by Heather


Tanner kept his blue eyes to his coffee mug as Larabee delved into the bottle, again. JD headed up to Ezra’s room to replace the gun that had been left untouched on the now over turned table. Vin smiled as the third step from the bottom creaked. Josiah had lost a game to the gambler and instead of monetary payment the preacher promised to repair the step. It had yet to happen. Sanchez dragged his feet not wanting to waste the lumber he acquired for the church on the saloon. Sometimes Ezra would stand on the step and rock back and forth making it squeak incessantly just to remind the preacher of his bet. Standish’s dimpled smile would broaden at Sanchez’s scowl. The southern conman would drive a saint to sin.

Chris sat heavily at the table boring his eyes into his mug. He noticed Vin and Josiah still occupied the table but Buck had disappeared. Probably out hunting Standish down trying to fish information from him or cool boiling water. Larabee would have laughed but the infuriation he emanated would not relinquish its grip so easily.

“You want to tell us what’s going on Brother?” Josiah broached the subject directly but cautiously.

Larabee did not answer. What did he have to tell them? A week ago he nearly drowned the obstinate southerner, allowed a gun to be placed to his and let the trigger get squeezed without so much as a protest and to top it all off, pointed out with malicious intent that the only family the southerner had would abandon him again. What did Josiah and Vin and the others want from him? What did Ezra expect from him? Standish himself let loose with a few of his own barbs, attacking Chris on a level that the gambler knew would wound the older man. Now the others wanted Chris to back off and leave the southerner be? Ezra started this mess as much as he did, Ezra provoked it as much as Chris allowed it to go unanswered. Everytime the southerner glanced at him Chris saw the lack of trust. He understood Standish no longer expected Chris to watch his back. Standish for his part let Larabee know he did not care. Standish flaunted the attitude that Chris Larabee could go to Hell. Well Chris would drag the flippant gambler with him. Vin and Josiah wanted in on the betrayal wanted in on the lack of faith and loss of friendship. Fine they could take on the fight...Right after they had themselves chained to another man and hunted across the country side. When they did that, when they lay frozen and hungry next to a pitiful cook fire fighting to keep warm then they could come in on Chris’s anger. When they witnessed a gun barrel placed to helpless friend and let the trigger get squeezed then they could share his helpless infuriation. Until then, they deserved nothing from him.

His silence hung heavy in the air. He challenged the preacher with a stare. Josiah would not pick up the gauntlet. The preacher mutely left the table. Vin watched the hulking man gracefully back away from the physical confrontation. Josiah would not fight for fighting sake. Tanner took a side long glance at Larabee and wondered who he wanted to choke more Standish for feeding the fire or Larabee for allowing it to smolder.

“You want something?” Chris leered out.

“Just wondering if we should just let you and Ezra fight it out?” Tanner asked making it almost a statement. His clear blue eyes offered no hint of a joke.

“Won’t solve the problem eatin’ at them two but it would give us somethin’ to do other than watch’em tear into each other a little at a time.” Nathan said pouring himself a cup of coffee. Chris and Ezra deserved to be chained together and locked in a cell. Let them get whatever burr there was out from under the saddle so to speak.

The southerner had been caustic to those around him. When Nathan brought it to his attention Standish merely laughed at him. Almost daring the healer to do something about it. Larabee on the other hand waited for someone to cross some invisible boundary just waiting for a chance to lash out. The two men had become feral.

Josiah stood out on the boardwalk and watched the exchange between Buck and Ezra. Though he could not hear the words he understood enough about the body language to know that it did not go well. Sanchez matched Buck’s nodd. The lady’s man would ride after Standish. Josiah headed over to the church. He would pound a few nails and lose himself in his repairs. These two men did not want fixing. He would not turn his back on them but he would not fight them. There had been to much of that going around already.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra returned to his cards. Buck watched him silently. He noticed the deck. It was an old battered set of cards with browning edges and fading color. The cards were worn and dirty. Wilmington had seen this deck before. Standish never used them in a game with anyone else. These cards were for his hands only noone else ever used them.

“Them seen better days.” Wilmington said trying to make conversation. He was ignored. Buck frowned slightly. The chill in the air seemed to have dropped.

“Ezra I ain’t going away.” Buck pointed out. This got a reaction, a sigh and closed eyes.

“If you and the others are worried that I will not return, your fears are unfounded. I have every intention of partaking in games of chance this evening.” Ezra answered tiredly. Eagle Bend was where he thought he might carry out those games. He would return to Four Corners when he was good and ready.

Buck began to tire of the game. “Listen you idiot. I’m trying to tell ya that we’re here to watch your back.” He paused when the green eyes slid over him, “No matter what’s going on between you and Chris.” Wilmington could read the non believing expression as easily as Vin read tracks in the mud.

“What happened to you two?” He asked quietly turning his attention to his horse not posing the question to Standish at all.

He did not receive answer right away. The horses meandered adjacent to one another picking their way carelessly up the twisting path. Both animals pricked their ears swiveling them forward, suddenly snorting in alarm. They had turned off the road two miles back and picked their way along a wide but steeply sloped trail. Thick brush and knotted pines clogged the area. For patrolling purposes the seven hated this stretch the most because one could not see more than a few yards ahead on the convoluted clay packed path.

Both men reached for their guns but never finished the motion.

“Don’t do it gentlemen.” A southern drawl rang out. Buck and Ezra both heard the distinctive sound of hammers being cocked back. Their hands froze over the butt of their guns. Standish closed his eyes, ‘Not again.’

Wilmington noticed the change in demeanor in the gambler. Instead of preparing for a fight he folded his hand tiredly. Buck watched in dismay as Frederick Delany and his sons slid from the thick foliage.

“Ahh Mr. Standish I see we meet again.” The oldest Delany chuckled out as his boys pulled the unresisting gambler from the saddle. Brian kept his rifle trained on Wilmington.

Standish stood before the man swallowing his fear trying to maintain control over his anger. He never peered over his shoulder at Buck. Wilmington would not risk backing him up. Ezra knew in a pinch Buck would be there. The Lady’s man was not one to go down without a fight but he would not carelessly throw his or Ezra’s life away by acting foolishly. Ezra just hoped when time for escape presented itself Buck would remember to take him along.

David Delany held a length of braided rope. He grabbed the Gambler’s right arm and jerked it behind his back. He then reached for the left wrist and closed on an empty sleeve. “What the....” the young man sputtered. His father gave him a simple job, truss up the two men. Standish only had one arm.

Buck watched with some amusement as a puzzled expression crossed the features of the youngest Delany. Even Ezra allowed a small smile twitch across his face. This quickly disappeared. Scott Delany pulled a long knife and cut up the front of the gambler’s coat popping buttons. Standish stood his ground. Buck silently thanked whoever watched over them for the continued silence on the conman’s part. The older Delany boy made short work of the shirt and the bandages that pinned the arm. He smiled wickedly as the left arm fell to the gambler’s side with a wince. David then yanked the arm back and started tying the wrists together.

Ezra clenched his teeth and board his gaze defiantly into the older Delany that faced him. The piercing burning sensation in his shoulder did not seem to subside. He directed his hapless rage at the closest mark. Once secured he was shoved to the ground. Standish sat quietly working his right hand trying to finagle the knots. He cursed ropes were not his forte.

Buck was yanked from his saddle. The larger man held his resistance in check. It would do him no good to fight now. Even if by slim chance he could escape that left Ezra in the clutches of these men. Buck would not allow that, they either both made good on their escape or neither of them. Wilmington’s hands were pulled behind his back and tied securely.

Frederick Delany stood back watching his sons move with lethal efficiency. His pride swelled as he watched David tie the men ignoring the intimidating stares directed at the boy. David might have been young but he was Frederick’s son and therefore as ruthless as his father. He would make a fine man.

“Get’em on their horses.” He ordered the boys. David grabbed Standish by the right upper arm and roughly hauled the southerner to his feet. Ezra shrugged himself from the boy’s grip. The action earned him a blow to the stomach sending him to his knees whooshing breath from his chest. With his head bowed he gasped unsuccessfully for breath.

“Ey’!” Buck hollered pushing Scott Delany out of the way with his shoulder with the intention of going to his downed friend. A rifle butt to the ribs toppled him to his knees and then left shoulder as he crashed to the frozen earth. Wilmington’s hat toppled from his head rolling down the trail caught in the icy breeze.

“Ey Pop this one’s actually trying to save Standish.” David laughed watching the two downed men. Scott and Brian smiled amused at the potential game that could be played.

“A little different from Larabee ain’t he?” Fred sneered. He marched forward and grabbed a fist full of Bucks dark hair and yanked his head backward. “I’ll kill you just as soon look at you. It’s Larabee I want and this Southern are nothing.” Delany shoved Buck’s head to the side. Wilmington returned the cold defiant stare. He would not be intimidated.

“Get’em on their horses!” Delany barked out stepping away from the gunslinger disgustedly. Wilmington had been a party to the death of Mitchell. They would get their revenge from him but at the cost of Larabee’s life. Buck Wilmington would soon learn what it was like to lose a brother.

Buck swiveled around in his saddle and faced the gambler who’s horse trailed behind. “Hey Ezra you alright?”

Wilmington had been worried. There was more fear than defiance in the conman’s countenance. When had he been able to pick up the slight inflections of expression? It did not matter. Both men bristled under the sudden captivity but Standish seemed to be battling fear. Buck was scared and nervous that was a given but like his southerner counterpart he hid it under a sheen of bravado and indifference. Ezra struggled to maintain the facade.

“Fine Mr. Wilmington.” Ezra answered tight lipped. With his coat open and shirt ripped the cold settled on him and the breeze tore through him.

“’Ey shut up.” Brian shouted from behind the two lawmen.

Buck gave Ezra one last searching look before facing forward. They would get out of this. The others would come searching for them.


“They back yet?” Nathan knew the answer to the question before he asked it. The healer sat within the confines of the Sheriff’s office with Josiah. Vin breezed through the door shutting it quickly trying not let the winter chill enter the small building.

“Nope.” Tanner answered softly. His blue eyes searched the small cell area, “where’s JD?”

“Brushing down Bailey.” Josiah answered. Dunne like the rest was worried. Concerned over the rapidly disintegrating friendship between Chris and Ezra but more so over the self destructive behavior both had reclaimed. Larabee delved back into the cesspool of despair that used to swallow him frequently in the past. He had climbed from that mire slowly and with the help of friends but lately he slid right back into it’s depths.

Standish reverted to his old uncaring self. The feel of a coin in his hand seemed the only thing he cared about but more than that he foolishly pushed Larabee to the edge. The two men were heading for a confrontation Standish was sure to lose physically. Noone knew why.

“They should have been back hours ago.” Nathan pointed out. The sun had begun to set. Long shadows stretched across buildings as the setting sun slowly relinquished it grip on the sky. The street fires would be lit within the hour.

“Think they headed to EagleBend or something?” JD asked pushing through the door knocking it into Tanner.

“Oh sorry Vin.” Dunne mumbled. He saw Vin enter the building and knew the others would be there too. Chris was still in the saloon working through a bottle of Red Eye. The boy’s cheeks were pink and chapped from the weather. He sniffled rubbing his hands together wondering when this cold dry weather would snap. At least in Boston snow accompanied the chill making it bearable, out here it was just raw cold with no chance to enjoy it.

“S’alright kid,” Tanner replied stepping aside allowing the young sheriff into the room and discussion.

“I just got a wire back from Brody at Eagle Bend,” Nathan added, “they haven’t showed up.” He paused and added, “but said he’d wire us and let us know if they do.”

Josiah chuckled. Sheriff Brody would not waste anytime incarcerating Standish or Buck for that matter. Last time Ezra headed into Eagle Bend to blow off steam the saloon suffered major reconstruction. Buck and JD had shown up to bring him home and the hotel dining room fell into the same catastrophic state of disrepair. Buck had taken dislike to someone pushing JD. Brody had sternly requested that Larabee keep the gambler out of his town and if he did find his way back into city limits he would be locked up on sight. If that were to happen Wilmington nor JD were asked to retrieve him. It did no good to send nitro after TNT. Chris had actually laughed and agreed.

There was silence and finally JD asked in a hushed almost frightened tone, “Ya think they ran into Delany?”

Noone spoke for a moment as the question settled heavily over the group. Delany was still out there. Why had none of them thought of that? Someone with Delany’s deep rooted hatred would not give up so easily. The shuffling of boots on the floor as feet shifted uneasily, the creaking of the desk chair as Nathan thought out the possibility heightened the silence.

Vin pushed himself off the wall, “Could be.” He stared pointedly at Josiah and Nathan. Sanchez stood up from the front corner of the desk and looked out the window at the empty street. The citizens unaccustomed to such bitter weather stayed in doors unless absolutely necessary. Nathan and Ezra held the same dislike for the raw temperatures. Sanchez watched as dark winter clouds hung threateningly in the slate sky.

“Ezra ain’t upto running again.” Jackson said matter of factly. He played mindlessly with the blotter on the desk twirling a knife point into the material. The gambler grudgingly let Nathan treat his wounds after Christmas but mostly because it was easier to give in than to fight. At first the healer welcomed the turn around but lately it bothered him. It was as if Ezra saved up all his energy to goad Larabee and drink.

“Should we tell Chris?” JD asked his eyes wide with concern. The fourmen stared at each other searching for an answer. Larabee had kept company with a whiskey bottle all day. He would not be much good to them now and his attitude would have plummeted as the level of alcohol in his veins soared. Should they tell Chris? Would Larabee even care? JD watched the older men waiting to follow their cue. Buck was out there Chris would want to know.

“’S’pose he has a right to know.” Tanner said heading for the door. Jackson pushed back in the chair scraping it against the wood planked floor. Josiah fell in behind Tanner as JD slid after him. The healer closed the office following the others. Jackson gazed up into the sky as if trying to divine answers from the thin cloud cover.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra and Buck were pulled from their horses and deposited unceremoniously on the ground. Standish toppled into Wilmington uttering a curse under his breath.

“Stay put.” David warned trying to sound as deadly as his older brothers. Neither man seemed fazed by his remarks.

Buck help shove the gambler into a sitting position. “Well Ezra I have to say that is an interesting style you’ve got going there.” The lady’s man smirked admiring the shredded garments that adorned the conman.

Ezra gazed down at himself, the torn coat and shirt and then Buck, “Figures you would appreciate it Mr. Wilmington.”

The two men leaned against a white pine stretching tired muscles. The southerner wiggled his toes trying to work warmth back into them. His right ankle stiffened from having to spend half the day in the saddle. He shivered slightly as the winter air easily invaded his clothing. He wondered if any of the others would come looking for them. He was thankful Buck was close by the other man’s presence somehow soothed him. Besides with Buck as a captive it would be more likely the others would come searching for them. Ezra knew Josiah and JD maybe even Vin would become concerned and go out after him. Lately however, Ezra doubted everything. Loyalty was for fiction. Dependency for fools. His mother had tried to ingrain it in him from an early age. Larabee just re-enforced the lesson. Chris knew his mother would not visit. Then at the river,Chris held his tongue until it was to late. Ezra did not understand his animosity toward the gunslinger. Larabee acted no different from Maude but somehow Standish bristled under the treatment. He should not have expected any different and yet he had. That infuriated him, he had played a stupid game putting stock in loyalty and friendship. It was thrust right back at him, but Standish had to concede he pushed first. He deserved what he got...didn’t he always?

“You ok pard’?” Buck asked. He watched as the Delany’s set up camp. A fire crackled in the middle of the grassy knoll they occupied. They were well off the trail and not visible to casual eye. The heavy ring of pines and underbrush would prevent any passing traveler from noticing the moderate flames. The youngest boy sat a few yards from them watching them intently trying to be fearsome. He could not have been much older than JD but he had a cruel streak in him the Buck hoped never to see in Dunne. Brian continually oiled his gun and worked the action of the rifle. As he finished with one weapon he moved to the next until all the guns in the group were cared for and inspected.

“Ezra ya got that pea shooter of yours?” Buck asked not taking his attention from the four men in front of him.

“I am sorry to say Mr. Wilmington that it is now in the capable hands of Mr. Cook.” Ezra sighed forlornly. The mechanism had been damaged and warped in the last saloon brawl that Vin, Josiah and he had tried to break up. The derringer’s sliding mechanism took a serious blow saving the limb it was attached to but severely denting the metal. Mr. Mark Cook was as good as any gunsmith in the territory and now worked on the small piece.

“Shut your traps over there.” Scott warned as he tended the horses. Both men stared at him. Scott returned to inspecting the sole of the bay quarter horse his father rode.

“He should have the task completed...” Ezra continued ignoring the warning tossed at him and Buck. David Delany lurched to his feet and struck the gambler across the jaw with his rifle stock. Standish was flung into Wilmington spewing blood and saliva as his head whipped around.

“Shut up.” The young man hissed out. David knew he could take the smaller man one on one. He was nothing but a fancy dressed peacock and not much bigger. David might have been shorter by an inch or two but he knew without a doubt if it came to blows the southern gambler would not fair well.

Buck started to rise to his feet but a cocking gun stopped him. “Try it Wilmington...spilling your brains means nothing to me.” Frederick explained. Wilmington stared hard at the older man and silently promised retribution.

Wilmington said nothing and slid back to the ground turning his attention to his friend. David settled back down after receiving a nod of approval from his father.

The Lady’s man helped ease the gambler back into a sitting position. “You ok pard’?” He watched as Standish nodded dumbly his eyes watering and unfocused. Buck watched him fight gamely trying to maintain coherency. “Don’t go out on me now.” He shook the conman with his shoulder trying to keep him awake.

“Tell me Mr. Wilmington,” Ezra slurred, “do you think that maybe you and Mr. Larabee could make a list of miscreants that want to inflict bodily harm on you and just invite them all to Four Corners so we could get this foolishness over with all at once?” Standish ran his tongue over his teeth checking for any telltale gaps.

“Ahh camon Ezra it don’t happen all that often.” Buck chuckled, “’sides your momma is a party to this as well.” A genuine smile crossed his mustached face as Standish groaned.

“Are you dumb or something?!” David asked approaching them menacingly with gun stock raised to strike again.

“Hit him again and your a dead man.” Buck warned his tone deadly. The young Delany paused it did not come across as a threat just a plain statement of fact.

The father watched the exchange silently. He saw his youngest hesitate. Wilmington was a formidable man in size and in ability. He did not carry the reputation of Larabee but the man was loyal and he did not make threats lightly. Fred knew his youngest boy was aware of this and it was because of this knowledge he paused. The father grinned with pride. His son was not blindly malicious he had intelligence. He knew when to poke the tiger with a stick and when to back off. The boy was learning.


The father decided to come to the boy’s aid and redirect the challenging stares. “Ahh I see Mr. Standish your choice of friend has improved.”

Buck felt rather than witness Standish tense at the remark. Frederick noticed it as well, “You see Mr. Wilmington Mr. Larabee allowed me the opportunity to kill your gambling friend and did nothing to stop it. All he had to do was speak up.” Delany laughed softly knowing he twisted the tale slightly for his benefit. He would have pulled the trigger anyhow. Buck turned a surprised gaze to conman. Ezra never diverted his eyes from the eldest Delany warning him speak no further. What had happened was between Chris and Ezra and noone else.

The pieces to the puzzle started revealing themselves but had yet to comprise a full picture. Buck waited for more of the story. “What’s he talking about Ezra?” Wilmington asked the suddenly subdued conman.

Standish did not move or alter the direction of his stare. Nothing.

“Ahh do tell Mr. Standish...” Delany mocked starting to enjoy the game. He did not wait for Maude’s son to speak but instead continued the tale, “Yes well I’m sure it is not all very clear to you since we did find you right after Mr. Larabee nearly succeeded in drowning you.” Frederick enjoyed the shocked expression that laced Wilmington’s face as he stared at Standish. For his part the gambler nailed Delany with a hard stare of his own.

Chris and Ezra never spoke about the river to anyone. It was a miss understanding wrought on by Ezra himself. He pushed Larabee into a fight. Chris as was his style took it one step beyond what Ezra expected of him. Delany was responsible for the rest, hell for the whole mess. Standish could not fathom why he goaded Larabee recently why he pushed the dark gunslinger. Chris had been a pawn just as himself. Larabee did speak up in Ezra’s defense. It was to late but what should it matter the gun was not loaded everything turned out fine. Why then did Ezra and Chris fight so vehemently?

“You see my dear Buck, your friend and leader allowed me without contest to place a gun to Mr. Standish’s head and squeeze the trigger.” Delany erupted in laughter at the disbelieving shock that raged unchecked through Wilmington.

“That ain’t true is it Ezra.” Buck said twisting the question into a definite fact. Larabee would back any of the others, he would go to his grave to do it. Wilmington stopped. Chris was headed right back in that direction with Ezra. Both pushed and shoved each other over the last week and today Ezra had actually challenged Larabee to kill him.

“Sure it is..” Delany said standing up and approaching the two men. Standish inched back closer to the tree. Buck laid a protective shoulder over the gambler’s. He squatted down in front of the gambler pulling his pistol. He leveled it at the gambler’s head holding about six inches away. Ezra stared back at him defiantly, or so he hoped. Ezra prayed he would not get sick.

“I just waltzed right up like this and” Delany pulled back on the hammer.

“You sick bastard leave’m alone!” Buck screamed lashing out with his feet leaning his body over the inert gambler.

The older man simply side stepped the sweeping legs, “pulled the trigger.” He squeezed the curved quarter inch arch of metal that made up the trigger. The exploding discharge of the firearm roared deafeningly through the night. It’s echo bounced off the distant hills eventually fading into the night like thunder.

Ezra sucked in his breath and shut his eyes as bark and wood rained down on him. The tree absorbed the impact of the bullet.

Delany laughed out right his sons joining in following their fathers lead. Delany patted the conman’s leg, “Told ya the gun would be loaded next time.” With that Delany pushed himself up and walked away pleased with himself.

Buck glanced quickly at the closed eyed gambler. “Ohh gawd Ezra you ok?” Buck asked quietly ignoring Delany and his brood. Wilmington watched as the tendons and ligaments of Ezra’s neck were held taut easily exposing the tension and fear. “Ezra?” He whispered again. Standish had yet to open his eyes. Instead his head shook as his neck continued to tense up. Buck wrestled with his bonds trying to free his hands wanting somehow to reassure the southern gambler that everything was all right. He turned his attention to Delany who now sat next to his eldest son still smiling.

“You bastard,” Buck hissed out silently promising revenge for the gambler.

“I think you are mistaken Mr. Wilmington,” Delany laughed, “he’s the bastard. Just ask his mother.” Again the foursome laughed harshly.

“Come on Ezra talk to me.” Buck implored, “say something.”

Ezra finally found his voice and tried to keep it even, “I’m fine Mr. Wilmington.” With that Standish slid down the tree. He tried to get comfortable on the ground in a facsimile of sleep.

Buck watched as Ezra curled slightly on his side keeping his back to Wilmington. Buck moved closer to him allowing the slight contact as a measure of comfort.

+ + + + + + +

Vin, Josiah, JD and Nathan entered the saloon. The dark shadows outside had quickly melted to a solid dusk gray. Night would be upon them before the hour. Chris sat in the back corner slumped around a near empty bottle of Red Eye. He sat within the shadows another silhouette in the background. Tanner nodded imperceptibly to himself. Chris was playing a dangerous game. He found solitude in the alcohol. Buck had spent years trying to haul him from that false refuge and had succeeded. With help from the others they were able to keep Larabee on level ground. Last week something tipped the scales something had dropped the floor out from underneath him. He plunged right back into the bottle without so much as a splash.

They could not blame Standish for all of it. Some how the southerner hurt just as much as the dark gunslinger. The manifestations of that pain was different. Chris warned everyone back with a scowl or silent threat. Standish played poker ruthlessly quickly emptying the pockets of his friends. His sharp tongue lashing out at everyone. Noone was spared from the hostility that emanated from the two men. Tanner was getting tired of it, it was time to get to the bottom of the problem. He would personally haul Larabee’s butt to a cell to dry out if needed.

The four men approached the table. Josiah noticed the shift in the tracker’s demeanor. The lithe man would not be put off by Larabee’s foul mood. Sanchez and the others would back him up. Without invitation Tanner took a seat. The others followed his lead. JD hesitated but matched the other mens’ movements.

Chris did not acknowledge the men. Instead he stared at the bottle. The damn bottle it usually dulled the pain and squelched the memories but not this time. It seemed the fiery drink only increased the whispers removed the grey of doubt. He had let the southerner down just like he had failed Adam and Sarah. He had tried to drown Standish but at last minute refrained. In the next breath Standish had sought help, aid from the gunslinger as a gun rested against his ear. Even half drowned the conman’s loyalty still demanded Chris to help him. Instead Larabee knelt by and watched mutely as the trigger was squeezed. He could hear the click, see the flinch and the empty blank stare of the man he had once called friend. He had failed Standish just as much as he had failed his own young son. The loyalty, the bond was different.

Adam was a son bonded to his father by an unseen but undeniable force. Did Adam’s scared blue eyes search the flame and smoke for his father? Did the young hoarse voice cry out his father’s name as he succumbed to the fire? Did scrawny young arms reach up desperately, imploringly for a father that would never carry him to safety? Chris left his son to die. He swore never to do that again. Never to fail anyone again. He admonished himself to always stand by Buck and the others sacrificing himself if need be to save them. Yet a week ago, cold and nearly drown, Ezra in a silent fashion pleaded for help, asking for back up. Larabee held his tongue. Not on purpose, he could not understand the level of loyalty the obstinate southerner offered, only to have thrust back at him. How was Larabee any different than Maude?

Standish remained loyal to his mother even after repeated betrayals, he still believed in her. The natural strength between mother and son. Chris knew he did not benefit from such forgiveness he understood Standish no longer expected protection or help in the form of Chris Larabee. It ate at him tore at him. In the throws of nightmares Chris saw those green eyes, heard the click of the hammer and the laughter that followed, the haunted empty look that followed that expected nothing from him.

He ignored Vin and the others. Eventual they would leave and he would no longer have to worry about disappointing them.

“Ezra and Buck are missing.” Tanner said matter of factly. His Texan drawl cutting through the haze of the whiskey. He received a grunt in response.

“We think Delanys’ got’em.” Vin finished. Josiah bit his lip hiding the smile. Tanner never said much and when he did he cut to the quick of the matter with no hesitancy. Sanchez marveled at the young trackers direct approach. It would not have suited many people, but Vin did not care what many people thought, just the six people he had become associated.

Chris raised his head and faced the ring of men that faced them. He blinked a few times trying to focus on the preacher directly across from him. The fool had faith in a belligerent God and Chris himself. Larabee wondered where Josiah found the faith. Nathan as was typical flanked the giant man. The healer himself a physically imposing man with a gentle hand. He too had faith in Larabee’s leadership and loyalty. The fool. JD the half grown man with faith of a child. He followed the others because they were older, smarter and faster. Dunne would quickly learn those things did not make a man worthy of his immense faith. His gaze landed on the tracker. Vin should know better. The man had incredible instincts. He should see Larabee for the man he was, unable to be there for others when needed. Here they were the four of them knowing he was drunk knowing he was no good to them yet they went to him for leadership and help. They were all fools.

Vin watched as Chris’s blood shot gaze landed on him. Tanner returned the stare waiting for what was left of his friend to answer.

“Delany?” Larabee finally asked. His voice low and dangerous.

“We think so.” Josiah answered forcing the watery gaze to meet his. Larabee was drunk but he still had a good head on his shoulders and would still back up his men. If there was one thing Larabee was it was loyal.

“Think they might have grabbed Buck and Ezra.” Nathan picked up the thread. He did not flinch as the tired glazed eyes fell on him. The animosity was there but the healer suspected it was directed inward.

“They ain’t come back and haven’t gone to Eagle Bend.” JD finished saddened when the haggard hard gaze fell to him. Would Chris even care anymore. Dunne berated himself, Larabee would never let them down he never had before.

“Delany’s got Ezra and Buck?” He growled. His anger began to grow.

“We’re not sure but it’d make sense. Those two show up missing and.....” Tanner slowly stopped speaking watching the rage start to boil under the once indifferent hazel eyes. Delany had something to do with the downfall of gunslinger and gambler. Delany had done something to smash the friendship between the two men. Delany was a dead man.

“Delany has Ezra?” Chris asked again in a low snarl. He pinned each man with a withering stare. Not again... He would not allow that again.

Noone spoke recognizing the deadly intent on their leaders face.


Ezra felt the barrel to his head. He tried to shake it off, tried to move away from it. He faced Chris waiting for some kind of fantastic intervention. Nothing.. Then the sound of an empty chamber. Standish gasped and bolted up right. He immediately fell back over panting trying to control the fear. Just a nightmare, another foolish nightmare.

Buck watched as Standish struggled in his sleep. He tried waking him by nudging him with his foot. Suddenly Standish let out a strangled breath and jumped sitting up only to land back on his side.

“Ezra?” Buck asked quietly. The fire had been rekindled. Sparks caught in the breeze danced skyward twirling with in the confines of the spiraling smoke. He waited a few minutes and tried again, “Ezra? You ok?” He moved closer to the conman shuffling the best he could on the cold ground.

“Are we still with in the confinement of the ever pleasant Delanys.” Standish drawled out.
Buck could not help but smile. The sarcasm was back the nightmare could not have been that bad.

“Yup.” Wilmington smiled out. He grew serious. He had been mulling over what Delany had to say. It painted an ugly picture of two men that would have gone to the grave protecting each other. “What Delany say true?” Buck asked. It would explain allot if Chris thought he failed one of his men and would unveil why Ezra had reverted back to his old callused ways.

“It is a version of the facts, but not the truth.” Ezra intoned. He struggled to sit up. Night had fallen. Stars dotted the cloudless night. No wonder it had gotten so cold. Standish inched closer to the fire seeking warmth. Wilmington shadowed him.

“You gonna tell me what happened?” Buck paused and pushed further, “this why you and Chris been trying to kill each other?” He watched the fire light flicker dancing shadows across the conman’s profile. For his part Standish stared into the bending and stretching flames.

“I think so.” His southern drawl soft. The flowery language left behind as he tried to prepare for the bare exposing truth. Standish knew the truth could be colder than any winter chill. This would be no different.

Fred Delany muffled his chuckle as Standish wove a straight plain version of the truth.

+ + + + + + +

Chris woke to a pounding headache and a queasy stomach. Someone slapped his face again. He would shoot who ever hit him.

“Git up Chris.” Tanner slapped the sleeping man’s face again. This received the desired effect. The hazel eyes snapped open promising hardship on whoever dared disturb him. Vin smiled. Chris could give it his best shot but in his condition JD could whoop him one on one. Dunne was a scrappy little fighter.

“Go away Vin.” Chris whispered out of deference to his pounding head.

“Nope. Ya gotta git up. Remember Buck and Ezra are missin’” Tanner reminded the struggling gun fighter.

The hooded eyes suddenly snapped open, “Delany.” He hissed out with renewed vehemence.

Noise in the street grabbed the tracker’s attention. He slid next to the window leaning his shoulder against the window pane peeking discreetly out into the street. He swore softly.

The urgency in his voice dragged Larabee from the confines of his bed. He flanked the window from the opposite side and swore his vengeance.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan, Josiah and JD had been in the livery saddling the horses. Josiah still mulled over the sudden acidic change in Larabee’s demeanor. He had switched from drunken indifference to a murderous rage. Delany was the key to the problem haunting gunslinger and gambler. Larabee swore revenge on the man and his brood. It was done in such a quiet calm fashion that Josiah actually feared for the family. Until he recalled the terror and fight that flowed through the two men the day the others found them. He recalled the quickly dissipating friendship that crumbled between conman and gunslinger. Sanchez began to hope Larabee would be able to carry out his plan of retribution.

JD saddled Bailey barely able to control his impatience. His horse pranced back and forth in response to his masters energy.

Nathan checked the supplies in his saddle bag. Hoping he would not need it but knowing Buck’s over protectiveness and Ezra’s running mouth bandages would be needed. Hopefully Silica’s expertise would not required. The undertaker had already taken all their measurements when the seven first started working as peacekeepers. Jackson chuckled softly. Silace would sit across the street and eyeball the men for their measurements. JD was horrified and actually ran from the old man. Ezra laughed saying that Silace was just hedging his bets. Buck glared at the older man and Chris simply warned the old Silace about premature deaths. Josiah saw crows in Silace’s future and informed the elderly gentleman of the fact. Nathan asked Silace to try and show so some patience.

Jackson’s musings were suddenly interrupted when the livery doors flew open. Josiah’s head shot up and he caught his breath. JD reached for his gun but Jackson stopped him with a heavy hand to his shoulder. The healer quietly shook his head no. They would lose all around.

+ + + + + + +

Buck and Ezra were shoved roughly into the barn. The two men stumbled but righted themselves before cascading to the hay covered dirt floor. Scott Delany trailed them followed by the youngest and their father. Brian was not present.

Josiah took in the appearance of his two friends. They were disheveled and angry but they were alive. Buck sported a large bruise and cut to his cheek. The anger in his blue eyes was undeniable. Wilmington would survive. Standish had somehow managed to tear his clothing. Bruises marred his once handsome face. Some were a result of Chris’s attack yesterday morning but the others were not. The green eyes appeared tired and unsure. The belligerence that had easily edged his eyes was missing. Someone had either beaten it out of him or he had given up.

“Well looky here a search party.” David Delany leered out. His sarcasm fell terribly short. The three peacekeepers held their ground noone going for their guns. Scott quickly made the rounds relieving the lawmen of their firearms.

Fred held his gun pressed to Wilmington’s back. The simple act seemed to only irritate Wilmington further.

“Well boys this is going better than planned.” The father purred out. With Wilmington’s life in the balance JD, Nathan and Josiah found their hands being bound behind their backs.

JD toyed with breaking free. The youngest Delany was not any bigger than he. Dunne was sure he could best him in a fight. David for his part challenged the young sheriff with a simple glare. Nathan caught JD’s dark brown eyes and simply shook his head. This was not the time to act defiantly or heroically. Dunne took the healers cue. Though he did not relish the inactivity and sudden passivity of his friends he would follow their lead. Beside Ezra did not look good. The gambler came across tired and beat up. It was if he was wary of this game. JD knew Ezra would never fold his hand but from the withdrawn posture it would appear that Standish would rather sit this game out.


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