Author Note: Thanks to Carla, my beta, for all her help.
Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.
The man and horse plodded slowly into town under the cover of darkness. The roan horse showed the weariness its rider felt; they had traveled long and far and it showed in the man's slumped shoulders and the horse's heavy head. The man pulled his brown coat tight against the misting drizzle that fell and drenched everything. His dark graying hair was pasted to his skull. His eyes were dark, and revealed a deep, if somewhat ambiguous intelligence.
He pulled up in front of the stable and dismounted as he took in what he could of the small backwater town. His horse shook, trying to relieve itself of the annoying dampness, its eyes looked hungrily at the warmth emanating from the stable.
The man looked toward the North end of town, seeing the uncompleted church. A warm light emitted from inside, blurring through the drizzle. An unpleasant smile creased his thick lips. He handed the reins to the young man, who had grudgingly appeared out of the stable.
The stranger continued to stare at the church as if the place were haunted. He no longer seemed concerned with the rain that was going down the back of his long brown coat. He listened to the muffled music coming from the saloon and the laughter of the people inside. It had been a long time since he had paid any attention to the clamor of life. He gave it a moment of his time. He took a deep breath and exhaled. The mud squished under his heavy booted feet as he plodded toward the rustic church.
Josiah had left the saloon early wanting to catch up on some work; he had yet to finish. The solitude of the church was warm and comforting against the wet night, and his dreary thoughts. He walked through the dimly lit house of worship, taking note of what he had accomplished and what still needed to be dealt with. This was his home; like the saloon was to Ezra, the jail to JD, a woman's bed to Buck, or the open plains to Vin. This was a place he felt safe, it brought peace to his troubled soul. He wiped at his long face as the past tried once again to invade his thoughts. His friends had noticed his somber mood of late, and for the life of him he just couldn't shake the feeling of dread, which seemed to of taken up residence in his heart. He was just about ready to call it a night when one of the large front doors opened, then closed. He turned around from where he was standing by the altar expecting to see one of his friends. Both Nathan and Vin had tried on numerous occasions to break him out of his despondent mood. When he had joined up with the six other gunslingers, it was a means to an end. He thought his life was going to come to an end, and fighting alongside these stalwart men to save an Indian village seemed a most honorable way to make an exit from this world to the next. Like the others, he was surprised at the outcome of their first little fray. The seven men now found themselves tied together by some unseen thread, which had woven between them, drawing them in, seeming to protect them. Even Josiah was surprised at how much he had come to care and rely on these men.
A large dark shadow stood silently, silhouetted against the dark gray door. He couldn't make out the face, but something emanated from the shape that was familiar.
"May I help you, brother?" Josiah warily asked. His gray-blue eyes narrowed, and a slight shiver went down his spine as the man continued to stand silently. Josiah took a couple steps forward and cocked his head to the side trying to make out the features of the stranger. The silence was thick, almost choking, and Josiah caught himself actually wiping his damp palms down his shirt.
"You can start by not calling me brother," the low voice growled out of the shadows.
Josiah's eyes widen, and his breath caught somewhere between his lungs and throat. The voice was familiar and not in a good way. "Who are you?" he asked, hoping his fear didn't materialize.
The stranger took a couple steps forward his boots resounding loudly on the wooden floor, like a death march. His rain drenched face appeared within the lantern light. For a moment it looked like a disconnected head floating in the darkness, which swallowed up the lower body. Josiah involuntarily stepped back, like he was seeing a ghost. "Father Mennes?" he whispered, bringing a grim smile to the stranger's face. His feeling of dread had just took on a physical form.
"Ah, you remember me, good. I know its been a long time, but I hoped one didn't forget the face of the man he betrayed."
Mennes took a couple more steps forward, stopping momentarily in front of the taller man. He stood a head shorter than the large lawman; however, he exuded a presence that made his height go unnoticed. He continued up the aisle glancing sideways as he passed Josiah. He walked up to the altar and stepped up, placing himself higher than Josiah. "Oh, but like you, I'm no longer with the order," he casually remarked, scanning the interior of the small rustic church. "They say you can never go back. Are you trying to convince these people here that you're a pious and upstanding man, or is this maybe some type of penance?" Mennes saw the flinch and knew he had struck a chord. The unpleasant grin he walked in with grew wider.
"It's been fifteen years why are you here?" Josiah asked, recovering from the initial shock of seeing a man he once respected, but learned to loathe. He couldn't believe the feelings this man was drudging up. A nervous tongue darted along his lower lip then he brought his hand up to wipe away the moisture.
"Well, to see my old friend of course. We were friends once. It hurt me deeply when you left the priest hood." The sarcasm was not lost on Josiah. "Since the loss of my calling and the death of my son I've had very little meaning in my life, so I've been searching for meaning."
Josiah's head snapped up and his gray-blue eyes met Mennes' dark orbs. "Sorry 'bout your son." Sincerity was definitely lacking on his part.
Mennes glared down at him, reminding Josiah of his preaching days, standing on the pulpit spewing out damnation and hell fire to the masses, even he had been enthralled with this man of the cloth and would of followed him anywhere. Mennes caressed the crude alter with callous hands. "Really?" A note of disbelief colored his tone and he chuckled slightly.
Josiah ignored the smug reply and asked, "Have you been tracking me down all this time?"
"Oh no, I've always known where you were," Mennes answered with a mirthless chuckle.
This sent another shiver up Josiah's spine, one that gripped his heart and squeezed. He again looked into the dark eyes of Bartholomew Mennes, eyes that showed an equally dark soul; eyes that no longer held the promise of redemption or forgiveness.
"So, if you've known where I am all this time why wait until now to make yourself known?" Josiah tried to relax. He leaned his massive form against a nearby pew, his hands stroking the smooth wood.
"As you know I'm a very patient man. I've been waiting until the right opportunity presented itself," Mennes continued calmly.
"Opportunity?" Josiah asked in an equally calm voice. Anyone watching the two men would be able to sense the battle that was being played out between them. The anger and hatred, being held just below the surface, riding on every word they spoke.
Bart chuckled slightly. "Yes, you seemed to have settled nicely here. I even hear tell you're somewhat of a lawman, protecting these fine people. People you probably care a great deal about."
"What do you want, Bart?" Josiah didn't like where this was going. "Oh the usual, you know, an eye for an eye, revenge, that sort of thing," Bart casually expounded. "What are you talking about?" Josiah pushed away from the pew and took a couple steps toward the altar.
"Didn't I mention, I hold you responsible for David's death." This was said so matter-of-factly that Josiah thought the man was joking.
"I haven't seen your son since he was taken to Yuma prison fifteen years ago," Josiah answered, confusion now replaced the annoyance that was on his face a moment ago.
"But you were the one who sent him there. He had a month left to his sentence and he was killed in a prison fight. I hold you responsible." Mennes said this like he was explaining the qualities of a fine horse. Then his tone changed and his face seemed to darken. "Do you know what it's like to wait for years for the release of your only son, only to have him ripped from your hands, again." Mennes clenched his fists together and closed his eyes.
"So, you come to kill me?" Josiah looked at the man, not out of fear, but puzzlement.
Mennes opened his eyes. "Oh, no, that would be too easy. You see, I've suffered these past fifteen years. My son was all I had in the world. I think it only fittin' that you suffer for at least a few days." Mennes stepped off the altar and strode past Josiah heading for the door.
Mennes opened the thick door and spoke over his shoulder. "I think I'll stick around and get to know this little town of yours."
Josiah couldn't see the evil smile that now graced the ex-priest's face, but he knew it was there. Mennes quietly slipped out and closed the door. Josiah slumped into a nearby pew his hands falling into his lap. A part of his past had just walked into his present. He wondered what kind of trouble this would bring to him and the others.
The dreary night gave way to a refreshingly bright morning. The sun streamed through ruffled clouds that hung just over the mountains. The air smelled fresh and clean, invigorating the residents of Four Corners. Folks went about their daily lives skipping over the many mud puddles that had accumulated in the dirt street. Two men, one dressed in black the other in buckskins, strode purposely across the street from the livery. The beautiful day putting slight smiles on their normally impassive visages. Chris and Vin were taken slightly aback when they entered the saloon to see Josiah sitting at a corner table, staring morosely at a half bottle of whiskey. It was obvious the ex-preacher had been at it for some time. The two lawmen regarded each other with concern and a little apprehension. They knew how the large lawman was when he drank. Chris' eyes narrowed, he couldn't remember ever seeing Josiah drink so early, or alone before.
The two friends sat cautiously across from Josiah careful not to disturb the delicate balance that seemed to exist around the ex-preacher. Josiah didn't acknowledge their presence and continued to stare at the dark bottle in front of him. Vin removed his slouch hat and laid it on the table. JD and Buck entered in their usual flurry of activity, not noticing the tension that surrounded the corner table. JD came up behind Josiah, an eager grin pasted on his boyish face.
"Hey Chris, some stranger came into town last night. Me and Buck checked the hotel register. His name is Bartholomew Mennes," JD explained, pushing his bowler back on his head, allowing a strand of dark hair to fall in his face. They all made it a point to know everyone who came into town, it cut down on any surprises.
Chris saw Josiah flinch and his hand grabbed the neck of the bottle and raised it to his lips. The others watched as he tilted it back, letting the amber liquor drain down his throat. Chris shrugged at the bewildered stares.
"Name mean anything to anyone?" Chris asked, looking directly at Josiah who refused to meet his eyes.
Josiah pushed the now near empty bottle away and staggered to his feet. Buck grabbed the big man's arm, which was abruptly pulled out of his grasp and a low growl kept the ladies man from insisting. Josiah made his way toward the door, bumping into Nathan as he left. Nathan turned and was about to follow when Chris called out to him. He looked at Chris and the others then turned to see Josiah staggering toward the church. He entered the saloon and sat down next to Chris.
"What was that all about?" Nathan asked, still staring toward the door.
"Don't know for sure," Vin replied, glancing over to Chris who he suspected had his own suspicions.
"I think it has something to do with the stranger who rode in last night," Chris explained what his gut was telling him.
"God, I've never seen Josiah like that before," JD remarked. He had seen the dangerous glean in the huge gunslinger's eyes. It was hard to believe the gentle giant could be deadly, but it was common knowledge that Josiah had killed his share of men and not all of them with a gun.
"Does a Bartholomew Mennes mean anything to you, Nathan?" Chris asked the dark healer. Nathan and Josiah had been friends long before they even hooked up with the rest of the seven.
Nathan thought a moment then shook his head. "No, must be before he met me."
"Why don't we just go and ask him?" Buck blurted out, glancing at each of his four friends.
"Be my guest," Chris replied, a slight smirk on his usual stoic visage.
Buck looked toward the doors and remembered the look on Josiah's face when he left. "Well, maybe we should wait until he sobers up." Buck quietly sat down re-thinking his decision.
"I'll try and talk to him later," Nathan offered.
"In the meantime, we keep an eye on Mr. Mennes," Chris added, staring at the near empty bottle.
They were all worried about Josiah; no one had ever seen the ex-preacher so dispirited before. Josiah was always considered the rock and soul of their little band, nothing seemed to phase him. His steadfastness kept everyone else grounded. To see him in such a vulnerable state was to realize the man was human, and probably carried many of his own demons.
Josiah spent the rest of the day in the solace of his church, thinking back over his past. He had been told it eases a person's soul to reflect upon past indiscretions; he had yet to find that true. People like Bart and his son, were some of the reasons he had become disillusioned with the church. Bartholomew had been an avid leader in the church. His sermons, though tinged with a little fire and brimstone, brought listeners from miles. He tended to the sick and injured as well as the repentant and scorned. He had taken a young Sanchez under his wing, and Josiah had come to think of the man as a second father. The two men waged a formidable crusade against evil. Josiah didn't notice the changes at first, or maybe he just preferred to ignore them. Mennes began telling people only he could save their mortal souls and they must ask for 'his' forgiveness so they could rise up and enter through the gates of redemption. When folks started falling at his feet, Josiah finally voiced his disapproval, but it was too late.
Bartholomew now used his fallacious divine position to impose his beliefs and will on the masses. He found many lost souls willing to listen to his words, words that gave them hope and direction. They just didn't realize they were following the tenets of a madman. Soon, people were bringing offerings of food, gold and precious possessions to Mennes in hope that he would look favorably upon them. Mennes had tried to convince Sanchez to join with him and help in spreading the word. But not the word of God, the word of Bartholomew Mennes, from there things went downhill. Bartholomew Mennes, a man Josiah had looked up to, now condemned him, believing he was the devil incarnate out to destroy him. Josiah had quietly left the priesthood and Mennes to find his own way. He never thought he'd see his old friend again, but fate had a way of twisting separate paths so they again intersected. When he had met up with Bartholomew a year later he had a whole town at his feet. It all seemed like a life time ago, someone else's lifetime. Far from the life he now lived. When had his path diverted from his faith in God? To at times, utter disgust in his fellow man and belief in the gun.
Bartholomew Mennes strode casually up and down the wide broadwalk of the main avenue, tipping his hat and smiling when appropriate. He would occasionally take furtive glances at the church and smile, knowing the torment he was causing the ex-preacher, torment that would soon match his own.
Mennes had casually initiated conversations with several citizens of the town. No one seemed to mind his interest in the seven gunslingers, and the town's people, being proud of their seven protectors, had no qualms about telling him all they could. He had discovered that the seven men seemed held together by a special bond that no one understood or could really explain. Mennes listened, searching for that one special soul, who would bring his plan to fruition. At the moment Mennes was smiling at the bank manager, who was standing with him just outside the bank.
"So, Mr. Fisher, these seven gunslingers have been a great comfort to you especially in your line of work."
"Indeed, Mr. Mennes, no one would dare rob my bank with seven gunslingers in town," Fisher chuckled.
Mennes grin widen. "I suppose not." He looked across the street toward the saloon, noticing several folk entering for lunch. He then asked the question he been asking all over town. "Are these men close friends?" Mr. Fisher chuckled slightly. "Well, an outsider would have a hard time noticing. They do have their moments. Larabee has come close to shooting Mr. Standish and at times is tempted to shoot Mr. Wilmington, but if you mess with one, you mess with them all."
"What about Mr. Sanchez?" Mennes prompted, leaning over the railing and clasping his hands infront of him.
Mr. Fisher paused a moment and cocked a bushy eyebrow. Mennes just stood nonchalantly, waiting for an answer.
"Josiah respects Mr. Larabee a great deal, and he, like the others watch over the young sheriff, like mother hens," Mr. Fisher chuckled as he drew in the smoke from his cigar and exhaled slowly, watching the fragrant smoke catch in the gentle breeze and dissipate. "Now, Nathan, the healer, has been a friend of Josiah's for a long time, even before they met up with the others," Mr. Fisher absently added.
This got Mennes interest immediately, but he didn't allow it to show. He had heard this a couple times before. The two were usually in each others company more often than not. Nathan and Josiah would go and help the nearby Indian tribes and could be found working on repairing the church. This was exactly what he was looking for.
Without any further prompting the bank manager continued, "Now, I don't begin to understand this, but Josiah has shown fatherly tendencies toward Mr. Standish."
This caused Mennes eyebrow to raise. "The gambler?"
"Yeah, he's sort of the rogue of the group. I think Josiah has taken it upon himself to keep the man on the straight and narrow," Fisher replied almost laughing at the thought. He liked Ezra, mostly because the man was a good business man, like himself. Mr. Fisher furrowed his brow and stared at Bart Mennes. "Why you asking?"
"I'm an old friend of Josiah's and just wondering about the kind of people he's met up with," Mennes explained. "I guess you would sort of put me in the same category as a father figure." He didn't really care if the man believed him or not, but the bank manager seemed to accept this.
As evening descended and the saloon started to fill with the more raucous members of Four Corners; Josiah made his way inside. He stopped just inside the doorway when he saw Mennes sitting at a table playing poker with several men, one being Ezra. Josiah's heart started to pound in his chest and his mouth went dry. He had spent all day, on top of getting sober, thinking over past indiscretions and finally coming to the conclusion that he was not responsible for Mennes' son's death. Now anger had replaced the penitent feelings that Mennes had initiated earlier.
Buck nudged Chris who's back was turned, hunched over a beer at the bar. He turned around to see Josiah staring at the stranger, who was sitting with Ezra.
Josiah went up to the table and stood beside the cardsharp, who had just dealt out another hand. He glared across the table at Mennes.
"Ah, Mr. Sanchez do you wish to join us in our little game?" Ezra asked. He glanced up to notice the menacing scowl on the ex-preacher's face. He followed Josiah's gaze crossing with the gentleman who sat across the table from him. Ezra had thought nothing of the older man. Now, he noticed the devilish glint in the man's dark eyes.
"No, but I'd like you to close this game," Josiah asked, his eyes still locked on Mennes, who closed his cards and laid them on the table, leaning back in his chair a crooked smile playing on his face.
Ezra was about to object to this unusual request until he again looked into his large friend's face. Josiah had never asked this of him before and something in the large man's gray-blue eyes made Ezra relent. "Ah gentlemen." Ezra began to gather up all the cards. "I think I'm going to call it an early night." He pulled out his watch and looked at it. "A very early night," he breathed a bit sarcastically, glaring up at Josiah. Ezra collected up his winnings and stood. He tipped his hat and headed for the bar to join the others. Two of the other players withdrew to find other forms of entertainment. Mennes remained seated with a self satisfying grin on his face. "Careful Josiah, your paternal instincts are showing," Mennes sneered.
Josiah stared down at the man, who was once so efficacious and charismatic people flocked to hear his sermons. What had happened?
Chris, Vin and Buck watched from the bar as the two men glared at each other. Ezra stepped up alongside Vin motioning for a drink. "Gentlemen." He followed their gazes and his brow furrowed. Something was going on that he was not privy to. "May I inquire as to the nature of your surveillance?"
Vin rose a questioning eyebrow.
"Who are you looking at?" Ezra clarified.
"The man with Josiah. Name's Bartholomew Mennes, seems they have a history," Chris replied, taking a swig of his beer.
"Do tell." Ezra's interest definitely peaked. Little was known of the ex-preacher's past life, except what one could piece together during his occasional spiritual binges. Ezra nodded as a shot of whiskey was placed before him. He picked up the drink, not taking his eyes off the two men across the saloon.
"What do you want here?" Josiah bluntly asked, sliding his huge form down into the chair that Ezra had vacated.
"Now is that anyway to greet an old friend." He paused for a moment, rubbing his fingers lightly over the felt top table. "Nice town you have here, interesting people and all," Mennes said, his tone laced with mock sentiment. "Very friendly, have a lot to say about you and your associates, but why wouldn't they. You all have tamed this backwater town, made it a safe place for 'decent' folk."
Josiah bowed his head a moment then raised his eyes to stare into the flat menacing glare of his old friend and mentor. "Your son was a rabid dog, if I hadn't taken him down someone else would of." Josiah forced his voice to remain low.
Mennes' smile faded and the menacing stare took over his whole face, hardening it beyond recognition. "You never gave him a chance," Mennes stated bitterly.
"And you gave him too many chances, protected him for too long. He almost killed that woman."
"She was a jezebel. She deserved what she got," Mennes snarled his face reddening.
"No one deserved what your son did. I'm sorry Bart, I couldn't turn the other cheek or a blind eye to your son."
Mennes seemed ready to spring at Josiah, but then an unsettling calm quickly came over him, a little to quickly. From across the room a shiver went up the other lawmen's spine. The unpleasant grin returned to Mennes' face. He was going to finish his game, and Josiah was going to play by his rules.
Josiah saw Mennes regain his composure and he slumped slightly into his chair. "What do you want, Bartholomew?" Josiah asked wearily. He was growing tired of the apparent game this man was playing.
Mennes leaned forward slightly. "It's really quite simple. I'm going to find out what you care most about and kill it," Mennes menacingly whispered.
There was a momentary silence, like the whole room was suddenly thrust into a void. Then Josiah exploded out of his chair and lunged across the table. His hands reaching out for Mennes' throat.
Chris, Buck and Vin raced over to the table and pulled the huge gunslinger off Mennes, who was gasping for breath. It took all three of the lawmen to pull the bull of a man off. Chris and Vin had each grabbed Josiah's massive arms, and Buck had wrapped his arms around the ex-preacher's waist. "Whoa, there big fellow," Buck said, trying to get Josiah's attention.
Mennes sat upon the floor, rubbing his throat and smiling.
"Get out of here!" Chris snarled down at the grinning gentleman, who calmly reached over and grabbed his hat then stood and walked out. Chris forced the maddened ex-preacher into a chair with Buck and Vin practically sitting on him to hold him down.
Josiah suddenly stopped his struggles and relaxed. Vin and Buck cautiously removed their weight prepared to jump on him again if necessary. Ezra sauntered over, concern actually showing on his clean-shaven countenance. He had never seen Josiah lose control, not when he was sober. It was actually more frightful than when he was drunk.
Chris sat down in the chair next to the now compliant lawman. He took a deep breath and ran his fingers through his blond hair. "Okay, Josiah, I want to know what's going on, and I want to know now!" He knew something was going on. He also knew that Mennes had been asking personal questions about them all around town.
JD and Nathan had entered the saloon and rallied with the others who now gathered around suddenly somber gunslinger.
Ezra motioned to one of the bar maids to bring drinks. Everyone picked up a toppled chair and surrounded their friend, who sat silently at the table.
Josiah took a deep breath, held it, then exhaled. He looked through aged eyes at the six men who surrounded him. He owed these men his life and not just because they protected each other during gunfights, they had saved him from himself. A part of his past was now interfering with his present life; he owed these men the truth.
"He blames me for his son's death," Josiah finally admitted, not looking up from the drink that sat in front of him.
"Is there reason?" Chris calmly asked.
Josiah paused for a moment, seeming to think about it, but he had been thinking about it all day he knew the answer. "No," he confidently replied, feeling the relief come off the six other men. They believed him, no doubt lingered in any of their minds.
"I knew Bartholomew Mennes over fifteen years ago. We worked together in the same order," he continued, wrapping a hand around the smooth glass, but not raising it. It was more to just give his hands something to do.
"He's a priest?" Nathan exclaimed unbelieving.
Josiah nodded his head slowly. "Says he left the order, not sure if it was by choice, or not. After I left I lost contact with him for about a year. I met up with him in a town about a fifty miles south of here. He had used his influence and his charm to gain control of the town. He had the town build him a home and supply him with food and anything else he wanted." Josiah grew silent for a moment. "He even managed to convince women to sleep with him to save their souls." Chris glanced briefly over at Buck, daring the ladies' man to make a comment. Buck only grinned slightly.
"Lord, he had a better set up than me," Ezra added, garnishing glares from his fellow lawmen. They all knew that Ezra feigned being a preacher during many of his cons.
"How could a priest do that?" JD asked the disbelief raising his voice to a squeaking tone. He was raised to respect and trust anyone connected with the church and maybe that was where the problem began.
"Power comes in many forms. Bartholomew convinced himself that he was doing God's work," Josiah explained. He bowed his head reluctant to continue.
"So why does he blame you for his son's death?" Buck asked.
"Two working girls had been killed the month that I was there, tortured and strangled. There weren't any suspects. One night, while I was heading back to my room in the back of the store where I worked I heard a girl scream. I ran down the alleyway..." Josiah swallowed hard. "It was Bartholomew's son, David, he was strangling a young working girl. I stopped it and hauled him to jail."
"I gather this here Mennes wasn't none to happy 'bout that," Vin injected.
"You have to understand, Bart Mennes had the whole town in fear of God's wrath and his. He had pulled his son out of trouble all his life, protected him. David never paid the consequences for any of his actions, not if his father had anything to say about it. Bart considered me a traitor to God and to him, because I was going to testify against his son. I even called a circuit Judge to be sure to get a fair trial. Mennes had everyone else scared to go against him. David was sentenced to five years in Yuma prison."
"So how does that transpire into you killing him," Ezra asked.
"His son died in a prison fight a month before his release," Josiah added.
Ezra whistled softly and leaned back in his chair. "Retribution?" he quietly asked.
Josiah turned and looked at the insightful gambler. "Yeah."
"What do you think he's going to do?" Buck asked, smoothing down his mustache.
"Don't know. He's crazy now, too long stewing about the past, there's
no tellin'. He did say something about discovering what I cared most about and killing it." Josiah raised his head his eyes connecting with the others one by one.
"Well, maybe I can arrest him for something," JD suggested.
"No, you wouldn't be able to hold him very long and it would just make things worse. I have to try an reason with him or maybe he'll come to his senses and leave," Josiah said, not sure if it was possible. Mennes had carried a lot of hate for a very long time. He'd grown use to it. The man probably couldn't live any other way.
"Well, until we know for sure, I don't want you alone," Chris ordered, looking at each of his men and catching the agreeing nods.
Mennes left town, heading out toward the west hills. He didn't have to go far before four rather dubious looking gentlemen stepped out from behind a rocky outcropping.
"It's about time. We were getting sick of hanging around here," a man with a red, scraggly beard growled. Three younger men hung back behind him.
"Well, Mr. Maxwell you're getting paid well for your time, and it took time to acquire the information I needed to put my plan into action and there's been a little deviation," Mennes explained, leaning over his saddlehorn and staring down at the four men he had hired out of the last town. "We're going to grab two men instead of just one," he explained to their inquiring gazes. A maniacal grin appearing on his face.
The next day was a dreary imitation of the day before. The weather was mild, but low handing clouds whispered the threat of rain. Nathan exited the saloon after eating a hearty breakfast and glanced down toward the church. Vin was with Josiah now, Nathan suspected that the ex-preacher was putting his baby-sitter to good use. Nate knew his friend probably had Vin sanding or stripping or some such tedious task.
Josiah was not one to let opportunity pass him by. Nathan smirked, he would definitely have to look in when it was Ezra's turn. The others were already wagering on how the suave conman would talk his way out of the impending menial labor. Nathan wasn't so sure Ezra could con Josiah, or if he even wanted to. Of all them, Josiah seemed to hold the most influence over the rather perplexing gambler.
Nathan proceeded down the alley way to the outside stairs that led to his makeshift clinic. Two men stepped out from behind several crates their guns pointed in his direction. He turned his head over his shoulder, hoping to see someone passing by, no such luck. He turned his eyes forward and realized it wasn't Josiah who had needed guarding.
The two men came forward, one with dark long hair, which peeked out from under a slouch hat grabbed Nathan by the arm and slammed him up against the wall. The other quickly put handcuffs on him. "Now, as long as you cooperate you should get out of this in one piece," the dark-haired man whispered into Nathan's ear. They led the dark healer out the back of the alley where three horses were saddled and ready.
"Mennes send you?" Nathan asked, trying to stall.
"You'll find out soon enough. We're just getting paid to do a job, not answer questions."
Nathan was shoved forward, with his hands handcuffed behind his back he ran into the horse's side. "How do you expect me to get on the horse?" He watched as the dark-haired man smirked. The other had come up alongside Nathan and raised his gun, striking the healer on the side of the head. Nathan crumbled to the ground. The two men lifted the unconscious ex-slave and threw him over the saddle.
"That's how," he replied to the unresponsive form.
Ezra headed over to the stable, planning on going for a relaxing ride before he had to humble himself and be forced to perform menial labor. He was usually able to talk himself out of most things with most people. Josiah Sanchez was the exception, next to Larabee, who would just threaten him with physical violence to get him to do something. The pacifying gunslinger used more subtle tactics, ones Ezra had yet to device a strategy against.
When he walked into the stable the hair on the back of his neck immediately began to prickle. He pulled his revolver and glanced apprehensively around the large room. There were only a few horses boarded at present, and they nickered softly as he walked past, trying to elicit a treat. He strode down the hay strewn boards toward the paddock where his horse was stalled. When he passed an empty stall a quick form came out and struck. Ezra caught the movement and turned, catching only a glancing blow. He fell back against a stall door. The man with the red beard struck his arm sending a streak of numbness down to his hand and causing him to loose his grip on his gun. Ezra struck out with his foot, catching his attacker in the gut and causing him to keel over. He didn't realize until it was to late that this man was just a diversion. The second man came up from behind and struck Ezra across the back of the head sending him to oblivion and the stable floor all at the same time.
Nathan woke noticing that the sun was now directly overhead. He was laying out in front of a cave. Several scrub trees holding on to the rock face for dear life around the opening. He shook his head slightly, regretting the motion as his headed pounded in retribution for the action. He raised his head and squinted up. A dark form suddenly threw him into a shadow.
Bartholomew Mennes stood before him a self-satisfying grin on his round face. "Mr. Jackson, so glad you could finally join us. I'd hate for you to miss all the fun."
Nathan clenched his jaw and held his mouth in a firm straight line. He wasn't about to let this man get to him.
Mennes knelt down so he was face to face with the ex-slave. "You see I'm going to do a little experiment. Find out who Josiah cares most about?"
Nathan furrowed his brow in confusion. If Mennes was trying to find out who Josiah cared the most about, it meant he had abducted one or more of the others.
"Josiah told us about you and your son. It wasn't his fault your son was killed," Nathan remarked.
Mennes' glared. "You don't know anything. He took away my son and my life. After the trial the people turned against me," Mennes explained his face growing dark at the memory.
"They saw you for what you really were," Nathan blurted out. Mennes' hand came across the dark man's face bringing a trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth.
Mennes' stood. "We'll see what is stronger in Josiah; his long friendship with you, or his fatherly feelings for another of your little band." Mennes' walked off, meeting up with the man with dark hair.
Nathan thought for a moment. It would have been easy for Mennes to discover that him and Josiah had been friends for a long time, but what did paternal feelings have to do with anything. Josiah didn't have a son. Then it hit him-Josiah at times treated and considered Ezra a wayward son. Nathan's heart filled with dread.
"They're both gone!" Buck cried out upon entering the saloon where Chris, JD, Vin and Josiah were standing. Buck placed Ezra's revolver on the table. "Found it in the stable," he explained.
Josiah turned away from the others. He knew Mennes was behind the disappearance of his friends. His thoughts were suddenly brought to life as a deep voice called out from outside.
Josiah quickly exited the saloon followed by the remaining gunslingers. He glared up at Bart Mennes who sat astride his horse.
"Where are they?" Josiah growled. Chris and the others stood just behind their giant friend. Buck wanting nothing more than to reach up and pull the smug man from his horse. Chris rested his hand on his revolver, he would see how this was going to play out.
Mennes shook his head. "I'm going to give you a choice, something you didn't give my son."
"What are you talking about?" Josiah was barely able to contain his growing rage.
"Your two friends are being cared for by some associates of mine."
Josiah's fists clenched, and he was tempted to go for his guns, but knew if anything happened to Bart they'd never find Ezra or Nathan alive. Right now Mennes held all the cards, but Josiah knew you always had to watch out for that wild card, it could change the outcome very quickly.
"Here is the situation." Mennes looked at his watch. "It is almost four thirty. Mr. Jackson is at the rock outcrop just west of here. Mr. Standish is at the river just east of here. Each place will take you twenty minutes to get too." Mennes smiled. He would finally get his revenge. "You have to make a choice of who is more important. Who are you going to save? My associates have orders to kill their prisoners one minute after five. Now, if you arrive in time you can take your friend."
Mennes saw the skepticism on Josiah's face. "You have my word. Of course, you'll never get to the other in time and his life will be forfeited. I will leave the body so you can give him a descent funeral."
Chris' hand went for his gun, but he was stopped by Vin's restraining gripped on his arm.
"Now, if my associates see anyone but you coming up the trail they will shoot their prisoner." Mennes made sure he directed this toward the four men standing behind Josiah. "See, unlike me, you'll be able to save the man you care most about."
"You're mad, Bart. Those men have nothing to do with what is between us," Josiah answered.
"I know, but killing you would be so unsatisfying. I've had to live with my grief for fifteen years. I think you need to live with it too."
Mennes looked down at his watch again. "I suggest you get moving if you wish to at least save one of them." With that Mennes reined his horse around and spurred him into a gallop. He was going to watch from just outside of town. When he knew which one Josiah was going to save he would go and personally take care of the other.
Chris, Vin, JD and Buck stared at Josiah's back. He seemed to shake himself from his reverie then turned with despair filled eyes to look at the others. He was at a loss. Nathan was his best friend, had probably saved his life by pulling him out of his self imposed hell, almost like Buck had done with Chris. Ezra was like a long lost son. He cared greatly for the young gambler. Who should he choose to save?
Chris recognized his torment, no one should have to make such a decision. Buck looked at his watch. "We have about five minutes to come up with a plan."
Chris went into action. "Josiah, get me some of your clothes then head out toward Nathan. Vin, you're going to have to follow him without being seen."
"No problem, pard."
"Buck, you're closest to Josiah's size you're going to wear his clothes and head to Ezra. We'll follow as close as we can."
Everyone went into action, knowing they had very little time to save their two friends. As soon as Josiah gave Buck some of his extra clothing he headed out toward the east, knowing he would be cutting it close. Josiah tried not to think about what would happen if Chris and the others failed to reach Ezra in time. The aloof gambler would die thinking no one cared, that was something Josiah wasn't sure he could live with.
Buck quickly donned the wool serape and large hat. He found a horse similar to Josiah's and was preparing to mount when Chris came up to him.
"You're going to have to ride hard we can't have you leaving too soon in case Mennes is watching." Chris looked out toward the forlorn plains, feeling Mennes' sinister presence. "I 'spect when Mennes knows who Josiah is going to save he's goin' to want to do the killing himself."
Buck nodded his head. "Don't worry Chris, I'll get there in time and delay them for as long as I can."
Chris knew it wouldn't be long. As soon as Buck got close enough they would know it was a trick. Hopefully, him and JD would be in a position to save Ezra. Chris secretly hoped that the guileful conman would already have effected his own emancipation. Ezra had an uncanny ability of getting out of tight situations, which really came in handy, since he also had the same ability to get into them. This was the reason that Chris had sent Josiah and Vin after Nathan. Chris also didn't think that Josiah could make that kind of decision, if things went awry he could take some of the blame off the gentle-hearted gunslinger.
Mennes smiled when he saw the direction that Josiah had chosen; he half expected as much. He turned his horse toward the east. Well, hopefully, the death of an innocent man would be enough to keep Josiah up nights for a long time. He would move on afterward, maybe try and start another church somewhere. Just the thought of finally getting revenge seemed to lighten his heart.
Josiah didn't see Vin, but he knew the stealthful tracker was nearby. He came around the hillside and the outcropping suddenly appeared. He glanced as his watch-right on time. Now if Mennes was telling the truth. Josiah rode a little closer and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the dark form of his friend stand up near the opening of an old mine shaft.
Josiah dismounted and approached his friend. "You all right?" He glanced around the area expecting some type of trap.
"They headed east as soon as they saw you," Nathan informed him.
Josiah looked at the handcuffs that still held Nathan's hands. "The key is in my pocket," Nathan replied to the questioning stare.
Josiah reached into Nathan's pants pocket and removed the key. He unlocked the cuffs and flinched slightly when Vin materialized at his side.
"We have to get movin'. They're heading for Ezra," Vin replied. The three men quickly mounted; Vin pulling the healer up behind him.
Mennes rode into the small encampment by the river. The warming days were finally forcing the high mountains to release their build up of snow, turning the nearby river into a raging torrent of whitewater. They were less than a mile from sunshine falls, a 75ft drop, where several large boulders hid themselves. There was always a chance a person could miss one of the underwater obstacles and survive, but it was a slim chance.
Ezra had come too a while ago and had been working feverishly on his cuffs whenever his captors weren't watching. He knew that Josiah was being forced to make a choice with his and another's life hanging in the balance. He was about to upset that balance.
Mennes knelt in front of the grinning cardsharp. He didn't like the smug conman, the man was to sure of himself too overly confident. He hardly seemed the type that Josiah would latch on to, or be friends with. Mennes started wondering if this man's death would effect Josiah; he shook the thought away. It was too late now the plan was in motion.
Mennes removed a large bowie knife from his boot. He wanted to feel the life leave the man's body. A knife brought you closer, gave you more a feeling of power over life and death.
"Well, looks like Josiah made his choice, can't say that I'm surprised. Josiah probably only pitied you, or thought he could redeem his own damnable soul by saving yours. But when it came right down to it, he chose his true friend." A glint of amusement danced in Mennes' gray eyes. He had hoped to see the conman squirm or at least beg for his life.
Ezra kept a slight smirk on his handsome face. "You really think my death is going to affect Mr. Sanchez. Oh, he'll be sorry, like the others, for a little while, but they'll all soon get over it." Ezra hoped he was hitting the right chord. Unfortunately, what he was saying was ringing true inside him as well. "This won't hurt him in the least," Ezra added. This got the desired effect.
Mennes squeezed the hilt of the knife, regretting now that he didn't kill the dark healer instead. If Standish's death was going to be meaningless to Josiah, his revenge would have failed.
"Sir, rider coming in," Maxwell called out, breaking Mennes from his dark reverie. He stood and looked down the trail. It did indeed appear to be Josiah slowly plodding toward them, his head down. Maybe he had changed his mind at the last minute.
Chris and JD had gone up river and were making there way back down through the dense brush that lined the river bank. The roaring torrent, concealing any sound they might make and enabling them to quicken their pace. They hoped Buck's deception bought them the time they needed.
Ezra squinted down the trail and immediately knew the form on the horse was not Josiah. Something was about to happen. His cuffs fell away behind him as Mennes and his men continued to stare down the trail. Ezra glanced behind him, trying to scope out any possible cover before the bullets started to fly. The river didn't look to be an option for escape.
"That's not Josiah!" Mennes suddenly cried out. His two hired men drew their guns. Buck knew the jig was up. He leapt from his horse and rolled to the side, coming up on one knee, he fired, forcing the three men to hit the dirt.
Mennes swore, raising his head he looked behind him seeking the prisoner, who would now receive his wrath, all that remained was a pair of cuffs laying in the dirt.
Chris and JD came up the bank and began to fire, hoping to help Buck who was pinned down with very little cover.
Mennes saw Ezra crouched behind a nearby tree. He still held on to his bowie knife and made his way toward the conman.
The two men who had been guarding Nathan appeared atop the rise and started firing down on Chris and JD, forcing the two lawmen to flatten themselves against the bank.
"Shit!" Chris cursed, as he buried his face into the dirt. He turned his face sideways making sure that JD was mimicking his position, he was.
Ezra caught sight of Mennes coming toward him and didn't like the look in the ex-priest's eyes. He was trapped between Mennes and the river.
Vin, Nathan and Josiah came over the rise in a dead run upon hearing the gun fire. Vin saw that Buck was pinned down behind a fallen tree and Chris and JD were down by the river. Josiah's eyes went wide when he saw Mennes advancing on Ezra. The three lawmen, on two horses, raced down the slope guns firing, suddenly changing the whole scenario.
"At least I'll get the satisfaction of killing you, Mr. Standish," Mennes gravely sneered. Standish stood and prepared for the onslaught. The larger man raised his knife and charged. Ezra caught the deadly arm in mid arc. Mennes was stronger, but Ezra was quicker. He twisted the arm, hoping to dislodge the deadly weapon. Mennes was ready and spun out of Ezra's grasp. He sliced at Ezra's shoulder throwing him off-balance. He then charged the unsteady conman again. Ezra bent down and came in at him, grabbing the hand that held the knife. The two men fell backward and rolled down the slight slope of the bank and into the raging river.
"NOoooo!" Josiah yelled out as he tore down the hill. He had watched the whole deadly clash. His heart stopped as he watched Ezra fall into the river.
Mennes ignored the freezing water; his hatred and desire for revenge keeping him from feeling the icy daggers that attacked his body. He had held on to a part of Ezra's coat as they hit the water and was pulling the conman close as they both were sent tumbling down stream. His knife slashed at the defenseless gambler, tearing into the fine red-tail jacket.
The freezing water had stolen the breath from Ezra's lungs. He tried to get his head up and ended up swallowing water. He felt himself being pulled sideways, and then he felt the bite of the knife in his shoulder.
Buck saw Ezra tumble into the river and knew time was no longer on their side. He came up firing intent on ending this before it was too late; several bullets found their marks, sending two men to their just rewards.
Chris looked over and saw Vin, Nathan and Josiah racing their horses down stream trying to catch up with the two men in the river.
"Cover me, JD," Chris cried out over the roar of the river when he saw Buck break cover. He jumped over the bank firing, catching an outlaw in the shoulder and sending him screaming to the ground. The last one dropped his guns and raised his hands. Buck raced over to him and without breaking stride, struck him with the stock of his rifle, dropping the man where he stood.
"C'mon they're headin' toward the falls!" Chris yelled out.
Mennes continued to slash at Ezra, feeling the blade tear into the gambler's clothing and sink into soft flesh. He looked up for a second to see Josiah racing along the shoreline, the fear evident in his long grizzled face. It was more than Mennes could hope for. He smiled until he felt Ezra grab his knife, the two men struggled then were taken under the rushing water.
"Damn, where are they!" Nathan yelled out. Vin scanned the river, looking for any sign of his friend and growing more anxious with each passing moment. Nathan's brow furrowed as he thought the river was getting louder. He looked up ahead seeing where the water seemed to come to an abrupt end-Sunshine falls.
Ezra exploded out from the water, gasping in the sweet air his body craved. A few feet away Mennes' body bobbed motionless just ahead of him. The cold water was slowing the bleeding from his knife wounds, but it was also sapping him of any remaining strength. He caught a glimpse of his friends, anxiously trying to reach him. He turned to look down stream, seeing a tree toppled halfway across the water.
Josiah and the others saw what Ezra was about to try. "C'mon son you can do it," Josiah murmured to himself, praying to whatever God would still listen to him.
Ezra grabbed at the fragile ends of the tree, hoping his numb fingers would latch onto a beckoning branch. He wasn't sure he grabbed any thing until he felt himself stop. Vin, Josiah and Nathan dismounted and ran to the edge of the bank. The three men stared helplessly. Vin suddenly bolted back to his horse and grabbed his lasso, wrapping it around his waist.
"Here, hold this," he said, forcing the other end into Josiah and Nate's hands.
"What, are you crazy? That water is freezing," Nathan exclaimed.
Vin threw off his buffalo skin coat. "Well, I need a bath anyway." He walked into the water, gasping as it bit into his legs.
Nathan glanced sidelong over to Josiah, who hadn't said a word; his face a mask of concentration and fear. He blamed himself, of that Nathan was sure. The two men dug in as Vin was grabbed by the strong current and carried down stream toward Ezra. Nathan felt the tension lessen and turned to see Chris, Buck and JD now holding the loose end of the rope.
The water came up to the ex-bounty hunter's chest. He was almost there when Ezra looked over his shoulder locking green eyes onto Vin's bright blue ones. "Hang on, Ez," he replied to the silent plea.
Ezra's hand was slipping, he watched through heavy eyes as Vin grew closer. Just as his grip on the branch faltered Vin lunged and grabbed the loose hand. He pulled the conman to him and threw his arm around his chest. He immediately felt himself being pulled backward and looked around to see the others pulling him back toward shore.
Josiah waded into the icy water and pulled the frozen gambler from Vin's grasp. He cradled the smaller man in his arms and brought him up the bank, laying him down on a blanket. Chris grabbed hold of Vin and helped the water-logged tracker out, throwing his discarded coat over his shoulders. They all watched as Nathan bent over the motionless form.
"Shit," Nathan cursed.
Josiah raised his head to look in Nathan's dark eyes. He grabbed the healer by the arm forcing his attention. "You have to save him, Nate." He returned his attention back to the man who's head laid in his lap.
"Buck, get over here," Nathan ordered. Ezra had two deep knife wounds and several superficial ones. The one in his shoulder and in his side were now bleeding freely. Nathan placed compresses on each of the wounds. He pressed down on the shoulder wound. "Get some pressure on that wound."
Buck immediately complied. He looked down into the slack, bluish features of his friend, thinking it was to late. Josiah continued to hold Ezra, stroking his brow and talking softly to him like a father would a sick child. It almost broke Chris and the other's hearts to see him like this.
Nathan lifted one of Ezra's eyelids noticing the sluggish pupil. He checked for a pulse and found a slow, but steady beat.
Chris turned to JD, who had paled considerably. "JD, go and get some firewood looks like we'll be here awhile."
"Okay," he absently replied not taking his eyes off Ezra for fear he would die right there. "Now, JD," Chris repeated a little more sternly, cutting through JD's reluctance. Vin stood, with teeth chattering and water dripping off his long hair, turning the dirt at his feet into mud.
"You best get out of them clothes, cowboy," Chris suggested. Like JD, Vin found it hard to remove his gaze from the unconscious conman. He slowly went to his saddle bags to retrieve an extra set of clothes and disappeared into the woods.
Chris knelt beside Buck and looked over to Nathan. "How is he?"
Nathan looked at Josiah before he spoke. "Not good. He's lost a good amount of blood, and he's freezing. I think I got the bleeding stopped in his shoulder." He looked over at Buck who cautiously peeked under the cloth.
"I think it stopped here too," he answered.
"Okay, we have to get him out of these wet clothes," Nathan ordered.
"I'll get more blankets," Chris said.
Buck and Josiah helped Nathan remove Ezra's water soaked clothing and wrapped him in several blankets. Nathan used what herbs he had to prevent infection from setting in then bandaged the wounds.
Soon a fire blazed brightly against the dark tree line. Josiah still sat by Ezra, who had yet to regain consciousness. They had pulled him as close to the fire as possible. Nathan worked on some herbs hoping he got a chance to use them. The usual friendly banter that always seem to arise with the seven men was lost this night, only silence prevailed.
JD stared worriedly across the flames at Josiah. "What will happen to Josiah if Ezra..." he didn't finish the thought he said out loud.
Buck looked over at the older gunslinger. "He's going to blame himself no matter what we say," Buck replied to JD's spoken thought. Chris took a gulp of the coffee he held in his hand and looked over at Josiah. Yes, the pious gunslinger would blame himself and it would be added to the list of other demons that plagued him.
JD ran his hand through his dark hair, the thought flashing in his head before he could stop it. The loss of one of them would destroy them all. Ezra tossed about half feverishly during the night. At one time his eyes snapped open and he stared wildly up at Josiah with the glare of fever. Josiah stayed by his side, wiping his heated brow and talking quietly to him. The others tried to get him to get some rest without success.
A low moan got everyone's attention and they quickly surrounded the now stirring conman. Josiah had finally succumbed to sleep and someone had thrown a blanket over him during the night.
"C'mon Ezra, we're all here waitin' for ya," Vin quietly spoke. He couldn't erase the fear he saw in those green eyes back in the river.
Josiah came awake when he sensed movement about him.
Ezra's eyes fluttered then were still. His head rolled to the side then came back forward. Josiah laid a huge hand upside his face and green eyes slowly appeared from behind heavy lids.
Ezra tried to speak, but only managed a low, raspy drawl. Josiah lifted his head to allow Nathan to give him some warm water and herbs.
"Take it slow, Ez," Nathan instructed.
"Welcome back, pard," Buck calmly said, relief keeping his usual boisterous attitude in check. JD quickly wiped the tear that escaped from his dark eyes.
Ezra felt his hand lifted and sandwiched between two large callous paws. He raised his eyes to look into Josiah's concerned face. The older man made no move to wipe the tears that fell down his cheek. Ezra's brow creased in confusion. Tears? For him?
"I'm sorry Ezra, for everything," Josiah remarked.
Ezra slowly shook his head. "Not your fault, just in the cards." His eyes slowly fell shut and his breathing evened out. Nathan checked his pulse.
"What he'd mean by that?" Buck questioned.
"He didn't think we wouldn't come for him, did he?" JD interjected.
"Nah, but he still doesn't believe his life is as valued as any other," Josiah sadly explained, pushing back a stray strand of brown hair.
"Well, if anyone can convince him otherwise, you can," Chris exclaimed, clapping the huge gunslinger on his broad shoulders.
"I shall endeavor to try." A faint smile broke out on Josiah's face, not as bright as usual, but a definite improvement over the past couple days.
"Is he goin' to be okay, Nate?" Vin asked.
"He's asleep. He should be okay with rest, but unless you all want to spend a week out here someone better go and get a wagon."
"I'll go," JD jumped in, eager to help.
"I'll go with ya kid," Buck added, standing up and following his young charge.
Josiah continued to stroke Ezra's hair, realizing the depth of emotion he now felt for the younger man. He looked over at Nathan, who was mixing up some more herbs and was grateful for the friendship they shared. He care greatly for all of them, like an older brother, but Ezra had managed to grab a different part of his heart, a part normally reserved for a son. Josiah's own father was far from the loving parent that Josiah had craved as a child. Maybe, the feelings that Josiah's father denied him were manifesting themselves and allowing him to feel a father's concern and a father's love for a man he hardly knew.
He didn't hear Nathan approach and kneel beside him. He looked over when he felt the hand on his shoulder. "He's going to be fine," Nathan assured his friend, getting a glimpse of what the huge gunslinger was feeling.
Josiah smiled at the healer's insight. It would have destroyed him just as much if Nathan had been killed. He wouldn't abide losing any of them. The Seven had a relationship that would last long into the next life, they all felt it, even if they didn't acknowledge its presence. The rope that interwove them together would never be broken.