Heather F.

Mary felt tears spring unbiddened to her eyes. She bit her lip and stole a deep breath. With the same tired action, she wiped down the heated face and chest of the Gambler. At first he had lain still, unresponsive to her and Inez's administrations. In those times, she prayed for some sort of reaction, some show of life.

With tears threatening to cascade down lovely cheeks, she wished for the tranquil times of before.

Muscle cramps and spasms sporadically attacked Standish. Calf muscles knotted and twisted curling toes and arching feet with torturous intensity. Stomach muscles bunched and strained on their own. Fingers curled into tight fists as forearm muscles contracted of their own volition.

Under their massaging attempts to soothe such muscle responses, groans escaped between cracked dry lips of their patient. White teeth seemed forever tinted with the harsh hue of blood as teeth bit and clenched the tongue and lining of cheeks. Occasionally, he gagged and coughed spewing blood and spittle about as a swallow reflex woke too sluggishly.

Alone now in the long shadows of early evening, Mary watched as Standish once again rode through the waves of cramping muscle bellies.

She watched stricken as fingers opened and curled as if searching for comfort. Mary kept her hands clenched on her lap. Earlier during a fit of muscle cramps, the gambler nearly broke her hand as she tried to hold his in a gesture of comfort. Thank goodness Inez had come when she did.

+ + + + + + +

Chris drew his gun the hammer cocked back before the two men could even shout a Hello.

"Brother Chris?" Sanchez pulled up beside the dark gunslinger hoping to prevent the man from committing a grievous mistake out of anger.

"Look at the boots Josiah," Nathan whispered from the corner of his mouth.

Sanchez swiveled his gaze and followed Jackson's eye. Well made black leather boots with a squared toe adorned one of the travelers. Ezra's.

With a howl of rage, the ex-preacher dove from his horse and attacked the man before him. The drifter never stood a chance.

Larabee merely altered the direction of his aim and took the second man into his sites.

"Where'd ya git the boots?" Nathan kept his eyes on Josiah, though he directed his question to the man under Larabee's scrutiny.

"You best answer the man," Chris's voice seared the air drowning out the gagging, choking noises of the individual trapped within Josiah's hands. Larabee never deviated his attention, "Cuz killing you will be the easiest thing I do today."

"We traded fer'em 'onest,"

"Traded who?" Nathan started feeling a little nervous as the neck snugly captured in Josiah's grip started to turn purple. He lifted his eyes to the hesitant man whom the question was directed toward. "Yer friend's running outa time," Jackson's simple observation seemed unnecessary.

"Jist some fancy man in a blue coat...jist a trade is all," Skittish brown eyes darted from regulator to regulator. They seemingly found and ally in the black man. "That's the truth 'onest."

Larabee raised his gun taking aim unerringly at the man's forehead.

The man squatted down and covered his head with his arms, "Alright, alright....It was Billy's fault really," Mousy eyes roved frantically from Nathan to Chris. "We done come across this fella jist outta The Salt Flats..."

Nathan and Chris swore. Josiah hesitated in his endeavor, registered the words and continued with increased vigor cinching the neck of his captive tighter.

"He wanted some water....Hell, I was jist gonna give it to 'im but Billy said he had to trade his boots for it," The Mouse, realizing he had a believing audience, relaxed his crouched stance.

"And then when the guy took a sip and wanted another Billy said he had to trade his coat and shirt...cuz they was worth somethin'." The eyes darted to the ground at the last statement as a hand scrubbed at a whiskered chin.

Billy struggled with renewed effort and tried to shake his head 'No,"

"Josiah let him up for a bit," Nathan thought something strange. Perhaps the one under Chris's line of sight told a variant version of the truth.

"That ain't it...noway in'ell!" Billy croaked out, "Timmy wanted the guy's blue coat...said it would look better on 'im than on some dead guy,"

"Dead guy?"

"He weren't dead at da time...but sure in'ell weren't gonna make it much longa...not afta comin' outta there," Billy pointed off into the barren area known simply as The Salt Flats. It was said nothing could live in there. No birds or trees, no water for miles around. The army even avoided it. Its said the Indians wouldn't venture close to it either. It had been rumored that anything that ventured into the area never came back out.

The regulators knew all about rumor and stories but still they all traveled around the Flats. Why take a chance?

"He say anything?....anyone with him at all?" Nathan leaned on his saddle horn trying to remain calm and less frightening. Josiah and Chris had intimidation button holed.

"Never 'ad the chance.....Timmy there jist knocked him down and tried to wrestle the coat off'im but his dang hands were tied. So Timmy jist cut the ropes off 'is hands and took his coat...when he laid eyes on that ruffled shirt 'n he took that too," Billy's matched Nathan's eye hoping to find someone to believe his story. "He said a corpse don't need no fancy clothes," Billy nodded his head vigorously, "That he did."

"I did not ya lyin' piece of filth!" Timmy made a move toward Billy. The slight shifting of Larabee's revolver halted him.

"Don't matter to me which one you kill Chris cuz I'll finish the other one off," Josiah tightened his grip on Billy's shirt.

Nathan dismounted his horse and began rummaging through the saddle bags of the two travelers. The shirt and coat sat near the top.

"Kill'em both and lets git going," Jackson swung back into his saddle carrying the pilfered items.

Pitiful groans and wails filled the area.

+ + + + + + +

Mary and Inez struggled with the thrashing form on the bed.

"We need Nettie," Mary whispered desperately. Inez nodded sharply once and disappeared from the room.

+ + + + + + +

Buck followed the wagon. Gawd what he wouldn't give for a drink...What he wouldn't give up for just a drink....A pony line secured him to the rear hatch. Wilmington's leg seared with each foot placement. Blood still seeped from the wound. He could feel the fly's landing and walking on the blood soaked pant's leg. The Ladies' man only hoped that the others found them before the maggots started in on the wound. He consciously made an effort to pull his dry tongue from the roof of his mouth. A sip of water...Gawd he'd almost take up abstinence...

JD hobbled between Buck and Vin. Neither man offered the boy a guiding hand. Their tied hands prevented even suggested overtures of support. JD could not make sense of things to his left or right. His vision had been reduced to just the slits afforded to him by swollen eye lids. Not that it mattered it seemed he could only focus on water. His pride and single minded determination kept him from stumbling. With each step the others took he matched them. What they could do he could do...If they could take one more step then so could he. He hurt no more or no less than them...If Vin could trudge behind this wagon with busted ribs....if Buck followed with a bum leg...then he too would take the other step. JD had something to prove, to himself. He tried to slide his textured tongue over dust filmed teeth to no avail. It stuck at the first premolar and refused to move. JD didn't have the energy or saliva to fight it. Gawd he needed water.

Tanner kept his eyes forward. His ribs and head fired at him with an intensity he had not endured for quite some time. A sensation he did not welcome. With revenge in his heart, he gaged the men before him. He studied the one called Rosenberg. Cletis, Tiny and Digger supplied nothing more than muscle and guns. The three though brutal in every sense of the word held only marginal thinking ability. Tanner knew to watch them. Even nature's unbrightest had the instinct to survive. His eyes lingered on the canteens. He'd kill just for a drink.

Under the summer sun, in a relentless heat wave, the three captors wobbled and tripped behind the wagon.

+ + + + + + +

Larabee wiped his brow. A dull headache pounded in the background originating from his neck.

The curled pieces of clay lay for as far as the eye could see. A carcass lay hollowed and picked clean of its organs. A dry leathery hide sunk between ribs. Fly's buzzed the empty eye sockets. A gaping mouth exposed unevenly worn teeth, the tongue long ago removed by scavengers. The cloven hoof gave only a slight indicator to the possible species. In the heat, the drone of feeding flies seemed incredibly loud.

The Black gelding step with reduced vigor. White lather had long ago disappeared from beneath the chaffing reins. A sheen of grey dust coated the animal dulling the shiny onyx color.

How the hell did Standish survive this? Gawd damn son of a bitch been holdin' out on me

"He's a stubborn fool that's for sure," Nathan seemingly read his thoughts. Jackson feared, however, that the gambler might still have succumbed to the effects of the dehydration and heat.

"Our Brother must have a guardian angel," Sanchez patted the big Sorrel's neck. The angels protecting the seven must work overtime...or perhaps it had become something of a team effort...much like the seven themselves.

Chris smiled quietly to himself listening to the others.

In a few hours, they found themselves surrounded by nothing but clay and waves of heat. Pools of reflective light fooled the eye into believing it held water. Larabee sipped carefully from his water skin. The sun sat high in the sky. A white piercing source of heat.

Through the curtains of heat the solitary tracks of one man suddenly became accompanied by a horse.

Chris clicked his Black into a faster walk.

+ + + + + + +

Nettie Wells sat at the foot of the bed. She had the sheet pulled back. Bloody torn feet and ankles had swelled and festered despite Mary's and Inez's attempts to keep infection at bay.

With a soft touch one would not think such callused hands could have, Nettie wiped and cleaned the abrasions of old scabs and drying pus. Occasionally Standish groaned weakly pulling a foot back. A muscle spasm clenched the calf forcing toes to curl. A moan of anguish rebounded around the room and the gambler curled and fought a sensation he did not fully understand in his unconscious state.

Nettie merely rubbed the arch of the foot. With a skill born from experience she wrapped the foot in the warm poultice. She repeated the process with the other foot.

Mary rolled the sheet back more exposing pale calves. Again the muscle bellies clenched and knotted. Nettie wrapped a cloth around each leg. The poultices released a heat. In a few seconds, the muscles relaxed.

Inez wiped cool cloth over the gambler's features avoiding the white creamed lips. She whispered softly in Spanish as his face skewered in response to the leg cramps. She shushed his groans with soft platitudes.

Nettie and Mary covered the legs and then pulled the blankets off the shoulders and midsection. It rested dangerously low on bony hips. Had they been under different circumstances the indecency of such exposure would have been scandalous.

Ms. Wells, Mrs. Travis and Mz Rociollis cared little of such things at this time.

Serum oozed from the swollen skin. It crusted and covered the upper chest and shoulders in coarse yellowish crystallined droplets.

Nettie once again began bathing the burned tissue with cool water. Mary mimicked her motions from the opposite side.

Standish mumbled calling out to JD.

+ + + + + + +

Chris kept the horses at a trot. They had found the camp abandoned. There was enough water in the nearby mud holes to sate the horses thirst. There was not enough water left to replenish canteens.

Only a few hours of daylight remained. If they pushed they might be able to catch up with the others before morning.

A storm brewed just over the horizon.

+ + + + + + +

Buck collapsed heavily on the ground beside JD. The kid no longer held his head up. The long black bangs hung over puffy eyes. Wilmington couldn't gather enough moisture to articulate words. He couldn't talk to JD, reassure him or even offer him comfort.

Wilmington gingerly stretched his legs out trying not to pull the caked wound open. It itched. He bounced his knee slightly to try and alleviate the crawling sensation. Something slid down his thigh and wiggled. Buck closed his eyes trying to shut out the image of milky white cigar forms of furling and unfurling maggots. He tried to replace their wave like motion with something more pleasant like Ms. Violets shining features. It didn't work. The maddening itch increased. He could almost hear the crisp but gentle hum as they ate dead flesh.

A 'Ey Ranger man ya restin' already? Ain't you Texas Rangers 'supose to be tough an all?" Digger knelt down beside Wilmington running a knife blade in lazy circles over Wilmington's shirt. His foul breath washed over the small space. Flies landed and scurried across dirty stubbled cheeks picking at flecks of a greasy lunch left clinging to whiskers. Digger swiped at his jaw line with the back of his hand dispersing the flies. "Texas Rangers suppose to be tough hombres not even the devil can beat them...." Digger drew the blade quickly across Wilmington's chest slicing material and skin. Buck hissed in a breath and moved quickly from the knife.

The skin blanched and split a few seconds later blood began seeped into the wound slowly dripping down Wilmington's chest. Flies converged on the area.

"Leave'im alone you bastard," The vehemence in JD's voice turned heads.

"Oh the pup thinks he has some teeth," Digger laughed. The chuckle died immediately as a back hand lashed out connecting solidly with JD's cheek.

The young sheriff's head whipped to the side and rebounded off the wagon.

"Your gonna die for that," Wilmington leaned close to the larger man's ear, "I'm gonna wring your neck like a Christmas Goose."

Digger turned his attention from Dunne to Wilmington. Without warning, the captor shot out a jab connecting solidly with Buck's cheek.

Vin sighed leaning his head against the spoked wheel, "You best hope he wrings yer neck before I git to you." His dark blue eyes offered no false bravado, no grandiose posturing, just a simple observation.

Digger straightened up and backed from Wilmington. The hell with what Rosenburg ordered. They should just kill that Comanche lovin' Tanner and be done with him.

Sam Rosenburg lit a fire in the small pit he had dug. "Stay away from Tanner, Digger. He's goin' in alive," Rosenburg's deep tanned face split into a grin, Aswinging for him is the worse kind of death there is....kind of fittin' see'in ya made my brother hang."

"Rope made that cur hang," Tanner bit out. He tested his bonds again. The shackles were once again tied to the spokes of the wagon wheel.

Sam sprang to his feet throwing a stick into the fire.

"Best watch it Vin...yella bellies gittin' the nerve to git all riled up," the mock whisper from Wilmington had JD chuckling.

A Heard Ezra say he didn't think Rosenburg had been walking upright very long...something about knuckles still draggin' on the ground," JD's laugh sounded more like a dry hacking wheeze.

Buck weren't sure what the kid was talking about and neither did Rosenburg.

Sam ignored the two others and knelt before Tanner, "You ain't so tough Tanner,"

"Untie me and see how tough I am."

"I ain't dumb."

"That's debatable," JD's hoarse attempt at a shout carried.

Wilmington furrowed his brow and stared at Dunne. Damn kid 's been hangin around Ezra too much, got something to say about everything.

Rosenburg and Tanner stared at one another daring the other to make a move. The air between them heated with foul breath.

"Ya a coward like that pissant brother of yours....killin' unarmed folks."

Wilmington bit his tongue trying to fathom what Vin hoped to accomplish.

"You're gonna die Tanner hang from a rope, ya gonna swing and piss yer pants before the world when the platform drops out from under ya....ya gonna twitch and jerk and mess ya self and I'm gonna be there to see it."

Buck almost groaned when he saw the wiry smile twitch across Tanner's features, "Well it'd make up fer ya not bein' there for yer brother now won't it....hell he done messed hisself before they even put the damn hood on his face...hell Rosenburg he'd already bin cryin' beggin' fer mercy, passed out an everythin'," Tanner taunted with a knowing tone, "hell they had to pour water on him jist to git him ta stand up....took two guys jist ta git the jellied kneed snake to stay upright."

Wilmington slowly shook his head. Of all the times, why did Vin choose now to get mouthy. Gawd Damn Standish was a bad influence on everyone around Buck. The Ladies' man vowed he was gonna have to have a talk with that back sassin southern fool.

Rosenburg lost all composure. With a roar of blind rage he threw himself at the tracker.

Buck struggled with his own bindings as did JD.

Vin, however, did not lay quietly and take his punishment. His head, teeth and legs had become weapons. In the end he sat slumped and beaten, blood running from his nose and mouth, his ears black and blue and face cut and marred.

Rosenburg stepped back. His shirt lay open blood and sweat rolled quickly down his flushed face. Vicious teeth marks gouged his cheeks and neck. He wrapped a protective arm around his ribs as he fought for breath.

"Yer gonna die Tanner....but yer gonna watch yer friends go first."

"Like hell."

Thunder boomed in the distance. A slight breeze skimmed across the land pooling dirt and scattering flies. The light underside of brush and long grasses curved under the wind. Dark clouds rolled in on the heels of the setting sun.

All motion stopped when three more riders entered camp.

Rosenburg straightened up and unconsciously wiped blood and dust from his face.

The riders dismounted. Wind flapped vests and pulled at hat brims. None of the visitors seemed to care. "Who the hell is that?" The grey haired tall gentleman pointed leather worn hands at Dunne.

"Jist some kid sheriff riding with Wilmington and Tanner." Rosenburg answered somewhat nervously. "Using' him to keep those other two in line." Sam tried to add some confidence to his quaking tone.

The two men accompanying the grey haired man stared at Wilmington and Tanner. Their amused grins promised some form of punishment in the near future.

"Git this camp set up for the storm. Hank, Joe I want you two to take care of the horses. Rosenburg git your worthless men moving or I'll start cutting some of my expenses."

The grey haired man turned and focused his eyes on Tanner and Wilmington, "Never thought I'd see the day you'd ride with scum Wilmington...." The old man squared his shoulders and stood his full height, "figured you'd hold true to the badge...but ridin' with the likes of this injun lovin' murderer ...beneath you boy."

"You ain't ridin' so proud yerself," Buck's words held a tinge of disgust, "you weren't nuthin' but a badge with a price...least ways the Rangers saw through you and dumped yer cheap ass before ya disgraced'em too much."

"Ya shut the hell up Wilmington...I jist kill ya here but my boss wants you for bait...Tanner here is my five hundred dollar bonus." Terry chuckled at the confused expressions. "Don't worry Wilmington even after the storm we'll make sure Larabee can follow us...that is once he figures out yer missin'," The ex-Ranger turned to leave and stopped, "figure we'll have to leave him a telegram as to your new location'...since his lap dog's gonna be swingin' from a noose."

Terry McQuinn chuckled as he headed toward the camp.

"Hey Buck you and Chris ever think about not pissing off everyone you meet?" JD asked paraphrasing one of Standish's earliest remarks.

Wilmington flashed the kid a baffled expression. Since when did JD start quoting Ezra? Damn he really was gonna have to have a heart to heart talk with Standish. Damn man was a bad influence at the most imoptune times.

JD leaned against the wagon wheel and closed his already closed eyes. The simple relaxation of lids fighting to open against the swelling came as a relief. How could things go so wrong so fast.

"Buck ya think Ezra made it?"

"No doubt kid."

"How kin ya be so sure?" JD didn't bother swiveling his head to face his friend. The young man attempted to swallow but found his throat too dry. The sudden wind chilled him to the bone. He shivered slightly.

"Simple kid, Ezra's part snake and snakes live in shit like this," Buck tried to lift his head from the side of the wagon but found the effort cost more than he had to give at the moment. There was a pause and wind stirred dirt and sand across the desert floor. He saw his explanation toppled short, "Cuz JD he had too...if we're gonna git out of this, he had to have made no other choice."

JD found solace in the words. Maybe the steadfast belief in the tone or the fact that it came from a serious Buck Wilmington...Dunne did not care for the reason, just that he believed the words.

JD's leg muscles quivered and ached. A chill seeped into his bones. It felt strange to be cold after being hot for so long. Maybe he picked up whatever Ezra had last week. His mom had had hallucinations just before she died. Gawd it had been terrible. She would talk to her ma and pa and beg forgiveness about gettin' in a family way. She had cried, pleadin' with them not to put her out. JD had sat by her side the whole time holding her hand and apologizing. Apologizin' to his ma for ever being born. He had never meant to cause her any pain. Right in the end though, she woke up and really saw him...really and truly saw him. He had told her how sorry he was about her bein' kicked out of her home cuz of'im. It had been the first time he ever saw his mom cry. Tears had streamed down sunken grey cheeks. JD never would forget when she had struggled to sit up and then pulled him to her and just hugged him. Hugged him for all she was worth. Said his bein' born was the best thing that ever happened to her and she had never regretted it...never, not one day.

Even now he could feel her skinny arms clasped tightly around him, he could feel her chin on his shoulder as she whispered into his ear just how much she loved him. Said she'd always watch over him no matter where he was....and then she passed on right then. Her arms weakened and failed, a soulful breath released itself from a fragile chest and she slumped against him. JD had held her along time after that...just rocking her...just like she had done for him when he was sick.

Then just last week, Ezra had looked and acted the same way as JD's ma right before she died. He saw bounty hunters, talked French (or so Josiah said it was) and played cards. His eyes were open but he weren't seeing the others...Nathan said the fever had taken him somewhere else. Louisiana from the sounds of it. It had scared JD...scared him something bad. Thought Ezra was gonna up and die like his ma...especially after he had started calling out for his Da...had started shouting about a fire and smoke...and not being able to breath. He had even started hacking and coughing all the while hollering for his Da. He didn't stop until Josiah sat on the side of the bed and scooped him up and just held him against his chest...That was when JD left. Josiah had held Ezra up next to his shoulder and rocked him telling him it was ok..there weren't no fire...tellin' him to calm down. JD left cuz he knew Ezra was gonna die...right then jist like his ma. But he didn't die...nope. Instead he jist stared at flames no one else could see and told Josiah that the flames seemed alive...that they breathed and hunted. He had even stretched out a shaky pale hand trying to touch them...test the heat of them...all the while talkin' real hushed like...'Sept he weren't talkin' to Josiah he were talkin' to his Da. Vin had said Ezra fell asleep leaning against Josiah askin' why the flames hunted them on water. No one knew what Ezra were talkin' about and no one asked him when he came to his senses that next morning. No one even made mention of the hallucinations or the fire or Josiah being his Da for just one night. It'd embarrass poor ole Ezra right back into his educated satiric self. Not that he weren't already back there...

"Ya think Nathan's gonna be mad at us for not watchin' out for 'im better?"


"Thought so,"

"We'll blame it on Vin," Buck offered, "Chris likes'im best."

"Not if Ezra gits sick again and can't pull his shifts."


"Ya think we're gonna git out of this Buck?" Fear tinged words that tried so hard to be brave and unconcerned.

"Yup...odds are jist about even now," Buck's cocky smile lifted the ends of his mustache. "Ezra made it home JD and Chris and the others are close." Wilmington sat up and stared at the young Sheriff.

"I hope so Buck...otherwise we got a lotta work ahead of us," A grin nearly as cocky as Buck's spead on JD's reddened cheeks.

Vin closed his eyes against the fading light of day. They would escape tonight.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah put a restraining hand on Chris's upper arm. Night stretched across the land. The mono dark grey of late twilight blurred the land. The boundary time between twilight and true night seemed to be the invisible time that everything held the same color or hue. Animal, beast and plant life carried the same shade of grey. Things black became deep holes in the environment. Whites stood out brilliantly but the rest slid into the same grey. Night encroached quickly from here.

Dark banks of thunder heads rolled toward them. Lightening streaked across the sky over distant mesas. Clouds turned a surreal pink with each jaggered flash. Wind howled sending night creatures for cover. A hawk rode the thermal currents swooping and spiraling frolicking in the freedom.

Nathan sat on the ground checking his knives. Chris heeded Sanchez's silent request. The dark gunslinger rechecked his gun.

Josiah flexed and unflexed his fists. He raised his face to the darkening sky and prayed for strength and speed.

Seven captors against six lawmen. The odds weren't favorable but Sanchez figured the outlaws should have known to bring more men to even the odds.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra screamed for JD reaching out desperately trying to grab hold of something or someone. Nettie, Inez and Mary pushed him back down.

He threw his head left and right fighting enemies only his mind's eye could see. He struggled and fought. Again a howl of anguish escaped as he thrashed wildly lost in nightmares.

+ + + + + + +

Vin fumbled with the key he had taken from Rosenburg earlier. Numb swollen fingers did not readily cooperate.

Tanner felt the ground shudder at the encroaching explosions of thunder.

The shackles slipped free. The tracker remained still fighting the smile that desperately wanted to mock his captors.

Wilmington turned his head and stared at the tracker. JD had succumbed to feverish dreams.

Buck knew tonight would be the night. People would die under the veil of this storm.

+ + + + + + +

Chris slipped through the desert nearly obsessed with retrieving his men and avenging the abuses that had befallen them.

Sanchez had melted into the night circumventing the area.

Nathan slid from the north flanking Larabee's left and Sanchez's right.

The clouds above cracked with a deafening cacophony of thunder. Rain poured in sheets from the heavens.

Visibility quickly diminished in the thickness of a stormy night.

+ + + + + + +

Tanner unpeeled the metal cuffs from his wrists. Rain splattered his head and body. Water cascaded down his face stringing his hair to his scalp.

Buck nearly jumped out of his skin when a hand rested on his shoulder. Wilmington felt the key press into his palm. The ex-Texas Ranger never said a word.

"Hey Vin...jist remember the kid 'n'me are on yer side," Wilmington's half smile was met with a smirk and a wink.

Tanner disappeared into the night like a drop of water into a river.

Wilmington wrestled with his manacles. He did jump when a voice rumbled over his shoulder, "Which one left Ezra in the desert?" Josiah leaned so close that his breath warmed Buck's ear.

" with Vin's teeth marks on his face,' Wilmington continued to wrestle with the lock hoping the others saved one of the captors for him.

+ + + + + + +

Lightening flashed. Sheets of rain beat the ground. Earth worms struggled and drowned in accumulating ground water. Thunder rolled in ominous warnings before cracking with bone chilling intensity. The sheer volume of sound seemed to vibrate through the earth.

Chris hesitated just beside the smoldering campfire. Josiah to his left...Nathan to his right. Both men lost in the thick veil of rain and smothering blackness.

Lightening split the night again...the roll of thunder gathering intensity before the staccato of flashes disappeared all together.

It was then Larabee saw him. In that brief illuminating flash Larabee saw the clear as midday.

Through the rain, under the hue of a lightening strike, Vin stood silent like a creature spawned from hideous nightmares, behind Cletis. The glint of finely worked steel sparked in the light.

As quick as the lightening flashed it dissipated. Thunder boomed cracking the sky as if to split it.

Larabee cursed and prayed for the next bolt of light.

It came.

Tanner was gone. Cletis lay twisted on the ground his head nearly decapitated from under the jaw line.

Sweet Jesus.

A form tackled Larabee from behind. Chris tucked and rolled springing to his feet. With a growl of relief, the Leader of the Seven attacked his unseen assailant with vigor.

+ + + + + + +

Nettie ducked the flaying arm like a seasoned boxer. With both hands, she pinned the outstretched elbow hoping to keep it still.

Mary struggled with the other arm.

Kerosene flames flickered and wavered with each cascading burst of thunder. Lightening cracked and hissed the air.

The fight in Ezra's room escalated.

With wild blood shot eyes, he struggled and fought demons from another time and place. With terror born of fever and bred of panic, he vainly strove against the forces attempting to subdue him.

Inez, Nettie and Mary disheveled and scared felt the twinges of fear and frustration.

"We need help," Mary knelt on the biceps area keeping the flaying arm from tossing punches at Nettie.

"I saw Yosemite downstairs," Nettie ground out between clenched teeth.

"I'll get him," Inez put down the cup of herbal broth and ran from the room as another thunder head shattered the night. She shut the door drowning out the hoarse cry of the Southerner.

+ + + + + + +

JD opened a bleary eye. He heard cannons. His face felt wet. Water dripped down his cheek across his nose and into the dirt. Was he crying? Gawd he hoped he had not succumbed enough to show such blatant weakness. He needed to be strong for Buck and Vin.

Dunne blinked water out of his eyes. More pelted his body. It was raining and night. The cannons transformed into banks of thunder. With each rattling boom, lightening split the sky.

With fevered eyes, Dunne thought he saw Josiah heave a man over his head. For a terribly brief moment he thought the preacher looked something like a crazed bear.....Perhaps he was dreaming..... In one instant, Rosenburg had been suspended over Sanchez's head and the next....the lightening winked out under another frightful crack of thunder. Thick blackness collapsed over the area. JD couldn't see his own feet.

Rain cried from the heavens.

Lightening shocked the night again. The night sky became brilliant almost like morning. Rosenburg lay broken and unblinking his mouth gaped open in a silent scream. His back had a strange hitch in it. Maybe it wasn't a dream at all

JD couldn't find Josiah.

The lightening flashed off as thunder crashed overhead. The wagon rattled.

Nathan stood off to the left. Twin blades flew from his hands. Dunne watched mesmerized as they turned handle over blade across the camp over the smoldering camp fire to embed themselves into the dark silhouette of a body.

Darkness recaptured the land under the roar of thunder.

JD closed his eyes against the pain and burning in his body. He struggled weakly with his bound hands trying desperately to help. Buck and Vin had disappeared. Thunder boomed and the lightening strobed on and off too fast to make any sense. JD wiggled tiredly against his bonds.

Why he opened his eyes a second time the young sheriff would never recall. Hazel feverish eyes focused in a hazy dream world. Someone leaned over him. Someone had a knife. The foul breath foretold of one of their captors...Cletis? Tiny?

JD tried to move his hands. The old iron shackles merely dug deeper into the worn grooves of his wrists. He wanted to swing his legs up to buck off the person straddling him. Muscles quivered and strained.

The knife descended. Dunne couldn't see it in the claustrophobic darkness, but he knew it sliced its way toward his throat. Knew with a certainty.....

Lightening flashed again.

JD witnessed his killers face. Tiny's ghoulish smile hailed just inches from his own. JD's eyes focused on tight steel of the curved blade.


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