Heather F.

Larabee wiped his brow and searched the surrounding mesa's for the thousandth time that afternoon. The horses stood ponied to the wagon and to one another. That gawd damn Chaucer would be worth more as restaurant meat than a riding animal. Something had it's tail in a knot and apparently it was the young bay gelding. The young bay Ezra had commandeered stuck close to its older counterpart as if to show off. It scattered when ever Chaucer flattened his ears and flashed his teeth.

Peso certainly wasn't much better. Dang Indian pony had a foul disposition. He kicked and squealed at anything that ventured close to him - man or beast. Buck's good ole Grey stayed by Chris's side like a faithful companion while JD's Bay strayed between the four horses unsure of who to follow. Josiah and Nathan's horses, stood ready and waiting at the wagon while Chris chased and herded the others.

The gunslinger dismounted his horse hot and angry. He had hoped to spot Ella this afternoon. Hoped that bedeviled mistress showed her face so he could be rid of her once and for all.

His frustration grew with each passing moment.

By the time he reached the upright wagon his disposition had fallen under the auspices of foul.

He tethered the horses together in a pony line and then tethered the lead horse, Josiah's faithful kind hearted beast, to the tail gate.

He checked on Mary but found having a conversation with her out of the question. Raised voices and bared innuendoes coming from the other side had even him blushing slightly.

Larabee rounded the wagon stepping over the hitch and behind the mules. The mules shied slightly at his presence.

"Knock it off," His soft command went unheeded.

Vin and Ezra shoved at Buck and JD while the other two did their best to return as much pain and misery as possible.

Larabee noticed Josiah had suddenly busied himself with the mules and Nathan had quickly started making out doses of Laudanum.

The gunslinger turned his attention back to his men. Buck had managed to snare Standish in a headlock and preceded to give the man a 'Noogie'. The gambler did not take such insult quietly and in return he flicked the Ladies' man injured leg repeatedly with thumb and forefinger.

Vin and JD realized they were no longer necessarily involved quietly sat back against their respective wagon wheels and watched the fun as innocent bystanders. No sense of incurring Chris's wrath unnecessarily.

They deserve each other....isn't any two ways about it....he should turn around and let them go until they kill one another.

"Knock it off!" His raised voice spooked the mules again. The wagon lurched forward a few inches.

Buck let go of Ezra and both men sat up surprised.

"You two knock it off or I'll shoot you myself," Chris glared at both men until they sat back against the wagon with somewhat confused expressions.

A tense pall hung in the air. It weighed on the group, everyone waiting for the spark to ignite Larabee's temper one step closer to a mad rage.

It happened far quicker than the others imagined. A deviant southern voice, as usual, lit the fire.

"He started it," Ezra's soft mumbles caused Vin to smirk.

"I did not," Buck sat up straighter and pushed the southerner on the arm.

"Oh I see once again you have retreated back to your fantasy world" Standish slapped Wilmington's leg.

"Ey Ezra would that be the same one he visits with all those women?" JD leaned forward to get a look at the gambler. Instead he found Tanner staring at him. The Tracker gave the Kid a wink and fueled the flame so descent.

"Probably kid but I wonder what Ezra is doing in Buck's world of women?"

The gambler and Ladies' Man stared at one another and then Buck shoved the Southerner back toward Tanner. Vin avoided another collision.

"....and desist from touching me," Standish punctuated his remark by slapping his foot against Wilmington's leg.

The two rolled into one another hell bent on revenge.

Larabee stood only a few feet away completely forgotten by the two wrestling men....but not by JD and Vin. The tracker and Sheriff smiled smugly pleased with their efforts.

Chris nearly shook with fury. His tanned features quickly darkened. In one fluid motion he pulled his gun and fired it into the air. The agitated mules spooked again rolling the wagon a few yards ahead. Chaucer spotted the young gelding from the corner of his eye and lunged at the intruder just as the wagon rolled in the opposite direction. The pony lines snapped and unraveled.

Peso bucked free galloping a safe distance from any confinement. Chaucer bared his teeth and lunged a few times at the squealing gelding. JD's bay trotted a safe distance away and watched wearily at the group.

Buck and Ezra froze. Wilmington stared over Standish's curled back as Ezra peeked out from Buck's arm. Both men watched as Larabee melted into an inhuman rage.

"This is your fault," Buck hissed under his breath.

"Like hell," Standish's hissed back trying not to make any movement and garner unnecessary attention from Larabee.

Mary suddenly materialized at the gunslinger's side and smiled sweetly.

The four men trapped on the ground sighed. Chris would never kill them in front of Mrs. Travis. They relaxed. Buck shoved Ezra upright and Standish kicked Wilmington's calf.

With a few soft spoken words the editor of the newspaper gave Larabee her condolences and promised to help hide the bodies.

Eyes widened in fear. Chris's feral smile met each man squarely.

+ + + + + + +

The wagon rumbled and rocked over the trail. Mrs. Travis sat beside Josiah as the large man guided the mules across the platte. The wagon wheels lifted pulled and crawled over brush and uneven ground. A few times the wagon landed with a bone jarring intensity. At those times the young widow would peek at the back of the wagon.

Nestled too close for any real comfort lay the three law men. Nathan had dosed them liberally with Laudanum at Chris's insistence and assistance.

JD and Nathan flanked the wagon. The healer kept close to the young sheriff. The boy should really have ridden in the wagon but there truly was not enough room. Buck had pleaded to sit a horse with Ezra egging him on aiding Wilmington's arguments.

Chris had forced Laudanum down Ezra's throat himself. The gambler had put up a half enthused resistance but Larabee had fought nearly as dirty as the gambler. In the end Standish had complied. Not that it mattered to the gunslinger. At this point in time he was only interested in peace and quiet. In a few minutes the gambler felt the heavy lethargy associated with the drug and had fought the dregs of sleep. He hadn't stood a chance. Despite his best efforts, muscles had relaxed and eyes had rolled. The pain had ebbed away with his retreating strength. Vin and Josiah had watched the silent battle and had chuckled when the gambler slowly slid sideways into Buck.

Tanner took the liquid opiate simply because Nathan asked him too and because his ribs hurt him something fierce. Normally the bounty hunter would have refused but Chris had enough troubles on his mind he did not need to be worrying about the others. Besides getting bounced around like a cat in a gunny sack would be hell on his ribs.

Buck took his medicine with the best of them. His leg ached and all the rough housing with Ezra and the others didn't help matters. Everything hurt, his leg, his head, he felt dizzy and incredibly thirsty. Any liquid right now was a Godsend.

With a quiet afternoon ahead of them. Josiah and the others headed for Four Corners.

+ + + + + + +

Yosemite greeted them on the boardwalk with Ms. Nettie. A crisp wind tickled the night cooling it considerably. Josiah halted the wagon in front of the saloon. The black smith dropped the tail gate. With a practiced hand he reached in and pulled the gambler out by an ankle. The Southerner stirred only slightly. The farrier gathered the younger man into his arms and turned toward the boardwalk.

Standish pried his eyes opened. It felt as if half the desert sand settled under his lids. He fought to focus. His blurry eyes saw the face from previous nightmares. In a blind panic he desperately pushed against the chest in hopes to gain his freedom. The line between the dream world and reality blurred terribly for the gambler.

Josiah saw the struggle. Mary quickly explained what had transpired while the others had been tracking Vin, JD and Buck. Nodding in understanding Josiah quickly jumped from the wagon.

"Easy brother yer gonna be alright." The preacher slid his arms in substitute of the farriers retreating hold.

Yosemite gave up his burden with a glow of embarrassment and shame. He had never meant to harm the gambler in anyway.

Josiah smiled sadly, "Our Brother has been through too much these past few days he doesn't understand....." Sanchez's words tapered off as the weight in his arms suddenly increased. The gambler had finally passed out again.

Yosemite nodded quietly. The preacher's reassurances did little to remove the tinge of misguided guilt.

The Blacksmith climbed wearily into Josiah's place at the drivers seat. He clucked the team down to the clinic and the livery. Vin and JD would be staying with Nathan. Buck, though still out, would be hauled home by Chris.

+ + + + + + +

Larabee eased his burden onto Daisy's bed. The working girl assured Mr. Larabee she would watch over Buck all night. Wilmington smiled at the sound of her sweet voice.

Together the young lady and gunslinger pulled off Buck's boots, unbuttoned a few buttons of his shirt and pulled down his suspenders. They tossed a light blanket up over his shoulders.

Chris bid his farewells and headed for the clinic.

Vin and JD slept soundly having already been settled in by the healer. Chris left Nathan and met Mary on the second story porch. He walked her home apologizing again for the whole mess.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah found Yosemite still in the Livery brushing the horses. The mules had been finished up and put out into the corrals.

The preacher rested a large hand on the knotted muscles of the blacksmith. It amazed Josiah how powerful and formidable some people could be yet have such a tender hearts.

"Is Mr. Standish going to be alright?"

"He's a little battered and bruised," Josiah led the blacksmith into the tackroom/office, "but should be back to himself with a few days rest." Sanchez motioned for Yosemite to sit in one of the two available chairs. A bottle of rotgut materialized along side two less than clean glasses. The preacher poured drinks and then started to mend broken fences that truly had not needed fixing.

+ + + + + + +

Vin woke before dawn and dragged himself out of bed. Gathering his clothes he softly padded across the floor in barefeet and headed for his wagon. He had his fill of being around people for now.

Nathan watched him go. The healer quietly opened the door and stood on the porch and waited patiently for the tracker to ease himself into his wagon. Jackson nodded and turned back to the clinic one down....

Buck woke to a throbbing in his leg. He groaned. A soft hand caressed his faced. A tender finger traced his jaw line and slipped down his neck to the impression at the base of his neck. He cracked open an eye and found Daisy leaning over him smiling. He returned her grin and pulled her toward him.

JD rolled over onto his back. He stretched, cracked his knuckles and briefly opened his eyes. A cool breeze cut across the small dark room. They had made it back. He had dozed in his saddle the last few miles back to town. Gawd it felt good to be home. With a small smile he drifted back to sleep.

Standish had no intention of moving but his raw back had other ideas. He groaned and cursed before cautiously rolling to his left side. His limbs felt weighted. For a few brief moments relief washed through him. Then the intense insistent pain of burns of the downed side started to complain. He shut his eyes and tried to ignore it.

Chris sat in the saloon chair nursing a whiskey. Tired hazel eyes blazed at the waking world through stringy blond bangs. His thoughts tossed and turned over the image of Ella Gaines. Disgust filled his soul. He shot another drink down.

Josiah sat on the edge of his bed and laughed. A wide grin split his face as he thought about the past few days. Destiny. No other explanation for it. The seven were destined to ride together. Together they would fend off crows and the evil that dared strike against them. With flourish and determination he headed for the saloon where he knew Larabee sat and stewed.

Chris's self beratement hit a snag when Tanner snuck into the saloon with a hobbling gait. He followed on the shuffling lame foot steps of Buck. Both fearless peacekeepers were trying to keep a low profile and hide from the healer. If they only knew Nathan was already here just upstairs checking on Standish.

Larabee's soft laughter greeted Josiah as he breezed into the saloon nearly shouting out a greeting to Brother Nathan. Buck and Vin froze like rabbits in the hunter's sites. Nathan stood on the bottom steps holding their gazes.

"Good Morning Josiah," Nathan's greeting broke the trance. Buck and Vin sought shelter and protection in the vicinity of Larabee. Josiah and Nathan grabbed a pot of coffee and cups and followed.

"How're the others?" Chris swirled his drink trading it in for the proffered cup Josiah handed him.

"JD's still sleepin'....Kid took a hell of a beatin' so it would do him some good to get some rest," Nathan let his half mustered glare settle on Vin then Buck. They too needed some much needed sleep. "Ezra's in a world of misery...can't keep givin' him laudanum so he'll just have to suffer through...iffen I was ya'll I'd steer clear of'im...he's havin' a difficult time findin' humor in all this."

"Brother Ezra will prevail," Josiah muttered out.

"If just to irritate the hell out of Chris for another day," Buck replied with a wide smile.

Vin held his coffee mug up slightly higher than normal indicating his agreement.

A disturbance at the door pulled five pair of eyes toward the entrance to the saloon.

Two men wearily pushed and pulled each other through the saloon doors. They stumbled into one another and then tripped into the bar. The travelers' clothes had a thick film of dust. Empty canteens clanged hollowly against one another. The two men leaned almost desperately against the bar.

Chris, Josiah and Nathan stood as one. Chair legs screeched against the rough planked floor as the three men pushed themselves nimbly to their feet.

The commotion grabbed the attention of the pair at the bar. Billy and Timmy turned and stared at the three standing men. Their eyes widened with apprehension and deeply sun tanned faces blanched with recognition.

"You boys don't want to linger here," Josiah's voice held no hint of kindness.

Nathan fingered two of his knives.

Larabee bore his gaze into the two men.

Billy and Timmy fumbled into one another pushing and shoving each other toward the doors. They disappeared under soft whimpers and squeals of fright.

Buck stared up at his three standing friends, "What the hell was that all about?"

Vin cracked a smile, "Guess ole Chris ain't the only one with a deadly glare,"

Chris tossed Tanner an amused look. Josiah settled heavily into his seat and explained, "Those wayward souls need more penance for their salvation." Sanchez grinned widely and slapped Nathan on the back as the healer sat down, "Brother Nathan put the fear of God into them a few days ago."

Buck hit Larabee with a confused look, "What he threaten to make them drink some herbal concoction?"

Laughter rumbled quietly around the table.

The morning brightened under the promise of a cool day.


It was hot. Plain and simple. It was the kind of heat that had men reaching for their guns instead of walking from a fight. The insipid baking of the town seared any commonsense and good will that might have existed in the normal decent man. The sun blazed unforgivingly in the sky. By late morning man and beast found themselves sheened in sweat and coated with dust. Tempers flared as temperatures steadily climbed. No breeze whispered through the town.

The saloon had a sense of tension and tight closeness. Though the dark room with its incessant buzz of hovering flies appeared nearly empty to the unschooled eye. The open room cluttered with empty chairs and tables had too many people.

Seven men sat sweating and stewing in the broiling heat. Over tiredness, discomfort, aching pains and general disagreement hung like a foul pallor in the air. Inez retreated to the back room, unwilling and uncaring if the seven should light into one another. It was just too damn hot to give a damn.

Chris Larabee fingered a shot glass. Sweat matted his long blond bangs to his head and the back of his neck. He broiled much like the oppressive white sun in the pale sky. His thoughts angrily washed over the acts of Ella Gaines. He stewed and plotted, toiled with the very idea of destroying her as she had done him. His anger reached his hazel eyes darkening them with a fierce intent.

If the others noticed they gave no heed. Perhaps their sense of self preservation evaporated with their sweat.

Vin Tanner leaned back in his chair seeking solitude in the dark shadow cast in the corner where the table sat. Flies beat and hit the window behind him. The tracker tried to ignore the constant hum, tried not to feel the tiny legs of flies as they trespassed across his skin, over his arms and neck. The tracker needed very much to get out of town. Broken ribs, the state of the other six and the fact that Peso would not fare well in this damning heat kept the young bounty hunter with in the confines of town. His frustration and intolerance grew exponentially with each body that invaded his personal space. He tried to bury himself deep with in, hoping to avoid any human contact. He fought to control the black rage that still roared dangerously close to the surface.

A cards fluttered in the air much like the flies. Tanner's hands curled white knuckled in his lap.

Buck Wilmington nursed a luke warm beer. His good cheer suffered under the need for comfort from the opposite sex but the heat made physical contact nearly unbearable. His leg itched, the ghost sensation of wiggling maggots dogged him incessantly. Sweat soaked his shirt and bandage alike ensuring his misery. He swirled the beer in his mug and frowned at the flat taste that accompanied such weather. The working girls had vacated the premise forgoing any sense of profit or ambition as the sun promised another swelting day. Buck frowned and drew a breath trying to maintain some sense of composure and good humor in weather that sapped the very will to breath from its victims.

Cards flipped and snapped. The sound grated on his nerves.

Nathan Jackson wiped his brow on his shirt sleeve. He thought about visiting Rain. His empathy for his horse kept him in town but he feared his compassion for his fellow man slipped a few significant notches. He held no inclination to tend his fellow human should they fall victim to their own stupidity. If someone got shot today or broke a bone Nathan had half a mind to hide or inform them of the location of the nearest Physician nearly fifty miles away. It would do no one any good to call on him today.

Cards arched and fluttered neatly back into place. The sound of paste boards clicking against one another pierced nerves like paper cuts on lips.

JD Dunne could not help but stare at the gambler. How could Ezra pull out of a fever and hallucinations and survive and yet his own mother fall victim. Not that JD wished Standish to have succumbed to the throws of the mysterious illness that knocked him into a surreal world, but JD did wish his mother had survived. What had made the difference? Not only that but the gambler had the ability to cross the desert, get help, then ride out of town again and still the man persevered. JD bristled at the thought and did not understand why. He missed his mom but the pain of her memory lessened almost everyday. He was slowly coming to the point where he could reminisce about the happy times with his Ma and not feel tears well in his eyes. He feared he was losing his love for his mom and did not understand that he actually healed. It was with great curiosity that he watched a man who refrained from lifting a finger to do manual labor survive and beat the odds that would have wiped out men made of sturdier stuff.

It didn't seem fair. JD wiggled his shoulder blades trying to wipe out the small rivulets of sweat that ran maddeningly down his back. His frustration and irritation grew.

The cards crisply landed on the table shuffled back and forth in a display of aerodynamics that should not be possible. Irritating as hell.

"Ezra knock it off," Chris's harsh tone sliced the stagnant air. The cards halted for a flash of time. Blood shot green eyes rolled under heavy eyelids. No humor laced the wise smile. The cards snapped purposefully again with a spine tingling abrasiveness.

"I'll shoot yer sorry ass," Larabee lifted his gaze from the amber liquid that had offered him no respite from the summer sun.

"If you would be so kind," The cards flickered again between darkly tanned hands. An oversized silk shirt without arm garders clung heavily to stooped shoulders. The sleeves were rolled half way to the elbows revealing deeply burned forearms and raw abraded skin. The gambler sat forward in his chair keeping his back and sides away from the unforgiving confines of the wood chair. A pair of soft skinned moccasins covered swollen lacerated feet, compliments of one Vin Tanner. The deep green of his eyes contrasted sharply with the dark heavy signs of over tiredness. Red zigzagging lines of injected blood vessels seemed permanent residents over the whites of his eyes.

"Didn't promise to kill ya," Buck's soft chuckle trickled across the table. His leg might have bothered him but every time he peered at the gambler Wilmington felt a measure of relief. Standish was miserable.

"Details," The southern drawl had become decidably thicker the last few days as uncomfortable nights kept him from enjoying any real sleep. He could find comfort on neither his back nor his stomach, his sides were just as lacerated and burned as the rest of him. He snapped the cards again out of habit and irritation. If misery settled heavily on his shoulders, he would gladly share the burden. Without much fear for his life and in hopes of irritating someone other than himself, the cards continued to fly from hand to hand. The soft soothing sound of the deck that had at one time offered a sense of a lullaby grated nerves.

"Gawd damn you Standish," Larabee lunged to his feet grabbing the Southerner by the front of his white shirt. He half hauled the gambler to his feet.

Everything stopped for a breath of time. Cards fluttered silently to the ground.

Vin placed his chair on all for legs as he sat forward interested in what was about to happen. Perhaps the Gods ran interference and saved Standish's life just now. Tanner closed his eyes thankful it was Larabee that reacted and not himself.

Nathan sighed he would not patch anyone up today. Perhaps Chris would knock Standish senseless and give the man a reprieve.

JD rubbed sweat from his face and held no trepidation that the gambler would survive this self made fiasco.

Larabee stared at the man in his grip. His anger at Ella Gaines had kept him from seeing his men. Though everyday he sat amongst them, every night he shared a drink or a game with them he had not truly seen them.

Vin had the look of a cornered mountain Lion. Buck's chuckle was the first one Chris had heard in days. JD normally would have been protesting against Chris's actions trying desperately to defend whoever sat at the end of Larabee's wraith. Today the Kid just watched unconcerned. Larabee realized Nathan sat wearily, resigned to the heat maybe, or his situation in general. Jackson offered no protest. The preacher had a contemplative expression but held his seat.

Larabee's vengeance tucked itself away. His anger fizzled when he turned his attention to the man slumped unresisting within his grip. The deep reddened features, the sunken eyes and lack of any satiric smile herald the weight of the past week. Standish almost had the expression of a dog waiting to get kicked and be dismissed to slink off and find some comfort in a situation that could offer none. Sweat snugged hairs to his head and neck. His damp shirt still held the heat of a sunburns.

Burns as a result of Ella Gaines desire for Chris.

Larabee noticed the way Vin held his arm wrapped protectively around his ribs. JD's black eyes slowly faded and his split lips scabbed over. Buck rubbed absently as his gouged leg.

Responsibility settled as heavily on Chris's shoulders as did the oppressive heat.

Larabee's flexed, fisted hand gripped the front of the white silk shirt. The anger and tension slowly seeped from the hold. With tired resignation he allowed Standish to slip back into his chair.

Josiah made a decision. The big man slapped his hand on the table and took control of the situation, "JD go hook up a wagon," The ex-preacher nailed the youngest with a stare and then turned his attention to Tanner, "Vin you go help him."

JD stared unsure what to do and laid an inquisitive gaze on Wilmington.

Buck shrugged, "Ya best do as he says," His quiet words granting support to whatever Sanchez had in mind.

"Chris find Mary and Billy and tell them to get themselves a picnic lunch, Buck have Inez whip us up some food and git herself ready too cuz she's coming," Josiah spoke as if he had no doubt as to his orders being followed.

"I saw Mz Nettie and Casey in town earlier so Nathan invite them along too," Josiah pushed himself from the table and stood up.

No one else moved, "Get movin'," The fire and threat in his deep voice shook hesitation from the others.

In a small hesitant voice JD finally asked, "Where we goin' Josiah?"

The big man's face split with a self gratifying grin, "The swimmin' hole you and Casey go 'fishin' at,"

JD blushed slightly but Buck whooped outloud. Vin chuckled nudging the kid on the shoulder and steered him out the door.

Chris met Sanchez's eyes and indicted with a simple tilt of his head to the gambler who delicately leaned down to gather his dropped cards. Standish had an air of defiant belligerence. The gambler would not willingly go along.

Josiah nodded. He would take care of it.

+ + + + + + +

An hour later Billy Travis sat atop Chris's shoulders trying to shove JD, who balance precariously on Buck's shoulders, into the water. Buck and Chris stood chest deep in slow moving river grabbing and wrestling with one another trying to get the upper hand.

Vin lay on his back in a shallow pool enjoying the crisp feel of water. His dark anger slowly swept away down stream. The intense fury that seared his blood trickled away with the gentle current. He dunked his head back pulling hair and sweat from his face. With a cautious eye he watched the gambler who waded a few feet further out.

The cardman dunked once and then twice while maintaining some protection under the shade of a Sycamore tree. The white shirt clung tightly to shoulders revealing some hazy detail to the cuts and lacerations that tore through burned flesh.

Standish felt the scrutiny and stiffened his shoulders slightly. Lately Mr. Tanner had the look of a killer. The quiet easy going tracker had disappeared at some point replaced by the bounty hunter none of them really knew. It unnerved Ezra and so with profound trepidation he turned around slowly and returned Tanner's stare.

A small almost apologetic smile twitched across Vin's face. He easily read the uncertainty in the gambler and understood the reason.

The dimpled grin that he received in return offered all the understanding that Vin needed or wanted at the moment.

Nathan, Josiah and Casey swung from the rope tied to an over hanging branch. Wagers had been placed. It was no contest. The first one to successfully execute a double flip from the arcing rope won. Casey of course succeed on her second try. Josiah knocked the wind from himself when he hit with a head turning slap on the water surface. Ezra had chuckled, "It was a good thing Josiah's stomach broke his fall."

The preacher dunked the gambler and held him under for a second or two before letting his victim back up for breath. Nathan was a close second but his shoulders and back carried the painful sting of not enough rotation.

Mary, Inez and Ms. Nettie sat on shore and laughed at the antics of the men and kids. Billy finally succeeded in falling JD...right after Chris grabbed a handful of Buck's crotch under the water and gave it a twist. Buck's wide eyed shocked expression and deep holler gave every indication of foul play on someone's part. Wilmington floundered under the water in unadulterated disgust. He came back up laughing. He should have known Larabee would be as dirty underhanded as the gambler.

The late morning adventure had prooven to turn a profit for the gambler.

By late afternoon soft laughter rang through the small shaded glade. The river rolled quietly by as if pleased with the relief it had provided. JD and Casey still swung from the rope though this time Casey clung to Dunne's back.

Buck, Vin, Chris and Billy had headed down stream with four make shift fishing poles fashioned by Mz Nettie and Vin.

Mary had watched them go pleased her son had some mentors to fill the gap of his deceased father.

Josiah had sat quietly beside the gambler. Some laudanum laced broth combined with fresh air and a lazy day in the river had finally sucked the Southerner into a much needed slumber. He slept on his stomach his arms flung out in either direction. His head rested on Buck's discarded shirt. The soft wool picnic blanket provided a mattress as soft as any feather bed. Having Mrs. Travis offer the broth to the gambler was a stroke of genius. The stuff tasted horrible with the drug mixed in it...but being ever the gentleman Standish ate it without complaint.

Josiah leaned back against the tree trunk and let his eyes roam over the others.

Buck and Vin just rounded the corner laughing at something. Tanner with a treacherous glint shoved an unexpectant Wilmington back into the river. The tracker held his ribs and grimaced but the results were worth the effort. The Ladies' man's sharp curses were brought up short when Billy laughed covering his mouth as he sat on Chris's shoulders. Buck, properly chastised, lunged from the water and pulled Larabee and Billy into the river with him.

Childish giggles and adult laughter rang through the grassy knoll.

All thoughts of Ella Gaines for this one afternoon washed down stream.

Nathan caught Josiah's eyes and nodded his approval. Mary smiled her thanks and Inez rested a comforting hand on the side of Ezra's head uncaring of the scandalous actions.

Buck noticed and smiled. Maybe someday Standish would finally ask Buck to back off. Wilmington could only hope.

JD and Casey frolicked and splashed laughing under the guise of deep friendship bordering on the threshold of adult love.

Mz. Nettie watched Tanner pleased with the child that finally revealed itself today. She frowned happily at the growing relationship between her niece and the fine young man that struggled to fit in with the others.

By dusk the wagon had been loaded, horses saddled and gear stowed. JD and Casey raced back to town. Dunne's bay gelding exploded from the line. Casey held her grade gelding back laughing knowingly. It was just under a mile to town. JD's horse would be spent just outside of a quarter mile. Casey had him beat before she ever started. The others chuckled at her secret.

Chris offered a helping hand to Mary guiding her into the bench beside Ms. Nettie. Buck swung Billy up to the front of Chris's saddle. Billy sat with barely contained excitement.

Nathan gave Vin another threatening glare warning the Tracker to stay seated in the back of the wagon. The tracker sat at the very edge of the tail gate kicking his feet like a pouting child. Unfortunately this grown kid could kill a man without breaking a sweat or increasing his pulse.

Josiah laughed uproariously at the glares between healer and tracker. The ex-preacher swung himself into the saddle after making sure the gambler slept comfortably within the confines of the wagon. Inez cushioned Standish's head with her lap.

The wagon and riders pulled onto the rode and headed for home.

The End

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