Disclaimer: This story is a work of fan fiction based on CBS's The Magnificent Seven. It is not intended to infringe on the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy, or any other PTB. The characters, setting, and concept are not mine (except the bad guys, and most of them end up dead anyway), but the story is mine, and I would prefer not to have it turn up anywhere I didn't put it. Suing would be pointless, given that my most valuable possessions are my computer and my cat, and you can't have either.
Notes/Warnings/Ratings: This isn't my best effort, but with an AWOL muse, what can you expect? Minor H/C and smarm alert, no spoilers to speak of, and this isn't part of the "What Makes a Man?" series. PG-13 for language and violence
He woke up to a sudden sharp, brain-numbing blow to his cheek and the sound of flesh striking flesh. He jerked back, only to find himself held upright by tight bonds--ropes?--wrapped around his chest and arms. He was sitting in a chair. He could feel the hard wooden seat and the slats cutting into his back. Blinking blearily, he tried to focus his eyes sufficiently to see through the gloom surrounding him.
"'Bout time you woke up, boy," a harsh voice above him growled. He squinted up, licking absently at the blood on his lower lip, but could only make out a dark shape silhouetted against the light coming from a small window on the wall.
Another slap sent him reeling against the ropes again as a burning pain took over his cheek and jaw, growing to rival the one in the back of his head.
"I do the talking, boy. Understand?"
He shook his head, trying to clear the fuzziness. His eyes had begun to adjust to the gloom, and he was able to make out his surroundings a little better. He was in a small room in what looked like a wooden shack. The only furnishings he could see were a few chairs and a wooden table over by one wall.
Three other inhabitants filled most of the rest of the room. Aside from the man who'd been talking to him--a tall, squarely built man dressed like a cowboy and sporting a long scar down the side of his face--there was another who was younger, smaller, and who wore buckskins like Vin's and was playing with a knife, and a thin, weedy-looking one with bad teeth whose smirk seemed permanently glued to his face.
"But--why . . ."
He was braced for the blow to his face, so the one to his ribs caught him off guard. For a second, he couldn't breathe at all, his chest and stomach constricting against the shock, then air came back in a painful rush.
"I told you not to talk, boy. You must be kinda slow. Don't know why Larabee puts up with you." The big man chuckled, and a second later, the weedy looking one joined in. The one with the knife just kept playing with it, tossing it from hand to hand and twirling it like a gun.
"Chris?" he gasped when his breath returned enough that he could force words out. "Is that . . ."
The big man sighed and hit him again so fast that he literally didn't see it coming. He did feel the sickening crack of bones in his side, and his vision swam with red and black. Just before he gave into the darkness, he heard the big man ask, "Have Carter and the others gotten back from town yet?"
He wondered vaguely who they were, but then abruptly didn't care any more.
Late morning found five of the seven peacekeepers of Four Corners gathered in the café for a late breakfast. Most of them had been involved in a marathon poker game lasting from the afternoon before until the wee hours of the morning, and so hadn't much felt like greeting the dawn. The only two who were missing were JD, who'd left the poker game early in the evening, and Nathan, who'd stayed later, but had gotten to bed early enough to be able to leave for Allardville the next morning for some supplies he needed. He'd planned to leave early that morning, and so the other men looked startled and a little concerned when he walked into the café more than an hour after he'd planned on leaving.
"Hey, any of you seen JD?" Nathan asked as he approached the table where the others sat. "He said he wanted to go into Allardville with me, but I can't find him this morning."
"Last I saw him, he was headed over to the Bjornssen's to ask Miss Catherine out for a stroll," Vin answered. "But that was last night after he left the game. Anyone seen him this morning?"
The other men shook their heads.
"Maybe that walk took a little longer than he planned." Buck grinned, but he was getting a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He had no reason to believe that JD was in trouble, but the kid was usually very reliable. If he said he'd be somewhere at a certain time, he was there. It wasn't like him at all to back out on something he'd said he'd do, particularly when it was something he'd wanted to do in the first place. He'd talked about little but the Allardville trip for the past few days, excited to see another town when he didn't have to go into it with guns blazing.
"Perhaps he is simply . . ." Ezra started, but was interrupted by a harsh voice from the door of the café.
"Larabee? Chris Larabee?"
All six of the men tensed. Chris, who had been sitting in a back corner watching the world through half-shut eyes, straightened, and Buck could see him reaching down to loosen the safety catch on his gun.
"What do you want?" Chris didn't raise his voice, but it was heard easily through the dead silence that filled the café as the other patrons tried to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible. Nathan moved out of the line of fire unobtrusively as Vin slid his chair back to bring his mare's-leg up to rest against the table. Buck rested his hand on his own gun as he tried to assess the stranger's danger potential.
The man at the doorway looked like an average cowhand, middle-aged and medium height, with nothing particularly memorable about him except the look of a mean polecat in his eyes. He sized up the group in front of him, then stepped further into the room to allow the men at his back to enter as well.
"I'm lookin' for Chris Larabee. You him?"
"I'm him. What do you want?"
"Got a message for you." The man shifted his weight slightly, looking from Chris's cold eyes to Josiah's slightly maniacal grin to the hilt of the hideout gun Ezra was allowing to show beneath his hand. The stranger had to take a deep breath before he could continue. "From a man's got somethin' to say to you. Wants you to meet him in the canyon beyond Little River tomorrow at noon."
"Why the hell would I do that?" Chris asked dryly.
In answer, the man tossed a hat onto the table--a very familiar brown bowler hat that Buck had personally thrown on the ground more than once. None of the six reacted, although the only thing holding Buck back was the iron grip Chris had on his arm.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Chris drawled, sounding as bored as if he'd been handed yesterday's newspaper.
The stranger blinked, obviously not expecting that reaction. "We have the kid. If you want him back alive, you'll come to the canyon behind . . ."
"Little River, I know. What if I don't care what you do with the kid?"
It took the stranger a second, but he rallied. "Then you'll be finding pieces of that little punk on your doorstep for the next couple of months. One of my friends has this thing with knives."
"How nice for him," Ezra said lazily. "Please give him our condolences. I'm afraid he has his work cut out for him."
"Just who is this friend that wants to meet me so bad?" Chris asked.
"He said to tell you to remember Laredo."
Chris sighed. "What is it with these two-bit outlaws that they think I have nothing better to do than think about them?"
The stranger gave up. "Just be there. The canyon behind Little River at noon tomorrow."
Chris took a slow drink from the coffee cup in front of him. "Maybe, if I'm not busy. Why don't you run along now back to your boss?"
With an exasperated snort, the stranger turned on his heel and stalked out, glaring at the three other men who had accompanied him until they got out of his way.
The six stayed frozen until the strangers had mounted up and started off toward the edge of town. Once they were out of sight, though, the table erupted as the men slammed to their feet. Only Chris didn't move, and his quiet voice cut through the cursing to stop his friends in their tracks.
The ex-bounty hunter turned to him, the only indication of his rage in the tight grip he had on his mare's-leg and the cold expression in his eyes.
"Laredo--I fought a man there. Bill Maynor. Damn near blinded him when he challenged me to a showdown in the street, but I heard he lived. He was mean as hell, but lazy. He's not gonna be too far from that canyon, not if it means riding any distance in this heat. You take Nathan and Buck and follow our friends there. I'll take Josiah and Ezra and scout around the canyon, see if I can't figure out where they're holed up. Buck knows the lay of the land well enough to keep you on track. If we don't find anything by midmorning tomorrow, we'll meet up at the canyon."
"Right." Vin headed for the door, followed by the others. Buck held back for a minute, his eyes meeting Chris's.
"Just how bad is this guy?"
Chris took a minute to answer, and the sinking feeling that had set up residence in Buck's stomach grew with every second.
"Bad enough I should have killed him when I got the chance. Bad enough we need to find JD real soon."
Without another word, Buck turned and stalked out the door to join Nathan and Vin.
The big man--his friends had called him Maynor--seemed to enjoy the sound of flesh striking flesh. At least, that was the conclusion JD had slowly come to, between times when he was being hit and times he spent in that safe black place where he didn't notice if he was hit. JD knew he wasn't thinking as clearly as he normally did, but he couldn't figure out what Maynor wanted from him. Every time he tried to ask, Maynor hit him again, but he hadn't given up asking. He hurt so bad at this point that another bruise or two really didn't matter, and he wasn't going to give in to this man, no matter what.
"Hurting a little bit, boy?" Maynor asked. "Don't worry. I'm about to go for a ride--got a rendezvous with a man I've been waiting to see for a long time. I want to get there early, arrange a little surprise." He chuckled. "Don't miss me too much when I'm gone."
"Not a . . . chance," JD gasped.
Maynor grabbed his hair and yanked his head back. "Haven't I taught you yet to be respectful, boy? I'm surprised Larabee puts up with that lip."
It was the second time he'd mentioned Chris. JD was feeling a little slow, but even he could take that hint. "Chris--that's the . . . man you're meeting . . . isn't it? What . . . do you want . . . with him?"
Maynor's hand tightened in his hair as the big man grabbed JD's chin with his free hand and dug his thumb into the lacerations there. "You want to know, boy? You curious as to why I want to meet with Chris Larabee? Huh? Let me tell you, then. I'm going to kill that lying, cheating, backstabbing bastard where he stands--after I've made sure his friends aren't around to help him." With a final dig, he released JD's chin and ran his fingers lightly over the scar on his own face. "He marked me. Killed my partner and damn near killed me. Marked me for life. I'm going to return the favor, except he isn't going to live long enough to suffer much."
JD felt a lurch of fear in his stomach, but hoped it didn't show in his face. "Chris . . . won't fall . . . for it."
"You better hope he does, boy, or your life's going to be even shorter than his."
It was late in the day before the group that Vin, Nathan, and Buck were following finally showed signs of slowing. Buck had trusted the others to do the tracking. He was having trouble focusing on the task at hand because he kept getting distracted by his worry about what they'd find when they finally got to their destination. He didn't allow himself to think about not getting there, or arriving too late, because it wasn't going to happen. JD was too young, too special to all of them to be lost now. Buck had felt it growing almost since the day they met--amusement, yes, but also affection and this strange protectiveness he hadn't felt for anyone in a long time. He'd seen the same emotions in the other men, coupled with a growing respect as the kid began to prove himself. He was a part of their team now, essential to their ability to function, and they were not going to lose him. Not now, not ever.
Vin had kept their group back far enough that they were in no danger of being spotted by the men they were following, easily tracking them by the trail their horses left. Finally, he pulled his horse up and motioned for the other two to stop.
"They're slowin' down. Probably gettin' where they're goin'. We'll need to be careful from here on."
Buck loosened his gun and rifle, smiling without humor as he saw the others do the same. They were prepared, whatever happened. They moved forward together silently, advancing into one of the many canyons the area was riddled with. They hadn't gotten far when Vin held up his hand again and motioned for the other two to dismount and lead their horses into a recess in the canyon wall. They followed his lead as he led them up a narrow trail and hunkered down behind some shrubs. From their vantage point, they could see into the canyon. It was a narrow, high-walled gap in the earth, just large enough to hold a shack and a corral that currently held four horses. As Vin, Nathan, and Buck watched, the four men they'd been following rode up to the shack and dismounted, ground-tying their horses before going in.
"That's gotta be where they're keeping JD," Buck hissed. "It makes sense, not too far from the canyon where Chris is headed, well hidden, it's perfect." The anger that had been growing in him right along with the worry curved his lips into a grin that was a parody of his usual lighthearted smile. "Let's go."
"Wait." Vin grabbed his arm and pulled him back down. "They didn't put their horses in the corral. Might mean they're leavin' again soon."
"So?" Buck snapped impatiently.
"So it's easier to take on some than all," Nathan said quietly, putting his hand on Buck's other shoulder. "If JD's in there, he's been there awhile. A little longer won't make that big a difference."
Buck would have argued more, but four men, two he recognized from the group that had come from Four Corners, came out of the shack and rode off.
"Settles that question, doesn't it." Without waiting for a response, Buck headed back down the trail toward the horses. At that point, he really didn't care if the other men followed him, but he wasn't surprised when he heard them descending behind him. They led their horses out of the recess and mounted, riding into the main body of the canyon with their guns ready.
Apparently no one noticed their entrance. At least, no one came out to meet them or shoot at them. They rode up to the shack and dismounted uncontested. Vin nodded toward the door of the shack and held up three fingers. Buck and Nathan nodded and gestured with their guns to show that they were ready. Vin counted down, and on one they went silently through the door.
The reason for their easy access became quickly apparent. Two of the men who'd been with the group in Four Corners were sitting at a table, whiskey bottles in hand. They stared at the door with open mouths, obviously unable to believe what they were seeing. Nathan went over to them, gesturing for them to stay silent, and used some rope he'd brought in with him to tie them up as Vin and Buck covered him. Then Vin gestured toward the inner door and held up the three fingers again.
Buck moved over to grasp the door handle, ready to jerk it open when Vin gave the signal. They'd come in so fast that he really hadn't had time to think, but now his fingers clenched his gun and he took a deep breath, trying to calm the jitters he felt as he thought about everything that could have gone wrong, or that still could.
Vin gave the signal and they went through the door the same way they had before, guns ready, but froze in their tracks as they saw the tableau waiting for them. JD was there, tied to a chair, slumping against the ropes that held him. His face was covered in streaks of blood, and from the way he was hunched over, it wasn't the only place he was hurt. That wasn't what stopped them, though. It was the man standing behind their friend, holding a knife at his throat, that halted them in their tracks.
"Looks like I got somethin' you want," the man said cheerfully. "and you're between me and the door. I think we might want to work a trade."
"Like hell," Buck said succinctly.
"I think you better let our friend go now." Nathan's voice was as calm and quiet as ever, but there was an edge to it that Buck wasn't used to hearing. Nathan was always the gentlest of all of them, but the look in his eyes as they flickered from JD to the man with the knife was anything but gentle.
"It's all right, boys, just move away from the door," Vin drawled, moving sideways around the wall of the room. "No point in makin' this harder than it's gotta be."
"You've gotta be kiddin' me." Buck stared at him in disbelief. "We ain't gonna let this bastard get away."
"Just let him by, Buck. JD's more important."
Buck looked over at the kid, who didn't seem to be aware of their presence, and sighed. There was always later. He moved away from the door slowly, letting his eyes linger on the stranger's face, memorizing it for the time when he would need to know it. "Just get the hell out."
The man smirked. "You think I'm that stupid? You'll kill me the minute I step away from the kid. He's comin' with me, at least until I get away from here." With that, he bent to slice through the ropes around JD's chest.
"Like hell," Buck repeated, raising the gun he'd just lowered. "The kid stays here, or you die. Now."
"You think you pretty good with that knife, don't you?" Nathan interrupted..
The stranger looked at him speculatively. "I can handle myself."
"Good." Nathan pulled one of the knives out of the sheath on his back. "You leave the boy here. All you gotta do is get past me, you free to go."
"How do I know you won't just kill me?"
"Coulda done that already. This is givin' you a fightn' chance, and if you take that boy out of here, I guarantee you ain't gonna have that." There was complete conviction in Nathan's voice, and that--or maybe the look of death in all three men's eyes--seemed to convince the stranger. He let go of JD and backed away, not paying any attention as JD tumbled bonelessly to the ground.
Nathan and the stranger circled each other, each holding their knives loosely in front of them, eyeing each other closely for the first attack. The stranger feinted, Nathan dodged and slashed down, and bright trail of blood blossomed on the stranger's arm. Nathan bared his teeth in what might have been intended as a smile. The stranger faltered, his free hand going to the cut, then he lunged again--but for the door instead of his opponent. He wasn't fast enough. Nathan caught him just under the ribs with the knife as he went past, thrusting upward with all his strength. The stranger grunted once, his eyes going wide, then fell. Nathan stepped away, his eyes inscrutable, the bloody knife dangling in his hand.
As the fight had gone on, Buck had looked at Vin to be sure that he was covering the fight, then moved over to where JD slumped on the floor. He turned the kid gently so that he could see the damage, wincing as he saw how bad it was. JD's face was a mess, with dark bruises and scrapes covering one cheek, and several random cuts splitting the other. There was blood on his temple and in his hair, as well, which was worrisome, and some staining his shirt. Buck brushed a stray lock of hair out of the boy's face, telling himself it was so that he could see the injuries better, not because he needed to confirm for himself that JD was really there and alive. JD moaned. Buck waited for a second to see if he was waking up, but when he didn't, the older man returned his hand to the boy's forehead, wondering if the cold he felt there was natural.
Buck looked up in time to see the end of the fight and to catch the look--a strange combination of satisfaction and loathing--that crossed Nathan's face before the healer wiped and sheathed the knife and crossed the room to kneel beside Buck and JD. Vin holstered his weapon as well and came to stand over them, watching with a slight frown as Nathan began to examine the kid.
"How is he?"
"He's been better," Nathan said sharply, then sighed and said in a gentler tone, "We need to get him out of here into better light so's I can see what I'm doin'. Buck, you wanna help me . . ."
Buck didn't wait for him to finish. He simply slid his arms under JD and lifted him carefully, cradling him against his chest, and strode out of the shack.
They decided to spend the night in that canyon, but near the mouth so that they weren't too close to the shack. The two outlaws that were still alive were placed in the corral for the night, tied to the bars but left with a small fire so that the cold air wouldn't be unbearable. Nathan bandaged up the worst of JD's wounds and pronounced him likely to live, provided he didn't get himself into any more trouble. Vin went out for awhile and came back with a couple of jackrabbits and several prairie dogs, which made a decent meal.
Buck had the middle watch, and after wandering over to check on the prisoners, he settled down beside JD to contemplate the dark edges around their camp where the firelight stopped penetrating. The boy had been unconscious or asleep since they'd taken him out of the shack, but Nathan hadn't seemed that upset, so Buck figured it must be okay. He'd thrown one of the horse blankets over the kid--not exactly guaranteed to smell pleasant, but it would keep out the chill of the night, which seemed more important at the moment. JD didn't look as bad once the blood was washed off, but his skin was still cold and clammy and tremors ran through his frame from time to time.
Buck reached over to pull the blanket closer to JD's chin, then left his hand resting on the kid's shoulder. He looked young when he slept--younger even than usual, to be more accurate. Sometimes Buck wondered if he shouldn't tell the kid to get out while he could, go back east and find a nice safe job where people weren't likely to shoot at him so frequently.
Even if the kid would have listened, though, Buck had long since lost the certainty that that was what was best for him. JD had changed since he'd first come out here--not much yet, maybe, but enough so that none of his friends hesitated to trust themselves to him in a fight. The boy was young and green, still, but he was a friend to be valued, one that would grow into a fine man if he could just survive the dangers that the west held even for people experienced in its ways. JD stood a better chance of surviving in the company of men who cared for him and would watch his back as faithfully as he watched theirs--or so Buck had thought until today.
Now he had to wonder. JD'd been hurt because of Chris's past, and it wasn't the first time he'd been shot at, stabbed, or otherwise put in danger since he'd met the other men. If JD was out on his own, though, there was no guarantee he'd even be alive now, particularly given his impetuous lack of judgment when he'd first arrived.
"Just have to tie you down somewhere and make sure you stay out of trouble," Buck said softly. "Only way you'll make it till your next birthday."
"'M not the one gettin' into trouble," JD mumbled sleepily, blinking his eyes open. The shadows from the firelight made his face hard to read, but Buck was pretty sure he saw the beginnings of a smile.
"Yeah, right. Then what do you call this?" Buck tapped his cheek right below the worst of the bruises.
Buck snorted. "When are you gonna learn not to go wandering off with bad guys with grudges against your friends?"
"Wasn't my fault," JD muttered and yawned, wincing at the pull on his cuts.
"I know, kid. Go back to sleep, we'll talk about it in the morning, okay?"
The next morning JD was able to move under his own power--slowly, but he could do it. They saddled up, collected the prisoners, and set off toward Four Corners. Buck wondered, with a bit more worry than he cared to admit, how Chris's end of the search had gone. He had nothing but respect for all three men's abilities to handle themselves in bad situations, but all it took was a little bad luck. He tried to laugh it off, telling himself that he'd gotten in too much of a habit of worrying, but he knew he wouldn't feel better until they were all together and he could see for himself that none of his friends were hurt.
They were almost back to Four Corners when they saw the rest of their team. JD had fallen silent a long time before and was holding on to the horse with a grim determination that Buck admired at the same time that it exasperated him. The kid refused to admit that he needed a break, and even argued when Vin said that he wanted one. They had kept going, but Buck kept a close eye on the kid, ready to catch him if he started to fall.
JD straightened up, though, when he spotted Chris, Josiah, and Ezra waiting for them at the junction right before the town. They looked a little the worse for wear, Josiah sporting a crude sling, Ezra a torn jacket, and Chris a minor cut under the eye, but they were alive. Buck felt a grin taking over his face, and he covered it up as quickly as he could with a sarcastic, "At least we managed to take prisoners."
Chris gave him that inscrutable look that could have meant he was laughing inside or getting ready to blow someone's brains out, but then the faintest hint of a grin tugged at the corners of his mouth. His eyes slid over to take in JD's injuries, and the grin disappeared behind a look of frozen fury, which softened immediately when the kid's eyes met his.
"We killed ours," he said, more a reassurance than an answer to Buck's challenge, and JD's shoulders slumped slightly.
"Well, we'd best be gettin' back 'fore all you invalids decide to fall off your horses at once," Nathan said, his warm smile belying the sharp words. "I swear, leave you all alone for a minute . . ."