The Past Redeemed

by Sue Bartholomew

Parts 1-4 | Parts 5-8 | Parts 9-13 | Parts 14-17
Parts 18-21 | Parts 22-25 | Parts 26-29 | Parts 30-33 | Parts 34-37

Part 22

The Larabee camp was bustling with activity as Chris and the others packed up in preparation for their journey.

"How's it feel to be one day closer to freedom, Vin?" JD called out as the tracker trotted up to the supply wagon; he was in a good mood and greatly enjoying the adventure. Vin gave his head a quick shake and reined in.

"Feel a lot better once it's all done with," he admitted, scanning the horizon. "I ain't countin' on nothin' just yet, JD. Best t'keep your eyes open an' look for trouble 'round every bend."

JD glanced at the flat expanse of land before them. "Well, it shouldn't be too difficult to spot."

Behind them, Chris was adjusting his saddle cinch and looked up at Nathan, who had ridden up next to him.

"Yates all secure?" Chris asked, pulling the belt tighter.

Nathan nodded. "Yup, all tied up in the wagon. Sure did get cooperative all of a sudden."

Chris shook his head as he finished the job and stepped back. "Probably knows there's someone out there comin' for him."

Nathan smiled a little. "Don't trust 'im, huh?"

The other man gave him a keen look, his green eyes sharp with caution. "'Bout as far as I can throw 'im. Keep your guard up."

Hoofbeats pounded through the air, and they looked up to see Josiah trotting through the morning sunshine.

"No sign of trouble, Chris," Josiah announced. "Maybe it was just some wayward prairie dogs that attacked us."

"Maybe," Chris said in a relaxed voice as he climbed onto Valor and gathered up the reins. "Then again maybe they're just real good at keepin' themselves hid." He looked up at the sun. "We'll ride to the river then stop to rest the horses an' eat. Then it'll be on into Texas."

Chris looked over at Vin, a silent question passing between them. Vin answered it with a nod and the slightest of smiles: he felt strong and was ready for whatever lay ahead. Chris returned the nod, and with a rattle and a cloud of dust the party was on its way, riding east with the warmth of the newborn day on their faces.

Ezra came back to consciousness slowly, feeling very weak but still amazed that he had been allowed to pass out. That luxury had not been granted at any time during the long night just past, and the effects of the pain and exhaustion were such that at first he could make sense of nothing around him. It still seemed like an unimaginable nightmare.

He didn't want to move; motion caused pain, and he had quite enough of it now. His hands were still bound behind him, his arms and shoulders aching unbearably. Memories of what had been done to him filtered through his foggy mind, some of them so vivid that he was almost convinced, in his half - awake state, that they were still going on. Dark Sun had never spoken directly to him, but had often muttered Indian words - they sounded like prayers - while he was engaged in his work.

Ezra's nerves awoke with him, and he bit back a groan as the pain flared anew. It was as if the knife was still being raked across his skin, the unbearable pressure still piercing his skull. A terrible thirst assaulted him. With great effort Ezra controlled himself; they weren't going to hear Ezra Standish cry out, or beg for mercy, while he had the slightest ability to do anything about it. But there was a question of how long that power would last.

After a few moments, Ezra summoned enough strength to open his eyes. He was still in the cave; bright sunlight flooded the entrance. It must be morning. He blinked, unbelieving; could the eternal night truly be over? Had they simply left him to die, or would the agony continue? Ezra realized he wasn't sure which prospect horrified him more.

But Pony...Pony had been here. Or had he imagined that? He recalled that they talked, but the memory was sparse and fragmentary, as if it had happened long ago. He'd asked her to help Chris and the others, to save her own life as well as theirs - did she listen? Or was her heart too hard to allow hope to enter?

Two forms blocked the light of the entryway and came towards him quickly. He pulled back a bit in mindless fear at what might be coming, but the action had little effect. When they drew closer he saw that it was Stan and Gray. Without hesitation each man leaned down and grabbed one of Ezra's arms, heedless of the cuts and bruises, and dragged him outside.

The pain was so terrific that Ezra almost fainted again. The searing cold of shock swamped his body as they carelessly pulled his wounded form over the hard rocks. There was no telling how far he was dragged, but it felt like miles. Finally he was thrown to the ground and abandoned.

His mind whirled in anguish; every wound awoke with new agony as the hot desert dust covered them. Sounds assaulted his ears, horses stamping and snorting, and voices, amused and callous, rising and falling in an indecipherable tide. He forced his eyes open.

Hanley's gang were all around him, mounted and ready, their dark forms framed by the blazing sun, shadows of malevolence blotting out the light. No details or faces could be seen on those black shapes, only outlines stark against the morning brilliance. The cave was far away; he was out in the open, helpless.

"We're off to kill your pals, Standish." It was Hanley's voice, sounding quite pleased. "Dark Sun wanted to cut your guts out, but we just don't have the time. Maybe if you're still alive when we get back we'll do it, how's that sound?"

Laughter from the others; it sounded like an army of demons.

"Okay, let's go," Hanley barked, and without another word they rode away, kicking up clouds of dust over him as they went. He coughed and choked, eyes fixed on the retreating shadows as they disappeared into the blazing sun. One form, smaller than the rest, seemed to hesitate, stop, and turn back to him for just a moment. Then it went with the others, and was gone.

He was alone.

For a long time he just lay panting on the ground, trying to steady his spinning mind and think coherently past the pain. His mouth and throat were parched, his skin burning from the sun relentlessly beating down on him. When he gathered the strength, he opened his eyes, scanning his surroundings in desperation. He was nowhere near any shade; they seemed to have gone out of their way to dump him in the most open area. Even if he could stand, he would never make it to the closest shadow. His stomach clenched in despair.

He closed his eyes again and lay back, wincing as his arms screamed in protest. He tugged at the ropes again, but they held as fast as iron chains. The heat and anguish twisted through him, destroying any perception of time. Soon it felt as if he had been out there for several hours, his pale skin seared by the sun, his bleeding wounds chafed and inflamed by the baking sand. The sun seemed so high and hot; was it noon? Hanley must have found them at the river by now. And there was no longer any way to warn them.

His mind began to wander in the heat and pain. How odd it was, he mused, that last week he was ready to cut himself off from his associates without a second thought, and now he dreaded the idea that they might all be killed. What did he care? They were out of his life either way.

That thought drifted before his mind's eye for a moment, but was swiftly dispelled. It wasn't that simple, and never had been, he realized. He had been badly treated, and the pain from that incident would not go away easily; but there was something larger here, fighting the notion that theirs was a fragile and easily dissolved association. Individually, they were all flawed men, himself included; together, they were still flawed, but also possessed of a strength none of them could comprehend. Ezra could ride away from it, but afterwards neither he nor the ones who remained would ever be truly whole again.

These ideas came to Ezra more as feelings rather than thoughts; he was rapidly becoming exhausted and unable to really think. A tremendous sensation swept over him; he had to go back, he realized, no matter how painful it was, and try to mend what had been broken. The pain and weariness had purged all distracting ideas from his mind; all that remained were the feelings of his heart, and it was telling him that there was only one way to truly heal his wounded soul, and it lay in the hands of the men he had once considered his brothers. If he did not once more dare to trust them, all might be lost.

He opened his eyes again and stared at the sun; was it higher now? Maybe they were all dead already, and whatever they had was irretrievably gone. But, he told himself when he could think, Larabee and the others were fierce fighters; perhaps, even when ambushed, they would prevail. But even that idea did not completely soothe his mind; Pony might be killed, and she would never have the chance to break through the wall of solitude which had imprisoned her for so long.

As it had once imprisoned Ezra.

He coughed, his head pounding from the heat and thirst. Nightmare visions floated before his eyes; Larabee and the others dead, and Hanley riding away in triumph leaving the bodies to rot in the sun. Or, Larabee surviving, gazing at Pony's lifeless corpse, now just another dead outlaw. Riding back, waiting for Ezra, never knowing he had died in the desert; days turning to weeks, years, until they gave up and forgot him. Must've run out again, they'd say. JD and Josiah racked with guilt over what was never said. No hope of apology or forgiveness. Even Nathan as well, perhaps...

Ezra started, opening his eyes; the pain was blinding, even worse than when the torment was actually occurring. The sun was surely way past noon now, he thought. They were all dead, or alive and ignorant of his fate as they rode on to Tascosa; either way, the destiny which they had once shared was lost forever.

During his entire night of agony, Ezra had never once screamed, unwilling to give them the satisfaction of seeing him broken. A gentleman did not allow his enemies to see his weaknesses, no matter how severe. But now, as Ezra considered what had happened, an unutterable sorrow overwhelmed him, a keen sense of mourning for what had been destroyed mingled with consuming frustration over his inability to prevent it. An intense grief engulfed him, with only one possible way of release.

Ezra took a deep breath and cried out in anguish, pouring the pain of his body and soul into his voice. It was brief, and when it was over he lay panting once more on the baking rock, sobbing without tears and vaguely wondering if Hell would be any worse than this.

Buck scowled as he reined in his horse and scanned the horizon. Where the hell was he?

His heart sank as he glanced up at the sun; it was getting late, and he knew Chris and the others would be at Dutchman Pass by nightfall. He still had time, at least, but not much of it, and he'd lost the trail he was following. A powerful desire to keep moving urged him on; his friends needed to be warned.

He mopped his brow; God, it was getting hot. He took a swig from his canteen and swished it around in his mouth; good thing he'd brought extra water on this trip, a man could die out here. As he replaced the canteen he winced as the wound in his arm stabbed him. The pain gave him an extra incentive to keep moving; he had to find the sonuvabitch who shot him, and have a little chat with the guy.

He took a deep breath and spurred his mount forward, putting the pain and everything else out of his mind. He was ready to drop, but he could relax after they'd dealt with the remnants of Eli Joe's gang. Who knew how many there were, or what they were going to -

Suddenly he shot upright in the saddle, confused. He reined in hurriedly. Was he hallucinating from the heat? He sat still and frowned, straining his ears...

A scream. Far away, but definitely human. Then it was gone.

Buck looked around hurriedly in the direction of the sound; there was noone in sight. He hesitated; he couldn't spare any time, Chris and his other friends needed him bad.

But whoever that was needed help bad, too. He sat, thought, sat and thought some more, quickly, and went with his gut.

"Well, *hell*," he muttered, and rode off quickly in the general direction of the sound, wondering if he'd find a corpse, a trap, or nothing at all.

"Couple more miles to the river," Vin announced as Chris's party rode through the rocks and plains of the desert. The country was becoming more rocky, small mesas and hills jutting up from the barren soil.

"JD, you an' Vin take the patrol while we're settin' up t'eat," Chris said as he trotted by the wagon, watching Vin as the tracker rode off to keep an eye out for trouble.

JD looked over from the driver's seat and sighed. "Geez, Chris, between this wooden seat an' that saddle my backside's gonna be sore for a week!"

"Bet the dime novels didn't mention that, Kid," Josiah grinned as he rode by.

"They sure didn't, preacher," JD replied, snapping the reins. "Wonder if Bat Masterson ever got saddle sores?"

"I'll be sure t'ask 'im next time he turns up," Chris said casually, and leaned over to look into the wagon. "How's Yates doin'?"

JD shrugged, looking behind him into the back of the wagon at Yates' huddled form. "Ain't heard a peep from him. I think he's asleep."

Chris sat back up and glanced at Josiah, a worried expression on his face. "Or bidin' his time."

Josiah nodded, his countenance just as anxious, and the group rode on.

The staccato pounding of hoofbeats ripped through the hot morning air as Hanley and his gang tore across the plains towards the river. Their expressions were set, their minds on one grim purpose. The plan was to ambush the Larabee group at the river; they had to arrive there first without being seen. And to do that, they had to ride hard.

Each rider's face told of what emotions lay beneath as they pounded in the direction of their destination. Hanley's face was stern and fixed, his eyes determined. Dark Sun's face was as usual unreadable, but his eyes told all, their bright fire blazing unsteadily; he had drawn blood, but the spirits demanded even more.

Trent and Lew were both grinning, looking forward to the battle. Gray was scowling, his sharp eyes dark with the intention of killing the rest of Wilmington's friends. Stan appeared anxious, eager to finish this and find safety in Mexico.

Pony followed them all, keeping up but glancing from time to time behind her, wondering if somewhere back there Ezra was still alive, or dead and past his pain. And wondering as well if there was any truth to his weakly spoken words, or if they were just the ravings of a mind already halfway gone.

Part 23

Buck frowned as he wiped his brow and scanned the baking desert before him. There was no trace of anyone, just a bunch of mesas and small rocks, sagebrush and tiny patches of sharp grass. But no sign of whoever had produced that scream.

He sighed and gathered up the reins; no help for it, he had to move on. Maybe whoever it was was dead already; wouldn't be surprised with this heat, he thought sadly, and spurred his horse forward, intent now on reaching his friends.

As he resumed his breakneck pace, he glanced up at the sun; almost noon. They'd be just about at the river by now. Hopefully they'd stop, and Buck could catch up with them there and warn them about the planned ambush at Dutchman Pass. But there was no knowing if that old man had even be speaking the truth, or how many men his gang had. Oh, well, he thought, we'll deal with that later - best not to take chances. He'd have never lived with himself if there was trouble and he knew he could have prevented -

He squinted and shook the sweat out of his eyes. Either the heat was getting him, or there was something dark lying out in the sun up ahead.

"Damn," he whispered, digging the spurs into the heaving ribs of his mount. The horse leapt forward, and as they neared Buck could tell that it was, indeed, a man, still as death.

So I wasn't hearin' things, he thought as he drew closer. Wonder who in the hell would be all the way out here?

His mind quickly went through a list of possibilities in the several seconds it took to get close enough to see. A traveler, maybe, who got jumped - a lost scout - an outlaw who'd been betrayed by his comrades and executed - Buck had seen all of these before, and more. There was no sign of a horse, so whoever it was had walked out here. Or been dumped.

Well, whoever it was, Buck mused, looks like he didn't make it. Reckon I'd best leave 'im for now an' maybe we can bury 'im on...the...way...

He was closer now, close enough to make out the form of the unfortunate person, and as his mind received the information he felt himself go numb with disbelief. Kinda looks like Ezra, he thought at first, but that was impossible as Ezra was in St. Louis. Then, getting closer - hell if that don't look *just* like Ezra, but it can't be. A few seconds later, close enough to see the face and hair now, and Buck's mouth dropped open as a wave of dread surprise consumed him.

Holy God Almighty, he thought, it *is* Ezra!

Buck reined in hard, the horse skidding to a stop several feet from where the motionless body lay. Buck leapt off the horse and ran as fast he could to his friend's side, amazed, frightened and confused.

"Ezra?" he panted as he knelt in the burning sand, placing his hands gently on his friend's shoulders as his wide eyes swept over the gambler's inert form. Oh hell, he thought as the fear boiled through him, oh *hell* he looks like shit. Like someone took a knife to 'im an' beat 'im up, oh hell buddy what did you get yourself into *now*...

At the touch, Ezra stirred and made a very weak choking noise.

"Ezra?" Buck repeated, ripping off his canteen. "Ezra, buddy, y'with me? It's ol' Buck. C'mon now - "

He carefully put his hand on Ezra's shoulder, bending close to catch any words his friend might say, knowing it would be hard to hear past the hammering in his ears. Ezra gasped, coughed, but did not move again. Buck pursed his lips; damn if he was going to find his pal like this and let him die.

"Now c'mon pard," he said, pulling out his knife. "Don't you die on ol' Buck now." He carefully rolled Ezra over a little and sliced the thick ropes which bound his hands behind him. With anxious care he removed the blood-stiffened cords and flung them away, slowly easing Ezra's arms from their cramped position.

"There ya go, c'mon now, gimme some help here," Buck continued, easing Ezra onto his back and lifting him up a little in his arms. With his other arm he brought forward the canteen, pulling the cork out with his teeth and spitting it onto the ground nearby.

"Here," he said quickly, gently placing the mouth of the container on Ezra's parched lips. Ezra made a few small sounds of surprise, eyes still closed, and began to drink.

Buck surveyed his friend's dire condition with alarm as Ezra drank. There was blood everywhere from the long, deep cuts all over his body, mingled with dark, vicious-looking bruises. *Damn, must've been jumped on his way to St. Louis*, he thought. It was the only explanation.

Finally Ezra coughed, and Buck pulled the canteen away, settling him back down on the ground. He seemed to be coming out of it...

"There y'go," he said, his worry subsiding a bit; Ezra would have to recover for Buck to take him with him, he sure wasn't going to leave him out here. "Better, right?" He patted Ezra's shoulder, and his hopes were rewarded; after a few tries, Ezra opened his eyes.

They were only open halfway, and still appeared to be very bleary, but Buck felt encouraged as Ezra blinked a few times, squinting against the sun.

Buck grinned. "Hey, buddy, good t'see ya back."

He felt Ezra jump slightly under his hand, and the bleary green eyes opened wide with what looked like shock, the eyes staring now. Buck felt suddenly very uneasy; Ezra didn't seem to recognize him. He looked - terrified?

Ezra uttered a very weak, strangled shout and lurched backwards, struggling to drag himself out of Buck's grasp. He was breathing very fast now, his face a mask of panic.

Damn, he's lost his mind, Buck thought, the fear returning. He reached out to calm him, placing one hand carefully on the gambler's shoulder. "Hey, Ezra, it's me, Buck! Take it easy there!"

Ezra began to shake his head, but had run out of the strength to move any farther. He lay staring at Buck with wide green eyes for a few moments, still gasping, obviously deeply shaken and confused. Then, very slowly, he reached out with one trembling hand and weakly clutched at Buck's shirt. Realization seemed to cross Ezra's face, although what he was realizing, Buck couldn't guess. The hand gingerly brushed the bloody bandage on Buck's arm, a puzzled frown creasing Ezra's brow.

"Oh," Buck said, looking down at the healing wound, "Ran into an old feller in town who was lookin' for a fight. Got somethin' of a scratch, but it'll heal up."

There was a pause, then Ezra nodded slowly, as if this simple statement had explained a great mystery. Then his eyes slid closed and he slumped back to the earth with a small groan, which almost sounded like one of great relief.

"Hey, c'mon now, buddy," Buck said quickly, catching Ezra before he hit the ground and propping up his friend in his arms. "Just take 'er easy. Whatever you been through, it's over."

Buck patted his friend on the shoulder again as he raised his eyes and scanned the horizon; they had to be moving soon. "You just go on an' catch your breath. We gotta ride like hell soon, but after that we'll - uh - "

Ezra was moving again, plucking at his sleeve urgently and trying to talk.

"Chris," he whispered, his voice rough with exhaustion, "they're - in danger - "

Buck frowned, a prickly feeling scooting up his neck. How could Ezra know about that? He bent lower over the gambler.

"Danger?" Buck repeated. "You mean the ambush?"

Ezra glanced at him, obviously surprised, then nodded. "Yes - we must hurry - " He grimaced against what looked like a wave of pain.

Buck gripped his shoulder gently. "Yeah, I know, but Dutchman Pass is a ways off yet - we oughta be able to get there in plenty of time to - "

"No," Ezra said desperately, his gaze anxious now as he weakly grasped Buck's sleeve. "Not - the pass. They're going to - oh, Lord - " he winced again, his grip on Buck tightening as he rode out another spasm. When he regained his breath, his words were tight and choked as he struggled to speak. "They're going to attack them at the river."

Buck's eyes grew large; the river was a lot closer than the pass, God, they were probably there by now, and in trouble. He looked down at his friend's pale face. "Ezra, how do you know all this?"

Ezra sighed and shook his head. "Long story," he whispered. "But - it's true. We must hurry."

"Y'got that right, pard," Buck replied, shouldering the canteen after locating the stopper. He paused. "Now you know I can't leave y'here, buddy. They'd kill me. So I'll just have t'beg your pardon for this."

With that he carefully slid his arms under Ezra and hoisted the injured gambler into his arms, carrying him as quickly as he could to his horse. Ezra stiffened and cursed through clenched teeth as Buck positioned him on the saddle.

"Just hold on tight now, Ezra," Buck said as he swung up behind the gambler and gathered up the reins, one arm steadying his comrade. "We gotta ride hell for leather."

Ezra grasped the saddlehorn and hung on as they shot forward, tearing across the sands towards the river.

Hanley smiled as he peered over the small rise, surveying the river below. It was perfect.

Before him lay the bend of the river, fifty feet wide and curving around several large rocks. This area was more uneven than most of the surrounding landscape; there were small hills and trees, and the river itself flowed over a few sharply dropping falls, each some twenty feet in height. The surrounding area was wide and grassy, leading up to some small hills in the distance. There were plenty of places here to hide, much better than the flat plains of Texas. And Larabee had not arrived yet.

Hanley turned and made his way down the hill to its foot, where the others were waiting. The cliff was steep and rocky, but he moved his large frame through it with easy agility.

"Okay, here's the plan," he said when he reached the bottom, wiping off his hands. "We wait to attack til they're good and relaxed - maybe let 'em eat first. If they don't stop, we'll attack when they're riding across the river. Lew, go keep an eye on 'em, let me know if they start heading somewhere else. Pony, you and Trent take care of their scout."

"Right," Trent grinned, one hand resting on the grip of his gun. Pony merely glanced at Hanley and said nothing.

"Everybody else, wait for my signal to begin," Hanley went on. "Pick a target and don't stop shooting til they're dead. There's seven of us and five of them so we've got the upper hand. When it's over, we'll get Tanner's body and claim the bounty, then head for the border. The rest can be left here to rot."

"What about Yates?" Stan asked, looking up.

Hanley's expression turned dark.

"You leave Yates to me."

Vin trotted across the shallow, rocky hillside and squinted up at the noontime sun. Gonna be a hot ride, he thought, and sighed. As if it hadn't been hot enough already.

Turning slightly in the saddle, he looked back towards the river, where Chris and the others had just arrived and were setting up for rest and food. Vin's blue eyes strayed from that scene to the wide expanses beyond, guarded by low hills, rocks and mesas. He didn't like it, he decided, too many places to hide. And he couldn't shake the feeling that they were being watched...

Spurring Sire forward he rode a good distance away from the group, his eyes sharply studying the area for any signs of trouble. Soon he was out of their sight, trotting over the more barren ground they had just covered. To the west somewhere, JD was doing the same thing. But Vin felt as if two pairs of eyes weren't enough.

He scowled to himself, concerned at his own anxiousness. Normally it took a great deal to bother him, but as they drew closer to Tascosa Vin found himself more and more on edge, an unfamiliar feeling which deeply disturbed him. Was it because he was so close to freedom? Or because they might all be so close to danger?

A swift touch of the spurs, and Sire was off again, trotting down the rocky banks of a dried creek bed. Vin contemplated the situation, even as he looked over every rock and tree for hidden marauders. He had hoped to be truly free again one day, but had never banked anything on the occurrence -life didn't work out according to a plan, and the best one he'd found was to deal with each day as it happened and look no farther. He'd found a place to stay, and good men to pass the days with, and that was all he needed. If he was ever to be free again, he'd figured, it would happen in its own good time.

Now that the time might be drawing near, Vin had to confess to a certain apprehension, hard as he tried to fight it. If anything was going to happen, it would be before they reached Tascosa, and the closer they got the greater the peril became. He rubbed his still-sore healing ribs and grimaced. The man who had jumped him was no desert scavenger; he was a practiced killer, probably that Dark Sun he'd heard tell about, and he likely wasn't alone. They were being hunted, Vin felt sure of it, and there was no telling when the predator might pounce.

The now - familiar twinge in his gut flared again at the thought that any of his friends might be killed for his sake. It was the very last thing Vin wanted, but its possibility was becoming very real. It was a terrible feeling, one which had plagued him since he was attacked. Once he had come to his first thought was the welfare of the other men.

Since then, Vin had contemplated this fact, and examined his earlier resolution to leave the group for its own safety should their present mission fail. His once-solid conviction that it would be for the best was becoming less certain. He knew he could not stay and draw the fire of every bounty hunter and lawman who passed through town. But was it better to abandon his brothers to their own devices? They would still be left to keep peace in the town - only Vin would no longer be able to help them. They would be safe from bounty hunters and trigger - happy marshals, but there were plenty of other scum around. Scum who might find six guns less intimidating than seven.

So, stay and put them in danger, or leave and deprive them of the protection he might provide. A bad fix either way.

Vin sighed and took off his hat, wiping his damp brow on his sleeve; damn, this was getting complicated, he thought as he pulled his hat back on. He preferred simplicity, and there was always a simple way to look at things no matter what the situation was. Once he had the situation figured out, the solution would be clear.

With this heartening thought, Vin pulled out his spyglass and snapped it open, placing the piece against his eye and scanning the distant horizon. Emptier'n a beggar's belly, he decided after sweeping over the landscape a few times. But he could feel that something wasn't right...


Vin sat up, completely alert now as his gaze fixed on one moving object, a horseman approaching at tremendous speed. Damn, his thought, his heart quickening, looks like trouble's comin'. Then he peered closer and frowned.

"Buck?" he whispered, still staring, puzzled. Yep, it was Buck all right, tearing towards the river like he was on fire. Was there trouble in town? A million horrifying scenarios flew through Vin's mind as he studied his friend through the telescope. And he had someone with him, unconscious by the looks of it, and covered with blood - it looked like -

Vin lowered the spyglass, his wide eyes still fixed on the riding figure, too stunned for a moment to move. Then SNAP! went the spyglass as he rammed it shut and shoved it into his pocket. With lightning speed he gathered up his reins and shouted loudly as he spurred Sire into motion, his entire being consumed with dread as he went to meet Buck, convinced his worst fears had been realized.

As he rode closer Vin shouted and waved, relieved to see Buck shout and wave back. But it was the figure who slumped lifelessly before Buck in the saddle who commanded Vin's most urgent attention.

"Vin!" he heard Buck yell, when they were close enough. The gunslinger was dusty and drenched in sweat. "Vin, we got trouble this time."

"What the hell happened?" Vin replied in shock, staring horrified at Ezra's motionless form in Buck's arms. Ezra was deathly pale now, his face slack and shiny with perspiration.

"Found 'im in the desert," was the panted reply. "Ain't got time t'talk, Vin - Chris an' the others are gonna be ambushed at the river. Heard it from one of the bastards involved. It's Eli's gang, they're out for revenge."

Vin's eyes widened. "Oh, shit," he breathed, the reins tight in his hands. Then he nodded. "I'll go warn 'em, Buck, you just get Ezra somewhere safe."

"Right behind ya, pard," Buck shot back, tightening his grip on Ezra as Vin turned his horse around. They tore back towards the river, a painful knot tying itself in Vin's stomach. The fight had come.

It was time to meet it.

Part 24

JD guided his horse carefully up the small grassy hill, his hazel eyes studying the area around him. He fidgeted in the saddle and wiped his brow; another scorcher. But he didn't care, as long as they got this over with soon.

The young man sighed as he spurred his mount along gently. It would be so great to have this finally done with, so they could all go back home. Then things could go back to the way they used to be.

Of course, he thought sadly, he still had to apologize to Ezra, but now he figured he could do that and only be a little nervous. Nathan may have thought Ezra was only getting what he asked for, but JD knew he didn't feel that way. It didn't seem right for them to argue, for Ezra to be off on his own. There was nothing that said they had to all get along, of course, but it felt funny when they didn't. And JD knew he didn't like it.

So, he'd decided, it would be awkward and probably embarrassing, but when they all got back, he'd just go to Ezra and apologize for making him mad. He still didn't know what he'd say, but he was pretty sure he could think of something. The worst Ezra could do would refuse to accept, and that would be awful, but at least JD would know he'd tried. And maybe after a while Ezra would change his mind.

Then, he thought with hope lifting his young heart, then they could all get back to sitting in the saloon at night, laughing and playing cards. He'd lose his shirt to Ezra, of course, but even that wouldn't bother him too much. They'd all be together again, and Vin would be free, and they could return to keeping the peace like they were hired to do. JD was pretty sure it was supposed to be that way, and he was looking forward to that day.

He reined in and took one more look around. He was at the base of a rocky hill, skirted by large boulders. Nothing here; his patrol had taken him pretty far out. Time to ride back and -


Pain exploded in his head as he toppled off of his horse; on the way to the ground the thought flashed through his mind that he'd been shot. But as he landed solidly on the unforgiving rocks, he realized he'd been struck in the head with a large rock, which he heard land nearby. He struggled to sit up, somewhat stunned, and absently felt behind his left ear. He brought the hand back and stared at it. Blood. A little only, but still...


JD started at the small sound, and groped for his gun as he looked up.

Two figures stood before him, both pointing their weapons straight at his heart. A young guy about his age, in once-fine clothes and a battered top hat, regarding him with an oily smile of triumph. And a girl, no more than sixteen, with very short brown hair, in very dirty jeans and a boy's shirt.

The top-hatted young man looked very pleased as he cocked his head, his smile growing wider.

"Hello, dead man," was all he said.

Hanley scowled at the scene below as he and Gray lay hidden in the rocks. Larabee's group had arrived and were setting up for lunch, just as he'd hoped they would. Soon they would be distracted and lay down their weapons to eat. Then they would strike.

"Well?" Gray whispered, fingering his gun.

"Relax," Hanley hissed back, still watching his prey. "It won't be long now."

Josiah glanced up at the sun as he walked away from the camp to where some of the horses were resting in the shade of the hills. It was a little cooler here, but not much, he thought as he placed two buckets of cold water down in front of the panting beasts. As they dipped their soft mouths into the water and lapped it up, Josiah raised his eyes to the horizon, ready to offer another prayer for the safety of their journey.

As soon as his eyes met the horizon, he froze.

Vin and another rider were coming up fast, clouds of dry, hot dust swirling behind him. And the other rider was - Buck! And someone else...

When they were close enough to see, Josiah's heart dropped within him, and he could only raise an agonized, private prayer: Dear God...

"Josiah!" Vin yelled as they rumbled up. "We got trouble!"

"Dear Lord, Buck, what happened?" the preacher gasped, moving to where Ezra sat slumped and motionless in Buck's arms. Vin shot past them both and on towards the nearby camp.

"No time t'explain, Josiah," Buck said quickly. "Heard tell of an ambush here at the river. Eli's gang, or what's left of it."

Josiah shook his head. "Evil never dies completely, does it? Here," He reached up. "I'll get Ezra somewhere safe, you go on."

Buck nodded, and he helped Josiah ease Ezra from the saddle into the large man's arms. Ezra was almost white now, his arms and legs hanging as if the bones inside were gone.

As Josiah settled Ezra in his grasp, he looked up at Buck as a thought suddenly occurred to him. "JD's on patrol - he's out around the camp somewhere."

Buck sighed and pulled his hat down. "Knowin' that boy he's found trouble already. I'll find 'im."

With a loud shout Buck took off, pounding across the terrain to look for JD. Josiah glanced down at Ezra, horrified at his friend's condition, sure he must be dead. But there was still the gentle rise and fall of the chest which indicated that life had not yet fled.

Relieved, Josiah held Ezra closer, as if to protect him from any bullets that may start flying, and went to find a safe spot for the gambler to rest in. His heart hoped that this was a false alarm, and there was nothing to worry about.

His gut was not as optimistic.

Chris sat on a rock next to the campfire, chewing absently on a hard roll and watching Nathan as the healer carefully set up the black iron cooking pot. Behind them the river ran swiftly, mostly hidden by rocks and trees. Chris peered at the wide, flowing waters; they'd need to find a way to cross

"Vin's comin'!"

The urgent tone of Nathan's voice caused Chris to look up in apprehension. The tracker was riding in very fast, and that meant trouble. Chris's hand gripped his gun as he stood, his long black duster flapping in the hot wind.

"Chris!" Vin was yelling as he rode in, his hat off, his long brown curls whipping wildly as he pounded up.

 Nathan was standing too now, clearly worried. "What's wrong?" he shouted.

"Ambush!" was the reply.

Hanley had been waiting patiently, watching every move Larabee's gang made, looking for Yates - who was on the far side of the camp, next to the wagon, still tied up - and waiting.

"Look!" he heard Gray whisper. Hanley's eyes peered through the dense rocks to see Tanner riding up, hard, and a bad feeling slammed him in the stomach.

"Oh shit," he muttered.

Tanner got closer; Larabee and that darky were up now, alert, and the hopes for an easy victory got smaller.

They heard Tanner shout "Ambush!" but little else; their surprise attack was no longer a surprise. Damn! But there were only three of them here, and Trent and Pony must have killed that kid...

"Now what?" Gray moaned, clearly frightened. Hanley calmly cocked his gun and gave Gray a solid grin.

"They're expectin' an attack, ain't they? Then let's give 'em one."

With that Hanley rose and opened fire.

Pony had never been so nervous at a gunfight before, and she found herself shaking as she waited for Trent to kill the kid who lay still stunned before them. Her heart hammered in her chest; she'd promised Ezra she'd help his friends, but he didn't know what he was asking. If Trent didn't kill her for doing so, then these 'friends' probably would. They were all alike -

Trent was having the time of his life, grinning at the sight of the young man helpless.

"Now let's see," he was saying softly, "where you wanna get shot, kid? Head? Gut? I know just where t'put a bullet where it'll take you weeks to die..."

Pony sighed, in as much agony as the kid. If only Trent would kill him so she wouldn't have to decide. "For God's sake, Trent..."

"Shut up!" Trent shouted, shoving the gun farther in the kid's direction. "I aim t'enjoy this if it's all the same to - "


Pony and Trent both looked up, as did the young man. Pounding across the prairie towards them was another man on horseback, one of the boy's allies by the looks of it.

The young man's eyes widened. "Buck?"

Trent was shaking his head as he aimed his gun. "He's dyin' after you, kid!" he yelled.

Pony gasped, her heart leaping into her throat, her body going cold as she watched Trent take aim at Ezra's friend. Ezra's words leapt to her mind.

*There is still a chance for you to break free*

With one lightning-fast movement Pony palmed her gun and struck Trent as hard as she could across the back of the head. He gagged a little in pain and surprise, the gun firing harmlessly into the air, then fell motionless to the ground.

Pony stood for a moment, unbelieving that she had actually done that, panting as she stared at the inert form of her comrade. Then she raised her eyes and looked at the kid, who was staring at her with an expression just as amazed as her own must have been. She couldn't move.

The horseman thundered up. "JD!" He was off the horse in an instant, charging towards Pony, his gun aimed straight at her. "You all right, kid?"

JD was panting as he pulled himself up, rubbing his head. "Yeah - yeah, I'm fine."

The man was looking at Pony in a very odd way, she thought, but there was still anger in his blue eyes. "Okay, missy, drop that peashooter," he said, "nice an' slow."

She hesitated - still time to drop 'em both and get out of there - but then relented and tossed it away. There was nowhere to go to.

"Easy, Buck, she saved my life," the kid named JD was saying, in a voice tinged with wonder.

The one named Buck was prodding Trent's motionless form with his toe. "That a fact?' he inquired, a skeptical tone in his voice.

"Yeah," JD insisted, staring at the blood on Buck's shirt. "Hey - God, Buck, what happened to you? You all right?"

Buck nodded. "I'm fine, Junior, but there ain't no time t'explain. Chris an' the others - "

The distant popping of gunfire drifted over the prairie. Buck's eyes grew wide.

"Shit!" he spat. "It's an ambush, kid, we gotta ride."

"Holy - !" JD's words were cut off as they hurriedly tied up Trent and flung him over the back of Buck's horse. Buck tore off towards the camp, Trent's unconscious form bouncing limply behind the saddle.

Pony was dizzy; they didn't kill Trent or her, not yet anyway. She thought sure they would...

"Uh, miss?"

Pony blinked and looked at JD. Nobody had called her Miss since - well, since her father.

JD was holding out his hand to her. "C'mon, we gotta ride. No funny business, okay?"

She stared, and before she realized it he had swooped her up into his saddle and they were tearing back towards the camp. The gunfire was increasing.

"Why'd you save my life?" JD yelled as they rode.

"Wasn't your life I was thinkin' on," she confessed.

They rode into the camp.

Hanley swore to himself as he saw another horseman arrive.

"Damn!" he snarled, ducking behind a rock. "But the odds are still in our favor. Gray, you go - "

He stopped, staring at Gray. The old soldier had risen to a crouch and was gazing at the newly arrived gunman in stupefied amazement. After a few moments Gray stomped his foot.

"Dammit, dammit, DAMMIT!" he screamed.

"For God's sake, Gray, you old fool!" Hanley growled. "Get down before you get shot!"

"It's Wilmington, dammit it all to hell!" Gray replied, dropping to his knees beside Hanley.

Hanley grunted without sympathy for Gray's anxiety. "Looks pretty good for a dead man."

A bullet ricocheted off the rock that was sheltering them, showering them with dust.

"Ain't gonna be that way for long," Gray replied, his eyes blazing.

Hanley grabbed him by the collar. "First things first, Gray. After this, you can do what you want to him. Go tell the others to give me cover, an' kill as many of Larabee's men as they can."

He released Gray and began to crawl down the back side of the hill.

"Where you goin'?" Gray asked, ducking another bullet.

Hanley glanced up, a deadly expression on his face.

"To kill Yates."

Part 25

Nathan, Vin and Chris dove for cover as the bullets started flying, each man returning the attack with deadly intent.

"Damn!" Chris yelled as he flattened himself on the ground behind a boulder, reaching around the rock to return fire. The sound of gunshots filled the air, bullets cracking against rock and spraying dust into the air as they impacted the hot dirt.

"Can y'see 'em?" Nathan hollered from his position behind the wagon a few yards away.

"Chris!" Vin yelled above the din.

Chris looked over to where Vin crouched behind a rock, but before he could reply Nathan's voice rent the air.

"There's another one!"

They all looked up to see a horseman barreling towards them, a dark form against the bright noonday sunlight.

Chris aimed his gun carefully.

"Chris, wait!" Vin yelled. "It's Buck!"

Chris blinked at him. "Buck?" he cried in amazed confusion.

They all watched as the rider pounded into view; it was indeed Buck, dusty and exhausted but ready to fight. One arm was wrapped in a bloody bandage, covering what appeared to be a gunshot wound. Slung across the front of his saddle was the bound inert form of a young man, presumably one of the gunmen. He steered his mount behind them, firing his gun all the while at their hidden attackers, before leaping off. With one swift movement he pulled the unconscious prisoner from his saddle, dumping him onto the ground behind them. That done, he joined Chris behind the boulder.

"Howdy there," he gasped, peeling off another shot in the direction of the shots.

"Buck!" Chris repeated, his green eyes wide. "What the hell's goin' on?"

"Heard Eli's gang was gunnin' for ya, pard, thought ya might like t'know," was the reply as Buck quickly reloaded his gun. "Plum near didn't make it. That fella there's one of Eli's men, almost got JD."

A bullet struck the rock, sending small splinters and dust into the air with a loud crack. Both men ducked a little.

Chris was silent for a few moments as they concentrated on finding their prey, then looked at Buck's blood-smeared shirt. "You hurt?"

Buck glanced down, then snapped his gun closed as he finished reloading. "Not me, pard, 'cept for this scratch on my arm."

Chris glanced at him and frowned a question at him.

Buck's expression turned grim. "It's Ezra's."

The green eyes grew wide again. "Ezra?"

Nathan looked over too, surprise plain on his face. "Thought he was in St. Louis!"

Buck's expression was sad and anxious. "Must've been jumped or somethin', he's in a powerful bad way. Left 'im with Josiah. Damn good thing I ran across 'im, he told me they was comin' for ya here instead of Dutchman Pass. If I hadn't known that I woulda found y'all too late."

Chris shook his head as he ducked a bullet. "If we all survive this, I'm gonna be wantin' some answers."

"Me too, buddy," was Buck's reply as he wiped the dust from his eyes and peered around the rock. "Where the hell is JD?"

Josiah peered through the rocks and brush covering the hillside, trying to see where their attackers were. They hadn't started firing in his direction yet - he was some distance away from the fighting - but he was still close enough to better their chances, if he could see where they were hiding.

He spared a quick glance at Ezra, his gut twinging in sorrow at his friend's condition. The gambler was still lying exactly where Josiah placed him in the shade, not moving and barely breathing. There was nothing Josiah could do for him now, and he felt the bitter gall of regret rise in his heart.

Hoofbeats reached his ears. He turned to see JD riding up from the prairie, along with a young girl. There were signs of blood on the side of the young man's head.

"JD, you all right?" the preacher yelled.

JD didn't reply as he reined in; his eyes were fixed on the motionless, pale figure lying behind Josiah's sheltering form.

"Oh my God!" JD exclaimed, his hazel eyes round with horror. The girl leaped off the horse and ran to Ezra's side.

Josiah looked at her warily. "Who's this, JD?"

"It's okay, Josiah, she saved my life," JD answered, his voice still thin with shock. "She was in Eli's gang, but she surrendered."

Josiah nodded, studying her closely as she bent over Ezra. "What's your name, Miss?"

"Pony," was the quick reply. She looked up. "Is he gonna make it?"

Josiah sighed and looked back at the camp. "Right now, Miss Pony, I can't rightly say any of us are going to make it. JD, best get in there an' give Chris some help. I'll look after things here."

JD made no reply as he sat for a moment, gazing at Ezra in open dismay. hen with one quick motion he leapt from his horse and ran ahead, ducking behind boulders as the bullets began to fly his way.

Josiah popped off a few shots into the hill. "How come you know Ezra?"

"Long story, mister," was the terse reply. "No time for it now."

When Josiah looked back again he could see her examining Ezra's wounds in a way which reminded him of Nathan's careful manner.

"There's six of 'em up there," she was saying as she placed a dusty hand against Ezra's forehead.

"They here to free Yates?" Josiah asked, keeping an eye on the hill for any signs of movement. He could see JD behind the wagon next to Nathan, firing away. When she didn't answer, Josiah turned to see her looking at him with large, serious brown eyes.

"They're here t'kill Yates," she said simply, and went back to looking after Ezra.

Yates hunkered down inside the wagon, scared to death a bullet was going to come through and kill him. It was about time they came for him, he thought, but they didn't know where he was!

Shots exploded close by; Larabee's men must be behind the wagon, he told himself. Great! But he knew Hanley would find a way to spring him, and together they'd rid the world of Larabee and his high-riding gang and get the hell out of America for good.

A bullet splintered the wood frame next to the mouth of the back of the wagon. Yates shrank back, wishing his hands were free so he could climb out. In front of him, some fifty feet away, was the rocky, tree-covered base of the hill; he scanned it anxiously, knowing that it was just the sort of cover Hanley liked. Sure enough, he could see the boss's huge form lurking among the shade of the trees. He was waving his gun at Yates: time to go. He'd give Yates protection.

Yates looked around, licking his lips; it would be tricky, getting out of the wagon and over to the hill without getting shot, but he'd had enough of being Larabee's prisoner. He scooted to the edge of the wagon's back and peered around. All of the attention of Larabee and his men was on the hill.


Yates swung his legs out and pushed himself out of the wagon, landing with a dusty THUD.

"Yates!" he heard someone shout; sounded like that kid. He jumped to his feet and started running towards the foot of the hill, ducking as bullets rained over his head to cover his escape. Guns fired behind him; a bullet buried itself in the back of his right leg, but as he sank to the ground with a curse he felt Hanley grab his shoulder and haul him to safety.

"About time," he wheezed as he looked into his boss's face.

To his surprise, Hanley said nothing, his grip still tight on Yates' shoulder. He turned and began dragging the bleeding, bewildered Yates away, and the pain-wracked marshal had no strength to do anything but wonder why Hanley was pulling him towards the river.

Vin's sharp blue eyes grazed the top of the hill as he tried to make out forms against the tall rocks and scrub trees.

"How many ya think?" he heard Chris shout over the blasting gunfire.

"Five or six," Vin cried, rising to snap off a shot from his sawed-off Winchester before dropping back down. "Looks like they're stayin' put."

A sudden burst of bullets caused him to duck back, and he heard JD and Nathan shouting something. He looked over to the wagon but saw nothing; then, a form slipping away into the hills, a spray of bullets covering his escape.

Vin realized, and yelled, "Aw, *hell*! Chris!"

"What?" Chris's voice shouted back. Vin was still staring at the path the form had taken.

"Yates is gone!" Vin exclaimed, and primed his gun. Damned if they were going to come so far, and go through so much, only to have the bastard slip away at the last minute. And damned if Yates was going to get away with putting his friends in danger.

He got off a few more rounds and rose to follow them. A hail of bullets met this attempt, a few of them creasing Vin's skin, knocking his hat off. Vin dropped back behind the rock, his blue eyes ablaze with determination. They were covering Yates' escape, but they couldn't cover it forever.

Trent groaned as he came to, awakened by the roar of gunfire and whizzing bullets. Dammit, he thought blearily as he pulled on his bound wrists, his head throbbing. He was lying face down in the grass, his hands tied behind him. Lifting his head a bit, he saw the fight spread out before him; he was near the horses. Some distance away Larabee and Tanner crouched behind rocks, shooting; on the far side from him was the wagon, at the foot of the tall, rocky hill.

He sucked in his breath and tried to sit up, twisting to release himself from the ropes. Pony, he thought as he glared out at the battle. That damn turncoat bitch must have buffaloed me. Anger swelled in him, and suddenly getting Larabee didn't seem half as important as teaching that little traitor a fatal lesson.

He pulled himself up, relieved to see that no one was watching him. Plenty of rocks around; he felt with his fingers as he backed up, hoping to find a nice cutting edge. The tips touched a cold, rough surface, with not too sharp an edge but it would have to do. Quickly he sawed the ropes against it, watching carefully to make sure he wasn't spotted. Hanley's attack on Larabee, it appeared, was well in hand.

Trent had his own score to settle now.

Behind the wagon, the firing had stopped for a moment, as Nathan hastily bandaged JD's arm.

"Just hold still," the healer breathed as he wrapped the ripped strip of cloth around the bleeding flesh wound.

JD was fidgeting, staring after the path Yates had taken. "We gotta go after Yates, Nathan. He's the only chance at freedom Vin's got!"

"I know that, JD," Nathan replied as he firmly tied off the cloth. "But you only got one arm t'shoot with now, an' you ain't goin' nowhere if I can help it. We got trouble enough here."

JD looked abashed and palmed his gun in his other hand.

Nathan peered around the wagon, watching as Vin made another attempt to go after Yates. A burst of bullets aborted that try, but Vin was clearly inching closer to making a run for it.

"Looks like Vin's gonna take care of Yates, if he can break free," Nathan said as he picked up his gun and checked the chamber. "We gotta be ready t'back 'im up when he does."

JD grimaced as he cocked his Colt with his good arm. "I'm ready as I'll ever be, doc. But if this keeps up I'm gonna be shootin' my gun with my teeth!"

"Looks like the boss got Yates out," Stan grunted as he reloaded his rifle. "Tanner's tryin' t'go after 'im, make sure he stays put."

 "Hey, I think I got the kid!" Lew exulted from his cover behind an old dead tree.

Gray was glaring at the rock which hid the mustached horseman, his eyes full of hate. "I'll be happy just t'get Wilmington."

"Enough for everyone, boys!" Lew replied. "Hey, where'd that crazy white Injun go?"

"Dark Sun?" Stan shuddered. "Probably t'slit some throats. He's got his own ways of fightin'."

Bullets flew up the hillside, shattering the limbs of the trees. Dry leaves and bits of wood showered down on the outlaws.

Lew sighed as he ducked behind his tree. "Well, his way sounds more excitin' than this way. I don't know about you guys, but I'm ready t'go down there and go hand to hand."

Stan shrugged as he fired another round. "Go ahead. Now that Yates is gone it's every man for himself."

Lew grinned. "Just the way I like it."

Dark Sun lay low in the bushes, watching.

They hadn't seen him, of course. He had learned long ago how to move without noise, able to go where he wished and see what he wanted without hindrance. The spirits' voices were very clear now, repeating their age-old command to him, the one he'd heard since he was a boy. Only by causing the suffering of others could he bring an end to his own pain, and the time had come to continue his mission.

He could see that he was behind them now; he was close to the wagon, could see Yates drop out and run away. Hanley would take care of Yates; there were other avenues for Dark Sun to use.

From here, he knew, he could shoot at least two of them before he would be stopped. But there would not be enough pain that way. Besides, he'd seen the black man tending to the young one. A healer, he realized. He'd seen such men before, and hated them.

If they had a healer, they wouldn't suffer. If they didn't suffer, Dark Sun's torment would never be over.

Therefore, they could not have a healer.

Dark Sun lay himself lower to the ground, pulled out his knife, and began slowly and carefully crawling towards the wagon.