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Vin Tanner, ex-buffalo hunter, ex-bounty hunter, and current member of the peacekeepers of the small New Mexican town of Four Corners, charged into the dimness of the tavern. Ezra Standish and Buck Wilmington, playing cut-throat poker at one of the tables, looked up as he approached them.
"Hey, Vin, who put the burr under your saddle?" Buck drawled.
'Y'all seen Chris anywhere?"
"Not for a couple a days. Why?"
"He was supposed ta meet me yesterday mornin' ta help bring Col' Creek Miller back here for th' judge. He never showed up."
"Well, it ain't like you never escorted a criminal alone before," Buck quipped.
"Did mean I had ta listen ta the big mouth all th' way here by m'self."
"You must admit, that it does not sound like our stalwart Mr. Larabee," Standish spoke up.
Frowning over his cards, Wilmington agreed. "Yeah...I mean, if he was goin' somewhere for fun I could see him just not showin' up. But not if he had a job to do." The big man stopped talking and the three exchanged concerned looks. They could each picture Chris Larabee, beaten and abused, the night they had rescued him from the hell that was the prison camp outside Jericho. What if something as drastic had once again befallen the man that had brought the seven peacekeepers together?
"What are we sittin' on our butts here for?" Wilmington said. Looking up at the lean hunter, he said, "You get Miller settled?"
"Yep. He's over in th' jail, runnin' his mouth at the kid."
"All right then, let's get goin'." Buck turned to find the gambler folding the money he had won during their game and tucking it into his boot. Looking at his own seriously diminished funds, the ex-sheriff added, "Ain't none too soon, neither."
The trio strode from the dim saloon. While Wilmington and Standish headed for the livery to retrieve their horses, Tanner returned to the jail. As he entered, he found the young sheriff, JD Dunne, in a heated argument with his prisoner.
"Want me ta help ya gag 'im, JD?"
"No thanks, Vin. Not yet anyway" Dunne said, glaring at the man in the cell. "You find Chris?"
"Nope. Buck 'n Ezra's gonna help me go look for him. Josiah an' Nathan 'r over at th' church if ya need 'em. Nathan wants to stick close ta town 'til Miss Lucy has her baby." He had stopped to see the men on the way into town. They had not seen Chris either.
"Sure you don't want me to come with you?'' Dunne's voice was not quite pleading, but it was obvious that he would prefer a hard ride and possible danger to sitting in the jail, dodging Cold Creek Miller's vitriolic commentary.
"No, you best stay. Judge's s'posed ta be here on the evenin' stage. Don't want him findin' Miller sittin' here alone."
"Yeah, I guess you're right," in many ways JD had grown and matured since arriving in town. In others, he was still a wide-eyed child. JD Dunne hated to be left out of a fight.
"See ya, Kid," Vin said as he left the office.
- M7 -
He hurt. Head to toe, inside and out, he hurt. Trying to open his eyes, he found the task impossible. Any movement on his own was beyond his current capabilities. Just breathing took a Herculean effort.
What had happened? Where was he? His mind slowly wandered back through memories... standing shoulder to shoulder with another man... a man with long curling hair. Not talking, but each knowing what was in the other's mind. A much younger man. A kid. Kid. Long on guts, short on sense. Go home, Kid. Go home. He had seen so many kids dead. Lured by the romantic stories they had heard about the West. Dying when they faced the reality of life with a gun on their hip.
Other men. A big man he had known for a very long time. A quick smile and an easy charm. Especially with the women. An older man. Preaching gospel with a gun in his hand. Ready to embrace death. A black man... a scarred ex-slave. A healer with the soul of a prince. Another man, a flash of a golden smile. A quick wit. A man he had distrusted once... one who had won that trust a thousand times since.
And then the memories became even more jumbled. More painful. A woman. Two women. A child. Two. Dark hair to blonde. Blonde to dark. Sarah. Adam. Mary. Billy. Two lost. Two found. The pain of the past cast shadows on the faint hope of the future. Longing for lives he could not truly share.
Moaning softly, he tumbled back into the blackness...
- M7 -
"Anything?" Ezra Standish absently brushed dust from his red jacket as he watched Vin Tanner inspecting the ground.
"Nothin' more'n we knew five miles ago," Tanner answered as he mounted his sleek black horse. "Four horses, headin' south east."
"Are you certain one of those horses belongs to Mr. Larabee?"
Sighing, the hunter said, "Told ya earlier, Ezra. Pony's got a nick in th' right front shoe. 'Sides, I can read his gait easy as th' rest a yer horses."
With a look that clearly said he did not believe the tracker was quite that efficient in reading trails, the southerner wisely did not reply.
Glancing over at the gambler, Tanner said, "If you wanna go lookin' on yer own, Ezra - "
"I don't believe that I communicated any such desire, Mr. Tanner."
Nodding in reply, the hunter nudged Peso forward, the other two men close behind him. They rode at a quick and steady pace throughout the rest of the day, stopping only long enough for Vin to study the trail and to rest the horses. Just as they had for the previous two days as the trail led them on a rambling journey that seemed to go no where, but was taking their friend farther from them by the moment. They hoped they could gain enough ground to locate Chris and his companions soon. They hoped that he was among friends. They were worried that he was not. That thought alone drove them forward, begrudgingly stopping when sundown robbed them of the light to follow the trail.
"Reckon we stop here for awhile. It'll be near a full moon tonight. Oughta be able ta follow th' trail then."
"Oh lord," Ezra groaned under his breath. He said nothing more, but he was obviously not happy with the prospect of riding through the night.
"How far ahead you think they are, Vin?" Buck's voice had taken on that soft tone that meant he was in a serious mood. The laughing ladies man had given way to a dark man driven to find his long-time friend.
"Looks like five, maybe six hours."
"Then we could be on 'm before they break camp in th' mornin'."
"If I can see ta track by moonrise. If I can't we're gonna have to wait 'til morning. Then it'll be mid-day or later."
Even in the fading light it was easy to read Wilmington's handsome face. Vin knew that if they found Chris in trouble, he would be hard put to keep the hot tempered man from going on a rampage. They had, on occasion, harnessed that wild-eyed demon and used him to their advantage. But Vin knew that Buck's temper could also be genuinely loosed. And that was something that he did not want to deal with if at all possible.
- M7 -
He returned from the blackness. Pain was still the center of his existence. It still trapped him; held him tightly in its grasp. Once again his mind wandered aimlessly through a past he only barely remembered...his past. He could not make sense of most of it. He could not hold a thought long enough to put the life in those memories together. He could not put names to most of the faces that floated behind his eyes. He could not even put a name to the person who held those memories.
He could not remember himself.
- M7 -
With a yawn, the gambler looked up from where he was sleeping on the ground. Buck towered over him, his features hidden in the moonlight and shadows. "May I assume that we are preparing to depart?"
"Yeah, " Wilmington handed the other man a cup of coffee. "Drink up, we best be movin' quick's we can."
Sitting up, Ezra hurriedly drained the cup. Tossing the dregs into the grass, he pushed himself to his feet. Stretching the stiffness from his muscles, he gathered his chestnut's reins and mounted. Along with Buck, he followed the tracker's lead once more.
The night passed to the sound of hoof beats. The three men said nothing; each keeping his own council. Uncertain of being able to follow the trail closely enough from horseback even in the light of the full moon, Vin walked, leading Peso. The other men did not envy him his lot. Horsemen all, they were far more comfortable on horseback than afoot. The two kept a silent vigil from their vantage points, watching for the approach of riders.
Just as the moon dropped to allow the sky to be reclaimed by the morning sun, Vin silently called a halt with a raised hand. Buck stepped down from General's back and joined him. Still astride Diamond, Ezra nudged the chestnut closer to the men. He listened to the conversation while at the same time watching the shadowed countryside around them.
"Reckon they're close," Vin said quietly. Looking around, he spotted a likely camping place in the distance. Nodding toward it, he made certain that the others had read his meaning. His expression never changing, Buck nodded in return and climbed back on General. Ezra, his face showing more emotion than it ever did while playing cards, nodded as well. Taking a seat on Peso, Vin coaxed the blaze faced black forward. The others took up positions on either side of him. Whatever they were riding toward, they would face it together.
- M7 -
There were others around him. He could hear them, their muffled conversation coming to his ears in snatches. He had tried to make sense of the world since he had gained consciousness. The pain was far too intense to allow him to think for very long. The images had come and gone whenever he was aware enough to know them for what they were.
Friends... family... nearly every person who had been important in his life.
But then the pain would take away those thoughts. He would find himself writhing as he was consumed in the fires of hell that flowed through him; washed over him; sought to destroy him. And thought would be gone. All he could do was scream. The screams, though, were only in his mind. He did not have the strength to form even the guttural sounds of madness and pain.
- M7 -
Vin held up a hand to stop the other men. Both Buck and Ezra dismounted and crept to where the hunter stood. The sun was just making its promise of morning on the eastern horizon. They would have to move fast if they were going to find the men they were following before they broke camp.
"Reckon they're up there," Vin pointed ahead to a small stand of trees. "I'm gonna go take a look. You fellas stay here with the horses."
"Vin," Buck began.
"They ain't as likely ta hear one man as they are three men and horses. I ain't gonna be long." He started off then turned to his companions. "You hear gunfire, come runnin', okay?"
Both Wilmington and Standish nodded in silence.
Tanner jogged quietly through the brush and rocks. His time with the Indians stood him in good stead, allowing him to find the camp and reconnoiter without being spotted. Finding a good vantage point, he sat quietly, taking in the entire scene before him. There were a dozen or more men, still sleeping into the early morning. From the number of liquor bottles scattered around the camp, he wasn't surprised. They must have had one hell of a party the night before. Vin moved quickly and quietly, searching for any sign of Chris Larabee.
And then he saw him.
And he wished he hadn't.
And he wanted to be sick...
- M7 -
He heard the voices again. He knew he was going to hurt again. The voices brought pain. He wished that he knew why. He was trapped. There in the darkness that held him hostage. There in the pain that made life a single, eternal moment of misery. He prayed for release. In whatever form it took.
- M7 -
Buck looked up as a faint sound reached him.
"What?" Standish whispered next to the ex-lawman.
Raising a hand, he quieted the gambler so that he could listen for further sounds. He heard nothing more, but was surprised a few seconds later when Vin appeared. He was moving quickly, and barely broke stride when he met the other two men. Grabbing hold of him, Buck got a close look at the younger man's face.
"Vin? What?" He took in the flushed face, the wide, haunted eyes. The unflappable trapper was frightened. Wilmington's blood chilled at the thought of something so terrible as to leave Tanner in such a state.
"Chris... it's Chris, Buck... oh, God," the last sounded like a prayer.
Buck took hold of the smaller man by the shoulders, turning Tanner to face him squarely. "Vin, settle down. Talk to me. What's wrong? What's happened to Chris? Vin, tell me."
"Ya know I've seen a lot... a lot of pretty ugly things in m' life. But damn... damn Buck!"
"They got Chris... got 'm strung up... all trussed up in devil wire."
"Devil wire?" Ezra interrupted.
"Barbed wire," Buck supplied in a quiet, hollow voice. Turning his attention back to the hunter he asked, "Is he alive, Vin?"
"Yeah...yeah, I think so... yeah. But he's gotta be in bad shape... gotta be. They've got 'm hangin' upside down from a tree over there..."
"Oh damn," Ezra breathed.
Straightening to his full height, Buck said simply, "Then we go get him."
Taking a deep breath, Vin nodded. He was slowly returning to the calm, reassured man that they had all come to rely on over the past months. They mounted their horses and headed as quietly as they could toward the camp. The morning sun would not allow them much time for surprise now. They would have to move quickly and hope that they were quick enough.
- M7 -
There were two voices.... one following the other. Talking. He could hear them, but could not understand what they were saying. The voices came closer. He tensed, knowing what was about to take place.
Suddenly the pain returned... grew... intensified beyond anything he had known before. He felt the pain focused in one spot on his already traumatized body. He smelled burning flesh. He heard the laughter of those around him as his body jerked and quivered in response to the pain they inflicted upon him. Laughter that seemed to follow each meager sound he could force past his lips to protest the abuse.
- M7 -
They reined in their desire for a head-on battle and cut a wide path around the kidnappers' camp. Leaving the horses picketed far enough away that the sound of hoof beats would be less likely to announce their presence, they continued quickly on foot. Vin led the way, his sawed-off shotgun at the ready. Buck and Ezra flanked him, their guns drawn as well.
Arriving at the camp, Tanner motioned, and all three men held their position. Only a few yards away the camp was still quiet. Warily the peacekeepers moved around the edge of the clearing where the camp had been set up, scouting the lay-out as they moved toward the place Vin had seen Chris. When they arrived at that spot, Buck and Ezra had nearly the same reaction that the tracker had earlier.
Leaning his weight against the older man, Tanner kept Wilmington from bolting headlong into the camp to rescue his long-time friend. Looking wild-eyed at the gruesome scene before him, the big man was trembling with anger. He shot an angry look at the smaller man who was blocking his path.
"Buck!" Vin urged in a whisper, "hang on. We gotta do this right, or we'll get Chris killed."
"I say we open up right now and blow all of these sons-of-bitches to hell," came a whispered response. To the hunter's surprise it was not Wilmington who spoke so angrily, but Standish.
"Ezra, you, too. We gotta remember - Chris comes first. If we can git 'im outta here without a fight, we gotta do it. There'll be time for revenge later." He paused to glance back at the man he considered his best friend, "And when we do, I aim ta be leadin' the pack."
- M7 -
In the depths of his mind, where some semblance of thought still presided, he had made a decision. He had died. Died and gone to hell. He would spend eternity like this...bound by flames and tortured by hell's minions. It was the only answer. Nothing in the world that he vaguely remembered could be this horrendous. No human mind could inflict such pain on another.
His only consolation was that he would go mad sooner or later. Living or dead, he still possessed a mind. He knew that, at some point, it would respond to the abuse by breaking. He hoped that time would come soon.
The voices continued. One after the other...after the other...after...but...they had stopped. And the pain...it did not disappear, but neither did it continue to increase. Perhaps...perhaps it had begun. His mind was responding to the strain; losing its hold, its control. Soon he would slip into oblivion, and hell could have his body.
Then he realized that there were other voices; other demons? Other... no. No, he knew these voices...
- M7 -
"That's right, cowboy, just stand nice 'n easy," Tanner said softly. He and Buck had flanked the two kidnappers who were tormenting Chris. Ezra covered them from the shadows, one pistol covering the pair, the other aimed toward the larger group still sleeping. Vin held his mare's leg at the base of one man's skull, while Buck had his pistol trained on the other.
"Now, you've got our friend trussed up there, " The hunter spoke with a calm he did not feel. "We aim to take him outta here with us."
"You can't take 'm," one of the men said, lowering his voice in response to the gun barrel pressed harder against his neck. "He has been chosen. Once chosen, he can't leave the circle. He stays here 'til we can complete the ceremony."
"Mister, I don't know what you're talkin' about and I don't give a damn, neither. We're leavin' and our friend's comin' with us." The tracker locked eyes with his companion, sky blue to midnight. In silent agreement, they each rendered the man before them unconscious. Grabbing hold of the limp bodies, they lowered the men quietly to the ground. Quickly, gagging and tying the men hand and foot, Vin and Buck moved to their next obstacle... cutting Chris down without cutting him to ribbons.
Buck started to loosen the wire on Chris' arm, but Vin stopped him. "We gotta go."
"Vin! We can't move him like this!"
"No choice. Can you carry him?"
"Stop arguin' Bucklin! Can you?"
"Yeah, but -"
"Then let's get to it." Tanner turned to Ezra, where he now stood near the others, green eyes still watching for movement on the other side of the camp. "Ezra, you cut 'm down."
Nodding, the gambler holstered his guns and moved to the tree trunk. Vin took hold of Chris and, as Ezra freed the rope, he and Buck guided the injured man's body and settled it over the ex-lawman's broad shoulders. As the barbed-wire encased limbs settled against him Buck let out a muffled grunt as he felt the barbs hook themselves into his clothing.
Standish stepped over and quickly sliced through the rope binding Larabee's ankles. Catching his thumb on one of the barbs, he jumped and automatically popped the bleeding digit in his mouth. He stared in fresh horror at the injured man, at the numerous trickles of blood tracing gory rivulets down his body. Shock at the thought of what pain his friend must be in spurred the young gambler to action. He triggered the mechanism that released his hide-out derringer and pointed it at the nearest kidnapper.
"Ezra, no!" Vin hissed, grabbing the man's arm. "Later, pard, okay?"
Taking a deep breath to calm himself, Standish slowly nodded and secured the gun.
They moved out, Buck sandwiched between Vin and Ezra, Chris hanging limply over his shoulder. Tanner, on point, led them from the clearing and back toward their horses. Once there, he turned to Buck, a question clear in his eyes.
Responding to what he knew the younger man was thinking, Buck said in a quiet tone, "Y'all help me up on my horse, okay? I ain't puttin' Chris down 'til we find somewhere to hole up. He's all caught up in m' clothes; figure this is the best way to carry him without doin' too much more damage."
Performing a feat of grace born of commitment to his friend, Wilmington managed to mount his mare with the help of the other two men. He tried once again to block the whimpers and groans of the man on his shoulder, but again he was unsuccessful. Buck tasted bile and felt the hot sting of tears. "Hang on, Chris," he pleaded, "Hang on."
- M7 -
In the tortured mind of the gunslinger, there was a spark of recognition. He knew that voice. There was the comfort of old memories attached to it. For a moment he felt safe. And then the moment passed and the darkness invaded his mind once more.
- M7 -
By the time the sun had fully risen above the horizon, each of the three peacekeepers had vowed to exact revenge on the men who had tortured their friend time and again. The cold light of morning had revealed the full extent of the physical injuries visited upon the gunman's body.
The barbed wire had been wound around each arm and leg in an intricate pattern. He had been stripped down, even the legs of his union suit sliced off, leaving him with nothing more than enough to cover his genitals and allow him at least that much dignity. Like the barbed wire, burns and cuts crisscrossed his chest and back in a gruesome design. Chris had been shot twice, once high in the shoulder, once just below the ribs. The bullet wounds had been packed with spiderweb and moss to stop the bleeding. It was clear that the men who had kidnapped Larabee wanted the pleasure of prolonging his death.
Vin pointed to a ridge they were nearing. "If I remember right, there's a good-sized cave along there. We can hole up and look after Chris."
"If you're aware of the cave, then it could be that those... men," Ezra spit the word out vehemently, "may also be aware of its whereabouts."
"Maybe," Tanner responded as he pulled out his spyglass and turned to look behind them. "But so far it don't look like they're followin' us."
"Soon as we get Chris patched up, I hope the bastards do come. I'm gonna enjoy tearin' everyone of 'm apart," Buck said in a low voice.
- M7 -
The darkness parted once more and Chris heard the anger in the almost-familiar voice. He couldn't focus long enough to understand the words, but he knew that tone. Oddly, he took comfort in it; the anger was not there to hurt him, it would protect him.
- M7 -
"Ground's hard along here, Ezra," Vin said, not commenting on Buck's tirade. "Unless they got a tracker with 'm, they prob'ly won't be able ta find us."
"Why do I not find a great deal of comfort in the words 'unless' and 'probably?" the gambler replied.
Simply smiling, the young hunter led them forward.
- M7 -
Tanner's memory proved to be excellent, to no one's surprise, and they were soon at the cave he had remembered. With Ezra's help, he managed to guide Buck from the saddle without dislodging his human burden. A weak cry from Larabee reached them as the ex-lawman touched the ground. The men looked at one another, the same look of vengeance reflected in each handsome face.
Reaching the shelter of the cave, Standish hurriedly spread a blanket on the ground and guided Buck to sit next to it. Then they began the task of loosening the barbs from Wilmington's clothing. Each one started a trickle of blood to begin anew; each brought a cry or whimper from the unconscious man.
"Damn it, Ezra, be careful!" Buck growled.
"I am! There are a multitude of barbs that I am attempting to disengage while keeping the others from catching again, and I am doing it virtually with no light - "
"Knock it off!" Vin said angrily. He had gathered wood and was in the process of starting a fire. "You two facin' off ain't helpin' nothin'." He turned his back to them and fanned the fire. Soon the cave was bathed in a soft glow. That accomplished, Tanner brought their saddlebags and bedrolls over and knelt next to the others. Without a word he began loosening barbs as well, and they finally freed Chris. Easing him from Buck's shoulder, they lay him carefully on the blanket. Next came the equally unnerving task of removing the wire from Chris' extremities. Rifling quickly through his saddlebags, Vin brought out a pair of short-handled wire cutters. With Buck removing the wire as they went along, he began cutting the accursed metal away.
Something caused the tracker to look up and he saw that Larabee's eyes were open. "Chris?" he called softly, causing Buck to look as well.
"Hurts..." the word was barely a whisper.
"I know it does, pard, but we gotta do it."
With a whimper as his only answer, the gunslinger's glazed hazel eyes closed again. Vin looked back to where he had been working, then at the bloody wire cutters in his hand. He closed his eyes and took a deep, shuddering breath. He felt a hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently.
"He'll understand, Vin," Ezra drawled softly. With a nod, the bounty hunter returned to his grisly task.
It took over three hours for them to tend the injured man. Half of that time was spent removing the wire. Then they used water that Ezra had heated over the fire to bathe the many injuries. Finally, using salve and bandages, carried thanks to Nathan's insistence that they never travel unprepared, they wrapped his arms and legs. Larabee had ceased any reaction to their ministrations. While it made it easier to work, they grew concerned that he was slipping away. Truly, they could not fathom how the man had held on this long.
Satisfied that they had done all they could, the three men sat back on their heels. Vin stretched, trying to relieve the ache in his shoulders. He started to rub his hand across his neck, but stopped when he saw that it was stained with Chris' blood.
Seeing the other man's gaze, Ezra handed over their last canteen of water. Nodding his thanks, Tanner doled out a small amount and did his best to banish the stains. Then he looked over at Buck. Standish turned to him as well. The big man was looking down at his ruined clothing, gouged and bloodied.
"Buck," Ezra spoke softly, as if a loud voice would destroy what was left of Wilmington's resolve. "Buck, do you have any other clothing with you?"
Slowly turning toward the gambler, the dark-haired man had to focus to realize what he was being asked. "Yeah... yeah, I've got another shirt with me."
"Then why don't you leave your coat with me and go change. I'll see if I can clean it up a bit," Standish sounded as if he were talking to a child.
"Uh... yeah," Wilmington said softly. He gingerly began removing the coat, Ezra helping him. Then he pulled off his shirt. With a long look at the dried blood and the snagged cloth, he disdainfully tossed the shirt in the fire.
"Buck, some of those places are rather deep," Standish said, indicating the deep scratches where the barbs had managed to get past the layers of cloth. "We should clean them."
"I'm okay. We need ta keep all of the supplies for Chris."
"Ezra's right," Vin said, "we don't need you comin' down with fever from them cuts."
Still clearly unhappy, Wilmington nonetheless nodded his reluctant agreement. He bit his tongue as the other two men washed the cuts and applied salve to them. Once they were satisfied, he slid into his spare shirt, but left it hanging open.
Tanner looked down and found that Larabee's eyes were open once again. "Chris?"
The man continued staring straight ahead, unheeding or unable to respond to his friend. Taking up the canteen, Vin lifted Chris' head and urged him to drink. The semi-conscious man managed a few swallows before being overcome by a coughing fit. Handing the canteen quickly across to Standish, Tanner carefully lifted Larabee higher so that the cough would ease. Chris lay limply against his shoulder, his breath coming in wheezing gasps.
Buck had come around and, using his clean kerchief, gently wiped his friend's face. "Alright, ya old war dog," he said softly, "I know how tough you can be. You can pull outta this. Damn it, Chris... you gotta pull outta this."
"He will, Buck," Vin said over their friend's head. "He will."
- M7 -
They went about the task of setting up a meager camp within the confines of the cave. Scouting nearby, Vin managed to snare a brace of rabbits and find a fresh water supply in the form of a spring. He also realized from the landmarks that the circular route the kidnappers had taken, and they had followed, had brought them to just a little more than a day from town. Buck picketed the horses, tending them as best he could in the small area they had found to keep them hidden from the kidnappers. Inside the cave, Ezra sat with Chris, keeping his mind and hands occupied with his ever-present deck of cards.
Returning to the cave, Buck was almost immediately set upon by the gambler, who insisted that he get some rest. While Wilmington could admit to himself that their ordeals had left him somewhat the worse for wear, and that carrying the barbed wire encased man on foot and horseback had sapped him of much needed mental and physical strength, he could not admit it to the other man. Vin returned to the cave just as their exchange was heating up.
"Ezra, I told ya, I'm fine. I don't think you need ta be fussin' over me, when we oughta be worryin' about Chris."
"Mr. Wilmington, my concern for our damaged associate is not diminished in any way by my concern for you. We may be attacked by those human animals at any time. You have suffered from your ordeal, and should allow yourself some time to recuperate -"
"Jesus!" Tanner exploded. "Can't you two idiots just shut up? If ya can't, why don't ya haul ass on outta here and I'll take care a Chris m'self. He needs peace an' quiet, not you two fools snippin' at each other like a couple'a old hens!"
Startled into silence, Buck and Ezra stopped arguing and looked at the young tracker. They could see the raw pain in the finely chiseled face; the fear and anger in the pale eyes. Sometimes they forgot that, despite the amount of living he had done; only JD Dunne was younger in years. The pressure of the situation was weighing heavily on his slender shoulders. The actions of his more volatile companions were pushing him ever closer to the edge.
"Vin," Buck began.
"Mr. Tanner," Ezra said at the same time.
"Fergit it," Vin said tiredly. Handing freshly filled canteens and dressed out rabbits to the two men, he said, "I'm gonna go have a look around for those fellas. Be back in a couple a hours."
"I'll go with ya," Buck said, starting to button his shirt.
"No, you stay here. Keep an eye out in case I miss 'm an' they show up here. They do, its gonna take ya both to keep Chris outta their hands."
Opening his mouth to argue, Wilmington simply shut it once more and nodded. Instead he took the rabbits and moved to the fire to prepare them.
Glancing down at Larabee, Vin said, "How's he doin?"
"He's developing a fever," Standish answered. "Not unusual given the circumstances I'm certain. However, it is one more thing to be concerned about."
"Yeah," Vin said in a soft voice. Touching the brim of his hat and nodding to the other men, he left to survey the area.
After Tanner left, Standish sat in quiet contemplation for several minutes. Finally seeming to make up his mind, he rose and retrieved his hat and jacket. Automatically brushing them as he stared off into space, he started toward the mouth of the cave.
"Where ya goin', Ezra?" Wilmington asked from beside the fire.
"As Mr. Tanner so aptly pointed out, our first concern must be Mr. Larabee's welfare. As such, we are most assuredly in need of Mr. Jackson's medical expertise. Now, while I have my own areas of strength, life in the elements is not one of them. However, I feel that I am sufficiently skilled as both a horseman and a gunman and the two men who we accosted in that abominable camp did not see me. Therefore they would not recognize me if I were to be intercepted. I have the best chance of making my way to town for help, and back here once more."
"Ezra," Wilmington said with a sigh of long suffering, "if it means I don't have ta listen to ya yappin' like a hound dog, then go on and get outta here."
With a dimpled grin, the gambler hurried from the cave before he lost his resolve.
- M7 -
Vin returned within two hours. Going to picket Peso, he saw that Diamond was gone. With a muttered curse, he hurried into the cave. He found Buck sitting next to Chris, talking softly. For a second Tanner was hopeful that the gunman had gained consciousness. Then he realized that Buck was simply rambling and Chris was still unconscious.
"Buck, where'd Ezra go?"
With a sigh, the big man said, "He headed out for town."
\ "What! Why?"
"He's goin' after Nathan and th' others. He figured he'd stand the best chance a gettin' there."
"And you let him just go?"
"Vin, he was right, okay? I don't like it any better than you do, but he is the best chance we've got to get Chris back ta town alive."
Tipping his hat back and running a hand across his face, Tanner simply nodded and came to sit next to Chris. Reaching out, he touched the pale, perspiration soaked face. "He's gettin' hotter."
"This ain't exactly news, pard," Wilmington said in exasperation. "You already missed another coughin' spell, some sort of fit, and a whole lot a fever talk."
"Buck," Vin spoke softly, taking in the haggard look of his friend. "Why don't ya go stretch out for a couple'a hours?"
"I'm fine, Vin."
"I know ya are, Buck. But you been sittin' in here for quite a while. If ya don't wanna stretch out, how 'bout goin' outside for awhile? I couldn't find a sign a them men anywhere near. There's a spring not too far. Just go to your left when ya get outta th' cave."
"Vin, I don't need a babysitter."
"Ain't tryin' ta be. Just sayin' you could use a break. 'Sides, " He said with a smile to lighten the mood, "you go outside, th' air'll be a whole lot fresher... in here."
At first it seemed that Wilmington wasn't going to bite. Then with a broad grin he said, "Yeah? Well I imagine it'll get a mite fresher outside, too." With a short laugh, the big ex-lawman disappeared out the cave entrance.
A soft sound drew Tanner's attention back to the blanket. Chris' eyes were open once again, staring blankly toward the ceiling. "Hey, pard? You hear me?" He leaned forward, unconsciously brushing the other man's long bangs from his pale face. Hazel eyes, glassy and fever bright, stared ahead without any sense of recognition. Once more the injured man groaned softly.
"Chris? It's Vin, pard. Can ya hear me?"
"I know, pard, I know. Ezra went back ta town to get Nathan -"
"Hurts..." the word came again.
Tanner knew then that Chris was still trapped in the hell the kidnappers had taken him to. With a tired sigh he rested his arms across his knees and dropped his head to onto them.
- M7 -
He had made good time, pushing Diamond as fast as she could go. Standish had seen no one else since leaving the cave, and he hoped that it would remain that way. He judged that he would be in town before sunrise if he could keep this pace. He had found the stage road and knew that if the moon rose as brightly as the night before he could ride through the long night hours.
His mind traced its way back through the previous months. Months that had lead him to learn much about himself, and about the others. He had ridden into town all those months ago with a heart as cold as his mother's. At least that's what he had convinced himself of. And then he had met Chris Larabee and the others. Despite the rocky start that had left him having to earn the man in black's trust, he had become a part of a group; a bonded circle of men who could count on the others to watch his back. Shaking his head with an ironic smile, the gambler knew that his mother would never understand these friendships. Maude had been the one to teach him that friendship was a commodity, something to be bought and sold as benefited him.
But now... now he was riding his horse to the ground at a full gallop to bring aid to a man who, like the others, meant more to him than even his mother's approval. He realized, too, that he had finally come to understand what true friendship meant. The evening air rang with his laughter as the image of his mother's face - full of shock at what had become of her son - filled his mind.
- M7 -
"Ain't him," one of the five riders said to the others. "Ain't the chosen one, or them other two that took him away from us." He turned to one of the others, the man who, like he himself, had been waylaid by the two cowboys that morning.
It had been nearly two hours before the others had risen and realized that something was wrong. Still overcome with the effects of the sacramental wine they drank during their ceremonies, they all tended to sleep long and hard. Finally others had coming looking for Milt and Sam, the two men who had been overtaken by the spirit the night before. Their decision to add to the holy design that marked each of their chosen sacrifices had cost them headaches and the retribution of the tribunal. Both men knew that their position in the cult was tenuous now. If they were unable to recover the blond man, they could very well become sacrifices themselves at the next full moon.
Rage, anger and fear filled the man called Milt. Looking at the lone rider who would not be acceptable to the tribunal, he pulled his shotgun. "Well, if he ain't the chosen one, he ain't nothin'." He fired at the retreating figure.
- M7 -
Below, on the road, Ezra felt a fire in his right shoulder before hearing the distant shotgun report. Fortunately the shell was nearly spent before it reached him, but it still did its damage. Crying out, the gambler nearly fell from the horse. Catching himself, he managed to hold on as the little chestnut continued her headlong flight. Letting the horse have her head, he trusted her to follow the road. Trying to breathe through the spreading pain, Standish slowly managed to clear his head. Quickly assessing the situation, he wrapped the reins several times around his left wrist. If by chance he lost consciousness and fell from the saddle, Diamond would not lose him. The horse had been well-trained, and would stop for her owner should he fall, pulling at the reins.
"Damn!" The gambler said under his breath. "Damn! Hang on Chris. I will not desert you this time. I promise."
- M7 -
"Don't you... run out..." the words, whispered in a raspy voice, woke Vin from a light sleep.
"Chris? Ain't no one runnin' out on ya," the hunter said. He leaned forward to check on his friend once again. Larabee stared fixedly upward; eyes unfocused, unseeing. Just more fever talk.
Tanner started, for a second thinking that the wounded man had spoken to him. Then he realized that it was his other companion. Turning, he saw that Wilmington had returned to the cave.
"Hey, Buck," the hunter said in a groggy voice.
"Looks like I ain't the only one needin' a break," the big man said with a smile.
"Just dozed off I reckon,"
"Yeah," Wilmington said as he came to sit next to his friends. "Well, none of us is in the best shape right now. Why don't you take a break... catch a nap."
Their conversation was interrupted by the mutterings of the unconscious man between them. At first incomprehensible, his voice began to rise. What the other two men heard broke Vin's heart and tore open old wounds in Buck's.
"Sarah! Adam! God... NO!" He was caught in the nightmare memory of that deadly fire. "Buck... they're... no! Oh God... they're... dead! I... can't, I... why can't... I... can't find... them..." then his voice softened, hollowed out by a pain too immense to bear. "Oh no. Oh... oh God... Buck.... there...I can see... see them... there... oh... God. My... wife, my... baby boy... oh... no..." Then, exhausted, Chris fell silent once more.
Vin had known about Sarah and Adam for some time. He had been the first of the group that Chris had told the story to. As far as he knew, he had been the only one Larabee had confided in. The others had heard the story from Buck. To Tanner, though, it had never seemed quite real before. His friend's re-telling had been calm and removed from emotion. But now the true depth of the man's pain was laid raw and bare before him. He looked up, and saw the twin to that pain mirrored in Buck's face. He started to say something, but stopped. Then, "I... reckon I'll go take a break."
His mind lost in memories, Buck barely acknowledged the other man's word. He only vaguely knew that he had responded with a nod as Vin left the cave.
- M7 -
He had finally slowed Diamond to a walk. She was lathered and blowing from the hard ride. He feared that she would fall beneath him; or that he would fall from the saddle and be unable to climb back on. More than anything he feared losing consciousness - or even dying - before he could reach help. He couldn't let the others down...couldn't let Chris down. He felt the deck being stacked against him; he was trying to fill a royal flush by drawing four cards.
"Damn it... you fool," he cursed aloud in a breathless voice. "D-don't... count yourself... out... so... quickly." Taking a breath that ended in a gasp of pain, he fought to clear the spots from his vision. Rubbing the tired horse's neck, he said, "Just a little longer... ol' girl... just... a little... longer."
- M7 -
Vin had left the cave, letting Buck have his privacy for awhile. Finding a quiet vantage point, he watched the moonlit countryside for signs of campfires or riders. He wondered where Ezra was. Chris' delirious words, his warning about running out on them crossed his mind briefly. At one time he would have wondered if they would see the fancy gambler with the gift of gab again, but no longer. Ezra Standish had won his trust and, even more, his respect. The group's Southern gentleman had proven himself to be a man of honor and courage, even though he seemed to constantly deny those qualities.
Checking on Peso and General, he slipped back into the cave. Buck was leaning against the rock wall, head tilted back, eyes closed. Next to him Chris lay quietly. So quiet. Vin's heart skipped a beat; he hurried the few steps and dropped to his knees next to the prone figure. "Chris?" He could hear the fear in his own voice.
Looking across at the hunter, Wilmington said, "He's just sleepin', Vin."
Slumping with relief, Tanner made himself as comfortable as he could on the chilly dirt floor. "You ready for another break?"
"Nah, I'm fine. Thought about sleepin'... don't imagine I will though."
"Why don't'cha try?"
Buck simply shook his head, leaning back and closing his eyes once again. At first it seemed that he would attempt to sleep, but suddenly he began to speak in a quiet monotone. "He ain't never gonna get over it, ya know. If he found and killed every one of the son's a bitches that murdered Sarah and Adam... including whoever hired Fowler... it wouldn't take the pain away.
"Chris loved both of 'm so much. I never saw him as happy as the day he married Sarah...unless it was the day Adam was born. You should have seen him, Vin, when Adam was born. He was so proud... so happy. Scared the wits outta Sarah, takin' the boy out on horseback when he was only a couple months old. Adam was the world to him... he'd just sit and watch that baby sleepin' in the cradle he made.
"And Sarah... my Lord he loved that woman! She loved him, too. That kind of fierce love a woman can have for her man. It was like everyday was their weddin' day. Chris... well, he'd just gather Sarah up in his arms like he'd never let her go. Anytime he had to leave, he'd wrap her up in his arms so tight. Same thing when he'd come home..." Buck went quiet, thinking of what had been. Then he sighed heavily and scrubbed a hand across his face. "Ever since that night... I've known there ain't no true justice in this world."
"Buck, Chris don't blame you for none of it."
"Yeah, I know."
"Why don't ya try forgivin' yerself?"
His mustache twitching as he smiled sadly, Wilmington said, "Not 'til I quit seeing the hurt in the man's face, Vin. I can't 'til then. Don't matter what he says... I was the one that kept him in Mexico that night."
Uncertain of how to respond, Tanner simply nodded. Dampening a kerchief, the young man wiped the perspiration from Chris' face. They sat quietly for some time, each lost in their own thoughts. Then Vin sat back and regarded Buck, a question plainly showing on his handsome face. "Buck, can I ask you somethin'?"
"Ya ever wish I wasn't around?"
Clearly confused, he said, "What are you talkin' about? Why would I want that?"
"Well... you 'n Chris got a lot a hist'ry t'gether. Then I kinda pushed my way in and..." He stumbled to a halt, suddenly embarrassed at what he was presuming.
"You walked in and kind of took my place?"
"Well... yeah... I reckon."
Buck turned the thought around in his mind. "Reckon ya did... in a way. But things changed between me 'n Chris th' day we buried his family. Some things are just too bitter ta take. Ya can't help but look at things, and folks, different afterwards.
"Me an' Chris hadn't seen each other for more'n two years when y'all rousted me outta that lady's bed," he grinned at the memory of jumping from the prostitute's room in only his union suit.
Grinning in return, Vin said, "Guess that was a pretty dirty trick."
Laughing, Wilmington said, "Yeah, but it was pretty funny!" Then he sobered. "Vin, what's important to me as far as my friendship with Chris... well, you can't ever take that." He paused and placed a hand to his heart. "It's right here, and no one can take it away. Now like it or not, you're my friend, too. But you and Chris, well, you share somethin' special. He told me about that day you took off down the street and handled them cowboys fixin' ta hang Nathan." He paused, looking the other man squarely in the eye. "I don't know that I'd have been that quick ta put m' life on the line like that."
"Sure ya would -"
"No, now, don't go makin' me out ta be somethin' I ain't, okay?"
"Yeah, well, I ain't gonna make ya out ta be less 'n ya are, either." Tanner said with a solemn nod.
- M7 -
The sun was just beginning to color the Eastern sky. Ezra forced himself to sit up straighter with a tired groan. Then the weariness lifted when he saw that he was nearly at the edge of town. The tired man smiled, tears of happiness threatening to flow. Nudging the equally tired horse, he coaxed her to move a little faster. Beneath him, Diamond knew that she was nearly home as well; she picked up her pace.
"Josiah? Ain't that Ezra?" JD Dunne said. He and the ex-preacher had risen nearly an hour ago, set to go in search of the others. They were sitting on the steps of the church, drinking coffee.
"I do believe so, JD," the big man agreed.
Together they rose and started toward the horse and rider. Suddenly, as they watched, the figure on the horseback toppled from the saddle. As she had been trained, Diamond stopped as soon as she felt her rider fall. The two men dropped their coffee mugs and ran to where the little chestnut stood.
"Ezra!?" JD called as they drew near.
Slowly lifting his head, the gambler stared groggily toward the sound of the familiar voice. "JD?" He fell forward, collapsing in the dusty road.
Loosening the leather wrapped around the gambler's wrist, the other two men saw the large bloodstain on his back. Gently, they turned him over and Josiah settled the wounded man's head and shoulders on his lap. The former preacher pressed a hand against Standish's neck. "He's alive, but he's lost a lot of blood. Reckon you better go get Nathan. He still out at the Jacobs?"
"Yeah... baby's sick," JD said. Then, shaking himself out of a daze, he continued, "I'll have him back here quick as I can."
Watching the youngest member of their group sprint toward his horse, Josiah turned his attention back to the unconscious man. Gently he rose and lifted the wounded man into his arms, walking toward the church.
- M7 -
"Mornin'," Wilmington said as he watched the young tracker stretch up from his bedroll. Vin had finally given into exhaustion, leaving him alone with his thoughts. Buck had passed the early morning hours of his vigil thinking back over the past several years, and his friendship with the man he was looking after.
"Mornin', Buck" Tanner replied with a yawn. Then nodding toward the still figure in the other bedroll, he said, "How's 'e doin'?"
"Bout the same. Had a couple a bad spells, but he just seems ta be sleepin' now. Got some coffee going if you're interested?"
"Thanks," Vin said, moving to the fire and pouring himself a cup. "How long you figure 'til the others get out here?"
"Depends on whether Ezra finds a poker game between here and there," Buck drawled. The big man still tended to expect the worst of Standish. He saw something of a kindred spirit in the roguish young southerner. It was a spirit that he knew far too well to fully trust.
"Buck, c'mon. He's just as worried about Chris as we are. He ain't gonna mess around. Reckon they oughta be out here by t'night."
"Yeah, well, we'll see. I'm just glad he's gone for now. My headache ain't come back since he's been gone - what with him not here yammerin' like a jaybird. I mean, a fella can only take so much a that yakkin' yakkin' yakkin' -"
"Shut up, would ya?" Vin smiled as he chided the other man.
- M7 -
Ezra Standish tried to make sense of what he saw when he opened his eyes. "Am I dead?"
Seeing that the young gambler had focused on the cross mounted in the window above the altar, Josiah smiled. "Ezra, I wouldn't be placin' any bets that you're gonna be seein' angels and hearin' harps when you cross over."
Laughing heartily, the town's healer came into view next to him. "How you feelin'?"
"Frankly, Mr. Jackson, dreadful." Standish said tiredly. He groaned as he tried to rise from the former preacher's narrow cot where they had placed him earlier.
Pressing his hand against the injured man's chest, Nathan easily kept him from rising. "You lay still now. I just got the bullet out and patched ya up. I don't appreciate you tryin' ta undo my hard work."
Looking down, Standish saw the bandages around his upper chest. "I've been shot?"
"Yeah," Jackson confirmed. "What do you remember?"
Taking a few seconds to gather his thoughts, Ezra suddenly struggled to sit up once more. "Chris! We... we have... to go..."
"Settle down now," Nathan said firmly, holding the other man down once again.
"Mr. Jackson... there is no... time. Mr. Larabee has been... seriously injured..." Quickly the gambler filled the other men in on what had happened. When he finished, both Josiah and Nathan were as upset as the others had been.
"Dear Lord," Josiah breathed.
"I'll go get my medical supplies," Nathan said. "Ezra, can you give Josiah the directions ta where the others are holed up?"
"No. I shall take you there."
"No you're not," Nathan said firmly as he pressed the southerner back down. "You're in no condition ta go anywhere."
"Mr. Jackson, you underestimate your skill... as a surgeon..." Standish said as he once again made a bid to sit up. "Now... sir, if you will... kindly unhand me..."
Josiah placed a hand on the healer. "Nathan, I'll go get a wagon while you get your supplies ready. We'll need it to bring Chris back, anyway. And," he glanced at the wounded man, "better to have him where we can watch out for him then risk him tryin' to get out there by himself and bleedin' to death. "
Throwing up his hands in surrender, the former slave said, "Fine. Mrs. Travis, would you watch this fool while we're gone?"
Ezra looked with a start to see the pretty newspaper editor sitting in a nearby pew. One look at her pale face and the tears in her blue eyes told the gambler that she had been there all along.
"Yes, I'll stay," she came around and sat on a chair near Standish. The two men left on their errands.
Freed of any restraining hands, Ezra finally succeeded in pushing himself to a sitting position. Leaning back against the wall, he reached out and took Mary Travis' hand. "Mrs. Travis, I am sorry. Had I known that you were here, I would not have been so graphic."
"No! No, that's all right, " her voice trembled with the fear she was trying to control. "Tell me the truth, Ezra... do you think he's going to be all right?"
"I'm not a physician, ma'am -"
"No, but you were there. Please, Ezra, tell me."
Unable to look at the young woman, he stared up at the church altar. "Mary... in all honesty," he said softly, "I do not know how he has lived this long." He felt her grip tighten on his hand, and heard the sharp intake of breath as she struggled to keep the tears at bay. Carefully easing himself closer to the young woman, Ezra put his arm around her. Leaning against him, Mary Travis gave in to her fears and allowed the tears to come.
- M7 -
"Nope," Tanner said for what seemed like the hundredth time that day. "No sign a them bastards... no sign a Ezra an' th' others... how's he doin?" He asked the other question that had been part of nearly every exchange between the two men.
"Don't seem ta be much change... good or bad. Fever talk and coughin' fits. Fever's a little higher."
With a nod, the tracker squatted down next to Larabee. He could feel the heat emanating from the other man even before he touched his head. Chris moaned softly in reaction to the cool hand. Vin had brought more fresh water and, dousing his kerchief, he ran it across the fevered brow. "You ain't been out hardly all day, Buck. Why don'cha go on over ta the spring for awhile?"
"Maybe in a while," the gunman said with a yawn. Stretching, he yelped as one of the deeper gouges pulled against his shirt.
"Yeah, just hurts when I laugh," the gunman said with a smile.
Returning the smile. Vin shook his head. "JD had you pegged right off, Wilmington... you're fulla crap."
- M7 -
"JD!" Ezra cried out as the wagon bounced roughly across a particularly large rut.
"Sorry, Ezra," the young man called over his shoulder. Each time he apologized he vowed to do a better job of driving the wagon. The next pothole always seemed to be a little deeper.
They had cushioned the wagon bed with several mattresses and blankets borrowed in town. Although he still protested, Nathan had helped to get the gambler from the church to the wagon. Positioning him in the wagon bed so that he could see the road ahead, Josiah and Nathan had made him as comfortable as possible. Then, just as the four peacekeepers were preparing to leave, Mary Travis arrived, hurrying down the board walk.
"Mary, we're going ta bring him back ta town," Josiah said, tipping his hat to the young woman.
"I'm going with you," the blond said firmly.
"Mrs. Travis - " Ezra began.
"Mary, " Josiah tried.
With a look at the other men, JD hoped down from the wagon seat and helped her into the wagon bed with Ezra. Mary Travis was going with them.
- M7 -
"Buck..." He heard his name called through the haze of sleep. Struggling to open his boulder-heavy eyelids, Wilmington groggily looked around for the owner of the voice.
"Buck..." the voice came again.
It was Chris. Chris Larabee was calling his name. Pushing away from the cave wall carefully, the gunman peered into his friend's face. Glassy eyes peered into his. They actually looked at him. "Chris?" He said the name softly, afraid of breaking whatever spell had been cast.
"Buck..." The blond repeated.
"How you feelin', pard?"
"Tired..." he admitted. Then his eyes closed once more.
"Chris?" Buck reached out, relaxing only when he found that the gunslinger was still breathing. Sitting back, he sighed. "Just sleepin'," he reassured himself.
Looking around, he realized that Vin was nowhere to be seen. Judging from the way the sun slanted into the cave, it was late afternoon, and the young tracker had left to tend the horses right after noon. Rising, the big man walked to the cave entrance and peered outside. No sign of Tanner anywhere. Stepping outside, he continued scanning the area. A feeling of unease was quickly overtaking him. "Vin?" he called.
There was no answer. "Damn it, son, where are you?" Glancing back inside the cave to reassure himself that Chris was quiet, he turned to survey the countryside. Wishing he had Vin's spyglass, he slowly searched the area for any sign that the madmen were anywhere near. Finally, satisfied that they were alone, he quickly made his way toward the spring. Before he reached it, he found his friend.
"Vin!" Buck hurried forward toward the prone figure on the path ahead. Reaching Tanner, Wilmington dropped next to him. He found reassurance that the hunter was alive. Still-wet blood was matted into his long hair, near the base of his skull. Gently probing the area, Buck found a gash. It looked as if something - someone - had hit the young man.
Jerking around, Buck looked back toward the cave. "Oh, damn," he said quietly. Looking back toward his downed friend, Wilmington pushed himself to his feet and carefully lifted the unconscious man to his shoulders. He retraced his steps to the cave as quickly as he could.
Reaching the cave, he shifted his burden slightly and pulled his pistol. Quieting his breathing, he peered into the cave. Chris was surrounded by three men. Buck recognized one of them; one of the two they had waylaid back at the group's camp. He had been the one carrying the poker.
The men were still oblivious to the fact that they were being observed. Buck used this to his advantage. He lay Vin carefully on the ground just outside the cave and slipped inside. Pointing his gun in the direction of the little group, he said, "You bastards get away from him. NOW!"
The three men jerked around; one of them pulling his gun. Buck stopped him from firing, with a bullet drilled neatly in the man's forehead. The other men, spurred on by whatever insanity fueled them, stood and advanced on the gunman. "That th' way ya want it?" Buck called out,
"Well all right then, come on. Let's get to it."