Chris lay stunned on the ground, his teeth clenched tight as a white hot pain sliced through his shoulder. Oh, he knew hed been shot, but that wasnt what was bothering him. Well, not his mind anyway. He was in pain, there was no doubt about that, but his mind was with Vin. A picture of the tracker draped over the saddle, unconscious, was sending mixed emotions through the gunslinger's pain racked body. Anger at the men who had inflicted pain on his friend, worry over what would happen to Vin until they had a chance to rescue him, if it wasnt too late by the time they got there. Fear at the thought of losing his friend. Anger again, aimed solely at JD for the way the young idiot had cut the last threads of their plan that had been working kind of.
Chris groaned loudly. He pushed all the thoughts hed been having to the back of his mind, and regretted it as he became conscious of the pain in his shoulder once more. His hearing focussed again too, and all he could hear was gunfire. Gunfire, seeming to come from every direction. He groaned again as he felt himself being grabbed by the clothes and dragged along in the dirt.
* * * * * * *
Buck couldnt believe that JD could be that stupid. As he continued to fire his gun at the hostile men below, his thoughts ran helter skelter through his mind. Vin seemed to have had everything under control; that was until that Somers fella had decided to open his mouth once too often. He knew Chris was almost ready to give them the go ahead to attack. A lot of the gang had been in positions where they could easily have been picked off by the five peacekeepers without too much danger of one of the passengers, or Vin, being hurt. Then JD had opened that mouth of his and put Vin in danger again. What had possessed him to do such a thing? JD was young yes, but surely hed learnt enough by now to know when to hold back, especially after what had happened in town the other day. Vin could have been killed then too. There was nothing Buck would rather have done than to yell out when he saw that gun pointed at Vin, but he hadnt. Hed held back, like JD should have done. He remembered something Chris told him once, that the gunslingers Ma used to say to him. Step back and ponder. A strange collection of words, he thought at the time, but they sprang to his mind now, as he rolled onto his back and reloaded his gun, listening to the shots continuing from Nathans and JDs guns.
Theyd had no choice after JDs outburst. The outlaws began firing and they had to fire back. Thats when all hell had broken loose. He breathed a sigh of relief when hed seen the passengers, and Vin along with them, being dragged to the relative safety of the far side of the stagecoach. His relief had been short lived though, his heart sinking as he watched Vin and that bastard Somers being manhandled towards the horses. He couldnt help feeling proud as he watched Vin put up a struggle against the man who held him. It was just like the scrawny Texan to put up a fight, however hopeless, just to piss people off, and maybe, just maybe, win.
He hadnt won this time.
Bucks heart sank again as he remembered the moment that son of a bitch had thrust that knife deep into Vins leg, and as if that wasnt enough, hit him over the head and knocked him out.
Then Chris had stood up, in the middle of all of the gunfire, and waved frantically at Ezra and Nathan. It was at that point that the ladies' man knew he had to be having a bad dream. This was so full of bullshit he knew it couldnt be real. The plan was pathetic for openers, the way JD had acted was ridiculous, and then Chris acting that way was just downright ludicrous.
Then he saw Chris get hit and fall to the ground.
This was no damn dream unfortunately.
He continued to fire, too startled to act immediately, until he heard his mind screaming at him. Make sure hes okay.
Buck spun round on his belly and shuffled along the ground until he was at Chriss side. Taking one look at the gunslinger's pain filled face, he cursed loudly, and grabbing Chris by his jacket he dragged him along the ground until he was safely tucked between JD and himself.
"Its alright ol buddy. Ive got ya," he said soothingly before turning back to the scene below him, which was slowly turning into a bloodbath.
* * * * * * *
Nathan wanted to scream in frustration. First hed seen Vin stabbed in the leg and knocked unconscious, and then hed seen Chris drop to the ground, obviously shot, and he was powerless to stop any of it. His healer instincts had kicked in the moment he knew his friends were injured, but he continued firing his gun, knowing he couldnt do anything about it right now, especially not for Vin.
His thoughts then turned to Ezra; Lord knows what he was having to deal with. He hoped he was managing to stay out of sight, but at the same time he prayed that the southerner was keeping track of Vin.
So much depended on so many things and they were all so uncertain.
His gun jerked and fired in his hand as a voice from below startled him out of his reverie. He hadnt realised that the gunfire from below had ceased, and a quiet had settled on the proceedings.
"I know youre gonna come hunting for us. Just remember we got yer man and keeping him alive aint gonna be easy if ya give me an my men a hard time."
"Well, what do you suggest we do then?" Bucks voice dripped sarcasm but it worried Nathan that it was the scoundrel who had yelled a response and not Chris.
"Thats up to you. Just remember what I said." There was a moments pause before the voice continued. "Were gonna leave the two passengers here. If ya go back where ya came from, Ill send yer man home in a coupla days."
Buck was having a hard time restraining Chris. The gunslinger was fighting off the ladies' man's hands, trying to get on his knees. Jakes last words had been the final straw for the injured man and, with strength he didnt know he possessed at that moment he shoved Buck sideways and, with a grunt, he lifted himself to his knees, cradling his useless arm against his body. "Get my gun Buck," he ordered, without looking at his friend. His attention was almost completely on the scene below.
"Now you just lay there and let us worry about it, Chris."
Bucks head jerked as Chris responded.
"Get me my God Damn gun!" He took two deep breaths before he finally responded to the outlaws words.
"You think were just gonna ride outta here while youve got our man? What planet are you from? You get him brought back here right now and well talk about what happens next," Chris gasped after hed yelled the words, he had no idea where his strength was coming from, the pain he was in was steadily getting worse, and white spots were appearing before his eyes, a sure sign that he would soon not be able to kneel let alone stand. He nodded as Buck handed him his gun; the gunslinger was still exhausted from his last speech.
Jake swore. These had to be the peacekeepers hed heard so much about. The seven who looked after Four Corners. He knew he should have left that town alone. Hed lost six men in that fiasco. But he had one thing going for him, he had one of them as a hostage, and he wasnt going to give him up just yet.
"Sorry Cowboy, no can do. Now were gonna ride outta here, and Im gonna leave some of my men for ya to have a little battle with, seein as ya want one so bad."
Now Chris was really mad. That low life Son of a Bitch had just called him a cowboy. There was no way he would get away with that. If he didnt get him now, he would get him later. Oh yeah, he was definitely gonna pay for that.
"Your funeral," Chris responded.
Jake laughed aloud, "Just know that if you attend yer friends, it was your doin."
He tapped Seth on the shoulder and nodded towards the horses. "Youre with me." Turning to the other remaining man who had run for cover with them, behind the stagecoach, he issued orders. "Grady, you, Jimmy and Saul stay put. Hold em off as long as ya can and then high tail it outta here. Go the long way round to the cabin, make sure they aint on yer trail before ya come anywhere near, got that?"
Grady nodded and turned, his gun poised ready to fire when his boss needed the cover of gunfire.
At Jakes loud command, Grady and the two remaining gang members; situated behind some rocks, opened fire on the men above them; giving Jake and Seth the cover they needed. The two outlaws ran for the horses and, quickly mounting them they galloped away, soon out of sight.
"Shit! Damn! Hell and tarnation!" Chris struggled to find more words, but his mind was running in circles.
"Damn!" He continued to fire on the men down below. "Buck how many do you see?"
"Two Chris," the ladies' man replied.
"JD?" Chris could hardly say the young Sheriffs name. At that moment he held him entirely responsible for the whole sorry mess, but that could wait.
"Three Chris. One behind the stagecoach, two behind the rocks."
Chris couldnt help being impressed. "Yep thats what I figured. Buck?"
"Get your eyes checked when you get time."
Buck laughed aloud. His attention still focused on the battle as he thought on Chriss last words. He could never figure out when that weird sense of humour of Chriss was gonna strike. It always seemed to be at the strangest times. Here they were in the middle of a shoot out; one of their friends had been taken hostage, their leader was bleeding all over the place and their plan to foil the hold up had just disintegrated, and Chris was joking about his eye sight.
Buck realised all had gone quiet. He looked at Chris questioningly and frowned when he noticed the fine film of sweat on his friends face. "Ya reckon we got em?"
"Not sure, I know I got one of the ones behind the rocks. Dont know about the other two."
Chris rested his head on his arm, wiping his forehead as he did so. His head was pounding and the pain in his shoulder had intensified to an almost unbearable level.
"Chris " Buck began, but was cut off by the sound of gunfire from his right. Nathan was firing at someone. He looked down at the same time as Chriss head snapped up and they saw two men running for their horses. Both outlaws turned around, still running, and began firing their guns again, to cover themselves.
One dropped as a bullet from Nathans gun found its mark, and the other man almost made it into his saddle, but a well aimed bullet from Chriss gun took half of his skull as it hit him in the back of the head, sending him crashing to the floor.
The four men lay still for a while, wanting to be certain that the coast was clear before they broke their cover. It was confirmed to them that it was safe when they saw the two passengers emerge from behind the stagecoach, clinging to each other. The woman was crying quietly.
"Heads up boys. Were all clear." Buck helped Chris to his feet and held onto him until the blond shoved his arms away. He spun around to face JD who had just clambered to his feet. Grabbing the young Bostonian with the hand he could still use, Chris shook him hard.
"You coulda just cost Vin his life," the gunslinger spat out at the frightened face before him.
"Im sorry Chris, but they were gonna kill im," JD answered quietly.
"You idiot. When are you gonna learn? I tell you something, boy. It better be quick or youre gonna be responsible for the deaths of all six of us!" He shoved JD hard and the young peacekeeper landed hard in the dirt.
"Chris. We aint got time for this now. Think of Vin and Ez. Theyre out there and they need help, Goddammit."
At the same time as Buck yelled the words, he walked over to JD and helped him to his feet.
"Thanks Buck," JD whispered, dusting off his clothes.
"Were gonna talk," Buck whispered back before moving off to meet Nathan who was quickly running towards them.
"Chris you okay? Let me take a look." Nathan reached out to touch Chris but the gunslinger moved quickly away.
"Lets get down there, help them two and then get after Vin." The gunslinger didnt wait for a response, and headed down the incline, stumbling as he walked.
Buck and Nathan looked at each other and the healer shook his head. "What we gonna do Buck? This is a shit load o mess."
"Dunno Nate. If we make plans theyre just gonna be shot to hell, so lets just play it by ear huh?"
The healer nodded and the remaining three peacekeepers followed their leader down towards the stagecoach.
* * * * * * *
Pain. Terrible pain. Where does it hurt? Lot of places. What was that noise? Why do I feel like my bellies about to empty?
Vin groaned as his head swam around in sickening circles; and he hadnt even opened his eyes yet. He slowly peeled them open and his brow furrowed as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing.
The ground was moving. No, the ground was still, he was moving. He thought for a long moment, trying to figure out what kind of position he was in to be able to see the ground moving from that angle. The soreness in his ribs answered his question. He was laying over a saddle. He groaned again and tried to move, but found that hed been restrained.
"Let me up from here," he mumbled almost incoherently.
He felt the horse slowly come to a standstill and the sound of other horses hooves hed been hearing also stopped.
As he continued to lie across the saddle, a pair of boots came into his line of vision. He hissed through his teeth as he felt his hair being pulled back sharply, taking his head with it. He raised his eyes and looked into the face of the so called stagecoach driver, Cleet.
"Well, well, about time you woke up. You wanna sit up huh?"
Vin nodded the best he could, his hair still being held tightly by the outlaw.
"Too bad, you aint gonna give us so much trouble where ya are, so get used to it." Cleet let go of Vins hair roughly and the sharpshooter heard laughter just before they began to move again.
He decided to focus his mind on something else, to try and take away the pain that had settled on him. A new, searing, agonising pain in his leg had made itself known. He tried to move the limb and gasped as the pain was almost enough to empty his already rebelling stomach.
He quickly returned to his previous line of thought. Focus on other things.
Ah hell, so much for all his hard work covering up his identity. In one foul swoop, JD had shot it all to hell. Where was Chris telling the youngun to step back and ponder huh? No, that was just for him. He felt angry, and betrayed, They were supposed to be watching his back and all that had happened was theyd got him into more trouble.
Vin pushed his anger away. He couldnt think straight when he was angry, and he sure as hell needed to think straight so he could get himself out of this hell of a mess he was in.
He blinked a few times as the ground blurred below him. He realised it wasnt just the horse moving along that was blurring his vision. Hed lost count of the number of hits hed taken to his head recently, and he knew with certainty that he had a concussion; hed had enough of them in his time to know the symptoms. His self-diagnosis was confirmed when his stomach finally gave up its fight and proceeded to empty its contents; leaving a small trail as they continued to move along.
The outlaws ignored the tracker's obvious distress.
* * * * * * *
Ezra was keeping a safe distance behind. He hoped it wasnt too safe and that he would be able to maintain his pursuit of the outlaws, and his friend.
While he rode his solitary trail, his thoughts went over the happenings of earlier that day.
When exactly had it all gone wrong? Or had it ever gone right? They were two very good questions that the gambler didnt feel he wanted to ponder on at that particular time.
He was pretty sure that Chris would have soon given the signal to open fire, if that idiot Somers hadnt opened that large mouth of his once too often. Ezra felt anger rise in him and had to fight hard to push it down again. The image of Vin, laying on the floor with a gun to his neck was not one he wanted to dwell on. But it was hard not to.
Could they have opened fire and taken out the man holding the gun on their friend? If Vin had been up with them instead of down amongst the outlaws, Ezra had no doubt in his mind that the sharpshooter could easily have used one bullet to end the miscreants sorry little life. But if Vin had been with them, then the danger would not have existed.
Lord, what was he doing? It wasnt helping in the least to think all these things. It hadnt happened and he had to concentrate on his task at hand. To follow the small entourage and keep track of Vin, helping him if he possibly could.
Ezra nodded his head. After all, his previous thoughts were all speculation and ifs and buts. Nothing mattered except what was happening now. Thanks to Somers and JD everything had taken a further step towards hell.
And quite frankly, the gambler was pretty sure that he was riding straight into the flames.
* * * * * * *
"Are ya hurt?" Nathan asked as the three peacekeepers approached the scene of the hold up.
The two scared passengers shook their heads as they continued to cling to each other, neither of them quite able to find their voice.
"Good, thats real good. Come on, come sit in the coach, well get ya back to town real soon."
Nathans calming voice and words helped the scared couple and they moved towards the stagecoach, the healer leading the way.
Chris, Buck and JD checked the outlaws bodies, one at time. Shaking their heads each time they failed to find a pulse.
"Looks like we got a full house boys," Buck announced as the last pulse was searched for and not found. "All dead."
"Great!" Chris sighed and, knocking his hat from his head, he raked his hand through his hair. "Was hoping for a live one, sos we could find out where they may have taken Vin."
"Well, no chance of that now, Chris," Buck answered with a shake of his head, "Youre gonna have to rely on Ezra, me and JD."
"What you sayin Buck?" Chris asked with a menace in his voice.
Nathan approached them just then and knew they were going to have a fight on their hands.
"Chris, you cant go ridin all over the place with that injury. Ya gotta go back to town."
"Im not goin anywhere except after them low life Sons o Bitches. Were gettin Vin back and youre not doin it without me."
The three healthy peacekeepers watched as Chris staggered drunkenly, the fatigue and blood loss starting to take its toll.
"Chris, ya need fixin up. Come back ta town and then ya can ride out again in a few days, if the others havent brought Vin home by then." Nathans words were obviously falling on deaf ears, or so the peacekeepers thought until Chris whirled around to face the healer.
"The bullet went clean through. You can clean it up out here, then we can ride on. Were wastin time. Do what you gotta and lets go!"
Chriss voice had risen in volume, but the slurred words were not lost on Nathan and his worry intensified. He needed to get the gunslinger out of the sun and off of his feet. But it wasnt gonna be easy.
"Chris." The softly spoken voice of Buck made the blond spin back in the other direction, his blazing eyes resting on his old friends face a split second before a fist flew at him, hitting him hard on the jaw.
The gunslinger never knew what hit him as he was sent sprawling backwards. Nathan acted quickly and ran and caught the already unconscious man before he could do any more damage to his shoulder.
The healer looked up at Buck with a smile, and JD looked on in shocked silence, not believing what had just happened.
Buck stood looking down on his unconscious friend, rubbing his knuckles absently. His eyes caught Nathans and the ladies' man answered the healer's smile with one of his own. "Im gonna pay for that," the scoundrel said with certainty, cocking his head to one side, but continuing to smile down at the healer.
After Nathan had done some quick repair work on Chriss shoulder and stopped the bleeding, Buck and JD helped the healer to settle Chris inside the stagecoach with the two remaining passengers.
"Ill send someone with a wagon to pick up the bodies," Nathan informed his two friends.
Buck nodded. "Me and JDll try and track down Ez and Vin. You gonna be okay with him?" Buck nodded to the sleeping form of his friend.
"Yeah, its only an hour back to town, though it might take longer, I wanna take it easy sos he dont start bleedin again."
Buck shut the door of the carriage and watched as Nathan climbed into the drivers seat. Chris and Nathans horses were tied securely to the coach. "Watch yer back," Nathan said quietly as he and Buck looked hard at each other. "And bring Vin home."
Buck nodded and stepped backwards, away from the stagecoach as it began its slow journey back to Four Corners. Turning away he looked at JD for a second and then slapped him on the back. "Cmon kid, lets go find our friends."
JD nodded, still not being able to say much. His emotions playing havoc inside him. His guilt was endless and he knew he was partly responsible for Vins predicament.
They made their way back up the incline, and, climbing into their saddles, they headed off in pursuit of their friends.
* * * * * * *
Josiah watched as the entourage, taking the three prisoners, rode out of town. He rubbed his hands together, unconsciously ridding himself of the outlaws. He turned his head towards the telegraph office and wondered how long it would be before he received a reply about the enquiry hed sent early that morning.
He walked towards the saloon; he needed a drink. The worry that had settled on him was making him as nervous as a lone sheep amongst a pack of wolves.
He glanced once more towards the telegraph office and couldnt help smiling. He was usually a lot more patient. But this was important, it could mean the safety of one if not more of his friends.
He reached the batwing doors and pushed them open slowly, stopping and holding them open until his eyes adjusted to the darkness of the saloon.
"Senor Sanchez. You need a beer?" Inez smiled at the ex preacher and Josiah finally let go of the doors and walked towards the bar.
"You read my mind, sweet woman," he said, the smile still on his face.
"The robbers are gone?" Inez rested her elbows on the bar and raised her large brown eyes to meet Josiahs gaze.
"Yeah, they have. Thank the Lord."
Josiah raised his full glass to the ceiling before taking a long sip of the cool fluid. He pushed himself away from the bar, nodding to Inez as he made his way to a table in the corner of the room.
He looked around at the empty chairs. The chairs usually occupied by at least one of the other peacekeepers, sometimes all of them. What was happening out there? He felt helpless and wished he could ride out and meet up with the others. But he had to wait for the answer to his telegram. He had to know if his suspicions were right.
Lord, in a way he hoped they were not, in fact he prayed that what he was thinking was not the case, and then he could relax a little. That alarm bell that had been going off in his head since the day before would not leave him. Hed tried to ignore it for a while, putting it down to the anxiety he was feeling about the plan to foil the stagecoach robbery. But in the end, he found he could ignore it no longer, and he began to search his mind for the cause of the niggling feeling.
Once he figured it out, hed almost knocked several of the townspeople off of their feet in his haste to confirm his suspicions. Hed sent a telegram marked urgent and hadnt been able to rest since.
He continued to sip his beer, and tried to steady the hammering in his chest. "Dear Lord, please let me be wrong," his mind prayed silently, the words running over and over in his head.
He raised his glass to his lips but stopped his movement as Tom Larkin rushed through the doors, a piece of paper in his hand. Josiah slammed the glass down on the table and stood quickly, meeting the telegraph operator halfway.
"Mr Sanchez. The reply you were waiting for." Tom handed Josiah the message and nodded before leaving the saloon.
The ex preacher held the paper in his hand, afraid to read it. He walked slowly towards the doors and pushed them open, squinting as the sunlight hit his eyes.
Walking along the boardwalk he found a chair outside the jail and sat heavily into it.
Not wanting to read the words on the paper, but needing to know the answer, Josiah held the telegram in his hand for several moments, controlling his breathing to steady his pounding heartbeat.
He slowly straightened the paper in his hands and looking down he read the words scribbled upon it.
A heavy sigh escaped him as he closed his eyes and closed his hand into a fist, screwing the paper into a tight ball.
His suspicions had been right. He looked up at a sudden noise and his heart sank further. A single crow flew across the clear blue sky.
"Lord help us, if we didnt need you before, we need you now." The words ran silently through the anguished man's head.
He looked at the crumpled paper in his hand and smoothed it out on his lap. He wanted to read it once more, just to be sure. But the words hadnt changed. A picture of the cuss of a man from the saloon entered Josiahs head and hed never felt the urge so strongly to place his fingers around someones throat and choke them.
John Somers was a bounty hunter.
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