Paying on Sins

Heather F.


Josiah walked with a limp. Somehow the rim of his boot rubbed against the bullet crease. He could feel the skin chafe and burn. The blood had dried to the hairs of his leg. With each step the crusted blood pulled on the hairs, the nerves associated with the follicles complained loudly. He gimped, the material of his pants caught and pulled at the wound. The burning sensation continued spiraling in an endless manner. Sanchez kept his eyes forward but watched the gambler beside him.

The Southerner kept his head bowed unable to keep his chin off his chest. Mid morning Standish had finally fallen into a steady pace slightly behind the other two. Occasionally a toe would catch a root or slip across a rock but either Josiah or Chris would quickly steady him. A muttered 'thankyou' was uttered but nothing more.

Larabee paced to the other side of the gambler. He lacked the obvious limp of Sanchez or even Standish. Chris cringed occasionally when the gambler would favor his left leg...The knife must truly be bothersome. Larabee kept a slightly loop in his lariat to keep the pressure off his shoulder. He strode a step before his two companions. Occasionally Ezra would mis-step and bobble for a bit before recapturing his balance. The dark gunslinger watched Sanchez hiss with each foot placement. The gun shot to the leg was obviously uncomfortable.

Chris started working on a plan. They could not withstand much more neglect and punishment.

Garrett kept pushing the pace. His Buckskin clipped the ground at a brisk walk. Benjamin rode behind him, his mount kept at slower smoother gait. The knee to the groin from last night had hurt the ex-slave. Damn southerner dug his own grave.

Kerns was not sure what he was going to do with his captives. Kill them yes, that was never any doubt...but how? The gambler he would leave to Benjamin. Maybe tonight he would let him finish the bastard. Kerns smiled thinking about the pleas Sanchez would utter.

The gunslinger was another matter. Sanchez respected the man that much was evident. Garrett found that peculiar. As far as Kerns knew Sanchez respected no one or anything. Life was taken as easily as a breath. How could he destroy that respect? If he just killed Larabee then it would only inflame Sanchez's anger. Garrett wanted him to grovel...wanted the preacher to beg for the life of another...just as Garrett had done over Bobby's grave.

Flay him? Kerns dismissed the thought. He had no stomach for out and out torture. Some where deep inside a conscience still struggled to be heard. He wanted Josiah to feel the pain of betrayal the agony of permanent loss....He wanted Sanchez to live through the death of a brother. Kerns wanted that death to be slow and painful....but to the preacher. He wanted apart of Josiah to die. Garrett had nothing against the men who rode with Sanchez. They did not deserve this kind of death...but if it would teach the murdering bastard what it was like to suffer a death then so be it.

Kerns would use the tools before him...The gunslinger and gambler.

The sun rose quickly in the sky. The heat blasted the ground. Chris could feel it through the soles of his boots.

Larabee peered up at the sky in accusation. No relief in sight. At least they all had their hats. Chris dropped his gaze to the man who ponied them. It would be a shame to have to kill him but if that's what it took to escape then he would gladly sacrifice that life for Josiah and Ezra's survival. The McCalls had decided with whom they would ride. Chris would hold them accountable.

Larabee swore under his breath. The low crown hat once again was flipped off the gambler's head. "Gawd dammit Ezra," Chris uttered trying to snatch the hat before it hit the ground. The small action pulled on his injured shoulder. He bit his cheek.

Larabee squashed the hat back on the Southerner's head, "Leave it on." The gunslinger was getting sick and tired of having to catch the absently discarded hat. Standish had taken to removing it with increasing frequency.

They walked a few more feet and once again Ezra raised his hands and knocked the hat off his head. This time Josiah was ready for it and caught it. He miss stepped putting more weight on his injured leg. A groan and curse escaped chapped lips. The preacher hopped one legged for a stride or two before placing the foot back down. His limp was more pronounced for another few strides.

"Got to keep the hat on Brother," Sanchez gently ordered. He placed the dust covered hat back on the sweat crusted head.

"Head hurts," was the only explanation. A few steps later the hat was once again brushed off by bruised, lacerated, wrists.

Chris grabbed it out of the air. His patience had bottomed out. "Gawd dammit Ezra ya don't keep this on I'm gonna nail it to yer head." His voice was raspy and coarse, his impatience bared for all to hear.

The Southerner nodded his head slightly....properly chastised. His shoulders slumped further rolling inward in apparent defeat.

They plodded a few more yards...once again the hat was shoved off.

Sanchez easily caught it. A smile cracked his reddened features. He shook his head at would do no good to push their brother now.

With hat in hand the preacher limped beside the gambler, who strode with an increasingly unsteady stride next to a smoldering demon in black.

+ + + + + + +

Chaucer trotted a head of the other two geldings and bit the horse in front of him. His teeth actually snapped together when the thick hide adjacent to the tail head slid between his yellow brown incisors.

The light bay squealed and lunged forward. The rider was tossed into the saddle horn and pommel, allowing the reins to loop. The bay with more head maneuverability lashed out with its hindfeet. Being left dominant the horse struck out nailing the Black in the pectoral muscle.

The Black gelding screamed in frustration and bounded forward on its hindlegs cutting the air with its front feet.

Peter quickly gathered up his reins and urged his horse forward and to the right just out of reach of the slashing front hooves of the black.

"Son of a Bitch!" McCall's panicky curse turned heads. His light Bay pranced sideways trying to maintain its distance from the three horses that trailed it. The horse ignored the frantic leg and hand commands of it's rider preferring it's own consul when it came to its own safety.

Chaucer picked at the ground cover at his feet rubbing his cheek against his cannon bone. The Sorrel kept its ears pinned warning the others to keep away from it. The Black, neck flexed and muscles taught threatened to strike again.

Kerns turned around in his saddle, "There a problem back there?" His curt angry tone easily carried a threat.

"This Gawd damn Black is loco," Peter returned not gazing at his boss for fear of the wild eyed gelding behind him.

"If ya can't handle them horses then you ain't got any use to me," Kerns cautioned.

David swung his head toward his boss wondering if the implied threat was real. McCall caught his breath. Garrett was as crazy as Benjamin mean. He and Peter did not sign on to be killed by their first chance they were making a break..with or without pay.

The McCalls exchanged silent glances. Killing and stealing were just fine...they had no problem with such things as long as they were not on the receiving end of such treatment.

Peter swallowed gathering his courage, "I can handle them." He would rather fight the black than eat a bullet from Kerns.

Larabee sighed and caught Josiah's eye, "His damn horse is a petulant son of a bitch." Sanchez chuckled and shrugged placing the hat back on the gambler's head.

Ezra pushed it off, "Head hurts."


Vin cut them over land leaving the wandering game trails behind. The others followed without question. Out here Tanner made decisions quietly only offering vocal reasons if one was asked of him.

The others held their tongues. The tracker was the best at what he did...he had a gut instinct that nearly matched his ability to read sign.

Buck tried to engage JD in conversation but the kid seemed uncommunicative. He spoke to answer questions, mostly monosyllabic or grunts, nothing more. The young Sheriff smiled when appropriate but all and all concentrated on watching Vin.

Wilmington eventually eased the Grey back giving JD his space. The young Bostonian occasionally rubbed at his if the ill feeling that had draped itself around the sheriff was actually making him physically sick. Buck sighed quietly to himself. There was a time when Chris would do the same thing...there was a time when Larabee intensely felt the pain of others. His empathy had been incinerated with his family.

With time Buck knew JD would become callused to such feelings. He would still have his instincts and hopefully still follow them but they would eventually stop affecting him so deeply. It had happened to all of them at some point. Some younger than others.

Tanner's had retained his sympathies, in fact they had happened to become sharper more honed. For those he cared about he protected like a watch dog. He cherished his friends never taking them for granted. As a result the man was an untiring hound on the scent. He not only followed the ground and the wind but the tickling sensation that affected them all somehow afforded the young tracker a sense of direction.

The long haired buffalo hunter made decisions and path corrections seemingly on a whim. Buck was not one to follow blindly...hardly ever but something in him told him...demanded him to follow.

Tanner knew what he was doing.

Nathan once again bit his lip. His long legged gelding left the trail following mutely behind the high stepping grey. To the healer one sage covered mesa looked basically like another. How Vin read anything from the dry soil amazed the man. Jackson did not have much faith in his fellow man. Never did. Over time, through the help of Josiah and Mary and then the others, the ex-slave had developed a sense of trust. The other six had proven to him that some good men still lived in this world. Not everyone was out to keep him his place. Nathan did not have to prove himself to these men. They accepted him for who he was...his past be damned. They did not see the slave, they did not see the chains or leash that had once bound him. They only saw the man...and took him in as a friend. He reciprocated in kind willingly of his own volition.

Even the Dixie loving gambler had accepted him. If a Southern Gentleman, who was not gentleman, could see past the color of skin then there was hope yet for this world. Though the acceptance between the two men was slow to form and the bridges of friendship were tenuous, they were there.

Ezra was a bigot.....Nathan knew himself to be a bigot...between the two they had learned to see through ingrained prejudices and appreciate each other for whom they were. Jackson knew Standish to be a sly talking gambler who would cheat ya blind if an honest game would not take your money....and Ezra saw Jackson as a man foolish enough to want to help his fellow citizen for the mere chance of being accepted as an equal.

Both were each others eyes.

JD was too open minded to hold such depriving thoughts of prejudice. The young Bostonian honestly believed that all men were equal...not some more equal than others. The sheriff regarded advice offered to him by the others with none held more important than another. He weighed his choices and made his own decisions. Jackson marveled at the novelty he found in Dunne. The healer silently wondered how long it would last before Dunne was pushed down the rode of prejudgement and disdain.

The sun had begun to set. Vin still lead them at a ground eating pace. The tracker was no longer following trail signs. Instead it seemed he tested the air. Jackson squinted against the reddening glow of the setting sun quietly trying to deduce what made Tanner trust his instincts so implicitly.

Vin gave up on reading the tracks. Whoever had captured Chris and Josiah had revenge on their mind. There were not many places a group could travel out here. With as many horses as the missing group had they had to be keeping close to the watering holes. Tanner played a hunch.

He would swing toward the largest hidden oasis.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah carefully guided Chris to the ground, trying not to step on the conman. Chris's wound had cracked open and started bleeding again. Standish had merely folded into himself and sank to the dirt and lay curled unmoving. Sanchez had dropped the low crown hat over the exposed side of the gambler's face offering some protection, though it seemed a mute point now.

"Let me git a look at that Chris," Sanchez maneuvered around the conman and squatted beside the gunslinger.

"We're gettin' out of here tonight," Larabee whispered. His lips were cracked and the dry skin bled easily with every movement. His eyes burned and were gritty. It felt as if sand had worked its way into the bullet wound and abraded the area raw.

"You have a plan?" Josiah answered back peeling the stained bandage away from the wound. Larabee hissed when the skin pulled free.

"Git to the horses and kill anyone in our way," Chris clenched his stiff and swollen hands shut against the pain in his shoulder.

" the point...," Josiah attempted a smile but the leathery texture of his face prohibited it, "lacks a little flair as Ezra would say."

Both men turned their attention to the gambler. His eyes were still swollen shut, one ear was a deep purple/blue nearly matching the midnight blue duck tailed coat hanging in his closest back at the saloon. Dried blood had blackened his hair around the temple region. The patchy bruising of his skin around his face and neck stretched clearly down under his shirt to his chest and surrounding thorax. He had been dull and unresponsive most of the day.

"Well its better than stayin' here," Chris turned his attention to the men setting up camp. He watched as Kerns tended his Buckskin..much like JD did his little bay. Kerns still had feeling for things around him.

He hoped Buck and the others could help keep JD from following the path of Garrett and even himself had taken in the name of justice.

Dunne was too good. It would be a tragedy to waste such a clean soul on the blind forces of revenge.

"I don't want to kill Garrett if it's not necessary," Josiah finally said. "He was a good kid once, had a heart of gold." Sanchez voice spoke with tragic emotion. To think he killed two brothers that night for the sins of one.

Chris kept his silence and merely nodded. He would kill Kerns if it came down to choosing lives.

"We wait til dark," Larabee softly hissed. Josiah nodded silently and continued to pick the dry blood and pus from Chris's wound.


Under the cold cover of night Josiah slipped his hand into the left boot of the gambler. The leg radiated heat. A watering hole rested nearby just out of sight. Sanchez could smell it. Funny how the body could fine tune senses to detect what it needed most.

His large fingers felt the hilt of the knife. There was no room to curl his roughened hands around the small blade so instead he gripped it between his middle and index finger.

Standish did not move. He had not uttered a sound or made a single gesture since hitting the ground when they made camp.

No water had been offered to the prisoners....a bad sign.

Earlier in the evening the three geldings had been taken to water. A fight had ensued between them. They were out of sight but Chris and Josiah could hear the McCalls cursing the Black. Then splashing and more dark oaths and finally the Sorrel had meandered back to camp wet and without a handler. The stirrups flapped unnoticed by the front legs, water ran from the leg fenders in an uninterrupted stream.

A few minutes later Chaucer was led up the path, a large raw mark graced his wet neck. Something had recently taken a large bite out of him. The slick gelding was drenched and an air of disgust radiated off him. The leather saddle had become mottled with moisture. David McCall just as soaked pulled the dawdling gelding to the rumutea line.

The Black pranced up last his tail held high his ears no longer rested against his head. Peter McCall led him brandishing a large stick as a warning. The Black had ignored the man at the end of the rope. Water beaded off the ebony coat giving it a luster it had lacked these past few days.

Josiah had chuckled, "Horses are ready."

+ + + + + + +

Sanchez slid the knife discreetly out of the boot. In the camouflage of shifting shadows he easily made short work of his ropes. Under the guise of tending Larabee he handed off the blade. Chris was forced to cut the Southerner's bindings as well as his own. Larabee cringed when he peeled the ropes from torn wrists. The dry skin tented and bled as newly formed scabs were ripped free. The ropes had furrowed deeply into the tissue carving their own niche in the wrists. Standish's wrists, as well as his own, bled freely.

Peter McCall had night duty. Benjamin still favored his 'leg' and spent the better part of the evening in the small water hole. No one had bothered to joke with him about the nature of his injury.

David had come up with a plan. They were leaving tonight. They would forgo their pay and hopefully spare themselves a bullet in the back and the dubious label of murderers. Though taking the life of the three men across the camp fire did not bother them, they had come to realize that if Garrett could take three lives so easily what were two more.

Self preservation was stronger than the lure of the all mightily dollar. David had kept their two mounts saddled, under the excuse that if the three geldings should start to fight and bolt they would round them up quicker.

It was a weak explanation but apparently worked. It was not difficult to believe that the stubborn chestnut and raunchy black would get into another pissing contest. Those two were intolerable. They would have made better meals than mounts.

With escape in mind Peter McCall all but ignored the three captives that sat quietly in the shadows across camp.

The gunslinger was weak from blood loss, the gambler could hardly keep his feet and the large preacher had been defeated the day they were captured. McCall felt confident that the three were adequately subdued with their rope bindings, dehydration and raw hunger.

McCall watched as Kerns fell into the easy shallow rhythm of sleep. He waited a few more minutes and then prodded his cousin gently. It was time to go.

Kerns heard the two cousins gather up their gear. He listened to their poor excuse about leaving their horses saddled. Garrett saw the lie easy enough and let it ride. David and Peter meant nothing to him and this morning when he had all but threatened to kill the youngest McCall he knew he over stepped his bounds.

Kerns could not blame the cousins. It was with a touch of jealousy bordering on envy that he watched the undeniable bond of family. Bobby, Josiah and he had been like that once. They were unbeatable, no one was their match or equal. Between the three of them they could have stormed the gates of hell and stolen its treasures.

Kerns closed his eyes tightly. He would kill Sanchez and his friends. He had no desire to wrought his revenge on the two poor saps that found themselves riding with him. Garret and Bobby had made a fatal mistake bringing Sanchez into their world. He would afford Peter and David an exit...away to atone for young foolish mistakes.

Kerns let the cousins slip out of camp into the night.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah watched somewhat relieved when the two cousins left the camp a few hours ago. Chris had said earlier in the day that the two would make a break for it. It seemed Larabee was right. The gunslinger had laid back down with a sigh of exhaustion and slept the ladder part of dusk away. The rosy flush of fever was masked by the sunburn. Large flakes of peeling skin hung from his dry lips. Blood ringed his mouth and coated his teeth mingling freely with the dust that had settled there.

Josiah watched over his two companions hoping to protect them. He had done the same thing time and again for Bobby and Garret Kerns when the trio had been run out of town or lost favor with a 'boss'. Sanchez had watched over the two 'boys' like a proud uncle. He shuttered hugging himself closer when he remembered the shock on Bobby's face as he slid to the saloon floor blood bubbling from his chest.

Sanchez closed his eyes asking forgiveness believing he deserved none.

The stars slowly shifted position over the desert. The little dipper moved in an arch against the blue black sky. Just a slip of a moon hung in the clouds obscured the view. The night was raw, a breeze with a sharp edge cut through clothes raising goosebumps and chilling over heated skin.

The crackle of the camp fire competed with the gentle shifting of horses on the rumutea line. Sanchez raised his head slightly off his curled arm, peering over the gambler he caught Larabee's eye.

Chris simply nodded. It was time to move.

Sanchez put his hand over Standish's mouth and gently shook the younger man awake. Josiah clamped his hand tighter when the gambler's green eyes shot open rolling wildly left and right. The preacher raised his index finger to his lip in a gesture of silence.

Standish nodded his head in understanding. Josiah smiled briefly and slowly released his hand...ready to clamp it back down should Standish not understand what his eyes perceived.

Without any words the threesome ignored the aches and cries of protest from battered weary bodies and slid out of camp toward their horses.

The geldings were saddled. They had never been unsaddled. The McCalls feared the black to much to risk handling it. The horses backs would be scalded by now....rubbed raw by the incessant friction between sweat and wool blankets. There would be time to tend and mend those wounds of mistreatment once they were back home.

Ezra tightened the cinch on Larabee's horse and then his own resting his forehead against the saddle periodically. Josiah fitted the animals with their bits. The three geldings stood trace of the earlier hostility present. Chris used Standish's knee to climb into his saddle....Sanchez all but tossed the gambler onto Chaucer...with a muffled groan Josiah heaved himself in place on the sorrel.

Following Chris's lead Josiah followed the black. The gunslinger and horse were nothing more than a shifting silhouette of black on black against a midnight blue back drop. Sanchez gazed over his shoulder...Ezra followed closely behind gripping the horn leaning forward hunched over the pommel.

The click of shoes on the desert floor, the creak of leather on leather were the only sound of the slow escape.

Chris led them quietly along a game trail hoping to put as much distance as they silently could between themselves and their captors.

+ + + + + + +

Kerns rolled over in his sleeping roll. A grasshopper leaped onto his face. The man brushed at it annoyed rubbing his face in an irritated motion. Garrett lay quietly for a moment listening to the sounds of the night.

Maybe he would just kill the gunslinger in his sleep. Let Josiah wake up to find the bloody corpse of a friend. At least he would be able to avoid Sanchez trying to leap to the defense of the blond haired man like he had done for the gambler.

Garrett pushed himself up. He reached for his knife and climbed to his feet. He would slice the throat of the one man Sanchez respected, kill him like a lamb at slaughter. Kerns smiled wolfishly to himself.

He crossed the small camp his face coming into light as he strode near the fire. Grizzled whisker growth marked his hollow cheeks and jaw. His eyes blazed with an intensity that mocked the small cook fire. The knife blade caught the light and reflected it harshly into the night.

Kerns stopped in his tracks. The three were missing...

"SSSAAANNCHEZZZ!!!!!" He howled the name in a blood curdling fashion with his fists clenched in frustration.

+ + + + + + +

"Shit," Chris muttered and spurred his black into a gallop. The sorrel and chestnut easily kept pace.

+ + + + + + +

JD and Vin stared at one another....

"Ya hear tha...." Dunne started to ask.

Tanner merely nodded, " Shit....They're close."

The small camp came alive. Saddles were thrown on horses...bed rolls were left where they were unfurled and the boiling coffee forgotten.

+ + + + + + +

Kerns and Benjamin galloped their horses out of camp following the only path Sanchez could lead his friends without waking the others.

With murder in their hearts the two men chased down their escapees.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah leaned close over his saddle horn. The sorrel raced behind the black neither gaining or losing ground. The black wove its way down the narrow path. Sparks occasionally flew from the iron shoes. The Black kept its head low and neck stretched. Its wide brown eyes watched the ground. With his rider on his back the gelding no longer had to worry about direction. He trusted the human implicitly.

Sanchez did not have to urge his sorrel forward. The large animal effortlessly covered ground. Somewhere inside it knew it ran for its owners life. It ran to keep up with the black. When the Black weaved left the sorrel did, when the shadow swung right the sorrel followed suit. There was no doubt in the large gelding. The black would never endanger its own life with a foolish misplaced foot nor would it risk losing a race.

Chris, leaning low over the saddle horn keeping his chest close to the horse's flying mane, easily reined his mount up the trail. It led toward the top of a mesa. From there Chris would be able to watch their back trail for any sign of pursuit. There was no forest or trees to offer them protection. Their escape had become a foot race. Who held the fastest horses. Who were the better riders? More importantly where did fortune weight her favor?

Larabee had no fear or delusions of his mounts speed. The Black held an edge. It had a dark streak, the horse had been labeled as unbreakable. True...No one could break the Black...Larabee had learned to work with it; not fight it. Buck had labeled it a Devil....unfit even for a dish. With time Chris had tamed the dangerous beast. They had reached an understanding the gelding would not kill Larabee and Chris would not shoot the Black.

The Chestnut Gelding? Larabee had no worries. The damn gambler had himself a fine horse. If the gelding put more energy into moving in one direction instead of causing trouble it would be hard to catch in race. The light colored horse could easily cover ground without breaking to much its owner however, it seemed to rebel against unnecessary labor. Hopefully the fickle gelding would see that tonights escapades were indeed necessary...for his rider's life.

The sorrel worried Chris. The older gelding never stopped trying. It always pushed always answered Josiah's demands. The horse would give of itself until it died, Larabee had no doubt of it. He just hoped tonight the white blazed Sorrel would carry his owner to safety.

Josiah kept gentle leg pressure against the barrel of his horse. The leg fender rubbed against his injured leg but adrenaline protected the large preacher from such minute irritations. Sanchez leaned forward lifting himself slightly out of the saddle when the horse began to climb the hill. The sorrel pushed off the ground with both hind feet. Its powerful haunches launched itself and rider effortlessly up hill. Saddle bags and bed roll slapped against the apron. Giving the horse its head Josiah urged his mount to follow the nimble black.

Standish leaned low over his saddle unable to pull himself up right. The reins looped in his left hand giving his gelding all the freedom it needed to make their escape. Chaucer felt the unbalance of his rider. With loose reins the gelding grabbed the bit and ran. It followed after the other two geldings, seeking safety in numbers.

Down the trail and between sage the Chestnut followed the game trail its large brown eyes keeping the white socks of the sorrel in sight. Chaucer felt his rider slide in his seat. The horse moved under the saddle, an elegant sidepass that kept his rider seated but put galloping legs amongst brush and dried vegetation. Sticks and sage grabbed at the boney legs tearing hide and raising welts. The gelding raced on sliding gently back onto the trail. The stirrups slapped haphazardly against his sides.

A bad sign.

Chris swung the black to the right when they gained the plateau. He nudged the frothing beast just out of the way as Josiah's horse leapted up over the rim gaining purchase on the level ground and stopped heaving for breath. The black blew and snorted prancing in place fighting the rein wanting to run. Chris easily held the horse still with simple pressure on the leather tethers and settling in his saddle.

"Ezra?" Chris asked peering anxiously at the trail head hoping the smartass gelding would glide over the top annoyed at being forced to work.

"He was right behind me,." Josiah answered swiveling nervously in his saddle. No horse hounded his heels.

Chris maneuvered the high stepping black closer to the ledge. It was a ten foot shear drop from this spot. The trail head behind Josiah offered the only easy route up or down.

Larabee searched the area. Sanchez joined him. The two horses stood side by side waiting impatiently for their third.

The Sorrel whinnied, The Black tossed his head and moved to lunge forward.

Chris and Sanchez both swore. Kerns and Benjamin had made the trail. The imposing black silhouettes bore down on the lone horse and rider.

Chaucer raced up the trail. He collected his stride feeling his rider once again slide to the side. The gelding attempted to shift under the weight. As the one hoof struck the earth and tried to recoil a second foot descended they became entangled in prickly sage. With two of its legs hindered the horse let out a scream and tumbled forward and to the right. It's rider with hazy awareness of his imminent encounter with the earth could do nothing but tuck and roll.

Rider and horse slid across the desert floor on their sides. Ezra rolled passed his mount, legs and arms flaying. The chestnut struggled to its feet even as it slid on its side.

Tack and gear was shrewn about the dark path.

Larabee swore. Without urging, the Black baled over the side of the mesa. For a brief moment horse and rider were suspended in mid air. Chris leaned back his shoulders nearly touching the croup of his horse. Larabee was bounced forward as front legs collided with the ground. Hindlegs slid under the barrel of the body. Chris gave the horse its head.

The Black bounded down the slope in ground swallowing leaps. The ground shifted and rolled under iron shod hooves. Rocks and debris avalanched around hyperextended fetlocks. Muscles tensed, tendons and ligaments were strained, while forward momentum increased at break neck speed. The gelding had no intention of stopping...Chris had no inclination to interfere with his horse.

Sanchez shook his head turned his mount to the trail head and galloped back down the hill.


"What the hell is that?" JD asked in awe. Everyone turned in time to see a horse and rider pitch off the side of a small bluff. They all held their breath as the solid black shadows of horse and rider seemed to pause in flight. Then with a small explosion of rolling rock they watched as rider and horse careened down the steep slope at a maddening pace. Where horse ended and rider began it was hard to tell. For only a moment they witnessed the tall lean rider hold his torso back legs stretched out front of the animals shoulders. The horse not missing a step galloped down the rolling sharp incline. Even from this distance they could see the sparks fly from its feet as if fire made up its wake.

"Chris and that Black Devil of his," Buck whispered out. From their vantage point they could not make out Standish or Sanchez.

Vin dug his boots into Peso's hide. The four peacekeepers tore across the desert hoping to covered the half mile in time.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra could not recall hitting the ground....But with no problem he was able to recount his reluctance about meeting the unyielding earth....then he was tumbling head over heels. He could not feel the individual scrapes and scratches that tore his skin nor the bumps and bruises that hailed his body. It was with some endorphin ridden glee that he became aware that he had actually survived his fall.

Lady Luck was with him tonight.

A large meaty hand grabbed the front of his shirt and hauled him somewhat off the desert floor. Standish opened his eyes half expecting to see Josiah or Buck or one of the seven.

His shock and disappointment were cut short with a fist smashed down on him....Lady Luck played a dirty game but at least unconsciousness protected him.

With a roar of defiance Chris aimed his horse at Kerns.

With no peacekeeper at his hip and no rifle in the scabbard Larabee's horse became a weapon.

The Black gelding with its ears laid back and teeth bared clipped the ground with frightening determination. Eyes wide and sides heaving the Black raced over the land, cutting through the night like a hell bent shadow.

Kerns watched as Benjamin hauled the Southerner off the ground and land a few solid punches. The gambler offered no resistance and hung like a rag doll in the giant man's hands. The ex-slave proceeded to tie the Southerner's wrists again.

One pawn caught.

Kerns's horse began to shy. The large man held the fractious animal steady cursing it under his breath. The Buckskin sidepassed and pranced snorting and tossing its head. Somewhere in the night it was being stalked.

Kerns ignored his horse until finally he was forced to look to his left.

Both rider and horse gave tiny squeals of terror just before the black wave melting from the darkness plowed into them.

Chris was thrown over the saddle and both horses. He tucked his head and shoulders instinctively, somersaulting over the ground. Nothing registered.

The shoulder wound tore open again. Blood clots and scabs were ripped from injured tissue. Bones bent and and cracked under the sudden harsh impact with the clay packed ground.

Kerns felt his leg snap just above the knee when the Black rammed them. The Buckskin was thrown to the side half sitting. The large horse clawed the ground with its front feet trying to pull itself back onto all fours. Garrett tried to keep his seat but the black gelding kept its forward momentum and dragged the rider from the saddle. The Buckskin was swung in a half circle, the reins caught under a hoof snapped like fine twine.

With a terrified scream the Buckskin quickly regained its feet and trotted, with a rein dangling and saddle sideways, a few yards away from the insane animal that battered it.

The Black kept its feet and swung its powerful hindfeet around searching for anything to strike.

Larabee rolled to his feet. He stumbled and faltered falling to one knee...scrambled back up to stagger again. He searched left and right saw Kerns unmoving on the ground...then Benjamin.

The Southerner had once again curled into a loose ball absorbing blows to his back and ribs.

Chris sprinted ,weaving drunkenly, across those few yards and dove onto the back of Benjamin.

Benjamin reached over his shoulder with both hands and flung the smaller blonde man over his shoulder. He dismissed the intrusion and turned his attention back to the Southerner.

Chris hit the ground with a thud. Lights exploded in his vision as air whooshed forcefully from his lungs. Larabee rolled to his left regained his feet and charged again. A guttural growl of defiance roared low through his chest.

Josiah reined his Sorrel in next to Kerns.

Sanchez was off his horse before the big animal could plow itself to a stop.

"Make him stop Garrett," Josiah pulled the semi conscious man off the ground by the front of his shirt. "Please.....make'im stop." The preacher watched as Chris continued to batter and distract the big man trying to offer some respite to the downed Southerner.

Kerns stared up at Josiah and for a second he felt the old of familiar feeling of safety flood him. It quickly vanished.

The preacher pulled Kerns revolver from the holster and quietly begged, "Call'im off Garrett, Please...don't make me do this."

Garret Kerns had always thought he wanted to hear Josiah Sanchez plead for his life. Never had he considered that he would hear the preacher plead for another's life...Never in his twisted thoughts of revenge had he considered that Josiah would plead for Garrett Kerns to save his own life.

A gun blast echoed through the night.

Kerns and Sanchez stared at each other in shock and then turned toward the scuffle a few yards away.

Larabee swaying with small shuffling steps held a smoking gun...Benjamin, holster empty slid bonelessly to the ground.

"Why Garrett...Why take more lives?" Josiah asked quietly. He released his hold and slumped to the ground to tired to fight anymore.

"You took Bobby, I don't need any more of a reason," Kerns laid back in the dirt and covered his face with his arm.

+ + + + + + +

Chris wanted to check on Standish reassure himself that the gambler was still alive. For some reason the gunslinger could not quite coordinate the movements. His knees buckled, the gun hung limply in his hand he melted toward the ground.


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