Magnificent Seven Old West
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I Will Help You

by Mitzi

crossoverKung Fu

This story was originally at a site that no longer exists. Thanks, Nancy, for giving me a place to put it.


The frontier town of Taos, New Mexico was jolted out of its lazy, mid-morning reverie by rapid-fire gunshots. The muzzle flash was lost in the crisp morning light, but puffs of smoke accompanied the loud cough of the men's six shooters.

Three men ran out of the bank. Paper dollars and gold coins were scattered behind, falling from the saddlebags the lead man carried. They were laying down cover fire for themselves as they dashed toward a fourth man mounted and trying to control their get-away horses. The horses were pulling at the reins in their attempt to flee the noise and fear that now permeated the street.

No matter how much one expected it, the first sounds of gunfire were always galvanizing. But with experience, the initial adrenaline rush quickly gave way to a cool resolve and deadly accuracy. Ezra Standish ducked into an alley as bullets pelted the wood frame beside his head. He dropped to his belly and peeked around the corner. This unexpected angle was rewarded with a clean shot. The man with the saddlebags went down.

The others saw where the shot came from. Answering fire forced the gambler to roll back into the alley.

The remaining outlaws thought they would make it to their mounts; without the bank money, but with their lives.

Their escape was cut short when the tall, lanky cowboy with the thick mustache broke cover to jump the man holding the horses. He launched himself across a beer keg and tackled the look-out man off his roan. Ezra was at the wrong angle to do anything but watch.

In close quarters, the gangly gunfighter slammed a fist into the other man's jaw. The horses fled down the main street. But this would-be bank robber, a giant of a man, knew he was fighting for his freedom and came up swinging. His brute strength had the leaner man back peddling.

Not for the first time, the Southerner found himself wishing the others were with them in this God-forsaken town. Damn. At least ... "Buck!" He needed his friend to stop what was happening.

Ezra was running then, to help his friend. He heard the equally desperate footfalls behind him.

Without horses, their escape chances melted to almost nothing, the remaining bank robbers slowly began to raise their hands.

The frantically screamed, "No!” that came from behind him, had Standish desperately searching for a new threat. The roof. He saw the glint just as the distinct bark of a rifle told him a new weapon had joined the fray.

The dark, good-natured gunfighter dropped. In horror, Ezra saw the entry wound and knew the man to be dead before the body hit the dusty road.

All that the death meant, all the ramifications ... there were no thoughts, only emotions. In the moment between one heartbeat of his friend, and the next heartbeat that Ezra realized would never come, the essence of loss, fear and rage coalesced and Ezra Standish turned his head and gun looking for the new target, looking for revenge. He managed two steps before a fist-like sensation made itself felt through his collar bone and out his side. His momentum carried him two more steps. Then he was on his knees, his elbows, his side ... and a second bullet dragged him to the ground and into darkness.

SOCCORRO, NEW MEXICO

He was facing down four men at the other end of the street; maybe twenty paces separated them. His fingers fairly vibrated with anticipation. Both hands. Both guns. He was ready. His anger would sustain him. He waited for one of them to make the first move.

But they had already made the first move hadn't they? They had said he was drunk and couldn't hold his liquor. They had stoked the rumor that Chris Larabee was a cold-blooded murderer and led a gang of outlaws operating under the guise of regulators. They said Buck and Ezra had been robbing that bank; were low-life marauders; deserved to be shot down like... They had called him a kid. They had to die.

Paxton Mading, angled to the right of his three men, calmly evaluated the man before him who was about to die young. The boss called it part of "The Agenda". Mading called it just another job.

The boy was drunk and didn't know it. He was swaying and there was no clarity in his eyes. Wasn't even a challenge. Mading decided he might not even draw his gun. Let the others pull the trigger. There was going to be hell to pay over this anyway.

JD Dunne didn't care that the men before him gave the feel of seasoned gunmen. As he waited for one of them to take this to the final level, he idly noticed the gusty wind that reached him from towering thunderheads that weren't even visible yet. The downdraft was still cool. It must have been frigid when it had begun to trough down to earth through the late spring heat.

Oh, he had tried thinking on the shootists before him. But they hadn't distracted him any more than his contemplation of the storms building up from summer heating. Nothing could take his mind off of what had brought him here.

He wanted the feelings to go away. He wanted them away from his soul like the bullets that would rip from his guns soon enough. He named the bullets. Sorrow. Regret. Betrayal. Grief. Love. Hope. He wanted them all gone. He would empty the Lightnings and when it was over, he didn't want to feel anything.

Paxton Mading knew that it unnerved his men that this youth would stand alone against them. Oh well, best get it over with before the others showed up. They weren't part of the equation. Yet.

Mading gave a slight nod to his men. JD saw it, too. He stood a little straighter. He noticed for the first time that his palms weren't sweaty in anticipation of the gunplay. You had to care about the outcome to be nervous. Had that been Larabee's secret all this time?

'...It's not how fast you draw, it's...' No! JD Dunne shut down on the voice in his head. Fat lot of good the advice had been to the man who gave it. JD Dunne was going to be fast and accurate. Deadly.

JD didn't care whether he faced down one man or all four. He didn't care that the sun had sunk in the west enough to be a distinct advantage for the other men. He just wanted something to happen so fast that for a split second he didn't have to think about loss and pain.

So it surprised him that when another man stepped into the street beside the others, the irrational thought flitted through his mind - five against one? How fair is that?

The new man stood with his back to JD Dunne and close enough to the gang that they could have shaken hands. JD couldn't hear what was being said, but it didn't seem that the three men closest to the telegraph office liked what they were hearing.

One of the gunmen reached out as if to shove the newcomer aside. At first the stranger seemed to sway away from his attacker with the subtle grace of long prairie grass. Then he wrapped his arm around the one that came at him. It reminded JD of a snake coiling around its prey. The stranger drove the heel of his free hand into the middle of the man's chest. He dropped like he'd been shot.

Mading's second man took a roundhouse swing at the stranger and somehow seemed to impale himself on the other man's outstretched arm. The third man tried to attack from behind. The stranger spun and, giving no impression of exertion, the heel of his left foot connected with the third man's jaw.

The stranger's moves were like a ballet underwater. They were never rushed and flowed through the man until each move was complete. JD squinted, wondering if the alcohol he had consumed added to the almost slow motion, dance-like sensation of the man's movements.

Surrounded by the fallen hired guns, the stranger turned his soulful eyes to meet those of Paxton Mading. But he made no move toward him. Apparently this man would not instigate trouble.

There was something else in the stranger's dark eyes as he turned his bowed head down the street toward the boy. It was almost a meek gesture, almost regretful as to what would happen next, but he was apparently not willing to intercede.

To hell with it. Mading decided to finish the job himself. He was faster than the boy. He would take him out.

Mading turned to face the youngster and found himself facing the angel of death. The long black duster he wore whipped behind Chris Larabee like Lucifer's wings. The evening shadows seemed to make him look taller and leaner. The young man was nowhere to be seen. The icy green eyes beneath the shapeless black hat were easily read. This was no idealistic romantic raised on heroes and dime novels. This man would draw first.

Paxton Mading understood clearly. Only one of them would leave the street alive. As he knew his only chance was to draw first, be his fastest, be lucky. He made his move.

The gun leapt into the hand of the man in black before Mading realized what had happened. The bullet hit him in the chest. It forced him to stagger back like a hard shove. Then his legs gave out. Then he was on his knees. He realized he couldn't stem the blood streaming from just below where his heart would be. He was dead before he fell forward in the dry, dusty Main Street.

JD watched Chris Larabee walk away from him as surely as he was walking away from the man he had just gunned down. He was headed back to the saloon. A dust devil whirled around him and attacked the long coat. The duster, like a familiar protecting its master, appeared to fight back the wind even though the tormented, suffering man who wore it seemed oblivious.

JD tried to push himself off the ground. He made it to his hands and knees. He couldn't tell if he was spinning or if the world was. Damn Larabee. This had been JD's fight and then he had to show up.

Chris Larabee had grabbed him by the collar and shoved him to the ground. Now the gunman was dead, and Larabee was headed back to his bottle. And, with his adrenaline spent, JD couldn't seem to remember how to stand up.

A hand came down and gripped his upper arm. Then someone was lifting him. It felt strange, as if there was too much power in that slight grip. It was frightening and JD tried to pull away. He was only successful in staggering back to his knees. He didn't want help from Larabee or anyone else.

The hands, on both arms now, pulled him to his feet. The stranger was supporting him. The man's hair was the color of black walnuts, cut short and irregular with an indifference to style. He wore a palomino colored coat, a bag strapped over one shoulder and the shoes were, well, they were shoe soles with straps holding them onto the man's feet.

The newcomer had an aura of quiet solitude, different from the angry silence of a Chris Larabee. Even in his inebriated state JD knew this man was different. It was the eyes... they were like moss agate, textured and deep and ever-changing and, JD was afraid, reading into his soul. And for some reason, he regretted what this stranger was seeing there.

Then the moment passed and the youngest of the Four Corner regulators jerked away from the older man. But still, those eyes held his. The man looked on him with kindness. JD didn't know what to say. The stranger spoke first. "I am Caine. I will help you."

JD Dunne didn't hear the footfalls running in his direction. The spell, the hope for peace cast by those compassionate eyes, was broken when strong hands spun him around. Nathan didn't even ask the kid how he was, choosing rather to make his own visual evaluation.

"Master Caine?" The surprise in Josiah's tone of voice pulled Nathan's concentration to his other friend.

Josiah placed his left hand over his right fist and bowed ever so slightly from the waist.

"Josiah Sanchez." The stranger put pleasure at the meeting, a hint of amusement and a little admonishment in the name as he returned the greeting from the former priest. Josiah seemed to understand the sentiment in the tone and smiled affectionately.

From the corner of his eye, Josiah got a last glance of Chris Larabee as he slinked back into the saloon.

Three men gradually regaining consciousness and their feet at the far end of the street, and the fourth man who would never get up again, said a lot about the different styles of Caine and Larabee.

Town folk were returning to the street. Women scurried their children away from the body; covering their eyes as if this weren't an all too common occurrence. Some men were telling their older sons that they had just seen the notorious gunfighter Chris Larabee in action.

Other men had gone to get a closer look at what had been Paxton Mading, a fast gun, but one who had come to believe the rumors of his own reputation rather than recognize his own limitations. That was painfully obvious when he took on a protégé of Chris Larabee. It had turned fatal when he dared face the notorious gunfighter himself.

Hopefully it had been a last vestige of the old Chris that had stepped up to save the Kid, and not just a man who wanted to kill. "The old Chris". Josiah wondered how many times Buck had had a similar thought. Which was "the old Chris" and which was this one now?

"Josiah Sanchez." Caine's voice drifted through the elder regulator's contemplation. This time the soft voice held a warning. Josiah was immediately alert and saw what had the Shaolin master's concern.

JD was again squaring off at the three gunmen at the end of the street. Josiah and Nathan each took a step and flanked the young man in the potential standoff. They both noticed Vin Tanner take one step into the street from the boardwalk in front of the saloon to back them.

But these men had hired out their guns to take on one over-eager, careless greenhorn. They edged back from the confrontation when he was joined by the others.

JD took a step forward as if to challenge them, challenge their manhood, their bravery, anything to continue the fight. Nathan placed a firm hand on the shorter man's shoulder. JD jerked away and turned his angry eyes briefly on the healer. The gunmen took the opportunity and were gone.

Vin Tanner read correctly that the threat, from outside forces at least, had been vanquished. With a slight nod from Nathan that reassured him that they would see to JD, the former buffalo hunter forced himself to turn back and enter the saloon.

JD wanted to be angry at Nathan. But there was one thing Buck had drilled into him that had taken hold in his soul and he couldn't let go. It wasn't any advice about women, or guns or enemies. It had been about friends. Buck had said, 'if you're mad at someone, tell 'em, curse 'em, punch 'em out. Sometimes you'll just be mad and not know where it comes from or who to be mad at. But if you don't have the balls to stand up to your anger or who you're angry at, don't take it out on a friend who's trying to help you or who doesn't deserve it.' There had been something in his friend's voice that day. JD had vowed he would never be the cause of that tone of voice in someone who didn't deserve it.

Instead of unleashing his unquenchable anger on his friend, JD wrenched free and stalked toward the saloon.

Nathan watched him leave in frustration. Josiah watched with regret.

Caine stood silently and waited until Josiah remembered his presence. "Master Caine, forgive me, I... we've had a loss and... it's been... hard on that youngster."

Caine bowed his head slightly with his eyes closed and Nathan sensed that the man was truly understanding of what was going on around him. "And you, my friend?" He included both men in the question.

"We're older. We've learned to cope." Nathan and Caine both knew the lie in the words but even if it had been in their nature to call him on it, they didn't get the chance before Sanchez continued, "Nathan Jackson, this is Kwai Chang Caine, a Shaolin maste..." He realized that this had no meaning to his friend, "A Shaolin priest."

It was clear to the former slave that the two were old acquaintances. "I can see why you two are friends. Most priests don't usually take justice into their own hands quite so literally."

Caine smiled with the same self-effacing shrug, but then he admonished, "Josiah Sanchez, I sense that you still 'take justice into your own hands' with hatred. That is not what you were taught."

"It's not what you tried to teach." Josiah corrected. "The body and heart were willing, the soul couldn't find that peace."

"Josiah," Nathan interrupted. Josiah's and Caine's eyes tracked to what had Nathan's attention. The local sheriff and two of his deputies had finished an inspection of the body at the end of the street and were headed toward the saloon as they spoke with one of the townspeople who had gradually migrated back to the street. A witness no doubt, to recent events.

"Master Caine..." Josiah began.

"Your friends. Go. May I join you?"

Nathan could see the relief with which Josiah accepted Kwai Chang Caine's offer of help. They headed toward the bar.

@@@@@@@

Chris sat in a far, shadowy corner of the establishment. His hat was low and he was well into the bottle in front of him. He allowed Vin to share the table but it appeared to be barely tolerable. JD hadn't even thought to sit at the table. Instead he was drinking alone at the bar.

The doors swung open. The sheriff and his men stopped long enough to study the room. Then they moved directly toward Larabee's table. The gunfighter didn't miss the badges they wore.

"Larabee."

There was no response.

Vin met the sheriff's eyes, but didn't speak for his friend.

"I'm Sheriff Ellis. I want you and your gang out of my town."

JD turned and leaned against the bar and listened. Ellis included him in the statement with a look.

The blond head turned a fraction to point dead eyes at the lawman. The eyes had turned muddy hazel in their lack of emotion. "It was a fair fight."

"Under the strictest definition of the law, I have to give you that. I don't want it to happen again."

The eyes didn't blink, as if defying the sheriff. Vin finally spoke up. "We're leaving at first light, Sheriff."

"The lot of you have had enough to drink." The sheriff pushed.

Vin closed his eyes, wondering what the man was trying to prove. Before he could decide how to handle the situation, and whether he should try to handle the sheriff or Larabee, Josiah arrived and spoke, "Chris, what we're doing, how important is that to you?"

Larabee's cold glare turned toward the preacher with a minimum of motion.

"Are you going to get yourself killed, or get JD killed, or poison yourself with alcohol before you can pay your respects? Is that all they meant to you?" Sanchez continued.

There was a long pause. Finally Larabee grabbed the bottle and stood. "Go to hell." He growled and moved away from the others and toward the exit.

Nathan started to follow, but Vin stood up. "I'll go, Nathan. Do you think you can get JD to lighten up on the whiskey?"

"If I have to do it with a club, Brother Vin." Josiah volunteered. Then he threw a look at Caine as if he were only then remembering his spiritual mentor was there.

Without saying a word Caine's presence changed Josiah's approach toward the hurting young man to one of compassion, but it still held a sharp understanding of what to say to get the desired results, "JD, son, you've had enough."

JD looked at him with drunken, but defiant eyes.

"It's your decision." Josiah continued. "But if you're too drunk to get yourself up in the morning, we'll leave without you."

JD tried to meet the taller man's eyes, but he couldn't. He pushed forward and left.

Josiah, Caine and Nathan followed JD out into the dusky early evening. The long shadows were running together creating a darkness before the sun actually set.

As the youngest of the group staggered toward the hotel where they had taken rooms for the night, the healer and the preacher gave him the dignity to get there on his own.

Caine watched the interactions of the men with quiet contemplation.

At the other end of town, near the livery, Vin was in an intense conversation with Chris. Nathan couldn't tell what was being said, but could tell that both men were speaking in their usual short, to the point, no holds barred, way.

Chris hissed something. Vin's head snapped up at the words, like he'd been punched. Then Larabee accommodated him and spun him to the ground with a lightning jab from his left fist. As fast as it was unexpected, Vin didn't have a chance to defend himself.

Larabee's long angry strides then carried him toward the hotel. He held onto the whiskey like a babe does its bottle. He left the other man on the ground.

Vin Tanner pushed himself off the hard packed street. The dust disturbed by his fall swirled around as the wind caught it and toyed with it. He turned the opposite direction from Larabee. He wanted to be out of town. He needed to be alone. He was lost in thought. He didn't acknowledge the others. He may not have realized they were still on the street.

Josiah couldn't put a name to the emotions he saw on Tanner's face, but with a sudden clarity and a sense of déjà vu, he remembered where he'd seen them before. It was soon after the seven had met. They didn't know each other very well. Josiah had seen Chris talking with Mary Travis. Then he saw him stalk into the barbershop. He came out after only a few minutes and angry strides led him to the saloon. Whatever his intention in the establishment, it hadn't been a shave or haircut. A few short moments later, Buck Wilmington had come to stand in the doorway and watched the other man walk away. He wore the same expression that Vin had now as he made his way toward the livery.

Josiah watched JD stagger into the hotel. Larabee headed that direction but stopped to light up a thin cigar and stare toward the edge of town. Tanner never looked back as he entered the livery. They were all moving in opposite directions.

"Damn us all." Josiah hissed and turned back into the saloon.

Jackson knew he couldn't help Larabee. He surprised himself with the thought that at the moment Vin was more salvageable than JD. But in the end Nathan knew that he would follow Josiah. What he owed that man superceded the others. Josiah might not be the youngest, or the one who deserved a break. He came closer to being the one who would be hardest to hold on to. But he had been Nathan's friend the longest and he needed that friend now.

Nathan shook himself out of his reverie to realize the priest, Caine, was no longer beside him.

The darkness within the saloon didn't protect the establishment from the summer weather. In fact, by preventing the storm-chilled breeze inside to push around the dead air, the walls encouraged the stifling heat. And it hit Nathan like a physical blow this time as he made his way once again inside.

Somehow it didn't surprise the healer to see that Caine was already standing over Josiah at his table. The elder of the seven was drinking straight from the bottle he had acquired from the bar.

"The alcohol. You might follow your own advice?" Caine questioned. Josiah ignored the question. "That is not the answer." The Shaolin stated calmly, referring to the drink.

"I am not seeking answers." Josiah replied and took another draught to prove it.

"Would you abandon all of your training when you need it most?"

"That training is in the past. No good comes from the past."

Nathan noticed that his oldest friend was falling into the same pedantic phrasing as his mentor. Whether it was respect or falling back into something from older days, the healer wasn't sure. But there was some bitterness in Josiah's voice and, a hint of resentment that the Shaolin sounded as if he had such an inner peace.

"A few days ago," Nathan found himself explaining, "some men showed up. They brought a lot of a complex and… troublesome past back for some of our friends."

"No one brings back the past." Kwai Chang Caine observed. "The past is always there."

Nathan looked at the man who spoke too softly, too certainly in what sounded, to the common sense ways of Nathan Jackson, like vague circles.

The man needed to say what he was thinking instead of making people interpret words or figure out what the words meant to the person who heard them more than... to the person who said them... Nathan looked up suddenly and studied the Shaolin again. The man was waiting to meet his eyes as if reading the healer's mind. He nodded his head ever so slightly and graced Nathan with that self-deprecating smile.

Okay, so maybe having the listener interpret the words did give them more meaning. But Nathan wasn't sure he agreed with what the man had said. No, if this man didn't think the past could not only come back, it could ruin the future, he should have been in Four Corners last week.

Nathan's thoughts were drawn unwillingly back to that time when light-running brawls had somehow become the accepted source of entertainment for a Saturday night.

It had been that time of year. With the trail drovers showing up like clockwork and the railroad workers finding their way into town, every weekend seemed to end up in a rowdy to-do...

FOUR CORNERS, THREE WEEKS AGO

Josiah and Buck Wilmington waded in eagerly under the pretense of stopping the fight. JD waded in because the others did.

On this particular night, Ezra Standish was dragged in by default when the fracas started suspiciously close to his gaming table.

By the time Vin, Chris and Nathan barged through the front door, there was no time for a warning shot to startle the brawlers into submission. JD was going down under three men twice his size. Buck was fighting his way toward the smaller peacekeeper but his path was littered with equally large trail hands eager to work off steam.

Inez, railing at all of them in Spanish and English, headed out from the kitchen and into the melee with a rolling pin over her head. Vin saw Ezra pick her up in mid-stride and deposit her on the safer side of the bar.

Vin, himself, was shoulder to shoulder with Chris as they moved in to pull the men off of their young sheriff. Tanner grabbed two of the men by their hair and jerked them off balance. Chris got double handfuls of the biggest man's collar and dragged him to his feet.

JD crabbed backwards long enough to get his momentum up and then plowed right into the breadbasket of the biggest man. Chris let the man go but made sure he clipped him on the jaw with a power punch. That ensured the man was dazed enough that when both he and JD landed back on the floor the smaller man was on top and had the advantage.

The young sheriff didn't realize he'd gotten the assistance, but Wilmington did and gave Larabee a smile that said "'You old softie".' Larabee squinted his eyes but, before they turned into a full-blown glare, his oldest friend had been swept back into the middle of the scuffle.

Vin, with his highly honed ability to see all the danger, had noticed that the brawl was turning into a small riot. Many more men than usual appeared to be focused in on the Four Corners peacekeepers and they seemed much more sober and deadly than usual. This thought had Tanner protectively turn his attention in search of Inez; to be sure she was safe.

He couldn't help but smile as he spotted her shouting from her safe perch behind the bar and behind Ezra.

Standish had taken the high ground. Sitting on top of the bar, he indiscriminately kayoed anyone who came close, using the heavy wooden rolling pin he'd taken from Senorita Rocillios. He was accruing a considerable stack of men at the foot of the dark wooden bar under the theory that reducing the numbers would help the others bring the situation to a faster close. At the same time, he was protecting Inez, their liquor stock, the pricey new mirror that spanned the back wall - and his new black jacket.

Like he had eyes in the back of his head, Ezra reached out and grabbed the lapel of Tanner's buffalo coat and pulled him forward just enough that a chair aimed by an erstwhile cattle-hand shattered with surprising force against the bar instead of the small of Tanner's back. "Three dollars." Ezra calmly called over his shoulder to Inez. He had her keeping a running tally of damages.

Tanner raised an eyebrow in acknowledgement of Standish's help.

Just for the bedevilment of it, Ezra wiped his hand on his jacket as if wiping away little varmints he might have acquired by grabbing the buffalo coat. Before Vin could respond, Ezra said calmly, "Duck.” Tanner obliged and the gambler used the rolling pin and a big man's own momentum to shatter that scalawag's nose as he charged Tanner.

Ezra smiled at his handiwork and shoved Vin good-naturedly back into the fray.

Nathan remembered saying once that Ezra would work twice as hard to get out of work than to just do the job. Josiah had contradicted him, saying the truth was that Standish had made an art form out of accomplishment with a minimum of exertion. To the point that it looked like he didn't work. Like now. Ezra wasn't even ruffled, yet he was doing his part, protecting the others and keeping a running total of damages. Vin suspected he would even be able to identify who was responsible for what breakage.

Standish grabbed a rye bottle - probably not a coincidence that it was empty instead of full of perfectly good, if watered down, alcohol - and threw it with a deadly accuracy that rivaled Nathan with his knives. The bottle connected with the forehead of a man going toe to toe with Larabee and dropped him. Chris nodded his appreciation at being given the opportunity to move from the taller, more muscular opponent.

Vin, tracking his best friend with his eyes, was making a head count, assuring himself that everyone was holding their own.

The leader of the Magnificent Seven edged past Buck and Nathan who were back to back under the wood and kerosene lamp chandelier as he himself moved in on his next adversary.

That's when Tanner saw it, and immediately moved in the direction of Buck and Nathan. He caught Josiah's eyes briefly and could tell his older friend had seen it, too..

The man looked like a scraggly drifter and had originally been angling in on Jackson. But he and Tanner had spotted each other across the room at the same time. The drifter stepped into an open section of the floor and was drawing his gun. Arms and bodies were flailing and windmilling all around him.

Only overwhelming greed could have fooled the vaquero into believing he could choose a target in this melee.

Tanner's and Sanchez's shouted warnings went unheard and both tried to shove their way to their friends. Vin knew as well as Josiah that they wouldn't make it in time.

Vin was aware that he was running directly into the path of the cowboy's six shooter. He was more aware of the fact that every time he lost sight of the gun barrel it was because Buck or Nathan, jockeying for position, were unknowingly moving in and out of the line of fire.

Buck, wrestling with a well-muscled drover, blocked Vin's view of the gun, but not the would-be shooter's eyes. But as sure as he knew the sun was going to rise tomorrow, Vin knew the man was going to pull the trigger.

Not a time-tested gunman, the man thought that since he could see Tanner, his aim was clear. And his intent was to kill Tanner for the bounty. But when that bullet left the barrel, two feet below eye level, it would have to try to plow through Wilmington and two others to reach its intended target.

Tanner and Sanchez, from opposite parts of the room, both felt like time had turned to quicksand and was keeping them from saving their friends. Their continued shouts of warning were useless over the roar of the crowd.

It was a happenstance series of events that caused Nathan Jackson instead of Wilmington to be shoved back as the bullet fired. It cut a deep slice out of the healer's arm. The surprise of the wound registered first, before any pain. The force of the bullet knocked Jackson back into Wilmington who went to the floor with his burden.

Larabee reacted to the shot. He could almost smell the blood and that it was one of his men who was wounded.

Buck, who never took things in half measures, and recklessly plowed headfirst into a fight, pulled his legs under himself getting ready to bolt up and tackle the gunman. This one saw the move and his gun twitched from Vin to Buck and back again. Buck froze, but not before he put himself between the nervous gun and his wounded friend.

"T - Tanner, I'm gonna carry your mangy carcass back to Texas over a pack mule." The false bravado and nervousness was more dangerous than a cool hand.

Chris was shoving his way through the crowd to get an angle where he could shoot. Buck was in his line of fire.

In such close quarters Larabee suspected that drawing his own gun would ratchet up an already dangerous situation. But when Larabee saw the blood flowering from Nathan's sleeve, his face froze in fierce resolve. This was going to end.

Before that resolve could be put into action, a horse and rider suddenly presented themselves through the batwing doors. The sleek buckskin stood fifteen hands, maybe sixteen hands tall. The gelding, eyes rolled to show white more in defiance than fear, shouldered its way into several of the brawlers, including the man with the gun.

Buck grabbed the clearly distracted man and broke his wrist. The gun clattered to the floor.

When the horseman fired off a slug from his sawed off shotgun into the ceiling, the gelding never flinched. The brawlers in the big room, already startled by the surprise appearance of the horse and rider and their willingness to ride over them, finally froze at the sound of the shot. The man lowered the gun into the crowd, daring someone to make a wrong move.

The man on the horse seemed to check on each of the regulators. Ezra dropped off of the bar and sauntered forward. The newcomer's eyes lingered on Standish as if recognizing him as the final say in this establishment but at the last minute they slid toward Larabee and with a sardonic, challenging lift of the eyebrow, asked, 'Can you take it from here?'

Larabee made a point of ignoring this man. But with an explosive surge of anger the leader of the town's peacekeepers unerringly singled out and grabbed the trail bosses and foremen of the railworkers. "Standish will have an accounting of damages tomorrow. Settle with him then." The message understood was that the men couldn't leave fast enough or travel far enough to avoid making restitution. They nodded. None of the three were above taking responsibility or having their men take responsibility for the results of letting off steam.

Tanner shoved the would-be bounty hunter into Larabee's waiting grasp. "Who the hell does this one belong to?" Larabee demanded.

The trail bosses exchanged glances, waiting to see who would be held accountable for the man who injured one of Larabee's crew and was trying to kill another of his men. Clearly there was no recognition in any of their eyes. "Mist be a drifter. Don't belong to any of us."

"Get out," Larabee growled. The men fell over themselves to oblige.

Larabee, a firm grip on the shooter, and Vin both headed toward where their friends were congregating around Nathan in the middle of the room.

"None of them are going to jail?" JD asked with a little surprise in his voice. He was referring only to the drovers and railroad workers. The man who had tried to kill Tanner would probably be lucky to make it to the jail alive.

Larabee gave a negative shake of his head to the young Sheriff and kept moving. The gunfighter was so intent on getting across the room, Tanner was surprised he even heard the question much less acknowledged it.

But then, Larabee was paying more attention, these days, to making JD feel his opinion or questions were important. Or maybe the gunfighter was actually finally realizing that they usually did have merit. He had been seeing that the kid was turning into a good hand. Vin sensed that a lot of the boy's asset, Larabee saw through the eyes of the other peacekeepers, but the results were the same. It had probably been a long time since Chris Larabee had paid attention to that kind of insight. It was good for the boy and good for the man.

Larabee noticed that the buckskin's rider was watching the interchange and directed his next statement to him, "Then again, maybe I should throw your sorry ass in jail for discharging a firearm in here."

"You know, Old Dog," Buck drawled, "all he did was cover up the hole you made last week when you did the same thing."

"But mine's bigger." The pistolero laughed as he got off of his horse but made no move to turn the animal out of the establishment.

Ezra studied him. He would never see 50 again, and was probably closer to 60. Age had taken away none of the man's height, though. He stood straight, solid and over six feet. His wavy, blue-black hair was flecked now with salt and pepper gray, distinguishingly concentrated at his temples before it filtered back. He had a high forehead but gave no sign of a receding hairline. The precisely barbered handlebar mustache showed no gray at all. His cobalt blue eyes were sharp and quick. He gave the impression of a much younger man.

The man to his left, maybe Chris or Buck's age, was a younger version of the first and had to be his son. The third man, shorter and scrappy, with half-moon spectacles on the end of his nose, showed his age in thinning white hair and leathery skin. The sparkle in his eye told the world that he had discovered the humor in life.

Buck was trying to examine Nathan's wound. The ladies' man seemed concerned with avoiding eye contact with the buckskin's rider.

JD, Ezra and Josiah had made their way to their friends. Larabee and Tanner were moving closer until the three newcomers strode forward. At this point Larabee stayed back to observe. Vin stopped when his friend did.

The scrappy older man went straight to the gouge on Nathan's arm. One minute he was with the other strangers, the next minute he had replaced Buck at Nathan's side, used his middle finger to push the eyeglasses higher on the bridge of his nose, and was ripping the sleeve. He had his bandana against the wound. Nathan started to protest until he noticed that Buck appeared to trust the man explicitly. Buck, abashed, had his chin to his chest. ":Thanks, ya old coot."Nathan heard Wilmington mumble and decided not to pull away from the attention being given to his arm.

"Any of that blood yours?" The tall stranger asked Buck.

"No. Sir." Buck replied sheepishly.

"Am I gonna have to bail you out of this?" The buckskin shifted its weight beside the man impatiently.

"No. sir." There was a tinge of humor in the ladies' man's tone as he answered that question.

"You start it?" the man pushed.

Buck looked up finally with a crooked smile. "No, sir." There was no subservitude or loss of self-confidence, only a tone of well-earned respect.

"You the law in this town?" The question carried no small amount of admonishment.

Buck hesitated a fraction. Larabee moved then and placed himself as a wall between this stranger and all of his men. Tanner stood close by. "Cut it out." Larabee growled. "You never ride into a town, you don't know what's what."

The one man gave the other a feral grin. "Just wanted to hear the boy say it."

So Larabee knew the man, too, Nathan observed. Once again he was struck by how much history the gunfighter and the ladies' man shared.

"Ain't wearin' no badge." Buck affirmed in reply to the original question.

"Might as well be." The tone became reproachful. "You do what's right. I taught you that. Whatever it takes. You don't tether yourself with rules and the law. The people that would kill you ain't followin' no laws."

Buck didn't answer. The younger version of the lecturer smirked. The grizzled old man patted Wilmington's shoulder in a show of support.

The others weren't quite sure what they were witnessing. Vin was surprised when the older man's blue-black eyes appraised him intensely before they slid back to Buck.

The big horseman moved closer with every word. "Never wear a badge. Never betray your own heart and never ride with the likes of Chris Larabee." More than one set of eyes darted to the man at the very heart of that comment.

JD's jaw dropped open. Josiah reached over and shut it again. This seemed to confirm Ezra's sinking premonition of who this big man must be. The Southerner took an unobtrusive, protective step toward Buck.

"Aw, hell," Buck began in acknowledgement. But before he could say a word, the older man wrapped him in a bear hug then held him at arm's length, smiling approvingly.

The youngest of the three new arrivals came forward, pumped Buck's hand heartily, pounded him on the back and smiled. " That's why I like havin' you around, Buck. Takes the heat off of me."

Wilmington wrapped an arm around the youngest of the threesome and whatever was going on a minute before was over.

Buck wrapped his other arm around JD's neck. "JD Dunne, Josiah Sanchez, Nathan Jackson, Ezra Standish, Vin -"  Buck seemed delighted to point out and introduce each of his friends. He stumbled on Vin's name.

"Vin Tanner." The older man finished. "Larabee's right. I don't ride into a town before I know about it. But I don't hunt bounty anymore. And never on one of your friends, Thomas Adam."  The man chastised Buck. "You know that when you're not with that gunfighter."

Nathan remembered seeing Vin react to the undisguised venom in the word "gunfighter"; especially since it was obviously a derigatory reference to Chris Larabee. This man had a scathing contempt for their leader; their friend. That was when they had both noticed for the first time that Chris was no longer among them. He must have taken the prisoner to the jail.

Before Nathan had been able to contemplate the ramifications of what was going on, he saw the stranger offered his hand to Tanner. It was a warm, strong handshake. Nathan sensed that, in that instant, Vin Tanner was glad this man wasn't after his bounty.

The amicable grip was extended to the others. "The old codger frettin' over Mr. Jackson's scratch is Pappy. This is my son, Caleb."As he took Ezra's hand he introduced himself, "Zach Monahans."

Ezra didn''t show his reaction except to return the cordial handshake with a smile. So this was Buck's 'Zach Monahans'. Remembering the recent past when he and Buck thought they might die, his lanky friend's thoughts had drifted back to this man. A man he had never mentioned before. The name had again come from the chapped lips in the delirium of heat exhaustion. The unsettling timbre of that voice seemed to give evidence that Buck thought he could find safe haven and strength in Monahans' presence.

That the big hearted rogue had called out for Monahans had sent Larabee's blood straight to the boiling point.

So now Standish took the opportunity to study the man without being obvious about it; almost sensing he did so in self-preservation and the preservation of what had come to be important in his own life. The man was obviously a rancher, obviously wealthy and obviously took pleasure in baiting their leader. Well, the gambler could appreciate that last part.

Ezra Standish was insightful by nature and had honed his intuitive skills out of necessity. But this green-eyed reader of men couldn't see why Larabee hated Monahans. Neither could he see where the rancher could be a source of comfort to anyone, much less their own self-appointed source of comfort, Buck Wilmington. All Ezra could see was trouble.

PRESENT

... The healer sat and stared at the fiery liquid in the glass before him. His thoughts lingered on that first meeting with Zach Monahans' clan. He thought about Ezra's reaction. Even as the throbbing pain from his own wound had begun to make itself known, Nathan had noticed something. There had been an unfamiliar, unreadable look on the face of their resident gambler as he shook hands with the taller man. It hadn't been his poker face. And it had been subtle enough that only someone who knew Ezra Standish well would notice it at all. How many times since then had Nathan wished he had asked what Ezra had been seeing; had been thinking. Now it was too late. It was the past.

No, Nathan mused as his memories gave way to present thoughts. The past can come back. And it can do a lot of damage.

"You travel with these men?" Caine was asking Josiah.

"One last time, I'm afraid." Caine raised an eyebrow, offering Josiah the chance to continue if he were interested in doing so. "One friend... is injured and needs our protection. The other... we'll lay him to rest at home." Josiah shook the dark thoughts off. "And you, Master Caine? Where do you travel?"

"A temple... has asked for my assistance. I travel to... Taos?" His voice lifted as if to question that his pronunciation was right.

"Taos?" Nathan couldn't hide his surprise.

"Taos is our destination." Josiah offered as he met those inscrutable gray eyes. He got the feeling he wasn't saying anything the Shaolin didn't already know. "We have a wagon to bring back... our friends. You'll make better time with us than on foot."

"Josiah... the way Larabee's..." Nathan began.

"Caine can take care of himself." He was reading something in the eyes now and knew he very much wanted his old teacher with them.

"I don't mean to sound as if you ain't welcome." Nathan continued.

"I understand." Caine assured the healer. "But it has been too long since Josiah and I exchanged philosophy."

"We leave at first light." Josiah finalized. He picked up the bottle and ambled heavily out of the saloon.

Nathan watched as Josiah walked away. He hesitated.

"Go." The Chinaman encouraged. "See to our friend. The heart... the soul... are more difficult to heal than the body. But your gifts lie in that area as well."

Nathan wasn't sure about the healing part, but all doubt about catching up to his friend and seeing him through the night evaporated as soon as he heard the words. He was almost to the doors when he thought of something, "How did you know I heal the body..." The man wasn't there. It was almost as if he never had been.

Vin Tanner had ridden until he was away from any signs of man. Being able to find this solitude was important to him. He could find himself and his peace when he was alone with nature. He could put Larabee's vicious words in perspective and understand the man tried to hurt himself by hurting his friends. He could put the loss of friends in perspective and understand that was a part of the circle of life. He needed to be able to be alone in a place like this.

But what was it Zach Monahans had said to Buck? That all too soon you wouldn't be able to ride far enough to get away from civilization? He shuddered, thinking on that old man's biting philosophy and predictions of the future, and took a deep breath. He concentrated instead, on the feel of the morning sun warming his skin.

Where had the night gone? He was certain he hadn't slept, but neither did he remember any particular thoughts; just images like oil swirling on water. And now here was another day where he and the others were reduced to hovering on the periphery of Chris Larabee, waiting to pick up the pieces or the corpse.

He wished like hell he'd asked Buck more about how that loyal heart had controlled their mutual friend in such a time of loss. What he really wished he had asked was how Buck dealt with the stiletto-like attacks the man would plunge into their friendship again and again. But Buck was gone.

Vin hunkered down beside his black and let the early morning stillness wake up around him. Cicadas and mockingbirds were already carrying on. The light breeze stirred the air just enough.

Vin knew that this newest loss was eating his best friend from the inside out. There had been a couple of times where Chris had faltered long enough to almost talk about good times; to honor the memories of their friends the way they would want to be remembered. And Tanner knew that would be the beginning of healing for the gunfighter's mourning.

But every time, when the lone gunman realized Vin had lured him out of the dark recesses of his solitary thoughts, he would attack those very memories.

What Jock Steele had called the Magnificent Seven, Larabee compared to a pack of wild dogs banding together for protection; nothing more than mere survival instincts. Dangerous, pathetic men, existing on the fringes of society and recognizing their own kind in each other.

And then Larabee would attack Vin for finding him hiding in his soul, and say that they were neither of them deserving of friendship. "We came here, thinking we'd found our own kind and would look like men when we ran with this pack. You know what we found out? That we're the worst of the lot. Even in a group of no-account losers, we're killers. We should be hunted, not the hunters." Only able to guess what those thoughts were doing to the gunfighter, Tanner knew all too well what they did to his own conscience. What else had Zach Monahans said? 'The 'Magnificent Seven' bring more trouble to Four Corners than they drive away.' And how much trouble did they bring to each other?

Vin wasn't the only one holding on to Larabee. The others had tried. Well, except for JD who seemed to care about his own well-being even less than the dark gunman did. Both had shut the others out as if the friendships of the last short years meant nothing.

It would be good to have Ezra back - and he refused to consider the alternatives. Maybe Ezra would be able to chafe Larabee so that his anger would grow out of impatience or in response to perceived insolence - both easier to control and be controlled than anger grown out of grief or guilt. It would be good to have Ezra back and see if he could work his irritating magic on Larabee. Tanner sighed. Somehow he didn't think it would happen.

The plains grass had grown tall enough to hide and fade out the colors of the bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes. Most of the bluebonnets had lost the red tip that attracted honey bees. The red faded to white once the pollen had been harvested and the flower was of no further use to the bees. But honey bees, butterflies and bumble bees were hard at work nevertheless.

As his horse moved forward to graze, its hoof dislocated a jumbo grasshopper which took off in a rattle of wings. A male scissortail made quick work of the bug.

At this moment, Vin Tanner was content and happy where he was. He knew that he would move beyond this loss as he had so many in the past, finally accepting what he could not change. He would cherish the memories. He wished he could explain his peace, this moving beyond, to the others.

He wondered, after the previous night's confrontation, what it would cost him to see Chris Larabee through this time and he wondered what it would cost him if he couldn't get Larabee through this time.

Vin watched a gray fox slink across the horizon. It was startled for a moment to encounter a human on the way back to his den. The small animal disappeared immediately upon realizing he wasn't alone. Tanner fought back the urge to do the same thing, when he heard the light rumbling approach of a wagon and horse's hooves. He took a fortifying breath, mounted his horse and turned to join the others.

@@@@@@@

Morning had found the party already on the road. Josiah was taking his turn driving the wagon, his patient, reliable gelding tied behind. Caine rode on the seat beside him, having accepted their invitation to ride together on two separate missions that led to the same town.

When Josiah saw Tanner's silhouette, he was more than a little relieved. Josiah had feared their tracker would ride away as he did when Larabee didn't want to hear the truth about Ella Gaines. Or when he thought That Woman on the wagon train offered him something he needed in his life. Or when the New Law had come to town and the tracker had followed Larabee's lead to abandon a thankless town and the partnership of the seven.

Vin was a lone wolf. He didn't need the others. He didn't have the guilt of a Buck Wilmington guiding him toward patience and forgiveness for the bitter widower. There was only the friendship Tanner was willing to give to buttress the bond that Larabee was determined to destroy. And, Josiah mused, Larabee was damned lucky that, for all of the ex-bounty hunter's ornery independence and nomadic life, Tanner had somehow learned all that friendship was truly about.

Tanner fell in beside Larabee, but neither spoke. Nathan and Josiah gave him encouraging nods, but there weren't any words.

JD rode a distance from the others, parallel with the wagon but not close enough to encourage conversation. The boy had gone from gregarious to as tacit as Larabee and was getting worse. He resented anyone trying to make conversation. He spent the evenings as the others made camp practicing his quick draw.

"Chris, JD's festerin' somethin' bad... got a hate in him that's burnin' up ever'thin' Buck loved about that boy."

"He brought it on himself. Hookin' up with a bunch of vaqueros with too much history to die old."

"He don't know what he's mad at." Vin waited for a response that didn't come. He looked for more words. "You owe it to Buck to show JD that kind of hate ain't no good. You owe it to Nathan to help him keep Josiah from drinking himself to death. You owe it to Ezra to keep us all together and see him through."

"Unless he's already dead." Chris slid his eyes toward the tracker but didn't move his head from the path in front of him. "And what do I owe you?" His tone said everyone wants something.

As was the way of Tanner, there was no verbal response. But there was a hurt in his eyes that responded to that tone of voice. Chris slid his whole head toward the other man and still defied him to answer.

"What's this path you're takin', Cowboy?" Vin asked and Chris actually looked confused. The way to Taos was clear cut. Then the former buffalo hunter continued, "Because it doesn't look like it's gettin' you anywhere. I think it curves its way back to places you've already been. Nothing but switchbacks, and every time you look up, you see what you're trying to get away from."

"Shut up." Larabee snarled. "You used to know how to stay quiet." Larabee kneed his horse to move away from the other man. Vin didn't follow.

"That one will take friendship and cut you with it like a knife when he's hurting." Josiah observed drunkenly, if not with some little insight. The look on Tanner's face as the other man rode away clearly showed there had been another attack. How many would the lone wolf endure? Josiah wished he knew what to say to the younger man.

How quickly things had changed. Where now only the rumble of the wagon, the nickering of horses, creaking of leather and hoof falls followed them across the prairie, as recently as a week ago it had been shouts of good times, Ezra's bets and...

The ex-preacher let his mind wander back to the happier times . He remembered sitting on this same hill, waiting along with Nathan, Ezra, Caleb Monahans, JD, Pappy and Monahans' men...

FOUR CORNERS TWO WEEKS AGO

Josiah glanced at the men beside him. Monahans' hired hands were as respectful of their boss and his son as a Mexican was of his Don. And they treated Buck the same way, though their resident scoundrel didn't seem to notice.

Nathan was curious, but mostly about what was about to take place, and, no doubt, anticipating injuries to be tended. JD was excited and fairly trembling. The boy never liked being on the sidelines.

The sky overhead was clear, robin's egg blue, endless, cloudless. The breeze kept the temperature at near perfection. And yet, there was something in the air...

Ezra was downright fretful about something he had already figured out - the others hadn't and he didn't seem willing to share.

And Pappy? Pappy seemed troubled like Ezra seemed troubled. And it wasn't because of the daredevil task that Zach Monahans had talked their friends into...

They were here for the buffalo. Once a herd would have sent tremors through the ground and turned the landscape black. Now the small herd that fought to survive the plains outside of Four Corners barely spotted the grasslands, like residue of a different time. And you couldn't feel the pathetically small herd; couldn't hear it before they were in view.

Josiah and the others watched as maybe fifty of the creatures ran into the small draw; terrified at being pursued once again, even if this time it was for their own good.

Josiah watched the buffalo appeared over the hill, trampling the grass in their wake. And they ran. They ran from being chased once too often. They ran with a fear only the hunted could know.

It was at that moment the buffalo meant something to most of the other men beside him. Nathan had known the fear of being hunted. And Ezra. And Pappy.

JD didn't tense up like the others. Nor did Caleb. It appeared that perhaps Caleb had been protected from the experiences that led to this understanding. They'd never been chased down, toyed with, hunted.

Directly behind the herd and flanking them fast, rode four men who were at one with their horses and as much a part of the land as the herd. They rode flat out with the bison.

Two men played out lassos and circled them over their heads. The flat crowned black hat of the one was hanging by a chin strap and revealed sun-bleached blond hair. The other's salt and pepper hair was still hidden by his hat although the brim was blown back flush to the crown in their race to keep up with the animals. Josiah thought about the opposites of the two men even as he watched how alike they were.

The lariats flew forward. Two bison fell back as their herd fled on in their panic-tinged fear. Here was a difference Josiah would ponder on in later days. The prey, the hunted, fled on and left their herd mates to their fate. The hunters, even when chased, would stand by their own.

Larabee's rope flicked around where the neck should be on his animal. He silently cursed the fact that its head fairly sat on its shoulders.

Zach's rope caught its target around the stubby horns. The rope was already working its way off the weathered bone as the other two horsemen, Vin and Buck, flipped their riatas around a back leg of each animal and stretched the bulls off balance.

Larabee fairly flew from his saddle and worked his way down his rope. His muscles, while they would be sore tomorrow, moved in memory of a harder life, but happier times. He grappled to gather the remaining three flailing legs together and hog-tied them with the smaller rope he had carried in his teeth for the purpose. The deed complete, he threw his arms into the air to make evident his success.

His eyes were already searching for Wilmington, who had taken on this task for the other team, only to see his moves mirrored as the darker man threw his arms out at the same time. Their eyes met in an adrenaline rush, comradely humor and a competitive battle that ran between them.

Wilmington, tired, breathing hard, laughed out loud at the look on the other man's face. They both knew they'd made good time. They'd both been so certain this time they'd beat the other. What they acknowledged was that now, kneeling beside their catches, what they'd done might be more than most men could handle, but they were once again equal between themselves.

Chris's wry grin suddenly faded, "Buck!” The voice echoed danger. Larabee was already running toward his old time friend.

Zach's rope around the bison's horns had worked its way free. The frightened animal flailed out with those horns, the only weapon it had left.

Even knowing his friend and recognizing his tone of voice could not have saved Buck, but Chris, grabbing him and pulling him backwards from the arc, meant the deadly sharp horns caught him only a glancing blow across the chest.

Nathan and JD, in an effort to check on Buck's wound, unintentionally kept him from getting to his feet. Ezra and Pappy, however, knew exactly what they were doing. Because their friend was trying to get between Chris and Zach.

Chris had been first to his feet, only to move past Wilmington. He shoved Monahans away from Buck and all those he considered his to protect.

":Chris, Zach."Buck tried to intercede. Neither of the men were listening.

"If you're too old, Monahans, stop trying to relive your past at other's expense..." Larabee, nothing if not perceptive, had long ago honed in on Monahans' fear that age would rob him of the man he saw himself to be. These fears had always seemed to drive Monahans, even moreso now despite the fact that he was still more man than most. It was never Zach who got hurt when he began to fight his own mortality. It would be Caleb or Buck or one of the others. And Chris would be damned if he'd let history repeat itself.

Monahans' righteous indignation was focusing into his fist. "I didn't come here to fight you, Larabee." Then he smiled with a meanness that was meant to incite Larabee as no one else could, "That's just a bonus."

Buck heard the words and knew how this confrontation could spiral down, “Chris, Zach!"

Buck swatted at Pappy's hands to keep them away from the slash partially hidden by his shirt. He was also trying to grab the wet rag that the grandfatherly man intended to use to swipe at the blood. Pappy in turn was swatting Buck's hands out of his way. To Nathan, they looked like two four-week-old kittens learning to play fight.

Nathan had almost relaxed at the amusing spectacle until he saw Buck's eyes. He followed the gaze to where Caleb, Josiah and Vin stood around Chris and Zach. The two men resembled nothing so much as lead males in opposing wolf packs.

Nathan was about to try to stop what was happening when a low whistle from Pappy did it for him. The whistle meant something had impressed Pappy and, since he was tending to Thomas Adam, it distracted Zach who moved that way, not giving Larabee so much as a second thought.

Pappy had caught sight of the older, thick, slightly puckered white line across the rogue's chest. Nathan was used to the scar and often forgot what an obviously life-threatening wound it represented.

"Where the hell did you get that scar, Boy?" Pappy asked, regarding the thick, long remnants of the old gash. Buck flushed as he remembered the Colonel's saber blow at the Seminole village.

"Where the hell were you when that happened?" Monahans' voice, when he confronted Larabee, was accusing.

JD cringed back slightly, motivated by the guilt that could still well up inside him over that old wound. He fervently didn't want this or anything else to put him on the wrong side of a man who obviously meant so much to his friend.

"Where were you just now?" Larabee countered with a nod toward the buffalo that had caused Buck's injury.

Again the two were moving in for each other. Buck somehow got between them this time despite his new injury and their best efforts to reach each other.

Vin and Josiah grabbed Chris to hold him off. It took Caleb with Nathan's help to keep Zach back.

Buck stood between them. Ezra watched him, trying to gauge whose side the lanky rogue would come down on.

"Hell, you two give me a headache. Let's get these animals boxed up so I can get a drink." Buck shrugged off the help that both Nathan and Pappy offered in tending his wound. It wasn't serious to begin with and he knew from experience that his choosing the help of one over the other would be seen as choosing sides between Chris and Zach.

He moved over to where the hired help were making a conscious effort to ignore the confrontation between their boss and the notorious gunfighter; already loading the buffalo into specially made wagons much like squeeze chutes so the animals couldn't hurt themselves.

"It must be comforting to have two such formidable men concerned about your welfare." Ezra tried to put forth to Buck that specific slant to the anger smoldering between Larabee and Monahans.

"They want to fight." The usually easy-going ladies' man lamented. “I'm an excuse."

As if he had just realized he spoke the words out loud, and it had given Standish some insight into thoughts he hadn't meant to release, Buck quickly put on a huge, Wilmington grin, slapped the gambler on the back and asked, as if he were suddenly a different person, a carefree person, “C'mon, Standish, how much money did you make off me and Ol' Chris catching those critters?"

The gambler held up one neatly manicured hand that brought the words to a stop. He bowed his head then looked up at his other friend, “Mr. Wilmington, you would no more let me change the subject in that manner than you would young Mr. Dunne."

Buck had started to protest. Ezra continued before he got the chance, "We will talk. But away from these odiferous bovines."

PRESENT

At the time, Josiah had suspected Ezra led his friend off for more privacy. But it also led them out of the ex-preacher's earshot.

Josiah sat and remembered the words. He remembered the look on Buck's face. But more, he remembered Ezra. Even then Ezra had sensed something foreboding. Josiah wished the enigmatic Southerner had felt he could confide in the others. Would it have made a difference?

Something brought the big preacher's attention back to the friends who were on this particular journey with him. Nathan was watching him closely. Caine was studying the landscape, the sky, but was still somehow focused on his student.

Then Sanchez realized that Tanner was riding on the opposite side of the wagon from Nathan. "I said," the tracker repeated in his low voice, "those clouds ain't gonna hold back much longer."

He could smell the rain and lightning. The summer heating that had threatened rain yesterday seemed determined to make good on that promise today.

The big man looked up at the black clouds above them. The taller thunderheads peaked like castles. There were always one or two that were shaped like dragons and bowed stallions' heads - powerful shapes, presaging the violence of the storm.

Sometimes when a line of towering, boiling, black and blue-gray clouds approached in a line, blocking out the sky behind them, in stark contrast to the serenely peaceful rest of the world they had yet to reach, they had a way of making him feel so small and inconsequential. Sometimes they made him feel like a part of something special and grand. Today they made him wonder what kind of darkness they were riding into.

Sanchez quickly shook his gray mane when he realized he was losing himself in his thoughts again, and looked to Tanner for a suggested course of action.

"This kind a' storm will die down quick once the sun's gone, but it'll be a toad choker 'til then. There's a overhang not far. Should keep us and the horses dry." The tracker offered.

The day was gone. They'd have to stop soon anyway. Lost in his memories, Josiah hadn't realized so much time had passed.

When there was no argument about the plan, Sanchez called out, "JD! We're camping."

JD balked. His shoulders tensed. He kept his back to the others. He didn't want to rest. "We'll get to town early tomorrow. We need the day to do what needs to be done." Nathan prodded.

Vin turned his horse. Josiah reined the wagon team around. Finally Dunne kneed his pony along with them.

Chris finally stopped. It took the first, fat warning drops of rain before the somber gunfighter turned his horse's head. Then he spurred the gelding on ahead of the others.

@@@@@@@

The limestone overhang Vin led them to was deep enough to keep them out of the rain that was now sheeting down outside. A few plants that thrived in dark places grew out of the plated crevices in the back of the grotto. Water seeped from the walls, darkening the stone and hinting that the aquifer, which, over the ages, had formed their shelter, still existed.

They had gathered wood on the way and by the time they'd arrived they had enough to get them through the night.

Once Chris had ridden ahead of them, they didn't see him again until they reached the cover.

Their leader had already started a fire. Apparently he had had to remove the current occupants, as there were two dead mountain rattlers lying outside the mouth of the cavern when the others arrived.

He hadn't even wasted bullets on the creatures. Each lay beheaded on the chipped shale. It was an uncomfortable statement about the Chris Larabee they rode with now, that he preferred using a knife; preferred to feel the weapon take the life, rather than stay back a safe distance and use his guns.

Josiah shook off the feeling, telling himself there was nothing ominous about the act. It wasn't a big deal. He killed snakes, for God's sake, not another man.

That chain of thought brought to Josiah's mind a story Ezra had told them. The gambler and Wilmington had been held prisoner in a madman's POW camp. Buck had killed snakes with nothing more than worked flint. Then he had roasted up the diamondbacks and, at the time, Ezra had confided, the taste had been fit for a king. But not this time.

Instead, after they tended the horses, Josiah produced some biscuits, hard cheese and jerky. No one was interested in anything that had to be heated up, stirred or cooked, much less cleaned.

Kwai Chang Caine studied the men around him. None of them really ate. The one in the duster, Chris Larabee, didn't even try. He was keeping himself numbed by alcohol.

That one was anger. Josiah was resignation. Each in his own way reduced their emotions to the least common denominator and refused to venture beyond.

Where Larabee stoked his anger and would strike when someone dared approach him, Caine's old friend was building - or rebuilding - his bitterness stone by stone and planned on using it to separate himself from the others.

Nathan Jackson seemed to have redirected his loss to fretting over the welfare of his friends. But there would come a time when that ploy would fail him.

The Shaolin was surprised that the ex-bounty hunter seemed at peace with the loss which devoured the others. Caine's eyes lingered on those young features. Vin Tanner felt the eyes on him, met them, but volunteered no answers within the liquid blue gaze. Caine saw more anyway. While the tracker might have moved beyond the grief, the emotions of the others were eating at him and left him emotionally vulnerable.

And the young one. Where did that self-hatred come from? Who did he think he had failed so badly that he sought revenge on himself and everyone around him?

Caine took a cleansing breath and centered himself. He had observed long enough. Guiding men was not something he undertook often or lightly. But there was more at stake than seven men. His eyes rested on his pupil. Josiah felt it immediately, met the gaze, and rousted himself to join his teacher. He'd known this time would come.

"Master?" The self-defrocked priest proffered.

"You do not grieve death, Josiah Sanchez." Caine stated matter-of-factly. "You understand its place."

"I grieve everything I have lost. I grieve for me." His voice rose as if he defied someone to tell him he didn't have the right to take the sorrow for himself. "I had, for a moment, friends that made me laugh. They promised a home my real family never offered. They made me hope and made me think." The rich voice rumbled with sadness. "I had people that made me want to fight my demons and who had overcome such amazing odds, they had me seeing a glimmer of faith return. Now I have one friend I will miss more than I thought was possible, and one who will feel guilty for the loss. Chris Larabee is that kind of guilt. I am that kind of guilt. Not Ezra ..."

"That they could give you back those emotions, even for a short while... even to lose them again... it was a gift. You have that."

Josiah knew there was much truth in the Shaolin's words. The new friendships had been singularly unforgiving in regards to dark memories that tried to keep one, the other down. They simply refused to let each other drown in past remembrances. Oh, they appreciated each other's losses and emotional history, but somehow they led each other beyond those hard times.

Sanchez didn't think any of them had been aware of the process… and that's what it had been. A healing process. Even his and Nathan's old friendship was better for it. To have seen glimpses of the protective, brotherly Chris Larabee who Buck had held onto for so long, that was indeed a gift. But when he had watched JD Dunne absorb the best traits of his hero and his brother on his way to maturity, that had given the ex-preacher hope for the future.

That image couldn't help but lead the big man's thoughts back to how the enthusiastic young sheriff had tagged along with Buck and the Monahans from the moment the latter rode into town. He was wide-eyed and constantly smiling as he listened to Buck and Caleb's story-telling, reminiscing and all about the escapades they had pulled.

Buck acted like it was perfectly natural to have his young friend at his side. Caleb entertained JD with no doubt exaggerated epics that seemed to bring all the dime novels to life.

But the observant elder statesman of the Four Corner regulators couldn't help but seethe at the fact that Zach, himself, treated JD like a little house mutt trying to run with the hounds. Josiah knew Ezra saw it, too; saw that young Dunne would become more and more reckless as he tried to prove himself to Buck's mentor.

But Buck didn't see it. He just didn't. Wilmington, who usually, had a sixth sense regarding his young friend's mood and anything derogatory aimed in that direction, didn't realize Monahans had judged the smaller man and found him wanting.

The blue-eyed rogue's loyalty held a potentially damaging blind spot where the Elder Monahans was concerned.

But Larabee had seen it…

FOUR CORNERS TWO WEEKS AGO

...Sitting in the saloon, sharing a tepid beer and a moment of solitude with their leader and Standish, Josiah had been a bit surprised to see the young sheriff enter alone instead of tagging after Buck and Caleb.

But then Chris looked up at the boy with a question on his face.

“No new wanted posters." The youngest offered in response, "I knew I'd already taken care of them." The young lawman prided himself on shouldering the more bureaucratic peacekeeping responsibilities since he had kept the title.

Chris nodded. That was when Josiah realized that Larabee was thinking up busy work to keep JD away from the newcomers.

"Sit down and have a bite, JD." Vin suggested as he strolled in behind JD. Josiah got the impression that the tracker was keeping a protective watch on their hazel-eyed idealist. Long ago JD had learned he didn't have to prove his worth to his friends. But he seemed determined for Zach Monahans to see that he could hold his own. The others were just as determined that he didn't get hurt - physically or emotionally - in the process.

"Where's Buck? We waitin' for him?" JD asked as he plopped into a chair. He was full of nervous energy and seemed likely to pop right back up as soon as he was told where he could hook up with his best friend.

"He's still with Monahans and his men messin' with those buffalo. He'll eat in their time." Josiah couldn't place it, but something in Larabee's tone, that seemingly benign statement, held accusation.

“Makes sense, wanting to spend time with old friends passing through." JD rationalized.

Larabee held his tongue.

Tanner seemed to read volumes into the silence when he asked, “How long do you think they'll stay?"

"Until Monahans gets what he wants." There was even more accusation in those words.

“Perhaps we should wait. Join Mr. Monahans and the others in a meal." Ezra never looked up from his cards. "That might well supply an opportunity for Mr. Monahans to detail his agenda for us."

"We ain't lettin' that old man run things."

"Surely waiting to share a meal with Mr. Wilmington and his friends isn't ..."

“Do what you want." Larabee barked out the words, interrupting the southerner.

Ezra never raised his head, but cut his eyes toward the gunfighter.

“I think I might wait for Buck." JD muttered. Larabee looked up at him like he'd made the wrong decision.

JD was uncomfortable. It was like people were talking but not saying what they meant. He backed up to the door, hoping to see Buck and the others heading his way. That would solve the problem - at least the problem everyone was talking about. He also felt like he needed to stick close to Buck - so Buck wouldn't forget he was there. But he didn't understand where the feeling came from.

Back at the table, there was a momentary silence. Vin wouldn't break it. Josiah and Nathan weren't sure what to say. Something was wrong, but no one was really admitting to the fact. The undercurrents of what was going on were so subtle as to almost leave one wondering if they were imagined, not real.

Ezra, however, had learned from a pro that if you make Chris Larabee angry enough, he often supplied more information about what he was thinking than he intended to. “Mr. Larabee, I get the distinct and childish impression that we are being expected to choose sides in some pettiness. Now, as I am a bit old for 'Red Rover' or 'War', perhaps you can clarify for me what ..."

“Shut up, Standish."

“Oh, I think not." The smile that crept across his face was gauged to notch up the hostilities, “I dare say that every one of your considerable instincts is telling you not to leave those three alone together. And yet you do so."

Once Ezra had broken the ice, Josiah dove into the frigid conversation, "I think what Ezra is saying is that whatever is going on is already effecting more than just you and maybe Buck."

“Perhaps," Ezra purred," it has something to do with the telegraph you received from Judge Travis? The one you chose to share with Mr. Wilmington and not the rest of us?"

Chris had been willing to let Standish push him into an argument, much the way Buck did when he thought Larabee was getting bogged down in dark, personal thoughts. He hadn't expected any of them to know about the wire. The surprise and anxiety were written all over his usually controlled features.

You can tell us, Cowboy," Vin responded to the look. “Ain't nothin' can't be handled easier by all of us than just two."

Larabee studied the faces around him. Ezra had pushed the conversation toward an angry confrontation just long enough to twist it back to accusation in a way that had thrown the gunfighter off guard. And it had worked. His face had given away the fact that something was going on. But what Vin said was true. Maybe they could pull it off. Before he could decide, JD called from the front of the saloon. “You'd better come, Chris."

The boy's whole demeanor had changed. Where earlier he had been uncomfortable and uncertain because his friends seemed at odds, now his voice was full of awe and humor.

Larabee knew that tone in the young man's voice, as did the other regulators. It meant that Buck Wilmington was in the middle of some new escapade to entertain himself.

The side effects would be that JD Dunne would have a new goal to obtain to 'be one of the guys' and Nathan Jackson would be doing a mental inventory of his medical supplies. Vin Tanner would be a step closer to being shown that he could still claim the innocence and free spirit of childhood that had been denied him in his early years. Ezra Standish would be placing bets. Chris Larabee would be equal parts angry at the risks his friend took and pulled ever so slightly back from the darkness of the last three years; back to fun-loving days when Buck had to think fast to come up with shenanigans like these before Larabee did.

Josiah kept a step back and observed. Townspeople were migrating toward the livery. And JD had rushed forward to the corral next to the livery where a crowd had formed.

'Now, how did he do that?' Josiah pondered. Because, without any apparent haste, Ezra had arrived almost at the same time as their youngest. Josiah suspected part of the trickster's haste was due to the evolving bond between himself and their resident scoundrel. While Wilmington took it on himself to watch out for everyone else, Standish had decided to watch out for Buck.

Whatever was going on, it couldn't be too bad, Josiah surmised, as the gambler already had his small tablet out to record the wagers.

Josiah found Tanner sauntering along beside him and they shared the enjoyment of watching the antics and interactions of their colleagues.

Chris and Nathan still had a tendency to fret over repercussions, injuries and the status of the seven as peacekeepers in the community. So, like little twin thunderheads, they went in search of a parade to rain on.

The buffalo were powerful beasts. Their oversized heads sat on shoulders where a neck should be. They stank. They had yet to completely shed their winter coats, so clumps of russet, matted hair hung from otherwise chocolate brown hide.

Whether out of fear or anger, the animals could be deadly. Their hooves could cut like razors or shatter bone.

And everyone knew Buck had already found that fact held true for the stubby little horns as well. So what the holy hell was he doing sitting on top of one?

The crowd had split like the Red Sea as Chris Larabee and Nathan Jackson moved toward the center of attention. Most watched with amused anticipation, more than familiar with the dynamics, protectiveness, mischief, defiance and challenges that melded their band of peacekeepers.

Vin and Josiah arrived to the same sight that had their partners staring in disbelief. There were two long gates that opened into the corral from opposite ends. Those gates were now being used as makeshift squeeze boxes for the two biggest, angriest, meanest bull buffalo they had ever seen.

It took eight men on each gate to hold the animals in check.

'Funny', Josiah mused with a detached calmness, 'You can really tell how big those bison are from the perspective of two grown men, both well over six foot tall, being dwarfed by the size of the creatures as they gingerly lower themselves onto the buffaloes' backs.'

Caleb Monahans tried to find a comfortable seat on one animal's bare back.

Buck had to temporarily jump back on the fence as his chosen mount reared almost vertical at the human touch. He dropped down behind the massive hump as soon as all four of the bull's hooves touched the ground. He wrapped a heavy rope around his palm. The other end had somehow been tied around the buff's muzzle... just like the one Caleb roosted on.

“Ya know," The Texan drawled, " Chris is gonna kill ol' Buck for this if the buff don't."

“My thoughts exactly, Brother," Josiah agreed solemnly. Then they exchanged mischievous, anticipatory grins.

As soon as Buck found a perch, Zach Monahans, in the middle of the arena, dropped a red kerchief. The cowboys manning each gate pulled them away from the buffs and riders and used them to close off the corral.

Caleb's bull crow-hopped into the pen trying to jar its rider off. Then it shook like a stray dog after a rain.

Buck's buffalo spun away from the fence and didn't stop spinning, leaving Wilmington's head and shoulders in the air where the animal had been, not where it was going. They looked like a spinning top. The buffalo must have seen Buck out of its side vision, because he kept spinning as if trying to reach the human and get him off his back.

What seemed like hours, was more like three seconds. The crowd roared and cheered the men on. JD was already planning to be next. Nathan couldn't believe the risks these two were taking in the name of fun.

Vin couldn't tell what Chris was thinking.

Josiah noticed Ezra stopped making bets once the sport began, but not because there weren't more bets to be made. The ex-preacher saw again that curious protective streak that had taken hold of the gambler when he watched out for the ladies' man.

Caleb's buffalo was crafty. It knelt on its forelegs and began to roll onto its side. The younger Monahans leapt free of the bone crushing weight but the heavy rope remained tangled around his palm and wrist.

Buck's buffalo, still spinning, ran into the fence. The jarring stop sent Wilmington's torso from almost horizontal to the ground on one side of the animal, to ramming his shoulder, head and back against the fence on the opposite side in a jolting stop.

He felt the animal come out from under him as he recovered from the shock. Wilmington held onto the top rung of the fence and bicycled his legs looking for the lower slats that he knew were there. He found the foothold and used it to propel himself over the fence.

Strong hands grabbed his shoulders and legs and hurried him to safety as the buffalo charged and slammed into the timbers with gargantuan force.

Everyone took an involuntary step back from the blow. 'Ooohs, Damn's and shit's' accented various reactions at the close call and the power of the animal.

Larabee and Sanchez still had a secure hold on Wilmington who came up grinning in exhilaration.

Maybe all of eight seconds had passed since the gates had closed.

Buck was expecting a stern reprimand in the eyes of his oldest friend. Instead, Chris was stripping out of his duster and heading back toward the corral.

In a heartbeat Buck saw why and vaulted the top rail at the same time as his partner.

Josiah and Vin both had to hold JD back from joining them.

Caleb's hand was still snarled in the rope. It's short length kept him from getting leverage to work himself free. His face was pressed against the course, stinky hair. He could hear the heavy panting of the animal right in his ear. Caleb tried to get his feet under him to keep pace with the buffalo. It was impossible. His legs were dragging on the ground, in and out of the path of the onyx hooves. One hit him a glancing blow on his calf. Blood began to stain his black Levi's a shade darker.

Chris used his duster like a matador's cape. He and Buck had been to their share of Mexican rodeos - too many apparently, Larabee mused. The Spanish influence had included bullfights as a part of many of them. He dodged the massive animal as it focused on the moving cloth instead of him.

Buck grabbed the knife from his boot sheath. He tried, but couldn't keep up with the animal's speed, even within the confines of the corral. He also had a healthy respect for those horns when it shook them at any movement.

The second bull didn't help matters any. So far he'd kept his distance at the far end of the corral. But it was an ominous presence that could charge at any time.

The crowd had gone quiet as the entertainment turned to drama. Josiah still had a hand around JD's upper arm to keep him from going in. Vin was sitting on the top rail of the fence, ready to make his move as soon as his presence wouldn't be more distraction than help.

“Do something.” Chris growled at Buck.

“Stop playin' with the damn thing and slow it down!" Buck spat back with equal exasperation in his voice.

Chris was a little abashed to realize he had been toying with the animal once he realized the moves made by the toreadors did work. Finally Larabee spun away from the oversized head. He kept spinning, full circle and ended up close enough to physically drape the duster over the head and hold on for dear life.

He felt like he was attached to the business end of a battering ram on a collision course with the solid wall of the livery. But he held on. And, amazingly, the beast slowed down in its confusion.

Buck leapt at the taut rope and took a handhold. Both he and Caleb were dragged along until he could cut through the cord. They both rolled clear of the trampling hooves.

“Chris." Buck called. Larabee knew that tone of voice well enough to know it meant, 'All clear. Get the hell out of there.' He left the long coat over the buffalo's eyes and pushed off.

Chris landed in the dirt, scrambled to his feet and helped Buck get a limping Caleb toward safety.

The second buffalo decided it was brave enough to attack their retreating backs. The first buff quickly shook off the coat and made a last lunge at his targets. The double threat encouraged the three men over the fence in record time.

Pappy was ready to catch Caleb, help sit him on the ground and tend his injuries. Caleb and Buck, both pulling air into their burning lungs, met each other's eyes and started to choke on their laughter. They knew the looks that would be on the faces of Larabee and Pappy. Buck winked at Caleb when he finally looked up and saw that Chris was about to explode.

“What the Sam holy hell was that lame-brained, addle minded stunt ..." Buck wasn't looking at his old friend, but started laughing that much harder. "Are you loosing what little sense God gave you?" Larabee demanded

“Wh-who's goin' back after your coat?" Buck managed. He was trying to breathe, but the two bulls sniffing and rooting at the duster had struck him as too funny and he was choking on his own laughter.

The laughter was contagious. Caleb, JD, Ezra and Vin fell victim almost immediately. Josiah and Vin were laughing as much at how easily Buck could irritate their mutual friend.

Nathan, standing over Pappy, matched his evaluation of the younger Monahans' injuries with Pappy's diagnosis then cast an eye to the possible injuries on the other two overgrown kids.

Ezra went back to collecting bets, hiding any clues of his earlier protectiveness.

Josiah walked closer with JD who had reached a new level of hero-worship. The boy's whole walk, stance, facial expressions and goofy grin said, 'Look at me. Look at who my friends are.' The boy was living his dream.

“What the hell was that stunt?" Nathan finally bellowed through the laughter.

“None of my boys 're gonna lose today worryin' about tomorrow.” Zach boasted as he threw a fatherly arm across the shoulders of both Caleb and Buck. Buck glowed with the fatherly approval.

“You could have been killed." Nathan continued.

“Who wants to live forever?" Zach asked with a painful sincerity in his voice.

Nathan looked to Larabee for support. He knew the man didn't like the elder Monahans. He was beginning to understand why.

Buck met Chris's eyes. The gunfighter tried to hold a hard glare, but there was something else there. Unfortunately, Wilmington recognized it all too well and played on it. "You'd a been right there if you'd thought of it. What do ya say, Old Dog?” He challenged with a defiant smirk, “Think you can hold on to one of those buffs longer than me?"

“No!" Nathan demanded.

Chris tried to fight the feeling, but the reckless fun had been as contagious as the laughter. Years and tragedies melted away. Finally, with a sardonic smirk he looked back to Buck. "Squeeze 'em up."

A whoop went up from both JD and Vin. Ezra renewed his gambling. Nathan wondered if he was the only one that had the feeling that Larabee was competing with Zach Monahans. He wasn't. Josiah had seen it as well.

PRESENT

Kwai Chang Caine studied his friend and the other men around him. Each was lost in his own thoughts. He waited. The one to speak first, he knew, would be the one ready to initiate the healing process.

"A few days ago we were talking of going our separate ways. I guess we accomplished that. Even though we're still together." Josiah mused, not proud of the realization.

But Caine was proud of his student. Although it was not Josiah's role in this group to be a pivotal presence, he was a catalyst for most things good. Caine showed none of these thoughts as he stood over the seeker of the group. "If you ride together to feed one on the other's loss and pain ..." Josiah looked up, surprised at the statement. But Caine continued, "... no one will look toward the light. If together you will find no healing, separate. Offer those who can move beyond this their chance."

Sanchez met his mentor's eyes. His master rarely offered advice, and never with contempt. At first Josiah felt only a sad acceptance of these statements. Then there was anger at his own acceptance. Then came anger at the others.

Finally resolution shoved its way past the anger in the older man's eyes. 'It might end, by damn, but it won't end like this.'

And Caine smiled at the resolve, "Then show the others how to seek healing. How to seek the light."

Josiah was still feeling the effects of the rot gut he'd been drowning himself in. He levered himself to his feet and staggered over to hunker down in front of their bereft leader, "Look at us, Larabee, only thinking of ourselves. Nathan's worryin' himself sick over me and I don't care. Vin's losin' himself thinkin' the only way to reach you is how Buck would do it. And knowin' he ain't Buck. And JD? I fear we've already lost that boy. We're not doing any honor to Buck's memory and we won't give Ezra the strength to fight back..." he didn't get another word out.

Larabee slammed Josiah off of his haunches and flat onto his back. The embittered gunfighter towered over the supine man. "You son of a ..." His hands were like talons as they reached down for the older man. The red and orange of the reflected firelight played on his tightly drawn features.

Then the gunfighter in turn was shoved backwards. He staggered but didn't fall. He looked up to meet the determined blue gaze of the bounty hunter. For a moment the dim light darkened the blue to the midnight tint of Wilmington's and Larabee shuddered at the sensation that Buck was staring at him through the eyes of their mutual friend. It brought back a rush of memories and Chris froze in them for a brief moment.

"I haven't liked myself much lately, Larabee, seein' as how you've been treating people and I've been letting it happen. I haven't liked you much either. I want that to change. You want a fight? You fight me." Even the words were Buck's. And Larabee's reaction was the same. He charged his friend like a rampant bull. He landed on top of the tracker but not for long. Tanner scissored his legs and came over on top. They rolled completely across the campfire but neither noticed or felt it or cared.

Nathan, Josiah, even JD moved forward to break up the fight and protect the other two from each other and themselves. For a moment, wanting to stop the physical confrontation between two of their party reminded them of the camaraderie that they were sacrificing to the more raw emotions of the moment.

Caine stepped forward just enough to prevent interference.

Chris and Vin pulled apart and each scrambled to their feet. Larabee lunged at Tanner. His plan to drive his head into the tracker's belly was waylaid when the younger man knotted the fingers of both hands together as a club. He connected with the blond's left temple in a downward stroke that sent him sprawling.

Larabee pivoted 180 degrees on his side and used his boots to kick Vin's legs out from under him. The older man back-fisted his friend on the way down and landed on top of his adversary.

Nathan couldn't tell where the blows were landing or where the blood was coming from. But fists and knees were flying, stoked by anger and frustration that had gone too long without an outlet.

Neither man saw their truest friend at that moment. Both saw a target on which to release their baser emotions.

And yet, Nathan believed, he hoped and prayed that he saw some acknowledgement of that friendship in that neither had yet to go for a weapon, be it gun or knife or rock. And, for that reason alone, he allowed Caine to hold him back when he would have tired to break up the fight.

Larabee had a cut over his right eye and looked to be limping. Tanner was favoring the ribs on his right side. He had a bloody nose and both eyes were going black. They would both have their share of bruises and scrapes.

Tanner clipped Larabee on the jaw. The duster-clad leader of the seven staggered into the cavern wall. He seemed to be stunned by the blow and propped himself up against the cool, damp limestone.

The ex-bounty hunter moved in, slower now, as if some sanity was working its way through the bloodlust and he realized his friend might be hurt.

Larabee's feigned weakness lasted only long enough to lure the other man into his reach. Kicking out and knocking Tanner's feet out from under him, Chris tried to follow through with a paralyzing, stiff fingered jab at the man's Adam's apple.

A third body came into the fray and deflected the blow. Instead Larabee jammed the fingers of his gun-hand hard against Tanner's collarbone. Holding the damaged fingers, Larabee still moved in. Tanner was back on his feet and crouched, ready to meet the attack.

The body that filled the void between the two men shouted, "Stop it!" And it sounded Larabee-venomous and threatening. "Stop it," He repeated. This time it rang with Wilmington-concern for his friends. But it was JD Dunne's own fiery, angry eyes that darted one to the other, "We don't even know yet if we need one coffin or two, and you don't care. All you want is ... what?" The young sheriff didn't understand the violence these two men had inflicted upon each other. "We got friends we owe a lot to. You may want to die. I want to kill the men who did this. Then I'll figure what's next."

Vin Tanner had collapsed back on bent legs and pulled air into his burning lungs. He noticed Larabee was bent over with hands on his knees and spitting blood from split gums. Neither wanted to meet the eyes of each other or the rest of the men they shared this shelter with.

JD backed away from them and found a lone, dark corner.

So, Vin smirked to himself, he had come around to handling Chris Larabee just like Buck did, after all. Not as verbal, perhaps, but deflecting the anger from others onto himself, trying to reason with him and calling on their friendship.

And meeting him fist to fist when it came to it.

Vin wondered how much of their friendship he would have to sacrifice. He had always guessed, but now he could feel, how much Buck had been willing to give up to keep his friend alive. "It ain't just you this time, Cowboy. There ain't just one person watchin' your back and him be willin' to let it be all about you."

Vin walked away from Larabee and toward JD, but realized he didn't know what to say to their hurting friend. So he moved to a place that kept him distanced from everyone.

"What are we, that we have come to this?" Josiah asked.

"A dying breed?" Nathan quoted from Zach Monahans.

Vin Tanner flinched inwardly at the words. But he gave no outward response that could be read by his traveling companions - except, maybe, for the unnerving monk that Josiah seemed to respect so highly. Those agate eyes were observing him now. And while the facial expression was passive enough to rival Standish, those eyes emitted empathy like a physical embrace.

But no amount of compassion, emotional or physical, could help when it came to the heart of the matter. Were they the last remnants of a time that had come and gone? Did they really cause more harm than good by just being who they were? Had Zach Monahans been right? Were they a dying breed?

FOUR CORNERS, TWO WEEKS AGO

Zach, Pappy and Caleb joined their dinner table after all. Caleb, sitting beside Buck, had his arm in a sling to keep a dislocated shoulder from excess movement. Buck kept an eye on Caleb but wasn't obvious about it.

Nathan, watching his most recent patient, was again struck by how much the two men resembled each other.

And it was Buck's guarded protectiveness that got Vin Tanner's attention. Buck stayed close to Caleb, kept a watchful eye on him, but wasn't obvious about it. Zach didn't approve of molly coddling.

The observant blue eyes had never seen anything or anybody inhibit those nurturing instincts before. Not the gambler's reticence to form a bond, or even Larabee's displaced hostility. But just the presence of Zach Monahans had put a damper on their gentle rogue's nature. Did Monahans approval really mean that much to Buck?

The tracker continued to observe as the night progressed in high form. Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington were acting like teenagers - even though they were stiff, sore and bruised.

Ezra Standish was in high spirits. His pockets were full. He had bet long and hard the last few days, on the ever escalating competitiveness between Monahans, Wilmington and Larabee. "An admirable task you've put before yourself, Mr. Monahans, to bring an entire species back from the brink of extinction.” Standish drawled. The philanthropic act was at distinct odds with Ezra's read of the rancher. He had been sure this man would adhere to the 'survival of the fittest code' in man and beast.

Monahans smiled at the southerner, “It helps that the land I've set up is back east. Ain't hardly a soul back there seen buffalo, horned toads and the like. What I'll have is a Wild West Show with animals 'stead of men that need to be paid wages."

So there it was. Not some starry-eyed rescue project after all.

Larabee didn't look surprised at the statement. Vin seemed disappointed that helping the animals survive balanced on the profit it could turn. He still felt guilty over his part in the diminishing of the majestic herds.

Standish couldn't help but admire such an entrepreneurial mind. Nope, couldn't fault the man for originality. Ezra raised his shot glass in a toast, " To a job well done.”

Zach Monahans stood up, steadied himself against the impressive amount of alcohol he had already downed, and continued his own toast, "'To the buffalo, a dying breed. Like the gunfighter, the buffalo hunter, any man who would practice a profession without a piece of paper to say he knows what he's doing ..." Zach was drunk, "There'll be barbed wire sectionin' off the plains, towns so big they smother the land and railroads will scar the wilderness. And we'll all be gone."

The big rancher took a great draught from the bottle of red eye in front of him and continued, "Hell, already, men like you bring more harm to this town than you protect. Young bantam roosters who want to make their names off of your gunfighter reputations?” He eyed Buck and Chris, "Or the bounty on your head," he said to Vin, “a black man who dares to ride equal with these others? The war be damned," He threw in as an aside, "  A gambler? Hell that's as bad to these Puritans as a man who thinks to hold a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other. What town needs the Larabee gang anymore?"

Vin silently slammed back his whiskey with a bitterness that reflected back from Monahans. There was also moodiness there. The words had touched a cord; even moreso since Nathan had so recently been injured by a man gunning for the price on his own head. Chris Larabee watched his younger friend and added to his list another reason he hated Zach Monahans.

“To the buffalo.” Zach slurred again, “a dying breed, like all of us. I can save the buffalo."

PRESENT

Josiah's thoughts were drawn back to the dank outcrop where they had taken shelter by a hesitant voice.

"Are we a dying breed?" JD asked, sharing the same memory. The boy's eyes were wide in the flickering light. The pupils seemed even wider as they searched the dim campfire for answers, for hope. It was the first hint of the old JD they'd seen in four days. Josiah was afraid to speak, afraid to say the wrong thing and drive the youth again away and the angry young man would return.

"The man who protects those who need protecting... who stands up to odds, who dreams... who seeks adventure and answers to questions? Who has learned to search within himself?" Caine spoke almost as if to himself, "that is indeed a breed of man. Whether the buffalo disappear or survive, or civilized men no longer wear their guns for all to see... that 'breed', that spirit, will have people who need protecting and odds to fight and dreams - and always, always a new generation to teach that spirit to." Caine looked around the campfire and met each man's eyes as if trying to tell them something. "The laws of nature will have it no other way."

The youngest's eyes searched the others, wanting help to believe what the stranger was saying.

"JD, what Monahans said? He was talkin' about one man at a time, on his own." Vin tried to put his beliefs, at least his hopes, into words, "He didn't count on us all stickin' together." Vin wanted to believe what he was saying as much as he wanted JD to believe.

For a short moment JD's anger seemed to ebb. Liquid hazel eyes met blue topaz. But then the grief and anger again won out, "But we can't stick together anymore, can we?" His eyes flickered almost accusingly toward Larabee. "And we'll never know if we tried hard enough when we had the chance. Will we?" And he walked away to be alone.

Chris hadn't missed the look from the young man. Josiah was headed toward their leader again. But the battle-honed senses felt no venom, only friendship and support in Josiah's demeanor as he moved closer to Chris. The older man nodded toward JD. "Chris, the boy needs help."

Chris's eyes fogged over at Josiah's words. "He has to ask for it." And that thought threw him back to memories of the recent past; memories he was drinking himself into a stupor to avoid.

For a while things had been so very good. Oh, not Sarah-and-Adam-and-family good, Chris acknowledged to himself. It had been a feeling from before that time, a feeling before Chris Larabee knew the paralyzing hurt of losing a family. It had been more like the Larabee-and-Wilmington-riding-hell-bent-for-leather-into-mischief kind of good. Part of it had come from Chris being able to see himself and Buck both through the eyes of their other friends. Part of it had come from nearly losing his friends and knowing what richness they added to his life. And then Zach had shown back up.

The man was pompous and egotistical. When he was drunk, he was moody and opinionated. But for most of that night, Buck and Caleb had kept him in line…

FOUR CORNERS, TWO WEEKS AGO

Caleb was too much like Buck not to like him, even though his personality was muted some by being raised almost exclusively by the anti-social Zach. Pappy was a good man.

Nathan could tell that Larabee admired Pappy's salt-of-the-earth philosophy. And the loyalty that held him beside Monahans? Even if he found it misplaced, the infamous gunfighter admired that, too. Both Caleb and Buck had benefited from the bespectacled old codger's influence over the years. And Chris benefited from it. Buck had learned his lessons in loyalty from somewhere. And the three, Caleb, Pappy and Zach, came as a package. Nathan suspected that was the only reason that Larabee suffered Zach at the table as well.

Chris, for his part, feeling mellowed by the whiskey and generous in regards to his opinion of Monahans, had indeed allowed Zach, Caleb and Pappy to join their table. But he knew he would regret it. He figured that if he kept his brain lubricated with enough whiskey, he'd make it through the night without an altercation. He leaned forward toward one of the bottles on the table to continue doing just that and could have sworn he heard his achy bones creak.

Vin overly obligingly and blatantly limber, moved first and pushed the mug into Larabee's hand. One could almost hear the soft Texas drawl tease, 'Here, old man, let me give you a hand.' The blue eyes bubbled with amusement. Larabee shot him razors with one glance. The whole interaction had the rest of the table laughing again.

Jackson raised a defiant eyebrow as he watched. " Three out of five?” He railed again. "Three out of five?! You ain't gettin' no sympathy from me. You're lucky to be alive."

“Might as well put a saddle on them buffs. You done broke 'em" Vin smiled, and for him it was the same as an outright chuckle.

"I'd already had a ride.” Wilmington protested. They'd heard it as much today as they'd heard Nathan tell the men how crazy they were. " I say we're tied. 3-3."

"You're first ride? Should've given you the edge. You'd had more practice." Larabee grinned with his standard response.

"I hear Ezra over there has bets on which of us'll be the most stove up come mornin'. Odds are way in my favor.” Wilmington continued. Standish just smiled and thumped his tally sheet with a forefinger.

“Don't mock your elders, Thomas Adam.” Zach admonished. Even this he was able to make sound like an attack against Larabee. "Besides, I think the bets are who'll be more stove up tonight.” Monahans thumbed through several paper dollars, apparently his winnings.

“Why's ever'one call you Buck if your name's Thomas Adam?" JD asked with wide-open, eager curiosity.

Ezra noticed that Chris flinched imperceptibly at the question. The gambler raised a mental eyebrow.

It was Zach Monahans, again melancholy and drinking hard, who answered before Buck could. His speech was slurred and heavy. "That gangly little son-of-a-whore, growing up alone? His Ma did right by him in a lot of ways, but when it came to bein' a man? Shootin'? Fightin'? Ways a man should think? Hell, he wouldn't've been worth a buck. A Buck, get it? Not if I hadn't taught him ever'thing he knows. Ain't that right, son?" Zach crowed.

Buck grinned his acknowledgement around the beer mug he raised to his lips. It angered Standish that he saw in Buck no more than sincere agreement with that maligning statement.

Ezra glanced over and saw an old, deep, silent anger stewing in Larabee's green eyes. He realized it was his own anger reflected back at him. 'So,' he thought, with no little amusement, 'Mr. Larabee and I do have something in common. I understand now why he doesn't like Mr. Monahans. And I agree with him.'

The others were stunned to momentary silence by the statement. JD was clearly trying to work out in his mind if he had really heard the slander and hadn't taken the statement wrong somehow. Ezra saw Buck slowly realize something had dampened the atmosphere. Buck would be embarrassed to realize how his friends received Zach's statement so he started to change the subject.

Before either Ezra or JD could respond, Monahans continued. " And I did a damn good job.” There was no little amount of pride in the statement. That paternal pride is the only thing Buck heard; not the derogatory words.

“But it's all for nothing, son, no matter how hard you try," Zach began repeating his old theme the way a melancholy drunk was want to do. " A dying breed." He staggered to his feet, to again toast his morose predictions, "Our time has come and gone. The best we can hope for is to go out in a blaze of glory." He turned to Caleb and Buck who were standing side-by-side waiting to catch the elder Monahans when he passed out. " That's the best I could give to you, Caleb... Thomas Adam."

“Hell, I'd be happy goin' out in my old age, in bed, surrounded by friends and family." Buck offered to lighten the atmosphere.

Caleb closed his eyes in a grimace. He knew what was coming.

Zach looked angrily at Buck. "That's a dream, son. I'm talkin' reality and plain truths. Friends,” He said the word as if it were a curse. " There ain't a one of 'em'll be around if they see you turning to them for help or bein' needy."

'Needy.' The word tore through Larabee when he remembered it was just the word his old "'friend"' Clay Kestrel had used against Buck to hold him at arm's length from the others. Kestrel had used it in an attempt to destroy the bond of the Seven. Larabee wasn't sure that Monahans wasn't doing the same thing. But the dark gunfighter knew that he hated the word 'needy'".

“That ain't true!" JD protested immediately. But his words were overridden by Buck as he grabbed Zach's arm, "C'mon, Zach, let's get you to bed.” Buck had seen Chris's eyes go from hazel to the deep green of a riled bobcat and knew it was time to separate the two men. Before Chris could get to his feet, Buck and Caleb had both taken an arm and thrown it over their strong shoulders.

Buck and Caleb poured Zach out of the bar and away from the others who weren't used to his melancholy, gloom and doom meanderings when he got drunk. They nodded understandingly and patiently as they listened to the older man's predictions.

JD made to follow, but Chris held him back. The young man turned to his hero. “Why did you let him say those things? That we ain't Buck's friends?"

“The man's a ..." Larabee growled in reference to Zach Monahans. "From the time Buck was five to the time he was old enough for Monahans to stick a gun in his hand and teach him how to use it, he's told him 'you'll only have friends so long as you laugh, have a good time, stand by them and never, never ask them for anything.' Buck don't think you ain't a good friend, JD. He thinks the world of you. He just never lets himself think on how you feel about him."

"Buck knows we're his friends, JD." Nathan almost demanded that it be a fact.

"He ever ask you for help?" Chris tossed back matter-of-factly.

"He knows he can.” Nathan sounded like he was trying to convince himself. Because, in fact, when Buck had once asked for his help, even though it was on behalf of Standish, hadn't he turned away?

“Nathan's patched him up as many times as any of us. More, maybe."

“Mr. Monahans is not talking about physical impairment. He was telling the boy that a man never shows weakness.” Ezra again realized how much he had in common with his best friend. He marveled at how differently the two had responded to similar upbringings. Larabee was going to have to move fast to punish Monahans for what he'd embedded in the psyche of that small five-year-old boy. 'No, by damn,' Standish noted to himself, 'Mr. Larabee had his chance. Now, it's my turn.'

“If Buck believed that, why doesn't he care if we show 'weakness'?" JD threw back defiantly. He was also afraid that he had somehow appeared less in his best friend's eyes by turning to him in troubled times; by confiding in him.

“Because Buck's Buck no matter what that empty shell of a man tried to turn him into.” Larabee asserted in one of the rare moments he allowed others to see what Wilmington's friendship meant to him.

“No offense, Chris, but the man 'pears to truly believe what he says. He was just teachin' a young 'un how he learned to survive." Josiah observed. He didn't like it, but he, better than anyone else knew how the raising of the father could control how he raised his son. And there was no doubt that Zach was Buck's father in his heart, if not of his blood. And Josiah wasn't sure, from looking at the resemblance between Buck and Caleb, that both weren't true.

“Mr. Larabee, did Mr. Wilmington ever defy Mr. Monahans teachings and dare ask you for help?” Rzra asked with a deep, growling challenge.

Larabee threw back the last of his whiskey and left without answering.

PRESENT

Larabee growled under his breath as he remembered Standish's question. He watch JD draw further away from them, "Son of a bitch."

Josiah realized in this moment of clarity the only time he remembered hearing Larabee use that curse was spur of the moment and out of earshot of Buck. And now Josiah knew why. Larabee knew a 'Son of a Bitch' and he was the finest man he'd ever met. Until he had lost that example, he wouldn't use the invective in its negative connotation.

"Chris, the boy …" Josiah repeated.

Larabee finally met Josiah's eyes, "He has to ask for help, Josiah. He has to know he can ask. Otherwise it don't mean a thing." There was such a profound sadness in the gunslinger's voice.

Larabee couldn't put it into words, but, on a gut level, he knew there was a difference between asking for help and having it offered. More, he had lived it.

If someone volunteered to watch your back? Well, that was their decision, their problem, their weakness.

But to ask for help, to say, 'I need you', opened the person who spoke those words up to too much obligation; too many chances to be turned away.

There was always the threat that the gossamer illusion of where you stood among your friends would evaporate. And the truth would be you weren't worthy of friendship and everyone knew it.

Larabee anticipated the worst because of experience; what he had become after his wife and son died.

Buck lived by the philosophy because some rotten, bitter, self-centered rich man had sought to control the boy, the teen and the man. Zach Monahans had taken a gentle, good-hearted, rare soul, and seeded self-doubt that continued to thrive no matter how friends and circumstances tried to weed it out.

Josiah's eyes followed Larabee's as they tracked the boy moving away.

To ask for help for others. To ask for help for yourself. To think you're worthy of help. To think you're not. Help on a professional level when bullets are flying; help on a personal level when your heart is heavy or your confidence needs to be buttressed. Until Zach Monahans had ridden into their lives, Josiah never realized there was so much difference.

And now, completely unintentionally, unaware of what he'd done, Buck had somehow infused the beginnings of this way of thinking into JD.

'Ask for help, JD. Ask for help.' Sanchez's thoughts, screamed to the boy. But no louder than Chris's own silent plea.

Help, something so much easier to offer than to accept.

The elder of the regulators decided the least he could do was be close enough to hear if any of them asked for it.

Josiah moved past Vin and gave the young tracker a reassuring pat on the back in passing.

Where Tanner had kept his distance, Josiah moved in and put a strong arm around the shoulders of their youngest. Dunne flinched. Sanchez responded by drawing him into a tighter embrace in his big arms. JD tensed, tried to pull away, but finally gave in to the comfort.

There was a heavy silence, each man lost in thoughts that they were fighting against rather than growing out of.

"Is there a heaven?" The boy finally asked in a small voice. 'Oh, God.' Josiah's mind raced. There it was, the asking for help, for comfort, for answers. And Josiah didn't know what to say.

"Yes." The conviction with which Vin Tanner gave the answer drew everyone's attention.

"How can you sound so sure?" JD asked. He wanted to believe, but was afraid that the confidence he heard was only the tracker's misplaced desire to offer false comfort. And it showed in the bitterness of his voice. "What about Chris's wife and son? What about my Ma? And all the massacres you've seen? And the war? Or any war? How can God let that happen?"

"I think all of that proves there is a heaven." Vin countered. JD trusted the Texan and waited for him to say more. Tanner tried to put his conviction into words, "I guess God could get so many people in the same place because it was all their time to go." JD nodded. "But I think what it really means is that heaven's a pretty great place. Gettin' there's fearful, 'cause it's unknown. Gettin' there's sometimes painful. But it's worth it. I think heaven is the good thing on the other side of death."

"Or so many people would never die at once. It'd be one or two here and there when God said it was their time." JD offered, trying to make sure that he understood.

"Maybe." Vin offered.

JD looked up to Josiah for confirmation. "Maybe." The big preacher offered, but with hope in his voice.

When Vin spoke again, it was with his eyes locked with Larabee's. "That's why I'd tried to put away my gun before we met. Don't want my Ma or any of the others lookin' down and not be proud of what they see."

JD withdrew even more. As much as he wanted to be reassured, he was also troubled. What would his Ma or Buck think, lookin' down on him right now? "How do we know if we're goin' to heaven?" The question was directed at the former bounty hunter.

"That's part of what makes it so scary, thinkin' we ain't gonna make the cut. But I reckon, if you look at yourself through the eyes of your friends, and by the friends you keep, you get a better picture of your real chances."

"Thought on this a lot, Vin?" Josiah asked with pure admiration in his tone.

"Oh, yeah, Preacher, I think on it a lot."

"You are a light that leads us, Brother," The taller man replied solemnly, and took the man's hand in both of his, a gesture of warm friendship. The gratitude and pride in his eyes warmed Tanner as little else ever could.

"Thanks, Vin." JD gave Josiah a sad but beholden half smile as well. It said, at least for the moment, the boy had something besides hate in his heart. The smaller man felt the warmth of the Preacher's embrace relax as he moved away to ponder what level of comfort the words truly held for him. But the big hand that lingered on the slight shoulder as long as his reach would permit, told the boy sheriff that the same strong support would be there when he needed it again.

Nathan nodded and smiled his admiration at the interaction of his friends. Caine was proud of the young man in the scraggly buffalo skin coat. Only Larabee seemed unaffected. He met Tanner's eyes, then turned and walked away.

Vin, feeling the continued exclusion from the man he thought would always be at his side, moved resolutely outside of the shelter. The rain had stopped. It was muggy but already the stars were breaking through the clouds. He thought better when he was alone.

Chris Larabee had heard Tanner's words and, like a lifeline, they had begun to pull him back from the dark places he had been. Both the voice he recognized as that of a friend and the meaning of the words drew him back. Then the voice of his friend stopped.

The voice and words had been enough when they flowed over him, but there was silence now. And he was pulled back into the whirlpool of memories that churned around him and wouldn't let him break free. For the first time in days, he had sensed gentle waters and a safe haven beyond the eddy, but when the voice was gone, he wasn't strong enough to swim through his regrets and losses. Even more, they warped and distorted all the good that had recently gone before.

Of course heaven was a good place, he brooded. They all deserved that eventually. Because hell was on earth. Why should JD have all these strong men rally around him and convince him he deserved friends when Buck - even younger, even more innocent, bore those teachings alone and undefended and took them to heart? If hell wasn't on earth, why did it hurt so much to be left behind by those you loved?

No, hell was on earth. And he was still here as punishment.

Larabee frowned at the silhouettes thrown on the back wall of their shelter. They seemed to move of their own volition as if they were ghosts of the recent past. The soft voices behind him gave way to different voices... different times ...

FOUR CORNERS, TWO WEEKS AGO

“Vin's thinkin' on ridin' out." Larabee growled, bypassing any social niceties and blindsiding his old friend with the embittered accusation.

The ever-genial Buck, just entering the saloon, and thinking to pull up a chair with the two friends, instead stiffened. He could tell by the tone that Zach was being blamed for something, " What? Why, Vin?"

"I'd already been thinkin' on it.” Vin said in his soft voice. The blame wasn't on Zach. " We bring more trouble into this town, lookin' for one or the other of us than we head off."

“Hell, Vin, don't go listenin' to Zach when he's drunk. He don't mean nothin' by what he says. Ain't that right, Chris? You know how he gets."

"If Vin rides out, I'm ridin' out with him.” The look on Buck's face made it clear he'd heard Chris' dismissal of the new and renewed friendships of the last three years.

“Aw, hell, ain't nobody ridin' nowhere…"

“Seems the town's getting' a might crowded,” Larabee didn't look up from the amber liquid swirling in his shot glass when he spoke.

:Hell, Chris,” This wasn't about Vin anymore. The tracker could feel it. " The boys'll only be here a few days. Now we were havin' a hell of a good time just yesterday.” Buck's voice refused to plead, refused to ask his oldest friend to have a little patience. Refused to ask for a favor. It was more demanding than anything; demanding that Chris Larabee see that he was being unreasonable.

"That was before it was either he leaves or Vin does."

Before Tanner could protest that statement, Wilmington did it for him, "Now, I'm bettin' that's not how your 'best friend' put that at all."

“Maybe not. Maybe Monahans reminds me how different we are, you and me."

And Buck smiled. It was a full grin, and it reached his eyes. His body language was relaxed. Only the absent nodding of his head told Larabee, from experience, that his oldest friend was going to react badly. The gesture, as if acknowledging an untenable situation and resigning himself to it as well, was more dangerous than the scalawag's quicksilver temper.

The nod continued as Wilmington looked around the saloon, unwilling to meet the looks of either man. When he finally met Larabee's eyes, his own were black with disappointment and anger, "I'm glad for you, Old Dog, that you can choose between your friends so easy. I'd have a little harder time if it was me, seein's how Nathan's risked so much to patch you up, and JD thinks you hung the moon and... aw, to hell with it." His long strides had carried him almost to the swinging doors before he stopped. He didn't turn completely around, only his profile was presented to the men still at the table, " Don't be thinkin' you can make me make the same choice. You won't like the answer."

Tanner had been trying to listen beyond the words being said. There was something almost rehearsed in the things being said, but even deeper, there seemed to be a bitterness that neither of the two old friends had expected to find in the argument. But how could they have not known how the words would hurt? He thought that Buck planned to go back to his room and drink alone. But, almost as if it had been planned, Zach led Caleb and Pappy through the doors at just that moment, and ushered his protégé along with them to a back table. Zach very well could have heard the whole thing. Vin watched Chris watch the four move across the floor.

Buck had told Chris not to make him choose between friends. The ex-bounty hunter, the reader of men, couldn't help thinking that the dark gunslinger may have just made the choice for Buck.

PRESENT

'God, what did I do?' Larabee thought to himself, remembering the altercation and Vin's look of puzzlement, but also sharp scrutiny.

But, damn it, part of that falling out, part of how everything turned out in the end, had been Buck's fault, too, Chris rationalized as he drank from the almost empty bottle and watched the shadows against the grotto wall. I knew he was loyal to his friends, but this was a dance we'd done many times over the years. It was partially Buck's fault that this time, he changed the steps.

'Damn it. Damn it to hell.'

The flames of the campfire refused to die down. The shadows, outlined by orange and yellow light, demanded the dark gunfighter's attention. Not the firelight, but the shadows' seductiveness called him. They matched his heart at the moment. What could he have done differently? And, if he did all he could, why did he feel so much guilt?

PAST FOUR CORNERS

The problem, perhaps, lies in the fact that Mr. Larabee regrets that, in the past, he has helped prove Mr. Monahans theory?" Ezra threw that one out as a challenge.

“I don't run out on my friends."

“No, Mr. Larabee, you don't run out on your friends. You walk away. You turned your back and walk away.” This was Standish's own old, festering sore spot with the gunfighter.

PRESENT

'You didn't understand, Ezra,' Larabee thought defensively. 'And who the hell did you think you were? Did you think you could get through walls I'd been beating on for fourteen years?'

PAST FOUR CORNERS

Ezra came through the batwing doors and stood beside Buck who was deep in contemplation on the boardwalk. "Do you really believe that?” Ezra drawled to Buck around his cigarillo.

“What?” Buck asked, genuinely confused.

"Mr. Monahans sermonizations about friendship, or the lack thereof?"

Buck started to laugh. "No."

The gambler insisted, "Do not laugh this off. Do you believe what that man just said to you?"

Buck said " No.” But his body and eyes screamed, 'Yes.' " Never ran into the situation." 'Never allowed myself to run into the situation.' Ezra translated the truth as easily as if those were the words that had been spoken.

“Mr. Wilmington,” a resigned sigh filled the small space, "what will it take to open your eyes to what you refuse to admit?"

“Buy me a drink?” The rogue offered, begging to let the conversation drop.

"I shall do just that. And you shall get drunk enough, before I do, to discuss this issue with me.” The gambler made it sound like a challenge.

“Is there a bet in there somewhere?” Buck threw back with a more sincere smile.

“Bet. I do love the sound of that word.” A full grin and gold tooth flashed in the minimal light where they stood outside the saloon doors.

They moved off then, with every intention of getting falling down drunk. They never saw the lean, duster clad figure that materialized out of the shadows and watched them - and never knew that he intercepted Zach Monahans as the rancher tried to catch up to them.

PRESENT

Larabee knew Standish was exercising all of his gambler's instincts and conman's charm to get their mutual friend to exorcise some ghosts. It was ironic that the Southerner's otherwise disreputable talents might very well be what reached Wilmington. Chris remembered he hadn't minded the trickster using his techniques on his oldest friend, because he had no doubt the motives were sincere.

Had he, himself, ever thought to just get Buck sloshed and ask him about his past? Buck had used similar methods on the despondent widower.

Partly jealous of the gambler, partially thankful for him, Larabee wondered if it would have worked and Buckmight have talked to him. Some conversations weren't meant to be overheard. But others? Those, he knew, had been meant to rile him.

Larabee tried to drown out the voices…

PAST FOUR CORNERS

"So what's next, Mr. Monahans?” Standish asked, “Npw that you've acquired the buffalo to start your herd, I suspect you'll be moving on? Will you escort them and see them released in their new home?"

"Nope, not my style. I need the hunt.” He turned to Buck. "I heard about that Clay Kestrel fella and your run-in with him. I figure I owe him something for what he did to you. Got a lead on him Taos way. You wanna ride with us?"

Chris and Ezra shouted “No,” At the same time.

PRESENT

Larabee gazed at the shadows through strands of dirty blond hair. The shadows were just shadows again. But the memories and voices continued to circle around him.

PAST FOUR CORNERS

“You got your new pups,” Zach nodded at Vin and JD. “Thems what you kicked Buck over for. You think he should feel honored you even let him stick around?"

“It ain't like that, Zach,” Buck demanded, “Stop tryin' to goad Chris. You know he won't back down."

PRESENT

Larabee was bordering on alcohol poisoning but the tolerance his body had been forced to attain kept him not only alive, but painfully conscious. The memories swirled together and were disjointed, out of order, in Chris' inebriated state they came faster and faster …

PAST FOUR CORNERS

“I like doin' for folks.” Buck stated simply.

“That's because you know how it feels when no one helped you. Except me. Except Zach Monahans. When I was there, I was by your side.”

PRESENT

Larabee shook his head as much as the throbbing pain behind his temples would allow.

PAST FOUR CORNERS

“I don't make no choices for the boy. Never have.” Zach crowed to Larabee.

*****

"Buck ain't goin' with you."

*** **

"You can't tell me what to do, Old Dog. We been there already.”

*****

“You leave town. Now. You and yours.” Larabee demanded of Zach. The malicious smirk which that demand garnered told Larabee that was exactly what Monahans planned to do.

PRESENT

Larabee tried to block out the memories, but still they forced their way into his mind.

PAST FOUR CORNERS

"I hope you can be the kinda friend he needs right now,” Buck said sincerely. “Good luck to ya, Vin. I think you're gonna need it. Just give him time and space until this is over."

@@@@@@@

“You're not waitin' for JD to get back?" Josiah asked with a touch of accusation.

“Best not. Him ridin' with Zach? It ain't the best thing."

“Don't feel right,” Josiah continued to push, "You should talk to the boy before you go."

“Zach ain't waitin'.

"If Monahans is the friend you believe him to be, he'll let you explain to that youngster why you're leaving."

“Now don't you start soundin' like Chris. Zach says he's got a hot trail on Clay. There's no time to wait."

"If Chris believed that, we'd all be riding out after that Satan's spawn with you."

Buck looked like he had an explanation and was about to share it. But, at the last minute, he just said, "JD and Nathan won't be back from that prisoner transfer in time. I'll explain things to him later. It'll all come out in the wash, Preacher.” Buck smiled, "Trust Ol' Buck,” He added with a wink. And Sanchez could almost believe it was true.

PRESENT

But all the fragments of past events gave way to painful detail in the end. And there was nothing Larabee could do to shut them out.

PAST FOUR CORNERS

"Zach Monahans will put you in a spot then not be there when you need him. You'll be alone and on your own.” Larabee growled, indifferent to the fact that the man and his son were sitting across the table from him.

“When he's gone, he's gone.” Buck admitted to some of the accusation. There was a long pause as the kind hearted rogue fought with himself as to whether or not to finish the thought. "How many times have I sat across a table from you just like this one and still been alone and on my own?"

"I never asked you to sit across from me!"' Chris meant he never asked, at 'those times'. On those dark days after his wife and son died, when he knew he couldn't live up to what Buck thought friendship was. When he knew that he was going to prove everything Zach Monahans said was true. Buck was supposed to know what he meant.

Buck spoke. And he was smiling. This time the smile didn't reach his eyes. “Maybe that's the difference. When Zach's here, he does want me to sit across from him."

"That's not what I meant and you know it."

"I thought we'd settled this, Chris,” he glanced around the table where their friends and Monahans' clan watched the confrontation. The midnight blue eyes were demanding the hazel-gone-angry-green eyes staring back at him to remember some secret they shared that couldn't be revealed.

Monahans sat right there, reveling in the dissention he caused between those two.

"That's changed.” Larabee bit, “You're not going after Kestrel with him."

Buck stood, as if trying to get a grip on something that wasn't quite there. “That's not what this is about. You know that. This is important. To me."

“You choosin' Monahans over what you've got here? You won't be comin' back."

Buck's eyes drilled Larabee; trying to tell him something he felt, for some reason, he couldn't say out loud. Larabee was intentionally ignoring him.

'Damn,' Josiah thought. What were those two talking around? Because neither man was saying what he really meant. Why was Buck so disappointed? Why was Chris pissed? What were they hiding? The big preacher's mind touched again on the mysterious telegram. But it was too late.

"It feels kinda funny. Kinda empty. But stayin'? It just don't seem that important right now.” He wasn't smiling when he turned and walked out followed by Zach and Caleb and Pappy.

PRESENT

The memories flooded over Chris. He threw the empty whiskey bottle and it shattered noisily into the fire. The result was that the fire flared and the shadows danced again like living things. He staggered back until he found the wall of the grotto for support. Even then he barely kept his feet.

Everyone jumped at the sharp crash and Chris' dangerous anger. That man was fighting personal demons only he could see. Each of his friends started toward him then hesitated, not because they wouldn't do anything to help him, but because they didn't know what to do or how to reach him or what they could say that wouldn't do more harm than good.

"Paul said we are never closer to God than when we are angry with him." The regulators' preacher said, mostly to himself.

"Maybe I should go try to find Vin, maybe he can talk..." Nathan flinched involuntarily when he turned and realized Caine had appeared silently beside them, "Damn, and I thought Vin was creepy the way he could sneak up on you." Nathan tried to joke.

"The anger could burn him out." Josiah said, "All of 'em. They don't rest or eat or sleep…"

"As if you're any better." Nathan muttered.

"I'm getting there, brother." Josiah allowed, and his appreciation for his friend's concern came through in each word.

Caine took some leaves from his pack and handed them to Nathan. Looking at the coffee pot, a little confused, Caine raised his eyes toward Jackson. "Could yo... steep these in his ... coffee?"

"Me?" The healer asked suspiciously as he sniffed at the herbs he didn't recognize and tried to place the musty, grassy odor. He couldn't understand why the man was so hesitant and seemingly confused.

Josiah laughed, the first full laugh in days. "Don't worry, Nathan. I'm sure they're safe. As competent as Master Caine is in most things, he's never been able to make a good pot of coffee. It still mystifies him." Josiah laughed even harder at Nathan's dumbfounded expression.

Kwai Chang Caine shrugged one shoulder in his self-effacing way, almost giving in to a hint of embarrassment over his secret revealed.

Nathan was still holding the leaves as Caine moved toward Larabee.

Caine stood over Larabee and seemed to study the man. Both Josiah and Nathan wondered what he saw. Then without preamble, he struck at the heart of the dark gunslinger's conflict, "To learn from the past is to show wisdom. To live in the past is to disrespect their memories."

The words were meant to incite. They worked. Larabee rushed him with no less hesitation than he had so recently charged his best friend. Caine was out of the way before the lightning reflexes of the gunfighter could reach him.

"How are you hurt if you tell someone you care? Or that you hurt?" Larabee's eyes turned sea green the way they did when he allowed uncontrolled emotions to drive him. His hair hung in long, dirty-blond strands in front of his face. "How are you hurt if you do not tell them?" He didn't like the compassion in the man's eyes any more than he liked the words he was hearing, but the blows he had struck against Tanner and Sanchez already left him drained physically and, more, emotionally. He fell to his knees and back against an outcropping, exhausted and still more than a little drunk.

"Don't need you soundin' like Josiah." Larabee grumbled at the strange, serene man, "Don't rightly have the give-a-shit to figure on it when the Preacher spits it out. Sure don't want to hear it from a some stranger."

Caine took a lotus position beside the man who was such a mirror opposite from himself. The Shaolin produced a two-inch long, triangular cut of glass and fingered it idly until it had the attention of the leader of the seven.

The wise man spoke as if the new conversation were completely disconnected from the events of the day, "Have you ever thought, why anger serves no purpose?" He seemed to contemplate the glass in his hand. When he was sure he was being watched, Caine continued, "Perhaps it is because it really does not exist. Perhaps it is a disguise for other feelings that could serve a purpose." With that statement, Caine held the piece of glass just so. The result was a rainbow of colors reflected on the cave wall.

Josiah recognized the prism and understood its properties, the way it could refract light. But he couldn't help but wonder how the Shaolin Master could get the colors so clear, in the dim light supplied by the campfire. He had thought that a prism needed bright, pure, clean sunlight to work. But then, looking closer, there was a somewhat ominous darkness to the colors. Josiah felt a chill run down his back. He got the distinct feeling that, somehow, the mystic was channeling Larabee's own emotions to reinforce the light. Despite the fact that Josiah trusted Kwai Chang Caine implicitly, that kind of power and control was a dangerous thing.

"Hidden within the light that surrounds us, are found all of these colors." Even as Larabee was wrapping his mind around the concept, Caine continued, "What would we find hidden within the anger that surrounds you?"

The Shaolin watched closely as loss, hurt, jealousy, disappointment, fear, hate and a myriad of other emotions flittered across the strong, but lost, chiseled face. The emotions were each as clear and separate as the fragments of color that danced on the rock. Larabee's features softened in contemplation. Only the vaguest of lines at the corners of his eyes hinted at the deep thought behind the silence.

Josiah appeared at Caine's side and handed him a cup of the herb-laced coffee. Caine in turn offered it to Chris Larabee. The man in black, so reticent and unwilling to trust, took the cup as if it were a peace pipe and sipped it.

With a slight nod that acknowledged the mutual respect that was growing, Caine steered Josiah away from the other man without another word. He then took a second cup that was proffered by Josiah over to JD and offered it to the youngest of this group he found himself riding with.

JD had taken in the conversation and watched this stranger among them with suspicion. He took the coffee but made it clear he needed nothing else the other man could offer. "Don't need no talkin' to. I ain't like Chris. I don't want to die. I want to kill the men who did this. Then I'll figure out what's next." It had become the boy's mantra. It kept him going. Focusing on this goal kept him from thinking about anything else.

Caine bowed his head slightly and did not grant the statement a response as he returned to the preacher and the healer. "You sure that stuff's safe?" Nathan asked as he noticed that Larabee was already nodding off.

"They will sleep and there will be no nightmares. There will be no aftereffects in the morning." Caine assured the concerned healer.

"No grogginess? No hangover feeling?" Nathan asked dubiously.

Caine acknowledged the truth of the statement with a nod.

Nathan still looked as if he were not convinced it were possible.

"I could... show you?" The herbalist offered. He immediately saw the interest in learning something new glint in the dark man's eyes.

But before he could respond, Nathan thought of something else, "You gonna make Josiah down some of that?" Nathan asked.

"His is a different kind of rage. It must be handled in a different way." He turned his moss agate eyes to Josiah, "Tell me Josiah Sanchez, what do you feel now?"

"Nothing."

"Then we will work on that."

Josiah nodded in agreement to his master.

Nathan Jackson wasn't surprised when he awoke the next morning and saw that several members of their party were already out of the shelter. Strong, unbridled emotions left Vin Tanner feeling just as claustrophobic as did enclosed spaces.

As Josiah and Kwai Chang Caine were both missing, the healer suspected they were together. Nathan rubbed his eyes and face briskly trying to come awake. He could smell coffee already made and it encouraged him to slowly make it to his feet as the bones and muscles came alive after sleeping on the hard ground.

The former slave poured the strong brew into a battered cup, he noticed that something outside held their leader's attention; something JD Dunne was trying to ignore.

Nathan made his way over there with some trepidation. What else could happen?

Even finding himself by the notorious gunfighter's side, the gentle healer wasn't sure of what he was seeing.

The golden fingers of dawn stretched through the oranges and pinks of the leftover clouds from the night before. Against this background, the silhouettes of their three missing comrades swayed gracefully in a series of synchronized moves.

Vin Tanner had learned and understood the symbolism of the dance from The People. The dance of The People told the story of man's place with the land. Those steps were faster, wilder, like the hunt or war or thanksgiving. This dance, this Tai Chi, as Caine called it, was slower, focused, like nature herself. He felt the eagle's flight as his arms rose above his head; the puma's stealth as he moved his weight to his back leg; the praying mantis' patience when his hands curled in a vague imitation of the creature's triangular head. Strong, but controlled, he had never felt more at one with nature.

He picked up the moves as if they were a natural sequence; only a heartbeat behind those of Josiah and Caine. Those two were more graceful than anyone could suspect as they relaxed and meditated with the motion.

JD turned back to ready the horses; refusing to watch the hypnotic moves. He didn't want to slow down.

Chris met Nathan's eyes as he turned back inside the grotto. Together they began to pack their gear.

Chris Larabee wanted to be angry at Vin and Josiah. But when he tried, he realized he was thankful that they had been able to find tranquility beyond the dark emotions of the last days.

Then he was angry at himself for begrudging them that peace. But he couldn't get it out of his mind that he wasn't angry at himself, he was lonely. He missed the friends that weren't with him and he missed the ones who were right there and he had pushed away. He hurt for JD who didn't know what he was feeling.

Tranquility? Loss? Compassion? They weren't emotions that Chris Larabee usually associated with himself; at least in recent years. But there they were. And where was the anger? What had that strange little man and his oddly shaped piece of glass done to him and his way of thinking?

As always aware of his surroundings, the gunfighter vaguely noticed when young Dunne went out to hitch up the horses. Danger honed instincts kicked in and the hairs on his arm stood up a split second before he heard several handguns and rifles being cocked.

Larabee kept his horse between himself and the entrance to the shallow cave. He saw eight men scattered above and around the opening. The weapons were aimed at JD who stood spread legged and relaxed, his fingers flexing inches from his twin six-shooters. Larabee was glad he couldn't see the boy's face. He didn't like looking in a mirror.

Nathan was edged against the far side of the entrance, poised and ready.

"The rest of you boys in there toss your weapons and follow 'em out." A strong voice rang.

"Who the hell are you?" Larabee called back, more irritated and protective than cornered.

"Sheriff Langstrom. Carlsbad. Been trackin' some highwaymen."

"Ya didn't track 'em here." The leader of the seven growled. Where the hell were Tanner and Sanchez?

"Lost 'em in the storm." Langstrom conceded, "This is on a straight path where they were headed."

"Put your guns down." Nathan tried to mediate, "We'll get this straightened out."

"Men we're huntin' hit a wagon train. Took anything of worth, had the women and killed three men in cold blood." Langstrom's voice was full of righteous indignation.

The sound of two more guns being cocked was like a lightning bolt in the silence that followed. A round from Vin's mare's leg spewed a geyser of mica and silt at the feet of the sheriff. "Reckon if we were the men you're trackin', you'd all be dead about now," the Texan drawled.

"Drop your guns, Son," Josiah followed in a cajoling voice. Another near miss from Tanner's weapon of choice emphasized the suggestion.

Finally the sheriff complied. His men followed suit.

The tracker sauntered in among the posse, collecting their guns. He idly tossed them into a prickly pear patch in a nearby gully. The spread of cactus was almost as wide as the wagon they were traveling with and stood three feet tall in some places.

"Chris Larabee." The man in black walked up to the sheriff and identified himself but didn't offer to shake hands. And his tone of voice was anything but friendly. "We're the peacekeepers in Four Corners."

"Heard two of you 'peacekeepers' were gunned down robbin' a bank in Taos." The sheriff spat.

"You're a gawdamn liar!" JD screamed as he lunged at the lawman. He made the conscious decision that he wanted the satisfaction of beating on the man instead of using his guns.

Josiah grabbed the boy by the waist and lifted him off the ground. His legs and arms continued to bicycle in an effort to reach his target.

Tanner and Jackson came to full alert lest this distraction give the posse the idea of rushing them. None of the posse were willing to take on the conviction they saw in these men's eyes.

"You. Heard. Wrong." Larabee's voice vibrated with the restraint it took to control his emotions.

"Heard you gunned down a man in cold blood in Soccorro. He was an eye witness to that hold up. Coulda proved you boys were involved."

"You heard wrong." Larabee repeated coldly.

"You got a death wish, Pard?" Tanner asked as he drifted past the lawman. He eyed him curiously, "You gotta be tetched in the head to poke at a rattler like that."

"Do you... believe Mr. Larabee killed that man in Soccorro?" Caine asked humbly. He knew the sheriff was embarrassed that these men got the drop on him and was posturing in reaction to the perceived humiliation.

"Damn straight." Langstrom straightened to his full frame in defiance as he said the words.

"Then... he could not have attacked the wagon. He could not be in two places at once?" He ended the statement as if it were a question, giving the sheriff the chance to agree and save face.

Langstrom tried to find some trick in the reasoning.

Caine pulled his satchel from his shoulder and offered it to the sheriff. "We have nothing to hide." He offered it to be searched. "You may... see for yourselves."

"The hell they can..." Chris began.

Josiah, still with a death grip on JD, moved to their leader's side. "Chris. All these accusations. Something's going on. It can't hurt to have these men know we're innocent."

"They can damn well take my word."

Josiah remained silent, allowing the gunfighter to work through the equation himself to its logical conclusion. There was a new calm within Josiah as if he had learned a secret - or remembered something long forgotten. It was almost contagious. Larabee could feel it.

"You got 'til we get packed." Larabee snapped and moved back to saddle his horse.

As the posse cautiously rifled their personal belongings, Caine appeared at Nathan's side. "I sense a fresh guilt in that one." He referred to Chris, "Something from the recent past."

"There was more going on than Zach Monahans coming to Four Corners. Even more than his wanting to go after Kestrel." Nathan conceded. "As if that weren't enough." He added as an afterthought.

"There was that telegram." Josiah mused outloud the thoughts he had kept to himself the night before.

Nathan snapped his fingers at the memory, "Never knew what it said." Larabee had received a telegram from Judge Travis not long after Monahans arrived.

"He showed it to Buck." Josiah added.

"Thinkin' back on it, wasn't that when things really got bad between them?" Nathan tried to recall the sequence of events, to see if they held some clue to what was festering inside their leader.

Jackson had to concede that guilt and moodiness weren't particularly new to the notorious gunfighter. That wire had placed an additional burden on the man. There were fresh wounds on that one's heart. The guilt and anger were like salt being rubbed into those wounds.

Josiah was right about something, too. Something else, something bigger, was going on here. And for the time being, it might very well fall to the Healer and the Preacher to find out what it was.

Nathan's dark eyes relayed this realization to the crystal blue eyes of his friend, only to see that Sanchez had reached the same conclusion. Well, they made a good team. They could bear the load until their friends healed enough to carry their share of the weight. It felt good to have the tall, comfortable presence by his side.

Josiah nodded his own appreciation of the rock solid partnership. The security of Nathan there to watch his back, no matter what, added to Caine reintroducing him to the old teachings, helped him find a place within himself to start seeing things clearly.

One of the things Josiah knew, was that they were onto something with the telegram. But he could only remember bits and pieces of the confrontations between Buck and Chris. It wasn't that unusual for those two to go off on each other. Usually it didn't mean anything. But, at the same time, he recalled that Ezra had refused to stay out of it. Once again the ex-priest suspected that Standish knew more than he let on. A lot of talk had been going on where no one else could hear.

Josiah regretted, now, that he had shrugged it off to the predictable squabblings of those two when Larabee got over-protective of his oldest friend and didn't know how to say it. Oh, yes, Josiah had come to recognize, over the months and years, that Chris and Buck's verbal sniping held an undercurrent of affection and protectiveness no less real than the mother hen approach Wilmington used on JD. Unfortunately, with Larabee, it came out as anger.

Then, finally, Josiah remembered watching a stubborn Buck finally ride out with Zach and Caleb and Pappy in the cold gray pre-dawn that matched the mood.

The two had separated on bad terms because Larabee had taken one part of the friendship for granted. Josiah had seen that, too. The one who tried to forced Wilmington to choose between friends would always lose with the big hearted man. Larabee believed he was immune against that one tenet that ran true through Buck Wilmington - never make him choose between friends.

It wasn't really fair to place all of the blame on Chris, Josiah acknowledged. He suspected that, for the longest time, Wilmington had thought Larabee was immune, too. Until they both found Four Corners and became a part of the Seven.

The first time Josiah had notice all of this was when Larabee's impatience threatened to drive Standish away.

Ezra. That damned infuriating enigma. He'd seen it, too. He hadn't ridden out with Monahans' company. When had he hooked up with them? Josiah choked back an ironic, mocking laugh. Buck had left town while JD was on a prisoner transfer to avoid that confrontation and to keep JD from trying to go with him. The preacher wished he could have seen the look on Buck's face and to have heard the back and forth when Ezra proved to be just as tenacious as their youngest in watching out for the rogue.

The elder of the seven felt his thoughts pulled back to the present when he saw Vin Tanner awkwardly approach his best friend. The tracker would be a lifeline or a noose for the gunfighter. It all depended on whether, when the dust settled, the somber shootist grasped the true value of the friendship and held on, or felt it tighten around him like guilt and the fear of losing someone else.

The ex-bounty hunter was fumbling with something in his hand when he arrived at Larabee's side. Neither spoke. Chris laid his hands on the fender of his saddle and finally turned to face the other man head on. "I get pretty low sometimes. You're not careful, I'll drag you down with me." It was as close to an apology as he had in him.

"I reckon we all know that current's too strong for one man. I'm thinkin' it was too strong for two. But five? Six if we're lucky? If we're all willing to help and be helped, I think we can make it through."

"Ezra and Buck. So much alike. Maybe why me and that southern cuss butted heads so much. I wasn't ready to deal with two friends who thought friendship was the damn answer for everything."

"I think maybe you treated him just like you do Buck. But Ezra didn't understand you like he did." Tanner's blue eyes added that he understood the moody loner who suddenly found he had attachments. The topaz eyes also said they were proud to call him friend.

"What you were didn't matter to either of them. What you'll be tomorrow didn't matter. Not if you were their friend."

"Both of 'em keep their past locked up tighter than a virgin's knees." Tanner dared to lighten the mood a bit, even though it was clear he was nervous about something. "Maybe they don't want to be judged by their past, so they don't judge?" The tracker's voice said he also lived by that philosophy.

Larabee felt it on a gut level - he and Vin were using Buck and Ezra to come to terms with their own feelings as well, "Hell, Vin, I ain't sure what I feel. If I was maybe I could ... if someone could understand ..."

Vin rolled and unrolled the parchment between his fingers. He'd worried it until it was almost cloth soft. He hoped he hadn't rubbed the ink off in his nervousness. He hesitated, then continued, "Josiah's friend put this to pen for me last night. I was thinkin' on you and me when Eli Joe ... then Ezra and me. Then Josiah and Ezra. Buck and you, Nathan and Ezra, hell, at the end, even JD and Buck, considerin' Buck's a bigger kid than that boy sometimes. You ain't alone, Cowboy." The ex-bounty hunter handed the ratty paper to his friend and quickly moved away.

They had both forgotten about the men who were finishing up searching their belongings.

The writing was faded by Vin's wearing at it. The paper was crinkled and smudged. Larabee moved into the sunlight to make out the words.

You're my friend, Amigo Mio

Two who could be one.

Did you know how much I need you?

True friend, kid brother, favorite son?

I saw you share my highest highs

Yet not the suicidal lows.

You let me live my daily lies

Taught me the debt that lifestyle owes.

Where are you now, Amigo Mio?

Have I lost you for all time?

Can't your memory still stay with me?

To guide my life in pantomime?

Until I find the middle road

You always said was there.

The road between making the bars

And mistaking cigar smoke for air.

Companion to champions, or champion

You were one, the other was I

It takes a man like you to truly live

A man like me to watch you die.

The penmanship was neat and precise. But, scrawled below in a hand like that of a child learning to write, were the words, "I understand".

Vin had written it before they talked. "I understand".

Chris Larabee felt a vise around his heart. He crumpled the paper in his hand and tried to breathe. He could feel, in every word, the grief that Vin was enduring alone. Vin and JD and the others, mourning in silence, because Chris Larabee couldn't see beyond his own hurt. Again.

He saw some kind of symbolism in the fact that he had come into the sunlight to read these lines rather than stay in the shadows of the cavern. They had all lost something inestimable. But there was much more to lose if they weren't careful. Whatever had changed, however it had changed, Chris Larabee wasn't losing anything or anyone else. He knew that's what Buck would want and what Ezra was going to need.

There was something else Buck would want. Larabee looked over to where Josiah had a beefy hand dwarfing each of JD's shoulders. The big man was talking fast and hard. He wasn't getting anywhere against the walls the smaller man had put up almost like physical things.

How many times had good ol' Buck, good natured, patient Buck; irritating, stubborn Buck, fought walls just like those when they surrounded Larabee? Chris took a deep breath and headed toward the youngest and oldest of his men.

"JD," The tone drew the big, hazel eyes to him, "Buck wouldn't want…"

"To hell with what Buck would want!" Dunne exploded.

It wasn't what any of them expected. Larabee tried again, "Look, son, I know how you feel…"

"You don't know anything! The great Chris Larabee. Do you know how it feels to try to live up to you? Do you know what it feels like to be me?"

Chris Larabee almost - almost - took a step back as the young man moved into the gunfighter's personal space.

"Chris Larabee." JD spat, "Zach Monahans. You're… I don't know… bigger than life. What's it like to have someone like Buck willing to come and go because of you? What's it like to be that important to a friend?" The eyes were pleading, the body was tense with anger, the voice was despondent.

"JD, stop it." Larabee demanded; trying to cut off the words. He didn't want to hear this, "You don't know what you're talking about."

"I know that! I don't know! I thought I knew. Buck…" He seemed to deflate, "I thought we were friends. He promised me – he promised - he wouldn't just leave me behind 'for my own good'. Then Zach rides in and it's no decision at all whether to stay or go …"

"JD," Nathan started with his most gentling voice.

"To hell with it. To hell with you." He couldn't put into words what he was feeling, so the boy sheriff shoved between Josiah and Chris. He shouldered Nathan and one of the Carlsbad deputies out of his way.

"JD," Larabee's voice was icy and demanding.

It didn't slow JD Dunne at all. He bounded onto his horse, jerked the with uncharactereistic roughness and spurred the roan out of the cave.

"JD!" Larabee called again.

The boy never looked back.

Their leader watched the pony disappear. The expression on his face clearly indicating that he was processing new information.

Vin didn't hesitate and headed for his own horse to follow JD. The soothing voice of Caine stopped him, "Give the young one this time. He cannot yet find peace in your words or your presence."

The part of Vin that was the bounty hunter, the reader of men, started to protest. Before he could find the words, the Shaolin continued, "He travels the same path as you."

Somehow all who heard the words knew that they referred to much more than the trail to Taos.

Then Chris seemed to come back to them and met each ones eyes, "Buck and Ezra didn't leave. They were coming back." He had just realized that JD thought the rogue and the conman had left for good, and that the others might very well think the same thing. "There was a telegram…"

PAST FOUR CORNERS

“What is this!" Buck Wilmington demanded as he waved the telegraph flimsy in front of his old friend.

“I think it's pretty clear.” Chris replied around the cigarillo gripped between his teeth. There was just a hint of self-satisfaction in the voice.

“Well, it's bullshit."

“The Judge has a reliable source that says Zach's behind those bank robberies."

“Zach has more money than Texas has cactus. Why would he rob banks?” Buck was more angry than anything. This couldn't be true and Larabee was bordering on going too far to even entertain the idea.

“The fact is he was in every town within a week of the robbery.” Larabee remained irritatingly matter-of-fact about the accusations.

“You want to see the worst in him so bad, you aren't even makin' sense." Wilmington growled, “Why would he rob banks?” He repeated defiantly.

“Because he can.” Larabee moved in on his friend, "Because he's bored, or because a bank somewhere pissed him off. He thinks he's too big and too important and too rich to need a better reason."

“You're wrong.” It was flat, and emotionless. Larabee should have realized that this was Wilmington at his most dangerous.

“Prove it," The older man replied with an indifferent shrug as if he were asking no more of his friend than to walk outside and check the weather. " The judge thinks you're the only one who's close enough to Monahans to start riding with him and be let in on his plans."

Buck closed his eyes then, and became real still. It hurt that Chris wouldn't even give Zach the benefit of the doubt. Even if he thought Zach was capable of those things, what about Caleb and Pappy? He was getting real tired of Larabee and Monahans sniping at each other. When the cobalt blues opened again, they immediately locked onto the hazel ones. Resolution erased any hint of friendship at that moment. " I'll ride with him. But it's to prove you're wrong. And when the next bank is hit and I'm sittin' in a bar somewhere with Zach, we'll be back here and you're gonna apologize to him for what you're thinkin'."

Chris ignored the loyalty to Zach in his friend's statement and proceeded with a plan of action. "I figure he'll believe you ridin' out with him easier if it looks like you and me had a fallin' out."

"It ain't gonna be too hard to convince folks of that, Larabee.” And without a backward glance, Monahans protégé went to find his mentor, preferring his company at the moment to that of the gunfighter.

PRESENT

"Buck's one condition was that you boys not know about the accusations." Chris finished his story, "He didn't want you 'thinkin' poorly of Monahans 'cuz of some lowlife lies.' Soon as Kestrel's name came up, I tried to call the whole thing off. But Buck was too damn hardheaded. Thought he had to prove Monahans was innocent." Larabee rubbed his temples, brow and eyes, as if he were so very tired and filled with regrets. "The best I could do was tell Ezra what was going on and trust him to con his way into going with them."

"Weren't nobody would've done more to watch Buck's back better than that damn southern cuss …" Nathan had meant it to be comforting. Too late, he realized that he had insinuated Ezra was more loyal to the ladies' man than Larabee. And he couldn't take the words back.

Nathan suspected that there had been too many truths and old, bitter hurts dredged up between the two friends by the words they had had to say to make their little charade sound realistic. And Buck leaving the way he did, angry and disappointed, had to bring back memories that Larabee wished he could have drowned out with the alcohol. The healer regretted that what he had said probably added to their leader's guilt.

Vin wished he could take some of the guilt from his friend's shoulders. He thought back on the arguments between Larabee and Wilmington which, at the time, had sounded so hostile. There had, indeed, been much more unspoken than spoken in the words. "Chris, what happene… the shooting … it was during a bank robbery." The tired, sunken eyes of his friend said that he would find no solace in being proven right. The cost had been too high.

But Josiah's analytical mind had latched onto something even more bothersome, "Chris?" He voiced hesitantly. When Larabee looked up, Josiah took it as leave to continue, "Who would know how tight Zach and Buck were? Who could have told Travis to use Buck against Zach?" The gunfighter met the crystal blue eyes of the Preacher, but didn't have an answer.

Sheriff Langstrom interrupted when he approached to say they had finished their search. Begrudgingly he had to admit they found nothing.

Josiah handed Habanero's reins to Chris. Larabee smiled a small thank you - for everything - and mounted. He didn't give Sheriff Langstrom a backward glance. He wasn't worth the time.

He caught up with Vin, scouting a few yards ahead. Their eyes met, and that was enough. The understanding between them was back. And Chris realized how much he had missed it.

They would be in Taos before the day was up. What was it Vin had said? That it was a current they would all have to fight together?

The infamous shootist followed his best friend's eyes to the solitary figure of their youngest. They would have to hold on tight to keep that one from drowning.

@@@@@@@

Taos, New Mexico, was bigger than Four Corners. The main street was cobblestone. Clapboard buildings boasted booming businesses from dry goods to leatherworks. There were several hotels and boarding houses. Nathan Jackson wondered how long it would be before Four Corners grew to this size. And he wondered which of his friends would run from the civilization. Vin Tanner, fidgety already with the size of their town, would certainly need something exceptionally strong to keep him around. Josiah would also become uncomfortable and be tempted to drift away. Chris would undoubtedly leave, probably with Vin, unless he found not only a home, but some healing balm for old hurts. JD? Well, he could grow up with the town.

Nathan, himself, had worked hard for the trust and respect he found in Four Corners. He thought he would have stayed until that changed. Well, change had come, but not with the growth of the community, but from little tendrils of friendship and support, of understanding and belonging, that seven men had unconsciously sent out and entangled themselves, one among the others.

That damn Southerner, as opposite as could be from Nathan; and the ladies' man, whose quick temper and tomcattin' ways went against Nathan's high moral raising. Those two would enjoy a big city most. God, he missed them, the balance they added to the others, and the part of himself he had lost with Buck and would lose if it were too late to save Ezra. He glanced at his old friend, and knew Josiah harbored the irrational guilt that he should have said something or done something to prevent this.

To Josiah Sanchez, the town was like all others, nothing but buildings and streets until someone within the city limits became special to him. That's what made a town a home. He ran his thumb across the telegraph flimsy in his pocket. He didn't know why he'd kept it. He didn't need a physical reminder. That day was branded into his mind.

It happened almost two weeks after Buck had ridden out with Zach Monahans. It had taken two days to dispel any doubts that Ezra Standish had finagled a way to accompany them.

Josiah threw himself into the work on the church as a gesture of thanksgiving when things went well. And, as then, for penance when they didn't.

He remembered watching from the roof of the church, as JD wandered aimlessly toward the jail.

He remembered how the boy had seemed willing enough to accept that Buck had ridden out with Monahans until he learned that his friend hadn't said when he was coming back or if he was coming back. Then one of them - Josiah couldn't remember who - had let it slip that they had gone to track down Clay Kestrel.

JD had wanted to know why they would let Buck and Ezra ride out alone to hunt the man. To JD's way of thinking, if the seven weren't watching each others backs, they were alone. None of them had had a good answer to the kids fears. Josiah still couldn't answer that one. Oh, if he wanted to, Larabee might be able to rationalize that he let them leave because that was the only way to prove whether or not Zach Monahans was robbing banks. But the dark gunfighter didn't want absolution. As for the others? Why had they let the men leave? It had just ... happened…

PAST FOUR CORNERS

“You think it helps that Ezra went, too? Kestrel hates him as much as he hates Buck." JD demanded.

“They won't find Kestrel.” Larabee replied with the timbre of a rattlesnake threatening someone who had stepped into its personal space. The words also held a certainty as if Larabee knew something the others didn't.

“No?” JD spat back, hearing only their leader's words and not the undercurrent beneath them, "Well, what if it's like last time and he finds them?"

JD turned on his heel and left the saloon.

Now, as he headed for the jail, he resolutely ignored the telegraph office. For the first week, JD had checked for a wire as much as three times a day. After that, he made it a point of avoiding the place. And he was avoiding Chris Larabee, except to try to pick a fight with him, even as, day after day, he took on more and more of the traits of his deadly hero.

The man behind the legend spent his days much as he always did. Nothing had obviously changed. But Vin Tanner had found himself in the uncomfortable role of diffusing many situations his moody friend was willing to let explode.

The Preacher made his way to the saloon doors and started back toward the church and the solace he found in making those repairs.

He saw Pete, the telegraph operator, run into the street, skid to a stop, watch JD enter the jail, then he eyed the saloon uneasily. Finally the mild mannered man saw Josiah and his route was decided for him.

The trepidation with which the little man approached told Josiah there was no good news on the piece of paper he carried. The sympathy in Pete's eyes, and the way he scurried off after making his delivery, had the preacher holding the thing, wishing it would go away for long moments before he finally forced himself to open it.

Josiah Sanchez knew that the friendship he enjoyed with Chris Larabee was borne of mutual respect and mutual understanding. He read the telegram and knew it was a Vin Tanner kind of friendship the gunfighter would need now. It would take a best friend to get him through this.

Josiah read the telegram to the tracker. He hadn't wanted the younger man to have to absorb the meaning of the words slowly as he deciphered the letters. He would never forget the look of loss and grief on Vin Tanner's face when he had heard the words. He had never seen that young man shutter himself off and try so hard not to lose himself in an anger that was more familiar resting on Larabee's shoulders.

The tracker walked into the dark shadows of the saloon where Larabee was already nursing hard liquor. Josiah stayed at his side in silent support. That uncommon, silent communication the two shared had betrayed the younger man. As soon as the gunfighter had looked up into the blue eyes, he knew. He grabbed the telegraph that Tanner was worrying between his fingers and read it before anyone could prepare him:

Buck Wilmington killed attempting bank robbery, Taos,

New Mexico. STOP Ezra Standish gravely wounded.

STOP Request warrants and wants for subjects. STOP

Notify of other suspected crimes. FULL STOP

While reading the words, the legend reverted, all too easily, to the deadly specter he had been when they first met. Any hint of a friend who would ride a buffalo or fish for mermaids was gone.

Josiah went to the small rooms above the livery and told Nathan about the contents of the wire. He was again amazed at the amount of compassion in the ex-slave. To have lost so much in his life, it was amazing to see the depth of despair those dark eyes were still capable of upon being told their worst fears were realized.

Without lessening the moment with words, as any words would sound superficial, Nathan somberly took a bottle of whiskey from a shelf, poured two shots, and shared a toast to absent friends.

Josiah stared into the empty glass. Nathan took in the dusty street outside of his window and was surprised how normal things looked as the town folk went about their business. He poured each glass full again, to steel themselves for the task they knew would fall to them.

The two big men entered the jail to find JD cleaning guns. Busy work. He glanced up, read the expressions on his older friends' faces, and went back to cleaning.

"JD," Josiah began.

The sheriff ignored him.

“You know, son, Buck was very proud of you."

There was no response.

“Can you look at me, Son?” The preacher knew that he had to make some sort of contact with the innocence that was slipping away before his eyes.

Dunne didn't hesitate to meet the request. But Josiah didn't recognize the eyes staring back at him,

“He's dead." The boy said as if he finally had to hear it out loud for it to be true.

"I'm so sorry."

“Ezra?” He continued, refusing to be consoled; denying he needed it.

“He's hurt." Nathan admitted, “He'll need us."

“Monahans?" The easterner bit out.

“We don't know."

JD nodded to himself in resignation of a bitter truth he could no longer deny. He didn't even realize he'd picked up that trait from Wilmington.

The young man stood up slowly. There was a space of a heartbeat. Then another. Then the calm before the storm broke. JD used his forearm and swept all the dismantled parts of the gun off the desk with enough fury that they hit the far wall. One of his dime novels, resting on the corner, flittered to the floor.

He picked up the rifle stock and slammed the weapon against the bars on the window before either of the other men in the room could make a move. He threw the chair into the bars of the cell. Both Nathan and Josiah reached out. He twisted from them like a feral cat. His face was flushed, his eyes were dead. His long bangs hung down like hellish black talons. The hair quaked slightly; the first indication that his entire body was trembling, “Don't touch me."

“JD, this isn't the way to handle…"

“Don't touch me. Don't talk to me. Don't tell me how to be. Don't tell me things will be alright.” He was teetering. He might well draw on the men if they gave him a chance.

The lost boy sidled toward the door without turning his back on the others. His eyes caught the paperback on the floor. Picking it up slowly, he methodically tore out one page, placed it carefully in the fire of the pot bellied stove and waited for it to turn to ashes before he took the next page and let it burn.

Nathan and Josiah stood behind the boy, bypassing their own grief to try to be a comforting presence where one wasn't welcome.

JD ignored them and slowly burned the source and symbolism of his idealism and dreams. It was a ceremony he used to exorcise all the emotions that had allowed him to be abandoned like this or hurt like this or to lose so much.

Vin stayed at the table with Larabee that night, but no words were spoken.

PRESENT

Nope, the Preacher thought, he didn't need the ratty piece of paper in his pocket to remind him of that day

They caught up with JD on the outskirts of town. He was off the saddle, and talking to his pony as he stroked the silken nose. No doubt he was apologizing for the earlier rough treatment. There was a sad air around the boy as if he thought the horse was his only friend. He hadn't entered the town. And the others could see why. The undertaker's place was right there. The placard was easily read even from this distance.

And that was that. No more time to try and pretend things were different.

JD knew Nathan was staring at him. He tried to look at ease and detached. The best he could manage was to stare forward and be still. He'd gotten a sudden chill, his mouth was dry, and darkness was leaching into his vision until it was focused on nothing but the door of that establishment.

He knew that he had mounted up when the others arrived and followed them into town. They would do this without him if he wanted it, but he couldn't allow that.

He was nauseous. The roar in his head sounded like a tornado. He didn't know how long he fought to get the noise under control, or what was said during that time, but when he finally realized they were in town, the first thing he heard as it abated was Josiah asking a passerby if he had heard anything about a bank robbery a few days back. Had he heard anything about one of the men being wounded?

"Guns... all... blood everywhere… poor bastard…" Even though JD could only pick up every few words, he could tell the man wanted to go into full, gory detail of the event.

Larabee, dark and threatening, strode up and towered over the man, shutting him up, "Where's the wounded man?"

The local swallowed hard and gave up his commentary in lieu of the basic facts. The big white house at the far end of town. The one with the big wrap-around porches on both floors. By the time he worked up the nerve to volunteer more information, he had lost his audience. "Those strange foreigners 're protectin' him." But no one heard him.

Josiah, Vin and Nathan proceeded on toward the house. Nathan was anxious to see how badly Ezra was hurt. Hurt, yes, but alive. It was the first tremor of hope that had run through his body in three days. Vin and Josiah felt the same way, but they understood that their other friends must lay ghosts to rest before they could help the living.

As Josiah urged the team forward, Vin and Nathan fell in with the slow moving wagon as it kept pace with the foot, horse, wagon and buggy traffic that already crowded the main street.

Chris and JD stood beneath the undertaker's sign. They could have been strangers.

Chris broke the silence, "He'll rest with Sarah and Adam. That's the way it should be. The way it's always been."

"Too bad you didn't figure that out while he was still alive." JD responded with a lifeless, uncaring quality to his voice. He was finally pretty sure his body wouldn't betray him and so he strode defiantly through the business' doors, alone, and never looked back.

Larabee lingered. There would be no comforting words between them. He would give the boy some time alone.

@@@@@@@

The gunfighter didn't know how much time had passed before he finally made his way into the establishment. The thick, red velvet drapes with gold bunting and subdued candlelight attempted to offer some refinement and reverence to the setting. Without a glance, Larabee was through the room and entering the door leading to the back rooms.

JD stood, hat in hand, in the muted light. He was staring into one of the simple pine coffins. The room was stifling, motionless. The air itself felt dead. The little proprietor was trying to look consolatory, but was finding it difficult. He looked a little afraid. The air of danger that would occasionally radiate from young Dunne when his friends were threatened, had, in moments of intensity, been able to rival that of Chris Larabee himself. When had that air of danger settled over him like a mantle and become a natural part of who he was?

Larabee regretted what JD was becoming. Even now, when the boy should be lost and seeking strength from his friends, he simply stood and stared.

Thinking his young friend was in shock, reality painfully setting in, Chris moved forward to rest a hand across the stiff shoulders.

He finally found himself in the position to view his oldest friend.

He hoped the features would be at peace.

He hoped he could do this.

His hand never reached JD's shoulder.

He froze. For two heartbeats... three.

Then he was running out of the building and to his horse.

This broke the hypnotic trance that held JD Dunne and he was only a step behind the older man.

Larabee raced his black down the street. People scurried out of his path. He reined Habanero around anything or anyone in his path with the control and deftness of a cutting horse. They ran interference for JD and his pony who were right behind them. A couple of startled horses, tied to hitching rails, tried to rear and bolt.

Chris and JD flew past their other friends without stopping, and with no explanation.

Something was wrong.

Vin and Nathan touched their heels to their horses' flanks. That was all the animals needed, and they leapt forward, anxious already to follow their herd mates.

Josiah laid the leather across the wagon team's backs and encouraged them to speed up.

Kwai Chang Caine, sitting next to him, gave his former student an inscrutable raise of one eyebrow and looked back down the street.

@@@@@@@

Instinct told Larabee to slow his approach to the house. Common sense told JD to follow his lead. There were eight or nine men stalking the perimeter of the airy plantation style house. They were focused on the wide front porch.

"Ya ain't got no town protectin' ya now!" One of the men shouted.

"Ya ain't the law. Ya never were. Your luck's runnin' out fast, cowboy."

"Maybe we'll see you held accountable for your crimes."

There was no response in words. Instead, a tall, lanky, dark frame strode down the porch steps.

Only one person could provoke a fight with that cocky, defiant gait as he walked right up to the men who thought to intimidate him. He had his holster slung over one shoulder, but left little doubt that he could get to that gun when he needed to.

A second figure moved more gingerly down the porch steps and leaned against a support railing to cover the first man.

The gang of troublemakers edged forward ready to meet the challenge. But then two more men were there and flanked the tall one. One was dressed all in black and wore a sweeping black duster. The other was young, but with something pent up inside and ready to explode. They didn't know it was a protectiveness the youth never thought he'd get the chance to use again that they were sensing. The only thing they marveled at was how a mere three men could form such a formidable wall of unity and defiance.

The hecklers retraced their recent advance.

When three other men arrived and took up positions beside the first three, and the man on the steps moved forward, they became an invincible wall.

The vigilantes skulked and postured. Finally, like hyenas who thought to attack a single, wounded lion, only to find the entire pride had been concealed in the long grass, they slinked back, trying to make it look like they weren't running away.

"Hey, pard," Buck Wilmington smiled as he turned and saw the others, as if nothing were wrong, nothing had changed, "'bout time you got here."

Chris Larabee took in his surroundings. Buck looked at him with a smile that was gradually turning to concern. Nathan and Josiah were already headed toward Ezra who was lowering his exhausted self onto the porch steps. The gambler's shirt and vest were unbuttoned and the white bandages around his chest and shoulder registered somewhere in the back of the gunfighter's mind. JD, maybe, was keeping a bit of an unexpected distance from his surrogate brother. Vin's presence was keenly felt at the gunfighter's right hand.

How could things feel so normal? How could things have righted themselves so quickly?

"Chris?" Wilmington tried again, concern clearly showing on his face now.

Larabee turned and left without a word. Buck's eyes met Vin's. Vin acknowledged the request and, with a nod, and a small, but heart wrenching smile, he followed his friend.

Buck, out of habit, looked around to check on JD. His young friend was completely focused on helping Ezra get back inside. With a last glance around to be sure the troublemakers were gone, the gangly lawman followed the others inside.

@@@@@@@

Chris made it to the second alleyway past the plantation house. He dodged into the opening as he felt himself begin to tremble all over. His brow was speckled with perspiration, but he felt clammy and cold. He collapsed to his knees and buried his head in his hands, "Thank you," he whispered, "Thank you."

Vin stood silently at the entrance of the alley. He would make sure no one intruded on their friend until he regained his composure.

@@@@@@@

The large white house, typical of the style of the day, had several doors leading outside. Vin Tanner drifted toward a pair of open French doors when he heard familiar voices from inside.

The room was as white, pristine and clean as the outside of the house. The furniture was spartan and the walls were bare. The breeze that wafted through long sheer curtains was surprisingly cool. There was a peaceful feel to the entire place and not all of it came from the easy bickering that sounded so good. Vin slipped in and leaned against the side wall by the window and enjoyed it as if he'd been there the whole time.

"Don't look at me like that, Nathan. I didn't drag him out on that porch."

"I felt obligated to insure Mr. Wilmington's safety when he chose to confront those individuals. Mr. Jackson most certainly understands that sort of loyalty." Ezra turned sad, soulful, weak eyes toward the healer, playing his condition like a dying Shakespearean hero. "And no, don't thank me, Mr. Wilmington. After my long suffering relationship with Mr. Larabee, I more than understand when a sincere 'thank you' or 'I appreciate your help' is expressed through anger."

"He can't heal proper, trying to take on the whole town in a gunfight to protect your mangy hide." Nathan fell for Ezra's act. Josiah had to turn his back to hide his laughter. His sparkling blue eyes met Tanner's.

Buck was about ready to explode. The calmer Ezra stayed, the more blustery the rogue became and the more the others sided with the gambler.

"Heal? Hell, soon as he sheds his skin, he should be fine."

Ezra knew he was being compared to a snake. And hell, he deserved it. But so did Wilmington. While Ezra's wounds were healing nicely to the point that they were mostly a pull and an itch, he'd been fighting with Buck for the entire time and he was ready to have allies.

Standish had been determined to accompany his friend when he left town with the Monahans. He had been determined to protect Buck from Zach's philosophies, from the man himself and from Buck's interpretations of both. But from the moment they had found the southerner waiting for them on the road, having predicted their exit from town, Buck had been testy. The man simply could not accept someone worrying over him the way he worried over everyone else.

Ezra was propped up on something that looked more like a three-sided divan than a bed. Nathan was leaning over him. The one was trying to fend off the examination and ministrations of the other. Buck Wilmington was bent slightly over both of them as he pleaded his case in exasperation. "I told him to stay in bed."

"And if that alternative resulted in my having to explain to Mr. Larabee that I let you go out alone 'to take on the whole town' in a gunfight?'"

"I was only gonna talk." Buck defended himself to Nathan.

"Sauntering up to the largest of nine men in an assembly and telling him you're 'ready to settle things once and for all' is not conducive to detente."

"I don't need a babysitter." Buck shouted. It sounded, to the others, like there was an ongoing argument behind the defiance of that statement.

"No," Ezra responded hotly as he tried to get up despite Nathan's holding him down. "You need a cage and a tamer." He was not his usual unruffled self.

"JD, help me out here."

Buck was just turning toward the youngest of the group when another voice drew his attention. "A 2x4 upside the head works sometimes. If he's already halfway paying attention in the first place." All eyes turned toward their leader who now stood just inside the double doors. If he realized that Tanner had been watching over him and had only snuck back in moments before his own arrival, Larabee gave no indication.

Buck was immediately moving to confront his old friend. As he did so, he missed the look of anger that crossed JD's face as he was about to be singled out for the conversation. His youthful features slipped back to cold indifference. Wilmington would have been able to identify it as a look that he would expected from Larabee.

"Chris, I'm sorry, so sorry. I sent a wire... Josiah said the one you got..." The words weren't coming out right. For one, he was responding to a Chris Larabee who wasn't there. He was looking for words to soothe an enraged man, one who had been stewing for days. He expected to deflect eyes as hard as green flint. But the face was... still, studying him. The lines in his forehead and corners of his eyes that so often formed barriers against any emotions but ire simply weren't there. The eyes were the gold-hazel that meant they really weren't backlit by anger. Buck didn't know what to say.

Chris finally spoke. "You are in so much trouble when I get you home." He turned to include Ezra in the statement. "And I am going to separate you two until you can figure out how to behave."

Ezra blinked slowly, trying to process the words and more, the tone of voice. "When he does it he's looking out for JD or you. When I do it it's babysitting?!" Ezra defended himself.

Buck finally placed the words and tone. Larabee had used it the few times that young Adam Larabee had frightened him. At the recognition, his infectious, unrepentant grin reinforced the impression of a father reprimanding his sons who were still convinced of the invulnerability of youth.

Chris's heart soared at seeing the grin he thought he'd lost forever even as he tried to keep a stern expression on his face.

"Josiah," Caine's voice came gently from the inner door. He covered his right fist with his left hand in greeting. He was followed by two men in salmon colored robes.

"Master Caine," Josiah returned the gesture. "May I introduce Ezra Standish and Buck Wilmington? And thank the monks of your temple for their care."

"Your friends are welcome. Their weapons are not."

Josiah nodded and started to remove his gunbelt. Vin pushed away from the wall anxiously. Chris stood straighter. "After what I saw outside, I'm not giving up my guns." He made the statement to Sanchez as if it were a foregone conclusion.

"Chris, believe me, you'll be safe here."

"No." It was practically the first word to come from JD since they arrived in town.

One of those men was wearin' a badge." Tanner threw out with all the possible ramifications that statement held.

Josiah was unaffected.

"Chris, these fellas here," Buck referred to the Shaolin priests, "They've been good as gold, seein' to Ezra and me. But they got different ways, and they got the folks in town spooked. They won't come in here."

"Then why the hell were you outside standin' them off?" Chris demanded.

"Well, because..."

"Because Mr. Wilmington has the attention span of a two-year old and thought to entertain himself by causing trouble - like a two-year old." Ezra offered immediately.

"I had a couple of questions that needed answerin'." Buck gave as his interpretation of his actions. Buck clamped down on the emotions that arose from the 'questions that needed answering', Caleb's death and Zach's riding out. They were his problem, no on else.

"I'm not giving up my guns." Chris stated flatly.

"Perhaps... a compromise?" Caine offered patiently. He went on to offer a large table on a back screened in porch for their evening meal. The guns would be permitted there.

Buck clapped his hands together with anticipation. "That'll do it. Pard, you gotta try the feed they put on here. You won't recognize a damn thing you're eatin', but it's mighty tasty." He was encouraging the compromise between old friends and new.

Caine smiled when Chris abruptly nodded his agreement. Possibly only he could see that the notorious gunfighter would have a hard time begrudging his friend any request after coming so close to losing him.

Ezra was already maneuvering off the bed. "You sure you're up to it, Ezra?" Nathan asked.

"Most assuredly." He was anxiously levering himself off of the bed, not willing to be separated from his friends. He had to put up with Vin, Josiah and Nathan fussing over him as they exited.

JD preceded them all, without a word. He was disgusted with Buck's easy banter; that he was acting like he hadn't ridden out, hadn't abandoned them. Buck was beginning to sense something tense and restrained in his young friend. He was anxious to get to JD and hopefully prove to himself it was his imagination. It wasn't the kid's silence as much as the distance he felt between them that he wanted to make right.

So preoccupied was he with that mission, that he almost ran into Chris who had stopped just inside the French doors. Buck quickly looked over his shoulder to assure himself that they were alone. By this time, Larabee had turned back into the room, but didn't raise his head. Buck knew the softened hazel eyes were staring beyond the here and now.

"Ezra's all right?" The gunfighter asked. His voice was so low Wilmington had to lower his head slightly to hear; but he knew what would be said.

"Right as rain." He reassured quickly. "Those fellas are a little peculiar, but they know their doctorin'."

"You?"

"Not a scratch." Buck rambled, drowning out the answer to each question almost before it was asked. "That damn gambler was too busy watchin' out for me to watch his own backside."

"I'll have to thank him." Chris's voice was heavy. Without looking up he raised his hand behind the taller man's neck and pulled him forward until their foreheads touched. He needed to feel the warmth of a living, breathing Buck Wilmington close at hand, "God, Buck, I thought..."

Buck hadn't had time to ask what the ride to Taos had been like. He was touched, and a bit surprised it seemed to have so drained his friend.

Buck wrapped his arms around the smaller man. For this moment, a warrior's heart that protected its wounds with anger and threats gave way to a gentle soul that sought healing. And Buck was ready to stand guard outside that besieged citadel for as long as it would take. Because he was the only one that was occasionally allowed inside.

This was the part of Chris Larabee that he would suffer anything to keep alive. This was the part that made a strong man a leader, a brave man a hero. This was the friend whose love was so binding that losing those he cared about had paralyzed his heart for years. Buck knew that sometime in his life he had done something wise and good for this man to choose him to share this part of his soul. He would be glad for the day that Chris would trust the others with seeing him like this, but for now, he would feel special that Chris entrusted him.

The door to Chris's soul had been open when Buck met the man. It was locked now, and sealed by loss and grief. Vin had the key and almost had it opened. Soon, when this door opened, the ornery Texan would be let in. Buck suspected he himself couldn't have opened the heart once it was sealed. He was lucky to have been given the combination before the door slammed shut.

What was it Vin had said that time? Possibly the only thing that could have been said that would keep Buck in Four Corners after that wound, and that particular incident.

PAST FOUR CORNERS

“Yeah, I reckon Chris is my best friend," The soft spoken Texan had drawled, "And I'm his."' Buck remembered how he had not been angry, but nodded acceptance from his sick bed. “But I'd trade it all to be you, Buck."

That had confused the rogue. He frowned. He didn't know if he was being mocked, or somehow the value of Chris' friendship should be defended. But then Vin continued, “We don't fight, me and Chris. You two fight each other word and fist. But if anyone else tried, even me, we'd likely wind up butt to ground. Chris an' me are friends. You two are brothers. Yep, I reckon I'd I'd like to know how that feels."

PRESENT

Well, Vin had breached that wall. And he would bring the others. A bittersweet thought he mused, but maybe if he had done his part correctly so far, he would share this special role, not cede it all together. And so he held on tight, one arm around the shoulders, one hand cradling the blond head, and he let his friend compose himself.

In the comfort of a man who he could trust with this vulnerability, Chris Larabee realized that, whatever they still had to face, what dangers were threatening, they still had the chance to make it right.

TAOS, NEW MEXICO One Week Ago

Ezra strolled along the backwater town of Taos, New Mexico along with Buck Wilmington and Caleb Monahans. The company was good even if the hour was too early. He was jolted out of his lazy, mid-morning reverie by rapid-fire gunshots. The muzzle flash was lost in the crisp morning light, but puffs of smoke accompanied the loud cough of the six shooters of the three men racing from the bank. The gambler in him could almost count the paper dollars and gold coins falling from the saddlebags the lead man carried.

The robbers were laying down cover fire for themselves as they dashed toward a fourth man mounted and trying to control their get-away horses. The horses pulled at their reins in an attempt to flee the noise and fear that now permeated the street.

The first sounds of gunfire galvanized the southerner. But the initial adrenaline rush quickly gave way to a cool resolve and deadly accuracy. The men fleeing the building clearly thought their gunfire was a diversion, a way to get to their horses while the townspeople scurried for cover. Ezra Standish drew his gun prepared to stop the crime and wondered to himself at what point he had given up his self-centered ways and was now willing to risk his life for strangers.

The southerner ducked into the nearest alley as bullets pelted the wood frame beside his head. He felt Buck cut in between the buildings beside him. Standish dropped to his belly and peeked around the corner. This unexpected angle rewarded him with a clean shot. The man with the saddlebags went down. This man's partners saw where the shot came from. Answering fire forced the gambler to roll back into the alley. He looked up and saw Wilmington pressed against the outer wall of the mercantile waiting for the gunfire to subside so he could chance a shot of his own. Where was Caleb?

The remaining outlaws almost made it to their mounts; without the bank money, but with their lives.

Their escape was cut short when Caleb broke cover to jump the man holding the horses. How the hell did he get to the other side of the street, Ezra wondered as he watched the tall, mustached man launch himself off of a beer keg and tackled the look-out man off his roan.

The gangly gunfighter slammed a fist into the other man's jaw. The way he waded into a brawl just for the exhilaration of the fight, reminded the suave gunfighter how like Buck Wilmington Caleb really was.

But this would-be bank robber, a giant of a man, knew he was fighting for his freedom and came up swinging. His brute strength had the leaner man back peddling.

Despite the gunfire still flying around them, Ezra could sense that the gregarious friend behind him was moving to help the younger Monahans.

“Buck!" Ezra was one his feet and shoved off the wall before Buck could get past him.

Ezra heard Buck's footfalls matching his pace as they both ran out of the alley to back Caleb's play.

Without horses, their escape chances melted to almost nothing, the remaining bank robbers did, indeed, look to be on the verge of surrender. Then the unthinkable happened. A rifle barked. A cowardly shooter who had concealed his presence until that moment struck from hiding. And Caleb fell, his shirt immediately stained with blood.

“Buck!" The name was torn from Ezra's throat. He didn't know if his call was in hope that Wilmington could do something or out of compassion for his friend. This man, who was so like a brother to Buck had been brutally gunned down, with no chance to defend himself from the attack. With no chance for Buck to defend him. The gambler dreaded what this could do to his friend.

The next thing the gambler knew, it felt like a white hot pipe was shoved down through his shoulder and out his back. Through a red/black gauze of pain, Ezra saw five men restrain a distraught Wilmington who was fighting to get to his friends. The bank robbers escaped.

Standish fought the mind-numbing agony in his shoulder as he watched a sheriff and deputy roll Caleb onto his back. The slack jaw and sightless blue eyes ripped a scream from Wilmington's gentle heart.

“Anyone know who this is?” The sheriff, caustically indifferent to the drama going on around him, asked as he rifled Caleb's pockets.

"I think that fancy feller over there called him 'Buck' when he went down.” The deputy offered.

“Check around. See if they were in on this. Then get over to the hotel. See if any of these men registered there. Let's get this sorted out..."

PRESENT

"I'm afraid that's all I remember until I woke up in the care of these fine gentlemen." Ezra said, referring to the Shaolin monks.

The dinner, while curious, smelled appetizing, but sat untouched. The regulators were more interested in what Ezra Standish had to say. And the presentation was as revealing as the words themselves. The southerner related what had happened to him and Buck with concise, facts-no-flourish detail. It was almost rushed. Josiah suspected his younger friend had hoped to get the story out before Buck arrived and had to relive the tragedy in the telling.

As Josiah followed the sympathetic green gaze toward the door, the missionary's son too, wished the story had ended sooner. Chris and Buck had entered and heard the events being recounted. The windows to Buck's soul left no doubt that he was reliving that horrific moment.

Standish cleared his throat and forced himself to finish the tale, "Among the things I learned from my mother, is that, the larger a town grows, the less likely its inhabitants are to intervene, should they observe suspicious or even illegal activity. I believe the miscreants we encountered were aware of that fact as well. They thought that there would be no risk to their plans in town - that evading a posse after they made their escape, would be their only real concern. To that end, when we were willing to take action, we most assuredly should have had the element of surprise on our side that fateful morning."

JD had ensconced himself between Josiah and Nathan at the table on the back porch. Vin was leaning against a trellis that held one of more than a dozen flourishing, thick-leafed grapevines. It was the grape arbor that fashioned the shade for the porch. Tanner appeared relaxed, but even though this light and airy residence and its peculiar occupants felt like a safe and secure oasis in a hostile town, he had taken it upon himself to stand sentinel over his friends. Something just didn't feel right.

A gentle touch, support returned in kind, and now it was Larabee's turn to help his friend through a rough spot. The warm, comforting hand on Buck's back had him moving on into the room.

The man in black threw a sad, half smile in Ezra's direction. They both knew that Wilmington hadn't mourned, yet. And that the part of their friend that became enraged when another was hurt, much less a brother killed, was like a volcano ready to erupt.

"So," The soft southern drawl concluded, "at first, in the confusion, they may have thought that Caleb was Buck."

Buck sat down beside Ezra, with Chris on his other side. "I told 'em who I was, who we were." Buck took up the story with a cotton-soft voice, "It didn't change their thinking - that maybe we were involved in the robbery. I spent most of the last two days in jail before they finally figured they couldn't hold me." He looked over at JD and couldn't figure out why the boy was actively avoiding eye contact. It bothered him in a way he couldn't quite put into words, not on top of all the other weight he was carrying. The tall scoundrel told himself it was his imagination and continued, "I didn't know how bad Ezra was hurt. Nobody'd tell me anything." His voice almost broke and got softer, "They wouldn't let me sit with Caleb…" The helplessness in the voice was heart-wrenching.

The ritual of sitting with the body of the dead was deeply entrenched in Wilmington's upbringing. Chris had no doubt that the big man felt he had failed Caleb by not spending that first night at the undertaker's. He was trying to find the words to make things right; had just looked over to Josiah to see if the preacher could offer something, when another voice joined the conversation.

"Where was Zach when all that happened?" JD asked. There was a mixture of disgust and self-satisfaction in the voice. He was disgusted that Zach wasn't around and self-satisfied that the old man wasn't as good a friend as Buck had thought.

"Zach and Pappy'd gone ahead to order breakfast that morning." Buck replied. He didn't hear the derision in the tone because he didn't expect it from his young friend, "By the time they got to us, it was all over. It was too late." Buck's unfocused eyes were aimed above the heads of the others. He rocked slightly as he fought to maintain control.

Larabee shot a glare at JD. They both knew, hell, everyone at the table knew, that there were still unanswered questions about Zach. But JD Dunne knew something else. When emotion changed their leader's eyes from hazel to green, you didn't want to push him. And Larabee was silently, but clearly, giving the order to drop the subject of Zach Monahans.

As JD flounced back in his chair, Larabee realized that there was still a lot of adolescent insecurity in the man-child. The gunslinger was glad to see the almost childish pout. That juvenile behavior at least had the malleable potential to be shaped into a man to be proud of instead of the bitter, cynical fast gun the fear and grief of the past few days was threatening to forge. But there was still a battle going on between the two personalities within that small body. That became obvious when the youngest regulator, while surrendering to the threat Chris threw his way, intentionally threw open an equally incendiary line of thought, "I still want to know who stopped Buck's telegram so we'd think he was dead and Ezra was wounded so bad. Why would someone do that?"

"Like someone wanted us to believe the worst." Josiah observed.

"Maybe someone wanted to make sure we came to Taos?" That Nathan offered an answer so quickly showed he'd been thinking on it, too.

"Ezra being hurt with only Buck to watch his back? Anyone who knew enough to send that wire would know we'd come." Josiah replied.

Ezra's body gave a slight startled flinch at the statement. Buck didn't see it, neither did the others. Buck felt it, though. Ezra still couldn't believe they would worry about him once the immediate danger was passed.

Buck bounced a piece of some sugary, yeasty concoction off of the gambler's forehead. His message was clear, 'I keep tellin' ya they care.' Ezra cut him a green glare but it acknowledged the sentiment.

"Maybe they thought we wouldn't all come?" Nathan responded, again having already thought this through.

"They wanted to be sure Four Corners was left unprotected?" JD wondered aloud, following that line of thought. There was still an edge to the young gunfighter's voice.

Josiah seemed to shoot down that theory with his next words, "When I wired Mary to tell her the good news about our lost lambs, she said the town's quiet as a dormouse. But hurry back anyway," He added with a smiled.

But the smile was fake. Something else was on the preacher's mind. He had noticed JD's tone and realized that while Buck sat nestled protectively between Chris and Ezra, JD had positioned himself at an angle that assured the minimum of interaction with the trio. That one was afraid of what he had almost lost, and how much it had hurt. Too many times the missionary's son had seen this kind of fear turn to hate and deaden a soul. JD was more at risk than most, because, from his experience, Josiah knew that it was the more sensitive heart, the one that felt so much, and was capable of losing so much of himself with the loss of a loved one, that often turned away from the world altogether. Once again, Sanchez saw what Wilmington had sensed from the very first meeting - just how much JD Dunne and Chris Larabee had in common.

"The wording of the wire, and that it was sent out to all neighboring towns. Tried to make it sound like Buck and Ezra were implicated in other crimes." It was Nathan whose voice brought Josiah's wandering thoughts back to the conversation going on around him.

"Maybe they had a reason to think that." JD snapped. He was baiting them all with his barely contained hostility and defiance.

Larabee bit his tongue not to call him on the attitude. He wanted to avoid Buck having to deal with that confrontation for now. Maybe the boy would see the damage he was doing if he was given his own time.

But from the corner of his eye, Chris saw Buck flinch. Even mourning his loss, Buck finally could no longer deny the attitude that surrounded his best friend, "JD, boy, you got something to say?"

This conversation was about to become painful. Ezra's usually quick mind was dulled by the pain he was denying to the others. But he was trying to think of some way to change the direction of this conversation.

"Perhaps… your question should not be who, but… why?" The soothing voice of the Shaolin came from beside the gambler. Now where did he come from? Standish was beyond being surprised by the stealth with which these priests moved. And his timing, as usual, was impeccable. The gambler smiled to himself. The timing was too good to be coincidence.

"Kwai Chang Caine," Josiah's voice rumbled. There was a certain determination in his tone, but also a hint that he was playing along with Caine to move the topic away from JD's anger.

Ezra leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. In his mind's eye, the gambler could see the inscrutable eyebrow raised in response to Josiah's demanding vocal inflections. He knew he was right, and Josiah had been graced with that inquiring, overly innocent expression when he heard the ex-preacher continue, "You knew Buck and Ezra were alive all the time."

"If you had listened with your heart and your mind as you have been trained, instead of your fear, would you not have known the same thing?" There was no rebuke in the words.

"We need to know what's going on," Josiah stated dragging the discussion along the path the Shaolin would have them take.

Ezra's food, like that of the others, remained untouched. He was weaker than he wanted to admit and the pain in his shoulder throbbed in beat to his pulse. But he was able to relax a fraction, because, for a moment more, the need to attack and defend Zach Monahans had been diverted. Standish sent a silent thank you to the two scholars who understood so well the minds and emotions of men. Perhaps this little extra time would give them all the chance to renew those fascinating, elusive bonds of friendship.

"We need to know what's going on." Sanchez repeated.

There was an extended silence between the two priests. Standish found himself waiting for the answer as well.

"I am always amazed at the beauty of all things in nature," was Caine's reply.

Ezra's eyes almost opened at the non-sequitur. He could imagine the glacier blue eyes boring into the serene mossy ones; demanding a clearer explanation.

"Observe, Josiah Sanchez." The teacher was demanding full attention and to be allowed to explain in his own time, in his own way.

Ezra couldn't help it. He had to see what Josiah was being directed to look at. He slit his eyes open. Directly in front of the emerald eyes, Caine's finger ran along the knotted base of one of the mustang grapevines entwined in the porch trellis. "The vines have all come forth from the rocky soil; one source, rough beginnings, defiant odds. And yet, they survived. And found the support they needed at the time."

Seven branches grew from the single base root. Even below the soil, two of the branches had begun to coil together as grapevines do. Barely an inch above the ground, two more twined together and finally, slightly above that, two more found each other. Each vine was separate and equal from its partner, but drew strength in the support.

Ezra hid a smile, thinking that finally, Mr. Sanchez had met someone even more nebulous than himself.

But Josiah understood exactly the analogy that was being presented to him. The first vines represented the relationship forged between Nathan and himself. The second, the meeting of Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner. The last two to join marked the time that Buck Wilmington took a young JD Dunne under his big heart and guiding hand. Josiah didn't know if he was surprised or not, but he was pleased to see that, in what would be the recent past, the seventh tendril had tentatively begun to entwine with the symbols of Buck and JD. Clearly, the soil represented the meetings of the seven in Four Corners.

Sanchez looked away from the graying, rough-hewn plant and sought his mentor's eyes. Because no sooner than the sprigs entwined, they all separated again, "It would appear the pruner chose to separate the new growth," Josiah offered. What did that mean to the analogy?

"That he might control them better, keep the individual strands weak and manageable." Caine knew that Josiah was trying to see the separation as a bad thing. Caine ignored the attempt. He sat patiently and allowed his student to work through the parallelisms for himself.

Josiah thought back on the recent rumors that had the men thinking to go their separate ways. And alone or together, the scandalous words meant to brand them all as outlaws and pariahs. Was Caine's "pruner" behind the allegations? How could they stop the whispers if they didn't know the source?

"Look at the whole, Josiah Sanchez, not the parts." The Shaolin directed when he saw his disciple become mired in the troubling thoughts. And Josiah did look.

He was astonished by the implications of what he saw. He looked around for confirmation. Nathan and JD were together at the table, well as much as the boy was willing to associate with any of them just now. They were both trying to grasp all of Caine's subtle symbolism. Ezra and Larabee, each gaining something from the other's divergent personality, were gradually being drawn together by their friendship with Buck Wilmington. Both of them sensed something important was being said. Vin Tanner, by his mere presence, offered strong, silent reassurances to Wilmington who was still disoriented by events and JD's bitterness. Vin had always liked the cocky ladies' man, but now he seemed almost protective of the man.

What was truly amazing was that despite the powerful hand that had tried to manipulate and thereby separate them, the vines had reconnected, and in a pattern that exactly matched the pairings before him now. It didn't bother Josiah that it was the sprig he associated with himself that was currently odd man out. The restructuring had brought all of the boughs closer together. And, in the end, further up in the bower, all of the tendrils grew together. They were still separate, unique growths. Each in its time had both thick, strong sections and thinner, potentially vulnerable, weathered lengths. But all seven branches were so entwined that no man could prune one because it was sheltered by the others. Somehow, the plant filled Josiah Sanchez with hope.

Looking from ground level to where all the limbs joined as one, Josiah saw in it all of nature's artistry, creativity and beauty. It was more rough and entwined than an Eastern Bonsai, but the intricacy was there, and the loving touch.

Finally, from this established growth, sprung the entire canopy of the grape arbor; nurturing in its majesty; supplying shelter and sustenance.

"History seldom records the names of heroes. It chooses, instead, to chronicle the circumstances which make heroes and the leaders who send them to their destiny. Nature… and fate, however, are well aware of the importance of such men." Caine spoke to them all.

Josiah had no doubt that, at this moment in time, the Shaolin was putting much of the responsibility for taming this immediate territory, or allowing it to be tamed, squarely on their combined shoulders. When the self-defrocked priest diverted his eyes, thinking to absorb everything he had heard, he came eye to eye with his friends. Josiah had no doubt that, in the analogy, they had heard just what Caine intended for each of them to hear.

Chris was unwilling to accept the responsibility. Vin, whose Native American background put him more in tune with such teachings, was contemplative.

Ezra couldn't hide his total denial that he could be a hero. The idea, surprisingly, seemed to appeal to Nathan, who usually was the most grounded and conventional of their group. But he liked the idea of making a difference.

Buck was trying to fight off the thoughts that doing what's right had got Caleb killed. He was afraid that the part of him that had him doing what "was right" had died with Caleb.

JD seemed openly hostile, mostly with himself, that the man would dangle the title hero in front of him. He believed he had failed that test, as much as it is all he had ever aspired to. "I ain't no hero." He spat out bitterly. No, he had fallen far short of that mark, at least as it had been portrayed in his dime novels. That seemed so long ago.

"We've got lots of men trying to pull us apart, like with Caine's grapevine." Jackson ventured into this unfamiliar realm of creative comparison that Caine used to help people make their own realizations; their own decisions.

"Or one man who controls many." Josiah presumed. He remembered Caine had referred to a single "pruner". The man was always specific and chose his words carefully.

"Fine. You've got all the answers." Larabee lit a cigarillo and clinched it between his teeth before he continued, "You tell me what the hell's goin' on. Then I'll worry about why." He meant the impatient question for the Shaolin, but it was their resident conman who replied.

"Someone is trying to discredit our small cadre." Standish's manipulative mind could see it easily enough.

Caine graced the southerner with an acknowledging half-smile and a nod.

"Someone's tryin' to make it look like we're no better than comancheros, raidin' the area then high-tailin' it back to the safety of Four Corners." Vin stated flatly. The bounty hunter's mind worked a lot like the gambler's.

"Us? Marauders?" Buck asked in disbelief. "That's loco."

"That cowboy out front earlier? What'd he say to Buck?" Vin asked softly, "'ain't got no town protectin' you.'?"

It was obvious Buck hadn't focused on the words until now.

"And that sheriff at the cave? He knew who we were and was more than willin' to believe we'd attack a wagon train." Josiah added.

"What?" Buck sputtered, "What the hell is going on, Chris?" His disbelief was turning to confusion.

"I don't know, Buck. I don't know what's going on."

"How far back could this conspiracy against us go?" Ezra asked. He was beginning to feel like a pawn in a chess game.

"You said the Judge got a tip that Monahans and his gang were robbin' banks." Josiah offered as a beginning to the time line.

"Travis got hold of rumors that Zach was leading those raids or at least casing the towns for the attacks." Buck said with obvious denial.

"The Judge thinks Monahans is an outlaw?" JD latched onto the statement.

"Buck went with him that night to see what he could learn." Nathan nodded.

"So then Buck and Ezra and Zach are seen ridin' together at a bank robbery." Vin stated flatly, letting the implications settle in on the others.

"Stoppin' a robbery." Buck amended defensively.

"Who would Travis trust enough to listen to those rumors?" Vin wondered out loud. He was intentionally diverting the conversation away from Zach's guilt or innocence.

"Did the Judge give you a name?" The healer asked of Chris and Buck.

"Said it had to stay confidential." Larabee growled. He wasn't liking this. His straightforward way of thinking had kept him from being the first to recognize the signs of intrigue being plotted against them, but now that it had been pointed out, he was determined to stay ahead of the curve.

"What confidential source would be worthy of the honorable judge's discretion and still be aware of the relationship between Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Monahans?" It was easy to see the mind behind the green eyes was calculating the events.

"Somebody pretty high up." Josiah surmised.

"Someone smart enough to set Zach up and then us up as desperados and then lump us together…" Chris saw worry forming in the expressions of the others.

"Who would believe that of us?" JD snorted derisively. He didn't include Zach Monahans in the denial.

"Buck dead and Ezra dying in a bank robbery?" Vin finally spoke. "Not to mention the way the news set Chris off. And you," he turned an unusually cold, level frown to JD, "trying to go up against four to one odds in a shootout..."

"JD!?" Buck scolded, angry and fearful.

"Shut up, Buck." JD shot back.

"We just barely dodged cuttin' a swath through New Mexico like Sherman going through Atlanta," Vin continued over the interruption, "It came real close to makin' us look like the law should be huntin' us 'stead o' trustin' us to defend it." His gaze turned thankful as he slid it over to Caine, who had been a shelter of calm in the emotional turmoil.

"Four to one? What were you thinkin', Boy?" Buck was still stuck on the news that JD had tried to get himself killed in a fast draw contest.

"I don't know. What were you thinkin' when we showed up and you were facin' down half the town?" JD bit back.

JD was on his feet and headed back inside.

Wilmington was up, too, and spun the boy around before he made it through the door, "I thought we had an agreement, Boy, to talk things out and not let 'em fester."

"Go to hell, Buck. Don't pretend like you care." JD snapped caustically.

The others held their breath. This had to happen sometime. Maybe here, they could run interference. Dunne jerked out of his best friend's grasp, "I gotta job to do." He turned to leave.

"What job!" Buck threw up his hands in frustration.

"I'm the sheriff of Four Corners. If I had a robbery suspect in my town, I should have known about it." He shot back accusingly and included Chris in the look that matched the tone. Buck could tell that this wasn't what JD was really upset about. That was almost it, but not quite.

"He didn't do it, JD. If you'll tell me what's really botherin' you…"

"How are you so sure he wasn't part of the robbery?" JD demanded.

What the hell ...?" Buck looked around at the others to try to get some sign as to where this anger and venom against Zach was coming from. He had been so careful to keep the two separate so the elder Monahans' stinging temperament wouldn't influence the youngster. He couldn't read the others' faces, but didn't like what he was seeing.

"He was a suspect, right?" JD pushed.

"Stop it, JD." Chris ordered.

"No. Tell me, Buck, before I talk to the sheriff."

"Mr. Dunne ..."

"Shut up, Ezra. That's what you were supposed to prove, right?" He turned back to Buck, "That he was robbing banks?"

"No, JD." There was a flatness to Buck's voice now. "I was here to prove he wasn't doing those things."

"Where's the great Zach Monahans, now?" JD blurted out. "Why isn't he here to watch your back?"

"He went after those men. Him and Pappy rode out before the posse. Posse's been back a day, now." Buck forced his voice to go back to calm, to take time and try to explain. He tried to hide the fear in his voice, fear brought on because his two mentors had yet to return.

JD didn't even notice, so emotional was he, "He left Ezra hurt."

"His son is dead!"

"He should worry about the living!"

Buck glanced at Chris, "It don't always work like that, Kid. You can't judge people by how they react to that kind of loss."

"Oh, see, there it is again. I'm supposed to calm down." JD exploded, his arms waving wildly, "But it's fine for Chris Larabee to get fallin' down drunk for three years and carve all those notches on his gun."

"Listen to yourself." Buck's voice tensed and took on a familiar edge as he defended his friend, "Chris lost his family, JD."

"And. I. Didn't?! All I could think was that if I'd been here… I might … three days, Buck. Three days. My world was dead.."

"I didn't know you didn't get my telegram."

"And then I get here and you're alive, only you're facin' down all those men still tryin' to get yourself killed. And after that? You joke around like nothin's happened; like we hadn't ridden all this way to bury you."

"I didn't know about the wire you did get until Josiah told me." It sounded so logical to Buck. But he could see he wasn't getting through to the kid.

The wide, dark eyes met the midnight blue ones. The room was stifling in its stillness.

The battle within this boy, between the two men he might someday become, waged war across the youthful features. Larabee's heart sank and he started to stand up and go to his oldest friend. He saw, before the others, which path had been chosen.

The slight shoulders dropped, drained of tension. The long black bangs fell across the brown eyes as he shook his head in disgust and some form of resolution. At last the young man exhaled deeply, and spoke to Buck around a poignant, false smile. It was as if no one else was on the porch, "This doesn't have anything to do with what happened after you left. It's that you left. You made your decision - live with it. I have to." He wanted to be like Chris Larabee, tacit and curt, when he was angry. He wanted to stop there and say no more. He truly believed that he would be wasting his breath, that he had been childish and naïve to have faith in that kind of friendship. But he wasn't Chris Larabee yet and so he needed to try to find the words, try to explain how much he hurt how disappointed and betrayed he felt. He wanted the events of the last few days to hurt the others as much as he himself had suffered. The coldness in the voice cancelled the fact that he was rambling and, that, in his need to be heard, he was not making as much sense as he could. "You broke promises. You lied. You said we'd talk. You said you'd never ride out for my own good. But Zach Monahans comes along and, well, hell, all bets are off. Why do you care about promises to me or that I thought you were my best friend, when you can ride with Zach Monahans?"

"What promises, JD? I never broke any …"

"I may not be as famous as Chris Larabee or as rich as Zach Monahans. It may not mean as much when I say somethin' nice to you seein' as how they treat you like shit most of the time and it's real easy to tell when they throw you a bone. I'm the best friend you could have ever had. That still ain't good enough is it? What is good enough, Buck?"

"JD, stop it. Shut up and stop it."

"You shut up! I ain't playin' Buck Wilmington to your Chris Larabee."

Larabee growled and moved in. No one talked to Buck like that. There was no irony in the thought. It had always been that way. He never let anyone talk to Buck like that, even though he allowed himself that latitude.

Ezra tried to get up as well. This had gone too far. But Vin put a hand on his arm and stopped him. He would have stopped Chris, too, if he'd been close enough. This wasn't something that could be made right by anyone but JD and Buck.

Wilmington put a hand out to stop Chris' advance. Chris paused when he saw the broad shoulders slump, "Don't think I can do this, right now, Kid," he whispered like it was a hard confession to make. The recent events and JD's outburst weighed heavy on his mind and his heart.

With a cynical bark of a laugh, JD responded, "I bet you never said that to Chris. Bet you never thought he was too much trouble."

"JD, what I'm sayin' 's not what you're hearin'. I'm tryin' to understand, but I need some help, here."

"Not from me. You need help, see if you can find your 'friend' around. Never from me." JD shouldered past the other man and was through the door.

"They killed his son." Buck responded, having no new answer to offer.

"Jeez, Buck, you know what?" The young man reacted to the mention of Caleb's death, "You and Chris deserve each other. You care more about the dead than you do the living." JD rushed back onto the porch to deliver the line. It was like he was intentionally thinking of every hurtful thing he could say."

Anger finally began to work itself through the disappointment and confusion that had controlled Buck up to that point, "Look, Dunne, you got a problem with me, we deal with it. You don't start takin' it out on others."

"What about the ride out here, boy?" Josiah, his paternal and counseling instincts no longer able to tolerate the painful confrontation, tried to put the situation into perspective, "You thought Buck and Ezra were dead. How did you treat the living?"

"Just like Chris did. Like they deserve. Because the dead can never hurt you more than when they died. But the living? You have to wait for them to betray you or leave you or outgrow you or decide someone else is a better friend." He turned without a backward glance and was almost out the door before he stopped and turned back to his best friend, "Monahans could have been casing places to rob them and you would never have noticed or admitted it." And he was out the door.

Buck was stunned. This time, he didn't even try to follow.

"I'll talk to him." Chris said softly. He controlled his voice for the sake of his friend. He wanted to throttle the boy who had just stormed off the porch.

Buck looked like his worst nightmare had come true. JD was acting just like Chris Larabee at his worst. Chris knew there were many times in his own anguish he'd disregarded that look. Seeing that defeated soul behind the midnight blue eyes had him regretting those old times and determined to make amends. But before he left he had directions for the others, "I want two of us here all night." Chris referred to the cozy porch. "With guns. And no one goes anywhere alone. We'll get to the bottom of this tomorrow." He got no quarrel. "Buck?" Chris hesitated to go until he got a response. His old friend was recklessly unpredictable at times like this.

Buck's eyes focused but they were defeated. "Take care of him." He said as if he no longer thought that was a job he was capable of. Zach had been right.

@@@@@@@

"JD," Chris's icy voice demanded attention. JD slowed and turned back defiantly. The gunslinger caught up to the younger man as he stepped off of the porch. Chris remained on the top stoop and towered over him. JD refused to meet the other man's eyes.

"Where are you off to?" The older man asked coolly.

"You said there's a lot of questions to be answered. The sheriff's a good place to start."

"We're gonna rest up today. Get ourselves together."

The young sheriff heard accusation in the statement. "You got no place to be callin' me on my opinions." JD blurted out.

The silence of the next few seconds seemed to last hours.

Finally Larabee broke the silence. "You ever wonder why Buck and I weren't riding together when we met you?"

The question wasn't what JD expected, but he was more than willing to jump in with an answer, "I'm beginnin' to think you got tired of Buck draggin' you into protectin' every outlaw or stray, so you left," The youngster threw back with defiant honesty. It was the kind of honesty that pleaded for someone to discipline him for it.

"Buck asked me for help." Chris parried after a memory-wracked pause.

That did bring JD's eyes back to the other man. "That's bull. You help each other all the time. Without ever thinkin' - "

"We've saved each other's lives more than a man should need savin' in this day and age. Bullet holes, beatin's, angry husbands, angry father-in-law, even influenza," Chris took a breath. "That's easy." JD waited. "Tell me how you felt when your mother died." Again Chris seemed to abruptly change topics. This time it made JD gasp. "When you were alone, and fighting to keep her fed and clean; to keep her going on just one more day. When you were so damn tired and helpless you wanted to give up."

JD's body grew tense as the memories bombarded him. And the feelings of dealing with it alone were, indeed, the first emotions that draped over him. They had his eyes burning with unshed tears and he turned away quickly to hide the perceived weakness from his hero.

Chris spoke almost to himself, "What do you say, who do you trust enough to show those tears to? When you've lost your soul, or part of yourself or lost your way or your family... who do you dare make yourself vulnerable to? It's hard to even know you need that sort of help. Much less to ask for it." The gunfighter admitted.

In fact, JD himself hadn't gotten that help when it came to his mother's death until he'd met the big, mustached gunslinger whose gentle nature was so in contrast to his deadly gun. The thoughts came guiltily as he listened to that gunslinger's oldest friend. "And that's just the kind of help Zach was talking about when he told Buck he'd never have friends to stand by him in those times."

"You said he asked you for help?" It was like JD had forgotten the anger. But he was a little afraid of the words. JD wasn't sure he wanted to hear all of this. He was pretty sure Chris Larabee had never said so many words to him at once. To Larabee's way of thinking, most stories didn't need all this detail.

JD wanted to know what help Buck had asked for. But then again he didn't. In truth, Chris sounded like he was still, after all this time, trying to figure it all out.

"Sometimes, it's the hardest thing you can do, ask for help... show that need ... that weakness." At least it was a weakness as they had been raised to believe.

Larabee moved back to the shade of the porch, away from the bright afternoon sun. This time it was he who was unwilling to make eye contact. JD suddenly realized that some of the distance between Buck and Chris was of Buck's making and guilt over that fact was part of what kept up Chris's cold façade. "Sometimes it shames you that a man has seen that weakness in you and you push him away."

"Chris, Buck was right, you'd lost your family. You weren't ... you couldn't ..."

"You don't think Buck had lost his family, too?"

"Buck would understand." And JD meant it.

"Zach Monahans' teachings are etched on Buck Wilmington like words chiseled on granite. What Buck understood was that he didn't have a friend who would stand beside him when he was 'needy'. He said 'sorry' for asking. Rode out without another word. Or I thought he'd ridden out. I went looking."

There was a pause before he added, "Buck likes to share the trail, someone to talk to, laugh with, drink with. But he was still ridin' solo when we hooked up in Four Corners."

"He must've got over it. When you asked him along to the Seminole village, I didn't see any… distance."

"That's because I'm the one who asked for help. JD, Buck will always be there for you. He will laugh with you and fight with you and do anything for you. But he won't let you do for him - nothing. And that's because of Zach Monahans. It's something you don't know to miss until it's gone. It's a whole different level of friendship. I don't want you to ever have to look in his eyes and miss seeing that trust that's there now. It's not there for me. Buck will trust me with his life, but never again with his soul. You don't ever want to look in a friend's eyes and not see that look once you've had it. You'll know you've thrown away something special."

JD understood why Chris was willing to use so many words. He was doing it for Buck and for JD, himself. "Chris ..." But he didn't know what else to say.

They both stopped talking when Kwai Chang Caine opened the door of the Texas-style house and joined them on the front porch. He gave no indication that he realized he was interrupting.

Not wanting to be around anyone else, much less continue this conversation with a witness, JD ducked his eyes and headed around a corner toward the back yard. He stopped once, but didn't turn around, "I'm sorry about the things I said," he offered in a low voice. Then he was gone.

Both Chris and Caine watched the slight figure until he was around the corner.

"What do you see when you look at that boy?" Caine asked.

"I'm not interested in playing twenty questions," Larabee growled moodily.

"That was ... one question." Caine replied.

Larabee took a step to move around the Shaolin. He was surprised when the priest matched the move, blocked his path, and mossy eyes met his own.

@@@@@@@

Buck Wilmington sat in the corner shadows of the saloon. Out of habit, he hadn't left his back exposed in this hostile town. But he was so oblivious to the goings-on around him that it wouldn't have mattered. Now that the others were here, Ezra's safety and clearing up the mysteries surrounding the recent events could be divided. So he found it harder to fight off thoughts of the loss and grief of the last few days.

He certainly found no comfort in JD's arrival. The young man's eyes, and that he was so angry, ate at the rogue. He didn't understand what was wrong with the boy. But irrational hatred and anger, he understood all too well. And JD had been right about one thing, Caleb was dead.

The gentle gunfighter played with the empty shot glass until a warm hand on his own held the glass steady enough to pour it full. He looked up quickly at the unexpected touch.

Vin stood over him with the bottle still in hand. There was a look of appreciation and understanding on the younger man's face Wilmington couldn't place.

"'With guns. And no one goes anywhere alone.'"

Buck jolted guiltily when he heard the words of his old friend repeated. Only then did he realize Ezra was standing beside the tracker. He was pale but wearing a self-satisfied smirk at his friend's reaction to his imitation of Larabee's growl.

"Ezra, please get back with Nathan. Take care of yourself for once." Buck directed as he settled back in his seat.

Standish wanted to laugh. Most would say all he did was take care of himself. The gambler himself would agree. And never was he looking out for himself more than when he was looking out for this man who saw something more in him.

Still, the gentleman gunfighter hesitated for a beat. As much as he wanted to stay, Ezra didn't want to add to Buck's turmoil. Faltering, he looked over at Tanner. The man silently observed more than most people would even realize was there to be seen. Vin gave his Southern friend a crooked smirk and an encouraging nod toward the nearest chair.

In response, Ezra sat down at Buck's table without invitation and Vin followed suit.

"Ain't lookin' for company," Buck murmured.

Ezra had been waiting for Buck to teeter over this edge. "Not alone." The southerner averred flatly. "You have regrettable business to attend to." Vin and Ezra both knew what Buck was working up to. There had been so much rejoicing that Buck and Ezra were alive, they'd ignored the fact that Caleb was not, "We will not allow you to undertake the responsibility on your own. Not alone."

Buck threw back the burning liquid Vin had poured for him. "Ain't your load to bear, Ezra." He started to stand. Ezra's solid grip on his arm gave him pause.

"I'm makin' it my burden to share." It was delivered with surprising, tempered venom. "Sit."

Buck looked to Vin and saw that the tracker was backing Ezra on this one. He sat back down, deciding to settle this quietly without attracting attention from the bar customers, "Pard ..."

"No." Ezra leaned forward intensely. "Zach Monahans told you your friends wouldn't support you through emotional turbulence. I'm telling you we will. You don't have to ask this time. We'll just be there. And, we'll be there tomorrow, and next week, and the next time you need someone to talk to. And that next time, you'll know you can ask. But I will no more let you walk across the street alone than you would let me if it were Maude lying in that coffin." Ezra stressed that he knew Caleb was as close to a brother as Buck had had for many years.

Buck stared at his friend. Years of conditioning rivaled with a real need for friends to turn to at this time. It took the gangly gunslinger's breath away. Vin refilled the shot glass and Buck downed it to hide his emotions.

Ezra pressed again when he saw that his words weren't reaching his friend. Buck, like a skittish colt, wasn't ready to trust them, yet. "Unless, maybe you see in my comradeship the same thing you see in the one you share with Mr. Larabee? Neither our leader nor myself are the kind to form attachments. You don't have to expect much from us? You can rationalize any excuse we give for not supporting you? Does it then take someone like Mr. Dunne turning his back on a plea for help to ultimately prove Mr. Monahans' theory to be true?"

"You know that's all bullshit."

"Indeed. And you must recognize that Mr. Dunne is fighting his own fears more than he is fighting you."

"What you're seein', Pard, it ain't about you. It's about how folks would be if you weren't around." Tanner added.

"How would you react if you had to live three days with the certainty that your young protégé had died and you hadn't been there to protect him? Put yourself in his position." Ezra demanded in an attempt to explain why JD had lashed out so viciously.

"You're getting a little pushy, Standish." Buck's voice was rough as he attempted to control it.

"A beast you created, and we both must learn to deal with." Buck frowned at the statement. Ezra was more than happy to elucidate, "This is exactly how you would be acting if the roles were reversed. And as you are my model for how friendship should be extended, and as this is my first endeavor into the act, I must fall back on your example."

"Ain't your first try at bein' a friend, Ezra. You're damn good at it."

"Trust us, Buck." Vin said simply.

Wilmington lowered his head in gratitude and to hide the emotions that he still fought to master. When he looked up again and met Vin's eyes, he was almost embarrassed that the other man had overheard the conversation.

"I ain't goin' nowhere either, Pard." Vin answered the query. "I owe you a lot more than that drink."

"What are you talking about?"

"Stickin' by Chris when he don't want friends around, he makes it hard."

Buck didn't know what to say. His eyes went wide. Chris had gone off on Vin? Vin had been ready to ride out for much less. "Look, Vin, things get out of his control, he ..."

"No." The Texan stopped him.

Buck looked up. He was tired. His eyes showed a loss he wasn't allowing himself to acknowledge. Chris, Ezra, even Vin himself to a degree, built walls to keep others out. The barriers the tracker was looking at now were erected to keep the real Buck Wilmington, the emotions of Buck Wilmington, trapped inside.

"Drink your whiskey." The Texan directed.

His friend downed the shot in one swallow.

"You don't need to explain Chris Larabee to me."

Buck interpreted that to mean that Vin and Chris had the kind of friendship that didn't have rough spots. Vin saw that flicker in his eye and almost laughed, but instead explained himself. "What I mean is I don't want you runnin' interference between him and me anymore."

"I don't ..."

"He's worth putting up with his moods. I reckon if you could stand it for three years, I can cut him some slack."

"Vin, I ..." He hadn't realized anyone saw that the times he diverted Larabee's anger away from the others by directing it on himself, "It's easy for me. I know he doesn't mean the things he says."

"Thanks, Buck. Just ... thanks." The tracker was a man of few words, but his eyes spoke volumes, "Now, you gonna let us go with you to the undertaker's or not?"

Buck finished the last shot and studied his two friends. Ezra's words rang strangely true, even though Buck had never even considered how Zach's words were steering his life. The learning was imprinted, not verbalized. The midnight blue eyes dipped to a worn groove in the table.

Ezra Standish couldn't believe they were waiting to see if Buck Wilmington would trust them. The gambler prided himself on reading people. And rightly so. But when he had first met these six men, he would never have guessed the loud, superficial façade protected so fragile a psyche. But back then, he would never have guessed there were so many levels of trust. Before he met them, he wouldn't have cared.

Wilmington's nimble right hand rolled whiskey right up to the lip of the shot glass then swirled it using centrifugal force to hold the liquid inside. It was a habit that hadn't meant anything to Ezra until Caleb Monahans came along…

FOUR CORNERS, TWO WEEKs AGO

Ezra Standish had connived to share his regular table with Josiah and Caleb Monahans. He was determined to get some insight into the relationships between Zach and Buck; relationships that set Larabee's teeth on edge. He wasn't surprised that he liked this younger Monahans. His mannerisms and easy-going style were too reminiscent of Wilmington not to be likeable.

“So, Mr. Monahans, how long have you known Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Larabee?" He asked as he dealt out five cards to each player.

“It's Caleb. Mr. Monahans is my pa.” Caleb responded as he arranged the pasteboard rectangles. “And I reckon I've known Buck as long as I can remember."

"I bet you two were full of shenanigans when you were youngsters,"' Josiah added casually as he threw back two cards.

“After a time," Caleb tossed in two cards. "For a while, I weren't allowed to play with Buck no more than any of the other kids were. His mom bein' a whore and all." Ezra winced at the casualness with which the affront was delivered. He blamed Zach's influence that the otherwise genial and pleasant soul would speak so callously.

Ezra discarded three cards and dealt the next round as Caleb continued, " About the time I was five, Pa had made enough money and become a 'leading citizen' in town. It was almost like he was waiting for that. From that time on, he didn't give a damn what anyone else thought."

“And after that, he didn't mind you associating with Mr. Wilmington?"

“Oh, hell no. Pa thinks the world of Buck. He's like my brother. Money and status might be one thing, but Pa was pure meanness when he caught someone pickin' on Buck or mouthin' off at me for playin' with him." Caleb related with delight.

Ezra and Josiah exchanged quick glances. This past shared by Caleb, Buck and Zach was insightful. Sitting down and conversing with Caleb revealed a carefully concealed, sharp mind and intelligence. Something else the younger Monahans shared with their fellow peacekeeper.

“I suspect Buck was lucky to have someone like Zach on his side." Josiah said to urge more information.

Caleb laughed as he checked his new cards. "I'm not sure Buck'd have agreed back then. When Pa found out he kept getting into fights..."

“Buck was the only one getting into fights?" Josiah had picked up on some guilt in Caleb's tone of voice.

“Well, he was my friend. I couldn't let them bigger boys say those things about him and his Ma." Caleb said as an acknowledgement that he had been fighting right beside his friend.

Ezra bit back accusing Caleb of saying the same things. Obviously Caleb didn't judge his friend by his parentage, so calling his mother a whore was merely a statement of fact, not an accusation or spoken with malice.

“Buck and Zach had trouble because of the fights?" Josiah urged the story to continue.

Caleb raked in the pot and the men all anted again. "In a manner of speakin'.” He laughed, " Pa hired the school marm on the side to make sure we kept up with our learnin'. When we outgrew what she could teach us, we got stuck with a tutor. Didn't neither of us see why we had to spend extra time book learnin' when we didn't start the fights. Besides, weren't much more than a bunch of garbage, anyhow."

Josiah laughed outright at the observation. Ezra smirked. They, too, had tutors. Latin, Caesar's strategies, proper etiquette and such were rather pompous in the west.

“Mr. Wilmington …" Era began, only to be interrupted by Caleb.

“Ain't he your friend?"

Startled by the almost accusatory tone, Ezra responded in kind. “We are associates." That got a frown from Caleb and even Josiah, " Yes, I dare say we are friends." Standish amended.

"Then why don't you call him Buck? Pa says in the west, callin' a man by his last name is a way of keepin' your distance."

Ezra sat up and blinked. Josiah raised an eyebrow in his direction, daring him to respond. “That is certainly not my intention." Josiah's brow wrinkled as his other eyebrow went up. He was telling Standish that he noticed that he had not outright denied the allegation.

“Don't rightly see that Larabee'd put up with it either."

Neither Josiah nor Ezra missed the fact that Caleb used Larabee's surname after that most recent statement. Caleb didn't expect them to miss the fact.

“And did you make the acquaintance of Mr. Larabee through Mr. Wil - Buck?"

“Naw, he drifted into town one day.” Caleb's nimble right hand rolled the whiskey right up to the lip of the shot glass then swirled it using centrifugal force to hold the liquid inside as he thought about his next words , “Cocky, a fast gun. A fighter. Still don't see how he and Buck got so tight so fast. But he never liked Pa. To this day Pa says that when Larabee moved on, he said he was headed to Austin to join the Rangers just so's Buck would go with him."

PRESENT

Ezra, lost in thought, was jerked back to the present. He met Buck's eyes and fought the irrational sensation that his mind was being read. The bits and pieces of what he now knew of his friend's past, as fragmented as they were, left no doubt that Caleb had been very important to his friend and would be sorely missed.

The gentle heart saw a sadness in his Southern friend's eyes and was bothered by the fact that the words Ezra and Vin wanted to hear wouldn't leave his lips. He couldn't ask for help; despite the sincerity he saw reflected back at him. But, maybe … with a nod mostly to himself because he didn't trust himself to speak, he agreed to accept the support, not ask for it, but to take it, test it. He got up, squared his shoulders and headed toward the undertaker's. It was a small step, but it was a start. He was very much aware that Vin and Ezra followed a supportive distance behind him.

@@@@@@@

Chris Larabee would have liked to know that Buck, Ezra and Vin were in town on their own, if for no other reason than it would give him cause to avoid the Shaolin priest who still blocked his path on the peaceful wrap around porch. But something about Kwai Chang Caine tempered the anger that would usually swell spontaneously within Chris Larabee when he was confronted.

The notorious gunfighter turned slightly from the Shaolin to stare down the Taos main street. His eyes wandered in the general direction that led back to Four Corners as he lit a cigarillo. "Well, we're sure as hell fallin' apart." Larabee growled, mostly to himself through teeth gritted tightly around the small cigar.

"Was that not your intention? To go your individual ways?" Caine queried.

"Weren't the same thing." He threw back defensively.

"Because now it is John Dunne or Ezra Standish who chooses to separate? Not Chris Larabee or Vin Tanner?"

"Me and Vin weren't leavin' 'cuz we were mad."

"You were not angry with the thoughts Zach Monahans put in Vin Tanner's mind? Anger would not be part of what your friends experienced if you had left them?"

"Trouble comes lookin' for us." The gunslinger rationalized.

"Has Four Corners ever suffered from your presence?"

"Does draggin' down a few hitchin' posts count?" There was a hint of sarcasm and self-deprecation hiding a defensiveness.

"Has your town suffered from your absence?"

Larabee's mind involuntarily flashed to the ranchers ravaging the town the time a new marshal's demands had led to their decision to leave.

"Have you and your friends suffered when you separate?" Caine pushed and again Chris's mind all too quickly slid into memories of his time spent on a chain gang; how Vin would never have escaped Eli Joe on his own; Nathan would have lost his father in a most bitter way; no one would have been there to clear Josiah's name of serial murders.

"I don't like talkin' to you." Chris volunteered, but there was very little venom in his tone.

"You do not talk. You listen."

Caine again produced the prism from somewhere. This time the long, triangular piece of glass broke the warm, friendly sunlight down into its rainbow components and spread them along the white-washed porch. The colors were airy, more exhilarating than they had been in the dark cavern.

"By coincidence, sunlight is broken into seven colors. Some stand out boldly, some are difficult to see until conditions bring them to the fore. It is then that those colors are most apparent, and it becomes clear that they are all needed to make the light." As he spoke, Caine twisted the prism slightly so that the spectrum of colors disappeared and a focused beam of sunlight that they formed struck some ball moss and dry leaves. "And when those colors unite as one, and focus..." The brush burst into flame from the heat of the sunlight. Chris jumped back in surprise, but was fascinated by the controlled power. He looked up to meet the Shaolin's eyes.

Caine took the moment to drive his point home. "Each color, of itself, serves a purpose and is useful and good. Together, they are a force to be reckoned with." Caine handed the prism to Larabee and, with a humble shrug, moved gracefully off the porch.

Chris stood alone on the porch and stared at the glass in his hand. Just before he rounded the corner, the Priest pulled up, "Mr. Larabee?"

Chris looked in his direction.

"To 'talk' more would erase much misunderstanding."

Larabee's eyebrow shot up at the unexpected and uncharacteristic chastisement. Caine moved on. The blond head bobbed around as if it couldn't decide whether to nod or shake 'no'.

It was only then that JD Dunne slid away from the side of the house, contemplating what he had seen and heard. But he had been living on anger and jealously for too long. The cause of the pain had become secondary. He had to find a way to quench the hate. He headed toward town in defiance of Larabee's orders.

@@@@@@@

"Nathan Jackson."

The healer looked up when he heard the soft voice of Kwai Chang Caine call his name. Josiah and the Shaolin were walking his way.

"Caine. Josiah." He greeted them.

"It serves no purpose to anticipate the unknown."

Only upon this observation from the priest did Nathan realize his body was indeed tense, as if awaiting coming trouble. He forced his shoulders to relax and rolled his head and neck to loosen the knots. "Yeah, well, you know Josiah, right?" Nathan rebutted. "Then you know he has a tendency to take up other people's problems. Multiply that by our five other friends and you'll know it's just smart to expect trouble." The healer joked.

"Relax. That you might be better prepared for what conflicts may come."

"Easier said than done." Some of the humor gave way to truth and concern.

"A... distraction often helps." Caine crooked up one side of his mouth in a wry smile.

Nathan only then realized they had been walking as they spoke. They stopped before a strange small building made of opaque glass. Caine opened the door and motioned the former slave inside.

@@@@@@@

Ezra Standish entered through the white French doors of the house used by the Shaolin monks. The room was cool, but not chilled. It was airy, and the monks had told him the freshness in the air, a smell, but not a smell, came from fresh white sage. The plains Indians had introduced it to them. He wasn't surprised that this peaceful Oriental sect had made the acquaintance of the Native Americans. They seemed, somehow, to have something in common.

It didn't surprise him either, that one of these holy men, but one who traveled a slightly different path from his brothers, was a good friend to Josiah Sanchez.

He and Vin had accompanied Buck to the undertaker's. They stood silently as Buck paid his respects to the man who had been a brother to the secretly lonely son of a whore for more years than even Chris Larabee had been a part of his life. His shoulders slumped and trembled a little, but the big man was silent as he stared at the corpse. Whatever he said to his brother wasn't for other ears.

It had been an awkward time for Vin and himself as well, Ezra recalled. There had been no indication that their saying that Buck could trust them in these vulnerable times had taken any root. Except, he had let them accompany him. That should stand for something.

When Buck had broken the silence, it had not been by speaking to them but to the undertaker. The man's profession could only do so much, and Caleb's mortal remains needed a proper burial. Zach Monahans wasn't around. Ezra's anger again began to rise at the thought. Like Larabee had said, Monahans wouldn't be there when he was needed. He needed to be there with Buck and for Buck. Monahans should be there to share this responsibility with the gentle soul.

Instead, alone, as if the others weren't there, Buck spoke first to the mortician then headed toward the livery to make sure the coffin got on its way to the Monahans' ranch in the Texas west.

Buck had told Ezra to go back and rest. The southern gentleman had thought to argue, but he was tired, weaker than he cared to admit, and his friend didn't need that added burden. Ezra knew that if he stayed, it would only add to Buck's list of worries. So he had allowed himself to be escorted back to the safety of the house rented by the monks.

This damn friendship thing, Ezra thought. It was hard enough to care about others, to trust them and insist they trust you. But even harder was to know when to back off and not be a part of the conflict; to trust someone else to protect what he had just learned to hold so dear. The look Tanner had graced him with, though, offered assurance that he was accompanying their friend and Buck would know he wasn't alone.

How many of the lessons in friendship that Standish was being taught by Buck and, yes, even Larabee, were also being learned by the Texas loner? Several he suspected. And in that, the roots of friendship between gambler and tracker were strengthened as well. Ezra saw it in Vin's eyes and made sure the truth was reflected back to his friend. With a half smile and a sparkle of recognition in his eyes, Vin followed after their older friend.

Ezra looked around the room again. The sun was sinking, but still controlled the day. He rubbed a hand over his face to fight off the sleep that pulled at his eyelids near the bridge of his nose. The house had always been quiet, even when he and the normally boisterous Buck had invaded the sanctuary. But it seemed unnatural that it could be this quiet with all seven of them now in town.

Ezra headed toward an inner door, determined to account for each of the men he rode with and be sure that they were safe. He acknowledged, if only to himself, that he enjoyed this new found protectiveness he felt toward his friends. And they listened to him when he spoke. He would seek out young Mr. Dunne. He had a few words for their young sheriff.

@@@@@@@

Nathan Jackson was like a child on Christmas morning. Josiah took delight in watching his friend's rare, uncontrolled enthusiasm.

The healer had stepped into the glass structure to be met with a grassy, sweet, musty mixture of smells associated with herbs. Caine had explained it was a greenhouse and, with a small stove to warm it, the monks were able to grow herbs, roots and medicinal plants, year 'round.

"This room is Standish's and Tanner's worst nightmare." Sanchez laughed, knowing that those two above all others fought the teas and tinctures Nathan used on them.

Nathan knew what he was referring to and smiled back, "The fresh stuff is usually better. More potent. The stronger taste is just a side benefit." Except in the most desperate moments, he had to admit he enjoyed the colorful monologues the two came up with to describe medication. He fingered one of the plants.

"Ginseng." Caine offered when he saw Nathan was unfamiliar with this plant. "It will take several years before the root is ready to harvest. It will treat exhaustion. Fevers. We have found it grows well in this country." He pulled a straw from a plant that hung from the ceiling to dry. The Shaolin handed it to the healer.

"Buffalo grass." Nathan observed.

"In China, Mu-Su. The flowers and leaves treat ulcers and stimulate appetite." Nathan raised an eyebrow. Without being asked, Caine produced rice paper and a quill pen for Nathan to make notes.

"I could learn so much here."

"We are honored to teach." Caine responded, "And we will learn from you." He went to a teapot steeping on the stove. He poured hot tea for each of them and sat cross-legged on the rice paper beneath their feet. Nathan tentatively sipped the brew. He raised an eyebrow at the pleasant taste.

"Tea with ginger." Caine volunteered, "Colds, headaches, backaches." The wise man continued when Nathan's questioning look asked what it cured. The reference to backaches immediately had Nathan thinking of Vin. "And," Caine continued, "it tastes good." As simple as that.

Nathan smiled. "I have some recurring patients that will be a surprised for."

"You shepherd an amusing combination of old souls and new ones, Josiah Sanchez. It must have come as a surprise to you, that sense of which was which?"

It had been a long time since the self-defrocked priest had thought in those terms. And though he had been unable to completely disregard the enlightenments of his old schooling that allowed him to recognize such things, he had kept them to himself. It was nice to be able to discuss this now, "I never would have guessed when I first met them, no." He replied with an amused and wistful expression on his face.

Nathan, sipping at his tea, tried to understand what the other two were saying.

"It would serve Nathan Jackson well for you to explain some of these teachings to him."

"What?" Nathan asked, "Josiah, I want to learn this."

"Nathan, most of what I can teach you, you already do - already know. You don't need a name or a word put to it to..."

"To give finite definition to one's skills will reinforce the use of those skills." Caine chastised.

Nathan was somehow beginning to feel uncomfortable, "Josiah?"

"Eastern concepts are... difficult... sometimes to the conventional thinkers of the West." Josiah hedged.

"You are afraid your friend will not accept you if he does not accept your beliefs?"

"No, of course not…" Josiah didn't sound convincing.

Caine turned to the healer. "Would you accept that there is an energy that surrounds us?"

"Like sunlight? God?"

The Shaolin master shook his head in the negative and began to explain further, "We call it 'Chi'."

Nathan shrugged. He didn't get it.

"When you look into the eyes of a patient, do you see only the physical injuries, or the emotional injuries as well?"

The question seemed to change the subject, but somehow Jackson knew he was being dragged into a deeper understanding of himself whether he wanted the knowledge or not. And in response to the inquiry, Nathan thought of all the times he had seen emotional scars in the eyes of his friends.

"A healer can tend to and cure the body. A man has to recognize his own hurts in his mind, his heart. There, he has to cure himself." Nathan replied sadly.

"You treat only your friends physical injuries? Or despite what you say do you try to heal the emotional wounds?"

"Physical ones are easier."

"And you believe yourself to be a healer of physical pains. Yet you look into the eyes to see more. The eyes are the windows to the soul. Is that not correct... Mr. Standish?"

Ezra was startled. The fascinating conversation had held his attention. The Shaolin had never turned in his direction. How did Caine know he had arrived at the door and had been listening intently?

"A wise man lets no one see more than he would let them see." Ezra threw back defensively.

"And Mr. Jackson has never seen more than a patient intended to reveal?"

"Mr. Jackson has a way of putting things in perspective, displacing guilt, reassuring a patient, that has little to do with the physical ministering to wounds." Standish conceded.

The look Nathan shot Ezra was surprised, but appreciative. Ezra wouldn't meet his eyes.

"Please, join us." Caine poured another cup of the hot tea and offered it to the gambler who took it dubiously. Ezra didn't join the other three men sitting cross-legged on the floor, but stood there, listening. Somehow, Caine's words seemed directed at him. He would have been surprised to know that Nathan and even Josiah felt exactly the same way.

"It is with medicine as it is with the balance of the external world, as it is with the body, as it is with friendship." Kwai Chang Caine stated as if it made as much sense as reciting the alphabet instead of confusing his students. And they were his students, whether they realized it yet or not.

"Yin and yang." Josiah whispered as he began to understand. His friends were lost again. "Yin and Yang are the feminine and masculine elements of all things." The defrocked priest explained.

"Even people?" Ezra scoffed. Was there a barely detectable, embarrassed tone, almost a squeak to his voice? Did Nathan look like he'd been accused of being feminine?

There was more than a little amusement in Caine's voice as he offered an alternative explanation, "Perhaps it is better to explain Yang as the sunny side of the mountain - heat, stimulation, and excitement, light," Caine volunteered, "Yin is the shaded side of the mountain - cold, passive but responsive.

"Yin and Yang are polar pairs that cannot exist without each other, but Yin and Yang aspects can each be further divided into yin and yang." Josiah repeated as if it were old teachings he was repeating.

"Are you intentionally trying to make me feel stupid?" Ezra responded, trying to hide the interest he felt behind his sarcasm.

"Vin Tanner and Chris Larabee. Yin and Yang. Chris Larabee and JD Dunne. Yin and Yang." All three of the regulators were lost in the contemplation created by these words. Caine spoke rapidly so that the next words had their impact before they could be analyzed, "You and Mr. Wilmington, which is which? Speak, Ezra Standish." Caine compelled him.

"I think that changes." Standish surprised himself by answering honestly and straightforwardly.

"I think you are right." Caine smiled proudly. "As can be said of all of your friends. Yin and Yang control or balance each other. Yin and Yang change or transform into each other."

Josiah sat up straighter with a quick insight. "Just how is it you came to meet up with us?"

"Sometimes the lessons set before us are hard to learn and we would rather run away from what we begin to discover. You have much to learn from each other."

"So you're here to be sure we stay together? To learn?" Nathan was trying to understand how this man could know about what had happened in Four Corners when he'd never even been to the town. There was more going on than the cryptic Shaolin would reveal.

"A journey of discovery, a journey of the heart, can be the distance between towns or the span of one hand reaching out to another."

Cryptic. It could get old. And it made Ezra Standish decidedly uncomfortable. "It is my observation that man rarely makes that journey."

"All men make that journey." Caine replied, unaffected by the cynicism, "Some see the path through the eyes of others. Few are enlightened enough to see their own path for themselves."

Ezra was looking for a response when a threatening distraction came from behind him.

"Bunch of 'pagans' and 'outlaws', just like the parson called 'em." A unfamiliar, malicious, gravelly voice threw out the accusation.

Ezra and his friends turned around and found eight men crowded around the greenhouse door. Two had guns drawn and pointed at them. The taller of the two taunters motioned with his Colt for Josiah and the others to come outside.

Ezra was cursing himself. Out of respect for the men who had cared for him and his injuries the last few days, he had removed his weapons. He'd left them stowed inside as the monks had requested. Even the damn derringer had been left behind. Why? How would these strange men have known if he kept the small two-shot concealed? Why had he felt the need to play fair and by their rules while in their presence? Well, it was too late to contemplate on why he had felt so compelled to abide - honestly - their wishes.

And of all of his fellow regulators, why did it have to be Josiah and Nathan with him now? The two most likely to comply and leave their guns behind when requested to do so? He glanced down. Damn and double damn. Neither of his friends was wearing their gunbelt either.

Ezra had spun quickly in response to the hostile words. The world had spun even faster as the gambler's body reacted to the sudden movement with a wave of dizziness. The vertigo and sharp pain in his back reminded him that he had already overexerted himself this day. He acknowledged quickly, to himself, he wouldn't be much help against these ruffians.

Automatically the gentleman gunfighter's mind did what it did best - begin to concoct a sneaky way to get an advantage in this situation, to get away from the threat. The plotting was a little more difficult now than it would have been in the not so recent past. That was because, in the past, he would only be devising his own retreat. Now, that option never occurred to him. Four men would leave the greenhouse or none would.

Preparing himself for what was to come, Ezra was taken aback when he found himself nonchalantly maneuvered further inside the small structure toward the healer and safety by the surprisingly muscular bulk that was Josiah Sanchez.

"Watch out for Ezra." The preacher directed of Nathan, then smiled to himself as both of his friends balked. Neither Nathan nor Ezra was willing to let someone else fight their battles.

But before they could object, Josiah and Caine had preceded them out of the small glass structure. The holy men each walked directly up to one of the two troublemakers who had weapons drawn and neither stopped until they were well within arm's reach of a target.

"You have a problem?" Sanchez purred.

"We're sayin' you're hidin' behind protectin' Four Corners territories while you loot and rob the rest of us." The gunman who faced Sanchez replied with a bluster obviously stoked by a mob mentality.

"Where'd you hear that?" Sanchez wanted to learn the source of these rumors. They were becoming too widespread and accusatory. They were becoming dangerous.

"Dog don't shit in its own back yard." An anonymous, gravelly voice shouted from the back of the crowd, "Time for talkin' is past." Sanchez had the sense that the ominous presence instigating things from the back of the pack had intentionally cut short his attempt to question why they were being accused.

"We say it's time you was held accountable." Someone else added, encouraged by the taunts from the man in the shadows.

"We do not wish to fight you." Caine stated in his methodic way. The tone of voice asked no quarter nor gave one. But it offered, as he always did, one opportunity to find a peaceful resolution instead of hostility.

"Shoulda thought 'a that 'fore you twisted the law 'round to suit you."

"Kill 'em and be done with it. The boss'll handle the damn propaganda." It was the anonymous, gravelly voice again.

The man who owned that voice moved forward, drawing his own gun. It seemed he had more control than one would first suspect considering he tried to stay in the background.

'Boss? Propaganda?' Sanchez chanced a quick glance back at Ezra. He'd caught it, too. In fact, the words had registered immediately with Standish. The instigator was not only educated, but knew the power of words. The crystal blue eyes that met emerald ones told the gambler that the missionary's son clearly recognized a rabble-rouser when he heard one. This was more than a spur of the moment posse seeking justice.

Ezra glanced around for a weapon. His eyes met those of his dark skinned partner. Nathan's eyes then slid past him toward the woodpile at the side of the greenhouse. Ezra understood the look. Nathan was thinking a club would be better than nothing. Maybe if they made a run that direction ...

Before the two regulators inside could take action, Josiah and Caine made their move. At the same time, each sliced his body to present the least possible target and grabbed the gun hand of the man closest to them.

Kwai Chang Caine wrapped his hand around the cylinder of his man's revolver rendering it useless. Caine then used his other arm to hyper-extend his mark's elbow. The maneuver turned the Kung Fu master's back to his target. The culmination of the move was that Caine kicked back behind himself and the heel of his foot connected with the other man's jaw. Caine finished the 360 degree rotation and was again facing the remaining gang.

Josiah mirrored Caine's first moves. Long hours of practice had proven to them both that action is faster than reaction. And they knew they could take control of the guns before the aggressors could pull the triggers.

But Josiah had never perfected the passive fighting style of the Shaolin. He always seemed to add his own quirk. Caine wouldn't approve, but when threatened, the damage he wrought was more lasting. It was meant as a warning to others that it wasn't worth endangering his friends.

Josiah grabbed his attacker's gun arm and twisted his elbow as it was meant to bend. But he kept twisting until the Colt was pointed over its owner's left shoulder. When Josiah put pressure on the trigger finger, the anonymous, gravelly-voiced heckler went down. Josiah rammed his free hand into his attacker's belly, the result doubling the man over where his jaw met Sanchez's elbow. Hard. Josiah then took the Colt from the slack hand and used it to club his adversary senseless. Josiah and Caine's opponents both hit the ground at the same time.

Caine still had the gun in his hand as the gunfighter he opposed crashed to the ground. Ezra was moving forward to take the weapon and the advantage, when the Shaolin tossed the revolver out of reach of the fray.

Ezra and Nathan exchanged dumbfounded looks. Ezra couldn't hide the expression on his face. Nathan didn't even try. The man had thrown away one of the only weapons the peacekeepers had access to. They were even more dismayed to see Josiah follow the example and toss his confiscated six shooter out of reach as well.

But they knew why Josiah did it. Josiah wanted to feel flesh on flesh. He wanted to pummel those who had threatened the lambs who were under his care - even if the lambs had teeth of their own.

The remaining five attackers circled the Kung Fu masters. Ezra and Nathan were all but forgotten in light of the more immediate threats. Two of the assailants pulled knives. They'd been spooked from using guns, which didn't seem to be much good against these two.

Most of the moves were too fast and too unexpected to follow. What Nathan could tell was that Josiah and Caine both used every part of their bodies as offensive and defensive weapons. They turned their attackers' momentum against them. The Shaolin seemed to sense the men at his back. No one could get close without being met by a defensive tactic.

Josiah hit a man on the side of the neck with the blade of his hand. The attacker, almost as big as Josiah himself, dropped like he'd been pole-axed. 'Marcus of Queensbury Rules be damned.' Was the pleasant thought that crossed through Standish's ever-scheming mind. It was followed closely by, 'The big guy's been holding out on us. No wonder he's more likely to pull a club than a trigger.'

Neither Ezra nor Jackson made another move to help their colleagues. They weren't needed. The unfamiliar martial arts moves looked like dance steps; poetry in motion. The gambler and the healer simply stood there and appreciated the exhibition.

In short order, eight men lay at the feet of the two, incapacitated before they realized what had happened. Josiah and Caine weren't even breathing hard as they faced each other, placed their right hand over their left fist and bowed slightly to each other.

Josiah had to laugh at the befuddled expressions on the faces of his friends. Then a smile broke over Standish's face that showed his gold incisor. Sanchez laughed even harder when he read that look. How many ways had the amiable gambler come up with that would make a profit off of what he just witnessed?

A low whistle as Buck and Vin joined the others indicated they, too, had witnessed the fight and were equally impressed. They were walking amid the groaning carcasses that littered the lawn, gathering guns and knives and tossing them out of reach. Curious, and with a professional interest, they would occasionally hunker down to see how much damage had been inflicted with this unique fighting style.

Vin hadn't seen one legitimate punch thrown. It had all been done with stiff fingers, the palms of hands and the soles of feet. He hadn't been able to see where the force of the blows had come from.

"What the hell was that?" Buck asked with open admiration.

"A fortune waiting to be made, Buck." Ezra answered as he limped up to his taller friend. He never looked up from his own examination of the injured.

"You mean Josiah and any four men?" Wilmington perked up. Ezra was again amazed at how, out of years of conditioning, his lanky friend could shut down on his darker emotions. Buck loved life too much to not be sincerely entertained by what he'd just witnessed.

Standish thought to keep the jovial good mood going as long as possible and when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Larabee approaching, he saw an opportunity.

"Yes, yes, that too." The gambler responded to Buck's suggestion, "There is a definite potential in matching Mr. Sanchez against the most adept pugilists." His smile got even wider and he looked up to watch Buck's reaction to his next statement, "But what would the lovely feminine members of the community of Four Corners wager to see whether Mr. Larabee could execute those kicks given his penchant for tight jeans?" Ezra couldn't resist once he had noticed Larabee strolling up knowing that their leader, too, had observed the altercation. Wilmington gave a hoot of surprised laughter.

"Shut up, Ezra." Larabee sniped reflexively. But inside, he couldn't help but laugh at the way that man's mind worked.

Buck jumped right in on the opportunity to tease his friend, "Boy used to need jeans that tight. Kept 'em from getting snagged up jumpin' barbed wire runnin' from irate daddies ... and ugly daughters."

"No stories, Buck." Chris growled threateningly. But he knew it was lost on his old friend.

"Hey, Ezra, I see what you mean by a fortune waiting to be made. How about it, Old Dog? It worth you buyin' me a couple of drinks to keep those stories to myself?" Buck teased.

"Ezra, I hold you personally responsible. If I hear Buck telling any of those tales, I'm gonna kick your ass." The gunslinger smirked as he turned the tables on the gambler.

"How am I supposed to ... Mr. Larabee, seeing as you have yet to devise your own means to control Mr. Wilm … in all your years of association … I will not be held responsible …"

Chris knew those two would connive and scheme until all those embarrassing stories were told. Damn, it was good to have them back. The leader of the Four Corner regulators also knew what his resident conman was about in keeping Buck's thoughts off of recent events. He tossed that green-eyed fraud a thankful smirk which was returned in kind.

Chris turned away from Ezra so the gambler wouldn't see the full-blown smile that he could no longer conceal and faced Josiah who did see the look that lit up the other man's face, "What's going on here?"

"These fellows seem to still be accusing us of crimes ..." Josiah turned serious and Chris followed suit.

"Not good, Cowboy," Vin stated, all business now. "We tried to wire Mary. Some weasels 've cut the wires between here and there. Whatever story gets told out of this town, someone else wants to be tellin' it."

Realizing along with all the others that Vin's statement meant the trouble and danger weren't over, Buck asked suddenly, "Where's JD?" It wasn't like the boy to miss any action.

"I told him to wait until tomorrow." Larabee fumed. He could feel it. The kid wasn't close by. "He wanted to go talk to the Sheriff."

"That might not be such a good idea." Nathan stood up and showed them the deputy's badge he'd removed from the vest of one of the attackers.

"Damn." Buck responded immediately. Then he was gone, heading back toward the center of town to find and watch after his young friend, "Damn."

"Buck!" Larabee knew it was useless, but hoped against hope his old friend would hold up. He turned back to the others. "Josiah, you, Nathan and Ezra clean up this mess." Ezra immediately began to protest. "You're not up to it, Standish." And Larabee was gone. Vin kept pace with his friend.

"Your friend fights his emotions - internal forces - when he should be watching for external dangers." Caine observed solemnly of Buck Wilmington.

"A man sheds blood before he sheds tears." Josiah quoted, and it was clear that it came from learnings that were familiar and shared by him and the Shoalin.

"A man overcomes his fears." Caine responded in direct contradiction to the teachings, "If a man fears tears more than he fears blood that is the obstacle he must overcome."

Ezra stared down the alley where Larabee and Tanner had followed Buck. The words concerned him. He took a step to follow the others despite his waning health. "Ezra, you're tired, you're weak and you're wounded. Will you be a help or hindrance?" He turned eyes back to Josiah as the larger man spoke.

Ezra hated it that they all read him so easily. Hated it that this gentle giant knew so well that he was compelled to go after and watch out for Buck, knowing that his friend would be too busy watching out for the others to watch out for himself.

"You know Chris would die before he let anything happen to Buck or JD. And Vin is there for all of them." Josiah prodded.

Finally, again conceding the lesson learned, that sometimes the best you can do for your friends is to know your own strengths; when to be there, when to trust that they know you are there in spirit. He touched the brim of his hat with two fingers and started to help corral their prisoners.

@@@@@@@

JD knew that at some point he would have to answer to Larabee for heading back into town. But he had to do something. He didn't know why he was so angry. Buck and Ezra were safe. It was more than he could have hoped for. If he would only let go of the hate, things could be like they had been.

He didn't know what he had expected to learn talking with the local sheriff; but he never expected the information he got.

Now he was on his way back to the two story house at the edge of town to tell Chris he'd been right about Zach Monahans all along and let his best friend know that the amiable gunfighter had made a mistake by standing beside that man.

With what the Sheriff had told him, the young easterner could finally prove to them that Monahans was an outlaw and that he, himself, was a better friend than some prickly old man. JD couldn't understand why he wasn't getting as much satisfaction out of this news as he thought he would.

Then he saw that man. Zach Monahans. JD couldn't believe his luck as he watched the tall, greying Texan ride into town and steer his buckskin toward the hitching rail. It all fell into place. That man had caused the disruption in his friends. Buck and Ezra had left because of him. The sheriff had to have been right. Riding in on that big horse was a target for all of his anger, doubt and fear.

The youngest of the seven fingered his six shooters and moved into the middle of the street.

JD Dunne wanted so badly to deny that this man before him was an impressive figure, strong, confident, self-made, that he missed the worry and preoccupied tension in the tall, older man. He didn't think what the slouched shoulders and tired eyes might mean. He never noticed Pappy rein in beside his companion.

"Zach Monahans," JD called from twenty feet away.

The Texan looked up to see who had called him. He couldn't miss the posture of the upstart or what it meant. Unhurriedly he finished tying off his horse and stepped into the street.

"I don't have time for this, Boy." Zach tossed back.

"Come in and talk to the sheriff." Dunne ordered.

Monahans turned his back as if, yet again, JD weren't worth his time.

"You got something to hide? You come in and tell the sheriff you planned the bank robbery. You come in and clear Buck and Ezra." He spat out, defiant at being dismissed so lightly.

"Me and mine don't rob banks." The accusation had stopped him in his tracks.

"I'm takin' you in." JD's fingers flexed above his gun handles.

"You?" Zach laughed, "Some scrawny little stable boy that Buck lets run with the big dogs?" Even though he held little respect for the youth in front of him, he'd been challenged. It wasn't in his nature to turn his back on a threat. It wasn't in his nature to back down from a fight.

Pappy gave no ground as he stood beside his friend.

"In your own time, Monahans," There was only the slightest catch in JD's voice. He would end this here and now.

Zach cocked his hip, lowering his holster slightly, not a conventional stance for a fast draw, but it had served him well over the years.

JD recognized the posture as the overly relaxed and deceptive one Buck had acquired, obviously from this teacher. Again the youngster tried to reject the fact that this man's influence, good and bad, was so much a part of what gave Buck the values he had, and made him the man he was; the friend that he was.

The young man tried to force the sissy, emotional thoughts out of his mind. He would make himself concentrate on the fact that, what he also remembered about this relaxed stance, was that Buck often used it to fire from the hip, having no need to raise the gun to his eye level to aim. That took seconds off the man's draw. Adrenaline notched up JD's reflexes. And at the same time Dunne found his mind wandering again. What did he bring to the fellowship he shared with Buck?

Young Dunne had read in his dime novels to watch a man's eyes at times like this. Wilmington had proclaimed that to be bull. First, he had counseled, don't be stupid enough to let the other man draw first. If you are stupid enough to let him draw first, watch his hands. It ain't his damn eyes that're gonna clear leather.

It had to have been Zach Monahans who gave a young Thomas Adam that lesson in survival. There was no doubt that he also taught the boy who would become Buck Wilmington how to shoot, to drink, to ride, to stand up for himself and respect himself.

JD mentally tried to shake off the thoughts. He tried to regain the cool indifference he had felt when he faced down four men in Soccorro. What had changed? And what if one man did watch another's eyes at a time like this, would he see the anger, temptation, hate, despair? What would Monahans see if he looked closely into JD's wide hazel eyes? Jealousy, envy, confusion? What would the survivor of this stand off have to confront in Buck's eyes when it was over?

The only thing JD knew was, at this moment, his eyes were glued to Monahans' gun hand. Until something moved in to block his target.

Buck Wilmington stepped into the street in front of Monahans. He looked at JD like he was living a nightmare. His usually expressive face had shut down. "You so set in a fast draw contest?" He shouted to his young friend.

The streets began to clear rapidly now that all these dangerous men were congregating and looking for trouble.

"Get out of the way, Buck. Stop protectin' him."

"You don't push a man into a gunfight when he said no."

"If he's got nothin' to hide, he'll walk out of the sheriff's office free and clear."

"You so sure of that?"

"The sheriff said..."

"A deputy just helped men attack Josiah, Nathan and Ezra. What are they guilty of?"

JD stood his place. He looked at Buck. There had been a time Dunne thought there was no one Buck would defend above their friendship. Was the lanky gunfighter willing to draw on the young Easterner to protect the older man? That Buck was protecting someone falsely accused, or that Buck was trying to protect JD from himself were beyond the boy's concept at the moment. All he felt was that, at this moment, Buck Wilmington - Buck Wilmington - was willing to call him out, "Did you hear what he said to me? He thinks I can't do my job. I'm the sheriff. He thinks I ain't good enough to ride with ya'll."

"Boy, you don't kill a man 'cuz you don't like each other. Bein' faster than him don't make you better than him. It don't prove nothin' like what you're lookin' for."

JD heard the words, but his pride and ego were at stake now. He was vaguely aware that Buck had shouldered Pappy to the safety of the boardwalk. Obviously Wilmington was determined to fight this battle on behalf of the Texas rancher and his foreman. JD looked up at his friend with a sense of betrayal and jealousy; even as he tried to hide the hurt.

"You wanna fight? It's so important to you to be a gunslinger?"

"It ain't like that, Buck." Couldn't Buck see that he was protecting a criminal? JD thought to himself he would never be so blinded by friendship as to -- suddenly, in a flash of clarity, JD saw what his best friend saw. Just as Zach Monahans had led Buck into manhood, so exactly had Buck nurtured JD, a young, lonely, idealistic boy who had no real skills to offer the friendship in return. All he had was the friendship itself, an undying loyalty and the certainty that Buck would never do wrong - and the commitment to protect his best friend if he was falsely accused. That's all Buck was doing now. Even as a grown man, the scoundrel didn't think he had anything to teach Monahans, didn't think he had anything to offer but trust and loyalty.

Buck was tired, exhausted really, and on the verge, for the first time, of giving up on everyone around him. He misread JD's hesitancy and abandoned hope of diffusing the situation, "Clear leather, boy. 'Cuz you take this path, they'll be a time you're facing down someone - thought they were your friend." Buck's voice was rough with disappointment and bitterness. Of all the emotions swirling around him like a dust devil, Wilmington knew that if JD followed through now, no matter what happened, he would never again be the boy Buck had loved. "Let's get that behind you."

JD hesitated. If he backed down was he a coward? He somehow registered that Larabee and Tanner had arrived at the scene but were staying on the boardwalk. How could he back down now, with them watching? He wasn't afraid. He wasn't.

Larabee was holding the tracker back. He recognized this had gone too far. This Wilmington was ruthless and deadly. He had fought his emotions too long and they were all focused now on protecting Zach against an unjust attack even if he hadn't analyzed the emotion. JD was close to betraying everything Buck believed in. Buck could snap. Buck could kill. But this was still JD. Larabee knew how much the boy meant to the former Texas Ranger and so he waited, hoping to see some slight give in Wilmington's usual devotion to Monahans.

Larabee again regretted his own one time act of betrayal that now kept him from being able to reach through the red haze to the real Buck Wilmington.

Vin watched heartsick for his older friend and worried for his younger one, and more than a little aware of how having to stand by and do nothing was tearing his best friend apart.

Time stood still.

Zach walked up beside Buck like a father to his son. "We don't have time for him." He said more softly than most people would have thought he knew how to speak.

The voice he trusted above all others gave Buck back just enough self-control to watch JD's shoulders slump and his head bow. And then Buck heard it for the first time. The voice that was so gentle while it was directed at Buck, held, at the same time, so much animosity for the young man before them, "Now, damn it, Zach, you just make things worse."

With those words, the young man's hands moved away from his twin six shooters. Buck wasn't taking sides, he was trying to protect two people he cared dearly for from each other and from themselves.

It might make him a coward, it might mean he was weak. He wasn't afraid of the gunfight, he was afraid of losing his friend. JD Dunne would not draw on Buck Wilmington. Buck saw JD's actions for what they were. This was his JD. This was friendship.

Then time started again.

Buck was the only one in a position to see the glint from the rooftops.

For one horrific moment, JD thought he had pushed Wilmington too far as the lanky gunman's revolver cleared leather. There would be many sleepless nights as the boy recalled how he responded to the motion; that he himself started his own draw.

The nightmares wouldn't come from the fact that, while he didn't have the unnatural, lightning speed of Larabee, this man who preached accuracy over speed and venomously opposed JD's attempts at shoot-outs, had drawn and fired before JD cleared leather.

No, while JD was startled to see how far he himself had to go to match that speed, the night chills would spring from the realization that, for a heartbeat, as a want-to-be gunfighter, when he had genuinely thought he had pushed his best friend too far - how could he even think that of Buck? - That he himself had tried to outdraw the older man - to shoot first. What was he, JD Dunne, becoming? What had he become?

Two shots sounded at once. All of these thoughts coalesced in the young regulator's mind before the echoes of the gunfire faded.

Buck had fired at a target on the roof. The former Texas ranger should never have been able to shoot from the hip and hit his target 35 yards away and at that angle.

At the same time, the force of a second bullet, a rifle shot shoved Zach into Buck who went to the ground with his precious burden.

It occurred to JD, perhaps for the first time, that Buck had a reputation as a gunfighter separate from his history of riding with Chris. This occurred to the detached part of his mind that also realized that Buck had drawn, shot and killed a surprise target and JD had barely cleared leather.

Buck's target sagged over the roof.

Another bullet, from a roof on the other side of the street, slammed into Zach's back even as Buck tried to turn him to check the first wound. Buck covered Monahans' body protectively with his own.

Larabee and Tanner were already returning fire when they made eye contact. A second sniper still held the high ground. Vin acknowledged the shared look, back-stepped, drew his mare's leg and was gone. He would find a way to the rooftops himself and confront this cowardly attacker.

With his right hand extended, Larabee fired at the muzzle flash of the second assassin. He fisted his left hand into Wilmington's jacket, trying to drag him to his feet ... off the street ... out of danger.

His old friend was just as oblivious to the fist tugging at him as he was to the gunshots echoing around him. His focus was on stopping the blood that bubbled from Zach's chest.

Then JD put himself and his twin Colts between the shooter and his friends. Both guns were blazing.

Larabee trusted the boy to cover them. Then Pappy was backing the boy's guns. Larabee holstered his pistol and grabbed a handful of Monahans' shirt while maintaining his deathgrip on Buck. Somehow the result was that Buck was on his feet and supported the older man as Larabee forced them both toward safety.

"JD," The leader of the seven demanded with a shout. It was an order for the boy and Pappy to follow them inside as he kicked open the door of a mercantile and stumbled inside.

Chris was able to get his burden well inside and against a far counter before Zach's weight dragged them to the floor. Buck's hands were covered in blood. It was smeared across his shirt and jacket. Somehow it had been smudged across his left cheek.

Zach's own shirt was almost purple with the thick life-giving fluid. Pappy was there then, and ripped open his old friend's shirt. The white haired man's only reaction was to sit back, stunned, and watch the blood and air bubble on his lifelong friend's chest.

"Do something!" Buck demanded, using his own hands to uselessly dam off the flow. "Do something." This time it was a whispered plea and was directed at Chris.

The stoic gunfighter closed his eyes, physically pained that it wasn't in his power to do as his old friend asked.

JD, guns still trained at the now quiet street, glanced at his friend, hearing the anguish there. Tears threatened to leak unbidden from the corner of his best friend's eye. JD couldn't look back. Now he was scared. Things were terribly wrong. Buck Wilmington didn't cry.

The young Easterner was suddenly fighting to catch his breath and his chest was in an ever-tightening vise grip. He couldn't close his eyes. Because when he did, it wasn't Buck holding Zach he saw, but himself holding Buck, bloody on the dusty hardwood floor. He knew exactly how his best friend felt at this moment, the helplessness, the loss, wanting to fight death itself. He knew, because he had felt just that way three days ago when the telegram came that said Buck Wilmington was dead.

JD realized, too late, that he had wronged Buck immensely by expecting him to choose between Zach and himself in this situation or any situation. And he also understood that he had inadvertently made the Texas rancher a target out there on the street. He looked over to where his best friend was hunched over the too still form, holding on for all he was worth. What had he allowed to be taken from Buck?

"Nathan!" Buck screamed, grasping at any hope. "Nathan!"

JD's eyes were now pleading for Chris to make this right.

"Chris." The desperation in his oldest friend's voice raised the fine hairs on the nape of the gunfighter's neck, "Chris, find Nathan, a doctor, anyone, please, Chris, do something."

"Thomas Adam," Zach's voice cut through everything, weak but authoritative. Buck immediately gave the man his full attention. "Don't ask for more than … a man can give."

Zach locked on Larabee's eyes and found strength in them to gasp out the words, "Clay Kestrel's behind all this." His mouth wasn't working right. His mind was trying to wander to another place ... he had to focus. "He needs you dead. Or hunted. At first, just ...," His eyes included Larabee and Wilmington, "...now, all of you."

The effort to talk, to warn, took its toll. The older man began to cough, blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. He grasped Buck's and Pappy's hands and arched his back as he fought through the pain. JD turned away, not yet strong enough to watch Zach's pain, much less what Buck was going through. Chris saw this and wanted to turn away as well, but owed it to his oldest friend to offer what strength he could. "Kestrel don't matter ..." Buck began, trying to soothe the older man.

But Zach shushed him and shook his head violently, eyes squinted shut in pain. What he was trying to say was clear. It did matter. Zach opened his eyes and again found those of Larabee. Chris understood. He understood how dangerous Kestrel could be and that they could use an edge against him; use the information of why he had shown up when he did and continued to haunt the seven. "Who said ... how do you know?" He would give the man this chance to pass on the news that might save his son.

"It's something big." The Texan said to the Gunfighter. Then the old, midnight blue eyes slid over to meet the matching eyes hovering so close, "You know something, Thomas Adam, something important that … you don't know you know. He can't … let …you remember…"

Buck was beyond anything but grief and loss. JD heard the words, and knew how dangerous a man Kestrel was, but it would take time for him to grasp the ramifications of that statement and realize what a threat they were to his best friend. Right now he only knew that his brother was in pain and there was nothing he could do.

Larabee began a slow boil. Kestrel was threatening those under his protection and intended to continue the threat; more than that, he was successfully playing some sadistic game because he enjoyed seeing them suffer. Larabee fought to control the rage that, out of habit, threatened to evolve from his helplessness.

"Stop it. Rest." Buck demanded. "Pappy ..." He reached up with his free hand and grabbed a stack of linens off the counter. He forced them at the oldster. "Fix him."

The regret and helplessness in Pappy's eyes were like a physical thing. "Fix him." Wilmington repeated.

When Pappy in his helplessness couldn't find the strength to take the material, Buck himself laid them on Zach's chest as if it might staunch the flow. The red, immediately creeping into and saturating the white linens, hypnotized the gunfighter and he stared at it and lost everything around him.

Zach Monahans reached weakly up and touched his bloody fingers to his son's cheek. It broke the spell. Buck looked into the other's eyes, "Look what you've done, Thomas Adam." He smiled weakly. Were those tears leaking from his own, old, tired eyes now? "You gave me my dream and you gave me yours." He fought to get the words out, "I get to go out doing something important," They all knew that to the man who thought very little of most of his fellow man, warning them of Kestrel's threat, protecting Buck, was the most important thing he could do. He broke into a spasm of coughs that broke up the rest of his words, "go out ... and before ... I'm too ... old to go out ... like a real man. And I got ... people 'round me who ... care ... and I ... love." Even now the word was hard for him to say. He grasped Pappy's hand as tight as his condition allowed.

Buck took his other hand in both of his own, big and strong, and held them tighter to his cheek, "You tell Caleb, when you see him, save some of the pretty girls for me ... stay out of trouble. I know you two can find it even in heaven." His voice broke and he couldn't say more.

"You'd make any father proud, Thomas ..." He was too weak to finish. His eyes went one last time to Larabee's.

"I'll take care of it." Chris Larabee promised the old man who just now, he may have finally learned to understand. "I'll protect him."

Almost peaceful in the end, the graying head slumped against Buck's chest. His eyes were closed.

Buck fought back the tears once he realized they were falling. His eyes burned and he held them wide to stave off the drops heavy on his lower lids. Zach wouldn't approve.

Buck held onto the lifeless body like he would never let go; like to let go would mean nothing would be the same again. Chris wished for the time when he would have known the right words. Or the time when there would have been no need for words between them.

JD wanted to do something, but was afraid if he touched Buck he might break. And if he touched Chris, he might erupt. The anger was there again. The helplessness and frustration manifested as anger. He was fighting it, even the younger man could sense that this time Chris knew the anger was wrong and was trying to work passed it or at least focus it in the right direction.

The gunfire from outside had stopped sometime during the crisis. The fact manifested itself when new gunfire exploded in the distance, from the direction of the Shaolins' makeshift temple.

"Buck, they're going after Josiah and the others." JD exclaimed. He was hunkered down inside the mercantile door, trying to be as close to the bereaved man as possible and still stand guard. The young man's voice vibrated. He was torn between staying inside or rushing to help the others. And this was the first time he could remember that his voice wouldn't break through to his kind-hearted friend. He waited for the eyes to rise and meet his, the smile to form and the answers and comfort to come. But they didn't. And he suddenly, sorrowfully realized their friendship wasn't one where he could offer that level of comfort and peace back to Buck. He had been jealous of a man who held a different place in Buck's heart, separate and apart from the part he claimed, a more mature part. What could he do to make that right?

Chris knelt beside his old friend and watched carefully the faint tremors in the muscles and the midnight blue eyes, glassy, not quite there.

"Buck, listen." JD beseeched.

"Go." Pappy demanded, and his voice did cut through to Buck, "Take care of those rotters. For Zach."

Chris Larabee's head jerked up at those words, and he immediately put his hand on the big man's shoulder. He knew a part of Buck Wilmington the others didn't; the part that needed to be led gently back from this terrible grief before it consumed him. But it was too late. Pappy had reminded him that there was revenge to be extracted for what took place this day. As the distant gunfire gradually registered, Larabee saw a Buck Wilmington emerge that the others didn't even know to look out for. Buck accepted Pappy's decree. He would kill them all.

One heartbeat, the amiable gunfighter cradled his oldest friend. The next breath, still covered in blood, he was through the door like a wounded puma bent on revenge. He would kill them all.

Reflexively, defensively, Dunne stood to follow, only to be shoved aside by Larabee, whose only focus was to stay up with his friend and cover his back - to think for him because that man wasn't thinking, only reacting.

At that moment, JD understood why Buck readily accepted the hostility that, so often, was Chris; why he understood. Buck had the same anger within himself. They would be no more likely to rein in this self-destructive avenger than one could have reined in Larabee.

JD picked himself up and bolted out the door to face what might come.

@@@@@@@

It wasn't lost on Nathan that the prisoners kneeling before them lived by the gun. Neither was it lost on him that at the moment they were completely cowed by two men who were unarmed. Josiah and Caine stood before the men as Nathan tied their hands.

The holsters and knives had been taken from the men and piled beside the house. The six disarmed captives who were able, knelt, ankles crossed behind them and hands on their heads. One was dead. One was bad enough off that he wasn't a threat.

Nathan had followed Caine's directions and found a length of rope. They heard the gunshots just as he secured the first man. Three gunshots and silence. At least two different kinds of guns had barked. Maybe three. Nathan looked over the greasy head of the man whose hands he was binding. His eyes met Josiah's and Ezra's in confusion.

One gunshot, they could guess what that meant. Continuing gunfire, that would be something they could figure out. Three shots? Nathan went back to securing the prisoners. No one spoke.

Nathan wouldn't let Ezra help. The man was pushing too hard. So, as a compromise, the healer insisted that, short of going inside to rest, the gambler must at least sit and relax on the porch.

At the sound of the three shots, Ezra's reflexes had him moving to his feet. Josiah's strong hand held him down and forced him to act as part of a team rather than a rebel. They would finish their responsibility here and then handle what came next together. Ezra had to argue with himself to remember that this course of action had served him well since he met these men.

Irrationally Ezra caught himself counting. 1001 ... 1002 ... 1003 ... a child's game to gauge the time between a lightening bolt and thunder. A way to tell how far away the storm was from a frightened, lonely child. How far away the danger was. 1004 ... 1005 ... The fourth gunshot ripped through the silence like thunder. This time, it was the thunder, in the form of a rifle shot, closer now, too close, not the lightning that held the danger.

Nathan spun around from the impact of a bullet even as the nearness of the report registered.

The prisoners, even the ones with their hands tied, scrambled toward their weapons.

Bullets from the roof of the Shaolins' makeshift temple rained down on Caine and the others.

Josiah and Kwai Chang Caine barely broke their stride as they grabbed Jackson under the arms and dragged him to the safety of the greenhouse. Ezra dove in behind them.

Caine was already grabbing golden rod, soldier's woundwart and boneset to treat Nathan's wound.

Ezra met Josiah's eyes. They were in trouble. The safe haven of the greenhouse was temporary at best. One shooter had them covered from the roof. The other six adversaries who were still mobile grabbed their guns back and quickly regrouped. Their wounded pride wasn't going to let them forget that the men inside were unarmed.

Josiah broke eye contact first and addressed Caine, "How bad is it?"

"It will mend."

"I hope we live long enough."

Caine bowed his head to conceal his own opinions.

"We could take out some of these panes of glass; creep around back ..." The proposition was annulled before it became a possibility as two bullets shattered the glass in the back of the greenhouse. One of the men had seen Josiah and Ezra's shadows on the glass and took the shot. They both dropped down below the cabinets beside Nathan.

"Any other suggestions?" Josiah asked with an amusement out of place given their circumstances.

"Either of you hit?" Nathan demanded.

"Not yet." Ezra replied in disgust at their situation.

Everyone's eyes flickered around the small structure for inspiration. Bullets sounded sporadically to let them know the enemy was still outside.

Hope came from outside as the distinctive cough of Vin's mare's leg joined the fray.

The reaction inside was instantaneous, "Vin! Cover!" Ezra commanded. The mare's leg responded in staccato. The bullets dropped one man, sneaking up on the greenhouse door. He fell to the ground.

Josiah dived out the door and grabbed the gun from the lifeless hand of the man who had fallen to Vin's aim. Kneeling, he added his cover fire to the sharpshooter's as Ezra serpentined his way inside the house. He was running on adrenaline now; ignoring the sweat that beaded on his brow in direct contrast to the cold, clammy feel of his skin. Bullets nipping at his boots added speed to spent muscles.

@@@@@@@

Vin scaled the hitching post, porch support and façade of the Mercantile like stairsteps. His keen eyes scanned the rooftops. The man Buck killed was there, sagging partially down the roofing tiles. There was no other movement. No birds, no wind.

The hunter part of his mind was easily able to scan for threats while the friend part of his mind stayed back below with Chris and the others. He would rather be down there, adding his strength to keep them together. For now he'd be satisfied to use his aerie perch to protect them.

Chris was right. There had been a second assassin. But where ...

The new, more distant sound of a round of gunfire from the direction of the Shaolins' house, answered his questions. With a running start he leapt from one roof to the next and headed back toward where they'd left Ezra and the others. The initial sporadic gunfire had given way to occasional echoes as he moved closer to the old wood frame house. It made him pick up his pace.

Tanner never thought he'd be thankful for closed in, cramped civilization. But he appreciated it now in the form of these buildings, too close together. It made jumping from one to the other over the narrow alleyways, from one flat rooftop to the other, little more than a stroll. He got to his friends in record time.

Getting to the roof of the Texas style house itself was the only problem. But the gable on the east side, nearest town, gave him enough of a handhold to grab onto where otherwise his boots would have slid down the slick, wood shingles. He levered himself over the gingerbread trim to the flat part of the roof and was facing the back of the house in two steps; just in time to gun down the strapping cowboy taking aim at his friends in the greenhouse.

Tanner arrived barely in time to save Josiah and the others. He laid down well gauged, but rapid cover fire when he heard Ezra's request.

The sun was in the west. It hid the shadow of the man creeping up on Vin from behind the other gable on the front of the house. The gunfire and shouts below concealed whatever small sounds he might have made in his cat-like grace.

In his concern for his friends, Tanner forgot, for a moment, that another assassin roamed the rooftops that were so often the tracker's sole domain. He forgot that he had been tracking a canny, deadly lone wolf; one able to learn from and about those he stalked.

Vin Tanner felt only the quick, blinding pain as the rifle butt connected with the base of his skull. And then darkness.

@@@@@@@

Ezra Standish didn't understand why a sect that disallowed guests to wear guns in their temple would in fact, store those weapons on the second floor when they had gently confiscated them from their owners. He thought he had heard some of the Shaolin priests, and later Josiah and Caine speaking of harmonics and balance and negative energy being cleansed. Probably all fascinating and the potential for an exceptionally good con given a superstitious mark.

But what mattered to Ezra was that the first night he had been strong enough, he tracked down the weapons and knew where they were secreted. 'Thank you, Mother, for my inherited cynicism and innate mistrust. May it always serve me so well as it has now.'

He rushed into the spartan white upstairs bedroom and straight to the unobtrusive trunk. It wasn't even locked. What a strange, confident, trusting group these monks were. But then, thinking back to what he'd seen that Josiah and Caine were capable of unarmed...

His thoughts refocused on the trunk. Only his weaponry, Nathan's and Josiah's rested in the otherwise empty container.

Tossing his own holsters and arm rig over his shoulder, he threw open the window, "Josiah!" He called.

The preacher was already turned toward the house. So Standish threw the holsters to the ground within his reach.

"Get out of there!" Josiah was calling. He almost stood to reinforce the demand, but bullets ricocheting by his head drove him back to cover. "Fire!" He bellowed.

The automatic thought was that Josiah was asking for cover fire. But the distressed look on the grizzled face told a different story. Then the gambler could smell it.

"Get out!" Josiah again beseeched.

The lower level of the house was aflame. How had he missed that in his rush to get the weapons to his friends? It gave him a startled sense of panic, unfamiliar in that even in the most trying times, he usually met circumstances with cool resolve. But somehow, that he'd missed the red and yellow flames licking around the house and the black smoke so thick it fought the breeze that tried to waft it away, evoked panic. Was he losing his edge because he was thinking of others, not only himself? Did you have to lose your edge to do that? Blue, white and even the occasional green tinged the flames licking their way up the tinderwood building. It was spreading too fast to be an accident, or plain bad luck.

Just as he realized that, thinking back to his rush upstairs, the smell of smoke and kerosene had registered on a subconscious level, he heard that voice.

"E.Z."

The voice brought shivers despite the rising heat. He spun from the window even as Josiah yelled again for him to escape. His hand was moving for his gun, but it was too late.

Clay Kestrel stood there with his .44 already aimed at his rival. The tall man smiled as if these hell fires were his natural habitat. Standish had known all along it was a mistake to track a predator cunning enough to circle back on you.

Individual strands of the man's coarse, long, black hair danced around his face in the updrafts created by the heat of the fire. The flames hadn't reached the top floor yet, but the heat had. And the smell. And the smoke. "I thought you might accommodate me with a little something." The man held his S&W .44 loosely in his hand now; he gestured with it casually. But Ezra knew the threat was real and he could never get to his gun before Clay dropped him.

Kestrel wig-wagged his gun to indicate Standish should rotate to the other side of the room so the gunfighter could move to the window and watch the goings on outside. He stayed to the side of the wall and the sheer curtains so Josiah was unable to see him even as the elder of the seven strained his eyes to get a glimpse of their black sheep. But all too soon he was forced to defend himself and the others on the ground from that venue of attack.

"It's that pack you've taken to riding with." Kestrel continued his explanation, "I need them dead. As many as possible. I thought maybe you could help."

The Southerner licked his lips. Even with his attention divided between the room and the back yard, his former POW guard left no opening for Ezra to take him out. Besides, if this blackguard was this close to his friends, he wanted to learn all he could.

"I can handle the others," Kestrel continued, "Hell, I 'spect Ol' Buck to get himself done in going after 'whoever' killed the old man." Kestrel chuckled; but then he grew serious and turned his full attention back to Ezra, "But Larabee. He has the luck of the damned. I need him dead or I need him rabid."

Outside, Ezra could hear multiple voices calling for a water brigade. The jangle of horses' rigging reminded him Taos had what JD called 'one of those new fangled horse drawn fire wagons'. The Southerner's mind wandered. It was clear to him from the statements and Kestrel's tone of voice, that he had killed Zach Monahans. Beyond the truth in his statement that Buck's anger and need for revenge would be reckless and uncontrollable, the loss and guilt that the genial paladin would feel, could carve a hole in his soul that would forever change the man.

Buck had spoken ever so briefly about how he felt he had failed Larabee when his - their - family died. But then he had had a reason to go on, to see a future. He had to drag Chris back to the land of the living. To do that, he had to find that place himself. But this time, he would have no such sense of responsibility ...

He had known it was important to listen to Kestrel; to decipher his plans and his threats from the cryptic words the man would taunt him with, so Ezra was dismayed to realize his mind had wandered and he had missed part of the devil's ramblings but the gist of it was painfully clear, "... I figure as many as possible of you burning alive like his family did ... that should do it."

The wallpaper was peeling off the upstairs bedroom now. The sheer curtains flittered about, batting back the updrafts. Ezra began to cough from the smoke. Its scent hung heavy and cloying in the air.

"I could shoot you," Kestrel was toying with him. Why didn't the fire effect the sadist? Standish kept silent. He knew his silence was goading the man to lay out his plan. The uncomfortable thing was it felt like Kestrel knew what he was up to. "But I think you've lost your edge. The commandant used to say there was never no telling what you'd care about. I think I can tell. I think I can make you mess up." Kestrel crowed. Then he glanced back out the window, "Ah, well, my diversion's here."

He was referring to Wilmington. The man enjoined the fray on the ground below, ignored the lead flying around him like frenzied hornets, and took deadly aim on any man he didn't recognize, "You can always count on Buck," He smirked as he sauntered from the window, past Standish and toward the bedroom door.

As if Kestrel was the catalyst, the smoking frame of the door burst into flame. The house was going up like a tinderbox. Whatever Kestrel had used, it hadn't been solely the kerosene which he'd smelled earlier. Standish didn't remember Kestrel having such a knowledge of fire and accelerants. Where could he have learned it?

"Oh, one more thing." This was Kestrel's endgame, "Tanner's unconscious on the roof. You can try to save him or explain to Larabee why you let his best friend burn alive."

Kestrel was out the door. Standish drew his revolver and slammed against the doorframe. He barely noticed how it scorched his sleeve. He aimed down the hall. He would take Kestrel down. He wanted the man dead. But the smoke boiling up the stairwell was too thick. The man had disappeared.

@@@@@@@

Buck entered the gun battle like he was invulnerable to the lead flying around or, more likely, he didn't care. He was oblivious to the inferno to his right that had once been the makeshift Shaolin temple.

Chris ran into the yard and tackled his oldest friend to the ground and safety, only to be shoved aside. Standing tall, his own gun in his left hand and welding vengence with Zach's gun in his right, Wilmington was determinec to wreak retribution on these men. Chris, deciding he was unwilling to take the moment away, instead knelt on one knee, and angled himself to cover his friend.

JD skidded onto the scene, ready to defend his friends but wasn't needed. No sooner than he found a target, Wilmington took it down. And if he didn't, Larabee did. The boy sidled over closer to Josiah as he watched the mayhem; almost needing comfort as he watched these two angels of death. Josiah, in his turn, left the boy and turned to check on Nathan. JD needed to see this; see if he really wanted to be a part of this.

Chris's gunfighting skills had never been inspired, only deadly. The revenge that drove Buck was subtly different. And Larabee matched Wilmington's play. And how could he not? This time it was Buck who didn't care whether he lived or died as long as he took as many of these men with him as possible.

It wasn't lost on the notorious shootist that he was protecting Buck as Buck had protected him when his own brand of fury consumed him after the loss of his wife and son. This time, it fell to Larabee to be on the defensive for both of them.

At the same time, as he covered Buck, Larabee sought out the others, to be sure they were safe - at least physically. Mentally?

The stoic regulator seldom allowed himself to linger on such thoughts, but he didn't miss the fact that Buck's slow-to-climax rage was more like Josiah's, though arguably more deadly. Or that it was JD who was becoming like the cold, emotionless gunman Chris had been. And when had Vin taken Buck's role as Chris's conscience? And Ezra hovering over Buck worse than Nathan? Whatever the hell? Someone had them so ... what was that word Josiah used? Well, they were yin and yanged up one side and down the other. It had to stop...

Stop. Silence. The mechanical part of Chris's mind had easily handled the gunfight while his thoughts wandered in and out of this quandary.

It was over. There was no one else to fight.

"More!" Buck Wilmington roared. He needed another target. The raw passion in the voice made Larabee cringe. "More!" He demanded a second time.

"Buck," Larabee offered in a gentle voice he rarely used anymore. He found Zach's six shooter aimed at his head. He froze. Buck was still looking for another target. There was still a bloodlust in those cobalt eyes. "It's over." He whispered.

Their history together, the niggling at the back of his mind that told Wilmington that he usually listened to the blond beside him, had Wilmington straining to listen to the words. And somehow, the need to hear the whispered words had him focusing beyond the hate.

Holstering his own weapons, Larabee tried to take the two from his friend's slackening grip.

Like coming out of a trance, the former Texas Ranger sensed, more than saw Chris, a stalwart protective support beside him. Not letting go of the guns, he sought another target but found hardened reality and finally looked around to see exactly how much he would have to give up to death and loss.

He saw Caine and Josiah helping Nathan out of the greenhouse. There was blood on the healer's shirt, but his eyes were alert and there weren't too many pain lines creasing his brow. Thank God.

JD, slightly to the side of Josiah, was staring at them. He couldn't read the look on the younger man's face and turned away so he wouldn't have to try.

He hadn't noticed before. The beautiful, pristine two-story home was engulfed in flames. Charcoal smoke billowed high into the sky. It painted most of the white walls black. The fingers of fire were tangled around the wood and crawling up toward the roof; almost hypnotizing him.

People who had congregated were now trying to organize and douse the flames. Four men on each side of the fancy new fire wagon were working the pumps. A bucket brigade had formed to do what it could.

It took a strong gust of wind to dissipate the smoke, even for a moment. But in that moment Wilmington saw something dangling through the already singed gingerbread molding along the roof. He couldn't quiet make it out.

Whatever it was, it made Buck feel uncomfortable, nauseous. He tried to shake it off. It wasn't illness. He didn't 'feel bad', he felt ... terror. It had registered first on some primal part of the brain. Only now was it reaching his awareness. 'Oh, God.' He couldn't breath. He was sweating and the salty liquid was burning his eyes. He suddenly felt paralyzed by something going on around him. It was more of a premonition than anything he real he could put his finger on. He couldn't identify what was going on on any sentient level. But the same part of his brain that was sickened by the danger recognized it for what it was.

Finally his consciousness recognized what he had seen. An arm, wrapped in a ratty, shapeless buffalo skin coat. The fire was eating its way upward within the walls, reaching between the ceiling and the second floor and into the attic. The roof would go before anyone knew. And for some reason, Vin Tanner lay unmoving on that roof. Possibly nothing else could have broken through Wilmington's bloodlust. He wasn't losing anyone else.

The wind had opened the smoke and then closed it like heavy drapes and the arm was gone.

Chris was watching his friend closely, hoping to see some compassion, maybe even sanity return to the eyes. He saw something there that gave him a brief moment of hope. Then Buck dropped the guns and shoved past his old friend headed full bore into the fire.

Larabee's usual lightning reflexes betrayed him when he couldn't wrap his mind around what was happening or why the fun-loving rogue was rushing the flames. Suicide. The word flared up unbidden and was forced back down.

His inaction was broken when a small form dashed past him. Spurred to action, Larabee caught up to JD practically in mid-air as the Kid bounded onto the porch to follow his friend inside.

JD fought like a wild cat, feet and arms flailing. He had to get free. He had to get to Buck. "Buck!"

Chris held his chin back, barely avoiding the backward blows. Josiah appeared beside him and pinned the boy's arms to the side in a bear hug. There weren't any words to express how any of them felt. JD just kept fighting to get free.

Chris's eyes begged Josiah for some sense to why Buck had rushed inside. But the helplessness and frustration were already giving way to anger at the reckless act.

"Ezra had been inside. He should have made it out." Josiah offered as an explanation, even as his eyes scanned for their gambler.

"You keep water on that door." Larabee ordered of the entrance Buck had disappeared through. "You keep it open."

In the span of time it took to secure JD from Larabee's hold to Sanchez, the words had been exchanged. The demand made.

Josiah, complying, began to drag JD away from the suffocating heat and smoke. He was helpless to grab their leader as he raced after Buck.

"Nonono, Josiah," JD whimpered; it was a plea for his big friend to do something.

Sanchez couldn't help his own rage at Larabee's suicidal behavior. He tried to temper his venom as he spun their youngest to meet eye to eye, "We're their only chance. We keep that door open with water. Nothing stupid, boy. Will you help me?"

The words hit hard. He'd been stupid enough lately. He looked over Josiah's shoulder and saw Nathan, supported by Caine, and read the horror on his face.

JD nodded. Josiah tentatively released him, ready to spring if the boy made another foolish bolt toward the house. But the young man hurried over to redirect the bucket brigade to the escape route.

Nathan stared at the building that now held at least two of the seven. They were mavericks and rebels, but they weren't supposed to be crazy. What had been going on with them lately?

@@@@@@@

Ezra elbowed the glass out of the window in the gable. He had to rest briefly, to channel his dwindling strength, but soon he was crawling through the empty panes and over to the unconscious tracker. Pulling the leather fringed arm back through the decorative edging, and leery of the blood mass at the back of his head, the southerner felt hopefully for a pulse. 'Yes, well,' he breathed easier, 'He's alive. Now to keep us both that way.' The wind changed and the choking smoke rolled over him. "Mr. Tanner," He coughed, "Vin." He knew why Kestrel had not shot him. He wanted them to burn alive like Larabee's family. A bullet wound might have left hope of a more merciful end.

The tracker began to come around, "I only saw the honey bees... think I'd scurry up a damn tree if I knew a bear'd beat me to it?"

Ezra, brushing at the moisture leaking from his burning eyes, was distracted from his morbid thoughts and chuckled despite the situation. "Mr. Tanner, we need to vacate the premises."

"What... where..."

"Can you walk?"

"Since I was knee high to a grasshopper," Was the indignant reply.

Realizing Vin wasn't exactly with him yet, Standish staggered a bit as he grabbed his friend under one arm and hefted him to his feet, "Well, then, practice makes perfect." He encouraged the tracker toward the broken window.

Vin was struggling to get his bearings and gradually absorbed his surroundings. "This ain't a good place to be, Ezra."

"A situation I am attempting to rectify. If you would be so kind as to put that foot there in front of the other..." He broke out in hacking coughs.

They made it to the window and the agile sharpshooter skittered through. Ezra's background served him just as well and he too made it inside easily.

The reality of their predicament had sobered Tanner. He had his elbow akimbo across his nose and mouth but it didn't stop the coughing fit caused by the smoke. His eyes were burning and teary. Ezra stood beside him, copied his stance, and stared into the maw of the stairwell.

The upper floor was as black as a cave in. The flames roared like a living thing waiting for them below. The only semblance of light were the red and yellow reflections of the flames working their way upward, toward them.

@@@@@@@

Larabee got it as soon as his focus fanned beyond the gun battle. He knew what Wilmington knew. Someone was still inside. A sixth sense, born from painful, unbearable, personal experience told him just that. It was in his eyes for all to see; if they knew what to look for. What he tried to deny was that selfsame mourning in the dark blue eyes of the friend he had followed into the flames. Buck Wilmington, too, knew that there were still lives to be saved inside and, he too, had sworn never to lose anyone to fire again. But knowing how Buck felt didn't keep the heat from stoking his anger that his friend had taken this risk. He could take this risk. Neither Buck nor any of the others were allowed to. And with that thought he followed Wilmington deeper into the inferno.

@@@@@@@

Buck single-mindedly felt his way along the wall. He had to make it through the house and to the stairs. He stumbled through the smoke in the kitchen with its built-in china cabinet and in-wall ironing board. As the heavy, black smoke would waft in and out, he glimpsed the knick-knack shelves and old, oil wall sconces. Even then the thought flittered through his mind that the fire had not started in the kitchen area. He moved into the breakfast nook and formal dining area. Neither the fireplace nor the cook stove were the culprit.

@@@@@@@

Halfway down the staircase, a wall of flame blocked their way to the floor. Vin propelled himself over the banister. He landed in a crouch in the narrow, smoke engulfed hallway. Ezra followed unhesitatingly. Vin could find his way with nothing short of instinct. Vin felt Ezra at his back like a lucky charm. The man always seemed to find a way out or beat the odds. Skill and luck, an unbeatable combination.

But Ezra was feeling a momentary alarm of claustrophobia. The thick, omnipresent smoke was suffocating in the way that it wrapped itself around him and kept him from identifying his surroundings. The smoke was so thick the fire reflected back off of it like it would a solid object. Panic touched his emotions when the smoke enshrouded him. It felt like he was lost and alone and it would consume his intellect before it consumed his flesh. He fought the feeling. He told himself it would pass; that he would work through it.

Suffocating wasn't the fear. Being alone and being lost and abandoned; that no one would care, those were the everyday fears that played on his mind in the close darkness.

He shut his eyes for the briefest moment, trying to pretend the smoke wasn't there. This feeling would pass. He could work through it. Then, there was a touch on his shoulder. The callused hand worked down his arm to his hand and moved the fingers so they could get a death grip on Vin's jacket. The southerner twisted his hand into the buffalo hide, suddenly remembering he didn't have to work through this alone. He hadn't said a word but, somehow, Vin had sensed this split second lapse. In this situation, when heightened senses could save your life and the lives of others, Vin had picked up on the insecurity no one else would have perceived. And despite the momentary lapse, he knew Vin still trusted him.

The moment passed. It hadn't lasted more than a heartbeat, though it felt like a lifetime. It was a lifetime. The foreboding had come from a different lifetime; one long past now that he had met people he could trust and, amazingly who trusted him. He patted Vin on the back signaling both 'thanks' and 'it's okay, now.' They had never stopped moving.

A coughing fit doubled Ezra over. Vin grabbed his arm and, supporting each other, they pushed ahead. The smoke was hot now, and burned their throats. They moved into what at one time had been a library. Heavy wood siding was giving itself up to the flames.

@@@@@@@

Josiah had the wagon's fire hose and the water buckets concentrating on the hot spots of the house. He kept most of the water directed at the back door in order to provide a safe exit for his comrades. Every once in a while he redirected them toward a particularly dangerous outbreak of flames. The Kid stayed with him as if each movement was planned. He was determined to do everything he could for his friends.

@@@@@@@

Vin and Ezra sensed a movement behind them. A tall, familiar shadow was about to pass right beside them on its way to the stairs. Ezra singed his fingers as he picked up a piece of carnival glass, already cracked by the heat, and tossed it at Buck's feet to get his attention. The blackish gray smoke was getting thicker and the men almost walked right by each other even inches apart. For a moment, they stood there, reunited, but inside a conflagration and having no true idea how bad it might have gotten by now or if there was any chance of making it out.

Buck had known he was looking for Vin. He was surprised, worried and thankful that he found Ezra with him. The two smaller men were struggling to keep moving. The heat and exertion of carrying each other's weight was taking its toll.

@@@@@@@

"Oh, my God." JD uttered, almost a whisper, but somehow it carried to the other men more clearly than a shout. They followed his gaze. A new set of flames, concealed from view until they ate through the interior of the building, flashed across the upper floor. They heard, like the scream of a dying creature, the ceiling of the first floor give way. That support gone, scant seconds later, the roof crashed down. They could see the weakened walls of the structure cave in on themselves as the suddenly displaced weight destroyed what little precarious support had remained. It was like slow motion. The 50-year-old, two story wood house was collapsing in on itself.

No one ever came out the back door.

@@@@@@@

Buck Wilmington knew they were running out of time. The smoke dried out his eyes and felt as thick as cotton in his throat. He hadn't been able to get a full breath of air since he entered the building. He was coughing and had bent over to be closer to the ground and the slightly cleaner air there. He knew the two younger men were worse off than he was.

The ceiling groaned so loud as to momentarily drown out even the roar of the flames. He tried to push Ezra toward the exit and was grabbing to do the same with Vin. For the first time, he could see their concerned expressions. They were yelling something at him, but by now the roar of the flames blocked out any sound. Buck shook his head violently and shoved Vin forward.

A massive section of the roof fell around them. It had been jarred loose by the second story collapsing onto the ceiling of the first. That they were partially under the rustic frame of the dining room door gave them a slight reprieve. Fiery wood framing timbers knocked Ezra to the ground. He tried to move once then lay still. Buck and Vin both fell to the floor; the landing made all the rougher in the futile attempt to protect each other. Vin's head slammed against the corner of a wall. His body went limp, and he lost all awareness.

"NO!" Buck screamed in frustration. He knew he only had seconds of consciousness left before the smoke overcame him. The roof could very well give out before that happened. How would he get them both out? Would Chris think it was his fault again that two good men died? Was it his fault? He crawled over to Tanner. Even so close he had to use his sense of touch to find the slight man. Coughing, shaking his head to keep his wits about him, Buck felt for a pulse. His fingers pressed deep into the tracker's neck. But at least it was there.

He blindly slapped the angular face of the tracker. No response. He wouldn't be coming around soon. Thankfully he wouldn't know when the end came. Buck started to take a deep breath. No damn it. That would be giving up. Don't give up. If not for yourself, for these two. And for the others who shouldn't have to lose their friends.

He sensed movement. Maybe Ezra was rousing. He could ... A strong body shoved him out of the way and somehow, instinctively, knelt beside the unconscious Texan. Chris Larabee was a force to be reckoned with on a good day. Angry, he was dynamite. Buck felt some measure of hope with Chris beside them now. Because there was no one more likely to be able to stand up to these hellish flames and win.

When he saw Chris throw Vin over his shoulders, Buck found the strength to do the same with Ezra. He swayed under the weight and sudden dizziness that came from rising. He didn't know if it was the new-found hope or fear of failing Chris that kept him on his feet. He leaned a shoulder to the wall for support; it was hot. Chris gave him a shove. They were both fighting a losing battle against the smoke, heat and time.

@@@@@@@

When Chris fought his way through the smoke and saw the darker shape that was Buck Wilmington, he was already planning what he would do to the man once he got them both to safety. And then he saw Vin and Ezra. Oh, God. He had almost lost three of his ... and he wouldn't have known until it was too late. He hadn't been in Mexico. He hadn't been across the territory. He'd been less than ten feet from the damn... Ever since they got that accursed telegram, he'd barely eaten, he hadn't slept, and every time one miracle would promise a reprieve, things only got worse. And now this...

The only way he could go on was to take action and keep taking action. Then, when his own collapse would no longer endanger innocent lives, then he would retire into himself and fight his private demons. Until then, he wasn't going to lose. He refused. But in recent years he had conditioned himself to use his anger to keep himself going. He needed that endurance now, however he managed to call it forth. Caine had the anger smoldering. But he needed it. Larabee absorbed the moment and the incidents that led up to it. He used the past few days to tap into the anger and let it spontaneously combust. It was still terrifyingly easy for him to find the rage. He gave its most familiar target an incensed, forceful shove.

Buck, under the burden of Ezra's weight, staggered forward from the push, but then froze. The entire ceiling heaved in and out like a death roil. How much time had passed? Seconds? Minutes? Too long. They could never make it. Chris, Tanner over his shoulder, swayed past Wilmington toward the exit. The blond grabbed his oldest friend by the shoulder to drag him along through the kitchen.

Buck couldn't talk now, for the continuous coughing jag that assaulted him. But he knew they would never make it to any exit. He turned to a closed door to their right.

Frustrated, the blond tried to jerk the sooty, taller man back on course. Buck caught a glimpse of the feral green eyes. Chris was frustrated that Wilmington was headed the wrong direction, but more, the anger was back. It only helped a little that Buck understood that his long-time partner was channeling the anger into survival. The look of hostility called up Buck's own demons from that other fire, at the Larabee cabin. He shook off the irrational feeling that the look said that his old friend would have left him behind but for the precious burden he carried. He told himself that the thought came from a rough past, from the way he grew up, from his own guilt, and wasn't founded in the present. He tried to tell himself that, but the niggling image wouldn't go away.

Buck knew he wasn't making things better when he ignored Chris' directive, made it to the nearby door, and jerked it open. A staircase led down into darkness. Larabee grabbed him by the collar. The hand that fisted into the cloth radiated frustration and made contact none too gently with his skull as the leader of the seven tried to manhandle his errant man toward the exit.

They were both reeling like drunks. They could barely support themselves much less the added weight of the unconscious men.

"No Time!" Buck screamed to be heard. Then he prayed that the man before him would give him time to explain before he killed him. Wilmington used the momentum it took Chris to try to move him, wrapped an arm around the dark clad shoulders and the burden he carried and swung them both through the door like it was a dance step.

Chris was as nimble as a mountain goat. He put his back against the wall as he felt himself lose balance and, using the wall as a brace, slid along it as he felt himself going down the steps. He never really had his feet under him, but neither did he or Vin take a header down the old, narrow stairs. He was going to kill Wilmington.

The air was relatively clear down here. A stone and clay foundation seemed to insure the natural tendency for the heat and flames to rise. The green eyes turned toward the door and the dark-haired man who was taking one unsure step down the stairs, and then another. Then with the explosive power of TNT, the house collapsed over them and the impact and the debris that jammed itself into the doorway of the basement threw both Buck and Ezra down the stairs and into the far wall.

@@@@@@@

Nathan and Caine walked over to Josiah and JD. "Josiah," Nathan said lowly, regretting the words that would come. Both the ex-preacher and the younger man looked up at the tone of voice. "Vin and Ezra. They'd be here by now if they could."

JD Dunne spun back helplessly to take in the collapsed structure. Could that be what Buck had seen? He knew it was true. Until now he had not known that fully one half of his life was buried under two stories of debris. He hadn't known about Ezra, his partner-in-crime; and Vin, his role model. But he knew Chris, his hero, was there. As much as this terrified him, as much as the numbing shock was giving way to unthinkable grief, his mind came back to Buck. And what would happen if he never got a chance to make things right between them?

Josiah Sanchez felt the responsibility of the water hose fall to him as the young man lapsed in response to what they had just heard. He held it securely, but... what was there left to save?

That question was weighing heavily on Nathan Jackson's mind as well. Caine had been tending him when the din of the collapse assailed his ears. When he looked up the flames remained, the house was gone. That's when he had looked around to see how Vin and Ezra were handling the situation. And they weren't there. He couldn't separate the emotions, thoughts, memories and regrets that flashed through his mind instantaneously. What had just happened was too much to comprehend. He saw that Josiah and JD were equally helpless to process these events.

Between one breath and the next Josiah came back around. He redirected the water to fight the battle on a new front. The fire source was destroyed. He must try and keep the flames that remained from jumping to a secondary target. Whatever he had lost this day, he would not let it take more lives or property and, in taking the property, take the hopes and dreams of other families.

Others suddenly appeared beside him and took up the burden of the hose; to share the responsibility. Since the collapse, Josiah's body had fought to preserve the surrounding property , but his vision had tunneled down to where the back door had so recently been. He gratefully let the others take the hose and shook his head in an attempt to see beyond the tragedy. What he saw shook him even more.

The movement had been so casual, so unrushed, no one noticed. The Kid was walking closer and closer to the flames. He was too close now for anyone to pretend he had any intention of stopping until he was in the wreckage.

The big man reached JD at the same moment the smaller hands wrapped around the first of the red-hot rubble. The older man grabbed the younger one around the waist and lifted him up and away from his goal. JD threw away the superheated block of wood he had grabbed from the door and fought, "Let me go, Josiah! Put me down! We've got to help them!"

Nathan arrived to help hold the boy at a safe distance even as he examined the angry red blisters growing on both of his palms. "Calm down, JD…first, let's ..."

"Calm down!? They need our help!"

The grief in Nathan's dark eyes held little hope to pass on. Josiah still had his arms around the boy. But now it was a more comforting, fatherly embrace. "Please, Nathan, do something. They're alive." He whispered. "They have to be."

@@@@@@@

One minute Buck Wilmington was trying to move down the stairs. The next he was flying through the air from the concussion of the building's collapse. Then he hit the far wall, all the while using his body to cushion Ezra from the brunt of the impact.

Even as Buck tried to clear his head, twin fists grabbed his shirt, forced him to his feet and threw him against the wall again. His head made contact. Starbursts flashed behind his eyes. Chris's foreboding glare and angry words slammed into him "What the hell - cough - have you done! What were you thinking?" All the leader of the Seven could understand was that they had been so close to escape, so close to clean, fresh air, and now this.

"No... time." Buck gasped out between coughs. It was a caricature of a confrontation. Both men were barely on their feet from smoke inhalation, coughing between every word they spoke and eyes tearing from the burning smoke. They could barely see each other at all. There was an orangish glow from the fire filtering through the waste matter that clogged what used to be the door. It was that light reaching as best it could to illuminate the darkness. The shadows and dimness did nothing to hide Larabee's fury.

Chris shook the larger man like a terrier would a rat, "Do you rea - cough - you trapped us - cough - here - cough - you signed their death warrant." On some level, in recent years, Chris and Buck had both stopped thinking about survival for themselves, at least when they were together. But now, Vin and Ezra had been forced into the equation.

"Chris ... that - cough - " Unable to continue, he nodded toward the rubble that clogged the doorway. "...was the whole house coming down." Again he nodded in lieu of speech, this time in the direction of their fallen comrades, "We coulda never - cough - got them out - cough - cough - in time."

As Larabee's eyes moved in response to the nod, he noticed that Vin had begun to stir. He released the taller man with a final shove and knelt beside the Texan. Buck sank down the wall and turned to tend to Ezra. For the next little bit they denied their situation and ignored each other as they concentrated on giving first aid to their friends.

Chris methodically checked Vin from head to toe. The only serious injury was the deep gash to the back of his scalp. It had stopped bleeding. There were undoubtedly other bruises and scrapes, but nothing life threatening. As he finished his cursory examination, he heard Ezra moan and Buck caution him against any sudden moves.

"What happened?" The groggy Southerner asked.

"House fell on you." Buck explained matter-of-factly.

"Precisely how I feel." He struggled to take in his surroundings. "I never thought I'd regret not waking up in Nathan's clinic."

"But look at the fine company you get to keep."

The younger man raised up cautiously enough to see Larabee eyeing him and Vin lying nearby. Although the eyes were hooded, they were turning back to hazel and losing the "kill and take no prisoners" that he suspected had recently been reflected there, so he let himself assume Vin was in no immediate danger. Maybe he wasn't either, for that matter. But how bad was it?

Buck could see the concern and worry begin to take over the man's features in this dim light and these surroundings that were more and more confusing and hostile. "How many fingers am I going to hold up?" Buck asked.

"Are you going to hold up?" Ezra frowned.

"Well, hell, your gonna finagle the right number out of me so you'll have the answer. I thought I'd save us both some time."

"How bad?" Ezra asked around a weak smile of appreciation at the man's attempt to ease his worry.

"You got some burns. Nothing worse than if you tried to iron your own shirts I expect. Bonked on the head. I bet you got bruises across your back that look like a map of California. Probably colorful enough to separate the mountain ridges from the coastline, too." He let that set in then added gently, "Vin banged his head right smart, but he's breathing fine. You saved him." He said that part loud enough to make sure Larabee heard. "Chris is too stubborn to get hurt. Why don't you get some more rest? Let us old timers take care of things?"

Ezra tried to protest, barely being able to whisper to his friend and partner, "What about you?"

"I'm good, Ezra. I'm even more stubborn than Larabee." There was no heart in it, but the words and not the inflection were what registered and Standish nodded off.

Chris watched and was again amazed at Buck's ability to soothe another person's disquiet. He remembered the time some idiot of a parent had spread rumors about his life as a gunfighter and Adam had heard. They had said it was only a matter of time before the man's past killed him.

When the boy had finally admitted to his fears and what was causing his nightmares, Sarah had tried to comfort him, but it gave the child the feeling his fears were justified. Chris wanted to go wring the guilty father's neck and all his son registered was the anger. Buck laughed and told Adam no one was better or faster than his Pa and that his Pa would always win because he was one of the good guys. Buck had promised that he would personally look after Chris.

Adam had loved his "Uncle Buck" and trusted him above anyone to protect his father. The boy was happy and proud and couldn't wait to tell all the kids his Pa would always win because he was a hero. And there had been no more nightmares. 'But you couldn't protect that small boy you claimed to care so much about. Or his mother.' The anger flamed again, higher than the flames above them. But it was exactly the flames above him and the memories they evoked that were doing the thinking for the gunfighter. The fire was stoking too many old hurts.

Buck watched his charge for a moment more, assuring himself that there were no life threatening injuries. The situation, the fire, the memories. They were closing in on Buck as much as they were Chris. And suddenly, it was as if all the last three years of healing had never happened. They were back to where they were right after the fire that took Larabee's wife and son. And so was their relationship. He could feel the other man's eyes on him and fought the inclination to bolt. But where would he go? So now he couldn't run. Even if he wanted to.

The smoke wasn't as thick down here, but you could smell it, taste it even, as well as the contaminants that came from the ash. And the smoke was getting worse. He sighed heavily and rubbed a big hand over his face.

His old friend's escalating anger was as oppressive as the smoke. And, truth be told, Buck couldn't deal with it right now. He used the wall to pull himself up, and take a closer look at his surroundings.

The debris was too firmly crammed in the door to offer an exit. And it was too hot to realistically believe they could touch it, much less free themselves. That's if they could get to it considering the old wooden stairway had collapsed under the weight. 'Oh, well,' He moved around the room.

It was more of a root cellar than a basement, small, with no windows and no air circulation - The smoke was getting thicker giving testament to that fact. He could have probably examined the entire area standing where he was, but to get out of Chris's way, he moved painfully around the perimeter.

There was water seeping down one wall; probably one that was interior to the house. There was a box with large tools and small. A few rags, bare shelves and dusty canning jars gave testament that they were in a root cellar. He found the angled door that led from the cellar to the outside, but it was impossible to open. It had been wedged shut by rubble when the house fell.

He continued the tour of the small space. It wasn't used much. Sunlight, from high, high above peeked through the narrowest of slits in the ceiling. The cracks must have been caused somehow by the collapse. But, almost as if being denied, it was reflected back by a shiny piece of ... something above eye level. On what Buck guessed was an outside wall, he found a long pipe embedded in the floor. That might help. He could us it to poke and pry at the crammed debris; maybe slow down the fire that was working its way toward the trashed wooden stairs.

He pulled, pulled and yanked and strained. The metal would not budge.

Chris watched the private drama unfold. He had been able to see everything Buck had without the need to move around. What did he hope to find? Hope. What a stupid damn concept. And every time he looked at Buck he saw it. Larabee realized the fire and smoke were working their way steadily into the cellar. He didn't realize they were working their way into his psyche as well and he, like Wilmington were being possessed by demons of old memories.

In his frustration, Larabee stood up and shoved Wilmington from the pipe. "What are you doing?" Again the words were sporadically cut short by a coughing jag, "It's too late. Do you think we'd be in this mess if you hadn't gone chasing after JD? And Zach ..." The dark head jerked up. Chris knew not to cross that line. And he didn't mean to. He wouldn't slight the dead that meant so much to his friend. But he was so damn frustrated, he felt so mad and helpless, "If we'd stayed together, figured stuff out, if you'd been where you were supposed to be ..." The cough got worse.

Buck felt his heart thumping hard in his chest. What was Chris saying? Was this the same? Buck's eyes stared into nothingness. He could hear the sound of the fire sizzling the walls above him. He could taste the tang of smoke in the air. It tasted differently this time, not stale and rotting. He didn't have to suffer the smell of flesh completely consumed by fire, but ...He drew in a shallow breath. 'Breathe. Damn it. In and out. Can't lose it now.' But he was no longer in the basement. His mind had hurled him back to that day when his life shattered. The small, comfortable home. Sarah and Adam. When he had lost his surrogate family and his best friend. Only Zach had truly remained during that time, and Caleb. And now ...

Coughing again, with an angry last shove, Larabee moved away from Buck. Although the smoke's progress had slowed, it had not stopped, and so the gunfighter took Vin under the arms and began to drag his lifeless form to the farthest wall of the small room. Wilmington gave up his attack on the pipe and took Tanner's legs to make the movement easier on both of them. They lay the unconscious man down along the safer, outside wall. Then they returned and followed the actions with Ezra.

Ezra regained consciousness with the movement. He opened his eyes as he was placed gently on the packed dirt floor. "Buck… you said you were alright." He said weakly.

"Hey, I'm fine." Buck replied hesitantly.

Ezra tried to sit up. Chris put a hand on his shoulder to dissuade him and, coughing, nodded that he would take care of the situation. Standish watched as Chris reached toward the tall man. Buck flinched reflexively as if he thought the blond would hit him. 'Damn,' Standish thought, 'What has happened to bring those two back to this?'

Chris pulled back from Wilmington in response to that reaction, 'To hell with it.' If Buck didn't want his help, he would wait until the other man calmed down.

Standish wanted to knock some sense into both of their heads, but his mind wasn't seeming to function and his muscles and voice weren't obeying his commands.

Chris pulled off his duster. It was hot, and he could let the others use it for a pillow. In the process, the prism fell out of his pocket. It fairly jumped out of the pocket.

Larabee bent over and his fingertips brushed the triangular glass. He remembered the lessons it contained. All over again he absorbed all that Kwai Chang Caine had said about anger. Almost unwillingly, he analyzed the components of his anger. He was afraid for his friends. He felt Buck's heartache. The love he felt for his wife and son enveloped him like the smoke that surrounded them. He worried how JD and the others would take the loss of all four of the men in the root cellar. And the anger was gone.

Chris stood up, moved more slowly and touched his old friend's temple. His fingers came away covered with the tacky, drying blood that ran from inside his dark brown hairline and down his neck. Buck mirrored the motion and looked at his own blood.

"You hurt anywhere else?" The question was greeted with silence. "Buck." It was the older brother tone of voice he hadn't used in a long time, but had used often enough trying to keep his rambunctious friend out of trouble.

In another reflexive action, buried but not forgotten, when he heard that tone of voice Buck answered truthfully by pulling back the tear in his right coat sleeve to show a saucer-sized burn on his forearm. "Probably got a broke wrist, too." He sounded apologetic. Chris looked at him again. This was not Buck Wilmington. This was barely a shell of that man.

Buck couldn't take the scrutiny. He struggled to stand back up. "I'll see if there's anything around we can use."

"You've already done that. Sit down." It was an order that brooked no argument. "Rest." An uncomfortable silence fell between them.

Chris gently began to tend the other man's wounds as best he could. At first Buck tensed at the touch, but finally, this time, relaxed into it.

"How did you know?" Wilmington looked up, not understanding the question. "About those two being in the house?" Chris clarified. He rubbed his eyes to fight the burn of the smoke.

"I saw Vin slumped over the roof. Didn't know about Ezra." He said so low that he could barely be heard. "Something about these old houses. The hollow space between the outer walls. The dry wood. The fire runs up inside the space and straight to the top. You don't see it take the roof until it's too late ..." His mind was wandering, he seemed to be talking to himself. Larabee couldn't help but wonder when the other man had taken the time to learn so much about fire.

Vin began to stir back to consciousness. Distracted, Chris started to him. Ezra motioned for Chris to turn back. He did it without a word, only his facial expressions that held a tinge of anger.

Ezra would have preferred to check on Buck himself, but he sensed that whatever healing might still be possible, would have to come from old wounds. There were no wounds between Wilmington and himself. And Standish at that moment vowed there never would be. He valued the friendship too much. If he didn't, he never could have let Larabee be the one to offer solace now. Larabee saw what Standish saw and turned back.

Then Ezra sat up slowly and turned to care for Vin.

Buck slid his back down the muddy inner wall. He angrily grabbed a massive hammer and began banging all of his frustrations out on the damn pipe. He hit it harder and harder. Then, the rhythm changed, and the darker man banged nonstop on the pipe with the internalized psyche of an autistic child.

Grasping the prism, Chris crawled over and hunkered down in front of his friend, "Buck," There was no response. He put a comforting hand on the other man's shoulder. Buck didn't feel it, his eyes were glazed, seeing something in the past, and didn't even know anyone else was with him.

Chris stood up suddenly and stared down in shock at the man who had curled in on himself; completely cut himself off from the outside world. "Jesus." He muttered. Everything that he had been about to say halted as he gazed at his friend. "God," He looked helplessly at Ezra. The man rewarded him with a sarcastic grimace that read his thoughts and said 'It's about time' but it was tinged with no little bit of worry. About time he saw all the other man had been holding inside.

It was then, at that thought, that Chris's heart suddenly ached for the man; for the friend that had been more like a brother to him; had taught him how to be a brother to Vin and the others. And in aching, Chris's wounded heart healed and came back alive.

Chris had missed that man he had pushed away. He still missed him. Because he wasn't here now. That man had gone a long way in destroying himself with guilt and regret in just the last few minutes. The dam had broken.

"Buck?" Chris started, crouching back down in front of the distraught man. Chris' annoyance had long since given way to worry as he noted the signs of distress coming from his old friend.

"Buck?" He repeated.

Buck, still largely lost in old thoughts, recoiled from Chris's soothing touch and came back at him defensively, "I didn't ask you to follow me in here! I asked you to stay in Mexico, but it wasn't supposed to be an important thing. I didn't ask for your help with JD or in here! I didn't ask for your help! I didn't ask for Zach to get killed warning me …"

"I'm sorry as hell about Zach and Caleb. You gotta know I'd do anything to make it right. Buck, you can't do it alone anymore. Let me help you." He waited, but there was no response; no reaction at all, really, "You need to tell me what you're thinking. I will help you. I had a good teacher." Chris said, remembering all the times Buck had been there for him.

Buck rolled his eyes upward and took a shuddering breath, "They're gone. I still can't wrap my head around that. It's still kinda numb."

Ezra looked up from where he was tending to Vin. Tanner had been distracted from the physical pain of his injuries by the emotional pain of his friends. His eyes slid over to meet Ezra's. They both knew. It had to happen now.

The emotions were even more stifling than the smoke that slowly intruded on them. Buck had to trust friendship and trust Chris, his most important hurdle to overcome, to be there during the hard times. Even if they never got out of this inferno, it was important.

Buck continued to beat a rhythm on the pipe as a distraction from the words he was hearing. The tempo was slow and held little force. Buck was rocking himself a little, obviously trying desperately to hold it together and failing, withdrawing into himself with the effort.

"You know, when I meet my Maker, I don't want to explain the way we've been gettin' along these last years." And Chris realized it was true as soon as he said it out loud.

"Sure as hell don't want to have to make it right with Sarah and Adam." Chris finally added.

Buck heard the words. He couldn't make himself answer. His voice wasn't working. He couldn't ask for help, not on this, not from Chris. He banged on the pipe and didn't say anything for fear that he would say too much.

Chris reached out and wrapped the big man's uninjured hand in his own. He forced the pounding to stop. Ezra was watching it all, even though he felt like he was intruding. Chris's hand on top of Buck's brought back Caine's words, 'A journey of discovery, a journey of the heart, can be the span of one hand reaching out to another.'

Buck dropped the hammer and turned his hand upward to hold onto Chris. But he still kept his head down.

"Buck!" He took the man's face gently in his callused hands and drew him back to the present; needing to draw him away from whatever dark thoughts were destroying him.

Then Buck was speaking softly again, shaking his head distractedly, not really seeing the man in front of him. "I am so sorry. So sorry. My fault. So close ... and the smoke will take them like ... Just like Sarah and Adam ...God, Chris, I'm so sorry, so sorry. I don't know how it happened. If we could have gotten to your house sooner or if I had gone to Mexico alone ..." He whispered almost incoherently, and was sure that his friend would be angry that he was asking for comfort in his grief over the loss of Sarah and Adam. He didn't have the right. Zach would be proven right. Chris would hate him and turn away. And yet, here, when it all might end, he couldn't seem to shut himself up. "My fault ... Ezra and Vin ... just like Sarah and Adam ... God, Chris, I'm so sorry, so sorry." And he started coughing again, an ominous indication that the smoke was working its way over to this side of the cellar and their last refuge was no longer safe.

When the coughing stopped, breathing out heavily, Buck met Chris's eyes and was surprised that, for the first time in a long time, he saw a long lost friend, not just the occasional glimpse of that friend, but someone there to stay. "Don't let them die. Save them? Please?" He asked for help.

Chris knew he would put Buck back together. By healing Buck, Chris was healing himself. He saw living hope crumbling in front of him and he wouldn't let it. He wrapped his arms around those broad shoulders that were usually so strong for everyone else and held on as if he were holding Adam after a nightmare. In this life or the next, things were going to be right. But Chris Larabee, at last, was past giving up and looking for death.

Even as the smoke became almost too dense to breathe, he was fighting. He placed the prism on the shiny metal. The sunlight that had been reflecting upward, now reflected in a spectrum of seven colors.

"We'll get out of here." Buck didn't hear his friend. He'd finally given into exhaustion, smoke and the pain of his injuries.

@@@@@@@

JD seemed to become smaller, very much like a frightened child and in drastic contrast to the angry young man of the past days. He was fighting to hold himself together. He wouldn't leave until his friends came out of that pile of death one way or the other; even though he wanted to run and hide and grieve without anyone seeing. Nathan and Josiah sat close by, but could offer little comfort. They felt the same way.

JD couldn't sit still, and got to his feet to circle the ember-strewn wreckage for an answer. An explanation.

Over one half of the town of Taos must have been crowded into the yard around what had been the Shaolins' temple. JD shouldered through the throng of gawkers. Few of the townsfolk were still trying to help. He heard the all too familiar voice hiss in his ear as he felt something hard goad him in the back, "Keep walking, young John Dunne. We need to talk."

It was Clay Kestrel. JD knew the voice immediately. His hand went for his holster.

"Uh, uh, uh," Kestrel tsked, and jabbed the gun harder into his side. He forced the boy forward and walked casually beside him, "I could shoot you and disappear into this gathering before your friends knew what was happening."

JD wasn't interested in making any movements that would scare this villain off. He would stall until he got the chance to kill him, "You're going to hell."

"Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven." The raven-haired shootist purred, "Something for you to think about, son."

"The only thing I want to think about is seeing you dead."

"Predictable, for now. But when you don't have your consciences thinking for you anymore, you've got it inside you to be a part of something powerful."

Without warning, the young sheriff spun, hoping to jab his elbow in Kestrel's stomach. He hit air and continued to spin, drawing his Colt, thinking he would be in a shootout for his life. But no one was behind him. Kestrel had said his piece and disappeared into the crowd.

JD's eyes shot around the crowd, looking for the tall man. The first place his gaze went was to make sure the cold-blooded murderer wasn't stalking his remaining friends. They appeared safe, but he was anxious to get back and warn them that this man was still in the area. He had been ushered several hundred yards from Nathan and Josiah. He started back that direction. Then he heard it. A methodical clanging at the back of the house. "JOSIAH! NATHAN!"

The two men ran to their youngest. He looked at them. They looked back. Couldn't they hear it? "Listen!" He had completely forgotten about Kestrel for the moment.

There was a pinging. They both heard it, "JD," Josiah began, "That could be any ..."

"It's them. Listen! What is it, if it isn't them?"

Josiah reached out to put a sympathetic hand on the boy's shoulder.

"No!" The young regulator jerked away. He grabbed a smoldering chunk of wood and tossed it aside, singeing his hands, but still willing to remove the entire house himself.

"Even if, by some miracle ... how can we beat the fire and smoke to them?" Nathan asked. He had not been raised to believe in false hope.

"We can't give up." JD enunciated each word.

"Josiah Sanchez," It was Caine. And the Shaolin's tone told the student they were missing something. The big man turned to meet the moss agate eyes. What was the answer? Caine graced him with a clue, "If they are alive ..."

Sanchez tried to follow the logic. 'They couldn't be alive. At least they couldn't be alive and be in the house.' Caine wanted him to know something. What was it? 'If they weren't in the house ... but they had been in the house so where … the sound seemed to come from deep within the earth …all these type houses had ...' "Root cellar. Under the house." He finished the thought out loud.

Caine shrugged, his way of acknowledgement.

"Where is it! The outside door?" Nathan immediately and hurriedly started to kick through the periphery of the fire looking for access. They all knew that root cellars had access from inside the house and outside.

At that moment a rainbow of light broke through the rubble and lit up a piece of the white wood somehow yet untouched by soot. JD recognized it immediately from the lessons he'd seen the Shaolin give Chris. "Yes! Yes! Yes!" The boy was elated. He again reached to clear the debris. Josiah stopped him again. "No time." He uttered anxiously, his own personal fear put into words.

@@@@@@@

Josiah Sanchez no sooner recognized the refracted prism light for what it was, than his eyes sought out the Shaolin master. His words said they were too late. He wanted this man to contradict him.

That damned impervious expression that met his. For the first time it irritated the preacher's son. There was too much at stake here for Caine to be letting them - forcing them - to learn these life lessons. And yet, the moss green eyes met the blue ones and silently charged him with learning the lessons. Learn how important these men are to you. Learn not to always expect the worst. Learn how to have hope again. Act on that hope. And Josiah took up the challenge. He would dare to hope.

There was hope and there was faith. Josiah settled his emotions and reminded himself that while he still questioned all religions, he had unfaltering faith in the ways of Kwai Chang Caine. Something was going on. Caine knew it in the way he knew many things that were not accessible to the common man.

Josiah opened himself up to the Shaolin master's teachings. And he felt it. There were events taking place in the smoky confines of that root cellar that were important enough to risk the lives of those experiencing the moments.

But now it was up to the ones outside to save the ones inside and be fast enough so that the lessons won weren't for nothing. This part, the getting there in time, was Sanchez's responsibility.

As part of his self-imposed penance, Sanchez lifted stone and heavy pails of water. Now this carefully cultivated strength allowed him to toss the smoldering timbers away from the exterior root cellar doors as if they were toothpicks.

From the moment he located the outer doors, Sanchez worked dangerously fast, almost to the point of recklessness. They didn't have time for caution. The hammering had stopped five minutes ago.

It was clear to everyone at the site they had better help or get the hell out of the way.

The elder regulator sensed he had taken responsibility for some important decision. For once he attacked the rubble in a frantic search for his friends, Caine was by his side. The monk's controlled strength seemed to effortlessly move more than his share of the timbers.

JD threw his all into clearing the cellar doors as if he now understood what Josiah's penance was all about. Nathan was going to re-injure himself if he wasn't careful.

They fought through the wreckage in record time. But even when the smoldering lumber had been removed from the outside it took pickaxes and pry bars to get the doors open. The shards and ruins that shot down the inner stairwell when the house collapsed had wedged against them and held them tightly closed.

From the time the blade of the first ax hit the wooden door, smoke began escaping from the recesses of the basement. The dark gray tendrils seemed to twine around the men and become physical manifestations of each one's fear; the fear that they were too late.

It was Josiah Sanchez who resisted the siren song of disquiet; refused to give up and kept the others going. And he didn't give up because Caine hadn't given up. But just as soon as things slowed down enough, he and the monk were in for a long talk.

For now, though, the ground-level doors splintered and Josiah occupied his mind, time and strength with getting to his friends.

@@@@@@@

The opening in the doors allowed sunlight into the cellar. Particles in the smoke danced in the light like dust motes and flittered out into the sky like fairies freed from captivity. When Josiah squeezed his girth through the opening, the sunbeams allowed him to see the too still figures of his friends on the floor. Ezra had sagged over Vin and Chris' arms were circled around Buck. "Move, damn it," Josiah shouted in frustration as he worked himself down the debris field. He was begging them to show some signs of life. His breath caught in his throat as the hazel eyes opened slightly in response and met his. They closed almost instantly, but in that time, the leadership responsibility for the Seven was temporarily handed over to another. And the yellow in the spectrum, usually so dim as to be invisible, shown like gold.

@@@@@@@

Ezra Standish woke slowly. Something wasn't right or hadn't been right. He couldn't recall where he was or how he got there. His initial reaction was to lie still, not give away the fact that he was awake and to try to hear something that told him what was what. But then the memories engulfed him. He gasped rapidly and feared every time that the next breath would be full of acrid smoke.

He began to cough. "Stop it, Ezra. Relax. You're safe. Everything is over." Nathan reassured. And the healer helped the conman sit up where it was easier to breathe.

The green eyes fell on the blackened mound of debris that had been the house. One horrific thought had him fighting to get to his feet. Nathan held him against his broad, dark chest and spoke soothingly, reassuringly, until the smaller man settled. "You're safe, Ezra. You're out. Everyone's out. Everyone's safe. Calm down, damn it, and listen to me!"

Finally the words penetrated and Ezra leaned back and found himself staring at a cloudless blue sky. But his breath came rapidly and he fell into a coughing spell. He could still taste and feel the smoke in his lungs and throat that denied him the fresh air that his body craved.

As if he were a mind reader, the Shaolin knelt beside him. "Drink this. It will clear the smoke from your lungs."

"What is it?"

"Magic." Kwai Chang Caine answered matter-of-factly.

The gambler took a suspicious sniff. Then he looked at Nathan who gave him a 'drink it or die' look before turning his own attention to Larabee. Ezra forced himself to take a sip. And lifted an eyebrow. "This is medicinal? It tastes rather good."

"Perhaps, then, that is... the magic."

The conman took another sip of the brew as he absorbed his surroundings.

Vin and Buck were unconscious, lying on the cool, soft grass under the shade of what was left of the grape arbor. They seemed peaceful enough and no one hovered over them, so Ezra chose to take that as a good sign.

Larabee was beginning to stir which had drawn Nathan's attention. The man didn't like surprises. He didn't like to not be in control. The healer moved over to be a familiar presence as their leader came to.

Standish didn't envy the former slave the responsibility of soothing the gunfighter in those first few minutes as consciousness and memories returned and before he could be reassured that everyone was safe. Ezra was a bit taken aback to realize that Nathan was using almost the exact words and technique to control Larabee as had been used on himself. He immediately chose not to dwell on that comparison.

Ezra was even more surprised to sense a presence behind him. He shifted enough to see JD sitting by his head.

"Ezra." The boy greeted in response to their eyes meeting, "We were worried about you. I was worried about you."

"Thank you, Mr. Dunne." He couldn't help but wonder why the young sheriff was tending to him instead of Wilmington.

"You better keep drinking that." One thing was for certain with that simple statement. The old JD was coming back, the one who offered suggestions to the others instead of making demands and giving orders. What the gambler didn't like the looks of was the fact that JD was holding a partially empty bottle of red eye and didn't look like he was sharing it with anyone. This was not a good development.

Ezra took another sip to hide behind the cup. He got it now. This young one; this JD Dunne, was afraid he had given up the right to sit by his friend. "Would you like to talk, son?"

"I -" JD stuttered then stopped, "Ezra, I need to know …" The youthful voice was slightly slurred by the drink. Standish waited patiently, but he was tiring. Dunne must have seen that. "Can we talk later? Nathan'll kill me if I bother you now."

"You are no bother. But perhaps I would be better able to offer advice when my head is cleared slightly."

"Oh, God, I'm sorry, Ezra. I didn't mean to …"

"JD, we will talk."

As he was rewarded by a grateful nod at that reassurance, Ezra found his eyelids heavy and allowed himself the luxury of lying back to rest, to trust the others to protect him for the moment. He rolled over on his side to take the pressure off of his burned and bruised back. Caine handed JD a bottle of salve. The boy understood he was to put it on Ezra's back and immediately began to do so.

@@@@@@@

"Damn it!" Larabee and Jackson shouted in unison. The raised voices nudged Vin Tanner from the pleasant, cottony darkness that surrounded him. The two men continued to talk over each other in the heated confrontation and the tracker could only make out some of the words.

"I'm damn well of a mind to …" Yep, that was Nathan.

"Get the hell out of my way …." Yep, that was Chris, again.

"JD, put the damn whiskey bottle down! You've drunk your weight in that …Larabee! I'll nail your hide to the …"

"Go mother some damn fool who needs …"

"I'm sore and I'm tired. I ain't got the patience …"

"Damn it!" Both voices shouted in harmony again.

'Can they cuss like that in heaven?' the tracker mused. But when he dared pry his right eye open, the starburst pain in his head convinced him this wasn't the promised land.

Nathan, with his one arm that wasn't in a sling, was trying to keep Chris from getting to his feet.

Josiah was nearby, but seemed satisfied to observe the goings-on with a resigned, but content 'some things never change' expression on his face.

Tanner knew the healer was going to lose this round, though, when he saw the local sheriff steam rolling their direction.

Yep, Vin was right on the money today. Too bad Ezra was asleep over there, beside JD, or he'd place a few bets, he thought to himself as he saw Larabee somehow make it to his feet before the sheriff arrived.

Anticipation clung in the air as the sheriff walked up to the leader of the seven and looked past him to the others. No one spoke.

Tanner watched as the paunchy Taos lawman stopped in front of Chris. The sheriff had been too busy cleaning up the fall out from the fire and shootout to deal with the strangers in his town. That was about to change. Or so he thought. He lost some of his conviction as he met the cold green eyes.

Larabee's gaze was immediately drawn to the star on the other man's chest. He remembered that one of the deputies had led the attack on Josiah and Nathan and Ezra. The gunfighter's glare slid back up to the sheriff's face. And he waited. He said nothing and defied the man to start something.

Finally the sheriff broke the silence, "Seems your boy sheriff was right. Most of them men you killed were wanted for something. Witnesses," He glanced at Caine and Pappy who had arrived sometime along the way, "said they started it. Still don't mean all this wasn't a fallin' out bemongst gang members.

The dark gunfighter didn't grace that with an answer. He waited, at his intimidating best.

"I want you out of my town." The sheriff said with enough bluster to make it clear he was trying to hide his discomfort.

"Nothing will suit me more." Chris assured him, "When my men are fit to ride," he added with a feral grin that said things would be done on his terms even if it was the sheriff's town.

The lawman had started to turn away with the first statement. He stopped when the ultimatum was added. After a heartbeat, he continued on, pretending his dignity was still in tact.

Larabee, on his feet by sheer willpower alone, remained standing to watch the other man's departure. Tanner, who had only made it to a three point stance, tried again to push himself upright.

The hazel/green eyes met blue. Larabee was weaving on his feet. Tanner swayed, trying to steady his weight. "Saloon?" They asked simultaneously. And, in agreement, both started to move.

Chris' legs turned to water with the first step he tried to take. Josiah and Caine caught the unconscious form before he hit the ground. They looked over to discover that Tanner had passed out again as well and was sleeping peacefully.

@@@@@@@

It wasn't the first time that Buck Wilmington had sat alone and watched night then predawn give way to morning light through the batwing doors of an unfamiliar saloon. He was silently thankful for these sanctuaries for anonymous souls.

He vaguely remembered being lifted from the ruins of the fire. In bits and pieces he recalled not being surprised when Caine showed up at the most appropriate time to say he had acquired rooms for them at the boarding house. The Shaolin had helped Josiah herd and carry his flock in that direction.

Chris had shared a room with Nathan. He was concerned that the healer had that shoulder wound, even if he wouldn't admit it; even if Chris himself was too weak and too out of it to help if help were needed. Ezra steered a terribly drunk, JD toward a room. Buck thought he had protested that arrangement, but wasn't sure. Josiah went off with Caine and that had left Buck with Vin. The dynamics had shifted slightly. The vines grew closer to being the seven that were one.

Tossing and turning, Buck couldn't drive away the memories, childhood and recent past. He finally gave up on sleep and decided to go see how much whiskey it took to pass out when your childhood security had died. There wasn't enough liquor in the world.

It was sometime after sunrise when the silhouette fell across Buck. He looked up and was greeted by a Larabee expression that seemed to suggest that if he was going to feel so bad, he could at least have enjoyed the night before. Vin was behind the duster-clad gunfighter, looking slightly the worse for wear. When they knew they'd been recognized, and wouldn't surprise their friend, they both joined the taller man's table.

"Buck, you got the look of wanderlust in your eyes." The western poet observed.

"You can forget it." The western realist growled.

"I was thinkin' to go huntin' a few days," The gentle scoundrel's voice was deceptively soft and innocent, "Thought you boys could head on back to Four Corners …"

"Forget it." Larabee repeated emphatically.

When he realized Larabee had guessed his plans, Wilmington dropped all appearances of civility. His anger was still looking for a target, "Kestrel killed Zach. It had to be him that shot Caleb. You heard Ezra say he started the fire and meant to kill Ezra and Vin. It stops."

Larabee recognized the need for revenge. He'd seen it in the mirror enough.

The blond responded flatly, "You can have time, you can have space. But you can't have distance." He took a firm grip of the other man's arm and leaned close with an air of sincerity. "I'll tell you what I told JD. We'll heal up and we'll all go after him. Together. He didn't listen to me." Chris ground the statement out just as Josiah led JD, Ezra and Nathan over to join them at the table. JD got the message loud and clear that he would have to answer for going to talk to the Taos sheriff against a direct order. But right now, he was too hung over and too dejected to care. If Larabee would shoot him and put him out of his misery it might be a blessing. One thing he did think better of was the idea of telling the others about his meeting with Kestrel. He would take care of that himself.

Chris had already turned back to his oldest friend and, when he did, his tone was laced with understanding, "You will wait 'til we're all ready to ride even if I have to lock you up." The leader of the regulator's ordered, but it sounded like a big brother keeping a kid brother from doing something stupid.

"Why are we still here, Chris?" The dark haired rogue spoke like no one else was at the table, "How is it we're still alive? By rights our luck should've run out long ago?" Larabee recognized this stage of the grieving process, too. A survivor's remorse. It would be so much easier to die with the ones you loved than to wonder why you didn't, or worse yet, to know you were a part of the reason they died. Chris Larabee wished he had comforting words. For his friend and himself.

"Why does it seem like trouble chases us everywhere?" Buck continued. And this was a sentiment all of other men at the table could relate to.

None of them had an answer.

Until Caine's soothing voice reached out to all of them wrapped in a gentle smile, "When men are willing to stand up for what is ... right," Caine began, "And stand up for those who can not defend themselves, you create a haven. Those who need help will sense it and seek you out. But evil will know you threaten its existence. It too, will seek you out."

"What the hell does that mean?" Larabee growled. He was protective against what the enigmatic wise man's words might set off in Wilmington. And he was still denying the responsibility he sensed Caine was putting on them all. The notorious tone of voice did nothing to intimidate the Shaolin.

"It means ... you ... attract trouble." Caine replied with an inscrutable smile and self-effacing shrug, "And that is as it should be."

"What the hell does that mean?" Vin echoed from beside Larabee. For a moment his memories were thrown back to the time when this all started, when Nathan was almost killed when trouble, in the form of a would-be bounty hunter took aim at him.

But the look on the Shaolin's face drew his attention. Caine didn't think "attracting trouble" was a bad thing. When Caine was assured that Vin Tanner's guilt was salved - just by an exchanged glance - and his mind would not be clouded to what was about to be said, the Shaolin continued, "Mr. Standish ... what found you in Four Corners the day you ... met these men?"

"I had heard of a high stakes poker game held regularly by the ranchers in that small municipality." He spoke matter-of-factly, but his conman senses were tingling.

"Did you ever find the... game?"

"I fell in with these ruffians and made myself singularly unwelcome among the ranchers before I found out if the game did exist."

"Did you ever hear of that game again?"

"No."

Seemingly satisfied with that answer, Caine turned his attention to the leader of the Magnificent Seven, "Mr. Larabee, why did you arrive in Four Corners?"

"I heard there was someone who knew about the murder of my wife and child." He admitted begrudgingly.

"Mr. Wilmington?" Caine turned to the tall lawman.

"Coincidence." He offered quickly.

Caine graced him with an inscrutable look that seemed to see right through him. It had him confessing, "I heard Chris might be walking into trouble. Thought that was as good a direction to head as any. Didn't aim on hookin' up." He added to Larabee as if he was embarrassed or being apologetic.

Larabee frowned. He and Buck still had some talking to do.

"And the Indian village the... Seminole village you chose to protect. If someone could manipulate these events? Arrange that you three arrived at the same time, would they not know you would take up the call, Mr. Larabee? An apparent suicide mission? To die?"

"How do you know about..."

"And Mr. Wilmington would accompany you?

"I don't like talking to you." Larabee responded as he had earlier.

"Then listen." Caine did smile at him now. There was no mistaking it.

"If you're saying fate brought us together..." Josiah saw where this was leading. Caine gave him a slight tilt of the head as if asking his student to dispute the facts.

"Mr. Standish, can I 'deduce'..." Caine gave the impression that he was tossing one of Ezra's words back at him. Caine was enjoying himself. He liked these seven men. But those self-same men around him were decidedly uncomfortable and it was getting worse. "that you would have... accompanied Mr. Larabee to the Seminole village, if only under the ruse to search for the source of the gold that made up the amulet? If someone knew you well, could they not predict you making that decision?"

Ezra's mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water.

"It sounds more like the forces of evil brought them together." Josiah readily countered.

"Or... perhaps evil... outsmarted itself. It, or its agent, thought to kill three men. It did not anticipate that others would accompany Don Quixote and his Sancho Panzas on their quest."

He met the eyes of each man at the table and let the words sink in before he asked his next question, "Mr. Tanner, why were you in Four Corners?"

Vin answered quietly, "Sold my fast gun for a place to lay my head." He didn't see any connection between his riding in and the others coming to town.

"And you, Mr. Dunne?"

"My stagecoach was early. First time. I got there in time to see Chris and Vin... it was amazing. I knew that's where I was supposed to stop." The boy carried on excitedly, remembering that fateful day; happier times. He had no idea as to the importance of his words in light of where Caine was leading them. But Caine held the silence until he was sure all of the others understood the ramifications of what the boy had said'Where he were supposed to stop.'

Caine finally turned to his student, "And you, Josiah?"

"No crows." He responded simply.

Caine turned to the last member of the seven, "Nathan?"

Nathan looked around at the other faces, "Don't rightly know."

"What if evil had a plan for Mr. Larabee, Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Standish, but fate made the evil choose Four Corners? A place where, somehow, coincidentally, you four men had come to find yourselves."

There was silence. They didn't know how to argue something they didn't understand.

"Buck," A new voice called from the direction of the saloon doors. He looked up to see Pappy, hat in hand, standing there, "I reckon it's time, son." He continued.

Buck swallowed hard. There was a ringing in his ears suddenly that drowned out any other sound. The white haired, bespectacled foreman had asked for some time alone with Zach and Caleb. He looked surprisingly serene. But his crystal blue eyes still bled sympathy for the one not yet at peace.

Wilmington abruptly pushed out of his chair, past his friends and followed the old man outside. The others followed. JD, the last to leave, couldn't shake the question in his mind. Kestrel had approached him, no doubt about it. The man saw something in the boy that JD wished wasn't there. But why had Kestrel kept walking as they spoke? Why had they ended up where he could find his friends? Was it fate? It was a thought that would keep him up nights.

@@@@@@@

The sight that greeted Chris took his breath away. Pappy was standing by a wagon that held two simple pine coffins. Buck stared silently at the boxes and ran his finger along one rough lid.

"He was proud of you, Buck. You did good by him. Always." Pappy said as he took the taller man in a loving embrace. Buck didn't answer. He couldn't. If he'd done right by his surrogate father and brother, they would still be alive. And that thought hurt too much.

Then Chris was there, a supportive presence in black at Buck's left. And that's when Josiah finally got it. The gunfighter was like a negative photographic image of Buck. From one of those new fangled cameras. They softened each others' dark places. Chris had more of them, but Buck's were older; deeper. They just fit each other.

Vin, in his turn, stood beside JD in silent support. The younger man was casting a lot of worried looks toward his best friend, but still distanced himself as if he didn't deserve to get any closer.

Nathan could barely perceive everything that was going on or all the levels. But the answers he didn't know, he suspected would make themselves known in time. Damn. That Caine was a bad influence.

As if reading the healer's mind, Caine came forward and handed him a bag of cuttings and roots and a thick rolled up parchment. Nathan glanced at it and saw neat drawings and names for each plant, when to cultivate, how best they grew, how much sunlight they needed and how to use them.

Despite the seriousness of the situation, Ezra couldn't help a groan when he saw that the Shaolin also handed the healer the panes of glass to make a miniature greenhouse and in doing so, the inspiration to erect a full size one.

"Thank you," Was all that Nathan could get out.

"You do honor in your healing." And the teacher turned to Vin.

Buck was completely oblivious to the gifts being bestowed on his friends. His heart and soul were threatening to leave when the wagon did. Buck had moved away from his friends. It wasn't right for such a giving man to isolate himself. Finally, his best friend could stand it no longer, and moved to be by his side.

At the same time, Caine handed to the tracker a parchment with writings and illustrations for Tai Chi. Vin felt a sense of comfort emanating from the teachings, and a thrill. He had been given a brief insight into the peace and discipline in the moves.

Vin somberly removed his buffalo coat and pushed up his right sleeve. Caine exposed the skin on his right arm as well. When the two men grasped forearms in comradeship, it seemed important to the Comanche raised Texan that the running wolf tattoo on his inner arm be in physical contact to the ceremonial brand on the forearm of Kwai Chang Caine.

Caine, honored, bowed and volunteered, "Josiah will teach you." And Vin knew that this was the gift Caine was giving to Josiah, six students who were now open to his enlightened teachings.

Next, Caine came up to the leader of the seven, "Every second of our lives we are changing. To fight this takes strength and we defeat ourselves." And he handed the prism, he had retrieved from the root cellar, back to the gunfighter, "To accept change…" He left Chris Larabee to answer that for himself.

"I don't like talking to you." Larabee said with a smile and a heartfelt handshake as he took the piece of glass and rubbed his thumb over the smooth surface.

As Caine said his good-byes, Vin watched Buck and JD. Their body language spoke volumes, of give and take, defensiveness and acceptance, but no resolution. Finally the youngest of the seven raised his voice in apology, "Buck, I just need to say I'm sorry, I'm damn sorry for all…"

"I said forget it, Kid." Wilmington's voice wasn't raised, he wasn't angry. There was too little emotion at all for this to be the fun-loving man they were used to.

JD saw that, too. And while the others understood they were hearing the end of a heartfelt exchange, they could see it was not going as the younger of the men would have wished, "No, you see, you promised you wouldn't leave, but you were gone and it was with a man that I thought meant more to you than we did … than I did. And you had said you would always talk to me instead of leaving for my own good or yours. And I know now, that you didn't take me with you because it wouldn't make sense and you didn't say good bye because you were coming back, but I didn't know then, and I was an ass… but I couldn't stop being mad and I was mad at everybody and…"

"JD, it's not a thing…"

"No! Don't forgive me! It's like you don't care. It's like you don't expect any better of me! Be mad at me! Care what I think! Don't forgive me so easy!" If the boy had been rambling before, now he was demanding the older man understand what he couldn't put into words.

"JD." Buck's tone cut through the prattle. Liquid hazel eyes looked up quickly at the cold tone. The midnight blue eyes that met his were equally cold. Maybe Buck wasn't going to forgive him. Or maybe, like Chris said, he had given up the right to see friendship reflected back at him from those dark pools of Buck's soul. "I'm damn sure not forgivin' the man you've been the last few days. I'm saying I forgive the man I know you are. And I'll keep forgivin' you until I don't see any of that man in front of me."

The weight of the world was lifted off of the young man's shoulders. Buck took him in the brotherly hug he'd missed so long and thought to never feel again. "Thanks, Buck. I want to be someone you'll be proud of." Buck tightened his hold in acknowledgement.

Caine and Chris approached the two. And Caine proffered to the youngest regulator, his lesson, given in the form of a gift. It was a stack of new dime store novels. JD's eyes glistened. The lessons he learned and the idealized hero he wanted to be could still be inspired by the fiction. "Thank you."

"Mr. Wilmington," Caine said, finally. The mustached gunfighter gave the man his attention. He'd learned to respect these strange men.

Caine handed him a bundle of documents and an envelope that bore Wilmington's name in a bold, scratchy script. Buck recognized the writing immediately and looked a quick question at the Shaolin.

"Mr. Monahans left this for you before he went in search of the man who killed his other son. Perhaps you can… study these, before you make any decisions… about travel… or revenge?"

A last word from Zach. It was a gift better than gold. It helped drain some of the hate from the big man.

Buck looked past Caine and into the eyes of his oldest friend. If he saddled up right now to go after Kestrel, Chris would ride with him. Over his shoulder Vin's expression was the same. All of them would shake off their injuries so he didn't ride alone, to watch his back. Maybe he could wait. "Thanks," was all he said, to all of them, holding the papers and working up the nerve to open them.

Josiah, Ezra and Nathan joined their friends. Caine turned last to Ezra. The gift he presented to the conman astonished the southerner. Buck smiled a sincere smile for the first time in days. Caine placed in the gambler's hands a small, smooth, delicately carved replica of the base limbs of the grapevine he had used for his parable for the group. He was charging Ezra with the task of helping Josiah watch over the circle of brotherhood.

Ezra quickly gave the Shaolin the fish-out-of-water, "what just happened here" expression that Josiah so often elicited. Sanchez laughed. Both he and Caine refused to supply any explanation.

Pappy joined the men for his final good-byes. Buck kept one arm around JD but put the other arm around the old, white-haired man. He gave the oldster a kiss on the top of the head like a grandson might give a grandfather. The sadness returned briefly, "I just wish..." He couldn't finish the thought; wasn't exactly sure what he wanted to say, so he changed the subject. "So you'll stay in Texas?"

"The Missus Monahans can still run the ranch as well as any man. I think I'll head out and see that Zach's dream of saving the buffalo gets its best shot."

Buck nodded. It was a good plan.

Chris moved forward to shake the hand of both men, "I'm sorry about your temple." The word didn't come easy of the destroyed house, but he owed it to the man to honor his beliefs. "And that your monks are out of a place."

Caine looked up. As if he'd been waiting for that. "My... fellow Shaolin had already moved on. They have always been bound for ... a place to be called... Sedona?" He questioned his pronunciation of the name. "We made arrangements for the temporary use of this house from the owner... Clay Kestrel?" He again questioned the pronunciation. But it left little doubt to the seven, after their experiences of the last few days, that it was no coincidence that they had run into Kwai Chang Caine or that they were lucky that they had.

"You know, Ol' Zach called them buffs the last of a dying breed." In his sage way, Pappy met the eyes of each of the seven before he finished his thought, "I call 'em survivors."

And with that, he stepped up in the wagon. Caine climbed into the wagon beside Pappy. Whatever his motives for journeying with the old man, Buck and the others were thankful.

Josiah knew that, as was often the case, Caine had left more questions than answers. But they had been warned that Kestrel was still a threat and that was enough for now. And he appreciated that Kestrel had been forced to destroy his own property in the failed effort to kill the seven.

Chris Larabee stood, one among seven, side by side; grateful for a chance he had thought at one time he'd never have again. He moved a little closer to Thomas Adam Wilmington and felt the others close ranks as well, and they watched until the wagon was out of sight.

The End

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