The Train

by Heather F.

Part 10
Vin and Chris separated once they hit the relative safety of the trees. Tanner peeled off North and Larabee West.

Running wasn’t in Larabee’s nature. He had always fought where he stood. For a brief moment during his life, he understood the simple edict of walking away, surviving to fight another day. It was something he thought he could live by until Sarah and Adam were taken from him. Losing them, left him with no desire to walk away from a fight, he had no inclination to wait for better odds. For three dark years he challenged the world, spit in the face of the Devil and All Mighty themselves when he could, just to provoke a fight. The worse the odds the better. He stood his ground, unwilling to give up, unwilling to lose or slow his draw, but praying, wishing to find a faster, meaner, more ruthless gun.

He never did. Those few times, when Death knocked at his door, the few times when a knife potentially might have found itself sunk to the hilt between his shoulder blades, Gawd Damn Buck Wilmington had intervened.

The good natured, smiling gunslinger, simply worked his magic. Chris Larabee through a drunken haze for those three years had forced himself to despise Buck…ignore him, fight him and even loathe him…but never ever blamed him. Chris knew Buck did that to himself. For three dark dangerous years, Chris Larabee prowled and hunted death hoping to lose but never allowed himself to fail, all the while with Buck Wilmington shielding him from behind. Watching his back.

Chris Larabee, for the first time since losing his little boy and beautiful wife, ran. He ran because for the first time in nearly a lifetime he had something to live for, something that needed protecting.

The other six. Vin needed to clear his name. He needed their help. Chris had to smile. Killing Eli Joe wasn’t much help. Still, Vin needed them as much as they needed him. Nathan would one day get himself lynched for trying to pull off a medical miracle. Ezra’s mouth or his cards would see him dead well before his time. JD would never make it to the next Christmas as sheriff and Josiah would succumb to his own demons. And Buck…Buck would find an early grave defending the virtue of some misguided lady or defending one of the others alone.

As a group, the Seven became something none of them could achieve as individuals. Even more, there was safety in numbers. Poke a stick at one and all felt the bite. Cheat one and cheat the group. Though, they may not all react as a group, they may not all stand up, poised for a fight, but nothing happened within the seven that they were not all aware.

Perhaps that offered them an edge, a degree of safety but it also acted to isolate and burn them as well. Josiah stood alone against Poplar with only Vin acting to protect him. Only Chris, himself, went out after Eli Joe, while JD felt the sting of the town when it turned against him with Annie’s death. With Stutz’s money, Standish bristled and floundered against their apparent lack of trust…trust he thought he had earned. Truth was he had earned their trust, but worse, they knew him enough not to trust him with money. In fact, they knew him so well, Josiah tossed the blame for lack of trust squarely on Standish. Buck worked to save Lydia alone until the town itself was threatened by the Wicke’s men. The others then joined his fight. Heck, only Buck stood beside JD with the Annie tragedy while the others watched from the sidelines.

Were they losing their edge, that sharp instinct that had kept them alive when they strode through the world alone?…Did that razor sharp edge dull under their constant association with the other six? Were they losing that survival instinct that loners honed and fine tuned when forced to face the world as individuals. Did that instinct fade away under the constant protection of the group?

Chris skirted around a broken, sheared stump. He took a quick glance to his right searching for pursuers.

In Jericho, under the harsh treatment of the warden, didn’t he keep waiting and wondering when the other six would arrive? Hadn’t he, himself, expected Buck and Vin and the others to ride through the gates to wreak their own sense of vengeance? He waited, albeit in his own way, but he had expected them…and they had arrived, breathing fire and brimstone. They came. As a group they succeeded in liberating him and had set things right.

Six men stood behind him. Found him and freed him. Weren’t there times however, when one of the others had fallen and six had not shown up, only one or two or perhaps three?

Chris ducked under a low hung branch but kept his gun out in front of him, ready to fire if the need arose.

How had the others felt when fighting outside forces that found them standing momentarily alone? Did they feel anything? Or did they accept it? Did Vin truly think that Josiah and the others would not have gone after him when the pseudo Marshals rode off with him in shackles? Or Josiah? Was he not jailed by his own friends based on the evidence produced by a stranger with a convincing business card? How did JD feel when Annie died….when he turned hoping to find his six friends backing him only to find himself standing very much alone? Perhaps, maybe, with Buck watching in the shadows? Did the young Sheriff feel deserted?

Chris had to concede that Dunne had to have felt abandon….why else would the boy have left? Yet he came back, after the other six rode in guns blazing, Hell bent for leather to protect the stage, its passengers and their sheriff. JD came back to the fold when the others presented themselves as a group, a pack. The lone pup who had for one brief moment been ostracized had been welcomed back…the pup gladly rejoined the pack.

As a group, acting as a group, they stood as a force of nature.

Who stepped forward to help Standish ward off Maude when his dream Saloon financially crumbled? In fact, wasn’t it three of his very friends that unwillingly fell to Maude’s overt devices that led to his financial embarrassment? Worse still, if Vin or Buck or even himself had known, would they have stepped forward to help the floundering man? Probably not. Money and friendship did not mix.

Did Standish know this? Probably…Friendship had no right in business and Josiah, Nathan and JD had inadvertently proven it to him. No hard feelings, because Ezra knew he had been the one to make the blunder, not the others. The blame solely lay on his shoulders.

Did Josiah find fault with the others when only Vin stepped forward to save him? Probably not, Sanchez had a perverse relationship with right and wrong, blame and punishment. The preacher trusted few and found faith in even less. Tanner forced his trust and faith of friendship and loyalty on the man and it had paid off.

Did Buck feel the sting of Mrs. Travis’s words about Lydia and ‘her kind’? Probably, but the big man found solace in his silence and in his ability to protect ‘the other kind’. He confided in JD to teach the boy…but not the others. Did he too find a lack of faith in them as well? Did he fear they too might have Puritan type views?

Why would he think that? Perhaps, because, as individuals, they picked and taunted one another like brothers too close in age.

In their protective group of Seven, their ability, sensitivity and willingness to choose their battles, amongst their group, sometimes brought about its own pain. A sense of loneliness. Amongst seven, strong willed, dynamic men, in times of strife, only a few would act for the individual. The others watched and waited. Perhaps waiting to act on the others behalf but perhaps not…

They were their own worst enemies when tranquil times descended upon them. Refusing to acknowledge or trying to disguise their dependency on one another, left them trying to prove their ability to isolate themselves and stand alone.

Chris searched the area behind him as he jumped another fallen log. He sucked in deep drags of breath while he ran with his Colt in hand

Nathan tore a strip off Ezra in the church for ‘training’ the ‘ladies’ to be Ladies…Mail Order Brides…yet Jackson left Buck alone. Wilmington was a willing participant in the scheme. Though his goal was not to make the ladies more lady like. He intended to keep himself near their ambrosia - like presence, with cardinal desires not far behind. Jackson ignored Wilmington’s role in the scheme and lambasted Standish.

Did Jackson think wealth and profit more reproachful than cardinal pleasures….or did Nathan even see it that way or was he so much an individual that he saw the world from only his experience. Did he speak out against the man or the region the gambler came from? Did Nathan strike pointedly at Standish or was it mainly the South? Profit from another’s sweat and labor was wrong. However, weren’t the ladies already doing that in their own way? Did Josiah offer a defense or agreement to either Standish or Jackson or Wilmington for that matter? Heavens No.

Did Ezra find offense in the oversight? Chris had to assume probably not…

Was it, in the end, their own personal weaknesses, shortcomings and fears that chose which of their party one would attacked the other and dictate when and why?

Because as a group they acted for the benefit of the group but as individuals they acted and reacted for the benefit of the individual. Ezra risked a beating by the Nichols for lying, but when facing Big Lester Bangs, he was sorely motivated for individual reasons. His personal anguish camouflaged him from JD’s trials over Annie’s death. Was Standish truly concerned for the welfare of Lydia’s girls? Or was he hoping to line his pockets with wealth? And, even if it was just wealth he was after,  hadn't he still improved the status of the ladies? Didn't everyone profit?

Machiavellian but for the benefit of the whole, not just the individual. Or did that matter?

Just as Buck put just himself in danger for Inez, he stood beside Larabee against Top Hat Bob outside the saloon.

Vin left Ella Gaines’ homestead because Chris, himself, refused to listen to reason. Vin found it easy to leave when, as individuals, he and Chris disagreed. Tanner did not get far however, because, when the group as a whole was threatened, Vin Tanner galloped straight into Hell’s Kitchen to protect his friends.

They worked better as a group, became better people when working as a team, but they were still individuals. As individuals, they stuttered and faltered and slowly discovered weaknesses in themselves as separate entities.

For men who constantly faced their own mortality, vulnerability was a frightening thing.

On the few odd occasions, in short association together, the Seven stood together, against the Nichols family and eventually Gaines and of course, Dickie O’Shea. What they had begun to learn was that as a whole unit, their chances for survival soared. The sense of camaraderie grew and the desire to stand alone faded. Perhaps only briefly but it faded for those few moments they stood as one.

In their group, they each found their own niches. Perhaps not as comfortable as they would like, that is, if anyone paid any real attention to Standish. Standing together, however, certainly lent each man a greater sense of individuality but also threatened it. They flaunted their uniqueness perhaps unable to control it. As a group, they fed off one another, used each other’s strengths and weaknesses for the betterment of the group. And, of course, for the pure torture of one another.

Their safety lay in their numbers but there was a price to be paid. They all came to realize just how potentially weak and vulnerable they were when they stood as individuals. JD’s zeal for Justice and law would see him dead prematurely without the others. How long would Ezra survive without the others to watch his back? Or when would Nathan lose a patient that would have the surviving family see him hung? How long before Bounty Hunters found Vin out? Was it only a matter of time before an angry husband shot Buck? How long would Josiah survive without the others? How long before one of his drunken rampages found him dead or hung?

Chris cursed the thoughts that shot through his mind as he dodged trees and brush. How much had he himself become dependent on the others to watch his back. Without their vigilance how long would it be before he found a bullet in his back in the dead of night?

Maybe the answer lay in there, maybe that was what pushed him today, shoved Larabee into running to fight another day.  Maybe they had evolved past the single person named "Inmate 78", beyond the boy who accidentally killed a woman or the preacher fighting his demons.  Oh, they would still fight among themselves, and it might be more painful than any attack from outside forces, but at least, now, any outside forces would be met by a united front of seven - not one, not two or three, but seven friends who knew how to stand up for each other. They were seven men who knew how to stand alone and survive but were fighting to learn to how to stand as a group.

For such strong proud men who had discovered the strength to stand alone most of their adult lives or even earlier, to realize a weakness in the very stance that had kept them alive when others fell asunder about them, was frightening.

They were strong individuals but a more powerful group, or so Chris suddenly found himself realizing as he skimmed under another low branch scraping his shoulders. They just had to survive one another as a group.

Was that why Vin flirted with leaving them? Was that why Ezra drooled so insistently over the gold when he knew that the others would catch him? Did they each wish to hide their sudden vulnerability by disguising it with their absence or sudden wealth? They fought the pull of the group. Struggled against the groups dynamics. Tanner found no qualms with leaving for days at a time. Standish buffeted himself with a smart mouth, quick cards, and drink.

Chris, had to concede, he himself struggled against caring for anyone or anyplace. If he cared then he would want to face the next day, he would want to avoid the next bullet, and hope that he survived to see another sunrise. For three years, Chris wanted none of those things, for three hard years Larabee wanted nothing but death. However, now cast amongst this circus of irritating, brash, proud, overzealous men, he found himself caring.

It scared him to death.

Together they formed Destiny, if Josiah was to be believed. Maybe…they weren’t there yet, but Chris had to wonder, if they continued to survive as a group, then perhaps Josiah was right…perhaps Destiny did play a role.

Chris didn’t care what it was, why it happened, but for the first time in three years he truly did not want a bullet to snuff out his life.

For the first time in three years, he feared what would happen to someone else if he should die.

With these fears racing through his mind, Larabee wove, jumped and scrambled through trees hoping to keep himself free so he could protect his men.

He spun around a large tree, fired over his shoulder and spun back around into the shoulder of a bay horse and a cocking gun.

Son of a Bitch.

+ + + + + + +

Vin Tanner slid through the shadows of the forest on silent feet. He peered left and right and over his shoulder. He held his Mare’s leg ready and listened intently for any sound that might have indicated where his pursuers disappeared too.

Unfortunately, the satiric whistle from above and to his right had him lowering his gun in defeat.

Perhaps Buck and JD had better luck.

+ + + + + + +

Buck Wilmington hissed in pain when his wrists were wrenched behind his back. He witnessed, with icy blue eyes, as another man bound the wrists of the Kid. Buck kept his mouth shut, lips in a tight sealed white line, as he watched how Dunne was handled.

Wilmington did not risk speaking out, did not want to bring any abuse down on JD because a captor felt the need to express their authority.

The Kid lay oblivious, his features slack and his body unnaturally still.

Buck kept his mouth shut and prayed the others got away.

+ + + + + + +

"Don’t let go Josiah," Ezra’s panicked whisper floated upward. The mix of pleading and fear sparkled in green eyes. The gambler stared at the man above him searching for reassurance. Sanchez’s face was skewered into a grimace as the older man adjusted his grip. Ezra closed his eyes for a brief second as the grip holding him loosened for a split second letting him dip toward the ground. He opened them cocking his head to the side gazing at the water too far beneath his dangling legs. A river churned and heaved cutting its way through the floor of the canyon stories below.

"I’ve got ya Brother," Josiah hissed out cinching his fist tighter around the outstretched forearm. His fingers dug mercilessly into the gambler’s lower arm squeezing the muscle bellies of the forearm, weakly constricting long fingers.

Ezra couldn’t return the grip, couldn’t get his fingers to respond. Instead, his hand had become trapped frozen as a partially curled claw. The grip pinching his forearm saved his life but paralyzed his fingers. He couldn’t guarantee his own safety. He couldn’t buffer his chance of survival.

He rested solely in Josiah’s grasp.

The preacher grimaced and slowly inched backward from the face of the cliff. Clay and dirt rolled with his movement. He scissored his legs, twisting his lower body, digging his knees and feet into the frozen ground trying to gain purchase.

He hunched his shoulders and wiggled against the ground trying desperately to drag a full grown man up from the face of the cliff.

A raging river spilled and swirled forty feet below them. Fast moving water erupted up and over large boulders. Silt laden pools of water swirled and eddied in lazy circles before spilling down between a narrow corridor of boulders. White water roared and crashed bouncing against the canyon’s wall somewhere out of sight.

The spring melt had the river raging at its highest levels.

Rocks and snags normally exposed in summer and winter lay buried under the melt. The dark water had become muddied with debris and top soil, brazenly smothering the life that tried to swim in its marred swirling depths. It seemed the calm before the white water storm of further down stream.

"Tell me where the Gold is and I’ll let them live…If not let’im go or he’s dead," The cocking of a gun was unmistakable. Josiah closed his eyes. >Dear God No….Not this…How could Sullivan have gained on them so quickly…where was Nathan?<

The ex-preacher pulled his gaze from the man dangling below him to the voice that spoke from behind him on the plateau.

Nathan stared at him on all fours. Blood ran in dark rivulets down his sweating face. Pain etched his features nearly obscuring his fury. The gun nestled at the base of the Healer’s skull was what garnered Josiah’s attention.

"The Gold or them!" Sullivan’s voice verged on hysterical. "I said let’im go or the darkie dies," Sullivan had the revolver cocked his tone calmed into a coarse resolve. He had proven his ability and willingness to kill. The man did not bluff.

Josiah met Nathan’s eyes. Jackson shook his head. He did not want this…don’t do it Josiah…it wasn’t worth it…he wasn’t worth it. Nathan willed Josiah to hold onto the gambler. "There is no Gold," Jackson’s quiet statement was not enough to convince his captor.

+ + + + + + +

Sanchez closed his eyes. His fingers instinctively tightened around the arm anchoring the gambler some what securely to the face of the cliff.

"The Gold!" Sullivan pressed the gun firmly into the Jackson’s scalp causing the healer to bow forward, putting more weight on his hands and bending his neck until it could bow no further. The eye contact between the two friends was lost. Josiah don’t let’im go.

"Let the gambler go….or this one dies…I ain’t got time for three of you….You decide," Sullivan almost wished the Preacher would falter. Maybe with the preacher choosing between the two, the man would realize that protecting the Gold would not be worth it. With two survivors, he could work his advantage again. If they knew he was willing to kill then perhaps they would be less willing to die for the Gold.

Josiah swung his gaze back to the man who dangled within his hands.

Ezra had dropped his eyes to the brown churning waters below him. Too far. Standish scraped and scratched the side of the canyon wall trying to gain any purchase with his feet. Rocks and clay gave way under the abuse of his boots. A long silence reigned no sound of a splash could be heard over the roar of the raging river.

Ezra swung his free arm up trying desperately to latch onto one of Josiah’s forearms. Anything to solidified his position, to give him some control over his own fate.

He couldn’t reach. How could one arm be trapped and the other fall short?

Though hanging by one’s arm at the sole mercy of someone else did not settle well with the gambler, and for good reason, and though Ezra feared for his life as one would do when hanging precariously by one appendage over a chasm, Standish found his fear lacked a certain edge….or perhaps he truly garnered a cocky attitude, as the others claimed he did from time to time… Whatever the reason, Ezra knew…for a fact, without the slightest hesitation that Mr. Sanchez would not fail him. Ezra was so confident in his immediate salvation, that he would have gladly put a wager to his mother….Mother, of course, would have no doubt that Mr. Sanchez would let go. Maude had an even more pessimistic view of people than her darling boy. But she did not know these men as he did. She did not understand their dedication and loyalty to one another. Mr. Sanchez was the proverbial rock.

Ezra did not doubt for a moment that Josiah would pull him to safety…never harbored the inkling. The outhouse incident did play briefly for a flash of time, when Josiah’s grip first brought Ezra up short and had him bouncing against the face of the cliff, but never did the gambler consider that his fellow lawman and friend would use that as an excuse to let him fall. Never. Josiah was too strong a person in character to suffer such flaws….Not that Mr. Sanchez didn’t have flaws…he certainly did as did the others, but those cracks in his character did not preclude one to fear falling from a loosened grasp.

With some trepidation, Ezra hung swaying slightly in the wind waiting somewhat patiently to be hauled back onto terra firma. The Southern Gambler had no wanderlust urges to soar with the Eagles or swim with the Fish as might be possible but highly improbable. Mr. Sanchez was as strong as an Ox and as faithful as a well marked deck of cards…. It was dumb luck to have the good fortune of having Mr. Sanchez latch onto him.

Not that the others would be any more or less willing to see him fall.

But Mr. Dunne was just too small and slight. Ezra had no doubt in his mind’s eye that had it been JD that lay belly down on the cliff’s edge, Ezra’s greater weight and height would simply draw the boy over with him. And Mr. Dunne would slide over the edge to his death, there was no doubt. The boy would willing die to protect one of his others. A simple dedication that Ezra had originally found fool hardy and had chalked up to inexperience. Standish had come to marvel and watch in awe of the young man. Not that the gambler would ever admit it. Of course, if JD was around then it would stand to reason that Mr. Wilmington would be close at hand too.

Mr. Wilmington, if he were the one keeping the gambler from falling to a watery grave, would be making light of the situation, probably expound on one of his latest exploits since he had a captive audience so to speak. Or perhaps, he would use that time to form a plot against Mr. Tanner. Little did anyone realize, that Buck Wilmington had a devious mind. He came up with the ideas for the little mishaps that were the scourge of town on quiet days, Ezra normally just collected the money….and unfortunately the occasional accusation…which he normally deflected on to the quiet tracker.

Vin, though, slight of build had a wiry, tensile strength that found a match only in wild things. Wild creatures always seemed inherently faster, stronger and somewhat smarter than their domesticated brethren. Mr. Tanner was no different. In his quiet way, the tracker would simply drag the gambler up the cliff and ask if Ezra saw anything of interest on his way to the top. The man hardly ever got ruffled. Much like Mr. Larabee.

Ezra never feared that Chris would let him fall. Heck, Mr. Larabee would see it as a challenge. How dare something as simple as gravity defy him. Mr. Larabee would heave Ezra up the side of the cliff out of spite, just to foil the plans of pre-ordained destiny that Josiah so often spoke about in his meandering way. Now, had Mr. Larabee put Ezra over the side of the cliff, then the scenario, of course, would bring about very different results. Ezra, then, would wish he could sprout wings and fly.

Mr. Jackson, no doubt, would probably reach Mr. Larabee in time and in his blunt manner simply tell Chris it wasn’t worth the weight on his conscience. No, Ezra had to concede, that was not a fair description of Mr. Jackson. The healer would never let Ezra fall. If he were to do that, then Mr. Jackson would have no one in which to harp and lash out when his delicate sense of fair play was encroached upon. Mr. Jackson’s vocal declarations of conscience and unerring sense of right and wrong certainly had been responsible for many a coin lost from Ezra’s pocket. Still, much like the others Mr. Jackson would no sooner let Ezra fall, than would Josiah.

And for his part, Ezra knew he too would do whatever in his power to save his fellow lawman if the roles had been reversed.

It was with some growing trepidation, that Standish watched the water squeeze itself between ominous boulders at the base of the chasm. Mr. Sanchez surely was going to haul him up very soon.

Wind buffeted the gambler, twisting his body slowly as it whistled down the canyon’s corridor.

"Mr. Sanchez, now would be as good a time as any," Ezra swung his gaze back up to the man who held his life in his hand. A sincere, if not forced, smile etched Standish’s pale features. His gun belt slipped further down his hips. His white ruffled shirt slid from the waist band and gnarled itself in the suspenders. Unseen arm garters constricted and tightened around over stretched arm muscles. There really was no reason to worry. Mr. Sanchez was steadfast.

The gambler’s satirical half smile slipped from his face when Sanchez turned and faced him from over the edge of the cliff. Ezra felt his heart lurch. He had to be reading the look wrong…that could not be regret, not hopelessness…not on Mr. Sanchez’s face. Mr. Sanchez would pull him back to the cliff’s edge and they would laugh about this, make light of it and even find away to inform Mr. Larabee about the turn of events that led to such high altitude follies….

"It’s not that far Ezra…you’ll survive…the water‘s deep…at its deepest…." Resignation, profound sadness laced the words. Beads of sweat rolled from the preacher’s face and forehead. He slowly started swinging the gambler away from the side of the cliff, gaining momentum.

Ezra struggled frantically in the grip. His legs climbed uselessly against the smooth walls. "No, Josiah…don’t….Don’t do this my friend," his terror easily discernible in both his voice and expression. How did Mother do it? How did she know time and time again how people were going to react…Hell she wasn’t even here and still he would have lost to her….Good God…. Josiah was contemplating on letting him fall….Desperation marked his panicked movements as he scrambled his legs to garner a purchase against the crumbling rock face. He kept getting pulled away from the cliff’s face…he kept getting thrust further over empty air. Dear God…please….

Josiah stared at the stark disbelief in the man below him. He tried to assure him, comfort him. The fall would not be fatal. Ezra was a strong swimmer, probably the strongest of the group. If anyone would survive this, Standish would….The man had an uncanny ability to escape trouble…as well as find it.

"You got three seconds Preacher Man…." The angry voice behind him started counting. "One….."

"I’m sorry Ezra," The words barely left his lips. Josiah loosened his grip. He felt the midnight blue jacket slip from his fingers.

"Two," Sullivan’s voice cracked like a whip from behind.

Josiah saw the startled disbelief in widening green eyes. Sanchez felt the long delicate fingers of the gambler brush against his retreating hand. He felt the hand grasp reflexively for something to latch onto. The preacher pulled his hand back slightly just out of reach.

Ezra was at the furthest point in his arc…ensuring that he would not slam against the cliff’s face when he plummeted to the river.

"Oh God…. No!……" Josiah let him go…..Josiah let go of him…opened his hand….Dear Lord Mr. Sanchez failed him…Ezra couldn’t pull his eyes from the man with whom he entrusted his life….

For a moment, it seemed Standish hung suspended in air. For a brief flash of time, his terrified features stared straight into Josiah.

Then time snapped back. Ezra plummeted toward the water, flailing his arms and pumping his legs, trying to climb in mid air. He continued to face upward pleading with Josiah to try and grab him again. His duck tail coat billowed behind him as he accelerated toward the water. His legs kicked to no avail, nothing slowed his descent.


Sanchez let his arm hang over the side of the cliff and squeezed his eyes closed as he dropped his head the dirt. What had he done?

Blind murderous anger swelled within his blood.

He never saw the splash, never saw the blue coat get swung around clockwise and then washed down between boulders and into the turbulent white water of the spring melt. He saw none of this…just the empty palms of his hands.

"Git back here preacher man," a chuckling demand.

Josiah turned and found Nathan staring at him tears brimming his eyes. The healer simply shook his head. Not this…

Part 11

Ezra’s feet slammed into a nearly unforgiving surface, his legs buckled. Water exploded around him, constricting his chest, forcing air from his body. It jetted up his nose and stung his eyes. His breath was crushed from his chest. He torpedoed feet first through the water, his brazen trail marked by small bubbles rushing to the surface. His feet never hit bottom. His world turned up side down. He could not hear or see anything. A dark coldness stung his body while unseen forces buffeted him relentlessly. The tails of his white shirt floated around him, waving haphazardly in the current, exposing his midsection as he continued to sink. His descent slowed by the sheer cohesion of the water. The gambler was smashed into a rock, then rolled along it before being catapulted away. Ezra couldn’t get his limbs under his control, his boots dragged him downward, his holster snared and caught on things jerking his body and swinging him repeatedly before breaking free. His rapid movement came to an abrupt stop when he slammed into something unseen. He became pinned for a moment and then swept past the obstruction and downward.

His chest ached. The need to take a breath over whelming. The thinking mind had shut down. Instinct ruled. The primal urge to survive surged through the body. The world had turned upside, no light, no sound and no air to breath. He was dying…drowning.

Obstructions pummeled his body. Layers of skin were flayed from his midsection as the current whisked him by log jams and rocks. Unseen obstacles snagged and tugged at him only to have him torn free and rolled away again. Finally something gave and he broke through the surface. Without thinking, without registering his environment, he stole a large gulp of breath. Then a white wall of water submerged him. Something slammed against his leg and pulled him mercilessly toward the bottom.

Panic seized him and he kicked ruthlessly upward.

Once more he broke the surface and dragged in another lung full of air. A current snared his legs and sucked him under. He flailed in the water fighting to stay above the surface to no avail. Once again, he was hauled under by a current. His world became dark and deafening.

He scrambled and fought the river, fighting for air. He finally erupted through the surface coughing and sputtering. The water swirled him into another group of protruding rocks. The force of the current wrenched him free once more sending him careening down a path he had no control over. The water slowed, losing its mad turbulence. He floated listlessly, dragging in great heaves of air, while small whirl pools grabbed him and swirled him about, keeping him disoriented and out of reach of the shore.

The mad rush of ice melt trying to squeeze through to narrow a space, calmed. The steep black cliffs gave way to sloping hills and sage covered ground. He managed to stay on top, the sun warming his face as the water pulled more heat from his body. The canyon widened. A rocky weed choked shore lay to his right. The gambler slowly made his way toward it. His arms leaden and his clothes dragging heavily against him, he kicked feebly pawing the slowly swirling water hoping to reach land. He cut diagonally down stream, letting the current do most of the work.

What binds me here is Penanace, a vow, and strife,
In this darkest night at last all this I see.
I may not be as strong as I should be

I cannot wait for morning's light to go ...
To change to "I" from what so long was "we" ...

+ + + + + + +

Josiah Sanchez marched in step silently beside Nathan. The shackle binding their ankles together jingled with every step. Both mens’ hands were bond by rope. Neither said a word, neither had anything to say.

Sullivan rode behind them, chuckling softly to himself. He toyed with his revolver. Sanchez, the preacher, had the look of a mad man….one who had nothing to lose. Sullivan saw no reason in letting anyone like that survive. No reason at all.

Then again, he wasn’t giving the orders that was Richardson’s job.

Jamie said he wanted them alive, he’d get’em alive…except the gambler. Damn fool. All they had to do was tell him where they hid the gold.

Sullivan chuckled to himself. Seein’ that preacher’s face when he came back from the cliff’s edge...ain’t never seen anything like it…no sir. Thought the devil himself might have come to reside in him or something. Damn man had the look like he was going to charge over and start ripping people apart. Thank God for the darkie. Keeping him around, threatening him was enough to keep that demented fool of a preacher in check…darkies’ are good for something...

Would have loved to have seen that smart talking gambler’s face when the preacher let go of him….must have been priceless.

"Hey Preacher man…." Sullivan taunted from the back of his horse, "ya read yer gamblin’ friend his Last Rites?…." a chuckle followed when he notice the tension build in the massive shoulders of the man tied before him.

The darkie just plotted along in step like he were trained to do….someone must’ve trained’im well….beat some obedience into him…probably worth something on the auction block….Damn War… It would only be an hour or so before they met up with the rest of the gang. Maybe Richardson and the others found the Gold. Maybe Larabee led them to it…

+ + + + + + +

A brisk wind whistled across the open prairie. Sage leaned with it, turning its softer mint green color toward the breeze. A crescent moon settled behind the few grey clouds that dotted the night. Stars blanketed the sky from horizon to horizon.

Chris sat and studied the five men that moved around the camp fire. The flames wavered and bent with the undulating breeze. Sparks occasionally twisted upward dying out slowly as they spiraled away from the flames. The five outlaws made themselves comfortable on the far side of the fire. They kept far away from their six captives.

Chris let a feral smile twitch his lips. They were afraid of him and his men…good.

JD leaned heavily against Buck. The kid came to occasionally mumbling and asking nonsensical questions. Wilmington had answered them initially but eventually grew tired of giving the same answer to the same question over and over again.

Tanner sat forward resting his bound wrists against his knees. His right leg had stopped bleeding. The torn pant material flapped and fluttered in the breeze. Its blood stiffened edges slapped against the gouge on his calf. Tanner ignored it. He gave his attention to the men across the camp.

Larabee left the captives to Tanner’s scrutiny. Chris already had his mind made up. He would get free and then kill the bastards. The how and when would reveal themselves in time. Instead, Chris focused his attention on his men. JD would be useless in the fight to come. The young sheriff still could not articulate a coherent word. Buck would do alright. Even with the broken arm, the ladies’ man would be a force to reckon with and something to fear.

The leader of the Seven focused on Nathan and Josiah. Those two, normally the steadfast and reliable of the seven, appeared deadly, too focused. Josiah refused to look at anyone but Sullivan. The preacher followed Sullivan’s every move, every action. He watched the outlaw without blinking. Sanchez ignored everyone around him but the man under his scrutiny.

If Sullivan noticed it, he ignored it.

Nathan, however, ignored everyone. He looked at no one. His dark eyes stayed on the ropes that encircled his wrists. He never inquired about JD or Vin or even Buck. The Healer sat on the far side of Sanchez and blocked out the world. It seemed as if something inside of him had died. Something broke and no bandage or poultice would fix it.

The only one unaccounted for was Ezra. Not surprising in a sense. The man was as slippery as a greased pig. Chris didn’t think the gambler had run out on them. Not this time. Now if Judge Orrin Travis had been in the vicinity that would be another matter. Standish might have then sought out the Judge and some retribution. To think the train had no Gold. Judge could run a con if he had too.

No one had seen Ezra. Chris had asked the others when they had been led back into the camp. Sanchez had simply ignored him and Nathan tucked his head closer to his chest never diverting his gaze from his feet.

It was now, thinking back on the other two’s response to his question a few hours ago that made Larabee pause. Why hadn’t he seen it before?

"Josiah," Chris called down the line to the preacher.

Sanchez ignored him. The big man bore his gaze into the back of Sullivan. Larabee followed his stare and wondered how or if Josiah would be able to shut off his mad rage if it should ever get ignited.

"Damn it, Josiah," Larabee leaned across JD, "where the Hell is Ezra?"

Sanchez squinted his eyes staring at Sullivan.

Nathan rolled his shoulders inward blocking out Chris. His life was not worth the life of another. Damn you Josiah,….Damn you to Hell….I can’t live with this…

Vin watched the two men at the end of the line. Something had happened to Ezra and only Josiah and Nathan knew what….Chris should have seen it earlier when the two were first marched back into camp. Tanner figured Standish to be dead. No other way to explain the blind murderous rage in Josiah’s eyes.

Preacher was going to get his Crows sooner or later. Vin hated to think that they would lose two of their group. Especially for an empty train car of nonexistent gold. Didn’t seem worth it. The bounty hunter turned his attention back to their captives. Nothing was going to stop Josiah, nothing short of a bullet. Josiah would keep on killing until someone killed him.

Ezra must be dead and Josiah must some how be apart of it.

Tanner would let Chris handle it. Josiah won’t listen to most people and hardly anyone especially when drunk or enraged. Not even Chris. Ezra seemed the only one who could make headway with the large preacher, but even Standish picked and chose his battles.

Nope, once Josiah started acting on his anger, Sullivan would die and a few others, but in the end, the odds would be good that Josiah would fall too. He would never see the bullet or knife that killed him. Maybe he would even thank the SOB that did it.

Vin scrutinized the men across the fire. Early morning, when the watches are nodding off and the ones sleeping were in their deepest sleep, he would make their escape.

+ + + + + + +

Chris, Buck and Vin both sat up at the sound. JD had fallen over to the side and now slept half sitting half lying on Buck’s leg. Josiah stared at the flames of the dwindling fire. Nathan had finally curled onto his side, whether he was asleep or not was anyone’s guess. Vin figured him to be awake.

The three men shared a glance. They sat quietly and waited. A dew started to soak the ground. The river rolled unseen a few hundred yards away to the West. The crescent moon hid behind a small patch of linear clouds.

Another sound came from the West. They all heard it this time…Unmistakable. A sneeze? The watches were toward the Eastern horizon. No one around the campfire made a move.

A third sneeze and then a curse. A decideably Southern laden sound. Tanner let a smile quirk at the edges of his mouth and shook his head. Ezra could be about as quiet as a marauding cat in a dog’s grip. Vin leaned around Chris as Nathan slowly sat up.

The night grew silent again. Crickets sounded once more and the wind whispered across the Platte. A few moments passed and small tussle was heard followed by a thud.

More rustling sounded now to the East. Some cursing and another sneeze. There was no attempt at being quiet. Vin sighed. Standish’s closest akin to silence apparently fell short of quiet.

Sullivan and Richardson sat up. Richardson counted the number of men tied on the far side of the fire. Six. All still there.

"Sully, go check on Mathew," Richardson fingered his colt when Sullivan gave the impression that he might balk.

Josiah tensed.

Sullivan swore and left the warmth of his bed wall and melted into the early morning blackness that surrounded the camp. For a moment, the only sound came from the snapping pop of the camp fire. The captor measured the captives across the waning light. Both parties bristled and promised revenge for things gone awry over the last few days.

The silent bristling was interrupted at the sound of approaching feet.

They could hear him jogging back long before they saw him.

Richardson slid from his bed roll and grabbed his gun.

"Matt’s deader than a wedge," Sullivan’s voice rang with thundering clarity in the stillness of the early morning. "Someone took his coat and socks, left his boots though."

Tanner chuckled to himself. Matt stood about JD’s height. His boots wouldn’t fit very many people, not even Ezra. Did Standish end up in the river? Vin shook his head, if Ezra ended up getting wet and it wasn’t his idea, he was going to be down right unbearable.

Nathan swung his head around and stared at Josiah. The implications clear in the healer’s mind. Ezra wasn’t dead.

Josiah ignored everyone and everything but Sullivan.

"Search the area," Richardson started kicking his mens’ feet, "git up, someone’s gone and killed Matt."

Low groans and curses filled the area as sleeping bodies shook themselves from the comfort of their bedrolls and started grabbing guns and searching the surrounding Platte.

 + + + + + + +

They searched until dawn. Nothing.

Vin laid back against the ground and covered his eyes with his upper arm. Gawd damn Standish had gone to ground.

Chris had nearly smiled. One of his men still moved freely about, things were looking up.

JD stirred some more and mumbled for Buck. Wilmington rubbed the kid’s shoulders and spoke quietly about getting them out of this predicament. Just had to be patient. Dunne merely nodded and slipped back into a deep sleep.

Chris watched as Nathan tried to coax Josiah into conversation.

The preacher simply focused on Sullivan.

Larabee shook his head as he leaned back on his elbow and wondered if Sullivan realized he was a dead man. Wonder what he did to Ezra?

+ + + + + + +

Over breakfast, Richardson decided to split up his group. He gathered two of the others and left Sullivan and Mendez behind to watch the prisoners. "Gonna take another look at that train," He stared at the two remaining men, "can’t believe that old weathered son of a bitch of a Judge would lie to his own men." Richardson paused and stared at Larabee. No way Judge Travis would lie to his hand picked group. There had to be something on the train they missed. Had to be some clue as to what route the Gold shipment really headed. If not, he would be back in two days and get the information from one of captives.

"Damn Jamie, we crawled all over that there train," Pine pointed out, "there jist ain’t nuthin’ there." Pine had thrown his saddle over the skinny bay with knock knees and bad hoof walls. The horse sighed and shook its coat trying to free up pinched skin.

"If we don’t find anything then we come back here and question them," Richardson jerked his head at the six men sitting tied across the camp. He let his eyes rake across each man, "Probably start with the kid."

"Guess that means I’ve got to kill you first," Wilmington returned with a voice that edged resigned boredom. Buck wasn’t sure who he would go for first but it seemed his decision had been made for him.

Jamie accepted the challenge with a slight tip of his hat. An ex-marshal seemed like a fitting adversary. He enjoyed killing a worthy opponent. Richardson then let his gaze linger on Sanchez for a moment trying to will the older preacher to look at him. These seven now six lawmen were not nearly as invincible as the legend that enveloped them.

A damn shame….still if he pulled this off, his name would be something to fear.

Josiah merely dissected Sullivan with his eyes.


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