Chris sat in the saloon, nursing his drink. Something didn’t feel right. He looked across at Nathan. The healer had been playing with his food for a good while, hardly eating any of it. He was worried. “You gonna eat that?”
“Don’t think so.”
“Thinking of checking on Ezra. You coming?”
Josiah and JD decided to come along, too, in case Ezra was awake and agitated again. They all went up to see him, hoping that whatever made him attack them earlier was just a fluke or something. Chris opened the door, not making a sound in case the gambler was still asleep. He froze.
JD ran into Chris when the gunslinger stopped so abruptly. “Chris? You wanna move or something? You’re blocking the doorway. Chris?”
The others pushed past him. It was then they saw what stopped Chris. Ezra was gone. Vin, too. A dark expression shadowed Chris’s face. What was Tanner thinking? “Saddle up, boys.” Buck rode into town just in time to see everybody leaving. Without a word, he turned his horse and followed them out.
The sun was sinking down below the horizon. Ezra watched its red rays stripe the land. It was time to part company with Mr. Tanner. He looked up to see Vin watching him. The tracker already seemed to know what he was thinking. “You really should have gone back to town several miles ago.”
A small smile tugged at Vin’s mouth. “And miss the company?”
“Mr. Tanner, you are incorrigible.”
“Is that a good thing?”
“In this instance, yes.”
“Well, okay then.” They were both silent for a moment. Vin had a million questions, but he wasn’t sure Ezra would answer any of them. “So. What’s it like?”
“To what are you referring, Mr. Tanner?”
“The name’s Vin. You were callin’ me Vin earlier. Kinda liked it. And you know what I’m meanin’.”
Ezra didn’t say anything for a several minutes. Vin thought maybe he shouldn’t have asked.
“It’s extremely painful. The change.” Ezra stared straight ahead, not really looking at anything.
“So being a wolf hurts?”
“Not at all. It’s becoming the wolf that hurts—and the emotions that accompany my condition. It’s hard to describe. I hate that I have no control over this, that I could maim or even kill someone as the wolf. And I would feel no regret until I came back to my human self and remembered what I’d done. I dream about my nights as an animal, running in the night, tracking my prey. Raw emotions and instincts that lead to unrestrained action. I’m horrified by how seductive that is.”
Vin may not understand every word Ezra said, but he got the feelings behind them. “Yer thinkin’ there might come a time you’ll like that feelin’ too much. So much you’ll keep it with ya even when yer a man.”
“Father was only a few years older than I am now when he…he had to be put down.”
“He was still yer pa, Ez. Ya shouldn’t say it like that.”
“Is there any other way to express it? He more animal than human that night—and many weeks before that. Mother had no choice. I won’t force such a task on her again. If it comes to that, I’ll take care of it myself. I won’t become like that. I won’t hurt the people around me.”
Ezra had always been kind of hard to figure out, but Vin thought maybe he understood better now. No wonder he was always keeping people away. He wasn’t snooty or mean-spirited or even selfish. He was afraid. He didn’t want to hurt nobody so he made sure nobody was there.
Ezra stopped his horse and got down. He took his packs off the horse and balanced them over his shoulder. “I believe we should part company now. I will brook no argument on this, Vin. I should have left you several miles back, but I was swayed by your stubbornness.” He tossed the reins to his friend. “I would be much obliged if you would take care of Chaucer for me. And if you should hear any wild animals tonight, it would be wise not to investigate. I will meet you back here in the morning.”
Suddenly all Vin’s instincts were on alert. He grabbed his mare’s leg, bringing it up. A movement to his right caught his eye. A rifle barrel. Vin spun and shot. Someone yelled from the rocks. A shot rang out from Vin’s left, piercing his side. The wounded tracker fell from his horse.
Ezra had his gun drawn, ready to take down the miscreants who’d shot at them. The click of a hammer behind his ear stopped him cold. Ezra reluctantly relinquished his gun.
A large swarthy man with a jagged facial scar walked around to face him. “Well, well, well. Lookit what we got here.”
Another man came from the rocks, holding a bloody arm. “He shot me, Jake! I thought you said I’d be okay in the rocks!”
“It’s only a flesh wound, idiot! You’ll live. Now quit whinin’ like a baby and take Tanner’s rifle and any other weapons you find on ‘im.”
A third man rode up from the other direction. A Mexican with fairly decent aim. He would have to be proficient in order to hit Vin from such a distance.
“What can we do for you gentlemen?”
The big one, Jake, guffawed. “Ain’t that polite, boys? We’re gentlemen. Guess we’ll have to start dressin’ better.”
The Mexican sneered at them. “We’ll be able to dress any way we please with that $500 dollars, eh, mis amigos?”
A chill swept up Ezra’s spine. Vin’s bounty. “Good sirs, I’m sure this is all just a terrible misunderstanding. My compatriot and I are forgiving men. If you would just allow us to get on our horses, we’ll be on our way. Not a word of this will ever be mentioned again. I assure you.”
The thin desperado with the scraggly beard and bleeding arm spit a stream of tobacco on the ground, looking down at the wounded tracker. “I weren’t sure he was the one, but now we got him here so close and all… You sure got a good eye, Jake. That’s Vin Tanner all right.”
Vin looked up at him, a boiling anger in his eyes.
“Mighty good likeness they got of you back in Texas, boy. Makes it right easy for folks like us to pick ya out of a crowd. Figured we could catch ya off on your own sooner or later—Chavez here being a right sneaky tracker and all. Didn’t reckon on it bein’ this soon, though. I ain’t complainin’, mind you. This’ll do just fine.”
“What are we going to do with his friend here?”
“Well, he ain’t any good to us, is he?”
“I ain’t shootin’ nobody, Jake. I don’t wanna hang!”
“If you weren’t my cousin… Fine. We’ll leave him then.”
Ezra sprung the mechanism on his arm, releasing his derringer. The Mexican saw the movement and shot Ezra in the shoulder before he could fire. The wounded gambler fell to the ground. The Mexican jumped from his horse and strode over to the prone man. “You think I am estupido, no? I see everything. But you had to try, yes? For your friend? I think you are the kind of friend that would follow us across a desert sin zapatos, without shoes, to save him. That is no good for us. You are too dangerous.” He bashed the butt of his pistol into the side of Ezra’s head. The gambler tried to focus, but the blow, combined with his wound and the drugs Nathan had given him, was too much. Darkness pulled at him. The last thing he saw were the worried eyes of Vin Tanner. Imagine that. Maybe it was concern after all.
“Come on, Chavez. Let’s git before them other friends of theirs show up.”
Ezra opened his eyes. Where was Vin? This was all his fault. If it weren’t for him, his friend wouldn’t have been placed in such a predicament. Unsteadily, he got to his feet, trying to make sense of the thoughts racing wildly through his throbbing head. There was a burning under his skin. Where was he going? Oh, yes. To rescue Vin. The horse tracks were so clear. Very clear to his sharp eyes. They wouldn’t get away from him. Their scent was so strong on the breeze.
Vin was thinkin’ five ways at once, trying to figure out how to get away from these desperados. A scream pierced the air, chilling him to the bone. The other men stopped their horses.
“What was that, Jake?”
“I don’t know. Probably just a coyote or something.”
Vin knew that weren’t no animal. Not at first, anyway. It was a man screamin’. Ezra. He knew such things were out there, but he’d kinda hoped Ezra was wrong.
The sounds of screaming turned into long howls.
“See there, boys. Just a coyote like I said. Let’s get moving.”
Ezra hadn’t eaten much of anything for days. As a man, he could ignore the abdominal cramps for a time in the face of more important concerns. Physical needs weren’t so easily controlled in the animal world, though. As a wolf, the hunger and pain were all-consuming. No food. There was no food. The wolf limped around, searching for something to eat, afire with pain from his wound. The wolf needed food, strength. He lifted his snout to the wind. Horses. People. Wolves generally stayed away from humans, but it was hungry, desperate. Food. Pain. Death. The wolf howled—the sound touched by a vicious, gnawing need.