M7FFA Entry

 

In the Wink of a Jinx


by Kris Mashburn


Author's Notes: Katie Harper and Becky Collins are figments of my imagination; no resemblance to any persons living or dead is intended.

Kristen created the name Chaucer for Ezra's horse, and frankly I can't think of him any other way. The other horses names are the Latin names of U.S. and Canadian bats.

Reference to the story "Kidnapped" by Carol was used with permission. Thanks.




JD came out of the sheriff's office and stared at the late afternoon sky, he just couldn't believe where the time had gone. 'Maybe reading that dime store novel took longer than I thought', JD said to himself on the way to the saloon. As he entered, he looked over at Ezra's table, and found Nathan and Josiah playing cards. Buck was in he corner with Molly, the waitress, and just about everyone could hear her giggles. JD waited at the counter, he knew that Vin would be in any minute, now that his rounds were done.

Vin entered the saloon and went to the counter right next to JD, to the barkeeper he said, "one gut warmer."

"Anything happening out there," JD asked Vin.

"All quiet."

"Everything is so peaceful," JD sounded disappointed.

"Careful how you say that," Buck said as he came up behind JD, startling him. "You just may jinx it."

"It's just that ever since we returned the cattle those rustlers took, we haven't had anything important to do." Sounding more like the exuberant kid JD, rather than the adult JD.

"Keeping the peace is important work, JD," Josiah admonished, with a little added stress on the is.

Buck laughed at JD's expression, "I think you jinxed us, kid!"

Nathan shook his head at the brotherly affection that Buck displayed even while riling JD. He then looked over at Vin and asked quietly, "any sign of Chris and Ezra?"

"Nothing," Vin answered.

"Oh, it's nothing to worry about, just a couple of days," Buck said with exasperation. "It's not like they're gonna get lost on the way back from Landdon."

Nathan answered back earnestly, "it do seem kinda strange we ain't heard from them yet."

JD looked over at Buck and said, "remember last time you said there was nothin' to worry on, and we had to go and rescue Chris from that prison."

Buck's expression turned serious, " well, I hope nothing like that happens again, I just don't think you can go running off every time someone is a day late. Things do happen that slow a fella down. Give it a day or two if they don't show up, then we can raise some fuss." Buck scratched his head and added, "hell, Ezra was getting some new clothes, that would hafta slow 'em down," half smiling at the image of Chris waiting on Ezra's shopping.




"We still have a few hours of daylight left, I'd like to put in some miles, and sleep out under the stars tonight," Chris told Ezra, as he watched him put his purchases in his saddle bags.

"If you would prefer, Mr. Larabee," Ezra wasn't thrilled, but knew he had delayed the return trip with the alterations, and this compromise was a small price to pay.

Chris nodded, and swung up on his horse, and waited for Ezra to do the same. They then headed out of town, toward home.

Chris stopped on the word home. Surprised how easily it had slipped into his thoughts, Chris figured almost a year in one place was a long time for him. Staying in Four Corners hadn't been that bad, but lately, with the town growing, he knew it would soon be too big for him, and he would want to move on. His train of thought was interrupted by Ezra's question.

"Which route do you wish to journey," Ezra asked as he reined in his horse.

Chris half smiled as he indicated the mountain pass, saying, " saves a day, it's not winter."

They both turned their horses to the mountain pass. The first part of the return ride was done in silence, and for both, it was a companionable silence, not a forced one. It wasn't a steep trail, just not a well traveled one. The horses had no real problems in the climb, and their riders let them pick their way. They had just reached a narrowing when they both heard a loud crack above them. As both men looked up they saw falling debris, and trying to avoid it was difficult on the narrow trail. Ezra came out cleanly, but Chris was hit on the head and shoulder by a falling branch; one big enough to knock him out of his saddle. The momentum threw Chris off the trail and he rolled down the side of the hill. The branch also struck the flank of his horse, Velifer, and sent him down the hill as well.

Ezra immediately jumped off his horse and looked over the side for any evidence of Chris. As the dust settled he was able to see that Velifer was standing but Chris was sprawled at the base of the hill. Ezra scrambled down the hill as fast as he could move. The bits of rock flying up and hitting his face went unnoticed in his panic to reach Chris. Ezra knelt down and felt for a pulse at the base of Chris' throat, a strong beat pressed against his fingers. The relief was palatable as Ezra went to both knees to check out the rest of Chris' body for broken bones or blood.

"Sure hope those hands are attached to a beautiful woman," Chris muttered as Ezra finished feeling his legs. Chris then attempted to roll over and Ezra stopped him.

"Hold on there, Mr. Larabee, let me finish checking the state of your condition," Ezra's voice indicated the elation he felt. He figured that if Chris could be a smart-ass he was going to live. "Turn over slowly and let me know what hurts."

"I don't have to move to tell you that, everything hurts," Chris said drolly. He then rolled over to see if he had any broken bones for himself.

As Chris sat up, Ezra noticed that he had blood running down the side of his face that was already beginning to harden. "Take it slow Chris, your head is bleeding and you could feel dizzy if you stand up." Ezra knew that from personal experience.

Chris gingerly felt his head, making contact with the blood and then rubbed his eyes. "Well, Ezra, maybe I didn't break any bones, but I sure can't see." Chris said this in the same way he might ask for a whiskey.

Concern was etched on Ezra's face as he asked, "are you sure?"

"Think I'd know," Chris said, "my eyes are open 'n I don't see nothin'." Chris then moved his head around as though he could see, searching for something. Then asked, "how's Velifer? He ok?, or did you have to shoot him?" There was more concern in his voice for his horse than there was for himself.

"Your horse is bruised, he has some minor cuts and looks to have a strained foreleg, but otherwise is unharmed." Ezra relayed the information as he examined the horse. Ezra moved back over where Chris remained seated asking, "have you discovered any additional maladies?"

"My left foot won't take my weight." Chris made it sound very ordinary, he then asked Ezra, "what's the lay of the land?"

"We are at the bottom of a relativity steep hill, you nor your horse will be able to make it up said hill. We must find a less steep incline to pursue. Chaucer remains above, and we will need to make camp here, as it is almost dark now." Ezra stood and looked around the area to ascertain the best spot to set up camp. "Chris, you are seated facing north, I am going to set up camp directly west of you, in the only flat area available." Ezra started to turn away as Chris attempted to rise, Ezra then moved directly to Chris, putting his hand on Chris' shoulder to prevent him from rising. Chris tried to remove Ezra's hand, but Ezra only pushed harder.

Chris growled, "I can take care of myself."

Ezra rolled his eyes as he said, 'oh that's perfectly obvious, but it would be more prudent to conserve your strength and aid me later moving Velifer to our camp." Momentarily glad Chris could not see his expression.

"Fine then," Chris growled less fierce, as his dismay grew with the pain that shot up his leg.

Ezra proceeded to set up camp, make a fire, and unsaddle Chris' horse. He then walked Velifer over and tied him up retrieving Chris' bedroll and setting it out. As he walked over to get Chris, he was hoping he wouldn't prove too stubborn to accept aid.

Other than a few blistering oaths directed at the pain, he didn't refuse Ezra's silent offer of aid. Ezra put Chris' arm over his shoulder and absorbed most of Chris' weight as they slowly hobbled over to the fire. Pain etched Chris' face, but he gave no other outward sign of the obvious pain he was in.

Ezra put some additional wood on the fire as he said, "I'm going above to tend to Chaucer, and retrieve my bedroll."

Chris nodded, then said softly, "thanks."

Ezra smiled as he climbed slowly up the hill.

Chris could feel the warmth of the fire, but felt frustrated at being unable to see it. A moment of fear stabbed at him, but he forced it down with his indomitable will, unwilling to give into that fear. He turned his thoughts to food, and sought his saddlebag for the venison jerky and hard bread he had put in earlier that day. He knew Ezra had put his saddle and saddlebags close by, but still had a little trouble in locating them. Finding the saddle behind him, he repositioned himself to lean against it, and retrieved the food sack. He took out some food and left the rest for Ezra. He continued to use the saddle as a backrest, and focused his thoughts on how to accomplish their journey back to Four Corners.

Ezra felt weary as he made his back to camp. He had left Chaucer tethered to an edible shrub and removed his saddle. Ezra had covered the saddle with the horse blanket and stored it under a bush till morning. At which time he would be better able to decide how they would get back. Approaching the fire he saw Chris munching on something and realized how hungry he was. Noticing the food Chris had placed for him he remarked, "I see you have provided an evening feast."

"Hardly, but it will get us by, just wish I had included some whiskey," Chris said ruefully.

"Now Mr. Larabee, that is something I can provide, spirits," Ezra sounded cheerful as he reached inside his coat pocket for the flask he kept there. He took a swig and then passed it to Chris, who took a couple of swallows, then handed it back to Ezra with his thanks. Ezra ate his food, and pondered how his companion would take what amounts to a reversal in roles. With Chris being temporally blinded, and unable to do any swift movement, getting them back would rest on Ezra's shoulders.

A screech of a mountain lion in the distance had both men looking toward the direction it came. Ezra said aloud, "I'd best keep a supply of wood handy to replenish the fire." Rising to gather more wood, he was halted by Chris' voice.

"She sounded far away, and not likely to bother with us," Chris seemed unconcerned with the cat. He was trying to get his canteen of water and a rag from his saddlebag to wash the blood from his face.

Ezra rose and took the canteen and rag from Chris and proceeded to wash his face. Chris drew his head back and said, "I can do this myself."

Ezra just ignored Chris' attempt to retrieve his items and admonished him with, " I think we shouldn't use any more water than necessary, thus, in this instance I believe I can do this with more ease than you," and did just that. While Chris didn't like it, he couldn't really argue it either,

and stopped fighting Ezra as he finished up.

Ezra finished, and sat back, pushing some wood into the fire, then said to Chris, "we need to contrive how to rectify this unlikely happenstance."

"Ezra, my head hurts, so can you just talk plain english?" Chris said this wearily.

"We need a plan," Ezra restated for Chris' convenience.

"That's simple, in the morning you ride out and bring back a fresh horse."

"You may think me capable of abandoning you here, but I will not. It is a day and a half ride there, which means you would be alone for at least two nights, and I will not leave you alone in your blinded state." Ezra was very emphatic and as Chris started to argue, Ezra overrode him with a loud, "No!"

Chris laid down with his hands behind his head and spoke to the sky, "didn't think of it as abandonment, just thought it made sense."

Mollified by Chris' words, Ezra continued with his original intent, to make a plan. " As we need to get back up to the trail, I will scout around in the morning, looking for the easiest route for you and Velifer to travel. I will then retrieve Chaucer, and you will ride him. Don't bother arguing that one Chris, your ankle can't hold you, and Velifer can't hold any weight. So we'll just have to walk from there."

"Well, Ezra, when you plain speak, seems you can make a lot of sense." Chris' half smile and words showed his agreement with Ezra's plan. Chris then lit a cheroot and blew the smoke skyward. It didn't take long for Chris to realize that lying down only made his head hurt worse, so he sat up and leaned against his saddle.

Ezra noticed Chris' resituating himself and asked, "problems, Chris?"

"Head hurts more when I lay," Chris told him.

Ezra offered Chris his flask once again, and Chris accepted gratefully. Ezra was thinking how much he could use Nathan's help right about now. As that was pretty much impossible, he figured he wasn't going to get much sleep tonight. He stoked the fire and leaned back against a log.




It was just after dawn when Becky Collins rode into Four Corners, she went to the livery first, as Katie Harper had instructed her. She checked with the stable hand, and he assured her that Vin Tanner was still in town. He steered her to the boardinghouse to find her query. As Becky headed up the porch steps a man exited the building wearing buckskin clothes. He matched the description of one of the men Katie had told her about, so she asked him, "where might I find Vin Tanner?"

"Why do you want to find him, miss?" Vin asked her.

"He's the tracker, and Katie told me to find him first," Becky answered.

"Katie Harper?"

"Yes, you know her?"

"Yeah, I'm Vin Tanner, why do you need a tracker?" Vin asked her as he led her to the table outside of the saloon.

" 'Bout an hour before dawn, two Indians came to the house and told Katie she had to go with them. As she was getting dressed, she told me to get you and asked if you could follow. She said that they didn't threaten her, but they gave her no idea as to what they wanted. She also said she would rather be safe than sorry, and that you all would understand. What are you going to do?"

"We'll take care of it, miss," Vin assured her. He crossed over to the hotel, where he figured most of his pards would be eating breakfast. Becky followed right behind him.

Vin found Nathan, Josiah, and JD eating breakfast together. He sat down, introduced Becky, and then filled them in on the situation Becky had presented. Any further discussion was interrupted by Buck as he came down the stairs.

"Good morning, boys, and what beautiful young lady do we have here?" A smile stretched across his face, as he joined them.

JD rolled his eyes and introduced Buck, "Becky, this here is Buck, and only believe half of what he tells you."

"JD, you wound me," Buck then takes Becky's hand saying, " ma'am, I am truly a most sincere fellow."

Nathan and Vin both rolled their eyes, as Josiah tried to keep from laughing out loud. But it was JD that summed up the situation, "see, what'd I tell you, only believe half."

Becky was laughing, and then grinned at Buck saying, " oh, don't ya worry, he's like one of my brothers, and I don't take him seriously either."

But before Buck could add anything else, Vin brought them back to the subject at hand. Buck volunteered to ride with Vin. Vin then said, " let's get started, pard, before they get too much of a head start on us. Vin and Buck both tipped their hats at Becky as they left for the livery.




Mary Travis came out of the telegraph office clutching the telegram and headed for the sheriff's office. As she passed Mrs. Potter she only nodded, instead of her customary smile. Mary saw JD at his desk as she walked in.

JD looked up as Mrs. Travis entered, he tipped his hat at her and said, "Ma'am, what is it?"

Mary handed the telegram to JD and asked, "is Mr. Tanner around?" She knew Chris and Ezra were out of town.

"No ma'am, he and Buck are tracking Indians with Miss Harper, but don't worry ma'am we'll be able to take care of this." JD was already walking toward the door as he spoke. He tipped his hat again and left her in the office as he went in search of Josiah.

JD found Josiah and Nathan on the roof of Josiah's church, fixing some of the tiles. JD looked up at them and held the telegram up saying, "you need to read this." He didn't want to announce it contents for the whole town.

Josiah and Nathan climbed down the ladder to where JD was waiting for them, and he handed the telegram to Josiah. After Josiah finished, he handed it to Nathan, and then they all walked to the saloon. Josiah and JD went to their regular table, as Nathan got three beers and joined them. Josiah then asked JD, " how do you want to handle this?"

JD sat up straighter at the unspoken compliment from the older man. He pushed the telegram to the middle and said, "Eagle Bend said that the bank robbers were headed in this direction at about 9:00. So we have an hour to prepare for them."

"We don't know for sure that they're comin' here," Nathan said to them both.

"The telegraph went down right after this message, so we can't get any more information," JD said.

"I think we should assume they are, and work from there. It's safer for the town that way," Josiah said in a preacher like way.

"Let's handle it the same way as when Mrs. Travis was kidnapped, I'll go in as a teller, and you guys be customers," JD looked at them expectantly.

Nathan gave JD a half smile and said, " I think Buck was right, you jinxed us."




Chris awoke to the sound of a woodpecker's hammering, which he was quite sure matched the hammering in his head. He rubbed his temples, wishing he had a shot of whiskey. "Damm," he said aloud. He was surprised when he received no response, so he called out, "Ezra." The only answer he received was nature itself.

Chris sat back and wondered if Ezra had left, it's what he would have expected him to do. He then felt immediately contrite, for that might have been true six months ago, but today he knew it wasn't true. Ezra has been a loyal partner of this makeshift defenders group since the judge's pardon. Chris knew he would be back.

That piece of knowledge startled his thoughts, for he admittedly had been very wary of Ezra, and didn't know if he could trust him. But now, even though Ezra will still try to make the most of some opportunities, he was always there to back up, or on occasion lead this odd group. Chris gave himself a minute shake of the head, and said aloud, "hell, being blind makes me think too much."

"Talking to yourself, Mr. Larabee, is a sure sign of a deranged mental condition," Ezra said as he came up behind Chris.

"Oh, and a good morning to you too, Ezra," Chris said with a devil may care look upon his face.

Ezra chuckled, then asked, "how are you feeling this morning?"

"Well, if it's possible to hurt more, I do," Chris said ruefully.

Ezra set about making some coffee, as Chris took care of his bedroll. Chris then leaned back against his saddle, dismayed at the pain his ankle was giving him. Walking unaided was truly going to be difficult, and that was as equally unsettling as the pain.

Ezra handed Chris a cup of coffee, sat back with his own and then filled him in on the morning activities. "I've checked on Velifer and fed him. His cuts don't looked infected, but the swelling has not gone down on his injured leg."

"Thank you," Chris stated simply.

"I also went up to tend to Chaucer, and brought down the coffee pot. I fetched my canteen and watered both horses." Ezra smiled as he said the next, "after the horses had their water, I figured there was enough water to make you coffee."

Chris actually smiled, then sobered and asked, "you find a way out?"

"I believe that a mile down that way," pointing, and then hearing Chris cough, rephrased it, "about a mile south appears to be considerably less steep, and we could attempt the climb."

"Are there any branches about, to use as a walking stick?" Chris asked.

"I can find you a stick, but you will still need aid to move," Ezra said, with a touch of exasperation in his voice.

"I can move myself, you just take care of Velifer," Chris' face matched the steel in his voice. "Just find me a walking stick," sounded like a growl.

Ezra pinched his nose, then let his hand fall to his side, figuring Chris couldn't see his face, so he wouldn't realize just how stubborn he thought he was. Well, he just would let Chris discover for himself that he would have to accept some help.

Ezra finished packing up, and realized with dismay that he was going to have to carry the brunt of the load. Chris was barely going to move himself. To Chris he said, "Chris, I'm sorry to say, we will have to leave your saddle here. The horse really shouldn't have any extra weight added on his legs, if he has any hope of running again. We can retrieve at a later time."

Chris was having a difficult enough time with his saddlebags, and just wasn't too concerned with the saddle at the moment, so grunted, "fine."

Ezra, exasperated, just restrained himself from stomping, and went over and just grabbed the saddlebags from Chris.

Chris stared hard at what he could hear was the retreating form of Ezra. Irritated, and relieved at the same time, he grabbed for the walking stick, and cursed up a storm as pain shot up is leg. But with sheer determination he raised himself up with the stick. The pain in his head that throbbed, coupled with the sweat running down his back, had him growling aloud. Yet, he continued, and by forcing himself forward, leaning on the stick, he pushed himself erect.

Ezra was frankly amazed, as he watched this embodiment of determination, move forward, pain etched on his face, refusing to give in and for what, just to prove he could do it himself? Ezra didn't actually know at what time he, himself would have given in and asked for aid, but it would have been before now. He continued to watch Chris even as he fell to the ground.

"Damm it to hell." Chris' curse seemed to echo off each rock. He then attempted to rise again.

Ezra dropped the reins and walked over to Chris and squatted in front of him. In a gentle voice asked, "Chris we could make better time if we work together on this. I do believe that if you utilize my shoulder we could make to the incline sometime today."

Chris took a moment to fight an inner struggle, before answering, "are you implying that I'm slow?" He didn't smile, but his stance told Ezra all he needed to know, Chris was willing to accept the help he needed.

Together, they slowly inched forward. The horse followed without being lead, the slow pace matching his needs too.




Vin and Buck had found the Indian pony tracks leading to Katie's house, and a third horse track joined the others leaving her house. Vin felt the inside of the track and turned to Buck saying, "they're 'bout two hours ahead of us." He remounted and they followed the tracks.

Buck was surprised that Vin was now leading them away from the reservation. For the first hour they had ridden in that direction, now Vin had taken a sharp left and they were moving away fast.

After a half an hour of riding, Vin slowed to a walk, carefully checking the shrubs and ground for signs.

"Vin, you sure they didn't go to the reservation, trying to trick us, I mean," Buck inquired.

"Yup," Vin answered, only expanding his answer, after hearing Buck snort. "Not trying to cover up tracks, jus straight forward riding, never even hesitated at the turn."

"Where do you think they're headed?" Buck continued the conversation.

"Don't know," Vin returned.

"Whatta ya think they wanted with Katie?" Buck just wasn't giving up on the conversation.

"Probably needed her help."

"Doing what?"

Vin turned in his saddle and faced Buck, giving him a look that he was used to getting with Chris. "She has a soft touch with horses, so, I reckon they needed her help." Vin resumed riding, checking the ground as he went.

Buck said to Vin's retreating back, "it's like riding with Chris." Unseen by Buck, Vin smiled.

It wasn't yet noon when Vin stopped them and got off his horse and started walking, saying to Buck, "we're close now."

Buck also dismounted, trying to see what Vin was inspecting.

"These shrubs were broken just a short time ago," Vin showed Buck the shrub edges.

Vin and Buck then approached the clearing up ahead cautiously. As they reached the edge of the clearing they could see Katie sinking in a mud bog. She was up to her chest in the mud and desperately trying to reach an extended branch. No aid from the two Indians seemed forthcoming.




JD had just finished helping his fifth customer, when Nathan came in the bank. He motioned to Josiah to join them at the teller window.

Keeping his voice low, Nathan told them, " telegraph line is up again, and I got more information from Eagle Bend. They think the robbers checked the place the day before. Teller there recognized the walk of one of the robbers, he posed as a new customer." Nathan paused, looking at both men with a piercing stare, "shot two men, killed one."

JD's eyes widened at that last bit, and looked at Josiah for his reaction. Josiah looked thoughtful, then looked around to see if any customers were in the bank. Finding no one, save the manager, Josiah asked, "any new customers today?"

The bank manager, Mr. Barrett and JD both shook their heads no. Mr. Barrett added, "I knew everyone that came in this morning."

Josiah said to Mr. Barrett, "Then let me be here in your place this afternoon, that way tomorrow it will appear normal for me to be here. "

Nathan added, "it'll cut down on the could-be causalities." Nathan thinking as the healer.

Mr. Barrett looked nervous, but gave an affirmative nod, agreeing to the plan. He gave Josiah the keys to the vault, and left the building.

"JD, just continue to be the teller, and if someone you don't know comes in, cough like you're clearing your throat, and we can check 'em out more carefully." Josiah went behind the manager's desk. "Nathan, if you stay local outside, I'll step out after our "new" customer and you can discover where he goes, that work for you?"

Nathan nodded, "I'll stay in front of Mrs. Potter's." As he got close to the door, he said, "someone's coming now." He then left the bank as JD and Josiah went to work.




Katie figured she'd been in better situations. All the mud made it hard to move, and very difficult to get a good grip on the horse behind her. It had taken awhile for the horse to let her near him. And to top it off, Chanu is so concerned for the horse, he and his brother won't come close so as not to scare him, like they had done before. "I can't do it without rope," Katie tossed the words out to Chanu.

"Maybe your friends have rope," Chanu bobbed his head to the right, indicating the two approaching figures.

Katie turned her head to see who Chanu was talking about, as the two figures got closer, she called out, "Vin, Buck, I need rope, lots of rope." Katie turned back to the horse.

Chanu walked out to greet Vin, and to caution him, "leave horses here, could scare the free one."

Buck turned to Vin, "free one?"

"Wild."

Buck nodded understanding and went to fetch the rope. Vin continued to Chanu, and they grasped forearms, and Vin said, "a-hoe." They turned and went to Katie.

Vin was now able to really see the situation Katie was in. " What can I do?"

"I need two ropes, two horse blankets, and your strength." Katie said, then turned and talked into the horse's ear.

Jo-na-a brought the blankets and Buck had the ropes, and they all joined Katie. "We're gonna have to put the rope around the front and back underbelly, with the blankets between. It's gonna be tough enough without adding rope cuts. This horse is extremely tired, but will still put up a struggle. We have to go slow and easy." Katie explained as she moved herself into position.

Buck threw her a rope first and she worked it through the mud, under the horse's legs, and she then dunked under to force the rope up the other side. Buck was ready to jump in for her just as she popped up. Wiping mud from her eyes and mouth, she asked for the blanket. She draped it over the rope before pulling the rope snug against the horse. Signaling to Vin, he picked up the rope pulled it 'till she made a fist. She repeated the process for the back end, and signaled Chanu to do as Vin did. "This last part is hard, for you all must pull at the same time that I push him. You also need to pull straight back and not at angles, to prevent internal injuries. Okay, on three," Katie got herself in the middle, waited for the count. The next hour was a series of repetitions of counting, heaving and resting. The final heave/push accomplished had left all parties exhausted. Katie then scrambled out of the mud and began scraping it off the horse. The horse lay exhausted, not trying to stand up.

"Vin, help me, we need to make the horse stand up," urgency guided Katie's voice and actions.

"Buck, take the other side, use the same ropes," Vin said moving to the head of the horse.

Buck did just that, Vin at the front and Katie opposite them in the middle. They pulled and pushed at the same time, but the horse didn't budge. Chanu and Jo-na-a each took a side without being asked. Again they all worked together, and the horse had no choice but to stand. Katie moved to the head murmuring in his ear. Vin and Buck started knocking off mud as Chanu removed the ropes. Jo-na-a approached slowly with Vin's canteen, offering it to Katie. She shook her head no, instead, indicating with her hands that she wanted him to pour the water there. The horse drank thirstily.

"Does anyone see cuts or abrasions?" Katie was feeling the legs. She looked over at the different men, Vin and Buck both shook their heads. Chanu indicated yes.

"Here, just above tail," Chanu pointed to the area he was talking about.

"Looks like a bite, let me clean it, "she wiped it with part of Vin's jacket. She opened her eyes wide at him and did a half shrug saying sorry. Katie then called out, "hey Chanu, Vin take a look, what kind of animal?"

Both men looked at the bite marks, trying not actually touch 'em. Vin said, "cat."

Chanu nodded, then added, "old mountain cat, teeth are worn down."

"Musta spooked the horse, causing it to get trapped," Vin explained.

"Chanu explained that they had been hunting and found an injured wild horse. You," pointing at Vin," must have told them I could work with horses, so they brought me to save the horse."

Vin nodded and said, "yep, I mentioned you had the touch."

Chanu nodded his head, "Vin right."

Jo-na-a added, "horse would not let us help, but could not let it die. Free horse has much spirit."

Katie checked the bite, figuring the mud had stopped the bleeding, but it looked clean so she left it alone. She turned to face her helpers, "I'm staying with it till it's strong enough to leave," expecting some argument, but received none.

Buck said, "Hell, if Chris and Ezra don't end up joining us, we'll have to go in search of them, this way we got a head start."

Vin nodded, and looked over to the Indians, who spread their hands out and down, indicating they were staying. Vin said to Chanu, "lets catch us some food." Chanu nodded and they took off.

Katie was already working on the horse again, rubbing horse salve on his legs.

Jo-na-a said to Katie, "our horses should stay away."

Katie agreed, "their smell will probably upset him, Buck, will you take care of my horse too?"

Buck smiled and tipped his hat, saying, "be right glad to, ma'am," then turned and sauntered off.

Jo-na-a gathered grasses and leaves for the horse, then set about making camp, while Katie continued to talk with the horse.




Chris was drenched in sweat, never had two miles seemed so hard. Ezra went to care for Chaucer, and they probably only had an hour of daylight, 'and I can't do a damm thing,' Chris thought to himself. Chris was ready to punch anything, his frustration level was so high; but he couldn't even enjoy that, for the pain was so overwhelming it permeated every move and thought.

The pain in his head throbbed; the pain in his leg throbbed, so that the small aches and pains from the fall itself were almost welcome to give his thoughts somewhere else to go. Ezra had left him propped up against a tree and he didn't have the energy to even open his bedroll. Chris knew that without Ezra today, he could not of made even this small distance. Chris laid his head back against the tree and let exhaustion take him.

Ezra wasn't physically tired, just mentally so. Trying to be cautiously encouraging, disguising the worry, when in fact he was growing increasingly concerned over Chris' blindness was exhausting. He climbed up the hill, where this had all started, to retrieve Chaucer. Ezra felt relief that his saddle had remained untouched. He saddled his horse, and mounted for the ride part way down the pass. Knowing the area they reached today, further than he actually planned, could allow him to bring Chaucer down. Meaning tomorrow Chris would be able to ride up to the trail. He wanted to get them out of the pass, so in case their friends did come looking for them, they wouldn't miss them.

Ezra dismounted and walked Chaucer down slowly, wanting to incur no further injuries for the horse or himself. Chris appeared to be asleep, so Ezra climbed back on Chaucer and went to retrieve Chris' saddle. It would be sure to come in handy for Chris this evening.

Velifer seemed to perk up as Chaucer joined him munching on grass, also saddleless.

Ezra began work for setting up camp, he got the fire going first so he could make some coffee. He retrieved the rabbit he had shot earlier in the day, to cook it. After he finished with the bedrolls and saddles, he went over to Chris, who still seemed to be sweating a lot. Fearing Chris might be unconscious, grabbed his shoulder and shook him. Chris awoke readily, growling at the interruption of sleep. Ezra couldn't help noticing that Chris was warm to the touch. So he took out a handkerchief, wetted it and placed on Chris forehead.

"I can hold it myself," Chris growled, then said, "but thanks, that feels cool."

"I was able to bring Chaucer down here, so tomorrow should prove much easier for you. In the meantime, I don't need you to add a fever to your long list of ailments." Ezra said with a slight smile.

In a short while, Ezra had the meal complete, and was pleased that Chris was able to eat all he served up. Ezra still had some spirits left in his flask, and offered it to Chris, who accepted gratefully.

The sun had completely set, and the moon was on the rise, Chris had a cheroot going and Ezra poured himself more coffee. Ezra sat back relaxing for the first time that day, and was thrown off balance by Chris' query.

"Why'd you come back that day," Chris' fevered state allowed him to ask.

Ezra knew what day Chris was referring to, a question he often asked himself. Silence was all that filled the night air for several minutes, Chris waited.

"Well sir, I think I actually listened to what I was apostatizing to the children, about courage. Frankly I never thought I possessed any courage for a noble cause. But those children had endowed me with that capability, which intern meant that the six of you believed me capable, and, possibly for the first time, I didn't want to leave without trying to live up to those expectations."

"Did you?"

"I don't know."

"Well, Ezra, you coulda left yesterday, you didn't. "

"I do know that never before in my life have I ever had friends. Now, I find myself thinking of you six comrades as friends." Ezra actually felt more comfortable knowing Chris could not see his face.

"In childhood you had no friends?" Chris' voice conveyed that perhaps this was an exaggeration.

"Unfortunately, I never stayed in one place long enough to make a friend. My mother dumped me with every relative we have. There was a cousin here or there that I could begin to get close to and my mother would return. Most of the time while there, all I could think of was how could I get my mother to keep me with her." At this Ezra's voice took on a bitter quality, "I learned that the only way I could spend time with my mother was to be helpful in a con." Ezra's voice lowered to barely audible for, "to know that she only wanted me with her for aid in a con, and not cause she missed me, I just grew up feeling bereft, not knowing how to make friends like you do."

This hit to close to home for Chris, and he responded flatly, "I don't try to make friends."

"Well, sir, you seem to inspire a fiercely protective, and loyal following for a man who has no intention of making friends, Ezra observed while looking at the fire.

"I don't ask anyone to put their life on the line for me, like last month, none of you would hear the word no," Chris sounded riled.

Ezra smiled at Chris, knowing he couldn't see, recognizing the same self-deprecating trait in himself, and told Chris, "We, including me, we all know you would put your life out there on the line for us, how can you not expect or even accept to get the same back?"

"That's different."

"Right, different, tell me another one."

Chris refused say anything else about this, who started this anyway. Chris did realize he was feeling quite warm and asked, "Ezra, could I get some water?"

Ezra knew by the request of beverage that all was not right with Chris. He got up and went over to him with some water in a cup, also rewet the handkerchief and placed on his forehead. Chris murmured his thanks.

Ezra couldn't figure out where the fever was coming from, the cut on his head hadn't changed, being blind didn't cause a fever, so, maybe his foot was broken and not sprained. He knew he had to check, and that meant taking off the boot. Also, meant that Chris would have no foot cover tomorrow, but that was better than burning up.

Chris yelped with pain as Ezra yanked and yanked again to finally remove the boot. It wasn't the original injury, but a rock had wedged in and cut his foot, and that was infected. Ezra hated to waste any of the spirits in his flask, but knew it would kill some of the infection. Chris yelped again, and added a few colorful words to the mix, as the sting was quite sharp. Ezra then propped his foot upon his saddlebag, and settled in for the night, knowing tomorrow had to be easier.

Several hours had passed, and Ezra checked on Chris on his return from the woods. Chris felt considerably cooler to the touch. Chris stirred and Ezra gave him some more water, then returned to his bedroll.

The fire wasn't more than a few embers, so the night was blessedly dark to Ezra. In the silent night Chris' whisper was easy to hear, "Ezra."

"Yes, Chris, you need something?"

"I wasn't so gone with fever, that I don't remember what was said. Just so ya know, I'd have you at my side or at my back, I wasn't sure at the beginning, but I am now." Chris' voice might have been low, but the sincerity was loud.

Ezra's throat tightened with emotion, then he swallowed it and simply said, "thank you."

The night was once again silent, and Ezra could make out Chris' change to sleep breathing, and Ezra settled in to join him.




Morning in Four Corners had a feeling of expectation in the air. Nathan and JD met with Josiah in the church before the bank opening.

Nathan recapped what he had seen, "I know there is four of them, the customer that left yesterday went back to the hotel, but last night met with three others in the saloon."

Josiah nodded, "fore warned is fore armed, let's do this without casualties."

"OK, let's go," JD said as he got up. He went out the back way to go to the bank from a different direction.

Josiah went to the bank and opened for business, JD walked up and nodded good morning. They both entered the bank as Nathan stopped in front of Mrs. Potter's.

JD and Josiah were all set. JD was behind the teller bars and Josiah was at the manager's desk when the three men entered the bank. The one man posing as the customer from yesterday went straight to the teller window. The other two robbers took position against the wall, and by the door.

Josiah figured things were about to happen, when instead the door opens and Becky Collins walked in. Josiah immediately called out, " Miss Becky, how wonderful to see you, sit down here and I'll fix you right up."

Becky, a little bewildered to see the preacher man at the bank manager's desk, did as he asked.

"Now what kind of account can we open for you?" Josiah then pushed a paper in front of her.

Becky looked down and read {robbery in progress, when a commotion starts, walk around and get under the desk. Stay calm.} Becky looked up and said to Josiah, "that will be fine, wonderful idea."

All that sounded normal to the robbers, so they began their work. The robber at the teller window pulled his gun and told JD to get all the money and put it in the bag. As if on cue, the other two started to go for their guns, then the one by the door had his gun trained on Becky. Josiah already had his gun out and shot the gunman by the door. He quickly swung to his left and trained his gun on the man by the wall.

JD, in the meantime, used that distraction to pull both guns and aimed them at the bagman. "I wouldn't if I were you," JD's look told clearly of his deadly intentions.

Hearing the shot inside, Nathan came up behind the one man left outside to guard the door, and put his gun into the middle of the robbers back, and told him, "move slowly into the bank."

The man stopped and instead of following directions, yelled behind him, "shoot him."

Nathan whipped around in time that the bullets hit their own man, thus shielding Nathan. Nathan then took a shot, but the four men in the street jumped on their horses and rode out of town.

Nathan then entered the bank with his gun out, only to see that everything was under control. He immediately informed them, "there was another four men waiting, and they took off."

JD said, "let's lock these guys up and go after the rest."

Josiah nodded, then turned to Becky, "Keeping your head helped us, thanks."

"Well, sure, I just followed your lead," Becky replied. Then as an afterthought, "Katie isn't back yet."

Nathan assured her, "Vin'll have everything under control."

Becky smiled and left the bank, she figured she'd just come back another day.

Nathan, Josiah and JD took their prisoners over to the jail, and the undertaker took care of the other two. They then went to the livery, saddled their horses and took off after the remaining robbers.




Morning found Chris and Ezra packed up and ready to leave. Ezra was noticeably relieved that Chris' temperature seemed to be almost normal. That was one less thing he would have to worry about today. Ezra then worked at getting Chris up on Chaucer; he succeeded on the third try. Most of the gear was up on the horse with Chris, and Chris also had the reins to Velifer, who followed behind. Ezra slowly led them up the slight incline and made their way back to the pass trail. From there Ezra knew it was just a matter of walking, and he figured that within two hours they would be on the main road.




Buck tossed out the last of the bad coffee in his effort to help break down camp. Katie was giving the last of her water to the horse in her preparation of releasing him. Vin had most of everything else taken care of. For Chanu and Jo-na-a, cleanup was non-existent as they slept right on the ground and had no extra items. They joined Buck and Vin and they all watched as Katie removed the halter, whispering continuously to the horse. She then finally stepped back, signaling to the horse that he was again free. He started away, then stopped, turning his head toward Katie and whinnied, then ran like the wind.

Katie whispered aloud to herself, "bye Starstep." She then turned to her companions and smiled. "I thank all of you for helping Starstep. Now, we can all ride together to the turn off."

Buck smiles and said, "Starstep." Then he raised his eyebrows, as to ask why.

Katie half laughed at herself, "he had little white star things around his feet." She smiled again.

Buck laughed, but Chanu and Jo-na-a nodded an understanding. Vin smiled, then said, "let's go."

The five of them rode in a comfortable silence for a good hour till they came to the main road. Vin and Chanu both pointed to large amount of fresh tracks they noticed. But as they were on the road north, and they were going south, they shrugged at each other and turned their horses south and continued home.

They hadn't been traveling fifteen minutes when Buck cried out, "three riders coming fast."

They all halted off road and Vin took out his telescope and told them, "it's Nathan, Josiah and JD."

The three riders halted when they recognized Buck's horse, and approached them at a walk. Buck called out, "what's going on?"

JD jumped in right away with, "we're chasing bank robbers."

Josiah filled them in, "robbers hit Eagle Bend three days ago, and killed a man. Robbed us this morning, caught four, but another four headed out before we even knew about them. Chris and Ezra aren't back yet either."

Vin turned to Chanu, "friend, can you get Katie back home?"

Chanu nodded yes, they grasped arms, saying goodbye. They all tipped their hats to Katie, who called to them, "good luck." Then Katie, Chanu and Jo-na-a turned and headed south. The five partners turned and spurred their horses north bound.

Vin shared that they had seen fresh tracks fifteen minutes earlier on this road, and the men pushed harder. They had been riding for almost another hour, when Vin held up his hand and stopped to check the tracks. "Their horses are tiring, and we should be on them real soon." He took out his telescope and scanned the area. Vin had just remounted when they heard the shots up ahead. The men signaled their horses and ran head long into danger. They came upon them in a rocky area. They saw three of the gunmen behind some large rocks firing on a solo figure.

"Ezra," Vin called out to his companions, and they headed in to help him. They pulled in shooting at the gunmen, taking cover near to Ezra.

Nathan called to Ezra, "where's Chris?" Ezra pointed to an area of rocks behind him.

Nathan approached carefully as not to be shot by Chris himself. He saw Chris below and he also saw a lone gunman approaching from behind Chris. Chris seemed unaware and so Nathan called out, "Chris, behind you!"

Chris spun around sharply and discharged three shots in a row, hitting his target. Nathan then scrambled down to Chris.

"Chris, you hit?" Nathan asked arriving in front of Chris.

Chris said, "no, hurt my leg and head in a fall, I can't see." A non-emotional flatness in his voice told Nathan more than Chris realized.

Nathan questioned him, "but you jus shot that guy dead on."

"You shouted good directions."

Nathan shook his head in wonder, reflecting some could never shoot like that while seeing, and Chris can do it blind. Then, Nathan became all doctor. "What happened? You get shot?"

"No, the fall." He would have said more, but the volley of shots intensified, then went almost silent.

They stood up to check out what had happened, but before they even took a step, they could hear Buck call out, "Chris, Nathan, where are you?"

Nathan called back immediately, "here, down here. Anyone else hurt?"

Buck chuckled, as he said, "none of the good guys." Then he led the way down to where Chris and Nathan were.

Ezra asked drolly, "would someone care to enlighten us as to whom we were shooting at."

JD said, "hell, that's easy, the bank robbers."

Vin worked his way over to Chris, looked at his foot, and remarked, "I reckon you mighta not had that good a time." Vin then smiled at his friend.

Nathan explained that it was worse, for Chris couldn't see. He felt all around Chris' head, finding several lumps. "I can't be sure, now, but since you said nothing went in your eyes, it could be that all the swelling from the bumps is pressing against your eyes."

Chris visibly sagged in relief, and as hope flared anew, he said, "let's get outta here."

Chris used one of the robber's horses. Josiah doubled up two of the dead men on to one horse, and they started the caravan home.




The seven reached Four Corners by nightfall. Ezra and Buck carried Chris up to Nathan's to have his foot taken care of, and Josiah took the dead to the undertaker's. Vin looked over Velifer, and set up extra fed for him and Chaucer. JD helped to unsaddle the rest of the horses with Vin. Then they went up to Nathan's to check on Chris.

Chris' foot looked and felt much better. Nathan gave him something for the pain, and told him, "tonight, you can only have one shot of whiskey."

Chris put forth some underbreath growls and words no one could make out. Nathan interrupted anything else Chris might of said with, "it's better for your eyes, have to get the swelling down." Nathan handed Chris a crutch, saying, "you should give your foot a few days rest, the crutch is only for moving if you have to."

Chris said, "get me down to the saloon and I won't move for days." Chris moved slowly to the door, receiving several offers of shoulder. Chris pinpointed Ezra's voice and then put his hand on Ezra's shoulder for the walk to the saloon.




Next morning found Chris sitting outside the saloon, his leg resting on a chair. Vin joined him, coffee in hand, and updated him on Katie's adventure. Chris told more of his ordeal, and Ezra's part in it. Vin's only comment, "always figured Ezra was solid underneath."

The morning faded into afternoon, and Ezra finally greeted the day. He joined Vin and Josiah at Chris' outside table. Tongue in cheek, Ezra greeted them with, "morning gentleman."

Josiah smiled and said, "afternoon Ezra."

Chris smiled at the exchange, then rubbed his eyes, and commented to Ezra, "nice red jacket today."

There seemed to be a slight pause, then it registered what Chris had said, and they were all talking at once. Josiah then offered to go get Nathan, and went in search of him. Vin offered to let Buck and JD know, as they were both at the sheriff's office. Vin said, "we don't want that ol hang dog look cause we didn't tell him."

Ezra asked, "who, JD or Buck?"

Vin laughed, "yeah, both of 'em." He headed for the jail.

Chris looked over at Ezra, "Ezra, thank you," and then he held out his hand and as Ezra went to shake it, instead Chris grasped his arm in the manner he's done with Vin. Ezra returned in kind, and Chris repeated, "thank you."

Chris got up and walked inside the saloon, very glad to do it for himself. He ordered a bottle of whiskey and glasses from the barkeep, and was setting it up at their regular table as the others came in to join him.

Buck and JD were the last ones to sit at the table, and Buck slapped Chris on the back saying, "you know the last three days were JD's fault."

JD looked indignant at Buck's words, "how you figure that?"

Buck looked over at Josiah and Nathan, and together they said, " you jinxed us, kid."

the end





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