Vin paused and ran a hand over his sweating brow. Damn it was hot. The night breeze was cool, but it couldn't cut through the growing heat of the fire. It burned free, eating through brush and dry branches and licking up trunks of trees faster than imaginable. It was marvelous, fascinating and terrifying all rolled together in one powerful force. It lit the night sky and sent beautiful sprays of sparks into the air.
"Anything?" Buck asked, coming up beside him.
Tanner shook his head. They'd searched the town for Ezra and found Chaucer safe in his stall. As soon as he saw the horse, Vin knew for certain. Someone had Ezra, the same someone who'd been tormenting him and starting these fires.
Worry ate at him. Where had they taken Standish?
Vin watched as JD and Nathan helped move another wagon away from the reach of the flames. It was the last one. Now there was nothing more to do about the fire except wait and watch.
A small crowd gathered, settlers and townsfolk alike, arriving to try to help and to watch, mesmerized at the terrible sight. To one side, women and children stood. He saw Mary Travis and Mrs. Potter among them, wrapping blankets around children and putting supporting arms around emotionally drained women.
Closer to the fire, a larger group of battered and weary men gathered. They were dirty and sweaty with shoulders slumped in defeat.
Vin caught sight of Chris and Josiah coming toward him and Wilmington.
"Anything?" Josiah repeated Buck's question.
"Nothing obvious," Tanner answered. "Too dark to track anything," he voiced his frustration. He'd scoured the alley behind the saloon but night had fallen and even with the aid of a lantern he only could guess that Ezra'd been taken on horseback- until he had the morning light, he couldn't be certain.
"Hey guys?" JD came up to them uncharacteristically quiet. Nathan joined them, having finished treating a few minor burns in the group of men. "Do you see that guy at the edge of the tree line?" Dunne gave a small nod over his shoulder. "He look familiar to you?"
Casually, Vin and Chris turned. By the line of trees, yet untouched by the flames, a man stood apart from any group. A lantern hung in one hand as he watched the flames. Occasionally, he'd glance at the people, then back into the forest behind him before returning his stare to the flames. Shadows of light danced over his face.
"Holy shit," Buck breathed out as the light intensified and lit the man's features. He took a step forward.
If Vin hadn't known better he'd have sworn he was looking at Tom Wyler.
Chris grabbed Buck's arm, keeping him still. "Go that way," he motioned subtly. "We split up and make sure he has nowhere to run. We need him alive," he reminded.
The Wyler look-alike was distracted enough by the fire that they were almost on him before he noticed. He glanced from Chris to Vin suddenly, starting like he was going to run for it before he saw Buck and Josiah moving in beside him. He stopped and smiled. He didn't even try to draw his weapon.
"You're too late," he told Tanner as Chris grabbed him and took his pistol, handing it off to Sanchez. "You'll have to live with it forever."
"Who the hell are you?" Buck asked, taking the lantern from the man. "Where's Ezra?"
"Chuck Miller," the stranger answered easily. "And your friend is in hell by now."
"No," Josiah choked out.
Vin stared hard at Miller. "Wyler was your brother?"
"And you killed him, you bastard," Miller sneered the words.
Scanning the man's face, Tanner looked for any clue as to what had happened to Ezra.
A tree exploded suddenly, splitting down the center and sending a massive array of sparks into the night. A few of the women screamed. The men gasped.
Vin watched Miller' expression closely as Chuck glanced toward the commotion. He didn't see the satisfaction of revenge, instead he saw…anticipation.
"Damn." Tanner snatched the lantern from Buck and took off into the forest, avoiding the flames and ducking the smoke as best he could.
"Vin!" He heard Chris' shout and Miller screaming.
"You're too late, Tanner. He's already burning!"
But he couldn't stop, not if there was even a chance that Ezra was still alive.
Raising the lantern, he slowed. The smoke was thick and the weak light barely cut through it. It managed to cast just enough light that Vin spotted the obvious trail Miller had left when he plodded out of the forest.
Ezra struggled with his bindings, silent screams tearing from his restricted throat as pain knifed though his shoulder and upper body. He choked and gasped, barking harsh coughs as the smoke around him continued to thicken. It hovered above and around him, stinging his eyes and stealing what little air he could suck into his straining lungs.
He could see the fire now, moving closer as it consumed its abundance of fuel. He listened as it crackled and popped and hissed its way towards him, dancing wildly from tree to tree. He could feel its heat, like the mutated warmth of a comforting campfire. It was coming for him.
There'd been no sign of his captor and now, as he watched the flames race closer, Ezra weighed his options.
He could wait. He could sit in the dirt, continuing to struggle in a hopeless attempt to free himself until the flames finally reached him. If he was lucky, the smoke would take him first, but he'd never been much for relying on luck.
His other option…Ezra swallowed painfully feeling the full width of the band of leather that held him fast against the tree. All he had to do was pull forward a little bit; it wouldn't take much to cut off what little air he was getting now.
The idea of letting the belt win sent waves of anger and shame through him and yet…it was that or burn.
A tree popped nearby and Ezra tried to turn his head, but the belt held him in place. He coughed roughly, squeezing his eyes closed at the new level of pain that assaulted his body.
He couldn't take any more. Tears filled his eyes, but instead of bringing relief to his dry eyes, the stinging intensified. He wasn't sure he could do this. Slowly he forced himself forward, but the moment the belt cut off his air completely he stopped, slumping back.
No. The word resounded through his mind like an echo in a canyon. He wanted to live. He didn't want to give up or give in to his pain and fear. He didn't want to let the others down with his own weakness.
'They'll never know' a small voice whispered in the night, but he pushed it away, he would know.
The heat around him intensified as if mocking his vain hope. He wheezed again, searching for air as sweat rolled down his face and back. It was too hot.
Time froze and he opened his eyes at the sound of his name barked out over the crackling flames.
He opened his mouth to scream for the tracker, but he was still voiceless. Wildly, he began to thrash, kicking his legs in the dirt, ignoring the thousand blades of agony that cut through his upper body with each movement.
Suddenly Tanner was there dropping to his knees in front of Ezra and gasping for air in the layers of smoke. His blue eyes lifted and met Ezra's.
"Mother of God," Tanner whispered the words even as he flew into motion. He went for the belt first.
Ezra gagged and choked as it pulled tighter, struggling even as he knew Vin was helping. It only lasted a moment and then instantly his head fell forward and he dragged huge gulps of air in only to cough from the suffocating thickness of the dark smoke. He felt Tanner working on the rope binding his wrists when he heard someone crashing toward them.
Buck and Chris seemed to materialize out of the clouds of billowing smoke. Both wore bandanas over their nose and mouth. Buck winked at Ezra as he moved to help Vin.
Chris sank down in front of Ezra moving in close and putting one hand behind Standish's neck and raising a canteen to his lips before Vin even had him completely free.
Ezra drank greedily, ignoring the way the water seemed to scour his abused throat. He tried to say thank you but at that moment Vin freed his arms and instead he swayed weakly, a small squeal escaping as he tried to scream.
"Jesus." Chris caught him and held him up. "Stay with us, Ezra."
"We need to get out of here." Buck grimaced at the growing flames. Turning he realized the path they'd come in on was now blazing. "We're trapped."
"No, this way." Vin motioned. "Stay low."
Buck moved to the other side of Ezra and together he and Chris half crawled, half dragged the southerner after Tanner.
"I know this hurts, Ezra, but hang on to us," Chris sounded through the haze of pain. Ezra lost any account of how far they crawled through the burning forest until suddenly he was sinking into icy cold water. He stiffened and gasped. They were in a stream.
"We got you, Ezra. We're almost clear." Chris voice was ragged and abused by the smoke.
Just when Ezra was sure he couldn't take the pain anymore, everything stopped. He felt Buck and Chris lower him the rest of the way to the ground, turning him carefully onto his back.
"Damn it," Chris growled. "His shoulder's been out this whole time."
"If we'd stopped back there we'd have been roasted," Buck reminded.
"Can you fix it?" He heard Vin ask.
"If you hold him."
Hand and grips shifted, then there was a softly whispered "Sorry ,Ezra" before his shoulder exploded and the world vanished.
Ezra came awake slowly, blinking dry crusty eyes open to find himself in Nathan's clinic.
"Afternoon," Josiah rumbled beside him and slowly, carefully, Ezra turned his head in Sanchez's direction.
"How," he tried to ask, but his throat erupted and he immediately started choking. Pain vibrated through his body as Josiah eased him up and held him until the worst had passed. A cup was pressed to his lips and he drank slowly, relieved as the water cooled his burning throat.
"Try not to talk much. Whisper if you have to say something." Gently the big man eased him back down again.
His shoulder ached, but the arm was bound tightly to his bare chest, the knife like pain gone.
"Others?" he questioned in a gasp.
"They're all safe," Josiah answered. "Breathed in a tad too much smoke, but they're fine."
Relief filled Ezra. "What?" he whispered cautiously.
Josiah merely nodded. "Tom Wyler had a brother two years his junior, Chuck Miller."
Sanchez reached forward and readjusted the blanket over Ezra that'd slid down during his coughing fit. "Miller admitted he was the one Wyler was sending wires to back when you were attacked. Seems Guy Royal had promised the brothers land of their own if they got to those land deeds before the settlers did. When that didn't work- Royal backed out and wouldn't give Miller any property. His revenge was to try and burn out the settlers…and go after you. Tried to make you think you were losing your mind first."
Ezra closed his eyes, weariness pushing him back into darkness. "It worked," he whispered faintly.
"No, it almost worked, big difference there, son." Josiah's voice assured as it faded.
When Ezra awoke again, he heard voices. Josiah was still there but Chris, Vin and Nathan were, too.
"Who found him?" Josiah asked.
"Buck," Vin answered, his soft voice sounding rough and harsh, after effects of the smoke he'd inhaled while rescuing him. Ezra felt a flash of guilt with the thought.
"What happened?" Nathan's voice drew him back to the on-going conversation.
"He hung himself, "Chris sounded tired. "with his own belt."
Silence descended on the four and Ezra let himself sink back into sleep again.
The third time Ezra woke, Josiah was sitting beside him again.
"You ever take a break?" he tested his voice carefully, taking each word slowly. His accent was thick and heavy.
A slow grin spread across Josiah's face. "Well, you see, brother, you've been sleeping for nearly two days. How do you know I've not been taking breaks."
Ezra stared at Josiah. "Two days?" he gasped and started to push himself up.
Awkwardly balanced, Josiah easily pushed him back down. "Stay put," the preacher ordered, keeping a warm hand on Ezra's chest. Once sure that Ezra was obeying, he moved his hand.
"First off, you're okay. Roughed up quite a bit and you're gonna have to keep that shoulder still for longer than you'll like, but everything will heal." Josiah assured.
"Burned itself out once it reached the stream. "
"Miller is dead," Ezra declared suddenly.
Josiah paused. "You heard that?"
Weakly, Standish admitted he had.
"Yes, he is," Josiah leaned back in his chair.
"He was there during the first attack." Though he had to whisper, Ezra found he was able to breathe and talk without much difficulty. "I remembered after he left me in the woods," he admitted.
He saw compassion fill Josiah's eyes and closed his. The door to the clinic opened and he listened to the familiar tread of Vin's stride cross the room.
"You remember?" Josiah questioned.
He opened his eyes and locked gazes with Vin.
"I remember every moment of the attack," he confessed. "Just not all the faces."
They sat then and listened without interrupting as Ezra talked, spilling details he'd buried and hidden. He let it all go. Every comment, every blow, every kick, every painful, humiliating moment of his attackers dragging him through the dirt like a beaten animal.
With details went the bitterness, the shame and the guilt until all that was left was Ezra, bruised, broken, hollowed out and scarred but unburdened and at peace.
When he was finished and silent, he watched as Vin slowly uncurled white knuckled fists and stood. Tanner took a step closer, careful not to crowd,but not shying away. There was no judgment in his eyes, no pity, only cold deadly anger that Ezra knew instinctively was not aimed at him.
"When you do remember the others," Tanner whispered thickly. "You let me know." Then he nodded once and slipped out of the room.
"I've made him angry." Ezra looked at Sanchez. "Not at me," he acknowledged.
Sanchez met his gaze and it was then that Ezra realized Josiah was barely hanging onto his temper.
"I didn't let go of my anger for you to take it on," Ezra said gently.
The air seemed to whoosh out of Josiah in one long breath. "It ain't a bad thing to want justice for a friend, " he said.
"Unless it turns you into someone like Miller," Ezra point out. "Consumed by negative emotions until that's all that's left."
Josiah looked again at Ezra, a smile forming slowly as his features relaxed. "He made the wrong choice," Sanchez acknowledged. "He fed the wrong wolf."
Thank you for hanging in there till the end! Hope you enjoyed it.