Road to Hell

by Yolande

Part 29

A single shot split the air and moments after, the thump of racing horses charged onto the manicured grounds. More gunfire erupted shattering the quiet and a rush of bodies dived for cover. Chisholm jumped from his reclined position, knocking over the fancy table and its contents in his haste. The china cup and saucer flew from his hand, sending a shower of coffee over his trousers then shattered in pieces when it hit the ground. The six muffins rolled from the plate in slow motion, one squished flat under the heel of the wealthy man as he rushed to find cover.

Morris crouched low to the ground and raced through the barrage of bullets, diving for the door. He wasn't about to let Tanner escape death so easily. Assuming he was still alive. He clasped the knife in his meaty fist and looked furtively around the melee, for possible interruptions. As no one seemed to be taking any notice of the crazed man; he threw back his head and barked in laughter.

Amid the turmoil and still on his knees, Standish opened his eyes, gaping at the frayed end of the rope that hung over the open trap door. Vin was no longer attached to the end of the noose, but somewhere within the bowels of the wooden structure. The first bark of the gun obviously severed the rope, but was it before or after Tanner's neck was broken? The stunned gambler was a little startled when someone tackled him from behind, pushing him toward the ground. Standish cringed in pain, as his leg came in contact with the hard ground. A heavy body covered him completely, holding him down and two large arms wrapped over his head, protecting him. Turning his head ever so slightly, he could just make out the identity of his guardian. Ezra blinked in bewilderment, when he realised it was Dave. "Why?" Ezra croaked at a loss at to understand the bearded man's motives for helping him.

"I hired on as a horse trainer, not to be party to no lynching, or any killing," he spat in disgust.

Ezra whipped his head up at the manic laughter he'd come to recognise and despise, dislodging Dave at the same time. Searching for the source of the cries he finally found Morris entering the small room below the gallows. Standish made an attempt to stand; intending to follow, but Dave threw his weight back down onto the gambler, preventing his escape.

"You tryin' ta git yeself killed?" Slugger Dave yelled in astonishment over the gunfire. Intent on preventing the gambler's escape.

The gambler rolled onto his back, and his eyes pleaded with the older man, "If Vin's alive, I've got to help him. Please?" Slugger Dave relented, nodding a quick gesture and releasing his weight off the southerner. Standish held out his hands to Dave, and he readily sliced through the ropes. "Thanks," the southerner drawled.

The bearded man quickly gained his feet, but crouched low to the ground. He effectively lifted the injured gambler to his feet, and let Standish lean his weight against him, until the gambler could hold his own. "Here, ya might want this." For whatever reasons, only known to Dave, he offered Ezra the use of his weapon, pressing it into the gambler's hand.

Ezra shot him a broad smile, as he curved his fingers over the cool metal finish. "Once again, my thanks."

"Ya better hurry," Dave shoved him forward, then slipped out of sight.

Ezra ducked and weaved his course through the barrage of gunfire, praying on his luck that now was not the time to be hit by another bullet. Where the sudden surge of energy came from didn't concern him. Only one thing mattered, and God-willing he'd find Tanner alive. He gripped the unfamiliar weapon tightly, and felt the unusual sweaty palms that betrayed his nervousness. Sending a silent prayer above, Ezra swapped the gun over to his left hand, and pushed through the door roughly with his right shoulder. Staggering into the room, he came face to face with Morris. Out of the corner of his eye he spied the black hood, and the remains of the noose, tossed aside.

The crazed man's eyes lit with amusement. In his opinion, Morris held the ace up his sleeve. He'd effectively subdued the tracker, and presently held him with his arm wrapped around Tanner's neck, proficiently choking the restrained man. "What cha gonna do? Drop the gun, or watch me straggle him to death?"

With Tanner between the pair of them, Ezra could not use the gun without fear of hitting Vin. And, although that was exactly the message that the tracker was attempting to send the gambler, Ezra ignored him and lowered the gun. Once the threat of the gun was quashed, Morris relinquished his hold on Vin and shoved him forcibly at Standish, knocking both men to the ground. The gun flew from Ezra's hand.

With the two lawmen tangled on the floor, Morris took the opportunity to finish the job that the noose failed to do. Slashing the long bladed knife he cut a deep wound in Vin's upper arm. Vin cried out in pain, and Ezra quickly rolled the tracker off him, putting himself between the killer and Vin. Jumping to his feet, Ezra screamed a rebel yell, and charged the killer. Grappling him around the waist, Standish crushed him hard into the protruding beams, enough to knock the wind out of Morris and for him to drop his bloodied weapon.

With a grunt Ezra slammed his fist into Morris' abdomen, doubling him over in a whoosh of pain. The gambler delivered another blow to his exposed cheek, sending him crashing to the ground, curled in a foetal position. Seeing the downed man as less of a threat, Ezra turned his back on Morris and checked on Vin, who still had his hands drawn behind his back bound with the rope, and currently bleeding profusely from the knife wound. Standish claimed the knife from where Morris dropped it and cut Vin's bonds.

"Thanks, pard," his voice was all but a croak, and Vin winced as he swallowed painfully. He rolled his neck on his shoulders and in a hoarse whisper muttered; "Told ya Chris'd come."

Ezra acknowledged with a dimpled smile, which dropped rapidly from his face as he watched the fearful expression that entered Tanner's blue eyes. The gambler dropped his gaze to the floor seeking the lost gun. Ezra dove on the weapon, rolled in one fluid action and turned in time to find Morris all but on top of him. Without hesitating, Standish fired, killing the man instantly.

+ + + + + + +

As Larabee crested the last hill he saw the mansion that stood proudly and intuitively knew that he'd reached their final destination. The man in black passed a grim look back at his two friends. They too, wore similar expressions. As they came closer, and determined that the structure that took pride and precedence was in fact a gallows, and recognised Vin about to be hanged, they tossed aside any formulated plan of rescue and charged in. "Hell!" Chris swore. Behind him he heard Wilmington wrapping his tongue around several oaths as well.

Chris reined in Saber, and held him steady with his knees, aimed his Yellowboy rifle and closed his eyes as he took the shot. Buck's voice only penetrating his consciousness after he'd fired, "Take yer time, nice and easy." Slicing through the plaited rope Vin fell through simultaneously as the trap door opened. If Chris waited a second longer, the noose would have snapped his neck. As it was, Larabee wasn't sure he'd cut the rope soon enough. He hadn't seen any jarring of Tanner's body, as the door opened; in effect he literally fell straight through, before the noose had drawn up the slack. The man in black allowed a small smile. Thinking through the consequences of his actions, he was certain Tanner was alive. He winked at Buck, as the loud "Whoop" penetrated his introspection.

Once the first bullet was fired, the three lawmen found themselves in extremely exposed positions. Dismounting their steeds while still in full flight caused the ground to rush up quickly to meet them and scrambling for cover was rather comical, if this were not a serious situation. With inadequate cover available and severely out numbered, Larabee and the others had to make the first round perfect and hit their targets, before their victims found their own cover.

Initially they'd not seen the gambler and worried that it was too late to save the enigmatic man. But the flash of colour racing with a pronounced limp, to the room beneath the gallows caused the three lawmen a brief smile. Unable to move from their positions to assist Ezra, they provided cover for him until he reached safety. They hoped he would be able to help Vin. "Go, Ez!" The ladies' man called out over the barrage of bullets, a full-bodied smile settled under his moustache.

The steady storm of gunfire prevented them from gaining any ground quickly. But the methodical removal of their quarry slowly turned the odds in favour of the three lawmen. With the Josiah's true aim, Buck's persistence and Chris' relentlessness they returned the gunfire. As the rapidity of bullets slowed, the lawmen edged closer.

Several riders retreated from the melee, galloping off in another direction, but not down the well maintained road. This further increased the odds, and within fifteen minutes the last bullet was fired. Josiah, Buck and Chris cautiously crept down the hill, consciously aware of the pervading quiet. Sanchez kicked over the first body and knelt by his side, to check for life, and was relieved to find none. Several other bodies littered the ground and these also were checked for life, but their fatal wounds precluded life.

Watching with some degree of reverence, Chisholm stayed concealed behind the old oak tree.

Larabee narrowed his eyes, as the hairs on the back of his neck stood up on end. "Buck, check a gut feeling somebody's watchin' us."

Hearing the order, Chisholm stepped defiantly out from his cover, revealing himself to the three lawmen. In an instant Chris, Buck and Josiah's guns were trained on him. The autocrat raised his hands in surrender, but steadily approached them.

"Who in the hell are you?" The blackclad gunslinger growled through his clenched teeth.

"Such vulgarity. But what can one expect from someone with no breeding?" Bowing ever so slightly at his waist, he introduced himself. "Benjamin Argus Chisholm" he proudly declared, "and you gentlemen are trespassing on private property. Not to mention the chaos and slaughter you have perpetrated." He waved his arm around, sneering in disgust. Bacchus was among the dead; he'd been with Chisholm for almost two decades. He didn't know the other dead men by their names, but did recognise some of their faces, even in death. With an apathetic shrug, he realised that a majority of his men who died today, protecting him, albeit poorly, Chisholm did not know. Of course that didn't concern him.

"That s'posed ta mean somethin' to me?" Chris looked from Wilmington to Sanchez. "We're the law..."

"Ah yes... the so called law that my good friend Orrin Travis hired to protect the little town of Four Corners." Chisholm smoothed down his hair, and curled his lip in distain, "

Chris glared at the pompous man, "You tried to hang a good friend of mine, hurt three, of my men." Larabee stepped closer to the older man and pointed an accusing finger at his chest. "I aim to hang your hide out to dry." Buck and Josiah stood partially behind Chris as he threatened the odious man.

"You have no evidence..."

"NO EVIDENCE?" Larabee hissed in outrage. "The word of both Ezra and Vin would be enough to convict you..."

"It will never hold: Standish is a thief, a conman and gambler, and Tanner is a murderer of my son and I hear he also has a bounty on his head. Now whom do you think a court will believe? An esteemed lawyer, with an impeccable record or those two low-lifes?"

Josiah had had enough of this creature's accusation against two of his friends and a deep rumble growled from his throat, his large callused hands clenching convulsively. On the other side of Larabee, Wilmington seemed to be barely controlling his own rage, and they stepped forward to impart their own justice. But Chris held out his arms, warding off the physical altercation that his friends threatened. In a deceptively low voice Chris scoffed at Chisholm's speculation. "Vin Tanner and Ezra Standish are lawmen from Four Corners. Judge Travis hired them personally to protect the town. They've earned the trust and respect of the entire community. Now who's the Judge gonna believe, when it's them who have been maligned, and hurt. Hell, I don't reckon the Judge'll look twice at you." As Chisholm opened his mouth to further proclaim his innocence, Larabee's thread of patience snapped. The lawyer was a typical pain in the ass, continually arguing every point. Well, Chris was at the end of his control and the man in black didn't hesitate to use his fist, slamming the strutting peacock on his cheek, sending him spiralling to the ground, where he remained. Without missing a beat, the gunslinger turned on his heel and set off in the direction of the small room beneath the gallows, in search of his missing friends. He'd expected them to show themselves by now, and a new worry began to fester at their extended absence.

Chris kicked opened the door and did not know what he was expecting to find, but it certainly wasn't the scene that met his eyes. Both Standish and Tanner were shoulder to shoulder with their legs outstretched in front of them. Their heads almost rested together and they were definitely leaning heavily against one another. Both men appeared as though they couldn't move, even if they needed to. The bandage that adorned Ezra's leg was soaked red and Vin had a makeshift bandage wrapped around his left arm that was also bleeding heavily. Before them on the floor was Morris, with a pool of blood spreading beneath him.

"Hey, cowboy," Vin hoarsely welcomed. Larabee arched his eyebrows and shook his head. "You shoot me down?"

"Yep. Ya seemed to be hanging around."

Ezra snorted at the gunslinger's attempted humour, and earned a jab to the ribs from Vin. Ezra wearily asked about Chisholm's fate. But before Chris had a chance to answer both Buck and Josiah were standing in the doorway flanking him, and it was Buck who answered. Wilmington slapped his oldest friend on the shoulder and grinned mischievously at the seated men, proudly stating, "Chris here slugged 'im."

"I wouldn't have minded doing that myself," Ezra admitted.

Vin nodded in agreement. "Yeah, me too!" Punching the gambler on his still healing left shoulder and causing him to wince. Tanner groused, "Least you got him," pointing at the dead man.

"My apologies," Standish drawled. "You were doing so well before I intervened too," sarcasm dripped from his words.

"You try and fight a manic with a knife and yer hands tied behind yer back... it ain't easy!" Standish grinned widely at the tracker. "Ah, what the hell, glad he's dead!"

"You didn't happen to see an older man with a face full of whiskers among the deceased?"

The three looked back and forth between each other, and they all answered in unison, "Nope." Standish nodded his head and smiled, pleased that Dave had gotten away.

Part 30

The gambler lay awake, but his eyes remained closed as he luxuriated in the comforts of the warm blankets and feather bed. After everything that had happened in the past number of days, he could finally relax without the overhanging cloud of dread. He frowned at the hushed conversation that intruded on his peaceful moment. Surely, in a house this size, it contained more than one bedroom? How is it then, that he was sharing a room? And it had to be with Tanner. Hadn't he spent enough time in the company of that dusty outdoorsman? Even down in the dungeon, he was given his own cell. He groaned. Opening one eye, Ezra searched the plush room for the source of the muted voices.

"Hey, Chris," Vin nudged the blackclad gunslinger in the ribs, "Lookie who's finally decided to join us?" Tanner was perched in a twin bed with Larabee balanced on the edge of the bed.

Chris turned around and smiled at the groggy gambler. "Morning, Ezra." Larabee's face split with a genuine grin.

"Morning?" Standish stared blankly, slowly shifting his gaze between Tanner and back to Larabee with obvious confusion.

"Guess it's technically still morning. Even though it's eleven o'clock," Tanner informed the southerner.

"Eleven o'clock?" Standish parroted again in bewilderment.

"Ya've been asleep fer nearly twenty four hours," Larabee announced.

Standish blinked slowly as he absorbed this information. "How are you faring, Mr. Tanner?"

"I'm fine, Ezra," Tanner quickly dismissed, but when the southerner's gaze remained locked on him, he nervously rubbed his neck, drawing the gambler's attention to the bruising and abrasions that circled his neck from his brief time with the noose. "It's not as bad as it looks."

"In that case, you are fortuitous that Mr. Jackson did not accompany Mr. Larabee. I'd wager, he'd not allow you your freedom."

Chris slapped Vin's crossed leg, and warned, "Oh... no need to worry about that. Ain't no way he's leavin' that bed until the doc gives him the okay."

"What?" Vin kicked out, almost knocking Chris off the bed. "What doctor?"

"The doc that's coming," Larabee slyly clarified.

The gambler stretched his legs under the blankets and winced in pain when his injured thigh rubbed against the covers. Ignoring the concerned expressions shot his way, he changed the subject. Addressing Chris he asked, "Where are our other compatriots?"

"Josiah and Buck took that scum, Chisholm into town. Should be back later in the day." Directing the next piece of information expressly for Vin, he grinned, "They'll be bringin' back the doc with 'em."

"And young Mr. Dunne? How is he?"

Chris shook his head; he'd hoped that the southerner wouldn't ask, especially since he had no news on the kid himself. "Buck's gonna send a wire, when he gets to town. They're gonna wait in town till a reply comes through." Standish continued to stare at the gunslinger; waiting, he knew Chris had to know something. "He wasn't good when we left town to come after you two," Chris admitted.

"The boy did not, as you say, look good, when I last saw him. Surely Mr. Jackson was able to communicate to you the severity of his injuries?" Ezra sat further up in the bed and rearranged the collection of pillows, then wriggled up the bed until the bed head supported him.

Chris scratched at the stubble on his chin; he'd yet to tell Vin how badly injured JD had been. And how worried Nathan was about the kid not waking up. He'd hoped to put this moment off until Buck and Josiah returned, possibly with good news, thus saving him the responsibility of imparting the bad news to Vin and Ezra and causing their anguish of being unable to help. Both men waited patiently as Chris stood up and strode purposely toward the window. He placed his hands on either side of the sill, leaning his weight on them, and stared out the window and down the drive. No sign of either man returning. Sighing, he turned and rested his hip on the sill, relating the events of that night, and JD's injuries. By the time Chris finished, he wondered if Ezra was even still awake. Part way through his summary of the events, the gambler dropped his head back against the head rest, closed his eyes and slumped down into the mattress, not moving since.

"Damn!" Vin swore, and with a fierce resolute he claimed the southerner's innocence in the whole affair. "Ya ain't ta blame, Ezra!"

Without opening his eyes, the southerner quietly countered, "If it wasn't for me, JD wouldn't have even been involved."

"Yep!" Chris pushed off the windowsill and stalked over to he gambler's bed glaring fiercely, "If ya'd stayed in that damn casket in the first place, then none of this woulda happened either!"

Standish shot opened his eyes in shock at the gunslinger's initial affirmative response, and when Larabee continued, Ezra's eyes widened to saucers and his jaw dropped, unable to articulate any sounds.

Tanner snorted at the southerner's disconcerted expression. Feeling a common bond with the gambler, after their ordeal together, he sympathised with him and sought to clarify the gunslinger's real intent. "He's pulling yer leg, Ezra."


"Shit happens. Ain't always you ta blame." Chris sat down on the edge of the southerner's bed, causing the mattress to dip under the extra weight and snaked his arm around the back of Ezra's neck drawing the younger man's head to his chest. Holding the compliant man, Chris mumbled, "Ain't yer fault! Reckon Chisholm's responsible for all of this! And the Judge'll see to it that he gets what's coming to him," Chris assured the gambler, then in the next breath determinedly declared, "Ain't no one gets away with hurtin' my men." Awkwardly Larabee used his free hand to hug the gambler closer, offering his support and friendship.

Part 31

The library was the most impressive room in the house. Lining three of the four walls were shelves, filled with books, from the floor to the ceiling. A ladder on rails rested in the corner, necessary for the shelves that were too high to reach without such aides. The fourth wall was nearly in its entirety a window, facing out onto the drive at the front of the house. The perfect room to watch for new arrivals, as they approached. A sofa and several sitting chairs, a small coffee table and a lamp on a stand stood behind the overstuffed chair furnished the room. Chris Larabee, Buck Wilmington and Josiah Sanchez were the current occupants of said room.

Chris was rubbing his forehead, while Buck and Josiah reported the situation to him. The two men returned thirty minutes ago, and with them was Dr. Fredrick Barnes, an elderly gentleman with a frosting of white hair and a short trimmed goatee beard to match. At the present the doctor was visiting with his patients.

"Nate, says he's still ain't woken." Wilmington paced in the opulent room, a worried frown marred his features. The normal jovial man handed the telegram to Chris.

Josiah nodded in agreement. Now that the safety of Tanner and Standish was assured, the only unresolved problem was JD. And he was back in Four Corners; almost three full days ride away.

Larabee was about to offer a solution, when the halting steps of the elderly doctor limping down the stairs, brought a stop to this notion. "Dr. Barnes," Chris called out, summoning him to their location, "in here."

"Gentlemen, I'm assuming you'd like a report on the conditions of Misters Standish and Tanner." At the group consensus, the doctor limped further into the room. "Do you mind if I sit? know." He rubbed the ailing knees with his aged hands as he sank into the soft chair, not waiting for permission to do so. "Mr. Tanner has a nasty laceration to his left upper arm; I've sutured the wound, and as it is was a clean slice, this should heal without becoming infected. Not much I can do for his neck, but I've left some balm, and that should help with the grazes. His throat's gonna be a bit sore, and swallowing painful, so just keep him on a soft diet, and plenty of fluids for the next few days. If you can stop him from talking that would probably help also." He paused here, "Do you mind?" spying the glass of whisky on the coffee table, he scooped it up and drank down a mouthful, again without waiting permission. Buck rolled his eyes heavenward and nudged Larabee in the ribs.

"Ezra?" Sanchez prompted.

Placing the empty glass back on the table, Barnes continued. "Mr. Standish...hmmm. Let me see, his left shoulder is healing, there was no need to suture this, but I've wrapped it up, and when he gets out of bed, if he could put the arm in a sling. He's running a fever, as you would know, that's mainly resulting from his leg." The doctor licked his lips and picking up the empty glass he held it up. "Could I get another of these?"

"Buck, you wanna..." Larabee finished the sentence with an impatient wave of his hand in the direction of the glass. The ladies' man took the glass from the doctor and minutes later, returned it filled.

Gulping hurriedly, Barnes almost choked, coughing back the whisky into a white handkerchief he'd pulled from his breast pocket. "I stitched most of the cuts on his thigh, but as they were infected I needed to leave open the worst, so the muck could drain out. He's gonna need that dressing changed every couple of hours, and I mixed up some herb potions that'll help to clear up the infection. He's gotta have that every couple of hours also. Plenty of fluids and bed rest."

"Ezra's gonna love that." A twinkle in Buck's eyes matched the wide grin that he bestowed Chris and Josiah.

"How long till he can travel?" The man in black addressed the doctor.

"He's lost a lot of blood, and his body is not up to the rigours of travel. At least a week."

"Chris..." Wilmington practically whined. Larabee held up his hand to stop Buck's tirade, and thanked the doctor for his help and led him out the door. Barnes promised he'd be back in the morning to check on the two men as he climbed into his buggy.

Immediately after Chris returned to the library, Buck started. Impatient to return, to be with his younger friend, who was close as any brother could be. "We can't wait a week!"

"We're not going to. I'll stay here with Vin and Ezra, till they're ready to travel. You and Josiah start heading back to Four Corners. Send a wire, to let us know how JD is."

Wilmington clapped his hands together. "You gonna be alright on yer own with those pair?"

Chris wickedly smiled, "They'll behave...'cause I've got all the guns."

Part 32
(4:10 p.m. Monday - six days later)

The wagon rolled down the road, its sole occupant was bundled in blankets, and during the four-day journey it had taken to return to Four Corners, the gambler, for most of the time, was unaware of his surroundings. A small matter of a deal that Standish made with Chris allowed them to leave Chisholm's home on Friday. Ezra was just as concerned about JD as were both Chris and Vin, so he talked the two friends into returning before the designated week was up. Larabee would consider the gambler's pleas, only if Ezra consented to travelling by wagon, and if he drank the laudanum that the doctor supplied, without argument. Chris thought he had gained the upper hand over the slippery conman, but after the second day he wasn't so sure. After spending all day drugged, for the constant jolting of the wagon, Standish refused the opiate derivative once they stopped for the night, and delighted in making up for lost time during the day. So it was with a large sigh of relief on Larabee's part, when the first glimpse of Four Corners came into sight.

Chris manoeuvred the wagon directly over to Nathan's clinic, swivelled in his seat and jumped into the back with Ezra. Saber was currently ponied behind, and although the gunslinger was not entirely happy with the option, Tanner alternately rode Saber and another horse, procured from Chisholm's stables for the journey home. "Give me a hand with sleeping beauty, Vin."

Standish scowled and pulled his arm out of Larabee's hold, and hotly replied. "I'm quite capable of getting out of this contraption by myself. May I remind you that I have been doing so for the last few days." He arched his eyebrow and continued to glare as he wriggled to the edge.

Chris jumped to the ground and forestalled any further attempt Ezra made to alight the wagon by standing immediately in his way. "Yeah," he whispered, "but Nathan weren't around then. Come on, we're all going up to Nate's room anyhow."

With a reluctant nod he allowed Larabee and Tanner to help him up the two flight of stairs to Nathan's clinic, above the livery. They'd not heard how JD fared, as they had left on Friday, obviously before Josiah and Buck had returned. So they were anxious, yet hesitant to visit.

With Ezra draped between the pair, the three lawmen entered the room.

"Oh, yes!" Dunne vocally announced at the top of his lungs. "Finally some decent company." He poked out his tongue, childishly at the moustached man.

"Boy, that's all the thanks I get fer practically killing Brutus to be by yer side, then I reckon I'll be leaving," Wilmington stood to leave, but didn't take any steps toward the door.

Ezra smiled brightly, it was indeed good to see the younger man in good health, if somewhat encumbered by the splints on his leg and the bandages that circled his chest. "Mr. Dunne, you appear much better than last I saw you," Standish drawled. And in a teasing voice added, "but somewhat more colourful," the gambler indicated the bruising.

"Thanks, Ez. If it wasn't fer this heavy leg of mine, I'd be outta here, too." The youth wiped his dark hair out of his eyes and scrutinised the southerner. "Don't want ta offend ya none, Ezra, but you look a hell of a lot worse than the last time I saw you."

Wilmington interrupted, "He's saying yer look like shit."

"Thank you, Mr. Wilmington, for that scintillating translation," Ezra deadpanned.

"Yeah, he's right." Nathan stepped forward and put his hand out and felt the gambler's forehead. Addressing the two men on either side supporting his weight. "Let's get him off that leg." Standish groaned, causing an eruption of laughter to fill the room. "You ain't going nowhere either, till I look at yer arm, Vin." A similar groan escaped the tracker's mouth as his escape route was effectively blocked by Josiah's large form.

(Four weeks later)

Chris Larabee stepped up to the swinging doors of the saloon. Lord it was so good to be back home. He rested his arms, one on each side of the door and stood on the entrance as his blue eyes searched the room for his friends. Well, in fact he knew that only some of them would be here, because JD was still recovering up in Nathan's rooms, so that accounted for two of the seven. And Josiah, he'd not five minutes ago passed him on his way to Gloria Potter's. Tanner and ... "Buck!!?" Larabee shook his head, waiting to see if the mirage would disappear. In four large strides the man in black stormed into the room, his black duster billowing behind him as he strode up to the table the ladies' man occupied. "Buck!"

"Chris, I heard ya the first time." He smiled gregariously up at the irate gunslinger. "So did all these nice folk in here too." Wilmington waved his hand around the near empty room.

Chris ignored the insult and glared at the man. "What are you doing here? Ya let Vin go on patrol by himself?" He asked incredulously. After everything Vin, Ezra and JD had gone through in the past weeks, Chris insisted that now Vin and Ezra were back to doing patrols, that they were to be accompanied by either Buck, Chris, Nathan or Josiah. At least for as long as he could make them.

"Vin ain't alone, Chris..."

Larabee shifted his glare from the tall moustached man and over to the empty table the gambler normally occupied. "Where's Ezra?"

"Ya see it's like this. Miss Molly and I had plans, so Ezra swapped his shift with mine, so we could meet up." The taller man tipped the whisky bottle to his mouth and swallowed a mouthful. Wiping the droplets off his mouth with the back of his hand, he chortled, "Trouble is, we got the times mixed up. That's why I'm here now, instead of..."

"Yeah Buck, I get the picture." Larabee interrupted. "So you're telling me that Standish and Tanner are out on patrol together?"


"Come on, Buck." Chris called over his shoulder as he raced out the swinging doors.

"Where we goin'?" Wilmington cried out as he chased after the departing back of the gunslinger.

Wilmington entered the livery as Chris was swinging his saddle over Saber's back. A small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, as he watched the hurried movements Chris was making. Lines furrowed his forehead as he concentrated on the task at hand. Buck lazily drew along side of his friend. "There a problem, pard?"

"Hell yes! Don't you know by now what happens when those two get together?" he ran his hand through his hair in frustration. "Why do ya reckon I ain't put 'em back together on patrol yet?"

The smile disappeared from the scoundrel's face and was replaced with a similar note of concern as Larabee's. "Ah yeah..." Buck finished saddling Brutus in equal time and the worried pair galloped out of town.

Some twenty minutes north of Four Corners, Buck and Chris raced down the path planning on intercepting Vin Tanner and Ezra Standish. The Grey and Black were simultaneously reined in when Buck and Chris recognised the two horses coming toward them. Buck huffed out, "That's them," and he totally stopped Brutus, planning to wait for the tracker and gambler to join them.

Larabee was also out of breath, but allowed Saber to walk around, while the animal recovered its breath.

Both Ezra and Vin were puzzled by the arrival of two of their fellow lawmen. "Has something occurred back in town?" Standish drawled in curiosity.

"Nah, Chris and me... decided to ah...give the horses a bit of a run," Wilmington lied.

Ezra arched his eyebrows; he knew a blatant lie when he heard one. "Ah huh." Standish winked knowingly at the tracker. "Well, Mr Tanner, shall we proceed and leave these gentlemen to continue with their...exercise?"

Vin grinned wickedly in return, "Yeah, reckon so." Both Ezra and Vin directed Chaucer and Peso, one either side of Buck and Chris' mounts, and without turning back, they continued heading toward home.

Buck wheeled Brutus to follow and foolishly smiled at Larabee, who'd yet to say a word. "They seem to be okay, cowboy."

"Shut up, Buck!" Chris wheeled Saber around and scowled at his companion. "Not a word!" he growled. Laughter from the pair ahead of them only heightened Larabee's embarrassment. But when Buck mentioned something about being a mother hen, Chris sighed and shook his head and muttered, "Oh god, how did this happen?" Buck's roar of laughter joined the more distant laughter that could still be heard from Tanner and Standish. Unfortunately Chris could only respond with a despondent, "Ha ha."