The following story is a work of fan fiction. It is not intended to infringe on any copyright or to make a profit. The Magnificent Seven belong to John Watson/Trilogy Entertainment, MGM, and probably others; only the story is my own. Please do not copy, post, or redistribute without permission from the author.

COERCION
by The Desperado's Daughter

PART ONE: Fishing

"Gentry - I wouldn't go into business with you if I WERE an outlaw. I don't trust you. And I trust Pickett even less."

"But there's no way to pull it off without you, Larabee."

"Then there's no way to pull it off."

Chris Larabee was tired of this conversation. He lay a few coins on the bar, took another swig of his drink and started out.

"You know, Larabee, I've asked you nicely . . ."

A click of a revolver.

"Now, I'm afraid I have to insist."

Chris turned slowly, unfazed at the pistol aimed at his heart. He grinned, wickedly. "You can insist all you want to. It ain't gonna happen."

"It's such a sweet deal, Larabee. You don't want to play lawman in that piss-ant town any longer, do you?"

"Actually," a voice emerged from under a hat, and another revolver clicked at the ready. "We need to be getting back to that little piss-ant town, don't you think, Chris?"

Gentry laughed heartily, keeping his gun aimed at Chris Larabee.

"Well, Buck Wilmington - I shoulda figured - where one goes, the other follows."

Buck pushed his hat back with one finger, then took his time standing. He held his gun loosely - easily - and actually "moseyed" up to the bar. The barkeep hesitantly met him. Buck kept his weapon aimed casually in Gentry's direction, but ordered a whiskey? No, he'd have an ale. No, wait - whiskey.

A wry grin pulled at Chris Larabee's mouth. No one could drive a man crazy like Buck Wilmington.

And he should know.

"Oh, come on, Buck," Gentry said - trying to act like he wasn't getting pissed off. "Talk some sense into him. This is the chance of a lifetime."

Buck turned to Chris in mock seriousness. "Chris - hey, let me talk some sense into you. Gentry says this is the chance of a lifetime."

"Shut the f*** up," Gentry exploded, grasping the gun more tightly and stepping closer to Chris Larabee.

"But you just told me . . ." Buck started.

The gun fired harmlessly into the ceiling.

Chris had plowed into Amos Gentry, pressing his gun hand upward. And in one move, he hooked his arm around the outlaw's neck and disarmed him.

Chris' voice remained amiable. "Your mama should have taught you when to take 'no' for an answer." His grip tightened around the man's throat. "If you ever aim a gun in my direction again, I will kill you. No negotiation - I will kill you. Am I clear?"

The man tried to answer but he couldn't catch his breath. Buck walked over, whiskey in hand.

"Chris, I believe his throat must be a little dry." Buck got right in Gentry's face and smiled broadly. "Want a drink, Amos?"

Gentry's eyes narrowed.

And he kicked Buck in the abdomen as hard as he could, using Chris Larabee's hold on him from behind as leverage.

Buck doubled over and landed heavily on his knees, the wind knocked out of him.

"You shouldn't have done that," Chris hissed, and he threw Amos Gentry on the saloon floor. He knelt beside him, pressed his knee into his back and his gun into the base of his neck.

"Let's not do this again," Chris said. "You probably won't live through it."

Chris paused a moment to let the message sink in, then, when he could sense the abject fear in Gentry's eyes, he backed away slowly.

"You ok, Buck?" Chris asked without ever taking his eyes off of Gentry.

"Yea," his friend grunted, slowly pulling himself up. Chris reached an arm down to help him.

"Oh," Buck groaned, not able to stand all the way. "Kick him for me, would you, Chris? I don't think I can just now."

"We'll both kick him next time we're in Stockton, how about that?" Chris was leading Buck out. Then he paused at the saloon door and tossed a look back at Gentry, who was sitting up.

"Don't even think about following us. I ain't gonna sleep til we get to Four Corners, and I'm shooting anything that moves."

Buck tipped his hat and managed a smile, and they left.


Vin Tanner had never known anyone - man or woman - who had never been fishing as a kid.

But JD Dunne hadn't.

How strange that a kid who'd worked outdoors all his life had never gone fishing.

Work.

That was his whole life. He'd worked sun-up to sundown - no time for school, much less fishing. Hell, the only recreation he'd had in his life was reading those dimestore novels. From everything he'd gathered, JD's life had been very difficult. Maybe difficult in ways they would never know.

He never had a daddy around to look after him, to teach him things . . .

To take him fishing.

Well, Vin figured it was about time.

JD was excited about this fishing trip, and he felt a little sheepish about it. He tried not to act excited - tried to maintain a cool demeanor. But his friends could see the spark in his eye.

It wasn't about fishing, of course.

It was about belonging.

It was about not tagging along, but being asked to spend the day with one of the guys. It meant he was one of them.

JD liked hanging out with Vin. Vin was patient with him and didn't seem to get put out with him. If he did get on the bounty hunter's nerves, Vin never let on. And he treated him like he had a brain in his head.

Chris seemed to tolerate JD, but the kid felt like their leader regretted having taken him on. He expected JD to mess up - and he never felt like he measured up.

Ezra saw the boy as an amusement. But never took him seriously as part of the bunch. He joked about his "pretending to be a sheriff."

Buck - he loved Buck. But Buck was so protective of him that it almost smothered him sometimes. They had great fun together, but in a crisis, Buck didn't think he had what it took. Well, that's what it seemed like to JD.

Even the soft-spoken Josiah felt the need to direct him.

Nathan just didn't have much time for him.

But Vin . . .

Vin let him be. JD was fine just like he was. Vin didn't seem to wish he were different - like everyone else did.

He just wanted to take him fishing.

Sitting by the wide stream - the folks who lived out there called it a river - JD had shed his hat and vest and was watching the surface of the water expectantly. Expectantly, but not impatiently. It felt good to just sit there and be. The breeze was nice, the sun gentle, and the peace intoxicating. And JD felt sort of . . . happy. He'd had fun riding with everyone. He'd certainly experienced excitement. But he hadn't felt true contentment. Well, not since before his Mama died.

And for a moment, JD realized he was happy.

Vin was glad for this respite. No bounty hunters, nobody shooting at him, nobody expecting him to do anything. Just a kid, a stream, and a fishing line.

Oh, and a good lunch. Miss Nettie had seen to that.

What a good woman. How like his mother. How did this woman understand instinctively that Vin needed her? He smiled. Maybe she needed him too.

"OH!!" JD came alive as a fierce tug pulled on his line. "Hey - I got one!"

"All right, kid. Now hang on to him." Vin slid over beside him. The boy had dug his heels into the dirt and was holding on excitedly.

"Man . . . " was all he managed to say.

Vin chuckled. "He's a live one."

JD was holding on, laughing, and struggling. Vin waited til the last possible moment before adding his own strength to this fight.

It actually did take both of them to pull in the catch. And as they did, Vin realized for a moment . . .

He was happy.


She couldn't have been more than eight or nine years old. But she didn't look like a child should look. Her brown eyes were haunted - almost hollow. And her cheekbones were too prominent - a evidence of malnourishment. Her dark hair was dirty, her face dusty, and her clothes in tatters. How tiny she was, curled up with her arms wrapped around her knees. She was huddled under the scrubbrush, sheltered by the awkward branches that grew haphazardly from the low trunk.

Josiah Sanchez kept his distance from her, not wanting to scare her. He eased his large frame to the ground, and sat cross-legged in the dirt. He didn't speak to her. He just sat there.

She watched him, but remained very still.

Ever so slowly, Josiah reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a piece of hardtack. He took a bite, then turned his head toward her. Still moving slowly, he extended his arm, and held the beef jerky out for her. His big hand remained steady for what seemed like an eternity. He never spoke, but his eyes communicated something that made her feel less afraid somehow.

After a very long moment, the little girl crawled out from her hiding place and tentatively reached out for the food. Probably the first food she'd seen in days. When her hand got right up to the meat, she snatched it quickly and scurried back to her original place under the foliage.

Seminole? Probably. The preacher began to softly sing in his soothing baritone voice. A song of the Seminole. As the little girl ate ravenously, he spoke words of comfort - words she knew and understood. Then he looked up at the day sky and began singing again.

She listened, and felt tears well in her eyes. And she began to sing the familiar song, too.

A sweet, light, clear voice.

A voice that broke Josiah's heart.

He continued singing softly. Not watching her. But he felt her approach. She crawled out and made her way to him. And wordlessly crawled up into his lap - nestling there.

She clutched at his shirt - and her weary tears fell.

Josiah wrapped his strong arms around the child, and rocked her.

Whatever had happened, it would be a long road back for her.


The sun had dipped just below the craggy horizon, painting a rich colorscape across the expanse of sky.

"This . . ." Vin nodded toward the exquisite sunset. ". . . is what draws a man to this country, JD." He guided his horse up on the ridge and rounded a rocky corner. He glanced back at the wide-eyed boy following him and he grinned. "Look . . ."

Once round the curve, the land suddenly expanded before them as far as the eye could see. The majesty of earth color complemented the deep burgundy of the waning sky. Long shadows played in the ridges and began to pull over this world like a blanket.

"I never seen anything like it." JD's voice was hushed, as though they had entered a sanctuary of some kind.

And indeed they had.

"Do you believe in God, Vin?" JD asked suddenly, his eyes still on the sight before him.

Vin paused a moment - not in hesitance, but rather in reverence. "Yea, I do."

JD nodded. "Me too." He looked out to the horizon. "Mama would kill me for not going to church. I haven't been since I left Boston." JD instinctively stroked his mare's mane. "I was so mad at God."

"Every man gets mad at his Maker from time to time, JD."

"Mama . . . was so good. She was so faithful to Him. But she had such a tough life." The boy's eyes stung. He wasn't afraid for Vin to see him cry, though. Vin listened easily. This was the most the kid had ever said about his ma, and he'd probably needed to for a long, long time.

"Why did God put this . . . beautiful person on this earth, and then let her suffer? All she had to show for all of her efforts . . ." The kid took a deep breath and continued. ". . . was me. She deserved better." He sniffed. "So I got mad at Him. Reckon God don't want to have anything to do with me."

Vin waited a moment then urged his horse forward slowly. JD followed.

"I don't know about that, kid. I'd say Somebody up there is looking out for you."

"How do you figure that?"

Vin stopped until JD pulled up alongside him, and looked him in the eye. "Way I see it, here you are in the most dangerous place in the world, and you already got six trained gunfighters watching your back." He smiled. "What odds you think Ezra would give that?"

JD grinned back. Vin put his hand on the boy's shoulder. "You're doing great, kid. Your ma'd be proud."

He noticed that JD's lip trembled slightly, and he pulled on ahead of him, letting him think about things in peace.


Buck laughed, and instantly regretted it, his painful stomach still reeling from the run-in with Gentry.

"Damn, Chris, you got an enemy in every little piss-ant town in the west?"

Chris sniffed. "Looks that way." His eyes cut over to his friend. "You all right?"

"Yea, just a bruise is all." Buck situated himself more comfortably on his horse. "But laughing don't help it."

That made him laugh again. "Man, I need a drink."

They were threading their way through a low shadowed pass when Chris halted abruptly. He raised his hand to silence his friend before Buck could ask any questions. Both listened and heard the distant lope of horses.

"You don't think Gentry would . . ."

Chris shrugged. "Somebody's out there."

Buck shook his head.

"Hell, I'm too tired to shoot anybody tonight." He yawned and they made their way more cautiously.


"Sh!"

Vin raised his hand to keep JD from saying anything. They listened. Below them they heard the careful steps of horses being eased through the gap.

Vin raised his glass to his eye and looked, turning the glass until the image below came into focus.

And a grin crossed his face.

He was about to call out to Chris Larabee when a bullet whistled past his ear.

"GET DOWN, KID!" Vin cried out.

Before everything went black.


PART TWO: Crossfire

At Vin's warning, JD slid off his horse and tossed his hat to the ground. He lay at the edge of the overhang on his stomach, heart pounding, weapons drawn. The shots were flying so furiously he couldn't tell where they were coming from. Maybe from above them where the craggy rock ridge rose sharply. Maybe below.

"Vin!" he hollered. But his friend didn't answer. "Aw shit . . . " JD looked around. Vin was lying on his back a few feet away, his upper body hanging dangerously over the edge of the ridge. And it was a treacherous drop down.

"Hang on," JD said through clenched teeth. And he crawled on his belly toward Vin. The sting of a bullet grazed his back and he paused for a split second, catching his breath. Then he scurried forward.

"Vin . . ." he said as he reached him. God, let him be alive. JD grabbed the tracker's belt and, with all his might, hauled him back up to safety.

Winded.

More bullets. The boy instinctively shielded the injured tracker. He pressed his fingers to Vin's neck. He could feel the strong beat of his heart. Good.

JD's heart pounded like thunder, and he willed himself not to panic. But what do I do? What do I do?

Assess. Find cover.

Ricochet. Grazed his throat. Damn! Where were they??

Ah! He saw a glint of silver reflected in the dying sun - and got off a shot.

And heard the groan and fall of a rider.

More gunfire. Damn, how many were there? It was so hard to tell in the fading dusk. He could tell that some were ahead of them, and some below. A quick glance around revealed that Vin's horse was shot. Sick, JD dragged his friend to the dead animal and lay him there, shielded partially from the gunfire, if only for a moment.

He tried to determine where his friend had been hit. His head was bleeding - but not much. No blood anywhere else that he could see. Must've gotten hurt when the horse fell.

JD was about to reload when a fresh volley of gunfire erupted. He pulled his arms up over his head. Sweet Jesus . . .


Buck thought he heard Vin's voice as the first shots rang out.

"Where are they?" he called out as he and Chris took cover.

Chris pressed against the craggy rock face and collected his ammunition. "Behind us," he hissed. "The top of the ridge. Don't know for sure."

"Was that Vin?"

Chris got off a shot. A rider fell. "Sounded like him."

Buck took aim but couldn't draw a bead in the twilight. And if Vin were on the ridge above, he didn't dare risk a shot.

"Shit!" Chris scowled. There were riders closing in ahead of them. "How the hell did Gentry get in front of us?"

Buck fired. "That's not Gentry. He ain't got that many friends."

He started to reload, but ducked as a shot whistled by. "Holy, shit. We're in the middle of a g**damn crossfire."

Chris picked off two more. Clearly, their presence was a complete surprise to their assailants. "They gotta be here for Vin."

"Then where the hell is he?"

Neither knew the answer. But both knew that they had to try to draw fire away from the ridge.

"Just keep 'em as busy as we can. . ." Chris said.


A momentary lull. JD grabbed Vin's rifle, then crawled over to where Vin had fallen and reached around for the eyeglass. Tentatively, he peered over the side. Buck and Chris were pressed against the rock wall, about ten feet ahead of him.

His call to them was drowned out by more gunfire. From above.

JD spun around and shot the big rifle and felt the kick back into his shoulder. His breath stopped in his throat as he realized he'd almost scooted off the edge.

But he'd found his mark.

Who were these guys after anyway?

They were closer. Closing in. He couldn't breathe. He was watching the scene play out below him, but the sudden rush of footsteps jolted his attention to the action behind him.

Someone wielding a pistol aimed at Vin Tanner.

"NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!" JD screamed as he shot the man in the face.


Four Corners was strangely quiet. Nothing unusual.

Except a scared and hungry little girl.

There was only one place Josiah could take her. Only one person who might know how to help.

Nathan Jackson was infinitely gentle with the child. Josiah started to leave, but a little hand found its way into his big one. And he stayed. He had gotten her to trust him enough to let him help her. Maybe he could help her trust Nathan.

He knew precious little about her. She wouldn't speak. Wouldn't answer any questions. Wouldn't maintain eye contact for any length of time. Nathan watched her slight interaction with Josiah, and felt a familiar dread. He had seen this reaction before.

And with the dread came a blistering anger.

He didn't put her through the rigors of an invasive examination. Just checked her out enough to determine that she wasn't suffering any immediate injury, and pronounced her malnourished.

"Supper?" he asked her. She glanced back at Josiah for a translation and from somewhere in the annals of his memory, he remembered the Seminole word for food. She nodded.

The preacher smiled warmly and left to get the little girl a hot meal.


They both heard the boy scream. They both saw the body hurtling down. They had no time to consider why JD would be out here in the middle of this because all hell broke loose again.

And Buck just stood there - dazed, looking at the lifeless body lying in the road a few yards away. Chris yanked his arm and pulled him down out of the way.

Chris kept a tight grip on his friend's wrist. He could see that intense, quaking rage that had damn near gotten Buck killed in other situations.

Buck raised his weapon and was about to fire again.

"Wait!" Chris yelled, jerking his arm back. Buck turned on him, livid.

"They're pullin' out," he explained. They waited a tense moment and listened.

And heard the retreat of the few remaining outlaws.

Buck jerked away from Chris' grip and ran recklessly toward the body which lay a few yards away from them. Chris was on his heels, gun drawn.

The body lying facedown.

It wasn't the kid.

Thank God. It wasn't the kid.

The body was too large - and too heavy to be JD or Vin. Buck sighed and Chris toed the body over.

There was no face.

Buck turned and retched.


It was over.

It was over. JD could breathe now.

Breathe . . .

Check on Vin.

He tried to pull himself away, but he was rooted to the spot.

He felt so shaky. His hands shook. And he felt suddenly very cold. He would make himself crawl over to Vin. Vin needed help. He had to go to him. If only he could keep from shaking. . .

"JD?!"

Chris' voice.

"Vin?!"

Pull yourself together, JD chided himself. He crawled over to his friend. He tried to answer Chris, but his voice . . . It was like he was in a sort of . . . daze.

And the bullets could start back any minute.

Help Vin. Help him.


Ezra Standish left the saloon late. It had been a terribly dull evening. Easy money, only now he was growing a conscience. So after he'd won all the poor saps' money, he'd let them win it back.

Well, most of it.

He still had a reputation to think of.

He pulled his watch out.

3:15 am. Damn.

He started home. But then paused.

And frowned.

Nathan's light was on. He'd seen Nathan at supper and the healer was relieved that nobody was sick or hurt. So what was going on?

Maybe he just couldn't sleep.

Or maybe . . .


JD studied his friend's face in the bright moonlight. A trickle of blood rolled down his cheek. But it didn't look too bad. JD ripped part of his shirttail and pressed the remnant against the cut at Vin's hairline.

A groan.

"'S all right, Vin . . . You're gonna be all right."

The bounty hunter squinted up at the kid. "Oh, man. What . . ." He started to sit up.

"No - lay back." JD's voice was gentle.

"What happened?" Vin winced and reached up instinctively to the wound on his head.

"Don't touch it," JD said. "We were ambushed."

Vin couldn't quite put this together. He shifted slightly, and groaned.

"Where do you hurt?"

Vin waited a moment. "My head . . ."

"Where else?"

It was strange. Vin couldn't quite tell what hurt.

Footsteps.

JD drew his weapon and crouched down beside the tracker.

What if it weren't Chris? What if the shooting were going to start up again? An involuntary tremor swept through the boy's body. He waited.

"Hey!" A voice they knew. JD holstered his gun. "Buck! Over here," he called out. Vin could feel the kid shudder again, and he put a hand on the kid's arm.

Buck and Chris ran up just as JD's stomach lurched. The kid got up shakily and staggered away from Vin.

Chris knelt beside the tracker. Buck caught up with JD just as the kid regurgitated. He put a reassuring hand on the boy's back, but drew it away quickly when JD flinched.

Buck rubbed his fingers together.

Blood.

"God, kid, you're hurt."

A sob escaped the boy's throat, and he turned red eyes toward his friend. "Huh?"

It was then that Buck saw blood trickling across the side of his neck.

Buck lifted the black hair away from the injury, and was relieved that it was just a scratch. JD reached up and touched the place. He seemed so dazed.

"You're doing great, kid." Buck said, softly, and he helped JD sit on the ground. Then he scooted around to look at his back. JD wiped his mouth on his sleeve, then craned his neck to look behind him. Buck chuckled. "Just grazed you, kid. And don't you know . . . " he scooted back around to face the kid. "You can't see your own back." JD looked confused for a moment, then he grinned.

Buck put his steady hand on JD's trembling shoulder. "You're damn lucky, boy."

Buck sighed. Damn lucky, he thought. This green kid in the middle of a f***ing range war. This lucky, scared kid.

"Are you all right?" JD asked suddenly, as if it just occurred to him. He involuntarily had a handful of Buck's shirt.

Buck smiled. "Fine, kid."

"And Chr-"

"Chris is fine, and it looks like Vin's gonna be all right, too."

JD's stinging eyes met Buck's for a moment. And as the wave of relief swept over him, he lowered them, and leaned the top of his head into the big man's chest. Moved, Buck hooked an arm around the kid's shaking shoulders and pulled him into a brother's embrace. The gunfighter squeezed his eyes tightly, and he breathed a prayer of thanks.

If only this had been the end of it . . .


PART THREE: Morning at Four Corners

Nathan Jackson was not going to ever get a good night sleep. It simply wasn't going to happen. He had learned to sleep at odd times and to stay, not only awake, but keenly alert at times when the rest of the world slept. He had spent the evening tending to the dazed, frightened and hungry child. Every step he took to help her had taken three times what it would have normally, because she had been traumatized. He and Josiah had to communicate what they wanted - to feed her, for example - then demonstrate by eating a bite themselves. Then they had to slowly present the food to her - slowly, so as not to startle her. Then allow her to take it herself. This process was difficult, if for no other reason than serving to demonstrate the trauma she must've experienced. Each careful approach underscored the fear in the little girl's eyes.

And what a strange mix of emotions the peacekeepers felt. How paternal and protective they were toward the little girl.

How blisteringly angry they felt toward the folks responsible for her - folks who had neglected her, or, God help them, folks who had hurt her.

And right now she needed safe, uninterrupted sleep.

So when Ezra Standish rapped lightly on the door, Nathan was ready to send him away until morning.

That is, until the child caught a glimpse of the gambler. . .

The man who made the cards do tricks . . .

The man who taught the children to applaud,

To defend themselves,

To play . . .

The man who had befriended the children when their world was exploding around them.

The last thing Nathan expected was the little girl jumping out of bed and hugging Ezra. Ezra looked confused, but knelt before the child and hugged her close. She trembled with sobs she couldn't let go of.

Nathan was dumbfounded, but welcomed the unlikely hero.


Camping here was not safe. If the renegades realized they had only been fighting four men, they could pick up replacements and come after them again. No, they would have to press on to Four Corners. They had lost Vin's horse. Traveling would be slow-going.

Buck and Chris helped Vin onto JD's horse. He was conscious, but he was battling dizziness now, and Chris would need to ride close just in case. Chris swung onto his own horse.

JD was trying to act as though he weren't shaken up. But he kept feeling tremors - like he was cold or something. Why couldn't he shake it?

"All right, JD, hop up." Buck had painfully mounted up, still sore from the kick in the stomach just that afternoon. He held out his arm for the boy.

"You're hurtin', Buck. I can do this myself." For once, he was not making a rebellious, childish claim. He was an excellent horseman. And he hopped up behind Buck like a trick rider - vaulting over the horse's hindquarters, but with such gentle hands, it didn't spook the animal.

Damn, kid. Sometimes Buck was amazed. JD held on to Buck lightly, knowing Buck was still sore. Good thing that JD could stay astride a horse with leg muscles only - his hands serving to assess the best way to balance.

Chris stayed alert as they made their way toward Four Corners. His eyes darted all around regularly. All the while he made sure he was close enough to Vin to catch him if he had to.


This is the strangest thing, Ezra thought, looking down at the sleeping child he held in his arms. How had he gained her trust in the short time he was in their village? He was rocking slowly in Nathan's rocking chair, overwhelmed at how thin she was. He thought for a moment that she didn't weigh any more than Maude's housecat. What the hell had happened to her? Josiah had described how long it had taken to get her to respond to him. Ezra himself had noticed the dark circles under her searching brown eyes. Her prominent bones, covered by thin skin. But even more troubling, her fear . . . A child shouldn't have to feel fear like that. Ezra felt so much emotion. She huddled against his chest. He was moved by the little girl's trust. And he felt rage that she had been abandoned

Or worse . . .

It's all right now, little one. He stroked the girl's head with his beautiful hand, and held her more protectively.

I'll take care of you.

I've got you.


Buck yawned. God, he was tired! His abdominal muscles kept cramping up on him and he was getting a headache.

The kid was unusually still - unusually quiet. Buck had to grin as he felt the weight of the boy's head fall against his back.

Then he sobered. Poor kid. He was obviously exhausted . . . and scared. It had taken a good hour for his trembling to settle. Well, thank God he could sleep.


The sunrise was rose-colored over the little town on the horizon. Chris sighed. It was a straight shot into Four Corners. He was now holding two sets of reins, leading Vin, who periodically was nodding off. Buck had fallen asleep, and Chris was surprised to see that JD had reached around his friend, and was guiding the horse from behind. He caught Chris' eye, and Chris smiled. That meant a whole lot to the boy.


Mary Travis held up her skirts with one hand, while she carried a breakfast tray in the other. At the top of the stairs, she released her skirts and knocked quietly at the door. After a moment, a bleary - eyed Nathan appeared at the door. He held up a finger to his lips, and slowly opened the door.

The picture before her startled her. The gambler was asleep in the rocker - his head leaning back, his arms filled with the little girl who, just the night before, would allow no one to touch her. Mary lay the tray on the table, and Nathan nodded toward the back room. She stepped softly to the door and peered in.

Vin Tanner lay in one bed, a cloth on his brow. Buck Wilmington in the other bed, curled tightly with his arms wrapped around his middle. Mary's eyes questioned Nathan.

He would have told her everything if the door hadn't burst open.

If the men with guns hadn't flooded the room . . .

If he hadn't heard JD screaming in the street . . .

Or the volley of gunshots below . . .

Nathan didn't have time to shield Mary. He couldn't get to her before the men did. Couldn't stop the man from grabbing her long yellow hair and tossing her back to his friends who dragged her down the stairs.

He reached for a knife, but felt the bullet burst in his side first.

Ezra had slid out of his rocker and pushed the terrified child under the bed. He drew his weapon and levelled one of them. Then he emerged - moving toward them, leading them away from where the child lay hidden.

The rifle to the jaw dazed him and he didn't see them go to the back room and tie up a struggling and bewildered Vin Tanner. He did hear the gun go off, and watched sick at heart, as Buck was carried out - blood spreading across the front of his shirt. Sweet Jesus - what was happening?


Startled shouts cut through the morning air, punctuated by gunshots. Chris Larabee was facing off with a man wearing a bandana over his mouth . . .

And dragging a wounded JD Dunne into the street.

"You don't need him . . ." Chris said, horrified by the blood emerging from the wound to the kid's face. the masked assailant backed into the middle of the street, his gun pressed into JD's side. Chris saw Josiah stealthily emerge from the boarding house. But he also saw Mary being shoved roughly down the stairs from Nathan's.

"NO!!" he cried. Two men dragged her over toward him. Her lip was bleeding, and her eyes were focused on the wounded boy in the street. She was shaking. Chris bolted. But not before her dress was ripped open in the front, and one of the men grabbed her from the back, hands groping all over her.

Chris would f***ing kill him. There was madness in his eyes as he dove into the man holding Mary. Josiah took on the other one.

And in the midst of the distraction, Nobody saw Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington being loaded into the back of a wagon and taken away.

Five men whose identities were masked by bandanas appeared seemingly from nowhere and overpowered Josiah and Chris.

And they all retreated.

The one hiding behind the kid threw him to the ground.

And shot him in the back

Just for the hell of it.


PART FOUR: Taking Stock

Josiah was the first to move. The dust still hung heavily over the street - testimony to the running horses, gunshots, people being dragged out of the safety of their beds into the dirt street. Josiah had seen the boy being dragged out into the street - face bleeding . . .

And Mary. . .

Chris Larabee had wrenched Mary from the grasps of the invaders and he now was kneeling beside her, holding her - almost fiercely. He had to shield her. No one could touch her.

No one.

There were screams and cries around the shaken town. People were beginning to venture into the street tentatively and tend to one another.

And JD still lay in the street. Right where the man shot him. Josiah moved quickly past Chris and knelt beside the boy. JD had learned never to shoot anyone in the back. And yet he lay face-down on the ground, hurt, no threat to anyone. Where a man had stood over him and opened fire.

But Josiah couldn't afford to give into anger just then.

There was work to be done.

In the rooms that Nathan had transformed into a clinic of sorts, a little girl peered out from under the bed, timid as a cat. She was scared but she feared more for the man who had helped her. He had pushed her to safety, then the guns fired.

She remembered guns.

Ezra pulled himself up off the floor, dazed and wobbly. His hand instinctively went to his jaw.

Broken? The gambler stood on unsteady legs, swaying slightly.

Pull yourself together, man. You're alive. Think.

He forced himself to focus. Focus his thoughts. His eyes. What happened?

He saw Nathan trying to pull himself up.

Ah, those men with the bandanas covering their faces. Coming in and shooting up the place. He took a step forward and stumbled over an bundle on the floor. Ezra steadied himself with a hand to the chest of drawers. He looked at the body at his feet and he remembered taking one of the intruders down. But it didn't stop the others from taking Mary, and Vin, and . . . as he stepped over the dead man and knelt beside Nathan . . . he pictured Buck being dragged out, bloodied . . .

Dead?

Surely not.

Ezra was alert now. He helped support his friend, trying to assess his injuries. Nathan groaned. "Easy there, you're gonna be just fine."

"What happened?" the healer asked, not opening his eyes.

"We had . . . visitors." Ezra offered little explanation as he tried to shift Nathan's attention. "Now, you have sustained what would appear to be a minor injury to your side." The gambler's slow drawl was an interesting contrast to the speed of his hands. He fingered back the torn shirt and revealed the wound. Smaller than he would have imagined. "Do you hurt anywhere else?"

"I'm . . . fine," Nathan croaked, trying to sit up, but his head started spinning and he fell back.

"You're not," Ezra response was almost flippant, but he checked his friend's head with the lightest touch. "You have a bump on your head, you're dizzy . . ."

Ezra reached over to the bed, grabbed a pillow and lay it on the hard floor. Then he eased Nathan back down. The healer protested, but Ezra held him down with gentle pressure. "People are hurt. . ." Nathan managed to say.

"And you are one of them, my friend." Ezra's eyes held a compassion Nathan didn't expect. Nathan didn't fight. But he slowly raised a hand and touched the gambler's face, acknowledging the ugly bruise forming across Ezra's jaw.

"I'll be fine. I am sure it looks worse than it is."

Nathan shook his head, then winced. His head did hurt.

"I'm going for help." Ezra said, but a hand gripped his arm.

Nathan 's eyes searched Ezra's, then they looked past the gambler to the back room.

Ezra frowned and spoke in a low tone, unusually thick with emotion. "The intruders took Mrs. Travis, and Vin and Buck."

Ezra hadn't been able to keep his voice steady. His eyes dropped and he found himself studying the lines in the clapboard floor.

"Were they alive?"

"I believe so . . ."

Nathan tightened his grip on Ezra's arm, and Ezra looked up at him. "Buck . . . " Ezra spoke softly.

"What . . ."

"His shirt . . . was saturated with blood. It was everywhere. I couldn't tell if he was alive, but I don't know how . . ." The gambler's eyes filled. "He couldn't have survived that."

Nathan lay back on the pillow. Ezra stood up. "I'll get help, Nathan. We'll get through this."


He hated this. This helplessness. He hadn't had a chance to pull himself together. He hadn't had enough sleep. His head was still fuzzy from the injury he'd suffered during the night. Helpless. Powerless. Damn, it was frustrating.

He hated not being able to help. Watching his friend bleed to death. All he could do was sit with him, keeping his shirt pressed against the gaping chest wound.

And he could talk like it wasn't too bad.

But they both knew better.


Mary tried to button the front of her dress.

But there were no buttons. And suddenly she felt confused. Where were the buttons? She let her hand follow the front seam of her dress, remembering the unwelcome hands that had ripped the pretty fabric

And groped . . .

She shook violently and started to push Chris Larabee away from her.

"Easy . . ." he said gently.

"Please," she said in a voice that was strangely hoarse. "Let me have your shirt."

Chris said nothing and eased his hold on her, though he didn't move away from her. He quickly took off his shirt and draped it around her quaking shoulders. She pulled it around herself tightly. It swallowed her in fabric, and she huddled into herself, shutting Chris Larabee out.

For the first time, Chris looked up at the scene before him. Josiah was bending over the prone body of JD. The preacher looked up at the gunslinger, and Chris' jaw tightened.

"His heart's strong," Josiah said. And that was a miracle in itself. How could he have been shot in the back and still have such a strong heartbeat.

But as Josiah examined the wound in the boy's back, he realized it wasn't bleeding nearly enough. Not to be a gunshot wound inflicted from such close range. It should have blown his back apart. But instead, it made a small wound.

A groan.

And JD started to pull himself up.

"Easy, son," Josiah said, keeping a big hand on JD's shoulder.

"Wha- " He sighed and tried again, using the strength of Josiah's arm as leverage so he could sit up. "What happened?"

"Ambush."

Such a simple answer, with such a huge implication. JD looked at him questioningly, but didn't get an answer. Ezra had stepped out of the clinic and was calling for help. The gambler's steps were halting - he must've been hurt.

Chris stood up, satisfied that Mary wasn't hurt. He barked a command to Josiah. "Take care of both of them."


The one thing Vin and Buck had in common was an unflagging loyalty to Chris Larabee. And, in a way, that united them as brothers. They each had a special tie with the gunslinger. Buck was Chris' connection to his past, and Vin was his connection to his future. It was odd that there was no jealousy between them. Rather, they complemented each other. Vin and Buck were like two sides of the same person. They shared values and friendships. Both were courageous and fiercely loyal.

But their personalities werepolar opposites. Vin was quiet, steady, pragmatic. He liked to observe the world around him. Buck, on the other hand, was impulsive, gregarious, witty. He didn't have the patience to observe the world. He had to be in it. Vin hardly ever spoke; Buck almost never shut up. Vin made no attempt at humor; Buck looked for humor at every turn. And the ladies - Vin would fall once and fall hard, then he'd struggle with the remaining heartache for a long time. Buck loved women - and women loved Buck. He rarely got his heart broken . . . and he tried his best not to break any hearts himself. Vin liked the way Buck could just drink life up. Living, loving . . . and happy.

They were good men. They trusted each other. They'd die for each other. Hell, they even liked each other, though neither really gave pause to think about it.

Yea, Buck was one of a kind. But he was also one of the most highly principled men Vin had ever known. He'd rather die than betray his values. And he'd rather die than betray a friend.

And he was dying now - not for friend or principle.

But for the hell of it . . .

And Vin's anger burned. He'd help Buck. He'd find a way.


Chris followed Ezra back into the clinic and found Nathan sitting up, holding a mirror to examine the wound in his side. He was frowning.

"This is . . . bird shot or something. Certainly nothing fatal." The healer looked up at Chris and Ezra. "This was all for show."

"What?!" Chris cried sharply.

"Buck Wilmington didn't have a wound that was just for show," Ezra commented.

"What about Buck?" Chris asked.

"Chest wound . . . bleeding everywhere. It had already soaked his shirt." Ezra saw no need to elaborate further. "They took him - and Mary and Vin."

"Mary's all right. She's with Josiah." Chris spoke softly as he examined Nathan's injuries. Then he stood and went to the back room. Ezra was right. The bed where Chris had last seen his friend Buck was saturated with blood. There was no way a man could lose that much blood that quickly and live. Chris bit his lip and squeezed his eyes shut, fighting the grief that threatened to overtake him.

No time for that. There was work to be done.


"Hang on, Buck. Hang on." Vin kept the shirt pressed tightly against the chest wound. But he needed a new bandage. Looking around, he found a rag. Vin smelled it before treating his friend with it. Good thing - it had a strange smell. A chemical smell? He couldn't tell.

"I've got you, Buck," he repeated, and found a dishrag in a knapsack. Good. That was a start anyway.

He pulled the old bandage away. God, it was horrible. Vin could see the inside of Buck's chest - ribs, muscle. Oh, God. What could he do. Frantically Vin looked around the little space. Surely someone had a stash here. Folks didn't travel long distances without whiskey. But then this wagon hadn't been used for years, it would seem.

Vin sorted through everything, until he found it. So old he didn't know if he could open it. But he'd try. And he kept talking to Buck.

He worked on the top of the bottle as he prepared his friend.

"Buck, I gotta pour whiskey into this wound and it's gonna hurt like holy hell. You understand?"

No answer.

"You understand me, Buck?"

"Do it."

"And Buck - you gotta bite on this stick while I do it. You can't make a sound. You got me?"

"Not a sound. . . "

"All right - here we go." Vin placed the stick in his friend's bloody mouth and tilted the bottle toward the wound.

When the fire water began soaking the wound, Buck's already pained eyes shot open wide and he fought the unbearable agony. Biting the stick. Biting hard. Then closing his eyes as tightly as he could. Sweet Jesus, he'd never known pain like this. He fought in silence.

Until he lost consciousness.


PART FIVE: It Was an Odd Gathering

It was an odd gathering.

The location was odd. A two-room clinic, cramped with just the healer and a couple of patients. It was decidedly more cramped with the little crowd that had gathered there that morning.

The people there, while familiar to each other, were somehow out of character. Ezra, the gambler, half of his face bruised, sat in a rocker holding a malnourished little girl. The little girl wouldn't let anyone else touch her. She kept her frightened face buried in Ezra's shoulder and would speak to no one. Ezra comforted her so gently, his easy voice lilting in old southern lullabyes.

Nathan lay in the bed in his own clinic. How odd. The healer becoming the healed.

Mary sat in a straight chair, her arms folded tightly in front of her - hiding herself, almost. She still looked shocked. And detached. Her eyes never lingered long on anyone else's face.

Josiah seemed like a caged animal. The space was far too small for the big preacher. And his blistering anger made his presence all the more overwhelming. It was strange. He was so relieved that Nathan and JD hadn't been mortally wounded, but he was livid that anyone would try to make it appear as though they were. Why would anyone create such an elaborate diversion to kidnap Vin and Buck? There were many easier ways.

He wandered around the cramped room trying to find a comfortable place to sit. But it was futile. He finally stood in the doorway, his formidable body separating the little gathering from the outside. And he did fill the entire doorway.

JD was unusually quiet. He sat on the floor in the doorway which separated the two rooms of the clinic. He was leaning against the doorjamb, looking, not at his friends, but at the empty bedroom. He stared at the bed where Buck had fallen asleep just a few hours ago. Now saturated with his friend's blood. JD was so confused. He'd had too much excitement for . . . twelve hours. God, just yesterday, he'd been sitting, relaxed and happy, by the water. Fishing for the very first time.

He was lost in flickering memories - images of the sun on the water - of Vin helping him bring in the big catch - the sunset -

The gunfire - Vin falling - the dead horse - shooting the guy - he had to, the guy would have killed them. Buck was there soon, though. Buck was always there. Buck . . .

A tear rolled down the boy's cheek. He didn't care. He hadn't been this lonely since his mother died.

Buck and Vin were both gone. Buck couldn't be alive, he thought, looking at the sheets on his bed.

But he couldn't be dead.

JD wrapped his arms around his knees and continued staring into the empty room.

Josiah looked at the boy. He looked so much smaller huddled there in his nightshirt. So much more vulnerable. JD didn't need to see everything he'd seen. He shouldn't have lost all he'd lost. Josiah knew what it felt like, losing everyone you had ever loved.

Chris Larabee was pacing the room - a room with no pacing space at all. He cursed when he tripped over the body in the floor. "Why is this here?"

"Because the domestic help hasn't arrived as of yet this morning."

Ezra's tone was biting, and Chris turned on him, eyes flashing. But as he watched Ezra rocking the little girl so gently, his look softened. Chris paused and nodded at Ezra.

Truth be told, Chris had no idea how to handle this situation and it frustrated the hell out of him.


They weren't moving anymore. Vin had pulled Buck into his lap and was keeping steady pressure on the chest wound. Buck wasn't conscious - he hadn't been for a while now. And Vin found himself praying.

The heavy canvas that created the tent over the wagon suddenly parted and a bandana-masked man appeared silhouetted against the blazing sun.

"Get up," the voice commanded.

"He's hurt," Vin answered softly.

"I don't give a shit. Get up!" And with that, the man reached in and grabbed Buck's arm, pulling him out of the wagon and dropping him on the dusty ground.

"You son of a bitch!!!!" Vin screamed, diving on the man. The momentum of his assault drove them both to the ground near where Buck lay. Vin fought harder than the other man and could have killed him, but the sound of a rifle shot splitting the air halted him. In the momentary pause, the man's fist slammed into Vin's jaw.

Strong arms pulled Vin up and held him. Two men holding him? Had to be. His arms rendered useless, the man he'd been fighting now had free rein to beat the hell out of him.

And he did.


"JD!!" Chris' harsh voice jarred the kid from his thoughts.

"Huh?"

Startled, the boy turned toward his leader.

JD looked . . . dazed almost. And Chris remembered how terrifying the last few hours had been for the kid. He had been caught in a crossfire that would shake up the most seasoned gunfighter. He had been grazed by some of that gunfire. And he'd had to kill a man to protect his friends. Then after only a few hours of sleep, he is dragged out of bed harshly, dragged to the middle of the street and "shot" in the back. And now he faced losing his closest friend.

Instead of questioning the kid about the details of the last night, the legendary gunfighter walked over to the kid, and dropped down beside him. Sitting crosslegged, he draped his arm around the kid's neck and pulled him close. "I'll find him, son. I'll find both of them." He hugged the kid, as much for his own comfort as to comfort the kid. JD impulsively slipped his arms around Chris' waist and cried into his shirt.

There was no sound in the room except for the kid's hitching sobs. Ezra held the little girl a bit more tightly. His eyes stung as he kept reliving the invasion in his mind.

Josiah looked away from the scene before him and looked out at the reeling town. The people were nervously assessing the damage, cleaning the debris, working in relative silence. People were so resilient. Maybe that's what the scripture meant about people being created in the image of God. God created order out of chaos. Maybe he gave his children a bit of that capacity as well.


Something was wrong.

Well, there was the horrific pain - but he was familiar with it.

Something else. A sound? A cry?

You know that voice, Buck. Open your eyes.

Open your eyes, g**damnit.

It felt like he was trying to lift one of Maude's rock-filled suitcases. It couldn't be that difficult.

There was that sound.

Vin.

Open your eyes.

Open your eyes.

Buck fought to raise heavy eyelids. Vin needed him. Vin was in trouble. Help him, Buck. Help him.

Slowly, Buck opened his eyes and saw his friend.

No.

Two guys were holding Vin - Vin couldn't even hold his head up. And another guy was hitting him. Why did he keep hitting him?

"LEAVE HIM ALONE!!"

Everyone was shocked to hear the booming voice come from the corpse on the ground. No one more shocked than Vin Tanner.

Tanner's assailant lost interest in him for a moment and walked over to where Buck lay on the ground.

Vin cut his pained eyes over. "No . . ." His voice was little more than a groan.

Vin watched as the man toed Buck's body over onto its back. "Worried about your friend? Is that it?" The man squatted beside the wounded gunslinger. "Would you rather take his licks for him?"

"For God's sake," Vin said. "Leave him be."

Buck forced his eyes to stay open.

"How about it? You want to go a round with me?" The man continued to taunt him.

Buck glared at him. "F*** you," he breathed. The man laughed and stood.

And kicked Buck as hard as he could in the side.

He reared back to do it again. But a booming voice halted him.

"Tie 'em up and let's get moving. . . "

Through the haze of pain, Buck realized . . .

He knew that voice.


It was getting hot in the little room. The friends were piecing together the events of the past night. Chris was still sitting on the floor beside JD. They had established that there was no way the assault on Vin and JD could have been accomplished by Gentry's people. Unless . . . they had come from Four Corners.

"Josiah," Chris said softly. "Would you check the telegraph office and find out about any wires coming through in the last twenty-four hours? They had to have had people here waiting for us. And if Gentry is behind this, he had to have notified someone close to town to be able to intercept us in the hills."

The big preacher nodded. He wanted an excuse to go outside again. The room wasn't big enough for him and his anger.

"JD - I want you to go look for any indication that they were here in town."

"I've gotta go look for Buck," JD replied.

"I'll find him, kid. You need to do what I say."

JD wasn't trying to be rebellious, and Chris wasn't trying to be authoritative. JD looked into Chris' eyes, searching. "Trust me, JD. I love him too, you know." JD looked at the clapboard floor for a moment, then turned his eyes back to his idol. "I know. I'll do whatever you say."

With difficulty, the boy stood up. He had to pause once he found his feet to let the dizziness pass. Chris stood quickly to catch his elbow, steadying him. JD started to turn for one last look at the empty bedroom, but Chris shook his head.

"Don't . . ."

JD nodded and looked at his friends, new tears clinging to his long black lashes, then he left hurriedly.


Josiah walked heavily to the telegraph office, cursing as he went. If Tyler had received a message that could have tipped them off, if he'd known something that could have prevented this travesty, he'd . . .

His anger stirred to a peak, Josiah stepped into the cramped little office.

But no one was there.

Odd.

He glanced around the room. Damn - he'd have to go to Tyler's cabin to question him. The coward was probably hiding from them. Gentry's men must've paid him off. Josiah was getting angrier - if that were possible. He shuffled through notes on the desk.

Nothing.

He left, letting the door slam. It would take an hour to get to Tyler's and back. He started back toward the livery, but spun on his heel and returned to the telegraph office. He hadn't checked the perimeter. And he needed to.

Why?

He'd figure that out later.


Chris and Nathan studied the body on the floor. Mary had to step outside. She wasn't typically squeamish. But today had been too much. She stood on the balcony overlooking her town. Everything was in upheaval. And she was scared.

Footsteps beside her startled her.

"Easy, Mrs. Travis," the southern lilt gave Ezra away.

"You shouldn't sneak . . ." Mary began, but then she looked at Ezra. He still held the child in his arms. Her expression softened, and she moved around so she could look the little girl in the face. Her mother-hand touched the child's face and for once, the little girl didn't flinch at the touch.

Mary extended her arms out to the her, and the child let her lift her into her own arms. As if to be sure his feelings weren't hurt, the little girl kept her little hand on Ezra's face - careful not to touch the ugly bruise on his cheek. In turn, Ezra took her hand in both of his and kissed it. "Everything will be all right," he said gently.

He nodded his thanks to Mrs. Travis, and stepped back into the clinic.

"Do either of you know this guy?" Chris asked Nathan and Ezra.

"Never seen him," Nathan said.

"Probably some poor reprobate that was hired for this one job," Ezra added.

Nathan frowned. "Not much older than JD."

Ezra nodded. "It would have been just as easy for JD to sign on with someone like Gentry as it was for him to join up with Mr. Larabee."

"He wouldn't arbitrarily open fire on innocent people," Chris said crisply.

"He'd shoot up a room if you asked him to," Ezra countered. "If he thought he were upholding the law and the people inside weren't innocent."

"DO WE HAVE TO DO THIS NOW?" Chris exploded. He looked at the dead man in front of him. JD wouldn't end up like this.

They were wasting time. Every minute wasted was putting more distance between the kidnappers and him. He needed to head after them, but he needed to know what he was up against. This was not an ordinary kidnapping. It was far more elaborate. Chris needed a plan. He couldn't out man them - but he could damn sure out-wit them.


Josiah's heavy footsteps made the twigs crunch beneath his feet. He looked for footprints, for notes, for . . . anything.

He hadn't counted on . . .

An arm.

Dear God, he breathed. Furiously, he pulled the brush off of the body which had been hurriedly covered. Josiah knew he would find the body of Lucas Tyler. He swallowed all of the unkind thoughts he'd had about Tyler just a moment ago. And damn near choked.

The telegraph officer had been strangled . . . with wire ironically. Josiah bowed his head and, as a natural reflex, prayed over him. And he asked God for forgiveness for his own ill thoughts. Josiah pulled off his overshirt and laid it across the dead man's face. He had to go tell the others.

But he didn't get the chance.


JD was glad for a few moments alone - glad to be doing something to help. But it wasn't enough. Why wasn't Chris trailing them. Why didn't he go after Buck and Vin? He should rescue them before it was too late.

But JD trusted Chris. Chris must have a reason - must know something the rest of them didn't. The kid was studying the nooks and crannies of Four Corners. He'd brought Casey to a couple of them. Buck had shown him every possible hideout to woo a lady. JD smiled, then his eyes filled again. Buck . . .

JD forced himself to look for clues. He was behind the bath house, studying the changing rooms. An eerie feeling came over him, and his hand went to his colt - just in case. He approached the last door and opened it quickly.

That's the last thing he remembered.


The explosion rocked the clinic. In a lightning fast move, Chris pulled Ezra to the floor beside him. Glass shattered and there were screams everywhere. Mary staggered into the clinic, still carrying the terrified child. Chris jumped up, a bit too quickly, and guided them to the bed.

"The bathhouse. . ." Mary sputtered. "It was the bathhouse." For a moment Chris was relieved. At least it wasn't the boarding house. It was not crowded this time of day.

But then he realized . . . and he walked toward the door, slowly.

"Chris?" Nathan called after him.

"See if anybody got hurt, Nathan," Chris said. "I gotta find JD."


PART SIX: Too Pissed Off To Die

"Keep 'em alive. It don't do us any good if they're dead." Buck recognized the voice but still couldn't place it. "And who the hell shot Wilmington? That stupid shit kid?"

"That kid's dead in that upstairs doctor's room."

"Serves him right."

Buck leaned over to Vin and whispered. "Hey, Vin? How bad did they hurt you?"

The bounty hunter didn't answer. Buck struggled to sit up. And for a moment he looked at his own wound. Damn! So much blood. Awkwardly, he reached around. And he had to pause as the pain escalated radically. God, help us. He finally tried again and felt his back.

An exit wound. At least the bullet wasn't lodged inside. And if the bullet had hit anything critical, he would most likely be unconscious. So he would probably be all right. The fact that the person in charge wanted to keep them alive . . .well, that was a good thing.

They'd hurt Vin. That was for certain. "Hey," Buck repeated. "Wake up now."

A groan.

"That's right, come on." Buck kept his voice low. He wanted to keep an eye on Vin, but he had to lie back down fo a minute. God, he hurt. His chest hurt. And his ribs. Damn. Wasn't shooting him enough? They had to kick him, too?

. . . more voices . . .

"Man, what were you thinking grabbing that blonde?"

"If you'd been thinking, you'd have grabbed her, too."

"It was worth it to see Larabee's face."

Mary.

Buck couldn't stand the thought of those sick bastards touching her. He pressed his eyes closed, and didn't see that Vin was stirring.

"I don't know which was better, getting a feel for that little lady or shooting that kid in the back . . ."

Buck's eyes shot open and he started to quake. But a firm grasp on his hand steadied him. Vin's eye's caught his and the tracker mouthed, no.

"Yea, that may have been the coup de grace . . ."

""The couda what?" A pause. Then several voices burst into laughter. "Shut the f*** up."

"That boy's got spunk."

"He's a damn good shot. Picked off O'Herlihy before he could kill Tanner."

"Then he broke down like some scared pup."

Buck whispered to Vin. "I'll kill every last one of those bastards."

"I'll help you," Vin breathed, then he groaned. He was in such pain.

"What can I do to help?" Buck asked, though clearly he was in no position to help with anything.

"Just . . . don't die, ok Buck? That would burden me fiercely."

"Maybe I can manage that," Buck said. And he would have laughed, but right then his mind was on JD.


So was Chris Larabee's. Whatever had caused the bomb to detonate, JD Dunne was bound to have been in the middle of it. Chris ran to the bathhouse. Josiah had just run out from behind the telegraph office, and now he followed Chris.

The front of the building was on fire, the smoke billowing up from the door.

"Did you see JD?" Chris called to Josiah.

"No," the preacher answered.

"Check the back!" Chris ordered, and he himself climbed into a side window.

"Anybody in here?" Chris called as he checked the big room. He opened the shades throughout the bathhouse. And he realized that the explosion had been more or less localized at the front of the building.

"Shut the damn shades!" The voice belinged to an elderly man - a man Chris had seen nightly at the saloon. Hell, he probably didn't even know that Four Corners had damn near blown up.

"Get up, Cecil. We have a crisis."

"The only crisis we're gonna have is when I catch up with you no-good gunslinger."

Suddenly Chris saw the trip wire. "Stay there, Cecil."

"Well, make up your g**damn mind!" The old man's screechy voice was annoying.

"A bomb went off in here, Cecil. Or did you miss it."

"Thought it was thunder. . . "

Chris traced the wire to the back of the room. "Josiah??"

The voice boomed back. "We have a problem here, Chris>"

"Yea, well, I got a problem up here. I'll be back there in a minute. Did you find JD?"

"Yea."

"Is he ok?"

"No."

Shit! "Is he alive?"

"Yea."

"Well, take care of him. I'll be there in a minute."

Chris followed the wire back to the front door. How was it connected? He knelt down to look at it. Damnit, he couldn't tell anything about it. He lay on the floor on his stomach and found the detonator. God, what if the whole damn town were rigged?

He found what was left of the bomb. Well, it wasn't much. Wouldn't kill anybody anyway, but it could hurt someone. There weren't any other bombs here. Chris cut the trip wire and coiled it up. It would be tedious, but they would have to check the whole town.


"EZ - RA"

The gambler put his hand over his heart, and patted his chest, indicating himself.

"EZ - RA" he repeated.

"ES - A - RA," the little girl tried.

"EZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ . . ." the gambler began.

"ESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS . . ." she repeated.

Ezra pulled a little notepad out of his vest pocket and drew on it. The little girl laughed and clapped her hands. Thank God - a smile - a little joy from her too-sad face.

"Buzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz," Ezra sounded and pointed to the drawing he had made of a bee.

"Buzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz," she repeated, laughing.

Ezzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz - Ra," he tried.

"Ezzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz- ra."

"That's right, little girl!!!!!" he said, hugging her. "Ezra."

Then he pointed at her and made his face look questioning. "What is your name?"

Her smile faded and her little face clouded. She shook her head, no.

"You don't have a name?"

Her lip trembled, and Ezra held her close again. "You don't like your name?"

She reached for Ezra's notebook and pen. Crudely she drew bodies lying all around the ground and a woman's face with tears. She pointed at the tears, then pointed to herself.

Ezra wished he could understand. Nathan spoke up. "What is your name?" Nathan asked her in her own language. She answered and Nathan understood.

"What?" Ezra asked softly.

"Her name means 'weeps for the dead' and I gather from the drawing that her family or tribe has died."

The little girl lapsed back into silence again.

"Maybe she feels . . . in some way . . . responsible?"

"Could be."

"That is not an appropriate name for a little child."

"It ain't up to you."

"If nobody claims her, it could very well be up to me."

Nathan frowned. "You ain't gettin' attached to her, are you?"

Before he could answer, the little girl patted his chest.

"Buzz . . ." she murmured.


When the fog burned off, it was a gorgeous day. The calm sun seemed to mock everybody in Four Corners.

And those being taken away from Four Corners by force.

Vin hed settled into a restless sleep. Buck tried to assess the extent of his friend's injuries. Looked like he would be ok. Buck had forgotten how badly it hurt to get shot. He tried lying on his side, but he could get no relief.

Just as well. He had to stay alert for both their sakes. No telling what these guys had in mind. Had they really shot JD in the back? Buck's throat became tight and he felt sick. His bound hands balled into fists. Surely they hadn't. It would be a sick irony. The one lesson JD had learned so well - the lesson Chris had drilled into him during every confrontation - "you don't shoot anybody in the back" - killing him.

Buck was too pissed off to die.

And God help the man who shot the kid.


Her ankle hurt.

Not badly, but she had twisted it when the man grabbed her.

Mary Travis sat on her bed, and pulled Chris' shirt around herself more tightly. And she lay down, hugging her pillow.

No one had . . . touched her . . . since Stephen was killed. And no one had ever touched her roughly.

Pull yourself together, she chided herself. It could have been worse - it could have been an entirely different story altogether.

But still she sobbed.

For Buck and Vin. For the precious little girl that had taken to Ezra. For JD. For Chris. For Stephen.

For Billy. . .

Everything was all wrong.


"The coast is clear, Cecil," Chris said loudly for the benefit of the old man - who, every morning, treated his hangover with hot bath and a shot of the hair of the dog.

But Cecil was asleep.

Chris walked impatiently to him and lay a towel next to him. "Get out of the tub, man, there's a f***ing fire in here. I need the water." Chris pulled the old man out of the tub amid a great wash of expletives. And he threw the water on the already smoldering fire. This explosion wasn't intended to burn the place down. Chris threw the tub out into the street and started around the building. Another great demonstration for the sake of the distraction.

Damn. They were holding his town hostage with these dangerous displays.

He rounded the corner to the back of the building.

And hated what he saw.

Josiah sat about a yard away from JD.

JD was curled in a ball, rocking back and forth and shuddering, his hands pressed over his ears. Tears rolled down his face, but he was staring straight ahead, his mouth opened in a silent scream.

Chris looked at Josiah, and sat on the ground next to them.

Josiah spoke softly. "That explosion went off right by his ear."

Chris scooted around in front of JD, and looked him in the eye, but he spoke to Josiah. "I'll stay with him. You get Ezra and anybody who can help you and search for other trip wires. And for God's sake, be careful."

Josiah stood. "We had a casualty at the telegraph office."

Chris had to set aside his anger over this and focus on JD. Josiah left him there with the kid.

"JD - son, you're all right. Nobody got hurt here." Chris got closer and kept his voice authoritative. "I need your help. You gotta get it together now." Chris had seen this kind of thing happen in the war. He needed to pull the kid out of this, and he needed to do it now.

But the boy still stared just past him.

"LOOK AT ME, JD!"

The boy jerked to a halt. He blinked a couple of times, then he looked at the gunslinger.

JD sobbed - a ragged, heavy sob. Chris swept the kid's hair back with one brush of his hand, and let it rest on his neck.

To his credit, the young man pulled himself together quickly. "Oh God, Chris."

"It's all right."

"My ears ears are ringing."

"That probably won't last long. We'll get Nathan to check you out."

Suddenly JD's eyes grew wide. "You gotta go, Chris," he said. "Buck and Vin - they need you."

Chris nodded and he stood up, helping the kid up as he did.

"Thanks." JD was still stiff from the night before. Chris patted the young man on the shoulder. JD's breath still hitched a little in the aftermath of his weeping. "I'm sorry, Chris."

"It's all right." Then Chris paused a moment and cocked his head to the side. "Go get dressed, JD. I need you to ride with me."

"Huh?"

"You heard me. Get dressed. Nathan's hurt. Ezra and Josiah need to watch the town. That leaves us. Now, run on."

JD was really confused--too confused to get excited. But he trusted Chris.

Chris watched him walk back to the boarding house.

"Meet me at Nathan's when you're ready," Chris called after him and JD turned back and nodded his understanding.

Chris Larabee had to hand it to the kid. He was nothing if not resilient. And he had come damn close to losing that. Chris hated what those bastards had done to all of them--to his town--to his friends.

Damn them.

He would get them.

Whatever it took. He would find Buck and Vin and he would get whoever was responsible for this.


PART SEVEN: Adversaries

There was a knock on her door and she jumped.

"Who is it?" she called crisply.

"It's Chris."

"Just a minute . . . " Quickly, Mary Travis wiped her eyes and glanced at her reflection. She looked tired, and damnit, she looked scared. She didn't want to show her fear to Chris. But she opened the door anyway. Chris took a step into the room, and, wordlessly, Mary slipped into his arms. She knew he could feel the aftermath of her sobs. Even so, she lay her head against his shoulder. They stayed that way for a long moment.

"Mary," Chris breathed into her hair. "Did he hurt you?"

"No. I'm all right." Chris backed away from her just enough to look into her eyes. He put his hands on either side of her face.

"No, you're not," he said, gently, and he held her again. She could feel the tension in his back, in his shoulders and when she let a gentle hand stroke his hair and come to rest on his neck, she felt the tension there.

"What about you?" she asked him, never releasing him from her embrace.

He didn't answer; he just held her tighter. This was all so sad, Mary thought. Chris hadn't been able to do anything to save his men. And she knew that it had infuriated him to see that man put his hands on her.

"Chris . . . " she said, finally pulling back from him. She turned her tearful eyes to him, and took his hands. "This wasn't your fault." He looked away from her, but she reached up and turned his face back toward her. Her low voice was soothing. "There were too many of them. There was no warning. You couldn't have stopped them."

She meant well, Chris thought, but he didn't deserve to be let off the hook. And he wasn't going to stick around to be comforted. "I'm going after Vin and Buck. I just wanted to make sure you were all right."

"I'm scared, but I'm fine."

Chris hesitated a moment. "Mary . . . I'm sorry."

"You couldn't have done anything." Mary smiled sadly and touched his face once more. "But you aren't gonna believe that, are you?" She held him again. "Be careful, Chris. We all need you."

Chris stepped away from her. "You're quite a woman, Mary." Mary smiled, but her eyes questioned him. His only explanation was a lopsided enigmatic grin.

They stood looking at each other. Slowly understanding. Then they looked at each other's lips. They approached haltingly, checking with eyes once more. And they fell into a kiss--slowly at first, natural and honest. It almost surged into something passionate, but they didn't let it. This wasn't the time.

There was nothing awkward about the moment after the kiss, this first kiss. They had needed each other. They had needed to be closer. They needed to be closer yet. If only they could . . .

Chris touched her face, then turned quickly and went to find JD.


Josiah and Ezra were making a thorough search of the town. If there were more explosives anywhere, they needed to find them before anyone got hurt. But they'd been blindsided at every turn. What was the chance that their adversaries would use the same tactic twice? Who knew what the hell they'd do?

Both watched sadly as the family gathered at the telegraph office to collect the body of the dead operator. Both heard the wailing of his wife and the crying of the children.

"Such a senseless waste of life," Josiah commented.

Ezra's words were crisp. "It's all senseless." The gambler watched as the undertaker arrived with the stretcher and the white cloth was pulled over Lucas Tyler's body. Ezra's gaze fell on a boy of about twelve--a boy struggling to be strong for his mother and younger brother and sisters. Ezra knew he was witnessing not only the boy's loss of his father, but of his childhood as well. "Senseless . . ." Ezra murmured again.

The heat from the midmorning sun was already oppressive. Ezra pulled off his vest and unbuttoned his shirt a little ways. Sure, he was hot, but more than that, he felt that somehow the fancy vest was presumptuous under the circumstances. It shamed him that he had made a habit out of wearing expensive clothes so he could distinguish himself from the "regular" townsfolk--townsfolk who were his neighbors, who had become his friends--townsfolk who worked day in and day out in Four Corners, only to die in the street. Senseless. His heart hurt for the telegraph clerk. Hadn't Ezra "won" $30. from the man once in a game of chance? For a moment that word repulsed him. Chance? Lucas Tyler had never had a chance. And Ezra had justified his claim on the winnings based on the man's naivete. Now he wondered how far that $30. would have gone to feed the man's family.

He was startled to feel Josiah's hand on his shoulder. "Let's check the Clarion," Josiah said. Ezra didn't respond right away. He hadn't realized that he'd been staring.

"Ezra?"

"Ok . . ."

They had settled into a pattern for checking out a building. Ezra checked the front and then started on the interior from the front. Josiah examined the perimeter and then started through the inside from the back. The fact that Ezra was gifted with the ability to notice any discrepancy in detail helped him in this detective work. He stepped up onto the porch and nodded to Josiah as the big preacher disappeared around the side of the building.

Sighing, Josiah looked for unusual groupings of footprints, bits of cloth, spent bullets-- anything that would help him track the adversaries' actions. Any clue could point the way to a trap. He had barely begun to examine the exterior when a call from the gambler halted him.

"Josiah! I've got a problem."

"What?"

There wasn't a response for a moment.

"I'm coming," Josiah said.

"NO!!" Ezra's voice was high-pitched and sharp.

Josiah cautiously stepped over to a side window and peered inside. He could see a string hanging with a weight suspended from it. But he couldn't see Ezra nor the origin of the string. As he made his way over to the next window, he called back calmly to Ezra. "What do we need to do?"

Josiah could hear Ezra's wry chuckle. "I wish I knew . . ."

Cupping his hands around his eyes to block the glare, the preacher looked inside a window which was closer to the front and saw his friend standing absolutely motionless beside the hand press, a string pressing across his body. The gambler was focused on something just above eye level, but Josiah couldn't tell what it was. Josiah shifted so he could follow Ezra's gaze. And he saw it.

A shotgun with a string tied to the trigger.

Shit! "Can you tell how it1s rigged?" Josiah called, keeping his voice calm and deliberate.

"No sir. I have seen ships with less complicated rigging."

"Can I come through the front door?" As he asked, Josiah studied the space underneath the flooring of the porch. The way things had gone so far, he would leave nothing to chance.

"I haven't been able to ascertain whether or not anything is rigged for the next person coming in." It occurred to Ezra, staring down the barrel of the shotgun, that he had walked into a trap which had been set . . .

For Mary.

Bastards.

When the trigger was pulled, the bullet would hit her in the heart. But Ezra had reached the trap first, thank God. And he had already been on the lookout for trouble, so when his shoulder touched the thin cord, it hadn't pulled the trigger.

This was more than likely a hoax--another way to slow down the posse.

But then again . . .


If someone had told JD that the next adventure out with one of the seven would be to ride alongside his hero, he would have been overwhelmed with awe. He had heard of Chris Larabee before he had even met him. He had idolized the legendary gunslinger, but since JD had been riding with Chris Larabee, that boyhood idolatry had matured into a genuine respect. Under other circumstances, JD would have felt honored. Instead, he felt empty.


When had he lost consciousness? Vin Tanner woke up when the wagon he was laying in quit rolling. What was . . .? He struggled to gather his thoughts. He and Buck had been kidnapped. How long ago, though? His muscles were achy and stiff. His body hurt all over. His eye was swollen shut; his ribs ached; his jaw hurt and his gut did too. He remembered having been beaten. And he remembered Buck. God love him, Buck had tried to stop them only to get kicked in the belly-- that kick on top of a bad gunshot wound. Buck had been shot and the only doctoring he'd gotten was Vin pouring whiskey into the wound and making a pitiful bandage out of a dirty shirt. Damn. Vin knew he had to think of something. He had to get them out of here. With a mammoth effort, he pulled himself into a sitting position. That feat was not easily accomplished considering he was bound. He opened his good eye, only to find that everything around him was swimming. His head hurt. He closed his eyes and waited for the pounding in his head to ease.

"Get up!"

Damn! Had he lost consciousness again? This time he couldn't take his time pulling his thoughts together. Hands hauled him out of the wagon and onto the hard ground. He landed heavily on his shoulder in the sandy dirt. Peering up, he realized it was dusk. How long had he been unconscious? He glanced around. Everything looked so strange. In the shadows, he couldn't see Buck. A few yards away a campfire was burning low and the glow in the faces was eerie. He let his eye linger on each face for a moment, but a harsh voice interrupted him.

"You must be wondering where your pal Wilmington is?"

The voice had emerged from directly behind him. Vin twisted around to see the stranger.

Only to discover it was no stranger.

It was Jacob Chiles.


PART EIGHT: Deja-vu

This had to be an hallucination. He'd been hit harder than he thought. Or maybe his eyes were playing tricks on him. It was hard to tell much about anything in the dusk. The shadows were strange.

"How 'bout it, Tanner? Where do you suppose Mr. Wilmington is? Pretty bad injury, don't you think? Probably won't live long."

God, it wasn't an hallucination. Vin Tanner was lying at the feet of Jacob Chiles. Not a place he ever figured he'd be. He had hoped that the next time he saw Chiles, the man would be swinging at the end of a rope. But not this. Chiles pressed his foot into Vin's spine.

"Heard you never got to Tascosa." Vin hated that voice. "Well, Tanner, you'll be relieved to know--you prob'ly never will."

For a moment, Vin felt like his back would break. Chiles kept increasing the pressure. But the sharpshooter wasn't about to give Jacob Chiles the satisfaction of hearing him cry out. Suddenly Chiles lifted his foot, and Vin braced for a kick. Surely Chiles would kick him. That's what the son of a bitch did. He kicked the wounded, beat up on people who couldn't fight back. F***ing coward.

But the kick never came. Instead, Vin felt a hand grab his hair and jerk his head back, actually hoisting his upper body off the ground. With his other hand, Chiles dangled a thin gold chain in front of Vin's face.

The tracker's voice was menacing. "You sick bastard . . ."

"Remember this?"

Vin remembered. It was the chain that Chiles had yanked from JD's neck . . .

The bile rose in the back of Vin's throat. Hadn't someone said something about having "shot the kid in the back"?

"So you finally killed him." Vin's voice was gravelly.

"He ain't dead." Chiles dropped Vin back into the dirt. "Well, not yet anyway. No fun if it's fast."

Vin would live if only to kill this man. This would become his life's work. He began to calculate a way to get out of this mess--to get to the kid before Chiles could make good on his threat.

So he wasn't ready for the heavy kick that broke another rib.


Chris Larabee rode hard, JD right alongside him. He had to give it to the kid. He certainly could ride. They rode in silence mostly. So much had happened all at once, what was there to say? Chris knew JD was scared. Hell, he was, too. But that fear would keep them alert. They could take nothing for granted. Whoever was responsible for taking Vin and Buck had gone to a hell of a lot of trouble to paralyze Four Corners. And they'd done it very well. They'd scattered his people and worn them down before they'd ever had a chance to retaliate. JD had to be getting tired but it was Chris who insisted that they stop for a few moments to rest the horses.

Chris watched the kid closely. JD dismounted more slowly than usual. The boy had to pause a moment, leaning against his mare. When he straightened up, he excused himself for a moment, walking stiffly, but not wanting Chris to notice it. Brave kid. Chris Larabee admired this young man, their own D'Artagnan. JD might wind up being the best of them all.


Soft footsteps padded down the hall of the boarding house. Nobody noticed her. The little town was so terrified of traps and dangers that people were staying together in places already determined to be safe--the saloon, the bathhouse, the livery. No one was in the boarding house. But she looked for him just the same.

"Buzz?" The little girl tried to call for him without actually yelling. She was scared to draw attention to herself, but more scared to lose him. He had helped her. She had to help him.

"Buzz?!" she cried out, frightened, as tears folled down her dusty cheeks. She checked every room. But the man with the magic was nowhere. Behind one of the doors, she found a man . . . who had been drinking fire water. He groaned. "C'mere, little girl . . ." And she turned and ran away. At the front door, she paused a moment. "Buzz . . . " her voice trailed away, and with a sad look over her shoulder, she ran back out into the street.


Chris pulled out a cheroot and lit it. He took a long, calming draw from it and then sighed his exhale. What the hell was happening? Chris looked around for a moment. Such a calm day, yet so much tragedy. The gunslinger wandered to a shade tree and sat heavily at the base of it. There was a weight in his chest and it felt like it would kill him.

Buck. What would he do if Buck were dead? He hadn't thought of that possibility in a lot of years. His old friend was so steady. Even in the years that Chris had shut him out, he knew Buck would be waiting there for him when he was ready. When he'd caught up with Buck in Four Corners, Buck had been so genuinely happy to see him, no one would have known the hurt Chris had caused him. Buck loved living more than anyone Chris had ever known. And it was infectious. The hard, bitter man Chris had become couldn't survive in the presence of his oldest friend. And, as Chris thought about it now, he realized that Buck had rescued him. Buck had found the man he used to be and helped him to live as that man--a man Chris was proud to be.

God, Buck, be all right. Buck had been hurt before but he was so damn resilient, he would always bounce right back. Bounce back this time, buddy. Chris leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Ole Buck. Steady, good-hearted and somehow invincible. Be invincible now. I'll find you. I swear, Buck.

A snap of a branch jerked him out of his reverie and he jumped up and drew his weapon.

"Whoa, slow down, it's me." JD's eyes were wide, and he stood stock still, hands out as though keeping a wild animal at bay.

Immediately Chris holstered his weapon. "Sorry kid," he said, but JD didn't move. Chris took a slow step toward him. "JD?"

The boy chuckled nervously. "Yeah, it's all right. I must've spooked you."

Chris eyed him curiously. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his bandanna. "Your neck's bleeding a little," he said as he handed it to JD. Instinctively, the kid's hand went to his neck and he felt a slight trickle. "Thanks."

Chris sat back down. JD walked over and sat down beside him, trying to give the impression of moving easily, but the sharp intake of air gave him away.

"You hurtin'?" Chris asked.

"I'm fine," JD answered too quickly. He never looked up. Chris waited a long moment before saying more.

"You know, Nathan told me you were lucky the way the pellet hit. Even a pellet is dangerous, especially when you get hit in the back."

JD didn't answer. He was sore all over, but his heart hurt the most. "What do you think's gonna happen?"

"I wish I knew."

JD's voice became very small. "Do you think he's dead?"

Chris took another long draw of his cheroot. "They're using him and Vin to bargain with . . ."

JD looked at him quickly. "For what?! What do these guys want?"

"We'll know when they tell us. If they think they need Buck, they'll try to keep him alive. If they don't, he's dead already."

"Damn them . . ." JD muttered, wincing as he leaned his back against the tree. Immediately he leaned forward. "Shit . . ."

"Let me see your back."

"It's ok. I'm sore is all."

Chris could have spoken harshly to the boy, but he knew he didn't have to. "JD, we're the only ones who can save the day here. If you can't give me 100%, I need to know that. We'll have to make a plan according to what you can do."

"I'll give my all no matter how I feel."

"Your heart will, but your body won't. And if you give out, I'll have to divide my energy between helping you and helping them."

JD looked at the ground. Chris put his smoke out in the dirt, then eased his hand onto the boy's shoulder. "It don't mean you're weak, JD."

JD looked up at his mentor, then slowly and awkwardly turned away from him, reaching around to pull the back of his shirt up. It was the giving of his permission.

With great care, Chris took over and lifted the shirt away from the bandaged back, then his breath caught in his throat. JD never took his shirt off in front of the guys anymore, and with everything else going on, Chris hadn't even thought about it. But the wicked scars all over the boy's back were a stark reminder. Jesus . . .

JD never talked about the whipping--probably the only way he could live with what had happened, but the memories rushed Chris now.

"Looks disgusting, I know." JD's words were followed by a nervous chuckle and even though it was hot outside, the boy trembled a bit. Chris kept a stronger hand on his shoulder. The pellet wound wasn't that bad, but there were bruises around his lower back and Chris remembered that the bastards had yanked the poor kid out of bed.

Like that night. . .


Bait. He was lying in the dirt with a hole through his gut because Jacob Chiles was using him as f***ing bait. Bait to entrap Chris Larabee no less.

It wasn't in his nature to hate. But Buck Wilmington had grown to hate Jacob Chiles. And he thought he hated Jacob Chiles as much as it was possible to hate anyone. But that wasn't so. When Buck heard that they'd killed JD, his hatred settled in the pit of his stomach. And Buck became a man possessed.

The big gunslinger rested his hand on his chest and felt the hot damp blood that was soaking through Vin's makeshift bandage. If he kept bleeding like this, he'd die--maybe before nightfall.

Where was Vin? What were they doing to him? Buck was feeling lightheaded. He needed to think straight if he was gonna help Vin. He had to help Vin and warn Chris. But . . .

He looked down at the blood on his chest and he laughed. This was so stupid. Look! He lay his head back and looked at the blazing blue sky.

Buzzards. Circling. And he laughed harder.

"I ain't ready for you yet!" he screamed into the air, but the effort. . .

The effort hurt him and he curled in on himself.

"F*** you, Chiles!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" he screamed before he passed out.


PART NINE: Buzzards

"OK, Ezra, don't move."

Ezra chuckled as he stared at the shotgun pointed at his heart. "And here I was preparing to dance the minuet, albeit without a partner."

Josiah Sanchez was trying to study the elaborate trap from every possible angle. "Well, I ain't much into dancin' so I regret that I must decline your offer."

Again, Ezra laughed, this time more nervously. "Believe me, my friend, it was not an offer. Am I to deduce from your levity that the situation is not so grave?"

"Don't mention 'grave' Ezra."

Ezra sighed, still careful to keep any movement--even breathing--minimal. He heard the floor groan beneath the preacher's weight. "Easy, Josiah."

"Right," Josiah said, mindlessly. He was looking at the strangely rigged device. Double triggered at least. And that was just what he could see. Without taking a step, without even shifting his weight, he looked to either side. Dear God, there were more.

"Ezra, there isn't a square foot that I can see that isn't rigged somehow."

Ezra wished he had a witty retort, but the most appropriate thing he could say . . . was nothing.

Josiah continued. "Remember that almost everything has been more bark than bite."

"We'll tell the telegraph officer's family that." Ezra hadn't meant for his words to be so curt.

"You're right. We can't know. But I'll just take it a string at a time and . . . figure this out."

Ezra's voice became unusually soft. "Do not endanger yourself, Mr. Sanchez."

"No more than you would do for me, Mr. Standish."

And they both knew that meant he would risk everything.


"Get your hands offa me," Vin Tanner hissed.

A lot of good it did. Hands held him tightly and turned him around. The tracker winced as a blindfold was tied over his eyes. One eye was already swollen shut. Someone jerked him back around and he swayed. He was so dizzy. He hated being disoriented.

"Where's Buck?" he asked.

He was backhanded in answer. Already unsteady, he fell against a hard surface . . . that rolled. He heard the step and misstep of horses.

"Damn it, James, you knocked him into the g**d**n wagon."

Other, gentler hands lifted him to his feet. "You ok?" a voice whispered.

"Yea. . . who . . ."

"Never mind that. I'm no friend of yours, if that's what you're wondering."

"Where's my friend?"

"I'm sure he's dead. They took him to a place off the trail a ways. Figured no one would come across his body for a while."

"You've gotta let me help him. . . "

"Wasted effort. We gotta roll."

"Please . . ."

A harsher voice interrupted their conversation. "Get him on the wagon."

The hand holding him pushed him a little. "Come on." He guided Vin back to the wagon. "I'm sorry about your friend," he said. "It wasn't s'posed to happen like that."

"Well it did happen like that," Vin said as the gentle hands helped him up and rougher hands dragged him over into the wagon.

"Shut up!!"

"We can't leave him out there!" Vin cried as the wheels rolled.

A sick familiar voice from the front of the wagon called back. "Too late for that. It's done. Besides, we need a place for Chris Larabee."

And Jacob Chiles laughed.


Chris let his hand rest on JD's shoulder as he studied the boy's back.

The entire Jacob Chiles experience rushed the seasoned gunfighter and he felt his throat clinch. The kid had been through too much. Too much.

"One day," JD began, softly, "I held up one of Casey's hand mirrors and looked at the reflection of my back in Miss Nettie's stand up mirror behind me." A nervous chuckle escaped his throat again. "I got sick . . ." The boy's voice cracked. "I know it's . . . grotesque."

"No, son." Chris chose his words thoughtfully. "They're the marks of a hero."

JD turned his head around slowly, his hazel eyes full. Chris gently pulled the shirt back down but held the young man's gaze. JD's voice was little more than a whisper. "But I get . . . so scared."

"So do I, son. We all do. But it's what you do with your fear that counts." Chris squeezed the boy's shoulder and stood up. "Come on. We got work to do."


Little bare feet crept quietly up the back steps of the newspaper office. The pretty lady with the yellow hair worked there--the sweet one who had hugged her. She'd help her find her friend.

It was very quiet. She walked through a room filled with paper and many other things. Then she heard them. Low voices. Men's voices. She froze and listened and stole closer to the door, where she could hear better, and her face brightened.

Buzz . . .

She took two steps into the room, but Buzz's voice halted her.

"NO!!" he cried harshly. Her eyes filled and she took a step back, only to feel a cord wrap around her ankle and see a shotgun swing down toward her face.

"Ezra?" Josiah asked, calmly.

The little girl's breath caught in her throat and her mouth opened in shock. She was paralyzed with fear.


Sweet Jesus, what was she doing here? Ezra's heart pounded mercilessly, but he forced himself to remain calm.

"It's all right, my dear," he said, the comfortable lilt returning to his voice. He lifted his hand to gesture for the child to stay still. Her frightened eyes met his and she nodded slightly--so he'd know she understood. But a tear rolled down her cheek and she was trembling.

"Josiah--we have a young and very pretty visitor."

"Oh, God. . ." the preacher said. Ezra kept a smile in his voice as he described the horrible predicament. He knew Josiah couldn't see the predicament, so he made sure he was absolutely clear about the danger.


Josiah admired the way his friend made his voice sound like he was telling a story.

"The bastards who rigged this . . ." Ezra said in his molasses voice, and, still smiling, ". . . were aiming for the . . . proprietess' heart."

Good work, Josiah thought. The little girl knew Mary's name and she could become excited or scared at the mention of it. He listened as Ezra continued.

"So the double barrelled firearm is directed at our young friend's . . .face." For once Ezra's flowery language was useful. His voice remained gentle, but Josiah could detect his disdain. "And perhaps most maddening is that this is all rigged with double trip wires, so the victim would see that she was going to . . . expire. She would know that one step or move would pull the trigger. Or that the arrival of a rescuer would likely trip it as well." Ezra spoke to the child again. "We're going to be fine, my dear."


"Buzz . . ." The voice was so fearful. It tugged at Ezra's heart. He looked at her seriously, no smiling. She knew what a gun was and what it meant. He was about to say something when she spoke again. "Buzz." She nodded to him then said, "I . . . am . . . Kee."

"Kee?"

Then she said her full name, which was very long and Ezra smiled.

"Kee," he repeated. He would use her nickname. "Josiah, our friend's name is 'Kee'."

"Ah," Josiah murmured, obviously distracted. Ezra knew his friend was considering every possible way to get out of this situation. He grinned when the preacher asked him, "Buzz, can you tell if either weapon can be disarmed?"

Ezra had studied every inch of the weapon trained on him. "I think we may have more success trying to . . . dive . . . out of the line of fire."

"Your sleight of hand is impressive, Ezra. But you ain't faster than a bullet."

"You got any prayers for the doomed?"

"We ain't doomed just yet." Josiah said. "But I'll pray just the same."


He didn't even care that he was groaning out loud anymore. He hurt so much. He was thirsty. His shirt was sticky. His moustache itched. But he'd be damned if he was gonna die here.

"You ain't gonna get me, you sorry son of a bitch!!" he cried, and his shaky hand covered the poorly-dressed wound in his chest.It was almost as though he were trying to keep the blood inside. He laughed defiantly then screamed at the buzzards overhead.

Then he sang, taking big aching breaths in between lines:

"Oh the buzzards they fly high in Mobile . . .
Oh the buzzards they fly high in Mobile . . .
Oh the buzzards they fly high
And they doodle-dee-doo in your eye
Aren't you glad that cows don't fly in Mobile . . ."

He gathered his waning strength and screamed again.

"SOMEBODY HELP ME!!"


JD watched Chris closely. He was slowing down. The trail was harder to follow in the dusk, and JD knew they didn't have much light left. Long shadows distorted the natural boundaries of things, and twice already, JD miscalculated the trail.

The first time, he veered away from Chris slightly, only to have the gunslinger whistle a signal for him to return.

The second time was nothing short of a miracle.

JD saw a strange shadow . . . like a wagon rut . . . veering away from the trail. He followed it on horseback for a ways, then jumped down to study it on foot.

Damn! He'd gone about a quarter mile and realized it wasn't a trail at all. Shifting shadows had lured him away from the path. The ground beneath him was becoming rockier and he felt his footing slip slightly. He grabbed a low root to steady himself, and peered over a little rise ahead.

His heart leapt into his throat as he saw he had nearly taken a step over the side of a ridge. The ground cut away drastically, and if he'd stayed on horseback, he could have gotten himself killed. He cursed himself, and was about to signal a warning to Chris when he saw something. He recognized the hat. But he'd been seeing things in the shadows for the last hour. Maybe he was seeing Buck because he wanted so badly to find Buck.

He watched the prone figure lying in the ravine, and signaled Chris. He dared not call out to Buck. What if this were a trap?

Come on, Chris . . .


Chris Larabee heard JD's signal -- a code that meant to approach with caution. He rode in the direction of the call a little ways then left his horse with JD's.

"Careful, there's a bad drop ahead of you . . ." he heard JD whisper. By the time he reached JD, he was crawling up to him on his belly. JD lay on his stomach looking over the side.

Chris followed his gaze.

"He ain't moving!" JD said, breathlessly. "We gotta help him."

Buck Wilmington lay in the clearing below, the front of his shirt dark. Even in the waning light, there was no mistaking that it was blood. Oh Buck . . .

Chris saw no sign that his friend was alive, but he wouldn't let on to JD yet. He'd find out for sure first.

Chris clasped his strong hand on JD's arm. "I think I can get to him," Chris said softly. "You stay here and keep watch. We can't do any good for him if we're ambushed."

Chris took off down the steep incline without giving JD a chance to protest.


Be all right, JD prayed. Please . . .

He trusted Chris. Chris would help him if it wasn't too late already.

Buck looked unnatural lying there. JD peered through the gathering darkness, finally losing Buck's outline altogether.

JD felt a panic. He couldn't see Buck and now he couldn't see Chris either. God help them . . . please.

JD's eyes stung. This couldn't be how it would end. Damn it, Buck.

Then he heard it. Weak, tired . . .and beautiful.

"Aren't you glad that cows don't fly in Mobile?"


It seemed like an eternity, but it had only been a long afternoon. Josiah had gotten Mary to guard the door of the Clarion, to keep people from going in. And he had succeeded in clipping several of the trip wires leading to the gun trained on Ezra.

He listened as Ezra told elaborate stories to Kee, the little Seminole girl, knowing she couldn't understand his words. He changed voices to portray different characters, and managed to stay remarkably animated, in spite of being very tired.

The preacher had made his way far enough into the office that he could see Kee. Ezra had told her to be brave, and it was obvious from the controlled terror that shook her little body that she was trying her best.

The last rays of sunlight leaned into the little office from the west, leaving strange shadows on the floor and the far walls. Josiah worked meticulously, patiently, quietly. But he knew that it would become very difficult to unravel the lengths of wire once the sun went down. Even with lanterns, it would be impossible to follow the trail of every string.

"Whoever did this was sick." Josiah hadn't meant to say it out loud, but evidently he had.

"Oh, Mr. Sanchez, I think we established that sometime around dawn this morning."

"Sorry," the preacher muttered.

"No need. When Miss Kee and I are free of our respective predicaments, I will announce to the world what I really think of the people who crippled this town."

Josiah was now within arms length of Ezra. He reached up to clip the wire that was tied to the trigger of the gun pointed at the gambler. "Easy, my friend," Ezra drawled.

"Let's neither one of us breathe for a minute," Josiah said--only half-joking.

"Buzz?"

"It's all right, Kee," Ezra said, his voice melodic and soothing.

Josiah chuckled. "You've got quite a way with the child."

"You sound surprised," Ezra replied, as he watched his friend work. "You seem to forget that I used to BE a child myself."

CLIP!

"And now you're a free man," Josiah said.

Ezra sighed and he let his shoulders sag. Obviously relieved, his chin dropped to his chest. He reached out and put a hand on the preacher's shoulder.

"Thank you . . ." Ezra was suddenly winded.

Josiah nodded, then out of his periphery he saw it--

The movement. A simple reaction to Ezra's release. One little footstep.

Oh God, no!

Josiah was diving across the room as the horrific blast sounded.

Then he heard nothing.


Chris Larabee barely heard the sound coming from the ground below, but it was enough. He felt a rush of relief. He made his way down the rocky slope as quickly as he could.

"Buck, you keep singing that g**d**n buzzard song, and I've a good mind to leave you laying there."

"Chris!!" Buck drew a shuddering breath and something akin to a chuckle escaped from his throat. "Oh, God. . . Thank God. . ."

Before Chris could even reach the bottom, Buck was reaching out for him. Chris couldn't imagine how Buck had lasted this long. God love him, he was just too stubborn to die.

Chris slid the last few feet and skidded down beside his friend. He grasped Buck's trembling hand in his strong gloved one.

"Easy, Buck . . ."

"Thank God . . . aw, Chris." Buck was struggling. "I was startin' to think . . . you weren't gonna make it."

Chris worked feverishly, examining the hideously bloody bandage that wound around his friend's chest.

"C'mon, Buck." He kept his voice calm. "You know I couldn't let you go too far. You still owe me fifty bucks from that card game last weekend."

Chris' jaw tightened as he saw the extent of his friend's injuries. Buck had a relatively fresh bruise in his abdomen. Those bastards had hit him after he was shot.

Buck's eyes had closed and his breathing became more shallow. Chris grasped his shoulder firmly. "Don't fade on me now, Buck, ok? You gotta stay with me. You gotta help me now."

The injured man's eyes fluttered. "Chris?"

"Yeah, where's Vin?"

Buck frowned. "Bastards took him." Suddenly the big man's voice cracked. "JD . . ." His breathing grew agitated. "They shot him in the back."

"No, Buck, he's fine. He's here."

"Huh?"

"JD is fine. He's here." Chris kept working, pulling Vin's makeshift bandage off the chest wound.

Oh God, Buck. Chris was overwhelmed with the massive injury.

"No, no, no, no . . ." Buck muttered over and over. Chris soaked his bandana with water and cleaned the injury as well as he could. He talked softly to his old friend. Looking up, he signalled for JD to come down, but gestured for him to come around the slope.

Buck was fading in and out of consciousness. "JD's here?"

"Yeah. He's fine. Shaken up a little, but he's ok." Chris reached into the knapsack and pulled out the clean bandages that Nathan had sent. "Is Vin in any better shape than you?"

Buck squinted against the pain. "They beat him up . . . " Suddenly, Buck jerked up and grabbed Chris' arm. "It's a set-up, Chris. . . we're the bait . . . They're after you . . ."

"Who's after me?"

Buck had to work to collect his breath. "Chiles . . . " Spent, the big man lay back on the ground.

"Jacob Chiles?" Chris couldn't have heard him right.

Buck nodded slowly and struggled to remain conscious. His eyes connected with Chris'. "Get . . . the kid . . . outa here."


It hadn't been a ruse. It hadn't been an elaborate hoax designed to scare the editor of the Clarion.

The shotgun was real. The bullet was real.

Josiah had been hit in the back, so the little girl wouldn't be hit in the face.

Ezra Standish bent over his friend. The preacher still had his arms wrapped around the child whose life he'd saved.

"Dear God . . ." Ezra murmured, reaching up to feel for a pulse. It was very weak. Ezra eased Kee out of the big man's grasp, trying to move Josiah as little as possible.

"Are you all right?" Ezra asked the child, but she didn't understand.

He looked at her, turned her around, and, satisfied that she was unharmed, he turned his attention back to his friend.

"Josiah," he said, knowing he wouldn't get an answer. He gently pulled the material off of the wound. But there was so much blood. He had trouble even seeing the parameters of the injury.

"Ezra?"

He looked up and saw Mary Travis silhouetted in the doorway. The gambler voice felt tight and strained. "Get Nathan . . . and hurry."

Ezra pulled off his own shirt, wadded it up and pressed it against Josiah's back. He closed his eyes and uttered a prayer he remembered from his childhood. It couldn't hurt.

When he opened his eyes, he saw Kee, her eyes closed, her head bowed as his had been. Suddenly, his own eyes stung.

"Kee?" His voice was very tender.

She opened her eyes and looked at him, then at Josiah. When she looked back at Ezra, her eyes were full. She took a step toward them and squatted beside Josiah. Keeping her gaze on Ezra, she lightly stroked Josiah's hair. Ezra nodded his approval and she continued.

The gambler and the child sat together in the darkening office, waiting for help and praying for the gentle giant who had saved them both.


JD's heart pounded as he led the horses down the hill. He was impatient but dared not ride. Even though it wasn't as rocky this way, it wouldn't be sure footing for them.

I'm coming, Buck.

It only took a couple of minutes, but it seemed like forever. JD rounded a corner and saw Buck, clutching Chris' arm, a hole in his chest. For a moment, the kid stopped breathing. The last time he'd seen Buck hurt like that, he'd taken a sword across the chest for him. Now, he looked worse, if that were possible.

Get a hold of yourself, JD told himself. You can't help him if you lose it.

JD took a deep breath, secured the horses, and walked toward his injured friend.

Buck was talking anxiously. //Get the kid out of here.// Why? JD's face registered bewilderment until he heard the name.

Chiles.

Was Buck out of his head? He didn't seem to be. Maybe JD misunderstood. But then he heard Chris repeat the name.

Jacob Chiles.

JD retreated a few steps and turned away. He thought he would be sick. For a few moments, panic gripped him. There was no way he could go through that ordeal again. The young man leaned over, his hands on his knees, and forced himself to breathe deeply. God help him. This was nothing short of a nightmare.

We're gonna be all right, JD told himself. Chris'll figure this out. He had to.

"Don't you quit on me now!" It was Chris' voice. "Buck! Come on."

Forgetting his own fear, JD ran to his friends. "Buck?" JD asked softly, kneeling beside his friend, and grabbing his hand. "Hey, wake up. Come on. . ."

Buck didn't wake up but he shook his head. "No, no, no . . ."

JD looked up anxiously at Chris.

Chris frowned. "G**d***it, Buck, talk to me."

"Buck!!" JD raised his voice more. "Would you wake up? Please. . . I need you."

"JD . . . "

"Yeah, I'm here. Chris is here."

"Go home, kid."

"That ain't gonna happen."

"Don't argue . . . with me."

JD's eyes trailed down from Buck's face to his chest, and once again, he felt the urge to heave. He closed his eyes tightly.

Chris kept working to clean and dress the wound. "He has to argue with you, Buck, that's his job."

Buck suddenly gripped Chris' arm tightly as a wave of pain came over him. JD's eyes were wide as he watched the big man struggle.

"Easy there." Chris gripped Buck's hand. "You can ride this out. Come on, Buck."

"JD?" Buck gasped.

"Right here." The boy took Buck's other hand. "I'm with you."

"No . . . Go home."

JD looked up at Chris, but the gunslinger's eyes were hard--unreadable. JD knew that meant he was scared. Well, he was scared and angry both--a decidedly lethal combination. The kid turned his focus back to Buck, who was starting to relax from the onslaught of pain. Chris sighed and went back to work on the bandages.

"What do you want me to do, Chris?" JD asked, very softly.

"Keep him talking," Chris said.

"Where'd you learn that stupid buzzard song?" JD asked.

Buck looked at the kid, released his hand, and reached up to touch the boy's face. "You gotta get outta here."

"No way . . ."

Buck let his arm fall limp. He seemed exasperated. "Chris?"

"He's worried about you, son." Chris explained. Then he looked at JD. "Jacob Chiles is involved in this."

JD hadn't meant to react, but a shudder coursed through his body hearing that name again.

"I know." JD said, then he explained. "I heard you say it when I was tending to the horses." JD reached down and took Buck's hand again. "I'm safer with you guys than I am alone." The kid smiled sadly. "I ain't leaving you. We beat him once. We can do it again."


PART TEN: Each With an Ally

Ezra Standish was, for once, utterly silent. He stood beside the narrow bed and watched--no, stared at the big man who lay face down, a gaping wound in his massive back.

Dear God, the gambler prayed silently. His eyes filled as he realized that praying would not have occurred to him were it not for this man . . . his friend. Josiah had not moved, nor had he made a sound since being shot. He just lay there, most certainly dying.

Ezra felt lost and he couldn't tell why. He remembered what it had been like when the group had been divided -- when JD had been hurt so badly. He'd felt anger then--anger like he'd never known before. He worried for his friends. But he had not felt lost.

Perhaps it was because Josiah had been a steadying presence. Josiah had ministered to Ezra in a conversation about beef jerky, and Ezra, ever perceptive at the poker table, hadn't even realized Josiah was keeping him steady. Somehow Josiah had anchored them all even when they were separated.

Josiah had become Ezra's quiet conscience. He was not of the "fire and brimstone" ilk, but he was simply a . . . conduit . . . for a greater good.

Ezra felt the tears spill over. He felt truly alone.

And yet he prayed. Why? If he were so alone, why pray? Maybe because it meant something to Josiah.

Or maybe he wasn't alone after all.


"Chris . . ." Buck clutched at his friend's shirt. "They got . . .Vin." Buck's hand trembled and he squeezed his eyes closed against a new wave of pain.

"Easy, pard," Chris breathed, trying to assess his friend's injuries. Buck seemed oblivious.

"You gotta . . ." A heavy cough interrupted Buck's thought. It was a bloody cough. Chris felt a hand clutch his shoulder.

"What do we do?" JD's soft voice asked.

"Turn his head to the side," Chris directed, and JD sat cross-legged beside Buck and eased his hands under his friend's head. He gently turned Buck's head, and the blood started to dribble from the corner of his mouth. JD turned terrified eyes to Chris, but Chris turned hard ones back to the boy. No time for emotion. No time.

But Chris felt like part of his own soul was dying.

Buck was trembling and his chest was rattling with fluid. The big man started to speak, but he coughed again.

"Easy there, Buck," JD said. Chris knew the kid was struggling to keep his voice steady for all their sakes.

What finally shook Chris was seeing the big seasoned gunfighter weep with his own frustration. He wanted to communicate so badly. JD cradled Buck's upper body in his lap.

"Go . . . home . . . boy." Buck worked for every sound and he cut his eyes up at JD.

"Don't talk, Buck," Chris said sharply. He was answered with another bloody cough--this one almost choking him to death.

Chris worked feverishly keeping pressure on the big chest wound. He grabbed one of JD's hands and had the kid press.

". . . with all your might, JD . . ." Chris said softly.

JD nodded, but said nothing. He grasped the torn rags from Chris and pressed the heels of his hands into Buck's chest. Buck cried out.

"I'm hurting him," JD said.

"You're helping him. Those other bastards hurt him." Chris was completely preoccupied with Buck's condition. He would kill the ones who did this.

JD did everything Chris told him to without further comment. Chris left for a moment to get some firewood so he could start a fire and heat some water. Obviously a better job for the kid, but he'd waste time trying to explain to JD the exact kind of wood he needed.

As soon as Chris stepped into the wood, he doubled over and retched. How in the hell could he help his men? How could he save Buck and rescue Vin and keep Jacob Chiles from trying to kill the kid again?

Damn!

And he'd left Four Corners without enough protection . . . but what else was there to do? Surely Nathan and Josiah and Ezra could manage things at home. They'd have to.


Nathan Jackson would have given anything for a real doctor at that moment. He'd never saved anyone who was injured like Josiah was. He felt like he'd be a lot more help out there with Chris and JD looking for Vin and Buck.

But Buck was probably dead by now.

Nathan felt his chest get tight. He couldn't have helped Buck just like he couldn't help Josiah.

"What do we do, Nathan?"

The healer heard the voice but the question didn't quite register with him.

"NATHAN!"

"Huh?"

He felt a strong hand grasp his shoulder and he looked back into the pained eyes of Ezra Standish.

"What do we do?" Ezra repeated gently. Nathan looked down at Josiah.

"I . . . don't know. I really don't know."

"Have you found the bullet?"

"I haven't looked." Nathan felt Ezra squeeze his shoulder again.

"Why not?"

"I could puncture his lung. I could hit his spine. I could . . . kill him."

Ezra turned Nathan toward him and put a hand on each of the healer's shoulders. "He's dying now, Nathan. He'll surely die if you don't try something."

It was strange, Nathan thought, but Ezra Standish had almost assumed a calming presence. Nathan listened to the gambler . . . the gambler who claimed "not to leave anything to chance".

Ezra's voice was lilting and soothing. "If the bullet weren't in such a precarious place, what would you do first?"

Nathan bit his lip for a moment, and answered as if by rote. "Clean it up so I could see what I'm dealing with."

Ezra rolled up his sleeves. "Let's do that. What do you need?"


The more he thought about it, the angrier he got. How could they possibly think that killing Buck Wilmington would get Chris Larabee to do anything?

And what was Jacob Chiles doing out here?

Vin would do something if he didn't hurt so damn much.

Aw, Buck, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.

Trussed and blindfolded, Vin tried to figure out where he was and how badly he was hurt.

And who the hell was the guy that had helped him? Was it even remotely possible that he had an ally in the camp? Before he even had a chance to really think on it, he felt a jostling inside the wagon and a person leaning close to his ear.

Let this be the ally . . .


JD kept steady pressure on Buck's chest, just as he'd been instructed.

"I know it hurts, Buck, but we gotta keep you from bleeding to death."

Buck tried to talk again.

"I know. You're trying to say, 'Go home, kid'. You don't even have to talk. I know what you're gonna say before you even say it."

JD shifted his weight so he could maintain the intensity against the wound. "You've been talking some, Buck. I've been listening. Chris has, too."

Again, Buck opened his mouth to speak, but squeezed his eyes closed and cried out again.

"It's ok, Buck. You're gonna be ok." JD wished he could believe that, but he had to convince Buck that he did. "I know you're hurtin'."

JD kept one hand on the chest wound, and grabbed Buck's hand with the other. "Hold on to me, Buck."

The big gunman opened his eyes and met JD's. JD couldn't remember seeing tears roll down his friend's cheek, but he knew he'd never tell. "Let it go, Buck. I won't tell. I know you're worried for Vin."

Buck grit his teeth against all the pain he was feeling. "I know you're worried for me, too. But I swear, I'll do whatever Chris tells me to."

JD felt Buck squeeze his hand. JD kept talking. "I know they've got Vin, and I know they're setting a bait for Chris. They want him to do something . . . break somebody out of jail or something--at least that's what he figures."

Buck nodded slightly.

"You gotta trust Chris, Buck. You gotta trust him. He's never gotten into a situation he ain't gotten out of. Besides, if they want him to do something, they have to keep him alive. And if Vin is the bait, they have to keep Vin alive, too. So just let that all go, Buck."

JD grinned. "And for God's sake, don't sing anymore."

To be continued . . .


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