Prisoner Transport

by HeatherF

Part 1 - 2 | Part 3 - 5 | Part 6 - 9 | Part 10 - 11

Part 3

The days were short in the higher elevations. The sun never seemed to quite reach its zenith before it slid its ways back toward the western horizon. They had eaten in the saddle, letting the horses drink from small brooks that disappeared haphazardly under mantels of snow and stretching shelves of ice.

Buck sat quietly in his saddle watching the backs of the three men that rode single file behind Sanchez. They were a rotten batch, dark to their very cores. Wilmington felt his anger growing and diverted his eyes to scrutinize the slowly passing scenery.

Large pines stretched upward, their very tips bare of snow and occasionally even branches. They wove the horses between the trees, giving the animals a rest from having to push themselves through the deep drifts of open territory. They meticulously wound their way downward, slowly leaving the reaching peaks and steep climbs of the high altitudes behind them.

With every passing hour the amount of snow seemed to diminish little by little. Once tall fall grass now lay folded and browned visible in a patchwork fashion through the thinning cover of snow. The horses struggled a little less, their crystallized breath, plumed without the great heaving efforts of animals pushed too hard.

Buck turned in his saddle and glanced at their back trail, scanning the snow covered forest left and right, letting his eyes rest on nothing, trying to glean movement and avoid becoming complacent.

Larabee and others had little hope of making it to Four Corners without some type of attempt at ‘rescue’ from the three brothers’ kin.

+ + + + + + +

“Ezra?” JD swung around in his saddle again, causing the gambler to close his eyes briefly wishing that the short respite from the constant questions had lasted a little longer. He no longer bothered addressing the young man’s first obviously rhetorical question, in hopes of not leading the young sheriff down the same lineage of questions that he had asked throughout the dreadfully grey and taxing day.

JD didn’t need any coaxing. Ezra had realized this sad tidbit of information just as he had come to discover the formidable man that rode behind him leading the prisoners would not stop the young man from his relentless if not repetitive inquiries.

Standish sneered at the soft chuckles he heard bubble from the imposing man behind him.

“You remember anything now?” JD looked at the gambler with a hopeful smile and bright hazel eyes.

Ezra sighed and brought a shaking hand to his aching head hoping his stomach would eventually settle itself. If it were to suddenly erupt he was sure his head would explode from his shoulders, but as miserable as his luck had been lately, he’d probably survive the event. In fact, as luck would have it, the dark peacekeeper in their midst would most likely put his head back together again and encourage him to ‘ride it out’.

JD watched Ezra for a moment, noticed the paling of the cold nipped cheeks and nose and painfully hunched posture. Dunne surmised Standish must have a hell of a headache.

“Anything?” JD asked. It was the least he could do to take Ezra’s mind off his own personal misery. Maybe asking him questions and getting him to talk would distract Standish enough that he could find some peace in the ride.

How many times had he heard this question today?

“Some,” Ezra answered truthfully. He remembered nothing of these men he rode with, but flashes and snippets of other times ran through his head in a jumble with no clear time line or picture. They were flashes really, impressions and feelings. Nothing concrete and nothing worth mentioning.

“Oh,” JD slumped a little in his saddle, “You remember the Nichols Family?” Dunne perked up thinking he could perhaps nudge Standish’s memory a little. “They’re from Kansas.”

Ezra furrowed his brow, “Kansas City Nichols?” Standish paused and again rubbed tiredly at his forehead. The pressure of his hat was becoming almost unbearable, “ There is not a more a ruthless brood of cut throats that exists,” Standish sighed and added, “except for maybe these three dubious clansman, and I feel fortunate enough to say that I have escaped the Nichols notice.”

Jackson stiffly turned in his saddle and stared back at the gambler in curiosity. He had let JD run with his questions, not seeing any harm in it. It kept the drudgery of riding single file from becoming unbearable. There was only so much scenery a person could appreciate. The biting cold made sitting in the saddle monumentally uncomfortable and toes were painfully chilled within leather boots. Though, they needed to be on alert for ambushes, Nathan felt his mind wandering as his eyes traversed the surrounding forest. The questions were entertaining, if not comical.

“Ya blew up their wagon,” Nathan informed him.

“Oh good Lord,” Ezra muttered and shielded his eyes under his hand as he ducked his aching head closer to his chest. Had he lost all his common sense when he started supposedly riding with Larabee? Where was his mother to point out the flaws of his thinking and her nefarious ploys to get him chased or shamed from his current employment? Hell, was he truly employed in an honest endeavor? He could always count on her to make a hash of his life, why had she let him down now? Unless she left him to his own devices as her way of making a shambles of his life by allowing him to do it on his own. A cunning woman, his mother, there was no one more dubious and duplicitous as her, except perhaps himself at one time.

“Not to worry brother Ezra, the clan has been whittled down and they have returned to Kansas City,” Josiah chuckled back.

“Yup, with their tails tucked. We done whupped them but good, didn’t we fellas?” JD asked staring around trying to get an answer from the other men.

They ignored his bravado.

Feeling he had said something wrong, and fearing he understood what it was, JD tried to redeem himself by pointing out the tragedy that had occurred, so the others knew that he understood that no fight concluded without some type of sacrifice and unfortunate trauma.

“Chris’s father-in-law got killed though,” JD stated quite matter of fact. He was about to go on about how crazy the man was but was brought up short by Buck’s sharp hiss of reprimand, “JD!”

The boy immediately stopped his narrative and leaned out of his saddle and tried to peer around Ezra, Josiah and the three outlaws to get a look at Wilmington.

He saw Buck emphatically shake his head ‘No’, warning the boy off the topic of Hank Connelly.

The sheriff furrowed his brow but nodded. He sat up right in the saddle and faced forward.

Vin and Chris rode ahead in silence. The tracker peered at the gunslinger trying to figure how much danger JD had just landed himself. The incident with Buck at the barber shop flashed through the tracker’s mind. Small towns had no secretes but their rumors often lacked a kernel of truth or a hint of accuracy. Vin had heard what had occurred but passed no judgment. He wasn’t there; it wasn’t his business. Buck hadn’t held a grudge, Tanner wouldn’t adopt one in his stead. Right or wrong, exaggerated or not, something happened and it was between Larabee and Wilmington. However, he would try and ensure JD did not stumble blindly into a similar situation. It would put Chris and Buck at odds with JD torn asunder in the middle.

Vin saw nothing in Larabee’s expression and turned his attention back to the trail that only he seemed to be able to see.

A few quiet moments passed, and Tanner heard JD swing back around in his saddle, “Hey, Ezra, I think yer face is gettin’ more swollen---them bruises are sure turning pretty colors. Can ya see out of yer other eye yet? Yer head still hurt? Ya look like a long mile of bad road.”

Tanner couldn’t stop the smile that spread across his face. The smile transformed into a snort of amusement when he heard Larabee chuckle and saw him shake his head.

“Think Ezra’s gonna shoot him before we reach Four Corners?” Vin asked.

“I’m wondering if it’ll be before we make camp tonight,” Larabee answered back his words light with the laughter in his voice.

+ + + + + + +

Seven of the ten horses drank from a sparkling brook that rolled along shallow snow covered banks. Crystalline sheafs of fragile ice covered random spots along the water.

Nathan, Vin and Chris held their horses back from the clear creek and searched the surrounding forest. The healer’s gaze once again glanced over the gambler who slumped heavily within his coat with eyes closed. He watched Standish gently rub his bruised hip and close his eye against another silent wave of pain. The healer watched as Standish once again delicately swallowed saliva that continued to pool with increasing frequency.

Larabee understood all too well the brutal cold that refused to leave Ezra. Memory alone served enough to bring the clenching pain back to life.

“I’m thinkin’ Ezra ain’t got too many miles left in him today,” Nathan pointed out quietly.

Larabee merely nodded having already noticed the lack of movement from Standish. He had stopped answering JD’s questions hours ago and had been reduced to gripping the saddle horn and carefully fidgeting in the saddle, trying to find the elusive comfortable position.

Twice they had to stop while his empty stomach violently heaved. They had waited quietly as Standish knelt in the dwindling snow with hands fisted and his back painfully arched as his stomach threw itself toward his throat. They waited and stared at the surrounding forest trying to give some sense of privacy, trying to ignore the soft placating sounds of Nathan as he whispered to the gambler who had his sweating forehead buried in the ground.

Larabee had wanted nothing more than to stop, set up camp and give Standish time to regain his strength.

“There’s a good place just ‘bout two miles from here, old homestead. Used to have a corral and barn; folks were a young family, thought they could make a go of it here,” Vin explained quietly.

“Too early to be stoppin’,” Larabee pointed out staring up at the heavy grey winter sky. “Their kin,” Larabee nodded his head toward the prisoners, “are gonna try and stop us ‘fore we get to Four Corners.”

“I ain’t too sure it’s a good idea to push on like we’re doin’,” Jackson pointed out quietly.

Tanner nodded and stared up at the thickening grey sky and felt the growing breeze raze against his skin, “Got snow threatening to fall on us,” Vin dropped his gaze to Nathan then to Chris, “Don’t want ta git caught out in it, but we sure as Hell don’t want to git trapped up here neither--ain’t got no feed for the horses, especially if this turns out to be a bad one.” Tanner stood up a little in his saddle, straightening his legs and stretching cramped cold muscles, “be best if we could get down out of these here mountains and onto lower territory. Snow won’t be as bad down there. Might be a bit more feed too.”

Larabee nodded and turned his gaze to the slouching gambler.

Nathan and Vin understood Chris’s concern. Out here in the forest, the seven peacekeepers were far from any type of help. Their visibility could only stretch so far in the thick forest. A late winter storm could trap them up here and then they wouldn’t have to worry about the clan that probably hounded their heels. Mother Nature would have them trapped in her clutches.

If they kept riding they could be out of the mountains and back on the rolling flats of the New Mexico territories within a day of riding. There they would have a better chance of seeing any type of attack but also be more exposed. However, it would put them one day closer to home and help.

“There’s a line shack couple of hours from here, we push hard enough we can get there just after night fall,” Vin stated. His eyes tracked through the forest continually searching out trouble. “It’ll be a tight fit but it’s got a roof and solid walls. Horses’re gonna have to scrape by though.”

Larabee nodded, his gaze wandering over his men as another fierce chill flashed through him, a stunning, unwelcome reminder of his time in the lake.

Josiah sat solid but wearily in his saddle, the pony line dangling to allow the three tethered horses to drink their fill. JD sat with his horse perpendicular to Buck’s big grey, both in the stream uncaring or unfeeling of the glacial water temperature. The two horses drank occasionally snorting the frigid water before gulping down more. Wilmington nodded in response to whatever Dunne prattled on about, while Buck kept his eyes on Standish and his horse.

The gambler sat slouched in his saddle, head drooped to his chest and arms lax against the pommel of his saddle. The leather reins were looped loosely in well worn insulated gloves. His big chestnut stood on the bank and precariously stretched it’s neck out careful to keep its front legs out of reach of the icy water and drank greedily.

Buck stared at the semi-aware gambler, worry gnawing his gut. If the Corrigans’ were to burst upon them with guns blazing, Standish would be a sitting duck. Wilmington shifted a concerned eye to JD, then to Josiah who was burdened with the horses and prisoners and then finally to Larabee.

Chris saw the look, read the consternation and concern and simply nodded his head in mute understanding. Instead of having six steady guns to respond to an ambush, they were down to five possibly four.

“The homestead on the way to the line shack?” Larabee asked quietly.

“Can be,” Tanner answered understanding the turmoil that tore at Larabee. They needed to create distance to get closer to Four Corners, out of the mountains, but not at the expense of their men.

The Corrigan clan stood a good chance of killing some of them before the seven ever reached town. Tanner took one last look at the foreboding sky and accepted that Mother Nature stood a better chance at trapping them and destroying them before the next 12 hours were through.

“Lets go.”

+ + + + + + +

Chris pulled his coat tighter to his chest with gloved hands. A chill wracked his bones, having never truly left him. His stomach muscles ached as fiercely as his shoulder and neck muscles. His toes were stiff and sore within his socks and boots. His knees ached, and his thighs tingled with the biting numbing force of the scouring wind. His inner legs chaffed and itched against the rub of the unforgiving saddle leather and denim. He ducked his chin close to his chest to protect his watering eyes from the scalding wind as it sliced its way between trees. Snow curled and rose like powdered dust from the ground, circling the base of trees and legs of horses.

Horses tucked their tails in close to their bodies, up under their back legs and close to their abdomens, protecting the scarcely furred skin of their lower bellies. Heads were hung down and right eyes squinted closed in protection against the whipping snow.

Through the wind, Larabee kept his red rimmed eyes on the black haunches of the ornery Indian pony Tanner rode.

The silhouette of a small log home came into view.

Larabee felt both relieved and apprehensive. It was still hours until sunset. They needed to keep traveling.

Chris swung around in his saddle and watched the men behind him. JD followed too close behind Chris’s horse for safety.

Ezra was tucked tight inside his coat, a hand clutching desperately at the front of his rough jacket. He had long since taken his feet from the stirrups and held his right leg up closer to his body. His left leg was constantly being repositioned trying to alleviate the discomfort in the bruised hip. Gloved hands clenched his canvas coat closed, knotting them into his chest. He sacrificed his speed with a gun for warmth.

Chris truly couldn’t find fault with the man.

Nathan trailed behind the gambler. Jackson had looped a scarf over the top of his hat and tied it securely under his chin, protecting his ears and head from the biting cold. He lifted his chin and met Chris’s gaze and then slowly dropped it.

He would abide by whatever decision Larabee made. Chris would act in a manner that would keep them safe.

Josiah followed the healer, his head hidden under the raised curl of his coated shoulders and slouch of his hat. The thick pony line was dallied around the over sized saddle horn. It was a dangerous maneuver that could potentially push the preacher from the saddle if the horses should be spooked. However, it gave the preacher’s arm a respite and freed him up to raise a rifle if the need arose.

Buck trailed the group, swiveled around in his saddle, his back to Chris, checking their back trail.

Larabee turned front and slowly pulled his horse to a stop next to Tanner’s in front of the small homestead with broken windows and a hanging front door.

The house blocked the wind, forcing it to travel over and round the structure and then whipped in a maddening twirl of fury to fill the vacuum. The others slowly rode to a stop and peered at the empty house that potentially offered them respite from the cold.

“Snows gonna fall fast and thick up here,” Vin pointed out in warning, his opinion clear.

He stared up at the darkening sky. Clouds boiled thick with unfallen snow. It would trap them there for quite a while. They didn’t have enough supplies for ten men and horses to be too much longer on the trail. They needed to get out of the mountains if they could.

Larabee shivered and pulled his coat tighter to his chest. He stared at the broken house and feared that if they stopped it would be the end of the line for them. Larabee was about to answer but was cut short.

“Oh, Shit! Ezra!” JD shouted out grabbing both Vin and Chris’s attention. They turned just in time to watch the gambler slide to the side and tumble out of the saddle, still clutching his coat closed. He landed in the wind bared yard in an unmoving lump.

“We can’t stay here,” Larabee responded tiredly.

“Nope,” Tanner answered quietly watching as Nathan slid from his saddle and wince as his numb feet hit the unyielding ground. “It’s gonna dump soon, iffen we want to make it to that line shack we got ta git movin’. It’ll be rain down there, don’t want caught out in that neither.”

They knew a drenching rain was often times more dangerous than a dry snow. Wet clothing and wet skin brought a quicker, fiercer and more painful death than a dry freeze.

Both Larabee and Tanner watched as Jackson and Dunne knelt beside Standish.

“Nathan,” Chris called out. He waited a moment for his voice to cut through the swirl of circling wind that scoured the abandoned front yard. Jackson looked up and turned over his shoulder to stare at Larabee and Tanner.

“Git’im back in the saddle we got to get movin’,” Larabee answered.

Nathan looked about ready to argue, as did Buck and Josiah, but all three recognized the danger and the pull that forced them to keep moving.

+ + + + + + +

“Come on Ezra,” Nathan whispered softly, “lets git you back in the saddle.”

“My horse moved,” Ezra mumbled out tiredly uncaring or not realizing that he lay on the ground. He was intent on only keeping the blanket tightly wrapped around his hunched shoulders. Every muscle in his body seemed permanently tightened and clenched. Muscles ached miserably with exhaustion. His stomach refused to stay put and continuously bubbled scalding bile into his throat. His hip shot spears of pain down his leg and across his back.

“Ezra, yer horse no more moved on you than the house did,” JD joked just as the front door crashed from its last hinges, clattering noisily on the warped graying boards of the porch. He and Nathan and the horses jerked in surprise at the exploding sound. The healer and Sheriff shared a bemused look and then hauled the near frozen gambler to his feet.

“Oh gawd it hurts,” Ezra muttered burrowing his cramped neck tighter scrunching his chin closer to his chest. The burn of overtired, exhausted muscles did little to keep the paralyzing cold at bay.

“I know Ezra, I know,” Nathan answered softly commiserating with the Southerner’s painful groan. The cold, the relentless need to keep moving, the urgency and threat of ambush all heralded back to the times of the war. The long winter days and nights freezing and finding no respite. It was a time when a man would kill another for the simple need of a blanket or shoes or a coat; when death or injustice seemed tolerated for the simple attempt to escape the exhausting deadly cold.

Nathan cringed and his muscles ached with long forgotten memory of a time so miserable he never wished to repeat it or see another fall to its torture. “Yer gonna be alright Ezra, gonna git somewhere soon. Git yer head fixed up right, get yer hip straightened out, warm ‘n layin’ down; git yer stomach settled.” His deep voice was quiet and soothing hoping to offer a brief glimmer of hope to his friend who seemed unable to think past the immediate misery of the present.

“Chris ‘n Vin got a plan Ezra, don’t ya worry; me ‘n the boys will look after ya,” JD encouraged. The two men shuffled Standish toward Chaucer, who waited patiently standing cockeyed resting one leg.

Together they tossed Standish back into the saddle and latched onto him as he nearly toppled off from the other side.

JD reached down to gather up Chaucer’s reins to pony him behind his bay.

“Give’em his reins JD,” Chris stated quietly.

Dunne paused and stared at Larabee in question.

“Chaucer will follow, ya don’t need ta lead’im,” Vin explained.

“Need yer gun hands free, son,” Josiah further clarified.

JD nodded, knotting Chaucer’s reins and looping them over the horse’s frosted head and neck.

The sheriff gathered his gelding’s leathers and swung up into the saddle.

Tanner and Larabee waited until JD and Nathan were back in their saddles and then continued their hasty retreat through the forest and down out of the mountain.

Chaucer followed closely behind keeping his muzzle at the bay’s tail head.

Part 4

The long winter afternoon finally relented as night slowly gathered more of the sky. Long shadows disappeared as darkness blanketed the area.

Only skiffs of patchy snow dotted the ground. They had long ago left the high elevations that measured snow depth in yards.

Night descended rapidly.

The wind stirred, swirling around trees and riders. The thick clouds above gave way to a patchy,clear night. Stars blinked in and out of view. They had out raced the storm that blew and dumped snow with biblical passion in the mountains they just descended.

Tanner led them on a convoluted path through thinning trees and building scrub brush. Tall prairie grasses lay molded and bent under the dormant effects of a battering winter.

The horses clumped single file, following the foot placement of the animal before them.

Riders rode with hands near the butt of guns, eyes swiveled left and right, trying to penetrate through the darkness that seemed to envelop them.

As they rode, silence reigned and tension built. Hairs stood on the back of necks and arms, heart rates quickened, and eyes darted back and forth scanning for danger.

Sweat even dared to dampen chilled skin.

They felt it coming.

JD swung around in his saddle arbitrarily checking on Standish. The gambler rode curled forward, head resting on the ice crusted mane of his horse, his arms tucked up across his midsection, jammed between abdomen and pommel.

Dunne clenched his teeth tighter, fearing for Ezra’s safety when the bullets started flying. And as sure as it was night, JD was positive hot lead would be striking through the area in little time.

It was in the air. Something had changed and it seemed they all felt it; everyone but maybe Standish; and that worried JD.

The clan was out there somewhere waiting.

The sounds of hooves crunching over brittle grass, the creak of leather and the puff of horses’ breath filled the still night.

A horse whinnied in the near distance.

A strange horse, not one of the puffing ten walking in single file.

The unexpected whinny of a strange horse cutting through the brittle night was the fuse that lit the explosive exchange of gunfire.

Chris snapped his head around at the resounding crack of a spiraling bullet. He turned just in time to see through the darkening shadows of early evening as Buck Wilmington jerked forward in the saddle, his left shoulder punching outward forcing his right shoulder and neck to follow and whipping his head up over the long blowing mane of his gelding. Wilmington’s big grey took a leap forward nearly tossing his unbalanced rider out of the saddle.

“Buck!” Chris hollered over the roaring scream of the winter wind.

Larabee started jerking his black gelding around to face their unseen attackers.

“No!” Vin ordered sliding his rifle clear of the scabbard, hoping to stop Larabee from rushing headlong into a bullet.

JD’s little bay reacted quicker to the young man’s command, faster than Larabee and his black. JD’s bay wheeled around, pirouetting on his hind feet, the gelding lunged toward the back of the line. Dunne’s colts were in his hands with both guns firing alternating, left and right, right and left before his horse finished making its hairpin turn. The long leather reins laid draped behind the horn and pommels.

Chaucer, following close to the tailhead of the bay, swung around and leapt after the little agile bay. His rider sat slumped, slow to realize the danger around him. Gloved hands instinctively curled around the horn as knees tightened to the fenders despite the numb protest from the bruised hip.

“JD!” Chris shouted, angry that the young sheriff acted quicker, angry that the young man refused to listen.

Dunne galloped past Josiah and the three on the pony line with guns blazing. Chaucer dutifully galloping behind, keeping his nose close to the bay.

Rifle shots whistled through the air, unseen bullets gouged out bark and chunks of wood from trees.

“Spread out!” Chris yelled over the fierce bark of rifles.

The five men peeled off, guns blazing.

Josiah wrestled with the pony line heading for the deep forest to his left, Jackson offering him cover.

Vin raised his rifle to his shoulder and snapped off precise round after precise round. In his peripheral vision he watched as Chaucer finally gave up on following the mad dash of the bay and disappeared into the scant cover of the forest.

+ + + + + + +

JD leaned low in his saddle and snared the loose reins of Buck’s big grey. The sheriff urged his wildly sprinting bay off to their flank and into the darkening forest.

He let his little quarter horse pick and dodge its own course, trying to get enough cover to assure Buck some safety.

After a few yards, JD hauled his horse to a hopping stop. The big grey, nostrils flaring and head held high skidded to a choppy halt beside him. Dunne reached over to loop the big grey’s reins around a low branch when a cocking rifle brought him up short.

The young sheriff slowly turned his head toward the sound and found himself staring down the barrel of a high powered rifle.

Dunne slowly raised his eyes to stare into the pocked marked, toothless grin of a narrow-eyed demon. Dark greasy hair draped limply under a torn, unkept hat. The rifle holder cackled a laugh and streamed tobacco juice from between the gap in his front teeth.

“Gotcha.” The man’s high pitched chuckle unnerved Dunne more than the loaded gun.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah snaked his way through the trees, circling around, his rifle drawn, and headed back toward the gunfire with the three prisoners in tow.

Sanchez raised his rifle to his shoulder and took aim at a dark silhouette which fired in Vin and Chris’s direction.

A shot snapped out and Josiah’s rifle was torn from his burning hands. The rifle stock kicked up slapping him soundly under the jaw, nearly unseating him.

Sanchez’s hand instinctively dropped for his revolver.

“Pull it and die.” The deep self-assured voice had Josiah pausing.

The big preacher raised his bruised chin to meet the eyes of his enemy. He never saw the rifle stock that snapped out and landed a solid but glancing blow to his jaw.

Sanchez fell from the saddle like a toppled statue.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan continued firing, trying to give Josiah time to reach some cover in the woods. He fired intently; switching his aim slightly from left to right, hoping that JD got Buck to safety. The ex-slave once again found himself thanking God that the Southerner’s spoiled horse had as many brains as attitude. The big chestnut whirled and snaked through the gunfire and off into the woods trailing JD and Buck. Jackson swung his rifle, preparing to fire to the left when he heard a stick snap slightly behind him. His eyes followed trying to keep track of their young sheriff.

Josiah had melted into the forest with the three prisoners. Nathan could only hope that he had gotten away.

He never saw the form melt from the woods to his right. He never saw the broken tree branch that swung in a vicious arc toward his head. He never even heard the mocking laughter as he collapsed to the wet, soggy earth of a dying winter.

+ + + + + + +

Vin and Chris alternated shots in a haphazard pattern. The two lawmen fired at the slow moving shapes that crept silently just inches from the ground. Their attention was constantly diverted by the sharp crack of a sniper’s bullet as they burrowed chunks out of the trees the two law men took shelter behind.

The guns of the others were ominously silent.

Larabee peered out from behind a tree and snapped off another shot directed toward the figure that crawled its way closer to his and Vin’s position. A second shot fired at nearly the same time blasting chips of bark and wood into the gunslinger’s face.

Larabee curled away with an angry snarl on his lips.

He lurched himself into the barrel of a stranger’s rifle.

Larabee stared at the gun and then the brown narrow eyes of the man who held it. A deep grey streaked beard partially covered scarred sunken cheeks. A cold anger mirrored Larabee’s gaze.

From the corner of his eye he noticed Vin laying in the wet grass unmoving.

Larabee narrowed his own stare at his capture and found his promise of retribution and dire revenge mirrored in the confident uncaring gaze that bore itself in his direction.

No gunfire lit the night.

+ + + + + + +

Chaucer ran blindly through the woods, the pounding hooves of chasing horses sounded ominous behind him.

With no cues from his rider the big quarter horse ran blindly.

The cut of rifle fire in the night egged the horse onward. Chaucer paralleled the steep cut banks of a dwindling river sprinting full out. The big horse zigged, zagged skillfully and with an agility not seen in many animals. He gracefully shifted his weight left and right leaning into turns and sudden switches in the path never letting clipping hooves to cross or tangle. His rider sat heavily in his saddle, unresponsive to the sounds of pursuit behind them.

Chaucer kept running, kept paralleling the river, doing as he had been trained and following instincts that had kept his species one step ahead of predators.

The big horse ran knowing his life depended on it.

+ + + + + + +

JD spied Chaucer disappearing into the darkening woods with gunmen on his trail firing.

“Go Chauc, go,” JD whispered softly to himself as his guns were stripped from him.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee scowled up at the men who paced back and forth across the barren floor of the small line shack.

Wind buffeted the wood planked walls and occasionally seeped in between the small spaces where the chinking had crumbled from the wood.

Larabee watched as Henry Corrigan sat at the small table next to the cook stove. The patriarch ignored the men around him and consulted his map.

“Nathan, how’s Buck?” Chris asked not bothering to lower his voice.

“Shut the fuck up, Larabee,” The youngest Corrigan spat out and kicked the gunslinger’s boots.

Chris ignored his one time prisoner and waited for Jackson to answer him.

“Lost a lot of blood, still oozin’ some,” Jackson answered paying no attention to the men around him but his patient. “Took a hunk of meat out of his shoulder, missed the joint, thinking it skidded up over his shoulder blade, looks like it broke the collar bone on the way out.” Jackson leaned back against the wall and turned his head to face Larabee. “Should heal though.”

“Vin?” Nathan asked realizing that he would not be allowed to tend the tracker.

“In and out,” Larabee answered, uncaring that two of his prisoners stared at him with contempt. The third eased a gun out of his holster and aimed it at Wilmington who lay on the ground where he had been dropped. Blood had splattered his face and covered his shirt and the inside of his coat.

“How ‘bout I jist kill’im now.” The colt was aimed at the prone Wilmington.

“You ain’t that good a shot,” Buck mumbled out. He wanted to sit up, wanted to move to show these people that a simple gunshot could not keep him down.

“Keep still brother Buck,” Josiah’s voice boomed softly in his ear.

“JD, you see Ezra?” Chris asked.

“What are you stupid?!” Sean, the oldest of the one time three captured brother’s shouted out and switched his aim to Larabee.

Chris ignored him and looked to Dunne.

“Yeah, Chaucer and ‘im were headin’ into the woods. Ain’t no one gonna catch’em,” JD answered, doing his best to ignore the threats and gun aimed at Chris.

“Shut the Fuck up!” Tom Corrigan lashed out with a foot and nailed JD in the side of the thigh with the point of his boot. A satisfied smile crossed the older man’s craggy face.

Dunne cried out and snapped his injured leg immediately in toward himself and almost immediately after that kicked out and nailed his attacker in the shin with both heels. The uncle jumped back stumbling into the table, forcing it into Henry and falling over a chair.

“You little Bastard,” Sean hissed out moving his gun from Larabee to Dunne.

JD met his look with a defiant glare.

“Knock yer shit off,” The oldest Corrigan hollered out standing up out of his chair and staring at the three hot headed boys and one brother that should know better. “Quit yer stupid posturing and leave them be for now. We got enough trouble as it is.”

“They ain’t gotta right to be talking,” Sean shot out in challenge.

Henry’s large calloused hand landed solidly on his son’s cheek, whipping the boy’s head around splashing blood and saliva across his stubbled chin, shoulder and floor. “ An you ain’t got a right to be carryin’ the family name,” the oldest Corrigan hissed. “I’ve had enough of your shit. We’re in this mess 'cause of all yer stupid shenanigans. When yer Uncle Frank and cousin Roy come back with that damn gambler we’ll deal with the seven of them then. Until then, just keep yer gawd damn traps shut and git this place straightened out.” Henry stared at them daring them to defy him.

The two grown boys backed away from the tied peacekeepers and turned their attention to building a fire and straightening the room. Tom righted a chair and sat down by his older brother, a twisted chuckle from the older brother rumbled through the room.

Henry strode around the table and stood at Larabee’s feet staring down at the blond gunfighter.

“You want somethin’?” Larabee asked in his tired laconic manner.

“You’re gonna be dead by the end of this Larabee, jist want ya to know; ya ain’t getting’ outta this one.”

“Ain’t dead yet,” Wilmington stated casually.

Corrigan turned his attention to the pale cowboy and noted the glistening of sweat that shined on his fever tinged features. “You will be.”

Henry turned his attention back to Larabee.

The gunslinger stared at him through stringy dirty blond bangs, defiance lightened his stern hazel eyes.

“You’re gonna die Larabee, and we’re gonna send pieces of you back to your judge and his little daughter-in-law and her whelp.” Corrigan then stepped back and let his gaze sweep the other captives, “we’re gonna send pieces to that old widow and her niece, Hell to the whole damn town,” Henry Corrigan chuckled mirthlessly, “Territory is gonna learn not to go against us. We take what we want.”

“Big plans for a little man,” Jackson pointed out matter of fact.

Chris caught a resigned sigh and wondered why his men felt the need to needle their captors.

Henry whirled on the ex-slave bringing his gun to bear.

His motions were halted when the door blew open. Two men shuffled through huddled in their coats against the whipping rain.

“Well?” Henry nearly shouted out.

“Damn son of a bitch fell off his horse and into the river,” The younger one, Roy answered shaking out of his coat and splashing rain water about.

Josiah and Chris shared a cautiously hopeful look.

“You bring his body back?” Henry demanded.

Uncle Frank schucked out of his coat and peeled off his folded hat, “Couldn’t find no body, river’s runnin’ fast, horse took a bad turn, tossed its rider down the bank and bolted. We searched but couldn’t find’im.” Frank draped his coat over the back of a wooden chair and moved next to the wooden stove.

“Then he still might be out there,” Henry snarled.

JD did his best to hide a hopeful smile. Ain’t no way in Hell Ezra would fall off Chaucer unless he was stacking the deck for an early stop---or just to rile Chris.

“Ain’t no way, Pa,” Sean answered, “Damn gambler fell through Fischer’s lake yesterday. He can’t swim worth a dang. Even so, he ain’t got a clue as to who he is or any of them. Hell, he couldn’t even sit a horse the last few hours. Larabee was pushin’ im straight to an early grave.” Sean smiled smugly at Larabee but spoke to his father, “If he fell into the river then his sorry ass is gone.”

Henry considered his son’s words and gauged the anger that broiled from Larabee. Henry nodded, “You get his horse?”

Frank shook his head, “Damn thing high tailed it deeper into the woods.”

“Damn thing is fast,” Roy pointed out, holding his cold reddened hands over the wood stove.

“We move out tomorrow.”

“What about them?”

“We take them with us,” Henry stated. “And if any of them give us trouble we kill one of’em.” The older man smiled, “it’ll slow that old bastard of Judge down. He sends in the army we send him a piece of one of them.”

The casualness in which he spoke brought a shiver to Dunne.

Josiah leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes as he listened to the rain lash the house. If Ezra drowned then God help those unfortunate souls that chased him down. And if the gambler didn’t drown then God help those souls that forced him back into the river.

There was nothing redeeming about Standish getting wet if it wasn’t his idea. They would all pay. Some worse than others.

+ + + + + + +

Chaucer slowed his steps and eased into a walk. He heaved in great draughts of air and meandered quietly through the trees. The empty saddle sat heavily on his back and the turned stirrups occasionally tapped a front leg.

The big gelding slowly made his way back to the river where his rider waited.

+ + + + + + +

The night sky was split with booming clap of thunder followed quickly by a startling flash of sheet lightening.

The storm moved overhead lashing the earth with torrential rain and fierce wind. Under a small over hang of mud and roots lay the southerner.

Standish lay in the mud, rain permeated his rough coat and drizzled through his clothing to his skin, chilling him even more. Mud and standing water soaked through his pants and coat, leaching precious heat from his body.

The gambler lay face down near the water’s edge under a slight overhang of earth and a precariously leaning tree. His pursuers failed to descend the sharp, sloppy bank to truly search for him.

Water rushed by eating away at the bank, churning and tearing at the ground.

Standish closed his eyes and rested his head wearily against his folded arms and waited. He moved a leg. A fierce hot pain shot from his hip and nearly dissected him in half forcing a sharp cry. He froze, afraid to move, terrified to relax his leg muscles. Short raspy breaths plumed in the drizzling night. The burning pain eventually dissipated to throbbing ache.

Ezra took a few deep breaths, licked his lips and started trying to figure out where he was and how he got there.

He had a plan. He always had a plan, the trick was in remembering it.

His haggard breathing eventually evened out as heat was sapped from his body and water pooled around him.

Part 5

Early morning sun lanced through the solid shack’s only window. Morning came too fast on the heels of a restless night.

The small room ranked with an almost physical odor of bodies, breath and vomit.

Tanner had spent the night relieving his stomach of anything he might have eaten in the last twenty four hours.

Buck had tossed and turned, slipping in and out of a painful, restless sleep. A low fever burned slowly, building into something more threatening. Nathan had spent the night worrying about something he had no control over or ability to stop. With his wrists bound tightly in front of himself, he tried desperately to get the bleeding to stop. He had asked, stopped short of begging and nearly pleaded for some well water to clean the wound.

Their captors relented with ill intent smiles, silent, gleeful promises of indebtedness that the lawmen would be forced to pay with high interest.

Nathan didn’t care at the moment, though he was sure he would harbinger doubt and possibly regret when the payment became due.

The night passed with snapping intensity and hostile glares.

Bodies were hurt, hungry and overtired. An underlying unease sparked the air.

Captors felt cornered and threatened and lashed out without noticeable provocation.

JD felt the sting of a malicious boot to the legs and side for moving in a perceived threatening manner.

Josiah took a pistol whipping to the side of the head, three solid blows knocking the big man into a barely controlled murderous rage.

Larabee sat quietly, smoldering in his dark anger, watching and waiting, every bit as feral as a domestic dog turned brutal.

The night passed slowly, agonizing in its stretch across hours as bodies ached and bled, sleep was missed and frustration and fear rose.

With the coming of the sun, came the unveiling of further misgiving and hatred.

The six men were kicked to their feet, roughly pulled out the door and into the brittle bite of a late winter morning.

“Come on, Brother Buck,” Josiah softly encouraged as he and Nathan struggled to keep Wilmington on his feet.

“I’m movin,” Buck whispered painfully feeling like an old man. “JD?”

“I’m fine Buck,” Dunne answered, “ain’t the one shot, and sure ain’t the one gettin’ sick all night.”

All four men gazed up and stared at Chris who helped ease Vin over to his impatient horse.

“Ain’t needin’ no coddlin’ cowboy,” Vin stated clearly under his breath.

“Nope,” Chris answered not bothering to remove his tied hands from Vin’s upper arm.

“Git yer asses on yer damn horses, or we’ll start tying corpses to saddles,” Henry bit out much to the amusement of his boys.

The six peacekeepers shuffled stiffly through the crisp wet dawn of a new day. Boots and pant legs immediately became drenched and toes chilled as a sharp breeze cut across the land.

“Ezra?” Vin asked trying desperately to remember what had happened yesterday.

“Said he fell off his horse,” Chris whispered.

“Bull shit,” Vin answered back shuffling none to steadily toward his horse.

“Yup, said he fell into the river.”

“He’s gonna be down right riled if he fell in the river,” Vin pointed out and then softly added, “might not ‘ave been strong enough to get out either.”


There was a strangulated pause as they walked gingerly toward the horses.

“He’d get out,” Vin stated with a confidence he didn’t quite believe, “too damn ornery and hates gettin’ wet too much to stay under.”


“Could work to our advantage,” Vin stated.


“Quit yer gawd damn whisperin’ and git on yer damn horses,” Sean yelled out, pushing Larabee on the shoulder and shoving him forward into Tanner.

The tracker saw the nearly uncontrolled rage that flashed through the gunslinger’s eyes.

Vin knew Chris was smart enough not to react but couldn’t gauge how much Larabee had already been pushed.

“I’m gonna kill you,” Vin stated casually staring straight at Sean, “and am gonna enjoy it.”

Corrigan merely laughed at the tracker and drove his rifle stock into Tanner’s gut. Tanner hit his knees with an explosive whoosh, triggering more dry heaves.

Larabee swung out with tied hands and smashed Sean’s ear, snapping the younger man’s head to his shoulder. The force of the blow was enough to send him solidly to the ground.

A rifle blast and sudden gouging of mud at his feet had Larabee stopping his attack.

“Git that injun lover in his saddle and git on yer horse.”

Chris slowly raised hard hazel eyes and stared directly at Henry. “I’m going to enjoy killing you.”

“I’m sure,” Corrigan answered, “but until then, git yer ass in the saddle.”

Josiah and Nathan loosened their grip on Wilmington’s upper arms and sidestepped Sean who still lay in a dazed ball.

Larabee packed a Hell of a wallop, Nathan mused.

“Don’t do it Brother,” Josiah warned.

Buck nodded once curtly refraining from kicking the downed man.

JD stuck close to the group and felt a little less certain when he had to peel away from them to go to his own horse.

+ + + + + + +

Standish shivered and hovered closer to the small fire he nursed through the night. The big sloping pine he huddled under offered respite from the night’s rain and wind. The thick branches trapped the fire’s heat. The gambler had dozed on an off through the night, fighting the urge to just roll into the flames to quench the raw cold that threatened to snap his bones. Instead, he had settled for laying as close as he could to the fire and gingerly stretch toward the small flames letting his face heat until his lips chapped and his eyes burned, forcing him to gently drawback, cool off and repeat the process again. Sometime in the night, he had settled onto his right side and carefully curled into a ball and fell asleep.

Sunlight sparkled through the wet branches offering a reprieve from the cold.

The gambler stared out at the red and purples of the coming dawn and wondered why the big chestnut gelding stood impatiently outside his little shelter. He didn’t ponder too long last night why the big horse wasn’t skittish when he cautiously reached for the bed roll and saddle bags; he certainly didn’t question why the dry clothes in the saddle bags fit so well.

He contemplated none of last night’s peculiarities as he sat curled within a relatively dry bedroll nursing a fledgling fire from damp wood.

Now at the cusp of dawn, with tiny beads of rain water capturing and reflecting light, Standish began to think upon the events of the last twenty-four hours.

The horse just outside nickered and pawed the ground in impatience. It flapped its lips and shook its head and occasionally reared up slightly to hammer front feet solidly down on soft saturated ground.

The gambler stared at the horse through the branches of the tree and wondered who would own such a beast. It sparked a bit of intimidation.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan leaned to his side once again and shouldered Buck back into the center of the Grey’s saddle. “Come on, Buck, ya got to stay with us for a bit longer,” Jackson encouraged.

Wilmington gave no indication that he had heard and slouched closer to his horse’s neck, groaning softly when his stomach hit the horn of the saddle.

“Sit up a little straighter, Buck, come on you can do it,” Jackson encouraged, trying to direct his horse closer to the grey to assist his friend.

“Git yer gawd damn ass in line!” Roy shouted, startling horses and men alike. The intense frustration and sharp impatience sparked of violence.

It had been a repeated command through out the day. Jackson would heed it, slip back into line, but then forgo the directive to aid Wilmington.

Jackson whipped his head around and stared at the younger man, “He ain’t gonna make it to wherever yer takin’ us.”

“You stupid black bastard,” Thomas Corrigan hissed. He leapt off his horse, his boots sinking slightly in the rain softened ground.

He reached up and hauled Jackson off his horse and threw him to the mud.

Josiah reacted but was stopped by the sound of gun cocking by his ear. The big preacher ground his teeth and wondered if today was not the day to redeem himself and prove to the others that he was indeed a faithful and worthy friend, willing to free his soul from his mortal body to save one of his friends.

Larabee’s piercing stare captured the big preacher’s eye. The silent hardened glare burned hazel eyes a deeper richer color. With a single piercing gaze the gunslinger halted the preacher’s rash and assuredly fatal actions.

They would get their revenge ten fold. They would raise the level of retaliation and cut down their captors in manner reminiscent of the men that they had once been, before becoming part of the seven.

Josiah relented. If Nathan fell to the brutality of these men, then Sanchez was more than willing to revisit the monster he had once been before finding Four Corners. He would throw away his Eden just as Adam and Eve had. He would stop fighting the re-emergence of the demon that lurked within the dark corners of his soul and destroy this family of men that brought pain and fear to his own family.

Josiah would wait, he would concede to Larabee’s control, but the big preacher would shower his own form of primitive revenge upon the dark souls that dared bring harm to those he considered family.

Larabee stared at the big preacher and felt a shudder tighten his spine. There was a terrifying rage just under the surface of the big man. They all had known it, all had caught glimpses of it when whiskey soaked the preacher of his tight control. Now in broad daylight, without the muting affects of alcohol the demon lay just at the surface, barely in check. The black rage and power that emanated from preacher was nearly palatable.

Chris wondered what kind of strength it took to control it. He wondered what kind of strength could rein it back once unleashed.

Larabee’s attention was snapped back toward the brutal action that played out before him.

“You need a reminder in listening to yer keepers,Boy?” Thomas kicked the downed man lashing out with his frustration.

Jackson took the blow to the upper arm and mid back. His heart fluttered in his chest at the sounds of anger and frustration, heralding back to his days in the fields when overseers feared that their authority was being challenged, alarmed that the slaves no longer feared them.

It was the in their voices, their mannerisms that would tip the field workers off. Short tempers and sharp blows were building omens to fiercer beatings and more dire consequences. The slaves had learned to recognize the cresting fury and occasionally they were able to stave off a brutal whipping or beating by acting more submissive, quieter, moving quicker to please.

It had always galled Nathan when they were forced to act like beaten dogs; rolling over and exposing their bellies to their masters like animals seeking forgiveness for an imagined trespass.

The same fear and loathing bubbled in his gut as the boot connected with his shoulder. He lay in the mud again at the mercy of a lesser man.

Jackson rolled to his feet, unwilling and unable to force himself to crawl before any man. He broke those chains long ago and promised himself he would never fall to them again. Not even to spare his own life.

The tall lanky healer struggled to his feet and squatted in the mud, staring directly into the eyes of the man who thought himself superior.

“Why you black bastard,” Corrigan hissed out, realizing he held no real power over this black man. “I’ll teach you a lesson you’ll never forget.” He grabbed Nathan by his bound wrists and hauled him to his feet.

Jackson started fighting him until the cocking of a gun stopped him. Another Corrigan sat with his gun carelessly aimed at the back of JD’s head.

The healer stopped his struggles but refused to drop his eyes. He stared at the men who held him captive and refused to look to his friends for support or help. There would be no help from that quarter. Larabee, Tanner, Josiah and Dunne were just as helpless as he was at the moment. He would not expose their helplessness and bring it to bear by pleading for help with a silent look.

He was tougher than that and stronger than the miserable souls that thought they could break him with their prideful posturing.

Nathan would not break. He would not give his captors the satisfaction of seeing him implore the others for rescue, for verbal stays of punishment. Nathan wouldn’t give his captors any such accolades because his captors, his tormentors acted out of fear.

They feared Nathan Jackson, feared him and as a result they debased themselves by acting no better than rabid animals that needed destroying.

Jackson sparked fear into those that thought themselves stronger than him and that alone instilled Nathan with power over his captives.

“Give me a rope, Sean,” Thomas Corrigan ground out between clenched teeth.

“Whatcha plannin’ on Thomas?” Henry asked in a bored tone as he slouched tiredly in his saddle draping his wrists across the saddle horn.

“Gonna teach this blacky somethin’ of the old days.” Thomas’s mirthlessly chuckled response had the peacekeepers sitting taller in their saddles and sharing worried glances.

Jackson was jerked and shoved to a large tree with a low swooping branch.

“What’s he gonna do, Josiah?” JD asked hesitantly, fearing he knew the answer but needing to hear that he was wrong.

“Don’t do this Corrigan,” Larabee stated with venom.

“You’re gonna watch what happens to a man when he don’t listen,” Thomas answered as he tossed the end of the rope up over the branch and wrapped it once around the truck before tying it securely.

Buck watched with glazed eyes and sat mutely with fever weakened limbs. The son of a whore wasn’t worth the stripes that would be stripped from Jackson. Wilmington promised himself he’d survive and he would extract his pound of flesh from these men.

Nathan’s arms were jerked upward over his head, stretching him to the tip of his toes, his back to the men, leaving him to face the reddish, black barked, tree trunk that fit together like pieces to a puzzle. A Ponderosa pine.

Jackson felt his heart twitch and beat furiously in his chest as he fought his panic at the frightfully familiar feeling of helpless, exposed, captivity. His mind shot him back to his days of as slave, of facing punishment of unannounced crimes and blunders.

The ropes dug through his wrists, hauling him on his toes as his large hands clenched around the rope in both fear and panic.

He felt his shirt untuck, exposing the small of his back, enhancing the helplessness and vulnerability of his position as his arms were roughly jerked over head.

He clenched his eyes closed and reflexively jerked when he heard the practicing snap of a leather bullwhip. The cold laughter that followed weakened his knees.

He felt tears pool behind closed eyes when the sounds of his friends’ voices threatened dire consequences should a lash fall across his back.

Nathan questioned his owner inner strength and his own resolve to stand above the brutality of men. He wanted to cry out, to beg these men not to do this, not tear the flesh from his back for the pure enjoyment of the power and control that would infuse their twisted hearts.

Nathan wanted to cry out and plead with them to stop.

He bit his tongue and squeezed his eyes closed.

He nearly shook out of skin at the cruel laughter that soundly frightfully similar to the day he had stood under the unbearable humid heat of a Georgia sun and felt the fiery lash of a whip tear strips off his back.

He opened his eyes and stared straight ahead at the tree trunk, fitting the pieces of bark tighter together in his mind, making the puzzle pieces fit more seamlessly as he waited for the crack of the whip and the startling, flashing pain of leather scour across his back, shearing his skin and muscle with it.

He heard the crack again. He flinched and shuttered at the pitiless laughter of the Corrigans’ as they watched their prey shake under their control. The second practice snap did not land on flesh.

“Git on with it Thomas, we got a ways to go yet before we’re safe,” Henry chuckled, enjoying the murderous but impotent rage that seared Larabee’s face. He tried to memorize the look of horror on the young sheriff’s face and the sharp fury of the old preacher. The Indian lover, he avoided, there was something cold and unbalanced in those blue eyes that unnerved Corrigan. It was almost as if the injun was not as trapped or as helpless as his bound hands indicated.

Thomas laughed, recoiled the leather whip slowly rolling his shoulders to loosen the muscles, “Gonna teach ya a lesson about listenin’ to yer betters---think 'cause ya ride with the likes of Larabee yer equal to us,” Thomas drew his arm back letting the loops of braided, thinning leather fall behind and beside him, as he tightened his grip on the soft leather of the whip handle, “ya ain’t nuthin’ but dirt boy, ain’t worth the ground ya were born to till.”

With that, Thomas started to throw his shoulder forward, stepping forward, leaning into the motion to snap the whip forward.

Nathan clenched his teeth, waiting for the strike to land, breathing through his teeth muttering, “I - am - better - than - you.” Over and over. He could imagine the body position of Corrigan, he could imagine the tail end of the whip raising off the ground and sailing through the air in a macabre S shape against the pale blue of the sky. Nathan could ‘see’ the knotted whip end straightening out becoming almost linear before it would snap, biting across his back and tearing his flesh.

Jackson clenched his fists around the rope refusing to give into the nauseating fear that erupted in his gut.

He jerked at the sound of a rifle shot.

Thomas was thrown backward a step and a half with a section of his scapular, pectoral muscle and amorphous grissle punching through and landing in a small pile of gore just where his back heel hit.

He stuttered for a bit on his feet, his right shoulder at an odd angle behind him, the whip slipping through his nerveless hand. Blood glopped out of the exit hole, following a moment behind the violent expulsion of meat, bone and material. Blood flowed freely as he stood weaving back and forth toe to heel. It took a second or two longer for the blood to boil and then flow thickly from the front entrance wound.

Thomas stared at the finger size hole in his shoulder, watching as dark blood poured from his body down the front of his shirt, warming his chest. He gazed up dumbly at his older brother, “Henry?” he questioned and then crumbled to his knees, pausing for a moment before toppling forward onto his chest and face.

The small clearing broke into a frenzy of activity. JD kept his horse close to Buck’s. His young eyes scanned wildly back and forth trying to find the shooter.

Vin and Chris shared a glance while Josiah sat quietly in his saddle keeping his eye on Nathan.

The Corrigan nephews held tight to the pony lines, drawing their guns and searching the semi arid land around them. There were few trees and in the distance an outcropping of boulders and mesas.

“Son of a bitch!” Henry shouted out, swinging around in his saddle searching the immediate area for the shooter.

“Thomas!” Henry hollered again, jumping down from the saddle and running to his brother, gun drawn. He slid to his knees and rolled his brother over, surprised to see him with open eyes and breathing.

“Son of a bitch,” The older brother muttered. “Sean! cut that gawd damn healer down and git’im over here!” Henry stared at his younger brother, “ya hold on Tommy, gonna git ya fixed up in no time. Roy, ya dumb son of a bitch, don’t jist sit their git the supplies out of the wagon!”

“Frank!” Henry ground out.

“On it already,” the middle brother stated as he strode carefully out of the small area with a rifle cradled confidently in his arms.

Henry leaned solidly onto the bullet wound trying desperately to stop the thick flow of warm blood that oozed under and around his palm and fingers.

“Let me see,” Nathan Jackson knelt down in the mud trying to save the very man that just a few moments ago would have degraded him as if he were piece of beef to be tenderized for pure enjoyment.

Henry backed off slightly, watching his younger brother pale before his eyes.

“Ya best git a fire going, and start boiling some bandages. Got instruments in my bags that need boilin’ too,” Nathan directed in a no nonsense manner. The life and death struggle somehow blurred the lines between superiority and submission. “Gonna need an extra set of hands as well, Josiah’s real good help,” Nathan stated pointedly.

“He ain’t gettin’ untied, yer jist gonna have to make do with us,” Henry snapped back.

“Roy, git their dumb asses off those horses, Sean! Help Frank look around and see if ya kin find who the Hell is shootin’ at us---and kill the bastard.”

Vin and Chris each dismounted before one of the Corrigans got close to them.

They walked confidently toward the wagon; their practiced eyes trying to discern where the shooter could be hiding. The five were forced to sit in the mud with their hands re-tied behind their backs. They watched silently as Nathan struggled to save Thomas, uncaring of the outcome.

+ + + + + + +

Night slowly descended. The warmth of the day was leached away as the sun disappeared and gentle winds of the afternoon turned a sharp edge and bit through damp clothes.

Vin leaned back against the wagon wheel he was tied to and closed his eyes. His head still drummed in time with his pulse. Vertigo and nausea rippled through him periodically and with no warning. Every muscle ached and every beat of his heart brought pain to his eyes.

“Think it was Ezra?” he whispered, lifting one butt cheek up out of the mud and clenched it trying to work circulation back into his leg. He repeated the process with the other cheek.

“Probably,” Larabee answered and then added, “He’s either a Hell of a shot, or his brain’s still scrambled.”

“Figuring he’s still cold or his shoulder ‘s hurtin ’im,” Vin responded tiredly.

Larabee turned his head and stared at the tracker silently waiting for clarification.

“Shot was pulled up and to the left a bit,” Vin explained, “he only does that if his shoulder ‘s achin’im some or he’s cold.” Tanner paused and then stared at the drama playing out closer to the fire. Through the grey of a late dusk he watched as Nathan, Henry and Roy worked to bandage Thomas’s shoulder. Even from here Tanner could see the blood soak through the cloth. It was a killing shot; Thomas and the others just didn’t realize it yet. From Nathan’s body language, he knew he fought a losing battle. However, he would work desperately to save a life.

Larabee muddled over the shot. He had known but never noticed it, but it made sense. Standish, or anyone for that matter, would tense and pull their shot if they feared the recoil for any reason. For novices it was the sudden blast of the shot and the forceful punch of the kickback. Experienced shooters avoided such things, however, under physical duress, one would fear the kick of a rifle stock into a wounded shoulder or cold extremities would fear the sharp bite of a blow

Vin watch the healer with a spark of quiet awe. Nathan was better than most. Tanner had to admit he would have done very little to save the bastard that nearly set a whip to his back. “Could be Ezra’s a better shot than we think with a rifle---shot like that,” He jutted his chin off toward the knot of men, “gonna slow them down quite a bit---force’em to divide their attention between us and ‘im, and keep hands busy that could be holdin’ guns. Wear ‘em down some.”

Chris let a smirk crease his face as he too leaned back against the wagon and closed his eyes nodding his head in agreement.

Standish was out there somewhere watching over them.

“Think he’s got his head on straight?” Chris whispered out.

“Has he ever?” Josiah’s rumbling chuckled response rolled around the darkening dusk of early evening.

Vin and Chris smiled quietly and listened to the drone of voices around them.

+ + + + + + +

JD leaned forward and tried to get a better look at Buck. Wilmington laid flat out on the ground, refusing to sit up against the uneven spokes of the wagon wheel. The fever had boiled forth and sent chills shaking through tiredly clenched muscles. Waves of pain rolled and crashed through his shoulder with breathtaking regularity and persistence. The pain was exhausting.

Dunne watched as Buck ground his teeth as another flash of pain rolled over him, forcing the big gunman to pull the elbow of his wounded shoulder tighter to his chest.

“Yer gonna be okay, Buck,” JD promised. His young hazel eyes darted to Josiah, who sat next to him, and then to Chris and Vin. Those two leaned back against the wagon as if they didn’t have a care in the world. They seemed so unconcerned, so unruffled by the turn of events, it was as if they were merely sitting outside the saloon. Except in this instance their hands were tied behind their backs, Buck was shot and bleeding, Josiah’s face was so swollen and bruised it made his head look bigger, which was an amazing thing in and of itself, and Nathan was trying to save an easily recognizable dead man. And somewhere out there, a crazy man was taking pot shots at them and Ezra was missing, possibly drowned. And if he weren’t dead they’d never hear the end of it if he got wet again trying to save their hides.

JD leaned back against the wagon and stared up at the stars that blinked in and out from behind thick clouds. He prayed to his momma asking her to watch out for them, to protect them. He prayed that Buck lived, that Chris didn’t go stone cold killer on them too soon and that Josiah wouldn’t go ballistic before the odds were in their favor. He prayed that their captors realized that Nathan really did try to save that bastard Corrigan, and he asked his momma if she could watch out for Ezra. He was out there somewhere with more holes in his memory than Buck had holes in his socks.