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- M7 -
"Nathan?" The three men rode close together as they approached town. Vin, riding between the other two, turned toward the healer. "How long we got til th' full moon?"
"Reckon a couple a days."
"Ain't much time ta git ready."
"Well, Josiah's been workin' on some ideas back in town. Mary's been helpin' him to do research on the cult that kidnapped Chris. Imagine they'll have some plans in mind by the' time we get back there."
"Think we got a chance a comin' out on top this time?"
"Well, there's always a chance I reckon."
"Mr. Tanner," Standish put in, "we have faced down considerable odds in the past."
"Yeah, but these bastards..." Tanner shook his head. "Don't reckon we've faced men this out-n-out cold-blooded."
"Cold blooded or not, they are only men. We'll face them down," the Southerner said with conviction.
- M7 -
Wilmington looked up from where he sat at the table, playing solitaire. The gunman had pushed himself up on his elbows and was staring at him. "Hey, stud, didn't expect you to be awake yet."
"How long I been... asleep?"
"Awhile," he shrugged. The blond had slept through the remainder of the afternoon. He had lain so still that Buck had found himself approaching the bed more than once, watching to see whether the gunslinger's chest rose or not.
"Where... are the others?"
"Gone into town. Vin and Ezra needed a break after... well, after this afternoon. Sent 'em back in with Nathan. Josiah'll be out in the mornin'." He poured a tin cup of water and brought it over to the bed. "Here, you look like you could use a drink."
"Thanks." With a trembling hand, Chris reached out and took the cup. Wilmington kept his hand near to steady him if need be. Sipping the tepid liquid slowly, Larabee finally nodded and gave the cup back to the other man. Dropping wearily back to the bed with a sigh, he whispered, "Whiskey would taste better."
With a wicked grin, the ex-lawman produced a bottle, uncorked it, and helped his old friend take a drink. As Chris once more slumped back to the bed he asked, "Better?"
"Yep... thanks," there was a bright twinkle in the hazel eyes that had nothing to do with fever or pain.
Nodding, Buck slid down the wall to the floor next to Chris' bed and took a long draw from the bottle himself. The creak of the bed frame announced that the other man was moving. Wilmington looked to see his friend slowly and carefully turning to his side.
Propping himself up on one arm, Chris reached out and took the bottle back. Ignoring the liquid that dribbled toward the bed, he took another long drink, siphoning off the whiskey until the other man took the bottle away.
"Whoa there, stud. Don't reckon you recall a little thing called sharin'?"
Chuckling, Larabee said, "Never was real good at it. You ought'a know that."
"Mm-hm," Wilmington agreed as he drank long and slow from the bottle.
After several long minutes of drinking in companionable silence, Chris said softly, "I remember now, Buck... remember all of it... everything that happened."
"To be honest, stud, can't say that I'm too happy to hear that. Figure there had to be a reason you didn't recall what them bastards done to ya. Not sure bringin' it into the open was the best way to go."
"No... no, it was. I had to know... what happened."
"But why? What good's it do?"
"Don't know how much... sense it makes, but it was like... like they stole part of my life... part of who I am. If I know it all... well... it's like I'm taking it back."
The ex-lawman was silent for some time, mulling over the other man's words. Finally he nodded and said simply, "All right."
- M7 -
"Welcome home, brothers," Josiah's voice boomed across the saloon as the trio entered. Nathan and Vin walked over to join the ex-preacher, while Ezra made a beeline toward a poker game in progress.
As the other men took seats, Sanchez said, "Looks like Ezra could hardly wait to get back to the cards." His smile faded as he saw the serious expressions the other two men wore. "Trouble?"
"Don't know for certain, but it could be," Nathan said.
"Brothers, you look as if you've been staring into the abyss of hell. Care to enlighten me?"
"Reckon its th' best way ta start," Vin said. Between the hunter and the healer they told the story of what - with Standish's help - the gunslinger had remembered of his time as a captive of the cult. By the end of their recollection, Josiah Sanchez was ready to find each of the men who were responsible for Larabee's living nightmare and tear them apart with his bare hands. Managing, with great effort, to squelch those feelings, the big man walked to the bar and returned with a bottle and three glasses. Pouring each glass full, he pushed one to sit before each of the others and tipped his own back, draining it quickly.
The three men said little while they worked quickly to drain the bottle of whiskey. When it had been emptied of its last drop, Josiah took it to the bar and returned with a second bottle. Filling each man's glass again, he nodded toward the table where Standish sat, effortlessly relieving three travelers of their money. "Ezra looks for all the world like a man without problems."
"Reckon that's why he's as good's he is, folks can't tell if he's holdin' a pair of twos or a flush," Nathan observed.
Vin, his sight still too poor to see across the dim saloon, could nonetheless picture the man's face. He chuckled softly, then grew serious. "Maybe Ezra's got th' right idea...findin' somethin' ta take his mind off a what he went through t'day."
Reaching out and gently squeezing the young man's shoulder, Josiah said, "Reckon Ezra ain't the only one that could do with a distraction, brother. You know, Miss Sadie's been keepin' an eye out, watchin' for you to come back into town."
Although Tanner's face brightened at the mention of the young redhead he had taken on a picnic just before Chris' disappearance, he shook his head. "Ain't rightly got time ta spend on picnics 'n such right now."
Josiah wanted to argue with the tracker, but knew it would get him nowhere. Vin Tanner had a sense of loyalty and responsibility that had only been questioned once in the time the seven had been together. It had only grown stronger since that time, too, as if he felt he had a debt to repay. The big man knew that he would not let up until this had all been resolved...however that resolution came to pass.
"Well then, let's get to work on a plan to get things settled then. Reckon Miss Sadie would appreciate another picnic soon." Both he and Nathan had to laugh at how red the sharpshooter's face turned.
- M7 -
The sun was barely over the horizon when Buck woke to the sound of a single horse approaching the shack. Moving quietly so as not to disturb the sleeping blond, he went to the window. With a shake of his head he went to the door and stepped out onto the porch. "Didn't reckon to see ya quite this early, Josiah, or I'd a had some coffee brewin' at least."
"Well, ain't nothin' stoppin' you now, brother. Even brought out some of Mrs. Potter's sticky buns," he held up a gingham covered dish.
"Shoot, why didn't you say somethin' sooner? I'll have that coffee ready by the time you get that horse a yours in the corral." With that the big man hurried back inside.
Although the coffee wasn't ready by the time Josiah had followed the other man into the little house, it was on its way. Buck had set the table for the two of them, and was rousting Chris from sleep. "Hey, stud, wake up. Josiah done brought us some a them sticky buns ya like so well." As he spoke, he gently shook the lithe blond.
Hazel eyes slowly rolled open, at first dark with confusion. Slowly Chris was able to focus and recall where he was and who was speaking to him. "Buck?"
"Mornin', sunshine, " the smiling man chirped. "You get them eyes focused, an' I'll bring ya some breakfast."
"Sticky buns?" Larabee dredged the word from the fog of his mind. He looked hopefully from Buck to Josiah.
The preacher crowed at the expression. "Looks like we better feed him quick, man looks near starved for good food."
Affecting an injured expression, Wilmington said, "I am truly hurt. Y'all act like I can't cook."
"You can't," the other two men said in unison.
Throwing up his hands, Buck retreated to the table. "Fine... just fine. Y'all just fix your own meals from now on."
Chris looked at Josiah, humor flashing across his face. "Thank God," he said in mock reverence.
By the time they had emptied the coffee pot and done everything but lick the crumbs from the plate, Chris was hungry for news of the town, the other men, and what had been discovered about the cult that had nearly caused his death.
"Chris," Josiah said softly, concern evident in his vibrant blue eyes, "I think you've had enough revelations for the time being. You rest and Buck and I - "
"No," Larabee interrupted in a soft but certain tone. "I want to know."
Looking long and hard at the still pale and haggard younger man, Sanchez weighed his options. Options that he knew existed only for him. Chris Larabee had made up his mind; he would not negotiate. Finally Josiah nodded. "All right."
- M7 -
Ezra Standish stopped pacing long enough to stare at the woman's reflection in the mirror. Catching her eye, he said, "Mrs. Travis, are you certain you want to go through with this? No one would think the worse of you - "
Green eyes flashing, the young widow said, "I have no intention of backing out of this, Ezra. If this is the only way to draw out the men who. . . who did those things to Chris, then. . . well, then I'll do my part to see them brought to justice."
The conman watched her put the finishing touches on her outfit, tying her hair back with a silk ribbon. As she turned to face him, he couldn't help his eyes being drawn to her middle.
With a smile, the woman laid her hands over a rather impressively large bulge. She and Gloria Potter had worked long and hard on her disguise. The woman who turned from the mirror had long, raven-black hair, wore a simple gingham dress, and looked for all the world to be at least eight months pregnant.
Shaking his head, the Southerner said, "Ladies, your skill with cotton batting, needle, and thread, is astounding."
Both Mary and the shop keeper giggled at his shocked expression. The widow Travis rested her folded hands across the top of their creation. "Well, if it passes inspection at this close range, than I believe we've been successful."
The older widow lay a hand on the younger woman's arm. "Mary, I agree with Ezra. You should think about this. What you're planning on doing"
Laying her hand over the other woman's the blonde said, "Gloria, I'll be fine. It's important to me to do this. For Chris. . . and anyone else those. . . those men have harmed or murdered."
Nodding, her large, compassionate eyes filling with unshed tears, the shop owner pulled the disguised beauty into an awkward hug. Releasing her, she said softly, "Be safe, dear."
Turning to the gambler, Gloria tried to reclaim her smile. She looked the man over, dressed in simple farm clothes and a borrowed, wide-brimmed hat; she could hardly recognize the young man. Shaking her head, the brunette said, "You be safe, too, Ezra. All of you."
- M7 -
Chris Larabee yawned and blinked his eyes open to another day. He felt as if all he did was wake up and fall asleep, time and time again. He wasn't even certain any more as to who was with him. He vaguely recalled Vin coming back out with Nathan. They had shared some small talk with him and then had tried to get him to go back to sleep. He wasn't stupid; he knew they had come up with a plan. A way to take the fight to the bastards who had tried to kill him. He would not be sent off to bed, like some child. He requested and, when that didn't work, demanded, that they include him in those plans.
Then he had fallen asleep, exhausted simply from the planning. Secretly he wondered if he would be able to survive the fight to come, but he refused to acknowledge that fear, even to his friends.
The blond pushed himself up and hobbled to the door, looking out across the vista beyond his little house. He looked to where his friend sat in the fading morning shadows. Tanner looked back at him, blue eyes settling on the other man's face. Larabee allowed a small smile to grace his still-pale features as he said, "Do you think this will work?"
Shrugging, Vin said, "Hope so, pard. Don't know that we'll have a second chance ta end this without. . . well, without someone we care about dyin'."
The blond drew a shuddering breath. The thought that someone else could go through what he had suffered. . . the thought that he could be subjected to more of the cult's torture. . . was almost too much to endure. He had never considered himself a weak man, but even he had his limits. Looking deeply into the big, sky colored eyes, he said, "Vin. . . if they manage to. . . if they take me. . . pard, promise you won't let them take me again. If I can't - "
Not blinking, the younger man read the fear and pain in his friend's face. Not looking away, he said, "They won't, Chris, I promise ya. . . they won't."
One corner of his broad mouth quirked up, and the gunman nodded gratefully.
- M7 -
Standish and Travis made their presence known briefly, just long enough for anyone watching to see the obviously pregnant woman leave the general store, but not long enough for the townspeople to recognize their crusading newspaper editor. Ezra helped her onto the seat of a borrowed wagon, settling beside her and taking up the reins. Slapping the leather across the mules yoked ahead of them, he set them moving at a casual pace out of town.
Several pairs of eyes were trained on the departing couple. Some with vague curiosity, others with mild interest. Still others watched with intense concentration.
One pair of eyes, brilliant, sapphire blue, watched from the steeple of the half-renovated church. As the wagon moved down the dusty street, he took a deep breath in an effort to calm down. Offering up a prayer for protection and a safe delivery from harm, the big man began the climb down from his perch.
Hazel eyes, wide with worry, watched from the boardwalk in front of the jail. As the wagon disappeared from view, he watched the street with a single-minded purpose. With grim satisfaction, he watched three riders moving in the same direction. Waiting until the big preacher rode up, he leapt onto his own horse, and the two men moved at an even pace, down the street.
- M7 -
Buck looked across the short expanse that separated him from the other man. "I should be with Chris, Nathan, not here sittin' - "
"Vin's with him now. . . Josiah and JD are gonna be out there soon. We've all got our part to play, Buck."
"Don't make it a damn bit easier. Vin's still not up to snuff, and lord knows Chris ain't. Damn it to hell, Josiah should never a told him the plan."
"Would that have stopped him?"
"Would that have stopped Chris?"
Sighing, Buck dropped his head, rubbing a hand across his face. "Probably not. Knowin' that stubborn cuss, he'd a ended up right in th' middle a things if we'd tried to leave him out completely."
With a grim smile, Jackson said, "At least this way we know where he is."
- M7 -
Vin settled in at the table, savoring the cool shadows of the little cabin. While his sight was returning slowly, he continued to have headaches almost daily. He kept his worries to himself, concentrating instead on helping his friend move down the long road to recovery. Despite Nathan's enthusiasm that his eyesight was coming along well, he had resigned himself to never again having the keen vision that had been his stock and trade for most of his life. And, with a price on his head, the future not only looked blurry, but bleak and short.
The sharpshooter looked over to the narrow bed where Larabee rested. The blond had returned to the cot shortly after they had eaten breakfast. Like the rest of their band, Tanner despaired that their leader would never completely recover from his injuries. But, all he said was, "Yep."
"Shouldn't they be here by now?"
"Ought 'a be comin' along shortly."
"We could head on out. . . leave a note."
"Reckon we ought 'a stick to th' plan, pard. We wait here for J'siah an' th' Kid, head out fer th' rendezvous when they git here. We start goin' against th' plan now, we could mess ever'thin' up."
With a grunt that said he was unhappy with his friend's advice, even if he had to agree with it, Chris slumped back on the mattress and fell quiet. It was a gesture the other man had observed more and more often over the past few days. Like the other men, he feared that Larabee was giving up. If they weren't able to destroy the cult and give the gunman back some sense of control over his life, none of them expected him to see year's end.
Tanner cocked his head at the sound of approaching horses and stretched up out of the chair. "They're here."
The rangy tracker strode from the cabin and out onto the porch, preparing to greet their fellow peacekeepers. Then a frown graced his handsome features when he saw no sign of the other men. Starting around the corner of the little shack, he called out, "Josiah? JD?"
The riders responded, but not as he had expected. He found himself grabbed from behind, arms trapped to his sides as he was lifted off his feet. As the air was forced from his lungs by the hold, he cried out, "CHRIS!"
Inside the cabin, the blond pulled himself up quickly, reaching for his gun. Pain exploded through his left arm as a bullet tore through it, breaking the bone as it traveled. With a pain and rage-filled scream, he dropped back to the bed, gripping his injured arm. Larabee looked up as three men entered the room, one held in a tight squeeze by one of the others. Tanner. "VIN!"
Laughing, the men came to stand near the bed, eyeing the gunslinger with open contempt. The one holding the sharpshooter made even Buck and Nathan look small and he held the slender young man easily. On his part, the tracker was struggling, striking the man's shins with his spurred boots and slamming his head back into the bigger man's chin and nose. But his efforts didn't seem to faze the big man, and he was quickly losing ground as his lungs were denied air. Finally he slumped in the painful embrace, unconscious.
Fighting the urge to scream again, Larabee watched his friend wilt in the behemoth's arms. And as Tanner passed out, he felt his own fears blossom. Not only for Vin's life, but for his own. Looking into the faces that hovered above him, he felt himself transported back in time. Suddenly he hung helplessly in the middle of a clearing, listening to the horrible chanting of the monsters who had tortured him.
Laughter boomed in the little room, then was joined by more from the open door. The blond's eyes darted from the men near his bed, and he found himself staring at half a dozen more of the cultists. With a final, guttural, cry, Larabee pressed himself as far into the corner as he could. This time there was only a whispered, "No."
One of the men, smaller than the rest, but with an air of command, stepped up as close as he could to the gunman. Grasping a handful of thick blond hair, he yanked the traumatized man's head up. With a vile grin, he said, "You cost us much. . . this cannot go unpunished."
With his last ounce of strength, Chris spit in the man's face. "Kill me then. . . right here. . . right now."
Smirking, the other man said, "Too easy. . . far too easy. You were chosen for the honor of sacrifice. You must fulfill that honor by the end of the full moon's birth."
"No. . . God. . . no," Larabee breathed painfully.
Ignoring the wounded man's words, the leader said to his men, "Bind his wound and ready him for the journey."
Nodding, one of the other men said, "What about the other one?"
Looking at the limp body with disdain, he ordered, "He is nothing. Make certain he acts as a message to the others that they are not to try and stop us again."
"No. . . no, leave him alone! GOD DAMN YOU, LEAVE HIM ALONE!" Chris struggled between several of the cultists, fighting them despite the newest injury and the crippling fear. None of it could stack up against the terror welling up in the gunman's chest that they would kill his best friend. But in the end, he was subdued by the men, and lay panting against the mattress. Unfazed, they yanked at his mangled limb, pulling it straight and binding it tightly. The blond screamed, his body arching against the pain, then collapsing unconscious onto the bed. One of the men bent, picked up the limp form, and threw him over his broad shoulder.
The gang of madmen stormed from the little shack, mounted their horses, and rode away. Their captive hung limply over the shoulder of one of the cult members. The single figure left at the homestead did not acknowledge their departure.
- M7 -
Josiah Sanchez tried to keep up with his younger companion, but the smaller man kept pulling farther and farther away. The former preacher spurred his horse forward, hoping that, at least, he could keep JD Dunne in view. They hoped that the cult members had gone after Mary and Ezra, but they couldn't be certain. The last thing they needed was to lose the young sheriff to the sadistic murderers.
"JD!" he called after Dunne as the young man disappeared over the final rise before the Larabee homestead. Cursing under his breath, the big man pushed his mount even faster. Just as he reached the top of the hill, he heard their youngest member cry out. Looking down, he felt his heart leap in his throat at the sight below him.
Vin Tanner had been strung, spread eagle, between two of the porch uprights. Josiah couldn't tell much from the distance he was still at, but he could see that the young man's head hung down against his bare chest. With a strangled cry, he began to offer a prayer to the heavens as he bolted down the hill.
JD dropped from his saddle, landing on rubbery legs that collapsed beneath him. He could do nothing but stare up at his friend. Vin had been stripped to the waist, his upper body battered and bloodied. The sharpshooter's head lolled against his cut and bruised chest. Long, tangled curls obscured his face, leaving him to wonder if the man was conscious or not.
The hunter stirred, but didn't answer. By the time Dunne had found the strength to push himself off the ground, he heard the preacher riding up. He turned stricken eyes to the bigger man.
Sanchez strode past the young man, squeezing his shoulder as he did, but not stopping until he reached Tanner. Pulling his knife from his belt, the big man wrapped an arm carefully around the slender body, he began to cut the ropes that held Vin suspended, spread eagle, between the uprights. By the time he was cutting loose the man's second arm, he felt a presence beside him. Glancing down, he saw JD cutting Tanner's legs loose. As they finished, the battered man dropped limply over the preacher's shoulder. Carefully Josiah carried him into the shack, not surprised to find it empty.
"They've got Chris," Dunne said needlessly.
"Oh no," Sanchez breathed as he caught sight of the large pool of drying blood on the narrow bed. Diverting from the gory bedding, he lowered Vin carefully to his mattress.
Tanner moaned softly, his head tossing back and forth on the mattress. Black lashes fluttered as dazed eyes opened, closed, then struggled to open again. The tip of his tongue, bloodied from having been bitten, appeared between swollen, battered lips, sliding along the torn surface. Another moan, and then a pain-filled cry, "Ch. . . Chris!"
"Sh. Calm down, Vin," Josiah said quietly. "You're hurt. . . you need to calm down so we can take care - "
"No!" He struggled to get up, but couldn't lift his head from the bed. "Nee. . . need ta git af. . . after 'm. Th. . . they got. . . got... oh, lord."
Dunne handed the holy man a wet cloth and held a basin of water in waiting. They worked quickly and carefully, doing their best to clean up the badly beaten man. The sharpshooter drifted in and out of consciousness during their ministrations. Each time he managed to wake, he begged the other men to go after the blond gunman.
"J'siah. . . ya gotta. . . gotta go. . . git Ch. . . git Chris. P. . . please. . . go git. . .git 'm."
"Easy, brother," Sanchez said softly. "We'll get him. . . all in good time. We have to - "
"No! Ain'. . .ain't no t-time. . . gotta git 'm. . . please."
"As soon as we get you patched up. Now, if you stop struggling, we can get this taken care of quicker."
One trembling hand reached up and gripped weakly at the big man's arm. Blue eyes opened wide, fear flaring in their blue depths. "I promised. . . promised 'm, J'siah. Promised they. . . they wouldn't take 'm. I lied. . . I lied to 'm."
As the tracker collapsed back against the mattress, Sanchez gently stroked the tangled, bloody curls back from the face. "You couldn't help it, Vin. It's not your fault."
Shaking his head, Tanner moaned softly. "Promised 'm. . . promised 'm."
"Vin," the older man began. But then, looking into the haunted eyes, he said only, "We'll find him, son."
- M7 -
"Do you think they've taken the bait?"
Nodding, the gambler turned to the newspaper editor, "I believe they have been on our trail for the last half an hour or so."
Taking a deep breath, the disguised young woman said, "I hope so. I'm not certain how long I can keep all of this on in this heat."
Smiling sympathetically, the Southerner said, "This brings up some rather. . . entertaining. . . visions of you 'delivering' your 'child in a rather unorthodox manner."
With a chuckle, Mary said, "Well, if that happens, I'll rely on your discretion in keeping it from spreading around town."
With a golden smile, the Southerner said, "You have my word, but I'm not the one you need to worry about."
Casting a glance over her shoulder, the widow Travis said, "I had almost forgotten."
A deep chuckle came from inside the canvas topped wagon bed. "Don't worry, Mrs. Travis. . . ain't no one gonna say a word."
"Thank you, Nathan."
Inside the wagon, Buck Wilmington's blue eyes glittered with mischief. "Don't recall promisin' anything myself."
Shooting the other man a warning look, the dark healer said, "I promised for you."
With a soft hoot, the former lawman said, "Ah hell, Nathan, ya know I wouldn't do or say nothin' to embarrass Mary."
"Thank you, Buck," the widow said with genuine relief.
"'Sides. . . I don't need another reason for Chris to shoot me."
Mention of their friend and leader caused them all to grow quiet. Ezra moved the wagon a bit faster, exchanging a concerned look with Mary. Hidden inside the wagon, the two big men exchanged similar looks. One thought haunted them all. . . if this didn't work, Chris Larabee could very well die before the waning of the full moon.
- M7 -
The voices were back. . . whispering all around him, coming to him from the darkness that had once more claimed him. He tried to take a deep breath, only to be stopped by the pain that coursed through him. His arm. . . he remembered that his arm had been injured. But how? That fact eluded him at the moment. Most thoughts did. . . he had taken refuge in the darkness again, hiding from his kidnappers in the only way he knew. He would wait there until they came for him. Until they rescued him. Vin had promised him. Promised that the crazed cultists wouldn't take him again. Promised that he'd end his life quick if it came to that. But he was still waiting.
Where was Vin?
- M7 -
"Vin, you're not well enough. . . you don't have the strength."
"'M fine, J'siah," Tanner managed to rasp through battered lips. He looked down at the bigger man from where he sat, slumped, on Peso's back.
"You're not fine, son, you've been beaten. You stay here and rest, JD and I will join the others as planned."
Shaking his head, the young sharpshooter said, "Made a promise. . . cain't break 't." With that, he slapped the reins against the big black's neck and started off.
Behind him, the other two peacekeepers scurried to mount their own horses and follow behind. Josiah alternated between sending up prayers that they would come through the next few hours with their number intact, and cursing the stubborn Texan ahead of him. JD rode beside him, simply praying that it would all be over soon.
Staying ahead of the other two riders, Vin's mind was focused on one thing. . . his promise to his friend. He knew he was being foolish; he could barely stay in the saddle. Swaying atop the big black horse, only his stubborn nature kept him from simply falling to the ground. If he had any sense, he'd be back in the cabin, letting the other men take care of things. No one had ever accused him of having sense.
Groaning, the sharpshooter fought the pain that shot through his lean body. Despite JD and Josiah's careful attention to his injuries, he felt something grating against something else inside, and figured he had at least one busted rib. There would be hell to pay when Nathan found out about it. He'd be lucky to come out of it with his scalp.
It didn't matter, though. Only one thing did. . . his promise to Chris.
Slowing Peso just enough that he could turn to look at the preacher without falling; he simply waited for Sanchez to continue.
Josiah looked once again into the pain-filled blue eyes, sighing as he realized that the speech he had just finished rehearsing in his mind meant nothing when confronted by the frank and open play of emotions pouring from the battered man. Shaking his head, he said only, "We should be at the rendezvous soon. We should slow up, in case the cultists are ahead of us."
"Jist 's soon ride up on 'm 'n git it over with. Element a surprise 'n all, " he smiled grimly.
"There are far too many of them. They'd kill us before we even had the chance to see Chris, let alone rescue him."
"Yeah, well, th' others don't know he's with 'em. . . we gotta git to 'm 'n let 'm know 'fore they go on th' attack."
"I could ride ahead, watch for them. . . skirt around them if they're there," JD offered, coming up on the other side of Tanner.
"No." Vin spit the word out vehemently. "We ain't gonna give 'm another hostage, Kid. You stay with me 'n J'siah."
"But I'm faster, I could make sure they - "
"Said no, Kid, drop it." Tanner's voice said clearly that he would not argue the point.
"I'm not a kid," Dunne growled angrily. "I don't need my big brothers holding my hand!"
"Damn it, JD, ain't got nothin' ta do with you bein' a kid. It's got ever'thing ta do with them bastards grabbin' ya. I'd a said th' same thing ta J'siah, 'r any a th' others. We gotta stick t'gether, it's th' only way we got a chance in hell a all of us makin' it through alive."
Dunne sighed, shaking his head. "Sorry. It's just. . . I don't. . . if those bastards - "
"They won't, Kid," the bounty hunter said solemnly, reading the words that were lost as the younger man stuttered along. "We'll git Chris back. . . alive."
- M7 -
Pain. Roaring through him like a runaway train. Coursing through him like a raging river. It muddled his mind and stole his thoughts before they formed. He had forgotten how to breathe, his lungs aching, throbbing in time with the beat of his heart. He couldn't open his eyes. . . couldn't get his mouth to cooperate enough to scream. The only thing that seemed to work was his hearing.
The whispers were there. Filling him with a fear he had never known before. Before he had taken that fateful ride. Before his dignity and self-control had been stolen from him.
Before his life had been stolen from him.
Before Vin's promise had been broken.
He was still alive.
Where, in the name of God, was Vin?
- M7 -
They arrived at the rendezvous point without incident. Ezra reined in the team, setting the brake as he looked around. Making it appear that he was simply getting the lay of the land, the gambler watched for any sign that they were not alone. The thick woods on one side and the hills on another were both excellent hiding places. He only hoped the right people were hiding there.
Not looking at the covered wagon, where the other two peacekeepers were hidden, he said, "Nothing yet. When were they to meet us?"
"'Bout now." Buck's voice, slightly muffled by the canvas, was growing more and more impatient. "Look, if them bastards ain't around, me 'n Nathan 'll go take a look around - "
"You and Nathan will stay put," Standish said evenly. "I have no desire to have the carefully laid plans torn asunder because you possess an impulsive nature."
"Ezra, your makin' my head hurt," the big ladies man drawled.
"If it'll slow him down, keep talkin'," Jackson's voice came from inside the wagon.
Mary couldn't help but chuckle at the exchange. The seven men had grown close as the months passed, and she had come to enjoy exchanges such as this between the diverse group members. Shaking her head, the widow stared pointedly at the disguised gambler. "Well, dear, if we're going to make camp, I would appreciate a hand down."
With a wide grin, the conman offered her his hand and helped the encumbered woman down from the wagon. The two of them began pulling things from the end of the wagon, making it look as if they were making a midday camp.
"Hey, if ya all are gonna be makin' any coffee out there, I'd appreciate a cup," Wilmington said.
"Yes, and how do you suggest we make that look normal? Passing a mug of coffee into the back of the wagon - "
"But, Ezra, you don't expect us ta just sit here, nothin' to eat or drink - "
"You have a canteen and your flask. I suggest you make do with that - "
"What about somethin' to eat?"
"You have jerky."
"You're all heart, Standish."
"Why thank you, Mr. Wilmington."
As softly muttered curses floated from the covered wagon, the gambler and the newspaper editor continued with their ruse as a young couple traveling alone through the wilderness. Calling on her memories of carrying her son, Mary convincingly carried herself as an expectant mother to be.
And it wasn't long before their performance had an audience.
- M7 -
"Whoa, son," Josiah reached out and steadied the slender young sharpshooter before he fell out of the saddle.
"'M okay," Vin muttered as he rubbed a trembling hand over his bruised face.
"No, you're not," JD argued from his other side. Boldly, the younger man reached out and pulled back on the big black's reins. Peso stopped with a snort, looking back at them all with impatience.
The look the horse's owner wore wasn't much different. Despite his battered features, he managed a fair imitation of the gunslinger's glare. "Leave m' horse alone. . . Kid. Ain't got time ta play yer games."
"I'm not playing games, and you know it," Dunne countered. "Damn it, Vin, you're falling out of the saddle. We need to rest. . . just for a little while."
Shaking his head, the bounty hunter said, "'M fine. . . let me. . . be."
Josiah reached out and pulled the young Texan into his arms as Vin fell unconscious. Along with the Easterner, he moved to a small stand of trees. Gently they carried Tanner to the shadows, where JD spread a blanket for Sanchez to lay the injured man down. Vin moaned as they settled him on the ground, but didn't come completely conscious.
"Josiah, he's right," Dunne said softly. "We've got to get to the rendezvous soon. They don't know that those sick bastards have Chris, and if all hell breaks loose - "
Nodding, the preacher said, "I know, son, but the truth is, we're just spread too thin."
"But I can go. . . ride ahead. I can get to Buck and the others - "
"Kid, we're not gonna go over that again. You're not going to risk your life riding out alone. We don't know what the cultists are going to say or do. No, you stay here with us. As soon as Vin's had a chance to rest - "
"We could be too late!"
The sharpshooter startled at the younger man's heated words. Blue eyes fluttered open to slits, and then closed again. His wide mouth worked, the tip of his tongue running across battered lips. "'S matter?"
"Sh. It's all right, Vin. Sleep," the former preacher said in a soft baritone. He hoped that the day's events would elude the beaten man's memories for a while. At least long enough to give him time to rest a little.
"J. . .J'siah?"
"It's me, son. Go on back to sleep." He found himself glaring at the chagrined young sheriff.
Blushing in embarrassment, Dunne whispered, "I'm sorry."
"Ka. . . Kid?"
"Yeah, it's me. Go on back to sleep, Vin."
Sandy eyes knitted together in a frown, and then the dazed blue eyes reappeared. "Chris."
Cursing under his breath, Sanchez said, "Vin, calm down. You have to lay still and rest a little. You're not going to do anyone any good. . . especially Chris. . . if you kill yourself."
Shaking his head, Tanner struggled to rise. "G. . .gotta go. . . gotta git. . . 'm. J'siah, gotta. . . gotta go."
"Vin, listen to me - "
Taking as deep a breath as his injuries would allow, the slender man struggled to rise. "P-please. . . J'siah, we gotta go."
As Tanner struggled to rise, Sanchez easily held him down, but did not force him to lay back. "Son, listen to me. I have every intention of heading out in a little while, but not until you've rested a little. I won't save Chris' life at the sake of yours."
"I will." Vin looked steadily into the deep blue eyes, his own pale ones hazy with pain and fatigue. "Cain't jist sit. . . here, 'n not do a thing 'bout 't, J'siah. Please. . . please leggo. I gotta go find 'm."
Sanchez looked into the pain-filled eyes and sighed. How could he ignore the pure agony in the young face? How could he deny one friend the opportunity to save another's life?
"J'siah. . . I promised 'm. . . don'cha under. . . understand? J'siah, I ain't got much in this world. . . but I got th' six a y'all. I. . . I cain't jist sit back 'n let them sons a bitches. . . kill Chris. Damn it J'siah. . . he's th' closest I got ta kin!"
He watched as, exhausted by the speech, the sharpshooter crumpled back to the blanket. He turned the words over in his mind, quickly seeing what the injured man meant. He had long fancied them a brotherhood of sorts, but the relationship between Chris and Vin went deeper. It went to their very souls. How could he deny Tanner the chance to defend that bond?
Carefully lifting Tanner to his feet, Sanchez said only, "You're riding with me until you get your bearings."
- M7 -
They had begun to believe that their ruse hadn't worked, when they spotted a quartet of riders coming toward them. While Ezra watched them from beneath the wide brim of his borrowed hat, Mary stood and stretched. She pressed her hands into the small of her back, arching slightly; making certain that there was no doubt as to her 'condition'.
As the riders approached, Standish stood and moved beside the disguised blonde. There were no weapons evident, but the gambler was never without his hide-out gun at least. He nodded as the men reined in a few yards away. Emphasizing his accent and shortening his words, he said, "Afternoon. Can we help y'all?"
"Just saw ya camped over here, thought we'd stop by ta say howdy."
Forcing a smile, although his skin was crawling, the green-eyed man said, "Well that's right friendly. Why don'cha step down an' share a bit 'a lunch? My wife's a fine cook."
"Much obliged," The same stranger, who seemed to speak for all of them, replied. The men dismounted and settled in around the cook fire. They made no effort to hide their interest in the woman, four pairs of eyes going time and time again to her swollen 'belly'.
Mary, playing the role of dutiful wife to the hilt, served the men with quiet efficiency. After she had served them all, she took her own plate and sat down a short distance away. Ezra sat with the men, making small talk while they all enjoyed the meal of beans and cornbread.
"So, where you folks headin'?" the stranger asked. He was tall and thin, his face long and consisting of sharp angles. His greasy, black hair hung in his face and spread out around his collar. He wore a mustache, just as greasy and black, which drooped over his thin-lipped mouth. He was stoop shouldered, long limbed and shabbily dressed.
"Well, frankly, we're lookin' for property in the vicinity. We'd like ta put down roots before our child's born."
"Young'n due soon?" Their speaker asked with feigned innocence.
"Yes, any day now," Ezra replied, his smile broadening with the look of a proud father-to-be. He didn't miss the almost predatory look of the four men, knowing for certain now that they were in the company of some of the cultists. Not allowing his thoughts to show on his face, he asked, "Might y'all know of any place that might be available? Someplace small and reasonable?"
The four men looked at one another, a silent conversation passing between them. They had expected to have to force the woman to go with them. Instead she would be the proverbial lamb to slaughter. They would have her husband, too. He had the potential of being a second sacrifice. At the very least, he would provide them with some sport.
Ya know, I think I know 'a someplace that might jist fit th' bill," the stranger offered. "There's a little homestead West 'a here."
"Wonderful! Did you hear that, darlin'?" Ezra drawled, smiling toward his 'wife'. Then turning back to the men he said, "If y'all could give me directions, an' give me an idea as to where I file a claim -"
"Well, shoot! We wouldn't be good neighbors if'n we didn't lead ya right to 't! We'd be happy ta help y'all, any way we can."
"My goodness! I reckon it's true what we heard, that folks in this area are as nice as they come." Standish fairly gushed the words.
Smiling, the stranger said, "Well, we'll help ya break camp, an' take y'all on over. Ought ta jist take an hour 'r so."
"We are forever in your debt."
Making certain to give their friends time to hide behind the crates and other things inside the wagon, Ezra and Mary led their four visitors in breaking camp. The gambler tried to slow things down as much as possible, without making it appear that he was doing so. The others should have been here already, but there had been no sign as yet. Hoping that it meant only that they had seen the other men, they finally finished packing up the wagon.
Ezra helped his 'wife' into the bed of the wagon. He noticed the men watching closely, and knew that they were calculating how difficult it would be to get to her there. The Southerner forced himself not to smile. If only they knew just how well protected the young woman was.
Climbing up into the wagon seat, Standish took the reins and urged the mules forward. The game was truly beginning.
- M7 -
He managed to open his eyes, blinking hard to rid himself of the hated tears that had welled up behind his lids. He had given up trying to remain strong. . . of trying to hide his fear and loathing. There was no one around to notice, anyway. No one he cared about at any rate. He hadn't felt this vulnerable since the day he had buried his wife and son. Like that horrible time before, he could no longer find the strength to be the man his friends had come to rely on.
His body was weak.
His mind was broken.
His soul was shattered.
- M7 -
"They're not here," JD said disappointedly. They had just reached the edge of the clearing where they had hoped to find the wagon.
"Are you sure this is the right place?" Josiah asked quietly.
The young sheriff nodded toward the battered man that lay limply against Sanchez. "This is where Vin said to meet. He said it was the mostly likely place for Ezra and the others to meet up with those. . . those bastards."
"Closest. . . closest place ta. . . where we f-found. . . Chris," Vin struggled to explain. He managed to open his eyes and ran the tip of his tongue over his dry lips. "J'siah. . . help me. . . down."
"Vin, you need to stay as still as - "
"Don't have time. . . ta argue. Help me. . . I n-need ta look. . . fer tracks."
Heaving a sigh, the former preacher made certain that Tanner was balanced on the horse. Dismounting, he reached up and carefully helped the younger man out of the saddle.
As Vin reached the ground, his knees buckled and he found that only the bigger man's grip was holding him up.
"Easy brother," Sanchez coaxed.
Managing a slight nod, the slender man started moving, allowing the other man to support him. He managed to shuffle a few feet, his eyes on the ground. Stopping, he started to stoop down, but quickly thought better of it. "Kid. . . c'n ya check it out?"
Nodding, JD quickly studied the ground just in front of the tracker. The thick grass was beaten down, stems broken or bent. He traced the torn landscape for several yards before saying, "They headed north. . . north west. There are wagon and horse tracks both."
Taking as deep a breath as possible, the Texan said, "They've got 'em. L-lets. . . git after 'em."
Josiah led the injured man back toward the horses, guiding him toward his horse. He felt Vin stop and asked, "What's wrong."
"My horse. . . don't need ta. . . wear yers out. . . r-ridin' double. I'll be. . . okay."
"Vin, are you sure?"
"We gotta. . . go," Tanner sidestepped the question.
With a resigned expression, Sanchez changed direction and helped his friend into his own saddle. He watched as Vin sat ramrod straight, one arm tucked tight against his body. The other hand reached out, and he handed the man his reins. "You sing out if you need to stop. . . promise?"
Another quick nod was accompanied by, "yeah."
Josiah and JD quickly mounted and the three men started off. Within a few yards, Vin surprised the other two as he nudged his black horse to a gallop. All they could do was curse and kick their own horses into action, following him.