Ivy '05: Never Fear Shadows

"You want me to what?" Ezra Standish looked at Vin Tanner, appalled. The headache he had from the knock to the head was blinding. They were miles from the nearest hint of civilization, and there was a storm brewing of epic proportions. The day was not getting better.

"C'mon, Ez, the storm's almost on us. We gotta take shelter where we can find it." Vin led the horses through the wind and dust, towards the dark blur against the rock face. They had dismounted at the bottom of the incline, knowing the horses would have better footing if they were not ridden. The sky was darkening rapidly, the late afternoon light almost gone with the heavy cloud cover. The wind whistled around them, whipping Vin's heavy coat back, and forcing him to hang onto his hat with one hand.

'The next time,' Ezra thought darkly, 'Mr. Larabee wants someone to escort anyone, anywhere it won't be me.'

Ezra shivered in the cold, but could not bring himself to step closer to the dark opening of the cave. "Mr. Tanner, the cave may be occupied. Wouldn't it be more prudent..."

"C'mon Ez." The sharpshooter was relentless, dragging both Chaucer and Ezra forward towards the dubious shelter. "Won't know 'til we check."

The sound of the wind dropped off abruptly as they passed the edge of the opening. The mouth of the cave was the smallest thing about it. The cavern opened up immediately to show there was ample room for both a camp site and the horses. The ground was bare rock with drifts of dry dirt and sand to soften it in places. It was dark enough inside that they couldn't see the back wall from where they stood.

Vin left the horses with Ezra, pulled a crude birch torch from one of his saddle bags, lit it, and cautiously moved deeper into the cave. "Mr. Tanner? Where are you going?" Ezra's voice was tight with fear.

"Just checking it out, Ez." Vin sniffed deeply, and listened carefully before walking away into the darkness. "Nothin' here but us, an mebbe a few bats, Ez. Nothin' bigger'n that. Got a bit of running water back here, too. Won't need to empty the canteens fer some coffee. Huh. I got air movin' too. Bet there's another way out. Don't look like nothin' livin' uses this entrance."

"BATS?" The sqeak that came from Standish made him blush and clear his throat. He tried again. "Bats? Please don't tell me there are bats here, Vin."

"Jus' a few. And they're tucked away. Won't none of them harm ya. Don't look like they come this way at all." Vin's voice echoed back to him, the dim glow from the torch already faded around a bend in the cave. "Been a year or two since this part was occupied by anythin'."

Ezra edged closer to the cave mouth and the storm that raged beyond. The horses fought as he tried to drag them with him. Neither horse was willing to go back out into the violent weather when they had a perfectly good, dry place to wait it out.

"Vin? I don't want – please Vin." Ezra's eyes were wide and a fine sheen of sweat covered his brow. His hands started to tremble ever so slightly as adrenaline flowed through his system. He pressed himself against the rock, unmindful of the grit covering him. Gusts of wind at his back kept him from leaving the cave completely, but he could not venture further in. His eyes closed and fists clenched against the mere thought. "Bats? I don't like bats, Vin. Please don't make me stay here." Came the thin, pleading whisper. His head pounded with every beat of his heart, and when he opened his eyes his vision wavered so alarmingly he closed them again at once.

"Easy, pard. It's okay." The gentle whisper from the tracker came from closer than he expected and Ezra flinched. "We're safe here. Nothin' can get ya." A tentative touch to his hand had it uncurling enough for Vin to grasp lightly. "I know yer hurt, Ez, but I'm gonna make sure yer okay." Vin waited patiently for a response from Ezra, not really expecting one.

"Bats." He whimpered and when the green eyes opened, Vin knew they were not seeing the cave and storm. Ezra's eyes were seeing elsewhere, elsewhen, and he was trapped in memory.

Vin made up his mind and left Ezra for the moment in order to set up camp for the night. If Ezra came back and it was still dark and cold, he'd have a more difficult time Vin knew, as he had a few memories of that nature himself.

Tanner couldn't abide small, dark, closed in spaces. This cave wasn't too bad, because there was a constant air current, and the wind from the storm that found its way in also helped. Had the enclosure been smaller, the air still, he might be the one lost in the memories of his childhood. Nightmares of one man who used to lock him in a root cellar that was barely more than an airless crawl space filled his mind for a moment. Shuddering off the unwanted memories, Vin set his attention on the tasks that needed to be done before he could bed down for the night.

Vin nudged the two horses to one side and led Ezra into further into the shelter. He wedged the small torch upright against the wall, and sat the unresponsive Ezra down. Working quickly, Vin stripped the saddles off the horses, and ground tied them standing out of the weather in a small alcove of rock in the outer part of the cave. He ducked outside and pulled in some downed tree limbs and dead scrub bushes.

Vin then moved some of the fallen rocks into a rough circle and built a fire near the mouth of the cave on the other side from where the horses stood. The rocky floor of the cave gave ample boulders to lean on, and they did double duty by reflecting the light and heat a little from the fire to help warm them. Ezra sat right where Vin had put him, eyes wide open and unseeing, rocking a little.

"I know ya probably ain't hearin' much of anything, Ez, but I'm gonna keep talkin' 'til ya come back." Vin set up their meager camp as he talked in a low soothing whisper. He was sure Ezra would be embarrassed and upset when he came back to himself after carrying on so. Vin discussed many things while heating up some water for coffee and laying out the bedrolls on the most even surface he could find near the fire. Once the coffee was ready, he took a cup to Ezra and placed it in his hands.

Ezra immediately curled his fingers around the warmth and lifted it when Vin prompted him to with pressure on his arms. He drank reflexively. Vin peered into his eyes and nodded, still murmuring quietly about the storm and the status of their horses.

Ezra's first impression, while his consciousness was swimming back to the present after his sojourn into the dark recesses of his childhood, was of pain. His head ached, and he was chilled, but not as cold as he expected to be. He slowly became aware of the small cheerful fire, the muted snorting and snuffling and muffled clang of the horses' hooves moving against stone as they shifted position not far away.

The next thing he noticed was the low, gravelly voice next to him. It seemed to go on and on, and it had dropped into a cadence that reminded him of one of his uncles. He had spent four months with the elderly gentleman when he was six. His uncle loved to tell Ezra stories. Stories he'd read, stories he'd heard, stories he made up for the reserved little boy that had been left in his keeping. The old man wasn't used to having company, but did come to enjoy talking to his great nephew. Ezra had hated leaving that old man. For the first time in his life he had found someone who seemed to relish having him around for himself, and not for what he could do for them.

When he had come back to himself enough to realize it was Vin talking to him without ceasing, he tried to follow what the sharpshooter was saying. Vin Tanner did not generally talk just to hear himself speak. Anything he said was worth listening to. Ezra puzzled a bit over trying to understand him. Then suddenly, the words lapsed back into English. Belatedly, Ezra realized Vin was trying to translate a story he must have heard during his time with the Indians. He followed the recitation for a while until Vin told the next section in the strangely beautiful language. It was very soothing, and lulled Ezra into releasing the taut anxiety that sang though his body.

Something must have alerted the tracker, because his voice stopped abruptly. "Ez?" His voice cracked from long use. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Pard? You with me now?"

"I am, thank you, Vin." It was soft, but the response was there. Vin smiled, and the tension he had been carrying since the gambler's last shaky plea finally released.

"Damned glad to hear yer voice, Ez." Tanner grinned at him, eyes sparkling in the low light.

"What happened?" Standish knew he had lost some time, and it couldn't all be attributed to his head injury. He recalled leaving the small outpost they'd stopped at the night before, and the blow to the head that he received when they became embroiled in an argument in the one small saloon the outpost boasted of. They'd stopped there for a quick drink before bedding down, and had hardly begun sipping the rotgut whiskey when a brawl broke out. Ezra had been hit with a chair leg. It could have been worse if a.) the wood hadn't been half rotted, and b.) if the blow had hit him straight on instead of glanced off his shoulder before it cracked against his skull.

Vin had pulled him out just before the local law started shooting to break it up. Instead of the rough, cut-rock holding cell that was the only place to incarcerate the disorderly inebriated, they had bunked down in the rooming house. They had left early the next morning, before the lawman had released the brawlers from the cell. Then, he recalled, there had been a storm bearing down on them, welcome for the needed rain it would bring to parched earth, not so much welcome as they were caught out in the open with no possible shelter in sight.

As the wind became fiercer and fiercer, and the temperature dropped, Vin had started looking for a place to hole up out of the weather. Ezra had followed blindly, the headache that had been a mere nuisance had grown. Then they'd found this cave. At first, Vin thought the shadow might just be a depression in the side of the cliff face, they could try to get out of the worst of the rain and wind. As they drew closer, they found the mouth of the cave hidden behind a large boulder. As the opening was big enough for the horses, Vin led them in.

Ezra's face flushed as he remembered balking at entering the cave. Bats. God above he hated the creatures. Little flying rodents. A long shudder ran down his spine. Bats.

He hated caves almost as much as he hated bats. He'd been lost, once, as a small child. Some older cousins had taken him into the caves near their home and deliberately left him behind in the dark. He'd been distracted for a moment, and then he was alone. The cave had been filled with the quiet squeaks, little flapping sounds of a colony of bats, and the near-silent dripping of water. By the time the cousins had confessed where they'd left him, he'd spent a full day underground, too scared to move – he'd been brushed by the leathery wings of the creatures as they went about their lives. It was frightening stuck in the dark, lost and alone, but every once in a while there was the rush of air or the cool, quick slide of wing.

He sat on a rock, the sharp-clawed toes clinging to bits of him as they perched on him. The squirming little bodies burrowing under his arms as he sat with his head tucked down, arms wrapped around his knees.

When the torch light of his rescuers reached him, the bats were just starting for their forays outside and the air had been filled with the fluttery shapes. The odd shadows danced along the peripheral of the glow of lanterns and torches, painting the walls with strange forms. He'd quite lost his senses then, and by the time he'd come back to himself, he was being scrubbed down by his aunt in a very hot bath, and roundly scolded for "wandering off."

Ezra forced those thoughts away, and focused on the fire in front of him. Vin made him eat a little of the dried meat and hardtack they'd had in their packs. Ezra hadn't been hungry, but knew better than trying to sleep without anything in his stomach. He caught sudden movement from the corner of his eye and flinched.

"Whoa, Ez. Just me." Vin slowed his actions down so Ezra could track him without too much difficulty. "C'mon. Gonna be a long day tomorrow. Gotta get some shut-eye." Ezra let Vin lead him to the bedrolls. Vin helped him take off his boots, coat and vest. Laying his weapons in easy reach, Ezra laid down. With a soft whisper, Vin joined him, pulling the gambler into his arms as they spooned to keep the warmth in.

Falling asleep in the cave was surprisingly easy, especially since Vin had situated them so Ezra could watch the fire, and still feel the heat of the tracker's body at his back. The occasional gust of wind and low rolling thunder did not disturb them through the long night. The shelter they found in each other's arms more than kept their fears at bay until the storm blew out and the first faint fingers of morning light painted the sky to the east.