Heather F.

Part 1
One more more and perhaps another one...just one more...almost home....

Small clouds of dust briefly hung in the stagnant air marking the deliberate, halting movement.

The sun beat down baking the earth into slightly curled plates of clay. Sage dotted the surrounding area offering just enough ground cover to tangle shuffling feet. Shimmering waves of heat radiated off the desert floor for as far as the eye could see.

These eyes no longer gazed upward. The burned scalp of brown hair never raised itself to stare accusingly at the white sun that beat the earth with merciless intensity. The blood shot swollen eyes never strayed from the few inches directly in front of the laced up boots. Boots that were two sizes too big. Boots that had creased toes and worn thin soles. Soles so thin that the radiating heat scorched raw feet within the foot wear.

Not once did the walking man notice the discomfort of his blistering feet. He no longer felt the sun burn and blister his exposed neck. The skin had long ago formed huge water blisters that had leaked and shed their moisture. Sand and dust cut and scratched red irritated skin.

Tissue dried and cracked but refused to bleed.

No hat protected the scalp. Nothing protected the fragile skin just under the flat gritty brown hair. The heat seemed to beat his head almost as if it could boil his brain in its own juices.

He had ceased to acknowledge the sand that lined his mouth. His tongue had swollen and thickened within dry arid cheeks. Sand worked its way in between teeth and under the wool like tongue. His nostrils had dried out long ago. The air passages seemed constricted, fighting to draw in enough air. Dizziness and a pounding headache kept eyes from focusing clearly. Nausea persisted with vehemence.

The oversized home spun cotton shirt protected him from the relentless summer rays. But the damage had already been done. The large rough seams carved their mark in purplish burned shoulders. Water blisters had popped reformed and leaked again. Sand scratched its way into the raw flesh debriding sensitive tissue with every faltering step.

With no longer conscious thought the feet skimmed and scuffed the ground.

The curled cracked clay gave way to a sandy gravel road. A road with ruts. A road that had been traversed frequently.

The walker never registered the change in environment. Tired dried eyes saw nothing that seemed real.

The sage gave way to long wisps of bending prairie grasses. A few trees dotted the surrounding area as if in rebellion to their environment. Their promise of shade went unheeded by the dying traveler.

A town stood in the distance. A gateway. It stood like an oasis out here in the middle of this vast emptiness. The road led in a careless meandering manner over small knolls and down slight inclines. In an unrushed manner, the rutted road led toward this clap board shock of civilization.

Without gazing upward...without once raising an impossibly heavy chin off a scorched chest. The man trudged onward.

One more step...just one more...

+ + + + + + +

Nathan wiped his brow with the back of his sleeve. Josiah leaned back in his saloon chair and nursed a sip of luke warm beer. Sweat rolled in twin trails down the side of Larabee's face. Dust settled heavily in the area. No breeze stirred.

Flies seemed to spawn despite the summer day. They buzzed persistently in the background. They crawled across the backs of hands and tables. They clung to the rims of mugs and trailed over heated shoulders and arms. No one seemed to have the effort to shoo them away...not that it would have worked. Their constant hum no longer registered with those stewing in the heat wave.

Larabee shook his head in a short economical motion dislodging a fly trying to scavenge a spot on his cheek. The fly persisted to hum around his ear. The gunslinger seriously considered shooting the Son of a Bitch but figured it would be over kill. Damn the flies constant chatter and irritation could be worse than JD and Standish.

Perhaps Josiah was wrong...damn gambler wasn't raised by wolves but by flies. Distracting as hell, always jawing and their usefulness hidden under layers of irritating movements.

Sanchez released a soft chuckle raising his glass to Chris as if reading his mind.

The simple passing of feet or shifting of position waived small plumes of fine particles. It clung greedily to any moist surface. It seemed as if man and beast alike found itself coated in a fine sheen of dust and dirt.

The building groaned in fatigue.

Jackson stared across the empty room toward the boardwalk. Long shadows stretched across unoccupied chairs and tables. The sun shone so brilliantly outside, that it made one squint just to gaze out the window. Dead flies dotted the sill. The gloomy confines of the Saloon brought a welcome relief to the relentlessly beating heat.

"They'll be fine brother," Josiah's voice rolled like dry thunder across the scarred table.

Chris rubbed at his face feeling the stubble of two day's growth and the grit of the ever present sand.

"Just can't help think...." Nathan started to speak but tapered off lost in his own thoughts. Sweat and energy seemed to evaporate together.

"Buck and Vin won't push in this heat....he'll be fine," Larabee leaned back in his chair. His whiskey glass sat half finished on the table. The very act of moving toward it seemed monumental. The sticky oppression of his clinging clothes forced him to keep his distance from those around him. He felt trapped, claustrophobic...irritable. Was this how Vin feels when he's been in town too long?

"I know Chris...I know...jist that he was so sick," Again Jackson's voice faded quickly in the dry heat. He kept his gaze out the window.

Inez wiped glasses from behind the bar. Occasionally she swiped at her brow and blew stray bangs out of her face. She heard the conversation and offered a silent prayer. The four regulators out on the trail needed extra guidance and care. No one foresaw such heat when they had left a few days ago.

"It's been a week Brother...he needed to git out of town just as much as Vin and Buck," Josiah placed his mug heavily on the table. The palms of his hands made the thick glass slick. Ever since Ezra had opened his eyes that first morning after his fever broke, the conman had been uneasy. Crowded. Almost if he were embarrassed or humiliated that he had fallen ill and worse yet had fallen under the necessary care of his six fellow lawmen. Josiah figured if Ezra had fallen due to an injury incurred by his peacekeeping profession then it would have been ok...excusable. But to just fall ill for no reason, then it fell under the auspices of unacceptable. Least ways for Ezra. Josiah could not quite follow the twisted logic but it made some sense even to himself.

Ezra had needed space away from prying eyes and well intentioned inquiries. Like Vin he just had to catch his breath smooth his outward appearance before facing the town and its citizens again. As a result Vin, Buck, JD and Ezra left for ClearWater for a little fun and relaxation.

Then the heat wave hit.

"If anything...JD will keep an eye on him," Larabee almost smiled at the thought. As with the sweat, the smile disappeared before it had a chance to settle. JD had been terrified by the hallucinations. He had all but run from the room when Standish had started shouting about Bounty Hunters and wrestling with Buck for a gun.

Jackson nodded not in agreement but acknowledging that he heard. But a week would not be enough to get over that type of fever. One needed more than a week to build their strength back up...endurance would still suffer. This kind of heat could kill a healthy man...what about one still recovering from the throws of a debilitating potent enough to cause hallucinations. Damn he should have kept Ezra in town.

Inez stepped into the back room. She checked her stock. The heat wave would keep most close to their homes or in swimming holes. Not many would venture out today or the next day. Dust pooled around her feet in small clouds thwarting her dusting efforts. She continued to wipe down the shelves anyhow. She flicked her cloth occasionally at the flies that landed on her stock.

Senors Tanner and Wilmington would keep their friend safe. They would keep him from tiring himself out...protect him from this heat. By now they would be in Clear Water probably enjoying the saloon there. Yes perhaps that's what they were doing now....

+ + + + + + +

JD curled in a ball trying vainly to protect his battered midsection. Another kick landed painfully in the back of his thigh. A twisted whimper escaped dry cracked lips. He squeezed his eyes closed and curled tighter into himself. Another kick landed this time glancing the lower back. White hot spears of pain shot up and down his spine. A stifled scream hallmarked his fear and pain.

"Leave'im alone you bastards," Buck's words lisped over torn swollen lips. Molars had long ago gouged out large chunks of soft cheek tissue. His bottom teeth had erupted painfully through his bottom lip. With shackled feet he swung wildly at the monster that battered JD. The knife wound that had gouged out a section of lower thigh started bleeding freely. The dark stain that ran the lateral length of the pant leg began to spread.

Wilmington's furious cursing and frustrated twisting finally diverted the attention of the devil that pinpointed JD. With a malicious smile, the captor gave one last parting kick to the 'kid' and stalked off laughing.

JD squeezed his eyes closed. He fought the tears that threatened to roll down blood splattered cheeks. Breath caught and choked in his tightening throat. He would not cry...he would not give them the satisfaction of knowing they had hurt him...terrified him.

He would not shame Buck or Vin.

Dunne ignored Buck's pleas to roll over. He tucked himself further inward steeling himself to gain control. Panic and helplessness flashed across his body and psyche like lightening in the open prairie. He bit his lip, chewed on his tongue and tried to recapture control of his breathing.

Tanner watched the group just a few yards from them. He tested his bonds again and again found himself trapped. Anger fired into fury. He closed his eyes for a brief second. Garnered control of his frustration and promised revenge for all the wrong doings done today.

Wilmington kept his eyes on the Kid. The world continued to gyrate out of control. His stomach knotted and rolled with sickening intensity. Sharp pains shot through his midsection preventing him from straightening his legs. Buck once again pleaded with JD to roll over.

Just once kid...just once let me look at your face....let me see you open your eyes.

Wilmington ignored the empty spot next to him. He scrubbed out any sign that the gambler had once been trussed up next to him secured by manacles.

+ + + + + + +

They had made an example of Standish. Had walked him off into the desert and simply let him go. They had led him into the Salt Flats.....and left hat, no canteen. They had left him to die under the brutal punishment of the sun.

The bastards.

Buck, Vin, and JD's fury had been cut short when JD had fallen victim to the brutality of one of the captors. Standish had gazed over his shoulder just in time to see Dunne crumble under the horrific assault of one of their guards.

The three law men had struggled to come to the aid of their youngest. The man leading Standish into the desert had merely urged his mount into a fast trot, dragging the gambler behind him.

Buck had prayed Standish regained his feet.

Vin and Buck had struggled and fought to protect JD. In the end, it had worked but not without a taxing price.

Tanner had sat dazed with a gash that circumvented his forehead. Flies now worried at the wound festering it. The Bounty Hunter paid no heed. Blood had streamed from both nostrils. He spat blood and tooth from his mouth.

Tanner never returned Wilmington's gaze.

Wilmington had watched with morbid fascination at the slow transformation of Tanner into something frightfully feral.

Buck had rolled and skidded JD closer to himself with his legs.

The sun continued to bake the captives. They had sat tied hand and foot leaning against wagon wheels. The covered wagon offered them no protection from the sapping rays of the summer sun.

JD had kept his chin up in the beginning. Though his eyes had swollen closed, the young Sheriff could not stifle his air of aggressive defiance. He would be tougher than those that stalked him.

Buck had sat beside his friend marveling at Dunne's strength but hoped someday JD would learn when to hide his fight. When would he learn to bluff?

+ + + + + + +

Buck shook his memories of yesterday clear. He stared at JD's back and watched the kid fight for control. Wilmington swung his gaze toward the Tracker.

At the front wheel, bleeding and quiet, stewed Tanner.

For the first time since meeting the quiet Bounty Hunter, Buck Wilmington saw the raw fighter under the quiet compliance.

If they should fall today or tomorrow or even the next day...Vin Tanner would take some with him.

Buck recognized the lack of expression in the blue eyes.... he had seen it a time a two himself in the mirror.

Tanner stared out toward the Salt Flats. Standish had a slim chance at survival. The gambler however, had better odds than their captors.

+ + + + + + +

The coarse rutted road gave way to a wide flat trail well traveled and well maintained. Feet slipped and shuffled unimpeded by old caked ruts. The first buildings slipped by without notice. The black pinstripe legs continued to bend at the knee, the hip continued to work the leg forward and the feet continued to land and arch.

The sun finally slid from the sky. The incessant broiling of tissue diminished. The light of day waned only slightly. This was lost on the weaving form faltering its way down main street.

The booted feet hit a wood step. Forward momentum lunged a burnt shoulder into a worn post. With muscle memory all their own, the legs worked to lift the body up the step and onto the wood planks.

The scraping of heavy feet on the boardwalk drew no attention.

The citizens of Four Corners had taken refuge from the punishing sun in their homes.

With instincts all his own, the walker scuffed and tripped his way down uneven boards. Dirt and sand scraped and screeched under the abusive gait.

A shoulder leaned against a wall offering some support to weakening knees.

The wall disappeared.

The body fell sideways through swinging doors. Feet limped to recapture lost balance. Shaky legs long since over worked, flexed and strained muscles that were no longer able to give any more, failed.

For a brief moment the burned dust covered body regained its lost balance. It wavered in the darkened entrance of the Saloon.

No more steps....didn't need another blasted unforgiving step....

Muscles squeezed of their last drop of energy relaxed. Joints folded. The body simply slipped to the ground in a swirl of dust.

+ + + + + + +

"Ezra!" Jackson flew from his chair knocking the seat over. He brushed past Josiah pushing off the man's massive shoulders to garner more momentum.

Larabee pushed the brim of his hat off his eyes and gazed up just in time to see an over sized white shirt collapse to the floor. The gunslinger leaped to his feet with Josiah a step ahead of him.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan straightened the semi-conscious man on the floor. Dry heat radiated off Standish like a fever. Haunting images of weeks prior sprang unbidden to Jackson's mind.

"My God Brother, what happened?" Josiah knelt at the head of the gambler. He wiped clinging sand from the young man's cracked face.

Rope still clung desperately to the unbound wrists of the Southerner.

"We got to cool him down," Jackson tried to gather the smaller man in his arms. Larabee simply grabbed the panted lower legs and Sanchez shuffled under the heated shoulders. Together they shimmied their burden outside. Peering over his shoulder Sanchez skirted around the hitch rail, off the board walk and stopped next to the trough.

Larabee followed shuffling awkwardly trying to match the frantic pace. They gently placed the Gambler in the trough.

Nathan immediately knelt beside them and started scooping water over the burned scalped.

"He's got a mouth full of sand," his whispered observations made Larabee swear. Standish had thought he had found a water hole. Had for a brief moment thought he drank fresh cold water...the sparkling clear water that only a delirious mind would see. Instead he had taken in mouth fulls of sand. How many before he realized he choked on dirt and grit?

Chris took note of the man half dead in the trough. A fine hand covered in greyish dust hung over the side of the rough wooded trough. The shirt and boots did not belong to the Southerner. Ropes had dug and furrowed into the skin of his wrists. The ropes had been cut. A knotted piece still clung to the torn flesh of the wrist.

Josiah lifted the limp hand by the shirt sleeve intending to drop it into the trough. Chris laid a hand on Sanchez's shoulder halting the movement.

Larabee peeled the thick braid from the gambler's skin. The tissue tented and pulled upward. Blood and serum seeped into the area. The gunslinger held it in his hand. He turned and faced down main street out into the open prairies that surrounded the town. He ignored the bustle of Josiah and Nathan...drowned out their worried observations and exclamations.

Sweat rolled down Chris's face as he fingered the blood dried rope.

Where were the others?

+ + + + + + +

Buck hissed as he leaned over JD. Dunne still lay curled with his back to his two friends. The Sheriff had refused to move.

"Gawd damnit JD you roll yer ass over an look at me or I'll slap ya silly," The vehemence in his voice masked his fear and trepidation. These gawd damn Son's of Bitches were after himself and Tanner...damn kid had nuthin' to do with this mess....innocent stupid kid....wrong place wrong time. Standish too....Damn damn damn....

Tanner kept a watch out of the corner of his eye but did not involve himself in the dynamics between those two. Instead, the tracker focused his attention on his targets. He studied their movements their habits. Which ones acted first which ones thought before moving...did they prefer left hands over right or visa versa who would be more likely to act in an unpredictable manner...act outside their set dimensions for behavior.

Any animal, in fear for its life, would act in an irrational manner, some cowered, some attacked, others employed both tactics.

Vin watched and learned.

Wilmington waited a moment as his harsh words struck across the short distance to Dunne. Buck had finally lost his patience with the 'kid' and slid forward to roll JD over himself.

JD closed his eyes. He rubbed the few lingering tears that clung to curled lower lashes on his shoulder. Catching his breath, he slowly rolled himself over and faced Buck.

Wilmington caught his breath. Ohh Gawd kid....Oh Gawd I'm so sorry kid...

"Leave 'e alone Buck," JD's words lisped out between puffy torn lips. Swollen cheeks sealed eyes. Blood trickled down from an unseen cut about the hair line.

"Sorry kid can't do that," Wilmington cast a singular burning gaze across the encampment and vowed to fight Vin for a chance to kill these Bastards.

+ + + + + + +

"Look at his feet," Josiah held up a raw bloody ankle up off the bed. Dirt and debris stuck to the underside of a blistered lacerated foot. Desert clay mingled freely with the dried blood forming a kind of paste.

How long had he walked without shoes?

"Wonder where he found those?" Josiah kicked at the discarded worn boots on the wood floor. They were large enough to fit Buck or even himself.

"Ain't his boots...didn't have shoes on for awhile," Nathan observed. The healer worked the soft over sized shirt from his patient.

"Sweet Jesus," Jackson's soft prayer pulled Sanchez's attention from the abused feet to the torso. Chris stepped away from the window he leaned against. The twilight reflected the harsh glint in his eyes.

The windows had been shoved open in vain hope for a breeze. Curtains had been pushed back casting some light into the room. Lean shadows stretched across the hard wood floor. The room was too small and too stuffy for this many visitors.

Nathan pulled the shirt out from under Standish revealing the purplish, red, burned chest and stomach. Skin had dried out and pruned painfully across the torso. With tentative movement, Jackson rested a hand on the tissue. Heat waved from the body like invisible flames.

"Wonder if he lost his shirt same time he lost his boots?" Josiah muttered darkly.

Jackson merely shook his head in angry disgust. How do you save someone from something like this? "Gawd where are the others?" Nathan's troubled eyes searched the faces of the two men across from him vainly.

"We're gonna find out," Larabee stood against the bed. He let his eyes rove across the gambler, memorizing every bruise, every cut, every blister. The gunslinger took stock of the wounds, the feel of the heat and the stark raw pain that would have come with such burnt flesh. He could imagine the crazed single minded desire for water; an almost insane urge that forced its victim to drink sand. Larabee's blood boiled.

"Nathan you tell Mary and Inez what you want done with him and then we're riding out," Larabee met the healer's eyes squarely. Nathan nodded. He found no argument that would equally explain his fear for the man near death before him and the three friends out there probably in worse shape. They had to be, they were the kind of men that would protect those who were down and recovering. Ezra would never had been allowed to succumb to this condition if Buck, Vin and JD could have prevented it. Gawd what would those three look like when Chris found them?

It would be dark in a few hours. Josiah gazed out the window at the fading light. A few hours might get them closer to finding their friends. Sanchez leaned on the wall and watched the slow raspy rise and fall of the burnt chest.

+ + + + + + +

Mary and Inez smiled grimly at the task lay before them. They could hear the horses shifting impatiently down on the street. The creak of leather, the hush of voices, even the sounds of the evening crickets sounded rushed and impatient.

Nathan stood at the open door, saddle bags draped across his shoulder his hat pulled back off his head.

+ + + + + + +

"Keep trying to cool'im down, n' don't let'im drink...not at first," Jackson repeated himself again. "Ya make poultices like I showed ya..fer his feet...and use this mixture for the burns on his shoulders and stuff," The healer paused as if thinking of one last thing. He took a breath and sighed, a solemn expression tumbled over his features, "he might not make it," Jackson schooled himself for the possibility...the probability, " 'n iffen he doesn't it ain't got nuthin' to do with what ya Ladies did or didn't do....ya understand me?" He held Mary and then Inez's gaze trying to make himself clear. The only blame, if the Southerner should pass on, would lay on those who had done this to him.

It was too hot to keep a body unburied for long....Jackson clenched his jaw. He had every intention of being back here in town before Ezra ever opened his eyes. The Rotten no good gambler was gonna make it...gonna make it if Nathan had to beat the life back into him...Damn man don't ever do what's good for the rest of the idiots he rode with...Gawd what am I doing with these six men? There had to be an easier way to deal with life.

Mary and Inez both nodded. "You better go Nathan," Mrs. Travis's voice softly reminded Nathan of the two men waiting for him, "we'll do our best."

"That's all ya can do Ma'am," Nathan gave the two ladies one last glance. He let his gaze linger on Standish stripped to his briefs under a light sheet. With a shake of his head, Jackson disappeared out the doorway.

Mary and Inez stood planted listening to the sharp staccato as boot heels skipped down the stairs, crossed the hard wood floors of the saloon and then disappeared under the noise of swinging bat wing doors.

The two women crossed to the window and watched the three regulators trot out of town. They only had an hour or two worth of day light left. When the riders disappeared from the sight, the two women turned and stared forlornly at the form under the sheet.

With twin sighs, they busied themselves for the task at hand. What would Chris and the others find out there? God help them all.

+ + + + + + +

"Don't worry 'Kid' ole Chris'll be here in no time to save our bacon," Wilmington whispered wishing he could lay a hand on JD's shoulder. Dunne curled tighter into himself pressing his back into Buck's leg. The young Bostonian slept fitfully. His muscles shivered and twitched under imaginary blows.

"Ya thinkin' Ezra made it?" Tanner leaned back against the wagon wheel, resting his head against its iron rim.

"Had to 'ave," Buck watched the dancing flexing flames of the camp fire a few yards away. "Ain't no other way to think it," dry wood snapped and popped, sparks twisted and floated into the air in vertical spirals.

"Salt Flats ain't forgiving even to a man with a canteen and good horse," Tanner avoided the fire light. He watched the sentry on duty. Damn fool kept glancing in the direction of the camp...ain't never gonna see anything comin' at'im from the dark....jist as well....

"Ezra knew what was laid on the table," Buck turned his head to face the tracker. Vin sat nestled in dark shadows, if it weren't for his voice Wilmington would never known he was there. Damn fire light ruined his night vision, "Ezra ain't gonna quit on us."

"Ain't sayin' he would...not if he had a choice," Tanner met Wilmington's steely gaze. He knew the Buck couldn't see him...not after watching the light.

"Damnit Vin," Buck's voice ground out, "Ezra ain't dead," his hissed words stung the night between them.

Tanner smiled and leaned back against the spoked wheel, "I know he ain't Buck," The tracker turned his head and let a slow smile curl his lip, "jist wanted to hear ya say it."


"Yup," a Texan laced chuckle carried on the breeze.

+ + + + + + +

Chris kicked dirt on the burning embers of their camp fire. Josiah had the horses saddled and ready. Nathan packed the last of their gear away. The sun had yet to crest the horizon. The ground still carried the chill of a cold evening. Birds chirped and whoop in the early morning light. Like last night, no clouds marred the sky. No trees dotted the landscape.

Sage and sun seemed all they had to look forward to today.

Following Standish's tracks had been easy. The heavy plodding of shuffling feet on the main road out of Four Corners proved not to be challenging. Last night they had camped a mile off the road. Five miles from town. Chris pushed a punishing pace. They covered some ground.

The trail became more difficult with the increasing of ground cover. Sage marred the area. The tell tale marks of boots and scrapes meandered haphazardly over hard earth.

The lack of light, the fear of losing a twisting trail forced them to stop as stars dotted the sky.

This morning Larabee led them over land. He leaned forward in his saddle sometimes standing in his stirrups. The pace had slowed considerably.

The sun rose in the sky bringing with it the promise of more heat. The shadows of early morning stretched and leaned across the ground and over sage brush. Snakes basked in the morning sunlight unconcerned about the people that crossed their paths. An occasional hare darted out from under cover. Birds chatted and bugs hovered in the morning reprieve.

Mid afternoon the threesome came to a covered wagon. A small team of mules stood to the side foraging for morsels to eat. The mules breyed a warning to their handler. A woman gazed up from a wooden bucket she stooped over. In a flash of panic, she called out two names. A child no more than three and naive to the dangers of strangers, ignored his mother and continued to pile sand. The mother quickly crossed the distance to her son and scooped him up protectively. Though not a large woman, she gave the impression of a hell cat should one come between her and her baby.

A man stepped out from around the wagon brandishing a weapon. The long double barrel shot gun looked unsteady and gangly in his shaking hands. Worn suspenders held equally tattered pants. His frame seemed even more slight than his wife's. Though he easily held the height of Nathan.

"Hello the camp....We come in peace," Josiah's voice rumbled across the distance. Its tone somehow managing to garner a tint of friendliness.

"Don't come no further," The voice shook nearly as much as the hands that fought to hold the shotgun steady.

"We don't mean ya no harm folks," Nathan lifted his hands from the reins of his horse and held them outward in a show of peace. The three regulators continued forward, "We're trying to track a friend of ours....hopin' ya might've seen'im...."

Nathan let his voice taper off when he noticed the man's feet.

He wore only socks.

"What happened to your shoes?" Larabee had no compulsion with frivolity.

His inquiry was met with a wary gaze. The wife and son had disappeared from sight.

"We're the law in the next town over," Josiah schooled quietly. He watched as the gun lowered slightly. It amazed the expreacher just how quick people listened and believed the words of strangers. Ezra and Maude's world did not seem so strange at times.

"Y'all the law?"

"Yes sir we are," Jackson answered again, "now about'em boots?"

"Jist couple of nights ago some dang fool run off with my boots and a good Sunday Meetin' shirt too," The shot gun barrel now pointed toward the ground. Nathan could almost hear Chris suck in his breath when the barrel rested in the dirt.

"That all?...any money or food or water?" Josiah rested his wrists lazily across the horn of his saddle.

"Yup, jist my boots and a shirt....had some money tucked away right near the shirt but they left that."

Nathan leaned close to Chris and whispered, "Ezra wouldn't have been in his right mind....not bin 'imself."

Josiah heard the comment and chuckled.

"Y'all lookin' for the man who robbed us?"

"Reckon," Larabee reined his big black away from the wagon.

The man hitched a hip, "Snapped some buckles on the harness. Been stuck here for three days and nights...can't git the team fixed up to move..." The hint and plea hung heavy in the air.

"Head East for a day or so and you'll hit a town...Blacksmith there will fix ya right up," Josiah fell into step behind the other two horses.

The men tipped their hats. A few yards out they picked up a barefoot trail.

Josiah cursed.

+ + + + + + +

"Come on boys," A solid boot connected with Wilmington's lower thigh, just over the knife wound. Buck's eyes snapped open and he lunged for the offending body. The ropes that bound him to the wheel severely stunted his movement. Manacles bit his wrists.

"Ohh bit of a temper in ya yet," The dust covered tormentor raised a leather baton to club his prisoner.

"Cletis, Tiny enough of that shit," Samuel Rosenberg gathered up his gear, "they need to be able to walk and they can't be doin' that if ya bust'em to bad."

Cletis stared at the Ladies' Man in warning. Buck met his gaze and then dropped it. It would not do anyone any good to get killed today. Fury hammered Buck's heart.

"Damn Texas Rangers ain't so tough after all," the captor sniggered as he began to saunter down the row. On second thought he snapped his wrist back slapping the baton squarely against Wilmington's face. Tiny laughed as he headed toward his boss and Digger. Cletis was determined to badger his victims.

Not that Tiny minded. Hear tell that Cletis's old man got hisself shot down durin' a bank robbery gone sour...and that fool Wilmington shot the ole man...right there in the street. Now if one listened to Cletis's view of the facts...his old man were jist 'bout outta bullits and didn't kill no kids jist that one lady and bank teller but he axed for it or so Cletis tells it...and then that puff chested Texas Ranger shot'im down...Ranger jist a kid'imself at the time...not much older than Cletis hisself. Shot the old man right there on Main Street.

Tiny weren't gonna interfere if Cletis wanted to beat'im way, no how...Cleat could be down right loony and ya don't mess with no one not in their right mind. Iffen ya want to live to see ya next birthday an all.

The baton snapped Buck's head to the opposite shoulder smacking his head on the wagon. The Ladies' Man caught his breath and folded into his shoulder instinctively. The stinging pain bolted through his head and cheek. He sat up slowly with measured breaths as the world spun by as if it had been caught in a dust devil.

"Nope ain't so tough at all," Cletis swung the baton in his hand as he headed for Tanner.

JD sat beside Buck. Dunne kept his mouth shut and his eyes downcast. His stomach burned and ached and his head throbbed. His arms and shoulders cramped and he could no longer feel his hands. Despair welled in side him. "You ok Buck," His voiced sounded small and fragile even to himself. He wondered how Buck and Vin could be so fearless.

"Fine kid just fine," Wilmington slid his gaze over JD. Dunne must be made of something stronger than the rest of them. Damn kid had more grit than Larabee.

Cletis squatted in front of Tanner just out of striking range, "How's it feel to know ya gonna swing in Tascosa?" The leer on the man's face matched the words with biting intensity.

A 'probably nothin' like when ya feel me lay yer throat open," Tanner's softly spoken words held no malice or anger. His captor created more space between himself and the bounty hunter.

With struggling bravado Cletis continued, "Ya gonna die Tanner."

Vin smiled briefly a flash really, "Yup,"

The large man stood up slapping his baton smartly in his hand liking the sound of leather striking flesh.

"But not before you," Vin's words halted the baton's actions.

"Cletis leavi'm alone and 'elp us git ready to move out," Rosenburg's voice shot harshly across the camp ignorant of the promise just uttered.

Cletis Downy backed away from the tracker.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan wiped his brow again. His hat felt tight on his head. The sun seemed to bake right through it. He could feel the sun burn his skin even through his shirt. How did Ezra make it this far?

Josiah pushed the cork back onto his canteen. Between the three men they had six containers of water. The smaller watering holes had dried up long ago. It had not detoured Standish from weaving from empty water source to empty water source. Sanchez could not imagine the despondency he would have felt if he kept finding dried ponds and oasis's. Sanchez stared at the black shirt of the man in front of him.

Chris led them on seemingly unconcerned or bothered by the oppressive heat. Sweat sucked his shirt close to his body. Dirt covered everything. The sun light wavered off the ground in reflective pools preventing them from getting a look at the trail in the distance.

At one point Larabee stopped. He gave no signal. Josiah and Nathan flanked him. Larabee merely nodded toward the ground. A small stained area of dirt protected by some dry grass and brittle weeds sat just off the trail.

"Looks like he mighta got sick here," Jackson did not bother getting down from his horse. The animals swiveled their ears forward and sideways trying to discourage the ever present flies. Occasionally out of frustration a gelding would toss its head lazily. The shake of leather and whoosh of mane and forelock only temporarily deterred the insistent pests.

Chris nodded and gently clicked his mount to continue the painfully slow pace. Larabee's mind focused sorely on the haphazard trail. Why had Ezra been separated from the others? Where were the others and were they still alive. Chris mentally shook the thoughts from his head. He would believe they were alive otherwise there would be no point in being out here. If only they could have some indicator that they followed the correct trail.

Josiah sat back in his saddle and closed his eyes against the glare of the late afternoon sun.

He brushed at his forehead and paused. Two silhouettes leading horses grabbed his attention. One horse apparently severely lame.

"Brothers?" He pointed to the figures just on the horizon.

Larabee nodded and headed off toward them.


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