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 26

Yates could barely keep up as Hanley dragged him away from the camp and down to the banks of the river. The sounds of the gun battle faded behind them, and Yates noticed that Hanley didn't seem to care about the fight at all.

Finally they stopped on the rocky bank overlooking the rushing waters. The river flowed swiftly past them and crashed down a twenty-foot drop to continue its journey below; a short distance further was another drop, even taller, until the river found a level path once more. The noise of the moving water drowned out all else, and Yates glanced with concern at the sharp rocks jutting out of the glistening river. He hated water.

"All right, this is far enough," Hanley pronounced, turning to Yates.

Yates grinned and held out his bound hands. "Great! Get these ropes off me an' let's go teach that Larabee an' his crew a thing or two."

The huge man smiled but made no move to free Yates. "Oh, they'll learn their lesson all right, but you won't be teachin' 'em nothin'."

A cold feeling swept over the other man that had nothing to do with the clammy spray being kicked up by the rushing water. He frowned and said in an uncertain voice, "What?"

Hanley was checking the chamber of his gun. "You got sloppy, Yates. I hate sloppy men. You got caught once and I can't take the chance you'll get caught again."

"But - but - " Yates sputtered as Hanley very calmly began reloading his empty gun, "I've been with Eli longer than you!"

"Exactly," was Hanley's reply as he looked Yates over with a deadly eye. "You'd be the boss if you came back, wouldn't you? Instead of me?"

Yates didn't like this at all. he took a step back, slipping a little on the wet rocks. "N - now wait, you can be boss, I don't care. Just get me out of this, and it's all yours, the money we stashed away, the gang, all of it! I swear!"

Hanley laughed. "Why would I trust a weasel like you, Yates? Eli trusted you and look what happened to him. I bet Tanner trusted you too, you probably told him you'd sing like a damn bird when you got to Tascosa. Bet you were gonna tell 'em about us too. Right?"

Yates shook his head, desperately working to free his hands; the constant spray of water was making the ropes slick, and they were coming loose, the rough hemp tearing his skin. He didn't care. "No, Hanley I wasn't gonna tell 'em nothin' - "

Hanley snapped his now-loaded gun closed and smiled. "An' you still ain't."

Vin licked his lips as he peered through the rising smoke and dust. Every minute meant Yates was getting further away.

He looked over to Chris; the gunslinger's hat was off and he was covered in sweat, his blonde hair hanging in limp dusty strands as he fired, ducked down, eased himself up and fired again. As he dropped back down behind the rock he looked over at Vin, and their eyes locked.

Vin nodded. Chris knew what that meant, and nodded too.

The tracker primed his Winchester, took a quick deep breath to steady himself, and launched himself from behind the rock, sprinting in the direction Yates and Hanley had taken.

Gunfire exploded all around him; he felt the bullets tear at his clothes and graze his skin. His wounds protested as the still-tender skin twisted and tore. Vin ignored the pain, intent only on finding his prey, and soon he was beyond the hills. He stopped, looked around, took a breath, and hurried his steps towards the river.

Chris watched as Vin took off, then turned to Buck. "Vin's gonna need some help," he shouted over the gunfire.

Buck nodded. "You go get 'em, pard, we'll take care of these varmints."

Chris swiftly loaded his gun and rose, but was soon forced back by a hail of bullets aimed straight at him.

"Damn!" he shouted, falling back. Blood trickled from a graze on his forehead.

He looked at the hill with gritted teeth; they weren't going to let him help Vin.

"Y'all right?" he heard Buck yell over the din. Chris's green eyes were blazing as he sat up and palmed his guns, staring with lethal intensity at the smoke-covered hill.

"Look like they aim t'make us stay here," Buck yelled as he fired another round at their attackers.

Chris felt the anger rise within him. "Then they'll be disappointed," he whispered.

"How's he doin'?" Josiah yelled to Pony as he ducked a shot. He couldn't afford to look back.

"Still out," he heard the young girl say. "You got any water?"

Josiah shook his head. "It's all back at camp."

She sighed. "His wounds need cleanin' somethin' awful."

Josiah ducked another shot and sent a reply back. "You know about healin'?"

"'Course. Someone had t'stitch up the hurts." There was a pause. "They'll be comin' down t'fight hand-to-hand in a minute."

"Not surprisin'," Josiah said as he fell back and reloaded his gun. "You just keep an eye on Ezra, I'll make sure nothin' happens to you."

"I can take care of myself, mister," Pony said with a touch of irritation. "Just gimme a gun an' I can hold off about anyone."

Josiah looked at her for a second and smiled. "I'm right grateful to you for helpin' Ezra, Miss, but you ain't gettin' a gun."

She sighed angrily. "So what do I fight with, if they come down here?"

Josiah finished his task and looked up at the hill. "I'd recommend a few words to the Almighty t'start with, Miss. Then if you need a gun you can have mine."

He heard her pause. "But what'll you use?"

"Well, I'd die before I'd let them come after you an' Ezra," was the pragmatic reply as Josiah fired into the hill, "so I reckon by the time you'd need 'em, I'll be dead."

He took a second out to look at her, and saw the puzzled look on her face.

"You'd die t'protect us?" she asked in a very confused voice.

Josiah shrugged. "If that's the way the Lord wants it. Oh, and mind this Peacemaker, it's got a sticky trigger."

And he went back to fighting.

Yates stared as Hanley raised the gun and aimed it at his chest. He was seconds away from dying, he had to do something -

With a deep breath Yates whirled and leaped into the river. It was only a few feet deep, but the current was very swift, and he had to struggle to keep his footing on the rough, uneven river bed.

"Dammit, Yates!" he heard Hanley bellow. The gun exploded twice; Yates threw himself into the water, hoping the rapidly flowing current would hide him. One bullet creased his side, the other missed, and while he was underwater Yates managed to pull off the sodden, slippery ropes which bound his wrists. They were torn and bleeding, but they were now free.

He heard Hanley splashing through the river towards him and roared back to his feet, whipping the water from his eyes. Full of fury at the betrayal, he leapt at his former boss, and they both fell into the water as the gun discharged harmlessly into the air. The rocks tore at them both as they struggled in the water, locked in a death grip.

Hanley swore and tried to break Yates' hold on him; both of them grappled for the gun, and in the tussle it fell from Hanley's grasp and dropped into the raging river. With rage boiling through him, giving the coward strength he had never known before, Yates took hold of his boss's hair and slammed Hanley's head repeatedly against the closest rock, screaming curses all the while about Hanley betraying him.

Hanley gagged and struggled, but his efforts were weakening. Seeing his chance, Yates plunged his hand into the water, groping until he felt the cold metal beneath his fingers. Still dazed, Hanley could do nothing as Yates lifted the weapon triumphantly out of the water, pointed it at Hanley's face and pulled the trigger.

There was a thunderous report. Hanley let out a gurgling scream and spun backwards, falling face down into the water amid a spray of blood and bone. A crimson flow soon bloomed around his head and the body lost all signs of life. With contempt Yates kicked at it as it drifted away. He panted, exhausted, as he watched the form follow the flow of the water; it drifted to the edge of the falls, paused, then fell over, and he heard Hanley hit the bottom of the drop with a lethal thud.

Yates smiled to himself; now for Tanner, he thought, and turned to make his way back to the battle.

Instead he found himself facing the silhouetted form of Tanner on the shore of the river, his Winchester pointed at Yates' head.

"Howdy," was all Vin said.

Nathan snapped his gun open to reload. The healer cursed to himself as he peered around the edge of the wagon; he didn't like the way this was coming out at all. JD was wounded, so were Chris and Buck. None of them were serious but that might change, and there was no telling how he himself would fare when this was all over. Eli's men seemed determined to fight to the last; so did they, Nathan knew. And before that end came things would likely get quite ugly indeed.

"How you doin', JD?" he yelled as he shot at the hill.

"I'm okay," was the reply, and Nathan instantly recognized the strain of weariness in the young man's voice. JD was tiring out; that might make him sloppy, and that in turn might make him dead.

Nathan was about to tell JD to take it easy when something stopped him. His fugitive slave's intuition told him that he was being watched.

Whirling to look behind him, Nathan was stunned to see the buckskin-clad form of a slender blonde young man, standing with knife in hand not ten feet away. The figure stared at him for a moment, then lunged forward.

"Hey!" Nathan yelled to alert JD to the danger, and by pure instinct whipped a knife from his back holster and hurled it at the intruder. JD turned and fired at the same instant, and the young man staggered back, dropping his knife and grasping at the hilt of Nathan's weapon which projected from his shoulder. Blood began to seep from a bullet wound in his side, but he made no sound, and once he regained his footing he stood and gazed at Nathan, his blue eyes wide and unreadable.

Nathan got his breath back and paused; it had to be the same guy who attacked Vin, he thought as the two stared at each other.

"Want me to kill 'im?" JD asked, holding his gun on the youth.

Nathan hesitated. "Wait, JD," he said. "Look at his eyes - he ain't right in the head."

The young man gasped and took a step back. Blood now flowed heavily from both wounds.

"Easy," Nathan said, hoping to save a life if possible. "We won't hurt you no more if y'all give up now. You got a lot of hurts that need fixin', I can see that."

The young man continued to stare at him, took another step back, then turned and dashed into the woods.

"Damn!" Nathan cried, and followed him.

Part 27

Yates laughed as Vin stared at him down the barrel of his Winchester.

"You won't kill me, Tanner," he said with a smile.

"Try me," was the hoarse reply.

But Yates shook his head. "You need me alive, remember? I'm the only one who can clear you of those murders. You might just wound me, but I don't think you'll risk me dying of infection. It's still a long way to Tascosa. Course, at the risk of bein' rude," he added, looking at Vin's pale face and the blood now seeping through his clothes from the reopened wounds, "you ain't lookin' so good yourself."

"Eli's gang is finished, Yates," Vin exclaimed, the glint in his blue eyes becoming deadlier as his fingers tightened around the Winchester. "An' you are too. Throw away that gun an' come along."

Yates took a few steps towards him, his ankles sloshing in the bloody water, and waded onto the bank. Vin kept the rifle trained on him, mindful of tricks. Their eyes locked as Yates held the gun out to Vin grip-first, and as Vin reached for it Yates hurled himself at the tracker with all of his might, knocking them both into the river.

Vin gasped as he struck the hard, shallow riverbed, the cold waters closing over him. With effort he hauled himself up; Yates was grappling for the Winchester. Vin crashed the butt into his face once, twice, and Yates let go with a yelp as blood coursed from his nose. Enraged, Yates drove his boot into Vin's side, delighting at the tracker's gasps. Yates fell on top of Vin and they wrestled for the gun; more blood colored the water, and Vin realized his wounds were opening again. Yates realized it too - he knew Vin had been badly injured by Dark Sun - and increased the fury of his attack, eager to cause his enemy as much pain as possible.

Vin drove his fist across Yates' face, and for a moment Yates was driven off. Vin stumbled to his feet and gulped for air, his clothing soaked with blood and water. His chest felt as if it had been torn open; he could feel the warm blood mixing with the cold water as it dripped from his body. Damn, he thought vaguely, Nathan is gonna kill me.

Yates came at him again; Vin slugged him across the face with the butt of his rifle. As Yates gasped and staggered back, Vin tried to lift the rifle and fire, but the exhausting agony of his wounds slowed him to an alarming degree. Before he could aim and fire, Yates grabbed Vin by the shoulder and drove his fist as hard as he could into Vin's gut. Vin doubled over, stunned, and they fell back into the water, Yates driving his fist repeatedly into every wound he could find.

The gun drifted from Vin's grasp; Yates ignored it, preferring to prolong his enemy's suffering rather than end it with a quick gunshot. Vin fought valiantly, but the weakness from the pain and the loss of blood overwhelmed his spirit. Unconsciousness loomed, and as Vin spun into agonized darkness an unutterable feeling of frustration consumed him.

He'd really hoped to die a free man.

Chris seethed as he peered through the smoke and the trees. Every time he had tried to make a break for it, the hill had exploded with gunfire, keeping him pinned down. Three attempts had left him with numerous grazes and cuts from the flying lead, including a nasty gash along his cheek.

Rage tore through him as he gripped his gun and stared at the hill. Damn them, he thought, they've kept me here long enough.

"I'm goin', Buck," he said, checking his gun to make sure it was fully loaded.

"Well they already near killed ya three times, reckon they gotta be tired of shootin' at ya," Buck replied. "You go on an' help Vin, we'll cover ya."

Chris nodded and took a deep breath.

"JD!" Buck yelled. "Nathan!"

After a moment, JD's face appeared from behind the wagon. There seemed to be no sign of Nathan. A horrible dread clutched at Chris's heart, but he forced it aside, concentrating on the moment. If need be, he would grieve later.

JD nodded to Buck; he understood.

"Go on now," Buck muttered, "an' good luck."

Chris gripped his guns tightly, ducked down, then leaped to his feet and started running.

The hail of bullets returned; Chris felt the breeze as they whizzed by him and heard the hum as they ripped the air. He had gone ten feet when a bullet tore into his right leg; he stumbled, cried out, but kept going even as the blood began to flow. The pain was blinding, but so was his rage; he returned the fire, with interest, until he was safely under the cover of the woods.

He continued to run, despite the agony of his wounded leg which tortured him with every step. He could hear the rushing water of the river and hurried towards it, ignoring the pain and everything else save the determination to find Vin and Yates.

  There was a crashing behind him, and he whirled and saw a huge form descending the hill firing at him, a big man in convict's clothes with a bald head and a bushy black beard. Chris whipped around, fired his gun; the man lurched, uttered a curse, and dropped to the ground. By the time the man's blood began staining the hot rocks, Chris was on his way to the edge of the river.

Trent shook his head, trying to get the sweat out of his eyes as he worked at freeing his hands. It felt as if he'd been sawing those ropes for hours, they must be cut by now. He glanced up from time to time at the battle, but his only interest in it was whether anyone was watching him. So far, no one was.

Finally he heard a muffled rip, and the ropes fell away. Finally! he breathed, bringing his aching arms forward and rubbing his bloodied wrists. He looked around quickly; the horses were near, and he was still ignored. Very slowly he began to creep towards the nearest horse, his keen eyes searching the saddlebags for any signs of weapons.

"Hey! HEY! Buck! Look!" It was that kid's voice.

Trent winced and thought *Oh shit!*

Bullets began to fly around him; he didn't look back, but raced to the closest horse, withdrawing a hidden knife from his coat as he did so. Cutting the beast's tether, he clambered onto the saddle, hanging over the sid e away from the deadly missiles. Kicking the animal into a run, he pounded away, skirting the camp in a wide circle as he headed out towards the desert. Mexico beckoned; his comrades would just have to fend for themselves.

Trent, however, did not want to leave just yet; there was one former friend who badly needed to be taught a lesson. Once he was far away enough to be safe, Trent righted himself in the saddle, palmed the knife, and began to ride back around the perimeter of the battle. They'd put her somewhere safe, he figured.

Just not safe enough.

Chris felt his fury mount with every step he took as he pounded down the rocky pathway towards the river. His leg throbbed with agony, and he could feel the blood flowing down his pants leg, the warm stickiness gluing the wet fabric to his skin. Such anguish would have felled another man, but Chris Larabee was transported by rage, and his mind saw only a single purpose: to find Yates and preserve Vin's only chance at freedom.

He reached the end of the path and looked around, panting. The river ran before him, and it only took a moment for those sharp green eyes to find who he was looking for. Horror consumed him as he recognized Yates half -dragging a limp, bloodied figure towards the falls. And the still figure was Vin.

For a moment Chris couldn't move, too transfixed by fury to twitch so much as a muscle. Heart pounding, eyes wide with rage, he brought up his gun and took several steps towards the riverbank.

"YATES!" he cried.

Yates stopped and turned, and Chris was satisfied at the fear which was plainly written on the criminal's face.

The gun exploded twice.

Yates released Vin and cried out as he collapsed into the water, blood flowing from the wounds in his legs. He was a few feet from the drop yet, and sat in the shallow water clutching at his injuries as Chris plunged into the river and sliced through the current towards him.

Then in the midst of his agony, Yates began to laugh.

"You're too late, Larabee," he chuckled. "Tanner's dead."

For one hellish moment, Chris thought it was true. As he leaned over his friend's still form, half-immersed in the reddening water, he saw how pale Vin was, and how much blood was seeping from his reopened wounds, and thought that his soul brother had to be gone. With a splash he knelt in the water, frantic with despair as he eased Vin's boneless body upright against a nearby rock.

 "Vin," he choked, grasping the tracker's arm, "Dammit, c'mon now. Vin!"

After what seemed like an eternity, Vin groaned and coughed a little. He remained unconscious, but there was enough Tanner in him to continue to fight.

Chris gasped and bowed his head as relief swept over him; Vin was in a bad way but was alive. There was still a chance.

He raised his eyes and turned to Yates, rising very slowly as he aimed his weapon at the wounded outlaw. The anger returned, hotter now and more passionate: Yates had almost killed Vin, and for that Chris would show him no mercy.

"Looks like you lost again, Yates," he said in a deadly whisper. "Now get up, you worthless piece of dog shit."

Yates' expression was serious now, and his small eyes were ablaze with fear. Slowly and carefully he stood; the wounds in his legs were painful but not too debilitating.

"You ain't gonna kill me," Yates said with a halfhearted grin.

Chris's smile was wide and vicious. "No, I ain't. But if you try any more crap, you're gonna *wish* I killed you. An' I keep my promises. Now come on."

Yates watched Chris closely, then took a step. With a loud, anguished cry he sank to the ground, clutching at his bleeding legs. Startled, Chris watched as Yates fell back into the flowing water, but as Yates fell to his knees he reached out, wrapped both arms around Chris's legs and pulled the gunslinger down as well.

Chris landed on his back, the force of the fall stunning him for an instant. He felt Yates making a grab for the gun, and squeezed the trigger to fend him off; it fired, the noise resounding in Chris's ears. He felt Yates lurch and heard him curse, but a moment later the world spun again as a fist crashed across Chris's jaw. Chris shook his head to clear it, blinking the water from his eyes as he looked around for his quarry.

As Chris's vision cleared, he saw that Yates had gotten a hold of Vin again and was dragging him once more towards the falls. Despite the wounds, despite the warnings, despite everything, Yates was still trying to kill the only man whom Chris felt he could truly call brother.

With a cry of pure fury, Chris sprang from the water and hurtled towards his enemy, wrapping him in his arms as he pulled him down into the river. Chris was beyond reason now, completely overwhelmed by the desire to avenge Vin. Yates struggled, but it was a losing battle; nothing could halt Chris's rage as he grabbed Yates by the collar and sent his fist crashing into the criminal's face. Shooting was too good for him; Chris wanted him to bleed and suffer, as he had made Vin bleed and suffer. Nothing else mattered.

Yates clawed at the iron fingers which were clamped around his throat, trying to get away. They were close to the edge of the drop now, the water running quickly by to crash down on the rocks some thirty feet below. Yates twisted, gulped, and flailed his legs around trying to find a way to escape his predicament, and in doing so he toppled over the edge of the falls.

Chris gasped as Yates went over the drop, the heavy body dangling above the deadly rocks as water poured around him. The only thing saving him was Chris's grip around his throat; there were no protruding rocks nearby for him to grab on to. Now Yates was scrabbling madly, trying to grab onto Chris's slick black clothing for support as his legs swung free above the lethal drop.

The strength of the current was carrying them both over; Chris had little to brace himself on against the rush of the water. With one hand he grabbed Yates' shoulder to keep him from going over, but he felt himself being pushed by the water closer to the brink. He could not stay in this position for long.

He looked down at Yates, gritting his teeth as the anger flowed through him again. Vin was behind him, badly injured, possibly dying, because of this man. Yates' laughter echoed in his mind again; this bastard was glad that he had hurt Vin, would have killed him if he'd had the chance. Chris would have had to suffer another mortal wound to his spirit, and Yates would have been happy about it.

The familiar, deadly urge came over him again as he stared down at Yates' despicable, cringing form. Men like this were useless to the world, he should kill him now while he had the chance and save everyone a lot of grief. It would feel so good to end this miserable bastard's life -

  - as he had ended Eli Joe's.

Chris started, the burning desire to kill Yates abruptly meeting an equal and opposite force. Suddenly it was Eli, not Yates, dangling above oblivion, Eli whose life Chris held in his hand. Chris had fought this battle before, on the rooftops of Four Corners; it was his bullet that sent the bandit to his death. The killing rage of the past still lived within him, was telling him right now to let Yates drop to his death, and good riddance. The question returned as he contemplated that sweet, lethal urge, so well known in the dark days of his past:

*Is this still who I am?*

Chris felt himself pulled closer to the edge of the waterfall by the rushing water; it would be hard to pull Yates up now, easier to release him. So much easier.

But as the thoughts swirled around his mind, others joined them; he was no longer fighting this battle for himself alone. He had the welfare of others to consider; Vin's only chance for freedom would be gone forever if Yates died. He could kill Yates, and serve the demons screaming for blood in his mind; or allow him to live, and place the sacrifice on the altar of friendship and justice.

Chris glared at Yates, his fingers tightening around the man's throat and shoulder. His green eyes were wide, his teeth gritted in a furious snarl.

*Is this still who I am?*

He took a few deep breaths, his body numb from the pain and the constant battering force of the cascading water.

And began to haul Yates back up over the edge.

Yates looked confused as Chris pulled him up. "You're savin' my life?" he sputtered as the water poured into his face.

Chris's teeth were clenched with effort; Yates was not light, and Chris was wounded and beginning to feel the effects of the recent stress. "Shut up an' hang on," was all he could manage, his eyes blazing with hatred.

Yates peered at him sharply, glanced below him, then looked back up, his eyes intense.

"No offense, Larabee," he growled, "but I'd rather take my chances than owe my life to you."

His fist flew out, catching Chris full on the jaw. Chris reeled back, his grip on Yate's slippery clothes loosened; another, more vicious punch, and horror flooded him as he lost his grip entirely. He heard Yates yell as he toppled over the edge, quickly shook his head to clear it and scrambled to the lip of the waterfall, peering down anxiously.

"Yates!" he screamed; God no, God it can't end like this. "YATES!"

Below him there was only water, churning into a massive white foam which obscured everything beneath it. A large, bloody body, not Yates, bumped languidly against the sharp rocks as it bobbed and tumbled in the boiling current.

Chris cried out again, more out of anger and keen frustration than anything else. But there was no sign of Yates.

Chris slumped against the rocks, exhaustion swamping his spirit. After a few moments he lifted his head; he'd go down, look for him, there had to be something - even if it was just proof that he was dead -

A groan from behind him ended that thought before it ever truly formed.

Chris gasped and sat up, moving back now from the edge of the waterfall. Vin was stirring now, scowling as he tried to open his eyes. Blood and water soaked every visible inch.

"Easy there," Chris rasped as he crouched by Vin's side, taking hold of one shoulder to keep him from sliding over into the water.

Vin took a few deep breaths, but his eyes were still closed. "Chris? Wha...happened?"

Chris glanced at the waterfall; he dreaded telling Vin that the only man who could have freed him was now probably dead.

"Just a little dust-up," he replied. "It's over now."

"Ughh..." Vin gagged and coughed, his blue eyes blinking open and squinting against the harsh desert sun. "Aw - hell, Chris, you...look like shit."

Chris wiped at his nose and mouth, not surprised to find blood on his hand when he brought it away.

"Yates?" Vin asked, his eyes widening a little as he looked around. "He get away?"

Chris sighed and thought, Dammit! "Went over the edge. I tried to stop 'im, but he-didn't like that idea too much."

Vin didn't seem too surprised, but he let out an exasperated groan and leaned back against the rock, closing his eyes again. "Damn that son of a bitch t'hell," he moaned in a bitter whisper. Then his eyes opened and he looked at Chris. "Is he dead?"

Chris shrugged a little. "Can't rightly say. But you're gonna be if we don't get you back t'Nathan."

The gunslinger stood, grimacing against every painful jolt that coursed through his weary body. The excitement over, he was now feeling very tired and in a great deal of pain. The wound on his leg was still bleeding, but he tried to ignore the burning anguish as he helped Vin to his feet.

"Can you make it?" Chris gasped, just before his own legs buckled a bit.

Vin chuckled a little despite the pain in his blue eyes. "Reckon we'll just drag each other along, pard."

He gasped again, his eyes squeezing shut against the agony. Chris gripped him a little tighter, and together they slowly made their way away from the river. Chris threw one last, rueful glance at the rushing waters, then helped Vin climb the path that would lead them back home. There would be time for regrets later.

Part 28

The camp lay silent for the moment, smoke drifting lazily in the early afternoon sun as the last echoes of gunfire faded away. Josiah squinted as he palmed his gun, the weapon hot from use.

"Calm before the storm," he muttered, and began to reload. Glancing behind him at Pony, he said, "How you both doin'?"

Pony was crouching over Ezra's bleeding form, one hand on his chest as she looked around anxiously. "Still breathin'," was her reply. "Best look out, mister, they'll be comin' out of the hills soon."

Josiah nodded as he snapped his gun closed. "That's what I figured," he said in a voice laden with weary experience.

Ezra stirred a little and groaned, a cough struggling to escape his parched throat. Pony quickly and gently placed a soothing hand on his hair, her sharp eyes still darting about for any signs of danger.

"Hush now," she said in worried tones as he blinked his eyes open and looked around. Josiah crouched low behind the rock as he crept over to Ezra's side, his heart aching with sorrow at his comrade's plight.

For a few moments Ezra seemed unable to see where he was. Finally he looked up at Josiah and frowned, puzzled.

"Wha - " he began, before coughing strangled his speech.

Pony swiftly stroked his hair, trying to calm him, as Josiah placed a steadying hand on Ezra's shoulder.

"Just another minor situation," Josiah assured him, trying to sound optimistic even though he had no clear idea how things were going. Now that he had a moment to truly look at Ezra, he felt his gut turn at the extent of the gambler's wounds. He looked as if he'd been attacked by a mountain cat, but the cuts were so clean, so precise. An animal had done this, but it was clearly of the human variety.

Ezra coughed again, groaned, and slid once more into restless unconsciousness.

Josiah lifted pain-filled eyes to Pony and softly asked, "What happened to him?"

She gave a very short, bitter laugh. "Oh, like you care all of a sudden?"

He stared at her, taken aback.

"Where were you all when your givin' a damn woulda mattered?" she went on, her eyes snapping.

There was a pause, then Josiah dropped his gaze and drew a slow, sad breath. When he looked again at Pony it was with blue eyes full of regret. "Trust me, miss, we never meant to-UHNN!"

 The preacher's wordrs were brutally cut off as something heavy suddenly jumped on him from above. A young and very strong man, Josiah realized as they fell struggling, who quickly used his momentum to slam the preacher to the ground. Josiah lifted his gun to fire, but before he could pull the trigger the young man raised his arm and smashed a hard object straight across Josiah's temple. Everything plunged into darkness, and the last sound echoing in Josiah's consciousness was the young girl's surprised scream.

Pony's eyes went wide as she saw Trent fall onto the preacher and begin to beat him senseless. Damn, she screamed inside, looking around for a weapon, anything, knowing Trent would kill her for what she had done to him. But the only weapon in sight was the preacher man's gun, and that was now being lifted from his limp grasp by the triumphantly grinning Trent.

"Well," Trent panted as he calmly walked over to where Pony bent protectively over Ezra's half-conscious form, tossing away the large rock he'd used to knock out Josiah, "if it ain't the little traitor bitch. What the hell did you think you were doin', gal?"

Pony glared at him, not moving. "Just tired of that life was all, Trent."

Trent laughed, his fingers clutching the gun convulsively. "If you're tired of life, Pony, I'll take care of that for you. An' Standish an' this big feller here, they'll be joinin' you. Did you think you could cross us an' get away with it?"

He reached down and grabbed her arm, dragging her off Ezra and flinging her into the dirt a few feet away, his hand maintaining an iron grip on her.

"What got into you, Pony?" Trent yelled as he shook her, the dust rising around them in a billowing golden cloud. "You go crazy or somethin'?"

"Dammit, Trent, get off me!" Pony shrieked, trying to twist out of his grip.

"It was that damn lawman Standish, wasn't it?" Trent demanded, ignoring her curses and kicks. "Bet he gave you some bullshit story about findin' a better life. There ain't no better life for folks like us, Pony. You were just too stupid t'see it, that's all."

He reared back and gave her a solid slap which sent her tumbling to the ground. As she fell he jammed the gun in his belt and set himself to leap on top of her, only to be stopped as she drove her foot into his groin with one vicious kick.

Trent collapsed to his knees, the gun toppling from his belt onto the dirt. Seizing her chance, Pony attacked him, her hands clawing at his throat as she knocked him completely to the ground. The rage and despair she had endured for too long released itself in a flood, and focused its power on the man who sought to end her life before it had a chance to begin.

Ezra came to with a moan, the distant noise of violent struggle rousing him from his uneasy stupor. Confused memories darted about his mind, unwilling to be caught and assembled into coherency. Battling against the pain, he forced open his eyes, desperate to know what the hell was going on.

The first thing that met his dry, aching eyes was the sight of two dust-covered figures locked in what looked to be mortal combat. Ezra blinked and struggled to sit up, alarmed as he recognized the contestants: Pony and that vicious kid with the top hat, Trent. As his head cleared he glanced around anxiously, his gaze finally settling on Josiah's limp form lying nearby.

"Josiah," he tried to say, but the noise was little more than a whisper as it escaped his parched throat. My Lord, Ezra thought as fear burned through him, is he dead? Grunting against the agony that roared through his wracked body, Ezra crawled closer to his friend's still form as quickly as he could. As he drew near he saw Josiah's dusty shirt rise and fall with an assuring rhythm; he closed his eyes and expelled a ragged breath of relief. Josiah was alive. But there was another life whose fate was still in danger.

Ezra quickly turned his attention to the bitter struggle being carried out not far from where he crouched by Josiah's side. Pony seemed to be holding her own, but Trent was returning blow for blow, and the outcome of the contest was still uncertain. Ezra gritted his teeth, furious at the thought that Pony's life might be ended just as it was about to be saved.

He roused himself, ignoring the anguish of torn skin and aching bruises as he quickly searched Josiah's holster; no gun. He sat up, fighting the dizziness which assailed him, the green eyes keenly searching for any signs of the weapon. Finally he saw it, its bright barrel winking at him from where it lay in the dust a few yards away. Pony and Trent's struggles had carried them a good twenty feet from where Ezra lay; Pony had no chance to get her hands on the weapon without Trent noticing. But Ezra did - if he could only summon the strength to reach the gun in time.

Pony clenched her teeth as Trent slammed her up against the rock, pain shooting through her body. The look in the young man's eyes was wild, almost demonic in its fury.

"You're puttin' up a good fight, gal," Trent admitted, panting as he licked the blood from his lips, one hand around Pony's throat as he held her pinned against the rock. "I gotta admit I'm kinda enjoyin' this. You're a hell of a wildcat when your blood's up."

"You'll find out how wild if you don't back off, Trent," Pony snarled, her bloodied fingers clawing at Trent's imprisoning hand. The other hand shot out with lightning speed and punched Trent squarely in the windpipe. The force of the blow caused him to gag, and his hold was weakened enough for her to break free. Gasping, he caught her as she twisted from his grasp; she seized his arm, burying her teeth in the exposed flesh as they both spun to the ground.

Trent yowled with pain, trying to pull his arm free; Pony maintained a firm grip long enough to draw blood. He lay on his back now, her smaller form on top of him; with his free hand he grabbed her short brown hair, yanking and tearing on it until she released him. They grappled in the dust, Pony trying to break free, Trent just as determined to hold her back.

"Just let me go, Trent!" she gasped as they fought, covered in blood and dust.

Trent laughed, his face betraying an animal-like excitement. "Forget it, Pony," he shouted, resentment and anger dripping from every word, "you had your chance - you wanted t'join the law against us, well now you can die with 'em too!"

He grabbed her arm and wrenched it behind her back, and as much as she hated to, she cried out from the pain.

Pony's cry seared through Ezra's heart; he had to hurry, and he had no strength to hurry with. It had cost him everything just to make what little progress he had; but the gun was nearing his grasp, and Trent hadn't seen him yet. Just a little more work to do and he would have the gun, he promised his exhausted body - then Trent would be subdued or dead, Pony would be safe, and he could rest...

Gritting his teeth, Ezra pulled himself along a few more inches; the gun was almost within his grasp. He paused and gasped as an overwhelming sensation of weakness crashed over him; the world tilted and began to spin, and he felt himself sliding towards the brink of oblivion. It was too much, he realized; he was going to pass out.

With every ounce of strength Ezra fought the encroaching darkness, his eyes riveted on the gun quietly gleaming only a few feet away. He could not fail Pony now, or Josiah. He had no doubt that if Trent prevailed, the young man would not allow any of them to live. The seven would be diminished, and therefore destroyed. He could not allow that, as long as there was anything he could do to prevent it.

Another cry from Pony reached his ears; Ezra looked up to see her struggling in Trent's arms as the young man dragged both of them to their knees. Trent had gotten a hold of both her arms and was twisting them brutally behind her back. Ezra licked his lips; no time to lose. Every muscle screamed as he pulled himself closer to the gun, his strength now derived solely from a sheer force of will. His hand splayed out towards the weapon, the dusty fingers groping in the hot dirt. One fingertip brushed the barrel; Ezra gasped and managed one last great surge of effort. Almost there

His hand closed around the gun's warm grip.

Panting and covered with sweat, Ezra lifted the gun carefully - it felt like it weighed a hundred pounds - and pointed it at Trent, his green eyes blazing.

"I believe the young lady asked you to let her go," he announced in as clear a voice as he could manage.

Trent's head snapped up, a stunned expression on his dirty, bloodied face. He looked down at his belt, realized what had happened, and cursed. Pony looked just as surprised.

"Ezra!" she cried, then cried out with pain as Trent grabbed her by the hair and tightened his grip on her arm.

"Shoot if ya want, Standish," he rasped, pulling them both around until he was shielded by Pony's slender form. "You'll just kill her an' save me the trouble!"

Ezra blinked, feeling himself beginning to fade from the recent horrific exertion. With stern resolution, he fought to clear his mind and steady his aim. "I assure you, sir," he panted, his voice firm but weary, "that if I aim for you, it will be you who gets the bullet. Let her go."

"Dammit, Trent, do what he says!" Pony urged him as she writhed in his grip, trying to break free.

Trent jerked her arm back even tighter with a grunt, his teeth clenched with rage. "Sure will, darlin'," he growled, his fingernails digging into her scalp, "right after I break your Goddamned neck."

Trent's movements were a blur as he gripped Pony in a lethal pose, poised to snap her neck with one quick pull.

Pony choked out a cry and struggled, determined to fight to the last.

Ezra peered through dimming eyes, praying for one good shot before oblivion could claim him.

And fired the gun.

Pony heard the angry explosion of the firearm, felt the bullet's heat and heard its fatal music as it sped by her ear. Everything seemed to stop, frozen for a terrifying, unreal eternity. Then she heard Trent cough and gurgle, felt his grip tighten on her in a final, uncontrollable spasm. She was pulled down to the ground as he fell, still locked in his embrace, his arms now clutching and twisting convulsively as the mind which controlled them began to die.

She gasped, disentangling herself from the grasping body's death throes, one glance at Trent's face revealing the bloody bullet hole just above his left eye. Horrified, she tumbled into the dust and crawled quickly to Ezra's side, watching as Trent's body breathed its last in the dust alone, its sightless eyes staring at the blazing sun.

Trembling violently and soaked with sweat, Pony bent over Ezra. The gambler had slumped to the ground onto his side as soon as the bullet had left the chamber, and with his closed eyes and white skin looked almost as dead as Trent. The gun lay nearby where it had fallen from his now-limp grasp. She shook him gently.

"Ezra, hey! Ezra?" she breathed, panting desperately for air, and amazed at how weak her own voice sounded.

There was a small noise as Ezra drew in a slight, quick breath; his eyes remained closed, but she heard him whisper, "Safe?"

She looked back at Trent's contorted form. "Yeah, you got 'im right in the head. God, Ezra..."

She heard him breathe what sounded like a relieved sigh; then, without opening his eyes or moving, she made out the faint word, "Josiah?"

Pony looked over to the large man under the rock, and from where she was she could tell he was still breathing, and moving a bit.

"Still kickin'," she assured him. "He'll be around in a while. Looks like y'saved our skins, y'damn fool," she said as she turned back to him with a tearful smile.

Ezra said nothing more, his face going slack as his exhausted body finally allowed itself to slip quietly into the soothing darkness.

"Ezra?" she said softly, knowing that it was no use. With a sigh she picked up the gun, checked the empty chamber, and sat down to watch over the unconscious forms of Ezra and his friend.

Weariness was overtaking her now as well, and she was still shaking from the beating she had recently endured. She had no idea how the fight was going, she realized, then came to the grim conclusion that it mattered little after all. If Hanley won, she would be killed; if Larabee won, well, she'd seen how other gangs treated prisoners. She'd probably be shot, or hung; Ezra was in no condition to stop them.

She tried to prepare herself, and waited.

Part 29

Buck peered over the top of his sheltering boulder, uneasy over the silence which had fallen over the campsite. Smoke still hung lazily in the hot, still air, as if it were an interested observer of what might happen next. The young man swallowed and licked his lips, steeling his nerves as his blue eyes scanned the area.


The gunslinger's head turned to his right, where the wagon lay a short distance away. JD was behind the wagon and leaning towards him, his own eyes glued to the hill watching for movement. Blood was seeping in scarlet blotches from beneath the bandage on his arm.

"How you doin', JD?" Buck replied, wiping his forehead on his sleeve.

JD nodded. "I'm all right, Buck. Long as I can shoot I can hold 'em off!"

His friend laughed a little in admiration at such bravery; the kid sure had grit. "You keep doin' that, kid, an' we'll be just fine. Better get Nathan t'look at that arm."

"Nathan ain't here, Buck."

Buck looked up sharply, surprised. "What?"

JD waved one gun behind him. "He went off that way, after that crazy Indian - lookin' guy that came after us. Should we go help 'im?"

At that moment a shot rang out, cracking the rock Buck was crouched behind. He bent down lower, casting a worried glance at the hill, where the shot had come from.

"It might be us who'll need helpin', kid," he replied. "Watch your back!"

JD clutched his Colts and disappeared behind the wagon.

Buck peered at the hill, ducking as more bullets whizzed past him. He could see them now, two figures moving down the hill towards them, sheltered by the rocks and trees covering the slope. Puffs of smoke announced their location, but Buck's bullets found no more success than those of his enemies', as the menacing shadows found quick protection after every shot.

"They're on the slope!" he called to JD.

"I got 'em!" came the quick response. Buck braced himself, knowing that they would not stay hidden for long.

A thin figure dashed out from behind a split rock, firing at Buck as he ran to the next boulder. Buck drew a bead and fired, but the man was too quick, and the missile whistled harmlessly past him. He ducked back, realizing who his adversary was. Dang it all, he thought, it's Adams, or whatever his real name is, the old guy from the boarding house. The man who had left this aching bullet wound in Buck's left arm. Well, you got yourself a fight now, mister, Buck thought as he quickly reloaded. I couldn't catch you before this whole mess started, but by God I've got you now.

After a few moments he peeped over the top if the rock, to see the old man doing the exact same thing not twenty feet away. Buck hid himself again, his sweat-slicked hand gripping his weapon; his opponent was older than Buck, but his enthusiasm and skill could not be discounted.

There was more gunfire, but it was JD holding off the other gunman. Buck stood on his toes a little, trying to see how his friend was doing, but a shot from Adams sent him back to shelter again.

Damn! Buck thought, anger coursing through him. This guy's startin' to be a *real* pain.

Buck rose as close to the top of the rock as he dared, poised to fire if necessary. "You best give it up, Adams, or whoever the hell you are!" he shouted.

"Take your own advice, sonny!" was the bitter reply, along with another shot.

Buck turned his head away from the shower of dust and rocky splinters which erupted from the bullet's impact. When the deluge was over, he straightened, venturing once again to peer over the rock.

"Look, mister, don't be an ol' fool!" he called. "You want t'die in jail?"

Contemptuous laughter stirred the sulfur-laden air. "Beats gettin' licked by a pup like you!"

Buck's shoulders sagged; it figured he'd be one of those go-out-in-a-blaze-of-glory types. Why was it that talking sense to these sorts of people never worked?

More gunfire; Buck returned it as Adams ran from rock to rock, ducking and firing swiftly as he got closer to Buck's refuge. Buck pursed his lips with each exchange; soon he would be close enough for things to get ugly. Buck felt an instinctual hesitation at hurting the old man, but he also had an intense desire to survive the fight.

If only he could get the guy to give up...

Adams was only ten feet away now, and Buck could hear him replenishing his weapon. If there was a time to avoid further bloodshed, it was now.

"Look, mister," Buck shouted, "I don't want t'have to kill you, even if you did bust my wing."

He heard Adams snort. "Why, 'cause I'm old? Save your pity for yourself, Wilmington. I been shootin' at cocky young Yankees like you for twice your lifetime, an' I'm ready to keep on fightin'."

Buck sighed. "Fightin' for what, Adams?" Buck yelled, still behind the rock. "There ain't nothin' here worth givin' your life for. We can take you in, probably get the Judge t'go easy on ya - that's gotta be better than gettin' a bullet in the gut an' dyin' in the dust."

Silence. Buck strained to listen; he couldn't tell if Adams was actually listening to him, or getting ready to strike. With extreme caution he cocked his weapon and very slowly rose, lifting his head to look over the rock at where his enemy was hiding.

A Rebel yell pierced the air, and Adams sprang into view, screaming with rage as he charged at Buck with his gun blazing. Buck dropped back behind the rock, falling onto his side as he fired around the boulder. One bullet creased Adams' side; he faltered but came on. By the time he reached Buck, his chamber was firing empty, but with undaunted rage he fell on Buck with a cry and began clubbing the gunslinger with the weapon.

Blood spattered Buck's face as the attack opened a few small wounds. Adams was frantic now, cursing Buck's youth loudly as he clawed at him in blind, jealous fury, claiming he could still take him on despite his years. His wrath gave him some strength, and Buck was surprised by how much of a struggle the old man could put up; but there was only one way the fight could now end, and Buck knew it wouldn't be long in coming.

At the first sign of Adams' weakening, Buck grasped the swinging gun firmly and wrenched it out of his opponent's grip. As the gun was hurled away, Adams lost none of his determination as he continued to kick and punch at Buck. But his efforts were becoming less animated, his sweat - soaked face showing the strains of exertion. Buck watched him carefully, not wanting to really hurt him, but not wanting to get a nasty surprise either. Soon Adams was panting heavily, and Buck pushed him away and pointed his gun at the old man's head.

"All right now," Buck panted, getting to his feet. "Had enough?"

Adams lay gasping for breath, drenched in sweat as he clutched weakly at the hot dirt. He said nothing, gazing up at Buck with hate-filled eyes.

Buck took a step closer. "Hey? You give? C'mon now, I just want this to be over with. I ain't gonna shoot you."

Adams stared at him, his breathing ragged and choked. He gasped and began to shake violently, screwing his eyes shut as he slumped back to the ground in an attitude of utter defeat. As the old man began to beat the ground weakly with his trembling fists, Buck realized that his opponent was coming apart, and lowered his weapon a little. Adams no longer seemed interested in attacking Buck as he lay curled on the ground, crushed by his defeat.

A gunshot rang out in the hills nearby. Startled, Buck looked up and noticed JD was gone. After a few anxious moments he saw the young man coming towards him out of the sparse trees, looking behind him from time to time.

"You all right, kid?" Buck asked quickly. JD nodded, his hazel eyes studying Adams' quivering from with something close to sympathy.

"Yeah, I'm fine, Buck," JD replied, panting and still looking at Adams. "There was one more guy in the hills, but he wouldn't give up his guns. He kept comin' at me, so..." JD juggled one of his Colts, an uncomfortable look in his eye. He shook it off, or tried to, and nodded sadly at Adams' quivering, incoherent form. "So, uh, is everything okay here?"

Buck sighed and ran one hand through his sweat-soaked black hair.

"It's under control, JD. Whether it's okay is another question."

Nathan was running, his keen eyes fixed on the slender figure some distance ahead of him. For quite a while now he had been following the youth, waiting for him to tire as the bleeding wound in his side took its toll. But to Nathan's amazement, he had kept up a steady pace, dodging around trees and rocks, trying to lose the healer as they ran deeper into the wilderness.

Nathan gripped his gun as he ran, ready for anything, but so far the young man had seemed interested only in escape. At any time it would have been easy enough for Nathan to shoot him, but his healer's instinct would not allow it. He had seen the young man's eyes, the pain and despair burning in those mad depths. It was a lost soul he was chasing now, and he hated to give up while there was still a chance to save it. If only the kid would hold still and not try to kill him again -

They were in a rocky area now, and Nathan realized he was running uphill. Looking ahead, he saw that the bloodied figure had stopped, and was watching Nathan as he approached. Nathan slowed to a walk, his gun up and cocked, his eyes watching for any threatening movement.

With slow steps he drew nearer to the young man, who stood still as a statue staring at him, one arm clutching his blood-soaked shoulder. Nathan took quick stock of their surroundings - they were on a hill, its summit ending in a sharp, rocky drop just behind where the other man was standing. Faintly Nathan could hear the rush of the river; they must be above it, and pretty high up from the sound of it.

He raised his eyes to where the young man stood, keeping his motions slow and careful. The wounded man was eying him with a completely passive expression, as if he made no connection between Nathan and the wound in his shoulder. But from where he stood, the healer could still see the confused agony in the other man's clear blue eyes. It was an ancient madness, similar to an affliction he'd often seen as a young slave, in the faces of those whose tortures had driven them to agonized despair.

"Okay," Nathan said very slowly, when he was about ten feet from the young man, "looks like you gotta stop runnin' now, huh?"

The other man stared at him, the wind tugging at his long blonde hair.

"Look here," Nathan continued carefully, extending one hand while keeping his gun trained on him with the other, "I know some things 'bout healin' folks, an' you look like you need that powerful bad."

The blue eyes darted to the open hand, then back to Nathan, their sapphire depths confused.

Nathan nodded; at least the kid was listening. "I seen folks got some bad things in their minds. They hear voices or get bad dreams."

The young man shuddered violently and continued to stare at Nathan.

"See, I bet you know what I'm talkin' about," the healer went on, encouraged. "Now I ain't trustin' you too much just yet, but if you come on with me maybe we can help you out."

The young man said nothing, his eyes darting between the open hand and the gun as a strange trembling seized his body. Finally his eyes settled on the open hand, and Nathan waited while he stared at it wordlessly. After a few moments he lifted his eyes up to meet Nathan's, and the healer was struck to the bone over the confusion and anguish he saw there. His blank expression had changed to one of fear whose intensity Nathan had never seen on any other human face.

Then, suddenly, the young man took a step back, his eyes still locked on Nathan, and was gone.

Nathan was frozen for a moment, too startled to move. Then he rushed forward to the edge of the cliff, leaning over as carefully as he could. He heard a muffled crashing, but his view was blocked by trees and dead roots protruding from the cliff wall. Far below wound the river, but Nathan couldn't see where the young man had landed. Sadness filled his own soul as he finally stood back. What was there in his offer of help that so frightened the young man, to the point where taking his own life was better than accepting it?

Well, he mused, at least whatever voices were torturing the poor boy were finally silent now. With weary movements he holstered his weapon and began the walk back to the campsite.