Fork in the Road

by Beth

Chapter 7

Nathan sat alone near the batwing doors of the saloon watching as Chris slowly drank himself into oblivion. He'd finished the bottle he'd started with Ezra and was now working on another one. Nathan figured Chris realized a bit to late that what he said to Ezra was in the wrong. Buck was right when he approached his long time friend and confronted him on things Chris himself held dear. Nathan knew Ezra hadn't ever spoke of his past with any of them and likewise he never asked any of them about their past. Nathan figured it was a way to keep him self, unattached, it was the only word that seemed to fit the situation. Ezra was right when he asked Chris to give him the same respect Ezra had given him, that was all the man was asking for. He was right in asking for it. Everyone followed Chris blindly, never asking why, particularly when it came to his past. Now, Nathan watched as the lone gunslinger drank himself further and further into the bottle before him. He knew Josiah and the others would smooth things out between the obstinate southerner and distraught gunman.

Nathan waited until the saloon had emptied and Chris folded his arms on the table and cradled his head on them. If he wasn't asleep then he was in a drunken stupor and Nathan figured he could at least get him to a room without being used as a punching bag.

Chris groaned as Nathan tried to gather him up. The healer grabbed Chris around the waist and pulled his shoulder over his own and started for the stairs, now he was realizing what Buck had gone threw all those times after Chris had lost his family.

Buck swayed in the saddle but caught himself on the horn, "Buck!" JD hollered at him trying to keep him from falling off his horse.

"We should hold up," Josiah said watching as Buck held onto the saddle horn with every ounce of energy he seemed to possess.

Mercer turned to look at the captured men and notices Wilmington sway, "we're almost there; he'll keep."

What seemed like forever to Buck finally came to an end when the large farmhouse, horse corrals, and barn came into sight. Josiah, even in the dark recognized the farm as the McKinley place. He'd only been out on one occasion with Nathan after one of McKinley's men had come off a horse and needed tending to. McKinley had made it known to the seven that he wasn't supportive of Judge Travis's decision to hire them on to control the rough element in town. He didn't come to town very often anymore, if he needed supplies he usually sent his men to Eagle Bend; it wasn't closer but he refused to spend his money in Four Corners. McKinley wasn't anywhere to be seen but he did see the familiar outline of Vin's horse. That worried Josiah he looked to Ezra who also had seen the animal and nodded his head confirmation.

Mercer pulled his horse to a stop and dismounted. Sebastian greeted Mercer at the front door of the barn. "How's our guest?" he asked, tying his horse to the hitching post.

"Alive," was all Sebastian replied.

"Get these men dismounted and in the barn," Mercer called to his men before heading to the house followed closely by the tall blonde form of Sebastian.

"Boys," Tony laughed roughly grabbing Ezra by his left arm and pulling him down off his horse letting him fall hard to the ground on his left side. Ezra groaned and felt his shoulder pop on impact and he knew immediately that he'd dislocated it, once again. Tony grabbed him and hauled him to his feet. Josiah quickly dismounted but was stopped by two of Mercer's other men. JD helped Buck dismount the tall gunslinger was barley able to keep to his feet. Josiah came up beside the ladies man and with the kids help they were able to support him. They were forced into the barn at gunpoint the way lit only by a single lantern that was hanging at the far end of the barn.

"Vin?" Josiah gasped looking at the tracker shocked by his appearance. He was barley conscious, his hands were tied above his head and he leaned against the railings of the stall. His leg had been roughly bandaged and Josiah could tell, thankful, that he was no longer bleeding.

"Josiah," Vin responded threw a sluggish haze.

"You shot Vin?" JD asked trying to maintain his hold on Buck who seemed to be loosing his battle with consciousness.

"Sit," a harsh voice said behind Josiah, Buck and JD. He crowded the men into the stall and tied them in the same position as the former bounty hunter. Josiah sat next to Vin and Buck sat next to Josiah. JD was tied to post near the stall door.

"How's Buck?" Vin asked seeing how weak the gunslinger looked.

"Been better," Buck groaned trying to make himself more comfortable.

"Try not to move that shoulder to much," Josiah gave Buck a worried glance. "Don't need you to start bleeding again."

Ezra sighed to himself unable to say what he wanted to about the sight before him. He noticed on the ride to the ranch that Buck had been getting considerably weaker and now seeing Vin he didn't look much better. Ezra was roughly pushed forward his arm now causing him more pain than before. He looked around the barn for some sort of an escape route if by chance he could get away. Unfortunately he didn't see anyway out except the way he came in. Tony once again pushed him forward and the man with the silent grudge against the southerner roughly grabbed his left arm causing Ezra to gasp against the pain.

"You're hurtin' him," JD snapped. He'd had enough of all the rough treatment to all his friends.

"That bother you boy?" Tony asked grabbing a handful of Ezra's hair pulling his head back. JD bowed his head knowing he'd just caused more trouble for the gambler. Josiah closed his eyes not wanting the kid to feel responsible for Ezra's death. "Cat got your tongue?" Tony jabbed JD with his boot wanting him to answer.

JD shook his head in defeat, "no."

"Good," Tony smiled big and forcefully pushed Ezra into the heavy beam that helped support the roof of the barn. Ezra leaned heavily into the beam letting his head rest on the cold tattered wood. He slowly turned around all the while using the beam for support when he was rewarded with the butt of a gun across his forehead just above his left eye and temple. Ezra crumpled to the ground in a heap, blood now staining his face. JD turned away unable to watch, Josiah said a silent prayer, Buck clenched his teeth in anger and frustration while Vin bowed his head, all hoping the gambler would awaken.

"Tony!" Mercer yelled angrily, "what's the meaning of this?" he stormed into the barn Sebastian close on his heals.

"He was causing problems," Tony looked to Sebastian in disgust.

"If he's dead," Mercer got close to the arrogant and reckless outlaw, "so are you." His voice was low and threatening and Tony had a look of fear in his eyes. A look Vin was glad to see. "Sebastian, check him." Mercer ordered his man his eyes not leaving Tony.

Sebastian knelt down next to Ezra and checked to make sure the man was still breathing, "he's alive boss." Everyone in the room took a much-relieved sigh of relief.

"Make sure he stays that way," Mercer looked to the inert form, "I would like to have a chance to play poker with him." He looked back to Tony and smiled, "come with me Mr. Becker."

Sebastian got Ezra sitting up and leaning against the support beam. He made sure to secure him so when he did awaken he could not escape. Ezra's chin rested against his chest and before Sebastian got up to leave he checked the gamblers pulse just to make sure he was still with them.

"I could tend him," Josiah spoke up wanting to make sure for himself that the sly card shark was alive.

"He's fine," Sebastian said before getting up and looking to one of the other guards, "if he comes to and starts choken make sure ya take the gag out of his mouth."

"Yes sir," the short red haired man said watching as Sebastian left the barn.

Mercer forced Tony Becker up to the house his anger still building. "I thought I could trust you!" He yelled turning to face the man that was the result of all his anger.

"You can," Tony protested he himself angry.

"I hired you for a job, not to take your frustrations out on the bounty."

"It won't happen again sir."

"It had better not," Mercer quipped, "we have two more to take down, get your head together." The older man turned and went into the house leaving Tony to think.

Tony turned and started back to the barn when he saw Sebastian come threw the barn doors, "fancy pants still alive?" he asked trying to sound concerned.

"For now," Sebastian responded not looking at Tony, he needed to get to the house and for some clean bandages; the gambler wasn't only one who was injured. He had tended Vin earlier after he'd arrived and knew the tracker was in need of having his wound cleaned as well as the others.

"You don't have the stomach for this Seb," Tony said flatly, knowing he would get a rise out of the usually quiet man.

"I don't have a stomach for you Becker, the rest of it I can handle." Sebastian turned cold on Tony and the shorter man knew it, "stay clear of me."

"Or what?" Tony said in a defiant tone.

"Push me hard enough and I will kill you," the tall blonde warned his eyes full of anger. Tony unconsciously took a step back. "Now get a pail of hot water, we have wounded that need tended to."

"Ezra!" Josiah called for what seemed to be the hundredth time. He still was not getting a response from the gambler. He ignored the guard with the gun and called his name again, "Damn it, Ezra!" he yelled.

"You don't think he's dead do ya Josiah?" JD asked fearing that it was himself who'd gotten the man killed.

"Ez has got a harder head than that Kid," Buck looked to JD knowing the kid was beating himself up over the whole situation. "Just think how pissed he's gonna be when he sees his shirt."

"He'll probably make you buy him a new one," Vin chuckled. He hissed as he tried to move his leg to make himself more comfortable.

"You all right Brother?" Josiah asked seeing the pain etched on Vins face. The tracker simply nodded afraid his voice would give away what he was really feeling.

"You don't look so good Vin." Buck said watching as the man took a deep breath.

"I could say the same thing about you Bucklin."

"You both look like you've been run over by a wagon," JD added, he knew the rest of them felt like it. "Do you think they'll go after Nate and Chris?" he asked knowing the rest of them were thinking the same thing.

"It would appear so Brother," Josiah spoke solemnly, almost in defeat.

"Why?" JD asked, he'd never seen any of these men before and he doubted if any of the other seven would have either. "Who would go threw all this trouble to take us all down, hell," he stopped for a breath, "he took time to learn who we are."

"And how we acted," Vin interjected.

"I would be willing to bet that McKinley has something to do with it," Josiah said once again turning his attention to the unresponsive gambler.

Ezra could hear voices around him and he wished more than anything he could tell them to shut up. The noise seemed to make his headache worse. He could taste blood in his mouth but he couldn't spit it out the gag was preventing him from it. His face felt stiff, no doubt from the blood that now was dried to the left side of his face. He looked down to his shirt and sighed, he now wondered if Mr. Larabee's choice of attire was not more appropriate seeing how blood would not show up as well on black as it did on white.

JD heard Ezra sigh and he turned his head to face the conman, "Ezra?" the boy said quietly trying to listen for another sound.

"You hear somethin' kid?" Buck asked his eyes also locked on Ezra.

Ezra tried to move his hands but was able to; his shoulder now throbbed as much as his head and when he moved it seemed to cause more pain to his shoulder. He brought his knee up so he could rest his head against it and was rewarded with JD and Buck calling his name.

"Ezra!" both men called which caused Ezra to raise his head a little to fast and hit it against the support beam behind him.

"Damn," Buck said feeling the headache Ezra was now suffering from. "Sorry about that Ez."

JD gave a big sigh of relief upon seeing the conman move and he leaned against the boards to the stall he was tied to, "Thank God."

"Amen to that Brother," Josiah smiled upon seeing Ezra move.

"Somebody finally got smart enough to put a gag in yer mouth eh Ezra?" Vin smiled relieved to see the gambler moving around. Ezra raised his eyebrow in a mock salute before resting his head against the support beam.

The doors to the barn swung open and two men entered. Ezra stiffened seeing Tony come in with the tall blonde that was carrying a bundle of white cloths. "Gentlemen," the tall blonde said getting everyone's attention. He moved to the opposite side of Vin before kneeling down next to the tracker. Tony eyed Ezra wanting him to feel uncomfortable. "Tony," Sebastian snapped, "I need the water."

"Yes sir," Tony grumbled and handed the steaming bucket to him all the while his eyes never leaving Ezra.

"You shoot us then patch us up?" Vin looked at the tall blond as he cut a slit in Vin's trousers to have better access to the bullet wound.

"I have to keep you alive, it's not my fault you got shot," Sebastian carefully cleaned the wound the best he knew how and wrapped it again to stop the bleeding that had started again.

"These men need water, particularly the wounded," Josiah said hoping his pleas would be heard.

Sebastian ignored him and moved closer to Buck who had no desire to have this man poke around his wounded shoulder, "hold still," he demanded ripping Bucks shirt at the shoulder. The wound had stopped bleeding but Sebastian knew as soon as he cleaned the wound it would start up once again. Buck hissed as Sebastian laid the steaming white cloth over the wound. "The bullet is still in there," Sebastian said flatly.

"What do you care?" Buck snapped.

"I don't," Sebastian responded, "but I thought you might." He wrapped the wound tightly to try and slow the bleeding that had started up again, "try not to move to much, the bleeding will slow down if you keep the shoulder still."

"It wouldn't be bleeding now if you'd left it alone," JD snapped seeing how much paler Buck had become.

"If I'd left it alone it would have become infected, this way he won't be fighten a fever come morning."

"Why are you doing this?" JD asked.

"I'm getting paid to," was all the blonde would say. He moved over to Ezra and looked at the gash just below the hairline. He didn't say anything as he applied a hot cloth to the wound much like he had done with the others. Once the wound was cleaned he quickly wrapped a bandage around Ezra's head. Sebastian stood up and hastily dumped the now bloodied water out. Once again the barn doors swung open and Mercer stepped threw.

"Mr. Becker, get saddled," Mercer stopped in front of the captives. "Seb, you stay and watch em'," he motioned for Tony, "I want you ready to ride in ten minutes. We have two more bodies to bring in. Lets get to it." He turned and headed out the door.

Chapter 8

Nathan couldn't sleep. He was worried, Chris had drunk himself into oblivion, Ezra had taken off and the others had gone after him, Vin had gone out for patrol and had yet to return. He sat up in bed and put his head in his hands, things were out of control and he wasn't able to do anything about it. Nathan got to his feet and changed into his clothing. He needed a walk.

The early morning hours seemed to be the most peaceful, and for that Nathan was thankful. Fires that had been lit the night before had burnt out and were now cold to the touch. The sun was at least an hour from rising and the dark healer took a deep breath of fresh air trying to calm his fraying nerves. He noticed Chris come out of the saloon and Nathan picked up his speed to make sure the dark clad gunslinger was all right. "Chris."

Chris turned rubbing his right temple with the palm of his hand, "Nate," he responded quietly. His hangover was causing his stomach to turn and he was in no mood to talk.

"You feelin' all right?" Nathan looked at him knowing he was suffering from the previous nights indulgence.

"What do you want Nate?" Chris snapped and headed back toward the stables.

"Vin never came back from his patrol last night," Nathan said in step with the tall gunslinger. He knew Chris would take pause to Vin.

"Where are the others?"

"Went after Ezra."

Chris stopped as though he were trying to remember why, "they aren't back yet ether?" He looked to Nathan for a response and was rewarded with a nod of his head.

"I'll saddle the horses Chris, why don't you go and get some coffee," Nathan knew by looking at Chris he would have to take it slow for the most part, his head had to be killing him along with his stomach.

"I'll do that," Chris nodded his head and headed back for the saloon for some fresh coffee.

Mercer stopped his men a mile before entering town. The sun was slowly creeping up over the horizon making it easier to see. Two men on horseback left the town that lay before Mercer and his men. "Like bee's to honey," the man smiled knowing it was Larabee and Jackson heading out to look for their comrades.

"I saw Josiah, Buck and JD head west last night," Nathan said.

"Sounds like a good place to start," Chris urged his black bay gelding forward. He tried to ignore the pounding that was going on in his head as a new uncomfortable feeling took a hold of his gut. They rode hard for a few miles and then he slowed his gelding to a walk and waited until Nathan was in step beside him. "We're being watched." He looked around unable to see anyone or anything out of the ordinary, "I can feel it."

"You sure?" Nathan looked around unable to see anything. He'd known all morning something was wrong, it was in the air he breathed, he just didn't know what it was that was bothering him. Chris just nodded his head, the hairs on the back of his neck stood up on end and he knew something was wrong. "Maybe we should go back to town and get some help?" Nathan suggested a cold chill flowing down his spine.

"I don't think we'll have time," Chris directed Nathan's attention toward the riders coming from the east.

Mercer pulled his horse to a stop in front of Larabee and Jackson. He looked directly at Larabee not wanting to deal with the dark healer. It was in his blood not to consider Negro's his equal and he intended to keep it that way.

Nathan could sense the anger and bitterness in the rider before him, all of the men really; they looked to Chris for answers and didn't bother with him, as if he wasn't there. He'd known all to well that feeling from when he worked the land down south as a slave, only now he wasn't someone's property.

"Mr. Larabee," Mercer smiled coldly, he was a killer to and staring Chris down wasn't a challenge. Keeping himself from killing him would be, "I and my men need you and your companion," he said the word in distaste while motioning toward Nathan, "to come with me."

"I don't think so," Chris shook his head no; all the while knowing he and Nathan were outgunned. Now would be a good time for Ezra's quick mouth, Chris thought to himself.

Mercer laughed outright while six of his men pulled their weapons out and pointed them at the two men. "I don't think you understood my request Mr. Larabee, it was not a question. You can hand your weapons over peacefully or by force, it is of course your choice." Mercer leaned forward in his saddle and rested his forearms on the horn. "You see Mr. Larabee, I have five of your men, if you have any desire to see any of them alive, as well as Mr. Jackson here, I would suggest you come peacefully."

Chris laughed to himself, his head was killing him and if he didn't know better he would tend to think all of this was planned, "what do you want with us?" he asked before slowly removing his gun belt.

"I would rather wait until we get you back with the rest of your men to explain, that way I will only have to do it once." He looked to Nathan disgust written all over his face, "you guns and knives as well boy."

Nathan clenched his jaw and slowly removed his weapons, whom ever this man was he knew them well enough to know he carried knives behind his back and that worried the healer. Chris looked to Nathan and nodded his head in understanding, this had been planned, their main concern now was finding everyone else and making sure they were alive. Then they would escape.

Mercer motioned for the rest of his men to come out from behind the brush; all of them had their guns trained on the two gunslingers.

"Were you expecting more of a fight?" Chris asked knowing the outlaw's men had been hiding.

"I have hunted men for the past twenty years and the first thing I learned was to never underestimate an opponent." Mercer tipped his hat and rode on ahead while several of his men fell in step with the two now captured gunman, all holding their weapons in case they tried to escape.

It was noon before the men arrived to their destination. Nothing more had been spoken between any of them and for that Mercer was grateful. He hated unnecessary conversation, it was too easy to become distracted and he liked to have his mind in order particularly with an admirable opponent. Sebastian greeted them by the doors to the barn, Chris and Nathan had both been hastily removed from their horses and their hands bound in front of them by steel restraints. "Put them inside with the others," Mercer demanded of his men before heading to the house where he could freshen up. Sebastian quickly followed him.

Chris and Nathan were violently pushed forward into the barn. When the doors were opened Ezra quickly turned his face away from the assaulting sun.

"Damn," Nathan gasp seeing the bloodied face of the gambler. He dropped his head when he saw the condition of Buck and Vin both.

"Chris," JD said a little to eagerly, like his long time hero was now there to save them all but upon seeing Chris and Nathan's hands bound he shook his head in defeat.

"The Calvary has arrived," Buck rested his head against the wood panel of the stall behind him. His shoulder was killing him and he would do just about anything to make the pain go away.

"Chris, Nate," Vin didn't bother to open his eyes he knew who it was before JD had called out their names. Sweat now beaded his forehead and he knew he was feverish; he couldn't bare to look at the men around him. They were in dire straits with no one but each other to count on. He didn't understand what was going on or why but if they didn't come up with a plan, and soon, things were going to get ugly.

Chris and Nathan were both tied much like the others with their hands above their heads and in the same stall. One guard was left to watch the captives while the rest of the men left, probably to eat, drink and rest. The guard didn't say anything he just sat on a barrel with his gun pointed at one of the captives, whichever one captivated his fancy.

Nathan could tell Vin was feverish, the bandage on his leg looked clean but it had bled threw. Buck didn't look much better than Vin, his shoulder wound had been tended to but it had also bled threw and both men were suffering from slight infections. "You in much pain Vin?" Nathan asked his healing instincts taking over.

Vin smiled but didn't open his eyes; he just rested his head against the post behind him, "feels like my leg is burnin' up," he didn't hesitate to tell the healer how he was feeling and Nathan knew Vin needed some help and soon.

"What about you Buck?"

"Hell Nate, I been shot up worse than this."

"Ezra," Nathan called getting the conman's attention. Ezra lifted his head off his knees and Nathan noticed the gag in his mouth. "You piss the wrong person off?" Ezra raised an eyebrow and put his head back against his knees, he was tiered, dirty and didn't need any badgering from Nathan. "Ezra," Nathan called again, this time not getting a response, he knew Ezra was either ignoring him or he was still feeling the effects of the head injury. "When did he get hit?" Nathan looked to Josiah for an answer.

"Must have been late last night or real early this morning, he was out for about an hour." Josiah looked at the men around him unsure of what they were going to do.

Nathan shook his head in disgust, he felt helpless to do anything. "JD how are you doing?"

"I'm fine Nate," JD responded barley above a whisper.

"How about you Josiah?"

"Other than the need for a comfortable bed Brother, I spect I'm doing just fine." Vin shivered and Josiah did his best to move closer to him.

"Ya all right Vin?" Nathan asked a new growing concern entering his mind.

"Cold Nate that's all," he leaned closer to the large former preacher trying to get closer to the body heat.

"We have to get out of here," Chris said in a low angry voice. Three of his men were down and needed medical attention. He pulled angrily at his restraints berating himself for not doing something sooner, before he and Nathan had walked into this blindfolded.


Please send comments to: