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The rain fell hard to the ground as the man in the black hat and red coat hurried toward the door of the small hotel. It had been raining hard for two days now and he was beginning to wonder if it would ever stop. Normally he would not go out in weather like this, preferring to stay where it was warm and dry, and the pickings were good, but JD had said that Mary had wanted them all to be at this dinner she was giving and Ezra didn't want to disappoint her, seeing as how this was to be Billy's going away dinner. He knew the others didn't think to kindly of his motives, that he was looking for an "easy mark", but Ezra knew that he wasn't as selfish and conniving as the others thought him to be, besides since being made one of the protectors of Four Corners he had discovered a feeling of belonging and pride that he had never known before in his life.
The shriek of the wind interrupted his thoughts as he turned the handle on the door. He entered the small hotel lobby and nodded to the desk clerk.
"Is Mrs. Travis and her entourage, in the a joining room?" he asked, only to be met with a look of confusion.
"Huh?" the desk clerk replied.
"Is she in the next room?" he repeated testily, thinking that this town was filled with 90% imbeciles.
"Oh, yeah. Her and them friends of yours, sounds like there having a good time too." the clerk noticed.
"Thank you." Ezra replied as he moved toward the dining area. Hearing the laughter, which was loud and boisterous, coming from the room implied the clerk was right.
When he walked into the room and was greeted with loud hellos, he noticed that Chris was not here yet which was unusual as Ezra figured he would be. As he made his way over to greet Mary, he saw that Vin was leaning back on his chair legs, with his back positioned toward the wall, so that he would see if anyone entered the dining room from the front or kitchen doors. Buck and Nathan were standing on either side Mary, looking at some small object she held in her hands. Meanwhile, Josiah sat in a chair with little Billy Travis on his lap, apparently telling him a story as JD sat across from them listening attentively.
"Good Evening Ma'am." Ezra said as he came to stand before Mary. "I take it you have not partaken of your evening sustenance, yet?"
"Did what to who?" ask JD in confusion, never quite understanding what Ezra was saying.
"Have you eaten yet, is what he was asking JD," replied Josiah, " and to answer you no we haven't we were waiting for you and Chris to show up before we began."
At that moment the door in the other room was slammed open and they could here the excited voice of the clerk as....
. . . Chris stalked into the room, his face unnaturally pale against the clinging black of his wet clothes. The change in the room was immediate. Mary straightened, one hand unconsciously flying to her hair to pat down any wayward strands, and Billy's entire face brightened as he wriggled out of Josiah's lap and ran over to the tall gunman. The change in the team was less overt, but to someone who made his living off of reading people, as Ezra had for most of his life, it was no less remarkable. Vin's chair legs hit the ground softly as his entire attention focused on Chris; he was primed and ready to do whatever the older man asked of him. Buck tensed too, his eyes gaining that watchful, worried look they always carried around his old friend, while J. D. hurriedly leaned away from Josiah as if trying to make it look like he hadn't been listening to the "kiddie story." Josiah's mouth twisted in that ironic grin that he wore when he was expecting the "temptation" of battle to arise sometime soon. Even Nathan grew more alert, although whether he was preparing himself for a coming battle or to heal the nearest hurt, Ezra--as usual--wasn't sure.
Chris's charisma never failed to astonish Ezra. The gambler considered himself an expert not only at reading people, but at manipulating them as well. He might not be in his mother's class, but he had both natural talent and extensive practice in the fine art of the con, and had thought that there were few people who could outclass him and none that could manipulate him. Yet he still found himself checking the location of his guns and mentally preparing himself to set out again in defense of the town and his newfound comrades whenever Chris approached with that particular gleam in his eye, that look that said, "Someone stepped into my territory and was fool enough to think he could take it over." If Ezra could bottle that attitude of Chris's that had skilled, dangerous men--including one who was no amateur when it came to controlling others--following him to hell and fulling expecting to come back . . . Well, he'd be retired in some nice, dry place right now, not wondering who he was about to have to shoot.
Chris smiled absently down at the little boy who'd ran to him with all the courage of innocence, expecting nothing but a warm welcome. The gunman ruffled Billy's hair, listened gravely to what he was prattling on about, and then steered him back to his mother, completely ignoring the almost hysterical hotel clerk who had followed him into the room.
"Mr. Larabee, you've got to do something about this calamity. We simply can't have it--we're a civilized town now, and the citizens deserve to be able to walk the streets in peace. Why, I could see it from my desk, it was a disgrace! I demand that you do some . . . thing . . ." the clerk trailed off uncertainly as Chris's cold eyes settled on him with all the interest of a trapper finding a rare mink.
"What's going on, Chris?" Buck's voice cut across the uneasy silence. "Trouble?"
"Prison convoy's come through town," Chris replied tersely. "They're on their way to that new prison in Bedfield, but they're staying here tonight, camping outside town. Not where they can cause any trouble."
The last statement was delivered rather pointedly at the clerk, who wilted completely and scurried from the room.
"Then there's no reason why we can't continue with our dinner," Mary said cheerfully, then sent a quelling glance at her son, who was bouncing excitedly. "Don't even think about it, young man. You are not going to go see a prison camp under any circumstances."
Billy's disappointment was quickly averted as J. D. started speculating aloud about what he was planning on ordering, and everyone relaxed. Ezra couldn't sit back and enjoy the evening completely, however; it hadn't escaped him that, for all of Chris's nonchalant words, the gunman was still on his guard against some danger he wasn't sharing with the group. The remainder of the meal passed pleasantly. The men were all at their most charming, trying to give Mary and Billy an enjoyable last night together. Ezra, practicing cynic that he was, wondered briefly what kind of trouble this peaceful interlude was leading to, but even he didn't expect the trouble to come quite so quickly.
Their first warning was the distant sound of gunfire. . .
The sound of gunfire took everyone outside to the street. Even though Chris was acting calm he knew trouble was just around the corner. The seven men split up to find out where the shoots came from. Vin was checking out the bank when he heard a sound coming from the alley. As he walk down the alley to see about the noise he found nothing, but when he turned around to go back a man was standing in the middle of the alley.
"Who's there?" Vin said with a calm steady voice.
The man stepped into the light saying "Please don't shoot I am unarmed."
Vin thought to himself, I have heard that voice before. Then he knew who it was.
"What the hell, I thought you were dead."
The stranger said, "No, son."
At that moment all the bad memories flash through Vin's mind. Of the pain that this man had put him through. Vin finally said, "You have no son. You gave that right up when you shoot my mother in cold blood."
Vin started to rush toward the man, but at that moment...
. . . the sounds of men shouting and running were heard up the street, coming their way.
"He ran down here!" The voice said.
Vin didn't have time to think, he just reacted. He pushed the older man back into the shadows of the alley as he twisted the handle on the door that was directly behind them. Vin knew it would lead to the Clarion Newspaper office, and he hoped that Mary wouldn't mind them using her back room to hide from the men. Once he and the man were safely inside he shut it quietly and locked it behind them.
"Check the alley, he might be hiding down there." Vin could hear through the door. There was a few tense minutes as the alley was searched, the men knocking over barrels and kicking boxes aside looking for their escaped prisoner. When all seemed quite outside, Vin let out a pent-up sigh and leaned against the door.
"Thanks Son." The man said, his face hardly visible in the dark room.
"Don't call me that!" Vin almost snarled, his hand gripping around his gun as if he desperately wanted to use it. "And I didn_t do this for you!"
"I understand." The man's voice was quiet, and full of regret.
Vin's apparent display of protection had raised his hopes too much it seemed. But no, Vin would not have lifted a finger to help him and Ray Tanner knew it.
"And I know you have your reasons for wishing to avoid the law as much as I do."
Vin looked at the old man before him with suspicious eyes.
"What are you talking about?" Vin suspected, but he was not about to volunteer any information.
"I know you killed someone over in Texas and that you are a wanted man." Ray said, nodding towards his son. "Word gets around in prison."
"It ain't like you heard." Vin said, his defenses coming up. "I didn't kill that man, I was set up."
Vin wondered why he was so anxious to have him believe it. It wasn't like he cared what people thought of him, and least of all the man he had once called Father. He had long since ceased trying to please Ray, he no longer cared if he was proud of him or if he had ever been. But still that feeling remained.
"I didn't do it, but there was no convincing anyone in Tuscosa of that."
"I know exactly what you mean . . ." Ray said, his voice betraying the pain he still held inside.
"I don't want to hear it!" Vin hissed through clenched teeth.
He had listened to Ray's denials one too many time, and he didn't want to reopen any old wounds by hashing it out again. He knew what had happened. He had been there. He knew that Ray had taken the life of his mother, and that was something he could never forgive or forget. Ray had ruined his life as far as he was concerned, leaving him not only without a mother, but a father to rely on as well. Being left alone at such a young age, Vin had to grow up fast, and he hated the man before him for robbing him of his childhood, his choices and his future. Only since he had come to Four Corners and became a member of the seven men he now called friends, had he begun to feel as if he had some control over his life again. Chris Larabee and the others had provided a stabilizing influence in his otherwise out of control existence. He was just beginning to feel like he could belong someplace, rely on others again, to trust. But now with the returning of Ray, all those feelings vanished, replacing them once again with doubt.
Ray could see that Vin was not at all pleased to see him and he lowered his head slightly out of regret. He had not expected Vin to welcome him with open arms, but he had not been prepared for such open hostility either. It had been over twenty years since he had seen his boy, and Ray had to admit that he was proud of the man who stood before him. Vin had grown into a fine figure of a man, a man who commanded respect as well as caused others to trust him.
Not a day had gone by during their separation that Ray had not thought of his son, wondered how he was, what he was doing and if he was happy. And as Ray looked into his son's blue eyes, the same eyes he shared with his mother, he would have given his life for the chance to hug him and tell him how much he loved him. But that was not to be, and Ray must resign himself to that.
"I shouldn't have come." He said, a heavy sigh escaping him.
"Why did you?" Vin asked, the words more of a threat than a question.
"I came to warn you." Ray confessed. "A few of the prison guards out at the camp had heart that there were a group of men in town hired to protect it by a Judge. When one of them got word as to what your names were they recognized you from your wanted posters. They were making plans to ride in tonight and take you by surprise. And with the reputation you have acquired as a sharp shooter, they were not going to take any chances, and since the money was guaranteed either dead or alive I overheard them deciding on dead. I just couldn't sit by and let them take you, Son. I just couldn't."
"So you came to warn me, is that it?" Vin didn't sound too convinced. "You needn't have bothered. I can take care of myself."
"I am sure you can, but I have failed you too many times in the past, Vin. I just couldn't live with myself if I didn''t at least try."
Vin looked at the man, not knowing what to say or think. Every time he thought he had this settled in his mind and heart, Ray would confuse him all over again. But he didn't have time to think it out, for the door to the Newspaper office opened just then, brining Vin back to instant alert.
"I told you I saw him come in here." Ezra said to Chris as the two of them entered, closing the door quickly behind them as they scanned the street for any onlookers. Vin relaxed his stance, lowering his gun away from his two friends.
"What's going on in here?" Chris asked, eyeing the man who had slipped back into the shadows at their appearance. The clothes the man wore identified him as one of the prisoners from the camp, that was obvious, but why would Vin be hiding him when it could mean nothing but trouble for the young bounty hunter.
"Who is he, and what are you doing hiding him?"
Vin looked at Chris and opened his mouth to speak, but no words came. He respected Chris above any other man he had ever known, and telling him that the man beside him was his father and a murder was not going to be easy for him. But he could not lie to his friend either, Chris would see through him in an instant, and he would not betray their bond for a piece of trash like Ray, even if they were blood.
"Ray escaped from the prison camp, and they are hunting for him. He said he came to warn me that they were going to come gunning for me tonight, to collect the bounty on my head." Vin told him.
"And you believed him? Why would you trust him?" Ezra asked. He made a living out of reading people and he would not trust the man in the corner any further than he could throw him.
"He . . ." Vin shifted his weight uneasily. "He is my father." He spat the word out like it was poison to him, not daring to meet Chris's eyes.
"Ah hell." Chris cursed, shaking his head at the problems this caused. He could tell that Vin was not any more happy about this situation than he was but that left them with the question of what to do next. They were hired to keep the peace, to uphold the law, but there were times when family and friendship came first. Chris needed time to think things out, to sit down with Vin and form a plan, but he couldn't do that while there was the constant threat of Vin and his father being found. He had to get them out of town, calm down the prison patrol and then try to come up with something.
The other three men in the room all turned to Chris, as if waiting for him to come up with a brilliant solution.
"Vin, you and Ezra take Ray and head out of town. Go to the old abandoned mine near Baker's Canyon and stay there. We will think of something and hook up with you as soon as we can." Chris rubbed his forehead as if he were getting a headache over all this.
Vin came forward and looked at his friend. Chris wouldn't ask any questions, wouldn't jump to conclusions or judge him before hearing all the facts, Vin knew that. And it was those qualities that Vin admired the most in the tall blond man. Those were the reasons he called him friend.
"Thanks Chris." Was all he had to say, and he knew that Chris would understand him completely.
"Why do I have to go?" Ezra asked, a bit put out that he was being banished from the comforts of town with Vin and his father.
"Because you are driving me crazy and if you don't get out of town for a while I will kill you myself." Chris snarled, not really meaning it, but not liking how Ezra questioned his orders.
Ezra knew when to keep his mouth shut, and he did.
So as Ezra, Vin and Ray sneaked out the back of the newspaper office, heading for the stables and then out of town, Chris turned and walked out the front door only to run smack dab into . . .
Chris ran smack dab into the head prison guard. "Who are you?" he snarled at Chris.
"Chris Larabee, who's asking?"
"Buchanan's the name. I'm in charge of making sure all these prisoners get to that new prison. Seems one of them has run off. One of my men says he may have come in here."
"There ain't nobody in here but me," Chris said, meeting the man's steely gaze. For a moment, they stood eye-to-eye, neither man moving a muscle or saying a word. Buchanan was the first to flinch.
"I'm gonna take you at your word, Larabee. Don't prove me wrong. Helping an escaped fugitive is a felony. I find out you helped Tanner escape, I'll make sure you're put under my watch after you're convicted." With that, Buchanan left, shouting orders at his men to search every inch of the town.
Chris stepped out of the office and watched the guards searching frantically. He hoped he had stalled Buchanan long enough so that Vin, his father, and Ezra were well on their way out of town. He knew the guard was talking about Vin's father when he mentioned Vin's last name. But still, hearing Buchanan use it in that context gave Chris a very uneasy feeling. He headed over to the hotel to meet up with the others and plan their next move.
Several hours ago, Ezra had cursed the rain and the wind. Now, he found it a blessing that helped the three of them sneak to the stable and ride out of the town unnoticed. When they got to Baker's Mine, they tended to their horses and got a fire going, finding a draft that carried the smoke out of the mine.
"Can I interest either of you gentleman in a hand of poker while we await our destiny?"
Vin looked at Ezra with disdain. Slightly shaking his head in disbelief, he said, "How can you think about playing cards at a time like this? We need to concentrate on fortifying this mine so those guards don't surprise us."
"My dear Mr. Tanner, as you and I both know, there is only one way in or out of this mine. There is no way for those guards to sneak up on us and jump us. If they find where we have gone, they can just wait until we are forced to surrender since we do not have any sustenance with us. Or, they need merely to blow up the mine and extricate our remains from the rubble."
Vin had learned that trying to make Ezra do things he didn't want to do was like trying to lead a horse when it had all four feet firmly planted in the ground. No, not a horse - a mule was more like it. He ignored Ezra and took up a position where he had a wide view of the mine and its opening.
Ezra turned to Vin's father. "Mr. Tanner, may I inquire as to what led to your unfortunate incarceration?"
"That's none of your business," Vin said.
"Do you have any children, Mr. Standish," Ray asked, ignoring his son's warning to Ezra.
Ezra smiled curiously and said, "None that I know of, sir."
"Well, when you're a father, you'll do anything for your family. Their happiness takes precedence over yours. You'll protect them with your own life, if need be. Sometimes, when you try to protect them, things get out of hand. Mistakes are made. I'm just paying for a mistake."
Vin exploded. "A mistake!" he yelled as he left his post and strode over to where his father and Ezra were seated. "You call murdering my mother with a shotgun in cold blood a mistake?"
Ray stood up. He had wanted to calmly tell Vin what had really happened that night. He'd rehearsed the scene in his mind everyday since that fateful night. This was nothing like how he'd envisioned it. He didn't want this confrontation. But as he looked in Vin's eyes, the deep blue eyes that reminded Ray so much of Vin's mother, he knew this was how it had to be. He realized that his lie about the events surrounding her death had been stewing in Vin for well over 25 years. And now everything was about to boil over.
"Now son, just wait a minute.." Ray started.
But Vin cut him off, his voice thick with emotion. "Son? Son? How dare you call me that. You don't have the right to call me that after what you did to her."
Vin walked closer to Ray, holding his mare's leg by his side.
"I did it to protect you," Ray countered with equal tight emotion in his voice, not wavering from Vin's accusatory glare. After a brief pause he said, "from her."
"Why you son of a.." Vin reached for his father with his free hand, but Ezra shot up and stopped him.
With Ezra pushing him back, Vin yelled, "Protect me? From what? She was lying there on that bed about to die from the Fever. She could barely hold her head up to drink water. The only thing I needed protection from was the hell you put me through that night and everyday after that --until I finally realized that my father died that day too."
Those words stung Ray hard. He didn't know if Vin would ever understand, but he had to try to make him.
"No, son. That's not how it was," Vin's father sighed as he sat back down on the ground. "I..."
Vin's father didn't know how to continue --if he could continue. He put his head in his hands and let out a long breath of air.
"I don't want to hear your lies," Vin said, taking up his position.
Ezra silently sat back down on a rock. He had never known his father. To his amazement and surprise, he found himself almost jealous of the interchange between the father and son before him. As a casual observer, the similarities between the two was uncanny. The way each stood when defending a point, the subtle nod of a head, the same timbre of their voices. And the mutual pain resonating in each of their hearts and reflected in their eyes. Although Ezra felt a need to somehow help, he knew from personal experience that the two would have to work it out themselves -- an outsider wasn't going to be able to heal wounds that ran so deeply.
Silence filled the mine for several minutes.
"Your ma was the strongest woman I ever knew," Ray started. "She never backed down from anything, and the Fever was no different. She fought so hard and so long because she didn't want to leave you. Oh, she loved me - I know that. But you were the twinkle in her eye - her little feller. Always at her side, always helping her when I was gone on the cattle drives like I asked you to."
Ray looked at Vin for some sign that he was listening. He found none. Just Vin's motionless profile as he stared out the mine's entrance.
Ray continued, undaunted. He didn't know if he or Vin would survive the night or the next few days, but he was going to tell Vin the truth now. He had to make amends with his son before either one went to his grave.
"That night, she knew she was fading fast. She pushed her self to be strong when you came in the room because she knew it would be the last time you'd see her. She had told me she wanted you to remember her the way she had been before the Fever." Ray's father paused as his throat constricted at the thought of what he was about to reveal to his son. Maybe it was best if his son thought he was a murderer. No, Ray had to tell Vin the truth. Vin was older now, hardened by life. He'd understand now what he never could have understood as a 5-year-old boy.
Ray cleared his throat and continued. "Anyway, after you left the room, your mother started to get delirious. The Fever was consuming her. In a moment of clarity, she asked me to fetch her some fresh water. When I walked out, I saw that you were curled up asleep on the rocking chair just outside her door. I knew if I woke you that you would want to see her again, so I let you sleep there. Figured it didn't do no harm.
"As I was walking back with the water for your mother, I saw her standing over you. I didn't see the shotgun in her hands at first. When I did, I saw it was pointed at you. I ran over to her and pushed her back into the room. I tried to get the gun away from her, but she wouldn't let go. I asked her what she was doing, and she just keep mumbling about how you had the Fever too and she didn't want you to suffer like she had. She was out of her mind, Vin. I tried to tell her that you were fine, but she wouldn't listen. Hell, it wasn't her I was talking to, it was someone else."
Vin had tried to drown out his father's words, but something in his dad's voice had made him listen. An urgency, an honesty he remembered from his younger days when he and his dad would spend days together out on the plains. He turned and watched with a blank face as his father continued.
Ray looked straight at this son while he finished his tale of tragedy.
"I knew I couldn't reason with her so I tried to get the gun. I figured if I could get it out of her hands and get her back into bed, maybe she'd calm down. I didn't want you to wake up and see her this way. More importantly, I knew she wouldn't want you to see her that way. I reached for the gun, but she was stronger than I figured. Fever can do that to a person. I managed to get hold of it for a minute and swing it around. But she snatched at it in desperation and hit the trigger."
Ray had to stop as his mind replayed that night in slow motion. He remembered the awful sound that gun made and the look on his wife's face.
"The shot hit her right in the stomach and she fell to the ground. You came running in and saw her lying there in the pool of blood that had already started to seep around her body. I tried to get you out of there, but you ran over to her and tried to shake her to wake up. You wouldn't leave her side."
Ray took a deep breath. "I wanted to explain what happened but everything went crazy. The doctor and a deputy who escorted him had just arrived when they heard the shot. They ran in and saw me standing over her with the gun in my hand, and your ma on the floor with you crying over her. The doctor went to her, but it was too late. You started yelling that I had killed her. I tried to explain but there were some things you didn't know about. Your ma and I had been having some problems. Nothing major, but enough that some people had been talking. We had worked everything out before she got sick, but some folks didn't know that or didn't care. Anyway, let's just say that with the rumors of our problems and the sight the deputy saw when he walked in, well, he took me to jail right then and there.
"After a few days, when I realized the sheriff didn't believe me, I made a decision. One that I've had to live with all these years. I wanted you to remember your ma the way she had been. I didn't want you to know that she had almost killed you that day - even if it was due to the Fever. Or that we had been having problems. You were only 5 and too young, I thought, to understand any of it. The sheriff wouldn't let me see you anyway to even try to explain it. If I had gone to trial, you would have somehow heard about it, but not from me. I couldn't risk you being hurt any more than you had been. So, in exchange for the sheriff promising I wouldn't hang, I confessed to the killing, said I did it to put her out of her misery. I vowed that some day I would tell you the truth. When you were old enough to understand. And hope that somehow you could forgive me for lying."
Vin sat motionless, captivated by his father's tale of that night. Without realizing it, tears had rolled down Ray's cheeks as he recalled the accident.
"Why should I believe you?" Vin softly said.
"Because I have no reason to lie to you. I'm in jail for life. And I've never lied to you before. I never will." Ray shifted his position on the hard ground and said, "I can't make you believe me, Vin. You have to search your heart and decide if what I've said is true. But I have fulfilled the vow I made, and whatever happens now, I can die in peace. My only hope now is that you will forgive me and allow me to call you son. I think your ma would like that."
Before Vin could answer...........
. . . a loud clap of thunder echoed through the mine, startling the already tense men. Vin swallowed his anger and turned from Ray. He returned to his post. With Vin's back to him, Ray couldn't tell if anything he had just said had gotten through to his son.
Vin stood staring out of the mine at the falling rain. He fought against the conflict in his mind and heart. Ray had killed his mother, that was a fact. But had he really been trying to protect him? His mother had not only been the strongest person he knew, but the gentlest as well. He just couldn't believe that his mother would have tried to kill him.
Ezra had sat quietly through Ray's confession. He didn't know that much about Vin, but what he had just witnessed gave him a better insight to the quiet man. Ezra had always respected Vin for his abilities and skill, but now he felt a different emotion for him. Compassion. Compassion for the man faced with this difficult situation, and compassion for the boy who lost his mother in such a heart-wrenching fashion. Ezra looked at Ray.
"Mr. Tanner, I commend you for your courage" he said.
Ray looked at Ezra with a forlorn smile.
"Ain't courage," he said. "just an attempt at settin' the past wrongs right".
"I dissagree my friend," Ezra replied "To endure a lifetime of hell for one's child is the ultimate act of courage."
Ray looked at Ezra but didn't reply. He finally stood and walked away from the fire. Ezra watched as Ray left then glanced at Vin. He shook his head and resumed his shuffling. He hoped things were going more smoothly in town.
Buchanan walked out of the stables after the search inside had turned up nothing. He had his men searching the entire town top to bottom. He knew it was just a matter of time before they found Tanner, but the delay was irritating.
"No matter," Buchanan thought. His plan was still on trck. He smiled to himself as he thought about the $500 dollars that would soon be his. It was no mistake that Ray Tanner had overheard the plans to ambush his son. And he had been allowed to "escape" as well. Buchanan knew that Ray would lead him straight to Vin. But he had encountered a slight snag. He hadn't expected Tanner to actually help his old man. He had expected him to bring Ray back, inadvertently handing himself over at the same time. Buchanan had planned on killing Vin then and there, he was after all wanted "DEAD OR ALIVE".
Buchanan prefered dead. Dead men didn't give you any trouble, and Tanner had managed to avoid being caught and brought in so far. Buchanan wasn't taking any chances with Vin. He knew his reputation as a marksman and his resourcefulness.
Buchanan was pulled from his thoughts by a young guard running toward him.
"Find him," he said once the guard reached him.
"No sir," the young man said, out of breath.
"What is it then," Buchanan said, irritated.
"Sir, I overheard something when I was searchin' the hotel. I thought you should know," the guard started. "You know that fellow from the newspaper office"?
"Larabee" Buchanan interjected.
"Yes sir. Well I overheard him and some other men talkin' bout a mine outside of town. I heard them say Tanner."
"Round up the boys" he said to the guard. "Meet me in front of the saloon when you're done."
"Yes sir," the guard answered, hurrying to obey.
Buchanan headed to the saloon.
"It shouldn't be hard to find out where this mine is," he thought.
. . . a scream rang out from the area of the camp.
"What was that?" Buchannan asked sharply, suddenly alarmed.
"I don't know, sir," the young guard stammered as he backed up, looking nervously around.
"Find out!" Buchannan roared.
The guard scurried off, running toward the camp. In moments, he was back, out of breath and near hysterics.
"Sir, sir, John Beasley has escaped!" he yelled. Then he turned on his heels as Buchannan shouted for him to go. "We'll find him, sir!" the guard yelled.
"You'd better, for your own sake," Buchannan growled. "About that mine . . ."
Ezra looked up at the rain in disgust. He was wet, cold, tired, hungry, and any number of other evils one could imagine in this sort of situation.
"Of all the obtuse, idiotic, half-witted plans I have agreed to participate in, this is the pinnacle of them all."
"Huh?" Ray asked him.
Ezra rolled his eyes, thankful that Ray couldn't see him in the dark light. He pasted a false smile on his face anyway and responded jovially, "Nothing at all, sir. I was just appreciating the fact that we have reasonable cover in this deluge."
Ray raised an eyebrow. Ezra did smile to himself then. *He's smarter than first looks would have one believe. Perhaps he's not all bad.* For in Ezra's opinion, anyone who could understand what he was saying or tell when he was lying was either a scoundrel or a man to be trusted. He doubted it was the former.
Vin turned to look at him as well. Ezra merely glanced back in his direction, almost glaring. Vin snorted and that was the final straw.
"Mr. Tanner," he asked loudly, "would you be ever so kind as to join me over here? I have a matter that I really must discuss with you."
Vin narrowed his eyes a bit, but he pushed himself away from the cave wall that he had been leaning against. He swaggered over to Ezra, taking his time. Then he sat.
"So?" he asked. "What do you want?"
"It's not what I want that's the concern here, Mr. Tanner," Ezra began.
Vin started to get up; he knew exactly what was coming. Suddenly, before he could blink, Ezra had jumped to his own feet and slammed him against the rock wall.
"Now you listen to me, and you listen well, Mr. Tanner." Ezra's normally smooth-as-silk voice was nails now. "That man only wants forgiveness. I don't care what you think he did to you, but I see myself as an excellent judge of character, and I do not believe that it was intentional. Unless you wish to spend the rest of this excursion with a very prominent bruise over your left eye, then I suggest you sit down and hash whatever it is out with him. Because, I for one, am not willing to play referee until Chris and the others arrive."
That said, he released Vin and walked back over to his now cold spot near the fire. Vin shook his head and sighed. Then, swallowing his pride, he walked over to Ray.
"Ray, I--," he began, but just then . . .
"Ray, I--," he began, but just then the mine was alive with activity. Chris and Buck entered at the same time. Chris throwing Ezra and Vin two boxes of ammo and Buck handing out rifles. As he came face to face with Ray a look of confusion clouded Buck's face.
"Who are you?" Buck asked the stranger. To no one in particular he inquired, "Who is this?"
Buck started to hand him a rifle, then noticing that Chris had not provided him with bullets, decided to keep it until he discovered the older man's identity.
"We can't stay here," it was more of an order that a statement from Chris.
"JD and Nathan managed to create a small diversion for the guards but it won't take them more than half an hour to locate Beasley and resume their search for the two of you," Chris said nodding to Vin and Ray. "There's a possibility that one of the guards overheard me and they may already be headed this way."
Chris was looking at Vin but said loud enough for everyone to hear, "We have got to get to someplace where we can lay low until you decide how you're going to handle this. . ."
"And get something to eat and some dry clothes," Ezra chimed in.
Chris continued, ". . .someplace the guards don't have authority and will think twice about following."
Chris and Vin stared into the eyes of the other for the briefest of moments, communicating without having to articulate his own thoughts.
"Purgatorio," Vin said flatly.
"Purgatorio," Chris stated as he turned to walk out of the mine.
"Oh good, I was hoping to return to that metropolis of intellectual stimulation," Ezra sneered.
"Well you get your wish," Chris snapped. "JD and Nathan are already headed that way. With some hard riding we will get there by morning and if we're really lucky those guards won't find this place until then."
Buck kicked dirt into the fire as they departed the mine and walked back out into the rain. Each man accepted his reins from Josiah and mounted for the miserable ride. There was no moon, no stars, no light of any kind as the six began their ride South into Mexico.
The sun was edging its way just over the horizon as JD and Nathan slowly rode into Purgatorio.
"I am tired and wet and hungry and sleepy and I don't even know why," J. D. complained. "Don't it bother you, Nathan, that we don't have a clue as to why Chris had us help a prisoner escape and then ride hard for this murdering hell hole? I feel like I'm on the run."
"Boy, you are on the run or didn't you know that it's against the law to help a prisoner escape?" Nathan asked.
"Oh no, I wasn't helping Beasley, I was following Chris' orders," J. D. stated matter-of-factly.
Nathan had to smile. Would JD's hero worship of Chris Larabee ever end?
"Well, Chris said that he and the others would meet us here. Besides, there's one less thing to complain about."
JD lifted an eyebrow and gave Nathan his most "pray, tell me" expression. Nathan responded to the look by pointing to the cloudless morning sky.
"At least it quit raining."
The five travel weary men walked through the doors of the establishment that was home to the center of most of Purgatorio's activity. The early morning hour found only two customers in the saloon and an old Mexican barkeep sleeping soundly in the far corner. Chris sat down beside Nathan who was already pouring his friend a drink from a half-full bottle bearing the label "Red Eye." Nathan and JD had managed to wake the barkeep long enough to locate a skillet of burnt beans and a stack of tortillas which they quickly liberated from the numerous fly population. Although Chris preferred whiskey when he rested after a long miserable night, Nathan and JD offered the strong black coffee they had been consuming to Buck, Ezra, Josiah, Vin and the stranger. Ezra, Josiah and the stranger were the only ones to accept the offer as they sat down to join the others. Buck and Vin opted for the more potent choice.
"Now," Buck started still standing, "I think I'm a patient man, but patience has its limits. I want to know, and I want to know right now, just what the hell is going on. I can understand Vin leaving town for a while if there was a chance that he might be recognized by those prison guards, but why do WE have to be here? And who is this man we've been dragging along with us? Nobody has said a word since we left the mine and I'm not moving another foot until somebody tells me why the hairs on the back of my neck are standing on end." Buck ended the tirade in a near shout. When he slammed the bottle back down on the table, the dog sleeping under the old Mexican's feet jumped straight up and let out a frightened "yelp" before running out into the street.
Both Chris and Ezra looked at Vin who sat with his back to the wall. Although they knew the story it was Vin's place to tell the others what he wanted them to know. Nathan, Josiah and JD had sat quietly during Buck's aggravated inquiry, but now the three leaned forward in anticipation of the long awaited explanation.
Vin looked up at Buck and began slowly, "This is Ray, umm," and he paused as if searching for the right words. He began again in his husky voice, "Ray, overheard the guards talking and came to warn me that they planned to ambush me and take me in for the bounty."
No one said a word as they waited for Vin to continue, but he didn't. Buck couldn't believe that there was no more than this to the story. He started pacing, trying to form coherent thoughts.
"This doesn't make sense, Vin." Buck smiled as he almost sang the words, however the smile was gone when he stopped in front of Vin. The younger Tanner stood up to meet the next question face to face. "If there's a plot to take you in, we could've handled that in town. Or you could have left for a week or two, hell, I'd of gladly gone with you. But none of this explains why we are all sitting in this stinking snake-pit with 'Ray' here," Buck shouted as he pointed to the elder Tanner.
"Buck. . . " Chris started as he poured himself another shot.
"Mr. Wilmington," Ezra interrupted as he moved to stand between Buck and Vin, "maybe it's enough to know that our presence is needed without tedious details that will neither improve nor change the situation."
Buck blinked in surprise.
"What's that suppose to mean," he asked more confused than ever. "I happen to think it's very necessary for Vin to tell us everything he knows about what went on in town and about this man. By the way," Buck turned to face the older man, "Ray," he paused until the man acknowledge him with a nod, "you may want to be aware that now that the sun has come up, those prison clothes you're wearing can be seen from the next rise."
Nathan and JD were becoming increasingly uncomfortable. They had also been curious about the man and the reason behind their ride to Purgatorio. However, Buck's temper and Vin's obvious unwillingness to give Buck the answers he wanted made the two wish that they could quietly escape the premises. It was Chris who put a stop to the stand-off. When Larabee stood up all eyes turned to him.
"JD, Nathan, you two go see if you can find some clothes for Ray. Try the undertaker - he seems to have a regular supply." Chris received a snarl from Buck for that reminder. "And Ezra, Josiah, see to the horses. We won't be here long and they need to be feed and rested."
The four men moved at once to accomplish their assigned tasks. Chris sat back down and poured a drink. Vin sat down and drained his glass.
Buck gave up. He could tell by the look on Vin's face that it was useless to question him any further. He had to trust that Vin and Chris would make the right decisions. Buck did not know Vin very well but he knew that the young bounty-hunter could be very resourceful in tight situations. He did know and trust Chris and it was this relationship that he placed all his faith in now.
Buck finally took his seat at the table when . . .
J.D. came rushing into the saloon, Nathan close behind him. Both carried various articles of clothing, dark-colored and dusty. Ray would fit right in with Purgatorio's population.
"We got some clothes," J.D. stated the obvious and plopped them down on the table in front of Ray. "And let me tell you, these are brand new. The undertaker just got them."
"Thanks kid," Ray grimaced at the reminder of where he was receiving his new clothes. "I'll go to the bath house to change," he said as he picked the clothes up and got up from the table. Vin got up as well, and both of them walked out of the saloon.
"Is Vin guarding Ray or something?" J.D. asked Chris as he sat down in the chair Vin just occupied. When there was no reply, J.D. sighed. "Come on, someone include me here."
Chris put down the glass that he was taking a drink from. "It's not my place to say," was the only reply J.D. got.
He glanced at Buck, who was obviously as interested, but now much more quiet about it. But before J.D. could make another comment, Ezra and Josiah walked into the saloon, both straight to Chris.
"Trouble's coming," Josiah said, taking a place at the table.
"In the form of a dozen prison guards," Ezra added in his soft drawl. "And one of them appears to be the notorious Buchanan."
All of the men's eyes turned towards Chris. He took a final swig from his glass, then sighed.
"Let's get this over with. J.D, try and find Vin and Ray, give them a warning." J.D. nodded and left.
Ezra waited until J.D. left the saloon, and then sat next to Chris. He pulled out his silver flask to take a quick swallow.
"Mr. Larabee, am I to assume that we are to keep the knowledge of Vin's relationship with Ray to ourselves for the time being?" Ezra asked quietly so the others wouldn't hear.
Chris at first said nothing, just stared in the direction of the door, which he was facing. Then he turned to Ezra, staring into his eyes. That would make any man a little wary, but Ezra just glanced back. He was wondering what Chris wanted him to do, or at least expected him to do. Ezra knew that Chris didn't place much trust in him, after he ran out on them at the Seminole village. Don't blame him, Ezra thought with a little bitter remorse that he would never admit to anyone. But much had happened since then, and Ezra thought he'd had many chances to gain Chris' respect. From the look in Chris' eyes though, Ezra couldn't tell what he was thinking.
Chris spoke finally, so softly that Ezra had to lean forward slightly to hear.
"A man's past is his own business. If Vin wants the others to know, he'll tell them." Chris didn't look at him, but instead looked into his glass as if he was talking to it, not Ezra.
Ezra nodded slightly and decided not to pursue the subject any longer. Chris was a little touchy about a man's privacy with his past, especially his own.
"Then, Mr. Larabee, it seems we agree on the matter," Ezra said, and sat back in his chair to wait.
J.D. trotted down the street, glancing behind him towards the dust clouds rolling in from the north. The prison guards would reach here soon. Not as if we can't handle them, J.D. thought with satisfaction. We've handled harder situations then that, and gotten through them. With a little quick thinking, J.D. thought, a fast draw from Chris... hell, maybe I'll get a chance this time! Don't see why not. If only I knew what Ray's got to do with Vin... J.D. had been so wrapped up in his thoughts that he almost missed the bath house. He turned, and rapped on the door.
"Vin? Ray?" J.D. paused, and waited for a response. A couple of rough-looking men sauntered by, still looking a little sleepy this early in the morning. He didn't want to draw attention to himself, so he stepped closer to the door and knocked again. J.D. was about to walk in there and see what was taking Vin so long to answer when......
Chris galloped rapidly past him on his big black, riding hell for leather, as Jock Steele would put it.
Startled, J.D. took a couple quick steps backward, promptly bumping into the horse trough by the bathhouse. He then watched helplessly as his beloved bowler escaped his grasping fingers and tumbled into the trough.
"Damn it," he growled, sounding so much like Vin that he surprised himself. Rescuing the dripping hat, and trying to reshape the felt into its familiar round shape, J.D. watched Ezra prowling around the outside of the saloon. Apparently he was bored; perhaps he would know where Chris had gone. Meandering over, keeping a wary eye on a prostrate Mexican draped on the steps, J.D. called out, "Hey Ezra! Where'd Chris get off to like that?"
"Would you keep your voice down youngster?" Nathan answered, walking out of the saloon before Ezra could respond.
Choosing to let Nathan handle the situation, Ezra seated himself carefully on a bench by the door, propping his legs up on the hitching post, and crossing his feet. A longtime habit which permitted him to access his shoulder holster rapidly, the pose also allowed him to check his derringer contraption without prying eyes finding his secrets.
"J.D., ain't you ever gonna learn to stop blurting out words before checking to see who might be listenin' in?"
Nathan nodded toward the prostrate Mexican, who was beginning to look mighty familiar to J.D. Judge Travis had sentenced this fella to hang last time he held court in Four Corners, but the man managed to break free of the noose and vanish before anyone could locate him. Vin had wanted to go after him, but all had agreed the man would be shot by bounty hunters anyway.
Nathan pointed to the saloon and J.D followed him inside, completely forgetting about Vin and the bath house.
Buck had found what passed for a woman in Purgatorio and was amusing himself n the hope of a freebie. Evidently Mexican working girls didn't sense his animal magnetism, because she kept asking him for five pesos. Giving up on what was obviously a hopeless quest, Buck joined J.D. and Nathan just in time to hear J.D. indignantly say, "Why didn't he take me with him then? I would have been another gun. I'm young, my horse is fast...."
"Chris works alone, J.D.," Buck quietly added. "When he has something that he wants done, he goes and does it. Having to worry about you and your fancy Eastern duds isn't on his list of favorite pastimes."
"But it sure seems to be on yours, Buck, don't it?" J.D. sulked.
Nathan looked from one to the other, shrugged, and said, "Where's Vin? Ain't he clean yet?"
J.D.'s hand flew from the whiskey bottle he'd been reaching for to his holster, as he quickly stood, knocking his chair over in the process. Holding his wet bowler onto his head, he ran back over to the bathhouse and burst inside, .45 drawn and ready.
Vin and Ray were dressed and having an argument. They looked at him curiously and J.D. holstered his gun.
"Chris leave?" Vin asked.
"Yeah, he just rode out. How'd you know?"
"Figured he'd want to go right away."
"You think this plan's gonna work?"
"Hope so. I'd hate to lose my coat. Better get out of sight for now, Ray. They'll be looking even harder for you now."
Ray went to the saloon, accepted Ezra's offer of a "game between gentlemen" and promptly lost his only two dollars.
Vin stole around to the back of the saloon, and climbed to the roof, where he had a good vantage point. Buchannon's men were stopped a furlong outside of town, resting their horses and preparing to go in. Raising his spyglass to his right eye, Vin spotted Chris' horse immediately and then sought Chris himself. Not hard to find a man dressed head to toe in black, Vin mused, especially sitting in a dry sandy creek bed.
Chris was bleeding from a cut above his left eye and looked to have a broken nose. He was tied hand and foot, and a dead or sleeping man was next to him. Scanning the rest of the men, Vin spotted Buchannon looking at a tan, tattered coat - Vin's coat. He touched a finger to a rust colored stain and tasted his finger. Vin snorted. As if Buchannon thought he'd know the difference between Vin's blood and a rooster's! Maybe the plan could work if the man was that much of an idiot!
J.D. trailed the group of six, chewing his lower lip, and pondering the situation. He supposed he should be glad that he was part of the plan, but couldn't help feeling resentful towards the older man. He was more than competent at his job, but it seemed the older men had forgotten what it was like to be young. Everything was business to them, and everything had to be done the way they'd always done it. Particularly Buck's way. No wonder most of the dime novel gunfighters were nicknamed "Kid" - the older fellas just didn't have the zest for life anymore. He kicked his gelding and trotted alongside Josiah, who was muttering to himself about a crow pacing them overhead.
Overlooking the prison contingent from a small rise, Ray felt a chill. His son was back in town waiting to see how his friends made out, and he was out here waiting to get shot. Maybe not such a bad thing, he thought.
Ezra's chestnut nickered suddenly, and then let out a loud squeal. Ray jumped as an answering nicker came from a small palomino below.
"Damn you, Chance," Ezra hissed. "Kindly keep your carnal urges under control when I'm trying to facilitate a course of action!"
The palomino mare called out again, but Ezra had tied his cravat around his stallion's nose by that time. "Mr. Wilmington, you are a bad influence upon my horse, sir."
Buck's mouth dropped open, and he held out his arms in a gesture of innocence. "Me? What did I..."
A loud whistle followed by a rifly report caused the group to duck. Vin wouldn't have let them be so disorganized, thought J.D.
Josiah said a short prayer for Chris as the others mounted and headed across to Buchannon. He hoped the plan would work. After all, he had conceived it. Claim that Ray shot Vin, have Chris deliver the bloody coat in hope of obtaining Buchannon's "assistance" in apprehending Ray... Another bullet whined past, interrupting his thoughts. His horse made a strangled snort and dropped to the ground. Josiah peeked over the rise to see.......
Josiah lay with one leg trapped under the carcass of his dead horse. The weight of the animal kept him from moving except to prop himself up to where he could see over the rise where Buchannon's men were fanning out and disappearing under cover. Josiah looked around -- their own small force was spread out along the rise above the sandy wash where Chris Larabee lay a prisoner. It had the makings of a standoff or a massacre.
"Josiah, you okay?" Buck called.
"If you don't count 800 pounds of dead meat laying on me," he said, struggling to pull his Winchester from it's boot on the up-side of the horse. Though he was a big man and possessed bull-like strength, it was still not enough to move the horse and saddle so he could pull himself out.
"They're movin' up," Buck warned. He and JD dismounted and dropped behind a fallen log, while Ezra took refuge behind a stand of saguaro and agave, with Nathan not far away behind some rocks.
Another hail of bullets sent them all to ground. Ray had dismounted and lay a few yards from Josiah, who fought to free his leg from the crushing weight of the saddle and horse. Josiah's boot was caught in the stirrup and the edge of the saddle was biting into his thigh. He had no hope of working free before all Hell broke loose.
"Josiah," called Ray. "Catch --" he tossed a length of rope to Josiah. "Saddlehorn --"
Josiah nodded and ran a couple of turns around the broad, rawhide covered horn of his Mexican saddle and waited to see what Ray had in mind.
The older man waited until Buck, JD, and Ezra were laying down covering fire, and swung back into his saddle, then spurred his horse past Josiah until the rope jerked tight, rolling the limp body of the dead horse up enough for Josiah to slide out.
Because of the angle, this put Ray above the line of the rise for just long enough to be dangerous.
A shot fired from someplace below hit the older man high in the body from behind, and he catapulted from the saddle as if he'd been pole-axed.
Josiah scrambled free, stumbling away to cover as he saw Ray hit the ground, bright blood staining his shirt.
He kept moving, but had no choice to dive and roll away from Ray as several shots kicked up the sand right behind him. He dove, hit hard and rolled, coming up only a few yards from Buck under the meager shelter of a thick clump of greasewood. Josiah cursed in a half-dozen languages, and bellowed, "NATHAN!"
Nathan had was already running toward Ray. Ezra followed close behind, snapping shots with his Remington revolving rifle in one hand and his small hideaway gun with the other toward Buchannon's men.
Meanwhile, Buck and JD were laying down a withering pattern of fire with their rifles, keeping Buchannon's men from movng up on them. However, they could see a couple moving around in the trees and greasewoods to the south of them, and knew if they didn't change tactics or get the hell out, they would be caught in a crossfire within minutes.
"Nathan, hurry," Buck yelled. "We've got to fall back!"
JD scowled at him. "Fall back? We can't leave Chris --"
Buck demanded, "You got any better ideas?"
JD shook his head. He levered another shell into his rifle and snapped off a shot that took the leg of one of Buchannon's men as he scrambled for cover. "You're just leaving Chris?" JD said it like an accusation.
Buck shot him a venomous look back that told JD that he knew he was leaving his best friend. It reminded JD that Buck knew exactly what was happening, and he guiltily turned his attention back to the oncoming prison guards.
Buck ordered, "JD, get the horses. We can't stay here--"
JD fired once more and bolted toward the underbrush where their mounts waited, shifting restlessly at the deafening gunfire around them. Ezra's palomino nervously danced away and JD lost valuable moments chasing her down. He was able to grab his and Buck's horses, and finally Nathan's. Josiah's was dead and Ray's horse was standing right on the edge of the ridge, tied to Josiah's saddlehorn by the rope Ray used to free Josiah.
Nearby, Nathan dragged Ray to shade under a bush that grew between some rocks that would serve to protect them from bullets. With gentle hands he rolled the older man over to check the wound. It was high, into the muscle of the shoulder and was bleeding heavily. There was no exit wound. "Damn," Nathan muttered.
Ezra managed to scramble across to them and knelt so he could cover them if Buchannon's men came closer. His eyes were scanning the landscape, then flicked to Nathan and Ray, then out again. "What's the prognostication?"
"He'll live but he's losing a lot of blood and he's no youngster," Nathan said. "I don' think he's none too healthy either."
Ezra nodded. "Ah, yes. The invigorating joys of prison rehabilitation."
From across the way, Buck yelled, "Can you move him?" He made the mistake of sticking his head up and a bullet took his wide-brimmed hat from his shaggy head. Buck ducked, cursing roundly.
Suddenly from the south, and in some rocks that sat slightly above their position, two men rose up, firing down on them. Ezra spun, snapped off two quick pistol shots and dove for the cover of the rocks that were protecting Nathan and the wounded Ray.
"We're in a crossfire," he announced with a disdainful drawl. "What other delightful disaster can come of this?"
Ray groaned as Nathan pressed a folded bandage against his wound. Ray's eyes rolled back in his head as he fainted.
Josiah crawled toward Buck, and together they backed off into the underbrush where JD had rounded up the horses. Just as Buck stepped out from behind some cacti, crouched low to keep from being seen below the edge of the ridge, one of the men on the rise behind them stood, taking aim with his rifle.
Ezra yelled, "Buck!" and fired at the man, but not soon enough. Their shots were almost simultaneous. Ezra's shot caught the rifleman in the chest and he dropped. It was a little too late.
Josiah had just turned at the sound of Ezra's shout and saw the bullet catch Buck high on the leg where his holster ended. With a hoarse yell, Buck stumbled sideways. Josiah caught him and together they tumbled to the sand. Buck clutched at his leg as crimson stained his dusty tan pants leg. Josiah held Buck as the younger man arched against the surge of pain.
"JD," Josiah yelled. "Get over here." Josiah grabbed Buck's neckerchief from around his neck and pulled Buck's bloody fingers away from the wound.
As Josiah was hunched over wrapping it, Buck raised his pistol and croaked, "Duck," and fired past Josiah. The explosion of the .44 Peacemaker was deafening that close to the two men, and Josiah could feel the sting of powder from the muzzle blast on his neck as he tied off the makeshift bandage.
A big prison guard had appeared from nowhere through the greasewood with a shotgun, and Buck's slug had taken him square between the eyes. The man died with a surprised look on his face and fell face down a few yards away. The shotgun rolled harmlessly away.
Josiah shook his head at the ringing in his ears but did not bother to look at who Buck had shot. It didn't matter; it was the enemy.
From the underbrush came JD with his hands full of reins, fighting the frightened horses every step of the way. Josiah dragged Buck to his feet and JD held fast to Buck's big grey as Josiah shoved him into the saddle.
Buck was pale and sweating but his eyes never quit shifting and looking for more of the enemy, his Peacemaker gripped tightly.
Josiah swung up behind him, settling himself against Buck's back to steady him. JD vaulted into his saddle and they led Nathan's and Ezra's horses deeper into the underbrush, circling around toward where Nathan and Ezra were pinned down with the wounded and unconscious Ray.
Just as Nathan was hauling Ray to his feet and Ezra was covering them by alternating his gunfire between the rocks to the south and the edge of the ridge, five men stepped out from the underbrush, shotguns and rifles leveled on them.
Buck and Josiah, doubled on Buck's horse, were closest and two of the men swung their weapons to bear on them. JD was last, with the reins of Nathan's and Ezra's horses.
In a flash of desperation, JD dug in his heels and his horse bolted. As someone fired at the movement, he dropped over the side of his horse to cling by its mane with one toe hooked in his bedroll, hanging Comanche-style off the far side of his horse. Leading the other two horses, he rode for the flats beyond, with the horses as cover.
It apparently looked like the horses had merely bolted, because Buchannon's men let them go, unable to spot JD where he hung on the off side. Josiah watched him go with a brief couple of words of prayer.
Buck raised his hands, Peacemaker in full view. Josiah followed suit, showing his empty hands to their captors.
Nathan gently laid Ray down once again, kneeling beside him protectively as he realized they had lost this one. He raised his hands.
Ezra straightened up, dropped his weapons carefully onto some leaves instead of into the sand, and shrugged philosophically as he also surrendered.
"We got two wounded men, here," Josiah said. He nudged Buck. "Buck, are you all right?"
"Yeah," Buck said through gritted teeth.
Josiah nudged him again. "You aint gonna faint or anything," he said.
"No --" Buck said then reacted as Josiah kicked his good ankle from behind. "Oh --well--uuuuuhhhhhhh---" And Buck went limp and keeled out of the saddle. He hit and cried out at the pain, then slumped over to lie in the dirt, apparently unconscious. Josiah swung down, kneeling over him.
"Nathan, we've got to get these men help," Josiah said then turned to the man who seemed to be in charge of the prison guards, a big, ugly cuss with a shotgun. "For the love of God, these men are helpess, maybe dying."
"Less trouble that way," the ugly guard said and nudged Buck in the shoulder with his boot. Buck remained limp and seemed to be unconscious. He cocked his pistol land aimed it at Buck's head. "Put 'im out of his misery."
Josiah and Nathan exchanged horrified looks. It was Ezra who said, in a cool drawl that did not betray their desperation, "It'll cost you $500 if you kill him. He's got a 'Wanted-- Alive ' warrant out on him from Judge Travis. Seems he disgraced the Judge's daughter-in-law."
Josiah and Nathan reacted with appropriate surprise to Ezra's story. The gambler shrugged. "I was saving that bit of news for a more opportune time."
"You mean you were holdin' out on us--" Josiah said, playing along. "You were gonna turn him in yourself for the money."
"Whatever." Ezra shrugged again.
Buchannon's men laughed amongst themselves.
"This is too good -- got Ray and we got another one!" the man with the gun trained on Buck said. "Soon as we get Tanner's body, we'll be rich."
From up the edge of the ridge came Buchannon himself. One of the prison guards reported to him, and they could hear him repeat Ezra's news about the unconscious Buck. Buchannon grinned greedily.
"What about the rest of 'em?" the guard asked.
He pointed to Ray and Buck. "Bring them --" Then he pointed to Josiah, Ezra, and Nathan. "Shoot them."
A half dozen guns turned on the three men standing silently, prisoners. The guard turned his back and walked back down the rise after Buchannon.
"Lord, have mercy," Ezra said.
"Amen," Josiah added.
Chris Larabee lay trussed like a calf for branding in the hot sand of the arroyo. His vision had finally cleared after he had been slammed in the face by the big ugly S.O.B. who was Buchannon's right hand man. His line of sight told him that Vin could probably see everything that was going on if he was at a high point in town with his telescope. It was some comfort knowing that Vin was likely aware of his predicament, but no guarantee that rescue was possible.
Buchannon had deliberately left Chris lying next to the man he had killed when he had ridden in and things had turned ugly. It had been hours, and they both had been lying in the hot sun. Chris knew lack of water was getting to him along with the blow he had taken to the face. But at least he was alive so far. The pain and the thirst he could deal with. Things were going to get worse -- it would not be long before the dead man would get his revenge in smell alone.
Chris had to breathe through his mouth since he nose was packed with dried blood. He concentrated on letting go of the pain in his face and the ache in his head, trying to move as slowly as possible to not to alert the guards.
While Chris lay assessing the situation, the guards began hurrying toward the rise at the end of the arroyo, spreading out, guns drawn. Gunfire erupted moments later. A bellowing shout had to be Buck, and from the dust and the whinneying horses, most of the other six were up there.
Chris inched backwards on a his side toward the dead man. They had not taken away the man's gunbelt though the gun was gone. Chris hoped that the man carried a belt knife someplace on him. It was gruesome work rifling the dead man's pockets, blindly groping and touching the man's body while he watched the ridge for a sign that Buck and the rest of them had come through and would be coming after him.
As Chris worked at searching the dead man blindly, his mind fixed on Buck who always seemed to be someplace around when Chris found himself in tight spots. It had been like that for a long time, since the War. Another time of blood, death, and danger ...
More gunfire came from the ridge, and more shouts that interrupted Chris's wandering thoughts. The plot to stop Buchannon was secondary right now --he needed to get away. They could worry about Ray and Vin's problems later.
He finally found a folding knife in the watch pocket of the dead man's pants, and managed to work it out without dropping it when the gunfire on the ridge stopped. Figures were moving around, and he could see Buchannon's men walking back toward the arroyo. One man was being carried over the shoulder of one of the guards, while another man was supported between two more, dragging his leg, which was soaked with blood from a leg wound.
Buck. Chris closed his eyes for a moment as a rush of angry emotion threatened his concentration. If they got Buck and Ray, then what had happened to JD, Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra?
Watching through slitted eyes, feigning unconsciousness, Chris saw them bring Ray and Buck closer. Buck they shoved down to lie beside him, while Ray was carried across to the shade from some greasewood and carefully laid down. Blood covered one side of his back and his head lolled limply.
Buck groaned and cursed as he hit the ground beside Chris, and continued an unabaited stream of profanity as the guards tied his hands behind him. One of them leveled a kick at him after one of Buck's particularly personal descriptions, and Buck slumped back with a grunt.
Walking away, the guards were laughing.
"Nice talk, Buck," Chris murmured without moving.
"You alive, you old dog?" Buck asked. "You looked pretty gone from where we were."
"Yeah. This plan ain't workin'. You got another one?"
"Stayin' alive, mainly."
Behind his back, Chris managed to open the knife and start sawing at the ropes that bound him. He felt the blade knick him, and he winced at the sharp sting. The handle of the knife grew slippery from his blood and Chris concentrated on not dropping it before he cut through the ropes.
"Hurt bad?" Chris asked.
"Not as bad as it looks," Buck said. "Ezra told 'em I was worth $500 so they wouldn't shoot me outright." Buck looked over his shoulder and flashed Chris a grin. "Said I dishonored Judge Travis's daughter-in-law and the Judge wanted to hang me."
"Sounds good to me." Chris said, without telling Buck which part he was talking about -- the dishonoring or the hanging or Ezra's idea that saved Buck.
Chris felt the ropes give way finally, "What about the others?"
Buck looked back toward the ridge. "Don't look good, pard. Buchannon said to kill 'em."
At that moment, several gunshots echoed down the arroyo. Buchannon's men, who were standing across the arroyo while one of them bandaged Ray, turned to look across to where Chris and Buck lay. One of them said something and they laughed.
Several more shots followed and Buck cursed them all for their backshooting cowardice. They only laughed again.
Buck turned to look at Chris, who lay rigidly still with his eyes tightly shut in silent pain and fury. Through gritted teeth, he asked, "Who?"
"Ezra, Josiah, Nathan," Buck said. His voice was choked with anger and pain. "JD got away." He paused and cleared his throat. "At least the kid made it."
"Yeah," was all Chris said. This had gone to hell too fast, and it had cost the lives of three good men, maybe more. A sense of loss like he had not felt in years washed over him, reminding him of why he had never wanted to find himself with friends like this again. The pain of loss was too great, adding to all that still churned inside him relentlessly -- from the men he had lost in the War, to friends riding dangerous trails, through losing Sarah and Adam. He had vowed to keep his distance, never to get close and had managed just fine for a long time. Until Four Corners.
He bit back the pain of all his ghosts along with the physical pain from his beating to concentrate again.
It was another minute before Chris inched a stiff, aching arm under his body to the front. He still lay as if his hands were tied behind him, with the visible arm to the back to maintain the illusion that he was still tied and helpless. With the other arm, he reached to cut the ropes that held Buck's hands behind his back.
Meanwhile, Buck lay more quietly now, his energy seemingly sapped by his last explosion of temper when he heard the gunfire that heralded the execution of their three friends.
"Chris," Buck said as he felt the knife at his wrists. "Gotta tell ya, pard. I ain't doin' so good. This leak in my leg ain't stopping and I ain't feelin' too lively. You run for it, you'll have to leave me."
"Shut up, Buck," Chris said. "You ain't never left me, I ain't leavin' you."
It was then that Buchannon approached, a gun in his hand. "Larabee, you're next --" He leveled the six-gun at Chris's head and cocked it.
As Buchanon disappeared down the rise, one of his men heaved the unconscious Ray over a shoulder and started down the ridge toward the arroyo. A heavy-set guard approached Buck, and kicked the gunslinger's wounded leg. Buck couldn't supress a snarl of pain, and gave up feigning unconciousness. The guard waved over two other henchmen, who hauled their prisoner roughly to his feet. Ezra noted the disturbing amount of blood staining the sand where Buck had so briefly lain. Seeing the pallor on his friend's face as the guards half-dragged him away turned the gambler's stomach; he realized that in spite of his ruse, the chances of Buck surviving the ungentle ministrations of his captors might not be good. Ezra scowled; this plan was not working.
"You got somethin' you want to say, mister?"
The heavy-set guard swaggered up to Ezra, his thumbs hooked in the gunbelt slung around his waist beneath his drooping belly. The man had expensive tastes, Ezra noted, if not style. Nearly everything the guard wore was adorned with silver -his hatband, the lapels of his grey duster, his gunbelt, the knuckles of his black gloves. Unfortunately, nearly everything the man wore was also cut for a less generously proportioned individual.
"I handed Wilmington over to your Mr. Buchanon virtually on a silver platter," Ezra snapped, "And he repays me with my death. What do you think?"
The man shrugged and grinned. "Life's tough, ain't it."
"Indeed it is. Especially when I must share it with such reprehensible curs as yourself."
Ezra recognized the familiar look of confusion that crossed the guard's face. He sighed, casting his gaze skyward with veiled impatience.
Hence he had barely enough time to flinch away as the beefy henchman lashed out with his fist. A thick, fiery sting welled up across Ezra's brow where the guard's studded glove connected, and he staggered backwards. The trees and hills around him rocked and dipped sickeningly, but he managed to stay on his feet. A dull ache settled in as his head stopped reeling; he squeezed his right eye shut against the blood trickling around it. The guard took another step toward him with the menacing look of a man who knows he's been insulted, but isn't quite sure how. Another guard stopped him.
"Ah hell, Morris, let's just get this done."
Morris continued glaring at Ezra as he waved the others over with a jerk of his hand. The gambler seethed with frustration. He had, at times, recognized the possibility that he might die before he had attained the wealth and stature of which he had dreamt. In fact, since joining forces with Mr. Larabee and company, the potential for being shot down in the street by some unwashed, drunken outlaw had increased ten-fold. Now, though, as he, Nathan and Josiah actually faced certain death at the hands of a bunch of smug, undereducated, odoriferous brutes, the gambler believed he had reached the pinnacle of humiliation. It was absolutely unacceptable. Unfortunately, it appeared likewise unavoidable. Ezra wiped irritably at the sticky mess on his face, cursing under his breath as the blood crept in and stung his eye.
A couple of the guards herded Nathan and Josiah to where Ezra stood, then joined their comrades, guns drawn, lined up a few feet in front of the prisoners. Morris glanced down his row of men, caught the eye of a lanky, sallow-faced boy, and grinned.
"Go ahead, Denny. Take your pick."
A boy moved forward, one of a pair of twin Colts clutched in his right hand. The stiffness in his eager steps underlined his nervous bravado. Ezra was reminded of JD; the only difference between this boy and the former sheriff of Four Corners was a bowler hat and a hell of a better choice in friends. The young man sneered at Nathan.
"On your knees, darkie."
Nathan didn't move. The boy moved nose-to-nose with him and hissed, "I said, on your knees!"
Nathan remained still and silent. The young guard swung back and slammed his fist into Nathan's chest. When the healer doubled over, gasping for breath, the boy struck again, knocking him to the ground. Josiah lunged forward and flattened one of the guards with a powerful left hook, but two others immediately converged on him, using their guns as clubs; the ex-preacher dropped to his knees under the blows.
This is ludicrous, Ezra thought as he watched the guards beat his friends down; he'd never been dealt such a lousy hand in his life. The scrawny youth grasped a handful of Nathan's coat and hauled him to his knees. The healer held his hands up in surrender; but as the guard moved away, Ezra saw Nathan's hands drift tentatively down toward the back of his neck. Ezra tried not to stare. I'll be damned, he thought.
With a small smile, the gambler reached under his coat to pull his handkerchief from his vest pocket. Morris swung his gun around at the movement, growling, "Don't you try nothin', buddy."
"Not to worry," Ezra drawled, dabbing gingerly at his brow with the handkerchief. "The fact is, I couldn't care less what you do to Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sanchez." He saw Nathan start, and the gambler's blood chilled as he realized the healer might actually believe his words. This wouldn't work if Nathan's distrust kept him from being ready to strike. He fought to keep the tension from his face and continued smoothly,
"My only concern is that you and your compatriots might miss the golden opportunity presented by this unique situation." He smiled broadly, folding the bloodied handkerchief and tucking it neatly into his pocket.
The guard's eyes narrowed. "What are you talkin' about?"
"I'm talking about a deal, my friend. In case you hadn't noticed, I am obviously cut from a far more lucrative cloth than my two companions." He paused, swiping elegantly at a bit of dirt on the sleeve of his navy jacket. "I would be willing to pay you handsomely to spare my life."
By now, the rest of the guards, while keeping their guns trained on Nathan and Josiah, had turned their attention to Ezra. Morris glanced back at them. The gambler stole a look at Josiah, who was watching him with a shadow of suspicion in his heavy-browed eyes; and at Nathan, who stared straight ahead, expressionless. Ezra cursed inwardly; he hoped that at least Josiah would read the plea in his eyes.
His expression remained calm, his smile steady, as Morris turned back to him.
"How much you talkin'?"
"Name your price."
Morris hostered his gun and crossed his arms while while the other guards continued to cover the prisoners. "Let's see the money."
Ezra dropped the smile, and colored his words with contempt. "Do I look like a bank? I do not make it a habit of carrying that kind of cash on my person. We will return to Four Corners, and I will pay you there. Now, do we have a deal?"
The guard paused, flicked his gaze at the sandy rise in the direction Buchanon had taken. A couple of the other guards glanced at each other, waiting. Finally Morris said, "What makes you think we need your money, Southerner? Mr. Buchanon takes good care of us." The guard's dark eyes traveled over the gambler's dusty, but obviously well-tailored, clothing. He scratched his full chin, ambling forward to stand in front of Ezra. "Though, you dress awful fancy. I wonder what else you got on you besides that jacket that mighta cost a pretty penny."
He patted the front of Ezra's jacket, and then slipped a hand in to pull out the gambler's silver flask. He uncapped it and sniffed the contents.
"We might just make some money off you after all." He grinned nastily and began to screw the cap back on the flask. "Hell, I bet that gold tooth of yours is worth -"
Ezra lashed out, grabbed Morris by the shirt-front and jerked him forward. The startled man stumbled, off-balance; using the big man to shield him from the other gunmen, Ezra yanked the guard's gun from it's holster and swiftly shot down one of the men covering Josiah.
The burly ex-preacher lunged from his knees at one of his captors; the guard's revolver fired harmlessly into the air as they grappled. Several more shots rang out as Ezra swung his gun toward the man covering Nathan; the gambler felt Morris flinch, saw the hollow surprise wash over his face, and felt the man's meaty hands clutch the hem of Ezra's coat as he sagged. Ezra staggered backwards, reflexively trying to hold the huge man up with one arm. The gambler glanced up and caught a glimpse of the sallow-faced youth, horror and confusion puckering the boy's face as he wildly squeezed off shots. Ezra didn't even have time to bring his weapon around - a terrible fire bloomed in his chest, silence sprung up around him, as he collapsed....
...words, unnaturally loud.
"Looks like we got us a stand-off, brother Nate." Josiah's rumbling voice.
"Yup." Nathan's voice, even louder, with a hint of fear.
Ezra opened his eyes. He lay across Morris' sodden, bullet-torn back, his gun limp in his outstretched hand. He was unbearabley hot, trapped between the sun and the warm body beneath him. He needed to get off of the corpse - but as he stirred, agony collided with sudden fear as a voice snapped, "Don't move!"
Slowly, he lifted his gaze:
Two guards lay dead - Ezra remembered shooting the one, and another had fallen victim to the knife protruding from his chest. The young guard Morris had called Denny stood a few feet away, a discarded Colt at his feet, it's twin clutched in his white-knuckled hands. His aim twitched erratically back and forth between Josiah and Nathan. Nathan crouched, a knife in his hand; his arm was half-raised, halted by the frightened boy's command. Josiah stood farther away, the black nose of his revolver hovering not two inches from the freshly bruised face of another guard. No one moved.
The young guard's hands trembled violently; he said in a thin, shaky voice, "Just drop it, mister!"
In the creeping silence that followed, Ezra slowly, painfully tightened his grip on his gun. Agony burned through his muscles, lit sparks in his bones; he clenched his jaw against the bile that suddenly clogged his throat.
When Josiah didn't do as Denny said, the boy steadied his aim, letting it linger on Nathan, "I tol' you to drop it, or I blow your friend to hell!"
Josiah shrugged, saying with philosophical calm, "You shoot him and I shoot your friend, well, Denny, then it's just the two of us." Ezra heard the devlish grin in the ex-preacher's voice. "You want to take a chance on who's the better shot?"
For a moment, the scene remained frozen. Then Denny's hands began to shake again, and the gambler heard the nervous swallow and the whisper, "Ah, hell -"
Ezra heaved his pistol up and fired; almost simultaneously Denny's gun roared. The shot missed Nathan as the boy yelped and flinched, a small red stain appearing on the underside of his sleeve. Ezra heard the bark of Josiah's gun; before Denny could reclaim his aim, the ex-preacher whirled on him with the revolver.
As Denny stared into Josiah's calm, blood-spattered face, his arm drooped. He paid no attention as Nathan slowly stood, made no move as the healer approached him and pried the Colt from his hands.
Ezra laid his cheek wearily on Morris' back, feeling the sticky wetness of the dead man's blood. Josiah said something to the young guard, but the gambler wasn't listening; he was trying to calm the fear that rattled through his body. If God doesn't play with a marked deck, he thought, I will eated my sainted mother's French luggage.
He let go of his gun. As he drew his arms up, pressing his palms against the ground, his whole body seemed to go numb; the landscape began a slow roll as he tried to push himself off the sweltering corpse beneath him. He stopped moving, closing his eyes and gritting his teeth against the nausea and the strange, cold ache that enveloped his upper body. When he opened his eyes again, the world had reversed, and the blinding white mid-summer sky began to plummet toward him. His heart constricted in terror and he struggled to cry out, to call for help. Josiah's voice drifted across the desert: "He gonna be all right?"
From somewhere further, perhaps the sun, Nathan: "Know for sure in a minute...."
Vin had spent his time watching disjointed parts of the events through his telescope. Anyone who did not know the tracker, who might have seen him leaning against his chosen lookout post could be forgiven for thinking that he had not a care in the world.
Mary knew him, however, and noticed the tightness around his eyes, the clenched muscle in his jaw. She touched his arm reassuringly, as she offered him a mug of coffee, the worry evident in her own eyes.
He thanked her with a half smile, taking a drink, before raising the telescope back to his eye. Mary jumped, as he stiffened suddenly, peering intently through the tube.
A cloud of dust in the distance coalesced into the forms of three horses, one with a figure hanging precariously off the side. With just a worried look, Vin gave the mug back to Mary, and ran to his own horse, mounting in an instant, and galloping out to meet the expanding dust cloud.
Still in his precarious hanging position, JD was riding towards town at breakneck speed, the horses galvanized by their own fright. When he thought it was safe, unable to hear the whine of bullets above the thundering hooves any longer, he tried to pull himself up. He had done the maneuver before, easily, but today luck was definitely against him. He almost made it. He gave a yell as his supporting foot slipped from the stirrup.
With one foot still wedged behind the bedroll, he held on for dear life to the mane with both hands, desperation keeping him glued to the sweating beast. Instinctively he knew that it would be death to let go. Even if his own horse by some miracle missed him, at least one of the pair behind would have no choice but to trample over him.
He tried to get his foot back to the stirrup, to try and find the leverage he needed to get himself back in the saddle, but he could not catch the swinging metal.
He tried then, to catch the loose reins, and slow the animal down. Holding on grimly with just the one hand, he made a grab for them, but missed. He made a grab for them again catching them, but they slipped through his fingers like water.
Screaming, now, at the horse to stop, JD could only hope that he could hold on until the animal ran out of steam of its own volition.
A sudden jerk as the horse came to an abrupt halt dislodged him from his perch. He only had time to wonder why, before he hit the ground, landing in a heap. He lay there for a moment in the dust, enjoying the sudden calm and stillness, happy just to be in one piece.
"You gonna lay there all day?" drawled a familiar voice.
"Vin?" JD scrambled to his feet. "You're supposed to be hiding!" He looked around vaguely for his bowler, which was nowhere to be seen. "The others need help, we gotta do something -!"
"I think you gotta get back on your horse." Vin would have preferred to let the horses' rest, but right now, his concern lay with his partners, and he did not know that they had the time to look after the animals.
JD remounted somewhat stiffly, and turned his horse around, trotting beside Vin, with Nathan and Ezra's horses still in tow.
"Where are we going, Vin?" asked JD eagerly. "How are we gonna rescue Chris and the rest?"
Vin smiled in amusement, the kid's optimism was contagious. It never occurred to the younger man, that the others might not even be alive.
"I was kinda hopin' you might like to show me where you left 'em, before we think about rescuin' 'em."
"Oh, right. I knew that."
The pair rode in silence for a while, taking a slightly circuitous route toward the ridge. Vin insisted they be cautious avoiding the camp area completely, although he would not let the horses go too fast, they needed to get their wind back.
They had dismounted at the bottom of the rise, electing to go up on foot, when the gunshots rang through the air. They looked at each other, and without a word, charged up the rise, abandoning caution to the wind. They came up to some thick brush, and could hear indistinguishable voices from the other side.
Vin waved JD to approach the sound of voices from the opposite side of the brush. Shotgun at the ready, he edged around the vegetation in time to hear Josiah's unmistakable deep voice ask. "He gonna be all right?" and Nathan's reply from where he bent over Ezra.
Josiah grinned happily at the sight of the tracker, and was about to comment, when JD stepped out behind him.
"Hey, I'm glad you're okay! I was kind of worried for a while there." He glanced at Nathan, still bent over the gambler. "Is Ezra all right?" he asked, worried.
Nathan did not answer right away.
Vin filled the brief silence. "JD, can you see what's happenin' over the ridge?" The kid glanced again toward Nathan and Ezra, frightened by the amount of blood being soaked up by the dust, before nodding and making his way to a point where he could see the events below.
The tracker turned to Josiah. "So what happened? Who's the boy?"
Josiah related the details of the ambush while Vin retrieved some rope and tied Denny's hands together behind him. When he was done, he commented, "Might want to gag him, too."
Vin walked over and crouched down besides Nathan, "How's he doin'?"
"I done what I can." The healer shook his head, "He needs to get back to town - "
"Vin!" JD's voice was urgent. The kid was looking over the ridge, beckoning him with a panicked expression.
The tracker hurried over and squatted beside the younger man. He looked at the spot that JD indicated, and could quite clearly see Buchanan pointing his gun at Chris Larabee's head.
Chris Larabee looked down the barrel of the six-gun.
He had looked down such barrels several times before, and, as he had on those previous occasions, he felt an enormous sense of relief, almost serenity. For just an instant, he felt a cold relief that his tormented life was about to end; that he was about to join Sarah and Adam in death. For just an instant. For less than a heartbeat. Before the weight of his promise, responsibility even, to Buck brought him back.
"No!" The pain was evident in Buck's voice. "You kill him and I'll damn well come and - " But no one was listening to what Buck was going to do.
Buchanan saw the gunfighter's eyes turn to defiant ice. But before that, he was sure he had seen something else, something he had seen in prisoners before, when they were about to be executed.
"You want to die." Buchanan whispered as he realized what it was. Unconsciously, his finger loosened its pressure on the trigger. He hesitated, while he tried to process that information and work out how he might use it.
Chris used that hesitation, pushing himself off the ground, ignoring already abused muscles, and charging the man, catching him low.
Instinctively, Buchanan squeezed the trigger of his gun, whose bullet went harmlessly into the air as the pair fell to the ground. Chris grabbed the six-gun and tried to wrestle the weapon away. But the other man would not give up so easily, bringing his own head sharply up. He caught the gunfighter sharply on the nose, stunning him. They rolled again, still wrestling. Buchanan took his advantage, using his spare hand to grab Chris round the throat. Chris' already limited strength gave out about then, his struggles becoming rapidly weaker.
In a last ditch effort, the leader of the seven brought his knee up into the other man's groin, making him yelp. Almost simultaneously, a shot sounded, and the sudden weight of Buchanan on top of him almost made Chris pass out altogether.
To be continued . . .
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