Heather F.

Part 2
Tiny would kill this whelp of a lawman before slipping away into the night. This tied pup would be easy to dispatch. Easier than the unseen demons flickering between shadows.

Then out of this nightmare, a bare arm snaked out from behind Tiny and around the assailant's neck. A bare arm with just the tattered remnants of a battered blue shirt. Buck?

The world lit up again. Cold, empty,blue eyes stared hard at the Sheriff. For a moment JD thought Vin stood over him.

All snapped black again as thunder roared overhead. On the heels of the last thunder clap, the sickening crunch of broken bone herald the last conscious sound JD heard.

Somewhere in a dream like state a voice whispered over him, "Don't worry none kid I'm right here." Buck

+ + + + + + +

Yosemite placed thickened forearms on burned shoulders. With callused hands formed and molded from years of holding hammers and pliers, he grabbed either side of the gambler's face.

"Enough!" the deep resonating tone stopped everything in the room. The same sharp voice he used to convey his meaning to ill behaved horses, horses that should know better, shocked the room into immobility.

The wild green eyes stopped their maniacal roving. They quickly snapped and focused on the face leaning closely above.

"You will drink," Yosemite held a hand stretched out behind him. Inez hesitantly handed over the small bowl. It seemed dwarfed in the massive hand.

The blacksmith gently lifted the gambler's head off the pillow and tipped the bowl to parched peeling lips. The white cream and lotions still worked to keep moisture in dehydrated tissue.

Yosemite never broke eye contact with the fury below him. He felt the tremor in weakened muscles and knew somewhere, where the spirit lays protected, that the gambler would not give in so easily.

Hesitant swallows and coarse persuasion soon saw the bowl empty. Yosemite laid Ezra's head back on the pillow. The blacksmith was unnerved by the constant unforgiving gaze that held his with such ire.

"I shall stay close by if you need me again," Yosemite eased off the bed and backed from it. Never turn your back on an animal. Always keep them in you line of vision. The blacksmith felt his few rules of handling were never more important than now.

Mary quietly thanked the large man and lead him toward the door.

Nettie fixed the blanket around the gambler's poulticed shoulders.

The green eyes bored into her threatening her in their silent manner to stay away.

"Where are you son? What do you think you see?" Her whispered words garnered no answers. She ran a gentle hand through his stiff dirty hair.

A malicious stare warned her back.

+ + + + + + +

Chris stood in the center of camp. A deluge of rain continued to soak the earth. It splattered and bounced from the dry unyielding ground. It pooled in puddles and steadily ran building tributaries. The rim of his hat bent and folded under the torrential weight.

A broken battered body lay at his feet. Another hunched crumpled on its side a gaping hole through the chest. Damn fools fought like they had something to lose...and they did. Larabee kicked at one of the bodies at his feet in disgust.

The thunder and lightening had rolled across the sky. It flashed and clapped a distance from the small camp. It no longer shook the ground where he stood.

The gunslinger followed the movements of his men. Buck limped practically dragging his leg behind him. Wilmington dropped to the ground beside JD. Nathan bent over a body just a few feet from Larabee and removed something from the corpse. Whatever tool he recovered, the healer wiped on his leg. Josiah limped to the wagon and stiffly checked the contents of it.

Larabee surveyed the area turning slowly in a circle. He could feel the eyes on him. Feel the piercing gaze burrow into his back. Chris found the eyes. They reflected briefly in a distant flash of light. Tanner. >From the cover of the forest, the tracker watched the camp. With blue eyes of predator the bounty hunter remained aloof from the others.

Tanner then slipped from sight. Melting back into the forest under the cover of a dark night.

Larabee let him go. Something deep down told him to stay away. Chris turned his attention to Buck and JD. Dunne lay curled bent into Wilmington, shivering against the sudden cold and wet. Buck draped a protective arm over the trembling shoulders. The big man leaned his head back and opened his mouth trying to capture some rain.


The sun had crested over the tree tops just a few minutes ago. A breeze tickled the air. The rain had broken the heat wave. Small puddles of water pooled rebelliously in shaded areas. The grass revolted against the summer by taking on a brilliant shade of green seen only after lightening storms.

Clouds dotted a crisp blue sky and the sun seemed more friendly today. Birds sang longer this morning and clouds of insects hovered hungrily over patches of discolored earth.

The canvas top had been pulled back over the arching rungs of the wagon. Buck and JD laid in bed rolls covered against the damp morning chill.

JD didn't want to wake up. He thought he had died. Damn he hurt too bad to be dead though. His ribs burned, his legs ached, his head pounded and he felt incredibly thirsty. He tried to lift an arm but half suspected the manacles to prevent it. His left arm flopped heavily beside him.

Dunne stared at his bandaged wrists. It lay just in front of his face. He moved a few fingers. They were stiff and almost creaked with the flexion.

"How ya doin' JD?"

Chris's voice.

"Chris?" JD almost didn't recognize his own voice.

Larabee crossed the distance to the young sheriff.

The gunslinger rested a hand on Buck's dark hair. The Ladies' man had woken earlier and checked on the 'Kid'. Even with a chunk carved out of his leg and half his blood spilled on the ground, Wilmington never stopped checking on the others. Buck had struggled to sit up and with glazed feverish eyes he had questioned Larabee about Vin and Ezra. Made sure Nathan and Josiah had survived the night too. Hell Buck would not stop his interrogation until Chris had answered each question fully. Finally sated with information Wilmington had eased back down and immediately drifted off.

Chris wondered if Buck knew just how much he looked up to him. Larabee wonder if he would ever tell Buck just how much of a living hero Buck really was.....and not just to JD.

Larabee rested forearms against the side of the wagon. He stared down at JD and smiled. A grin really. It came easy, as if it always belonged there.

"Right here JD," Chris held a steaming cup of coffee.

"The others," Dunne blinked slowly, fighting it, afraid his body would betray him and fall back to sleep.

Chris chuckled and shook his head, "They're fine kid, everyone's doin' jist fine." Larabee watched JD fight the sleep that wanted so much to drown the young man.

"Go to sleep JD we've got time."

"Ezra?" Dunne struggled again his eyes unrolling and fighting to stay focus. He met Chris's gaze squarely, "they took'im....took'im into The Salt....."

"He made it back JD...Ezra's back at town."

A brief smile tried to curl on JD's lips, "Buck and Vin said he'd make it....had no choice." The words tapered off. The heavy rhythmic pattern of sleep steadied his breathing.

Chris merely nodded and straightened up. With the others somewhat accounted for, Chris turned his attention to the missing member of their group. Tanner. The tracker had disappeared last night while the others huddled in the wagon tending Buck and JD.

With the coming of dawn, the rain stopped. Nathan, Josiah and Chris exited the stuffy humid air of the wagon. A cool breeze cut the land. The remnants of the outlaw's camp fire smoldered defiantly within a small ring of stones.

The bodies had vanished in the darkness.

With renewed vigor, the three law men started setting up a new camp. The fire sprung back to life with a little persuasion from Josiah. Nathan dragged supplies out from under the wagon where Josiah had stored it last night. Chris checked the horses and their gear.

Larabee could not shake the feeling that someone observed them. He never saw the Tracker but knew it was Vin who watched them from afar.

Josiah fried bacon over the cook fire. Nathan diligently cleaned and recleaned his knives before sheathing them. He rummaged under the wagon searching for any kind of medical supplies he might have missed earlier. Buck's bandages would have to be changed daily if not more often. The maggots had actually done a good job cleaning and debriding out the fetid flesh. They had removed a heavy infestation. Once the surface ones had been removed Josiah would squeeze on the wound and expose the wiggling butt ends of those migrating into dying flesh. It took sometime but in the end they had removed all the vermin. Nathan now had the daunting task of taking over the maggots job and keeping the wound clean. With renewed vigor he dug for more bandage material.

The wagon had been well stocked with food and whiskey.

Larabee stood and gazed around the camp. No signs remained of the struggle last night. None, except the physical kind. Josiah occasionally rubbed at his back, Nathan carried a small bruise over his eye and Chris could feel every muscle contract and pull against bone.

Larabee headed out of camp with a limp and holding his ribs. Wet brush and ground cover slapped his legs soaking black pant legs to boots and skin alike.

Time had come to find Tanner.

Chris found him sitting on a boulder. He faced into the sun. Larabee knew the tracker had heard him. Knew because when he settled beside him Vin had not reacted.

"You gonna let Nathan tend those wounds?"


"You did what you had too,"

"Ain't feelin' poorly about it," Tanner slowly redirected his gaze toward his friend.

The light blue eyes had a hardness about them. A darkness ran just under the civilized exterior of buckskin, cotton and skin. A wildness that had not been carved or created by nature, it held the ruthless ferocity of something much darker. As vicious and crazed as the natural world could be, though it harbored some of the greatest predators and instincts known to the world, Nature did not create the black tide that waved and regressed under the stony expression of the tracker.

It had been man made. It festered. Last night it surfaced. In the blazing fury of Nature's tempest, Vin Tanner's demon inside reared itself to the world. With instincts and knowledge closely attuned to the natural world, the man made devil in Tanner poised a dangerous deadly force. He lashed out to protect and retaliate in the name of his friends and surrogate family.

He fought now to stifle it and control it once again.

Chris recognized the expression and understood the reason.

"We're heading back to town sometime today," Larabee circled away from Tanner and headed back to camp.


"Made it back, Nathan's worried though," Chris paused and turned around, "looks kinda like the bacon Josiah's fryin' up," Larabee's soft chuckle accompanied Tanner's half smile. Chris paused and finally uttered something that had bothered him since he hit the trail, "It doesn't surprise me..that he made it back.....figure it should but it doesn't. "

Tanner nodded in understanding, "Tough as bull hide under all those fancy clothes of his...ain't he?" The question merely a statement of fact that they all knew but somehow never realized.

"Kind of like JD," Tanner finished quietly, "Nathan's worried over nuthin'."

Larabee smiled tightly and left. JD was a better man than any of them.

+ + + + + + +

Nettie put down her needle point and watched Standish wake.

Over the past few minutes he had become increasingly more active. Mary and Inez had retired hours ago leaving Miss Nettie to watch over their ward.

Yosemite had stayed at the livery to be close if they should need him again. And they had...twice more that night and early this morning. Each time his gruff voice and powerful presence had been enough to persuade a wild mind into a form of controlled terror.

As the sun crested over town and the early morning rays stretched and arched into the room, the gambler stirred. A clean summer breeze seemed to wipe out the hash battles of last night.

She sat forward when she found him staring at her.

"How are you feeling Mr. Standish?"

He stared at her confused. His reddened brow wrinkled. He blinked and focused on her again.

"Would you like some water?" She slid from the rocking chair and crossed to the night stand. For the first time in hours, he did not watch her in a wary fashion. Frightened and defensive. His eye's followed out of confusion, trying to make sense of something his muddled mind couldn't quite grasp.

He tried to speak but it seemed the words lost their form and articulation long before they ever made it passed his teeth. His voice cracked low and scratchy. He followed her with his eyes because nothing else wanted to move.

"Try this," She gently manipulated him onto his back. The feel of deep sunburns on the sheets did not quite register. Nettie lifted his head slightly and tipped the cup of tepid water. "Easy now." Her words unnecessary.

After a few tiring sips she laid him back down. He already fought to keep his eyes open.

"The others?" his whispered words barely stretched from his mouth.

"You're not a morning person son...go back to sleep," Nettie settled back into her chair gathering up her needle point.

Ezra drifted off to sleep understanding that she had simply ignored his question...not a good sign.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah guided the team of mules over desert ground. The storm last night seemingly revitalized the area. Rodents and hares darted out from under cover. A coyote pounced with stiffened front legs some distance off. Birds circled and swooped diving toward the ground at maddening clips.

The mules pulled the wagon at a steady pace. Their harness creaked in rhythm with the wagon and their ears alternated forward and back with each step. Wagon wheels rolled easily through morning dew covered ground.

Josiah had no need to flick the reins to urge the team ahead. The mules chose their own pace. Larabee and Jackson flanked the wagon listening intently to the story Buck and JD wove as they made their way home.

At one point Nathan bit back a curse and stared over his shoulder into the desert. They skirted around The Salt Flats. Though it would be shorter, as the crow flies, to cross it. That barren stretch of land had proven unforgiving to many a weary traveler. Though rain had pummeled the ground last night and the sun seemed to have lost its vengeance a place as desolate as the Flats never lost its fierceness.

JD spoke rapidly his eager chatter and voice only slowed by his sore jaw and aching muscles. Bounty Hunters had found them. One of them recognized Buck from his Ranger days. Chris raised an eye brow at this piece of information. Dunne continued as if he had not seen the silent communication. He had and ignored it. It was a piece of history for Buck and Chris they would share it when they were ready. There had been four Bounty hunters and they had gotten the drop on JD and the others.

JD paused and rubbed at his wrists. The four lawmen had found themselves shackled. Dunne had confessed right then that the shackles almost made him laugh...cuz he knew Ezra would have them picked and unlocked before dawn the next day. They had been forced to walk the rest of the day and never got a drink of water. By night fall Ezra had his bindin's off...'cept Ezra must have been feelin' poorly after all that walking....cuz when he undid his bindin's he tried to stand but lost his balance and fell over. Well, Rosenburg saw the movement and that's when he learned Ezra could pick locks. So he had tied Ezra's hands and took his hat. Next day he led'im off into the Salt Flats.

JD stopped speaking. Chris looked ready to kill the messenger. Josiah cursed and unconsciously flickered the reins over the mules rumps. The Mules ignored the command.

Nathan sucked in a deep breath and shook his head wearily.

Buck picked up the tale from there see'in how JD had gotten all but beat half senseless. Dunne recalled most of what Buck had to tell though some of it was a bit sketchy. Dunne almost pointed out that Buck forgot to mention that someone paid McQuinn. Instead, the young sheriff figured his older friend had something in mind.

Wilmington spoke right up until the storm. Then his voice tapered off. It seemed everyone knew the rest. Everyone but Dunne. Buck spoke around the fact

JD laid back down against the bed roll. The jarring lurch of the wagon only seemed to lull him to sleep.

"Where's Vin?" Buck sat leaning cockeyed against the side of the wagon his bad leg stretched out before him. A chill ached his bones and his joints ached. The maddening itching and wiggling that had gnawed at his leg for so long finally diminished. Wilmington would make a point to thank Nathan and Josiah. He thankfully had been unconscious during the cleaning session.

Buck watched Chris for a moment trying to gage his friend's disposition. Though Larabee seemed on edge he had an aura of control. Buck took a breath and quietly added, "Someone was payin' McQuinn to grab Vin and me."

The simple statement stunned everyone but the two in the back of the wagon. Josiah took a quick gaze at Buck from over his shoulder and then stared at Chris. Nathan worried with his reins until his horse shook its head in exasperation.

"Who?" The hissed word seared the distance between old friends.

Buck merely shook his head.

The fact that Terry McQuinn had sat at the end of someone else's pony line infuriated Larabee. Unfortunately the ex-ranger had succumbed to a fatal case of lead poisoning last night before anyone had a chance to speak with him.

Wilmington leaned uncomfortably against the jostling buckboard side afraid his life time friend might slip back under the black tides of revenge. Buck did the only thing he knew how to do, besides hitting Chris head on, he redirected him toward Tanner.

"He come back yet?" Buck tried to sit up straighter to ease the pressure on his backside. He squinted his eyes against the mid morning sun and tried to make out the silhouette just on the horizon.

"Little bit," Chris rested his wrist across the horn of the saddle. Who the hell would use Buck to get to me?

"Ya think maybe you should rein Vin back in...jist in case?" Buck did not think Vin's life truly stood at risk. Not right now. Anyone dare venture too close to the Bounty Hunter however, played a fickle game with their own life. Wilmington needed to get Chris moving, he had to stop the brewing and guilt before it could start to fester and boil.

"It was like something slowly dug itself out from deep inside him...real gradual but steady," Wilmington's voice softened as he recalled the hardening of Tanner's blue eyes. It mirrored Larabee but with Chris it came more like a flash...the quick eruption of a grease fire. Hot furious and if one did not know what to do...terribly dangerous.

Chris nodded in understanding. The leader then swung his gelding veering off away from the wagon and galloped toward the lone figure.

Josiah watched Larabee's horse wind its way through sage and brush in lazy ground eating strides. The preacher wondered if Chris would know what to to handle Tanner..or more importantly how not to bully the tracker. Sanchez mulled the worry over and over. Noise in the back reminded him Buck still sat up. Josiah's tension eased somewhat. Chris had a good mentor. Through those black years after Sarah and Adam, Larabee had someone mending and holding him together. Larabee knew how to be a good friend, but Buck had been teaching him how to express it. Chris and Vin would do alright.

Buck considered heaving himself in the seat next to Josiah but reconsidered it. A flat topped black hat sat in the space. A familiar pair of boots, a dirty ruffled shirt and an unmistakably identifiable blue jacket lay folded under the spring bench.

"Ezra gonna be happy to see ya got his stuff back," Buck thought for a moment and then anger rose to his voice, "how'd you come by this stuff anyways Josiah?....Nathan?"

Jackson paused waiting for the preacher to speak. With no explanation forth coming Nathan dove into the tale. The preacher held the reins in white knuckles and jaw muscles clenched and bulged.

+ + + + + + +

"Cowboy," Tanner's soft greeting floated over the creak of saddles and the soft clop of shod hooves. The higher ground of the plateau had dried out quickly. The red clay mingled freely with rock and brush. Purple flowers dotted the land peeking almost timidly out from between the coarse branches of sage.

"You know this McQuinn fella?" Larabee reined his black just beside the cagey Peso. The horse almost emanated his rider's unease.

"Nope," The tracker kept his eyes straight ahead. His brown slouch hat sat low over his eyes affording him protection from the morning light.

"Have any idea who might be behind this?" Chris kept his gaze on Tanner. The man hid skillfully in broad daylight.

"Yup," Tanner let his eyes slip to Larabee. The Tracker had dug through the corpses last night before hauling them off into the desert. Even the Coyotes and scavengers had a right to a free meal. The slain did not have much to offer. A few coins for Josiah's poor box, a watch for Ezra to win in the next poker game, and a dime novel that JD might not have read. In one pocket, McQuinn's, has sat a folded letter. Tanner had taken the night to sound each letter, read each word and decipher every phrase. In the end he cursed crumpling the missive and wishing once again Larabee had pulled the trigger that day so long ago.

Chris felt himself get measured and it seared through his soul.

"You gonna tell me?"

"Reckon you've a right to know," Tanner's eyes strayed over Larabee to the wagon in the distance. Buck's grey and JD's dark bay followed at a leisurely pace behind the tail gate. Ezra's horse refused to be so content. The big chestnut continuously tried to rest its head on the saddle of the larger Grey. Dang horse didn't even want to carry its own weight if it didn't have too.

"Well damn it," Larabee fought the urge to strangle his friend. Tanner could sometimes be more exasperating with his tight lip smugness than Standish with his ever running mouth.

"Found a letter on the grey haired fella....the leader...He was suppose to destroy it but didn't for what ever reason, couldn't read much of it but the name sure came out clear." Tanner searched the path ahead of him it curved and snaked in a lazy fashion through ground cover. Vin found himself meandering through his own thoughts.

The heavy red clay of the desert floor still held some moisture. A few rocks offered shade to rattle snakes and bull snakes. White clouds slowly drifted through the blue sky. The air still smelled of rain.

Chris waited patiently knowing that rushing the tracker would get him no where. Bullying his men only made them close ranks and raise eyebrows. They had become comfortable with each other enough to know what the others would do in a given situation. Vin knew Chris would not strike out at him.

Tanner surveyed the mesa's that lay before him. The Salt Flats lay a few miles behind them. Ezra had grit...lots of it. He never should have made it...never should have made it this far. Who ever thought a man raised by his ma would be so tough...then again look at JD better yet Buck.

Vin slowly turned his head and faced his friend. With a slight breath taken in, he released part of it and stopped much like he did when aiming down the long barrel of his rifle...right before squeezing the trigger.


Chris met his gaze and held it. The short name hung between them as if it had no meaning.

Then it happened. The grease fire..the flash in the pan...the startling inferno that could burn a soul to ashes, flared across Larabee's eyes.

Vin watched it silently and spoke softly, "Reckon she's still after ya and is tryin' to lay her claws in Buck 'n me."

Tanner watched without any concern for his own safety at the sudden madness that reared itself in Larabee. The tracker waited for the boiling of blood to peak and settle.

"The bitch"


"I'm gonna kill'er Vin...I swear to..."

"Figure we better tell the others," Vin reined Peso around and faced Larabee their knees nearly touching, "wanted to tell ya since in getting riled up into a blind rage in front of the Kid 'n Buck...they got enough ta worry about without frettin' over ya doin' somethin' dumb."

Vin's soft voice schooled with a tinge of experience. His soft glove technique proved so different from Buck's heavy handed tactics.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra could not shake the discomfort. Every time he moved skin rubbed against sheets. Thousands of tiny fibers raked tortuously across reddened skin. The very weight of the sheet brought about agony. Moving an arm folded heated skin so it abraded itself. Dried skin stretched and complained with any movement. Laying on his back seared his shoulders but his chest complained with equal vigor should he try shifting position. He tried laying on one side and then the other but still shoulders touched an unforgiving mattress. His stomach didn't like the motion at all and his head pounded no matter how he decided to lay.

His soft feather mattress felt as though it were made of lava rock.

Worse yet he felt exhausted. Nothing wanted to move but almost every inch of him balked at the touch of mattress and sheet alike. The heat under the blanket quickly became unbearable but the continued presence of Inez or Mrs. Travis or Ms. Wells kept him from discarding the abusive sheet all together. Exhaustion tugged and dragged at him like a physical weight and yet he could not drift off for any amount of time.

He would have escaped his bed if he had the strength but the very act of attempting to shift position proved futile and painful.

His degradation into misery escalated when ever one of the lady's would try and help him. Where ever their hands lay or touched burned skin fired angry sharp retorts to his brain. With a hiss and a weak smile he begged his wardens not to touch him.

As his discomfort grew so did his awareness. By mid morning he continued to harass Mrs. Travis into explaining the where abouts of the others and the time frame that had passed.

With a sigh and renewed efforts the gambler struggled to sit up.

To his humiliation but Mary Travis's victorious grin she merely pushed him back to the bed with a simple shove. Then, almost in after thought, she forced more herbal teas down his throat. He didn't dare struggle for fear that a demon from his past might materialize in his waking moments.

Energy wasted and spent, the gambler dozed off for a few fitful minutes.

Mary enjoyed the slight reprieve. She left the rocker by the bed when Inez came to relieve her later that morning.

Standish watched through glazed half hooded eyes. Nathan and his blasted herbs. He heard the exchange, the chuckles, and soft looks tossed his way but could not discern the meaning of any of it. His mind seemed as fogged as a SanFransico night. He watched Inez settle in the rocker beside the bed...watched slightly disheartened as she leaned forward and brushed something off his forehead. He wanted very much to tell her that this type of diligence was not necessary but his words rolled over themselves into incoherent gibberish.

He felt his cheeks redden at her quiet laughter but suspected the sun burn at least protected some part of his ego.

+ + + + + + +

Vin and Chris pulled up beside the wagon. Buck snored quietly in the back. JD slept curled in a ball a hat rested over his head. Neither man wanted the canvas rolled back. The shade though welcome would cut the breeze.

Josiah eyed the two riders and knew nothing good was about to happen. Some of the morning's luster seemed to bleed away.

Nathan read the tension and mentally counted his medical supplies and ran through the last time he sharpened his knives. This morning.

"It was Ella," Chris uttered the name as if it scalded his mouth just to form the sound.

Josiah swore silently and Nathan tried to hide his shock. Chris did not need them reacting outwardly toward the news. The gunslinger would be beating himself up over this without them adding to his burdens.

The squeak of wood and the clank of harnesses broke the heavy silence between the men.

Finally a question hit the air, "Ya think she might've sent someone to town...."

All eyes swung to JD. Josiah swiveled in his seat as if a snake had bit him.

Dunne cowered somewhat under the frightful gazes. He stammered to clarify himself, "I mean ya think she would've had a back up go after Ezra or maybe Mary?"

There would have been no way for Ella to know about Ezra or his condition. Mary however it would be known she would be vulnerable.

With Buck and Vin gone Ella knew Chris would search the area with the rest of the peace keepers. Though Ella only wanted Chris she had proven that she would remove any obstacle in her way. Mary definitely represented a hurdle.

"Mary..." Nathan spoke the name almost in reverence. Mrs. Travis stood to protect what she believed to be right and wrong. She faced down a gaggle of cowhands to protect him. Gawd what about Billy?

"Let's ride cowboy," Vin already shortened Peso's reins.

"Go Brothers I'll watch over these two," Josiah's voice boomed with authority.

Chris, Vin and Nathan bolted down the trail.

The big Grey, Chaucer and J.D's Bay pranced and whinnied at the sudden splitting of the herd.

Josiah urged the team of mules forward. The mules sensed the urgency and quickened their walk.

The riders eased off into the distance. A lack of dirt left their silhouettes unusually clear as they disappeared from sight.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra woke because something smashed to the floor. It shattered into a dozen or more larger pieces.

Sounds of a struggle reached his ears. He fought with himself to wake up.

Something banged into his bed. A weight crashed onto his legs and then rolled to his midsection. His skin fired with protest.

His eyes snapped open but refused to unroll. He blinked rapidly trying to focus on the grunting and heavy breathing. Is Mr. Wilmington back...using the room next door? Weight crashed onto him again this time crushing his chest and shoulders. A shoulder brushed heavily against his neck.

He heard himself groan.

Then the weight left. Another bang rattled the dresser.

Standish finally managed to focus his eyes.

Blond hair and a blue dress whirled just within his focal point.

Mrs. Travis?

A bearded man reached an arm around her neck. The hand settled too high on her chin.

A sharp yelp pushed back some of the heavy dregs of sleep. Ezra struggled to move.

The bearded man held his bleeding hand. He bent over slightly and found Mary's knee rising up to meet his nose.

Ezra cringed. That had to have hurt.

Another body flew into the room. Standish wrestled to sit up. Gawd Damn Nathan and his drugs....Nothing reacted properly.

The second man wrapped his arms around Mrs. Travis pinning her flaring hands.

Move Standish....move your ass

The first man snapped out a punch that connected solidly with the newspaper woman's jaw line. Her head snapped back into the man's chest behind her and her legs sagged.

Standish managed to coordinate some muscle movement and shoved himself out of the bed. He tackled the man trying to drape Mrs. Travis over his shoulder.

With his balance already precarious with the lifting of the unconscious newspaper woman, the kidnapper fell forward into his partner.

The foursome hit the ground in a heap of legs and arms.

Standish struggled to his hands and knees all the while trying to pull Mary away from the other men. His movements were sluggish and weak at best.

One of the potential kidnappers kicked Standish up under the arm connecting solidly with the shoulder. The gambler found himself flung backward into the bed frame.

Ezra shot forward again reaching for Mrs. Travis only to be catapulted back by a second glancing kick to the jaw. He slumped semi-conscious next to and partially under the four posted bed.

The two outlaws gathered up the newspaper woman and shuffled quickly out the door.

Standish gamely pushed himself up right. After a few attempts he made it to his feet. He grabbed a pair of trousers and fumbled into them. He pulled a lever action rifle from the closet and headed out the door.

The gambler tripped and fell down the saloon stairs stalling his descent by grabbing furtively for the banister. The saloon stood empty. Desolate...not a soul. Empty chairs and tables dotted the dusty floor. No one tended the bar. The only sound came from the buzzing of flies and the soft click of their bodies against the window panes.

Ezra cursed under his breath and hobbled across the floor walking as quick as he could on the sides of his feet and burst through the batwing doors.

Where the hell was everybody?

Standish pushed off a support beam and headed for the livery. The quick clip of shod horses bolting from the livery snagged his attention. Three riders two horses. Mrs. Travis sat dazed propped against the first rider. Standish hollered a warning and raised his rifle. He fired once. The second rider's left shoulder shot forward and his upper body slumped over the neck of his horse.

The two horses and riders careened out of town.

Ezra dashed into the stable.

Yosemite lay crumpled on the ground near his forge. The gambler quickly searched for a pulse rolling the blacksmith's face toward himself.

Standish froze. The face of his nightmares. Even now he could hear the deep voice, the powerful hands that sought to smother him and suffocate him during the night.

The gambler mentally shook his head clear and stepped away from the farrier. Yosemite had a strong pulse and seemed to breathing fine.

Ezra hobbled down the alley way. Old straw and the rough wood flooring tore and stabbed at his tender feet. The sweet smell of rotting hay mingled freely with the scent of horsehide, leather and manure. Hay dust and particles hung in the air noticeably where sun light streaked through cracks in the wood siding. An orange striped livery cat dashed out in front of the gambler and slinked through an impossibly small hole. Standish searched frantically for a reliable face. Chaucer still wandered somewhere out on the trail.

The gambler stopped before a stall. A young face peered out at him nickering for a snack. Without hesitation, he slipped a bridle over the partially grown face. He lead the gelding JD and Vin had been working with for the last few weeks out of the stall. The animal, though young and spirited, had speed and good sense.

Unable to lift a saddle and its gear, the gambler used a crate to stand on and swung himself onto the back of the bay. It lacked Chaucer's girth and muscle mass. The young bay had the lanky build of a teenager still trying to fill out its frame. Its long legs appeared spindly, ribs outlined themselves when the animal stretched itself out. A small head sat at the top of a snake thin neck. The growing gelding had shoes and some training. It would have to be enough.

A soft click and light touch of the heels had the bay galloping down the aisle way past a stirring Yosemite and into the street. The shock of entering the bright light of midday blinded both rider and animal temporarily.

Inez gazed up at the sounds of a running horse. Her hand shot to her mouth when she recognized the rider. "Senor!...Ezra! What are you doing?"

Standish shot her a wild look. With rifle in hand and bare heels buried into the flank of the young horse, the Gambler shot out of town hot on the heels of the kidnappers.

The barmaid ran into the saloon up the stairs taking them two at a time calling for Mary. Inez stopped shocked at the ruined room. Two strange hats sat amongst the shattered basin and pitcher.


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