Part 1 - 2 | Part 3 - 5 | Part 6 - 9 | Part 10 - 11
Vin tensed slightly his heart racing as adrenaline washed into his vessels. He remained still suddenly wide awake and listening intently to the world around him. He kept his eyes closed and waited, holding a breath in his chest for a moment trying to get a bearing on the sound that snapped him back to the waking world.
Larabee feigned sleep, tensing in response to the strange sound that shifted the regular noises of a desert night.
The tracker noticed Josiahs grey eyes snap open and swivel left and right, but the big man did not move.
None gave any indication that they were awake or had heard the ominous snap of a twig just a few yards behind them from the other side of the wagon.
Nathan lifted his head slightly and stared across the light of the fire at Roy Corrigan who sat watch next to his dying Uncle. The uncle for all intents and purposes would be dead by this time tomorrow.
JD slept heavily beside Buck, pressed up against the big man, trying to share his body heat with his friend, despite the crass humiliation the Corrigans had spewed at him. JD hadnt cared, or if he had, he didnt let it show. Bucks safety was paramount.
Tanner laid still, muscles tense waiting for the sound to repeat itself.
Larabee lay beside him, waiting taut, ready to fight.
Josiah kept still, trying to pick up the sound again, hoping to get an idea of who crept up on them in the dead of night.
Crickets still hummed all around them, the fire popped and snapped occasionally, sending sparks spiraling into the air. Horses shifted and snorted in discontent at the lack of feed.
The four awake peacekeepers waited in tense silence for any sound that would reveal the stalker behind them. Man or beast.
A sudden, ear splitting, explosive sneeze rocked the night, followed by the solid thud of a head hitting the wood of the wagon and then a thick southern laden curse and then three lesser sneezes.
Tanner smirked; one mystery solved.
The noise was enough to startle Roy and stop all nocturnal sounds of the night. The momentary silence was deafening. Josiah sat up immediately, throwing a cautious and hopeful stare down at Vin and Chris. The big preacher then started sneezing into his shoulder in an effort to cover the noise of the person under the wagon sneaking up on their position.
A few tense breaths later, people began shifting about, creating small distracting noises, watching the sleeping men by the campfire and the man on watch.
Subtle, Ezra, real subtle, Tanner chuckled softly. The tracker kept his eyes on Corrigan. The tracker utilized the dark shadows cloaking the wagon to obscure his movements.
Shiiiiit, Larabee smiled shaking his head and rolled onto his back not bothering to disguise his amusement.
Vin settled back down on the dirt gently shaking his head. Ezra, use yer knife and cut me free, Tanner quietly whispered.
There was a pause, a deafening silence fell broken only by Josiahs forced sneezes which echoed around the poorly lit camp.
Roy Corrigan swung around and aimed his rifle at the six captives. He watched them from across the fire, the light of the flames diminishing his night vision. Knock it off old man, Corrigan angrily spat out.
The stalled conversation by the wagon remained muted. Captives and captor alike sat in tense silence waiting for something to break the heavy stillness that had enveloped the area.
A few moments ticked by. Josiah sniffled a few times, wiped his nose on his shoulder and uttered another soft sneeze. Testing the waters.
Roy narrowed his eyes at the old preacher but ignored the noise. He turned his attention back to his uncle
The conversation further down the wagon started back up.
I have a knife? The soft questioning reply was layered thick in a deep southern drawl.
Tanner rolled his head to stare at Larabee sharing a worried frown. Chris grimaced tightly, thinning his lips to bloodless white line.
Yeah Ezra, in the back lining of your red coat, Tanner answered with as much patience as he could find.
I have a red coat? The voice under the wagon questioned. The hidden man stared at the cuff of the emerald jacket he wore and wondered if perhaps there was a matching red one somewhere nearby. Apparently he had impeccable taste in clothing.
Gawd damn it Ezra, quit screwing around and cut us free, Larabee hissed out ignoring the racket Josiah and now Nathan were making.
There was another pregnant pause and then a sharp, For a small fee, perhaps. There was a slight pause, Or cut your own damnable self free. I am under no obligations to you, sir.
Tanner nailed Larabee with a caustic stare, Dont go pissin at im now. The tracker turned his attention back to the voice under the wagon, trying to ignore the antics between Josiah and Nathan on the other side of Larabee. The sharpshooter squinted his eyes in an attempt to make sense as to why Nathan was trying to shake Josiah with his shoulder. Was Josiah choking?
Tanner decided he didnt really want to know, but would utilize the distraction to try and convey some common sense to Ezra. Not an easy feat on a good day.
Ezra, ya jist ignore ole Chris, hes cold and hurt and gits a bit crotchety. Jist git yer knife out and cut us loose. Ill make sure ya get paid real well when we get free of here.
There was another pause, How much?
More than youve seen in the last month, Tanner promised.
A quiet fell over the little area of the wagon. Down the way, Josiah coughed and heaved for breath while Nathan shimmied to his knees and proceeded to run his shoulder in Sanchezs curled back.
Vin grimaced catching the antics of Nathan and Josiah from the corner of his eyes and wondered what the other two were trying to do. At least they were making enough racket to cover Vins bargaining with Standish.
A month? Vin could hear the hesitant calculations in the voice. He could imagine Standish trying to remember how much cash he had earned this month. Of course, he was penniless like the rest of them, thanks to his endeavors of trying to attain investors for his saloon and being bought out by Maude.
What do you say, Ezra? Tanner verbally nudged.
I do not have a knife, Standish again pointed out.
Gawd Damnit Ezra, it's in the lining of your red coat, Larabee hissed out nearly spitting the words at the unseen gambler under the wagon. How the Hell were you going to cut us free with no knife?
You, sir, are boorish, Standish snapped back staring at the arm of his coat to assure himself that it was indeed green. Whos to say youll be included in the bargain. The gambler stared at the cuff of his coat twisting his wrist left and right and could imagine that red would be a splendid color on him. Appearances, were after all, everything.
Ezra, Larabee warned with building ire.
Tanner hit Larabee with another caustic gaze warning him too keep silent, Yeah, Ezra he is, Vin kept his eyes on Larabee but spoke to Standish. and you dont have to free im iffen ya dont want too. Vin stared heatedly at Larabee silently threatening him to keep his mouth shut. Larabee returned the warning stare with a frustrated one of his own.
Tanner ignored it and stared past Larabee at Jackson who now appeared to be kneeing Josiah in the back. Vin shook his head in confusion and turned his attention back to Standish, Ezra you got your red coat on?
No. There was a pause, Its green. A lovely shade too, if one can discount the dirt. The last part was uttered with a distinct air of disgust.
Tanner shut his eyes and leaned his head against the ground. Theyd probably be paying for the coat as well. Your red coat is in your saddle bags. Do you have your saddle bags?
That bedeviled horse has them.
Chaucer? Vin asked slightly bewildered at the reference to Standishs prized and coveted horse.
I am uncertain.
Ezra? Why are you here? Larabee asked tiredly, closing his eyes and wondering how they were going to get out of this predicament.
You gentlemen appear to be in a bind. There was a light chuckle at the obvious pun. Seeing, I have something you want, I was hoping for some sort of monetary remuneration; if the rewards are worth the effort and risk to myself.
Youre a mercenary son of a bitch, arent you? Larabee muttered out darkly.
Why yes, yes I am, Standish answered with a hint of pride.
Wouldnt be easier to jist find a card game somewhere? Tanner asked slightly amused.
Larabee shot Vin a disbelieving stare.
There was another long pause, Well sir, I dont actually know exactly where I am at the moment.
Chris ground his teeth, Youre gonna be in a bucket load of trouble if you dont git out of here.
Ezra, git Buck, hes hurt bad and theyll gunim down iffen he holds us up. He aint tied, so ya dont need no knife. Youll git yer money, even if Chris, here got to rob a bank to pay ya, Tanner spoke staring at Larabee warning him to keep silent.
What the Hell is going on over there? Roy spat out standing up; bringing his gun to bear at waist height. Motion and conversation at the wagon stopped. Tanner stared at their watcher and realized that Corrigan was directing his angry words at Nathan and Josiah who appeared to be wrestling or something. It was difficult to make out through the shifting shadows of evening.
Tanner furrowed his brow. What the hell were those two doing? Nathan was partially kneeling on Sanchezs back while the big man sputtered and coughed.
He was choking, Nathan explained.
Well get the fuck offim, 'cause he dont appear to be chokin no more, Roy spat out watching the pair with a jaundice eye.
Tanner watched as Jackson settled back down in the dirt and leaned against the wagon. Vin hoped to God he never choked in front of Nathan. Josiah looked like shit.
Josiah merely nodded his head in acquiescence and settled back down next to the slumbering JD.
A few tense moments passed and Roy finally pulled his eyes away from the six captives and sat down returning his attention back to his struggling Uncle.
Things remained peacefully quiet. The campfire crackled and popped an occasional snore from one of the sleeping Corrigan clan ruffled the area. The sounds of crickets started again.
The soft rustling of a body under the wagon gently floated over the night sounds.
Josiah watched slightly amused as an unconscious Wilmington slowly started to disappear under the wagon.
Vin and Chris both leaned forward and saw Buck slowly disappear under the wagon. They sagged back against their respective halves of the wagon wheel in cautious relief. Vin shot Chris an impatient stare. Chris returned the look with an irritated one of his own. He could have gotten Ezra to listen to him. Maybe.
JD moved slightly, yet remained asleep, when Buck was carefully inched further beneath the wagon. Dunne became restless as part of Bucks upper body disappeared and the sheriffs head and neck were jostled.
The young man came awake with a start when the back of Bucks limp hand ran up the front of Dunnes face. JD bolted up right, an unvoiced panicked warning on his lips, when a familiar heavy voice whispered in his ear. Easy brother, it's Ezra, Josiah breathed.
JD sat up and watched as Buck continued to slide from view until just his boots were visible and even they too disappeared into the dark recess of the wagons undercarriage.
Josiah? JD whispered out both amazed and frightened as Buck slowly slipped from view under the wagon.
Hell get Brother Buck to safety, Josiah quietly reassured. He then chuckled softly, Brother Ezra is showing his uncanny ability at being an underhanded sneak at the most opportune times.
JD nodded in understanding. Ezra was a sneak; a slippery, sly son of a bitch if the moment moved him. Dunne listened to the sounds of a body being dragged away under the cover of night. He wondered if he himself would have been able to pull off such a stunt. He knew he could be sneaky. He had pulled enough pranks on the others to know that he had some talent in the world of covert shenanigans. However, JD doubted he would ever attain the same level of underhanded craftiness of the gambler.
JD smiled thinking back on the incidents that had been occurring in Four Corners lately. For the past few months, Ezra had taking to opening Conklins private safe in the bank---after hours---without permission. Dunne never could figure out why Standish took to unlocking the bank managers personal safe. No one truly knew who was doing it, but Buck and others suspected it was Ezra, though they had no proof. He was retaliating against something; but what JD did not know. No one was talking and no one was keeping Standish from his arbitrary nocturnal activities. Nothing was ever taken from the safe or the bank, but in the morning the doors would be open and its contents laid about for all to inspect. These events would send the bank manager into fits of rage as well as hurt his banking business. If Conklin couldnt keep his own private affairs locked tightly in his supposedly secure bank, what was the likelihood of him keeping other peoples money safe? Mary Traviss news papers sales increased on those intermittent weeks that Conklin found his private safe opened and exposed. Dirty secrets were aired within the pages of the weekly newspaper. JD did, after all, have to document what was touched, and that list was open for public perusal. Dunne had realized after the first news story covering the incident of the open safe, just how devious Ezra could be when he felt wronged.
Josiahs soft rumbling chuckle rolled through the night when a soft southern curse floated by on the breeze.
Go back to sleep John Dunne, morning is coming all too fast and trouble will be on its heels.
Josiahs predictions rang all too true.
+ + + + + + +
The early morning sun had just started lightening the sky when a sharp holler shattered the camp.
Where the Hell is he? Henry shouted staring around at the sleeping bodies of his family. Dew glistened in the early rays of morning as blankets were shoved off huddled shoulders. Horses jerked their heads at the sudden angry intrusion and craned their necks to peer over their shoulders that faced the morning sun.
The five remaining peacekeepers slowly sat up grimacing as cold muscles protested the movements. The men gently worked sore joints, trying to loosen stiffened muscles that were bound to take some abuse in the very near future.
Where is he? Corrigan stormed over to JD and lashed out with his wet boot, connecting solidly with Dunnes ankles.
The young man quickly snapped his legs back bringing them closer to his torso. Cold, damp morning air rushed the newly exposed dry ground and legs biting through wool pants chilling the young mans caudal thighs and calves. Goosebumps ran up and down JDs torso.
He watched the older man through his long dark bangs, trying to hide his fear behind his struggling defiance.
Behind Henry, the other Corrigans searched the surrounding area, hoping to find tracks anything to hint at the direction their quarry had run.
Whered the Hell he go? Sean spat out as he strode from camp in a different direction of Frank and Roy, leaving Kyle to watch his fathers back.
Where is he? Henry snarled again kicking the young sheriff a second time.
Wheres who? JD asked wide eyed, not having to pretend too much at blinking sleep from his eyes.
Your big friend! Henry shouted out.
JD furrowed his brow. Josiahs right there, he answered, a coy smile playing at the corner of his lips. It was easier to be smart mouth and borderline stupid than be brave. Maybe, that was the tactic Ezra and sometimes Buck employed when they found themselves on the wrong end of gun.
Henry reached down and grabbed the young sheriff by the front of his shirt and hauled him to his feet in a fierce and surprisingly fast manner. In the same smooth motion he backhanded the young sheriff, sending Dunnes head snapping to the left, spewing a mist of blood.
Vin, Chris and Nathan leaned forward to act but were brought up short by the cocking of Kyles guns.
I wont ask again, Henry ground out, shaking the sheriff.
Best put the boy down, Josiah warned, he doesnt know anything.
Gawd damnit! Frank spit out as he re-entered camp. Someone untied the horses. Theyre scattered all over creation. Frank nailed his brother with a scathing look, I told ya last night, Henry, it was a bad idea hauling their six asses with us. We shoulda shotem when we first gotem. Frank grabbed his coat, disgust and anger making his movements jerky and kept his fiery gaze on his older brother. He spoke to his boy without looking to him, his tone clearly indicating his antipathy, Roy, git yah lazy no good cousins asses back here and gather upem horses. Then I want ya ta saddle two for you and me. We got to go find us a wounded lawman. Frank turned his attention on his brother, his hands trembling with the effort to not lift his gun and am it at his kin, We should jist killim and be done with it.
Henry whirled on his younger brother, How the Hell do you expect us to get Michael back from that old Judge, if we dont have something to bargain with? The older Corrigan kept a fisted grip on JDs coat and stared at his brother, We needem all to prove to that damn Judge we aint bluffin. Henry turned his attention back to the tied men and let his angry eyes sit on each man before resting his steely eyes on the young sheriff in his grip. He held the dark hazel eyes, We kill a few of them, hang their rotting carcasses someplace real visible and send the Judge pieces of them, he might be more likely to let Michael go.
JD visibly swallowed. The judge didnt strike him as the negotiating type.
Frank paused just on the outskirt of the small camp and watched his brother understanding his plan but wishing they were closer to the Judge so they could carry it out quicker. The longer they held on to the six now five men the more likely it would be that they would run into trouble.
The missing man this morning just proved the point. Frank gave his brother a curt nod and then turned toward Roy and the saddled horses he held, Mount up boy, we got us a lawman to drag down.
Henry snapped his attention back to the young man still caught in his fierce grip and solidly slapped Dunnes patchy stubbled cheek.
Where is he? Henry ground out, fighting the urge to kill the pup where he stood.
JD returned the stare and kept his mouth shut, hoping the fluttering of his heart could not be felt by the man that held him.
Henry back handed the young man again. JDs head snapped around with a crack, his cheek slapping off his own shoulder. His ears rang, and his vision blackened for a bit. He could feel blood and spit string from his bleeding lips.
Where is he?
JD didnt answer, and wasnt sure if he could have articulated the words even if he had wanted to, which he didnt.
A third and fourth and fifth strike landed solidly on his cheek and jaw line and around his eyes.
Josiah and Nathan were frozen half way between sitting and standing, held up short by Vins mares leg held by Sean Corrigan and Kyle and his rifle.
JD hung limply in Henrys hand, his head lolling over the mans hand and forearm.
Tanner and Larabee sat calmly against the wagon, biding their time. Now was not the time to act. Anger checked but palpable simmered from the two men.
Henry ignored them and their silent threats of retribution. Corrigan had no use for empty airs of protection and loyalty. These men werent family, they held no true allegiance toward one another, despite the rumors that rampaged through the territory. The seven law men of Four Corners were simply lawmen. Their devotion to one another was not bonded by blood. Duty would only hold men for so long and only just so tightly.
Corrigan planned on breaking those bonds. He planned on tearing the seven apart. He would send their marred bodies back to that old bastard of a Judge one piece at a time and teach the old man a lesson about taking family from family. Theyd get young Michael back, theyd save him from the hangmans noose and they would litter the ground of the territory with the seven lawmen of Four Corners.
They had already disposed of the Gambler. The mustache man would be next. Perhaps, they would have the healer slice the mans hamstrings, or Achilles tendon, to teach them all a lesson about running.
In a fit of disgusted frustration, Henry shoved JD away from him, letting the young sheriff slam listlessly into the side of the wagon and crumble into a balled, unconscious heap next to the healer.
Henry turned his attention to Nathan, Maybe I should start where Thomas left off yesterday what do you say to that healer man? Corrigan began reaching down for Jackson with every intention of killing the man.
Cant be killinim Pa, least not yet, we got Uncle Thomas to worry over, Sean pointed out, pulling some of the murderous red haze from Henrys eyes.
Henry yanked Jackson to his feet and shoved him toward the fire, Go check on my brother,
The oldest Corrigan turned his attention back to the three remaining alert peacekeepers. Whered yer friend go?
Chris returned the glare with mute defiance. Tanner ignored the man and watched Nathan, wondering if Jackson was just going through the motions of pretending to treat a live patient or was Thomas truly still breathing.
Our brother wandered away last night in a fit of fever, Josiah answered, He wasnt tied, and we couldnt stop him, Josiah spoke quietly with a hint of submission in his voice. He kept himself still fighting with himself not to inch closer to JD and offer the boy some sense of protection and safety even in his unconscious state.
Henry glared at the older preacher trying to dissect the truth from the mans grey eyes.
Sean, Kyle, start breaking up camp. Frank and Royll follow our trail. Closer we get to Judge Travis, the quicker we can get young Michael back.
Henry continued to stare at Josiah, Then well start seeing just how tough you men really are.
Sanchez returned the gaze with an unflinching stare of his own. It only brought a smile to Corrigans face. He would enjoy making this old man scream. Though the preacher was older than the others, he had a strength of spirit that matched the tracker down the row.
Henry would enjoy breaking the bond that held them as The Seven; he would relish in breaking their spirits and would embrace the knowledge that he had destroyed the ramrod Judge that thought he stood above the dark turmoil of familial revenge.
Henry turned from the tied men and focused his attention on the bent back of the healer who worked to save his younger brothers life.
Perhaps the Healer would be just as efficient with only one hand attached to his body.
The gruesome thought brought a smile to the mans grizzled features.
Nathan worked diligently at changing the bandages of the dying man, unaware that someone dreamed of removing parts of his appendages from his body.
The mid morning sun saw the group traveling slowly, picking their way carefully over the rough uneven terrain of a semi-arid ground. The wagon creaked and groaned, shifting left and right as grey iron rimmed wooden wheels crawled up and over sage and red rain softened clay.
They traveled slowly. Henry, Sean and Kyle kept searching the horizon hoping to catch a glimpse of Frank and Roy returning with the mustached lawman.
The five peacekeepers rode single file, their hands bound behind their backs. JD sat quietly in his saddle, trying hard not to move his head. He appreciated Josiahs worried concern but felt a tinge of embarrassment as well. Buck and Vin and even Ezra had ridden yesterday and the day before with worse injuries. JD would make it, just like they did. Besides, JD mused, they wouldnt be captives for long, not with Buck and Ezra running free. Dunne sighed, his sharp flare of hope dying; Buck had been hurt bad and Ezra could hardly sit a horse. How were those two ever going to keep up if the Corrigans continued moving them forward?
Nathan was kept near the wagon, in order to watch over the wounded man who had only just yesterday wanted to set a whip to his back.
Vin and Chris rode in front of Josiah. Neither man appeared upset or nervous. JD marveled at their collected calm and ease, hoping one day to emulate them.
Tanner scanned the area round them and kept an eye on Nathan. He did not like the lancing looks Henry kept searing at Nathan. Corrigan had a plan for Jackson and Vin was certain that it would be brutal and permanently damaging.
Tanner rocked with the motion of his horse splitting his time searching the horizon and keeping an eye on Nathan. The tracker quietly marveled at JDs determination and strength to keep riding. The kid was steady and tough. The other six were lucky to have him on their side. Tanner rode silently moving in time with the creaking leather saddle and horse.
Hours stretched on, as they marched forward moving southwest.
The forest eventually gave way to open land. Large rock formations dotted the territory. They would provide minimal cover and offer little in the way of opportunity for escape or ambush. A single rifle man would not be able to cut the Corrigan clan down without loss of life to the peacekeepers. Vin hoped Ezras brain would unscramble enough for him to realize it.
Hold up! Sean shouted from the seat of the wagon, bringing his rifle to bear on JD forcing the other peacekeepers to settle in their seats and bring their horses to a milling halt.
From the trees, bearing down hard on the group charged two riders. Kyle turned his horse to face the approaching men. There was a tense moment and then the young man flashed a sure smile at his father, Its Frank and Roy.
Henry watched the two approach and saw that there was no captive third with them, Damn.
The group waited until Frank and Roy harshly yanked their dust covered horses to hopping stops.
Well? Henry nearly spit out with a flash of seething ire. He ignored the sweat that covered both men and beasts.
Frank draped his wrists over the saddle horn, leaned to the side and let a stream of tobacco juice shoot the ground. Tracked his sorry ass to the empty river basin but lost it over the flat rocks of McTavish ridge. Frank sat back in his saddle and lazily stared back at his brother.
Vin and Chris shared a quick glance. Ezra knew how to cover his tracks. The man was full of surprises.
What the hell are ya doin?! Go gitim and haul his mangy hide back here, Henry spat out in frustration.
Henry, that gunshot sorry ass of a lawman, is dead already, Frank added, we found where hed been sick, saw where he lay and bled for a bit. By the time he hit the flat rocks he was dragging his dying hide, only reason we didnt findim was because he probably fell over some damn ledge and got ate by coyotes or some such fool thing.
Henry turned his eyes from his brother and searched the distant horizon as if hoping to catch site of the missing law man.
There aint no place for a man to hide out there. It's flat as a young whores chest and just as bare, Roy remarked.
JD cringed at the description.
We searched all over it. Aint no one out there, Roy added quietly, looking to his brothers to believe him.
Henry continued to scan the horizon. They were down two captives with nothing to show for it. They had no proof that they had ever captured or killed either man.
It might be time to start taking trophies from the others.
Henry narrowed his gaze on the Healer and then slowly let his eyes wonder over to the long haired tracker.
Yes, perhaps it was time to start taking pieces of his captives.
Henry felt a piercing gaze on him and moved his eyes toward the silent gunslinger. Larabee would be the last to go. Hed suffer the loss of his other men first. Henry chuckled, maybe hed just leave Larabee crippled but alive, to live with the knowledge of his gross failure.
Henry held the gunslingers icy stare and let his own smile grow. Breaking Larabee would be a chore to look forward too.
Lets git movin, Henry ordered, never breaking his stare from the man he promised himself to destroy.
Larabee stared at the patriarch of the clan and planned on killing the man first chance that arose. For a moment, he considered if perhaps the Judge was wrong in preventing the vigilantes from stringing this motley crew up by their necks. It certainly would have saved them all a bushel of trouble.
Vin watched the silent pissing match between Larabee and Corrigan. The two fools only goaded one another. Henry had no idea that Larabee would kill him if it took his last dying breath. Tanner settled heavily in the saddle. If they kept pushing ahead like they were, there would be no way for Ezra to keep up with them. Not if he stayed with Buck. They had only one horse and Buck didnt have the strength to sit a saddle, if Ezra had a mind to share. Charitable was not in Ezra P. Standishs vocabulary unless it was associated with a con. Tanner sighed. They were in trouble.
Vins thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the desperate scream of one of the wagon horses.
The dark bay reared in its tresses, pulling on the hitch as it staggered on hind feet twisting to its left. The wagon jolted and teetered with the weight of the animal. The second horse danced and side-stepped within its tresses, fighting the pull of its mate and its own sudden fear as the wagon lurched forward and rolled back in response to its frantic movements.
A delayed, distant rifle blast rolled through the area.
Sean fought with the reins trying to control the panicked horses and keep from having a runaway on his hands. He half stood from the seat bracing his feet against the front boards of the wagon, throwing his torso backward, trying to convey as much weight and power through his hands and down the leather reins as he could; commanding a sense of authority and calm.
The horse staggered on its hind feet and then crashed to its right tangled in its leathers, his sides heaving in an agonal fashion---once, then twice, and on the third time, air simply rushed from its bleeding nostrils. Its chest remained still, its visible eye open and unseeing, dirt and debris lay across unresponsive corneas.
The remaining horse bucked and reared within its harness, snapping rings and tearing leather. The angry commands shouted at it, managed only to fuel its blind panic.
The horse broke from its harness and tore across the open sage covered ground, kicking and bucking with explosive flatulence. It serpentined and shied left and right barreling frantically for the cover of the distant forest, leaving behind the angry threats and confusion of the men it escaped and its dead team mate within its harness.
Ezra, Chris mumbled searching the area for any signs of the gambler or Buck.
Vin kept his eyes on the distant outcroppings of rock and wondered if Ezra had hit what he was aiming for, trying to gauge how much danger he and the others might inadvertently be in at them moment.
2 hours later
Frank paced back and forth away from the dim light of the campfire. With a horse dead in its traces and Thomas too sick to keep pushing onward at the pace they had been traveling. They had decided to keg up in a copse of trees away from the open land of the desert. The remaining horse had been rounded up and hitched to the wagon. It had slowly hauled the wagon the last few miles of the day. It stood foot sore and lathered in sweat. They were slowly killing the beast with the burden it pulled.
They would be forced to use one of their own saddle horses or double up one of the lawmen and use one of their mounts to help haul the wagon.
Either way, whoever, had shot the horse in its hitch, had effectively slowed them to a snails pace.
They were sitting ducks unless they unloaded some hostages.
I say we just killem now, keep the healer with us and leave their carcasses to be found by whoever is out there, Frank spat out shooting a string of tobacco to the ground.
He had the distinct uneasy feeling that they were slowly being picked apart. Taken down one by one and they had no idea as to who was doing it.
Henry ignored him and stared at Thomas. His younger brothers complexion nearly matched the grey boards of the weathered wagon, even after two hours of stopping to set up an early camp. Tommys blood had saturated his bandages, and had left a dark stain on the worn boards of the bed. They lay the younger uncle near the small fire hoping to chase the chill that seemed to wrack his body incessantly.
He wouldnt make the trip. He wouldnt get a chance to see his bedeviled son freed from Traviss tyrannical grip.
Henry would make sure the old territorial judge paid for his part in taking Michael from his family.
Sean, Roy and Kyle watched their uncles and father quietly, their own impotent rage held barely in check. However, to free their cousin from Travis they needed the others alive; to begin with; when they started their negotiations with Judge Travis, theyd send parts of a body; send large pieces at a time to the old man just to prove how serious they were about getting their cousin back.
Vin, Chris, Josiah, Nathan and JD were tied leaning against the wagon back within the confines of the thinly treed forest. They remained silent and unmoving, not daring to incur the wrath of their captors.
Who the hell is out there? Henry asked in a hissed whisper. His eyes once again scanned the thin veil of forest around them.
Could be that big cowboy that escaped last night, Sean answered.
Couldnt ve shot Uncle Thomas, Roy spat out, sides that big dumb cowboy is dead.
Its that damn gambler, Henry answered his own question and raised his eyes slowly to stare at his brother. Go out and track that damn son of a bitch down and bringim back here.
Frank narrowed his eyes and held his brothers gaze for just a moment, and then broke it, turning his head to the side and streaming a long line of yellow black tobacco juice to the ground. Roy, Kyle, git yer gear, were gonna hunt us a card sharp.
JD stared worriedly at Josiah through swollen black eyes.
Our brother, will be okay, Josiah quietly reassured, not believing the words he uttered.
Vin leaned against the wagon wheel and closed his eyes against the persistent pain in his head, Ezras gonna need help.
Hes got Buck, Larabee answered not bothering to lower his voice.
+ + + + + + +
The quiet shadows of early evening were shattered by the distant cracking sounds of repeating rifle fire.
The peacekeepers sat up straighter straining to listen. Those werent the sounds of Ezras guns.
Another staccato of rifle fire rolled across the open land, seeping in through the thin veil of trees.
A heavy silence fell.
Nervous stares were shared.
The sudden distant blast of dynamite and the following sound of crumbling rocks echoed around them.
Horses snorted and stomped their feet.
Henry picked up his rifle and stared into the shadows while Sean paused in cleaning his guns.
The tied peacekeepers swiveled their heads trying to gain a glimpse of the mayhem more than a half mile away.
Silence draped the small wooded camp.
+ + + + + + +
Three hours later, with the setting of the sun three men slowly limped their way back into camp. Horses were covered with dust and sweat and suffered superficial wounds to their faces, legs and flanks. They halted with heads hung low and ears carelessly flicking back and forth.
The men which sat slumped in their saddles were covered in thick dust. Angry eyes seemed to glow from the shadow of the dirt and blood that covered their faces.
What the Hell happened out there? Henry didnt bother rising from the side of his dying brother.
Booby trapped, Kyle answered with a slight lisp.
Someone rigged the rocks to blow, Roy answered as he gingerly swung down from his saddle, squeezing his upper leg with a marred hand.
JD shared a smirk with Josiah, who slowly shook his head No hoping the young sheriff would disguise his sudden confidence.
Who the fuck were you firing at? Sounded like gawd damn Sherman on his march, Henry demanded. His eyes narrowed on the empty scabbard at Kyles saddle. What happened to your rifle?
Thought we saw that red coated devil, Kyle explained as he tossed the stirrup fender up over the seat of the saddle and started pulling on the cinch to loosen it up. His horse stood wide stanced and its head hung low, minute tremors shaking its lower legs. Mountain blew up n damn near came down on us---lost my gun scramblin out of the gawd damn way. Kyle yanked hard on the cinch forcing the horse to side step to keep its balance.
Thought you said that red coated gambler was dead, drowned? Henry spat out.
Frank whirled around and faced his older brother, What the fuck do you want? If we had killed these bastards first chance we had we wouldnt be in this mess.
The three younger men stood quietly to the side watching the two older men face one another.
Vin and Chris watched the men quietly.
Josiah leaned backward slouching against the wagon, Ezra and Buck sure can bring out the worst in people.
Yup, Nathan answered nodding his head in agreement.
Sanchez watched the two brothers and three nephews and wondered if Standish and Wilmington planned on the Corrigans destroying themselves from the inside out.
Nathan leaned back against the wagon and closed his eyes. He hoped the whiplash of the infighting did not come back to encompass them as a group.
+ + + + + + +
JD woke to the feel of his hands falling free to his sides. He lay still blinking his eyes trying to orient himself and remember what brought him to be sitting upright leaning against an old wagon with his hands tied tightly behind his back.
The memories swamped him in like water from a breached dam. The sheriffs breath caught for a moment. JD squinted his eyes and stared at the small flames that bent and moved with the soft breeze of the midnight air.
Go, JD, Josiah whispered softly to the young man.
JD stared blankly at the preacher, trying to work feeling back into his fingers without moving his arms too much. It was then he realized he had been cut free of his ropes.
Follow Ezra, Josiah clarified.
But JD stuttered.
Go, ya damn fool, Josiah hissed out. Were depending on you, Buck and Ezra now.
Dunne merely nodded and settled back down resting beside the wagon wheel and slowly shimmied himself underneath it.
Nathan lay curled on his side, his breath crystallized with each exhale obscuring his view of Josiah and JD. Jackson merely stared as he watched rather than heard JD question what they wanted him to do. To be that young and foolish; Delusions of grandeur and courage still clouded Dunnes actions and perceptions. He wouldnt want to leave his friends behind, himself go free, run out on them, so to speak. Nathan closed his eyes tiredly thinking on the fickle relationship loyalty had with friendship. JD didnt want to leave them behind, didnt want to save himself if it meant leaving the others captive. The boy was dedicated to them, perhaps too much, and yet just a few months ago, his loyalty was easily manipulated and hidden by a sure thing granted to him by Maude Standish. She had somehow effectively dulled and put aside JDs sense of fierce loyalty so that the young man never realized that he turned his back on a friend and wantonly pursued his own entertainment for a get rich quick scheme. He did the very thing the others and JD himself included, had and still do accuse Ezra of time and time again. Somehow, Maude had managed to hide and disguise it behind a curtain of smiles and confident reassurances.
She had done it to the three of them. She had taken each of their weaknesses and had exploited it for her and their own gain and at the expense of a friend and her own son.
At first Nathan had been furious with himself and Maude when he had lain in his own room at night staring at the dark outlines of his beamed ceiling. He had been embarrassed and angry thinking that he had allowed himself to be caught up in the beguiling fantasy of respect and a title offered to him by Mrs. Standish. However, the anger and slight humiliation had turned to outright empathy and pain when he had learned a day later that Ezra had lost his saloon. Maude had purchased it a step ahead of the banks foreclosure.
Conklin had made no attempt to keep the information to himself, nor had he instructed those employed to him about the moral and ethical obligation bank officials had to their customers.
Nathan lay on his side in the dirt and watched as JD slowly disappeared from sight, and wondered if Ezra truly had his memory back and he was working to save his fellow peacekeepers or was he working an angle hoping to gleen some type of monstrous monetary reward for saving their necks.
Jackson chuckled, flashing startling white teeth in the moonless night. He hoped, that it was the sly, conniving, in for the quick dollar, cardsharp that was saving their hides, because it was that slimy no good snake of a gambler that would keep one step ahead of a bullet and a hangmans noose. The honest, fumbling, not so sure how to act without an angle, lawman would surely have his scalp parted by a spiraling bullet.
Jackson watched as JDs boots finally disappeared from sight. There was muted whispering under the wagon which built in intensity; an argument from the sounds of it. JD apparently wanted to cut them all loose.
From the harsh retort it appeared, Ezra would only release those of whom he had been compensated for at the moment. JDs size and easy accessibility made him a cheap rescue. Dunne apparently took exception to this.
Nathan closed his eyes and bit back his chuckles. They were either horribly cursed or had incredibly good fortune to have gained an alliance with the gambler two years ago.
Shut yer gawd damn traps and git movin! Chris quietly hissed with no hint of patience or goodwill in his tone.
The southern retort of, Cretin had Josiah choking back a single laugh.
The sharp cocking of a rifle brought everything to a dead silence.
What the Hell is going on over there? Sean stood up and stepped around the small fire and stared at the peacekeepers bound to the wagon.
Josiah laid himself out trying to cover the empty spot that had once held JD. The commotion under the wagon had frozen.
Vin and Chris pushed themselves into a seated position. Jackson remained laying down trying to offer some barrier between their captors and the unseen JD.
Josiah watched Sean and knew that the man saw that something wasnt right but at the moment could not figure out what it might be. Sanchez did his best to casually cover as much of the empty space beside him as he could.
Sean continued to watch the four men. He kept the rifle trained on the spot just over Jacksons heart, affording him the ability to swing the barrel left to cover Larabee and Tanner or right to cover Josiah and---.
Nathan, Josiah and the others both recognized the second their captor figured out what was wrong.
Where is he?! Corrigan suddenly shouted out. He raised the rifle to his shoulder and shouted, Pa! Roy, wake up! Sean stalked toward the tied men bringing his rifle sites to bear on Jackson.
Where. Is. He? Sean ground out through clenched teeth.
Nathan ignored the barrel of the gun and stared into the deathly calm hazel eyes of Corrigan.
Ill kill you, you black son of a bitch.
The boy is gone, Josiah answered sitting up.
Sean twirled his gun around and slapped the stock of the rifle solidly against the preachers head.
Josiah was flung back into the wagon and folded listlessly into the ground.
Nathan cringed but didnt move.
Where is he? Sean asked again focusing his sites down the barrel between Nathans quiet brown eyes.
Nathan remained silent as Henry and the others sprang from their bed rolls and grabbed their guns.
Roy snapped his head to the left at sudden movement just within the trees, There he is!
Kyle and Roy bolted for the trees after the fleeing red jacket with billowing tails.
Frank slowly lowered his gun and turned back toward Henry, The kids gone.
Son of a fuckin Bitch! Henry spat out and stomped his feet in frustration. Git after that son of a bitch and bring him back here! Henry hollered out, with a hint of mania coloring his commands.
Frank merely nodded cradled his rifle and took off after his nephews.
Chris and Vin shared a look and then peered down past Nathan to try and get a look at Josiah.
Thought he said he didnt have his red coat, Larabee pointed out with a hint of ire.
Conman, Vin answered with a shrug as if it was explanation enough. He sobered a little with a quiet sigh.
Sure hope Ezras hip healed enough to keep his wily ass a step ahead of a bullet. Tanners concern was easily discernable.
A single shot was fired in the distance. A moment later, a second lighter shot was returned.
Things remained silent.
Larabee stared off into the night shrouded forest, Bucks out there.
Early morning sun stretched columns of spreading light across the grey sky of twilight.
The damp ground was cold matching the frosty bite of early morning air.
Nathan sat up straighter at the sounds of approaching people. He shifted his weight left and right trying to alleviate the discomfort from sitting on the hard packed earth for the night. His hips and knees ached, the small of his back burned and his shoulders cramped and threatened to spasm every time he rotated his neck.
He kept a wary eye toward the approaching noise and turned just enough to protect Josiah from any more abuse.
The big preacher dozed in and out of coherency. He had vomited twice and struck out blindly at Nathan once. Sanchez was confused and disoriented and couldnt hold a thought no better than JD could hold his tongue.
Henry stood up and trained his rifle on the silhouettes that slowly eased from the forest.
Hes a slippery son of a bitch, Sean muttered out angrily turning his attention on the long haired tracker. Thinkin that gambler aint dead, and hes freed them other two. Sean paused for a moment and took a measure of his father.
Frank made his way toward Tanner. I say we gut one of these bastards, get im screamin real good and see if we can lure that damn gambler in here. Sean and Roy followed the older mans path.
Vin continued to slouch and feign disinterest. His heart hammered in his chest.
Touch im and youll be the one gutted. Larabees softly spoken words held the icy chill of Dantes Inferno. So far his men had only fallen to blunt force of abuse, caused by frustrated powerful hands. Though their captors held a flagrant flare for violence and abuse they had refrained from out and out torture.
They now stepped across that unseen line.
Sean and Roy paused---then stepped forward together each latching onto the upper arms of the tracker and hauled him to his feet.
Both Jackson and Larabee struggled to rise hoping to intercept and prevent Vin from being dragged from their side.
Frank and Henry didnt bother cocking their guns in warning, realizing with the mindset of the two peacekeepers it would not be enough to keep them from moving forward. Instead, the two older men brutally shoved the peacekeepers back a half step slamming them into the side of the wagon, forcing it to creak on its axles. Both law men struggled to regain their feet only to be met by an explosive physical retaliation. The frustration and anger that had smoldered and built over the last week exploded from the two Corrigans.
Nathan and Chris, with hands tied behind their backs, fell to the brutality of Henry and Frank.
Vin twisted and turned, jerked his shoulders and torso trying to free himself from the men that held him.
He watched as Nathan and Chris struggled against the older two Corrigans to no avail. Tanners thoughts were interrupted when he was flung back first into the solid trunk of a tree. The wind was forced from his lungs leaving him sinking to his knees struggling for an elusive breath. The skin of his lower forearms and wrists not chafed by the rope tore under the harsh abrasiveness of tree bark.
He finally garnered gasped a panicked breath as he was roughly hauled to his feet. A rope was quickly lashed around his shoulders and lower legs tying him securely to the pine with his hands crushed between his lower back and the tree.
He stared defiantly at the rifle barrel aimed squarely at his chest. He ignored the man that held the gun.
Got im trussed up good, Roy stated proudly.
Lets see if we cant lure us in a gambler, Sean laughed. He eased the hammer back in place on the rifle and set the repeating Winchester down against his saddle.
Roy placed his large curved skinning blade in the fire, Dont want ya bleedin too much on us and pass out n all, the younger Corrigan explained as he heated the blade.
Tanner avoided looking over at Chris and Nathan, whom he knew to be bleeding and sitting angrily back on the ground. Henry, still heaving for breath, was in the process of tying Larabees feet. Chris sat slumped moving listlessly trying to jerk his feet free but unable to coordinate the movement. Blood streamed down from a gash on his temple.
Nathan sat quietly beside the gunslinger with a look on his face Vin hadnt seen since his time with the Comanche.
If the Corrigans had any smarts at all, theyd either stop what they were about to do or kill Nathan before the healer got himself free.
There was a part of Nathan Jackson he kept hidden from the others, and for the first time since knowing the man, Vin Tanner saw the inner demon and it made the bounty hunters blood run cold.
He finally glimpsed the destroyer that Jock Steele had described and it was frightening.
Vins attention was dragged back to his immediate situation and sucked in his gut as reddened steel of the heated knife passed through the billowy folds of his blue shirt. Smoke twirled upward as the fine woven wool curled and popped from the glancing pass of heat. A cauterized tear lay ashened and opened exposing the soft pale skin of the trackers belly.
Sean laughed and started the knife on its second swipe, sure to slice through the white finely haired skin. The oldest Corrigan sons maniacal chuckle cut through the air as he sliced the blade closer.
Vin sucked in his gut further, tried to push himself tighter against the tree and hold his breath.
His blue eyes remained riveted on the orange cooling blade as it swung toward his abdomen in an arcing motion.
Everything seemed to assault Vins senses with hyper-clarity as he focused intently on the glowing knife.
The sounds of the approaching dawn appeared unnaturally loud, the crack of the fire seemed harsh and the burn of damp wood offensive; the movement and smell of the small herd of horses was intrusive.
The brisk dewy fingers of the early morning chill caressed his skin as the blade descended toward his unprotected midsection. He knew without a doubt that the pain would be magnified like the sounds and smells of the morning camp which funneled into a blur of background noise under the panicked hum of his heart.
The blazing knife, with black smoky spirals emitting from its blade, cut toward his skin. Everything around Tanner ceased to exist except the sound, sight and smell of the blade cutting through the air, bearing intimately closer to his body.
Tanner pulled his eyes from the blackening blade to the laughing eyes of the man that held it.
Vin stared at the face before him, memorizing every detail, every hair, every line and every scar on the face that he would eventually hunt down and destroy. He would survive this he had no doubt, just as he knew he would find this monster and wreak his revenge.
Tanner kept his pale blue eyes fixed on the eyes of the man in front of him. The sharpshooter watched as the crazed hazel eyes morphed from insane glee to shock and then to vacant.
The sharpshooter continued to stare, wondering for just a moment if the power of his thoughts had some how reached this demented demon before him and killed him.
It was the thick slow trickle of blood that rolled down and around bushy eyebrows, carrying over the bridge of the nose to travel across the skin of a relaxed nostril that gave Tanner his clue as to what might have happened.
He pulled his one time fixed stare from dead hazel eyes and watched as the body before him, topped back on its heels and then crumble to the ground. Tanner had just enough time to notice the simple neat gunshot wound dead center of the forehead.
Ezra was no longer pulling his shots
The tracker continued to stare at the body at his tied feet as the camp around him erupted with frenzied activity.
Frank and Roy dove to the ground bringing their rifles up aiming into the empty woods.
Henry grabbed his rifle and sprinted off into the woods trying to out flank the unseen shooter with Kyle hot on his heels.
The captives sat against the wagon, with their legs drawn up close to their bodies and waited with hammering hearts and held breath.
Tanner slowly let his eyes travel toward Larabee. Through the swelling and blood, Chris met his stare and simply nodded once.
Buck and the others were out there. Things would be avenged.
The sharp crack of rifle fire smothered the captives sense of hope. It was a heavier sound than the light fiery snap of Ezras rifle. Henry had found a target. Rapid repeating fire continued to cut the area, the unchanging tone indicating there was only one person shooting.
Roy and Frank quickly rose to their feet, hunched over, hoping to make smaller targets and disappeared into the woods.
The hunt was on.
Nathan struggled with his roped hands to no avail.
The three conscious peacekeepers listened to the sounds of rifle fire. Tension grew with each silent pause, breath caught and hearts fluttered, until the next unanswered volley.
The peacekeepers sat quietly in the empty camp. The small campfire slowly boiled the forgotten coffee pot empty.
All they could do was wait and listen.
Seconds dragged to minutes and minutes stretched to hours until finally the Corrigans returned.
Tanner stood quietly against the tree apparently forgotten.
Frank argued vehemently with Henry to kill the peacekeepers. He wanted to end the foolishness now. Theyd find another way to free Michael; to seek bloody retribution on the Judge.
Henry stood his ground seemingly ignoring his brother. His too bright eyes roamed from his dead and bloating son who lay staring blankly at the sky to his wounded brother who lay blue lipped and unbreathing, his face blistered from laying to close to the fire and his beard singed and smoking. Thomas had died while they were hunting down their mysterious red coated shooter.
Thomas and Sean were dead.
Henry stared from his brother to his son. He didnt acknowledge Frank or his nephews. Staring from his dead boy to his dead brother, he simply raised his gun and shot Larabee.
Josiah gingerly sat up and leaned heavily against the wagon wheel. The midday sun beat relentlessly down on the small group.
Henry and Frank ignored the two dirt mounds on the far side of the camp. Roy and Kyle stared at the tied peacekeepers with unmasked hatred.
Josiah ignored their gazes and closed his eyes against the sickening sense of vertigo that swamped his senses.
What happened, Nate? The preacher asked sensing the tension that sparked the air.
Im not sure, Jackson answered thinking on the single lone gunshot that ended Corrigans life and the near suffocating waiting that had followed it.
Whys Vin tied to a tree?
Long story, Nathan answered quietly. He stared at the tracker who remained standing solidly on his feet despite the hours that had passed since the mysterious killing shot had blown apart some of Seans head and sent the camp into furious activity.
Tanner stood firmly and studied his territory with the predatory assurance of a trapped cougar.
Aint going anywhere, brother, Josiah pointed out with a touch of impatience.
Nathan quietly dove into a the tale of Vin being tied to the tree, the blazing hot knife and the single gun shot that ended Seans life. Jackson continued after Josiah let out a small breath and gently shook his head in disbelief, about how Thomas finally up and died breathing his last only hours ago.
Nathan turned his head to stare at the angry blood smeared features of Larabee. The cold hearted killer that had roamed the world for three years after the death of his wife and son had re-emerged.
The gunshot wound that had pierced his flank had stopped bleeding some time ago. It seemed only to fuel the devil that raged within Larabee.
He gonna live?
If just to kill them, Nathan returned.
JD, Buck or Ezra?
Nathan shook his head in answer. His dark eyes continued scouring the surrounding wooded area for any hint of their friends.
Looks like were headin out, Josiah whispered as the remaining Corrigans reached some kind of silent agreement and started packing up their camp, leaving their unmarked dead behind.
Nathan could only wonder if they were being forced to march as a means to slowly kill Larabee.
+ + + + + + +
Through the gathering shadows of early evening Kyle and Frank continued to set up camp. Henry and Roy stood watching over the captives and keeping a wary eye on the open desert floor.
Josiah sat down with a sigh, relieved to be off his feet. His head swam, his stomach still threatened to revolt whenever he moved his eyes or head too fast.
Vin and Chris stood defiantly a few seconds longer before finally delicately seating themselves Indian style on the ground.
Nathan sat between Josiah and Chris and tried to work the burning stiffness from his shoulders. His hands had long ago lost all sensation. His fingers felt swollen and he imagined them to look like the stuffed sausages that hung from the restaurant kitchen wall.
Chris refused to let him tend his wounds, not that there was much he could do with his hands tied behind his back.
Their captors had not offered them food or water since Sean had been shot by the unseen gunman.
JD was out there somewhere with Ezra and Buck and it gave them all a spark of hope.
However, the rest of the day had passed with tense silence and they had each fallen victim to the anger and frustration that boiled amongst the Corrigan clan.
Vin held his upper arm tighter to his right side, trying to protect the damaged muscle and bruised ribs after a fierce kick by Henry, from atop his horse, sent Vin solidly to the ground.
Chris stumbled and limped from unseen blisters on his feet after Frank made him walk the last few hours under the blistering early spring of a southwestern sun. Larabees skin was cracked and reddened wherever it lay exposed to the sun. He gripped his side fiercely but continued to step forward with the tenacity and blind determination of a feral dog on the hunt.
The freezing icy water of Fischers Lake seemed long ago. A life time.
Nathan recognized but never truly understood the brutality that motivated their captors and those that acted like them.
Corrigan was going to break Larabee. They would wear him down until there was nothing left of the defiant gunman. Overseers had done the very same thing time and time again to their slaves. They would slowly beat down the strongest and most defiant of the group by simply exhausting them. The strong would break eventually, they all did, or died. And in the end defiance lost its voice when the speaker died.
Martyrs were rare. Nathan had only read of them.
Josiah constantly asked the same question over and over unable to hold a thought, after a second blow to his massive jaw sent him staggering to his knees. Unfortunately for himself and Kyle, Josiah did not let the blow go unanswered. Kyle now viewed the world in much the same disoriented fashion as the preacher.
Nathan himself carried the vicious slicing of a knife wound across his chest and abdomen when he stepped forward to aid Josiah.
He had waited for the tell tale blast of rifle shot from somewhere in the distance to keep his attackers at bay, and he was somewhat disappointed and disheartened not to have his guardian angel shower retribution down upon those that attacked himself and the others.
He had begun to wonder what had happened to JD, Ezra and Buck.
Were they unable to keep up? Was Bucks injury festering and going putrid due to lack of proper treatment? What of Ezra? Was he any clearer as to who they were and what they were about? Was JD burdened by having to care for both men?
They only had the one horse, Chaucer. Was the ornery, ill tempered, spoiled, well toned package of horse flesh cooperating or was the beast taking advantage of his masters discombobulated thoughts and acting up and being unreasonable?
Unreasonable? Nathan chuckled. Ezra had used that word when Chaucer had refused to cross a deep river only a few weeks ago. Not that the gambler had tried terribly hard to get his horse to ford the sluggishly ice cold chest deep water. Larabee had threatened both man and beast, to no avail. Ezra had simply responded that his horse was being unreasonable and that there was not much he could do to cajole the animal to do his bidding.
Nathan chuckled again, remembering how close to exploding Larabee had become over the whole ordeal. In the end, Standish and his cantankerous horse shadowed Larabee and Nathans movements from the opposite bank until they came across a shallow where horse and rider could cross without becoming unduly soaked.
It was then that Nathan realized, that perhaps Ezra cared and protected his horse with such diligence because in the end, the loyalty and friendship of that stead were fickle but knowingly predictable to the gambler.
Ezra knew his horse, knew how it would act and react in any given situation, whether it was for his benefit or not, Standish was comfortable with what he could ask and expect from his horse.
The fiasco with the saloon had only exposed the unpredictable ties of friendship to loyalty in the face of blatant overt manipulations.
Maude had once again proven to her son, that the risks of the gaming table and a well worked con were more predictable and reliable than the shifting alliances of friendship and loyalty; even those known for years.
Maude had again shown that Ezra could not accurately predict the behavior of his friends, even when he personally faced adversity, the struggle to fulfill a dream, and tread on the precarious edge of public humiliation. With all of that on the line, surely a man could trust the devotion of his friends to stand by his side? When he needed them most, surely they would step forward and lend a helping hand.
Nathan had realized that day at the river as Ezra and Chaucer sauntered lazily along the shaded banks on the opposite side of Chris and himself that the gambler had learned his lesson taught by Maude that short week so many months ago.
Chaucer, gambling and conning were safer and more easily predictable and reliable than the fickle nature of the men he rode with these last few years.
It had stung Nathan then just as it stung him now, sitting against the wagon wheel feeling the old spoke arms bite into his back as he let his eyes glide along the flat landscape hoping his friends were out there waiting to help them. Perhaps he sat and waited just as Ezra had sat and waited in his saloon for his friends to appear and save him or at least his dream and his pride. Had he sat in his dying saloon both eager and dreading the appearance of his friends, hoping they would save him, and ignore his humiliation at needing to be saved financially? Hadnt he bragged to JD, Josiah and Nathan that there wasnt anything he didnt know about running a saloon? Or some such nonsense? Did he both dread and long to see his friends walk through those batwings doors as a united front to help salvage his dreams?
Had he felt as scared and as hopeful as Nathan did now?
Ezras life had not been on the line but his pride had been.
Occasionally the line between pride and life blurred.
Nathan knew this because he had promised himself long ago he would never suffer the loss of his pride ever again, no matter the cost to himself. Life or not.
Jackson searched the flat scrub dotted land hoping to catch a glimpse of his friends, not sure if he was relieved or worried that he saw no sign of them.
Night was falling fast.
+ + + + + + +
Nathans eyes snapped open as a gun was rested in his open palm. He cautiously curled fattened fingers around the wooden handle surprised to find his wrists no longer bound.
An unseen hand patted his forearm.
Nathan remained still and closed his eyes, waiting for whatever signal his friends would create to let him know it was time to act.
The healer could feel the tension radiating off of Larabee. Though Nathan had his back to the man, even in the minute light created by the sliver of a small moon, Jackson could sense the animosity from the gunslinger.
Jackson smiled when he watched Josiah stir with a more purposeful movement than sleep would allow. Their unseen benefactor had just handed Sanchez a weapon.
Nathan waited with bated breath, trying to keep his anxiety and excitement in check while attempting to feign sleep. He wanted his pound of flesh.
What would the signal be? What would JD and Ezra come up with? Did they have Buck someplace safe? Or was the rogue with them?
The Healer lay quietly against the cool ground no longer feeling every pebble or grain of dirt, no longer fearful of the linear shapes that could bear witness to either stick or snake.
In the frigid darkness of a desert spring night, Jackson waited for his chance to act.