Paying on Sins

Heather F.


Chris held the worn leather reins in slack hands. He pulled his hat low trying to keep the summer sun off his face. The black gelding walked at a leisurely pace. Its necked bobbed shallowly with each lazy step. Heat radiated off the semi desert floor adding to the discomfort of human and animal alike. Another two days and they would be back in Four Corners enjoying a beer and some relief from the sun. Larabee sighed tiredly, though the day had just begun the heat wore on him like a physical burden. Chris did not bother peering to his left. He could hear the heavy thud of Josiah's mount. Larabee knew Standish trailed a few feet behind practicing with his ever present deck of cards.

Josiah's large white blazed sorrel kept along side the black. The sorrel had no ambition to try and out pace the dark gelding. Its white socked legs dragged a lazy toe through the course sandy ground as it walked passively beside the black. Sanchez let his mind wander back to the town they had just left. There was not much there, a few buildings hastily thrown together to offer some assortment of civilization. Sanchez would have chuckled but it was just to damn hot. The 'town' did have a saloon....probably one of the first buildings erected. Standish had fallen into its a bear to honey. Occasionally the gambler got stung but he never seemed willing nor had the desire to break the habit. Chris and Josiah had sought out the Sheriff. The supposed trouble had been subdued before the three lawmen from FourCorners arrived. With no services needed Chris headed them home.

Sanchez kept his head down his large rim hat was pulled low as well, like Larabee's, trying to deflect the penetrating rays of the sun. There were no clouds in the pale blue sky. Though direct sunlight was kept at bay by the hat's brim, heat engulfed the travelers.

Behind them, flipping cards with practiced ease rode the gambler. The chestnut kept his head level with his withers neither raising its neck nor lowering it. It lagged behind the other two geldings his eyes closed against the brightness of the day. Its reins were looped loosely on either side of its neck. Where the leather rubbed the coat a sheen of sweat appeared. The horse flicked its ears in a hapless manner listening to the familiar flip of cards. Though it did not know it's owner actually worked cards between dusty fingers the animal understood the sound. They were not in a rush...there was no urgency to move faster than the heat of the day allowed.

Ezra moved cards quickly and quietly through his fingers not really focusing on what he was doing. It was done out of habit... something his mother taught him to keep his fingers limber. He could not remember when she had taught him how to move the cards down and around his fingers and back up into the deck but she must have shown him. There were not many people who could accomplish the simple moves.

Chris fought the urge to take a sip of water from his canteen. They had a solid day of riding ahead of them. The sun was only a few hours past the horizon and already the saddle horn was hot to touch. It would do no good to squander their water supply now. They had enough to reach FourCorners and then some and Vin had shown him a few well protected watering holes. Running out of water was not something he feared. He just did not want to take the energy to lift the canteen, undo the top and take a sip.

It was just to hot. No breeze tickled the air. Bugs hovered a few inches above the trail in masses. Heat shimmered off the prickly sage covered ground. The desert animals had found refuge from the blistering sun and none were to be seen. Chris licked his lips. Maybe he would just take a sip and get it over with at least it would sate his dry mouth.

The black gelding sensed something. It pricked its ears forward and then swiveled them around to face his rider. The horse could not detect urgency from the human. The black pivoted the ears left then right, back to front and then toward the rider again. His rider sat oblivious to the change in the unmoving air.

The black snorted. It shook its head and tested the air again. He felt his rider tense.

Josiah sat a little straighter in his saddle when his sorrel raised his head and swiveled his ears to the right. The horse no longer scrapped the toes of his hooves against the ground. Something had changed.

The chestnut noticed the change in the two geldings before him. Though the others sat straighter in their saddles his still flicked cards. The horse shook his head snapping reins from the nearly nonexistent grasp of his rider. It produced the desired result. The cards were put back and the reins had attained some air of communication.

Chris squinted at the landscape before him. Nothing but flat ground punctuated by a scattering of boulders and countless sage. The reddish rocky soil bled and disappeared into the shimmering reflective pools of heat. Nothing threatening sat before them.

Larabee glanced to his right. Josiah, he knew would be searching left and from the silence in the back Standish had finally put away his cards and was searching behind them.

Large bluffs made of crumbling black rock sat a few hundred yards to their right. A scattering of resilient plant life dotted the bluffs eeking out a small spot in which to grow. A few gnarled trees and scraggly scrub clung precariously to their spots in the middle of the stone wall. No birds, no predators...animal or human.

Standish swung around in his saddle. He rested one hand on the Cheyenne roll. The landscape behind them was just as non discript as the scenery before them. The bluffs sat to their right, no camouflaging foliage obscured possible ambushers. The trail they traversed meandered haphazardly through and between small outcropping of rocks and sage. Other than the occasional marauding rattler nothing would be shielded from sight. No one pursued them from their back trail.

"Here they come boys," Josiah's deep soft voice rang like a toll. Larabee and Standish both directed their attention to the left. Four maybe five riders were coming up on them fast. Dust rolled behind the apparent galloping horses. Sanchez squinted his eyes. There was something oddly familiar about the group that descended down upon them.

Like a wave slowly building off the shore line....the horses and riders took shape. As they drew closer Josiah felt fear tickle his skin.

A strong sense of foreboding shot up his spine.

"Ride Chris!" Sanchez roared leaning forward in his seat giving the horse his head and planting his spurs solidly in the animal's side.

The sorrel lunged from a slow walk into a full out sprint.

Chris did not spare a glance at Standish. Instead the Black coiled its back bowed it's neck and shot out after the receding hind quarters of the giant sorrel.

"Ahh hell," Standish muttered. Chaucer without any prompting grabbed the bit in his teeth and bolted after his two trail mates. There was after all safety in numbers.

In Four Corners

Buck knocked JD's bowler off his head. Dunne sat with his chair tilted back leaning it against the weather warped boards of the Sheriff's office. Wilmington stood just with in the doors entrance. The greying floor boards were worn into smooth grooves marking the countless passage of footsteps. Wilmington smiled when the bowler hat rolled on its rim under the hitch rail and into the deserted street.

"Cut it out Buck," Dunne bit out in a peevish tone. He actually contemplated leaving his hat in the dirt. No one would be out in this heat. Besides the sun seemed to have sapped JD of all his extra energy. It was to darn hot to be playing stupid games.

Tanner gazed up from under the rim of his hat. He had no intentions of getting involved. Hell it would be just easier to shoot those two than try and keep the peace between them. He closed his eyes again and did what most animals resorted to in unusually high temperatures.... as little as possible.

Nathan clopped wearily down the steps from the clinic. He noticed Buck and JD going at it again. Vin, of course, ignored them. Jackson figured it was best to just skirt around those three. In this heat tempers were short. The nights were not cooling off people were not sleeping well. With the broiling temperatures nerves became frayed. Nathan silently wondered if he should maybe suggest JD go fishing with Casey or something. Anything to keep him and Buck from causing a ruckus...especially if he was expected to mend the breaks in the skin. It was to hot to be fixing people today.

The healer paused on the steps maybe he should just go back to the clinic porch and hope the world ignored him for the day. It would be a nice twist.

Even this morning the heat was unbearable. It could not get much worse than this....Nathan smiled. Yes it could. He could be out on the trail with Chris and Ezra. Josiah was living through a 'Hell on Earth'. The man and his penance. Nathan wondered when Josiah would finally give up on trying to find forgiveness through horrendous toil. What demons plagued the man, Nathan had no idea but it had to be nearly catastrophic if it forced Sanchez out with those two.

Jackson would almost rather be on the roof of the church nailing on shingles than spend two days on the trail with Larabee and Standish in this heat.

Nathan silently mused, 'Wonder if they would hear the explosion from town when those two finally lit into one another?'. He stepped onto the board walk. He would head to the saloon maybe Buck and the others wouldn't see him.

"'Ey Nathan....where ya runnin' off too?" JD's young voice clapped through the morning.

Jackson stopped and hung his head.

Meanwhile back in the desert...

The rapid report of gunshots tore across the open air. Josiah led the trio at a maddening gallop. The sorrel ran following the convoluted game trail. Sage whipped its leg as it feet pounded the ground in earth swallowing strides.

The sorrel had not had to run like this in quite a while. The tension and smell of fear that emanated from his rider was something he had not sensed for some time. The popping sound of firearms, though familiar, were unwelcome reminders of his owner's occasional dalliance with danger.

Chris stole a glance over his shoulder. The gambler was hot on their heels. Like Chris, Standish leaned low over the saddle horn giving the Chestnut free rein.

With ears laid flat back, nostrils flared and one foot careening to the ground, the black gelding gained on the white socked sorrel ahead of it. He felt the reins tighten slightly. He was being held back. His rider did not want to out distance the other two geldings. Though the black's instinct drove the animal to greater speed, domestication and training forced it to heed the slight pressure on the bit. The black hounded the Sorrel's urged the lumbering beast ahead of it to stretch further, to quicken its pace.

Larabee held his horse in check. The black monster could run the devil himself to ground if given a chance. Chris watched as the five, not four, riders closed the gap on an intercept course. The small explosions of dust at the horses feet were ominous indicators of their pursuers encroachment.

The three lawmen pulled their weapons.

Josiah leaned hunched shouldered over the massive horn of his saddle keeping himself close to the stream line outstretched neck of his horse. He knew the hostiles were closing the distance.

Why didn't Larabee and Standish just pass him and escape from these marauders. Why did they choose to stay behind and risk getting shot? He knew the answers before the questions were ever thought...and he cursed them for their loyalty...and he feared they might learn some truths about him...should their pursuers catch them.

Standish held his Remington in a loose grip. It would do him no good to drop it now. With one hand he gripped the reins, not out of a need to control his mount. Never. Instead it kept the leather tethers from falling toward the ground and entangling themselves in the horse's feet. The Chestnut, neck elongated, eyes dilated sucked air through flared nostrils. With the natural grace of a beast made for long distance, the chestnut slipped into a secure ground eating pace. With the power of his Quarter horse half and the endurance of his Thoroughbred blood, the gelding easily kept pace with the two before him. He would run where the others ran unless otherwise dictated by his master.

In the past the chestnut had learned to change direction on the whim of its rider. These last few years they had fallen into the habit of following the six others that had joined their small herd of two. The gelding was not sure he was pleased with the company he was forced to keep but at times like these it seemed prudent to have more than one moving target.

On Chris's lead they started returning fire. Josiah heard the distinctive report of Larabee's Colt. Sanchez, without hesitation, turned and fired. Somewhere behind him, the sound of a Remington echoed.

The preacher urged his horse forward. The sorrel heaved for breath. His large hindquarters coiled underneath his barrel only to spring outward again. The right hind foot glanced the ground immediately followed by the left hindfoot. The front legs stretched, clipped the red soil only to recoil again. With sides heaving, dragging in volumes of hot stagnant air, the gelding raced onward. The fiery breath of the Black heated his haunches forcing the sorrel to dig harder to find more speed.

Bullets kicked up dust around the horses feet. The animals did not register the visual displays of impending disaster. They did not shy, they did not break stride. Under the encouragement and guidance of their riders the three geldings tore down the trail at break neck speed.

The smell of gunpowder did not have time to build. As dusty fingers squeezed triggers and the guns barked out in response the spot was abandoned. Only Standish had the chance to acknowledge the burnt smell of the discharged weapons. The gambler never noticed it.

Sanchez watched in dismay as the five riders continued to close in on them. He shoved his heels further into the horse's side. There would be time enough to apologize to the animal later. The sorrel, having a greater spirit than muscle endurance found a little more speed. With a heart fluttering wildly in its chest, lungs burning, its chest heaving to fill the demands of straining muscles, blood began streaming from both nostrils....the white socked sorrel gave its rider everything it had to offer.

A bullet found its mark.

Chris was thrown to the right, nearly tossed from the saddle.....

.....The sorrel wild eyed stumbled...its lungs bleeding. It rolled nose first into the trail. Its massive hindquarters carried by sheer momentum traveled up over its collapsing shoulders. It's chin slammed against its own white lathered pectoral muscles.

Sanchez found himself air born for a brief second. One moment he was staring straight ahead, then the sky suddenly filled his vision. The back of his shoulders impacted solidly with the earth...knees careened down smashing his forehead as his booted toes hit the rocky ground. He was then tumbling just out of reach of his somersaulting horse.

Ezra still firing at their pursuers heard the muffled exclamation from Larabee. He turned his attention just in time to see Sanchez launched from his saddle. The black with no place to go leaped over the tumbling horse and preacher all the while flinging his master like a wooden doll from the saddle. For a few moments all sounds ceased.

Standish pulled feverishly back on his chestnut. Drawing his hand and arm squarely to his chest as if his one arm had the strength to stop the maddening forward rush of eleven hundred pounds of horse.

The Chestnut gelding threw its legs out and slid to a halt nearly sitting down. Sparks flew from the iron shod feet as they scraped across the rocky floor. Both rider and horse watched with fascinated dread as the black cleared the upward pointing legs of the sorrel. With hind legs tucked neatly against its body Larabee's gelding sailed over Josiah and his downed horse.

The sorrel completed its somersault and shuddered to its feet desert sand clinging to its back, head and saddle. Sanchez continued to roll amongst the dry sage. The stiff dry branches tore clothing and skin alike.

Larabee lay in the dirt where he had landed....with a resounding thump.

The gambler had a sudden visual of JD at their very first meeting. The boy could fly...apparently so could Mr. Larabee and Mr. Sanchez.....landing, however, was another feat all together.

Ezra chuckled.

Standish's horse pranced in place, neither giving nor gaining ground. With eyes wide and tossing its head in short jerky motions, the Chestnut chomped at the bit. Its urgency for self preservation drove the animal instinctively while its rider dictated its actions. Chaucer maintained its position between the Man in Black and their pursuers.

Gun drawn, one hand tightly reigning his jittery horse in position, Standish stood against the approaching riders.

There were only four now....five horses...only four of the marauders had become a statistic.

A dimpled grin of cruel pleasure crossed Standish's dirt streaked face.

He held his fire. Four against one....With peripheral vision he watched for movement from at least one of his two friends. Sanchez was struggling gamely to his knees but seemed unable to retain his balance enough to remain upright. Larabee lay behind him out of sight. Standish did not dare look over his shoulder just yet.

Four against one. The cards did not appear in their favor.

Ezra slowly holstered his weapon and raised his arms outward in a sign of surrender. There was no place to hide and with two men down there was no use in fighting....for the time.

The four riders quickly surrounded the men in a semi circle. The imposing rock bluffs effectively preventing any hasty retreat in that direction. Ezra grinned sarcastically to himself. Definitely between a rock and a hard place....

Standish watched as two men dismounted and the other two aimed their guns at himself and Josiah. Apparently Mr. Larabee was not perceived as a threat. Either these men were fools or Chris was not moving.

Rough hands grabbed Standish and hauled him from his saddle. The Chestnut flattened his ears in protest. Ezra ignored his horse and hoped it did nothing foolish to get itself killed. He was stripped of his guns, both Remingtons, his shoulder rigging and unfortunately his derringer.

These men knew them.

Standish's arms were pulled roughly to the front of him and bound tightly with rope. The gambler hid his dismay. Rope...why rope...why not something with a lock?

"Move and we'll shoot your friends," It was spoken gruffly and with the utmost honesty. Ezra took some relief that he did not recognize these men. They, at least, were not some angry marks after some sort of twisted revenge.

They must be acquaintances of Mr. Larabee's or Mr. Wilmington's. Those two seemed to have enemies behind every tree and rock.

Ezra watched as Josiah was bound in a similar fashion as himself. The large preacher seemed to have regained some of his equilibrium and struggled to his feet bracing his forearm against his knee and pushing himself upright. Blood ran in dirty rivulets from his forehead down his cheek. His shirt was torn along one sleeve and a few ragged holes graced the shoulders. Ezra sighed, better Josiah's shirt than one of his own.

A sharp hiss of complaint drew both Standish and Sanchez's attention to Larabee. The dark clad gunslinger had been hauled to a sitting position. His hands were roughly bound in front of himself. Standish almost laughed....Chris still wore his hat...Buck had once told Mr.Dunne a good cowboy never lost his hat. Ezra did not think this was the time to point out that little tidbit of information to his friend..knowing how much Mr. Larabee appreciated being likened to the 'cowboy' folk.

The three geldings were gathered up. Chaucer gave the impression of balking. With a soft utterance from his rider the chestnut complied to his new handler. The sorrel stumbled and with quivering legs was lead over to the others. Twin tiny streams of blood dripped from its nostrils down its muzzle and slipped to the desert soil. The ground greedily absorbed any form of moisture.

The black kept its ears flat back challenging anyone to make a wrong move.

The gunman who had tied their hands reached wearily for the black's dangling reins. Like Chaucer the gelding refrained from attempting to bite though it danced lightly with its front feet. It confidently gave the impression it knew how to use the iron shod feet as weapons. Its dark aggressive attitude bubbled in plain sight. It warned the world to stay at bay but allowed the new man to lead him and his herd.

The three captive men were each secured to pony lines. The stiff gnarled ropes were anchored to saddle horns.

No one spoke.

Ezra watched the movements and interactions between the four silent men with interest. Three of the riders held the ends of the lariat ropes. The leader apparently was the man in the blue shirt and tan hat. He gave his directions with just a glance...much like Mr. Larabee. Standish groaned inwardly.

What surprised the conman was the way the leader eyed Sanchez. Josiah must have still been reeling from the fall because apparently he was unaware of the cold scrutiny he was under.

"You in the fancy shirt tend his wounds," The leader spoke with a direct gruffness, never taking his eyes off the swaying Sanchez but clearly indicating it was Larabee that needed fixing.

Standish cocked his head at a sideways angle as if to judge the older man on horse back. The ominous click of a hammer added some subtle encouragement. The conman watched as the pistol was aimed at Larabee's chest.

"Tend the wounds now or I'll just put'im out of 'is misery." This came from the man on the ground.

The gambler sighed wondering where had good manners gone...


Chris stumbled to stand beside Standish, "Friends of yours?" Chris hissed out between clenched teeth. He could feel blood tickle down his chest as blood oozed slowly from the wound high in his shoulder.

Ezra raised his eyebrows in mock shock, "I would like to think I attract a better class of miscreants." Standish peered under the charcoal shirt and inspected the wound. It proved difficult with two hands tied and secured to yet another rope.

Larabee threw the Southerner an impatient glare. If his hands were not tied, Ezra got the impression that the gunslinger might actually strangle him. Maybe some good could come from this little rendezvous.

Not likely.

"I think perhaps our Mr. Sanchez might be able to cast some light on our current predicament." Standish replied casually with a simple jut of his chin toward the ataxic older man. Ezra wadded up a handkerchief and placed it against the entry wound. The seeping blood held it in place for now.

Chris hissed in response.

"Josiah?" Chris called out quietly. Larabee wanted to check the wound in his own shoulder. Blood ran down his back as exit wound, hopefully....or sweat. Either way the sensation was maddening and only enhanced the growing pain in his shoulder.

Sanchez either ignored his name or did not hear it. Larabee let it rest. If the dazed subdued expression was any indicator of Josiah's condition his ears would be ringing like Sunday Church bells.

"Mr. Larabee....Mr. Larabee...." Ezra intoned again with a slightly peeved inflection. Why didn't people listen the first time? Then again if people did pay attention to those around them they would not be so easily conned.

"Chris..." Standish raised his voice getting the gunslingers attention....and unfortunately one of the riders attention as well. Ezra was forced to turn the gunslinger around to check for an exit wound. One of the captors handed him a balled up shirt. Standish cursed when he noticed it was one of his very own.

What level of degradation had his laundry fallen too? Mr. Larabee had better appreciate the sacrifices he was making in seeing to the wounds. With a lack of finesse spawned of never having to really tend anyone but himself, Standish stumbled through the chore of bandaging the shoulder.

Chris bit the inside of his cheek and forcefully reminded himself that the gambler was indeed on his side and a friend. When Ezra cinched down on the knot to hold the makeshift dressing in place Larabee grabbed the gambler's forearm.

"Please Ezra....whatever ya do..." Larabee rasped between waves of pain, "don't ever do me the favor of helpin' me again."

Standish regarded Larabee for a moment hoping to find some indicator that Chris was speaking in jest. The conman saw none and disgustedly muttered, "That's gratitude. I work heedlessly, unselfishly sacrificing my time for what.....crude remarks."

Chris ignored the southerner and started to inspect the bandaging job himself. Not half bad..

The large dark man still seated in his saddle swung around as if he had been slapped.

His deep brown features scrutinized the gambler from under an angry brow. His curly hair was cropped short as if it had been done by his own hand. The wide set eyes narrowed with suspuscion.

"Ya a suthin' boy?" The sharp tone in his voice caused Larabee to ignore his shoulder wound and watch the interaction between captor and gambler.

Damn conman couldn't go a minute without attracting trouble. Chris swore silently.

Standish returned the glare, though he lacked the man's imposing size and apparent strength, he equaled his captive in vehemence.

"I axed ya a question," The horse bound man tugged on the rope forcing Standish to take a step forward. Ezra's boots scuffed the ground kicking up a small pool of dust. A sarcastic dimpled smile slipped across his dusty features.

Larabee noticed this and swore he would one day wipe that fool's taunting grin off his face. Why did the idiot have to bait people? Especially people bigger than himself.

"Benjamin....leave it be....." the leader eyed Sanchez with a malicious glare. The leer that crossed his grizzled features had both Standish and Larabee following the Josiah.

The preacher merely stared at the hocks of the horse he was tethered too. The mustached leader seemed pleased at the apparent quiet surrender of Sanchez.

Josiah moved automatically standing where placed, offering no resistance. The time had come for atonement.

"Leave'im be for now," The man continued turning his full attention to the black man and then toward the gambler, "..we got some ground to cover," With that the leader urged his Buckskin forward with simple leg pressure. Josiah stumbled behind trying to maintain his shaky balance and keep pace with the large horse. They left at a brisk walk.

Josiah trailed behind occasionally stumbling but maintaining his feet. His shoulders rolled slightly under the burden of captivity. Each time the slack in the rope disappeared the rider would turn and grin as the preacher tripped and stuttered his feet to keep up.

Chris would have liked to have a word with the preacher but he struggled behind an ill tempered Dun. Larabee wanted to look over his shoulder at Standish. Both the pain in his shoulder and the close proximity of the Bay behind him prevented such movements.

They walked like that for better part of the morning.

Chris hung his head between his shoulders. His shirt had become damp with both sweat and blood. The pain in his shoulder had plateaued to a severe burning sensation. Any misstep, any wrong movement of his neck and any tension on the ropes brought blinding agony. If he strode to close to the Dun the horse would crow hop and threaten to kick. If he lingered to far behind the rope grew taut and mercilessly put tension on his arms. Larabee concentrated on freeing his wrists but even that brought sharp reports of agony.

It would seem they would have to rely on Josiah to get them out....or Ezra to finagle the way out of the ropes.....Shit.

Foolish conman couldn't get himself out of a gunny sack with a knife if there was knot in the rope.

Chris would occasionally lift his head and try and catch glimpses of Josiah. The preacher appeared to be holding his own. Chris had tried to mark the improvement of Sanchez by reading the larger man's trail in the dirt. The boots no longer scuffed the earth with every step. The strides had lengthened somewhat. With a little luck Josiah would fill them in on what was going on.

Standish tried to wipe sweat from his brow with his shirt sleeve. He sighed with disgust at the accumulated dust on the once white garment. He shook his head with resignation and wiped his head any how. Mud now smeared the forearm. Resigned to the indecency of grime Standish continued to plod on following the Bay. Occasionally its rider would tug impatiently at the rope sending the conman scurrying to regain his balance. 'Benjamin' would turn in his saddle and smile, a warning of what was to come.

Standish returned the grin....Never let them see fear...or so mother had told him, of course this was the same woman who taught him the nuances of picking a pocket when he was just a child. Ezra frowned...both were useful tactics if employed judiciously. Mother did well by him...when it came to education.

Ezra struggled with the wraps of rope that bound his wrists and wondered with some infuriation why his dear old mother never instructed him the ways of knots. Where were a good set of iron clad shackles with a sturdy lock when one needed them?

Who used ropes in this day and age? The southerner stared accusingly at the back of his captives...Neanderthals.

The group walked in silence. The last man in line ponied the three horses. The Black gelding switched its tail in anger. It kept its tail head tight to its body. The chestnut dogged behind trying to grab snatches of food when ever possible. Between the two, plodded the sorrel. It hung its head in quiet servitude ignoring the younger geldings. The man holding the lead line would turn and swear at the three whenever the rope pulled taught. Chaucer in response to the tension would flick his head fighting for more length as front teeth closed on rough forage. The rider would turn over his left shoulder in anger and slap the Black with coil of rope 'encouraging' it to keep pace.

The Black fumed under such treatment. The Chestnut would munch quietly on the unsavory morsel of food and return to his place beside the sorrel before the rider peered over his right shoulder and discovered the true source of tension.

The Black laid his ears back and attempted to bite the Chestnut gelding. Chaucer merely ducked his head lower than the Sorrel's neck seeking some protection from the larger, older horse. This game continued for over an hour. The Black, ears pinned teeth bared would stretch over the Sorrel for the elusive neck of the Chestnut.

The Black became increasingly hostile. The rider's frustration was pronounced in the frequency in which he struck at the black. Chaucer was developing something of a belly ache as a result of eating so much strange forage material. The sorrel was becoming increasingly hot.

Chris no longer tried to read the dirt for signs of Josiah. There were no obvious dragged body marks so Sanchez must still be on his feet. No one had fired a shot so Ezra must be keeping his mouth shut. Chris smiled. He wondered if Josiah would consider that a small miracle.

Larabee tried not to focus on water. He cursed himself for not taking a sip from his canteen earlier this morning. The sun continued to bake down on him. The back of his neck felt hot but the brim of his hat should have protected him from the penetrating rays. He stared at the ropes that encircled his wrists and continued to work on them.

Ezra sighed. What had happened to him? Where had he gone wrong? He was not made for this kind of life. It should be obvious to his captors that he was above such drudgery. Now if they were an angry mark or poor souls that lost to him at the gaming tables...sure he could understand their animosity. No one liked to be bested. This, however, was unconscionable. What had he done to deserve this? Nothing....just the wrong place at the wrong time. It infuriated him. He made a living out of being in the right place at the right time. Hit when the pickings were good, slide in when defenses were down. Make your money and light out of town. How could this have happened to him? The conman narrowed his eyes at the haunches of the bay that lead him. His associates...yes it was his associates that sunk him to such a deplorable state. They would be the ruin of him one day. Yes, this was all their fault. He would have to make it a point to inform them....over a cool beer back in the saloon.

Josiah cursed his luck. He knew one day this would happen. He had prayed that it would. He needed to atone for his sins. Sanchez realized at some point he would be held accountable for his past life. He never thought it would ensnare the people he considered family. The preacher did not bother gazing up to the sky...he did not bother asking the Lord for intervention. The preacher knew beyond a doubt that his God had forsaken him just as he had forsaken his God at one time.

When Josiah had seen those five riders bearing down on his small group he knew Hell had opened its doors. The preacher had no problem paying for his own mistakes and ill deeds but he felt a tug of guilt that others were caught in the web of retribution as well. Though Chris Larabee and Ezra Standish were by no means sinless...they did not deserve to fall into the hands of such a deprived soul as the man who led this small band of outlaws.

Two more innocent lives would be sacrificed because of him. Josiah shut his eyes and took another step. It would be best if they had just shot him now.

+ + + + + + +

Buck shoveled in another spoonful of stew. Mrs. Clarkston made the best stew in the territory. Hot biscuits steamed on the side of his bowl and a few more laid smoking in the wicker basket in the middle of the table. Vin sipped from his beer leaning back in his chair uninterested in eating. He had pocketed a few biscuits for never knew when one's next meal might come.

JD brushed into the room in a flurry of motion. The curtains billowed briefly for the first time that day at the open windows. They quickly lay quiet again with no breeze to catch their floral material.

Vin watched the younger man from the corner of his eyes. To anyone else it would seem Dunne was full energy today. To those that knew him well, they could easily tell the heat had sapped him from his usual exuberance.

"Got a Telegram from that Sheriff....says Chris an' the others headed back this mornin'," Dunne sat in the chair Vin had pulled out with the simple movement of his foot. It was to hot for much else. Sweat dampened his shirt forcing it to cling to his back.

"Must not've needed their help," JD continued reaching for a biscuit. They were hot. He nearly scalded his fingers and was forced to juggle the hot bread from hand to hand before Vin tiredly handed him a small plate. "Thanks Vin, those are pipin' hot."

"The steam might've bin the clue kid," Tanner muttered in reply sippin' from his warm beer. Buck peered over his spoon at the bounty hunter. The kid did not need picked on today.

"Think they'll be back tomorra?" Dunne asked without skipping a beat. Tanner shook his head in wonder at JD. The kid just did not take offense to much. He probably figured Vin had imparted another important lesson to him. Steam equaled hot. Vin closed his eyes. The heat was getting to him. It felt as if a thousand tiny pins pricked his skin where ever his clothes stuck to him.

Dunne ignored the tracker. Tanner had been on edge since the heat wave hit. With the other three out of FourCorners it forced Vin to stay close to town. It was wearing on the Texan. JD saw this and ignored the misdirected barbs uttered softly by the quiet man.

"Nah kid...." Buck answered, "Its a two day ride if they pushed....they ain't in no rush and have plenty of water we won't see'em for a few days yet." Wilmington hoped he was wrong. Vin was getting edgy just hanging around town. Maybe they could convince Nathan to take him on a few house calls.


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