Blood Brothers, part three


Disclaimers, etc. in part 1

He'd fought, trying to find his way out of the darkness. He'd even managed it a few times, emerging to find the pain still burning through him. Each time, he'd seen the closed door in front of him, taunting him with the possibility of help. If he could reach it, he could call out loudly enough for one of his neighbors or the desk clerk to hear him. Someone would go for Nathan, who would know how to make the pain stop.

He couldn't think further than that, just the firm conviction that Nathan would know how to make him stop hurting. It was enough to keep him going each time he'd surfaced out of the darkness that kept trying to claim him. Or it had been until the last time, when he realized that he didn't have the strength to reach the door.

Now, he drifted. The darkness was reasonably peaceful, the pain distant enough that he could ignore it. He had no reason to go back, no reason to suffer the pain again . . .

. . . except he was needed. A strange thought, but one that plagued him until he couldn't rest. His colleagues--his friends--needed him.

So he gathered up his strength, and made another assault on the darkness.

The pain seemed stronger, as if the knife had worked its insidious way deeper into his chest. Even worse than the pain, coldness had seeped into his bones like little shards of ice penetrating his skin and working their way further and further in. It stole his breath and his ability to cry out. The best he could manage was a whimper, a sound he hated even as it escaped from his lips. He couldn't be that weak, even alone in his own room where no one would ever hear him.

But someone did. Somehow, in the midst of the darkness, someone heard him and came to him, and a gentle, warming touch on his forehead soothed some of the cold away.

"Easy, now," a deep, familiar voice murmured to him, and he caught it like a lifeline. "Don't move too much, son, you'll jog that knife loose."

But didn't he want that? If the knife was gone, he wouldn't hurt so much. Confused, he tried to pull away from the hand on his forehead, but didn't have the strength.

"No, stay still." The voice--Josiah?--tightened a bit with worry, and he felt a sharp frission of panic. What was wrong?

He forced his eyes open. Josiah was sitting on the edge of the bed beside him. Behind the ex-preacher, he could see Buck pacing across the width of the room, a look of demon-chased fury on his face.

"Glad you could join us," Josiah said, a gentle smile creasing his eyes. "Gentlemen, the sanctified dead have arisen."

"Th-that's hardly . . . a-amusing," Ezra gasped. He couldn't seem to stop shaking, even though every shudder felt like it drove the knife in deeper.

"Ezra." Chris joined Josiah beside the bed. Ezra frowned at him, blinking against a fuzziness that clouded his eyes. Chris looked odd, but it was too much effort to determine why. "What the hell happened to you?"

He licked his lips, trying to work his way through the question. What happened . . .

"We don't have time for this," Buck broke in, pausing just long enough to glare around at everyone before he resumed his trek. Ezra was exhausted just watching him. "We gotta go find JD."

JD?

"Take it easy, Buck," Chris said, reaching out to catch the wall as he turned to the other man. "We can't go off half-cocked here."

"What . . ." Ezra swallowed dryly. "JD?"

"Don't you worry none, we'll take care of it. What about you? How'd you end up with that knife sticking out of your shoulder?" Josiah asked quietly.

Ezra widened his eyes, trying to keep them open. The knife.

"C-claudia . . ." he whispered, and felt the darkness claim him again.

Chris and Josiah's eyes met in confusion. Who was Claudia? A woman had stabbed Ezra? Was that what he had meant?

It had now been a couple of hours since Ezra had been found, and Chris could see the gambler getting weaker and weaker. If Nathan didn't get here soon, Ezra might not survive. It had been hell watching him struggle so often towards consciousness, only to be drawn back into the darkness right in front of their eyes.

And then there was Buck. Anger over JD's kidnapping warred equally with the pain of seeing Ezra lie there dying. Chris knew Buck's mind. The tall gunslinger would be thinking he couldn't help Ezra now, so he needed to go help JD. But until Nathan got there, nothing could be done.

The door opened quickly, slamming into the wall. Chris drew his gun and aimed it at the figure coming through the door without even thinking. He held his fire as Nathan barrelled into the room, pushing Chris aside in his haste.

"How long he been like this?" Nathan immediately examined the knife wound, deciding the best way to take it out without killing the patient. "He wake up at all?"

"I found him almost three hours ago, Nate." Josiah continued laying the compresses on Ezra's forehead, trying to battle any fever that was there. "He woke up not too long ago, seemed coherent for a bit and then faded off again."

"That's good then." Nathan looked up at the anxious faces, just as Vin came in with Jimmy, supporting Raphael between them. The old Mexican followed them, glancing nervously at the others in the room.

"How is he, Nathan?" Vin paled slightly under his tan. Ezra looked much worse than when he had seen him last.

Chris had pulled Ezra's rocking chair over and Raphael was eased into it. The Mexican gunfighter was slow and his movements painfilled, but his eyes were bright and alert, as was his mind.

"Gracias, amigos." He sighed as he finally got to sit on something not moving. "How is our compadre doing?"

"Holding on," Josiah said, voice quiet. "Nate, what now?"

"Now I take this knife out of him." Nathan looked around. "I'm gonna need some stuff from my place for this."

"I'll go, Senor!" Jimmy hated just standing around. "I know doctor's tools, you tell me what you need and I get it for you, si?"

As Nathan listed off to the boy what he needed, Ezra stirred again, Nathan's familiar voice calling him from the depths. If Nathan was there, everything was going to be all right. Wasn't it? Then why was it so hard for him to breathe? Struggling, he tried to make sense of what was going on, only slightly aware of others trying to calm him, keep him still. Then, with a final gasp of pain, he opened his eyes, shedding the darkness for just a few moments.

"Nathan?" Ezra whispered, his throat dry and his voice frighteningly weak.

"Relax, Ezra," Nathan said, making the preparations to take the knife out. "You're goin' to be just fine."

"I know..." Ezra whispered, smiling slightly and fading back into oblivion.

"Nathan?" Chris looked down on the man in the bed. Were they in time?

"Keeping the knife in 'im saved his life. If I can get it out without him losing too much more blood, he'll be just fine." Nathan looked up as Jimmy rushed into the room with everything Nathan had asked him to get.

As the others watched Nathan work, Buck slipped out of the room and headed for the livery. If the others weren't going to do something to get JD back, he would. Buck had waited long enough!

". . . ca' the yowes to the knolls
<br>call them where the heather grows
<br>call them where the burnie rowes
<br>my bonnie dearie . . ."

He was singing so softly he could hardly hear himself, but it had worked. The shivering child who had huddled against him had now fallen asleep in JD Dunne's lap. He was singing an old tune his mother had sung to him, but he couldn't remember all the words. Oh, how he missed his mother . . .

Shackled as he was, he could only stroke the little girl's hair slightly, but still, it comforted her. He looked at her tiny hands, tied too tightly with coarse rope. How could these men treat a child like this? And worse, had he heard right? That her own mother and father had sold her? Damn them! Damn them all!

He felt such rage as he watched her sleep. It occurred to him that maybe no one had ever sung her to sleep, that no one had ever stroked her hair, or shown her any kindness. Well, that would change now. He would take care of her. He'd see to it, once they got out of here, that she had a good home--a happy home where people would love her.

He leaned his head back and looked at the old wooden beams over his head. God was somewhere. God would have to help them. Please. She didn't deserve this, but how could he get her away? They were gonna kill her. He needed a plan--some way to keep her alive. Convince them she would be worth selling? It made his skin crawl. But if he could keep them from killing her, he could think of a way out.

His head pounded and he squeezed his eyes closed. What the hell was he thinking? There was no way he could take these guys on by himself.

A soft sound met his ear and he felt the little girl turn slightly to get more comfortable. He looked down at her and stroked her hair again. She needed someone who was willing to fight for her. He knew what Chris would do. Or Buck. Or Vin. Any of them. And he knew what he had to do. He took a deep breath and smiled. He felt stronger somehow. He had a mission--to protect this little girl. And he would do it no matter what. He wouldn't let them hurt her. He would die first.

Buck Wilmington had almost reached the livery when he heard an angry voice behind him.

"Where the hell do you think you're going?"

Obviously the effort Chris Larabee had made to chase his friend had not only worn him out, but had also pissed him off. "You're gonna get your fool head blown off."

Buck spun around to find Chris swaying in the middle of the street. He ran over to steady him.

"G**d****it, Chris, stay out of this. You should be in bed." Buck started to lead him back, but when they reached the porch of the boarding house, Chris had to sit down. Buck kept his hand on his back and waited while Chris caught his breath. Chris let his head drop for a moment, then he looked up at his old friend and spoke gently.

"What do you think you can do for him right now?"

"Something . . ." Buck answered. "I gotta do something."

"Buck, with Ezra hurt, it's gonna take all of us . . . and probably some help. . . to get JD out of this."

Buck stood up and paced. "We're losing time. Every hour we wait, they take him farther away from us."

"But even if you caught up with him, you couldn't rescue him yourself."

"You don't know that!"

Chris stood up and grabbed his arm. "What do you think they'll do to him if you show up?" Buck's eyes flashed as Chris continued. "They took him so they could make you suffer. If you show up, there's no telling what they'll do. They could decide to torture him in front of you . . . or maybe they'll decide that he's served his purpose and just kill him."

"I won't get caught."

"Are you willing to risk JD's life if you're wrong?" Chris yelled. "Damn it, Buck!"

Buck started to say something, but what was there to say? Chris was right, and that was what was so damn frustrating. Chris' tone softened. "If we're gonna save his life, we need a plan, and we need to work together."

"I just . . ."

"This is not your fault, Buck. You didn't bring this on any more than Inez did." Chris let his hand linger for a moment on Buck's arm, then he turned and went back inside the boarding house. He paused in the doorway. "You coming?"

"Yeah."

Nathan carefully pulled back the fabric of Ezra's jacket and shirt, letting the cloth continue to rip along the cut started by the knife. Ezra would probably squall like a stuck calf about it, but Nathan had to be able to get to the wound. If Ezra was alive to squall, Nathan was pretty sure he could handle listening to it.

Closing his mind to everything around him that wasn't directly related to his patient, he barely noticed when Chris went out, or when he came back in a few minutes later with Buck in tow. His world had narrowed until only one other person existed in it.

Ezra shifted restlessly, not as deeply unconscious as Nathan wanted. If Ezra started thrashing around while Nathan was pulling out the knife or stitching up the wound . . .

Murmuring something meaninglessly comforting, Nathan took out a bottle of laudenum from the bag Jimmy had brought. There was a shot glass on the bedstand that would do--in the state he was in, Ezra wouldn't need much.

Chris settled himself carefully on the only free chair in the room, trying not to wince too much as the movement jarred his head. The room was too damn hot, all the bodies in such close proximity stealing the air until a man couldn't breathe. Buck had gone back to his pacing, somehow managing to weave a path around the various people without stepping on any of them.

Chris was seriously contemplating shooting him and putting them all out of their misery when Vin cleared his throat and said softly, "Seems like we should be makin' a plan or somethin' . . ."

Chris blinked at him. It wasn't like Vin to sound so hesitant . . . except the tracker's attention was focused on the bed, his eyes following Nathan's movements distractedly as he stepped out of Buck's way.

And that was the root of their problem. JD taken from them, Ezra lying helpless and bleeding--the remaining five had to make a choice who to take care of, and it wasn't a decision they could make. They couldn't leave Ezra here without protection, not with whoever stabbed him still running around loose, but they needed everyone they could get to take on JD's kidnappers.

How do you choose between your brothers?

Buck stepped around Vin and continued his aimless trek around the room. There wasn't room for it, but he couldn't hold still. He needed to be out there, hunting for the kid, finding the bastards who'd taken him . . .

"Seems like we should be makin' a plan or somethin' . . ."

He turned abruptly at Vin's words. "Damn right we need to be makin' a plan. How 'bout this--we ride after this Don Miguel and when we find him, I string him up from the nearest tree?"

"I've heard better," Josiah said dryly. He'd folded his long body out of the way in a corner, near enough that he could help Nathan or Inez, who was rebandaging Raphael's wound under Diego's watchful eye.

"What are we waitin' for, anyway?" Buck continued, ignoring the ex-preacher. "We ain't doin' JD any good standin' around here gawkin' at each other."

"We can't go off half-cocked, either," Chris said quietly. The lines of strain around his eyes seemed to be getting deeper by the second, and he was holding his shoulders stiffly, like he thought his head was going to fall off. Buck felt a flash of sympathy--Chris probably felt worse than if he'd just come off a three day drunk--but didn't let it distract him. JD needed all his attention. Lord, if anything happened to the boy because of him . . .

"First thing, we gotta find a safe place to leave Ezra and Miss Inez," Vin said, taking over when Chris didn't continue. He shifted slightly, standing so that he was leaning on the wall just a bit behind Chris. "And we gotta have someone here to watch out for them."

"I do not need a keeper, Senor Vin," Inez protested. "I can shoot a shotgun as well as any man in this room. I can watch over Senor Ezra. You all go find JD before something terrible happens to him."

Diego murmured something in Spanish. Raphael snapped back. Before Buck could knock their heads together and demand they make sense, Vin broke in.

"He's talkin' sense, Don Raphael. You ain't in any shape to go ridin' out with us, but you can hold a gun and you can make sure whoever came after Ezra don't get close to him again. And we sure could use your men."

Raphael opened his mouth to answer, but he was interrupted as Nathan straightened abruptly.

"Damn!"

Nathan grabbed another bandage from his bag, pressing it firmly around the knife blade still protruding from Ezra's torso. Blood darkened the pale linen of the bandage almost immediately. Ezra groaned, restlessly moving his head as Nathan tried to stop the crimson flow.

Unable to see what was happening, Chris asked sharply, "What is it, Nathan?"

The healer's attention was again focused on what he was doing, but he managed a terse reply, "When I pulled the knife out a bit, he started bleedin' again."

Vin and Josiah were at Nathan's side in a moment, looking down at the pale figure on the bed. The ex-preacher placed his hand on the crown of Ezra's head, stroking the gambler's hair. He doubted the injured man knew he was there offering comfort, but the soothing motion of the larger man's hand on his head helped to quiet Ezra just the same.

Chris wanted to join the others at Nathan's side, but damn, he was tired. This new crisis had drained all his vitality away, leaving behind a dull ache in a heart that had finally begun to heal. Even Buck stopped his distracted wandering, peering with concerned eyes at his unconscious friend.

It was Vin who voiced the group's concern, his eyes never leaving Ezra's pale face. "You gonna be able to get that knife out without it killin' him?"

Nathan's shoulders slumped. "I don't know. It's worse than I thought."

Josiah's other hand reached out to Nathan, squeezing the closest shoulder in a firm, reassuring grip. "It might be best just to take the knife out and be done with it, Brother Nathan. I'm sure it bein' in there is causing him a lot of sufferin'."

"I know. It's just . . . He can't lose much more blood or he ain't gonna make it." The healer looked to the group's leader, his expressive dark eyes seeking Chris' consent before he continued treating Ezra.

Chris looked at Nathan for a long moment, his eyes searching the healer's face. Why did it have to be up to him? How could be possibly give Nathan permission to go ahead, knowing his decision could cause the death of one of them? If they did nothing, Ezra would likely die of infection, but if Nathan removed the knife, he could bleed to death. Ezra was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea no matter what choice he made.

Finally, Chris couldn't hold off any longer, slowly nodding his head. "Do what you have to, Nathan."

Nodding grimly, Nathan turned back to the stricken gambler. Firmly grasping the knife hilt in one hand, Nathan closed his eyes, a quick prayer running through his head. With his other hand resting lightly beside the wound, the healer carefully worked the knife free, gritting his teeth as the edge of the blade scraped against bone.

Ezra gasped, his body tensing up to fight the cause of the pain that coursed through him in waves of red-hot agony. Josiah quickly bent to pin the gambler's shoulders to the bed as Nathan continued his task. As the knife finally came free, blood welled from the wound at an alarming rate, running in scarlet rivulets down Ezra's chalky skin to soak into his fine feather bed. Nathan grabbed a bandage from Josiah's hand, pressing it over the wound, leaning his weight into the task of getting the bleeding stopped.

As the minutes ticked relentlessly by, the gambler's face leeched of color, going beyond pale to a pasty gray. Ezra moaned softly, pain overriding the effects of the laudanum as he fought his way to awareness.

"Not now, Ezra. Stay asleep," Nathan pleaded softly.

All eyes were glued to the tense tableau, the occupants unmindful of the room's suffocating heat and the heavy iron-scent of the gambler's spilled blood. No one dared speak lest he disturb Nathan's intense concentration as he fought to keep the gambler alive.

"I think I got the bleeding stopped enough to stitch him up," Nathan finally announced, sitting back a bit and wiping his sweaty brow with a sleeve.

A collective sigh of relief whispered through the room.

Chris rubbed one hand over his face, struggling to regain control of his emotions. "He gonna be all right?"

"I don't know for sure. I think maybe he's lost too much blood," the healer confirmed their worst fears.

"What can we do?" Vin asked.

"Not much. Wait an' see if he's stubborn enough to make it," Nathan sighed, his weary voice betraying his doubts about the gambler's chances.

Buck resumed his pacing now that the crisis had passed. His face was pale, but there was a grim resolve in his eyes as he spoke up, "Now, about that plan . . . "

At first Ezra vaguely wondered what had happened to him; he had never felt so sore, and weary, and his half-conscious mind was too foggy to allow for any organization of memories just yet. Vague sensations pierced the thick blanket around his mind, and he realized that his shoulder felt as if it was being cut off. Hazy dream-like images floated in front of his closed eyes, his dark room, noises, unseen hands grabbing him, and a familiar, hate-filled face dancing in the misty ether before him.

My God! he thought. Claudia!

His eyes flew open in shocked recollection, and if he had had the strength, Ezra would have bolted out of bed and sought out his attacker. As it was, he only had the strength to gasp aloud as he stared for a moment at the ceiling, his mind still swirling in numbed confusion. He could not quite remember where he was, or anything except that Claudia had returned, and had tried to kill him.

“Hey! Easy, there-you OK?” Startled, Ezra swallowed and turned his head to the side, wincing at the stabbing pain this motion sent up the back of his head. The room was dim in the early morning light, and his thoughts were still scattered; he blinked a few times, unable to stop his trembling. A hand gently grasped his wrist.

“Ezra? C´mon, it´s Josiah. You´re all right now. Just take it easy.” There was a pause, and the gambler let out his breath as the memories slowly settled themselves. He gazed up at Josiah in grateful surprise.

“Why, Josiah,” he gasped, amazed at how weak his voice sounded, “thank God...someone found me...”

Josiah nodded as he lifted a pitcher of water from the bedside table and poured some into a glass. “I´ll second that, brother. Bet you´re thirsty.”

Ezra considered this; God yes, he was thirsty. “An astute...observation.”

“Yup.” Josiah set the pitcher down with a thud. “Been on the wrong end of a knife a few times, myself. Losin´ lots of blood makes a man want water mighty bad. Here.” He lifted Ezra´s head up a bit and placed the glass to Ezra´s lips; it did not take the wounded man long to drain the entire glass.

“Nathan´s got you all stitched up now,” Josiah said quietly as he eased Ezra´s head back into the soft caress of the down pillow, “so you can just relax an´ heal up. You´re safe now.”

As Ezra settled back down, his expression was puzzled as he tried to sort out exactly what had happened to him; it all seemed very unreal and hazy, and his faculties were nowhere near their usual sharpness. But something was nagging at his tired mind, something awful and urgent...they had said something, about JD...

Ezra gazed at Josiah was as much intensity as he could muster, one hand weakly grabbing at the preacher´s arm. “Josiah...”

The other man looked down at him, his expression one of caution. “Yeah, Ezra?”

Ezra swallowed, feeling a terrible headache coming on; he desperately wanted to rest, but this was far too important to wait. “What was that Buck was saying...about JD?”

Josiah sighed. “Nothin´ you have to worry about now, Ezra-”

“Mr. Sanchez,” Ezra interrupted, in a soft but icy tone, “despite my...present condition, I am fully capable of worrying, and may have ample reason...for doing so, I assure you. Is Mr. Dunne in trouble?”

There was a long pause, during which Ezra almost fainted with impatience. Too tired to put up his usual defenses against emotional pain, Ezra was in no mood to pretend indifference; he had to know that JD would be all right.

Finally Josiah looked up, his eyes serious. “Guess you got a right to know. JD´s missin´, but we got a plan to find ‘im, so you got to just sit tight an´ heal up.”

“Good Lord,” Ezra whispered, his green eyes wide and frantic now as he directed them towards the ceiling. “Claudia...”

“Yeah, we heard you say that name while you were delirious,” Josiah said as he leaned forward. “She a former love of yours or something?”

Ezra frowned and licked his lips, thinking before a wry smile crossed his face. “Merely an old and not so dear acquaintance looking to settle a score.” He rubbed his shoulder, reluctant to say more.

Josiah nodded; that scenario was one he was certainly familiar with. “If you describe ‘er we can see if she´s still in town.”

The other man sighed; he was far too weary for much more conversation. “You may look for a thin washed-out-looking fellow with a beautiful dark-haired companion,” Ezra murmured. “And if she is in any way involved with our young friend´s disappearance, then...I must hasten my recovery at all speed. We may all be in very grave danger.”

Buck sat silently at the saloon table, for once oblivious to the half-lit gaiety swirling around him as the crowd enjoyed the establishment´s pleasures. His dark eyes flashed quickly back and forth across the room, but he did not see the pretty working girls weaving through the throngs of men, or the small groups of poker players laughing and smoking as they made and lost their fortunes. Instead Buck was envisioning how he and whoever wanted to join him would hunt down and butcher the men who had almost killed Ezra and abducted JD.

“I´m tellin´ ya what, Vin,” Buck whispered in a low, angry rasp as he furiously knotted and unknotted the frayed napkin from his untouched dinner plate, “when we find JD and the varmints who took ‘im, I´m gonna wind up repentin´ in Josiah´s church til next Christmas for the things I´m gonna do to them.”

His comrade sat opposite Buck, his calm demeanor the complete opposite of the other man´s barely contained rage. Vin sat still, his hat off, leaning back in his chair, a strangely sad light in his clear blue eyes. He said nothing, glancing from time to time from Buck to the table in the corner where Chris, Raphael, Jimmy and Diego sat in intense conversation.

“I feel the same way, Buck,” Vin said quietly, his blue eyes anxious. “But we can´t start trackin´ til daylight, an´ no amount of jumpin´ around´s gonna make it come any faster.”

“What kinda scum´d take a boy like JD anyhow,” Buck fumed, ignoring Vin´s observation as he shifted in his chair and gave him a piercing gaze. “This Toro feller, he better start prayin´ now, cause his days are numbered.”

Vin sighed slowly, not looking at Buck. “Might be a long hunt.”

The other man snorted. “You think I give a damn about that, Vin? ‘Sides, with all of us lookin´, hell, we´ll have that bastard down an´ skinned by Sunday.”

 The tracker finally directed his gaze at Buck, and his expression was sad, almost bitter. “You gotta know he won´t make it easy, Buck. An´ you know we can´t all look.”

Buck paused, then reluctantly nodded. “Hell, course I know that. Ezra´s gotta heal up, an´ someone´s gotta stay to watch the town. But even if it was only you an´ me, we could do it.”

Vin looked away again, staring into the swirl of golden-hued smoke hovering over the saloon crowd. His face was solemn, outlined by the yellow glow of the nearby fireplace. “Buck, I feel purty bad to tell ya this, but you got a right to know, I reckon. Findin´ JD-well, it might be a lot harder than you think.”

Buck´s fidgeting stopped, and when Vin looked back at him he saw the gunslinger´s face blank with surprise.

“Hell, Vin, what´re you talkin´ about?” Buck finally stammered. “Never figured you for the givin´ up type.”

His companion very slowly sat up, a reluctant air settling about him as he faced Buck, huddling over the mug of beer on the table in front of him. “I know about this Toro feller. Tracked ‘im once, in fact.”

Buck blinked. “Dang, Vin, really?”

Vin nodded seriously. “Bout three years ago, man in San Antonio hired me out to find him. Said Toro had killed his son in a brawl, wanted ‘im brought in for trial. I asked enough people to know it´s the same feller we´re lookin´ for now-they all described him the same way, just like Raphael did. I managed to track him to the Rio Grande. Then he just vanished.” He fell silent, glanced down into his mug as if it would reflect an answer back to him.

Buck scowled. “Vin, no man can just disappear. Now maybe you just missed somethin´-”

Vin´s head came up, a sad, self-recriminating light in his eyes. “Sure wish I could say so, Buck, but I never spent as long trackin´ nobody as I did Toro. Rode all along that river, goin´ almost blind from lookin´ for any sign of where he mighta gone. But he knew how to hide his tracks better´n anyone I ever seen.” He sighed and lifted the mug to his lips. “Finally had to give up. Only time I ever did.”

He took a long drink and set the glass down with a gentle thud. There was a silence for a few moments, as Vin sat motionless, in seemingly deep contemplation of the half-empty mug in front of him. A slow anger was smoldering in his eyes, which grew in intensity as Buck watched him.

“Ever since that day,” Vin said softly, not moving, “I been wonderin´ how I coulda done things different to help them folks find their justice. Always kinda ate at my gut that Toro got away, an´ I swore if we ever crossed paths again he wouldn´t be so lucky. But I never thought it´d be this way, with one of us...” His voice trailed off sadly. After a pause he took a deep breath and brought his head up, looking Buck straight in the eye, the blue fire in his eyes now burning brightly. “A man don´t often get another chance to fight the devil, Buck,” he said firmly. “We´ll find JD if Toro´s taken him to hell itself.”

Buck nodded, his expression completely serious. “That´s good, Vin. Cause I reckon that´s probably where we´ll have to go.” He tilted his head slightly to look at something behind Vin. “Evenin´, Josiah.”

Vin turned to see the tall preacher coming off of the stairway leading to the saloon´s second floor. Josiah nodded to the two men and sat down, reaching for the half-empty whiskey bottle at the center of the table.

“How´s Ezra doin´?” Vin asked, sitting back in his chair once more.

Josiah poured himself a drink and nodded. “Better; he woke up for a while, seemed pretty clear-headed. Finally wore himself out talkin´, an´ went back to sleep.”

“Did he say anything about this Claudia gal?” Buck inquired as he went back to knotting his napkin.

Josiah took a drink and sat back. “A little, just that she was some old girlfriend. Told us to keep an eye out for a beautiful dark-haired girl and a washed-out fellow who´d be with her. He said they were dangerous.”

Buck grunted. “Hell, I´ll say, but they´re probably long gone by now.”

“Hm,” was Josiah´s only reply as he noticed Chris and the others at the corner table. “Have we plotted our divine retribution against this Toro gent yet?”

“Nope,” Buck said angrily, “but I think we got the Buck Wilmington retribution part pretty much figured out.”

“Chris an´ Raphael are thinkin´ up the best way to find Toro,” Vin offered, setting down his empty mug. “We should probably rest up tonight, cause I reckon tomorrow´s gonna be a long day.”

“Amen,” Josiah muttered as he drained his glass and rose. “I´m gonna stop by Nathan´s an´ tell ‘im to check on Ezra. He´ll be relieved to know he´s gonna make it.”

“Reckon I´ll ride around, make sure we got no trouble brewin´,” Vin added, standing as well. “Better´n just doin´ nothin´.”

“Yeah, well, you two go on,” Buck said in a tense tone. “I´m gonna wait an´ see what Chris cooks up, an´ check on Ezra in a while.”

“Okay,” Josiah nodded, then looked down at the table. “Might want to have Inez get you another napkin.”

Buck glanced down at the now-tattered scrap of cloth in his hand and started with guilt. Then he sighed and held it up.

“Well, y´see, Josiah,” he said grimly, “this is what Toro´s gonna look like when I´m through with ‘im.”

He balled up the rag and threw it into the nearby fireplace, where it flared briefly before being consumed to ashes. Buck looked back at the other two men with a dark, confident expression.

“I´ll pray for your righteous fight, my friend,” Josiah said gravely as he tipped his hat. “Night, Buck.”

Vin nodded, too, and they left the saloon. Buck sat alone for a moment, then grabbed the bottle and walked over to Chris´s table, too impatient to stay outside of the planning any more. Getting JD back was too important to him to stay on the outside any longer, and whatever action they were going to take, he wanted it to happen soon.

After he left his table, a figure rose from a table in the shadows near the base of the stairs and hurried out of the saloon´s back door, into the grimy alleyway behind the building.

The cloak-wrapped form moved quickly down the alley, around the corner of the building and towards the street. Pausing to cautiously examine the passersby, it then glided across the dusty, near-deserted thoroughfare and into the hotel. Without stopping it flew through the ornate lobby, up the softly carpeted stairs, and did not rest until it stopped before one of the freshly=painted doors, swiftly inserting a silver key into its polished lock. The door swung quietly open, and the figure slipped inside as silently as a shadow.

Once the door was closed, the person leaned against it and threw back the hood of its cloak with an almost violent motion. Claudia fumed as she stood thinking, her eyes darting furiously as her mind worked itself through this new problem. She barely acknowledged Henry as he ran up to her, his drawn face anxious.

“We´ve got trouble,” she said in a flat, angry tone, not looking at him.

“You mean he isn´t dead yet?” Henry gasped in fearful surprise.

She sighed and pulled herself away from the door, pulling off the cloak and throwing it across the bed. “They saved him. Can you believe it? Somebody actually cared about that worthless cheat. I should´ve gotten him in Ridge City, the people there would´ve gathered round and laughed while he was dying.” She threw herself onto the divan and leaned her forehead against one hand. “And that´s not all. I overheard some of Standish´s friends discussing what happened. Seems he´s actually well enough to talk.”

“He fingered us!” her husband guessed, panicked, as he grabbed at the woman´s arm. She pushed him away.

“I know, you idiot!” she snapped back in a fierce whisper. “I didn´t think Standish would live long enough to tell anyone about us. DAMN it!”

“That damned darky doctor, it´s all his fault,” Henry said through gritted teeth. “Now we have to leave town. Don Miguel´s going to be furious.”

“For God´s sake, Henry, be quiet and let me think!” Claudia growled, biting her thumbnail as she contemplated the situation. “They think we´re long gone, so that buys us some time. And it sounds like some of them are leaving soon, so at least the odds will be better. We might even be able to get close to Standish again. All we have to do is be very careful, and God knows we know how to do that.”

She looked up at her husband. “We can still do what the Don asked of us, and see to it that they know, as he does, what it´s like to lose a brother. Separating Wilmington and that kid was a start. Toro will see to it that the kid´s never found, I´m sure. And there are others we can work with–I´ve noticed Larabee and that long-haired tracker seem pretty close.”

She paused, and a dark smile crept across her lips. “If one of them leaves town, they´ll be an easy target, riding out in that great big desert.”

Henry grinned, then stopped. “But-even if we shot ‘im, they might still manage to get that darky to save ‘im.”

Claudia sighed in extreme frustration. “For Pete´s sake, Henry! That´s part of the plan! That darky´s one of them, isn´t he?” She smiled again, twining a strand of raven hair in one long, slim finger. “It will be awfully hard for him to save them if he´s not alive.”

Ezra should have been asleep. But he wasn´t.

He recalled being almost out when Josiah quietly blew out the lamp and tiptoed out, and not long after that he had fallen asleep for a little while.

It had not lasted long, though, and now he was awake and thinking, although his eyes were still closed. He was remembering what had happened to him tonight.

The memories had been so dim before, but now they were quite vivid. He recalled lying on the floor, felt again the searing pain, the warm blood pouring from his wounded shoulder, and the terrible certainty that he would die before he could summon anyone to help him. Most of his life he had never given his death much consideration, being too busy pulling cons and making money to care what deadly ends such activities might lead to. He had seen enough fellow grifters die in the pursuit of wealth to know that such a demise was usually brutal, painful, and lonely, but it had never bothered him. All part of the business, as his mother would say. Just another hazard of the job to be accepted without emotion.

But tonight-tonight as he lay grappling for the door, slipping helplessly in a pool of his own blood, he realized just how unacceptable such a fate was to him. He didn´t want to die, and certainly not alone; the other men would help him, if only he could make himself heard. But there was no way, the door was a hundred miles away, and he had lost the power to do much more than whimper in pain.

Things had become very confused before he had blacked out; for some reason he had imagined that he was a child again, desperately trying to reach his mother who had just gone through the door he was so painfully trying to reach, leaving again as she had so many times to the uncaring ministries of callous relatives. But she was gone, and his friends were gone too, and nobody cared. He was going to die. Then it had all gone dark...

But then the remarkable thing had happened. Someone had come, and saved his life. Something no one but his mother would have undertaken, say, a year ago. His shoulder hurt like hell, and he´d be bedridden for a long time, but still he was alive.

Ezra thought back to the night before, when he had looked with such envy at JD and Buck, arguing in the street. He´d been drunk, but Ezra still felt his jealousy of their friendship, sharper than the knife which had wounded his arm, cutting deeper into his heart than any weapon ever could. He remembered turning from the scene, heartsick with longing yet at the same time ashamed at his own weakness for being so soft. He knew when he chose the gambling life that he would never be able to have the sort of friendship that Buck and JD shared - or Vin and Chris, or Josiah and Nathan, for that matter. He had never thought he would want, or need, such a sentimental indulgence, or that he could find find anyone willing to fulfill it if he did. Even his own mother had cast him adrift. And yet...

Ezra slowly lifted one hand up from underneath the blankets to gingerly rub his wounded shoulder, now carefully bandaged, and by someone he hardly knew. None of the other men really knew him, and still, they´d saved his life. And Ezra thought about what had happened that evening, until sleep gently claimed him once more.

Buck always said that JD never listened to a word he said.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. JD took in every word that Buck said and every one that Chris said, and Josiah said, and Vin said, and Nathan and Ezra...

<I>"Well, JD, the art of strategic misdirection is to convince your target that he or she will benefit from the scheme to a far greater extent than their contribution would warrant."

"Huh?"

"He means ya convince them that they're getting' somethin' for nothin'."

"Not ideally, Mr Wilmington, your main objective is get them to make SOME kind of contribution. But yes, your aim is convince your mark that THEY are takin' advantage of YOU. I sometimes think that is why entrepreneurs of my ilk are so thoroughly hated. It is not merely that they deprived someone of their 'hard earned cash' but that the one deprived knows that it was their own greed which led them to the fall."

"That sounds like a swindler tryin' to talk his way outta the blame, Ezra."

"Perhaps. But if you would take the time to recognise the truth of it, you may find yourself savin' money in the future."</I>

You have to convince them that they are taking advantage of you.

"Sounds good, Ezra," JD murmured under his breath, "but how can I convince them that I have anythin' they want?"

He didn't have money and they didn't seem to want it anyway. This Toro person seemed to have weakness for blonde women. Well, JD didn't fit the criteria on either count - thank God!

The other one seemed mainly interested in getting revenge on Buck. That was why JD had been taken and was being sent to South America. Maybe he could convince them that recruiting him into their gang would hurt Buck more.

*Oh, THAT'S a long shot, JD. You've already worked out that you have nothing they want. What on earth would make them think it was worth their while taking you on?*

He looked down at the girl again. She was still asleep. Any plan would have to involve taking her with him, anyway.

He couldn't afford to let her out of his sight or they might decide she was excess baggage and throw her over the side of the ship.

*You AND me, Little One. How am I gonna convince them that they need BOTH of us?*

He heard a creaking of the deck floorboards and looked up. The giant of a man called Toro walked across the deck, staring out to sea. Ominous storm clouds, gathered on the horizon ahead of them and JD watched Toro turn away and make the sign of the cross.

It was a gesture that JD was quite familiar with but this time he recognised that it was a gesture of superstition rather than piety.

That was when the little girl started screaming. A shrill blood-curdling wail of pure terror. JD instantly wrapped her up in his arms and muttered vague reassurances, hoping the sound of his voice might quiet her before she drew the wrath of their captors. But heavy running footsteps, made him doubt that they could avoid it.

"Shut her up!"

And amazingly, she did, instantly. Then she buried her face against JD's neck and murmured something unintelligible.

"What did she say?"

JD looked up. He hadn't understood a word she'd said either but he could see fear in the big man's face. Fear, pure superstitious fear. This massive, ruthless man was suddenly afraid. Afraid of something about this helpless child.

And suddenly JD had a card to play, a con to run. He'd get them both out of this! Toro thought that this malformed child may have been compensated with the second sight.

He could Ezra hear again. *Always keep the lie simple JD. Something that you can manipulate. Something you won't trip yourself up on.*

But to take advantage of Toro's superstition, he knew he'd have to make up something dire.

"She said that she sees the deck covered in blood."

The girl muttered again, and still he couldn't understand her, but he embellished the lie for Toro.

"She says that she sees flames and hears men screaming. She says that if we keep heading south, this ship will be torn apart!"

He looked deeply into Toro's fearful eyes, willing the man to believe him.

Toro's eyes changed. They hardened. He drew back with roar of pure fury and JD was certain the he had earned a brutal death for both himself and the girl he had sworn to protect.

To be continued . . .

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