Fork in the Road

by Beth

Chapter 4

Josiah helped the stage driver load up the luggage for the passengers. David shook the big mans hand in appreciation. "If you ever come to southern California Mr. Sanchez please stop by."

"I will do that," Josiah stepped up to the boardwalk and watched as Emma hurried her two children out of the hotel. The children ran to their father and he helped them up onto the stage.

"Ezra," Emma squeezed his hand and handed him a small velvet pouch, "from Hanna." She smiled kissed him on the cheek and headed for the stage where her husband helped her up into the coach. She couldn't stay and face him while he opened the pouch, too many memories would come flooding back and she didn't want to face that, not now, not after seven years.

Ezra looked at her then back down at the small black velvet bag almost afraid of what was inside. He could feel his heart racing and he knew if he didn't get control he would be an open book for everyone to read.

"We'll expect you for a visit," David waved to Ezra who in turn smiled back and waved as the man disappeared into the coach and with a crack of the reins the horses were on their way to California.

Josiah stepped up to the gambler as he watched the stage disappear out of town, "that is a real nice family," he acknowledged.

"Yes indeed, Mr. Sanchez, yes indeed." Ezra stepped off the boardwalk and headed for the saloon he needed a drink and a good game of cards.

Josiah watched him cross the street and noted the two strangers who rode into town then stopped in front of the saloon and headed inside. He headed for the church thinking that some time working on the old building would give him some reflecting he was in need of.

The two strangers grabbed a couple glasses of beers and seated themselves in a corner table as to watch the happenings around them. They had been hired to bring down the seven lawmen. The man who was paying them gave them strict instructions to follow. Wade McKinley was a wealthy landowner who'd been suffering financial losses since the seven men took over protecting the town for Judge Travis. The longer they stayed the more angry he would get until finally he hired a man who said he could take care of the problem. Mark Mercer was a former southern cornel who'd made his living before the war hunting down runaway slaves and after the war he'd made his living hiring out to anyone willing to pay him to do a job; particularly a job that involved hunting men down. Mercer knew by reputation the seven were a force to be reckoned with and in no way was Mercer going to take these men on without being ready. He learned long ago that the best way to bring a man to his knees was to conquer them in spirit, and in order to do this with the seven he needed to divide them. Until he learned how to divide the men he would not risk himself or his men. If Mercer was anything he was through. For the past few weeks he and his first in command had come into town to do nothing but watch the seven protectors and learn their habits.

Chris finally rode into town a little past four in the afternoon. He'd stayed out at his cabin needing the piece and quiet. He needed the time to sort out his feelings about the information he'd heard about one of his men. For some reason he could not explain his feelings. If the information he'd heard was about any of the other men he may have felt differently; he would have felt differently. He'd become a killer after the death of his wife and son, he didn't hide it, he wore his grief like a badge and anyone who came between that, faced him head on. But now he questioned his own pattern of grief and that of one of his men. He entered the saloon and pulled out a chair next to Buck who greeted him with an enthusiastic smile.

"Hay Chris, didn't know if you were going to make it to town today."

"Buck," he responded quietly not wanting to carry on a conversation.

The saloon girl seated in Buck's lap quickly got to her feet after Buck gently slapped her backside, "why don't you go and get us a couple beers?" he asked knowing Chris was not in a mood to tolerate his womanizing.

"New girl?" Chris asked watching her get the beer.

Buck smiled big, "yep," is all he would answer.

Josiah and Nathan came in rolling down their sleeves after spending the afternoon working on the church. They both pulled out a couple of chairs and joined their friends. Josiah was hesitant to speak after the conversation he'd had with Chris the day before. He thought of all people, Chris should know about wanting to keep your own personal past your own, he'd made that very clear to Buck.

"Where's Vin?" Chris asked not looking up just expecting an answer. He sipped on the beer the saloon girl had brought him.

"Saw him ride out for patrol a few minutes ago," Nathan said leaning back in his chair. He noted the silence between Chris and Josiah.

"Anything happen in town today?"

"Nothin worth mentionin'," Buck said his eyes stemmed elsewhere.

"Mr. and Mrs. Williams left today," Josiah finally spoke up, "haven't seen Ezra since." He looked for a reaction from Chris. Chris didn't give any he just took another drink of his beer.

"Probably getting ready for a long night at the tables," Nathan joked, "I've seen a couple new faces in town."

Chris was stewing and the conversation of the men around him was barley being heard. He wanted, needed to know if Ezra had abandoned his family. If his wife had perished what had become of his children? Did he leave them for someone else to take care of them? Family had meant a lot to Chris it was a sanctum to him and nobody should destroy such a place of honor.

Ezra sat near the window of his room looking out onto the town night was beginning to fall and it was the time of day that made him feel comfortable. He held tightly in his hand the black velvet bag that Emma had given him hours before unsure if he wanted to open it. A lot had passed through his head the past day and a half, things he had not thought about for seven years. No, he'd thought about his wife and children, how could he not. But now having some of those memories come back to face him in the flesh had him feeling autonomous. He'd shut himself away from everything trying to put his poker face back in place before he had to face the men that would be undoubtedly in the saloon drinking their beers and enjoying the antics of JD and Buck. It bothered him that Josiah knew something, it had been obvious that Emma had spoken to him about such things and he was unsure how to handle it. His past was his own and he had never been in the habit of sharing it with anyone. It showed a weakness, it was a way for others to know him better than he wanted them to and that scared him.

Ezra slowly opened the black bag and dumped the contents out onto the palm of his hand and looked in wonder at the gold locket and the diamond ring. The ring had been Hanna's, he remembered in the last letter he got from her, she'd mentioned giving the ring and a few other pieces of jewelry to her sister before she went to New York for safe keeping. The ring was small, it had been all Ezra could afford at the time of their wedding. Hanna had cherished it. The locket had been given to her by her mother and now contained an old photo of Hanna, and his children Emma and Mathew. He rubbed his thumb over the photo as if in some way he could touch them again. Quickly he shut the charm and put the jewelry in a secret pocket in his red jacket. Making sure his poker face was firmly in place he made his way to the door and down to the saloon. He couldn't hide forever.

JD entered the saloon grinning from ear to ear, he'd just ridden back from the Wells farm where he had been helping repair some roof shingles and had gotten kissed by the lovely Miss Casey.

Buck smiled big knowing all to well the smile JD was now sporting. "How's it goin' kid."

"Great," he grabbed a chair and sat down, "Mrs. Nettie sent Vin some jerky, said he needed it for his long rides on patrol." JD put the jerky wrapped in a cotton linen bag on the table.

"Did ya sneak a bite JD?" Josiah asked knowing the kid would have, any man alive with a gut would eat Mrs. Nettie's jerky. It was the best anyone of them had ever tried.

"Don't tell Vin though," JD mischievously smiled.

Ezra made his way down the stairs looking refreshed; he smiled to the table of men and went to the bar to get a bottle of whisky. Chris stiffened in his chair and Buck immediately took notice, it was a move he'd seen the gunslinger take many times before particularly when he was after something. Josiah noticed to and he watched as Ezra immediately took a full swig of whisky no doubt a drink needed to keep his poker face in place.

Ezra noticed the cold stare of Larabee and realized he needed a drink, possibly to keep his courage up or maybe the courage to walk out. He was in a way glad that Josiah had the foresight to warn him about Chris's anger. "Mr. Larabee," Ezra turned around to face the man, his face impassive but knowing.

"Thought you were sleeping brother," Josiah said trying to break the tension, "thought maybe you were planning on a long night at the poker table."

"Fortuitous as that may sound Mr. Sanchez, I believe my game will be solitaire for this evening," Ezra smiled knowing Josiah's tactic. He appreciated the man trying to divert Chris's attention.

Chris got up and walked over to the bar and pored himself a drink. "I think we need to talk about something." Chris said facing the mirror to the back of the bar.

"And that would be what?"

"What's going on?" Nathan leaned over to Josiah, Buck and JD's attention now on the preacher.

"I believe our brothers are about to come to heads."

"Why?" JD asked looking now at Ezra and Chris.

"This has been bound to happen for a long while," Buck noted knowing Chris had always had reservations about the conman.

"No brother," Josiah interjected, "this is something different." He sounded almost sad, and the rest of the men turned to look at the two gunslingers.

While Ezra faced the swinging doors of the saloon Chris continued to stare at him in the mirror. "I think you know what we need to talk about," Chris said taking another drink of his whisky.

"As intrigued as I am by the conversation we are now having Mr. Larabee, perhaps we should continue this at another time." Ezra started to straighten.

"Did you abandon your family?" Chris asked turning to face him it was more of an accusation than a question. Josiah, Nathan, Buck and JD all watched figuring they may have to come between the two men before things came to blows.

"I have Mr. Larabee over the past year given you the respect of grieving for your family without comment. I have never asked you questions about the past of your life that you hold dear. Show me the same respect and leave it be." Ezra looked at him unwavering needing some kind of a response but was not given one.

Chris seemed to take into consideration what Ezra had said and everyone at the table seemed to relax. JD looked confused as well as Buck and Nathan.

JD tapped Josiah on the shoulder, "Ezra has a family?" he asked hoping the man would answer.

"Not anymore JD," Josiah said quietly and continued to watch the two men.

Ezra started to walk away but was pulled around quickly by Chris who was not willing to let the subject go. Ezra triggered his derringer and pointed it at him; his face was serious and full of warning. "I have killed men for less Chris," Ezra looked at him pleading with his eyes to back away. Ezra had pulled his other gun and had it pointed toward the table unsure of how the others would react. He had protected himself in all sorts of circumstances and this was turning out to be no different.

Chris backed away surprised by Ezra's reaction and more so the determination in his eyes, "this isn't over." Chris said flatly staring him down.

"Nor will it ever be Mr. Larabee," Ezra backed toward the door, "gentlemen," he tipped his hat and was out the door.

"What the hell was that about?" Buck jumped up, not having liked the fact Ezra had pointed a gun at them.

"Nothing that concerns you Buck." Chris said before returning to the bar for another drink.

"The hell it doesn't!" Buck got up and headed to face his long time friend.

JD stood up confused at what just transpired but concerned about his friend, "I'm going after him." He stated expecting someone to go with him.

"Let him be JD," Josiah spoke up a little ashamed of himself for letting things go so far. He felt Ezra probably needed some time to think.

"You put a straight razor to my throat for talking about your family Chris and you expect Ezra is going to react any different!" Buck was angry and was having a hard time controlling it.

Josiah smiled, Buck was right and so was JD. "Maybe we should go after him," he stated looking at the people around him.

JD grabbed his hat and headed for the stables figuring that is where Ezra may have headed. Josiah got up and looked at Chris before following him.

"I'm going with em'," Buck announced fiercely grabbing his hat and storming out the bat wing doors. Chris took another drink from his shot glass and stared hard at his reflection in the mirror.

"I bess go see if anyone needs my help," Nathan got up and hesitantly headed for the livery.

Mercer and his second in command listened intently to conversation at hand. "This is going to be easier than I thought," Mercer said finishing his beer, his second nodded. "Divide and conquer," he smiled.

"So who do we go after first?" Sebastian played with his empty shot glass.

"Seems the tracker is out riding patrol, we hit him first and the rest shall follow." Mercer slowly stood up, "get the rest of the men together, maybe we can do this all tonight."

Ezra quickly headed for the livery, he'd put his weapons away, wishing he'd never drawn them. Darkness had set and it was just a few fires burning in the street and the light of the moon that lit his way. He had been mistaken to react the way he had, but he'd lived life on his own with no one to watch his back but him and he didn't know any other way to react.

A single lantern lighted the livery and Ezra swung the doors open wider so he could see enough to saddle the Admiral and head out for a long ride. He whistled and in the end stall he could see the Admiral poke his head out. Ezra quickly grabbed his tack and pulled his trusted horse out. The Admiral responded to Ezra's haste with knowing ease. His owner was distressed and it was part of his responsibility to be as compliant as possible. Ezra tightened the girth then flipped the stirrup back into place then quickly mounted and headed for the hills.

JD entered the livery stable just as Ezra headed out. He quickly grabbed his tack and headed for his horse. Josiah and Buck soon followed, Buck was still aggravated but was calming down. Nathan entered the livery to see his friends saddling their mounts and quietly wondered to himself if he shouldn't also go along.

Buck looked at Nathan and could tell he was hesitant at what he should do, "hey Nate," Buck said while cinching up his tall gray, "why don't you stay and keep an eye on Chris," he looked to the healer, "he'll probably drink himself into a stupor and he'll need someone to make sure he don't try and get home like that."

Nathan nodded his head in agreement before turning to go back to the saloon.

Chapter 5

Josiah, Buck and JD caught up with Ezra six miles from town. The Admiral had pulled up lame and Ezra was found rubbing the horse's right front cannon bone.

"Problem Brother?" Josiah announced his arrival not wanting to be at the wrong end of gun.

Ezra didn't say anything he just continued working on The Admiral leg. The horse nudged Ezra in the shoulder as if he was saying "enough," but the gambler continued.

"Your gonna rub that leg clean off him," Buck said wanting to get some kind of a response out of him.

"What happened Ezra?" JD asked. "Did he step in a gopher hole?" the kid dismounted his horse and walked up to The Admiral and gave the horse a reassuring pat on the neck.

"I believe so Mr. Dunne," Ezra stood up and rubbed his horse's face.

"You weren't thinking on heading out were ya pard?" Buck asked.

"Out for a midnight stroll I assure you. What pray tell are you all doing out here?" Ezra looked at the men.

"It's a long walk back to town," Josiah dismounted avoiding the question, "we could camp here till morning, or double back." Josiah squatted down to check the Admiral's leg.

"As much as I would relish the thought of my feather bed, I believe a long walk back to town my further hinder my mounts leg."

"It ain't swollen none," JD said watching as Josiah carefully examined the horse's leg. The Admiral reached back and tried to bite Josiah on his shoulder but was stopped by Ezra's quick hand.

"Damn Ezra ain't ya ever taught that horse better." Buck said after noticing the horse's apprehensive behavior with the other two men.

"This horse, Mr. Wilmington, has saved my life on many occasion." Ezra rubbed the bridge of the animals nose.

"There's a decent place to camp just up the way a bit," Buck said pointing to an area with tree cover and close to a water source. "And it wont be to far for your horse to walk." Ezra simply nodded his head in agreement, "JD," Buck called to the kid, "Why don't you and Josiah head on up there and set up camp for us."

"Sure Buck," JD said mounting up, Josiah followed suit.

Buck watched them ride on ahead and he watched as Ezra carefully and patiently walked his injured friend at a slow and easy pace. "Hey Ezra?" Buck said walking up beside him. Ezra looked at him knowing what it was the ladies man needed to know. Buck paused unsure of how to ask his question, "why did you pull your gun on us back at the saloon?" Buck looked on ahead not sure if he wanted to hear the answer.

"I pulled a gun on your long time friend Mr. Wilmington, it would have been your duty to protect him. I'm not a fool." Ezra said matter of fact.

"You think one of us may have shot you?"

"One should never assume you have allies Mr. Wilmington, particularly in my line of work." Ezra's face remained placid. He could see the light of the fire JD and Josiah were working on and tried to focus his attention there.

"Would you have shot Chris?"

Ezra thought a moment before answering then a smile came to his face, "I do not know, however it may have been beneficial for me to."

Buck laughed outright and Ezra chuckled lightly. The Admiral stumbled pushing Ezra forward. He turned back toward his mount and calmly stroked his neck while checking his leg again. Buck held up while Ezra took the time to check his ailing friend.

"How long you had that horse?" Buck asked changing the angle of conversation.

"I won him in a poker game before the war."

"How old is he?" Buck was surprised not thinking the horse was older than ten.

"He was only a two year old when I got him," Ezra stood up and stoked the Admiral's neck. He started walking again at a much slower pace.

By the time they made it to camp Josiah and JD had a huge fire going and had coffee brewing. Josiah smiled inwardly seeing Buck and Ezra enter camp in better moods than he'd left them in. "Need some help with your horse Brother?" he asked watching as Ezra carefully and patiently unsaddled his animal. He watched the gambler slowly and gingerly examined the horse's leg. Josiah had to smile at the man's gentle nature when it came to the animal and he figured they had been friends longer than most men.

"Thank you but I doubt if the Admiral would approve of your assistance." Ezra grabbed his hat after the Admiral playfully grabbed it off his head.

"Is he walken on that leg any better?" JD said getting a closer look at the horse's bum leg.

"Maybe he just stepped wrong, should be alright by morning," Buck said pouring himself a cup of coffee.

"Perhaps," Ezra nodded.

Chapter 6

Vin Tanner sat astride his lean black bay gelding admiring the land for what it was. His patrol was over but he didn't mind staying out longer; he enjoyed the vast of the wilderness opposed to the confines of town, out here he could breath. His horse bobbed his head and snorted getting impatient. Vin sighed and urged his horse forward and the animal eagerly obeyed.

The sounds of the night were usually quiet as the animals tended to their sleeping needs. The occasional owl would screech and the distant coyote would sing nothing was out of the ordinary, or so the tracker thought. He was only a couple miles from town thinking about grabbing a beer before heading off to bed in his wagon. When he heard the neigh of a horse not far from where he was, his senses went on full alert. Was someone watching him? His horse tensed with its riders reaction and was ready to bolt if need be, he just waited for the cue. Vin chastised himself for not seeing the group of riders sooner. The tracker started for the tree line as shots were fired in his direction. If he could make it to town the others would be able to help. He didn't want to hang for a crime he didn't commit, and he thought that this was about the bounty on his head. His horse stumbled and then slowed as they got closer to the tree line, he could loose them in the brush, the moon wasn't full and for that he was thankful.

Six men, all on horseback, bounded after the tracker shooting at him as they ran. "Circle around boys, well get him on the trail back to town," Mercer said guiding his gelding around to the left.

The men continued to fire their weapons at the man running just a few yards in front of them. Vin urged his horse to a full gallop narrowly missing the occasional tree, the horse pulled farther ahead and Vin inwardly sighed hoping he would get to town without getting shot. Vin's horse slid to a stop as three riders pulled out in front of him as if they had been waiting there all along, how did they know he would take this route? Vin wondered to himself as he turned his horse and started galloping in a different direction. The bullet that slammed into his lower thigh caused him to tumble slightly to the right his horse tried to correct himself for the change of weight but a downed log caused him to jump and both horse and rider went down in a violent crash.

Vin's horse jumped up leaving his rider gasping for air and clutching his leg. "Mr. Tanner," the man riding the large dapple gray said with a rich southern accent. His horse was slightly winded but the man compensated by speaking louder and more clearly.

"What's this about?" Vin asked through clenched teeth.

"I need you to come with us," the man stated confidently, "it would appear you're a wanted man." Mercer looked to one of his men, "wrap up that leg, we need him alive."

Tony Becker jumped off his horse and grabbed a rag out of his saddlebag. The man removed Vin's hardware and also removed the knife he had hidden in his boot. Then roughly he wrapped Vin's leg to slow the bleeding. "You want me to throw him on his horse boss?" he asked grabbing Vin's arm and pulling him up on shaky legs.

"Tie his hands, I don't want him pulling another stunt."

Vin was crudely shoved back onto his mount and then his hands were roughly tied together. The reins of his horse were handed to one of the other men then he was slowly pulled into motion, being ponied behind one of the other assailants. "What do you want with me?" he asked.

"You and your friends are causing an inconvenience for one of Four Corners long time residents."

"Someone is paying you to take us down?" Vin shouted, shocked by his statement.

"Surely Mr. Tanner your not above such allowances, being how you yourself hunted men down for the price on their heads."

"I went after men who were guilty of crimes," Vin tried to convince himself as much as his capture.

"And what of the ones who were innocent, the ones who were wrongly convicted?" Mercer slowed his horse so he was riding next to Vin. Vin didn't know how to respond; as much as he hated to admit it the man was right. He bowed his head to his chest and tried to ignore the wave of nausea that seemed to grab a hold of him. "You yourself are a wanted man, are you not?" Mercer asked knowing very well there was a $500 dollar bounty on the trackers head.

Vin didn't answer instead he bowed his head in disgust and prayed the throbbing in his leg would seize.

By the time the men arrived at their destination Vin was leaning over the pommel of his saddle barley conscious. The bandage that was used to slow the bleeding to his leg had worked at the start of the ride but the rough handling and turbulence had caused his leg to start bleeding again. He was now feeling the effects from the loss of blood. Mercer stopped his horse and dismounted. "Tony, you and Steve get Tanner in the barn. Be careful I don't want him bleeding to death before we get this done."

It was close to midnight and Mercer was hoping to find the others before the sun was to come up. The faster he could get this done the less likely the two men left in town would have a chance to come after them. He knew Chris Larabee was a force to be reckoned with and the less men he had on his side meant the easier it would be for he and his men.

As soon as Vin was secured in the barn the men headed out again. Fifteen men in all were on the hunt for four. They could out gun them in they had to, these men were ready for what laid ahead they had done this all their lives.

Josiah sat comfortably on the edge of the camp keeping an eye on things while JD, Buck, and Ezra sat around the campfire talking quietly. He had to laugh at JD the boy was barley able to keep himself from asking Ezra questions about the events of earlier. Buck had pulled him aside and told the kid not to bring up the conversation between Ezra and Chris; he didn't want the kid on the wrong side of Ezra's temper.

JD poked the fire with the stick he had found earlier while he contemplated asking Ezra what he needed to know. "Hey Ezra," JD started avoiding the look from Buck, "would you have shot Chris back in town?"

"Damn JD," Buck sighed knowing the questions would start eventually. He looked for a reaction out of the conman hoping he didn't end up shooting the kid. He was surprised to see Ezra smile and chuckle lightly.

"Like I told Mr. Wilmington young Mr. Dunne, no I would not have shot our illustrious leader."

"What about us?" JD's face showed how much Ezra's previous action had hurt the young man and Ezra was apathetic to his feelings.

"I apologize Mr. Dunne for my actions of late but my past experiences have proven my need for such exploitations," Ezra couldn't look the young man in the eye and Josiah could tell he was ashamed of himself.

"What happened to your family?" the kid asked without really understanding the bounds he had just crossed. Josiah bowed his head and Buck's back went rigid.

Ezra ran his hand threw his hair knowing the kid was only asking the question everyone needed an answer to. "They're dead JD," Ezra said in a flat unemotional tone before getting to his feet to once again check on his long time friend.

JD was about to ask another question but was quieted by Josiah who gave the kid a look of warning. The gambler didn't need to be pushed and Josiah thought the only reason Ezra had said anything was he knew if he didn't he might loose the hand he was playing. Josiah watched as the man rubbed the leg of his horse again and the animal in response nipped at his jacket as though it were a friend telling him things always had a way of working itself out.

"I told ya JD not to go asken' questions like that, leave it be."

"I just wanted to know Buck there ain't nothin' wrong with asken'."

"Yes JD, there is particularly when it has to do with somethin' that ain't none of you business."

"You think I was wrong in asken' Josiah?" JD said looking over to where Ezra was tending his horse.

"You have to remember Brother Dunne that sometimes no matter how much you think you need to know something about someone you should always let them come to you on their own time to discuss it." Josiah paused before continuing, "sometimes you'll never learn what you want to about someone, but you still have to give them the same respect you yourself ask for."

"Maybe I should go and apologize," JD admitted to himself. He started to get up to his feet but realized Ezra was already making his way back to camp. "Listen Ezra I didn't mean nothin'," he started but was interrupted.

"Don't apologize for your inquiry Mr. Dunne, you only voiced what everyone was wanting to know," Ezra didn't seem angry. He understood how youth could sometimes break down the barriers he built so high.

"All the same, I'm sorry," JD tucked his head and Josiah smiled.

Buck took another sip of his coffee before throwing the rest out. He got to his feet before stretching his back, "damn good coffee Josiah."

"JD made it," Josiah chuckled lightly knowing how much everyone hated the kid's coffee.

"Your talent for brewing must be improving," Ezra said finishing his own cup. His attention was averted when the horse's heads jumped up. Ezra's hand went to his gun and everyone dove for cover when the bullets started to fly.

"Shit!" Buck yelled throwing himself behind a fallen log. "JD," he yelled, "keep your head down."

"I am!" JD shouted back.

"Take that damn hat off."

Ezra used the tree next to the horses for cover and fired off as many shots as he dared. The low light of the moon made it almost impossible to see into the night air. Josiah lay next to his saddle and shot blindly. They were surrounded, shots were being fired at random and it was becoming obvious they would have to make a break for it.

"You might as well surrender!" a voice called from out of the night.

"What in the hell do you want?" Buck yelled peering over the downed log.

"You're surrounded, there are fifteen men out here ready and willing to shoot you, throw your guns down."

"You first," Buck said pointing his gun in the direction of the voice. A carefully aimed bullet tore threw the air and struck Buck high in the shoulder. He fell back loosing the grip on his weapon and quickly grabbed his shoulder with his good hand.

"Buck!" JD yelled leaving his post and moving to aid his friend. He quickly grabbed Buck and applied pressure to the bleeding wound.

Josiah and Ezra both tried to cover the two men who were now out in the open. They hadn't thought to bring extra ammunition and any extra that they did have was in their saddlebags and the only one close enough to get at it was Josiah. Ezra swore to himself as he realized his ammunition was running low. "Josiah," he called, "ammunition in my saddlebag." He fired another shot while Josiah franticly searched the bags.

The horses panicked and tried to pull away from their ties. Men started coming from all angles their shots, for the most part, going wide as to not strike any of the men. Mercer wanted the men alive and unharmed. Ezra stopped and held up his hands in surrender as he heard the rifle cock next to his ear. He lowered his head not believing he'd been caught off guard. Josiah also threw his gun down and stood up with his hands raised. JD managed to get Buck into a sitting position. The bleeding to Bucks shoulder had lessened but not stopped and JD continued to apply pressure to the wound.

"What in the hell do you want with us?" Buck asked threw clenched teeth.

"Perhaps we should discuss this at a later time." Mercer said dismounting from his gray. "Mr. Sanchez, Mr. Dunne, Mr. Wilmington, and Mr. Standish."

"If memory serves me correctly we haven't been introduced." Ezra interjected, wanting to know why this man had been firing at them, and why he felt the need to have so many men there for backup.

"We haven't been Mr. Standish," he made no further effort to explain who he was. Mercer looked to his men who held their pistols on the four now unarmed men, "tie these men up and get them on their horses." He poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot that was still on the burning fire. "I believe it would be to our benefit to tie Mr. Standish's hands behind his back," Mercer looked to Ezra, "the dexterity you have with your fingers leads me to believe you could possibly pick the lock on the manacles we use." The man smiled mischievously before throwing out the remaining coffee. "I have been watching you boys for quite some time now," he stated walking over to the horses owned by the four captives. The Admiral nipped out at him as he got closer not wanting to be touched by the miscreant.

"Why?" JD asked as his hands were being cuffed in front of him.

"You all seem to have a knack for pissing the wrong people off." Mercer stated flatly. "Get those horses saddled and get them mounted up I don't want to be out here all night."

The Admiral flinched nervously under the hands of someone other than his usual rider and it was obvious to everyone around that the horse was agitated. "He's lame," Ezra said now sitting on the downed tree with his hands tied firmly behind his back.

"Well then," Tony, Mercers right hand man said, "lets hope he makes it to our destination before we shoot him." The man smiled and it made Ezra sick to his stomach, "I guess you could walk."

"I think I would rather walk," Ezra said bluntly before getting to his feet, he looked the man in the eye to let him know he was serious.

"How about we just drag your sorry rebel ass," Tony got closer to Ezra his stance threatening.

"Tony!" Mercer yelled. "You're not getting paid to fight."

"He started it!" Tony snapped back.

"Well then," Mercer got closer to the man, "put a gag in his mouth and pretend you can't hear him." He yelled unhappy with the way his men were acting, "get those horses saddled now!"

Tony smiled maliciously at Ezra before pulling out from his saddlebag a yellow bandana. "Hey Pete," he called to one of the men standing guard over the now restrained men, "help me gag him," he tipped his head in Ezra's direction.

Ezra rolled his eyes and shook his head in disbelief. No matter what he seemed to say his mouth always got him into trouble. Josiah watched in disgust as the man called Tony roughly placed a gag in Ezra's mouth. JD sat next to Buck worrying about the gunshot wound to his shoulder. "Who are they Josiah?" the kid asked pulling Josiah's attention away from Ezra.

"I don't know Brother Dunne, but I'm sure well find out soon enough."

"Horses are done Boss," the man with the rough beard and long mustache said his long dark brown hair was hidden under his ten gallon hat.

"Get them up and lets go," Mercer said heading back to his own horse.

Josiah, Ezra, and Buck with JD's help got to their feet before the men could rough handle them anymore than they had to. Josiah and JD helped Buck get mounted first. Josiah assed the bullet wound to Buck's shoulder and figured it wasn't too serious but the amount of blood the ladies man had lost was enough to make him tipsy. Josiah then turned to help Ezra get mounted, with his hands tied behind his back he wouldn't be able to get himself into the saddle on his own.

"Where are you taking us?" Josiah asked getting himself onto his own mount.

"Unless you want a gag in your mouth Preacher I recommend you keep your mouth shut," Tony snapped jerking his horse and Josiah's into motion.


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