A Friend to Me

by Mitzi

The guards' saddlebags and the one wagon were loaded with their plunder. There looked to be extra ammunition, guns and explosives in the wagon as well. The remuda at least followed behind so that they didn't have to eat dust. Cataloging their situation, Wilmington was trying to distract himself from their forced march, the ache in his back and the weakness that was weighing down on him. He tried to concentrate on "sun dogs" that chased themselves around the haze-diffused sun. It didn't help. There wouldn't be much heat today. The cold that had set in overnight reminded him and all of the others it was still late winter. And him with no shirt. He'd been miserable long enough, thank you. Buck tried to watch for an opportunity to escape or at least slow things down and give Chris time to arrive. All he could really do was shuffle one foot forward at a time. He and Ezra supported each other. Ezra was withdrawn, but he seemed to be in control of himself. Buck wouldn't admit it out loud, but the conman being so beside him had shaken him. And he was still much too quiet.

Ezra appreciated that Buck didn't try to pull him into conversation. There were some things he had to work through and bury on his own. To be so rowdy and talkative most of the time, the man had a keen insight into when to let the silence and his mere presence speak for him. Part of the truth was that they were both too tired to speak. He regretted all the physical support he had to draw from his taller friend, but the thigh wound barely allowed him to walk. And Buck was weaker than he let on. The fever radiated from that knife wound now that Nathan wasn't around to tend it. He tried to fight the painful, hacking cough that had returned in the night, but it was a losing battle. What a pair they made. The conman's cynical predisposition had him laughing at them both. Too stupid and too stubborn to give up.

They had thought he was asleep last night but he lay with eyes closed and listened as Buck rallied the others. He had assured them that they did have friends who knew where they were and would come for them. Like Ezra, he had known that these so-called soldiers would leave no witnesses alive and had found the strength to coordinate it so that as many of the injured and sick as possible had designated assistance for when they started out. "I know it's a burden, but it's a human life. Carry them as long as you can." Buck had said it simply as the fact that it was. "Our friends will be here. I know you're hurt, too, but will you be able to live with yourself if you don't try?" The stronger men who were still healthy picked up Buck's words of encouragement. They would stand together. They would fight to the end. And, Ezra had decided as he listened, he would fight, too. Not because he was so gullible as to believe they could pull together and get out of this, but if he threw in the hand, he knew that foolhardy Buck wouldn't leave him. And that would have undermined the hope he established in the others. So here they were, drawing from somewhere, drawing from each other and bluffing. And he'd be damned if he wasn't proud of this group. They had pulled together and, so far, had been able to support each other and not lose one of their own. And he was proud of himself in a way that he hadn't been very many times before.

Ezra thought back on the events of the night before and, unfortunately to the too real present. The men were tiring, wearing down. Four men were already being completely supported by the others. They had probably traveled 8 miles, no more. However, Chris and the others weren't expected to be in the area until much later in the day. No sooner did his thoughts turn in that direction, than two men dropped to their knees under the weight of the third man they carried. As if that lack of strength was permission, two other groups slumped to the ground with their burdens.

Carlisle stayed at the front of the line. Bridger's horse pranced back to where the line had been broken. He surveyed the injured with flagrant disinterest. "Sir," he called back to the front as if Carlisle really were an officer in good standing.

"Mr. Bridger?" Came the reply.

"We are being significantly hindered in our progress, Sir. I believe it could be part of a plot to delay our advance toward the Mason-Dixon line. May I suggest we determine if these men are in fact in a conspiracy to threaten our success and carry out sentences against these who are found guilty?"

"So be it." Was the abrupt, callous passing of sentence.

The men were shuffled into a group. Kestrel led men who chose the most seriously injured as those who would be facing trials, sentences and ultimate execution. Wilmington was trembling in anger as he watched this man so impassively cross back and forth between the lines of right and wrong. Suddenly Kestrel grabbed Ezra by the collar in the same manner that they were choosing their other victims. Buck came up with him, determined this double-crosser would not take his friend. Kestrel used the movement that he knew would occur as the opportunity to shove a single stick of dynamite into the shredded remnants of the conman's once fine linen shirt. "I'll stall. There's two saddled horses at the back of the wagon. There's gun belts and rifles in the sheaths." The man hissed. His long black hair was whipped around his face by the gusty wind. He struggled with Buck to give himself time to continue. Other guards moved in. Bridger was kneeing his horse that direction. He spoke fast. "I'll delay the executions. You make it to the horses, I'll follow with as many men as I can." The guards finally arrived and pulled Buck from the black-haired man. Kestrel took his small cigar and burned a brand into Buck's bare chest. The lanky lady's man of the Magnificent Seven refused to give the fancy gunfighter the satisfaction of crying out. Ezra tried to pull away from the handsome two-timer, but blood loss was weakening him. Kestrel laughed and maliciously dropped the butt at their feet. He shoved Ezra to the ground and motioned for the others to do the same with Wilmington. "Those two have a few more miles in 'em." And he strolled over to the more seriously injured and had them cut from the others like cattle from the herd.

Buck was breathing deeply as he fought the most recent pain. "Do you have any insight into the motivation of our controversial ally?" Buck was amazed at how weak the voice was and yet how long the words. Garnering the gist of the question, he responded, "He's settin' us up."

"Agreed. Any notions as to why?"

Buck shook his head as he studied the situation they found themselves in. "Not a 'notion', Pard. But I reckon I'd rather go out fightin' and the more men who follow us the less these other fellers will have to deal with."

Ezra murmured. "Do you expect our compatriots in the near future?"

Buck laughed but it again turned into a racking cough. As he picked up the cigar and puffed on it to keep it lit, he responded. "If I did, we'd be stickin' close." They had a little time. Bridger's men were still evaluating the injured.

Ezra turned so that his eyes met those of the men behind him. The Southerner made a slight show of the tip of the dynamite. The men, Phillips, recovering from the snake bite and a prisoner who had been buddied up with him, understood. Phillips gripped the chunk of flint he had been convinced to carry in his pocket. He turned and told the man next to him to be prepared. The word, the anticipation, worked its way through the prisoners. What was it with these two men that instilled hope where no hope should exist?

"You want to explain yourself?" Ezra asked casually in response to Buck's last statement. The two friends were occupying their time, waiting, making conversation. They were waiting for a time when the most guards were in the same area so the single stick of dynamite would do the most good.

"'Cause whatever the hell our old bud is up to, he's trying to get us on our own. And we're gonna be on our own the minute we hit those horses."

"I'm waiting for an explanation. You're logic escapes me."

"Chris is gonna be so busy lookin' for a fight, he won't know we're missing 'til it's too late to do us any good." He truly believed Kestrel was stalling for them. He didn't know why. He had no clue that Kestrel wanted to be the hero who saved as many lives as possible - as long as those lives didn't include himself and Standish. He just had to trust that whatever ends the conniving son-of-a-bitch was working toward, it included delaying the death of these men.

"I beg to differ. I wager Mr. Larabee will put your location as a priority."

"Hell, I wish. That would set a lot of things right, but Kestrel already knows Chris'll be lookin' for revenge and to stop these men. He won't be able to see beyond that." He thought back on how Larabee had ridden past him with driven indifference when he had chased the men away from the Zimmermans' wagon.

Buck was pulling his legs under himself. The most seriously wounded had been separated like wheat from chaff. They didn't have much time. He helped Ezra position himself for a quick start. "How much can you do with your leg?"

"I have every intention of making it to that horse, Mr. Wilmington." Buck nodded. At least, Wilmington thought, the gambler had fought through everything that happened last night and come out on the other side. That was good enough for him.

Ezra studied his friend and saw a wistful regret he was trying to hide. "I have a double eagle which backs my assertion that Mr. Larabee will insure our safety as a top priority."

"Pretty safe bet. You win, I owe you. I win, I gotta hope we both end up in the same hereafter to collect." Ezra met his eyes with that inscrutable look he'd seen so many times when the gambler held the winning hand over a poker table. Buck threw him the first sincere, brilliant smile in weeks. "You're on, Ezra. Good luck." It had a double meaning. As he spoke, they had come to a second, silent agreement and Ezra had pulled the dynamite from his shirt. Buck lit it and hurled it at a clutch of guards.

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Thinking back on it, Chris wouldn't be able to pinpoint any single emotion or observation when they reached the compound and realized it was abandoned. He registered the dark haired body on the ground outside the barbed wire fencing. He saw two more inside the wire. He wasn't ready to know more. He wasn't ready to ride down there. His horse was moving in that direction of its own accord, but slowly; unable to pick up on any of its master's commands. Chris locked down on any thoughts that tried to interpret what he was seeing. He didn't want to think. The perceptive hazel eyes consciously registered the physical environment in an attempt to keep his mind from wandering to places he didn't want it to go. Even from a distance he could tell the bodies had been there long enough for the blood to dry to a rusty brown. Buzzards were hopping toward the corpses, but didn't seem to have attacked yet. There were no horses, no tents, nothing. It wasn't quiet. There were birds. For some reason his mind categorized the songs of a mockingbird, oriole and those damn rain birds. They were always right. A storm was rolling in. It should have been too early for cicada, but there was one, by damn. Then he knew why the sounds had touched him. It meant that whatever happened here had been over long enough for nature to return to normal. There was the rustling of wind on dead grass. Then he saw the skins of dead diamondbacks. What the hell is all that? A word echoed in his brain. Late. Too late. Again. Something caught in his chest; it felt like something solid and for a moment he couldn't breath. JD was staying beside him. His little pony pranced. He wanted to move forward but held her back and kept their leader's pace. If he was seeking comfort, he was in the wrong place.

Josiah was standing in his stirrups; scanning the horizon. Carson, Bonner and Darby, reserved after being overruled when they still thought they should wait, where in quiet shock. Was this a betrayal by Kestrel or something he couldn't prevent?

Vin moved on ahead and circled the area looking for signs of what had happened. He remembered how proud he had been of his best friend last night. Despite the turmoil Kestrel had put him through, Larabee had been able to see Carson and his friends had been equally manipulated, misled, lied to. They had been offered security and a place to settle down. Carson's life had led him to believe those things had to be bought with fear and intimidation. He was watching out for his compadres as best he could.

Not so many days ago Larabee would have lashed out in anger at the closest target. Whatever "consequences" he had been dwelling on must have inched him toward some measure of inner peace or maybe helped him put things in perspective - What he had, what he'd lost what he could still lose. Tanner was afraid of what he himself would lose if they were too late arriving here today. He suddenly knew with dead-on clarity how Wilmington had felt the day they came upon the burned remains of Larabee's home. Vin took a deep, shuddering breath. It didn't help. He knew how he felt, but he didn't know how to put it into words, even to himself. He hadn't been raised to regret, but to accept; he hadn't expected anything from anyone and hadn't been disappointed. That philosophy didn't lend itself to examining one's emotions. He missed Ezra or Josiah being there almost like mind readers to help him put in order his recent attachments to this misfit family he had adopted and the feelings they brought out. He missed Buck laughing and telling him nothing is too big for them to all handle together. Beyond the pain and loss he saw in the eyes of Chris and JD, Nathan and Josiah, he missed his Ezra and his Buck; his friends and what they added to his life. Under the surface he was on the verge of erupting and he didn't know who would explode first, him or Larabee.

The blast that rumbled from the east was like a starting gun. Larabee had Habanero headed that direction at full speed. Vin had a lead on him. He had been on that side of the camp and wasn't waiting for anyone to catch up. JD, Nathan and Josiah where pacing Chris. He didn't care where Carson and his crew were. This was going to end now.

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Buck was already moving as he tossed the rod. He had a hand under Ezra's arm and they were on the run. There were shouts of warning and alarm as they scrambled toward the wagon. Buck's entire focus was in getting them both to the horses. The blast caused them to stumble but never fall. Ezra was hopping and limping on his wounded leg, but he was keeping up. That struck Ezra as funny. He and Mr. Wilmington were so battered that they must both be moving at half speed. Somehow they reached the horses despite the bullets now flying around them. Buck grabbed the rifle from its scabbard and covered Ezra as he mounted up. Buck took out two guards who were firing arbitrarily into the prisoners. Two of the prisoners picked up the weapons these men dropped as soon as they fell. The prisoners had come through. They were fighting the guards. It was mostly hand to hand. They were still outgunned.

One of the phony Union soldiers broke free and his pistol coughed, it brought down three prisoners before Erza's bullet took him out. It might be hopeless, but if they could lure any number of the guards after them, that would even the odds for the others. "Mr. Wilmington!" Ezra tossed him the reins of the other horse. He swung into the saddle and they raced toward the craggy hills in front of them.

"Samuels! Escape. Stop them!" Kestrel bellowed. The man looked up from his gun when he heard his name called. He saw the two men riding out. He fired. They were out of pistol range. Military training took over. The ex-soldiers and their highwaymen tag-a-longs began shouting orders to regroup. "Samuels!" "Retreat!" "Back up. They're no match for our guns."

On the other side of the battle were heard shouts of "Hand to hand." "Grab the guns they drop!" "Keep in close and they can't use the guns." Everything was running together. But the soldiers were regrouping. They were backing up to the wagon and calling their shots. Those recently imprisoned scrambled to hide behind rocks. A few had come up with guns from the fallen enemy and returned fire.

Kestrel ran by, slapped ten men on the shoulder. These men fell in behind him, swung onto their horses and went after the firebrands who had instigated this disaster. Buck and Ezra were even now several hundred yards ahead of them.

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Buck and Ezra concentrated on outrunning the men they knew were following. They had to get them as far away from the center of the uprising as possible. They would wait to return fire until they felt the bullets zing around them. The top priority now was to divide the enemy and give the others a chance.

Buck could feel a stickiness that meant his back wound had opened up. Sweat burned his eyes. The rope burns were a little worse than he had let on. The exertion was causing each coughing breath to burn through his throat. And damn, he was tired. With nothing but to give the horse its head and hold on, this was the first time his body had time to acknowledge his exhaustion. It threatened to shut down. He held on to consciousness.

Ezra's leg throbbed every time the horse's hooves hit the ground. This gait was nowhere near as smooth as Gambit. The truth was his back would never stop itching and the fever was finally reaching beyond the original wound to attack the rest of his body. His horse hopped over a fallen log and jarred his bruised body almost to the point of intolerance. But he kept going. He wasn't sure he ever thought he'd get this far.

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Chris and the others had almost caught up with Vin's Indian pony when they came upon the showdown. The soldiers, several hiding behind the wagon and nearby slabs of rock were outnumbered but held the distinct advantage in firepower. Several soldiers lie unmoving on the ground. Many more prisoners, identified by their rags that passed for clothes, had fallen. Some were moving, but had nowhere to go as the bullets flew around them.

Bridger and Carlisle both sat their mounts and directed their men toward victory. Carlisle fell with a bullet hole in his throat. He meant nothing more to Tanner than an outlet for his rage he had kept hidden inside. Rifle and pistol fire erupted behind the prisoners. Chris Larabee and his men, spread out only enough to not present a single tight-knit target, rode through the freedom fighters and straight toward their captors.

Carson, Bonner and Darby leapt from their horses and, rifles blazing, took the assignment of gathering the guns of the fallen and redistributing them to their new allies. A cheer went up from the rag-tag fighters.

"Buck!" Chris called out. He stayed on his horse and used the vantage point to seek out his men. "Ezra!" Distracted, looking for his friends, Chris ignored the bullets around him. Vin and Josiah moved to his side so that all three could cover each others' backs and at the same time give a part of their attention to seeking out the others. "Ezra!" Vin barked. Across the battle arena he heard JD calling for Buck. Jack Phillips hobbled up to Larabee and grabbed Habanero's reins to get his attention. The fierce glare that was thrown at him brought him up short. But he made himself heard over the gunfire and shouting. "Wilmington. Standish. They led the others away from us. Kestrel will kill them." He pointed in the direction the two regulators had ridden.

"Damn." He met the eyes of Vin and Josiah. His eyes flashed around the conflict. The free POW's had reached the wagon and the weapons and ammunition there. It took a blink to see this. "Nathan! JD!" His hail cut across everything to those who were used to hearing him give commands. By the time they looked around, their leader, the tracker and the priest where headed out. Immediately they kicked their horses after them.

Carson, Bonner and Darby continued to organize the men. Carson's military knowledge and strategy rivaled Bridger. In the distance they heard a bugle.

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The first bullet sang past Standish's head just about the time he thought they might keep ahead of the men chasing them. He glanced over at his partner. Buck was focused on staying in his saddle. The bullet had missed both of them. Ezra glanced back. Kestrel and the others weren't really gaining on them. That had been a lucky shot to even reach their range. Their luck was holding. And then the luck ran out.

Ezra felt the cinch snap on his horse. The woven cotton dropped down to where it tickled at the skittish animal's flanks. She began to buck and bounce on all fours. Ezra felt himself losing his seat and the saddle was swaying to the left with the movement. Ezra lost his right stirrup and instinctively tried to free his left foot as well. The sudden movement caused a painful cramp in the leg and, leaning into the pain, he also leaned into the stirrup. The saddle began to swing. The britchens and breast collars held. Instead of the saddle sliding off the back of the horse, it rotated under its belly. All the time Ezra fought to free his left leg. It was no use. His injuries played against him. His ankle slid forward in the stirrup and he and the saddle where dragged much too near the terrified mare's back hooves.

Buck had sensed problems almost as soon as things began to fall apart. He reached out and grabbed Ezra's mare's reins and shuffled both animals to a stop. But Ezra's weight combined with the gear caused the poor creature to lose balance as well and it rolled over him. At least the momentum kept her going and ribs, which could easily have been broken, were only cracked.

On her way up she kicked out and caught Buck's left hand as he put it up to protect his face. He felt the bones break in his palm even as he tried to go with the strike. The pain immediately radiated down his arm.

Buck had extra ammo belts and gunbelts wrapped across his chest. His left hand all but useless, he wrapped his elbow around a rifle to pull it from Ezra's saddle. He scooped his arm through the extra gun belt and holster. With a glance he noticed that the cinch on Ezra's saddle had been cut half in two. This was no accident. Kestrel had never planned that they make it further than this. There wasn't time to speculate on the bastard's motives. His convoluted thought processes ... to hell with him. Buck grabbed Ezra under the arm and practically jerked him to his feet. Ezra couldn't control the sharp cry that escaped his lips. He was sweating and had both arms wrapped around his chest. "Sorry, Pard, but we move now or we don't move."

Their horses were gone. Ezra glanced up to see Kestrel and his men bearing down on them. The accident had occurred in the span of a few heartbeats. But injured and with their mounts lost, there was no escape. The two men ran, stumbled, crawled and finally tumbled down a small ravine and the scant, temporary protection it provided.

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Chris was low over Habanero's neck. His hat, held by its strap, flapped to escape the buffeting wind. Chris shut his mind down to a narrow focus. He'd gotten good at it. He wouldn't think until he got to Buck and Ezra and the soldiers. He didn't plan on thinking then. He'd just act. He was relieved when he finally heard gunfire. He hoped that meant his friends were still alive and fighting. He never thought he would be praying to not hear gunfire end.

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Buck and Ezra propped themselves against the rough creek bank. Buck raised up and fired twice, preserving his ammo, but at the same time assuring the attacking men their quarry wasn't giving up without a fight. He smiled broadly to see the men leave their horses and dive for cover.

"I 'magine Nathan's gonna to be royally perturbed, us gettin' ourselves in this position."

Buck commented as he ripped up what was left of the shirt on Ezra's back for bandages. Ezra took one of the strips and used it to bandage Buck's left hand. He then placed the gun in the palm and molded the fingers into a grip.

Buck returned the favor and strapped Ezra's left arm to his chest to protect the cracked ribs. A second gun was positioned more securely in his other hand as well. They continued to help each other bandage the damage as they spoke. Occasionally they raised up enough to return fire and keep their would-be assassins at bay.

"So, where are we going after this?" Ezra asked, then he partially answered his own question with a raised hand, and the amendment, "After Tuscosa?"

"I've heard of Canada."

"Too cold."

"Yeah, and besides, I hear they speak French." There was a pause as Buck wiped blood from a cut over Ezra's left eye. "New York?" Buck suggested.

"Thought you wanted to go where you could understand the language. We'd need a translator."

"Oh, hell yeah, people with accents are a pain in the ass." The statement was not lost on Ezra and he smirked.

"New Orleans?" Ezra responds.

"I can't speak that Cajun stuff."

"Texas?" Ezra offered, a little exasperated. How could they not agree on a place to go?

"Be hell tellin' the Kid he couldn't tag along there."


Bucks' smile, through the pain, told Ezra that was the answer.

"Hey, Big Dog!" There was joy and humor in Kestrel's voice. "Wanna call it a day?"

"Whose side are you on, Pard?"

"Mine. And I can't tell you what pleasure it'll give me to see your body laid out for the vultures."

"Guilt by association. The story of my life." Ezra murmured.

"Oh, hell, Ezra. With all your big words, innocent is one I don't think you ever learned."

The banter died down. Buck one-handedly snapped the cylinder open on his second gun and checked the bullets. Then clicked it closed again.

Buck reflected on the last few days as Ezra spun up and around to throw some deterring gunfire at Kestrel's gang. He never figured all that Clay Kestrel was up to, but he did recall that overriding hatred he had been seeing in his eyes at the end. He found some comfort in realizing that for all the anger and maybe disappointment he'd seen in Chris's eyes over the last few years, he had never seen that hatred. Nothing near it. He may have thought he was seeing hatred, but now, in the end, at least he knew differently. It helped a little.

Ezra hunkered down beside the rangy mischief-maker as he tossed the empty gun aside and picked up a spare. Their eyes met. No words were needed. They were going out fighting. Both determinedly pushed themselves up using the rocks to support their backs and turned to face the odds. Gunfire erupted violently; more than they had heard before.


They both immediately slid back to shelter.

"Chris?" There was a hint of disbelief in his voice.

"Comin' in!" Buck hadn't heard that declaration since ... but he still knew what it meant.

A sly, one-sided grin came across Ezra's bruised face. "You, Mr. Wilmington, owe me a gold piece." Buck's face held a peace it hadn't reflected in many days. Ezra was right. Chris had chosen to come save them rather than avenge himself or others. It was as if everything was suddenly all right. He winked at the Southern gambler. "Cover us." He directed Ezra who watched him in utter disbelief.

Buck stood tall. His left arm, though the hand held a gun, was stiff at his side. His right arm was fully extended to aim down his arm as if it were an extension of the barrel. He limped, more than he wanted to show, but there was a confident stride as he moved into the bullets that flew about like angry bees. Even if his left arm wasn't wounded, there was the appearance that it would still be at his side. For coming toward him, matching his posture, positioning and surgically accurate gunfire, was Chris Larabee. They defied the bullets. There was something charismatic in their pacing. Dark and light. Their arms jumped fractionally in reaction to the Colts' recoil, but never bent, never stopped seeking their sight picture, their target.

Larabee's duster whipped around his legs in the building winds. Buck's bared chest and back revealed bruises and cuts that galvanized the others. Vin, JD, Josiah and Nathan moved forward more gradually, offering protecting gunfire and staying behind cover. JD watched in awe. These men were bigger than life, walking down the middle of a shootout, completely confident in each other's aim and that they would and could protect one the other. Even the more jaded, Ezra felt a bit of the wonderment as these two matched each other's moves. Josiah suddenly understood a concept he had heard about while his father taught the Chinese in San Francisco: Yin and Yang.

Kestrel had seen this before. If this bond still existed, he above all the others here had seen what they could do and knew not to go against it. He left his men to cover his escape and moved sinuously to his horse.

The confidence of Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington shook their enemies resolve. Those still fighting broke and ran. Ezra slumped back against their cover. JD stood quietly and memorized what he had just witnessed. Vin and Josiah covered them and made sure those that had make good their escape would not return. Nathan, still alert for danger, headed toward Ezra. He hadn't heard from their seventh since the shooting began.

Adrenaline and necessity both spent, Buck collapsed to his knees, guns still at his side, one in each hand. Chris's long strides brought him quickly to kneel in front of the man he knew so well that they could make that walk. He gently removed the guns from Buck's hands. "It's over."

Buck took a death grip on Chris's coat to hold himself up. "Glad to see ya, Pard. Wasn't lookin' forward to not havin' one more beer together." Buck hissed through the pain.

Buck felt a cool hand cradle the back of his neck. "That wasn't going to happen." Chris whispered. "Hell, or Texas, I was riding in to drag you back." Buck shut his eyes and let the moment fight the pain for him.

Vin slowly began to work his way through the nine bodies lying motionless on the ground. Josiah headed toward Nathan with a saddlebag full of medical supplies.

"Damn, Ezra. You got more holes in you than a pin cushion." Nathan observed, trying to relax him by making light of the situation.

"Mr. Jackson... " He began and seemed to think of several things to say, but in the end, was too tired to say anything.

"You rest. We'll take care of things now." Nathan, working over Ezra, took time to glance over and try to get a feel for his other patient's condition. What he saw was one of the soldiers, prone on the ground, aim his gun at the two men. "Chris!" He yelled in warning.

Chris instinctively pulled his wounded friend to his chest and shielded him with his body. Two bullets echoed through the shallow draw. One ricocheted over several boulders, but never came close to Chris and Buck. That was because the second, simultaneous blast, from Vin's Mare's leg, cut the would-be assassin down and deflected the aim that would have killed his friends.

Strangely, to Chris's way of thinking, he couldn't let go of the body he cradled in his arms, even after the threat was gone. There was something healing about the touch. And he wasn't going to let go until the healing was complete. That Buck held even tighter to his lapel told him that he felt it, too. Josiah raised his eyes to heaven in silent thanks then turned to help Ezra so that Nathan could go to his next patient. JD felt a tightening in his throat, like when he had known Buck was alive for the first time.

Finally Buck moved enough to pull Chris's attention back to the moment. "Ezra?" Buck asked, concerned about his friend. As Nathan walked toward them, Chris raised his eyes and silently relayed the question to their healer.

"They're both too stubborn to die. They'll just stick around and make the rest of us have to set on them while they heal." Nathan knelt down by the two friends. "Lie him down, Chris. Let me see where to start." Chris smiled at the long-suffering tone in the healer's voice. He knew it hid true relief. He gently, almost begrudgingly laid Buck carefully back. Their eyes met. Then Chris, as if he couldn't handle this moment any longer, looked up to seek out JD. The boy stood nearby, itching to check on his brother, but unwilling to intrude. "JD, come sit with Buck while I check on Ezra." Chris offered. JD bolted forward, grabbed Buck's hand and held on for life. "God, Buck, I was so worried, I ... "

"He's asleep, Son." Nathan smiled. "Tell him again when he's rested up.

Chris slid down the embankment just as Josiah helped Ezra with a drink from the canteen. The moody gunfighter hunkered down and waited for the conman to meet his eyes. When the tired, heavy lidded green eyes met with hazel ones he asked softly. "How you doin'?"

"Mr. Larabee, you never cease to surprise me."

"Not too difficult when you demand the best and expect the worst." He casually tossed the words back at his resident antagonist. Ezra reminded him of a fish out of water as his mouth opened and closed several times but no sound came out. Larabee kept a stern countenance as long as he could then he broke into a sincere smile. "Maybe I should surprise you more often." The gunfighter put a callused hand to the side of the gambler's face. "Glad to have you back." And then he was gone.

Ezra looked to Josiah with a 'what just happened here' look on his face that had the gentle giant busting out in laughter. Taking comfort in the other man's relaxed state, Ezra drifted off into the first peaceful sleep in several days.

Larabee heard the laughter as he joined Tanner to oversee the care of their family. Still carrying his mare's leg in one hand, the tracker had scrounged bedrolls from their horses for their friends against the winter chill. The dark gunfighter felt a twinge of regret when he looked at Tanner. He'd been so self-absorbed he hadn't realized the toll events had been taking on his best friend until he looked at his smile now and saw the weight had lifted. Tanner knew what the other was thinking and with a shake of his head told him to let it go. Things were okay now.

+ + + + + + +

The first thing Ezra Standish noticed as he crept back to consciousness was that he felt clean. Why was that so significant? Oh, God He tried to sit up when he remembered the prisoners and the camp. Where am I? He looked around the small plank cabin. Bridger's headquarters He fought to get out of the bed. "Don't be moving around, Ezra," No-nonsense words directed of him. He started to fight against the hand on his shoulder then an identity matched up to the voice. Finally his eyes cooperated and opened.

"Mr. Larabee?" His own voice sounded like gravel.

"You want some water?" Was the reply in way of acknowledgement.

Ezra was still getting his bearings. Something had been put over the window to keep as much light out as possible. That damned duster didn't detract from the image that the silhouetted figure before him was some specter or the angel of death. The second bed in the small room was empty. "Mr. Wilmington?" He asked anxiously.

"Nagged Nathan until he let him rest up on a pallet outside for a couple of hours."

"How long?"

"You've been in and out for four days. Mostly out. Doc said it was exhaustion. Do you want that water?"

"Could you supply something stronger?" Ezra prompted.

"I can have Nathan boil up some of his twigs and roots." The blonde deadpanned.

"Water will suffice."

Their leader handed him the tin cup. He knew the independent cuss wouldn't want any help. There was an uncomfortable silence. Most of the more recent words between them had been less than cordial. Neither man liked those more personal confrontations. Fists and guns and cards where easier to work with. Even less did they appreciate the current situation where they would have to concede the words spoken.

A dispute, loud and apparently threatening, rose up outside the closed door. With the gunfighter's presence, the gambler had assumed everything was safe. He tensed at the noise and angry voices. "Rest easy, Ezra. There ain't no problems here." After two long strides to the door, he turned back to his man recuperating in the bed. "You don't ever go off on your own. None of us faces our past or our future on our own. Got it?" If Ezra had ever know a father, he suspected this would be how he felt getting a reprimand from such an authority figure. The ultimatum brooked no argument but it wasn't a power thing, a control thing, it was because the other man cared, possibly more than he could put into words.

"Got it." He couldn't help put a hint of a sarcastic caricature of Larabee's own posturing and tone of voice in the reply. He couldn't let the man know exactly how much he appreciated the words.

Larabee threw him a well, hell, I'm glad everything's back to normal smirk and slung open the door to meet the next fracas.

Two pony soldiers were trying to get past JD to reach Buck. They were being none to gentle. Buck was trying to brace himself against the cabin wall to get to his feet. Young Lieutenant Franklin, full of piss and vinegar, and proud speech at the ready, reached the porch as Larabee came out. "Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Standish are being moved to the hospital tent under guard. They are material witnesses in this incident and considering their involvement with Commandant Carlisle and Mr. Kestrel ... "

"You got your will in order?" Chris asked calmly.

"I beg your pardon?" The officer had been a bit indignant since these regulators had summarily confiscated the former headquarters for their injured men. The poor little guy must have thought that his uniform carried some intimidation factor.

"Sit down, Buck." Chris demanded without looking away from the lieutenant. The two soldiers backed off sensing they had better know the outcome of this dispute before they touched the boy or the larger man. The lady's man slid back to the blanket, confident things were under control. Larabee came eye to eye with the uniformed man and didn't say another word.

"Your last will and testament, son," Another voice wafted in from behind him. "He's asking you if you have it penned." Franklin recognized the voice of the Preacher; the bear of a man who rode with these others. His voice was surprisingly gentle. Where originally his men had been alone with the boy to take Wilmington into custody, he now had Larabee in his face, the Preacher behind him and the healer suddenly leaning against the railing shaking his head. The sharpshooter was slouched with his back against the wall and his hat over his head as if dozing. Even the gambler had worked his way to the door. And now the damned scoundrel had his head back, eyes closed and a big grin on his face, basking in the warm sun.

"You touch one of my men and your next of kin will be finding you a burial plot." The young man was learning what a too calm Chris Larabee did to your blood. He turned it to ice. "Why don't you go wire Judge Travis and ask him if he wants to be investing in your headstone before you make any decisions?"

Lieutenant Franklin recognized he had been given one out; one way to save face. It didn't matter that it was equally obvious to the others and his own men. He took it. "I'll get back to you with the judge's reply." He scurried back with as much dignity as he could muster. His soldiers followed and tried not to smile.

"Can't you stay out of trouble even half dead, Buck?" Chris asked angrily.

"Aw, hell, Chris ... " Buck didn't even open his eyes. Vin chuckled. Ezra scowled. For all the talking those two did the brotherhood and loyalty never showed up in words. He decided you had to be pretty good at non-verbal communication skills to understand Larabee. But he damn sure let the actions speak for themselves. Vin gave the gambler a wink when their eyes met and moseyed over to help him sit in a chair next to Buck. The southerner was surprised and touched when the tracker produced a deck of cards and handed them over.

"New medical supplies were delivered." Nathan commented as he decided to ignore his second patient's escape outdoors. He had been helping medics tending to the wounded and sick. He was trying to change the subject from the poor lieutenant. But Vin Tanner heard Josiah's deep chuckle. He kept his hat over his face, but responded with a lop-sided grin. He heard JD snicker. When he finally raised his hat he saw Nathan shaking his head in silent laughter. Buck was smiling. Ezra allowed himself a sarcastic grin that reached to his eyes.

"That snake bite feller Buck saved?" The healer continued, "He's the Pa of that young Israel Phillips you were worried about." Chris nodded but didn't say anything. It made Josiah wonder, though, if there wasn't some cosmic symmetry. He didn't dwell on it. Not now. Now he relaxed and watched his extended family.

Nathan, too, was evaluating the others and their injuries. Josiah didn't seem any the worse for wear for the bullet that cut across his shoulder. JD looked rested and content to be watching over Buck with the responsibility of assuring neither he nor the other patient moved further than this porch. Buck and Ezra? They were still tired, still weak, but damn, they looked better than they had.

Carson, Bonner and Darby saluted on their way out. All the good-byes had been said. They were heading out early to help the judge work up charges on Bridger and the other men. Then they were after Kestrel.

If I don't get to him first Larabee thought. While they waited for the healing to take place, he and the rest of the seven had spent what time they could helping track down the stragglers who had escaped the round up. Bridger would stand trial. Judge Travis had already dispatched an escort to take him to Washington, D.C. He might get his damn war crimes trial yet. He simply never thought he would be the defendant. But they hadn't found Kestrel. Larabee had felt the anger growing with each day the man stayed free. Josiah had finally taken his arm and laid out to him rather bluntly, that they should all be thankful for what they'd got. They were still whole. That should be enough. And it was enough for tonight. Things didn't always get resolved, but for tonight, that was enough.

It had been a long time since Larabee remembered to be thankful. But he was greatly appreciative that the scales that weighed so heavily with revenge and anger had righted themselves slightly, balanced just a little with a little thankfulness and peace and friendship, and done it in time to save his friends.

This time Vin snickered, thinking about the lieutenant and the laughter ran up and down the men. Chris came up with a lopsided smirk. He patted Vin on the leg as he walked by, took the coffee Josiah proffered and found an open spot to rest between Ezra and Buck. The lanky gunfighter was dozing now. Ezra was playing with his deck of cards like it was a long lost lover. They both needed a lot of sleep. They wouldn't be leaving until they were fit to travel. The legendary gunfighter was still feeling a little protective, a little territorial over all his men. The feelings of companionship and brotherhood worked their way back and forth among the men like ball lightning across barbed wire.

+ + + + + + +

Clay Kestrel strolled into the elegant saloon. He had traveled long and hard to get out of Larabee's territory until he could regroup. He had under-estimated. Larabee and Wilmington had extended their rapport to include the rest of the seven. They were going to be that much harder to defeat. He couldn't control them. He knew that now. He would have to destroy them all and build on the reputation that accomplishment would bring him. The fear it would instill in the new territories when he could destroy that legend would insure him of his future and his place in history. He would need help. He walked toward the dark corner of the room. The sultry, dangerous brunette was waiting for him. She wouldn't be happy that he had failed. But what the hell. He had controlled the most intelligent of people. And being that she was obsessed, she could be manipulated. He would make her love him. And then they would try again to kill them all.


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