The Unknown Form

by Gill Armitage


More of his men had died, but the ones that had returned had reported that Chris Larabee was dead. That should have made his job a little easier but things had started to get complicated. The Army had come into town yesterday late morning and all but four of them had ridden out almost immediately with the tall moustached lawman, leaving four troopers in town with the young sheriff. Why were the soldiers here? What did they have to do with all this?

The stage drew up outside the hotel and started to empty. He didn't even glance twice when the elderly gentleman dressed in a city suit disembarked. He watched casually as the driver removed his luggage and placed it on the ground. Losing interest his thoughts turned to other matters. With the arrival of the Army he would have to be more careful, lay low for awhile. He was in no hurry to complete his plans, Miss Roslin wasn't going anywhere and he had until the 7th December to deal with her and reap the rewards. His business with Mr Standish could be dealt with at any time now that he knew exactly where to find him. He was a patient man; he had waited all these years for his revenge and was quite prepared to wait a little longer for the right moment.

He decided there and then that he would move to Eagle Bend. It was far enough away to draw attention from him, yet close enough for him to direct his men with the job at hand. Rawlins turned and headed for his hotel room. He didn't notice the elderly city gent head towards the sheriff's office.

+ + + + + + +

Major James Roslin looked down at the pale face of his sister. The last time he had seen her was when she had been six years old, he remembered distinctly picking her up, kissing her on the cheek and telling her to mind her Ma as he was going away for awhile. At the time he would not have believed that it would be nineteen years before he set eyes on her again. He had been wounded badly during the war and had been unable to remember who he was; a mix up had resulted in a letter being sent to his family saying that he had been killed. It had taken a long time for him to recover and on doing so he had found out that his Mother had died. His family thought he was dead so he had let them continue to believe it.

The family lawyer continued to keep him appraised of how his Father and sister were faring. When he learned of his Father's death he had wanted to return then to be with his sister. Mr Simmons had assured him that she was more than capable of taking care of herself. He had promised to let him know where she was at all times. James had confirmed to Mr Simmons that the Army life was all he now wanted and that any inheritance was to go solely to Bettina.

His thoughts came back to the present as he watched Dr Coleman check his sister's vitals. The stethoscope he had moved gently over her chest, moving from the left side over to the right and back again. She had been asleep the previous day when he had first come in to see her. The black healer had explained that he would not wake her up just to see him. He then spoke quietly to the army surgeon explaining what had happened and how he had treated her. At the time she had been expected to make a full recovery, but during the night her colour had changed and her breathing had become ragged. It was Ezra who had alerted them to her condition, he had been with her as usual and had heard the change.

The Doctor and Nathan had shut everyone but Nettie out of the room, and they had spent the rest of the night and most of the next day trying to treat the symptoms. She had developed a fever again and Nettie had been cooling her down with a cool cloth all day. Finally at dusk they had let the Major back into the room, they needed to speak to him about an urgent matter.

"Your sister is going to need another operation Sir." Dr Coleman looked at him pensively. "I have discussed the situation with Mr Jackson here and we are both in agreement that the injury to the lung has continued to deteriorate."

"I thought the original operation repaired the lung." James looked questioningly at the two medical men.

"Mr Jackson undoubtedly saved Miss Roslin's life when he operated, by opening her chest cavity he expelled the pressure that had been building up inside the pleural cavity. Unfortunately it would now appear that the lung has once again collapsed. The result is a Tension Pneumothorax, if we do not release the pressure and soon then it could kill her."

"Doctor, please in English, what's wrong with her and what do you need to do to cure her?" The door to the room opened and Ezra walked in, moving round to B J's side. He had obviously been listening in and now needed to make his presence felt.

"Yes Doctor's I would also like to know what you need to do. You may require Major Roslin's permission for any procedures as he is undoubtedly her sibling but I assure you, you will also need my approval." Chris and Vin stood quietly by the open door; both of them ready to back their friend if necessary or to restrain him if things got out of hand.

Dr Coleman gulped and looked round nervously to Nathan standing next to him. "Mr Jackson, if you would be so kind as to explain in layman's terms what a Tension Pneumothorax is and the procedure to relieve it."

"Ezra, Major." He took a deep breath, realising that what he was about to say would no doubt shock the two men. Hell it had shocked him when the surgeon had explained it to him an hour ago. "The lung is like a sack, full of air that goes in and out and pushes oxygen round the body. Well it's more complicated than that but essentially that's what happens. B J's lung has a hole in it, from the broken rib, and the air has been leaking out. That air is pushing on the chest wall and is basically squashing the lung." He looked back at Dr Coleman and was relieved to see him nodding his head in agreement. Chris walked into the room and stopped next to Standish placing a hand on his good shoulder. He had seen the tension build up in the young man and knew that he needed support.

"So how do you stop this leak and get rid of this pressure?" said Chris directing his gaze at the army surgeon.

"Essentially I will need to insert a syringe anteriorly into the second intercostal space, entering the pleural cavity, that will enable me to aspirate the air. I will then need to insert a chest drain to ensure that no further build up occurs and to allow the lung to clear and repair itself." Ezra looked from the Doctor to Nathan in utter bemusement.

"What did he say?" After what he had just heard he could now understand how the other six lawmen felt when he started to use big complicated words. The tables had been turned and now he was totally lost as to the meaning. At any other time Nathan would have been rolling in laughter at the look on Ezra's face but this was not the time.

"He means he is gonna have to stick a needle in her chest, let out all the air and then push a rubber tube into her side to stop the pressure from building up again." The Major stumbled slightly as his legs almost gave way. He was surprised to find Ezra at his elbow pushing him to sit down on the edge of the bed.

"What… what are the risks, I mean have you done this before Matthew?"

"Yes Major I have performed this procedure before, but I must warn you that the risks are high, the odds of hitting the lung or any major blood vessel are…"

"What?" Ezra had turned to face the nervous looking surgeon. "What are the odds? I happen to know a thing or two about odds and risks so please, enlighten me."

"There is a one in five chance that we would be successful." The gambler looked down at the sleeping face of the woman he had come to love. He glanced back up to the two medical men stood before him and then over to the rather pale looking Major.

"Twenty percent, and what would happen if you did hit the lung or a blood vessel?" Chris could almost hear the figures rolling around in Ezra's head, this was what he was good at, this was what he knew.

"If we hit the lung it could collapse completely and it may kill her although I have known people to survive with only one lung. If we hit a blood vessel then she could well bleed to death before we could open her up and repair the damage." There was utter silence in the room for almost two minutes.

"And if you do nothing…?" It was a horrible question but one that needed asking.

"She will die." There was no hesitation in the Doctor's voice.

"Gentlemen, Ms Wells, if you will excuse us, I think the Major and I need to talk." Chris looked at Ezra with a questioning glare. "Have no fear Mr Larabee I only wish to discuss the situation." The door was shut behind them as they left the room and try as they might they could only hear muffled talk through the wood. After ten minutes the door was opened and they all filed back in. The Major stood and faced the two doctors.

"I have decided to allow you to perform this procedure on my sister. Mr Standish here has explained to me the odds and we both agree that although the risks are high we do not seem to have any other viable options."

"Good, we will begin immediately. We will inform you when we are done. Now please leave the room so we may prepare."

Wednesday, November 18th

JD rode next to the buggy as they neared the Wells place. He looked over at the elderly man seated in the small contraption, he was from New York and the young lawman was eager to ask him all about his hometown and what things were like now. He had tried to strike up a conversation when they had set out that morning but Mr Simmons had answered in very short clipped sentences that had told JD that the man did not want to talk.

His mind turned back to the previous day when the lawyer had turned up at the jailhouse. He had listened intently to the story and was surprised to find that B J was to inherit a large estate, obviously the lawyer had not mentioned any figures but for the man to come all this way to fulfil a clients will meant that it was a reasonable sum. When he had informed Buck of the conversation they had decided that JD would take Mr Simmons out to see B J the next morning.

JD twisted in the saddle to look back at the trooper following slightly behind them, he had been annoyed when Buck had suggested that they have him as an escort. Didn't his friend think he was capable of dealing with any trouble?
The young soldier hadn't spoken for the whole trip and had remained behind them all the time.

He looked ahead to see the familiar outline of Nettie Well's ranch, his eyes searched around looking for Casey. He spotted her coming out of the barn. "Hi Casey." He shouted ahead. She turned and stared in the direction of the shout and then waved her arm to show she had seen him. She continued on into the house. Minutes later Chris and Vin walked out onto the porch to greet him.

"Problem JD?" Chris asked looking from the young sheriff to the elderly man in the buggy.

"Nah, just brought this guy out to see B J, he's her lawyer Mr Simmons, the one that sent that telegram. He came in on the stage yesterday."

"Mr Simmons, what can I do for you?" asked Chris.

"I am here to see Miss Roslin, firstly to check on her condition and secondly to conduct business relating to the reading of her Father's will. I understand Major Roslin has arrived, may I speak with him?"

"Sure can, Vin fetch the Major. I am afraid you won't be able to talk to B J for a while, the doctor is still working on her. I'll let her brother explain to ya." The blue coated soldier came out of the house and the two gentlemen walked across the yard to talk in private. Josiah passed them coming from the barn and stepped up to the porch, he settled his large frame onto a bench.

Vin came and stood next to Chris, "There must be somethin' awful big in this will for all this secrecy and for him to come all that way. What I don't understand is how come all the attention is on B J? Usually any inheritance goes to the oldest surviving relative; by all accounts that's him."

The two friends turned as Ezra came out of the house. They noticed the drawn haggard look and the lines of worry marked across his face. He needed sleep but they both knew that would not happen until B J was out of danger.

"Who is he?" asked the tired gambler.

"B J's lawyer, come to read her Father's will." Chris answered. "Seems there's something mighty important he needs to discuss with her."

Josiah leaned forward; he rested his chin into his large hands and looking out at the two men talking he spoke almost to himself. "What I don't get is how come it took so long to read the will? Usually that's done when a person dies. Her Father passed away nearly five years ago, seems kind of weird to be reading the will so late."

"Well I guess we'll find out soon enough, they're comin' back." The Major and the lawyer approached the group of men on the porch. Mr Simmons spoke first.

"Gentlemen, as I have previously mentioned I am here to discuss the finer details of Mr Roslin's will with his daughter. I am prevented, due to the stipulations in the document, from convening a meeting until Miss Roslin has turned twenty-five years of age. What I can tell you gentlemen is that she must be kept safe and well until that time."

"When exactly does she turn twenty-five?" Vin had moved to stand next to the small elderly man.

"Her birthday is on the 7th December young man, and all I can say is that if anything should happen to her before then, then the inheritance would pass to a certain cousin who I am informed by associates is the only living relative apart from Miss Roslin's brother." Chris spoke up next with some confusion.

"How come it ain't goin' to him in the first place? He's obviously the eldest."

James Roslin stepped forward. "I relinquished all rights to my Father's estate years ago. I have a life in the Army sir and have no need for anything else. However Bettina has worked her whole life next to my Father and knows the business and knows horses. She has more of a right to the inheritance than I ever did."

All conversation stopped as Nettie Wells came out onto the porch. "The Doctor and Nathan will be finished shortly, looks like the operation went well, Doc Coleman says it'll be a while before we know for sure but don't look like they had any problems so let's all just say a few prayers and hope the lady comes through." She turned and walked back into the house. Silence fell over the men stood outside. After a few minutes the lawyer spoke up.

"Well gentlemen, considering the circumstances, there is not a lot more I can do until Miss Roslin's birthday. With your permission sir," he turned to face the Major. "I will return to the town and my accommodations, you will no doubt keep me informed as to your sister's condition." He turned to face Chris and Vin. "Please believe me sir that it is vitally important that you keep Miss Roslin safe, there is a considerable sum involved and I for one would not relish having to settle the will with her cousin. He does not have the flair for business and has of late fallen in with the wrong people. It would be a total waste of a lifetimes achievement if the estate went to that young man."

"Don't you worry Mr Simmons we'll look after her." Chris turned to Josiah as soon as the lawyer was out of earshot. "I want you to go back to town with JD, I reckon were gonna need to keep an eye on that gent as well. Seems to me someone may try to take a pot shot at him to keep him from reading the will."

Chris settled himself on the edge of the porch and Vin sat down next to the silent gambler. Ezra had not said a word since the lawyer had turned up. The sharpshooter turned a worried face towards the blonde gunslinger. Chris had also noticed how quiet the southerner had been and looked at Vin shrugging his shoulders. Experience had taught him that Ezra would talk when he wanted to. Trying to make him talk would push the young man further into himself.

+ + + + + + +

Jethro Rawlins watched as the five men left. He smiled thinking of the havoc that they would cause when they found Standish and the woman. Time was growing short and he needed to ensure that Miss Roslin was dead before her 25th birthday. He had sent two men the day before to return to Four Corners and find out more about the lawyer. He had been informed by his men that that the old man had been seen leaving town with one of the lawmen and some of the soldiers, and that he had returned late that evening with no soldiers but two of the lawmen. His instructions had been clear, they were to find out where the lawyer had been and then to hold onto him until they had reported back. He would then decide what to do with the old man.

He held the telegram in his hand that he had received that morning from Four Corners. Another of his men was dead but the one that had sent the telegram was hold up keeping a low profile. His fool of a partner had tried to snatch the lawyer but had not reckoned on the presence of the giant lawman Josiah. He had paid the price for his stupidity.

So they were hiding out on a ranch outside town. Well that was even better than having to deal with them in town, not so many people getting in the way. At least that Larabee fellow was out of the picture, he was sure that his men would be able to cope with a wounded con man and a weak sick woman. Yes there were soldiers on the ranch also but his men had assured him that they were no trouble. He scoffed at their bravado. They were fools. Young and full of self-importance they thought they could take on the whole world and come out unscathed. Well men were cheap they would either die trying to kill Ezra and B J or they would live. It made no difference to him; money would always buy more men.

Monday, November 23rd

Ezra's eyes snapped open, he lay quietly forcing his breathing to keep to a steady rhythm he turned his head slowly listening for any noise around him. Something had woken him. His left hand caressed the cool metal of the Remington Army revolver that lay under the covers next to him. The long slender fingers of his hand clenched around the handle at the sound of a dull thud on the porch. He slid carefully from under the covers, reached for his black pin stripe trousers and pulled them on. If he was going to face trouble he would at least have his pants on to do it. He ignored the boots opting for the silent approach and moved quietly over to the window.

The last three weeks had turned him from a calm unruffled southern gentleman to a nervous wounded animal capable of killing at the slightest hint of danger. The incident with the trooper a week ago had proved that he was on edge. He still shuddered at how close he had come to ending that young mans life, he was like a fish out of water floundering on the banks unable to control anything around him. His whole life had been moulded around control, knowing the odds, figuring the risks and being able to stack the deck in his favour.

He moved slowly to pear through the murky glass, his gun raised next to his head. A shadow moved over the rough-hewn boards of the porch. Ezra raised his eyes to see who was outside. The air escaped from his lungs in a loud sigh, his body relaxed and his head fell forward to rest on the window frame. He trembled visibly and mentally pulled himself together. Turning the butt of the gun he rapped it smartly on the glass pane. The figure outside was startled and turned towards the noise. The sudden movement caused a shot of pain that ran through the left side of her body, she gasped and promptly collapsed in a heap on the floor.

Ezra moved with a speed that surprised even him and was outside by her side within seconds. Kneeling down next to her he snaked his left arm under her right side and supported her slight frame.

"What the hell are you doing up?" His southern demeanour and charm dropped away at the fear that encompassed him. "Walking around out here on your own, you scared the hell out of me. I nearly shot you." His tone softened as he realised how harsh he had sounded. "How would I explain that to the others?"

She looked up at him, noticing the bare chest and the bulging muscles. Beads of sweat glistened on her brow. "I'm sorry but I needed to get up, I've been off my feet for too long I needed some fresh air."

"Why didn't you just ask, I am sure Mr Jackson would have agreed to allow you to sit on the porch." Ezra gently lifted B J to a standing position and then moved her back to settle her on the bench. He looked at her as she rested her head back against the house, her eyes closed. Five days ago the army surgeon and Nathan had operated to repair the lung injury, her condition had been serious but she had made steady progress and they had removed the chest drain on Saturday morning. He understood her need to be up and around, it was the worst part of recovering from an injury being unable to move or sit up or even dress. Every day and night for the last three weeks one of the six lawmen had helped him with his shirt. The injury to his collarbone meant that the arm had to be kept still as much as possible. They would first have to remove the supporting bandage that encircled his body and held his arm in place, then they would ease his shirt either on or off. The arm would then have to be replaced in a sling and once again secured to his body.

Nathan had suggested to the southerner that it would be a lot easier to leave the shirt off and just hang it from his shoulders but Ezra had no intentions of walking around only half dressed. He had his reputation to consider even if they were out of town at the ranch. He would not allow Ms Wells or Casey to see him attired in anything less than the clothes of a gentleman.

"Ezra, can we walk for a bit please?"

"Are you sure you're up to it? If anything should happen I would blame myself. Not to mention that Mr Jackson would be a trifle upset. He takes on the demeanour of an upset hornets nest when riled, it is not a pretty sight."

She laughed and turned her blue eyes to him. "I am sure I can manage and don't be concerned I have had my share of dealing with overbearing men in my life, I think I can handle Nathan." She paused and looked him up and down, she smiled and raised an eyebrow; "Don't you think you should put something on first."

Realising that he had no shirt on he returned to his room and moments later came out with his jacket draped over his shoulders and his boots on his feet. Putting his arm around her waist for support she stood and they proceeded to take a walk around the ranch. They were in no hurry and for the first fifteen minutes never spoke. The leisurely stroll took more out of her than she wanted to admit but it felt good to stretch her legs. It also felt good to have this man so close to her. She could feel every breath, every movement of the toned muscles on his arm and chest. It was another one of those magic moments that she didn't want to end.

When they reached the corral, Ezra turned and asked B J if she wanted to rest.

"Yes, I think I'll just sit down here for a moment." She moved over to the water trough and carefully lowered herself down on the edge. She looked up into the handsome face, "Ezra, what's going on?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, why are we here at this ranch? Why were you shot? Why are the soldiers here?" He pulled his gaze away from her. How much should he tell her? Was it his place to tell her or should he leave the explanations to her brother and lawyer? He looked down at her and knew that she had a right to know. Chris had filled him in on what was happening and he was glad, he was prepared, hopefully for any more attempts.

"It would seem that you and I have a common adversary."

"Adversary! You mean enemy?"

"Exactly. Mr Larabee became aware of a possible threat to my life after numerous unexplained coincidences; my being shot coming back from Ridge City. Being knocked over by a careless passer by in town, the fire in the livery and before that the shooting in the street that injured young Mr Dunne." He paused as a look of partial understanding crossed B J's face.

"That was the first day I arrived in town, I had the strangest feeling that evening and I just knew I needed to go out on the street. I'm glad I did now looking back."

"As am I, but up until the fire at the livery Mr Larabee only suspected a threat against myself. It wasn't until he received a telegram from your lawyer warning of a threat to you, that he realised that the same person threatening me was also after your good self as well."

"Who is this person after us and why should he be after me?" This was all getting rather confusing.

"Ezra!" They both turned at the sound of Chris' voice coming from the barn. The gambler lowered his gun, it had appeared in his hand from nowhere. A smile crossed his face in an apology as he pushed the Remington back into the top of his pants.

"I think it's about time Miss Roslin went back to the house, I believe the Major would like to speak to her and I'm sure Nathan ain't gonna' be too impressed with her being out for too long."

Ezra looked from Chris to B J and saw the tired lines in her face. "Yes I think you have had enough fresh air for one day." B J started to protest, she wanted answers but seeing the determined set on the two men's faces realised she would get nowhere. She would not forget and would get her answers later.

They returned slowly to the house and after Ezra had settled B J back in bed he came out onto the porch. Chris was waiting for him; he glanced down to see that the southerner had now put on his gun belt. "We need to talk Ezra." He had noticed changes in the gambler and was concerned as well as pleased. He was worried at how easily the man drew his gun at the slightest provocation and slightly taken aback at the speed with which he could draw. He was also proud in much the same way a parent would be proud at the first signs of growing up in their child. This woman had pushed aside the insecurities that Ezra had always had. Oh he denied it of course but Chris had seen the doubts in the younger man's face when it came to friendships or having to rely on others.

"What can I do for you Mr Larabee?" Ezra indicated that he wanted to walk so the two men slowly made their way round to the back of the barn.

"I think that's my question Ezra, what can I do for you? Something's troubling you and I need to know what it is. What happened just know, that's the second time you've pulled a gun on me." He paused when he saw the look of confusion on the gambler's face. "Back in town when Nathan had to operate on B J. Remember?"

"I… do seem to recall something happening to that effect, yes. I must apologise for my actions, I was under a lot of… pressure at the time."

"I understand that Ezra, more than you will probably know. My concern is… I have faced down a lot of men holding a gun on me in my time and without a doubt I knew whether they were gonna use it or not. My concern Ezra, is that on both those occasions when you drew a gun on me I had doubts." He put his hand up to his mouth and looked intently into the young man's face. After a few moments of deep thought he removed his hand and continued.

"I'm gonna ask you again Ezra, what can I do? What's put you so on edge that you're likely to shoot your friends at the slightest push?"

Ezra moved a few steps away and paused. When he didn't turn, Chris moved around and stood in front of him. He was shocked to see a look of total devastation on the usually calm poker face. He placed a hand on the man's shoulder and felt the flinch as he tried to move away. He held on refusing to allow the gambler to pull away.

"Chris, I… I find myself at an impasse, and I don't know what to do next." The gunslinger was shocked at the use of his first name, something was definitely wrong.

"Is this about B J?" Ezra looked up into the blonde man's face.

"Is it that obvious?"

"It is to me, she loves you, you do know that don't you?"

"Yes…No… I don't know. I've never felt this before, at least not like this. Oh sure I have loved women before but there has always been something to end it." Ezra shook his head; the confusion inside made it difficult to put what he felt into words.

"Are you happy Ezra?" the question was completely out of the blue.


"Just answer the question."

"Well at the moment certain things are a little… troublesome." Indicating the state of his arm. Chris knew how much the injury was bothering the southerner. "On the whole, yes I am most propitious." He guessed that meant happy. He shook his head and looked deeply into the green eyes.

"You're content Ezra, satisfied. Normally you're in complete control of any situation and that's your problem. You're no longer in control and it scares you. You've been missing something vital from your life, and you're just starting to realise that what you have is not enough."

"Why should I need more?" The question wasn't completely directed at Larabee, he was asking himself mostly, voicing his own concerns. "I have employment, skills, a roof over my head. I have travelled and seen things most people only dream of. I have… friends." He looked into the older man's face hoping and wishing that his statement was true.

"Yes Ezra, you do have friends, but you need more. Listen for as long as Sarah and Adam were alive they showed me a world beyond guns, a world where I could love and be loved. They gave my life meaning and balance and it was my honour to love them for the short time they were with me." He turned his face away not wanting to let the gambler see the emotion welling up inside him. "I'll tell you something else, even knowing their fates, I would do it all over again. That is love."

"Mr Larabee, I don't know if I can relinquish that much … control. I have been hurt before and I…."

"You deny the experience, because you think it must inevitably end in pain. That's your Mother talking Ezra not you. It's time to think of your own future. Leave your past behind."

Tuesday, November 24th

Buck was worried. He looked out over the dusty street towards the undertakers and shook his head wondering where all these gunmen were coming from. Why had they taken a sudden interest in their town? He knew it had something to do with Ezra and B J just as he knew it was all related to that Rawlins fella. He had hoped things would settle down after the fancy gent had left town but things were getting worse.

The last bout of gunfire had been directed at the old lawyer. Along with Josiah's help, he and JD had killed one and sent the other to ground. Josiah was out now checking all the known hiding places. Mr Simmons had been roughed up some but not hurt and he was now proving to be a royal pain in the ass. He was insisting on having a personal guard with him all the time. Chris had told him to make sure nothing happened to the old guy so Buck had agreed against his personal wishes. In his opinion lawyers were worse than outlaws. At least outlaws were honest in their chosen professions; lawyers hid behind rules and regulations and twisted everything to their own benefit. They bled you dry without you ever knowing it until it was too late and then they smiled and sent you a bill.

He checked his pocket watch and grimaced seeing that it was almost time for him to take over from JD. He resisted the urge to go in guns blazing. It would be too difficult to try to explain to Chris what had happened. He hunched his shoulders, pulled the collar of his coat up and walked down the street to the Ritz Hotel. The wind was picking up and the chill in the air was taking a down turn. It wouldn't be long before snow showed it's ugly head.

As he approached the front of the hotel the frowning unhappy face of his young protégé greeted him. JD was not in the best of moods.

"About time too, I was just gonna come lookin' for ya. I swear that man is getting worse. He just asked for a bath to be brought up to him. Want's real hot water and some kind of sweet smelling soap." The young man smirked at Buck and slapped him on the shoulder. "I guess that's your job now, seems I'm off. I think I'm gonna head on over to the saloon get me a drink and a hot meal and relax."

"Hold on a minute their partner." Buck grabbed JD's arm before he could make good his escape. "You ain't goin' nowhere, 'cept out to the ranch. I want ya to take Chris and Ezra's horses out to em. If there's trouble they're gonna need em. Might as well take B J's Palouse as well."

"Awh Buck, draggin' three horses that's gonna take the rest of the afternoon and it's getting cold out here. You know them horses don't get on with each other. Chaucer is like a wild cat if ya go near him without Ezra around. I suppose ya want me to saddle em as well?"

"Well they ain't gonna be much good without the saddles are they. Get Tiny ta help ya, I'm sure Chaucer don't mind him."

"Yeah right, Tiny is like ta just walk off when I suggest that one. He 's still got that welt on his backside from the last time he went near that damn animal."

"Whatever Kid, but Chris needs those horses, they ain't gonna be staying out there for ever. Besides ya get to see Casey again, ain't that worth the hassle?" The look on JD's face changed and Buck knew he had played the right card. A little of that Ezra cunning had definitely rubbed off on him.

"Well, alright then but the next dirty job is yours and if that animal bites me I'm gonna shoot it and tell Ezra you did it. OK!" JD walked off in the direction of the livery; Buck stood there deciding whether to go with him. No the kid could take care of himself. He turned back to the hotel and a shudder went through him. What was worse facing a room of angry gunmen or looking after that surly lawyer? His hand flexed on the handle of his gun as he straightened himself and walked into the lion's den.

+ + + + + + +

The light was fading and the wind had picked up. JD was certain the temperature had dropped to below freezing, he pulled his jacket closer around his body wishing he had remembered to bring his gloves. With one hand holding his own horses reins and the other holding the three lead ropes his fingers were starting to go numb from the cold. He looked ahead and saw the familiar rise in the land, just over it and below was Ms Nettie's ranch. He was certainly looking forward to a warm fire and hot coffee.

He glimpsed Chris sitting out on the porch and noticed that a few of the soldiers were hunched around a fire near their tents just the other side of the corral. JD raised his hand and waved and then pointed to the stables to show Chris he was headed that way. He got down and turned to pull the four horses into the barn behind him. He slapped Chaucer on the muzzle, as he was about to nip Chris' big black and jumped back just in time to avoid a mouth full of teeth headed his way.

He walked over to the house and stepped up onto the porch. A big smile spread across his face when Casey appeared in the doorway.

"Good ta see ya again Casey, how ya been?"

"No different from when you asked the last time." Ezra stepped out from behind the young woman and moved to the front of the porch. JD shook his head in confusion at the girl wondering if he would ever be able to figure her out. One minute she was coming on to him all hot and strong and the next she was as cold as winter snow. The thought of cold weather made him shiver. He turned to the two men next to him.

"I brought your horses out for ya, Buck reckoned ya might need em. I swear Ezra that animal of yours is mean. Tried to bite me twice and kept snapping at the others. Do you train him to do that?"

"Chaucer is a gentleman and as such his disposition, when forced to endure unnecessary hardship is much like mine. Meaning young sir that he becomes difficult and unpredictable." Chris looked to the gambler wondering if he knew just how much of his character he had given away in that statement. Over the past few weeks Ezra had been forced to endure things way out of his usual scope and had become very unpredictable even dangerous on occasion.

Chris suddenly saw Ezra's gun in his hand and before he could think to ask why, a shot was heard from behind the soldier's camp.

"Get down!" Said Ezra as he moved into a crouch and put himself in front of Casey. The sound of gunfire erupted all around them as bullets flew from three separate places. The soldiers had scattered and Chris could see Major Roslin directing some of his men to the area behind them. Just as he turned his attention back to the immediate vicinity JD was flung back against the house wall by two bullets hitting their marks. He slumped almost in slow motion and slid down into an ungainly heap on the floor, Casey screamed and rushed to his side. Ezra let off two shots and moved to cover his fallen friend.

"Nathan get out here. Now." Chris shouted over the noise of the gunfire. The black healer inched his way out of the door and with Casey's help pulled the unconscious youngster out of the firing line. Chris turned back to face the firing and felt a white-hot pain lance through his upper right arm. He momentarily dropped his gun but a second later picked it up and fired a fatal shot at the gunman that had winged him.

As the battle continued he forgot the minor injury and moved off the porch to the side of the house. Ezra followed closely behind him, the familiar boom of Vin's Mares Leg could be heard over the cacophony of guns and moments later the sharp sound of a Spencer carbine rifle joined in. Nettie and Vin were busy keeping the gunmen at bay at the rear of the house.

Ezra stumbled slightly, knocking Chris over just at the time a trio of bullets thudded into the wood where the gunslinger's head had been.

"Thanks, nearly had me then."

"Your welcome, now shall we dispense with these ruffians, this infernal racket is giving me a headache." The two men moved off and circled around to the back of the barn. Within minutes they had dispatched two gunmen that had been lying at the rim of the corral, hidden from two sides by some bales of hay and the water trough. The silence was almost deafening as the two men stood and stared around them. The back door to the house opened and Vin cautiously stepped out, his sawn off shotgun held ready for more trouble. After a few seconds he raised the weapon and waved it in Chris' direction signalling all clear.

"Shit." He began to run back to the house as the sudden realisation dawned that JD had been hit. God he hoped the kid was gonna be fine, the last he had seen was a smear of blood left on the wall as JD had fallen down unconscious. Damn that boy had better be alive.

He hadn't noticed that the gambler was not with him. Ezra sat on the edge of the water trough as a wave of nausea and dizziness passed over him. He took in a deep breath hoping that his stomach was not going to embarrass him. After a few moments the dizziness passed, he stood slowly and walked back to the house.

He didn't notice the blood that had dripped steadily into the water trough where he had been sitting or the slowly spreading stain running down the black pants. He didn't feel any pain or discomfort, just the need to get a drink to settle his stomach. The adrenaline coursing through his body numbed any pain or fear; it was an inborn instinct that all men had. The fight or flight syndrome.

He stood in the doorway to the kitchen area watching the scene that unfolded before him. Nathan was working frantically over the prone form of the young sheriff. Nettie Wells was putting a makeshift bandage around Chris' arm wound, it wasn't serious, the bullet had gone right through but it had bled a fair bit. Vin was holding onto Casey, keeping her out of Nathan's way. They had laid him on the kitchen table, there had been no time to get the boy to a bed; he was bleeding profusely from an ugly wound just below his heart. Ezra thought that an inch the other way would have seen the end of the intrepid young gunslinger.

He turned from the horror before him and walked slowly to the bedroom, glancing inside he was happy to see that B J was asleep, at least she was safe. A sense of relief washed over his body and he felt himself relax. He walked outside and settled himself in the chair on the porch. He was beginning to ache all over; his shoulder was throbbing like a dull distant hammer. He looked around him as the soldiers began to clean up the mess of dead bodies. The surgeon was working on one of the young blue coated troopers. The sound of footsteps on the wood boards caught his attention, he looked up to see the face of B J's older brother, looking now he could see the similarities between them, the bone structure of the cheeks and the shape of the nose.

"Was anyone hurt?" Ezra felt like he was miles away, he heard the words, saw his mouth moving but couldn't seem to understand what he was saying.

"Mr Standish, was anyone hurt? My surgeon will be free in a moment if anyone is in need of his services." Ezra shifted his position wincing at the increased pain in his body.

"I believe our young Mr Dunne is in need of some care, Mr Jackson may perhaps need some assistance, the position of his wound looks particularly… hazardous."

"Matthew! Get over here, the kid took a hit." Ezra visibly flinched at the volume of the Major's voice.

"Are you Ok son?" Why did older men insist on calling him son? It was most annoying at times, he had managed to stop Josiah using the appellation and now this man, a complete stranger was doing it. He held back his usual retort and answered civilly, he was too tired to do anything else.

"I am fine sir, just a little fatigued, my shoulder did not appreciate the exercise." The surgeon appeared on the porch and the two men disappeared into the house. Ezra leaned back in the chair and let out a sigh of relief. Peace and quiet at last, he would just rest here a while and then would check on JD and B J.

Tuesday Night, November 24th

Vin stood quietly in the doorway looking at the silent sleeping form. The kid looked as though he was in a peaceful deep sleep. A flushed face, laboured breathing and bloody red bandage across the young man's chest painted an altogether different picture. At his side sat Casey, she alternated between holding his hand and cooling him down with a damp cloth.

The two medical men had finally finished working over JD. It had taken them three hours to find the bullet, sew up the internal damage and clean him up. Now they would all just have to wait and hope that he would pull through. A fever had already set in and the young body was burning up. Nathan had declared that frequent cold baths would have to be used if the fever did not come down by the next day.

Vin lowered his head and said a silent prayer; he opened his eyes and noticed a pool of dried blood on the floor near the kitchen area. He shifted his gaze and looked more intently. Something was wrong, the pattern of the blood drops was unusual. After the gunfight there had been blood everywhere, a streak of it on the floor near the door where they had dragged JD into the house, another splatter further in where Nettie had attended to Chris' arm wound. The thing he noticed was that all that blood had a drop pattern from coming into the house, the splatters he had noticed were going out. He followed the trail out onto the porch; it was dark out so he couldn't see where the trail went. He looked up to see Ezra; his head down on his chest, he was fast asleep in the chair.

"Hey Ezra, wake up!" he nudged him gently with his foot. "Hey wake up, ya seen anyone come out of the house in the last few hours?" he nudged him again but got no response. He reached into the house and took a lantern from the hook, lit it and moved the light over to the sleeping gambler. "Ezra, wake up! It's a bit early for you to be snoozin' ain't it?"

A movement behind him caught his attention. Chris came out of the house and stood next to the Texan. His right arm was held to his chest with a sling and even in the dim light from the lamp Vin could see the tired pain etched lines on the man's face.

"What's the problem Vin?" Chris had heard the Texan's voice from inside.

"Don't rightly know. He won't wake up, tried a couple a times but nothin'." Vin shifted the lamp and moved in front of the sleeping southerner. "Ah shit!"

"What is it?"

"Hold this." He handed the lamp to Chris and knelt down next to Ezra. He reached under the chair and put his fingers to a dark patch on the wood. He came back up to the light and Chris was shocked to see the fingers covered in dark red blood. Vin moved up to the still form and lifted the edge of the jacket. "Damn, he's been shot."

Chris moved immediately and placed his hand on Ezra's neck. The skin was clammy and cold; he shifted his finger slightly frantically searching for the pulse he hoped was still there.
"There, it ain't much but it's there, he's still alive." He turned and rushed into the house, moments later Nathan followed him out, the healer immediately checked Ezra's heartbeat and breathing and then lifted the jacket. He drew in a sharp breath at the amount of blood soaking the shirt and the pants.

"Ezra! Wake up, Ezra god dammit, don't you die on me." He stood up and before the others could stop him slapped the unconscious man hard across the face.

"What the hell are you doin' Nathan?" Chris said as he grabbed the healer by the arm preventing him from striking again.

"We got to wake him up, he's lost a lot of blood, more than he can afford to lose. If he's awake and stays that way long enough I can get him to drink some herbs of mine that will help him to recover. If he don't wake up he could slip into a coma from shock and…" he didn't need to finish the sentence, the men around him had all seen the devastating affects of shock due to blood loss.

"Alright Nathan, but ya don't need to hit him again. I'll wake him up; I know just what to say to get Ezra's attention. You go and get those herbs ready, because I don't know how long I'll be able to keep him awake." He waited until the black healer had left before moving himself to Ezra's side.

"Vin, you get ready to grab him if this works, I don't want him to fall and hurt himself even more, and ya might have to stop him from lashing out. I'm about to make our young friend here very angry. Just remember to tell him later that I didn't mean any of the things I am about to say."

"Sure Chris, but if he hits me aiming for you then you'd best know here and now that I will get ya back, ya here me Cowboy?" Chris flinched at the use of that word, he smiled at the sharpshooter and taking a gulp of air moved in close to Ezra's right ear.

"ARE YOU RUNNIN' OUT ON ME AGAIN, YA NO GOOD LOW DOWN CARDSHARK?" He took a breath and turned a sheepish look towards Vin, the Texan shrugged his shoulders, looked at Ezra and then back at Chris. He shook his head. Nothing. Not even a flinch.

"YOU'RE A WORTHLESS PIECE OF TRASH EZRA STANDISH, YOU'LL NEVER AMOUNT TO ANYTHING. I SHOULD HAVE SHOT YOU FOR THE CHEATIN' COWARD YOU ARE YEARS AGO." Ezra's head moved, he turned his face away from the noise and the two men nearly leaped out of their skins with joy.

"Ezra? Wake up; time to get up now. Come on buddy sleep time is over." Vin continued to talk to the sluggish con man.

"What… what is going on, can't a man get some sleep around here?" Ezra's eyes flickered open; he shifted slightly as if trying to get more comfortable and then closed his tired eyes again. Nathan came out of the house at that moment with a mug full of steaming water, from the smell it had nearly every foul herb in it.

"Ezra, stay awake now, ya gotta drink this, it'll make ya feel better." That said he lifted the gambler's head and placed the mug to his lips, Ezra managed to take a few swallows before nearly choking on the liquid.

"I felt fine before y'all woke me up, goddammit Nathan what the hell was in that? I swear you're trying to kill me."

"Ya ain't fine Ezra, ya got shot. Again!"

"What do ya mean, shot, I been sleeping peacefully here in bed and y'all come burstin' in, start shouting at me…who the hell says I'm a coward, I…" he lurched forward grabbing for his gun. Both Chris and Vin launched themselves on the struggling gambler and grabbed the hand pinning it down before he could draw. Vin wrestled the Remington away from Ezra, and pushed the gun into the back of his pants away from the Southerners grasp.

"Damn, for someone so weak from loss of blood he's sure got one heck of a grip on that gun." He turned to Chris and smirked. "Ya notice he reacted to the word coward and not to cheat, says a lot don't it."

"Let's get him inside, why the hell didn't he say something. Damn fool stubborn southern son of a…"

"Nate, I don't think he even knew." The healer turned to look at Chris; he was surprised to hear the words coming from the gunslinger. Usually it was Chris having a go at the stubborn gambler. How many times in the past had Ezra nearly died because of not taking care of himself.

"What do ya mean?"

"He was with me the whole time during the gunfire and I never saw him take a bullet." He paused and looked up into the black mans face. "Shit, he did stumble on to me, saved my life, I never thought anything more about it, I just figured he must have seen the gunmen and pushed me out of the way. He must have got hit then, only he never felt it. Damn I should have know, he's been bleeding for the last three hours, he could have died there and none of us would have know."

"Ain't your fault Chris." Said Vin "I've seen this before, I knew a man once in the war, got shot up several times but carried on fighting, end of the battle and he suddenly up and collapsed, died right there, never felt a thing."

"Is he gonna be alright Nate?" Chris was worried, he hated to admit it even to himself but the gambler had got under his skin and although he still irritated the hell out of him on occasion he did not know what the team would be like without him.

"I don't know Chris, he's lost a lot of blood, let's just get him inside so I can see what I'm doin'." They settled Ezra onto Casey's bed and then Nathan turned to the tracker. "Vin you'd best go and fetch Buck so he can see JD." Chris looked up at the healer in shock.

"Is JD that bad Nathan?"

"Yeah, it's bad, but don't go thinking the worst just yet, we fixed him up and with the Doc around he's got more than a fair chance, it's just…well I would hate for anything to happen to him and Buck not be here. You know how those two are, joined at the hip an all. If anything did happen to the kid and Buck wasn't told I don't think he'd forgive himself or us."

He turned back to look at the sleeping southerner. This was another battle he wasn't sure he would win. The wound itself was not that serious but Ezra had been bleeding unchecked for a hell of a long time.

"Ms Wells, can you get me a jug of fresh water and then boil some up, I'm gonna need to clean the wound before I can sew it up and then were gonna have to get as much liquid into him as we can. Have ya got some salt?"

"Of course I have, why do ya need it?" Nettie Wells looked at him curiously.

"Well it's just somethin' I learned during the war, it don't always work, but if you put salt into the water, not too much and then make them drink it, well it helps some how. Don't rightly know why, but in Ezra's case he needs to drink and a small amount of salt in the water will make him thirsty. We'll alternate fresh and salted and hopefully that will work." He looked around him at the men holding vigil over Ezra. He wondered if the gambler knew just how much he had come to mean to them all.

"Now you all get out of her, Vin! Go get Buck, NOW! I guess you'd best tell Josiah as well. Wait…" He turned to some paper on the side and wrote something down. "Here give this to Josiah, ask him to find it in my clinic and bring it with him." Vin looked at the two words written on the paper. His reading had improved dramatically over the last few years but he couldn't make out the words. "It's Carao powder, from Central America, came in last month. The write up says it's good for blood loss, supposed to stimulate new blood production." Vin was still confused.

"Just get Josiah to bring it out and hurry he's lost a lot of blood, more than is healthy. I wouldn't want anything to happen to old Ez before Josiah saw him, don't think he'd forgive us for that."

"Mr Jackson…" Nathan spun around and looked at his patient, he was shocked and surprised that he was conscious. "I have repeatedly asked you not to use that god awful epitome of my name. Now may I please have some water…? I find I am most… thirsty."

"Sure Ezra, no problem, just take it easy. Here ya go." He managed to lift his head and shoulders slightly so that Ezra could drink without choking. He got almost a whole glass into him before he stopped. "Can ya stay awake a little longer? I need to get your shirt off and check the damage."

Ezra looked down at the white fine cotton ruffled shirt he wore and was visibly upset at the large red patch covering the left lower side.

"Another shirt ruined, I am definitely going to have to get a new line of work. A dollar a day is not nearly sufficient to cover the cost of new shirts I constantly go through. If it's not the dirt and dust it's…" Before he could finish the sentence he had drifted back to sleep. He had not seemed concerned at all about the wound, or where the blood had come from. Nathan knew this was due to severe blood loss, the mind starting to wander and delirium and fever were usually close behind. He turned to see Chris and Vin still in the room.

"I thought I told you two to git. Go on get out a here. He's gonna be fine." The two men left reluctantly and Nathan turned back to look at the pale sleeping face. "I hope." He added to himself.

Wednesday, November 25th

It was just past midnight when Vin slid off his tired lathered horse and ran into the saloon, he scanned the area but saw no sign of Buck. He headed up to the Hotel and found the ladies man seated in a chair in the lobby, sleeping.

"Buck!" he shook him awake. "We need to get out to the ranch, there's trouble, have ya seen Josiah?"

"Yeah he's over at the church probably in bed, what's the problem? Vin considered whether to tell Buck straight away but knowing that he would probably turn into a bull in a china shop he decided to wait until they were near the ranch.

"Been a gunfight, Chris wants us all out there. Ezra's been hurt bad, we need some supplies from the clinic."

"How bad?" Buck was worried and it came out in his voice. He didn't always let people know, but he cared a great deal for his friends. JD was young and sometimes a little foolhardy, the young were always like that, believing they were indestructible. The others knew he protected the kid, sometimes a little too much. What none of them knew was he also felt the need to watch Ezra's back. He wasn't as obvious as he was with JD because the gambler would hate that but all the same he felt the need to keep an eye on him. Too many people had let the southerner down in his past and Buck Wilmington was not gonna be one of them.

"Bad." Vin almost whispered the word, afraid that if he said it too loud it would bring on the worst.

"Shit, well come on then, I'll get the horses ready, you get Josiah and the supplies. I reckon I'll get us a little extra hardware, can't hurt to be prepared."

+ + + + + + +

Within twenty minutes the three men were on the trail to Nettie Wells' homestead. They rode at a steady gait in silence; each of them filled with their own thoughts on the events of the last few weeks.

After several hours Vin looked over at Buck wondering when would be the best time to tell him about JD. If he told him now then Wilmington would no doubt kill his horse trying to get to the ranch as fast as he could. He looked ahead noticing that Josiah was steadily pulling away from them. He was obviously worried about the gambler and was increasing the pace. Further up the trail Vin reined his horse in, Josiah continued on at speed. Buck pulled up beside him.

"What ya stoppin' for?" he was slightly out of breath and was actually secretly pleased for the stop. "It's not far now, just over the rise."

"I know Buck." He paused unsure how to tell the man about his friend. "I need to tell ya somethin' before we get there." He took a deep breath and moved his horse to stand in front of him.

"Ezra ain't the only one got hurt, JD took a bullet as well." Buck's face changed in an instant, a mixture of emotions crossed his face, concern, fear, anger, and terror.

"Is he…?" He was afraid to complete the question.

"No, he ain't dead, at least he wasn't when I left, but he's hurt bad Buck. He took a bullet in his chest real close to his heart. We were lucky that army surgeon was with us, otherwise…" He grabbed hold of Bucks reins as the larger man made to move his horse.

"Hold on there Bucklin, ya need ta pull ya self together. Ya can't go in their guns a blazin'. Ya got ta think about JD and Casey. He's hurt so ya gonna need to be strong for him, if this goes the wrong way then ya can't let him know. Do ya understand me?"

Buck turned his horse, pulling the reins from the trackers hands. Vin thought for a minute that Buck was crying as he leaned over the saddle horn burying his face in his horse's mane. After a few seconds he pulled himself upright and turned to face the Texan.

"We'd best get on down there, Josiah will wonder where were at." Without another word the two men pushed their horses into a gallop.

Thursday, November 26th

She sat quietly next to the bed watching the man she loved. She had been shocked at his condition when they had finally brought her in to see him. Nathan had explained that due to the loss of blood he would sleep most of the time. His sleep was not easy though as she noticed the laboured breathing and frequent tossing of his head. He was having bad dreams again. She took his hand as he began to move restlessly. Her fingers closed around the clammy skin of his wrist she could feel the pulse beating rapidly. She squeezed ever so gently hoping that some of her strength would move into his weak and struggling body.

Without letting go she pulled herself up and sat on the edge of the bed. The low wick in the lamp cast a dim glow across his face. His skin had taken on a slight yellow tinge; she had seen the same in her Father just before he died and said a silent prayer hoping that the same would not befall this man. He was too young to go yet and besides she loved him, she looked heavenward and not realising she was talking out loud spoke from her heart.

"I will not let you take him, he has so much to live for. Please Lord I need him. I love him. He can't die."

"He hears you Miss." She turned to see Josiah standing in the doorway.

"Who does?"

"God… and Ezra, neither of em is ready to answer you just yet but when it's time you'll hear them." That said he turned and walked away. She looked back at the pale and drawn face before her. Even as sick as he was he was still handsome, she pushed a strand of sweat dampened hair off his face her fingers lingering in the short curly dark locks. She leaned forward and placed a soft tender kiss on his lips. She was surprised when he responded to her touch, pulling back she saw his eyelids open slowly, his green eyes focused and turned to stare at her.

"Don't you dare die on me mister." She said with a mockingly serious tone. A weak smile cut across his face. She leaned in to hear him speak.

"You wouldn't look good in black." He whispered, she laughed, if he hadn't been so ill he would have earned a slap for that one.

"I'll have you know that I cut quite a dash in black Mr Standish." Her face took on a serious look. She bent down to him again and whispered.

"He'll pay for this my love, I'll make him wish he was never born. You mark my words I will kill him." She looked into his face and was relieved to see him asleep again. Pushing herself off the bed she walked to the door and with a new resolve and determination in her step she left the room.

+ + + + + + +

Buck was also keeping vigil over JD, the youngster was still unconscious and very ill, but the surgeon had pronounced that he would make a full recovery as long as he was made to rest. Nathan was keeping a watch from a distance knowing that the friendship between the two was a more powerful medicine than anything he or the Doctor could prescribe.

He frequently marvelled at how Buck could switch from being the loveable rogue to a concerned parent figure and (on occasion) a deadly riled rattler. He knew that as soon as JD showed signs of recovering he would switch to teasing him again, not letting the boy know how much he truly cared for him.

+ + + + + + +

No one noticed as B J slipped out of the house in the dead of night and headed to the barn. They never heard her quietly walk the large Appaloosa out beyond the boundaries of the ranch, mount up and look back. After a few moments she turned and galloped off in the direction of town. Her mind was set and she knew exactly what she needed to do and how to do it to get the result she was after. Rawlins was going to pay for hurting her man and if that meant killing him then so be it.

Friday, November 27th

The sun was just touching the horizon when Vin walked out onto the porch. It was this time of day he enjoyed the most, no people around just the sound of the birds or the occasional wild critter scurrying away from the town before the dawn. Early mornings helped him to relax and gain his balance for the rest of the day.

He stepped down and made his way around the homestead checking all the buildings, stopping by the soldier's camp he spoke to the young trooper on duty for a few minutes then made his way over to the barn. Walking up to his horse he looked around him, he stopped, a puzzled look crossing his face. The Texan checked off in his head each of the animals in the stalls. Immediately his eyes began to scan the ground beneath him. Finding what he was looking for he ran out of the barn, stopped and checked the ground outside; his eyes followed a trail until it disappeared from sight.

"Chris!" he shouted as he ran back into the house.

"What's all the shouting for Vin?" Chris yawned as appeared from the kitchen.

"Where's B J?"

"I would guess she's either asleep or sat with Ezra, that's where she was when I got some shut eye." He caught Vin's agitation and immediately became alert. "Why?" The tracker began to search through the house, hoping he would find her, knowing that he wouldn't.

"She lit out some time last night, I found tracks leading from the barn. Looks like she walked that horse of hers out of sight of the house before she got on. Took off in an almighty hurry headed to town."

"She shouldn't be riding in her condition." Nathan appeared in the doorway. "With that rib only just healing and the damage to her lung, any hard riding and well… I guess I don't have to tell you two how easy it is to rip open fresh wounds."

This time Buck added his thoughts to the conversation. "What do ya reckon she's up to?"

"I'd guess she's gonna try to even things with that Rawlins fella, he's the reason Ezra's banged up again." Vin knew how revenge could make a person do things they would normally think twice about.

"I… we… need to find her…" The four men turned as one as Ezra's weak southern drawl pushed it's way into the middle of the talk. He was stood or rather he was leaning against the door to the bedroom. "I believe… I am in need… of some clothing… a little help…" Both Chris and Vin moved as one and grabbed the southerner as his knees buckled under him.

"You ain't goin' anywhere Ezra 'cept back to bed, ya can't even stand let alone ride." Chris reached under the crumpled, weak frame of the gambler and lifted him into his arms, Vin moved ahead of him and straightened the bed then moved back to allow the gunfighter to slowly ease the injured man into the covers.

"I need to find her Chris, please. She told me… last night…"

"What did she tell ya Ezra? And don't look at me like that, ya ain't got no gun in the bed this time, I checked." He moved in closely to the man's ear. "You're NOT going, now tell me what did she say?"

"She said… she was going to kill him."

"Vin, get the horses ready, you and I are going after her. Fool woman's gonna get herself killed going up against Rawlins and his men."

"Chris…" He turned to see a look of fear and desperation on Standish's face.

"Yeah, don't worry we'll get her back."

+ + + + + + +

Thirty minutes later the two men were riding hard for Four Corners, they knew B J had a good head start and just hoped that they would get there before she found trouble. Neither man was aware that Rawlins had left town and they had no idea the plans that B J had formulated in her mind.

They walked their horses slowly up Main Street. Chris had pulled up just before town saying it would be better to ride in quietly so as not to attract too much attention. Vin scanned the street ahead hoping to catch a glimpse of the woman. They pulled up in front of the livery and Vin jumped down, after a moment he came out and re mounted.

"She made it back alright, Dudley's in there, Tiny says she came in early this morning before sun-up." They headed further into town and got down outside the saloon.

"Let's split up and check around." Chris headed up towards the hotel he knew B J had a room there and decided to check it out, he would also check on the lawyer as well and see if he had seen her.

He turned on the boardwalk as the clatter of hooves and wheels caught his attention. The stage had just rolled in and was now emptying out its passengers. He turned back and almost bumped into a young blonde haired beautiful woman.

"My apologies ma'am." He stepped aside and watched as the elegantly dressed lady sauntered past him, her parasol twirling above her head. She crossed the street and stopped by the stage handing a small valise up to the driver. She was then helped up into the stage. < Damn, she's pretty, wonder when she got into town? > He moved on towards the hotel, shaking himself as a peculiar feeling went through him.

At first the clerk at the hotel was not happy about letting Chris into a guests room, but after the gunslinger explained himself by placing his hand over the top of his gun the man became very co-operative. Chris opened the door to the room and walked in, his eyes took in every corner before he had taken a step. B J's clothes were laid out on the bed, buckskin jacket, shirt and pants, the boots were on the floor. It was the clothes next to them that made him stop and think.

"Shit!" He grabbed the clothes, turned and ran out of the room, all thought of checking on the lawyer gone from his head. He reached the street just as the stage thundered past him headed towards Eagle Bend. It took him another ten minutes to locate the tracker.

"We got ta catch that stage." He said, catching his breath.

"What for? She ain't on it I checked."

"Yeah, she was." He lifted the clothing in his hand and showed them to Vin.

"I don't get it, those are ladies clothes and ya shouldn't exactly be wavin' em around out here." Vin grabbed the frilly bodice and undergarments and bundled them up out of sight. His face turned a shade of red from the embarrassment. "Where'd ya get those?"

"B J's room, on the bed next to her 'working' clothes."

"Ya mean she dressed herself up as a lady?"

"Yeah, she walked right past me. What I don't get is why she got on the stage to Eagle Bend."

"Well I think I can answer that one for ya." Vin shifted uncomfortably as a few of the town's women folk walked by looking at the bundle of clothes in his hand. "I checked in at the telegraph office, seems there's been a heap of messages between here and Eagle Bend over the last week. The clerk happened to mention the name they was from." He didn't need to tell Chris the way he had 'persuaded' the man. "Seems our Mr Rawlins is now in Eagle Bend, which is just where B J is headed."

"Well I guess we'd best get on out there, if we push the horses we can get in ahead of em."

"Chris, if we push them horses any more they'll end up dead, we already rode em rough getting here from Nettie's place. We either take it steady or get some fresh animals. Which is it?"

"I don't like leaving B J without cover even for a minute." He pondered the alternatives. "Let's get some fresh horses and ride out."

"Ok, I know a few shortcuts, places a stage can't get, we should get there ahead of her if were lucky." The two men headed down to the livery and within twenty minutes were riding hard on the trail to Eagle Bend.