The Story Continues
"He was a brave kid. Put up a hell of a fight. He blamed you in the end. Said you were s'posed to protect him."
JD let go of the breath he'd been holding. From a distance, they would think Casey was a boy. That meant there was still hope she'd gotten clear of things before they really went to hell. He could at least take comfort in that thought.
"It was fast. So, who was he? Family? Belong to one of your partners, or'd you bring down all this trouble on some innocent rancher and his family?"
It slowly occurred to JD that Conley was staying in more or less, one spot. Almost directly under where he'd been hiding before. Carefully, he lifted picked up one of the extra shingles from a stack of them nearby. Being as quiet as possible, he tossed it to where he'd been seated previously.
It landed in the hay with a soft thud. Then jumped violently as the floor was peppered with bullets. JD flinched at each shot, but managed to stay silent through the onslaught.
Another brief conference, then someone was climbing the ladder. He took careful aim, waiting for his visitor to reach the top. A filthy black hat broke the edge. It was slouched, sheltering the wearer from view. Nothing sheltered the large gun that cleared the ladder next.
JD didn't panic. . . exactly. He shot was perfectly controlled. Dead center of the hat's crown. But the hat, and the man under it didn't fall away like they should have. Realizing his mistake a second too late, JD flung himself to the side. A thick sliver scored his hand, as the second man pumped round after round into the floor he'd been laying on.
He started to bring his gun around to bear on the man coming off the ladder, but his reactions were too slow. A sharp kick made his hand fly open, the gun spinning away from him.
"Not nice to point things at other people," the man hissed, not taking his advice as he pointed his own weapon at JD. "Conley, come on up," he called to his partner. "I got things under control."
There was a long moment of silence from below. JD captor started to get agitated, trying to decide if he should check on the delay or keep his attention on JD. Before he was forced to decide, there was once more the sound of someone climbing the ladder.
JD closed his eyes tightly, swallowing several times. His luck had to run out eventually. Whatever happened. . . he refused to beg. At least he could make the guys proud of him in the end.
A black hat appeared over the edge of the hayloft, drawing attention away from JD. Steely green eyes took in the situation in an instant before he spoke "Drop it now" he ordered, his colt aimed at strangers heart. "Your choice" he barely had out the words before the game unwound before his eyes.
Almost as if in slow motion, he watched him pull back the hammer of his gun. In the same heartbeat Chris fired his own gun. Felling the unknown man with one shot he watched the corpse twitching in the hay where it feel for several minutes before he pulled himself up over the edge of the hayloft to check on the kid.
"He alright" Lee called from the bottom of the ladder
"Dunno" Chris spoke as he knelt at JD's side "JD" he murmured as he touched the younger man's shoulder. He wondered for the millionth time why he was so hell bent on growing up so quickly. He had been through so much, endured so much more on this trip then most men his age endured in a lifetime, and they hadn't reached home yet. "JD are you okay?" he asked a little harshly
"Thanks Chris" JD spoke as he opened his eyes
"You had it all under control kid" Chris stated as he watched him pull himself to a seated position, his body protested the movement.
"We need your help JD" Chris asked "They have the Nathan and Buck and Nettie."
"And Casey?" JD's eyes flew to Chris's needing to know that she was alive
"Yeah and Casey" Chris finished "We have to go after them" he paused "Can you ride?" he asked
"Try and stop me" JD spoke pushing himself painfully to his feet.
Chris waited for him to slowly climb down the ladder and then followed, inordinately proud of their youngest member. Moments after they were all on the ground level again, the sound of a horse approaching rapidly struck a shard of fear into all three hearts. Chris gestured with his fingers for Lee to cover the front door of the barn. He lifted the pitchfork that leaned against the wall beside him and threw it to JD who caught it, wincing at the quick movement of his arm tormenting his ribs.
” Stay out of sight JD" Chris murmured then seeing the look of indignation on JD's face "Fine watch the side entrance" he muttered as he checked his guns were loaded before he took cover just inside the door. All three waited for the new arrivals to reveal their intentions - be they friend or foe.
Nathan shifted uncomfortably in the saddle, trying to alleviate the persistent ache in his shoulder. The bullet wound was infected, and he couldn't take the pressure off the joint. His hands were bound in front of him and secured to the saddle horn, as were Nettie's. Buck, unconscious, had been slung across the back of a horse. Nathan knew that when he awoke he was going to be very unhappy. But it bothered the healer that Buck was unconscious in the first place. He'd been looking well earlier in the day. Maybe it was some kind of elaborate ploy...
Nathan snickered at the thought, knowing that the fever was beginning to effect his thinking. At least they hadn't been hurt so far, but he still didn't know what had become of JD or Casey. He thought that maybe these weren't the only goons running around the area. The woman had had a near regiment at her disposal.
He sighed and closed his eyes. He didn't know how much longer he was going to be able to stay upright in the saddle. Nettie glanced back at him, concern in her eyes. He tried to give her a reassuring smile, but wasn't sure that he succeeded. She nodded to him. She was holding up well. And if any of the outlaws laid a hand on her...He smiled at the thought of what the tracker would do. Vin had lived with indians and had a multitude of creative tortures...
Nathan didn't know how much longer he would be able to distract himself with the random thoughts. He strength was quickly abandoning him.
Vin slowed his horse as he approached the house. His eyes scanned the area, trying to see into the small stand of trees, wishing he could see through the walls into the house. He dismounted and made his way on foot toward the house, calling Mizz Nettie's name as he entered the house. Empty.
He studied the barn intently from inside the house. He had been stupid being so loud in entering the house and now there was no easy way of getting there without exposing himself to gunfire. Well, hopefully there was no one inside and his caution was for nothing. As quietly and quickly as possible he covered the ground to the side of the barn, his mare's leg ready for use. Silently he crept around to the front, and keeping himself pressed to the barn's side, he made his way toward the doorway.
Pausing for a second and hearing no unusual noises from inside, he stepped quickly into the opening, his gun cocked and ready to fire.
"Funny way to greet your friends Pard."
"Jeez, Chris! I coulda shot ya!" Vin said as he dropped the barrel of his gun downward. "Is everyone okay?"
"We're fine, but they've got Buck and Nathan. They got Nettie and Casey too Vin."
"Damn it!" Vin cursed, turning on his heels and heading to his horse. the others rounded up horses as Vin lead his back into the clearing. He swung up into the saddle.
"We got more problems Chris. Josiah didn't head to Eagle Bend. Ezra's following him."
Lee quitely cocked his Winchester rifle ready as he stalked slowly to the front door. He squinted slightly at the noon-day sun. He could see the approaching rider but could not quite pick out who it was. The horse moved a couple of strides closer to the Wells homestead. Lee visibly relaxed when he recognized Vin.
Lee turned and hissed out, "It's Vin!"
He turned back around and saw Vin pull out his mare's leg and jump off his horse. He raced to the house calling at the same time, "Mz Nettie!"
Ezra gripped the saddle horn tighter. Though he was covering the distance to, as Vin so aptly described it, the hell-bitches house much faster than the trip away would have led him to believe, he knew he wouldn't be able to stand this much longer.
Already the carefully bound ribs were working loose, and he could feel them beginning to grate together. Added to that was the pain of the gunshot and his inability to draw a breath without coughing, and Ezra was a very unhappy mad.
When he had a moment free, he wondered what imp had caused Josiah to return her. Elaina must surely have been in league with Lucifer, for she had the devil's own luck.
Finally he began to smell the scorched ruins. He couldn't yet see them, however he could hear Josiah speaking.
"Carefully, Ezra, remember how Vin did it." Ezra was unaware that his mental conversation was becoming vocal, however it didn't last long. The effort to mask his presence by not coughing rendered him uncapable of speech in any case.
Ground hitching "The Vile Beast" as he had begun to refer to it, he crept slowly through the trees. Once he saw Josiah, he began to wonder if all the effort had been worth it. Josiah appeared to be fine, and the stranger with him harmless enough. Ezra automatically distrusted anyone who looked harmless.
Drawing his gun, he pointed it shakily at the stranger. "Do you require any assistance, Mr. Sanchez? If not, you had better have a damned good reason for returning to this hellish place." Ezra kept his face still, but he was surprised at himself for speaking that way.
Josiah started at the words, bringing the gun up even as he recognized the voice. He relaxed, at the same time amused and concerned at the gambler's appearance.
"Ease up, Ezra. I'm fine. Being here is a misunderstanding. Phillipe got lost is all." He cast a quick glance at his companion, then looked back to Ezra, who still hadn't lowered his weapon.
"Ezra, relax. This here's Phillipe Montrose. I was just giving him a ride to Eagle Bend and fell asleep. He got lost." The angry glare from the southerner confused him.
"Do you mean to tell me that I wasted my time worrying that some misfortune had befallen you, when it would have been better used seeing to the well being of that kindly woman and her niece?" Ezra lowered the gun and turned away.
"Now, Ezra, I didn't come here by choice, and I'm fixin' to leave. It's deserted anyway,"
He turned the wagon, but couldn't follow the gambler through the trees. He reluctantly handed the reins to Phillipe and climbed down to chase after the man.
"Ezra, what do you mean about Nettie and Casey? Is there trouble out there?"
He didn't get an answer, and as he caught up with the gambler, he grabbed his arm. Ezra spun on him, slapping his hand away.
"Leave me alone."
Josiah stood, contemplating doing just that, when the color suddenly drained from Ezra's face and his knees buckled. The preacher was at his side in two strides, catching him before he hit the ground. "Stubborn cuss," he muttered. He scooped the smaller man up and carried him toward the wagon. As he looked at Ezra's pale features, he whispered a quiet plea.
"God, we've been through a lot already. I don't know how much more my brothers can take. We need some help here."
Josiah contemplated Ezra's cryptic words. It sounded as though there was trouble back at the Well's place, but the gambler had passed out before he'd had a chance to explain. Torn between going for additional help and turning back, Josiah turned to Phillipe.
"I'm sorry, Phillipe, but I've got to go back to be sure my friends are all right. You're welcome to come with me."
The Frenchman looked at him for a moment, then smiled. "Monsieur, I would not feel safe alone out here. I will go with you and your friend."
Vin cocked his mare's leg, pointing the weapon at the source of the noise. he pulled the gun up, pointing it into the air at the flash of overalls, pale skin and dark hair.
"It's Casey!" he called out as the girl emerged from the brush.
Casey detangled herself from the brush, hoping that the action had died down a bit. She felt her breath catch as she noticed someone with a gun not too far off, but resumed breathing when she recognized it as Vin.
"What happened, Vin?"
"Are you all right?" Vin asked as JD dismounted and ran to the frightened girl.
"Uh huh. I 'm fine." She was a bit surprised when JD suddenly gathered her in an ackward embrace, and just as suddenly let her go.
"Did you see who they were?" The girl shook her head no. "Well they left enough track. It won't be hard to find them."
"JD, stay here with Casey." Chris said, looking down the trail, anxious to be off. "
No way! I'm goin' too! She's my aunt."
Chris and Vin exchanged glances. They were tired of arguing with others, even if it was for their own good.
"Get your horse." Vin finally said. "We're wastin' daylight."
Lee watched as the teenager rushed back into the barn they had recently vacated. Thinking back on what had transpired he was just as worried about their comrades as Chris was. They were being split up again and that was not good. He turned back to Chris and waited for their next move.
Chris watched and nodded with an exasperated sigh as Vin started slowly in the direction they would be going, using the waning light to track while he could. The others waited while JD helped Casey to saddle and mount her horse. Finally ready the four of them rode out intent on catching up with Vin who was now some distance away. He cast his eye over their little band. They were all tired, hungry and admittedly a little scared. JD and Casey unable to hide their concern for the others as easily as the others, but Chris had to admit one thing. He was glad that they were with them.
Something tugged at the edge of his awareness that they all should remain together. He wasnt sure why but he knew that he would be much happier when their little band was whole again.
So lost was he in his thoughts that he almost missed Vin stopping and leaping from his horse.
"What is it?" he asked his voice tight and a little angry at himself "This is as far as we go without risking losing the trail" Vin sighed "But they have been here" he spoke holding up Bck's tattered bandanna. Vin began to unsaddle his horse. Chris handed Buck's bandana to JD and did the same.
"We can't stop now!" JD exclaimed as he dismounted, rushing over to the two men, desperate to get them to listen to him. Lee had dismounted behind them and was also in the process of unsaddling his horse.
"JD, I cain't see the tracks anymore. It's gettin' dark quick." Vin wiped his horse down quickly and tethered it to a bush. "I'm gonna go see if'n I kin get us some supper."
"JD. Son. We'll get an early start in the morning. Right now we need some food and some rest. It just won't pay to try and go off looking for them in the dark. Now go on, unsaddle your horse. I'm gonna start a fire." Chris moved off into the brush to look for wood. Lee followed him.
JD paced back and forth, making several moves to mount his horse, before finally unsaddling the animal. Casey had already done hers and was gathering dried leaves and kindling.
An hour later, Vin returned to camp, four field dressed rabbits and several cattail roots in hand. Lee set the roots to roasting as Vin and Chris skewered the rabbits and laid them over the fire to cook.
Waiting was not something that came naturally to JD. The long minutes it took everyone to get settled in for the night, seemed to stretch into hours. Finally the even breathing around him indicated that the others were asleep.
Silently he rose from his place near the fire. Slinging his saddlebag over one shoulder and carrying his boots, JD crept toward the horses. He'd have to leave the bedroll, but hopefully this would be over by tomorrow and he wouldn't even need it.
Pulling on his boots when he reached the group of horses, he spoke reassuringly to them. His low tones calmed them, and kept them from getting excited and waking the men sleeping near the fire. Half holding his breath, he freed Milagro from his ground hobble. Moving away from the other horses, he saddled the sturdy chestnut as quietly as he could. As he finished tightening the cinch, a twig snapped behind him. JD tensed, waiting for the explosion he knew was coming.
"You'll need this," Casey said softly. She held out one of the extra guns Vin had brought back from town.
JD took it without saying anything. This was the one part of his plan he hadn't been sure about. Casey was on watch, and he hadn't known if she would stop him or not. The gun in her hand indicated her blessing.
"Find her, JD. Please?"
JD nodded. "I will. Look, you should go to the other side of camp. That way you can say you didn't see me leave."
"I want to come with you," Casey said suddenly.
"Can't do that, Case. Can't leave the others here without someone on watch." JD cast a quick look over the camp, checking to make sure the others were still sleeping. "I'll find them, don't worry."
"Who'll find you?" she asked.
In the low light from the fire, JD could tell her eyes were over-bright, filled with unshed tears. He reached up tenderly to caress one of her braids. Impulsively, he leaned in to capture her lips in a brief kiss. "I'll be okay. I promise," he whispered.
Before either one of them had a chance to say anything else, he turned and lead Milagro into the waiting darkness. As he walked, his mind and heart felt like they were being pulled in a dozen different directions. He felt guilty, slipping away in the middle of the night wasn't something a man of honor did. But Buck was out there. Not to mention Nathan and Mizz Nettie.
"Sorry," he whispered into the night, not sure exactly who he was apologizing to. Then he pulled himself up into the saddle, and turned Milagro down the trail they'd followed earlier.
Casey stood, frozen in place where JD had left her, long after she couldn't see him anymore. Someone behind her shifted in their sleep and Casey slowly walked over to where JD had mentioned and sat on a tree stump, but waiting quietly was never one of her strong points and soon she was up again, pacing quietly around the stump. /
The next on watch is sure to notice JD's gone// she thought
I should stuff something under his blanket to make it look like he's there.// Her mind made up, Casey walked over to where JD had left his sleeping roll and started to work on it.
Chris lay in his bedroll watching Casey fussing over JD's gear wondering exactly what the problem was, and then it dawned on him. R
ising quickly he stalked towards the young girl and grabbing her by the wrist he led her away from sleeping Vin and Lee. After all, there was no sense in all of them being awake. He turned on her where the horses were picketed. His face an angry mask, his movements sharp and filled with aggravation.
"Where the hell is JD Casey?" he spoke quietly
"I don't know Mr Larabee" She stood up to the man who secretly frightened her, but she wouldn't let JD down.
"Dammit Casey" he spat "He could be getting himself killed out there all alone" he saw the stricken look on the young girls face "It was stupid of him to go alone Casey" he calmed just a little as he watched tears glisten on Casey's lashes.
"He just wanted to help Nettie and Buck" she murmured
"It's not gonna help Nettie and Buck if he gets himself captured or worse now is it" Chris' demeanour softened as he realised it wasn't Casey's fault.
She probably contributed but she couldn't stop JD when he got a thought in his head.
"I'm sorry Mr Larabee" she spoke softly
"It's okay Casey Its not your fault" he hugged her briefly "I'll take over watch now you go and get some sleep.
Chris watched the young girl scurry back to the circle of the campfire as he began to pace, with yet another problem to worry about.
Holy hell....not again.... not again. Why were these men so intent on killing them...or injuring them? Only a fool would try it twice, and apparently there were plenty of fools around these here parts.
Buck recognized the small cave the men had decided to stop at. They were tired, so they couldn't make it all the way...to wherever it was they were going without rest.
Nathan was awake, Nettie was awake. Nathan was looking in his direction, while Nettie was busy cussing out one of their captor while he stood guard. There was a man next to Buck, he was asleep... There was another man next to Nathan, he was asleep too.
They would have absolutely no trouble getting out of here. Well,...except for that fact that they had tied their prisoners hands. But that was only a small problem. That one would be fixed soon.
Probably a lot sooner than anyone thought. Buck pulled his right hand out of the rope binding his hands together and withheld a sigh of relief. His arms had been so cramped. Now they were just sore.
He was glad that this was going to be easy. Because if it wasn't, he'd probably run hell bent for leather straight into the nearest creek.
He really hated the part of their job where kidnapping and attempted murder came in. It kept him from doing things that he enjoyed. And he hated when that happened.
He didn't bother to check if anyone was watching him, he just reached for the gun on the nearest man and started shooting.
Lee woke up as the sky started getting lighter. He sat up and stretched his stiff muscles. He looked around and found their two youngest members missing. He raised an eyebrow as he turned his gaze on Chris.
"JD took off and Vin's going after him."
"Well I hope you know how to track because that is a skill I lack," Lee commented as he reached for a cup of coffee Chris handed him. Chris looked at the older man and smiled cagily.
"Damn good thing that I can then isnt it" he spoke feeling almost like their situation wasnt hopeless "But something tells me my tracking skills won't be tested too badly"
"What makes you say that?" Lee spoke as he watched Casey waking on the other side of the campfire.
"Vin's gonna leave a trail we can follow" Chris smirked
"Sounds like a damn fine idea to me" Lee stated as he lifted his cup to his lips
Chris stood and stretched the weary cold from his stiff joints, as he moved towards his gear
"C'mon" he spoke quickly "Trails getting cold, lets get this show on the road"
Vin pulled his horse up to a halt and sat, watching as the three riders approached.
"Found me alright I see?" he said with a lopsided smile on his face.
"Hard to miss you. We're still on the road." Chris replied with an equal smile on his face.
"Well, he left it just a little ways up the road here. And Chris? Ya ain't gonna believe where he's headin'." Vin was already turning his mount and leading teh other three to where JD left the path,
Chris looked back at Casey with a worried frown on his face. She sat her seat firmly and met his frown with a defiant glare. He didn't want to lead her into danger, anymore than he wanted JD to be off on his own. Heading into God knows what with no back up and no one to help him. But no matter how much he wanted to protect her he couldnt afford to send someone back with her to Four Corners. That would mean splitting their already sparsely spread team and increasing the oddds against them.