by Heather F.

Part 5

Josiah leaned over to Tommy and whispered with all the harshness and confidence of a Fire and Brimstone preacher, "Boy you git on yer horse and ride yer sorry ass back to yer ma and pa...cuz if you don't I'll hunt you down and rip you apart limb from limb," Sanchez leaned back in his chair to scrutinize the young man who fought impending tears of fear.

Tommy nodded in quick short movements. He gazed neither left nor right. There was no one here that would protect one that would stand up for him. Those kind of people were all back at home..Family.

"You best git on that horse and git before I change my mind," Sanchez pushed his chair out of the way.

Tommy stood on quaking legs and made toward the door.

"And don't you look back or stop for nothing...cause that stick you hear snap in the night or that sensation you feel watching your back...It'll be you best keep riding right on through," Josiah followed the boy to the door.

The large preacher stood in the doorway and watched the young man fight to get a badly shaking foot to fit in the stirrup leathers. Once in the saddle Tommy swung the horse around and bolted for home. A two day ride....Josiah was sure the kid would make in a day in a half.

Buck came and stood beside Josiah. He clasped the older man on the back, "Damn Josiah I thought you were gonna scare the piss right outta that kid."

"Boy got lost and trod up on the wrong path...he just needed a little re-direction," Sanchez intended on heading back into the cabin. The harsh sounds of retching filled the air along with Jackson's soothing voice.

The preacher headed outside with the others on his heels.

+ + + + + + +

Mary grasped onto Billy's lower leg, "Now you pay attention to what Mr. Sanchez tells you and I'll be home before you know it." Billy nodded his head vigorously trying hard not to let his tears fall.

"Don't worry Mrs. Travis, Billy's going to be just fine...aren't ya Billy?" Josiah had wrapped a massive forearm around the young boy keeping him secure in the saddle.

"Yes, Sir,"

Mary nodded and stepped back from the horse. Of the Six men, Josiah had the broadest back and biggest arms. Billy would make a harder target to hit if someone was so inclined to target the young boy. Tears sprang unbidden to her eyes.

"Mary you git Ezra on that raunchy horse of his...and Chaucer will git ya home," Buck instructed with a smile.

"You use that gun on anything suspicious," Larabee added with acid in his voice. He did not want his intentions misunderstood, "is that clear?"

Mary squared her shoulders, "Yes it is Mr. Larabee....Thankyou," Her words encompassed the group.

"Now Mary, he's gonna wanna sleep alot...and probably be sick some...jist keep'im in the saddle, tie'im iffen ya hafta but git him and yerself home," Jackson instructed with the calmness of a seasoned healer.

"Don't worry Mz's Travis," JD piped up with the assuredly of youth and hard won experience, "soon as we clean up town, we'll come back and meet ya the rest of the way."

Mary chuckled at the young man's brashness but did not doubt it for a second. Instead she nodded her head and wrapped her arms around her waist.

"Be careful Billy, and remember I love you,"

"Ahh ma," Billy complained with the embarrassment of a young boy trying to emulate his heroes. How can a guy be grown up iffen his mom is blowing kisses at him and sayin' mushy stuff like I love you?

Josiah clicked his Rhone into step behind Buck. Nathan brought up the rear. Big men surrounding a young fragile life.

They headed out at a fast trot.

Chaucer circled the hitch rail trying to get a fleeting glimpse of his herd mates. Ingrates. He just found them and now they ditched him again. Dumb mules.

+ + + + + + +

The six men kept the horses at a long trot. The fastest and steadiest gait the horses could maintain over a period of time. It did not lend itself to the most comfortable gait for the rider. The peacekeepers were intent only on reaching their destination.

They rode for hours. The early spring sun promised no threat to the animals. It did not hold its summer strength. A steady brisk breeze blew at their backs. The frost had begun to be pulled from the ground. The earth gave and absorbed the shock of thudding hooves.

Vin led the way followed closely by Larabee. The Buffalo Hunter knew an overland short cut. It led them up over a pass. Near the top small patches of dirty snow still hugged the softening ground in defiance. The view would have made most men pause.

Tanner reined his horse between granite boulders, over fallen logs and down the steep precipice that would take hours off their journey. Peso slid and hopped down the lee side following the game trail. The large black horse bent and turned to the subtle directions cast down the reins and against his sides. Neither rider nor horse paid much attention to the sharp drop at the trail's ledge.

Buck let the grey have his head. The large animal ,so intune to following Chris's black, it gave no inclination to race ahead or cut from the path. Wilmington unconsciously leaned back in saddle shifting his weight from the shoulders of the horse. The grey tucked its back legs under its belly as it slid around a bend in the muddy trail. The horse never missed a step and picked up its trot keeping the Black's tail just in front of its nose. Buck never looked down. The horse would never miss step.

JD gripped tight with his knees. His little bay mare squatted low to the ground as the near frictionless surface of the mud threatened its shod feet. Dunne kept himself balanced giving the little Bay her head. With an energy unmatched by those around her the mare hooked herself around the sharply sloping curve. Once safely around the U type turn she gathered her legs underneath herself and sprung back into her steady trot....following the big Grey. The large gelding that allowed her to eat beside him in the corrals. The mare knew she would never fall from the narrow, snaking, trail her rider directed her on...never even entered her mind. She would always survive. There was nothing she couldn't do all her rider had to do was ask.

Josiah cinched his arm tighter around Billy. The drop over the side would be unforgiving. The muddy game trail Vin followed...though Sanchez had yet to truly agree they were on a trail at all...was steep and unforgiving. Should his large Rhone misstep, the horse and its delicate cargo would take some time to hit the bottom of the ravine. Rocks rolled ominously off the trail. They clattered and banged intermittently off the walls of the rocky cliff face. It took some time before their echoes hit bottom. Billy sat securely in the saddle confident in the men that surrounded him.

Jackson bit the inside of his lip and fought the urge to tighten his hold on the reins. Where the hell was Vin taking them? They wanted to reach town quickly but this seemed a little extreme. Nathan, against his better judgment, put weight in his outside stirrup...making his gelding take notice of the impressive drop. He trusted the horse...more than he trusted Ezra with money...but not near as much as Josiah with saving his soul. The horse held a nice middle ground in the trusting aspect of life...and seemed sensible enough....But Why the heck does it always walk on the outside edge of a narrow trail? A horrible, frightening habit. One would think it was a mule. Nathan promised he would ask Vin about it.

The six men and one boy defied common sense and the instinctual fear that kept one from delving into actions deemed unsafe by the mortal conscience. They trotted down the winding trail. As they neared the bottom the horses extended their legs and picked up the pace. On flat land the extended trots rapped out in a near musical cadence.

No one spoke.

The sun had passed its zenith and started its rapid decline toward tree tops. Four Corners and the Judge still lay some distance away.

A crow's shrilling cry seared the muted afternoon.

+ + + + + + +

Mary strode beside Chaucer. The large Chestnut gelding plodded beside her occasionally snatching tufts of fresh spring grass. A few times the gelding simply stopped at a spoy and mowed at the water, sweetened, foliage, grazing the spot almost bare. At these times, Mrs. Travis would chuckle and gently remind the animal they were on a time schedule of sorts. It seemed rider and horse had no sense of urgency when it came to certain things. The newspaper editor kept a guiding hand on the calf of Standish's leg. The gambler rode hunched over the saddle horn. A natural sense of balance fortified by early and repeated times in the saddle kept the semi-conscious man in place.

Mary brushed a stray strand of hair out of her face and tucked it behind her ear. Her ankles ached from trodding through the soft ground and sweat tickled between her shoulder blades. She sighed. In another few hours it would be dark. Mr. Tanner had promised a full moon tonight. She intended on utilizing it.

She prayed Billy stayed safe.

Mary clicked Chaucer into a more purposeful walk. She moved out in front of the horse hoping to set a brisker pace. The gelding nickered a soft complaint pulling one last clump of grass with its front teeth. Standish once again started mumbling.

Mrs. Travis listened intently to the smattering of intermingled, Creole, French and Latin. Maybe even some Gaelic. The young widow laughed quietly at the hidden life of a gambling southern gentleman. Though gentleman seemed a stretch in the light of the mutterings....If they were to be believed.

Maude had to have been a saint to raise such a hellion, Mary chuckled with resignation. She continued to lead Chaucer and his rider down the trail.

+ + + + + + +

"Vin I want you on top of the livery," Larabee held the reins to his gelding under the shady cover of a thick patch of trees. "shoot anything reaching for a gun."

"'Cept us pard'," Buck joked.

He watched Tanner from a safe distance. Frank had made the mistake of threatening Billy on the trail a few hours ago. Frank had made the young boy cry and burrow further into Josiah. Tanner had merely disappeared into the woods leading the captive's horse. Vin had told Chris to just keep following the trail he'd catch up in a bit.

And he had. Frank was no where to be seen.

Vin winked at Wilmington a quick smile flashed across his face.

"Nathan I want you and Josiah sweeping out any in the saloon....Let Inez help if she's got a mind to," Chris held no reservations about using the barkeeps hidden talents.

"Buck, JD," Larabee stared out over town for a moment and then faced the two fun loving of the group, "clear the boardwalks."

"Like sweeping up trash," Dunne noted with a hint of nervousness. Buck hoped the Kid never lost that edge.

"What about me Chris?" Billy asked with forced bravery. His knees quaked and his stomach knotted with fear. The sun had set and the darkness took on a life all its own. Billy didn't want to wait out here in the dark by himself. The Devil came out at night.

"You're comin' with me Billy," Larabee scooped the boy up in his arms, "We're gonna go see your Granpa."

Buck never doubted Larabee's choice for a moment. In a gunfight Billy would be safest with Chris. Besides the Judge was known to pack a twin barrel shotgun with him to court. He was a tough ole bird....Just ask Ezra. Wilmington chuckled out loud.

"Let's get it done," Larabee left his horse tethered to the tree and took Billy's hand. Under the greyish hue of twilight and under the cover of shifting shadows of grey the six descended upon the Town of Four Corners like a silent Biblical wrath.

+ + + + + + +

Under the bluish white of a rising full moon, Mary Travis marveled at the view from the top of a pass. Chaucer had been adamant they travel this way.

With no forage readily available Chaucer nudged the blonde haired woman down the trail. It seemed his rider had no interest in the sites.

+ + + + + + +

Jack Tolmey figured this was the easiest fifty dollars he had ever made. Just sit out here on the boardwalk and make sure no one went into the Grange. He lit a cheroot and rested his boot heels on the railing. Child's play.

JD swung the two-by-four like a Ted William's predecessor. Jack Tolmey did not earn Fifty dollars this full moon night...but he did earn a concussion.

Dunne dragged the unconscious man to the back of the Jail.

Buck met him with another unconscious man. The big man sucked on his knuckles and shook his hand in an irritating gesture. "Damn fool's got a hard head."

"Ya should know better than to hit a man in the face with ya fist Buck...not when something else could do the hittin' fer ya," JD explained with the patience and cock sure attitude of Wilmington himself. Dunne leaned masterfully on his 2by4. Besides JD had seen Josiah do it a time a too and it worked for him.

It was not lost on Buck...Wilmington booted the kid in the rear hopping and kicking him toward the grange.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan slid into the saloon through the back entrance. The stretching shadows cast by oil lamps kept dark recessing pools of blackness close to the wall. Jackson stayed well within their soft confines.

Josiah boldly strode through the saloon doors as a regular patron searching out a good drink.

Inez gazed up sharply from her bar. She did not want any more trouble from the four men in her saloon. All her patrons had been frightened off. She paid no mind to the preacher, though her heart beat wildly in her chest.

"Saloon's closed," the black haired cowboy sitting with one leg draped over a table rested his gun in his lap.

"Good Lord saw fit to give man the ingenuity to make liquid spirits...surely he would understand the need to indulge in those spirits." Josiah leaned somewhat on the bar. Inez quietly held up four fingers behind the countertop. Sanchez met her eye and smiled reassuringly.

The barmaid stepped back from the line of fire taking her shotgun with her.

"You wantin' to meet yer God early Mister?" A red head stood up brazeningly aching for a fast draw. At first he had mistaken the man who had entered the saloon as a gunslinger. With the riggin' slung low over the hip and the ease in which the large man had carried himself it all herald warnings of a quick draw. The fact that he be a preacher fellow....well that was a different story all together. Preachers and men of the Cloth don't go killing folks in quick draws. No sir...they talked their way out of trouble trying to save souls. Souls that laughed at them before shootin' their dang fool heads right off their shoulders. Man of God...He would put that heavy jawed fool right on the good Lord's doorstep.

"Always' hopin' to meet the man himself," Sanchez dipped his head slightly. His grizzled prominent features almost seemed saddened by the wanton disregard for life.

"Can accommodate ya old man," Red dipped his hip reaching for his gun. Sanchez had already cleared leather. He squeezed the trigger without any conscious fear of dying.

The boom of a revolver fired in closed quarters was deafening. Flames flickered from hanging chandeliers.

The two men to the right of Red jumped to their feet drawing their weapons. Both froze slack jawed and with eyes wide open. They fell face forward over the table sliding to the floor. Throwing knives were embedded to the hilt between shoulder blades.

The cowboy with his leg draped over the table toppled backward in his chair just as he raised his gun. Sanchez had simply redirected his aim and squeezed the trigger.

+ + + + + + +

Buck and JD waited outside the grange hall. In a few minutes Josiah and Nathan joined them. JD waved to Vin. Buck hit Dunne over the head with his hat.

"Will you quit that," JD hissed out annoyed, "I'm just making sure Vin knows we're all ok."

"He knows it already," Buck whispered back, "he ain't no greenhorn Easterner who knows nuthin' about nuthin'."

Nathan listened to the bantering and rolled his eyes toward the night sky. Those two could be torn apart by wolves and still bicker withone another.

"Brothers, let's go see if we can help Brother Chris," Josiah stood up stepped through the grange door.

+ + + + + + +

Mary was thankful to be back on flat ground. The sheer steepness of the path wreaked havoc with her legs and hips. The night chill settled uncomfortably in her bones. Mr. Standish had once again gotten sick. His horse ,however, did not shy but seemed particularly annoyed that its shoulders and withers were wet with something other than sweat.

Mary couldn't blame the horse.

Part 6

Judge Travis sat behind the wood table. A plane had never graced its top. Slivers threatened to burrow under finger nails if one did not pay attention. His papers refused to lay flat. The gravel tilted toward the outside edge. The table warbled to and fro. Surely the four legs were made the same length....well maybe not considering where he was at the moment. He shook his head in dismay. Normalcy and ordinary somehow blew away with the ever present wind. Travis ignored the drum of people talking and shifting restlessly in their chairs as they waited for the jury to finish their deliberation. They did not have to stir for too long. A door opened emitting the jury.

Travis did not gaze into the familiar faces. All of them would be sure of their efforts in maintaining and upholding the Due Process of the Law.

Instead Judge Travis peered once at Roger Pope's lifeless blue eyes. The man was a monster an aberration of all that should be decent. The demon smirked back at Travis. Pope could afford the fearless grin because another Devil smiled in the back corner of the room. The half brother. Gallup. The smug grin never wavered from the clean cut features, even when he had joined the Judge, uninvited, for dinner.

Gallup had introduced himself with a careless attitude. The smile never dipped as he wove a polite conversation entailing the kidnapping of Billy and his mother. Gallup had peeled back a cotton cloth and commandeered a dinner roll. Between bites he elaborated on the capture and the subsequent death involving one of the Seven. Travis had at first bristled at the intrusion to his table. Anger spiraled out of control at the though of Mary and her son captured during their little picnic together. The loss of one of the Seven. The Judge had closed his eyes. His mouth had gone dry. Standish...Standish had paid with his life. Of all the peacekeepers, the one Orrin Travis had stooped to bribe had succumbed to a violent end. It was not to say Ezra wasn't headed that way to begin with...the young man did have a certain death wish. Still Travis had and still felt a burning guilt at the loss of the gambler.

Travis refocused his attention back to the makeshift court room. His heart thudded in his chest. Blues eyes roamed around the room trying not to focus on the citizenry of this small township. The building was filled to capacity. People stood two and three deep to the walls. These were the same people he had duped into believing in the power of justice. The very people ,who just a few years ago, rankled his anger because they would not step forward and form a jury against the James boy.

Afraid, they had told him...Afraid for their families. Fear for their wives and children. His response...a gruff disgusted snort of frustration. Didn't they know that if Justice prevailed then their families would be safe? Didn't they understand that by taking an active step forward they beat back the very threat that endangered their families.

Judge Travis had thought them fools back then. His son had lived and walked amongst them trying to uncover truths and bring them to light. Orrin Travis had felt secure in his right to hold the citizenry of Four Corners in contempt. The Judge had lost a son, a young man with a growing family. Steven Travis had given his life trying to better this small town.

The old Judge pinched the bridge of his nose pushing the wire rim glasses slightly onto his forehead. Steven had been killed doing what he thought was right. He left a small boy and a young wife to forge a life alone. Mr. Potter stood his ground against a bully and now his widow struggled to raise two children on her own.

Was the struggle worth the sacrifice? Was Steven's death really worth the names on the deeds he uncovered. Did Mr. Potter gain anything by standing his ground against the James boy?

Who had been the more foolish?

The Judge surveyed the crowd. Each face had a name. Travis had always thought these frontier settlers who did not grasp the finer things in Law.

It was Orrin who had not understood. He had walked with shoulders squared and back straight because he carried the weight and protection that came with being a Federal Judge. What did these poor people have should he leave them to seek higher political office? In those days, so long ago he had been just another faceless name that would side step their violent little existence and seek safer testing grounds for advancement.

He had proven to be different and had earned their respect.

Today sitting in this humid, stagnant, Grain Exchange, Judge Travis felt the fear these town people had overcome. With a burdened heart he found he awed these simple towns folk for their bravery.

Billy...Gallup had taken his Billy and threatened his Daughter-in- law....Ahh hell Mary might as well be his daughter.

Suddenly the power of Right and Justice seemed to dwindle and flicker in the heinous face of danger. The gut wrenching fear that had driven these town folk, so long ago, to turn their backs on Mrs. Potter and her children, had a very real ugly, powerful pill.

Judge Travis closed his eyes and licked his lips. The Jury had reconvened. The harsh smell of sweat and dirt invaded his nostrils. The fetid odor of stale breath nearly smothered him behind his alter of Justice. His clothes clung to him and prickled his skin. His shoulders slumped in worn confusion.

The Foremen...Yosemite...the blacksmith. A powerfully built man with a heart that burned as fierce as his forge, had handed the paper to the Judge. Yosemite had smiled believing in the absolute power and force of Justice. He believed without any doubt in the Judge himself.

Judge Travis sat before them as a stalwart figure of Right versus Wrong. Evil had no place in his town or in his court room.

With an air of confidence Yosemite handed the Jury's decision to the Honorable Judge Orrin Travis, knowing today Justice would be served and the wrongful existence of Roger Pope would come to an end.

Judge Travis's hand shook a little as he held the paper. He knew what it read. The Jury had decided long before the closing arguments. Travis stared at the crisp clean sheet neatly folded in half. His thumb was weathered and course. Dirt and grime had seeded itself in the creases of his wrinkled knuckles. Filth had started to taint him. Travis focused on the sharp white paper. He knew underneath that obscuring fold lay a verdict of Guilty. The Guilty that should be hung.

Travis felt nauseous. They had Billy. They had Mary. Mr. Standish was dead and the rest were no where to be found. Fear clenched his heart as his stomach rolled with tension.

The paper weighed his hand to the table top. Justice or protect Billy. Stumble in his duties as a Judge? Orrin closed tired, burning eyes. He wallowed in a turbulent sea of conflicting duties. He needed a direction....a sign.

A single gunblast rocked the night....and then another.

The Judge furrowed his tired brow. Sweat creased the tired lines of his face.

The side door opened, its hinges protesting slightly against the fine grains of dirt that had worked under their moving parts. The door should have been guarded but somehow over looked. Had JD been here the young sheriff would have made sure someone stood watch over it.

With black duster billowing behind him, one hand on Billy's shoulder, Chris Larabee strode into the Grange hall quietly.

His confident half smile floated passed the Judge, lingered on Pope and settled on Gallup.

Chad Gallup did not react when Larabee's eyes rested on him. Larabee lived for the simple act of revenge. One of his men had been killed he would not rest until that death was avenged. Chad Gallup did not doubt this for a moment. It was no less than he would do for his own soulless brother.

Gallup inclined his head slightly in acknowledgment. He curled his upper lip in a harsh smile that mimicked Larabee's.

The Judge quickly noted his Grandson appeared unhurt. The young boy understood the rigors of court life and held his tongue standing still beside Chris.

With a relieved chuckle Travis unfolded the paper.

Justice had her day in court.

Travis's voice boomed out with the confidence of a man who had the world under his control.

The verdict of Guilty surprised none...not even Gallup. The sentence of Hanging by the neck until dead..held no trepidation for anyone...except Pope.

Mayhem ensued. Pope lashed out. The West door swung open. Someone screamed. People began to bolt in all directions.

Pope attacked Mr. Lightfoot sending the narrow man to the floor. In the next instance, the crazed defendant ,with hands shackled in front of himself, scrambled across the table heading for the Judge.

Travis pulled his Coach Gun. Billy wrenched free of Larabee, trying valiantly to defend his Grandpa by intercepting the bad man. Chris dipped for his gun as people screamed and flooded past him heading for the nearest exit.

Buck Wilmington, JD Dunne, Josiah Sanchez and Nathan Jackson stormed into the building like water through a breached dam. They cascaded into the Grange hall from the opposite direction of Chris. The door slapped against the wall rebounding forward again. Josiah blocked it with his forearm allowing people to duck under his arm as they fought one another to leave the building. The peace keepers immediately split up. Nathan and JD heading for the front of the building.

Buck immediately fired off a shot at Pope. Screams rent the air with a new intensity.

The outlaw barreled his way into Billy knocking the boy over the table and into his Grandfather.

Judge Travis had redirected the sawed off , double Ott, shot gun in hopes to prevent shooting his grandson in the crossfire.

The gun started to skid out of control over the warped planked boards...into Pope's manacled hands.

The killer raised the gun at Wilmington who charged them brandishing his weapon in a tightly, controlled, crazed anger.

Both men fired.

Travis and Billy pushed the arms of Pope.

Buck was swung backward, his left shoulder flung behind him at the partial impact of the buckshot.

Pope slammed to the ground with blood pooling from his chest. The dark liquid pushed small grains of dust out of its path as it pumped in cadence to a slowing pulse.

The Judge grabbed Billy and the gun and took cover behind the up turned table.

JD attempted to make a clear shot but images of Annie flashed through his mind. Anger, frustration and fear boiled to a head. The young Sheriff sprinted shoving people out of his way. He kept his target in sight. With a little thought he vaulted up and over a chair tackling one of Gallup's men. They crashed to the floor scattering chairs left and right.

The man outweighed JD by a demonstrative thirty pounds. With a few meaty jabs to the young man's face he forced Dunne to lose his grip. The outlaw viciously kicked the kid out of his way. The Sheriff scrambled awkwardly to his feet, the world spinning and tilting in sickening degrees. With more heart and energy than most men twice his size, he latched back onto his target.

The repeated back elbow pierced JD's gut like claws of a hammer. Air exploded from his lungs and blood sprayed from his bleeding nose with the forced exhalations.

Josiah, in a fit of rage, crossed the distance to the struggling sheriff, with determined steps. With two meaty fists clasped together the giant man slammed the cheek of the outlaw battering JD. The Villain never knew what hit him. He collapsed to the ground his legs twitching under the sudden loss of direction from the brain. JD followed unable and unwilling to let his captive go.

Sanchez raised the unconscious man half off the sandy wood floor and delivered two more punishing blows to the cheek bone. The small zygomatic arch cracked and broke. The muscles tore from their places of insertion and origin and the face gave under the hammering abuse.

Nothing would have kept Josiah from killing a man that was party to the threats to Billy and the false death of the gambler. Buck bled somewhere deeper in the room because of the black tides that drove these men. Josiah unleashed his own private demon. Vin was not the only one with quiet rage buried deep inside. Nothing could have stopped Josiah from beating his fury into the prone man before him.

Nothing at all except a small whispered, "Geez Josiah I think ya mighta got'im." JD's Eastern accent thickened slightly with his fear...much like it did with alcohol. A small but firm blood, stained, hand rested on Sanchez's red speckled forearm keeping the older preacher from adding another to his long list of penance's.

JD gazed around the room searching for the others over the top of the thinning crowd. He saw Nathan near the front door. Chris still covered the Judge and Billy. Buck? Where was Buck? Dunne scrambled to his feet.

Nathan Jackson heaved his knives across the few short yards that separated him from the small man fleeing out the door.

The throwing blades whistled a straight line through the loud panicking crowd. The clean polished blades buried themselves into the wall where the running's man head had once been just a moment ago. Jackson let lose with an unaccustomed curse. He started to follow the path of his escaping outlaw, pushing frenzied citizens aside.

"Nathan!" The healer turned at JD's sharp cry. Buck must be down. Jackson searched for the source of the voice through the sea of pushing bodies. He couldn't see his friends. With a sudden rush of apprehension and fear the healer left the front of the grange hall and pried his way against the milling crowd.

The roar of a long range rifle eased Nathan's mind. His bandit did not get away after all.

Larabee and Gallup stared at one another from across the crowded room. Neither pulled their guns. The press of people would not allow for a clear shot. Shooting the innocent bystanders that mimicked panicking sheep did not suit Gallup. He wanted Larabee. One on one. Maybe not today but someday.

Chad Gallup slipped out a small side door. He would lose himself in the cover of night.

Larabee ducked back out the door he had entered with Billy.

Billy lay curled with the Judge. His eyes wide with fear. He pushed himself against his grandpa taking unconscious comfort in the heartbeat of the man behind him. Travis kept one arm curled tightly around the young boy while his other hand clasped the shotgun.

+ + + + + + +

Vin held his position. A thin wisp of smoke curled from the gun barrel. With both eyes open the sharpshooter kept his eyes on the Grange. He had heard JD's high pitched scream for Nathan. Buck must be down. Tanner did not respond. He tucked that piece of information away for later.

Movement just outside the Grange hall grabbed his attention. Gallup.

>From this angle Tanner had no shot. With a curse he climbed to his feet, ran across the roof and jumped to the adjacent roof.

Chad Gallup saw the sharpshooter. He knew Larabee would want to secure the high ground. With the steadiness of a seasoned gunman and the luck of Standish, Gallup fired.

Tanner hit the next roof crying out clutching his bleeding thigh. The long rifle skipped across the roof out of reach.

"Damn...damn...damn" Vin rolled over curling into a half closed ball instinctively protecting the injured leg. The buffalo hunter gasped for breath trying to control the waves of pain. With gritted teeth and bull determination, he pushed himself upward and peered over the false front of the building. Moonlight washed the muddy street in a shiny silver glow. Shadows mingled freely with reflective light.

Larabee stood in Gallup's spot.

Chris turned and gazed up at the silhouette of the tracker. You see him?

Tanner shook his head and then sat back against the wood store front. He squeezed his eyes closed against the searing pain that shot up through his hip and side and down toward his toes. He slid onto his side clutching the leg. He needed to help Chris. It seemed only a few seconds had passed and then a booted toe nudged his side.

"Looks like ya sprung a leak," Larabee's cool voice washed over Tanner.

The Bounty Hunter opened his eyes, "Jist a scratch," Vin struggled to sit up but for some inexplicable reason it involved flexing the muscle the bullet had swathed a path through.

He gasped in pain.

"Ahuh," Larabee reached down and helped his friend up, "we'll let Nathan decide."


Tanner bit his lip at Chris's concerned shrug. Didn't see it happen


Anger flashed Larabee's face.

+ + + + + + +

Gallup watched as the Blacksmith headed toward the Livery with a few stable hands. That avenue of escape seemed futile at the moment.

The gunman would bide his time and maybe take Larabee down.


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