Magnificent Seven Old West
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Pyrite and Candlelight

by Mitzi

Webmaster Note: This fic was formerly hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in October 2015.


The Culandero swayed gently. Candles and incense enhanced the altered meditative state he sought. Chanting to occupy his conscious mind allowed his subconscious to soar to the higher realms. In his mind's eye, he saw two pure white lambs run down the main street of an unfamiliar town. They were afraid and sought protection from a young man with dark hair and a star.

Suddenly the lad and the lambs were surrounded by thirteen wolves who walked like men and carried guns.

The youth herded his two charges into a building as the wolves moved in.

The boy-protector didn't stand a chance. The Santero, the Culandero, waited for the inevitable. The townspeople would hide behind their walls when faced with such an ominous presence.

But then the unexpected happened. A black wraith emerged from behind the saloon doors. His grace belied his speed. He headed toward the jail.

A peacock emerged from the livery and paced the wraith.

A ring tailed cat, elusive and mysterious, equally at home on the ground or in the treetops, leapt from building to building toward the confrontation. Apparently this group had a wolf of their own and he appeared from behind an upstairs room’s lacey curtains. These two raced the rooftops toward the thirteen.

A grizzly bear rushed from the opposite direction. He looked eager for a fight in contrast to the fact the Christian symbol around his neck was unmistakable.

Then from above the livery, a fox was called by the sound of gunfire. Neither red nor gray, he had rich chocolate fur like the skin of the Santero's own grandmamma.

The Culandero was thrown out of his trance before he could see the outcome of the battle; as if that was knowledge not yet granted to him. His eyes drifted back to the candles that surrounded him. Seven. Seven protectors against thirteen predators. A powerful confrontation …

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Francis Slaughter was an entrepaneur, a broker. He never really got his hands dirty. He entertained the buyers and sellers and took a finder's fee from each. He negotiated and supplied protection for each transaction. He was very good at what he did. And he was ambitious.

Slaughter had discovered early in his chosen career that illegal transactions brought the most profit. The more mundane crimes such as rustling, robbery, blackmail or bribery could use a broker, a discreet perfectionist. Change a brand, alter a deed. One could always get more money selling something that appeared to have clear ownership.

But even more, men in conspiracies paid a premium for anonymity when they hired an assassin.

Slave labor, especially for the more carnal desires, was still a fact of life, not only in a country that fought a Civil War partially to end such oppression, but in all the world.

Supply and demand. Wherever, whenever men with money and power lusted for their supply of forbidden fruit, Slaughter was there to meet the demand.

Frank Slaughter was a success. He had wrapped himself in the protection of Pyrite, the town he brought to life, in his army of mercenaries … and in his beliefs.

Some would call it superstition. Some would call it heresy. Frank Slaughter called it his religion. He was convinced he owed his success to the theology of his mother's ancestors - Santeria. It protected him. It destroyed his enemies. It supplied him with success and treasure.

It was Slaughter's loyalty to these ancient learnings and his apparent ability to use their mysticism to punish those who opposed him, who defied him, which gave him his reputation.

Slaughter practiced Santeria, "La Regla Lucumi", but he wasn't born with The Power. It was the one who stood ever by his side who was gifted in the arts.

So when he saw his "Culandero" - his priest - his Santero - watching the newcomers with such a grave expression, he studied them as well.

He felt the power in these two men who were entering his town. He didn't realize that he was reading body language - the way they sat their horses, the way they evaluated Pyrite with casual, unhurried glances. He didn't consciously realize how impressed he was with the self-assurance they shared that, together, they could handle anything they came up against. He couldn't identify the waves of confidence they gave off in each other and, even rarer, confidence in themselves.

All the tall, self-important half-breed knew was that he sensed a threat. And so did his Santero.

The cards in the smaller man's soft hands weren't tools of their native La Regla Ocha. His shaman had learned and adapted the tellings of the Tarot from the secrets he learned in the bayous. He had also learned the powers of the Pentagram from a clandestine undercurrent of society that still laughed at the arrogance and paranoia of the Salem Witch Trials. The gods, his "Orishas", had seen fit that Slaughter be blessed with a priest learned in the powers of these other sects and adept enough to meld them for his own purposes.

The long, sinewy fingers turned over a card from the deck - Seven of Swords.

He turned another - The Judgment Card.

The third and fourth cards were from a less conventional Tarot deck that the Culandero had created for himself. On card three, Slaughter found a Crow staring back at him. The Crow. The gateway to the supernatural realm. A portentous bird whose simple motto was, "If you are going to step on toes, be sure you have back up."

On top of the Crow card landed the Wolf, a strong symbol of family. He warned that if you attacked one, be prepared to fight the pack.

The wind picked up and seemed to howl in the distance. Slaughter looked hard at the two strangers before returning his attention to the cards in his Culandero's hands.

The slender fingers turned over the fifth card. The back was faded blue, with tiny ivory colored flowers. It came from a conventional deck of Highlander playing cards. But it was the death card just the same - the Ace of Spades.

Slaughter studied the ratty compilation of Tarot cards, playing cards and the cards that featured images of animals of the plains - predators and prey.

"Well?" The master demanded of his high priest as he watched the two men dismount in front of the saloon.

"They are powerful and growing more so. They have yet to sense the forces they wield or that guard them. They are protected. And they are protectors. Warriors. Philosophers." The hooded eyes lifted to meet the icy blue of his patron, "They are your fate. I saw them in a vision. They are your destiny. They would protect he who is a match for my power."

"What can we do?" Slaughter, with his eagle beak nose, high forehead, ebony George Armstrong Custer curls and frosty, dead eyes, watched the man with the long duster wait for the man in the buffalo coat before they entered the bar, "Kill them?"

"Destroy them." Was the reply. But there was something in the tone of voice. And when Slaughter finally tore his gaze from the threat and looked at his Santero, he couldn't read what he saw there. It could be respect. It could be anticipation. It could be a challenge. It could be fear. "Those are men who know there are worse fates than death. Their alliance is a new one. Destroy them before it becomes strong."

"And how would you do that?"

"Let them destroy themselves."

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Josiah Sanchez's speed often belied his age and his bulk. He used that speed now to get between Buck Wilmington and the wagon master. Josiah moved backwards forcing the younger regulator with him.

Wilmington's quicksilver temper had exploded like lightning and caught like a prairie fire, "You sorry excuse for a ... them girls are missin' and you're movin' on?" He shouted over Sanchez's shoulder.

"I told ya. Them two's nothin' but trouble. They runned away to go spreadin' their legs for money. They deserve what happens to 'em."

The grizzled wagon master spat tobacco at Buck's feet to emphasize his impression of the two missing girls. Buck was beyond words as he fought to get his hands on the man.

"Buck," Josiah shouted, "Buck!" He demanded attention, "We'll look for them. We'll find them. They'll be better off away from him, anyway. We'll get them to their families on our own." He cooed, like he was gently trying to earn the trust of a poorly treated yearling colt.

"Alright," the dark head bobbed once. The body relaxed, "Alright, then." Josiah took the chance of loosening his grip. Wilmington straightened his coat and poked an accusatory finger at the wagon boss, "Better off away from you." He repeated, then with a half nod and tight smile as if he knew a truth no one else understood, he allowed his older friend to lead him back to their horses.

Josiah couldn't help but wonder how such a womanizer could have so much empathy and so much compassion for two runaway girls. There was a lot to be learned from these misfits he'd thrown in with. A month wouldn't be enough time to even get started.

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"Pyrite," Larabee said almost to himself as he left the saloon and took in the town from the boardwalk.

A general store in a town this new shouldn't be stocked with French perfume or Irish linens. Men in the saloon should belly up to a plank of wood resting on two beer kegs. Instead there was a heavy mahogany bar, matching backsplash with intricate engravings and a brass footrest and, 'the good stuff' out for everyone to drink, "How the hell'd this place pop up so fast?"

Vin Tanner stretched and let his eyes survey the street, "Civilization can take over faster 'n maggots on a carcass when there's somethin' it wants to feed on," he observed. He didn't look over, but felt his partner smile in agreement and amusement at the analogy.

The quiet Texan was again surprised by how quickly the camaraderie had formed with this man.

Tanner watched the working girls flouncing into the bar. They were high class and entertaining. One winked at him and Larabee with a promise and a hope. Vin tipped his wide brimmed hat, his eyes twinkling with appreciation. None of these fallen doves wore the faraway look of indifference or resignation that had so recently been on the faces of Lydia's girls.

That thought, in turn, had the former buffalo hunter's mind reflecting on his current position. For three weeks he had found himself protecting this territory with six other men. Vin Tanner, a wanted outlaw, riding with a gunfighter who had no doubt killed men for less than a wanted poster; a preacher he couldn't come close to understanding; an ex-lawman who clearly had a fine-tuned sense of right and wrong, even though he kept it carefully hidden; an ex-slave who might bolster his position in the community by turning in a wanted man; a greenhorn, wanting to prove himself and a gambler who could parley the $500.00 bounty on his head into his dream of owning his own saloon.

What kind of a fool was he to have told Larabee of the bounty? What if the others found out … they had only known each other such a short time …what if…a ruckus to his side had Tanner spinning and almost going for the Mare's leg strapped to his thigh.

Two small boys who had noisily jostled the pickle barrel scooted past, never knowing they had jolted the bounty hunter back from his thoughts. He looked over at his riding companion and saw an amused smirk. With only a mental roll of the eyes, Tanner went back to studying the place, "Judge say why he was concerned about this place?"

"Nope," Larabee replied.

"Don't feel right."

"Nope."

The whole damn town was too clean. And crowded. Why were so many cowhands here? There was a bad element walking the streets. Yet they appeared to interact with the businessmen as if they had something in common.

And while it seemed like no one on the street gave them no never-mind, it felt like someone was watching them. There was a menace in the very air around them. "Reckon I'd rather camp under the stars tonight."

Larabee sensed it, too. "Wire Buck, tell him we'll be in Four Corners tomorrow. I'll pick up some supplies and meet you back here."

With a nod, Tanner was gone. He might have trusted this man with the bounty on his head, but he wasn't ready to admit he could neither read nor write. He would tell the telegraph operator what to send. He had learned the ways to conceal what he considered a weakness all these years.

From beneath ground level of all the buildings between the Mercantile and the saloon, haunted, pain filled eyes watched the men separate.

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Nathan Jackson found himself wishing that the rest of Four Corners' peacekeepers were back in town. As the healer's warm brown eyes took in the scene around him, he reminded himself he had seen death before, too many times.

Yes, he had seen death. In his more brooding moods, late at night when nightmares caught up with him and refused to let him sleep, he acknowledged that it was the carnage of the Civil War that had given him his direction in life as a healer, and the chance to practice the art as a free man.

Death in battle or in a gunfight, where you were fighting back, even if you weren't good enough, or it was bad luck, or it was just your day to die, that was one thing.

To be executed or slaughtered, without the chance to defend yourself, that was Nathan's nightmare. But for the intervention of Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner, that would have been his fate. And not a day went by that something didn't make him relive the helpless feelings of that day.

Even a condemned prisoner, escorted to the gallows touched the gentle man. Not being in control for those last moments of your life … Nathan shuddered involuntarily and then tried to shake off the premonition that he would yet meet the fate he so feared. At least, up to this point, he was in control of his own destiny. Making one last, slow circle, he accepted he couldn't say the same for these men.

There were eight of them. They were white men, probably varying in ages from teens to early 40's. They were all nude and seven of them just … weren't breathing. There were no visible wounds, no evidence of a battle or a struggle, no cause of death, they were just … dead.

But the eighth man, obviously the youngest, his death gave silent testimony that the others had not died of natural causes. For this poor soul was lashed to a boulder. Superficial knife wounds spoke of torture. And the death mask - terror and agony - made it painfully clear that he was still alive when someone removed his heart from his chest.

How long had he suffered? How long had the boy known that he would die slowly, with the mocking faces of strangers laughing above him? How long had he felt the helplessness knowledge that no one would come to save him? Did he think about his past? His Momma? Were his last thoughts of his unfulfilled future? Was there a girl somewhere who would never know why she was left alone?

Nathan caught a movement out of the corner of his eye and reflexively went for his gun. He would not die like this.

But it was only Standish heading his way. The gambler had been tending to young JD Dunne who had lost his breakfast as soon as they came up on this … this what? Murder? Massacre? He didn't want to use the one word that kept forcing itself into his consciousness. Sacrifice. This had been a human sacrifice. The runes etched roughly in blood around the boy's body, the candles that had oh, so recently sputtered out, the symbols formed by the surface wounds … He looked up and saw the same conclusion in the eyes of the con man.

"Mr. Jackson," Standish spoke softly, as if unwilling to call attention to himself and his friends,

"Perhaps you should see to Mr. Dunne."

"The candles are still warm. We should try to track down who did this."

"I am more than willing to accommodate." The gambler spoke casually, but there was a tinge there that said he would like to avenge that poor boy and the others, "Where do you suggest we start?"

He was right. There were no tracks, human or otherwise, to show who had done this or where they had gone.

Rather than acknowledge the fact that the lack of any disturbance in the land unnerved him, Nathan responded, "We need to bury 'em, Ezra."

The Southerner nodded. None of his habitual comments about menial labor minimized the moment.

A part of Nathan observed that when things were important the Southerner had his priorities firmly in place. He was a good gun to have at your back. Even so, as the healer made his way toward their young greenhorn, his eyes found the horizon and his thoughts tried to will the other four of their misbegotten band home. They needed to be here to protect Four Corners and its territories. Buck Wilmington needed to be here to protect JD's innocent psyche. Josiah needed to be here as the confidant he trusted so that Nathan could give voice to his fears. Because Nathan couldn't shake the feeling it was they, themselves, who might need protection.

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"I'll take a half dozen cheroots," Larabee stated as he placed his supplies on the counter of the Pyrite Mercantile. He glanced out the window to see if Tanner was headed his way yet.

The graying proprietor looked up from where he was stocking local honey and headed toward the till.

Larabee thought he heard something, like the mournful whining of a dog.

"Papa," The small voice whispered. It had been a long time since he had heard the word. Turning involuntarily, he saw a small tow-haired boy sobbing in the doorway that led to the living quarters at the back of the store. A western window had the child back-lit by the setting evening sun. He seemed to glow.

The little one was rubbing a pudgy, fisted hand at his watery eyes. The gunslinger took a step forward only to collide with the storeowner.

"Hey," the old man grumbled.

Larabee pushed past him to check on the child. But the boy was gone.

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Vin Tanner hurried his pace when he heard the ruckus inside the general store.

"I want to see that boy!" Larabee was shouting as he stormed out of the living quarters behind the store. He grabbed double hands full of the owner's shirt and apron. The proprietor, cowering before the angry man, was pushed tightly against the counter. His eyes pleaded with Tanner to control his assailant.

"Cowboy?" The Texan eased forward.

"The child was crying. He was scared. Now this weasel is afraid to let me check on him." Larabee gave as justification for his anger.

"Ain't no boy, Mister. Ain't no child." The storeowner pleaded.

Tanner's easy saunter belied an alertness carefully honed. He walked into the rear rooms and came back out, "Ain't no one back there, Chris."

"I saw him. Tow-headed. Curls. He was scared. Called me 'Papa'…" The word was like cold water on the gunfighter and he added quickly in an attempt to make the moment less personal, "…He asked for help."

"Did you see where he went?" There was no doubt in the bounty hunter's voice, just a determination to get an answer.

"I don't know. I turned around for a second and he … disappeared." The words slowed to a halt as Chris realized how unbelievable the story sounded. He himself had searched the building with no results. Surely he could intimidate the merchant enough to get at least a glimpse of any deception. There was none. Without another word he left the store, mounted his horse and tore out of town.

"That's a troubled man," The words of the cowed shopkeeper rang in Vin's ears. The poor soul shoved a cheese cloth sack full of their supplies toward the tracker. On top he laid a fine bottle of whiskey, wrapping papers and a bag of special blend roll-your-own tobacco, "He asked for cheroots. This is what I've got. Take it and keep him out of here. Please."

With a slight nod, Tanner left the shop, stowed the supplies then loped after his partner.

"Scared that feller," the tracker offered when he had caught up. Larabee didn't grace him with an answer, "He said he didn't have your cheroots." Tanner added as he handed over the peace offering of whiskey and smokes. He was surprised by the response.

"Damn fool, there was a stash of smokes right by his arm." Larabee grabbed the smokes and whiskey from Tanner and kneed his horse forward, never looking back.

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As focused as he was on following his friend out of town, the usually observant tracker missed Slaughter and the Santero as they moved to stand by the storeowner. Slaughter took a cheroot from the humidor on the counter, lit it, puffed until the end glowed as red as his Santero's eyes, and smiled more comfortable now that his “special blend” of tobacco was in the stranger’s possession.

Beneath Slaughter's feet, imprisoned in the town's basements, now converted to temporary holding cells, even the lost souls there had seen something special in these men. And they had seen their hope ride out of town. But they had heard a name - Four Corners.

And then the prisoners heard the drums even as they were suddenly being herded out of their cells. They all knew what it meant. Someone else was going to die; be sacrificed as Slaughter and the Santero cast another spell. There was no doubt that their goal was to send evil to chase the threat they sensed in these men.

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The drums in the background set up a swaying tempo for the Culandero. While his robes were white, he wore braided strings in varying combinations of colors around his neck.

The necklaces, or Elekes, honored the Orishas, "Obatala, Chango, Eleggua, Yenaya," he chanted, calling his native gods to share in the sacrifice.

The prisoners knelt around the altar. Their presence was demanded even if they weren't allowed to raise their eyes to watch.

"Oshun, Ogun, Orumula …" The Santero continued to evoke the gods.

Seven candles surrounded the altar, each painted to pleasure one of the gods. A small straw doll was placed precisely before each candle. One wore black.

Slaughter stood at the head of the altar. He was anxious to have his holy man cast this spell. He wanted the attack against his enemy to begin.

The young woman fought the ropes for all she was worth as she was dragged to the altar. She screamed and begged and prayed.

This would be no simple sacrifice. She was allowed to scream and thrash as the superficial cuts to her body formed runes to please the Orishas. The Santero believed her suffering, the sound, the motion was like chum in the water to draw the attention of the gods.  The sense of helplessness, of innocence – that was the element Slaughter enjoyed.. But finally, as the drums reached a fevered pitch, the ruby studded ceremonial knife in the Santero's hands came up one last time, and fell quickly. She saw it coming. One last scream rent the night before the drums stopped and all was silent.

One of the candles broke. The cracking sound was like thunder. The Culandero didn't let it show that this was a bad sign.

The smoke from the candles billowed up and touched the sky. Immediately it morphed into dark storm clouds and began to roil up above the town of Pyrite. They would drift to the East. Toward a town called Four Corners.

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Four Corner's bar was shoulder to shoulder. A layer of cigarette smoke wafted up to hang in the air between heads and the ceiling. It was dark. The bodies canceled out most of the lantern light. No one wanted to be out in the approaching weather.

The wind outside was the kind that wore on a man. It blew in sand and whipped trash around pillar and post. The horses tied at the hitching rails were skittish and balked and sidestepped at the least little thing.

The lantern flame grew taller as the barkeep turned it up in an attempt to fight the darkness. It didn't seem to help.

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Josiah looked up after nailing a shingle in place. He held his cross firmly to his chest the way other men held their hats on their heads. He could hear the loud, false bravado coming from the men in the saloon.

It was only a matter of time. Something was blowing in. It presaged itself with the fine particles of earth that Mother Nature was willing to sacrifice. It turned the sunset a fiery orange and yellow, as if the entire west were burning in the fires of hell.

And there were no good thoughts or kind acts in Four Corners to repel what was blowing in. Oh, the presence of seven peacekeepers may have tempered the lawlessness, but it was like a dog obeying out of fear, not respect for the new rules imposed on it. The dogs would bite when given a chance.

Josiah Sanchez found comfort in the battle to keep the chapel roof from leaking. It was as never-ending a battle as good vs. evil, but from what he'd seen in his life, good and evil were not as easy to tell apart as the clergy might have you believe.

On the other hand, which shingles needed replacing or mending was a comfortingly easy decision. And for now, that was enough.

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Vin Tanner rode in hurried, uncomfortable silence as his horse crested the knoll that gave him his first glimpse of Four Corners. Finally they were returning home after secretly delivering the army payroll and then their information gathering trip to Pyrite. He glanced at the man who was riding with him.

The moody widower whose anger had spawned the reputation as a cold-blooded gunfighter, the man who had put a straight razor to an old friend's throat, a man who rode out on a suicide mission and was willing to take six other men with him - well, Vin was getting a glimpse of that man, now.

Chris Larabee slumped deep in his saddle and suckled the Irish whiskey like a babe at its momma's breast. Ever since they'd left Pyrite the silence had been deepening.

Now the emotional wall Larabee had put up around himself was like a physical barrier. The Texan watched the gunman suck in on a cigarette, exhale a smoke ring, and watched the smoke ring break and drift apart.

What bothered Tanner most was that the mysterious missing boy who seemed to have set off this bout of sullenness, well, it was clear the description matched Larabee's own dead son.

The perceptive Texan knew he should say something, but it wasn't in his nature. He felt the trust between himself and this man most intensely. It was a rare thing and more important to him than he could understand. But they had known each other such a short time. Buck Wilmington had clearly known him longer, and look how Larabee handled Buck's concern. Vin wasn't sure their burgeoning friendship could withstand that kind of anger and conflict. Vin wasn't sure he was willing to risk that friendship on things that were none of his business.

A storm was blowing in from behind them, from the northwest. Storms rarely came from that direction and it was unnatural enough that Vin Tanner was ill at ease. It most definitely wasn't helping Chris's mood.

It was almost as if the storm were racing them to Four Corners. Vin felt an unreasonable need to get to the small town before the rain hit.

Vin kneed his gelding forward. He couldn't deny he was relieved when Larabee followed even if it seemed it was only because the black was following its herd mate more than any conscious direction from its rider. For a moment, the tracker had thought his friend would turn away from home.

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There was another man on the plains leading to Four Corners. Tanner should have seen him; sensed him. But he didn't. It was almost like he could block his presence from others, even those in touch with nature and the land. The old man's wild white hair danced in the portentous winds. His features were unreadable as he watched the other two men head into town. The heavy boned, ghostly white horse seemed to be more animal than the frail stranger could handle, but it obeyed the smallest touch. It too ignored the bothersome storm. Man and animal slowly made their way into the upstart town of Four Corners that had no idea what was heading its way.

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JD marveled at the force of nature, so vital, so clearly visible across the vast flatlands. The heavy, black bottomed clouds were like a solid wall advancing. Preceding the storm, being pushed forward by its force, was an ugly, hazy brown wind. A giant sandstorm was headed their way.

No wispy, see through clouds scudded before this wall of black and brown. Almost every lightning strike, from this distance seemed to hit the ground. Some seemed to originate in the dust storm. Some were so powerful that they didn't disappear in a flash, rather they broke up in branch-like curly-cues and spun wildly back into the sky.

And yet, above the clouds, fully half the sky was lit in sunset hues of red, yellow and orange. The ground, the buildings, the air seemed illuminated by astral flames.

The greenhorn had noticed how Josiah, Vin and the Indian medicine men all looked to the heavens to predict the pulse of Four Corners and her surrounding territory. He wished Vin were here to tell him what this storm meant, how it formed. That it was natural.

The horizon was still on fire when the fat raindrops began pelting the town, carrying the sandstorm down with them. Instead of cleansing rain, mud fell from the sky.

JD, edgy, stepped out of the jail, hoping to see Josiah along the boardwalk. Like so many times since returning from that last patrol, he needed to talk to the former priest. The mysterious death he'd seen, the torture of the young man tied to that boulder, how could a man do that to another man? Why would they do it? And what had been done with the boy's heart?

Nathan and Ezra thought they knew something, but weren't willing to accept their suspicions. Buck didn't have any answers, but kept telling him everything would be okay like he was talking to a scaredy-cat little boy. Buck always treated him like a kid. Even the thought had JD fuming. He wasn't a kid. Josiah might not have any answers, but he let their youngest give voice to his fears without minimizing them and he was a comforting presence.

The rain was coming down in sheets by the time JD turned toward the church.

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The early shadows, the cloud-borne darkness, concealed the shadowy form. The deed was done. The pure white dove lay pathetically still. One long, elegant finger dipped into the blood and used it to etch the runes around the sacrifice.

Painted red with blood and black with soot, the candle beside the dead bird had taken on the fat, squatty shape of the mason jar that held it. Red and black. The colors of the orisha, Elaggua. The Santero lit the candle. And waited.

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It all happened at once. Working on the roof, Josiah felt a nearness and stillness in the air despite the gusts blowing in. A grain of sand hit his eye, causing it to water; he squinched both eyes closed against the sudden pain. There was a moment of disorientation. He tried to pry his eyes open. They resisted, balked, there was less pain when they were squeezed closed. Through slitted eyes, a shadow, like a giant bird wafted over him. He seemed suddenly to be wrapped in its wings. And then he was falling.

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JD walked through the quiet church. The candles were all unlit. Occasionally a flash of lightning illuminated the room in pale blue fire; silhouetting the pews and making the shadows dance like living things.

"Josiah?" The young man called in a loud whisper. He felt like something was watching him, matching his pace, "Josiah?" He called louder, and moved toward the back of the church because to stop would be to admit he was afraid; that he had been spooked by the bodies and the hint that magic existed.

Magic. The word that Nathan and Ezra tried to deny. Didn't they get it? Even if magic wasn't possible, look what people were doing because they believed in its dark appeal. If that boy had been tortured and his heart cut out to cast a spell it was awful in and of itself.  And if magic did exist, that was part of its strength wasn’t it? That no one would believe it was real - until it was too late.

JD reached Josiah's small room at the back of the church. It was as dark and empty as the rest of the sanctuary. The air was heavy. Thunder rolled continuously.

The youngest regulator started to retrace his steps when the back door that allowed the elder peacekeeper to come and go to his bed without going through the church, flew open. A gust of cold air seemed to wrap around the young man. Automatically, JD ran to the door to push it shut and protect his friend's meager possessions from the rain. In a flash of lightning, JD saw and recognized the crumpled form lying outside the door in the mud, "Josiah!"

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The dark haired boy was unaware of the fact that, nearby, a black and red candle cracked, shattered and sputtered out.

Intense eyes looked from the young man to the suddenly destroyed ritual to the body in the mud and back to the boy. The Santero watched as the ex-priest, his natural adversary, was rescued from this night's fate. Then his eyes cut back to the dead candle surrounded by his carefully performed black ceremony. The seven were still as one. He slid back into the familiar shadows to contemplate what had happened.

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"Josiah!" JD repeated as he slid to his knees in the mud beside the bigger man, "Please, can you hear me?" His hands fluttered around the unconscious head and shoulders, afraid that if he touched, it could do more damage. He got no response. Needing to do something, he whipped off his tweed coat and dropped it over his friend, "Josiah, I'll be back. I'll get help. Hold on." His boots left deep cuts in the soggy ground as he ran for help.

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The storm had beaten them to town after all and was in its fury. Instead of blowing through, it seemed determined to hover over Four Corners until it wore itself out.

Tanner had chosen to ride through the toad choker for reasons he couldn't explain. He tried to tell himself there was nowhere to hole up that would keep him any drier, but there had been an undercurrent of urgency to be back home.

He had to admit, though, the significant temperature drop caused by the thunderstorm would feel good once he was dry and had a couple of whiskeys in his belly. Maybe it would ease whatever was eating at Larabee as well. The warm and dry, that was. The gunfighter didn't need any more drink.

The town seemed perhaps unnaturally quiet, but that could be blamed on the raging tempest. Shutters somewhere banged loose, branches scrapped eerily along rooftops and could well conceal the scurrying feet of evil. 'Things from ghost stories to frighten children,' he thought to himself.

Tanner and Larabee were almost to the saloon when he saw Buck Wilmington and Ezra Standish push through the batwing doors as one and race toward the church.

Larabee's black, already skittish, sidestepped away from the running men. The animal had been surprisingly amenable to traveling in the weather, but now something in the town seemed to have him spooked.

Vin saw JD follow the two older men and called out to him, "JD."

The sheriff recognized his friends. His eyes shifted between Vin and Chris, "Chris, Josiah's hurt. I think he fell off the roof. He needs …"

"Where?" Vin demanded.

"Out back of the church!" He directed as he started in that direction. Vin nudged his horse forward.

"JD, find Nathan," Vin ordered.

JD headed toward the clinic only to find their healer joining them in response to the shouts. They took off, only a few paces behind the horses.

@@@@@@@

Tanner slid to his knees in the mud beside his friend much as JD had done and called over the roar of the storm, "What happened?"

"Don't know. Found him this way." Worry was clear in the boy's voice.

The big man lay partially on a cumbersome sheet of brown paper. It did nothing to protect him from the wind, rain and chill, but protected his body from some of the mud. JD's soggy coat was doing little to improve matters.

Then Nathan was beside him, running sensitive, talented fingers looking for wounds or breaks. Nathan was almost finished with his methodical examination when Vin couldn't stand it anymore, "How bad?"

"Help me get him inside."

Vin immediately complied as did Wilmington, "Vin, let Buck," Nathan directed, opting for the larger man's strength over sheer determination, "You go fetch my saddle bags," The healer referred to the extra set of leathers he carried his medicines and bandages in, "JD, Ezra, water and blankets."

The men stood as one to go about their tasks.

A lightning bolt illuminated another silhouette behind them. A shadow in the night, Chris Larabee quietly evaluated the situation as he strode slowly up to them. The rain sheeted off of his flat brim hat like a crystal veil as he took in the situation. The red glow of his cigarette was like a demon's eye.

As soon as the seven stood together, the air rushed at them and a heated wind rose from the ground.

The temperature jumped from 75 degrees to 99 degrees between one heartbeat and the next. It was an eerie sensation that seemed to start at their boot soles and rise toward heaven as if the breath of hell engulfed the territory.

The eyes of each man flittered from one to the other trying to gauge if everyone had felt it. Clearly they had.

The rain stopped, almost as quickly as it had begun. The weather phenomenon was discarded in the wake of tending to their downed comrade.

Larabee turned away from the others.

"Chris, where ya goin'?" Buck asked. He had read something familiar in his old friend's body language and didn't like it.

"Saloon."

"What about …"

The gunfighter turned hard green eyes on the other man, "Leave me alone. I'm wet and tired. Don't challenge me."

"But Josiah …"

"Ain't none of us attached at the hip, Wilmington, no matter what you'd like to think ridin' together means." And he was gone.

"How long's he been this way?" The rogue asked Tanner.

"Since Pyrite."

"Somethin' happen there?"

With a nod, the tracker responded, "I wish I knew what."

Nobody noticed the anxious look on young JD's face when he heard, what to him, sounded like Larabee threatening to leave.

Despite his words, Chris Larabee maintained a rear guard for his men as they worked their way up the church steps. He felt the unsettling need to search his surrounds. He ignored the urge. He didn't care. And then he carried out his threat and walked away.

No one noticed the gangly figure that watched them gather around one the other and then splinter.

@@@@@@@

Josiah Sanchez came full awake immediately as was his way. His head felt like it might explode from the movement. His bright blue eyes reflected the morning sky that peeked through the tiny window above his bed. He blinked then closed them again as he tried to get his bearings. He was in his room with a punishing headache, but could remember nothing of the night before. There were many mornings when the missionary's son remembered nothing but the illusion he had sat across the table from the devil and tried unsuccessfully to out drink him.

There was something missing this time though. The darkness where he suppressed such memories usually gave him the sensation that he had something to feel guilty for. It was missing. The uninhibited anger that escaped when he was drunk - he didn't feel it or the need to fight it back into submission.

"Mornin'," A voice as clear as the sky offered.

Not willing to move his head and invite the pain, Sanchez cut his eyes in the direction of the sound.

Vin Tanner smiled and stuck out a battered tin cup. Sanchez started to reach for it, but found his right arm bound to his chest.

"Dislocated it. Got a goose egg on the back of your head, too. Best we can figure you took a fall off the roof …" The tracker let it dangle for an answer.

"Don't recall," Sanchez murmured, deep in thought as he gingerly scooted up on the pillow and took the offered drink from his friend with his good hand. He frowned into the cup. Water. He glanced at the steam coming from the other cup Vin held. That's where the appealing smell of coffee was coming from. Tanner saw the look, "Sorry, Nathan says water 'til he gets back to check on you. Head hurt?"

"That it does."

"Doc'll be back shortly. You slept through a hell of a storm. Trees uprooted, shutters off the windows."

"I dreamed a giant crow picked me up and dropped me."

"You were lying on a big chunk of butcher paper. Might could'a startled ya; caused you to lose your balance."

The big man shook his head at his blank memory, a movement he soon regretted.

Tanner saw the wince, "Why don't you rest some more?"

Josiah studied the young man before him. Nathan Jackson was a good friend; all of the seven were trustworthy and sparked a sense of friendship that defied his cynicism. But it always seemed to be Tanner who stepped in when he needed support. The preacher was touched, but uneasy, thinking he had nothing to offer in return.

The silence was just beginning to stretch too long when the front door slammed open and a youthful voice called out, "Vin, hey, you seen this? Josiah awake, yet?"

The two inside the church shared a smile. If anyone were asleep, they wouldn't be after that. "Let me see what the pup's about," The tracker winked and turned out of the room.

The young sheriff was standing just outside the heavy oaken door with a strange look on his face. It was a combination of confusion, curiosity, a heavy dose of fear and something around his eyes seemed to ask if he should be disgusted.

The expression had Tanner's own curiosity up as he lengthened his strides.

JD stepped back at his approach, "Watch it." He advised and pointed to the ground in the corner where the steps met the wall of the church.

Tanner frowned, stepped over to what had JD's attention and squatted down for a closer look. His hands dangled freely over his knees.

"What do you make of it?" The boy asked impatiently as he tipped his bowler enough to wipe the sweat from his brow. The heat that strangely permeated the previous night had taken hold.

The sad remains of a white dove lay on its back on a couple of boards. Its entrails were exposed and outside the craw. It seemed as if some sort of symbols or circle had been drawn around the creature in its own blood. But the exact design was distorted as the blood found the grain of the rough-hewn wood and traveled the grooves. The moisture and standing water diluted the outer edges of the liquid allowing it to run even more freely. The deep purple of the thicker, coagulated blood tried to hint at how long ago the death occurred.

Four pieces of dark, brown hairy shell with a white layer inside sat beside a homemade candle that had been painted red and black. The candleholder had exploded into shards.

Tanner and Dunne heard a muffled gasp. They looked up to see Nathan staring wide-eyed at the debris.

"Mean something to you, Nathan?"

"Who did that … when …"

"Oh, my God," Before the dark healer could respond, the heavy Southern drawl was heard.

"Josiah!" Nathan called and stepped carefully but anxiously over the altar to get to his friend.

Buck Wilmington and Ezra Standish had noticed the commotion outside the church doors on their way out to patrol and decided to investigate. Now the mustached peacekeeper, the jerky he had started to bite into all but forgotten, tried to decipher the muted horror on the small gambler's face.

"Josiah!” Ezra called now. He was off his horse and almost ran into the bulk of his friend in his rush through the door.

"Brothers?" The missionary's son saw relief in the Southerner's and ex-slave's eyes. Then he saw them flicker to something on the ground beside the church steps. He followed their eyes, observed quietly, then asked calmly, "Magic?"

"Voodoo," Ezra offered.

"Santeria," Jackson corrected with such a certainty in his voice that they all looked his way.

Larabee, who had appeared from somewhere, took a step forward, tacitly demanding that the healer continue. "When people were brought over as slaves, they brought their traditions, their religions. The slave-owners would forbid the worship of the 'one god', Olorun and his emissaries, called Orishas. So the slaves hid their religion behind a curtain of Catholicism, associated the different Orishas with various saints and continued their rites and songs."

"And magic?" Vin asked.

"What does it mean?" JD asked urgently.

Nathan shook his head imperceptively, "My Ma was Catholic, raised that way, and raised that the old ways were heresy. I know the colors mean something, the signs, but …"

"The sacrifice was made to Eleggua, he be's a most powerful Orisha. His blessings be needed to make magic." The seven were already edgy. So the voice had them all spinning, hands on their gun butts.

The skinny, scarecrow of a boy before them was all legs and arms. His nondescript, dirty blonde hair was straight and reached almost to his waist. His one blue eye and one brown one reminded Vin of a few paint horses he'd known with two eye colors. All of those horses were a little bit loco. But the raggedy, threadbare, dirty shirt and peasant pants he wore and the frazzled moccasin-like shoes struck a different chord with the Lone Star orphan.

"What do you know about this?" Nathan demanded, his fear coming out as anger and directed at the man-child who had appeared as if from nowhere.

The boy flinched and was clearly on the verge of running.

"Nathan, boy's scared and he's still tryin' to help us, ain't that right, son?" Wilmington offered as he stepped down from his own horse.

Chris fought the urge to turn away. Buck had a way with strays, no doubt about it, just look at JD, even Ezra. But today the whole, 'gosh-darn-I'm-your-friend, son' act seemed contrived, like the gangly gunfighter was saying, 'See how good I am at this?' and it made Larabee's skin crawl like fingernails on a chalkboard; made him want to hit something, or someone.

The boy tilted his head like a dog trying to understand what he was hearing; like he was seeing, hearing, sensing on more than a human level.

"Son," Buck continued, "Can you help us out here? Do you know who did this?"

"Black and red are Eleggua's colors. When the candles broke, it kept the spell from being completed. A powerful force is protecting you." He tilted his head again is if something just occurred to him, "Or is saving you for itself."

"Bullshit!" Larabee blasted.

The boy bolted in response to the anger and was gone. JD was pleased with Larabee's response. Who was that kid? The seven would take care of this. The seven were The Seven. That boy didn't have any business butting in and knowing something like that.

"Damn it, Chris."

"Shut up, Wilmington. I mean it. Shut up."

"Mr. Larabee," Ezra tried to counsel, "The markings are distorted by the rain, but they could hold some vague resemblance to those around that unfortunate boy we found …"

"Coincidence." Larabee shot back. He didn't need to know which boy the gambler was referring to. Nathan and Standish had told them about the bodies they'd found outside of town. They had told him about the brutally murdered youngest.

"People are dead. Girls are missing. That's something." Wilmington insisted.

@@@@@@@

The young, wild boy watched from the shadows of the alley. He heard the angry voices even as they tried to keep some semblance of calm. But his eyes were on the dark healer. He had known about Santeria. The priest hadn't known. The man who had lived with the People of the Land hadn't recognized anything. The Son of the South knew a little, but the ex-slave. He knew.

Wilmington turned around in frustration and noticed the lost boy was watching from a distance. He couldn't read the look on the face, but figured it was fear because of the raised voices. He threw the little fella a reassuring wink and tossed him the chaw of jerky he had ridden up with.

"Great," Larabee snarled when he saw the interaction, "That's all you need, another stray." He slid his bloodshot eyes to encompass JD and Ezra. Ezra showed no emotion. JD was startled to suddenly come under the scrutiny and glared at Wilmington who he blamed for starting the confrontation.

Buck took on a soothing tone of voice, "Little early, isn't it?" He asked, referring to the bottle in Chris's hand.

"Mind your own damn business."

"That ain't been the answer for you, yet." Buck pushed.

"Neither has your 'coupla, three pards riding together can solve anything' shit." Larabee spit out. The gunfighter's skin fairly vibrated with prickly energy that was driving him insane. He took some deep breaths that didn't help, turned and strode away.

JD watched his hero leave with something near panic on his face.

Buck watched his old friend disappear down the street, took a deep breath, and turned back to his new friends with a smile on his face, "Hey, let's get you back inside, big guy," he said as he moved up the steps toward Josiah, "Nathan, you ain't given him a clean bill of health, have you?"

"Nope, nope I haven't." Nathan quietly agreed that things should lighten up.

"I'll clean this up," Vin said, taking another look at the sacrifice. JD stayed to help. The tracker glanced up and watched Wilmington's eyes trace Larabee's steps with a worried look.

@@@@@@@

"JD?" Vin asked. He knew the young man was bothered.

"There's no such thing as magic." JD demanded. Dunne never got to broach the topic with Sanchez. Maybe Vin could help.

They were walking back from burying the remains of the ominous ritual. The tracker stopped and looked out over the horizon. Vin Tanner was a quiet sort. Not because he didn't have anything to say, rather he seldom found people he cared to talk with. He liked the young easterner.

When their eyes met, the older man offered an opinion, "The White Man calls himself civilized. What he's done is "tamed" himself, softened himself, gotten used to too many luxuries at the expense of his connection to the land and his instincts."

JD was listening intently. Vin would try to set him at ease, but he wouldn't lie to him. Rather he would educate him and lessen his worry that way, "So, nowadays," the tracker continued, "there are some things the White Man don't understand. Some of them he thinks are impossible. Sometimes he calls them magic."

"So there is such a thing as magic? Things going on around here are … that Santeria Nathan talked about? Is it black magic?"

"Or it might be somebody trying to create magic, and willing to torture and kill in the attempt." The tracker wasn't yet willing to admit they were up against a supernatural power.

"That's what I thought!" JD shouted, proud of himself. But he had to know, "But it might be real?"

"The good news is that as many folks who still believe in the black arts, there's just as many who know how to fight it."

JD had never thought about people who could use magic to fight magic.

"But if I catch up to the ones who are doing this, I'll give them a lesson in torture." That last came from a different Vin Tanner, a man more concerned with seeing justice done than keeping JD at ease.

The last sentence, the way it was said, reminded the young sheriff how little he truly knew about the men he'd hooked up with. It reminded him how deadly they had to be to survive. He was glad Vin Tanner was on his side.

With that the former bounty hunter clapped the boy's shoulder and moved on.

JD watched the man walk away. He tried to ignore the buzz at the back of his mind, every time he realized how independent these men were. The thirty day commitment they had made to the Judge would be up in six days. He didn't want it to end. But what was here to make men like that stay? Nathan and Josiah had put down roots in this small town; the Doc even before they met, and Josiah soon after. They were both strong and stable - two qualities often overlooked.

While JD admired both men tremendously and liked them, trusted them, looked to them for direction, he didn't long to be strong and stable. When he daydreamed, it was that people saw him as quicksilver like Chris Larabee, enigmatic like Vin Tanner or even on a heady day, flamboyant like Ezra Standish.

When men like those, hard to get to know and reluctant to trust, gave you their hand in friendship, that's when you knew someone, somewhere envied you. Yes, someday he wanted Larabee's reputation, for now, he was satisfied to be in this circle of friends.

But, would the quicksilver, the enigmatic, the flamboyant find anything to hold them in this town? JD feared the answer was, 'No'. He would give up the sheriff's position in a heartbeat. There were still the Texas Rangers or where ever the others drifted. But would they leave together? Would those kinds of men want an orphan tenderfoot moving on with them? JD had no idea that he was growing into a competent sheriff and a good man. He still thought that his worth was measured in the men who allowed him to ride at their side.

And what about Buck? He sort of fell in the middle, sort of could be taken for granted because he seemed to give his trust and friendship so easily. Truth be known, JD was worried that Wilmington would stay. Of course he liked Buck, could never forget Buck had saved his life almost at the cost of his own. But the gangly cowboy and Chris Larabee had been posturing back and forth ever since they got back in town. One wrong word and they were fighting like cats and dogs.

Even JD knew that a lot of the reason all seven of the regulators were at odds with each other and themselves was because of the mysterious and horrendous deaths and disappearances that had swept the area. An involuntary chill went down his back at the incomprehensible cruelty he'd witnessed and so far, their helplessness to stop it.

But it seemed like every time Larabee lashed out, Wilmington was there. If that kept up, Larabee was likely to move on just to get away from the other man. And JD hadn't had time to convince his hero that he should get to move with him when that time came. Couldn't Buck just stay out of the way for a while? It never occurred to the boy that Wilmington was there to take the brunt of Larabee’s moods so the others wouldn’t have to.

JD's thoughts were spinning around with no answers. Chris and Buck had already had one blow up today. Now, Chris would be drinking and not telling anyone why. Vin was probably sitting in another corner of the bar, ready to run interference between Larabee and the townspeople. Ezra was probably at the saloon throwing cards back and forth with Josiah and Nathan. If they were lucky, Buck would have made himself scarce entertaining himself and being entertained with one of his lady friends.

JD would have liked to join them in the saloon, but Chris had said the soldiers would be here soon, and, as sheriff, it was his job to greet them, so he headed toward the jail.

@@@@@@@

The Lieutenant's blond, non-regulation curls peeked from beneath the slouch hat he wore at a precise, jaunty angle. The late evening sun glinted off of his cavalry buttons and saber. The proud, gaited roan he rode matched his haughty air.

His sergeant rode by his side. Six more soldiers rode in pairs behind them.

The horses' hooves clopped along the hard-packed main street of Four Corners.

The formation turned toward the hitching post in front of the jail.

JD would have been surprised at how wrong his guesses were regarding where all of his friends were, because across the street, one set of sharp green eyes and one of crystal blue, evaluated the presence of the military.

Ezra Standish's history with authority figures was less than stellar. Vin Tanner, ever aware of the bounty he bore, seemed to blend into his surroundings to the point that he almost disappeared.

As much as their young sheriff, they, too, were aware that their responsibility to the growing burg called Four Corners would soon come to an end.

The loyalty evolving between the peacekeepers was largely unspoken and, as their obligation to Judge Travis was soon to be over, these two especially questioned whether the friendships would withstand a confrontation with the U.S. Army.

Tanner hated that his suspicion included even Chris Larabee. But since their recent return from Pyrite, the man was a stranger to him.

@@@@@@@

JD Dunne came out the door of the jail as the Lieutenant tied his mount and swatted his hat against his leg to remove some of the dust, "Sheriff Dunne?" The officer asked.

The young man tried not to smile with pride every time he heard the title. True enough, it was almost honorary seeing as the men who helped him keep the peace had so much more experience, but it didn't really matter. He was a Western Sheriff. Hoping the lopsided grin looked like a sociable greeting instead of a kid living his dream, he put his hand out to the stranger, "That would be me." He confirmed.

"Lieutenant George S. Armstrong," The officer introduced himself with a firm handshake. If he had any reaction to JD's age, he didn't show it. That endeared him to the young lawman. "You got the judge's letter?"

"Yes, sir, ah,…" He hesitated only a moment, "We - I did. If you'd like to accompany me to the saloon, we can meet the other - my deputies and get down to the details."

"Good man. Professional and to the point." Young Dunne puffed up at the praise. He sucked in on his cheeks trying not to grin like a schoolboy, "Sergeant Montoya. Accommodations."

"Yes, sir." With a snappy salute, the second in command was gone, the soldiers following in his wake.

@@@@@@@

The dull roar of several voices met the pair before they moved through the swinging doors. JD was oblivious to the keen blue and green surveillance that tracked them. If Armstrong was aware, he gave no sign.

There was a steady flow of customers coming into the bar, cowhands  mostly, from surrounding ranches. But the sheer number gave evidence of how big the local spreads were that they hired so many men. If they sought out companionship because of the strange heat and dense fog that seemed to work its way along the countryside every night, or because of the rumors of brutal deaths, none of them admitted it.

In the far corner of the establishment sat a breathing shadow. The length of the long black duster pooled down around the chair legs. One ivory-handled six shooter peeked from inside the coat.

JD didn't realize he was following instead of leading until the soldier stopped just short of the long, black denim legs stretched beyond the table.

"Deputy Larabee?" The smug tone held a quality of aged whiskey, soft and warm at first, it was only later one recognized the bite.

The head tilted enough for lazy hazel eyes to peek up at the Lieutenant. JD wondered why their leader seemed so at ease when being addressed by a stranger. He mentally cringed when the man called Chris Larabee "deputy".

Wait a minute, JD thought, how did he know Larabee's name?

"Go to hell, Armstrong," rumbled from deep in the gunfighter's throat.

"He don't like you, Pard." A honey voice whispered from behind. Its presence made JD jump, "I don't like you, either."

"Geez, Buck, don't sneak up." But the voice told JD why Larabee was at ease. Buck had him covered. No matter how much those two fought, JD was sure that they might kill each other, but wouldn't let anyone else close enough to do the job, "Who do you think you are? Vin Tan …"

"Been a while, George S." Wilmington smiled and stressed the added initial to the point that it was clear that Armstrong always did the same, and that the Lieutenant somehow measured his worth by the "S". It was so smooth that no one could tell that Buck had intentionally interrupted before the boy got out the name of the wanted man. Tanner would be surprised that Larabee had trusted Wilmington with this secret. Larabee wanted to do everything he could to protect the Texan. And no one was better at protecting than Buck.

"Buck Wilmington. When I heard I'd be coordinating with Larabee, I should have known you'd be one of the seven 'peacekeepers' for the town." His words belied his tone.  He looked like he’d seen a ghost when his eyes met Buck’s.  He studied the darker man hard.  When he saw nothing but a recognition of who he was, not The History Between Them, Armstrong visibly breathed easier. He pulled off a chamois glove and offered a hand to the darker haired gunfighter. The offer wasn't accepted, to which Armstrong leaned over and whispered, "Chris don't like me cuz we're too much alike. You don't like me 'cuz you can only handle one Chris Larabee."

"Oh, God," JD thought. He knows them. And I called Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington deputies.

The rogue had one arm around the waist of a willing dancehall girl and held a beer in the other, "You still dress like a little banty rooster. Can you cut butter with the creases in those trousers? I think you can."

Instead of responding to Buck, Armstrong turned back to Larabee, "Still got Buck here flushin' out trouble while you decide whether or not you're gonna kill somebody?"

"Somethin' like that," Larabee drawled, thinking he could refuse to rise to the bait. He couldn't, "Jury's still out on you." He said around the cigarette dangling from his lips.

"Why don't we move this pow-wow to the sheriff's office?" Buck offered to break up the staring contest between the two men.

Larabee gracefully unfolded from the chair and left without a backwards glance.

Buck took time to kiss his lady friend a slow goodbye. Despite his earlier thoughts on the subject, almost without any conscious thought at all, it was becoming second nature for JD to hang around the ladies' man for direction. He was just less intimidating than the gunfighter.

Larabee moved resolutely toward the jail.

Slaughter, like Dunne, loitered to make the trip with the more sociable Wilmington.

As he crossed an alley between boardwalks, Wilmington threw a smile and quick wink at the skinny, shy waif that was again watching from the shadows. JD saw the boy, too, and scowled at Wilmington's reaction to him.

@@@@@@@

"Ah am of a mind to drop in on Mr. Jackson and assure myself he is fully stocked in the area of bandages and medicinal supplies." The soft southern lilt purred as he watched the parade from across the street.

"Why's that?" The Texan drawl responded curiously.

"It has been mah observation that we can expect nothing but trouble when our illustrious leader starts walkin' around like he has a corn cob implanted in his nether regions."

Tanner barked out a rare, spontaneous laugh. He had to agree. Then he was distracted by the young man that came out of the alleyway to watch JD and Buck proceed down the boardwalk.

Buck called him a little Louisiana stray. Most people acted like they didn't even see the boy. Chris Larabee barely gave him a second glance, immediately categorizing him as no real threat. In the short time since he first appeared at the church, Buck and Vin had learned his name was Toby, short for Tobias Thibodaux, and he had walked into town only days ago with no money and nothing but the shirt on his back. He was feral and ran if anyone tried to get close. Buck and Vin, recognizing a little bit of themselves in what they saw, were gradually trying to approach the scarecrow of a waif.

The hardened bounty hunter casually took an apple from his pocket and left it on the chair he vacated as he followed the gambler toward the saloon. Toby observed them carefully before he ran over, grabbed the apple and quickly disappeared down an alley.

@@@@@@@

Nathan stopped on the creaky step leading toward his clinic and watched Vin and Ezra watch the others. He watched Toby snatch the apple and run into the alley below the clinic.

The ex-slave realized that he and Josiah had seen the lost dregs of the Civil War so much so that, unless the wounds were visible and physical, they'd become inured to that abandoned, hungry look. Larabee had been right though, Buck had a way with strays, and JD and Ezra were evidence of that. So was Larabee if he would see it – or admit it. But the look in not only the gangly gunslinger's eyes as he watch that boy, but also something from their tracker, left Nathan thinking that maybe Wilmington and Vin both saw their own past walking in those worn shoes.

Nathan continued upstairs. He didn't notice the pair of eyes that watched him from the shadows beneath the steps. The sun shining between the slats, the dark and light, gave the impression of a caged animal's eyes. Neither did he notice, hidden in the light, a white candle flicker to life. The fire would be noticed in the shadows, so the tall candle slowly burned down to Nathan's fate in the sunbeams at the side of the livery. It was hidden in the light.

@@@@@@@@

"I thought there were seven of you "peacekeepers" in Four Corners," Armstrong asked, a little too casually. He glanced around the small jail. It was Spartan, but clean enough. It smelled of old wood and gun oil rather than drunks or caged bodies.

"You don't need to meet anyone else." Larabee made it an order.

"So you plan on escorting the payroll, yourself? Still thinkin' ever'body's got it in 'em to be an outlaw, huh?" The Lieutenant asked before he turned to Buck, "I thought you two split ways long back.” If Slaughter realized he was contradicting himself, he was willing to risk it as he fished for information without being obvious, “How'd you make the cut?" He almost sounded jealous.

"Oh, I didn't. He just thinks I'm too stupid to be a threat." Josiah, who had positioned himself on a cell cot, pretending to sleep off a drunk, heard a tinge of bitterness in that statement. Were Buck and Chris playing some kind of parts? Or was there something else?

"What about the young sheriff here? Don't you think he should be the one to bring the payroll in? Or don't you trust him, either?"

JD looked wide-eyed from one man to the other. Because there had been no motive identified for the violence in the area, Judge Travis had arranged that the military payroll would be handed over to no one unless two of the Four Corners peacekeepers who he knew and trusted were there to sign for it.

JD knew what the Lieutenant did not. Chris Larabee had already taken it on himself, along with Vin Tanner, to transfer the gold under the ruse of investigating the upstart town of Pyrite.

Until just now, JD thought Chris didn't trust the soldiers. But it was clear this was an old friend of both Larabee and Wilmington. And the friend seemed to think Chris suspected JD and the others capable of the robbery. JD's youthful insecurity bypassed all common sense and he wondered if what Armstrong suspected was true. The boy's delicate ego was soothed by his hero's next statement, "JD's job is to protect this town. The judge wants us galavantin' over the countryside, that falls to the rest of us."

All doubts were vanquished when a quick, unobtrusive wink from Buck confirmed their faith in their youngest.

"Besides, the gold's already been delivered."

"What!" the question was immediately anger, not surprise. "That was a military responsibility. With what's been going on in this territory, what if you'd been …"

"We weren't." Larabee moved into Armstrong's personal space, "And until someone puts some reason to what's going on here, I ain't doin' nothin' where someone can second guess my plans."

Armstrong shuffled to move Larabee's presence back to a social boundary. He looked at Buck and again to the man in black, "You let us come all this way for nothing?"

"Nothing?" Wilmington interrupted, "Men are bein' gutted like animals and dying for no cause. Girls are missin'. People are 'fraid to go out at night. That's nothin?"

"Judge says ya'll stay on a while and give us a hand." Larabee smiled that small, devilish smile where the tips of his top front teeth barely showed; a smile calculated to antagonize the man on the receiving end, "Under my authority."

Buck, clearly amused, handed over a yellow telegraph flimsy that confirmed Armstrong was to answer to Larabee.

Armstrong read the short orders, crumpled the paper, threw it to the floor and slammed out the door.

Larabee had already dismissed the cavalry officer. No one more than Buck Wilmington could see that Larabee's thoughts had shifted to a different place.

"Hey, Old Dog," The ex-Texas Ranger began jovially, but then he put a gentle hand on the dark, slumped shoulder and continued with a voice that could wrap a damaged soul in doe skin, "Want to tell me what happened in Pyrite?"

"Mind your own damn business," The response snapped like a steel trap. The tension of the last few days was back in force, tangible and becoming a source of friction.

Chris shoved past Buck and out of the sheriff's office. Buck followed with a determined stride. No good could come from letting Larabee's mind dwell in this dark place. Maybe he could convince him of that.

Their voices were too low to be heard as Buck caught up with his old friend, but the body language spoke volumes. Buck was saying something, fairly willing the smile he had on his face to lure a similar look from Larabee. The taller man bent a little, trying to make eye contact with the hard hazel eyes hiding under the flat brimmed black hat.

Larabee raised his head in the slow, threatening manner that preceded a gunfight, met his friend's eyes and said something. Something short and terse. The words seemed to knock the dark haired man back like they were a physical attack.

Larabee, damn him, almost looked smug, as if he enjoyed the reaction. He brushed brusquely past Ezra who was making his way that direction and JD who had finally worked up the nerve to follow from the jail.

Ezra's chest tightened in an unfamiliar emotion as he caught the disappointment and guilt in Buck Wilmington's eyes as he watched the other's spur shod boots stride back toward the saloon.

But with a blink, a curtain covered the pain in the midnight blue eyes and, with a smile, and sincere affection, the cowboy slouched slightly to try to catch their young sheriff's eyes, "Hey, JD," But the boy didn't give him a chance to continue. The words from Larabee weren't altogether unexpected. The attack from the young sheriff came as a surprise attack.

"Can't you mind your own damn business?" JD clipped, imitating Larabee, hero-worship fueled again by the fear that Wilmington would chase the gunman off with his prying. The young man shouldered past Buck again copying Larabee.

This time, the curtain of joviality didn't return with a blink and Buck headed across the street before he could say something wrong to Standish as well.

Josiah left the jail in time to stand by Ezra and watched the events unfold. He watched Buck start to his left, but the saloon was that way. There was a barely noticeable move to the right, but JD had stomped off that direction in his pale imitation of the gunfighter.

Josiah could tell by the tension in the proud shoulders that Wilmington knew he and Ezra were behind him. And Tanner was walking toward the jail from the far end of the street. The only direction left open to head was toward the stairs that led up to Nathan's. The big man took that route and sat on the lower steps.

The little shadow broke away from the others and moved cautiously toward the man on the step. Josiah and Ezra watched him stand there until the expressive blue eyes felt the presence and looked up. Slowly, hesitantly, the skinny man-child held out the apple Vin had left for him, offering to share.

Toby was like a pup, abandoned by civilization and those who should protect him. And that's how Buck and Vin had been treating him. Until recently the two older orphans barely made eye contact with the boy, learned quickly how close they could approach before the wild thing would bolt. They managed to leave food on the boardwalk, stoop or chairs so that he didn't have to go through burn piles looking for leftovers.

Judging by the look of appreciation in Buck's eyes the good treatment had just been repaid tenfold by Toby's offer. Buck pulled his knife out and shared the companionship and the fruit.

Ezra, with an unreadable look on his face, watched Buck and Toby.

Josiah wasn't surprised to see Vin appear and take part in the spur of the moment picnic as well. There was no doubt in the ex-Preacher's mind that the sharpshooter's eyes had taken in everything that recently happened on the street and read the right of it as easily as if he were reading buffalo sign.

The head had tilted forward. The slouch hat had temporarily concealed those eyes, but Josiah had seen that move before. Shutting himself off, the Texan processed what was going on and decided on a course of action. He had strode good naturedly over to Buck and Toby as if he was unaware of the friction in the air.

Josiah couldn't hear what was said, but Tanner had Wilmington smiling almost immediately. It wasn't hard. The man wanted to be happy. He wanted to smile. Toby's posture relaxed just a fraction as he carefully studied each man.

"Mr. Standish," Josiah spoke finally.

"Mr. Sanchez?" Ezra turned his eyes toward the older man.

"I believe we're missing a party." He nodded at the three at the bottom of the stairs, "I believe I will invite myself." He raised a graying eyebrow questioning if Ezra wanted to tag along.

Ezra tilted his head in thought. Without a word he entered the jail. Before Josiah could wonder if he were being snubbed, the gambler returned balancing the coffee pot, cups and a basket that held the remnants of a barely touched breakfast, "One should never crash a party empty handed."

Josiah tried to hide his pride in Ezra's participation as well as Ezra hid the fact that he wanted to help be a salve to Buck's wounded feelings. They headed across the street.

Even Nathan, for reasons he wouldn't think were more than coincidence, chose this time to leave his clinic and head downstairs. The back of his mind noticed one of the higher steps groaned with his weight. It might need to be replaced soon, but it was immediately forgotten when he saw, then joined, the congregation beneath him.

@@@@@@@@

"We missed the army payroll!" Slaughter demanded. He pushed back from his fine teak desk in his office in the Pyrite bank and walked over to the window to survey his town.

The man Slaughter had sent to spy on the peacekeepers of Four Corners cringed. The phrase 'Don't kill the messenger' popped into the poor man's mind. But he didn't voice the thought. He didn't want to give the Boss or his Santero any ideas.

“And you’re sure Buck Wilmington is back riding with Larabee?” Slaughter growled, but there was some sense of fear in the question if one knew what to listen for.

“Buck Wilmington, yes sir.  I was told to make sure you knew he was in town as well.”

The spy watched Slaughter’s eyes move back and forth as if watching something in the past.  He rubbed his forearm with his thumb, a self-comforting gesture like a dog licking it’s paw to soothe itself.  He started breathing hard.  The spy had seen this man’s anger explode before.  One thing he knew was that he didn’t want to be the one to bear the brunt of that sadistic temper.  He hurried to put the focus and the blame back on the formidable men they were up against, "Larabee, it was his idea; his plan … he … he's the one who bested Lucas James…"

"I told Lucas James he should have asked for protection from the Orishas." The Santero threw out, unimpressed.

"They killed Wicks." The henchman hoped this proved they were powerful adversaries, "In his own tent city. Surrounded by his own men."

Slaughter turned beady, dead eyes on his Culandero. The irises caught the candlelight and reflected red. He waited for his priest to respond.

Never raising his eyes from the candle he held, the reedy voice responded as if he read the answers in the flame, "James and Wicks and men like them fought the Seven. We are arranging for the Seven to fight themselves."

Slaughter's eyes went back out the window to the town he owned as he thought through the ramifications of the words. Whatever history he may or may not  have associated with Chris Larabee or Buck Wilmington seemed to have no impact on the New Orleans witch doctor.

On the street below, ignored by the townspeople, he watched as the rag-tag prisoners were separated like livestock. Two toddlers, screaming as they were torn from their mothers' embraces were an irritant. The sobbing of the mothers a distraction. They made it hard to think. But it was better to separate the inventory now before the buyers arrived.

The children would be placed in the orphanage outside of town. There were ranchers who would pay a little extra on the side to adopt potential ranch hands. Some of them even cared about the boys they took in. The adults? That was up to the buyers. They were paying a top dollar to do as they wished. As it had always been.

Slaughter, looking for a distraction from dark memories, decided to make an appearance on the street, fully expecting the presence of the Santero and himself to quell the disruption that inevitably arose when they finally divided the chattel.

As he moved outside, he brought his mind back to the problem at hand on a business level. If the past hadn’t caught up with them yet, the odds were that it wouldn’t – at least not before he killed all seven of the peacekeepers for his entertainment. "From what I've heard, it's not unusual for those men to fight among themselves. As of right now, they are still disrupting my profit margin. I'm not happy."

Somehow, even as he aided the man, the Santero seemed aloof from the material gains. He practiced his Craft to learn and test his powers, "Larabee be strong willed. The potion what hides in his tobacco frees inhibitions. Frees anger. He be heavy dosed. Most men be findin' theyselves on a killin’ spree by now. He fights the demons within him the drugs try to release."

"And as a result, I am not a happy man."

"They are protected." The Santero repeated, staring into the candle wax as if the answers were there, "We must draw the favor of the Orishas away from them and back to your endeavors."

As they spoke, Slaughter and his High Priest led an entourage that inspected the victims soon to be handed over as slaves to new buyers. Slaughter swallowed his anger and fought for composure. He needed to put forth a powerful front for his men, the townsfolk and the prisoners.

The tyrant stopped in front of two young girls who caught his attention. They were young, but not too young. Their clothing was well worn and patched, but had been clean until recently. They had the peaches and cream complexions of youth. Even the puffy, eyes and red noses of tears and fear didn't detract from their appeal. They were terrified. Slaughter liked that. It made him feel powerful. He ran his finger along the one with the mousey hair. He was sure she'd never been looked at the way he looked at her now. His finger slid down her neck toward the buttons of her blouse. She cringed back against her friend.

"They're from the wagon train. Their uncle sold them to us. We would have had more, but those lawmen from Four Corners …"

"Again with the 'lawmen from Four Corners'!" Slaughter bellowed, all attempts to control his anger were forgotten. Everyone cowered, prisoner and hired help alike; everyone but the Santero. "I want this stopped!" He demanded, getting in the priest's face.

"Powerful magic protects them. You must protect yourself from them. You must sacrifice to the Orishas that which you yourself would take for your own."

Slaughter glared at the smaller man then turned lustful eyes back to the diminutive young things before him. Just how much was he willing to sacrifice to best those misfits?

"Mr. Slaughter," two men hurried up, they continued to check rosters and notes as they forced themselves to deliver their news, "Two prisoners are missing."

The merciless killer turned a stone glare on these two. He didn't have to ask the question. The man continued, "They were strong men, not broken yet. They knew their fates. They knew what waited for them."

"They saw the men from Four Corners from their basement prison. They saw salvation." The Santero relayed in a singsong-chant-like voice as if he were foreseeing the future in the candle's wax. "They will seek them out. They will tell them of your enterprise here."

"Damn. Damn! Not AGAIN!" Slaughter screamed at the top of his lungs. He fought unsuccessfully to relax. It was important to show control in times like these. He focused his anger, "Find them. Make an example of them. Don’t let them get to Four Corners alive. But let their bodies show these 'peacekeepers' what awaits them."

"Separate them." The Santero hissed, "Separate their hearts."

Slaughter's eyes took in everything - the bonfires that lit the street, the prisoners, the men who followed him because they feared his Santeria magic, and the townspeople who pretended nothing was happening lest they share that fate. Suddenly he reached out and grabbed the frightened, mousy young girl from her friend and kissed her hard on the mouth. He could feel their teeth hit as she whimpered and struggled to get free.

"C'est la Vie" He rationalized as he tossed her to two men who stood beside the Santero.

The mage understood that his master was giving him that which he would have taken for himself to be the sacrifice. "Prepare her for Ebo." He intoned.

The two men, acolytes to the priest, stepped forward and dragged the fighting, screaming girl away. Her friend sobbed. But the others, beaten into submission, never raised their eyes. Their hope, those of them who still dared to hope, lie in the two runners, Johnny Franklin and Tom Reynolds. If they made their way to Four Corners and the men there that were feared by Slaughter and his magic man ... perhaps those men could save them.

The Santero raised the black and green jar that held his candle over his head. The flame grew stronger. And the Santero vanished in the smoke.

@@@@@@@

Chris Larabee advanced on Armstrong. He spun the lieutenant around and got in his face, "Stop baiting Wilmington."

"Why? I should be more obvious, like you?"

"I don't like seeing a man's kindness and easy going ways being mistaken as a sign of weakness." Larabee stated coldly around the cigarette dangling from his lips.

"He don't like it, let him do something about it."

"He'll take whatever you throw at him for a long time. That's part of him. But when you push him too far, he'll put all that's festered into coming after you."

"What's too far, Larabee? I bet you know."

"You never will." Chris vowed in a low whisper, "Because, you keep it up, long before Buck loses his patience I'll leave you nothing but a greasy spot on the ground."

Larabee turned and left without another word. Armstrong watched Larabee head back to the saloon. He had a self-satisfied smirk on his face.

Neither man noticed when Toby appeared and watched the interaction with great interest. His head was tilted like a dog's again, seeming to see things on a different level from man.

@@@@@@@

Johnny Franklin and Tom Reynolds had been friends since the war. It was a bond forged by shared danger, shared fear and shared survival. That bond may well be what had gotten them this far. But still, nothing but wasteland spread before them.

Part of what kept prisoners in Pyrite was that there was simply nowhere to escape to except the unforgiving high desert. They had heard rumors that the Santero could cast a spell and kill from miles away. Neither Franklin nor Reynolds had seen any truth to that. But they had seen brutal torture and murder in the name of Santeria and his sacrifices. And they knew the fate that awaited them and all of the others.

So they had bided their time, but time was running out. Their loyalty to each other and inner strength finally enabled them to escape from Slaughter's men. And now they ran. And ran. But they were sick. The Culandero's magic had infected them; too late they learned it was real. There was no safe haven. The forces against them were too powerful, too all seeing. But they had to try. Somewhere, somehow, someone might be able to fight back.

The evil was too big for this dusty, growing Western town of Four Corners. But maybe this Larabee and his men that Slaughter and his inner circle whispered of could defeat the power if they could be convinced the evil was real.

@@@@@@@

Lieutenant Armstrong was on a slow boil. Larabee had threatened him. More often than not in the last years, the times their paths had crossed, it seemed that the gunfighter and his tag-along friend were at each other's throats and yet they stood beside each other. He tried to tell himself it was habit for the one to go to the defense of the other, but damn, it always happened. They were always there for each other. That was something that was hard to fight against.

So when the Lieutenant entered the saloon and saw the genial ladies' man sitting with two others, he was ready to prove that he wasn't afraid of Chris Larabee or his threats.

Most of Armstrong's horse soldiers were already inside sharing a couple of pitchers of beer. Only Sergeant Montoya was missing.

JD Dunne was standing at the bar enjoying a mug of milk and chatting amiably with Buck who had chosen a table close by. Ezra Standish had forsaken his usual table to join his friends. JD enjoyed the company of both men and it was like the bitter words of earlier in the day had never happened. Buck was good company and a good teacher. The youngster just wished he'd be more discreet about his lessons. JD couldn't understand why Buck seemed so proud when he took a lesson to heart.

Armstrong strutted over with a sardonic smirk on his lips, "Damn, Wilmington, I was wonderin' how long you could hide in Larabee's shadow and pass yourself off as a gunman. This is more your style. Hangin' out with a snot-nosed kid playin' dress up and a … well, hell," he took in Standish's flamboyant attire and cocky hat, "a riverboat rat playin' at the same thing."

Ezra raised an eyebrow at the statement, then looked down at his fine red jacket, brushed at an imaginary piece of lint, then settled back with a barely discernable affronted air. Immediately he was plotting the best way to get back at this boor.

"I'm the sheriff," JD said, rising to the bait as he put his body between the cavalry man and the sight of his drink of preference, "the judge himself appointed me."

Armstrong's men laughed.

"Boy, you'd be nothin' but a greasy spot on the ground by now if you didn't have Chris Larabee wipin' your nose." If Armstrong realized he threw the same phrase back at Larabee's friends, he didn't admit it to himself. But he was clearly going to take his anger out on the men he perceived to be under Larabee's protection.

All JD knew was that he had lost the respect the man had shown him when he had first introduced himself.

"Leave the kid alone, George S.," Buck advised around a sip of beer.

"Shut up, Buck, I can take care of myself. And I ain't no kid!"

Buck raised both hands, palm out, in a sign of surrender, though, in truth, he seemed more amused than perturbed by the admonishment. "Don't do no good to talk to the likes of Armstrong. It just lets him know he's getting to you." Buck tried to explain.

"I would think, Lieutenant Armstrong, someone as adept as you at hiding behind cavalry blue, would know better than to judge a man by the clothes he wears." Ezra purred.

No one noticed young Toby Thibodaux watching, on his hands and knees, from under the batwing doors. He memorized the subtle annoyance he saw on Ezra and Buck's face when Armstrong maligned their younger friend. And had the insight to know that whatever was going to happen next was in retribution for the slight against the boy.

"What the hell do you mean by that?" Armstrong bristled with a quick, uncomfortable look.

"Just that since it's a bit slow around here today, I'm willing to make a small wager that 'the man wearing this coat' is more than a match for you or any of your men."

"Oh, yeah, you get a fight started and Larabee takes great pleasure in tossin' us in the jail."

"Please. I would never resort to fisticuffs. However, seeing as the Cavalry prides itself on horsemanship, perhaps a small wager?"

"Hell, feller who dresses like that'd be lucky to get on a horse much less know what to do when he got up there." A soldier snorted.

"I take umbrage to that remark, sir."

"You take what?"

"He'll take whatever he can that ain't nailed down," another soldiers kibitzed from the bar.

"I'm merely saying that clothes do not make the man and wearing this coat has nothing to do with a man's riding skills."

Buck looked hard at the gambler's placid face. It sounded like the soldiers had struck a nerve and the gambler was willing to make a foolhardy bet in the heat of the moment to save face. But that wasn't Ezra Standish, the man who said he left nothing to chance, the man who never seemed like he had to prove anything to anyone, even himself. So Buck stared hard. Whatever the conman was cooking up, Armstrong had it coming. Buck decided to play it up, "Now Ezra, don't rush in. Ridin' that fancy saddle horse of yours is one thing, but …"

"Mr. Wilmington, I'd thank you to stay out of this until you are ready to place your bet. At that time if you see fit to wager against me, I'll hold no hard feelings." Ezra was thankful that the big man was quick enough to play along. He put just a touch of defiance in his voice to make it sound like he was, indeed, over his head.

Armstrong knew that when someone's ego got in the way, they used bad judgment. He could read that in the gambler. So he asked, smelling easy money, "What have you got in mind?"

"Oh, I'm sure we can think of something, perhaps to do with a wild mustang of the plains?"

"A race?"

"Hardly. I'm saying that 'this jacket' can ride anything you come up with."

Buck could hear the false bravado in Ezra's voice. He noticed Toby watching and gave him a quick wink to make him feel like he was a part of the conspiracy. Toby shyly crabbed away from the door, to avoid attracting any more attention.

Ezra whispered something quickly to Buck who smirked and sauntered out of the bar.

"Gentlemen," Ezra showed his gold tooth with his grin as he pulled out his pencil and tally book, "perhaps as we work out the details, others might like to participate in the wagering?"

@@@@@@@

Toby was taking long strides that carried him down the boardwalk. The strides seemed longer than were natural for a boy his age and build, almost like he was pretending to be someone else.

A long arm snaked out and jerked the young Cajun into the nearest alleyway.

"What the hell are you playing at?" The gruff man demanded of the small boy. Sergeant Montoya was almost nose to nose with him. The soldier held the posture for only a moment before the icy blue eye and menacingly dark eye bored into him.

Montoya took a step back, "You were supposed to figure out how to defeat these men. They're playin' hell with Mr. Slaughter's schedules."

Toby shoved the bigger man back establishing a larger personal space and meeting no resistance in doing so, "I do the will of the Orsas. I can't defy them. I can't offend them"

Fear of Slaughter finally overrode Montoya's opinion of a man-child. He looked across the street, saw Josiah headed their way and dragged the small boy deeper into the alley. The big man then twisted his two beefy hands deeper into the front of Toby's thin shirt, "Why don't we go ask Slaughter how he feels about that?"

"Toby," a soft voice came immediately from the boardwalk, "Mister, there better not be a problem here."

The big soldier turned to face the buckskin clad regulator.

Suspecting for a moment that the young Santero had conjured up an illusion, Montoya bowed up in defiance, keeping one hand wrapped in Tobias's shirt, a massive Bowie knife suddenly materialized in the other.

But Vin Tanner was very real and drew his own skinning knife, widened his stance and prepared to do battle.

"It's a fool of a man what takes a knife to a gunfight." An even softer voice drawled from behind them. Toby and Montoya turned to see Buck Wilmington, gun in hand, aimed casually at the man's center mass. Buck smiled. Vin winked back.

Montoya looked back and forth from one man to the other. Slowly he replaced his knife and slide past Toby and Vin.

Buck started after him.

"No," Toby said quickly, "Don't. You'll make Mr. Slaughter mad."

"That guy from Pyrite?" Buck asked, but directed the question to Tanner. The Texan nodded.

"He said you're one of them Santeros?" Vin frowned.

Meekly, the boy nodded, 'Yes', "I am Santero, like my uncle and like our ancestors before us. My uncle tries to control me. But I don't want to follow my uncle's teachings. I am hiding from him."

"How much do you know about Slaughter, Toby? About what he does?"

"He sells people and things. The Orsas protect him. If you fight him, you will go against magic with only your loyalty and friendship."

Buck looked up  met Vin's eyes. “He sells people?” Buck frowned and some memory itched at the back of his mind.

"Why's that soldier messin' with you?" Vin asked and it drew Buck back to the moment.

"He wants to take me back."

"Vin," Buck said after a pause, "could you go hook up with Ezra? I think he could use your help putting these soldier boys in their place. Take the boy with you and watch out for him?"

Instead of agreeing, Vin asked a question, "What will you be up to?"

"I thought I'd go have a talk with Sergeant Montoya."

"No." Toby pleaded quickly, "He's really not sure about … things. If you push matters, he'll know I'm who he thinks I am."

"Now that's about as vague as Josiah on a three day drunk." Buck observed. But then he got a look at the small boy in front of him. He was afraid of something. Buck didn't like to see small, frightened things.

"Please, don't get them mad at me." Toby pleaded.

"Montoya ain't goin' nowhere. I reckon we can wait 'til Chris shows his face." It was a question Tanner offered to Wilmington, "We can all sit down and see what's what then."

If they were dealing with mere brute strength or ruthless gunmen, Vin would be no more willing to wait to confront Montoya than Buck was. But there was something unexplained in the air. He didn't want to give away their hand - that they knew Montoya was involved - too soon.

When Larabee's old friend nodded his agreement that he would wait, Vin gave a little salute and headed down the boardwalk to look for the gambler.

Buck put a friendly arm around the Cajun and steered him after the tracker, "C'mon boy, you can watch the fun and we can keep a safe eye on ya."

Toby didn't have a lot of book learning, but he was streetwise. He had immediately recognized that these two men offered him food and friendship and asked nothing in return. He didn't know why they would treat him kindly, even now that they knew he was Santero. So he would watch and learn. And listen. He was good at listening. He picked up his pace to keep up with the larger man.

@@@@@@@

Chris Larabee tossed again in bed. He never could sleep in the middle of the day, but he had needed to try. He wasn't sleeping at all. And it was beginning to show on his patience. But he didn't stand a chance as long as that damn ruckus was going on outside.

He stretched his head back and rolled his neck, trying to get rid of the feeling all over his skin. It was like thousands of tiny ants were walking on him. But their feet were freezing cold and they were walking inside his skin.

Larabee made a conscious effort to unclench his teeth. But his jaws tensed right back of their own accord. His skin vibrated with fury. Even he knew it was unprovoked. He just needed - wanted - to hit something. See someone flinch.

That damn ruckus outside.

Larabee threw himself to his feet and stomped to the window. Wilmington. He should have known. Down by the stables, the tall man was surrounded by Armstrong's men and some locals. Was he taking money?

Gambling.

So where was Standish?

Movement drew his eyes to the corral behind the crowd. Four men, ropes in their hands held taut, were restraining some devil bronc they had found somewhere. And Ezra Standish, natty red coat and all, was about to boost himself into the saddle. Only … oh, hell no. Larabee's anger had found an outlet. He grabbed his hat and gun belt and was out the door.

@@@@@@@@

In Pyrite, on a sacrificial altar, a green and black candle sprang to life.

@@@@@@@@

Buck was delighted to take the soldiers' money. The horse had crow hopped and sunfished, done every trick it knew. But in the end, the rider held firm. JD beamed from beside his friend as he watched the money change hands.

Ezra walked up, shirt sleeves rolled above his elbows and ready for action. Now that the wild horse had been ridden, he began helping Buck settle the bets. Armstrong postured at the edge of the crowd. He didn't want these guys to win.He didn't want them taking his soldiers' money.  Then he noticed it - here was the gambler, but the fella in the red coat was still walking around in the livery.

Armstrong pushed through the crowd as a wiry, gangly, exceedingly drunk young soldier came up to the con artist. The private, his hard earned money in one hand, he grabbed a handful of Ezra's shirt in the other, "Mister, I bet all I had. Let me keep it. Grubstake me. Next time we come through and that payroll's ours, I'll pay with interest."

Armstrong shoved Standish back with both hands to his shoulders so that the Lieutenant could stand between the Southerner and the dark-haired soldier.

Ezra was still processing the implications of the soldier's statement when Montoya grabbed the lad, threw his money at the gambler and with one good shake, demanded, "You shut up, now. Hear?"

The boy broke free, clearly terrified when he realized what he had just said, and more so that the sergeant and lieutenant had heard him. He was edging back toward Standish. Surprising himself, Ezra took a step to run interference for the frightened private.

Armstrong realized Ezra was sneaking to the defense of the young soldier. He had to stop him, but knew he wasn't close enough. Instead, he did the next best thing, he lunged at Wilmington. Buck dodged. It had the opposite effect when Ezra used the distraction to his advantage and pulled the small man away from his sergeant.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to say anything," Ezra heard the lad chanting to Montoya. As Standish pulled the boy toward safety, the private turned his pleas that direction, "I'm sorry. I didn't say anything."

Montoya backhanded the boy to shut him up. The youngster's head snapped around from the impact of the blow and he spun out of Ezra's grasp and onto the ground.

Across the crowd, Armstrong and three of his men moved in again on Buck.

Without a second thought, Ezra threw a fist, putting all of his weight and shoulder behind it to slam into the sergeant. Montoya hit the ground. The young soldier was skittering away. The big sergeant began gathering himself to leap off the ground and charge Ezra like an enraged bull. Ezra was shoving his money in his pockets for safekeeping.

Buck dodged two soldiers until he could secure his own greenbacks. He spoke to JD quickly without taking his eyes off the sergeant and Ezra, "You better pull that funny hat down tight, boy. It's about to get Western." With that and a delighted whoop, he waded in to run interference for Ezra with the sergeant.

Vin, still wearing Ezra's coat, was there as soon as the fists started flying. He headed for Armstrong. He wanted to hit that one.

@@@@@@@@

Nathan heard the unmistakable sounds of a brawl, a big one, and raced from his clinic and down the stairs. He didn't notice the almost painful moan of the top step.

@@@@@@@@

Josiah arrived about the same time as Nathan and started throwing blue uniformed bodies around like kindling. Even with one arm still strapped to his chest, a good old fashioned fist fest was what he needed to balance things that, of late, had been harder to explain.

Ezra ducked a punch, ran behind his attacker and gave him a swift kick that landed the other man between the corral posts.

Josiah tossed a private into the water trough on top of a soldier he'd already put there.

JD was small and light and fast and could dance around until he went in for a jab then dance back out of reach.

Toby jumped on a soldier's back and held on like a wild cat.

Vin saw this and waded through the kicks and punches to get the kid to safety. As Vin reached the boy and pulled him off his mark, a shot rang out. Everyone froze then looked around for the source.

The crowd that had gathered on the periphery of the fighters split to allow Chris Larabee to stride through, gun still smoking in his hand. He reached the center and did a slow turn. He took in all the broken noses, busted lips, black eyes and general abuse. One soldier was holding his hand under his nose as blood flowed freely. Larabee didn't miss the money trying to escape Buck and Ezra's pockets or the tally book Ezra had hastily shoved behind his gunbelt.

Despite knowing that Armstrong had been itching for a fight, Larabee turned on his oldest friend, "What the Sam-holy-hell are you up to now?"

"Just a friendly bet. And a friendly difference of opinion."

Before he could say more, Armstrong grabbed for the private. Standish beat him to it and pulled the youngster from the lieutenant's grasp. Buck changed his course to get between those two.

Armstrong again glanced at the stranger wearing red, changed tactics, and stuck a long arm over Buck's shoulder, pointing a finger accusingly at the gambler as a distraction from the private, "You cheated! You didn't ride that horse!"

"No, sir," Ezra responded unflustered, "But my coat did."

Buck held up the tally book with a flourish and showed the lieutenant where Standish had cataloged the exact wording of the bet and Armstrong had signed off on it. Somehow Wilmington suspected that Ezra could have mastered the stallion, but got more satisfaction using the cocky soldier's words to best him.

Ezra started to move past Armstrong and Montoya with the black headed soldier in tow.

"You cheated!" Armstrong bellowed, trying to stall. It was becoming so obvious that he did not want the peacekeepers talking to his drunken subordinate.

"No, sir," Buck replied for Ezra with sarcastic politeness. Now it was his turn to distract Armstrong while Ezra made his way past Montoya. JD knew something was up, he wasn't sure what, but noticed Buck's nonchalant moves and the fact that the gambler was up to something.

"I reckon you just got yourself a lesson in how much damage words, can do, throwin' 'em around reckless like you do." Buck offered with a smile.

Larabee had the irrational desire to slap that easygoing grin off the man's face. His hands fisted as if they had a mind of their own. His body trembled as he fought to relax, calm down. But something made him want to hurt someone, "You're supposed to be a peacekeeper. What was all this about?"

Buck fingered his busted lip, "Ol' George S. was pickin' on the boy 'n needed to be taken down a notch."

"I said I could take care of myself," JD became defensive in the presence of a furious Larabee.

"They cheated," Montoya bellowed.

"Get your men and ride out." Larabee ordered Armstrong.

The lieutenant seemed about to bow up, but something kept him from it. He gave a nod to his sergeant to use the order as an excuse to clear the drunken loudmouth away from the regulators. Montoya grabbed for the frightened private still in Ezra's custody.

"I'm holding this man, for attempted bribery and theft." Ezra announced. Montoya glared and his fists clenched. The relief on the young man's face told Ezra he'd made the right observations and decisions.

"The hell you will." Armstrong bellowed and moved toward the smaller conman.

"There's folks disappearin' and dying out there. You need to see what you can find." Josiah added as he stepped between Armstrong and Standish. Sanchez wasn't sure what was going on, but he was sure that their resident gambler had a reason for everything he did.

"Don't tell me my job," Armstrong pulled himself tall in defiance.

"Get the hell out of my sight." Larabee growled, "That one will sleep it off in a cell. He'll catch up with you tomorrow."

"You'll be sorry." Armstrong gave him an evil grin as if he knew a secret. But he turned away and started rounding up his men.

"Hey, Big Dog," Buck began, only to be cut off by an angry glare.

"Don't start. What the hell were you thinking? Oh, I forgot, this is Buck Wilmington I'm talking to. You weren't thinking."

Buck took a slight step back, embarrassed by the attack and the words and regretting the old Chris Larabee that was talking to him now, "What crawled up your butt and died?" The one thing that could channel Buck's anger back at his friend was embarrassment.

"You know Tanner has a bounty on his head." Was the whisper-hissed response that no one else could hear, "You tryin' to paint a bull's eye on his back? Drawing the attention of all Armstrong's …"

But one person had heard. "Buck," Vin interrupted, "Mind if I take my share of the winnin's now?" Without passing judgment or getting in the middle of the argument, Tanner was making it clear that no one talked him into anything, he was an equal partner. He would ask later why Larabee had shared his secret.

Chris glanced over at the younger man and then back at his old riding partner. 'Damn that butter-won't-melt-in-his-mouth Wilmington. Got everyone eating out of his hand.' Chris tried to swallow the vicious thoughts, gritted his teeth until his jaw muscles twitched to keep them from spewing forth. 'He gets that 'aw, shucks' I just want to have a good time tone to him and everyone falls for it. Everyone but me. I could wipe that goofy hound dog look off his face.' Chris fought the thoughts. He knew they were irrational even as they sprung into his mind. And he couldn't stop them. Buck, just being Buck was driving him mad. And that damn Tanner, "You wanna die young? Hang around with this cowboy." Tanner blinked and looked over to Buck who had a sad, resigned look on his face.

Then Wilmington smiled an act that belied the bitterness of his words, "Ya know, I'm bound to have someplace better to be." And he was gone, not as if none of this had happened, not as if nothing untoward had been said, just not willing to give it a longer life by trying to argue the point.

"Chris …" Vin spoke as his lanky friend walked away. His tone was even.

"Don't 'Chris' me." The green eyes sparked. It felt so good to have a release for his anger, "we're supposed to protect the town, not start the brawls." He felt a gawd awful pressure behind his eyes and pinpricks of icy sweat at his hairline. What was that look between Tanner and Wilmington? Were they planning a mutiny? Tanner saw the accusation in the fiery green eyes.

"You got somethin' to say, Cowboy, might as well spit it out instead of shuckin' around it." Tanner dared.

"I wouldn't waste my breath. You gonna let them drag you down, too, have at it."

@@@@@@@@

A tall, carefully secreted candle dripped wax on blood fetishes and grew stronger in proportion to Larabee's irrational anger.

@@@@@@@@

"You trusted him enough to share my secret with him. That I had a bounty on my head." Tanner tossed back, all too casually, with a touch of accusation, and too low for anyone else to hear, "I'd hope that meant you trusted him more than you're showin' right now."

"You can trust Buck Wilmington to stand by a friend no matter what. Even if you had killed that man in Texas, once Buck calls you friend; he'll figure you had your reasons." And even that loyalty seemed to anger the gunfighter.

Tanner had already known before Larabee defended his friend's honor that he believed Wilmington was one of the finest men he'd ever met, "I think the man could use hearing those kind words to his face on occasion. Don't rightly know he hears what you say when he ain't around."

Vin met the hazel eyes staring back at him. There were flecks of green there that showed most strongly when he was angry.

Larabee knew his new friend was wanting an answer, but, disgusted with them all and equally with himself, the bitter gunfighter turned and headed back to the saloon without a word.

Everyone stood in silence, trying to understand their leader's anger. And if they hadn't been able to hear the words, the posturing between the three men had made that anger more than apparent. It was Nathan who broke the silence as he took in the battered and bloody faces of his friends. Where recently he had seen triumphant smiles, there was now confusion, frustration and a touch of reciprocal anger. Nathan offered solace in the only way he knew, "Meet me in the clinic. We'll see about cleanin' all this up." With that, he put action to word and headed off toward his rooms.

JD was trying to decide whether to follow Nathan or Buck or Ezra. Following Larabee in his present state was not an option. His eyes fell on Toby who looked like he was trying to make the same decision. Toby felt the eyes on him and walked over to the other boy, "It would be a fine thing, indeed, to be the man who could still Chris's volatile heart and show him the peace of friendship."

JD just stared at the corny, flowery language, wishing that wasn't his desire exactly.

"It's your fault that Chris and Buck are at odds." The whelp continued.

"The hell it is." JD retorted, all too afraid the words were true, "And show some respect for your elders. They're Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington to you."

"Buck and Ezra were extracting vengeance for the soldiers' disrespect for your title," The Cajun disregarded JD's words. It sounded like he was trying on the flowery language for size.

"And stop following Buck around like some hungry puppy he fed once." JD responded. The easterner started to tag after Buck who was taking ground eating strides toward the livery, realized that he was doing exactly what he had accused the other of. His hesitation kept him in the vicinity of the Creole man-child.

"You need to pay more attention to the trouble you cause," Toby stated as an observation.

"Don't tell me how to be. I get enough of that from Buck."

"If you don't appreciate what you've got, someone else will take it from you."

Nose to nose now, JD responded, "Nobody's takin' anything from me." JD again moved to follow after Buck. When he realized what he was doing, he did a stutter step, and started to go toward Ezra and the sheriff's office. His own actions and vacillation seemed to disturb and frustrate the youngest regulator. In the end he headed toward Ezra and his prisoner as if to prove some point. At the last minute, he turned and called back to his rival, "And I ain't followin' nobody. I'm the Sheriff. I got cause to be at the jail."

Toby smiled at what he was seeing, and then called out, "To be one of the Seven, you must understand what it means to be one of the Seven." Toby brought himself up short with that thought. It seemed as if he were trying to make a decision. He pushed a stray strand of hair behind his ear.

It would only be later that Josiah realized Toby's moment of indecision had his two-toned eyes tracking involuntarily toward Nathan's clinic. What the missionary's son did perceive at the time, as he watched the two young men, was disturbing. The Louisiana stray had cut his hair above collar length and it was somehow darker than it had been. He was sporting a five o'clock shadow and, as Josiah watched, Toby pushed his long bangs behind his ear in a mirror image of JD's nervous habit. It gave Josiah an uncomfortable feeling but he put it off to thinking the last thing they needed around now was two young hot-heads to watch out for.

He saw the newcomer jolt up straight and tilt his head in that canine way he had. Then he looked over at Sanchez as if he were reading the older man's thoughts.

@@@@@@@@

Nathan wasn't thinking about much as he took the steps up to his rooms. He was cataloging the injuries he'd seen on his friends and guessing if any of them would come up for treatment. He assumed the military had someone to take care of their injuries and that they would not appreciate his offer for help. His foot fell on the top step just as the tall, narrow white candle burned down and wax dripped onto the leg of a small corn husk doll leaning against it.

Nathan heard a creak but before he could react, his leg was going through the rotten wood of the top step. He was immediately pinned up to his thigh by shards and splinters.

But the debris was moving.

He looked closer just as the first pain registered. Scorpions, black ones, rust colored and brown, were teeming from the inside of the fractured step. Their tails curled over their heads in defiance, they were all at once covering his leg and moving toward his boot and toward his chest. The stings were merciless. The feel of the skittering feet over his skin was something of nightmares all in itself. They kept teeming from the step.

They kept coming, as if the wood itself was transforming into the creatures.

He felt the stings through his trousers and shirt, flinching and knowing it was only the beginning. A part of his brain told Nathan that he should try to stay still. But a primal part of his mind refused, couldn't obey, and he began swatting at the things to get them off. It was a losing battle.

The first phalanx of the skittering nightmares started making its way toward his neck and face. His leg was trapped, pierced by the wood and held tight.

"Aarrrg, no… no…" He pulled at his leg, like a wolf caught in a steel toothed trap, and beat uselessly at the vile creatures. The first moments were an eternity of pain, fueled by panic and fear. And still the things poured from the hollow insides of the step.

@@@@@@@@

Josiah still had his attention focused on Toby, but out of the corner of his eye, he tracked JD who forcefully took custody of the young private and escorted him to jail, as if he somehow felt the need to reaffirm his position and usefulness as sheriff.

The elder regulator couldn't hear what was being said, but he saw the young easterner's head jut forward in Ezra's direction like a runt protecting his bone from a bigger littermate. Ezra raised a corner of his mouth in a rather bored smirk, as if the boy's posturing was getting old, but turned his prisoner over.

Josiah had sensed the private had said or done something to pique Ezra's interest. Josiah smiled to himself calling Standish's stake in this 'interest'. Heaven forbid he accuse, or Ezra admit to, any protective instincts.

But Josiah was curious why Standish wasn't questioning the private, so he sauntered over to find out what was going on, "Thought you had a few questions for that young man," When the conman did interrogate their prisoner, perhaps the preacher would tag along.

"He has suddenly decided he has nothing to say. I thought to let Mr. Dunne wear him down with his inane prattle and posturing before I try to convince him to talk to me."

"Are you going to have Nathan see to that?" The bigger man asked as they met.

Standish followed his friend's eye direction and touched a place on his left temple. His fingertip came away slightly tinged with blood. Only then did he feel a little pain in that area. It obviously wasn't serious.

"I think I can manage soap and water on my own, Mr. Sanchez." Amused at even the suggestion of medical attention for such a minor cut.

"Mr. Jackson's knowledge jeopardizes Santeria. The Orishas have judged him as a threat." The statement came matter-of-factly from the tiny Cajun that they hadn't even noticed had joined them.

The statement was made with such casualness. It was the eyes that made the hair stand on end at the back of Ezra's neck. They were so intense, so focused, almost backlit with a knowledge no man should own, much less a boy.

Ezra was running before he realized it, or consciously knew why, "Nathan!" He shouted.

Josiah ran after him. He didn't know why, and that made him move all the faster.

Behind them, the small young man pushed the dark bangs behind one ear as he watched them run toward their friend.

@@@@@@@@

The sight that greeted the two regulators at the top of the stairs paralyzed them for a moment while their minds wrapped around what they were seeing.

Their healer's left leg was pinned in shards of the top step. Splinters had punctured the skin and blood oozed down the part of his leg that dangled below the stairs. Their minds processed that first because they couldn't handle the rest. It was dozens and dozens of scorpions now crisscrossing one another's trail which they had to work to comprehend.

Nathan was swatting at the things, but panic and terror and a human aversion to touch them was making the motions almost ineffectual. It was the terror and pain in the rich brown eyes when they met green and gray that sent them into action.

Josiah began quickly and meticulously pinching the creatures at the tail just below the stinger and dropping them to the flooring. He made quick work of stepping on any he found or could get off his friend.

"Josiah," Nathan gasped, pleadingly. It had only been a few seconds, but it seemed a lifetime. And the pain…

Ezra spun around. He wasn't sure what he was looking for, but he would know it when he saw it. Nothing. He ran downstairs.

"Ezra," Josiah called, expecting help that wasn't coming.

"Josiah, please …" Nathan pleaded.

There it was, hiding in the sunlight. Ezra found a tall white candle. He grabbed the thin bottle that held the wax and ran back to his friends.

He trickled the hot wax on the scorpions. They seemed to scurry from the excessive heat. Most of the wax that didn't get the creatures fell on Nathan's clothes, but some hit his skin. "I'm sorry, Nathan, I'm sorry!" Ezra muttered as the hot liquid fell. But he didn't stop.

"Get 'em off. Get 'em off." The ex-slave chanted, tacit agreement that the burn was preferable to the stings.

Whether it was the wax itself, the heat or their own magic turned against them, the scorpions seemed to retreat.

Josiah and Ezra stomped the vile things as fast as they could. When the hot wax overran and doused the candle's flame, the creatures seemed to lose more of their drive. The wax cooled and set. When he could pour no more wax out, Ezra hurled the whole thing to shatter against the wall.

The scorpions were suddenly all dead or gone. The two men picked their way around the remains to free their third who lay panting against the timbers of the balcony.

Nathan lay vibrating with shock as the multi-doses of the otherwise weak venom worked its way through his body.

Fighting their own terror at what their friend had been through, Josiah and Ezra gingerly worked his leg free and helped him inside the clinic.

"Oh, Lord, oh Lord," Nathan whispered in prayer and possibly a plea for the pain to end.

The ugly welts that became visible when his shirt was removed were mostly at his belt line and above. The stronger material of his trousers had protected his legs a little.

"Nathan," Josiah asked his exhausted friend, "What do you have? What can we put on these?"

Breathing heavily, gasping to find his voice, Jackson tried to think what would kill this kind of pain. His lips were tingling as the venom coursed through his body.

A presence, more than a sound, drew their attention to the open door. Toby stood there, his head cocked in curiosity at the shattered candle. Then his eyes met the three men and his hand slowly crawled into his pocket. He drew out a squatty, thick milk glass jar and offered it over. He seemed conflicted and confused by his own actions.

Josiah hesitated to take the salve. Nathan tried to tell himself he didn't want any Santeria potions to help him, but the pain overrode those thoughts.

The boy extended his hand further in offering, "It is what friends do." He said it almost as a question, practically tasting the words.

It was Ezra who took the balm and started administering it with a light touch to the dark skin. He had few philosophical issues with using something that worked, no matter the source.

The surprised look on Nathan's face told Josiah how fast and how completely the remedy pulled the pain from the stings. So he took a dollop and smoothed it on his friend's back.

Nathan looked up to ask the Cajun stray what miracle ingredients were in the jar. But the boy was gone.

@@@@@@@@

Buck Wilmington stayed on Paladin for a moment, stretched his back and looked at the land around him. Everything seemed so normal outside of town. To avoid another run-in with Larabee, Buck had decided to ride a slow circuit around the territory and look for trouble. He had been surprised when Vin had asked to keep him company.

Now here they were at the triangular slice of land that jutted over a bend in Rattler Creek. It was a wet weather creek now, but the overhang had been formed back when this was a powerful river, constantly taking bites out of the 20 foot tall cliff bank.

It was always cool and shady under that outcrop. Fern grew right up its belly thanks to some sort of aquifer that constantly seeped water.

Up here, on top, the sky was the deepest, clearest blue Buck'd seen in a long time. The grasses were yellow with the season. The smell of cedar was in the air. Yep, on the surface, this was why a man moved west. This was why a man kept moving to see all he could.

But below the surface… the former Texas Ranger let out a breath and stepped off his horse to join Vin kneeling on the ground, "Hey, Pard," He'd given the tracker time to study the sign.

"Several men rested their horses here. After the rain."

"Armstrong's Pony Boys?"

"Weren't ridin' in any military formation." Tanner answered noncommittally.

"What's goin' on around here?" Wilmington referred to all of the recent events.

"I don't know, Bucklin, but it's bad medicine."

Buck's gray started bobbing her head; her ears twitched this way and that. Vin's horse pawed the ground and his ears went back.

Tanner and Wilmington both stood and were reaching for their guns when they heard hoof beats thundering their way.

It was easy to recognize the horses. But the way their riders sat their mounts had both experienced men keeping a hand on their six-shooters.

Chris Larabee slid off his black before it stopped and intruded on Buck and Vin's space too close for a friendly conversation, "What the hell do you think you're doing out here?"

"Patrol," Buck offered, gritting his teeth against the other man's hostility.

"Takes two of you, now?"

"I'm thinkin' it's best, at least two of us go out, what with everything that's happenin'." Vin offered calmly.

"Or you're out here to plan how to undermine my authority."

"Undermine …" Buck sputtered, "Authority? What authority? But that what we give you in the first place?"

All this had happened before Josiah and JD could bring their rides to a stop beside the men. "May not be safe for even two men alone," Josiah agreed uncomfortably.

"What happened?" Tanner asked, with his usual insight, sensing something was wrong.

"Nathan was attacked. By scorpions," JD blurted out, stepping down from his mount along with the Preacher.

"He was worried about you," Sanchez whispered to Tanner with a nod toward their leader. He was trying to explain the other man's anxiety which Larabee, himself, could only seem to express as anger. Wilmington heard and his eyes slid from Tanner back to his old friend before he could see the ex-preacher try to use his eyes to include him in Chris's worry.

This was all an aside as JD continued his rambling spiel, "Then that Santero kid gave him, Nathan I mean, something to rub on the stings and they disappeared. I can't believe he's one of them. Well, I mean I can believe it, but don't it make your skin crawl? Oh, I shouldn't say that after Nathan … but … well, then that kid vanished. Good riddance." He added as an afterthought.

"JD," Buck reprimanded, "Is he okay, you think? He said his uncle was after him."

"You more worried about that stray than Nathan?" Larabee accused.

"Course not. You said the Doc was healed."

'Where were you when we needed you?" Chris demanded.

"Couldn't rightly know something like that would happen." It was Tanner who made the calm observation.

"At least we're out here lookin' for something. Not letting whoever this is keep bringing the fight to us." Buck defended.

"Bullshit. You were pissed at me, but knew I was right …"

"Ain't nothin' you said in town was 'right' …"

"… so you rode out in a snit and Vin followed to cover your ass."

"I didn't ask him …"

"But he'd be just as dead if something …"

"Larabee." Tanner's voice wasn't loud but cut with authority he seldom called on.

JD stared wide eyed as the men verbally tore at each other.

The horses pawed at the ground, flicked their ears and pulled at their reins.

The water seeping beneath the overhang seemed to run a little faster.

Tiny cracks in the ground went unnoticed by the men up top.

The earth rumbled on a level humans couldn't hear.

The triangular wedge of earth readjusted.

@@@@@@@@

In Pyrite, the purple and blue candle burned down one side of its container to form a wedge of wax that was similar in shape to the ground over the creek bed.

@@@@@@@@@

Larabee ignored Tanner when he tried to intervene. The anger still permeated his body and he turned on Wilmington, "I will not let you get anyone else I care about killed, not even …"

@@@@@@@@

On a hill, behind a cedar tree, an old man with wild white hair watched the peacekeepers above Rattler Creek. He saw a wedge shape in the stance of Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington. Tanner was being used as an unwilling and unknowing point of discord between the other two.

@@@@@@@@

And the ground shook and gave way. The angry crack drowned out Larabee's last words, "… yourself."

Buck and Vin vanished as the overhang they were standing on collapsed to the creek bed below.

It was like the ground swallowed the two men. At first, the others couldn't comprehend what had happened. Then Larabee and Sanchez were skittering and sliding down the embankment before the ground stopped shifting. They were afraid of what they would find at the bottom.

"Stay with the horses." Larabee ordered JD. As much as he wanted to help, the boy knew they needed the mounts to get their friends home so he did as he was ordered and watched the other two rush to the rescue.

@@@@@@@@

Wilmington landed in the shallow creek. He could tell his knee was twisted in an unnatural position.

Tanner was partially buried under the dirt and rocks some ten feet above the stream. The older men scrambled to dig him out. Dazed, the smaller tracker was already coming around but was still trapped under the rubble.

"Buck!" Larabee called over his shoulder.

"Nothin' broken." Was the reply as his old friend tried to stand on his bad leg.

Then it happened. They felt it; what the horses had sensed minutes earlier. The ground shook. The roar echoed through the deep narrow channel that the river had cut in the earth eons before.

"Flashflood!" Josiah screamed. He and Larabee grabbed Vin under each arm and manhandled him in a desperate rush to safety. Vin tried to get his legs to cooperate, to help, but they wouldn't work. JD balanced precariously at the top of the crest, juggled the horses' reins and waited to help get the others away from the watery death.

Buck's frame tingled with the emergency of the moment. The first step he took found his leg giving way in a fiery pain. His cry of hurt was covered by the din caused as the water rushed their way. Again he tried to stand. His knee wouldn't support his weight. He called out to Chris and Josiah who were manhandling Vin to safety. They didn't turn back at his call.

Josiah and Chris shoved Vin into JD's waiting arms. JD used the momentum to roll them both to high ground.

Mere seconds had stretched until they seemed like an eternity. Finally, Josiah levered himself partially up and turned to pull his last two friends along with him.

The wall of water, that had cut through the creek bed so many times before over the ages, rounded the bend, frothing and churning, pushing trees and limbs and debris.

The breath was ripped from Larabee's throat when he looked over his shoulder. Buck Wilmington, his friend, his crutch, his brother, his conscience, was still at least ten feet below the upper lip of the creek bank. Every time Buck would try to stand, his leg failed him. Chris had time to read in his friend's wide blue eyes that he had been left behind. And then he disappeared in the churning, muddy, debris laden torrent.

Larabee would have dived into the current had Sanchez not got a death grip on his gun belt and held on for dear life. In the twilight the violent rapids and waves felt like tentacles ripping at the men trying to hold onto each other not to be washed away.

JD had dragged Vin well away from the eroding cliff and then scurried back to help. He found Josiah holding Larabee in a desperate bear hug. The gunfighter was struggling like a wild cat to get free. The once trickling stream was now a raging torrent that almost crested the cliff. The boy's eyes darted frantically. Buck wasn't with them. He sank to his knees trying to grasp what it was he'd lost.

@@@@@@@@

In Pyrite one candle dipped toward extinction. Another flared as if with insanity.

@@@@@@@@

The waters receded to three feet below the top of the riverbank. But it still churned and swept wreckage and rubble with a force only nature could create. Where once a small stream had flowed, a massive river coursed, at least for this moment in time.

The world was black and purple as twilight gave up its last sunlight.

Larabee broke Josiah's grasp. Desperation defeated the other man's formidable strength. The distraught man ran along the top of the river bank, "Buck!" He ran, oblivious to the mesquite and cactus that he shoved through. He ran until the thorny vines tangled around his legs and pulled him to the ground.

JD, the horses forgotten, was running by his side, "Buck!" he echoed his hero.

Josiah put a gentle hand on the dark gunfighter's shoulder, "We can't do anything from this side." It was a simple truth. This face of the cliff was too steep and the water was too wild. "It's too dark to find a safe place to cross."

Larabee jerked away from the touch, pulled loose from the vines and pushed forward.

But it was a dark and moonless night and the prickly plants finally formed an impenetrable barrier. Chris Larabee threw his head back with a primal scream of frustration, loss and anger. JD stared at the silhouettes of the men still with him, looked down where he could no longer see what was going on in the waters below him. His mind refused to wrap around what had happened.

@@@@@@@@

"Ezra," Nathan greeted as he approached the gambler seated in front of the jail.

"Mr. Jackson, how are you feeling?"

"Like it never happened," the unanswered question rang in the air.

"I am afraid I don't see how we could have all been susceptible to such an hallucination."

"Do you believe in magic?"

"I believe that some men would like to blame their lot in life on supernatural forces." He was silent for a breath before he added, "On the other end of the spectrum, I have seen things in New Orleans and the bayous that defy explanation."

"Why are you sittin' out here?" Nathan asked to change the subject.

"I thought to leave our prisoner alone with his thoughts."

"He still clammed up on ya?"

"The young man is terrified of something or someone and doesn't believe we can protect him."

"So you left him alone?"

"Alone and trapped. I'm not proud of myself for doing that, but we need answers."

"How would a soldier know about …"

"He only mentioned the payroll. It may be something as mundane as a robbery attempt."

"The others should be back by now." Nathan voiced what was really on his mind.

"I hope Mr. Larabee expended some of his vitriol before he met up with Misters Tanner and Wilmington."

"He was worried about them."

"He needs a better way to show it."

"They should be back by now." Nathan repeated. He had a bad feeling, for so many reasons; on so many levels.

Ezra looked out toward the edge of town. He couldn't agree more.

@@@@@@@@

The pre-dawn blanketed the world in mono-colored gray. Josiah watched the light bring detail to the morning.

Vin was sleeping off his head injury. The missionary's son had awakened him on occasion during the night. The younger man always seemed coherent, but couldn't stay awake.

JD had finally given in to sleep. Josiah suspected it was a defense mechanism. The boy wasn't willing to admit that Buck Wilmington was probably dead. Sanchez didn't look forward to when the daylight roused the youth. The boy would realize, too late, what he had lost.

Chris Larabee, on the other hand, knew exactly what he had lost. The man hadn't shifted position since they had settled Vin the night before.

The gunfighter stared into the campfire, stirred the flames with a branch and let memories stoke his remorse. Finally he rolled a cigarette from the bag he'd picked up in Pyrite. It was almost an automatic action he didn't realize he had performed.

He and Buck had seen so much, survived so much. They had endured because they were such a perfect balance of wildness and restraint, daring, bravery and stupidity. Probably their first bond was their common problem with authority figures. How had he let all that slip away?

And with the morning the others would expect him to go search. He inhaled deeply of the cigarette.  The tip glowed an ominous red. His mind insisted on dwelling on an image of a water soaked, lifeless body snagged in downed trees; lids at half mast over sightless eyes. Sightless, but at the same time accusing.

Larabee slammed the branch into the fire. Again and again, his attack spread the flames and sent embers spiraling into the air, "Damn him! Damn him! Good riddance!"

JD bolted up at the outburst; reaching for his gun.

"Why couldn't he tell us he was hurt?! Why didn't he ask for help!?" Just ask for a hand!" Larabee raged.

Josiah was on his feet, not sure yet what action was necessary. Vin stirred uneasily but didn't awaken, a testament to how badly the head wound had affected him.

"I told him to stay out of my life!" Shouted the damaged, angry soul, "But like some damn cur-dog you shared a meal with, I couldn't get rid of him."

"Chris," Tanner murmured, on some level he knew his friend needed him. JD staggered to his feet, but wasn't sure what he was seeing.

"Chris," Josiah offered softly.

"He thought we'd left him, Josiah. I saw it in his eyes. He thought we'd left him to save Vin."

"It all happened so fast …"

Larabee, breathing hard, let the fury give way briefly to remorse, "He said, one night when he was drunk, he said 'if he ever died alone, to not even look for the body - 'cause it was too late to matter'." The leader of the peacekeepers turned his back on the others so that they couldn't see his eyes. Finally he finished the cigarette threw the butt to the ground, walked away from them and started to saddle his horse.

"There's not enough light to search yet." JD was asking more than saying.

"Ain't searchin'. I'm going back."

"Chris, you can't …" JD said in a small, disbelieving voice.

The gunfighter turned simmering green eyes on the youth, "He died alone. He wasn't 10 feet away and He Died Alone." As if that explained why he was leaving.

"But Chris …" The boy looked for words.

"To hell with him! To hell with you … all of you and to hell with that stupid, pathetic, needy …" Larabee froze.

Sanchez turned to follow his glare, anticipating danger.

Buck Wilmington was standing at the treeline, staring at Larabee, listening. The colorless morning and fog draped him in shades of gray like a ghost. He was leaning heavily on his little Louisiana orphan. His face was devoid of emotion as he watched his lifelong friend curse him and the others.

Chris stewed. The relief that flooded over him was as strong as the flashflood had been. But wasn't it only a matter of time before the man's good Samaritan act did get him killed? And then wouldn't Larabee have to feel this way all over again? Larabee's skin tingled; a constant annoyance. His head pounded. He already craved another one of the roll-your-own cigarrettes. The man should have done them all a favor and stayed dead.

He didn't move a muscle as Larabee stomped over to him and shoved. It was clear then that the man's right knee still wasn't supporting any weight, but Toby had braced himself and kept them both from falling to the ground.

"You've got the luck of the devil." His old friend hissed, turned away, mounted Habanero and rode back to town without a backwards glance.

“And you didn’t come to help just like …” Just like what?  When?  Where did that thought come from?  Larabee was always there when he knew he needed to be, and yet.... 

Toby’s nudge at Wilmington's elbow brought him back to the moment and away from some memory that was trying to claw its way to the surface.  He smiled gratefully as the boy helped him limp toward the campsite.

JD watched Larabee ride away and briefly wished he was a man who could say something to tame his hero's rage, but he wasn't that man. Then he was suddenly and surprisingly aware that, at this moment at least, he was more concerned about the gentle rogue than the man riding away from them. He looked back to where the small boy was holding Buck up. He had kept looking when JD had stopped and given up for the night. Where JD had let Chris and Josiah talk him into giving up for the night.

Josiah found his eyes drawn to Tobias as he supported the tall man that he thought had been lost to them. The boy was absolutely fixated on events.

He hadn't even noticed when Vin had regained consciousness, and couldn't tell how much the tracker understood of what was going on, but it was Tanner who staggered over to Buck and grasped his friend's arm showing in the most sincere form how glad he was to see him. The simple action made Buck smile gratefully.

Sanchez patted Wilmington on the shoulder to reinforce Tanner's action, "He's been distraught all night." He tried to explain Larabee's reaction.

"Yeah, I can tell." Buck muttered.

Josiah turned to the little stranger among them, "We're lucky you came along."

Toby didn't answer but seemed to move closer, protectively toward Buck.

"How did you get out here, son? How could you find Buck in the dark?" Josiah pushed.

Toby stiffened and Buck felt it. "Hope you're not sorry he was out here." The vulnerable gunfighter whispered defensively.

"Of course not, Buck -"

"Because I couldn't have held on until someone else showed up." Was there an accusation in the tone?

Sanchez studied the boy. He looked self-satisfied that Wilmington was standing up for him. He defied Sanchez to continue the questioning. Josiah could clearly see how Buck would react to that and wasn't willing to risk his friend's feelings, "Then I'm nothing but thankful to our young friend here." He moved in to put his shoulder under Buck's arm and take some of his weight off the boy, "C'mon, I think I have some spare clothes in my saddlebags. Let's try to get you dry and see to that knee."

Toby hesitantly let the preacher move Wilmington to the fire. He seemed lost for a moment, as if he had been absorbing some strength from the tall man.

Vin started to follow them when JD walked up to Toby. He had his own spare trousers and shirt in his hand and held them out to the Cajun to give him something dry to wear, "Thank you for saving him."

Toby looked from the tweed slacks and eastern shirt. He didn't smile as he replied, "It is what friends do." It was almost an indictment that JD hadn't done all he could, or maybe JD just took it that way. Either way he grabbed the easterner's clothes like they were a treasure.

JD took the accusation and didn't know what else to say. Vin steered the young man toward the fire and their friends. Vin stumbled, still dizzy and nauseous. JD and Toby both reached for him in parallel motions and helped him to the camp.

Josiah observed their ragtag group. He would be glad to get them back to town.

@@@@@@@@

Arriving back in town, Larabee had collapsed in the first chair he'd come to instead of moving to his usual back table in the saloon. Sitting there still, Larabee tapped the flakes of tobacco from the linen draw string pouch. The thing was still half full. He knew he'd used a pouchful, yet it was still there. It just fueled his anger because it didn't make sense and his mind didn't want to deal with something else he couldn't explain. He clamped his teeth together.

A part of the gunfighter's mind knew it was an irrational hatred that was consuming him. He hated. He hated everything. He hated himself. He hated his new friends. He hated the old friend that kept seeing something redeemable in the black shell - because it kept him looking for that redeemable something in himself and he never found it.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, Larabee remembered Josiah herding the others back home and Nathan saying he had ordered bed rest for Tanner and Wilmington. Like that would happen.

Somewhere he could already hear that Buck Wilmington had left the clinic, found the saloon, and become loud and boisterous. The old part of Chris knew that his friend had probably sought out all the women available, to console himself with the kind words, gentle touch and gentler emotions that men seemed incapable of giving at all, much less as freely as these women offered it.

The old Larabee would have cornered his friend until he found out what was wrong and helped fix it. The old Larabee would have realized it was his own words that had Wilmington seeking comfort and he would have apologized.

Jackson was leaning on the bar talking to Josiah and waiting for a tray of food to take back to the tracker. He at least was still resting, but only because he had a hard time staying awake. It wouldn't last. That one wouldn't stay down. Stubborn. Just like all of them. Josiah said JD was at the jail trying to get that kid-soldier to talk.

@@@@@@@@

Buck glanced over at his angry friend. He had his aching knee propped up on a spare chair. Nathan was hot at him for refusing to rest in his room. But that wasn't where he was supposed to be. That being said, where was he supposed to be? For a brief, happy moment, he had thought he was seeing the old Chris Larabee rise from the ashes of his family, his life and his home in response to their new friends. But the mean, bitter, unprovoked words told a different story. Their friendship had burned away with that fire. Sadly, Larabee was trying to destroy any potential friendships as hard as he fought the old one. Sometimes Buck caught himself wondering if Larabee didn't have the right idea.

Buck had appreciated the unburdened friendship JD offered when they first met, back when the boy had tagged along whether the company was appreciated or not; oblivious to the fact he wasn't invite. But, Buck mused, JD was a quick study and had moved past any need for Buck's help. Well, good. That was a lot of responsibility and Buck wasn't good at living up to obligations. Young Tobias seemed open to that sort of tutoring and friendship but he had a quick mind, too. How long would he want an overprotective big brother hovering around?

Buck's self-worth was twisted up in helping others. A part of him that he listened to, but was not consciously aware of, told him people would be his friends only so long as he had something to offer. His journey through friendship with Chris Larabee hadn't negated the idea. There was something just under the surface, a memory that refused to come forth, that reinforced all of these feelings and thoughts.  Sometimes he thought he could grasp it and drag it forward but it was a memory that was afraid of the light of day.

He would be surprised to know the others already cared enough to be worried, and were watching, thinking that Buck was getting now from Toby, what he had tried to get from Larabee and JD and that the youngster, if he stayed, could became a lifeline between the gentle gunfighter and the others. But they all also knew, Larabee more than anyone, that JD wasn't ready to give up that slot. Even if the snot-nosed greenhorn himself didn't recognize it yet.

Vin Tanner recently seemed to have taken on the role of lifeline for Larabee, sitting silently at his side or exchanging observations of newcomers in town - were they a threat or not? Larabee read this as Tanner's acceptance of him for what he was. The tracker had never tried to change him or make him into something he'd never be again.

Buck appreciated Tanner's bridge that kept Larabee with them. But he also knew that in the silence, Larabee dwelt on all the darkness; he stoked the memories of everything he'd lost. The depression, self-hatred, loss, even self-pity fed on itself. It needed an outlet or it would consume the man. But still he sat alone.

And Buck would have been sitting alone as well, except Ezra wouldn't allow it.

@@@@@@@@

Josiah leaned on the bar and watched. He had felt Nathan join him as he waited for a plate for Tanner, Until it was ready they unobtrusively watched Larabee. To some degree these two recognized they'd found a home in Four Corners and socialized with the townsfolk. There were days Nathan feared Larabee's dark temper could endanger what they had here.

And if Larabee didn't … at a table slightly behind Larabee sat Ezra Standish and Buck Wilmington. The conman and the womanizer could just as easily bring down the wrath of the town with just a wrong move. And the fallout would affect all of the seven.

Even now there was something going on. Those two had their heads together, snickering like schoolboys. Buck should be resting. Instead he and the gambler would sit, wait, suddenly, for no apparent reason, chug the shots in front of them then immediately, hurriedly refill the glasses. Then, sometimes they would wait patiently; sometime they would immediately down another round.

Josiah had told Nathan about the flashflood and the events that followed. Granted, Buck was lucky to be alive. Maybe the realization had him drinking hard tonight.

Nathan's physical wounds had almost disappeared. But the mental scars remained. It was not only the actual experience that haunted him, but the fact that he believed he had willingly accepted Santeria magic to cure himself. He wondered if there would be repercussions, an atonement. But if he could handle it without getting drunk, shouldn't Buck be able to do the same? And where had that damned Cajun boy disappeared to?

When the others had learned what had happened to Nathan, they were horrified, as much for what happened, as the inexplicable elements of the attack. Everyone was restless tonight. They wanted to be out chasing down who was attacking them and their territories, but didn't know where to begin. Besides, they were having to lick their wounds.

Nathan glanced at Buck again with his swollen knee elevated. It had to hurt more than the man was admitting. But then … he said Toby had rubbed something around the joint and torn ligaments. "Felt like tar and smelled like swamp water backwash." Wilmington had observed.

Something more than a flashflood had happened overnight on the trail. No one was talking. It made Nathan feel like he wasn't a part of the group. Especially when part of the aftermath is that Buck rejected his ministrations in favor of the Santero. The healer took a puff of the cigarette Larabee had handed him. If the big fool wanted to accept black magic healing instead of Nathan's after all this time, to hell with him.

Nathan and Larabee had shared tobacco and alcohol if not confidences. And they had come to one same conclusion. They were both determined to question Toby Thibodaux when he showed up again.

As much as Nathan was aware that Larabee was a loose cannon, he was one hell of a leader. And he wasn't so easily blinded by youth or naivety. He and Larabee had spent several hours discussing what was going on after the others had tired of a topic that they had no control over.

Jackson had the feeling that Larabee had been so unusually talkative because he wanted to vent his hostility and the situation certainly gave him an outlet. But in the end, it hadn't been enough. Instead the gunfighter seemed to have worked himself into a frenzy and had walked away fairly trembling with dark emotion. The healer thought perhaps he understood the fury. He stubbed out the butt of the roll-your-own cigarette. Larabee was still a loose cannon.

"Hey, Nathan," Wilmington greeted the healer as he and Sanchez approached their table, "Preacher," he added.

"You're drunk." Jackson observed bitterly. It really was a rare occurrence for both of these men.

"Chris's fault," the gunfighter confided with a slur. Ezra nodded profoundly. Both men were squirming and straining to see around the bulk their two friends represented.

"How is it Chris's fault?" Sanchez already sensed he wouldn't like the answer. He also knew Buck was trying to distract himself from the fact that he had nearly died and how Larabee had reacted. Too bad the poor guy hadn't been able to witness how devistated Larabee was when he thought they'd lost the rogue. Too bad he couldn't go get some rest. That knee must hurt like hell.

"He's scary." Buck responded. He certainly didn't look fearful, only proud of the fact.

Josiah put on a stern, fatherly look and waited for more of an explanation.

"See that table behind Mr. Larabee?" Ezra volunteered.

Sure enough, even in this crowded, sweaty, hot environment, a sole table remained unoccupied.

"My esteemed colleague and I have made a small wager." He motioned to the men around them, mostly strangers, unfamiliar with the town but seeking refuge from the dark after hearing rumors of what was prowling out there after dark. "We have given three to one odds that no man - "

" 'Ceptin' ol' Vin, if he was here." Buck interrupted.

"With the exception of Mr. Tanner, will chance the wrath of Mr. Larabee or ask him to move so they might occupy the table behind him. The bet to end when Mr. Larabee either passes out or leaves of his own accord."

"You're bettin' on Chris's foul temper?"

"As I have said, I leave nothing to chance."

"And to pass the time, we chug a shot ever'time he chases a feller off …"

"Oops … oops …oops …" Ezra chattered and quickly downed a shot as, even behind the other two he saw two cowboys draw up short and decide standing at the bar was fine. Buck followed suit.

"For shame, Buck Wilmington," Nathan scolded, "You better than anybody knows what drives that man to drink." Nathan didn't understand why suddenly his anger was rising, or why it felt so good to direct that anger at someone he was usually friendly with.

Buck opened his mouth, not sure if he should be coming to his own defense.

"And here you are letting this conman lead you to makin' fun of his grief." Nathan continued.

"Ain't that way at all, Nathan," Now he knew he needed to defend himself.

"Maybe the man has reason to drink alone if this is the way his friends…" Jackson tried to shake of the irrational anger, but it stuck like a second skin.

"Now wait a minute."

"Mr. Jackson …"

"You," he turned to Standish, "you wouldn't know what you're causin'. Two old friends barely hangin' on…"

"Ezra ain't causin' shit, Jackson. Maybe you should think knowin' Larabee this long, I know how to handle …"

"I thought you were his friend."

Josiah stepped in, "Judge not, Nathan, lest …" He knew Nathan had no way of knowing how his words were like poison considering what had transpired between the two on the trail.

But it was too late. Buck's face went still as he processed the allegation that he wasn't a good friend. As always, when words came from someone he respected, they bit hard and as always he feared they were right.

"I ain't a good friend? I don't know how to be a friend to Chris Larabee?"

Nathan realized that the words, his judgment, had bit far more deeply than he had expected. He still wasn't completely used to a white man, and one he admired, giving that much credence to his opinion. He watched the taller man's eyes flit around the crowded table and knew he had embarrassed the other man and at least in his eyes, judged him and found him wanting among strangers, "That ain't what I meant …" Even as he spoke, trying to make things right, Nathan was fighting a strange, new feeling that enjoyed watching all of this; watching what power his words - an ex-slave's words - could have over another man.

"Oh, no, Mr. Nathan Jackson, sir, let me do this right." Buck stood, staggered back until his calves hit the chair and then propelled himself reeling to Larabee's table. He was still limping badly. Even as Nathan and Josiah moved to follow Ezra shoved between the two men to go to his friend. Too late.

"Hey, Chris, ya Old Dog, Nathan says I ain't your friend."

"Nathan's right."

"Here, now, let's get you up. You've had too much to drink. Doc here says so."

"Leave me be, Wilmington."

"C'mon, stop puttin' on this show for folks."

"Don't want to have to kill you."

"Sure you do." Buck slurred as he put one hand under the gunfighter's armpit and lifted.

"Get the hell away from me." Larabee demanded as he jerked his arm free. They were both so drunk.

"Mr. Wilmington, perhaps we could …"

"Shut up, ya little weasel."

"Don't take it out on Ezra."

Chris pushed away from the other man, "Buck, I'm warnin' you."

"But Nathan says I ain't a friend cuz I'm lettin' ya sit here and stew in your own juices."

"Nathan don't know what a pain in the ass you are."

Nathan and Josiah watched closely. Josiah had theorized these two fought out of boredom. Maybe not. This time there was something much more.

"You know, let's get it over with. You tell me what a sorry so and so I am, how it's my fault Sarah and Adam …" That was all it took. Larabee shot out of his chair, tackled Buck around the waist and they both fought until they fell through the batwing doors and onto the dusty street.

They almost tumbled into Vin and JD who had joined forces and decided to check on the others. They disrupted the fog that curled up and away from them.

@@@@@@@@

In the small, pristine town of Pyrite, so far away, two candles among seven surrounding a Santeria altar and sacrifice, suddenly sprang to life of their own accord.

@@@@@@@@

In the livery in Four Corners, an ancient man with wild white hair set a sulfur match to candles, one after the other, chanted, and tried to keep the flames aglow.

@@@@@@@@

"I will, by God, shut you up ..." Chris ground out and drew his gun, pointing it at his old friend.

They were drawing a crowd. Most of the cowboys and drifters watched from the doors and windows. A few had straggled out to the street but quickly jockeyed out of the line of fire.

Larabee's instincts were screaming at him. Beyond the all-consuming anger that vibrated through his body, pounded in his temple and between his eyes, Larabee sensed danger was near.

His vivid green eyes lit on the smaller man beside Buck, reached out and grabbed him with his left hand. The gunslinger's right hand still held the six shooter.

At first Nathan thought Chris had grabbed JD to piss of Wilmington. He was startled when he realized that JD was still beside Tanner and he had mistaken Tobias for their youngest regulator.  Toby was wearing some of JD's eastern duds and his now dark hair that came almost to his collar had long bangs that fell in his eyes. He didn't get time to ponder the thought. As quickly as Larabee grabbed the waif, Wilmington pulled him from the grasp and pushed him to safety.

The shootist's gun hand rose toward Wilmington's chest.

Before another word could be spoken, JD rushed his hero, "Chris, no." He begged and closed his hand over the pearl handled revolver and the older man's hand. He tried to shove the barrel toward the ground, but pulled it forward the slightest bit. It tightened Larabee's finger on the hair trigger.

@@@@@@@@

Another candle flared to life on the altar in Pyrite.

@@@@@@@@

A gunshot erupted in the night.

A bullet tore from the gun.

The tableau froze.

No one moved. Except Vin. He had stepped in front of Buck. He never took his eyes from Larabee as he reached to touch the searing pain on his right side. JD gasped as the tracker's hand came away bloody.

@@@@@@@@

The green and black candle in Pyrite burned down on one side.

@@@@@@@@

In the livery, one of the white-haired old man's candle tried to explode with light, it sputtered in its attempt, but kept trying.

@@@@@@@@

Chris dropped the gun in the dirt and was moving forward, JD at his side. Ezra, Josiah, Nathan and Buck, equally concerned, gathered around.

Vin was still on his feet, "It was an accident." He demanded.

"I didn't mean … I wouldn't …" JD stammered. Larabee stared as if watching an untenable situation. It was this dark something he read in Larabee's eyes that concerned Vin.

"It's a graze, Chris. Tell'em Nathan, damn it." The Texas ordered.

"Then let me see it."

"Vin, oh, no, Vin," JD's voice was trembling and he turned eyes to Buck for reassurance. There was going to be no comfort from that source. The kind-hearted gunman was devastated.

"Shut up, Kid" The tracker didn't want the boy's panic adding to the emotion of the moment. "It ain't nothin'."

"Looks like it just skid across your ribs. You were lucky."

"Yeah, lucky. That's me." Vin muttered, when he saw the disruption his injury was causing the two old friends.

"Buck, I'm sorry, I'm sorry." JD chanted.

"JD, me and Chris've been doin' this dance a long time. But it's a two step, Kid, not a square dance. No one else can weave in." There was a hollowness to the voice.

Buck headed for the tracker. Then Larabee was in his way, shoving him backwards.

Try as he might, Buck couldn't avoid the reflexive cringe in response to the tacit allegation. Chris saw it, met Buck's eyes acknowledging the trepidation, and it was a catalyst to turn the stewing anger into hate, "Damn you, Wilmington."

"How the hell is this my fault?" Buck defied the accusation in the other man's tone.

"Because you're you. Because you won't gawddamn let me get on with my life the way I want to live it. Because just looking at you makes me want to kill something,"

"Larabee, stop it," Vin tried to interrupt.

"Chris?" Buck whispered as if he didn't believe what he was hearing, but demanded to hear it all.

Vin tried to shove forward to get between Buck and Chris, only to be pulled back and hiss, "Damn, Nathan."

@@@@@@@@

In Pyrite, another candle, that if it sprang to life, would form the fifth point of a pentagram with the others, remained dead. One candle gave up and became extinguished by a breeze in the otherwise still air.

@@@@@@@@

Toby watch dispassionately as everything unfolded.

A part of Chris screamed the question, why was his fear for Vin and Buck's safety giving rise straight to brutal emotions? But his skin was crawling like it was alive and he continued, ticking the words off as he moved closer, "Because you're a reckless, irresponsible son of a two bit whore -"

He never finished. Buck's fist hit him in the jaw with such force that it spun him to the ground. Without another look, Buck turned and walked away from everyone.

JD was stunned. He had never seen Buck exhibit such all-consuming, sharp fury. He wasn't sure he'd ever seen that kind of rage in anyone. And to strike Chris Larabee. What had … Oh, God … the dark haired lad remembered Buck's words. He'd called his mother a saint. But she was a … and Chris had called Buck a …

Larabee was livid again, but this time JD wasn't finding fault with Buck for causing it, wasn't afraid that the legendary gunslinger would leave. JD was afraid Buck had finally had enough.

JD ran around to get in front of his friend and stop his forward momentum. But he was brushed aside like trail dust. And Buck kept walking. JD stood alone and looked smaller than usual.

"Vin, let Nathan tend to you. Then you need to go try and calm that hothead down." Josiah gave the order as if he had seen more than he wanted to this day. The gray haired regulator gingerly knelt over, picked up Larabee's six shooter and handed it, butt first to Vin and nodded toward the man in black who was again retreating to the saloon.

"Buck -" Jackson tried one last time.

"I suspect you've helped enough tonight, Mr. Jackson." Ezra said, not trying to hide his disgust at the healer and the situation. "Mr. Wilmington had insisted on staying in the saloon to pour Mr. Larabee into a safe bed once he was too drunk to get there on his own. Our little drinking game was merely a way to pass the time and distract Buck from his own close call. Luckily you've arranged for Mr. Tanner to lend that shoulder of support instead." It wasn't hard to hear the sarcasm in the southerner's voice.

Ezra, knowing that if the situation were reversed, he would want time to regroup and compose himself, didn't go after the retreating Wilmington. Besides, this friendship thing was new to him and he didn't know what to say.

JD's hazel wells had always been on his tall mentor who was walking away. He called one last time and got no response. As JD started to follow, he found his way blocked by a reedy Louisiana orphan, "He doesn't want your help."

"Get out of my way."

"I'm tellin' ya, Kid …"

"Don't call me 'Kid'. You're younger than I am!" JD demanded.

JD didn't notice the casual drawl the boy had used in place of his native Cajun accent. He didn't notice after being challenged, the boy slipped back into his regular pedantic phrasing, "If you do not appreciate what you have, you can lose it."

"You're nuttier than a pecan pie." JD pushed around him but Buck was gone.

Josiah watched the two young men meet on the street.

The Santaria acolyte's hair was even darker and shorter. The scraggly beard and sideburns looked like five o'clock shadow. His bangs hung limp in his eyes, but he pushed them behind one ear.

When JD shoved past Tobias, Josiah moved to intercept their youngest peacekeeper, "JD, son, stay away from that one." He said of the stranger in town.

"What?"

"As a favor to me? The boy's not right in the head." Josiah counseled.

"Hell, Josiah, I try to stay away from him. I got Buck tellin' me everything I do wrong. I don't need some drifter doing the same …" The young gunman's words faltered, wondering if he still had Buck to tell him what to do.

"It will be made right, boy. Ain't nothin' that can't be fixed." Josiah said, almost reading the thoughts, as he put a hand on the young man's shoulder.

"Are you sure?" To the younger man, the ex-preacher's voice sounded more hopeful than confident.

"Go help Nathan with Vin." Josiah gave the boy something to focus on. And give Buck a little space before he talked to his young friend.

The missionary's son disregarded his own advice and moved to catch up with the son of the Crescent City. When he got there, he found that Ezra had the same idea and was already talking to the boy, "Did the Orsas direct you to cut your hair? Change the color?" The southerner asked as if in curious conversation.

One blue eye and one brown eye bored into the green ones. Ezra didn't break the eye contact. The Cajun looked away first and answered, "I am hiding from my uncle. The scouts he sends to search for me will not see me. I do not look as they were told I would. I am becoming someone else." He bowed his head slightly out of respect and then slid away.

Josiah joined Standish. Without taking his eyes off the scrawny retreating form, the gambler addressed the older man, "That one is trouble, Mr. Sanchez."

"How much of this is his fault? Or this 'Santeria'?"

"Santeria works on the deep emotions. From what I have seen so far, I don't care if he is the cause or the victim, I want it stopped."

Josiah was surprised to hear such a crack of conviction in the Southerner's usually solid façade, "Amen, brother, amen." Is all he could think of as a response.

@@@@@@@@

Buck Wilmington didn't remember making it to his room. But once there, he did something he never did. He locked himself in. He would brook no intrusion from the outside world tonight. He didn't light the lamp, but was still able to find the bottle of red eye he kept in a drawer. He collapsed on the bed in the dark and propped himself up against the wall.

It was good the bottle was full. He had every intention of using the fiery liquid to burn every childish tenet about friendship out of his mind. He wasn't exorcising his past with Larabee. He didn't have to. That was already done. There was a time Buck would have thought it impossible, but the gunfighter had successfully done that with a few well-chosen words.

He didn't hate the man he had called friend all these many years. After all the mourning widower had told him often enough he was overstaying his welcome. The Chris Larabee he knew had died with his family. Buck was just too guilt-ridden or maybe too needy to see it. It felt strange, though, not to pretend he still felt some of the camaraderie. And there was that untouchable memory again, it skittered around but wouldn’t come forth.  It was like the memory fueled the certainty that Larabee wouldn’t be there when he needed him.

Larabee had called his mother a … now, when he thought of the name Chris Larabee, it was like thinking of the nameless fellow in the next town who would livery his horse, or the man in the last town who ran the mercantile. Just another someone he met on the trail and then was gone. You couldn't hate someone you didn't know.

Buck's precious mother had told him to love everyone, but none too much. Because as wonderful as love was, part of its allure was that it was so close to hate. The one powerful emotion vibrated at almost the same intensity as the other. And deep bonds betrayed bred hate. She had been right. For a brief moment, when he heard the words, he had hated Larabee. But now there was nothing. Indifference. And that was sad. And somehow more of a loss.

No, Buck wasn't drinking away his friendship with Larabee. That was gone. He was burning out the tendrils of comradeship that had begun to coil around his heart when he had met the others. He didn't want that anymore.

He heard a knock at his door, "Buck?" It was Josiah, "Buck, can I talk to you? Are you in there?" Buck took another mouthful of hot liquid and ignored the man.

@@@@@@@@

A last candle in Pyrite burned to life. The pentagram was complete.

@@@@@@@@

Ezra Standish dealt cards at his regular table in the saloon. He could pretend it was as if nothing had happened. How quickly mankind readjusted. There would have been a time that all seven shared a table this time of night. Tonight he sat alone.

Outside, a wind had come up and howled like a banshee.

One more day and their 30 day commitment would be up. It would be time to move on. Why had he even hoped it would be different this time?

@@@@@@@@

The yellow and black candle on the Pyrite altar ignited of its own accord.

@@@@@@@@

Ezra folded his cards and called it a night.

@@@@@@@@

Vin Tanner had his long legs stretched in front of him and crossed at the ankles on the bed in Nathan's clinic. His hands were clasped over his belly. He seemed relaxed enough. His eyes only occasionally flickered toward the morose man beside him. Nathan had left once it was clear that Chris was staying. Seemed they were all running from personal demons tonight.

The long, shootist fingers stretched out from the black sleeves, rolled the shot glass around slowly. The amber liquid would almost escape its confines, only to follow a path to the other side and rim the edge again. It was interesting, to get so close to spilling and yet not, because Vin would have sworn the man holding the glass was completely unaware of his actions.

"I can't believe I said that to Buck."

When the man in black muttered those words, the first thing that came into Vin's mind was 'That's how Chris is supposed to sound.' After sharing the silence for the better part of two hours, the Texan put a supporting hand on the graze across his ribs and leaned forward to encourage the words to keep coming. And they did, "I might kill another man who said that to him. I'd damn sure beat the hell out of him so he'd know not to say it again."

"Buck got his lick in." Vin offered.

"Did you know Buck's momma was a working girl?"

If Tanner was surprised, he didn't show it. It was clear it made him no never mind, "I wondered about the look on his face when he shot Wicks. I reckoned there's some history there."

Larabee nodded to himself, but didn't go into detail. He was focused on the guilt he felt tonight, "Bad enough I let Mary Travis go on the way she did about Lydia and her girls, what with him standing right there and all."

Tanner shrugged, "Buck said they stayed and they stayed. You stood by him. Seems to me actions speak louder to him than words." A suspicion began to form and half smile was beginning to shape the former buffalo hunter's face as he listened.

"Buck, he listens to how something is said, more than the words, that's for sure." Larabee agreed, "Likely that's the reason he's put up with me for so long. Tonight. Damn, Vin, I meant the words. It's like I was standing outside my own body watching. I heard it. I meant those words. He couldn't have missed it."

Vin tried to lighten the mood, "You and ol' Buck, you're like oil and water. It ain't like you haven't had words before." There may have even been a hint of envy in his voice. Tanner knew that he could share this moment and be who he was, the friend he was to Chris Larabee, because Buck Wilmington was who he was.

"If I ever doubted that friendship was a living, evolving thing, I learned the truth tonight. Because I saw it die in Buck's eyes." Larabee didn't look up from the glass in his hands as he made the confession. The regret was palpable, "I thought we had lost him at the creek. Why couldn't I tell him that instead of … and now this …"

Tanner was quiet for a time, the profundity of the statement took him back to his own, long ago, personal hell. The truth of the statement touched him. And he vowed that wouldn't happen with his two friends, "I know you can work it out."

The self-depreciating smirk and raised eyebrow told him Larabee was skeptical, but he wanted some hope.

"Because," Vin's smile was all the support anyone could ever need, "this is the first time since Pyrite you're actin' like the Chris Larabee that Buck fights so hard to protect."

Chris cocked his head and did a quick internal check. The prickles and thrumming nerves were gone. The irrational anger was, if not gone, hibernating. Seeing the harm that had been done seemed to have exorcised the demons trying to get out.

"Ain't many friendships stronger than black magic." Vin offered, and he was deadly serious.

And for the first time since riding out of Pyrite, the gunfighter found his smile, "Thanks, Vin."

"I didn't do anything."

"You gave my words and thoughts a safe harbor. Gave me a chance to see how they sounded out loud." Larabee raised his glass in a toast.

@@@@@@@@

"Nathan?" Josiah walked into the sanctuary of the church he had adopted. His friend was on the floor in front of the altar. Dozens of the church's white candles were surrounding him in a horseshoe shaped arc. The healer was on his knees and bent over so that his head nearly touched the floor.

"Nathan?" He repeated cautiously. A cold fear crept up his spine as he reached the former slave's side. The feeling didn't ebb when he saw that Nathan was leaning over the floor, had slit open a cigarette and appeared to be doing surgery on it based on the precision with which he was separating the shredded plant material inside.

"This ain't tobacco, Josiah." The healer stated as if that explained everything.

"It's a cigarette, brother." Josiah didn't know what else to say.

"I worked on a tobacco plantation, I know tobacco." Nathan's dark eyes flashed as he met the other man's. But he calmed down as he realized his knowledge wasn't being questioned, the man just didn't understand what was going on. He choked down the residual anger and took a breath. "I was here," his eyes flickered around to indicate the church, "Looking for answers. Why I said that to Buck, why I liked that my words could touch him. That's not me. Then I remembered Chris has been acting the same way. And he had given me a roll-your-own. I don't know why I put it together." He glanced at the rough hewn cross, "Maybe for all the evil I feel around here right now, maybe we got some good power on our side, after all."

Josiah bowed his head in a quick prayer that it was so and then met the dark eyes and waited for answers.

"It's not tobacco. I can't tell what it is, probably wouldn't know the herb if I saw it. But something in this cigarette breeds anger."

Josiah tried to put the pieces together. He rubbed his shoulder, still strapped to his chest and sat down.

"Hey, Josiah, how are you feeling?" Nathan asked when he saw the motion.

"Lucky." He shrugged his good shoulder. "You?"

"What's going on around here?"

"I don't know."

"You think a giant crow dropped you off the church roof."

"It could have been a dream."

"All this anger. It seems to be contagious."

"Larabee's always had a temper."

"Those scorpions?" He fingered the leafy substance in the cigarette wrapper. It wasn't lost on the Preacher where the stuff came from.

"So you think all of this started with the trip Vin and Chris made to Pyrite?"

Nathan shrugged, "A contagious anger; a giant crow, those scorpions. That Toby kid saying he's a Santero. And his uncle is out for him? Vin's getting shot?"

"Sometimes we see more than is there. It could be coincidence."

Nathan cut him short, "Santeria is real! You've seen the altars, the sacrifices."

"I know," the ex-preacher admitted, giving up his attempts to find cause and effect in the physical world he was used to. "There is evil in the air."

"What do we do? We should be out there tracking down who is behind this. It's like we're paralyzed or too busy tearing at each other to do our job."

"I think you're the voice of reason, brother. Tomorrow we'll find young Tobias Thibodaux and question him. I think he knows more than he has volunteered."

"Ain't that the truth. And I wonder how he seems to disappear just when we have questions."

"And you know who else knows something? The soldier Ezra tossed in jail."

"Will you try to get some sleep? If we're going to put evil on the defensive, we need to be rested. We can question both boys tomorrow." Nathan noticed that Josiah was sagging after the day’s events and was immediately back to his healing ways

"Yeah, yeah, maybe I will. You, too, Nathan."

After his friend had left, Sanchez looked back toward the cross over the altar and whispered, "Thank you."

@@@@@@@@

JD Dunne stood in the open door to his room. He looked down the hall to where Buck usually slept. He had tried the door earlier with no answer. Maybe JD had fallen asleep and missed the other man coming in for the night. . He padded to the other door and knocked softly at first, "Buck?" He whispered as if he cared if he woke the man, "Buck." He called louder and knocked louder. There was no response. "Buck!" He shouted and banged on the door until he heard movement behind other doors on the floor and realized he was waking everyone else up. He leaned against the door and slid down until he was sitting on the floor.

@@@@@@@@

One last candle danced in Pyrite.

@@@@@@@@

Buck Wilmington heard JD bang on the door, all sincere-like. He didn't move more than to raise the bottle to his lips. He had told someone … he couldn't remember who … that the drink didn't solve anything. So why did he think it would work tonight for him?

He didn't have the give-a-shit to get up or care. He rolled his eyes enough to watch stalactite shaped clouds turn red then orange then yellow then white with the coming dawn. He may not have burned the friendship out, but he was getting there.

And so, with these thoughts to brood on, in his own way, Wilmington was withdrawing from his friends just as surely as Larabee did. He was convinced that friendship didn't last, and he was pretty sure he didn't want to be the one trying to hold another one together against hopeless odds. Where did that thought come from?

@@@@@@@@

Francis Slaughter stood before the altar. Five candles burned steadily. One had burned down one side of the glass; another was sooty, one sputtered to keep from being extinguished by its own wax; indications that the spells were partially being deflected either by willpower or external forces coming to the aid of the Four Corners peacekeepers.

He could be patient. His Santero was powerful. If the lawmen weren't yet defeated, they were distracted and leaving his operation alone.

He turned away from the sacrifice. The slave buyers were scheduled for arrival the next day. There were preparations to be made.

@@@@@@@@

Chris Larabee poured strong coffee into the battered tin cup from the pot brewing on the pot belly stove. He walked out onto the boardwalk in front of the jail before taking his first sip.

It was early, but he could tell the heat of the day would evaporate the fog that lay like a dense cloud around most of Four Corners. The mystical things were retreating from the light as well. But the evil was still there. The gunfighter hadn't lived this long without knowing when he sensed a threat.

And they'd been so busy fighting with each other or jumping at shadows, they hadn't really gone after the gang that was murdering and kidnapping and by damn, putting strong, good men at each other's throats, probably for no more reason than to distract them from tracking down the crime.

Chris knew one thing. Judge Travis had news that something was rotten in Pyrite. The place had been too big, too peaceful. And Larabee knew he couldn't remember anything through the red haze of anger since he'd left that town. And the boy he'd seen there, had that been the first supernatural event? Larabee had made the decision that they were going to find out.

There had to be a place to start; to take the offensive. Perhaps the soldier in jail was the answer. The boy with the wild blue and brown eyes most definitely held some answers.

He was brought out of his musing when Buck Wilmington led two horses out of the livery. His happy-go-lucky friend could get up this early but it wasn't his style if he didn't have to. Chris perked up with interest. And his old friend was with that boy. He tossed the last dregs of the coffee into the dirt of main street and headed that direction.

@@@@@@@@

Josiah Sanchez sipped coffee in Nathan's clinic - come sunrise he had sought out his old time friend. He had found comfort in their conversation the night before and wanted that feeling to continue. They hadn't started to re-evaluate things, content for a few moments to share companionship, security and a cup of morning brew.

Vin Tanner had left earlier to take care of his morning routine, telling the healer that he was feeling fine.

The front door opened. Vin Tanner was back, but seemed reluctant to enter. The man seldom looked indecisive, but that was exactly what the older men read in those blue eyes. It was unsettling.

"Vin?" Nathan stood to check the wound from the night before. He was worried that something was very wrong.

The Texan was already pulling his shirttail free from his belt.

Expecting the worst, seeing that Vin was rarely so agreeable to an examination, the healer was taken aback by what he saw.

The wound looked to be two months old rather than two days. A thin line of healthy, healing, pink skin had replaced the bullet wound from the night before.

"How do you feel?" Nathan questioned in a whisper.

"Like it never happened." Tanner never thought he'd regret healing.

Nathan took a deep breath and sat down. Anxiety over something he didn't understand weighed heavily on him.

Tanner had had more time to process the new occurrence, "Josiah, can we check your shoulder?"

Josiah was already working to unwrap his bandages as Nathan moved in to help. When the wrappings were gone, the big man rotated his shoulder. The others watched.

"It's like nothing ever happened." He confirmed.

"What's going on?!" Nathan's emotions betrayed him, "What the hell is happening?" Josiah put a soothing hand on Jackson's shoulder.

"It's like we're being tested - testing our reactions to each other's injuries." It was clear Tanner had put thought into recent occurrences.

"Perhaps, on the other hand, we have powers on our side? Offering us an advantage?" Sanchez offered.

Three sets of eyes looked one to the other. Something was very wrong.

@@@@@@@@

Buck was helping Toby into the saddle of the livery horse by the time Chris made it over.

"You leaving?" Larabee had already lost so much. And if Buck rode out after last night's events, Larabee knew it would be no one's fault but his own. He kept his voice carefully neutral as if that would keep it from hurting if the answer was 'yes'."

Buck mounted Paladin before he turned back to the other man, "I signed on for the same 30 days you did." His smile was firmly in place as he addressed Larabee.

The smile gave Chris a sick, hollow feeling, because it was a fake smile. There had been more times than were fair that Buck had talked to him with a sad smile, or an 'it's going to be okay' smile. But the fake smile that Buck saved for strangers or people who had hurt him, well, he'd never turned it on his old friend before, "Then where are you going?" he challenged.

"Patrol."

"The soldiers are out there." Chris said as if it cancelled out the need for the seven to patrol the area.

"And now I am, too." Buck wasn't going to be deterred, "Toby's scared of his uncle. We're going to show him there's nothing to be afraid of."

"By being out there alone if something happens? I don't want anyone going out solo."  It was too bad that neither of them noticed the healing contradiction from when Larabee had been parnoid and angry that two of his men, Buck and Vin, had ridden out together.

"I signed on for the same 30 days. I didn't say I signed on to let you tell me what to do." Buck couldn't let it go, "I may take the time to bring some venison to the table." He was defying the threats as much as he was defying Larabee.

"Hunting?" Toby asked hopefully. Buck turned around and saw the big, expectant smile on the boy's face.

"Oh, for the love of God, Buck, you're pissed. It's my fault. I get it. That satisfy you?"

"You wanna go hunting?" Buck used Toby as an opportunity to ignore Chris and, probably, irritate the gunfighter even more.

"I'll watch. I'll be quiet." Toby promised

Buck winked at the kid, "Guess we're going hunting."

'That is so damned irrational, and so like you, Buck, to be reckless when you've been hurt.' Larabee's mind screamed of his old friend. The serpent of anger that dwelt in the mourning widower's heart tried to coil and rear its pit viper head. He held his tongue. That wasn't the way to handle this damaged spirit. He might throw the fool in jail until he was thinking safely again, but he would watch his words carefully.

By this time, the gangly scoundrel had turned impassively to answer Larabee, "We're okay, Chris, we're right where we're supposed to be." Buck smiled, "But there are little girls missing out there and some Santeria-something-or-other causing trouble. Toby knows about that stuff. He's going to show me. And I'm going to try to help him have a normal life."

"This is not the time. That is irresponsible and …" the temper flared faster than Larabee could smother it.

There was a glint of the previous night's anger in the dark blue eyes. The gunfighter knew immediately that his words had caused possibly irreparable damage. But before either man could say more, a commotion arose from the opposite end of town. A man was riding in and he was in a hurry.

Buck took advantage of the distraction to pull his reins from Chris's grasp and turned out of town in the opposite direction.

Toby waited until he had Larabee's full attention before he offered his prophecy, "The Seven must be Six before they will truly be Seven." Then he turned and rode out of town. His riding showed much more expertise than would be expected.

"Wilmington!" Larabee bellowed. There was no reaction and by that time the horseman was pulling up beside the gunfighter, the rangy ladies' man was gone.

"Mr. Larabee, sir, I'm Quentin Washington." The man was out of breath from fear and fatigue. His roan was blowing hard and lathered.

Out of the corner of his eye, Chris noticed that Ezra and JD had been lured from the sheriff's office by the fast moving horse. Nathan, Josiah and Vin were coming from Nathan's clinic.

Then something in the man's words drew his focus back, "… fire. The Murphy's little homestead's been burned to the ground. Ain't no sign of life." The men gathered around him didn't seem to get it, "Nothing … No buzzards, no insects. It's like the ashes are damned."

Six of the seven peacekeepers met before the harbinger of new troubles. Chris turned to his men, "We need to pass the word. All the homesteaders come into town 'til we say different." Larabee's eyes slid in the direction his old friend had ridden, "That damn, stubborn Wilmington. I'll catch up with him …"

"Might be better if me and JD hook up with Buck." Vin offered softly. The man in black knew he was right; the tension between the two old friends … actually it was a lack of tension, a damn indifference. And that was worse. But Vin was right. There wasn't time to fix it with the renewed danger threatening folks they were meant to protect. "Are you up to it?" His eyes darted from Vin to Josiah to Nathan and they knew he was referring to their recent injuries.

"Chris, there ain't a wound among us. It's …" Vin could tell Chris thought they were minimizing their wounds to help. The tracker pulled his shirt up to show his friend the nearly healed abrasion.

Larabee looked at the wound. His eyes met Josiah's and Nathan's. Without a word they admitted they were healthy as well.

No, Larabee didn't understand it. It was like a tale to frighten small children. It couldn't be happening. But it was. And he wanted answers. And they had to regroup when everyone was safe. "Hook up with him. Warn folks to the north and east of the Murphy place" Chris directed Vin and JD, "Josiah, Nathan and I will branch south and west. Ezra, you get something out of that prisoner."

Standish touched the brim of his hat in acknowledgement and was gone.

Josiah, Chris and Nathan headed into the livery. Washington watched. JD looked out toward the east of town.

"JD?" Vin asked, "All that suit you?" There was something bothering their sheriff.

"Yep. I woulda been heading out anyway. Buck's not going anywhere alone with that kid. He's not right." He quoted Josiah's earlier remark, and they, too, headed for their horses.

@@@@@@@@

As the regulators were leaving one end of town, Tom Reynolds looked over at Johnny Franklin as they entered from the opposite direction. How long had they been running? They were both dehydrated and exhausted. But they'd made it. This was Four Corners. And there was no time to spare. Tom kept his thoughts to himself as he helped his young friend along.

He - they - Slaughter and his witch doctor - had done something to Johnny. There were no obvious injuries, but a fever burned him from the inside out. Reynolds' first obligation was to his friend, damn him, he couldn't help it. He owed that to the kid. More, he had lots of good times left in these old bones and he wanted to share them with Johnny. So they would tell the sheriff in this town what they knew, what they had seen. If he didn't believe, to hell with him. He'd warn them then use them as a buffer between him, Johnny and - It.

Even this close, they didn't walk straight to the sheriff's office. Instead, supporting each other from alley to shadow, they cautiously made their way these last few yards.

@@@@@@@@

There were six of them in the band of ominous men. They wore black like a uniform and rode black horses as a show of unity. They had been tracking Johnny Franklin and Tom Reynolds with meticulous, mind numbing persistence. But no more. Now they knew where the two were headed.

When the men escaped they should have headed to Mexico. Or tried to lose themselves in a big city. But they were heading toward Four Corners. Things were coming to a head.

The riders spread out in a "vee" shape as they moved forward.

As the phalanx crested a gentle rise, seven similarly dressed men appeared on the horizon. These men rode in military-like two-by-two with one in the lead. Without a word, or slowing their pace, the two parties merged. For a brief moment the narrow column of seven men rode behind the six in the arc and they looked for all the world, like a giant arrow aimed straight at Four Corners. Then the 13 men merged and they became a flying wedge headed toward Four Corners like they were the rustic town's destiny.

@@@@@@@@

Even though he expected it, the recoil of the long gun shoved Toby's shoulder. He saw the deer jump, then the force against his shoulder unbalanced him. When he looked again, the deer was gone.

"I missed?" He turned and asked the man beside him, "How could I miss?"

Wilmington put a friendly hand around his neck and steered the energetic Cajun youngster forward.

@@@@@@@@

Vin Tanner and JD Dunne had barely crested Sundown Butte when they heard the shot. It echoed along the hill country, but they could tell where it came from. JD urged his horse forward with a lunge before the tracker could advise caution. Tanner followed. He wasn't in the mood for caution himself, at the moment.

@@@@@@@@

Vin and JD rode up to find Toby and Buck already kneeling beside the spike. Toby had his fingers in the still warm blood, making small marks on the pelt. The eyes of the animal were at half-mast and empty.

"Buck! Are you okay? How can you be out hunting when …" JD trailed off looking at the deer. Wilmington had never taken him hunting.

"JD, you alright?" Vin asked.

"It's stupid, I know, but he's just so … so …"

"A beautiful creature." Toby volunteered.

JD let them think that. He didn't want to admit he had never been hunting before and … was that jealousy? That Buck had taken this brat first, before he took JD on a hunt?

"Don't feel guilty," Tanner guessed what was going on in the boy's head. He probably sensed the envy as well as the regret over the death of one of nature's creatures, but astutely chose only to refer to the death, "Ain't much of this fella what will go to waste. What little we leave will be eaten by other animals. We don't kill for sport. Too many deer, they starve. Lot more suffering than this one felt."

"Hell of a shot, boy. Right behind the shoulder blade. He didn't feel a thing." Buck praised.

"I've made an offering to Oggun. He accepts it and blesses the meat for our table." The Cajun half-breed took the bowl he called a coconut shell out of the pocket of the tweed slacks JD had loaned him.

As Vin knelt down to help field dress the buck, Toby caught blood in the shell and held it out to JD.

"What the hell are you doing?" Dunne was trying not to let the killing or the smell of blood bother him. Having the still warm blood put under his nose, the smell of the blood overpowering, did nothing to soothe his mind or his stomach.

Tanner stopped what he and Buck were doing at the tone of voice.

"You drink the blood in thanks for what you received. It is an offering to you from the buck. You will be given his speed, grace and peace with the land. Drink." Toby insisted as if he were giving an order not to be ignored and as if he were not used to being denied when it came to certain things.

"I ain't drinkin' blood. Are you loco?" He shoved Toby's hands away, spilling the blood.

"You disrespect the gods - the Orishas!" Toby's voice became deeper, defiant.

Vin came between them, dipped his fingers in the blood and spread a small line on each of JD's cheeks like war paint. "A first kill, JD, foraging for family, tribe. The boy wants to share that with you."

JD could tell this was a ritual Vin was familiar with from living with the People. He was much more willing to accept Tanner's "uncivilized" ways than those of his rival.

"Toby?" Buck's voice held a question, asking if the boy was alright, "We know you were tryin' to give JD an honor, but it ain't his way."

"The spirit of the deer has already returned to the forest. It is too late to take the strength."

They all stood there for a moment as if trying to feel the animal's spirit. JD sidled around Toby, never taking his eyes off the other young man, sensing a threat, sensing a challenge, but not understanding why.

"C'mon, Kid," This time it was Wilmington's voice. JD looked up for encouragement only to see the big gunslinger's attention was focused on Toby and he was speaking to that boy, "You wanna see how this is done?" Referring to the field dressing.

"Buck!" JD called.

"Buck," Vin interrupted, "We've got trouble in town. We need to warn the homesteaders and get them moved into town for a few days."

Wilmington started to ask what.

"It's bad, Buck. Looks like whoever's doing this is hitting local ranchers. They're close. We need to get folks into town where it's safe."

Wilmington knew that Vin didn't spook easily and didn't exaggerate. He threw the carcass across the rump of his horse and tied it on, "I'll take Toby and head west. You two can take south." And he was gone.

"No, we have to stay together!" JD demanded, but it did no good. Buck was on his horse and gone.

Toby hesitated for a moment as he looked at Vin, then Buck's retreating back. His eyes didn't include JD. "Don't go to Pyrite." He warned as if he might not get another chance to give the warning. He gave neither Vin nor JD the chance to reply. He turned, bounded on his horse and followed Buck. And they were gone.

JD watched until they had disappeared through the thicket. Tanner tried to figure out where the boy's warning had come from, but was distracted by JD's morose expression.

Tanner wasn't sure he begrudged JD the resentment that he gave off in waves. It was almost like the little one had Buck under a spell. Or maybe it was just that Buck thought he had little if anything more to offer JD. Buck needed to be needed. He thought that came with giving. He had no concept of the value of his friendship alone.

"Buck's my friend." Left unspoken was 'not that pushy little whelp.'

"Maybe he should know that. You've been seein' Chris's side in a lot of things lately." Vin kneed his horse along at a walk.

"That don't mean me and Buck ain't friends."

"Sometimes, JD, we know a man is our friend, without knowin' hardly anything about him. We know he's a man to be proud to call friend. Sometimes, maybe we should ask more about the life that made him such a man. So when he does somethin' we don't understand, we will understand. Maybe we can avoid hurt feelin's."

"You talkin' about me and Buck or you and Chris?"

"I'm talkin' about anyone worth riding the river with. And I'm talking about being someone worth riding the river with."

Finally the young sheriff spoke, "Thanks, Vin."

"Hey, it helps me, too."

JD felt comforted in the talk to have a friend, be a friend. He knew he was a better friend to Buck Wilmington than some Cajun stray. Hell, he was a better friend than anyone - or wanted to be. When they got back to town tonight, he'd start proving it.

@@@@@@@@

Ezra sat and stared at the soldier behind the bars with every intention of intimidating him. The young man was sweating. He was worried. While Standish kept his face impassive, he couldn't keep his mind from wandering back to recent events.

As horrifying as the attack on Nathan was, his miraculous cure was even more curious. It was almost like nothing had really happened. Josiah's fall could have been an accident caused by the weather. The orphan who believed so strongly in Santeria could have put it in their heads to change coincidence to superstition. But Vin's healing was almost inexplicable

The humid fog that had taken hold of the town and seemed to be trying to suffocate its residents, didn't help matters.

One thing was abundantly clear. There was one day left in their obligations to the Judge and Four Corners. If fences weren't mended they would not go their separate ways on a friendly note.

Ezra Standish watched the private. He was terrified. He would have to ask for help eventually. Did they have enough time to wait him out?

@@@@@@@@

Chris Larabee was angry. It was probably the healthiest, most focused fury he'd felt in years. So different from the drug induced anger of the last few days.

That sniveling bottom feeder of a shop owner in Pyrite had doped him. Nathan easily convinced his leader that there was more than tobacco in the blend.

He looked across the rolling hill country. It felt good to be out in the fresh air, the clear light of day that seemed to evaporate the fears of the night. It was like the fog had dissipated as soon they left Four Corners. And they were doing something. They were warning families to get into town where they could be protected.

Except, what was that? The three topped a small rise and saw dark scars on the ground in the shallow valley below. It was completely unrecognizable.

The three regulators kneed their horses forward.

Even when they were on top of the first one, their minds couldn't wrap around what they were seeing. They were cavalry uniforms. Seven of them. They were strewn haphazardly around the landscape. But the clothing wasn't tossed in piles. The uniforms lay as if bodies were still in them. The sleeves and trousers were extended to various degrees as if men had fallen to the ground.

But the uniforms were flat. Empty.

Nathan climbed off his horse and knelt beside the first uniform. The belt still held the shirt in the trousers. The military sidearm rested in its holster. A powdery substance crept out of the sleeves and necks of the shirts. Some of the same matter spilled between the pants' cuffs and boots. Some of the other uniforms were close enough to see that they were in the same state. Josiah and Chris joined their healer as he gingerly touched his finger to the substance at one shirt cuff. It was maybe an inch deep and the diameter of a coffee mug.

Nathan rubbed the pearly gray flakes between his fingers and it turned to powder, "It's ashes." He said with a confused frown.

"These uniforms belong to Armstrong and his men. But where are they?"

"I think they're here, brother." The icicles of fear in the ex-preacher's voice had the heads of both of his friends whipping back to meet his eyes. The big man had knelt and he, too, was fingering the ashes. His sad blue eyes met the others and what he thought was clear without words.

"That's impossible, Josiah," Nathan tried to be the voice of logic, "How hot would a fire have to be to burn a human body to cinders?"

"The uniforms aren't even singed, Sanchez, there couldn't have been a fire."

Josiah's compassionate eyes pled with his two friends to convince him he was wrong.

"Armstrong!" Larabee shouted and looked over the landscape for the lieutenant or his men.

Josiah made the sign of the cross.

"What the hell is going on here?" Their leader demanded.

Nathan was still staring at the nearest body in shock and disbelief.

"What the hell is going on?" Only a fool didn't admit to fear.

"The boy, Tobias, he's never where we can question him." Josiah complained. He didn't add that he was uncomfortable at how that one had gradually started looking more and more like young JD.

"That young soldier, what did he know that had him so afraid?" Nathan, too, started looking for answers. He had been patient with Ezra's technique for getting answers out of that one, but now he was tired of waiting and willing to take the interrogation into his own hands.

"Ezra!" Chris turned back to his friends. Mention of the soldier had taken their leader's mind on a completely different track, "If that kid knows something, Ezra's alone with him. And Armstrong knew Ezra was onto something." Whoever was behind this was not above torturing that knowledge from the lieutenant.

The others exchanged glances as the threat sank in.

"Get back to town. See if Ezra's gotten anything out of the soldier. If he hasn't, make sure he does." Larabee said as he mounted up.

"Where are you going?"

"I want Buck, Vin and JD back in town before sundown."

"One of us should go with you."

"I don't want anyone out alone."

"Except you?" Josiah asked.

"I won't be alone when I catch up with them."

There was no arguing with the man. He would keep his friends safe. And he wouldn't rest until he knew where everyone was. And he wouldn't admit it.

"Be careful," Nathan offered as he and Josiah headed back to town and their leader moved off to intersect the others, "And hurry."

@@@@@@@@

Mother Nature had forsaken her pastel palate and painted the sunset with vibrant red, orange and yellow war colors.

"Private?" Ezra began as he leaned on the bars of the cell. He waited for an answer. The boy was terrified. It had worn on him, being trapped. Now, it was as if he could feel something in the air. The poor fellow was trembling like a child and he kept his eyes closed like he didn't want to see what was coming.

The conman wasn't sure how to continue. He couldn't get a reading on the young man past the fear. If he could coax him into conversation, perhaps something would present itself.

As he tried to think of how to start the conversation, the boy finally spoke,

"Andy."

"Pardon?"

"My name is Andy Koontz. I want someone to know who I was when I die."

"Son, what's going on here?" Ezra sensed the private wanted to talk and forced himself to ignore that last statement.

"I can't say. He'll kill me."

"You're safe here. We'll protect you." He put all of his persuasive talents into the statement.

"You can't. He can get anything he wants. He can kill with just a look."

"Superstition. Whoever you are talking about is playing on your fears."

"No. It's real. And if he thinks you're a threat, he'll kill you, too. If you're lucky. Some people - he feeds on their souls."

Ezra took a step back and examined the man on the other side of the cell. He truly believed what he was saying. Childhood stories from New Orleans crept into the Southern gambler's memories and sent a chill up his spine.

@@@@@@@@

The wind came up suddenly and howled; blowing cold then hot. Vin had his hat pulled low, JD was hunched down in his coat as they reached the outskirts of Four Corners. Tanner thought he heard a voice in the wind. He thought he heard it again.

"Tanner!"

The Texan pulled up. JD, next to him, felt it and followed suit. They saw Chris riding toward them and waited for him.

"What's happened?" Tanner asked with a casualness he didn't feel.

"Where's Buck?" Chris demanded.

"Sorry, Cowboy, he went his own way. But there was only the one farm, he'll …"

"Armstrong and his soldiers are dead. Get back to town. Nathan and Josiah will give you the details."

"Cowboy?" Vin asked, sensing his friend's anxiousness.

"They'll explain." The gunfighter didn't want to take time while one of their number was still out and alone.

"Buck's -"JD started. He was picking up on the discomfort and it had him worried for his missing friend. His horse pranced. JD was ready to turn its head back toward his friend.

"I'm going after him." Larabee stated flatly.

"I want -"JD started.

"Get back to town." Larabee demanded. Buck Wilmington was his responsibility and always would be.

"But …" JD started to protest.

"He ain't more than an hour behind us." Tanner interrupted. He could tell that Larabee's anxiety wouldn't let up until he knew where everyone was, "One of us could go with you." He had to offer anyway.

"Get to town. Talk to the others. Help Ezra get something out of that kid he has in jail."

And he was gone before the others could protest further.

@@@@@@@@

Tom Reynolds was supporting Johnny's weight as they crept through the town. They would not move toward the sheriff's office until it was dark. The wind whipped around them but did nothing more than stir the dense fog that should have been dispersed.

@@@@@@@@

Buck Wilmington was riding in quiet contentment beside the young Cajun. He would have been surprised how the slight breeze around them and clear skies contrasted the fog and gale force winds shooting through the rest of the territory. What a burden had been lifted once he exorcised the responsibility of friendship. It never occurred to him to wonder why he was willing to ride beside young Toby if he had decided to abandon all partnerships.

"I don't think John Dunne likes me." Toby said abruptly.

"What? Where did that come from? JD likes everybody. What's the matter? You two too much alike?"

"What does it take to be a friend?"

"Wish to hell I knew." Buck replied sincerely if somewhat wistfully, then so as not to discourage the youngster, he continued, "You and JD are the same age. Seems you two could have fun getting into trouble together." Even if he hadn't been good at the comradeship thing didn't mean Toby didn't deserve a chance to do a better job of it.

"I am Santero. I have too much responsibility. Keeping JD out of trouble is a full time job. It's hard to find time for fun."

"Now you sound like me." Like I used to sound.

"JD is lucky to have found you and the others."

"Well, Josiah, he's a religious man, too, but he has time for fun." Buck tried to change the subject.

"Josiah Sanchez is wise. Do you learn from him?"

"Every day."

"I could learn from him. He can protect us from the spirits."

"If you're referring to spirits like alcohol, he may need his own protecting from them."

"Then I will protect him as you would. He listens to me as if I were a man with something worth saying."

"Ya still should give yourself a chance to be a kid."

"Maybe you could teach me? You are brave and strong and admired, yet you make time for fun."

"You think I'm admired?"

"I would like to have someone like Chris Larabee or Josiah Sanchez trust my counsel. I would like to have someone looking up to me and trust me the way JD does you. I would be a better protector than my uncle." His mind seemed to drift into the past.

Buck Wilmington hoped someday he met up with the man that put that fear in the poor boy. Finally the Cajun continued, "You saved JD's life when you first met. You have saved Chris Larabee. Is that what makes a friend?"

"I'd hope there is more to it than that."

"But to save a life? That is a place to start?"

Before Buck could answer the boy, he perked up at the sight of a dark horse hurling toward them. At that speed it didn't take long to recognize Chris Larabee.

@@@@@@@@

An old man with wild white hair stood silhouetted against the fading evening sky.

@@@@@@@@

"I can't believe they would kill the lieutenant and the others." The young soldier's voice trembled at the thought. Josiah and Nathan stood in the jail and had just told Ezra, Vin and JD what they had found.

Five of the seven regulators stood around the jail and watched the terrified youth cringe back into a corner on the floor between the cot and a wall.

"Who, son? Who would kill them?"

"Mr. Slaughter and his Santero … that Culandero they call him sometimes."

The men in the room exchanged glances.

"How could he evaporate men to dust and leave their clothes?" JD's voice was a little higher pitched than usual. He was trying to wrap his mind around what his friends had described; around something once again he couldn't comprehend.

"Magic."

"Now, son, …"

"Why? Why would they be doing this?" Nathan asked.

There was a hesitation.

"Sir, we will be better prepared to protect you if you supply all the information available to yourself."

"We were supposed to steal the payroll money."

"Armstrong?"

The young private nodded.

"Were all of his men in on it?"

"Soldiers wouldn't …" JD was again trying to find something concrete to believe in.

"We ain't soldiers! They killed the soldiers! Took their uniforms!"

"Mr. Larabee seemed to accept Lt. Armstrong as a …"

"He'd been dishonorably discharged last month." Now the boy was confessing because he needed to let it out, "Some of the men had deserted to ride with him when he left. The others, Slaughter ordered to go with us. I don't think it was because he didn't trust the lieutenant. It was to make it look good."

@@@@@@@@

Somewhere in the night, 13 soldiers of darkness drove their horses to the outskirts of Four Corners.

@@@@@@@@

"How did they kill the soldiers?" Nathan asked thinking of the eight naked bodies they'd found. Was it only a few days ago? It seemed like forever.

The youngster was in tears now, and sweat beaded where his thick black hair met his scalp. He seemed barely able to breathe, "I don't know. The Santero held out his hand in front of them, and squeezed his fist tight. The first one was just surprised and it hurt, you could tell. He clutched his chest. And was dead. I think his heart stopped. The Santero walked down the row, squeezing his fist in front of the men and watching them die. After the first one, the others knew what was coming. The next one tried to run and Montoya grabbed him and held him." The boy's eyes glazed over as if he were seeing it again, "The Santero swept his hand over the others. And they couldn't move. You could see them twitch, trying to get their legs and arms to move." The young man was gasping as he told the story.

The five gunmen were entranced, like watching a snake attack or a train go off the trestle, terrifying, but you can't look away.

"They were so scared, standing there, helpless, waiting. Strong men, waiting to die. The looks on their faces …" He trailed off.

Nathan could almost feel the paralysis, the helplessness.

"But the worst," The private kept going. How could there be more? Nathan wondered. "The worst," he started picking at his dark blue uniform, "I've got his uniform because I'm small like he was…"

"Oh, my God," Nathan though remembering the youngest corpse they had found.

"They stripped him and were laughing. He begged. They tied him and lit candles and cut symbols into his skin. The wind started blowing like we were in the middle of a tornado. He was so scared. So was I." The young soldier said in a small voice. He knew that fear now, "And they cut out his heart."

"What?!! Why!?" JD demanded. He'd known that was coming. The others were willing to accept evil or insanity were their own devices. JD was begging for a reason.

The others almost wished he hadn't asked when there was in fact, an explanation, The young soldier continued, "The Santero had a vision. Seven against thirteen. You seven. You could defeat Slaughter and the Santeria if you were united and true to yourselves. The sacrifice was to ask for another vision to tell them where to get the power to divide you. The Santero wanted to know how to defeat you. He ate the heart. He and Slaughter and Armstrong shared it. What happens to a soul sacrificed for black magic?" He asked in a small voice as he examined the future and his own destiny.The tears were running freely from the young face that knew it was damned for his participation.

Before he could say more, or the shock could wear off the others, there was a pounding at the door.

"They're here! They're here!" The young man screamed, "Protect me, please. I can help you. The Santero is here…" The private's eyes went wide.

The others had their guns drawn and aimed as they turned toward the door. The door flew open.  Johnny Franklin and Tom Reynolds stood there, supporting each other and barely on their feet.

Nathan dropped the coffee mug he had long ago forgotten he was holding. He didn't hear it shatter on the floor. The two men before him had torn raggedy clothes, bare feet bloody and cut, and dirty, stringy hair. And haunted eyes. Something about the way they held each other up, leaned on each other, their posture and the hands on each other, familiar and comforting, it struck a chord in each of the seven who were currently in the room.

But it was the eyes. They were hollow, terrified and seemed ready to give up. And somehow, at the same time, it was clear these were brave men.

"A boy." Johnny's heart sank as he saw which of this mismatched group wore the badge. What could this boy sheriff do to stop Santeria? The star the young man wore wouldn't stop them. Where were those men that he had seen in Pyrite? The men who had so worried the Santero? Finally he recognized Vin Tanner, “You – please --.” Then the gunshots began.

@@@@@@@@

A band of men who wore black clothing like a uniform, and rode black horses as a show of unity galloped down main street. And, for all their speed, they seemed to be moving in slow motion. One fired prematurely when he saw his prey so near a potential refuge. A splinter erupted in the door frame by Reynolds' head. The sound of the gun, when it came, echoed down the street and to the outskirts of town.

@@@@@@@@

"Where the hell have you been?" Larabee shouted even as he violently drew Habanero to a stop. There was Buck Wilmington safe, taking care of a new vagabond. All his fear and dread of finding his friend cremated like the others had been an overactive imagination. The vision had been so clear, so like a premonition, that now he was embarrassed that he had cared.

"What's happened?" Wilmington recognized the vague nuances of this particular moodiness as being laced with worry and fear. He knew something more had happened since Vin had updated him.

Buck met Chris's eyes. To anyone else there was no emotion there but simmering anger. Buck knew better. He had been out with the little man-child who, along with his mysterious uncle, held some kind of mystical power. Chris had been afraid that the uncle, with his followers, would come for the boy and Buck would stand alone between them. Chris cared. He hated himself for it, but he cared. That had been missing from the gunfighter’s eyes since he returned from Pyrite.  It was back now.

Buck regretted that he didn't feel the same. Besides, it didn't matter anyway.

Before the gunman could answer, the wind blew just right to carry the whisper of gunfire from the direction of Four Corners.

Chris immediately spun his horse back toward town.

"Stay here." Buck ordered the boy. He cut the ropes that held the deer carcass, letting it fall to the ground. Then he spurred Paladin after Larabee. Toby followed at a slower pace. His brow was clouded. Things were happening as fate and the candles predicted. It was too late to stop the inevitable. The boy smiled.

@@@@@@@@

The attackers continued into town. What few townspeople were on the street ran for cover.

Vin, the closest to the door, grabbed the two men by the collars and pulled them inside. If these wraiths were after the wayward and beaten-down travelers, the men were worth saving. Josiah slammed the door shut. Vin drew his mare's leg and needlessly checked to be sure it was loaded.

By that time the coven of riders opened fire and the impact of the barrage fairly shook the heavy oaken door and shattered the windows. The men inside dove for cover.

"They're here! They're here!" The young man screamed from inside the cell.

The others inside were already looking for targets.

"Protect me, please. I can help you. You said you'd protect me!" He challenged Standish with a terrified look, "The Santero is here…"

The young, too young, private's eyes went wide. There was a slight, confused frown on his brow. Then terror. And pain. He screamed, and it was filled with such primal terror that everyone in the room turned at the sound.

Tom held Johnny as they slumped near the desk. They were as terror stricken as the young soldier, as appalled as the peacekeepers. They knew the long arm of the Culandero was at work.

The boy couldn't say another word. His skin began to sag and grow heavy as before their eyes, his frame began to shrink in on itself. He looked down and watched his own hands shrivel to lumps of flesh. He screamed in pain. And screamed. And screamed.

JD, guns still in hand, put his fists over his ears to try and block it out. But it wouldn't be forgotten until his dying day.

The lad's arms fell to his side. There was no longer any skeletal structure to hold them up. His head became shallow.

Ezra rushed to the cell with keys in hand to try to get to him and help.

In blind panic, the boy, his bones dissolving into nothingness, actually slipped between the bars in a frantic, desperate need to escape his fate. Through will power alone he raised one arm slightly to reach for Standish. But it fell again to his side. Ezra could only stare.

The men in the room watched in helpless fascination. The boy's bones must have been shrinking that he would fit through the bars. The screams kept coming. The pathetic soul only made it as far as to free himself from the cell before he collapsed and his internal organs gave out with no support and weighing on each other.

Ezra stood and stared at what was left of the young soldier who wasn't a soldier.

Josiah crossed himself again and looked over to the poor lost souls that had just come to them. Reynolds and Franklin looked resigned to their fate. Reynolds met the preacher’s eyes as if to say, 'It's up to you, now." But he gave no voice to his fears.

JD backed away until he was flush against Tanner, needing physical support and touch.

Nathan's disgust and empathy at the helplessness of the situation overrode his fascination and wonder at how such a thing could happen. His stomach roiled.

Vin looked toward the door, his mind to the east of town where two of his friends were vulnerable and unaware of the scope of this threat.

"We're too late." Johnny Franklin whispered the words his partner had tried to avoid.

@@@@@@@@

Larabee and Wilmington flew into town in response to the call of the shots. Their horses were well trained and willing to ride into the sound of gunfire and not away from it.

Not expecting an attack from the rear, the black garbed shootists scattered and dove for shelter.

Nathan, Vin and Josiah scrambled out the back door of the jail before their attackers could cover it off. JD, relying on the invincibility of youth, dodged out the front door to hide behind the horse trough.

The 13 fought because it was their job, an assignment, possibly out of fear of their master. They formed a semi-circle that would prevent Chris and Buck from reaching the front of the jail.

The seven fought because their own had been threatened. Everything else was an afterthought.

Seven against 13. A powerful confrontation.

And then Tobias was there, watching the drama unfold.

JD made another run for it and slid to the protection of a stack of apple crates at the mercantile.

"JD!" Buck called.

"I'm all right!" The sheriff called back. But the relief in his voice was clear, not only that he had made it to safety but that he was answering to Buck's voice. Chris and Buck were back. Everything would be alright.

Ezra stayed in the jail, determined to protect the injured mystery men where he had been unable to protect the young soldier.

Tanner took the high ground, the hotel balcony, across from the jail.

Two of the attackers already lie bleeding in the hard-packed, dirty street. Fog swirled throughout the town. The attackers seemed to disappear into the mists and materialize in another location.

Buck dismounted, slapped his horse's flank to hurry it to safety, then took cover on the side of the street opposite the jail, by doing so, he put several of the black phantoms in a crossfire.

Larabee stayed on his black and pirouetted as he fired. A man behind Vin's wagon fell.

Buck, who had drawn his rifle from its scabbard took quick, careful aim and brought down an outlaw on the hotel roof above Vin.

Toby swayed and chanted some unfamiliar language.

Josiah was slinging his rifle around its trigger guard in a one-handed loading of the weapon.

Tanner staggered back as a bullet tore through his left thigh. He dropped his mare's leg as the initial impact of the bullet shot pain all through his nervous system.

Chris Larabee was not the only one to see his friend fall. Two of Slaughter's men moved in on the easy target even as the tracker dragged himself across the balcony toward where the gun had skidded to a stop.

Chris jumped off his horse and ran down the middle of the street on his way to Tanner. He laid down cover fire for the tracker, not himself. Buck followed with enough self-awareness to defend the gunfighter's movements and his own, but they were both out in the open.

"Buck!" JD screamed, frightened at the risk they were taking.

"Stay the hell down." Wilmington demanded. Dunne cursed the man that refused to follow his own advice.

But JD did as he was told, mostly because he saw Josiah paralleling his reckless friends, but from the cover of crates, to barrels to a nearby wagon.

JD sensed a presence behind him. He spun, his gun misfired. He was looking down the barrel of the .45 of Sergeant Montoya, now dressed all in black, his face a mask of hatred. Montoya, who was supposed to be dead, turned to ashes in his uniform. Stories Ezra and Toby had told of undead zombies sprang into his mind.

Then red exploded on the man's chest. Like some exotic flower, blood blossomed forth from the exit wound. The man never realized he'd been shot, his life was ended immediately.

But who pulled the trigger? All of his friends, JD knew all too well, were in front of him or across the street. None of them could have shot this man in the back. He raised his eyes in silent thanks. It must not have been his day to die.

Toby continued to chant and sway.

In the middle of this firestorm, a man burst out of the jail doors. Johnny Franklin was screaming inarticulate gibberish. But it was clear he was in a kind of pain that made the lead flying around him an afterthought … or blessed relief.

Ezra was using his body to keep the second man, Reynolds, from following after his friend into the line of fire. The Southerner had his back against the man who was struggling to get out the door. Ezra was holding on to the door jamb to hold the man inside, leaving Standish vulnerable, exposed.

"Ezra, get under cover! Ezra!" Buck called.

Again there was a shift in position. A shift in strategy. Risks were taken, one of the seven for the other. Buck made himself a target to distract the lead from Ezra. JD covered Buck.

Johnny stopped in the middle of the street threw his arms wide in an anguished scream. The man's face was reddened as if with a sunburn, but it was a transparent flicker of yellow at the clothes on his chest that drew the healer's attention. Quick, like a lizard's tongue, the flame was there and gone. Nathan wasn't sure he'd seen it.

But then the man was consumed by fire. He burst into flames. His screams grew more frantic, more pained. A living, walking funeral pyre as he staggered blindly in his anguish.

Buck and Josiah whipped off their heavy coat and poncho to try and smother the flames. The man's skin was blackened. The smell of burning flesh permeated the air and was the thing that nightmares are made of.

Nathan was trying to be all places at once as he tried to cover his two vulnerable friends in the midst of a hopeless rescue attempt. Chris fired from an upstairs window as he climbed out to get to Tanner.

Bullets nipped at the Four Corners regulators like angry bees. But, as if they were bullet proof - or protected from evil - none of the shots found a lethal mark.

Ezra, his shocked brain trying to understand what he just saw, how it could have happened, barely noticed when Reynolds, made it past him, burst forward and ran to his younger friend.

Suddenly Toby, fascinated, wandered into the middle of the street and too close to the human torch for a closer look. Buck, in a tackling roll, drove the boy to the ground and away from the scene.

One more volley of gunshots rang out from the night. All of the shots seemed to be aimed at Reynolds. Tom fell, and still his forward progress propelled him toward the fiery abomination that was his friend.

Buck and Ezra ran interference, seeing loyalty in this stranger's eye that said he would fight the fires of hell for his friend.

It wasn't quiet. The flames held their own violent noise. The screams of Johnny's pain, screams of Tom's loss, and the 7 shouting directions filled the air.

Tom Reynolds fell trying to help a comrade.

And then a final gunshot echoed through the streets. The screams stopped. The fiery body fell to the ground and moved no more.

Vin Tanner was being supported by Larabee as he limped out of the door of the hotel. Slowly the tracker lowered his smoking gun, showing no regret for giving this man a less painful end. Then his eyes went back to scanning the high ground for potential threats.

Chris and Ezra were covering the windows and alleyways.

JD and Josiah used dirt from the street and their coats to smother the flames. This had been a human life. It deserved more respect than this.

Chris Larabee made his way over to the man bleeding in Nathan's arms. Fighting to the end, as was his way, Nathan had Buck's hands fully on the pulsing source of the blood in Tom's chest. The healer was trying to hold the man still, calm him to give the blood time to stop flowing.

The man's eyes were tearing, not for fear of dying, but for the loss of his friend and his failure to warn the people in this town. He was searching frantically until his eyes fell on Larabee, "Evil," He gasped, "Evil, powerful magic. Pyrite." His eyes held Larabee's "They fear you, Angel of Vengeance…" Frank fell into a coughing jag, but he refused to stop and rest, "Slaves, death … protected by magic, but it fears …" His eyes glazed seeing, but not seeing, "It's here. The evil is here. Oh, God, too late, too late, the evil… here…" It was like he was in the state between life and death, seeing something not visible to the others, "You can't …" In death, his face remained a mask of regret.

Reflexively, each man looked over his shoulder, almost afraid of what he'd see there.

Buck Wilmington saw the young Louisiana stray staring with haunted eyes at the remains. Buck, because it gave him something to do, stood and moved toward the waif. "Get away from here, boy. You got no cause to be out here."

Toby's eyes drilled into Chris Larabee, "Fire is your nemesis. Fire follows you. The town will burn around you. The walls of the town will be consumed around you." It was a prophecy. Larabee took a hostile step in the boy's direction.

Buck quickly put his arm around the Crescent City orphan and led him from Larabee's wrath and the grisly scene.

JD just as green around the gills watched his larger friend comfort the stranger and walk away.

Josiah noticed this and put a comforting hand on the small shoulder. The boy pulled away.

"What just happened?" Ezra asked as he met the ex-preacher's eyes.

"Chris?" Nathan began, finally taking in the eerie tableau around him now that his mind was no longer preoccupied with trying to save a life. He wondered if anyone else questioned the fact that the threat of the invaders had disappeared with the death of these men.

The night sky was clear, the Milky Way a testament to good weather. The fog had dissipated. There were even insect noises back in the night. The remains of Johnny Franklin,Tom Reynolds and young Andy Koontz lay as tragic reminders of something none of them could understand.

A candle sprang to life on the boardwalk behind Dunne. The yellowish acrid smoke that swirled from the wax had more the consistency of fine dust and had him coughing.

A morose wail, like a cow's horn bugle blown on the wind, reached town. None of the seven fired. They had no targets. The coven of men had slipped away, as if they had accomplished their mission. There were no bodies left behind. Nothing to suggest they had been lessened in number by the gunfight.

The men of the magnificent seven migrated to the street in front of the hotel. Larabee was again supporting Vin. "Nathan, Vin needs you."

Immediately regretful that he hadn't already gone to help his friend, and grateful for something to occupy his mind, Nathan still couldn't help but muse, "Poor damn soul … to end like that."

"Like what?" JD squeaked, louder than he had intended. "What the hell happened? What was that?" JD was coughing up a fine dust as he joined the others. Nathan moved past him to check on Tanner.

Buck, Josiah and Ezra stood with their backs to the others, still on guard. They were well aware that the danger had evaporated on its own. They had defeated nothing.

Something dropped from the roof of the hotel and landed amidst them. All guns aimed at the roof. No one was there.

Chris and Nathan turned their attention back to Vin.

Josiah looked on curiously as Ezra bent over to pick up the fallen object.

It was a doll, a small, crude doll, made out of corn shucks and tied off with twine - red as if dipped in blood. The corn shucks had been cut to ˝ of their original length. Five yellow strings with a yellow and white bead were wrapped tightly around the doll's throat. They cut deeply into the corn shuck throat. It took the southerner a moment to recognize the tweed swatch pinned to the doll. When he did, and saw that it was a scrap from JD's clothing, his eyes, in horror, searched out the youngest of their troupe.

JD was on his knees in the street. He had both hands clawing at his own throat. His mouth was open but no sound came out - no air went in.

The terrified hazel eyes met green. They begged for relief, for breath, for help. Then the dark head went down. His left hand clawed at the dirt even as his right hand stayed at his throat. When they looked again to meet Ezra, hope and faith in his friend's help was beginning to fade from the hazel eyes.

There was so much terror, dreams unrealized, in the dilated pupils, they mesmerized the gambler. The boy's head fell forward. The spell was broken. "Nathan!" Ezra screamed as he rushed forward.

The raw emotion in Standish's voice sent a chill down Jackson's spine. His eyes were immediately searching for tragedy.

They all realized JD's danger at the same time. Tanner pushed the war trained medic toward the distressed boy. Having to make a choice he hated, Nathan deemed JD to be in the most immediate danger and left the tracker to race to the boy's aide. As fast as he was, Wilmington beat him there and cradled JD's face with his big hands, searching desperately for a cause of the boy's distress.

As soon as he felt Buck Wilmington's presence, the dust covered hand on the ground grappled until he had a handful of the man's doe colored coat.

Nathan pushed Wilmington aside, but was helpless to find any injury to their seventh. He pulled his jaw open, but there was nothing in the throat that could be a suffocating factor. There was nothing. Like there had been nothing for the soldier or the two strangers.

The blue-tinged lips were open, still fighting, still gasping for air. As frightened as the young man was at what he saw in Nathan's eyes, what he saw shining from Buck brought tears to his own. If he died, Buck was going with him. He could feel that soul latch on to his in the bridge of eye contact. The body might walk the earth a while more, but the loss, the sense of failure, promises of the future were leaving the big man's eyes.

JD wouldn't close his eyes. He tried to speak, but no words would come. He couldn't say don't let this destroy you. Everything was worth it. Please don't let this destroy you.

JD broke the eye contact for a heartbeat, to seek out Larabee, to gain reassurance that he would look after his oldest friend, JD's big brother. But the eyes that met his were hard, icy flint. They had already shut down against the grief of losing someone close. He'd had practice. JD knew he was dying then. He could feel Nathan and Josiah's hands frantically seeking a solution. They had been for several heartbeats. JD knew it was too late. Tears squeezed unbidden from his eyes. What cruel twist of fate refused to allow him to ease Buck's grief in the end? He had so much to say, to all of them, but Buck …

He took his hand from his throat and wrapped it around his friend's neck, with a death grip still on the coat, he pulled the big man close. He felt those big, gentle hands at the end. One pulled their chests together, the other spanned his brow and pulled it and tucked him securely under his brother's chin. It gave him a sense of peace and safety even as he regretted leaving the other in such emotional turmoil, even as he learned too late, the lesson that Buck should never have been taken for granted.

The small hand kept its death grip on the coat, even as the rest of the small body relaxed as if in sleep.

The defeat and loss in Buck's eyes took Nathan's own breath away. Even as the healer berated himself for his failure to save their youngest, he noticed there was no accusation in the midnight blue eyes. What he so hated to see was the emptiness and emotionally dead blankness that had been in Chris Larabee's eyes when the seven first met was there again but now, Wilmington bore that lost look as well.

Nathan felt Josiah's comforting hand on his shoulder. It didn't help. He heard the big man's whispered praises of passage. They didn't help.

Ezra was on his knees beside Buck. He swayed slightly, his smooth hand resting affectionately on the precious bundle in Wilmington's arms. The gambler held the doll in his other hand.

Josiah could read absolutely nothing in the hooded eyes of Chris Larabee. It reminded him of the old saying, 'still waters run deep'. At that moment he was very much concerned for their leader.

Larabee was still supporting Tanner. Some unspoken will of the tracker's had led them to join the circle of the others.

The buckskin shoulders finally sagged and he lost his fight with consciousness and became a dead weight in the gunfighter's arms.

Immediately Jackson and Sanchez were there to help lower the sharpshooter to the ground. They were determined not to lose another of their number.

As Nathan began his examination, Larabee, almost casually, stood up, his eyes shifted to Buck still holding JD's lifeless body, Ezra who met his eyes daring him to do the right thing, and back to the healer and the preacher, who now worked over the Texan.

Larabee's eyes lost focus; he lifted his head to take in the horizon, and then almost casually, as if surrounded by strangers, walked away.

"Don't turn your back on this, Chris," Wilmington's voice, deep and hurting, not loud, still carried to every man. He knew if his friend refused to face this, he would be hardened forever.

The hazel eyes, showing only a tinge of green, drilled into the dark pools pleading with him more even than that voice did. "We weren't where we were supposed to be again, Buck," There was no accusation or blame, merely a statement of fact.

'Weren't there.' The words hit Wilmington like bullets. Like with Sarah and Adam. Chris had ridden out to check on me. I was supposed to be in town. Would this really have turned out differently if I'd been …

And Buck could only imagine the demons warring with his old friend after that first-hand example of what a fiery death held for its victim. To imagine Sarah or little Adam writhing in such pain was more than Wilmington could bear. He was sure the sight would drive Larabee a little more insane. And so he watched Chris Larabee walk away. There was finality to his stride. His dark duster whipped in the gusty, sandy wind as he disappeared into the shadows of the night as well as shadows of his own psyche.

Wilmington watched Jackson's fingers probing Vin's wound. The tracker was unconscious and the gentle rogue couldn't tell how badly he was hurt. That grounding force wasn't there for Larabee. And in the vastness of what had just befallen them, the battle, the death by flame, the loss, the fear of losing even more, all of those sharp angles that offered no softness, no place to hide, Buck couldn’t find it within himself to begrudge Chris Larabee the distance he was putting between them. Because he understood the feelings.

Only Josiah seemed not to be frozen in the moment. He looked at all his friends. And then he saw young Tobias Thibodaux standing behind Buck and Ezra. He was worrying something in his hands. Suddenly Josiah realized what the boy was holding. It was JD's prized derby hat. The irrational thought flashed through Sanchez's mind - if he even tries to put that hat on his head, I'll shoot him where he stands.

Finally Josiah ever so gently pulled Buck's hands from the still body and pried the smaller fingers from the death grip on Buck's lapel. He lifted the body that seemed even smaller now and moved toward the undertaker's.

Buck stayed on his knees in the street.

@@@@@@@@

Josiah had tried to offer condolences and comfort to Buck Wilmington. But the once boisterous and fun-loving gent looked so fragile and broken as he stared at the simple pine box that held his young friend in repose, that the preacher man knew his words were all too inadequate. Besides, what did Sanchez himself believe at this moment? That there was a reason for everything? That JD was 'in a better place'? What happens when you die at the hands of evil? No, Josiah Sanchez couldn't find the words to soothe himself. He didn't have any business offering false platitudes to the bereaved. So he had crept out of the undertaker's, to give these two their last time together.

The self-exiled priest didn't know how long he had wandered the streets and he couldn't remember the twists and turns his mind had been through. All he knew was that he hadn't come up with any logical answers as he looked over the batwing doors. He was sad, but not surprised to see the dark gunfighter at his usual table. Except for the bartender, the saloon was empty. Whether it was Chris's reputation or the rumors that evil was stalking the seven, the men folk of the territory had found somewhere else to be tonight.

The big man took a breath and joined his leader. He was again surprised and this time hopeful to see the full glass, untouched on the table, "How's Vin?" He asked, but got no reply, "Have you checked on him?"

There was still no answer.

"We're all licking our wounds in separate parts of town." The ex-preacher observed, and there was no small amount of hostility in his voice. "The young soldier," he continued, "that poor soul Reynolds, even Toby says that to defeat us the Santero must divide us." He challenged.

"We can't be together if one of us is dead." Larabee threw the challenge right back in his face.

"JD wouldn't want us to give up. He wouldn't want us to stop caring about each other."

"Aren't you supposed to be sitting with the body? To protect the soul from evil spirits?" Larabee asked sarcastically.

"It's meant to protect the remains from carrion, not dark forces."

"I'd rather lose my body than my soul, Preacher. Believe me. I know what I'm talking about."

"I think Buck's love can be more protection in that area than my questionable faith."

Larabee finally downed the fiery liquid in the shot glass, "Yeah. Yeah, I know about that, too." There was no bitterness, only a profound sadness in the words.

The wind screamed outside. There was silence in the bar. Josiah poured himself a drink and didn't hesitate to down it and another and another. Finally, the missionary's son spoke again, "You know, you've already beaten the Santero once."

Larabee didn't even look up. People often gave him more credit than he deserved.

"The laced tobacco." Sanchez reminded, "Nathan told me how one cigarette had him in an almost berserker rage. You'd had a constant supply of the drug for days on end. But when you said those words that wounded Buck, you beat it. You burned the drug and its evil out of your system because you love him like a brother and you didn't - wouldn't - let anyone do that to him, not even yourself."

Chris did look up then. The anger had dissipated, that was true, maybe the magic could be beaten, "Do you know how to fight all of this? Do you understand anything that's happened?"

"I understand 'an eye for an eye', brother. I understand revenge.  I’d like to take this fight to the source." They'd been thrown off their game for days by something they didn't understand. The Santero, whatever else he was, where ever he was, was flesh and blood.

Larabee nodded to himself and stood up. He wanted a taste of revenge himself, "Where are the others?"

Sanchez graced his leader with a feral smile and led the way to the clinic.

@@@@@@@@

Ezra Standish lounged in the copper bath tub. He'd paid extra to have a hot bath brought to his room this early in the morning. The money hadn't seemed to matter at that moment, he needed to be clean. Drinking hadn't helped in and of itself, though God knew he'd tried to get drunk. So now, his shoulder holster was in reach, draped over a chair at his right hand and even though it was early morning, he had a glass of brandy dangling from his left hand just outside of the tub. Hair of the dog. It came from the bottle sitting beside the tub, his secret cache.

The warm water was soothing, but it didn't wash away the despair of losing the young sheriff, or seeing how it shattered the men he rode with. He'd been trying to drink away the way it made he, himself, feel. There wasn't enough alcohol in all of JD's Wild West to get rid of the unfamiliar emotions.

The gambler barely cracked one eye and his fingers migrated toward his gun when his bedroom door creaked. He opened both eyes, raised his glass in a solemn toast and grimaced when he recognized his visitor.

"Ezra." The molasses soft voice greeted.

"Mornin', Mr. Wilmington." He couldn't hide the surprise in his voice when he recognized his visitor. There were at least three places he would expect the big man to be besides here, "Are you alright? Is there something I can do for you?" He didn't have a clue what to say to the grief stricken shadow before him.

There was a silence. It was heavy and there was something Buck was building up to.

"I'm movin' on, Ezra."

"Buck, you can't. You've been through a tragedy …"

"I don't want to stay."

"You need to be with your friends …" Damn, Standish cursed to himself. He was no good at this.

Buck responded to that with a derisive snort and added, "Do you know what today is?"

The con man could only shake his head, trying to get his persuasive powers into gear and change this man's mind.

"Day thirty one. Ain't got no commitment here no more."

"What about Chris?" Ezra hoped that invoking the name of Buck's old friend would give him pause, "He'll be suffering the loss of our young ...

Buck's head shot up. There was almost a flare of temper, but it died back to emotional neutral, "This isn't about what anybody else wants. I want out of here." Buck didn't want any serious emotional ties, never again. His mother had been right.

"Buck," Standish began, stalling, even as he put down the brandy snifter and looked around for his towel, "Your feelings may be confused. And you know, from the war, sometimes … sometimes things affect your frame of mind … how you see people or the way things happen around you."

Somewhere during the conversation, Wilmington had picked up the towel and held it out of reach.

"I made this decision before last night." There was just such finality to his tone, and Ezra couldn't get his friend to open up, couldn't get him to say anything that gave a clue to this decision.

"What about Chris?" Standish repeated. It was the only question that had even almost gotten a reaction, but he hurried to clarify the inquiry, "You two just hooked up again. Won't he …"

"He knows I'm leaving. We decided before …" Again he shut down. Buck had told Chris that he signed on for the same 30 days as the gunslinger. He was a drifter, never meant to set down roots. Larabee would have known that meant he was leaving. And they both knew, after what the gunfighter had said that night, neither one of them cared. But there was something else, an itchy memory that wouldn’t come to the fore.  That young Johnny’s death, the way Reynolds gave himself to save his friend.  It all swirled together but he couldn’t recall the why or where but it felt like it was the root of all of the emotions since Chris gave them the details about Pyrite.

What Wilmington said didn't sound right to Ezra, "Look, I'm at a bit of a disadvantage," He was back to stalling now, and pointed out that he was nude and in quickly chilling bathwater, "Let me get dressed. We'll have some coffee. Maybe we'll talk to Josiah or Nathan." He needed help here.

"I'm sorry to burden you with this. But I didn't want anyone thinkin' they needed to look for me."

"You can't leave without saying your goodbyes." The gambler grabbed the towel away and wrapped it around his waist as he came out of the water.

Buck stood at the same time, "A good man told me one time that sayin' goodbye is just a needy, pathetic way to beg someone to ask you to stay. If you're gonna leave, leave and don't look back." Buck recited.

"Did Mr. Larabee say …" Perhaps in the dark days after his family's death?

Wilmington snorted with something resembling dark humor, "Don't reckon Ol' Chris'd appreciate being compared to Zach, but I'd guess they're enough alike, he'd feel the same way." Almost as an afterthought, almost as if it slipped out, he added, "'Specially for the 'son of a two bit'."

"What?" Ezra's head jerked up from where he was anxiously looking for his clothes. He'd heard that term before. Where? When had he heard it? Hadn't Larabee said that just recently? What the hell was going on?   The Buck he thought he knew would be starving for comfort and to comfort the others after the loss of young JD.  Ezra knew about the enchanted tobacco that had poisoned Larabee for a time.  What about this evil had possessed Wilmington and had him running, acting so against his nature? "What about me?" Standish blurted, without consciously letting his guard down. He said it grasping for something to keep the other man in town. And those words were more insightful to the gambler than the man he was talking to, "Let me get dressed and I'll go with you. Thirty one days. My commitment is over as well. I'd like to …"

"I don't want any attachments," The honey whisper replied. It was clear he had been effected by all that had happened, more so than anyone could realize.

"Buck, damn it."

"I need a new start." Before Ezra could respond, the ladies' man held up the most readily available pair of trousers, "I'll put these right outside. Just to give me a little head start." And with that, he turned to go.

"You're not being fair. How would you feel if someone disappeared on you?"

Buck closed his eyes. That hit a nerve. "You should thank me." And with that, he was gone.

"Damn. Damn!" Standish cursed as he ran to his wardrobe, grabbed more clothes and started to dress.

@@@@@@@@

After years of having to get out of town in a hurry, Ezra could throw on a pair of pants and get out a door. This time he may have beat his own record time. And still when he made it to the boardwalk, there was no sign of the big gray or its rider. He must have been packed and ready to go. If Buck Wilmington didn't want to be followed, he wouldn't be followed.

Shirt and trousers unbuttoned, bouncing on one leg trying to pull his boots on, Standish ran and hopped down the street toward the saloon. If Larabee wasn't there, he'd try the undertakers … the church … the clinic …

@@@@@@@@

Buck stopped long enough to say his goodbyes to the two small graves on the old Larabee spread. And then he turned his horse as far away from anyone he knew as he could. It'd been a long time since he had drifted so aimlessly. He had business in Pyrite. But after that, he was resolute to get used to wandering again.

@@@@@@@@@

Nathan poured too strong coffee that was perking on the pot belly stove. He wasn't ready to meet the day. He had nodded off for a time. Waking up, at first he could pretend it had all been a nightmare - men bursting into flame, a skeleton melting inside a living being, boys dying before they could really live because they believed in heroes and justice. Except for the fact that Vin Tanner lay in the bed in his clinic with a bullet wound to his leg, a silent, painful legacy of the previous night's events, Nathan might convince himself he dreamt it all. Luckily that wound wasn't serious, and to tell the truth, Nathan was thankful it hadn't miraculously healed overnight.

So, until he walked into the harsh light of day, he tried to pretend it hadn't happened.

Or until the day walked in on him. And it did, in the persons of Chris Larabee and Josiah Sanchez. They were angry and it was an anger they had intentionally fueled with alcohol. Well, this time, maybe this last time, that was okay. Because this time, Nathan agreed with the anger and would help them direct their own kinds of vengence and violence at those who had shattered their world.

Somehow, he wasn't surprised that before the door closed completely the smaller man on the cot was sitting up straighter.

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence as, in a group, they didn't know how to discuss their loss or offer or receive condolence.

"This Pyrite," Josiah asked of Tanner. He turned directly to business and his thirst for vengeance to avoid the discomfort, "Did you see any of this 'evil' that poor soul mentioned?"

"Nary a peep." He was unwilling to mention the ghost of a child Larabee thought he saw, even though he should mention it. "I don't know where the money comes from, though. Everyone seemed to have it, but not be happy for the having."

"No evil or slaves or sacrifices?"

"Hell, Preacher, this ain't no kid story." Larabee hissed. Vin was pretty sure that the short rein the gunfighter was keeping on himself frayed a little when he remembered the small boy he thought he saw in that town, "Well, what've we got? How many men dead? JD dead? Shooters what disappear as soon as we gun'em down? Poison tobacco …"

"We have a man who spontaneously burst into flames. That's not dead. That's … I don't know what."

"Bullshit." Chris Larabee growled and then answered his own question. "We've got Pyrite. And we're going there to get answers."

Before anyone could agree or disagree, there came a shout from outside and still some distance away, "Nathan!" There was the sound of boots running up the stairs.

"Nathan!" a young Cajun voice shouted again. Vaguely, the healer wondered when that voice had moved to "Nathan" from "Mr. Jackson". It was a quick insight, brought on by how much the voice sounded like someone else, a sense that something was not right, but it was quickly pushed aside by recognition of the agitated tone of voice. He was just turning from his desk when the door flew open, "Nathan, it's JD. You gotta come."

A heartbreaking pain at the boy's name warred with the eerie sensation of how like Buck in movement, worry and tone was the voice of the young man when he slammed through the door. Again, ideas founded on instinct were pushed back by more logical thoughts. With things they'd seen lately, horror threatened his imagination as to what could have happened. If someone had desecrated that boy's body…

He ran past Toby, out the door and toward the undertaker's. The others, closer to the door were leading the way. They missed the pride on Toby's face.

@@@@@@@@

Ezra Standish was as frantic as he ever allowed himself. His clothing was still unbuttoned and in disarray. His hair dripped from the bath. He finally had his boots on, but could feel that his right sock was crimped uncomfortably at his toes.

He had finally worked his way to Nathan's clinic. He sought any of his fellow peacekeepers, but most especially put his hope in Larabee knowing where his old friend might head if he left town.

He had only taken the first step when Larabee, Sanchez and Jackson raced past him. Even Tanner was working himself down the stairs as fast as his wound allowed. What had happened? There was a look in Vin's troubled eyes that swept any other events from the gambler's mind. Whatever was going on now…  his first thought was that Buck was still in town and something had happened. He hefted the tracker's arm over his shoulder and helped him follow the others.

@@@@@@@@

Nathan's mind was overloaded by images and impressions as he entered the dark of the undertaker's rooms.

He had to take a mental step back and process what he was seeing, image by image.

Huge sheets of ice draped down the three walls away from the entrance almost as if something had sucked all of the heat from the room and the moisture had frozen to any hard surface. And there were candles. Everywhere. They glowed in jars of various colors and color combinations. Some flames barely flickered while others were tall and strong. They reflected larger than life, muted and frosted off of the walls of the room that had been turned into an ice castle by some unimaginable phenomenon. There was a smell in the air, sage and something Nathan couldn't identify.

The simple pine box that held their friend sat on a bier that gave the appearance of being two ice blocks. The men moved further into the room in quiet awe, trying to process what they were seeing. JD was sitting up in the coffin. He was holding on to the sides and blinked owlishly. He didn't seem to know where he was or that his friends were there.

"I saved him." Toby said proudly, pushing into the room as he arrived. He put his thumbs in the new suspenders he had bought with the money Buck gave him from money they had won from the soldiers. "He's my friend."

Nathan glanced over at Ezra. He could tell they were both thinking the same thing. Zombies. Undead. Brain damage.

JD blinked again. Then he blinked again. The empty look in his eyes sent a chill up Ezra's spine and made Nathan's mouth go dry.

But then the young easterner blinked a third time and his eyes seemed to focus. The boy looked around the ceiling and walls trying to figure out where he was. And then relief bubbled from Ezra in the form of a chuckle.

Because when the lad looked down and realized he was sitting in a coffin, he was like a scalded cat trying to get out. His boot heels were scrapping the pine wood trying for traction. He had his butt off the wood like it was just not right for it to be there. You could see JD's mind whirl as he looked first to his left then his right for a way out of the shallow box.

In a humorously frantic gyration, the young sheriff threw himself in a diving leap out of the coffin. His boot heel hooked the lip and it was as if the casket was chasing him, not willing to give up its catch. JD looked like a little boy being chased by the Headless Horseman on Halloween. Then JD was scrambling away from the coffin like he truly thought it was alive.

No zombie would react like that, only their impressionable, over-imaginative young sheriff. And the realization of that fact had the chuckle turning as near a belly laugh as the gambler would ever allow himself. The relief was contagious. Nathan recreated the mental gymnastics the Southerner had gone through that led to the humor and started to laugh himself.

Vin and Josiah smiled as if they never ceased to be amazed by the miracles nature might offer up to them at any moment. And they both remembered to be thankful.

Chris didn't even smile. He was afraid to blink lest JD disappear or, worse, be back in the pine box. It would take a lot to get the still mourning widower to believe in miracles.

And then JD found his voice, "What happened? What's going on? Guys? This is not funny. Buck, this is not a joke. I mean it, c'mon, 'Siah, get me up. Chris, this is not funny."

And Larabee almost smiled as he chattered on.

Josiah knelt down and put a hand on the trembling shoulder, "JD, son, what's the last thing you remember?"

The boy didn't say anything, but he frowned slightly and his eyes moved back and forth as if watching a recreation of events in his mind. They saw the question turn to confusion to doubt, disbelief, fear then denial before he finally blurted out, "Dang it, Buck, this is not funny. I'm not falling for …" His big brown eyes were scanning the room for who he wanted to accuse of this bad hoax. And he was suddenly more afraid than he had been. Buck wasn't there. It came to all of them at the same time.

"Where's Buck?" JD shouted, a tremor in his voice.

"Damn it." Chris spat out.

"Isn't he okay?" JD begged for an answer, "Where is he? Is he okay? Is he dead? What happened after…"

"JD." Vin said with an authority he rarely put into his voice, "Buck's fine. Or he will be when he knows you are." The tracker looked at Nathan the slid his gaze to Chris.

"I was coming to get you." Ezra spoke, "Mr. Wilmington came by my room and … said goodbye."

Everyone started to speak at once, but Larabee waved his hand to shush them and motioned for Standish to continue, "He pointed out that today was day thirty one of our stay in Four Corners and he had fulfilled his obligations. And he was leaving. He said he was a drifter by nature and had outstayed his welcome."

"That ain't right." JD demanded, "He'd say goodbye. He'd let me go …" The hollow looks he got from the others reminded him that, until five minutes ago, he'd been dead. And Buck thought he was still dead, "But you others," The boy continued, "He wouldn't leave you without saying …"

"Buck don't say goodbye." Larabee growled. This was obviously a trait he'd had to deal with before. "He's gone to Pyrite." There wasn't a shred of doubt in the statement. Larabee knew Buck would be out for vengeance. For the moment he ignored all the reasons that would have his old friend riding out alone to seek retribution.

"Toby, when did you last see …" Josiah looked around. The Cajun wasn't there.

"Damn it." Chris repeated, "Nathan, get JD to your place. Check him out."

"I'm fine."

"You were dead ten minutes ago!" The gunfighter spit out. JD blanched. And Larabee ran a big hand down his face, "I'm sorry, JD. But I want to know you're okay." He helped the boy to his feet. Like a gangly colt, he had to fight for his footing. Before he started out the door he turned and affirmed, "I'm going with you to find Buck." Then he followed Nathan out the door.

"Chris," Vin spoke in a soothing voice.

"This ends now, Vin." His friend said, "I'm not waiting for anything else to happen. I can't let Buck get there alone. He won't be thinking. He won't care what happens to him if he finds that Santero and Slaughter."

Vin tried to remember if he had ever heard that in Chris's voice before. It was fear. Fear for his old friend. And Vin knew that they couldn't lose one without losing the other. And he accepted that as he followed Chris toward the livery.

Josiah and Ezra watched Nathan lead JD one direction and the others move to saddle the horses.

Ezra took a deep breath and spoke, "That boy."

Josiah knew he referred to the young Culandero rather than Dunne.

The ex-preacher answered as if reading the Southerner's mind, "I thought so, too, Ezra. Not an hour ago I would have sworn that troubled soul had something to do with killing JD so he could take his place."

"Then why save him?"

"Maybe we were just paranoid?" The big man shook his head.

"I'll believe that if you will." Standish offered. But neither were going to believe it.

@@@@@@@@

Francis Slaughter took in the seven candles that continued to burn on his private altar. Granted they burned with varying degrees of illumination. Some sputtered. With some, the wax seemed to have burned down only on one side. Black soot ringed the top of one. The glass had cracked on another. Slaughter contemplated the implications. Someone was fighting the candles with powers of their own. The essence of some of the Seven seemed to have their own protection. He thought about the men he knew were even now riding toward his town. It was meant to be. In its own way, it was meant to happen years ago. He was sure of it. It wouldn't be easy. The way the candles fought to stay lit told him that much. They had fought well. But nothing worth having came easy. And now they would come to him.

Slaughter would fight this battle on his own terms. With his Santero's help he would defeat the Seven and he would inherit their strengths.

The End
Continued in Fool’s Gold and Ashes.

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