The Story Continues
He turned back to Vin, with a short shrug, as he realised that Casey was probably safer with them them travellig with only one escort "So is he still alone?" he asked tersely "No-one following him?"
"No one's followin' im, but a few miles in there's another road. Seems he's accidently stumbled on some other riders and a wagon."
"A wagon? You think it's Josiah?"
Vin nodded before answering. "Yep. The tracks belong to Nettie's wagon. And Ezra's been along that road too. As well as them that took Nettie 'n the others."
Vin turned to look at Lee, the older man's mutterings reaching his ears. His eyebrows raised in question.
"I just can't believe that we're headin' back where we started." The older man replied as they moved along.
"Me neither," Vin answered then rode on in silence.
The closer the meager group closed in on the ruins the hairs on the back of Lee's neck rose in tandem. He knew something was very wrong. He maneuvered his horse close to Chris and commented quietly, "Something's not right, Chris. I have a bad feeling about this."
Chris looked at his friend his mouth a thin line and nodded. He had the same feeling. He cast cast his worried gaze across thier little group, wondering if they were up to nother confrontation so soon after the last one.
"There ain't nothing we can do about it Lee" he murmured just loudly enough for Lee to hear "Just hafta find the others and hope we all get back in one peice"
Josiah sighed and turned the wagon to follow Ezra. He wished the gambler would wait for him. The wagon was ungainly on the narrow roads, and he couldn't hope to keep up. He thought he'd lost Ezra's trail when the sounds of nearby gunfire tore through the pre-dawn air. Cursing, he whipped the horses toward the noise.
When Buck started shooting, Nathan instinctively shoved Nettie down, covering her with his body. She struggled and berated him, but fell silent when the man beside them rose and started returning fire.
Nathan glanced at Buck. The gunslinger had a slightly crazed look and was firing haphazardly around the confines of the cave. Nathan hoped he had a plan of some sort. They were out-numbered and Buck was out-gunned. Things could get ugly fast, and (all together now) Buck hated ugly.
"Never thought I'd see this place again," JD's voice was dull and flat in the brisk early morning air. He didn't look around as he spoke, just kept his eyes locked on the ground ahead of him.
The stale smell of smoldering wood coiled around him, whispering nightmares in his ears. The place had an oily feeling, to it. Like pain and rage had soaked the buildings through, feeding the fire. Sustaining it even now, days later. The place was tainted. And JD could feel the rot it had left on him, buried beneath fading bruises and fractured bones.
He shivered, letting Milagro chose the path. He didn't know if Ezra had heard him, or if the gambler even cared. There was so much he wasn't sure about. At the moment he knew exactly four things beyond all possible doubt.
One, he was cold. He thought longingly of the blanket near the fire he'd left behind. Of course, he'd also left Chris by the fire, and that was one reunion that he'd be happy to put off for a while. A *long* while.
Two, Buck, Nathan, and Nettie were out here and in need of help. He wondered if they were cold too. He hoped not. Buck was hurt. Bad. And Nathan. . . Nathan had been through so much already.
The third item on his list was the one currently weighing heaviest on his mind. He'd lied to Casey. Part of him hoped he hadn't, even believed he had a prayer- no matter how slender. But in the pit of his stomach, he knew he'd lied.
And finally, he didn't have the slightest idea of what he should do next.
Someone must have been listening to his silent pleas for guidance. The angry retort of gunfire tore through the oppressively silent morning.
"Buck," he breathed as he spurred his horse into a gallop. "I'm coming."
Lee nodded soberly. A sickening feeling came when he heard gunshots up ahead. He gave Chris a quick glance and spurred his horse in the direction where it came from. Lee stopped his horse just short of the break in the trees and jumped off. He quickly made his way around where he could get closer. He brushed the branches aside quietly and saw Buck shooting discriminately. He saw another come out from the brush from a different direction. Seeing him aim at Nathan and Nettie he pushed the brush aside fully and pulled out a colt as he crossed the clearing quickly. The stranger swung his eyes in Lee's direction and his pistol followed. They shot at the same time.
Time seemed to stand still as Lee watched the other gunslinger fall to the ground and not move. He thought he needed to holster his own colt but his arm was not responding. The weight was too much and his hand loosened on the grip. He watched as the gun slowly fell to the ground. He found it interesting that it made such a loud thump. He then looked down at himself and saw with surprise a red stain slowly spread across his lower abdomen. His legs started giving way as his hands dropped to his side. He saw the ground rushing up to his face then everything went black.
Vin entered the clearing, his mare's leg seeking a target. Buck was at the entance to a cave, a gun passing across the clearing also. The man didn't look good.
"Buck! It's us!" Vin called out, wanting to make sure the man realized who had just entered the area, as he approached the cave entrance and the forms of Nathan and Nettie. Stooping down, he helped Nettie sit up as JD, Josiah and Ezra entered the clearing from another direction and Chris checked on Lee.
"You okay?" Vin took a glance over the woman and over Nathan.
"Boy it'll take more than a few bad guys to hurt this scrawny old biddy." Nettie answered him as Casey came running up. Vin helped her stand then turned to Nathan.
"You all right?" Nathan nodded. "Then Lee's been shot. Kin you help im?"
Nathan glanced over at where Buck had sank to the ground and after seeing the tall man nod that he was fine, Nathan moved over to help out with the fallen Lee. Vin joined him after seeing to it that Nettie had settled back down comfortably onto the ground.
Ezra listened to JD with half an ear, the rest of his mind being occupied with simply staying in the saddle. He knew exactly what JD meant, though.
When JD spurred ahead, Ezra stared after him blankly for a moment, then realized what the shots must mean. He raked the sides of his own mount, realizing that he had better join the rest of the team. He was in time to see the last of the fight, and Lee go down. He moved forward, realizing that everything was in hand except that.
"Mr. Jackson. May I be of any assistance in the current predicament?" he asked quietly.
Nathan knelt beside Lee, examining the wound. The .44 bullet had left a large hole that refused to stop bleeding, no matter how hard Nathan pressed against it.
"We gotta get him to the Wells'. I can't work on him here." The gunslinger's pallor had him concerned. "I need my tools. A knife, at least." He tried to push harder against the bleeding, but he felt his strength waning, taking his spirit with it. He'd been needed far too often in the past few days, and so far they'd been lucky. But he had the sick feeling that their luck, such as it was, had started to run out.
Lee felt a stab of pain in his gut which drug him back to the land of the living. His eyes fluttered slightly then he heard a voice calling him as if from a great distance. With considerable effort he opened his eyes slowly. A dark face slowly and painfully focused.
"Stay with us Lee," Nathan said with exhausted concern. Lee tried to follow what the dark healer was telling him but the effort became too much. *It's so easy to just close my eyes,* he thought through the exhaustion that permeated his entire being. Giving into the temptation he let the darkness claim him again.
Vin watched as the others entered the small clearing in front of the cave. With a silent nod at Chris, he left, heading out to patrol the area. There were still some people missing from their earlier encounter and Vin had a feeling they weren't far away. Apparently so did Chris, because the man in black still had his gun out and was studying the clearing as Vin left.
As the blood seeping from the wound in Lee's side slowed, then finally stopped, Nathan breathed a sigh of relief. Chances were good that if the older gunslinger had lived this long he would survive the injury. But he still needed to extract the bullet, and that wasn't going to be easy under the best of conditions. A gentle hand on his shoulder caught his attention.
"Just do what you can, son," Nettie Wells said from behind him. "I'll help any way I can."
The healer nodded. "It'd be best if we could get him someplace cleaner. Like your place. But I don't how. He sure can't get on a horse."
"What about a wagon?" Nathan looked beyond Nettie and notice Josiah for the first time. "It's back a ways. Ezra isn't very talented when it comes to choosing paths through the woods. I had to leave it when the trail got too narrow."
Nathan smiled. "Grab his knees," he said, gripping the unconscious man under the shoulders. "Ezra, can you and JD fetch Buck?."
Chris helped the the others carry the semi conscious Lee to the wagon, his cold anger barely contained. As soon as the older gunslinger was settled in the bed of the wagon, he turned on JD, grabbing him by the scruff of the collar and dragging him away from the others. Even in his anger, he didn't want to chew the kid out in front of the others like a naughty child but he had to say something to him.
"What the hell was that fool stunt JD?" he growled as JD stared owlishly at him
"Buck needed me" were the only words that JD could force out
"Probably" Chris relented a little "You could have gotten yourself killed" he poked a finger into JD's chest "then how do you think Buck would feel?"
JD shrugged, falling silent in a mixture of pain, relief and even a little fear of Chris's temper
"Don't do it again!" Chris stated flatly then turned and stalked back to the wagon leaving JD there to consider his actions.
Vin moved quietly amongst the trees. Three people were in the clearing before him, two men and a woman. He knew who they were, just needed to confirm it and do something about it. Elaina and two of her goons stood next to their horses talking and apparently waiting. Waiting for men that would never show up thanks to the men from Four Corners. Vin moved closer.
"Okay, ever' body just stay were ya are." Vin said when he emerged, his mare's leg aimed at Elaina.
Josiah watched as Chris led JD aside, wondering what the kid had done this time. He chuckled softly. Chris would straighten JD out, and hopefully the lesson would be well learned. Too bad someone hadn't taken the same effort with Ezra when he'd been that age. Maybe he wouldn't consider running as his only option now.
"We're loaded up now, Josiah," Nathan said "We can get moving." Nettie and Nathan were in the back of the wagon, tending to Lee. The gunslinger had come to a few times, but had been incoherent. Hopefully he wouldn't remember the ride back to the ranch. It wasn't going to be easy. Phillipe was where Josiah had left him, holding onto the team of horses hitched to the wagon. Josiah nodded to him and as they climbed into the seat, he noticed that the Frenchman had paled and was unusually silent. *Probably not used to all the shooting and blood* he thought.
Josiah jiggled the reins and the horses started to move forward, leading the small band home. Buck had managed to crawl onto Lee's horse and was riding beside the wagon, eyes closed. Chris and JD would be catching up soon. Vin was scouting the area. And Ezra...Well who ever knew what the gambler was up to. Nothing too self-destructive, Josiah hoped.
Nettie looked up at Casey as the wagon started moving. "C'mon, Casey...we'd better be getting home."
Casey mounted her horse but made no move to follow the wagon. "I'm gonna wait for JD, I'll be right along."
Nettie shrugged and then went back to what she was doing before.
A few minutes later, the wagon now out of sight, JD and Chris came back, JD a little pale.
"Ready to go, JD?"
"Vin comin' in!"
Chris, JD and Casey turned as one to watch as the tracker came riding into the clearing, Elaina and her two hench men walking in front of him.
"What cha got there Vin?" Chris asked, a slight grin crossing his face as he saw teh look on Elaina's face.
"Jes found em hangin' round out there. Thought maybe they'd like ta see the rest of ya."
"Yes, I for one am happy to see them. JD, help me tie them up."
"How's Lee?" Vin asked as he handed a length of rope to JD and dismounted.
Elaina was seething. The damned tracker had ruined her plans. Why was it so hard to find competent men to work for her? If the idiots she'd been forced to hire had had half a brain among them, this never would have happened.
She lifted her skirts, mustering as much dignity as she could, her mind going over the events of the past few days. Oh, she wasn't done yet. This was just a minor set back, but annoying nonetheless. She had enough high cards up her sleeve the make the gambler choke.
As they broke into the clearing, Elaina stopped dead in her tracks. JD Dunne. How the Hell had the kid gotten out..?
"JD, help me tie 'em up," Tanner said. Elaina drew herself up, facing the boy. She allowed her thigh to lightly brush across his hip when he got too close.
"Did you miss me and our night trysts?" she asked. She reached up to touch his cheek, but Tanner prevented it, pulling her arms behind her. It didn't matter. The harm was done. Then she noticed the girl. Casey Wells. This was just too good...She stared up at the girl.
"Had he ever done with you the things he's done with me?"
Ezra had simply nodded when requested to get Buck, and went alone, as Chris pulled JD to the side.
"Mr. Wilmington, we are planning to depart this locality soon, would you care to join us?" he drawled.
He helped Buck up, and they were waiting tiredly at the wagon when Vin returned with Elaina.
He couldn't help the curse he muttered under his breath, and had to physically restrain Buck when Elaina made her insinuations. But he let Buck go when he indicated that he was going to speak to Casey instead.
Elaina glanced toward the gambler as he tried to hold Buck back. She heard the muttered curse and smiled. This was all more than she could have hoped for.
"Ah, Mr. Standish. Can't con a con man? Is it any wonder your 'friend'' instinctual reaction is that you're going to betray them? Or cause them some sort of harm?" She glanced pointedly at Josiah, ignoring the man sitting next to him for the moment. She'd deal with Phillipe later.
She started to address Ezra again, but a sharp nudge from Vin silenced her, for now. She would not be with these men for long, but while she was, she'd do as much damage as she could.
Vin moved up behind Elaina before Casey could react, giving Elaina a little push forward.
"That's 'nuff. Let's git goin'" he said gruffly, casting a glance at Chris and then motioning the henchmen forward as well. He moved past a stunned Casey and an embarassed JD.