Willow '06: Untitled 2

It occurred to him how very little Chris weighed. This was somewhat of a surprise; he knew how much Chris weighed. A man nearly six feet tall must weigh *something*, but Chris had always been thin, wearing muscles lean over the bone, tapered, long, less bulky even than Ezra himself. Add clothes, boots, gun belt and gun, and a man must gain ten pounds at the very least.

But not when he's dying.

Then he doesn't weigh anything at all.

Buck preceded them into Nathan's clinic. He didn't knock, bursting through the door and kicking a chair out of the way, ignoring Nathan's startled outburst and sweeping the covers off of the low bed. Ezra angled carefully through the doorway and followed Buck's cleared path, depositing Chris on the rough mattress as gently as possible.

Chris didn't even groan. Sweat-darkened hair stuck to his forehead and temples, and Ezra couldn't resist brushing it carefully away, finger-combing back into place. He could clearly hear Buck's breathing, dry and loud, in counterpoint to the gurgling struggle of Chris' short, labored breaths.

Nathan already had his sleeves rolled up and his hands washed. "What happened?" Buck got out of the way as the healer leaned over and touched his fingers to Chris throat; long, delicate fingers zebra- striping Chris' pale skin.

It was obvious what had happened; the implicit question was how.

"We were at the shack. Somebody called him out, only didn't call him fair. He had a friend somewhere," Buck's arm flailed, hand whirling toward the outer wall, the porch, the stairs, the windswept street, the road that led to Chris.

"They were behind the shack. More than one." Buck didn't lower his arm, just bent it to wipe his brow, then busy his hand scratching his cheek. "I killed the son of a bitch who called him out, but no luck with the rest of `em. I tried." Buck grimaced, bit down on the admission of failure implicit in those two words. It palpably wounded him, more than he was willing to say aloud, so Ezra stopped looking at him, allowing him the pretense of privacy for his self- directed anger and guilt.

Nathan gently rolled Chris to one side, fingers gently probing his ribs, pressing against his belly. "Let's cut this off of him. Buck?" Instantly a pair of scissors was slapped into Nathan's hand, and he began snipping away the blood-soaked cotton sealed to Chris' skin.

An ugly sight to behold, a man who's been shot in the back.

"Is he gonna be alright?" JD appeared in the doorway, halted frozen and frightened on the threshold, cradling Chris' coat and hat like an infant.

Ezra read and sympathized with the irritation that flared in Buck's eyes, the annoyance at such a dumb question. Of course Chris would be alright. Of course.

Nathan's response was as patiently straightforward as ever. "Too soon to tell, JD."

He was still stooping low, long dark fingers fluttering over Chris' skin, reading the signs of life and death like a Gypsy woman studies tea leaves in the bottom of a cup. Nathan gave nothing away by the tone of his voice or the expression in his eyes, but Ezra could see moisture begin to bead on his upper lip. Every man has his tells.

"I'm gonna need somebody to boil some water and go ask Ms. Travis to round up any fresh linens or towels that folks can spare. The bullet's still in there."

Buck lifted his gaze from the bed long enough to bark, "JD! If you ain't bein' of use here, then get Mary, but don't stand there blockin' the door!" Then his eyes fell again to Chris and the sweaty, bloody fester of his lower back.

JD flinched, absorbing the force of Buck's words like a punch to the gut, and ran back down the clinic steps, Chris' black duster and hat still clutched in his hands. The report of his footsteps didn't have time to fade as another pair of feet thundered up the steps.

"Whoever they were, they hightailed it outta here. Nothin' but dust and gunsmoke." Vin's words came out in a loud rasp, the sound of worn leather soles on unsanded wood.

He moved to the side of the bed, standing his rifle on end and leaning close to put a hand on Chris' calf. The touch was strong, purposeful, and brief.

"Buck, Ezra, let's go." Rifle crooked in his arm, Vin was already to the door and looking over his shoulder.

The second thing that occurred to Ezra was that he had neither spoken nor moved since placing Chris on the bed, and that he had yet to let go of Chris' limp hand.

"Go, on, Ezra. I've gotta see to him now." Nathan's soft eyes were trying to impart something kind, something reassuring, but Ezra couldn't accept it. It looked too much like a eulogy.

He dropped the dead weight of Chris' hand and followed Buck and Vin out the door. He didn't look back.

Down the street, waiting in the shadowy brow of the livery, Josiah was already saddled and holding the reins of their horses. On the boardwalk, Mary had one hand wrapped in her many skirts, lifting them away from her hurrying feet, the other hand clasping a pile of white and cream linens to her chest. She hesitated, glancing between the clinic and the men preparing to ride, and Ezra considered firing bullets at her feet if it might get her up to Nathan any faster. JD urged her on with a nudge and a wave of his arm then crossed the street at a run, palms pressed to the butts of his guns like they might jump out of holster and skitter away.

Ezra wondered if holding a hand over his own heart might accomplish anything.

"You goin' after `em? I wanna come with you." JD fell into step, easily keeping pace with legs much longer than his own.

"You stay here and help Nathan, JD."

"Why do I have to stay behind? I have a right to come along much Vin or Ez."

"We need someone to watch the town while we're gone, and Nathan's gonna need the extra hands. `Sides, you ain't saddled, and we're ready to ride."

"C'mon Buck, I can be saddled and ready in – "

"Kid, we don't have time to argue." Vin wheeled around, gripping JD's upper arms and startling him to a hard stop. "And we ain't waiting. Nothin' personal." He let go with enough force that it became a shove, JD stumbling to regain his footing.

The kid opened his mouth for one last argument, but Vin had already turned his back and Ezra couldn't say that he felt any remorse right then, leaving JD so obviously insulted and frustrated, unable to do anything but wilt in his rebuff and brush their dust off his shirtfront.

"They went southeast and they weren't doin' nothin' to hide it, riding hard and fast." Vin swung up into the saddle and sheathed his rifle, nodding his thanks to Josiah for getting their horses ready.

"Guy Royal?" "Maybe." He scrubbed hand down his face, the most obvious sign of anger Ezra had ever seen from the man. "They got a good two hours on us, at least. Goddamnit, Buck!"

There was a hard, jaw-clenched moment where Vin held onto Buck's reins, refusing to release them until Buck sighed and beat the dust off his hat onto his thigh. "You don't have to say it, Vin. I know I failed. If we don't catch these sons of bitches, you can shoot me."

"I have your word on that?" Buck met Vin's reproachful gaze with harsh honesty. "Yeah, you have my word."

Vin smacked the reins into Buck's hands and the four of them kicked their horses into a gallop. It was only then it occurred to Ezra that he wasn't wearing his hat.

The ground was a blur, the only measure of speed or distance the rise of hills marching steadily toward them on the horizon. An hour into their ride and Ezra knew he was going to miss his hat.

Autumn was coming, but it couldn't yet make up its mind. A capricious wind, hot, dry, and out of sorts flirted with the northern breeze, bringing a fleeting respite to the heat before changing its mind and holding its breath, leaving all things under the sun to bake and sweat and droop like frothy lace of his cuffs. Ezra didn't know why he wore his ruffled shirt last night, except that Chris said he liked the way the cloth spilled out from beneath his sleeves and draped over the back of his hand.

Just last night they had laughed that Chris wouldn't be caught dead in a shirt like that. Just last night.

Vin was right, their quarry left no question as to the direction they rode, a direction changing with the wind and veering steadily south. Tanner pulled to a halt on a hilltop, under the heavy boughs of a sprawling oak, and took out his spy glass. Black flies buzzed and stung. The horses were restless, stamping and tugging at their bits, probably feeling every ounce of anger and impatience seeping from their riders.

Uncorking his canteen with his teeth, Buck took a long drink, then straight-armed it into Josiah's chest. Josiah nodded and accepted the oilskin with hands far steadier than Ezra felt his own to be. He eschewed the canteen, drawing succor from his flask, relishing the burn, needing the pain and the calm of it. Not for the first time in his life, he wished he were in San Francisco, in China Town, where he could numb himself with laudanum by day and opium by night. How he wished.

"Guy Royal or not, I reckon they're headed for Purgatorio now." The spy glass folded in upon itself with a snap, Vin pocketing it before lifting his own canteen to his lips. "If we ride like the devil, we can get the drop on `em `fore they reach the border. How many'd you count, Buck?"

"There were four others, not counting the dead one, but there could be more by now."

"Did the one give his name or say what his business was?" Josiah handed Buck the canteen and wiped his mouth with his hand.

"Not after I killed him," Buck snapped, the sound of gunfire ringing in his voice.

Ezra could picture him standing over the dead body, gun still aimed between its glassy eyes, wishing he could kill the bastard more than once. He wondered what the man looked like, what he would look like after the coyotes got to him. Buck hadn't brought the man into town for burial, though if Ezra had his way, they'd prop him up in an open casket, let people see what happens to those who try to kill one of their own.

"He called himself Clay. Chris didn't know him by name, and I didn't recognize him."

"I imagine the man Chris would have known was the coward who shot him," Ezra found himself musing aloud. He knew Chris had his enemies, but even crazy sons of bitches like Top Hat Bob called a fair fight, settled scores in the open. This attack bore the unmistakable stink of something more personal. Not a matter of public pride or private arrogance, a desire to outdraw a man in the street – but a matter of vengeance.

"I'm imagining what he'll look like without any eyes or a tongue," Vin said quietly, with so little emotion that it made Ezra shiver in his sweat. "We should split up," he decided, "Ezra, you come with me. We'll ride hard and fast, straight to the border. Buck, you and Josiah head back east a ways, toward Royal's, just in case they use these hills as cover to change their route. Meet us quick as you can just on the other side of the river. We'll stay in sight of the road, case they ain't crossed yet."

"We'll be quick."

"Be careful," Vin reached across his saddle horn to shake Buck's gloved hand, declaring amnesty, "Watch your backs."

"Yeah, wish I'da done that this mornin'." No small amount of remorse laced Buck's words, followed by a harsh guttural shout that spurred his horse down the grassy slope of the hill.

Josiah tipped his hat, with the parting promise, "We run into `em, I'll save one for you."

The images that evoked were unsettling but appreciated, Vin's mouth curling into an ugly smirk that Ezra had never seen before.

"You ready?" Vin's eyes pierced him, eyes that had always been the startling blue of geodes, color and dazzling light surrounded by a rugged monochrome shell. Eyes that were now more black than blue, violent and pitiless, where vengeance was spoken in another language.

"Oh, yes, Mr. Tanner. Quite."

"Just so you know, we find `em, we ain't saving one for them, `cept maybe a scalp or two."

"You'll get no argument from me," Ezra replied quietly to his back, Vin already halfway down the hill.