The Story Continues
Tiredly he laid back down before there was any answer. Was it that cold in here? He started to shiver again, feeling the sweat on his face. All rational thought slipped away again as he fell back into the feverish half sleep.
Nathan lay still for a moment, trying to catch his breath. He smiled reassuringly at Lee and Vin, or at least thought he did. He'd heard Ezra's question, and answered as best he could.
"Tell him I'm fine," he managed to whisper. "My shoulder's hurtin' me, is all." He closed his eyes, willing himself away from the fever and the pain and the memories. He relaxed, intending to rest briefly, but instead, he succumbed to fatigue, and slept.
Lee looked back to Vin when Nathan closed his eyes and breathing deepened. Glanced over to the wounded gambler and Nettie and sighed. Lee stretched Nathan out on the bed so he would rest more carefully.
Josiah moved away from Ezra to check on Nathan. Neither man was looking well. He left the crowded room and poured another cup of coffee. Buck was half-asleep at the table and JD was watching Casey through half-closed eyes. Nathan had said that Buck's wound was looking better, but the ladies man still looked a ill, and the kid didn't look much better.
Josiah's own head was still pounding. The pain had become so persistent that he hardly noticed anymore. Their small band was fraying at the edges, and he determined to do something to help.
After grabbing a few fresh biscuits and some strips of bacon - no small feat under Casey's watchful gaze - he headed for the barn. Slowly, he saddled one of Nettie's big wagon horses.
They needed a real doctor, and the closest one was in Eagle Bend. If he pushed hard, he could have the doctor in Four Corners shortly after the others made it home. Vin parted the curtains on the window and watched as Josiah rode off.
"Josiah just left." Vin stated. Chris, Lee and Nettie looked up at him. Silently he moved out of teh room and headed to the barn. Quickly saddling a horse he headed out to find out where Josiah was going.
It didn't take Vin long to catch up with the preacher. he pulled the horse up and rode quietly next to teh wagon for a time, all the while glancing at the big man.
"So where ya headin' Josiah?"
"Eagle Bend. For a doctor. Nathan's in no shape to try and take care of everyone."
Vin thought about the big man's comment and nodded.
"Good idea. I'll tell the others." Silently Vin handed the preacher his mare's leg. "Just in case." he said then wheeled his horse around and rode back to Nettie's.
Josiah sighed in relief as Vin rode back toward the small house. He didn't like the idea of sneaking out on the others, but he was afraid Chris wouldn't let him go alone, and he knew that they didn't have the men to spare, especially with that woman's minions still running loose in the area. He was, however, grateful for the use of Vin's gun. He just hoped it wouldn't be needed.
Ezra woke with a start. He'd just been getting comfortable, too.
Through bleary eyes he saw Vin leave the room, and though his hearing was questionable, he thought that Vin was going to follow Josiah.
"He's running out. He's got an excuse, but he's still running." Ezra was surprised at how rough his voice was.
Chris snapped his head around in surprise. Ezra watched, careful to keep his wakening consciousness hidden.
"Who." Chris's voice was just short of venomous.
"Josiah." As if Vin would run out.
"How would you know?" Chris didn't sound disbelieving, exactly.
"It's what I would do." Ezra spoke plainly, knowing the truth would serve him better than a lie in this moment.
"Damn." With that muttered curse, Chris left the room almost on the run.
Ezra smiled grimly and swung his legs over the edge of the cot. Noiselessly he slipped across the room, running a hand over Nathan's forehead. He paused a moment to lay the cool cloth back on Nathan's head, then crept to the window. One two three and he was out again, and this time he wasn't going to get caught. He might not be fetching a doctor, but he would be certain to have someone wire for the one in Eagle Bend on his way through Four Corners. And with that done, his responsibilities would be ended.*Did I just claim responsibility for something.* he paused in surprise at the thought, but then moved on quickly. Time was a luxury he didn't possess.
This time he made it to the horse and the saddle without being caught, and from his hidden almost trail through the trees, he spotted Vin and Chris meeting on the road. At least those two wouldn't catch him this time.
Lee came back into what was considered the sick room to check on Ezra again and to give him something to eat. Seeing the empty bed and the open window he cursed quietly and left the room. He moved over near Buck and quietly told the larger man that Ezra had left the premises. "Don't worry, my friend. I'll bring him back." He set the plate down on the table and quickly left the homestead. Once entering the barn he quickly saddled his horse and made sure he had some rope available. Leaving the barn he wondered if he should just go after Ezra or get Chris and Vin and the three of them track down the wayward gambler. Making a quick decision he decided to head in the direction Chris had left earlier.
"What are you doing out here, Lee?" Chris asked.
"Shit," he cursed quietly.
"Which way this time," Vin answered at the same time.
Slightly bemused at their reactions at first then sobering quickly, "I'm not quite sure but my bet is in the same direction he headed out earlier."
"Let's go," Chris growled out and swung his horse in the direction they knew Ezra went quickly followed by Vin and Lee. It didn't take long for the three riders to figure out what Ezra was up to. He was heading back to Four Corners.
"Vin, why don't you follow him. Do what you have to, hust keep him in Four Corners until we get there with the doctor Josiah is bringing."
"Sure thing," Vin started to kick his horse onward, then stopped. "Lee, let me borra that there rope. Might just come in handy."
Lee held the rope out for Vin and the sharpshooter started off, following Ezra's erractic trail.
Ezra fought to stay on the horse. When he had the means, he had every intention of purchasing one that didn't have such an atrocious gait. Although he hadn't noticed that before, it was certainly troublesome now.
And the foliage around here hadn't always been so concentrated, had it? He jerked himself back into the approximate center of the horse, trying to keep his balance.
By the time he hit the ground, hidden in a pile of brush, he wasn't aware of the forest anymore. Nor was he awake to see his horse stop a few feet away, as if it noticed the sudden absence of a rider, then begin trotting back to the Wells ranch, already eager to be back with its comrades.
Vin rode along, keeping an eye on Ezra's trail just in case the gambler chose to take a side trip of any kind.
"Sheeeooot, Ezra! What kind of fool thing have ya done now?" Vin said aloud as Ezra's horse came into view. Grabbing the animals reins he continued on his way, watching for the now horseless gambler.
Vin jumped from his horse when he spied Ezra lying in the bushes along the road. If it weren't for the fact that the conman was so sick, Vin might have laughed at the sight of the normally immaculate gentleman. Twigs and leaves were caught in the man's hair and clung to his clothes.
Checking his friend quickly for any new damage, and finding none, Vin knelt down and placed Ezra's arm over his shoulder amnd his own arm around the gambler's back. the he struggled upward, pretty much dragging the man to his horse.
"Come on Ezra, let's find you a bed."
For the past 10 minutes Casey had been able to feel JD's 1/2 open gaze on her while she helped Nettie make some breakfast.
"Casey, you go ahead and get somethin to eat." Nettie's voice broke the still.
Casey nodded and got a bowl of oatmeal-like stuff and sat down next to JD. He now had his eyes on a biscut that was on a plate in front of him. Casey reached out and placed her hand on his arm to get his attention.
"You want to go back to sleep, JD? I think my room is free now..." She blushed as she realized how that sounded...or could be inturpreted. "It's quieter than the couch if people come in."
JD seemed to think it over as Casey shrugged and dug into her breakfast with relish.
Up ahead, Josiah could see a lone figure walking in the road. He unconsciously adjusted the position of Vin's mare's leg, making the weapon more accessible. As he approached, the man on foot turned to face him. The man was tall and angular, neatly dressed, although a bit disheveled. He looked completely out of his element, and did not seem to pose a threat. Josiah pulled the wagon to a stop.
"Mornin'," Josiah greeted. The man nodded, his expression somber.
"Good morning to you, sir," he responded slowly, with a thick French accent. He stared to continue his walk, but Josiah impulsively stopped him.
"Would you like a ride, Brother?" he asked. The man smiled, nodding his thanks.
"That would be greatly appreciated. I should never have come to this heathen land." The man climbed stiffly to the seat beside Josiah, then held out his hand.
"Phillipe Montrose," he said.
Josiah clasped his hand. "Josiah Sanchez," he replied. "Glad for the company, Phillipe."
Ezra stared around groggily. For some unknown reason, he seemed to be upside down? He groaned. He must have--well, he didn't have an explanation right now.
He was provided with one all too soon however. At his groan of pain, he heard a soft, much too amused and unpleasantly familiar chuckle. He could picture the sly grin now.
"Are you finished? Perhaps you would permit me the dignity of actually riding this infernal beast under my own power, rather than being lashed across the back like a carcass which you have slain?"
Vin continued to chuckle at the gambler's retorts as he pulled his horse up short. Dismounting, he walked over to Ezra's horse as the now conscious man began to slide down from the saddle. Ezra's legs threatened to give out on him as they hit the ground and Vin took a step closer, intending to help. But Ezra managed to keep from falling by grabbing hold of the pommel.
"Ya need some help there Pard?" he asked instead.
"No sir, Mister Tanner, I am perfectly capable of climbing aboard my own horse."
Vin stifled another chuuckle as Ezra's foot missed the stirrup twice before finally making contact. The gambler weakly pulled himself into the saddle and sat ther looking at Vin.
"Yes Mister Tanner? You obviously have something on your mind."
"Just wonderin'. We're about halfway between Mizz Nettie's place and town. Josiah's gone for a doctor and is takin' him back to Mizz Nettie's." Vin mounted his horse and turned back to Ezra. "So which way are we goin'?"
Nathan rose slowly from the bed. He didn't know how long he'd slept, but he certainly felt better. It took him a moment to remember why his chest now hurt when he moved, and he couldn't help but smile. The gambler couldn't be injured too badly if he was still able to deliver so sound a blow. Nathan should have know well enough to stay out of his way.
He opened the door, squinting at the early afternoon light. Casey was sitting at the table watching JD, who was either sleeping or just being stubborn. Buck was curled up on the couch asleep. Nettie was washing dishes, and turned when she heard the bedroom door open. She wiped water from her hands and hurried to his side.
"You shouldn't be up," she admonished. Nathan smiled.
"Man's gotta eat," he said, allowing the woman to steer him to the table. He sank into a chiar and looked around the room.
"Where is everyone?" he asked.
"Josiah went for a doctor. That fancy man ran off again and the others went to find him." Nettie stirred the stew that was on the stove, then gathered flour, milk and eggs to make biscuits. "Casey, you want to help me here, girl? Get the man some coffee." Ezra stared carefully at Vin, gauging his seriousness. "Do I have a choice?"
When a bland look was his only response, he decided his mother would have had nothing over Vin. Throwing caution to the winds, he smiled gleefully, albeit gingerly, and said, "Town, of course." He felt a little bit guilty, and added, "We could wire for the doctor to meet Josiah...."
Even as the words left his mouth, he got a bad feeling about Josiah. Maybe once they wired for the doctor they should try and come back.
Vin grinned and shook his head. "I figgered that's what you'd say." He turned his horse as Ezra moved his forward, making sure he stayed abreast of the gambler in case the southerner decided to take another tumble.
But the rest of the trip was uneventful. Both of the men were bone tired, and even Vin was thinking that a night at the boarding house was sounding pretty good. But he had told Chris he'd look out for Ezra and make sure he got some rest until the doctor could make it to Four Corners, even if that meant locking the man in his room and standing guard outside it. Which meant there wouldn't be any sleep for awhile.
But the hairs on the back of Vin's neck stood on end the rest of the trip, like something was wrong. He had a feeling Ezra was feeling the same way, judging by the pensive look on the man's face and the regular glances over his shoulder.
As they rode into Four Corners Vin tried to dismiss it as worry about their friends still behind them. But the feeling wouldn't go away.
Ezra looked over at Vin. Despite that fact that Vin had the ability to cover like snow, he sensed that Vin was experiencing the same sense of unease that he himself had felt since the mention of Josiah.
"Mr. Tanner. I am experiencing an unexplainable, but nonetheless real, sense of trepidation regarding the welfare of our itinerant theologian. Once we conclude our business in town, might I make the suggestion that we attempt to coadunate with him expeditiously? If you are feeling well enough to continue our journey, of course." He left unspoken the fact that this disconcerting feeling would drive him to make the attempt himself if Vin replied in the negative. He just had to.
"I'm gonna take a look around," JD announced, not certain where the sudden energy was coming from. Nerves, he decided. His body certainly wasn't feeling ambitious enough to patrol. But with Chris and the others gone, it fell to him to protect the wounded.
The thought actually eased steady throb from his tightly bound ribs. Chris trusted him, despite everything that had happened. JD'd prove that the trust was deserved, to himself as well as Chris. He *could* carry his own weight, without needing a rescue every five minutes. Not that he'd say no to an assist if the situation should arise. . .
He winced as he pulled on his jacket, shaking- but not shattering the renewed confidence.
"I'll come with you," Casey volunteered a little too quickly, then covered her tracks by adding, "The animals need tending."
JD shrugged, trying to hide that fact that every step he took toward the door nearly brought tears to his eyes. "Suit yourself." He paused, under the guise of waiting for her and belted on Buck's Colt SAA. The pistol was heavier than his Lightnings and longer in the barrel, but it would do for the time being.
The walk out the barn was embarrassingly slow, both of them pretending it was a steady pace to give JD a chance to check things over. JD wasn't sure which was worse- the fact that he had to move so carefully, or that Casey knew it.
They reached the barn and JD helped Casey with her chores as best he could. More in the way than anything, he finally settled for sitting back on one of the feed mangers and watching while she worked.
"So what really happened?"
The question caught JD off guard. "Huh?"
"You seven look like if we scraped y'all together, we *might* get four." She didn't look at him as she asked, not wanting to pressure him. It didn't take a genius to know something was bothering the group of lawmen.
"We were in a gun fight. People get hurt," he answered avoiding her real question.
Casey turned to study him. "Last I knew, gunfights weren't waged with a fist," she said looking pointedly at his rather colorful face. "Tell me what really happened."
"Don't know, exactly." JD was silent for a moment, his stomach knotting as he remembered predatory green eyes. He skipped Elaina, the less he remembered about her- the better. Searching for some sort of explanation, he discover that was true of most or the experience. "Something that Lee was involved in, I think. Things got kinda hazy at the end. I just remember getting hit an awful lot, and the fire."
"Fire?" It was Casey's turn to be surprised. No one had mentioned a fire in the sketchy accounts she'd heard. JD stood abruptly, unwilling to pull up any more memories. "We should get back before they come looking for us." He headed for the door without waiting to see if she followed.
They'd just reached the edge of the corral when the first bullet kicked up the dust at their feet.
"Go," JD shouted, shoving Casey toward the house. With a speed and steadiness he could have sworn he didn't have, JD drew his pistol preparing to lay covering fire while he followed her. More shots tore at the ground between them, and JD was forced back toward the barn.
The booming retort of Nettie's Spencer Carbine was pure melody to JD's ears. He reached the shelter of the barn door and was relieved to see Casey had also reached safety unharmed.
Slumping against the doorway for support, JD drew in several painful breaths. The hurried flight had reawaken a host of pains that not even an adrenaline surge could mask. With a shaking hand, he began reloading. As far as stand-offs went, this was gonna be a short one. At least the others in the house were a little better prepared.
What he needed was a plan. What he had was a barn full of tired horses and more entrances than he could hope to cover. On the other hand, he did have a pitchfork. *Oh God, was it that desperate already?*
He'd have to trust Nettie and Casey to keep them away from the front of the barn. That left him with the side away from the cabin to concentrate on. Just as soon as he convinced his body that yes, it really did want to start moving.
By the time he reached the back entrance, the shots being fired were just sporadic enough to keep people pinned down where they were.
A vaguely familiar voice called out over the din, "You at the house. We just need supplies."
"Got an odd way of asking for charity," Nettie answered in a steady tone.
"I've got injured men down here. Had a run in with some. . . outlaws earlier. One of my men panicked."
Nathan's tired, but firm voice reached JD's ears next. "That kind of panic can get a man killed. You'd best just be movin' on."
"Fraid we can't do that, friend. We need supplies, and you will oblige us. We already got one of you cut off, hate for somethin' unfortunate to happen."
Vin glanced at the southerner, taking time to formulate his reply. "If yer sayin' ya think Josiah's in trouble, I'm agreein' with ya. Let's get that wire off and get some supplies. We might just be needin' em." Vin kicked his horse and headed straight to the telegraph office, completely ignoring the agreement he had made with Chris concerning the gambler.
The wire sent, supplies purchased and fresh horses saddled, the two men once more left town, riding back in the direction from which they had just arrived.
Nathan was enjoying the stew and coffee that Nettie had warmed for him. He was impressed and grateful for the assistance that the woman and her niece were extending the the peacekeepers. They had certainly gone out of their way. For the first time in days, he was warm, comfortable and relaxed, despite the aches and pains that still wracked his body. As he took another sip of coffee, gunfire broke the stillness.
Of course, it would be too good to have the peace last long. Unless of course, JD and Casey had started fighting and were shooting at each other. But that thought was dispelled when a man shouted at the house.
Nettie grabbed her Spencer and tossed Nathan a revolver. Buck was somehow managing to sleep through all the noise.
"Get off my property!" Nettie yelled. She looked toward Nathan, and he was impressed at the formidable figure the woman made.
"You see JD and Casey?" he asked. She shook her head, showing fear for the first time. Nathan rose unsteadily and staggered to the window. He started to look around, but a bullet shattered the glass, kicking splinters into his face.
"At least they don't know how many of there are or how bad off we are," he said, trying to make the situation sound less desperate. They didn't have any idea how many men were out there, but their intentions were clearly not friendly. Things could get real ugly real fast. Oh, mon dieu!"
The exclamation woke Josiah with a start, his hand instinctively tightening on the gun slung across his lap. It took a moment for the haze of sleep to clear from his head, and for him to get his bearings. He was still in Nettie's wagon, and the frenchman was seated beside him. There was no obvious danger.
Then he followed the alarmed gaze his companion held. Ahead, through the trees, Josiah could make out the charred ruins of several sickeningly familiar buildings.
"How'd we get here?" he asked harshly. Phillipe drew back on the reins, glancing at him apprehensively.
"I'm sorry, monsieur. You fell asleep, and I thought I knew the way to Eagle Bend. I must have been mistaken."
"Gravely mistaken, my friend," Josiah snapped, grabbing the reins away from the other man. Phillipe scooted as far away as the narrow seat allowed.
"Forgive me, monsieur. I was just trying to be helpful."
Ezra held his face immobile as they headed back. He could see how tired Vin was, and hoped that they would both make it. They were almost to the turn off where the road towards Eagle Bend split with the trail towards Nettie's.
Ezra reined in abruptly. He'd be so busy concentrating on staying in the saddle that he hadn't noticed Vin stopping.
"Is there something amiss?" Ezra inquired as Vin knelt and began examining the ground.
"Yep. Wagon turned here. It ain't goin to Eagle Bend, it's goin back towards that hell-bitches house."
Ezra stared at him, face gone gray. Before he could say anything, though, Vin held up a hand. "D'ya hear that?"
"No." Simple in deference to limited time and breath.
"Gunshots. Sounds like Nettie's place."
The man must have ears like a cat. Ezra couldn't hear a thing. But he could see the sudden indecision and desperation on Vin's face.
"Then we will have to separate. I will follow our wandering shepherd, and you, as the more able body, shall return to our erstwhile hostess."
More bullets riddled the front of the house, and Nathan and Nettie dropped to the floor. Shafts of light shined through the new holes, and dust danced in the rays. Nathan closed his eyes and shook his head, trying to clear the haze. The ache in his shoulder matched the pain in his head.
"You all right?" the older woman asked. Nathan looked at her, unable to focus. He tried to nod, but the movement made him dizzy. The pounding of boots on the front porch was the only brief warning they got before the door burst open and several men rushed into the room. Nathan stumbled back, trying to bring his pistol up to fire. He heard the loud report of the Spencer, and the lead man fell.
Nathan shook his head again. He wished that he could see straight. He wished that he could protect Mrs. Wells, and Casey, and even young JD. He wished they could somehow go back several days and pretend none of this had ever happened.
The thoughts were as jumbled as his vision, but he managed to shoot down one of the invaders before he was struck across the face and unceremoniously disarmed.
"damndamndamnDAMN." JD took a deep breath, interrupting the soft mantra he'd adopted. There'd been no more shooting from the house for several minutes, and the heavy footsteps outside didn't belong to Nettie or Casey. That meant-
The door shuddered as a heavy shoulder slammed against it. Whoever it was hit the wood again The sickening crack as it started giving spurred JD into action. He had five bullets and a pitchfork. He needed to get to higher ground and pray to God he didn't miss.
The braced door heaved again, sending JD scrambling for the hayloft ladder. He holstered his weapon and started climbing as fast as he could, pulling the pitchfork up with him. By the time he pushed himself over the top, he was trembling and the door was giving way. He moved to cover the door and added a hasty additional prayer that there were less than five men out there.
The cross brace he'd used to block the door gave way in a shower of splinters. JD counted four men slipping from the late afternoon sunlight into the dark interior. Before they could split up to start searching for him and find places to take cover, he announced his presence.
"Everybody hold it," he said, keeping a support beam between himself and the gunmen. "Put your guns on the ground. Slowly. Nobody has to get shot here. But I will if I have to." He didn't try to make himself sound intimidating. The advantage was his, that would be intimidating enough. He hoped.
In a perfect world, they'd've done what he said. In a semi-perfect world, he'd've been able to cover all four. In this world. . .
The man closest to him, spun- gun in hand toward JD's voice. JD didn't hesitate. The gun in his hand barked loudly, ending that threat. But the other three used his distraction to dive for cover. JD took another one out, but wasted two shots. He was down to two bullets and two opponents.
"Give up, kid. We won't hurt you." The unspoken yet hung at the end of his statement.
"Get the hell outta here!" JD shot back.
There was a heavy silence for a moment, then a surprised voice filtered up to him. "Shit! Conley- these are horses from Noonan's place." Several seconds of quiet conference passed just below JD's hearing range.
JD used the opportunity to quietly ease away from his original position. He settled again. Not as well concealed, but not exposed like the first one.
"Hey, kid. Where're the rest of your group? They up at the house, or'd they leave you behind?"
JD held his breath as he heard the two moving around beneath him.
"I'll bet they left him. Half-growed kid? More trouble'n he's worth." His tone was cutting, trying to raise a reaction from JD.
JD wouldn't give it to him. Holding still was painful, but less so than getting shot. He pressed his eyes shut for a brief second, trying to block out the fire in his side. Taking a deep breath, he tightened his grip on his pistol. He kept it trained on the speaker through the floor, tracking his motion by sound.
Conley continued. "Can't even protect yourself. Let alone your partners. Take your young friend from earlier."
*Casey* JD's heart clenched. If they'd hurt her. . . Anger ran hot in his blood, burning away the fear and pain. They could kill him, but he was damn well taking at least these two bastards with him.