The Train

by Heather F.

Part 12
Ezra sat behind some boulders and watched as three of the outlaws rode out of camp. Two left behind. Standish really didn’t care. He wanted a horse and a pair of boots. After that, he had no other set plans. His fellow law men could save their own hides. Or so he told himself. He would have left the area already except he needed some dry clothing and a set of boots, not to mention a horse to return to…..Four Corners? He would worry about his destination after he secured a ride. Ezra had not seen hide nor hair of any lingering horses when he found the camp.

He felt a sneeze building and looked toward the sun. He squinted prepared himself and felt the sneeze fizzle away. Standish cursed.

It was just his luck to have dispatched a guard that was three inches shorter then himself. Unfair actually. The socks were manageable, crusty and stiff but dry. The river current had seen fit to remove both his boots and socks. He just needed foot wear. Then he would be on his way.

Not a far fall….indeed…as if Mr. Sanchez has ever hurdled from the face of a cliff into a raging river. Not far…an asinine statement for one to make to a man hanging from a cliff. Josiah spent his time fixing a roof…what did he know about heights?…. Ezra paused and sighed….Mr. Sanchez being correct in his observation did nothing to soothe his temper.

His stomach growled and he shivered as he leaned against the rock. The sun would hopefully find him sooner rather than later. A deep chill has settled in his bones and took up residence. He didn’t think he would ever get warm again.

+ + + + + + +

Dusk did not come quickly enough. Sullivan squatted in front of the fire and stirred a small pot of beans.

"You gonna feed them?" Mendez asked. He really didn’t care but he had no intentions of washing the dishes.

"Shut up Juan," Sullivan spat back. Damn preacher had been staring at him all day. Should just shoot the Son of a Bitch between the eyes and get it over with.

"Why don’t you take watch?"

Mendez recognized the order in the mock suggestion. He didn’t bother arguing it. If anything Juan was relieved to leave camp. The crazy preacher just kept staring at Sullivan like he was going to rip him a part with his bare hands. Mendez didn’t think a mere bullet would stop the likes of the big man when he decided to act. Hell Mendez had half a mind to let the preacher go…let Sullivan get mauled. Probably be the best thing for the twisted SOB.

Juan headed out of camp. He walked a few hundred yards before sitting down on a large boulder. He pulled his legs up away from any dark shadows on the ground, out of respect for any possible snakes.

The outlaw contemplated what he would do with his share of the money. Perhaps buy his own hacienda… himself a few Indian slaves…maybe open a trade in the market. There was money to be made in the sale of flesh. A black market of sorts….a rudimentary understanding of supply and demand made it a promising enterprise.

A low smile spread across his face as he dreamed of his future. The sun settled heavily casting the land into the long shadows of encroaching night. The breeze kicked up putting a bite into the air.

Mendez shivered and pulled his coat tighter. In a few days, he could buy some company to keep him warm at night. No more sleeping outside, no more taking orders from others. He would be the king of his own little piece of the world.

His smile fizzled away when an Ace of Spades slipped over his shoulder to land in his lap. He picked up the water damaged card staring at it until the implication of its presence made itself known.

Mendez swung around gun in hand just in time to meet a derringer.

He came face to face with a smart smile and raised eyebrows. "Your boots sir." The southern accent was nearly un-discernible through the congestion.

Mendez scowled and continued to bring his gun to up only to have the action halted by the derringer smashing into the side of his temple.

Mendez crumbled from the rock falling heavily to the ground. Standish bent over tucking his cold fingers under his left arm. Cold fingers burned in protest to their harsh abuse. He shook his hand a few times blowing on his finger tips hoping to dull the sharp pain with some heat. With a lingering curse, he stood over the fallen man scrutinizing him. He squatted down and began to work the boots off.

"Mendez!" Sullivan shouted as he scooped himself a plate of beans, "Mendez! Beans are ready…git yer ass over here." Sullivan settled back onto the ground spooning up hot beans, blowing on them before eating.

He ate half a plate before he realized Mendez had not returned, "Dumb ass…" Sullivan climbed to his feet keeping a weary eye on his five captives. The preacher still stared at him.

"I’m gonna enjoy killin’ you preacher man."

Vin wondered why Sullivan didn’t see that Josiah really didn’t care one way or another.

The captor tore his eyes from the unerring stare of the older man and looked into the blackness that surrounded the camp. His eyes had grown too accustomed to the fire light and could not penetrate the suffocating blackness that blanketed the immediate area outside the reach of the fire.

He suddenly felt all alone.

"Mendez?" His voice rang out quietly, cautiously. The death of Matt sprung suddenly to mind. Sullivan unholsted his gun.

Vin and Chris shared a look. Ezra? Buck gently moved JD’s head and shoulders to the ground.

Larabee gazed down the line to Josiah and Nathan. Josiah had ignored everyone again today and continued to do so now. Larabee had no intention of getting between Sanchez and Sullivan…not yet at least. Nathan nodded to Larabee, he was ready to act. When Chris looked to him for answers, >>What the hell had happened?<< Nathan merely shook his head ‘No’ before diverting his gaze to the ground.

"Why don’t you lay down your weapon and give up before you end up like your friend Matt and Mendez?" Tanner’s calm schooling voice cut through the encroaching night.

"Might be able to keep Josiah here from crushing your back."

"Why don’t you shut your trap Injun lover," Sullivan swung around and aimed his gun at Tanner.

Sanchez shifted position.

"Preacher man," Sullivan taunted, "think yer friend flew to safety?…think he sprouted wings and glided away instead of getting smashed like pulp on those rocks…." Sullivan crossed the camp his voice chuckling with his absurd statements. His fear lay hidden in his mockery of Sanchez. Sullivan found safety in the fallible power of his gun. As he spoke he circumvented the fire and stood before Sanchez, his gun at the ready. "I think he’s buzzard’s bait…I think he cursed you all the way .…"

Josiah erupted from the ground with an inhuman roar. He smashed into his tormentor before anyone could react.

Nathan’s leg was wrenched forward. The shackle cuff dug deep into his ankle. The momentum on Josiah’s lunge dragged the healer. Jackson shuffled trying to create slack, trying to give Sanchez every advantage.

Josiah kept swinging his tied fists like clubs. He never gave any conscious thought to his actions. Over and over he watched Ezra fall. He could not erase the sensation of the glancing feel of clenching fingers as they searched for any type of purchase….over and over he heard the pleas…the disbelieving scream and his name….he heard his name rebound off the canyon walls, his name screamed in despair and a dash of hope that he would grab hold again.

Over and over he swung his heavy arms and smashed his bloodied fists into Sullivan. Repeatedly he rained blows upon the man who created this Hell. He never thought to reach for the gun, never thought to break Sullivan’s failing grip on the revolver.

"Geesuz Buck he’s going to kill’im," JD’s quiet voice had Buck, Chris and Vin staring at Dunne with confused looks….So….

Then Buck reacted. Chris cursed and slowly followed suit, unsure if he truly wanted to interfere with Sanchez’s work. Whatever ate at Josiah, the man did not need anymore demons. He did not deserve to have any more faces haunt him while he slept.

Buck dove into Sanchez knocking him away from Sullivan. Sullivan free of the weight curled into an instinctive ball. He tucked his face behind his crossed forearms and pleaded for a reprieve.

Larabee stood back waiting…he would keep Sanchez from killing tonight. At least committing murder in a blind rage.

Sanchez shook Wilmington off like rain water. The preacher reached over and grabbed Sullivan again. Buck leaped onto Josiah’s back. Nathan shouted in the background for Josiah to quit….to stop…it wasn’t worth it….

Tanner got to his feet and searched the area for a knife. They weren’t going to stop Josiah, not by fighting with him, at least.

The bounty hunter found a knife in the kitchen kit. He started slicing through the ropes in an awkward sawing motion making slow head way.

"Would you like a hand with that, Mr. Tanner?" The Southerner slipped from the shadows and took the knife. His coarse voice and disheveled appearance had Vin nodding in confirmation. Ezra had gone swimming.

"Much obliged Ezra," Vin smiled, "nice coat ya got on….almost as nice as mine."

Both men ignored the fight in the background. "Yes and while the odor is very similar, I find the style is not to my liking," Standish paused and then added, "but it is dry."

"You know what’s gotten into Josiah?"

Ezra paused in cutting the ropes and lifted his eyes to stare at the conglomeration of men wrestling on the ground.

" I have no idea."

Vin accepted the lie for what it was, "They ain’t gonna stop’im like that ya know," Vin unpeeled the ropes from the furrows in his wrists.

"Yes, well, I don’t see how I can be of any assistance," Ezra sniffled, trying to drag air through his nasal passages but, instead, was forced to swallow. He handed the knife back to Tanner as a sneeze exploded forth spraying the immediate area.

Vin took the knife and wiped the back of his hand on his pants leg, "Thanks a lot Ezra."

Ezra merely muttered an apology and turned, heading for the cook fire. His stomach rumbled with anticipation. Another sneeze snuck up on him then two…and then a chain of three. A mournful groan and sniffle followed.

The fight on the other side of the fire paused.

Josiah recognized the sound and pulled his gaze from Sullivan. He did not acknowledge the weight of Chris and Buck on his back and arms.

"Ezra?" He whispered the name struggling to straighten his curled posture lifting the two other men with him. Though he had tried to convince himself the fall from the canyon’s edge was not far, it seemed he could not tell his brain what his heart knew for truth. He had let go of Standish, had been forced to make a decision between lives and chose readily. Doubt niggled and ate at his conscience from the moment he freely let go of the gambler. What if large rocks lay hidden just under the water? What if the gambler hit his head? Or if the current held him under for too long? Josiah wrestled with the knowledge that he willingly let a man slip from his grasp…a friend.

Standish sneezed again, he fished through ‘his’ coat pockets in a fruitless search for a handkerchief. With a disgusted sigh, he wiped his nose and mouth on the coat sleeve of the jacket he had commandeered. A disgusting habit he blamed on his association with the cretins he called friends.

"My God, Ezra," Josiah tried to take a step forward but the shackle grew tight and the few links refused to stretch. Nathan tried to scuttle forward but Larabee half stood in his way.

Yes, yes a disgusting act, I am well aware…but what is one to do without a handkerchief. Ezra ignored the action around him and focused on the pot over the fire. Warmth and food, the very things he had been craving since dragging himself from the gawd awful river. Now had there been Gold…he would never have to suffer like this again….

Tanner stared from Larabee to Buck to Sanchez and then to the back of Standish. Buck and Chris followed the tracker’s confused line of sight. Buck shrugged.

"Ezra, answer the damn man," Nathan struggled against the metal that dug into his ankle as Josiah incessantly tried to step forward.

Standish sighed and looked up, once again sniffling. He noticed Nathan and the others, saw JD laying on his side curled in the dirt watching the proceedings with uncharacteristic detachment…perhaps a head wound. Standish raked his eyes only briefly on Josiah before dropping them back to the pot hanging over the fire.

"A miracle….Isn’t it Mr. Sanchez?" Ezra’s smile lacked any humor or warmth. He let his eyes fall to the steaming pot of beans. The gambler scooped some beans with a wood spoon and shoveled them into his mouth. His hunger seemed only matched by the cold that engulfed his body. The sauce hit his inner lip and tongue at the same time. The scorching heat had him back peddling with his mouth hanging open and his hand waving in front of his face. "Shit…hot…hot…hot….." He turned in a hundred an eighty degree arc….breathing hard and muttering ‘hot.’.

Buck, Chris and Vin once again shared confused glances, while the gambler danced and moved in his own interpretation of a Jig.

"Are you alright?" Josiah still tried to comprehend that the gambler stood in camp.

"The beans are hot Mr. Sanchez," Ezra bit out trying to figure out a way to eat the food without attaining burn blisters.

"The fire would be a good clue," Vin spoke up.

"Thank you Mr. Tanner for that insightful tip," Ezra tried to assess the damage to his lip with this tongue but found his tongue no help.

"Any time," the tracker smirked moving forward and handing the gambler a tin plate.

"Think he meant the river," Jackson spoke up for the first time about the incident at the cliff. He watched as Standish knelt back in front of the fire and scooped beans into the tin.

Ezra pinned Nathan with a fierce gaze, wondering what the Healer’s involvement in all this was, "Yes, well, as Mr. Sanchez over there pointed out…it really wasn’t that far to fall."

"It had to be done," Josiah muttered sinking to the ground, taking Buck and Chris with him.

"Of course," Ezra’s disbelieving tone had Nathan confused and hurt.

"He was gonna shoot me Ezra," Jackson’s voice had become soft, laden with guilt. He wanted his life to be valued, not the monetary value that slave traders had put on him at one time, but the value of a human being, of a friend. He never wanted himself to be held over or above anyone else. He never strove for that kind of prominence. He only wanted to be looked upon as an equal.

Standish raised his eyes from the plate of beans. The wood spoon shook in his hand. He had been hungry and cold far too long. Going to shoot Mr. Jackson?…Mr. Jackson was there?

"There is always a choice, Nathan," Josiah closed his eyes, ignoring the shocked expression on the gambler’s face. Instead, Sanchez only saw the shock, the blatant fear in Standish’s eyes when he had opened his hand at the canyon, "There could have been something…" He should have done something….anything…but chose between two lives….

Jackson felt his anger spiral, "Damn it Josiah, the Bastard gave you no choice," Nathan jerked his foot back garnering the large preacher’s attention, "tell’im Ezra." The healer stared pointedly at the gambler who refused to look up. This was not lost on Josiah.

"Tell him what?" Standish shot back with vehemence that had time to smolder, "what would you like me to tell him?…That he was right? It wasn’t that far to fall?"" He held the healer’s gaze and then turned his attention back to his smoking plate of food.

"There’s always a choice, Nathan," Sanchez’s voice had fallen in volume, drowning in shame, "there is always a choice."

Buck closed his eyes as the broken conversation finally fell into place. The soft exclamation uttered by Chris herald his own understanding. The leader of the Seven kicked Sullivan where he lay. The tracker diverted his gaze to the ground closing his eyes trying to hide the sympathy he felt for the preacher.

"Didn’t you know?" Nathan’s disbelieving whisper cut the area. The healer focused on the gambler trying to discern the truth with a dissecting gaze.

Ezra raised his eyes staring at Nathan, not looking to Sanchez at all. Nathan had no skill in lying.

Buck, Chris and Vin stood quietly listening. Sullivan should’ve died.

Nathan finally saw past his own fear and turmoil. Ezra didn’t know. He didn’t know why Josiah let go of him…didn’t hear the threats or the gun being cocked. He had no idea that Josiah had been forced to make a brutal decision.

"Didn’t know what, Mr. Jackson?" Standish snapped out again. Perhaps he would take his plate back into the night….but the fire felt too good.

Jackson found his answer when Standish dropped his gaze to the plate of food and refused to look back up, meet any of them in the eye.

"You didn’t know?…" Disbelief again…The ex-slave swung his gaze from the gambler to the preacher. "Sullivan…didn’t you hear Sullivan at the cliff?…he was gonna put a bullet in my head if Josiah didn’t let go…"

Ezra raised his head and looked at Sanchez for the first time. He studied the older man and then the Healer. His gaze rove between the two men, searching for the lie, the fabrication that was sure to exist. He found none. A small smile curled the corner of his mouth, "Unfortunately the acoustics, when one is hanging from the side of a canyon are not conducive for eavesdropping."

"You just thought I let you…."

Ezra cut him off. He did not want to hear any more, "I assure you Mr. Sanchez I thought nothing, except for the desirable ability to sprout wings and fly….and as you stated earlier….It was not that far to fall…" His voice tapered off. He had had no idea…. To choose one friend over another….to have to pick between lives. "A decision needed making and you made the correct one." No harm, no foul. Ezra gazed up at the older man and smiled shallowly. He turned his attention back to his dinner.

A hollowness settled heavily in his gut, a familiar unwanted companion but one he learned to deal with from his first stay with ‘family’. A shame really, but that was all. No Gold on the train and still second class despite his closeness with the others. This little jaunt into the wilderness indeed had become a fruitless endeavor. It seemed to be the way of things. Ezra felt a twinge of guilt for Josiah, having been forced to make such a decision. However, it was a decision Sanchez made with out great hesitancy or guilt. The man knew his own mind but still a frightening situation to be thrust into even if the choice was clear. "King Solomon…." Ezra whispered quietly to himself, not envying the older man at all.

Vin quietly backed away from Standish and headed toward Chris. The tracker handed Larabee the knife all the while swinging his gaze from Josiah to Ezra.

The fool gambler had been a second class citizen from the moment of conception, a bastard born into an unforgiving society. No different from the rest of them, his life no more difficult than his fellow lawmen, just different. His demons wore unusual masks, and his fears held a kaleidoscope of conflicting shapes. Despite the uniqueness of all of their pasts, it was the very skeletons that they hid from one another that kept the seven men basically the same.

Vin Tanner had been considered less than other white man all his life, just like Nathan, and Buck and even Ezra and JD. Each had had their fears confirmed at one time or another. How could a young boy raised in a brothel not know the scathing tongues of other children and adults alike? The son of a maid surely felt the heavy yoke of labor forced on small shoulders when his mom took ill. The slave amongst them knew first hand the terror of having his mother stripped from him, heard everyday that he was less than his fellow man. A skinny white boy, knew full well that he was not welcomed into the homes of others. And a worthless child left to wander alone after the death of his mother because he was unexceptional.

They all had their pasts, their burdens and hidden fears. They had all lived through the venomous, scathing, remarks of their fellow man. It simply had become a way of life for the men. They dealt with it and lived with it. Their demons were very much their own and in a way helped define them for who they were. Though their fears sometimes bubbled and struggled to the surface, they were not new and in this familiarity these ghosts and past fears were almost comforting in their own private existence. It was something that each of the men could call their own, something they had conquered or learned to live with to become stronger or perhaps smarter individuals. Their past trials and struggles forged them into the survivors that stood today fighting and surviving odds that most men succumbed too.

But, never had any one of them had those private demons and fears thrust into the present and confirmed so firmly by one of the others in their tight group. Never had a friend so definitively put a value or hierarchy on one of their lives…..until now.

Vin looked from Josiah to Ezra. Sanchez would drown his anguish as soon as he got the chance…and Standish would just accept it, because it had been true all his life. Four Corners and the six others were no longer the magical oasis that saw him as an equal. He had a value and once again it was below that of others. Only the tangible feel of Gold would raise his status in the eyes of strangers, but not the people who knew him…or so Ezra would believe…and Vin could find no suitable argument to fight it.

No matter the air of expense that he exuded, no matter how much wealth and culture and education he presented to the world, Ezra P. Standish was still the Bastard son of a grifter. Nothing, apparently would ever change it. As with all things, the cracks and grime wore through his gentlemanly façade and the others had recognized his true self. The folly of his life and they found him wanting. They chose another life over his.

The crime of it, Vin knew, lay in the easy acceptance in which Ezra embraced the erroneous heraldment.

It would eat Josiah alive. He lost all around. He made the correct decision. Nathan would never survive a bullet to the head. Ezra stood the best chance. Sanchez played the odds and won the bet. Somehow he still lost.

Buck Wilmington passed a solemn look with Tanner. The son of a whore read the same signs. The sadness in large vibrant blue eyes were tempered by the fierceness to fight the resignation that settled heavily about the gambler and preacher.

Nathan fiddled with his knives, wishing to God that Josiah had pulled the Southerner up the face of the cliff.

Chris Larabee kept his focus outward toward the surrounding desert. He ignored the small patches of unrelenting snow; he did not see the sage or hard red clay. Instead, he focused on the wrecked train that lay out of sight. He would extract his vengeance on these perpetrators.

"Vin, Ezra, Josiah," Larabee turned his attention back to his men. "Start trying to gather up horses."

"Mr. Larabee," Ezra started protesting, he just found a warm campfire and some food. Though vengeance was something he wished to pursue, the desire to sit by a warm fire fueled him with more passion than finding a few grazing steeds. Besides he had no boots.

"Ezra," Chris turned his full attention on the gambler. The Southerner stood with stocking feet, a torn shirt and a borrowed coat. His appearance was in tatters, but his physical self was better than most of the others, "just do it." Larabee’s exhaustion carried more persuasion than any harshly spoken demand.

"Come on brother," Josiah quietly intoned as he skirted away from the fire and faded into the encroaching din of darkness. He didn’t dare come too close to the gambler.

"Brother my ass," Standish shot out kicking delicately at the dirt around the shimmering camp fire. He really didn’t want to go walking around in the dark without boots. With a disgruntled sigh, he heaved a look of woe at Mr. Larabee for a reprieve but found none. No surprise there. With a scowl Standish turned and called into the night, "Mr. Sanchez," Ezra hobbled to catch up to the fading preacher, "brothers do not drop one another from the face of cliffs…" the scathing tone was tinged with a hint of understanding and in fact an almost boyish inquisition followed, "do they?"

"Sure they do Ezra," Tanner called out from somewhere beyond the light of the fire.

"As if you would know," Standish’s voice shot across the darkness, "Mr. My Name’s Tanner…I appear just as my Wanted Poster depicts…Gawd forbid you should lose that flea infested jacket of yours…."

Chris and Buck shared an incredulous look while Nathan chuckled to himself.

"Ya think he’ll lose his voice with that cold of his that’s coming on?" Buck asked Nathan.

"Can only hope," Jackson replied as he cleaned the wound circling JD’s forehead.

Larabee faced surrounding darkness and listened following the movements of his other men.

Part 13

Larabee stared at the five men and horses that faced him in a semi circle. He himself commandeered a bay gelding that appeared to have sturdy legs. The morning sun had yet to truly crest the horizon but the grey light of a false dawn was enough to see by. JD rode double with Nathan. The Healer was by far the strongest of the group and would be able to keep the Kid on the horse.

Josiah was too dangerous a choice for JD to partner with for this excursion. Though Sullivan had succumbed last night to a fit of stupidity, Sanchez was not free of his lingering anger. He would face Richardson and his men with biblical abandon. He would be fanatical in his quest for revenge.

Standish sat slumped on his borrowed gelding, huddled against the early morning chill. The gambler kept his eyes squinted tightly closed, occasionally attempting to open them but shying from the ever growing lightness in the sky. The man had only grumbled at the others. From the sounds of it, he was losing his voice.

Maybe their luck was turning for the better.

Tanner had picked up Richardson’s trail and waited patiently to begin. The bounty hunter kept close to the others. He had prowled the late night, just out of reach of the campfire’s shimmering light. Despite his bruised features and tender ribs, the tracker had slid through the darkness of night, ever vigilant against any who might dare come challenge his territory and pack.

Sullivan had tried and had paid the ultimate price. Dang fool forfeited his life for the lure of Gold that did not even least not on the train. What possessed the man to try and steal Larabee’s gun was unknown? It did however directly bring about his ultimate demise. Fool.

Buck checked his weapons, again and again. He started before the last stars faded from the horizon. Even one handed, he could load and shoot faster than most men with two hands. An angered Buck Wilmington was a fearsome sight. An enraged, determined Buck Wilmington was Hell on Earth. The big Midwesterner reined his horse absently as he watched his young friend.

JD sat leaning back against the healer, though the Sheriff had protested the need to ride double. The young man did not have the stamina to sit a difficult or fast ride alone. Nathan and JD shared the largest and youngest horse of the group.

Chris was not ready to separate the seven of them yet…they had come too close to losing one another at the wreck, he would not split them up now.

As a group, even battered, they stood better chances than alone.

Chris wheeled his borrowed mount around and headed down the trail Vin had scouted earlier that morning. His head pounded relentlessly and his gut churned. Fury drove him on, infuriation had him leading his men into a willing hunt.

It was time to repay Richardson. Time to show another criminal that a reputation such as Larabee’s and that of the Seven’s had to be earned, not borrowed or stolen.

They headed for the wrecked train, with plans to skirt around it and retrace Richardson’s steps. The lawmen of Four Corners hit the trail.

+ + + + + + +

The foolery that had hallmarked the beginning of the trip was absent this ride. Vin picked the way at a steady brisk walk, his eyes darting between the trampled ground at his horse’s feet to the near invisible trail they followed. He leaned with a stilted posture over the shoulder of his horse.

Larabee followed a few paces behind, wrestling a brief moment with his mount. The horse tried to trot to catch the lead animal. A stern rebuke had Chris’s horse settling down. The gunslinger had no patience for stupidity. His lightheadedness had yet to dissipate.

Josiah followed. The large man took surreptitious glances at the gambler that rode beside him. Neither man engaged in conversation as the sun rose steadily in the sky. Sanchez had glared at the wrecked train when they had passed it. Stared at it accusingly, feeling his blind desires mocking him. Knowing he had struggled, fought and seethed over something that had not even existed. It galled him to think he had humiliated himself, and that was how he felt he had behaved while on the train, he had been as transparent as Standish and for nothing. No Gold…no demons or black desires had lay in the next car. No siren’s call had whispered his name. He had imagined it all and it angered him.

Standish had peeled his eyes apart only briefly as they passed the wrecked car. It seemed to Sanchez that the gambler gave the ‘Gold’ car not even a second thought. As though all his scheming, planning and fighting had been merely practice. Disappointed, maybe, but not in himself, or so Sanchez figured, but in the fact no Gold existed on the car.

When Vin and Chris led them passed the wreck, Standish had merely shut his eyes against the sun’s ever increasing glare and rocked slowly with the motion of his borrowed horse.

No fortune today. Perhaps tomorrow.

Nathan and Buck brought up the rear with Wilmington riding almost guard-like over the two men on the single horse. JD lifted his head periodically from his chest to gaze glassy eyed at his surroundings only to settle heavily back against the Healer. Nathan merely wrapped a supporting hand around the young man’s midsection, offering a sense of protection.

"He’s gonna be ok Buck," Nathan quietly assured. Though Jackson couldn’t promise any guarantees, the fact that the young Sheriff moved, exhibited awareness and showed steady improvement all led to the same conclusion. In a few days perhaps a week’s time, JD would be back to his old excited self.

Buck simply nodded. He stared at his young friend and then scoured the surroundings with a steely gaze. He kept his left arm away from the pummel and horn of the saddle, kept it close to his midsection, protected.

Richardson and his remaining men were still at large.

+ + + + + + +

Chris leaned against a tree. They were close to Richardson and his group, he could feel it. They had stopped under a thick copse of trees while Tanner scouted ahead on foot.

Chris shut his eyes against the headache that grew with the increasing intensity of the heat of the day. His vision doubled when he moved his eyes too fast, and vertigo hit if he stood or sat too quickly. Larabee made it a point to keep as far from Nathan as possible.

Tanner slid back into their make shift camp, under the protection of a midday shadows. He walked into the open only to face five guns.

"Easy boys," the tracker held up his hands in an unnecessary show of harmless intent. They all knew that Tanner was as harmless as a marauding puma on a run of good luck.

"Best save yer ammunition for Richardson and his boys," Vin looked to Chris and simply directed his chin over his own shoulder, "they’re right over the ridge there….eatin’."

Tanner smiled.

Josiah could not help but appreciate the predatory glint in the nearly malicious smirk.

Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord… but Josiah had walked the Earth long enough to learn that sometimes the Good Lord did not walk fast enough or perhaps he had bigger fish to fry.

"Well gentlemen," The southerner’s hoarse voice tapered off into garbled breathless sounds. He rested his hand against his brow in an unconscious habit of warding off a growing headache and settling exhaustion.

"Hells bells, Ezra," Buck smiled, "how come ya can’t lose yer voice when we’re stuck with you inside…instead of out here where there’s enough space for us to get away from ya?"

Standish eyed the big man with an unappreciative look. He offered a crude gesture.

"Ezra perhaps you best stay here," Josiah offered, trying to protect the man he had failed miserably just a day ago.

Standish turned a scathing look to the preacher and attempted another comment only to have his voice fail him completely.

"If anyone should stay," Nathan intoned, "should be Chris." The healer nailed the leader with a straight look, "Know you ain’t seein’ straight, and sure as Hell know you can’t tell which way is up or down when you git off yer horse or stand up too fast…"

Chris was about to rebuke the observations knowing full well that Nathan spoke the truth.

" ‘Cept I don’t think any of us are in much better shape," Jackson nailed Tanner with a penetrating gaze, "I ‘spect ya bruised or maybe cracked some ribs of yours when ya jumped clear of that train…sure as heck got more bruises under that hide coat of yours than Ezra does after hittin’ the river…" The ex-slave turned a look to the gambler, "and don’t even try to argue with me, I saw ‘em when ya were wheezing in yer sleep last night, I seen skinned cats with more hide on’em than you…so jist keep that trap of yer’s shut…ain’t like it’s working anyhow."

Buck started snickering at the rising blush in Ezra’s cheeks, "Same goes for you too Buck, busted arm ain’t doin’ you no good either…and iffen ya keep usin’ like ya have been it ain’t gonna heal right and be no good to ya."

Wilmington started to argue but Nathan held up his hand, "ain’t no sense in arguin’ cuz between the seven of us only two of us are fit to fight…and only one with a mind to survive it." Jackson pinned Sanchez with an unforgiving look. "Ezra ain’t holdin’ nuthin’ against you droppin’ him over a cliff…He’d tell ya if he could…in his own high flutin’ way…Be thankful he can’t, cuz I ain’t up to listen to his belly achin’." Nathan gave the opened mouth gambler a wink. "But if I’m ridin’ over that hill to face a bunch of mad men with guns, I want to make sure that the people I’m ridin’ with intend on comin’ back alive."

Though his words were directed at the group as a whole, his look solely singled out Josiah.

The preacher slowly raised his eyes from his hands. Once again the others had read him. Read his intentions, read his mind or perhaps they just knew him…understood him so well that they were able and willing to protect him from himself.

Ezra slunk back from the words and their clear meanings. Josiah actually felt that much regret about letting him go? He had no choice in the matter. Didn’t the man understand that? The gambler narrowed his gaze at the preacher. There was no way he, Ezra P. Standish, was going to shoulder the blame if Mr. Sanchez decides not to duck when someone takes a pop shot at him. No way in Hell.

Standish, in a brash act of anger, strode forward a step and tried to utter his indignant response. Tried to verbalize his true disbelief at Josiah’s stupidity. He stepped forward and managed only a hoarse labored croak.

The others turned to look at him feigning between confusion and amusement. The gambler stomped his foot in frustration and nailed the preacher with a scathing stare.

"Think Ezra there’s a might pissed off ya regret savin’ Nathan’s life," Vin spoke up quietly winking at the red faced gambler.

Standish nodded once in agreement. Not his choice of words, certainly not how he would have spoken them but Vin succinctly exposed what he desired to say.

Josiah snapped his head up and stared at the Tracker and then the gambler. Standish met him eye for eye. The green eyes were bloodshot and mocking, daring the preacher to challenge him or Vin for that matter.

For a flash of time, Sanchez wanted to lash out at Nathan, strike his old friend down and make him take his observations, his words back. Tell him he was wrong. Instead, the preacher stared at the others. JD lay curled on Buck’s discarded jacket. Standish stood hipshot, thumbs hooked on his holster, still without boots. Vin strayed from the shadows into the light…back toward the group. Buck stood slightly behind the gambler, in a spot where the big man could oversee the group but reach JD in a single step if need arose. Larabee stood by his horse, leaning against a tree, pale against the deep maroon bruises that marred his forehead and face.

They stood ready to fight. Fight and survive. Even Larabee. For the first time since Josiah had met the man, he recognized that Chris did not openly seek death. Larabee found something within himself, discovered that he wanted to survive.

In the end, the preacher lay his gaze on his old friend. Nathan Jackson stood ready to fight. Not only Richardson and his gang but those around him. Jackson would fight to keep his own gang alive, his group of friends. If that meant exposing the hidden truths of an old foolish friend then he would do it.

Josiah’s anger was directed at the wrong target. It should no be directed at himself. He let Ezra go, but Standish had proven once again he was as slippery as a snake or a fish for that matter, and it was not by any real choice he had let the gambler go. Richardson had forced his hand….Sullivan had pushed it. Josiah wanted his revenge, needed to spend his frustration and fury.

Looking at the five men that stared defiantly back at him, he realized he desired their respect and friendship as much if not more than a car full of non-existent gold.

"Brother I have no intention of meeting my maker today," Sanchez let a toothy grin split his face. "But, perhaps assisting others in that endeavor."

"Alright, then let’s go." Larabee and Tanner led the six men quietly creeping through the woods. No one was getting by them to get to JD.

+ + + + + + +

Richardson and his men had searched up and down the line. He had even sent one man into Fernwood but he had returned with nothing.

There had been no Gold.

The stalwart Judge Travis had lied to his own men. Unthinkable and unimaginable but apparently not undoable. The old man had lied.

In the criminal world, there were some things that they held as truths. Most people could be bought, or sold for that matter, if the price was right; no bank was completely secure; no one was ever completely trustworthy; and Judge Travis toed the line of Justice unyieldingly, fairly. Even in the criminal world, the old man was respected. He bowed to no politician, spoke no rhetoric, and kept his promises.

Judge Travis was a bastard to stand before because he dealt with whoever stood before him with the same heartlessness or tenderness that the potential criminal showed his victims.

The man was a badger in a fight. He would take you head on but had no qualms about sneaking up behind you. If you crossed the line of Justice, you crossed him.

Judge Travis was an honorable man. Law abiding citizens and those outside the law awed and respected him.

When he sent his seven lawmen to babysit a train full of Gold, there was no doubt in Richardson’s mind that there would be Gold and a lot of it. And the men who hired Richardson, also knew this.

So where was the Gold? Worse, how could he, Jamie Richardson, return to his employers with half his men dead, killed by the Seven, and no Gold.

Who would they believe? Richardson or the likes of Judge Travis?

Richardson pondered this dilemma again and again. The only way to appease his employers and show them that the Judge, in fact, had lied, was to bring the Six to his bosses.

Let his employers learn the truth about the train shipment. Richardson smiled at that thought. His employers were ruthless men, some driven almost to the pointed of demented.

Yes, he would feed his bosses the remaining six and hopefully keep his skin attached to his bones.

"Pine, Harold, let’s go."

The three men pushed themselves to their feet to the sound of cocking guns. The warning to drop their guns went unheeded.

Jamie reached for his gun and had it half drawn before a bullet to the chest flung him backward.

Harold swung his rifle around and fired. His shot tore a chunk of bark out of the tree by the gambler’s head. It forced Standish to the ground but Nathan quickly silenced the man who fired.

Pine giggled and lit the stick of dynamite that he had fondled while he ate his hard tack. He had watched his boss try and get himself out of the hole he found himself in when they discovered no Gold on the train.

Pine wasn’t afraid of dying, because he couldn’t be killed by a mere mortal man. He was special… had God on his side. With absolute immunity from the wrath of other men, Pine lit the stick of dynamite and made to loft it toward the forest where that mustached cowboy and long haired injun lay.

As he stood and tossed it over his shoulder, with a high peeled laughter crackling through the gunfire, a bullet found itself messily embedded under his left eye.

No mortal man did kill him. A plain two cent piece of lead did it.

Pine never heard the "Oh Shit, Vin!" Never saw his two targets get up and run like jackrabbits from the hounds. He never even saw the man who directed that improbable two cent piece of lead. He witnessed none of it.

His body hit the ground, the same time the stick of dynamite ignited just at the base of a tree. He stared glassy eyed and unseeing while those that surrounded them watched in horror as a white pine tree quivered and quaked but kept it’s spot.

Pine died with his other two partners in a wooded clearing, with no Gold to line their pockets.

+ + + + + + +

Chris and Ezra stumbled and scrambled their way toward the detonated stick of explosive. Larabee yelled Tanner’s and Wilmington’s name as he fought the double vision and vertigo that wrestled to bring him to his knees.

Standish hopped and skipped with stocking feet over bodies, fallen branches and upturned mud. He attempted to yell but succeeded in only triggering a cough.

The two men were shoved unceremoniously to the side when Josiah and Nathan sprinted past them and into the woods.

This served to only anger the two discarded men. They latched onto one another and proceeded to push and shove one another out of each other’s way and follow the trail of the other two.

"Gawd damn it Standish, git the Hell out of my way," Larabee meant to step straight ahead but instead planted his left foot directly before the stumbling gambler.

Standish latched onto the gunslinger to keep from running the man over and in turn pushed him to the side. His sordid remarks were made, just not vocalized.

For the betterment of his own future.

+ + + + + + +

"Vin you in one piece?" Wilmington lay flat on his back staring up at a darkening blue sky, through tree branches.

"Think so….you?" Tanner shared a similar view. His vision swam, clear small bubbles floated and moved against the fading blue of the sky.

"Pretty sure…" Buck watched as a greyish cloud floated into his sight.

"Its gonna rain," Vin studied the greying sky trying to make the lucent bubbles do what he wanted them to do…every time he blinked they zig and zagged.

"Did you know Ezra was any good at poetry?" Buck couldn’t get the words of the poem out of his head. Movin’ on…where the Hell did the gambler think he could go? Idiot. Ezra could probably make more money in a bigger town, probably do ok for himself moving from one saloon to the next…Do ok until that wise mouth of his got him shot, beat up or stabbed…Ain’t no way Ezra would survive long without the rest of them…Least ways not now. Buck narrowed his gaze, trying to make shapes out of the ever increasing grey cloud cover. Hell, Ezra needed someone to watch his back, he had grown used to it. Besides Buck didn’t want the jackrabbit wrapped in Fancy duds to leave…Who would badger Chris and tease Josiah? The Southerner did have an ornery streak in him a mile wide. It was fun to watch Ezra flirt with personal physical disaster. Man was better part a fool to pick on the very men that watched his back but Wilmington figured, Standish just couldn’t help himself.

"He’s a thief." Tanner shot back not bothering to move. Vin didn’t know why it was so important to him that the others realized the words were his and not the gambler’s. He didn’t know how to tell them without sounding like a braggart…worse yet what if they made fun of him, so instead he whispered a few lines more for himself than for Buck.

"I wish that I had known you when, as a child, I knew
That friends were all I'd need to build my life.

But whether thoughts of then or now hold true,
The thought of staying pierces like a knife.

The point is that to stay here is not life,
It's fighting to be what you think I should be"

Tanner paused, trying to piece the lines, that had haunted his mind for the last few days, into place.

"Whoa Vin, did Ezra teach you that?…damn he’s good," Buck asked rolling his head to stare at the tracker that lay beside him in the upturned dirt. Damn gambler was talented…still the little weasel was thinking about packing up and leaving…

"Shut up Buck," Vin studied the skies…Definitely gonna rain.

Both men ignored the sudden and rapid approach of Sanchez and Jackson.


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