back with us," he said quietly, "perhaps we can get the two still alive to point at a map.” He looked into the trees, “We should find their horses.”
Buck found them returning on the road, the gregarious gunslinger overjoyed to find them all together. Ezra was obviously hurt, but at least he was alive and nothing could have made Buck happier. The ladies’ man explained that the telegraph operator had found him and JD, hurriedly saying that the note Ezra must have gotten this morning was a hoax. Apparently, Constable Grayson of Scrub Creek had no idea about any Sheriff Teeley or any dead woman with the name of Standish, and Buck had ridden out after him.
"You're damn lucky, Ez," Buck noted, nodding at Josiah and Chris. "If Vin hadn't sent Josiah after you this morning...."
Grunting a little as he adjusted the makeshift sling on his arm, Ezra nodded. "I know," he said softly, "I have a great deal to thank Mr. Tanner for."
"How is he?" Chris asked.
"Not good," Buck answered solemnly "Nathan went to fetch help, but...who knows." He shrugged, trying not to show how much he was bothered. "Come on, we should get back. JD's watching town all alone." Pulling hard on Gray's reins to turn the horse around, he started back at a good clip towards town. Chris moved forward to match him, then forced him to slow down with a nod at Ezra.
The gambler grimaced, annoyed that he was forcing them to go slowly. Josiah came up beside him, reaching a hand out to steady him as he listed to the side again. Ezra smiled in thanks, and lowered his eyes.
"Josiah...I, uh, I know that back there it may have seemed as if I cared more about Chaucer...."
"Stop, Ezra. I know," Josiah smiled.
"Well, still, I'd like to explain," Ezra looked up again.
"Ezra, you love that horse. Anyone who knows you knows that."
"But he's a horse. Against a gun, he is helpless, just like a child. He needs protection, and the idea of someone wanting to hurt him is incomprehensible, because he is so helpless and harmless. So, you reacted the way you did. You don't need to protect me the same way," Josiah shrugged.
Ezra smiled. Josiah did get it. He should have known he would.
"Of course," a smile spread across Josiah's face, "it would be nice to know that, had I died, you might at least have mourned me as much as him."
Ezra frowned, "Well, I...."
The preacher sighed, knowing full well he was baiting the other man as he leaned in close. "You do care, don't you, son? Maybe just a little?"
“Josiah, of course I…” Ezra trailed off as he saw the knowing smile on the older man’s face. His eyes narrowed to shoot the preacher an annoyed look. Lord, how he hated Josiah sometimes.
"Forget it. You're too irritating to care about." Ezra said.
"Oh, come now. You were going to bare your soul to me, tell me how much you cared. Don't stop now."
"I think I'd rather pass out from blood loss at this moment. It'd be less painful."
Josiah laughed, and Ezra smiled.
"Ungrateful," Josiah accused, still chuckling.
"Overbearing!" Ezra shot back.
Josiah looked startled, then smiled wickedly.
"My, my. I wonder whether your mother would agree."
"Oh lord," Ezra bowed his head and shifted forward in the saddle, "that was low, Josiah. Very low." The movement upset his precarious sense of equilibrium, and the gambler suddenly found the word blurring as he fell sideways. Josiah grabbed his good arm and pulled him up again.
"It'll be all right, son," Josiah said quietly as Ezra's world spun, all sense of joviality gone. "I've got you." When Ezra felt stable again, he thanked the preacher with a nod and tried to take deep enough breaths to prevent the bile that had risen in his throat from going any further.
"I really do have a great deal to thank Vin Tanner for," the gambler whispered as Josiah rode forward to ask Chris to slow down some more.
"Vin?" Nathan placed a cool hand on Vin's fevered face, his face tight with worry. He found the tracker stretched out along one of Josiah's pews, unconscious, and he hadn't moved since Nathan had arrived. JD stood off to one side, trying not to react at the site of the wasted man.
Sensing the kid's nervousness, Nathan tried to smile over at him.
"He's not gone, JD. His body has just finally shut down on him. With a little work, we can get him awake again, I'm sure."
"He looks like he's dying," said a different voice over Nathan's shoulder. The healer sighed and looked back up at the man he hoped would be the tracker's salvation.
"He won't let me give him any medicine, and he's neither eating or sleeping. None of us can figure out why. All I know is what I told you. It's as if...." he stopped, not wanting to admit he thought Vin might want to die.
Kojay smiled kindly and knelt down to place his own hand on Vin's drawn and pale face. Chanu stood off to one side, his face hidden in the shadows. The pain in Vin's features was clear, and the young Indian gritted his teeth at the realization that there was nothing he could do to help. He was a warrior, much like Vin, and he hoped this sickness was something he could help Vin to fight. But Vin looked like he didn't want to fight. He was just letting it kill him. Chanu finally had to turn away, annoyance and some anger flitting in his eyes.
"Do you know what the visions were about?" Kojay asked quietly, watching the way Vin's eyes rolled beneath his eyelids. The boy was dreaming.
"No. Though, the way he talked this morning makes me think it has to do with us, somehow."
Kojay's eyes glanced at Nathan, then he nodded. "Tell me more about him."
Nathan shrugged. "Not much that I know, really. He doesn't talk much about his past, least, no more than any of the rest of us." Nathan shrugged, feeling the familiar tightening of the skin on his back from the old scars.
"So, you know nothing?"
Nathan studied Vin's face, and frowned when he saw the tracker grimace at something in his sleep.
"I know that his mother died when he was just a boy. I know nothing about his father, if he had one that was around. You get the impression that he wasn't. I also know he spent some time on an Indian reservation or two. Learned how to hunt and track from them." The healer glanced at Chanu, who was looking quietly out of one of the high peaked windows in the church. Nathan shrugged, "Afterwards, he made his living as a bounty hunter for a while. About five years back, he was framed for a murder he didn't do, and, when they tried to hang him, he took off. Been on the run ever since."
Kojay smiled again, noting the lazy way which the healer mentioned the murder. There was no doubt in Nathan's voice, which worked with the impression Kojay and Chanu had gotten from the tracker all that time ago.
"You know quite a lot," the chief remarked. "The way you talk about him tells me more about him than any facts you may have learned."
Nathan snorted slightly, then gave a somewhat bashful smile. "Yeah well, however much help that is, that's all I can tell you."
"More than enough. Thank you Nathan."
Kojay continued to watch the healer for a moment, as if waiting for something, then raised his eyebrows slightly.
"Oh!" realization dawned on Nathan. "Right, okay. C'mon JD. Let's you and I let these good folks see what they can do."
Kojay turned to look at Chanu, who was still staring out of the window. "You go too, son. I think I may know what is wrong, and it will not require your presence for a while. If you like, you can return home."
Chanu shook his head, but picked up his bag. "I'll be outside with the others. We'll make camp nearby, out of sight of these people, but close enough for you to find us." Nodding once, he shouldered the bag and followed JD and Nathan outside where two other warriors from the reservation were waiting with the horses.
Kojay looked around until he saw the chair Josiah kept near the side of the dais. Pulling it over, he sat down and tried pushing on Vin's shoulder to wake him up. He tracker didn't respond. Sighing, the chief sat back to wait.
As Nathan stepped out of the church, he saw Chris and the others rolling in, and ran the rest of the way to meet them as Ezra nearly fell out of his saddle.
"Jesus! What happened!" he demanded, catching Ezra as Chaucer came to a halt. The gambler let himself be eased out of the saddle to the ground, then leaned heavily on the healer, one arm around Nathan's shoulders.
"Came across some bad guys," Chris deadpanned. "Ezra didn't move fast enough when the firing started." He smiled thinly at the barely upright Ezra, who glared back with red-rimmed eyes. Nathan leaned across and played with the messy bandage on Ezra's hurt shoulder and made the appropriate clucking noises of dismay as the gambler hissed painfully at the touch. Josiah, meanwhile, worked with Buck to get the bodies off of the other horses. The one man who was still alive got thrown over a shoulder and taken to the jail. He'd be tended to after Ezra.
"Well, let's get ya to the clinic," Nathan sighed, starting to pull Ezra with him. The gambler, however, dug in his heels.
"No, wait," he croaked, his voice hoarse from the strain of staying upright and awake, "Where's Vin? I need to see him."
Nathan frowned, annoyed as Ezra refused to keep moving. "He's in the church, but he's out of it. Plus, There's Kojay in there with him, and I don't want you disturbing them."
Ezra shook his head, undaunted. "I don't care who is in there. You take me to see him."
"Treat Ezra in the church, Nathan." Chris's voice was not demanding, it was just a statement, as if he'd just announced it was going to rain. Whenever he spoke like that, people couldn't help but respond, whether they wanted to or not.
And Nathan was no exception.
"Fine, but you go in there and explain to the chief why we're disturbing them." Pulling Ezra's good arm up higher across his shoulders to support him better, the healer stomped off in the direction of Josiah's home, dragging Ezra with him.
"What did happen?" JD asked, helping Chris with the horses. He was tying the reins of the bandit's mounts they'd ponied in to the railing outside the jail.
The gunslinger shook his head. "It was an ambush, designed perfectly to catch Ezra - knew exactly what would throw him. If Josiah and I hadn't shown up..." he shook his head. "After we get these boys settled down, I'm going to follow them to the church. I want to know how Vin knew there would be trouble too."
JD shook his head, reaching up to stroke Chaucer's nose, "Nah, Chris. I wouldn't. I get the feeling that Vin doesn't really know anything."
The gunslinger frowned, looking as JD took Chaucer's reins in one hand and Buck's Gray's reins in the other. The kid stopped when Chris called him back.
"What do you mean? He sent Josiah after Ezra, didn't he?" he pulled Solon and Quincy behind him as he caught up to JD.
"Sure," JD shrugged. "But you ask me, all this talk of visions is silly."
Chris smiled, his expression surprised. Of all people he thought JD would be one of the first to accept the idea. JD shook his head, not missing Chris's reaction.
I know you all think I'm just some dumb kid from the East who doesn't know
anything. But, you know, we have our share of odd things out there – you
ever heard of the Salem Witch Trials? Well,
I've seen women shake themselves into a tizzy because of supposed visions, and
men who swear they see ghosts at every turn. I may even have seen a few things
out of the corner of my eyes myself. But you know, half the time, the things
people see are just their own fears and memories playing with their
minds. They want to see their dead mother at a séance, they see
her. They want to know their son is okay on that far way sea voyage to
Buck laughed as he jogged over to catch up with them, having heard the end of JD's little speech. He took Gray's reins and patted the horses' hide.
"Damn kid, maybe it should be you in there talking to Vin, sounds like you got this all figured out."
JD glared at the ladies man, then, with a snort, pulled Chaucer behind him and into the stable. Chris shook his head at Buck's sly wink.
"Whatever is wrong....Whatever Vin thinks he sees," Chris took a deep breath, then stated firmly, "he better not die because of it."
The words wiped the smile from Buck's face as Chris followed JD into the stable.
Vin screamed and sat up, sweat pouring down his face and over the stubbled jaw. For a moment, he didn't know where he was, having expected to see his wagon, but soon the shape of the church roof's rafters and the red and yellow light streaming in from the altar window came into focus.
"Shhh," someone soothed, lifting up the cool cloth from Vin's lap that had moments before been lying on the tracker's forehead. "It's all right, Vin Tanner. Calm down." The cloth was placed back on Vin's forehead as the tracker slumped back, though he didn't lie down the whole way.
The unfamiliar voice caused Vin to frown as he turned to look into the face of the man sitting near him. His eyes widened in recognition.
"Yes, tracker, it's me." His aged lips quirked into a smile at the confused gaze Vin have him, and he shook his head. "Nathan came to get me. I admit, I was a little wary coming into this town again after all that has happened between our people, but Chanu was going to come whether I did or not, so...I came."
"Chanu...?" Vin shook his head, and immediately regretted it as the headache he felt drummed even louder against his temples. Raising a hand to his head, he loosened his frown and looked around for the chief's son, wanting to tell them that it wasn't safe. The townsfolk still didn't trust Kojay's people. They shouldn't be risking their lives just for him.
But instead, he saw Ezra.
"Ezra? Oh my God, he looks...Is he okay...?" Vin stared back at Kojay, his eyes now bright with fear.
The gambler was sleeping on the opposite pew, his arm tightly bandaged to his side and dried blood still on his travel stained clothes. He had refused to leave the church even though Vin was still asleep, and, finally, Kojay had expressed that it was all right that Ezra stay. So long as he remained quiet. Such an order was easily complied with as the gambler fell asleep almost instantly upon winning his argument. Vin, though, could only see the bloody bandage and the pale, fevered face.
"Your friend will be fine, Vin. In fact, he's doing better than you at the moment."
Vin blinked, his eyes blurring, and looked back at the older man, "Better than me? What happened?"
Kojay chuckled, "With you, or the gambler?"
"With Ezra, what happened?"
The Indian shrugged, standing up slowly to walk over to the other man. After a brief moment, he looked back at Vin.
"Looks like he was shot in the shoulder."
Vin repressed an urge to get angry, and simply shook his head, "No, I can see that. I mean, how did it happen? Do you know?"
Kojay shrugged again and crossed back to his chair to sit. Looking at Vin's eyes, he tilted his head slightly.
"No. Do you?"
Vin's mouth fell open, ready to answer that he didn't, but then bits and pieces of his nightmare came back to him. Finally, he had to look away, his blue-gray eyes falling to the floor.
"This morning, all I could think of was that he was in danger. I sent someone after him. But...but," he shook his head. "I can't explain it. Right before I woke up, I dreamt I saw Ezra lying on a dirt plain in the middle of nowhere, all by himself, dying alone. He was...he was so alone." He shuddered.
Kojay frowned, looking at Ezra again. "A plain, you say? Strange. There are twigs and leaves on that man's clothes and hair. He smells like a forest to me, not a plain."
Vin blinked, then started to shake. "A forest? Of course, he was on his way to Scrub Creek." With a moan, he pulled his arms around himself and sat up, bowing his head to his knees on the wooden bench. Under his breath, Kojay could hear him muttering that it wasn’t over. It hadn't come to pass yet.
Kojay sighed and patted the tracker's shoulder. "You're not well, Vin Tanner. Why don't you explain to me why not."
Vin shuddered again, partly from the sickness and partly from fear. "Visions. I think I've been having visions," he whispered hoarsely.
"Yes, I know. Tell me about them."
Bracing himself, Vin did just that, his voice rising and falling with the tremors that wracked his thin frame. The whole time, Kojay just listened, his eyes darkening at the descriptions of Chris being shot in the back, and Josiah returning to a burning town. Over on the other pew, Ezra opened his eyes and listened as well, having woken up not too long after Kojay had checked on him. After a while, the gambler shut his eyes again, not sure he wanted to hear any more, especially when Vin mentioned the final part of the nightmare.
Kojay's eyes never left Vin's face while he spoke. After the tracker finished, he took in a deep breath and sat back in his chair. When Kojay didn't speak again for a while, Vin leaned forward again to rest his head on his knees again, content to wait while Kojay simply thought.
Over in the other pew, Ezra fell asleep again.
Finally, Kojay sighed and looked at Vin again.
"Your friend Nathan," he said slowly, "he thinks a great deal of you, as does your friend over there." He indicated Ezra with his head. "They both argued a great deal about wanting to stay here by your side."
Sitting up again, Vin just shrugged.
"The others feel the same, especially Chris Larabee. He stood and watched you sleep while the others argued with Ezra, his eyes filled with the same anger that I know rests in the eyes of my son."
Kojay shook his head, "And the others too. The boy, JD, he jumps around with a nervous energy of a terrified dog, while the tall one, with the moustache, he has become short tempered and refuses to meet anyone's eyes. And then there is the quiet one, Josiah. He just sits and stares, depression drowning his strength."
Vin was barely listening, not all that concerned.
"Nathan, he told me a little about you. He told me that your mother died when you were young, though he didn't know about your father. Was your father there?"
Vin shrugged again.
Kojay pursed his lips. "Nathan also told me you lived on a reservation for a time, which I could already guess from the way you handled yourself, following Chanu."
Vin grimaced at the memory. Kojay seemed not to notice.
"Thank you for bringing him home, by the way. We still haven't worked out everything between us, but I am happy to have the chance. I owe that to you."
Vin looked up, startled. "You're thanking me? But I almost got Chanu killed...?"
Kojay frowned, his turn to look surprised, "No, tracker, you're the reason he is still alive. He told me he was not hiding his trail well because of Claire's morning sickness, as you must have seen. He would have been found regardless, but anyone else tracking them would have killed him on the spot."
"But Claire," Vin shook his head, "If I hadn't...."
"You did all you could to save them, Vin Tanner. Everyone knows this. Do not lie to yourself about it. Even the ones who doubted you at the time know this," Kojay looked at Ezra again, "and will never doubt you again."
Burying his head in his hands again, Vin hid from Kojay. The chief sighed, deciding to get back to the topic at hand.
"Tell me, the time you spent on that reservation..." he began. "Did they ever accept you?"
Vin lifted his head slightly, looked at Kojay for a moment, then returned his head to his hands.
"I'm not surprised," the chief said softly. "That is always the way with outsiders, no matter what the people. I'm sure they were good to you, or you would not have stayed and learned. But you were never one of them, and that always separated you."
Behind his hands, Vin blinked away the water in his eyes, swallowing harshly.
"So you took up one of the most solitary lives imaginable -- you became a bounty hunter. Then, by poor luck, a fugitive." Kojay shook his head, "With that kind of life, you must have gotten used to being alone."
Vin lowered his hands finally, but he didn't raise his head again. He had no response to any of Kojay's statements. So far, nothing the chief had said was untrue.
"Until you came here, you really didn't fit in anywhere, did you? Never had family or permanent friends. Just alone. Did it ever bother you?"
Vin shrugged, and shook his head.
"You're a poor liar, Vin Tanner."
Vin almost smiled at that. It was one of Ezra's favorite refrains.
The tracker sighed, "yes…it bothered me occasionally. But, I also liked being alone. Got to the point where I liked being alone more than I liked being around most people. Still do."
"Really," Kojay was still titling his head, "So then why do you now live in this town? With all these people?"
Vin pursed his lips, then shook his head.
"Maybe because, once you found the people with whom you belonged, you found you liked being with them even more," the chief suggested.
"You're a misfit, Vin Tanner. And you found six more misfits here. Together, you're not misfits anymore. You found your people."
Vin gave a tiny smile at the description of his friends as misfits, then it faded as he absorbed the rest of Kojay's words.
"But, for someone who spent their whole life concerned only with their own safety and security, it can be a difficult transition to suddenly have other people to care about. People who's safety and security now mean more to you than anything else you've ever known."
Kojay's voice had fallen to a low murmur, and Vin found himself listening more carefully now.
"They care a great deal about you, Vin Tanner. And you care a great deal about them. Perhaps you didn't want to really admit just how much you care. Maybe you thought you could just get up and leave whenever you wanted? Head back to wherever that place is to clear your name? Or just to move on? To be alone again?"
Vin's gray eyes were focused on Kojay's hands where they rested on the chief's knees, clasped together. The chief hadn't moved in a while, his expression somber.
"Do you know what those visions are, Vin?"
Vin shook his head slowly.
"They are indeed visions of the future, but not the one you think. No future is set, tracker. Your visions only reflect the future you most fear. You focused on three members of your family, the three who's fears you can perhaps most easily relate to, and aggravated them into nightmares. And, when you began to get sick, the nightmares were worsened by your fevered condition, until they became so vivid they seemed like visions."
Kojay leaned forward, releasing his hands so he could touch Vin's face. The startled tracker reacted instantly by pulling back, but not before Kojay had wiped away one of the tears that had been running down Vin's face. Kojay sat back watching as Vin vigorously wiped away the rest of the tears he hadn't noticed were falling.
Over on the other pew, Ezra turned his head in his healing sleep, causing the wooden pew to creak. The movement reminded Vin what had happened to the gambler. Frowning again, he looked back at Kojay.
"If...they're not really visions," he demanded softly, maybe a little angrily, "how did I know about Ezra?"
"You're an expert at reading signs, Vin Tanner."
"What does that mean?"
"How did you learn that Ezra Standish had gone off this morning."
"I...Josiah told me."
"What did he say?"
"Just that Ezra had taken off really early this morning."
"Those were his words?"
"Well no...actually, he said, Ezra had 'lit out' at dawn after receiving a message from the telegraph operator."
"And is that normal behavior for the gambler?"
Vin frowned, then shut his eyes.
"You didn't know it was going to be an ambush, Vin Tanner. All you knew is that Ezra sounded like he shouldn't be alone. So you sent someone after him. The rest was luck."
Vin nodded, thinking more carefully about his state of mind this morning. Then he opened his eyes again.
"What about...about Josiah? In my dream, he mentions having had a son. I don't know if Josiah has had a son." He looked at Kojay, who was smiling back at him.
"Even I could tell Josiah has had a son, Vin Tanner, and I don't know him as well as you. Not long after your friend there went to sleep, Josiah came in to check on the two of you. He rested a hand on that one's head for a while before leaving. He didn't know I was watching, I don't think. His face spoke of his long ago loss louder than if he had screamed it from the rooftops." Kojay shrugged. "As for the idea of sending him to the gallows, or Josiah's being a bad drunk, I'm guessing you picked those up somewhere else."
Vin settled back, thinking about the time when Poplar was here, and how Josiah had reacted to it all. Yes, he knew what Josiah was like when he was determined to lose himself, and how the bottle was a part of that. As for the gallows, he had noticed Josiah never went to any of the hangings they had had. In fact, the very first one - for Lucas James - he remembered distinctly Josiah telling them all he'd go stand guard on the outskirts of town. After all they'd been through to get him back, it had seemed strange to Vin that Josiah didn't want to see the hanging. Perhaps he had begun to know then.
"You're an excellent reader of faces, Vin Tanner. You read them as well as you read the tracks on the ground. It was how you knew there was more than my son was telling you when Mosely was here. It's a gift, but it does not make you a seer."
Vin had gone back to focusing on Kojay's hands, but he no longer denied what the chief was saying about him. Sensing that, the chief stood up and stretched out his sore limbs.
"Well, I'm going to go find Chanu. But I wonder, perhaps you should consider taking some of the medicines Nathan is offering you. He told me what he had made to help you, and they are all remedies I know well. Although, it is interesting some of the western medicine he has mixed in with it. I'm thinking of having him come out and teach some things to the healers back in my village."
Shrugging, Kojay wandered over to Ezra and ruffled the gambler's hair. Ezra frowned in his sleep, and Kojay chuckled.
"See, I knew that would annoy him," he told Vin as he continued to walk towards the great double doors of the church. "You can learn a great deal about people just by watching them for long enough, even while they are sleeping."
Vin watched him leave, then stood up on shaky legs to walk over to Ezra. The gambler was still sleeping steadily, his pale features still slightly flushed but not dangerously so. Smiling, Vin reached down and patted the now messy hair back into the style Ezra liked. Ezra's frown lessened.
Sitting down on the floor in front of the pew, Vin found himself laughing for the first time in a long time.
Startled awake by the sound, Ezra found he couldn't get to angry at seeing Vin grinning at him.
"Well, Mr. Tanner," he croaked, struggling to sit up and failing. Vin shook his head, not strong enough himself to do anything. Ezra chuckled, "Does this mean you are cured?"
Vin's smile fell some, and he shook his head. "Cured? No. But I can live with it. In fact, I kind of want to live with it."
Still smiling, Ezra's brow furrowed deeply at the strange statement. Finally he leaned his head back to look up at the rafters.
"You are a very peculiar man, Mr. Tanner."
"Takes one to know one, Ez. Makes you my people."
Ezra groaned, raising his good hand to his eyes. "Oh good lord. And I thought Josiah was the only madman among us."
Vin started chuckling again.
Not too much later, Nathan came in to see if he could convince both of them to move up to the clinic. The question was mostly directed at Vin, for, although Kojay had promised that Vin would be ready to accept help now, the healer was still nervous.
Vin simply nodded, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to go to the clinic. Nathan broke into a broad grin.
Over by the door, Buck leaned against the frame. When he saw Vin's reaction, he smiled genuinely for the first time in days and jogged in to help Ezra to his feet while Nathan helped the tracker.
They reached the doors of the church, and Buck set Ezra down to rest. Vin breathed in the cool air of the fall and smiled. He'd forgotten how nice it was.
Over by the saloon, they could see Chris talking with Kojay quietly, while JD and Josiah sat across the street in front of the jail. They were watching the church, and smiled when they saw the four men emerge.
Suddenly, fast hoofbeats shattered the town, and Vin's posture went instantly rigid. All his fears rushed back as he saw the horse come out from the side street, the rider with his rifle raised, the barrel pointing directly at Chris's exposed back.
In almost slow motion, he yelled a warning, already knowing it would be too late for Chris to turn and pull his weapon.
Three almost simultaneous gunshots split the evening air.
The rider slumped in the saddle, his weapon never discharged.
His breathing still rapid, Vin leaned back on Nathan and looked around at the others. Buck, JD and Josiah all held smoking guns, their expressions dark. JD put his gun away and jogged over to join Chris as he knelt next to the dying man to hear his final words.
Shaking his head in disgust, Chris looked up, spotted Vin by the church, then said something to JD before moving to join him and the others there. JD waved some townsfolk over to help him take the body to the undertakers.
"Vin," Chris walked up, his expression still tense, but not worried, "How do you feel?"
The tracker's heart rate had slowed, and he managed to smile back at his best friend.
"Well cared for, Chris. Looks like we're all well cared for."
Thinking Vin only meant himself and Ezra, Chris nodded.
"Mr. Larabee, who was that?" Ezra asked from where Buck had propped him up against the church's doorframe. Chris shook his head.
"Just another man trying to make a name for himself. By the way, while you were out of it, your
ambusher pointed to
Ezra blinked, but there was no way to tell whether it was his sickness or something else that suddenly made him slip on the doorframe. Buck caught him, the ladies man's expression dark.
"We should get him lying down, Chris." Half carrying the gambler now, he looked over at Vin leaning on Nathan, "Both of them."
Chris frowned, but nodded. He reached in and took Vin from Nathan, and Buck pulled Ezra behind them. Nathan sighed, and looked over at Kojay. He waved and mouthed the words "Thank you."
Over by the saloon, Kojay nodded in return. With a quick goodbye to JD, the chief mounted his horse then trotted out to go find his son.
(I know, I'm terrible. I always
leave something open ended. But, if you
want a hint as to what might have happened to Ezra in