by Heather F.

Part 1

Horses screamed and reared. Men hollered grabbing for leather trying to maintain their seats in saddles. The earth seemingly erupted with ear splitting intensity. The ground shook and rolled. Mud heaved and flew into the air. The heavy stench of gunpowder and dynamite blanketed the area. The concussion of erupting explosives rocked the earth.

Horses and men alike were spewed to the ground. Tree limbs splintered and fell like anvils .   Chris wrenched back on the black's bridle. The horse leaped to the side its eyes wide. The gunslinger remained seated firmly in saddle. The black stepped and sheared its own fetlocks with its other hooves. Its muscles quivered and flexed under the tight control demanded by its master.

The whites of Peso eyes nearly matched the blaze that marked his face. With agility that defied natural laws the animal bent itself around falling branches. Under the violent but skillful manipulation the Indian pony danced and staggered from hurling debris.

The noise deafened both man and animal.

Vin gripped the fenders with his knees as his thighs were rammed and held snugly against the pummels of the saddle. Peso skittered and slid in the thick muck. The animal pranced and pawed the air with nostrils flaring.

Josiah's large chestnut reared too far backward. Another blast buffeted the area throwing shock waves through the air and mud. Its shod feet slipped in the muck and upheavaled earth. The large man and horse hit the ground with a muted thud. The horse screamed struggling desperately to regain its feet.

JD's bowler had disappeared. The black mane and hair of rider and horse alike blew with the hurricane intensity that threatened to toss rider and mount to the ground. The deafening blast of detonating dynamite shook the air. The little bay squatted on its haunches and dropped his head digging into the ground...holding his position.

Buck reined his grey in a tight circle. The large animal spun on its hind feet swinging the front legs around to face the little bay that had become its constant companion. The large horse lost its footing as a rear leg slid in the bucking throes of the rioting earth. Gelding and rider crashed to the ground displacing mud and spring grass in every direction.

Nathan whirled his mount to the left hauling back on the reins, fighting the beast from lunging forward onto Josiah. The large preacher still fought holding onto saddle horn and reins as his horse scrambled unsuccessfully toward its feet. Jackson's gelding crow hopped backward eyes blazing and mouth foaming. The bit flush to the corners of its mouth pulled the lips back exposing pale, pink, gums and brownish teeth in a macabre smile. Its forefeet clawed the air fighting the bit and the demands of his rider. The animal gave ground.

Horses continued to scream. Riders yelled over the cacophony of noise hoping to be heard, hoping to hear the responses of their friends.

The grey with a massive thrust of its head and neck threw itself onto its chest. With a great heaving lunge it gained it front feet. With its head stretched out and chest heaving the large animal pulled its back haunches under itself and lifted himself and rider from the mud. The earth quaked under its feet attempting to throw horse and rider back downward. The grey held his spot.

Chris reined his black with one hand. The animal pirouetted on its back feet. Foam spewed from its mouth as its eyes roved wildly about trying to make sense of the world that just turned upside down on them. The vibration of repeated explosions pummeled the animals not only visually but aurally as well.

Peso stood wide stance chomping his bit. His ears lay flush to his head and his tail tucked. The dark horse sought out the danger. Vin sat atop his quivering mount. He could feel the muscles clench and twitch ready to fight. Through the seat of the saddle he could feel the racing angry heart beat of his horse.

"Drop the guns."

The voice came from the cover of trees and brambles up slope. The small grassy clearing that had accommodated the seven was in ruins. Large tree branches torn from their trunks lay spilled and splintered on the ground. The crisp white pulp of snapped tree limbs held a brilliance against the churned ground. Mud and grass was turned up as horses fought to gain leverage and keep their feet.

Riders pulled their horses around some to face the voice and other to watch their backs.

The sharp blue sky of an early spring seemingly ignored the disaster that was about to hit the seven.

"Drop the guns Larabee or we'll start dropping men," the voice held a calm resonance. It appeared unfazed by the mass destruction that had just hit the tiny wood clearing.

JD kept his eyes pointed up slope but kept Buck in his periphery. What ever Wilmington decided to do Dunne would back him.

A shot rang out. Mud molded around the lead projectile that embedded itself before Dunne's mount.

The little bay held his ground tucking his tail tighter against his legs. JD bristled at being marked.

Chris holstered his weapon slowly. He would not discard it so easily. He would not forfeit the life of one his men either.

The others followed suit. None relinquished their weapons to the soggy bruised ground.

Men began to melt from the dark shadows of the surrounding forest. Eight in total.

Chris eyed each man. Seven men actually and one boy. A boy with hair the color of dirty straw and blue eyes as wide and crisp as the mid morning sky. He carried himself taller than JD but his actions and bewildered expression herald a kid more green.

"See boys weren't so difficult," The leader of the group barked out a harsh laugh. A few of his men approached the riders. They eyed the peacekeepers warily like cats encroaching on wharf rats. Sometimes the roll between predator and prey became blurred.

The leader of the group noticed the hesitancy and the blatant challenge, "Hand your guns over peaceful like and I won't kill ya." A gun was raised and aimed at JD's chest.

Buck instinctively moved his grey between gun barrel and friend.

Chris felt no ease in the tension. Losing Buck over JD would not make the loss any easier.

"Buck!" JD hissed out in fright. Thankful and frightened all at the same time. What if Buck should fall to a bullet meant for him?

Chris pulled his gun from his holster.

The bearded man cocked the hammer on his revolver. The coy smile that etched his face mocked Larabee into doing something foolish. Almost goading Chris to try something.

Chris clenched his teeth in anger and frustration and handed the piece butt first to the man near his knee. These men were hardened criminals. They would kill with out second thought. The straw haired boy hovered in the shadows. His shell had not hardened to the heartless degree of his comrades.

Tension deflated from the area. Guns were released to willing and eager hands. The seven were not defeated yet.

"Ezra," Josiah's soft baritone voice pulled peoples' attention toward the preacher. They followed his gaze to the large granite boulders near the edge of the clearing. The preacher and healer immediately started to dismount. The business ends of guns were shoved in their faces.

The two men remained in their saddles.

A midnight blue jacket became visible. At first Chris felt the Ace up his sleeve had been played too soon. Almost immediately Larabee realized that the gambler could offer them no assistance. Not even to himself.

The Southerner struggled gamely to his feet. He crawled and collapsed on failing arms. His hands sought out the rough surface of a boulder. The fingers curled around the jaggered edges trying to guide himself upward. His efforts were uncoordinated at best. His legs buckled. He toppled back into the sod and mud. Ezra rolled onto all fours without concern for the mire he wallowed within. With his head hung below his shoulders Standish again tried to gain his feet. With legs bent under his body he pushed gamely to his feet leaving his finger tips on the ground as a guide. His efforts were futile. Again he careened to the side, against a boulder. He slid helplessly to the damp earth. The fourth and final time he ended up on his back side with legs slightly raised in the air before rolling toward his side in a disoriented manner.

"Tommy," The leader of the bandits called the straw headed 'boy'. Chris gauged him to be late teens. Freckles dotted the young face.

"Yeah Chad?" Even the voice had a childish hesitancy. A boy trying to be a man amongst a group of monsters.

"Kill'im," The boy followed the jutted chin of his boss toward the dazed and disoriented man that struggled haplessly to gain his feet.

Everyone including the boy reacted. Chris made to draw the weapon he had just given up. Josiah started to jump from his horse. Nathan reined his mount to act as a physical barrier. Wilmington cursed and had decided right there to kill at least one of these bastards.

Vin narrowed his eyes and began to recall the methods and techniques the Kiowa and Comanche had taught him about finding 'truth'.

"But?" The boy stammered his legs took a tiny step backward away from the man still crawling and digging to make his feet a hundred so feet away from the group. Tommy stepped away from the order.

"He ain't no use to me if he can't ride," The leader let his gaze swivel quickly to the dark haired man in the midnight blue coat. The coat was soaked with mud or blood. It was hard to tell from this distance and at this angle. Chad Gallup turned his attention back to the 'boy', "if ya can't. You ain't got no use to me," Gallup then raised his pistol and aimed it squarely at Tommy's chest.

"Come on Ezra git up," JD swung around in his saddle. Dunne watched in helpless frustration as his friend staggered toward his feet only to pitch back to the ground. "Damn it Ezra I betcha c'ain't git up." JD pleaded. His eyes fell desperately to Buck in hopes the big man gave him some inclination or permission to act.

"You son of a bitch," Larabee hissed out with a vehemence none of the others had ever heard before. It warmed Buck's veins. Wilmington would follow Chris to the gates of hell and back to defend one of the others.

Vin kept his gaze fixed on his target. Should Larabee make his move and Tanner knew he would soon, then Vin would dispatch his victim quickly. They would die in this clearing but the sun was shining, the breeze was crisp, and a taste of spring was in the air. Today was better than most days to die.

"You kill him and I'll eat your heart out of your chest," Larabee ignored Tommy and held the gaze of Gallup.

Chad Gallup met the hazel stare and simply responded, "You don't Tommy and I'll gut shoot ya right here."

Tommy stood pulled in two directions. The black clad specter on the dark horse smelled of death. The man was frightening with or without his guns. Tommy Cochrine feared for his life. Yet Gallup held the pistol. There was no doubt in the young man's mind that his leader would do the very thing he threatened.

"Come on son git on your feet," Josiah urged. The large preacher had turned in his saddle watching in panicked dismay as the gambler once again fumbled back to the ground this time losing the few feet he had gained. Sanchez recited hasty prayers silently as he urged his young friend to gain his feet.

Nathan knew it was a losing battle. The blood that caked the side of the Southerner's face was testament to the concussion and injury to his head. It was amazing Standish was moving at all. No matter how much they urged him, or called or pleaded to him Ezra did not have a prayer to make it to his feet. His inner ears, vision and balance centers gave contradictory information. The ground still heaved and moved for Ezra. His mind still compensated for a rolling pitching ground that now held still. The ringing in his ears would be intense enough to drown out their pleas and demands. Standish would not even recognize the threat that descended up on him.

"You don't have to do this," Josiah pleaded with the young man that stalked his gambling friend. The preacher ignored the outlaw that tied his hands behind his back. Instead he kept his eyes on the blonde. The boy's heart was not in it. Maybe he could reach the young man that struggled with idea of committing murder.

Tommy hesitated only a moment and held the eyes of the oldest man. For a brief flash of time Tommy believed Sanchez.

Then the loud cocking of a gun directed his attention to the task at hand. Gallup would shoot him dead and then send one of the others to finish his appointed task. Tommy had no choice.

"Mount up boys," The laughter in the voice herald the doom of the seven peacekeepers.

The outlaws gathered the reins of the six captive horses and mounted their own beasts.

The six were ponied out of the clearing. Chris never took his eyes from the back of the man he planned on killing very soon.

Vin Tanner buried the little part of humanity that the other had recently uncovered back in the dark recesses of his soul. Revenge, powerful painful revenge seared through his veins.

Nathan swiveled back in his saddle. He caught Josiah's eye and both men turned to get a fleeting glimpse of the granite boulders that all but concealed their friend.

Buck rode behind JD. Wilmington would not interfere with Larabee's quest for revenge. He only prayed that Chris would not get in his way.

A single gun blast shattered the area.

JD gasped and shivered. "Oh God Buck," He whimpered out trying to turn around in his saddle. Trying to peer past his large friend..hoping against hope that Ezra rode somewhere behind them.

"Don't turn around JD," Buck ordered. He was ignored. The young Bostonian so full of life, so full of hope peered anxiously around him. "JD!" Wilmington roared. The hazel eyes, water filled and camouflaged behind unruly bangs met Buck's unforgiving gaze, "Don't look." Buck ignored the tears that streamed unashamedly down a mud streaked faced. He would comfort JD with the death of their captors.

Chris felt his heart go cold. It constricted in his chest as his breath lodged in his throat. Not once did he turn around. He closed his eyes briefly.

When he opened them Chris Larabee had become the man that other had first met so many years ago.

There were no tears left in Josiah Sanchez. They had run out long ago. What few he had were shed over lost family long before the seven ever met. The dying flame that had driven him to kill men and nearly flickered to extinction once again roared to life. The man who had once thought he refound his faith now kindled and fed the fires of rage. An eye for and eye would leave us blind. Revenge would not return Ezra Standish to their fold. No, that life had been succinctly snuffed out. For that pain and brutality Josiah Sanchez would return it upon this earth tenfold. The preacher offered up no prayers for the wayward soul left for the carrions back in the clearing. He did not hope that the cheating, conning soul of Ezra made its way to heaven or hell. Hell was on Earth. Satan festered in the hearts of men. Josiah would gain his revenge by removing those hearts.

Nathan tried to blink back the tears. They over whelmed the lower lids and cascaded down his cheeks on their own accord. He bit his lip until it bled. He controlled the staccato of breaths that ripped through his chest. His minds eye would always remember the convulsive twitch of the gambler's legs. Though 3/4 of the body had been shielded by the boulders. The last quake in the legs was signal enough the lone bullet had done its job. The dark healer tried to bury the image. Instead he concentrated on his knives. He could imagine them in his hands. He could picture them flying effortlessly through the air. With the silence of imagery he saw them buried to the hilt the chests of his captors. Nathan Jackson's benevolent side withered and died beside the friend in the clearing.

Vin would earn the bounty on his head.

Part 2

Chad Gallup lead the way. He peered over his shoulder occasionally to get a glimpse of the men behind him. His crew was good. They did not have the precision or quality of the seven peacekeepers that had protected Four Corners. The dynamite around the clearing had proven to be a great equalizer.

The death of the gambler was an added bonus. It unbalanced the remaining six. They no longer thought as a working unit. Instead each man harbored his own thoughts of revenge. They no longer thought in tandem. Their cohesiveness had leached away like the blood of the Southerner behind the boulder.

Gallup laughed.

With the Seven out of the way...with Mary Travis and her obnoxious whelp of a son under his control Judge Travis would have no choice but to reach a non-guilty verdict.

The plan was flawless.

+ + + + + + +

Vin ignored the passage of the sun. The stiff breeze reddened cheeks and made noses run. Tanner stared straight ahead. He would bide his time. A hawk cried in the distance. The tracker shut his eyes against the memory of teaching Standish the different types of hawks. The gambler had given the air of indifference but Vin had seen how keen the Southerner listened.

Damn man why didn't he jist git on his horse? Always had to be the difficult one. Never listen to anyone's advice. Damn fool.

Peso trudged on ahead following the pony line that tethered itself to the horse and rider before him. Peso felt the familiar stirrings of the anger long buried in his rider.

+ + + + + + +

After a days ride they came to a small cabin. Its floor had been dug out of the ground. It was a log structure chinked with dry, river bed, mud. A small rounded black pipe stuck a few feet from the sod covered shake roof. Even the spring grass had begun to grow up there.

The sky's sharp blue had faded with the sinking of the sun. The wind had taken a bitter turn. Its sharp gusts cut through clothing. Neither rider nor horses seemed to care. JD rubbed his face harshly on his tweed coat wiping at the tears that sprang unbiddened to his eyes. None of the others noticed or made comment. Josiah found no majesty in the Lord's work in creating this day. The sharp slice of an early spring breeze solidified his resolve. Nathan tasted the salt of his dried tears on his cheeks and hoped it stayed cold long enough for a decent burial. Ezra deserved as much. Jackson closed his eyes against the image.

A river flowed past. Its banks swollen from the spring thaw. In a few weeks it would be a raging white torrent of deadly water. Now the ice clear water swirled and curled around the meandering banks and eddied back in on itself in spots. Open plains held the area for a mile or so in all directions. The steepness of the sandy bank cut from spring thaws long ago offered only a minimal cover if one should try and escape.

Escape was not on the minds of the Law men.

Gallup knew it.

The six were ordered down from their mounts. Horses nor riders were offered a chance to drink from the snow fed waters. Instead the Six were ushered into the small cabin at gun point.

With hands tired behind their backs the six law men entered the three windowed shelter.

The heavy smell of over turned dirt assaulted their nostrils. The raw edge of the day was left at the door. The wood stove heated the small shack adequately. Uncomfortably warm at the initial entry.

JD not expecting having to step down, stumbled and fell into the dirt floored hut. No one could or bothered to break his fall...and he wanted no contact with anyone. The sheriff hit the moist floor with a thud. The physical pain in his shoulder was nearly a welcomed relief.

"Easy kid," Buck mumbled almost out of habit. The lanky mustached man hopped down one leg first into the cabin. Chris, Vin, Nathan and Josiah followed next. The heavy silence held a bite all its own. The six men stood in the center of the floor letting their eyes adjust to the sudden darkness. The crackling and popping of wood filled the cabin.

"Mr Chris? Mr. Vin?" It was a hesitant weak voice as small as its owner.

"Billy?" Buck asked squatting down facing the direction of the quivering voice, with eyes that refused to penetrate the abrupt darkness.

"Oh thankGod, Chris," The female voice was unmistakably Mary's.

People began to react. Chris whirled around at the initial sound of his name. The tiny scared voice of a boy brought back a thousand dark fears that had already started to unbury themselves back in the clearing.

"Mary what's going on?" Chris turned his head in the direction of Mrs. Travis. He ignored the quiver of fear he had heard in her voice. His own rage had left no room in his heart.

"They're trying to sway the Judge," Again the tremor sliced the electrified air.

"Easy Mary it's alright," Buck followed by JD made their way toward the widow and her son. JD sat beside Billy offering the small boy some comfort in the physical contact. It did them both some good. Little Billy's hands were tied behind his back as well.

Dunne's anger and frustration slowly built.

"You and Billy alright ma'am?" Tanner stood still and surveyed the small cabin. It actually was a level floor with furnishings. A table sat against the far wall. A pot bellied wood stove sat in a rustic haphazard kitchen. A cot made of timber lined the wall against which, Mary sat with her son. The dug out provided protection from criss crossing bullets that would manage to penetrate the walls.

"Yes," A slight pause, "I think so....just frightened is all."

"Did they get all of you?" Billy asked with a longing of hope that one of the seven had been left free. With one free then the bad guys wouldn't stand a chance. Chris and the men his GrandPa hired were the best. No body could beat Chris 'n' his friends. No body.

"'Fraid so Kid," Vin sat down beside JD. The one thing the Comanche and Kiowa taught him was patience. He would wait. Mary and Billy came before revenge.

"Where is Mr. Standish?" Mary's question fell hard amongst the group. No one answered. A tense, foreboding, silence enshrouded the small cabin. "Noo," She whispered at first in denial. When no one refuted what she hope was a wrongful conclusion she tried vainly again, "No..." this time she shook her head in deviance. For so long the Seven had stood as a united front. For how many years were they invincible? How many times had they faced death only to mock it and escape with their lives in tact? "Nooo," she sobbed for the loss of a friend and for the gathering fear that maybe Chris and his men were doomed. Buck took a seat next to her and allowed her to bury her face and grief in his chest. Wilmington cursed his bonds for the thousandth time that day. Holding Mrs. Travis seemed like the most important thing to do at the moment.

"Mary...," Larabee stopped himself from chastising the woman openly in front of her son. He did not strike at her verbally because of the tears or the denial. Once admitted it seemed irrefutable. Chris did not want to believe he had lost a man.

A friend had died today. It twisted in his gut like a knotted fist. It brought a physical pain that had a taste all to familiar in its misery.

Nothing could undo the loss. The finality of it seared his heart. There would be no more tomorrow's. No more Southern accented complaints. No more gold tooth or sly smiles. Never would there be a voice lamenting about innocence and under appreciated hardships. The single gunshot echoed in Chris's mind. His gut turned. He'd kill the bastards.

Larabee did not blame Mary for her tears. He truly was not angry with her. Envious maybe, that she could openly grieve for a loss so raw and fresh.

Nathan tried to find direction. "Mz Travis what's going on?"

Billy nudged JD and quietly whispered, "What's wrong with ma?"

Dunne caught his breath. He would not say it. No matter what everyone thought. Ezra wasn't dead until they buried him.

+ + + + + + +

In the brisk twilight a wood chuck chattered noisily in warning. The staccato of its shrilly voice herald an early warning of something foreign to the clearing.

The burnt smell of discharged gunpowder had finally dissipated. The torn tree limbs sat as reminders to the violence that had ripped through this little glade.

Birds quieted and swung their heads trying to pinpoint the danger the wood Chuck found so frightening.

A retching filled the air. Movement near the boulders had been created by a beast these woodland creatures had learned to fear. Silence once again blanketed the area.

Then another violent bout of retching curled the early evening. A soft heavily accented, "Awww Hell." The form shielded by the rocks suddenly halted its movements collapsing back toward the soggy ground.

All became quiet and still once again.

The woodchuck started its chatter. Birds cautiously moved about their business.

The sun hung low in the horizon. The bleached out orange and blue hues of sunset cast the trees and their canopies in long dark shadows of approaching evening.

+ + + + + + +

Mary garnered some strength from Buck's support. Nathan's question needed an answer. Deserved an answer, especially if it cost Mr. Standish his life. Another racking sob escaped but Mary controlled it. She sniffled wishing she had a handkerchief for her nose and eyes. Mr. Standish always seemed to have one handy. A strange, complexing man.

"Mz. Travis you know what's going on?" Vin surveyed the small cabin hoping to find anything of use. Their captors had yet to enter the small building. With the sun setting and the breeze picking up it would only be a matter of time before they sought shelter from the cut of a late winter's night.

"Pope...Roger Pope. He's on trial. Train robbery," Mary sat a little straighter. She took more of her weight from Buck's support. "He's standing trial before the Judge for murder and robbery." The telling of the story gave her focus. Knowing the other six were with Billy eased her mind.

"Isn't he the sick Bastard that killed that family over near Willow Springs few months back during a train hold up?" Buck asked his eyes focusing on Chris. Larabee was a wound spring waiting for a chance to act. These fools messed with the wrong group.

"What's a Bastard JD?" Billy whispered once again to the young sheriff that sat beside him. Billy Travis felt alot better now that Chris and the others were here. With them around he wouldn't have to worry about protecting his Ma so much. He still would try and keep her safe but Mr. Vin and Chris and the others did a pretty good job. Maybe not as good as him but they did ok. And iffen Mr. Standish wasn't with them that meant he was out there somewheres tryin' to figure out how to rescue them...well iffen of course he didn't find a card game or something. Ma always said Mr. Standish and Mr. Buck were incorrigible...whatever that meant...He himself didn't want to be incorrigible cuz sometimes his GrandPa would speak real soft like but angry at Mr. Standish. And sometimes Mr. Buck. It would make Chris laugh in private but it always made Mr. Standish go kind of pale and red all at the same time.... and Mr. Buck would just stammer out, 'yes sirs..".

"Ain't nothin' ya need to know," Dunne whispered back interrupting Billy's thoughts.

"Yes...shot and killed the Father and Mother and three children," Mary took a steadying breath and continued, "he's pleading self defense in the case of the children saying the oldest boy drew on him." The oldest boy being just two years older than her Billy. The brutality of Men, and Mary had to concede, both genders in her use of the word, frightened her to the core.

"What's that have to do with this Gallup fellow?" Buck whispered out. Chris's anger smoldered. His mind had turned toward escape. He would let the other gather the information surrounding the situation but Larabee had already focused himself on changing their current position.

"Chad Gallup is Roger Pope's older and only half brother," Mary paused and choked in another breath, "their mother had raised them together. The fathers...." she let the statement fade.

"So they grabbed you and Billy hoping to sway the Judge to throw the trial?" Sanchez's deep voice floated eerily across the cabin. It sounded weary, tired of the twisted plots of deranged men.

"How'd they know we would be heading out together to Eagle Bend?" Jackson settled himself between Billy and Josiah creating a buffer between the giant man and the young boy. Nathan had no fear that Josiah would injure the boy. Just the opposite in fact. Jackson just wanted to protect Billy from witnessing Sanchez when he started breaking the backs of his captors.

Mary sniffled and dropped her gaze to her lap, "That's my fault." The confession, barely a whisper, turned heads. She raised her gaze and met Chris's eyes in silent pleading he would understand. Her perceived weakness led to the death of Mr. Standish. A sob broke violently through her resolve.

"It's alright Mary," Larabee answered just as quietly. No one was to blame for the death accept the ones who initiated the act.

"How?" Buck asked. How could a woman as strong as Mary be forced to give information that resulted in the loss of a friend. His eyes immediately fell to the small body nestled comfortably between JD and Nathan and suddenly the harsh stark reality hit him. Those Son's of Bitch's.

"They threatened Bil..."

"We understand," Tanner quickly spoke up. Billy did not need to know that he had been used as a weapon against his mother. The young child should not have to live with the knowledge that his safety was paramount to all things. A mother would do anything...anything, to protect her child. It was as it should be.

Vin knew this cuz his young ma had done the same for him.

"Chris?" Buck asked quietly from the edge of the cot he sat with Mary.

Larabee gazed at the heavy log door and simply stated, "We're gonna git Mary and Billy out of here." Chris moved next to Mary but remained standing. The leader of the Seven met Tanner's eyes and knew the tracker was already working on a plan. Josiah and Nathan merely nodded in agreement to back whatever Chris did. Chris held JD's eyes and inclined his head toward Billy. Dunne nodded. The pride and sudden dread of responsibility filled him all at once. He was to insure Billy's safety. Dunne felt no hesitancy in his ability. Billy Travis would survive to see his next birthday. Buck let a half smile crease his face lifting his mustache on one end. He would watch Mary.

Larabee turned his attention inward. He purposely shut out thoughts on his lost seventh. There would be time enough to grieve later.

+ + + + + + +

Chaucer nibbled on the sweet, green, grass of the clearing. There was not enough to fill his belly but it gave him something to do while his master stumbled around in the muck. The horse really wanted to be on his way. The herd had ridden out sometime ago. Though his natural instinct was to follow, training kept him out of sight but with his rider. The horse stood still as a hand gripped the stirrup. He braced himself as his rider put pressure against that one side and hauled himself toward his feet. The saddle slid alittle. The horse stopped eating lifting his head.

Training dictated he needed to stand still with his head up when his rider swung onto his back. The horse smelled the blood. It curled its stomach. He had become accustomed to it long ago in the throws of battle. The explosions had brought back unwelcomed memories and the horse had learned long ago to avoid such noises and disruptions in the earth. Many a good herd mate had fallen to the unseen dangers that buffeted the air with sound and invisible force.

Chaucer widened his stance and waited patiently as his rider collected the reins. The horse waited. His rider swung himself heavily and slowly into the saddle. Chaucer moved under the slow movement in hopes to facilitate his rider getting into the saddle. The pressure and awkward distribution of weight pulled on the cinch pinching his delicate girth.

Both horse and rider groaned in relief when Standish finally settled into the seat. The weight leaned uncharacteristically forward. The horse could feel a weight heavier than hands resting on his neck.

"Home," the soft, raspy, command barely reached Chaucer's swiveling ears.

With no tension on the bit and no communication through the reins the Chestnut horse simply turned and followed the direction of his herd. To the horse they had become home.

+ + + + + + +

The sun set with a lack lust of washed out colors. The stars slowly burned to small brilliance under the chill of a half moon night. The soft roar of the river washed quietly across the hundred yard of grassy plains. A stiff breeze whistled on the wind forcing the men outside the cabin to hunch further into their coats.

Chad Gallup had sent three of his men back to FourCorners. Joe Simms had taken a piece of the Editor's dress and a lock from the young boy. Simms had nearly lost his life. Though the six men inside were tied and subdued by the cover of guns, they commanded respect.

Gallup was not a misanthrope like his half brother. He would not tolerate barbaric behavior or overtures toward the lady held in his captivity. The child too. Women and children were not to be harmed. There was no use in it but to provoke the animosity of every civilized person across the country. There existed a hierarchy even amongst the depraved. The virtue of Mrs. Travis and the health of her son were not threatened.

The lives of the others....well that was a different story. The peacekeepers were protectors themselves. They understood the risks.

His half brother's acts though gruesome and inexcusable would not fall under the correction of civilized men.

Gallup ,as much as he disdained his younger brother, would protect him from the hangman's noose. Chad would correct his brother's transgressions. Being older Chad had the responsibility of insuring his little brother's safety. A task he sometimes found distasteful but unable to shirk. His mother raised him better than most. Without family, one had nothing. Chad wondered, however, if nothing was better than Roger.

"Let's go inside boys," Gallup led the other seven into the cabin. It would be crowded but the winter chill encouraged the move.


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