The Spirit of a Hero

by Mitzi


I stare across
That solitary broken plain
Each and every dawn
Saddled with his thorn
Trembling lathered messenger
Churns up wind stressed tears
Always searching for
A hero's heart

Chris Larabee might as well have been alone at the table, so lost was he in thought. He was aware that Buck was teasing the kid about something as the three of them shared supper. TWO. He caught himself in the irritating habit of accounting for all of his men even when no threat was present.

Josiah and Nathan were actually flirting with a couple of the saloon girls. FOUR. The dark gunfighter thought he saw Inez's masterful touch in what would otherwise have appeared to be a spontaneous rendezvous. No matter. The two men looked more relaxed than they had in several weeks. Chris Larabee was grateful for that.

Thinking back on the return trip from the POW camp, the extra days they spent getting home had been therapeutic. That was a good word. It was Josiah and Nathan's word and their idea. A good idea. Did those two realize the comfort they leant to the group in so many ways beyond physical care? They should, especially Josiah, with his insight into the value of, and his battle for, a heart at peace.

But somehow Chris suspected that neither Jackson nor Sanchez saw the true depth of their value to this group. He watched them now. Those two were the bulwark of the seven; the voices of logic, pillars of quiet and gentle strength.

Even Clay Kestrel had seen it. When the manipulative son-of-a-bitch jockeyed to replace their numbers with his own, he had planned to keep Nathan and Josiah in the group. What Kestrel had seen, Chris himself had taken for granted. He would have to add that to the list of insights he would thank the man for just before he took great satisfaction in blowing his brains across a dusty street.

While Clay had been willing to hold on to Sanchez and Jackson's stability, he had felt a deadly need to rid himself of the unpredictable ciphers in the equation.

Larabee glanced at the poker table on the raised dais. He took a sip from his beer to hide the concerned attention he gave to one of these quicksilver variables who had proven more than Kestrel could accommodate for despite all his scheming and manipulation. Ezra Standish. FIVE.

That damn irritating Southerner had wounds that had been reopened by recent events to be sure. He was more withdrawn than usual and had reverted to an aloofness that hadn't been present since shortly after the seven had met. He had been forced to rebuild certain emotional walls to survive. Hell, maybe he only had to reinforce them. They had crumbled but not come completely down in the first place. Chris wasn't worried. The one man who had successfully breached those walls, by helping Standish survive the living nightmare of that POW camp, was Buck Wilmington. Wilmington could drag anyone back from the brink of isolation and despair. Larabee was living proof.

So for now Chris was content to let their black sheep gradually return to the fold. Based on the large stack of coin in front of him and the dwindling funds in front of the rough cowboys at his table, at least his poker game was back on track. And it gave Buck something external to occupy his mind.

Buck Wilmington. Kestrel's other unaccountable factor. Where Kestrel had reopened old wounds for Ezra, he had given form and substance to vague issues Buck had carried around for years. As only Kestrel could, he had added 4+3 and convinced Buck the answer was six; that the lawmen in Four Corners would be better off if their numbers were lessened by one. Kestrel had taken facts and skewed them and put the blame on Buck. And Buck had believed him; the words had made sense to him because for so long he had feared they were true.

Healing for the big-hearted regulator was in JD Dunne's constant companionship and kid brother-like devotion. It was a good thing. Because the Kid wasn't letting the older man out of his sight since they got back to Four Corners.

Words. Words from an enemy disguised as a friend. What damage they had done. Chris regretted the change in Buck. He missed the sardonically funny sense of humor Ezra had so recently begun to reveal. Neither had let go of all the ideas Kestrel had planted.

Chris didn't know whether to try to talk about it with them or not. He knew his old friend well enough to be sure that the wrong words, even with the best of intentions could shatter Buck's fragile healing. He suspected much the same was true of the enigmatic Southerner.

Always relying on his gun and straightforward truth, Chris had never thought of the damage that words could do. If he had, he would have been more careful with what he said and how he said it. Well, Chris wasn't good with words, so he would put it off. Ezra was okay at his table. A talk would probably only embarrass them both. Buck was okay when he was with JD. Like Nathan said, the boy was the best medicine for their other, overgrown kid.

He looked down at the wanted poster beside him. It had arrived today.



REWARD $1000.00

Murder, kidnapping robbery ...arson. Arson. No, don't go there. Now the written word, in the form of that wanted poster, had Kestrel on the run. The man would have to answer for the truth, not damaging lies. Judge Travis had done well getting the army to offer a bounty that high on the son-of-a-bitch.

The bounty. That made Larabee think of the last member of his group. It brought a warm camaraderie and secure feeling. Vin Tanner. SIX. Unlike Kestrel, the wanted poster on Tanner was a lie. When the time was right they would all fight that lie together.

Vin had taken the role of calming factor during their search for the POW camp. He channeled his anger, refusing to strike out at the innocent because he couldn't strike out at the guilty. Larabee thought maybe he would try to learn from that.

Larabee thought about the man who watched the jail tonight. Vin had not had an easy past. He had killed and would, in all likelihood, do so again. He was slow to anger, yet had shown himself to be as hard and his lust for blood and revenge on a par with Larabee when evil threatened the innocent or helpless. Or when someone took advantage of the good nature of his friends. And yet, at least to Chris Larabee, he stood out like a lighthouse beacon promising port in the storm. Even more, he had been and continued to be a calm in the eye of the storm that was Chris Larabee.

There was a quiet inner strength there that Tanner might not know existed, but he willingly shared with the likes of the gunfighter Chris Larabee, simply because they called each other friend. He knew right from wrong on an innate level. And right and wrong mattered to the tracker. Chris Larabee knew right from wrong. Sometimes the difference didn't matter to him.

Maybe Chris would wander over and spend some time with him on his shift at the jail.

As a dark stranger bleeds
Hope lays near death
Dreams of sage and sweet grass swirl
Around eyes of forgiveness
Clutching a tangled wreath
On tender brow
That can only crown
A hero's heart

Vin Tanner tried to relax at finally being home. He tried to think of his friends and the scars that had been left from their recent challenging experience and how to help them. He even thought to abandon his post, the jail was empty but for a drunk anyway, and join them for a drink. Instead, all he could think of was that damn poem and how stupid he had been to let it see the light of day. How could he have been so stupid as to let it be published, even anonymously? Now someone knew. He hoped no one would try to join him at the jail tonight. At least not until he got himself back in control.

Vin fingered the yellowed newsprint. The poem he had written had been torn out of the paper. The damaging words were printed neatly along the borders.

"Why would a real man need to write poetry? ... The words are confusing ... Can't you say what you mean in plain English? ... You embarrassed yourself letting people read that."

Each word bit deeper and more devastatingly in that he had to slowly sound it out and feel the meaning sink in.

The note had been unsigned. It had been left tacked to his wagon. It had been printed. As if the writer had known that not only was the poetry a pathetically lacking attempt, but that it had been done by a virtual illiterate who would have to have the words printed to make them out. He hadn't moved to reading cursive yet. How did he dare think he could move past barely being able to pen his name or numbers into the realm of expressive writing?

It had been months since the poem had been printed; since he had confided in his friends that it was his. Chris Larabee had slid a shot glass to him the day he had read the poem. Vin had taken that as a salute to the words. Had it meant something else?

Buck sounded proud when he asked first Ezra then Josiah to read it out loud. It had seemed that he liked those melodic voices saying the words and the differences in the deliveries. Had he been, in reality, trying to figure out what was being said?

Ezra had said he "regretted that by being in such an inebriated state he lost the opportunity to transcribe that particular work so that it might see the light of day."

My friends would pretend to like it to spare my feelings. Vin acknowledged ruefully. This person I don't know doesn't have any reason to speak other than the truth.

Vin caught himself questioning a lot of things about himself and who he was; things he would never, otherwise, have connected to his writing poetry. He was almost glad when the report of a gun brought him out of his thoughts. He let the frantic shouts from outside distracted him as he unholstered his mare's leg and ran to see what trouble was brewing.

Begging the Maker
For just one Gentle breath
It is whispered
We will walk together
Past that trail of blood
In shadowed truth we find
A hero's heart

Ezra cached the night's winnings beneath the loose floorboard in his room. It was a strange feeling, not hiding the money in his boot, not always being prepared for a hasty retreat; not always being ready to get out of town and not look back. He could hide the money in his room now, because he knew he would always be coming home. Home ... besides, he was still chafing over losing the $200.00 he had concealed in his boot to those desperadoes passing themselves off as Union patriots.

Ezra had a bad feeling about the cowpokes he had been playing against tonight. They were bad losers and openly hostile. Especially the apparent leader. What was his name? Bannister? He had said it was Bannister. It had been a lie. He didn't respond to it with the reflexive attention you give to a name you've answered to all your life. No, he had to remember to look up when someone called him Bannister. He was trying to hide his real name. Like he was trying to hide his antagonism. That one let the hostility control him. Once he started losing, he was too angry to play a decent hand of cards. How that lack of control would translate to the way he lived his life boded nothing but trouble for Four Corners.

It is probably for the best that Mr. Larabee is insisting that we patrol in pairs. Ezra mused. He was on his way to meet Mr. Jackson for that assignment. He suspected it was no coincidence that he was assigned to work with the healer. Of course they didn't need to concern themselves about his welfare or health. He was alright. He was back. They needed to believe that. But, he conceded to himself and no one else, it was nice to have someone worry about him.

+ + + + + + +

"And I'm tellin' ya, Kid, there's catfish out there the size of covered wagons." Buck smiled as he leaned back from the remnants of his meal.

"You're full of crap, Buck." The young man got the words out around a bite of steak. "Right Chris?"

Before the gunslinger could respond his old friend continued, "They attack, protecting the nest, drag a man under 'til he drowns."

JD was still looking to Chris for a voice of realism and reason; that this was another of Buck's tall tales. "Those she-cats, this time of year, round spawnin' time? They come out and grab you. You don't need to go lookin' for them." Larabee never cracked a smile, just continued to pick at his meal as he gave this answer.

JD stopped in mid-bite. He knew to question Buck's yarns. But Chris? Josiah at the nearby table, had to duck his head and examined his whiskey so that his smile would not give his amusement away. But the look on the boy's face was priceless.

He turned back to Nathan and the two ladies at his table as Wilmington clapped JD on the back and led him toward their night patrol. Buck's last words wafted back to him, "And the only sportin' way to go after those fish is grapplin'."

"Grapplin'?" the boy's voice asked.

"Oh, Lord," Josiah thought to himself. And he exchanged glances with Nathan who had also heard. He could read his friend's mind. "There go two accidents waiting to happen."

+ + + + + + +

Ezra found himself on the boardwalk. He lit a thin cigar and leaned against the nearest post. The full moon was allowing for a night patrol. He watched Buck and JD enter the livery to take that assignment. The calming, silver sheen the moonlight threw over the territory would make it a pleasant trip.

It occurred to Standish that it was Mr. Wilmington who needed to be paired up with their healer. Buck wasn't always sleeping well, although he tried to hide it. Ezra could see it because it started during what they had been through together. Larabee saw it. The others? Yes. They were all aware and, at times, worried about Wilmington. Even the boy knew something was wrong, but perhaps not on a level he could put into words. He just wanted his friend to be safe and happy. That innocent, that sincere.

Where words would oftentimes ring hollow coming from men who didn't know how to express themselves - how to admit they cared - the emotions, making words unnecessary, flowed from their youngest in waves. Surprisingly, or maybe not so, it seemed that's what worked best on the older man. Sentiment seemed to mean more than any encouraging words. And, too, the young one only had hints, glimpses of the burden Buck carried. Ezra had heard the heart-wrenching words. "Chris won't come." "... My fault ..." "I should leave." Ezra had tried to tell his easy-going friend that what Kestrel had said had been lies. Larabee, in action, if not words, had said the same thing. And yet the ideas Clay Kestrel had planted haunted the other man.

+ + + + + + +

Buck and JD strode into the livery. A silence had fallen between them. It wasn't uncomfortable, but JD knew it happened more now since they got back from the POW camp. He wasn't sure he was ready to know what had happened in there; what could so effect men like Buck Wilmington and Ezra Standish.

JD was a bit in awe of these men all over again. Oh, he realized for a while he had been getting callous, jaded to being a part of this group, taking it for granted. Then he had seen Buck and Chris take on the whole of Clay Kestrel's rag-tag army just because they were finally together and tired of running. He remembered again how honored he was to have been taken in by these men. And he was glad to have that feeling back again - like the first time when he realized he had been allowed to be a party of something special. It was good to have heroes.

JD looked to his left - how did he end up with this man adopting the responsibility of seeing that he survived the move out west? He appreciated all over again how lucky he was. "What's that goofy look on your face, boy?" Wilmington asked with a smile as they led the horses out of the stalls.

"Ain't no goofy look." He responded defensively. He received a good-natured whack on the back of his head for the effort. Buck was in a good mood tonight. Thank goodness. There had been times, lately, when he was so quiet, so ... so somewhere else. The young man's mind couldn't let it go -- why wasn't Chris saying something? Didn't he know how much one word from him meant to Buck? Almost as much as a word of encouragement from either of them meant to JD himself. "Got plans for later, Buck?" JD asked teasingly; wanting to encourage the jovial atmosphere. He also thought maybe the conversation would drive his own dark thoughts back into a corner.

"What makes you ask?"

"You're a little frisky tonight."

"Frisky!" Buck barked at the unexpected description.

Before either could follow up on the word, a cowboy staggered in behind them. He reeked of cheap whiskey and could barely keep his footing. He reeled directly into Buck. Buck caught the man with his right hand. His broken left hand was still on the mend from the abuse it took in the POW camp. "Whoa, Pardner, let's get your feet back under you." The tall gunfighter offered amicably.

They both backed into the lanky peacekeeper's good-natured gray who ignored the situation as a not so rare occurrence. But then from somewhere the drunk produced a club of heavy mesquite and slammed it viciously against Buck's temple. Buck crumpled to his knees. A second staggering blow landed before either JD or the older shootist could react. Buck was unconscious before he hit the ground.

"BUCK-" JD screamed. Then he felt himself knocked to the ground, white light exploded behind his eyes and he realized the feigned drunk was not alone.

"Keep him quiet, damn it!" The drunk hissed. Two men grabbed JD. He struggled as one rough suffocating hand cupped his nose and mouth until a balled-up bandana could be jammed past his lips. The hand smelled of stale cigarettes. The bandana smelled and tasted of whiskey and salty sweat. They had his wrists tied too-tightly behind his back before he knew what was happening. Eight seconds. Like hog-tying a steer. He was helpless before he had a chance to fight back. And in front of him, the blood from the wounds to Buck's temple and scalp was flowing freely to be absorbed in the hay beneath his head.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan had been running a few last minute errands before he joined Ezra. Just as Ezra saw Nathan heading from the church to meet him ...

"BUCK - " Nathan heard the cry. The tone left no doubt that something was wrong. He dashed toward the livery. Ezra, enjoying his cigar down the street, didn't hear the boy's shout, but saw Nathan's body language tense as he ran toward the livery. Ezra anxiously took off after the healer.

Ezra caught up to Nathan as they burst into the stable. Upon their entrance, the two men who had attacked JD drew their guns and aimed them at the lad's head as he knelt before them. Two other men supported an unconscious Buck between them and seemed ready to toss him over the saddle of a docile roan gelding as if he were no more than a bag of flour.

Nathan and Ezra halted quickly just inside the double doors. They held their hands in clear view so that the men threatening JD would not become nervous. JD seemed to be aware of his surroundings, but barely. "What the hell is going on here?" Nathan demanded.

"Stay back." It was the angry poker player, Bannister, Ezra grimaced. And the others were with him. This definitely had the feel of being planned.

Nathan looked over at JD. The dirty bandana was shoved behind his teeth. He was probably gagging on the thing. The boy didn't notice. His eyes slid from Nathan's to Buck. The plea for help he was unable to put into words was no less clear. Nathan understood. The older man was out cold; oblivious to his surroundings and blood was trickling from his brow. It hurt the healer like a physical pain that he couldn't help the one friend or ease the worry of the other.

Bannister paced around Ezra and Nathan. He was judging them. He casually lifted Nathan's revolver from its holster. Nathan tensed. Then the knives where taken from their scabbards and tossed out of reach. The man knew exactly what he was making the man feel; the helplessness, the nakedness of being unarmed in a hostile situation.

Bannister was quiet as he again walked around the two. Nathan forced himself to be patient, to watch for a chance to break the stalemate. He prayed the unpredictable gambler would do the same. Finally the trail rugged and weathered leader of this group leaned close to hiss into Nathan's ear. "Tell Larabee that Wilmington will die slow because of him. Wilmington will die for the company he keeps."

The man took Standish's gun from its holster. The Southerner was too still, not like himself in such a situation at all. Nathan watched him out of the corner of his eye. Bannister dumped all but one of the bullets from the cylinder and casually returned the impotent gun to its sheath. "Tell Larabee the kid will die to make Wilmington's end harder. We'll make sure they know they owe this all to their 'friend'."

"Suppose you leave your name with us." The calm in Ezra's voice only tended to infuriate the volatile leader of this pack. Nathan closed his eyes as he heard the drawl continue. "I'm sure Mr. Larabee will be anxious to know whose brains to remove from his skull cavity once he has extracted his friends from you and your lackeys." Why was it that the one in the most immediate danger who was the one most likely to antagonize the enemy? Nathan groaned to himself disgustedly. And at the same time, he answered his own question. Because that one is usually Ezra.

Bannister reacted in a flash. He suddenly held Ezra's gun again and spun the cylinder. He pointed it at Ezra's head. Conditioning took over in the three friends who were conscious and they reacted as their childhoods dictated to the adults. Where Ezra made no move; showed no emotion, Nathan couldn't hide his concern; his fear for his friend. JD struggled. "You like to gamble you son-of-a-bitch? The leader of the gunmen spit at the Southerner. "Do you really? How 'bout now when you can't cheat?" Without a second thought he pulled the trigger.

"NO!" Nathan shouted. In that split second that stretched into a lifetime, JD could no longer breath around the dirty cloth in his mouth. He began to pant and gasp for breath that wouldn't come. And then, the hammer fell on an empty cylinder.

"You're the son-of-a-bitch." Nathan affirmed. His voice had taken on the low, dangerous quality usually reserved for the more dispassionate members of their cadre. Bannister studied him for a moment. And Jackson got the uncomfortable feeling that the man was evaluating him based on a preconceived notion - like someone had told him what to expect from him, possibly from each of them, and he wasn't conforming to his role. It was an icily uncomfortable feeling settling in, even given the current situation.

Then Bannister began to stalk around them again, as if re-evaluating the situation. He stopped walking behind the men and kicked the back of Ezra's knees forcing the conman to the ground. Nathan reacted reflexively and tried to reach his friend, only to be drawn short by the sound of the guns aimed at JD being cocked. JD's frustration and guilt for being the pawn in this game was palpable.

Ezra broke his fall forward with his hands. Nathan grimace as the man who seemed so angry fairly lifted the smaller man off the ground with a vicious kick to his stomach followed immediately by another. Sitting back on his knees to wrap a protective arm around his belly only left Ezra open to a final vicious kick to his face. His head jerked around with dangerous force. Blood spurted from his nose and covered the right side of his face from a cut the spur made high on his cheekbone.

"Stop it!" Nathan demanded; not knowing whether it would do more harm than good to make this man aware that the brutality had touched him, but not being able to hold the words back when the attack on Ezra was vicious and unprovoked.

Buck groaned. There was no consciousness in the sound yet, but it showed he was beginning to come around. Nathan, Ezra and JD's eyes all went to their fallen comrade to try to judge his condition.

"We best be movin' out." One of the other men suggested. "'Fore one of the others shows up or these get out of hand."

No one could tell if Bannister heard or not. He again walked behind Nathan and Ezra. Nathan held his breath; worried what would happen next. He never again wanted to see the kind of helplessness that was reflected out of JD's eyes. Perhaps it was because he felt the weight of the exact same helplessness weigh down on him at the moment and understood how it felt.

Ezra cupped his hand under his nose to catch the blood and try to keep it out of his mouth. With no warning the hot-tempered gunman grabbed a fistful of Ezra's hair and got into his face so that his hot breath permeated the air between them. "You, I'll take along as a bonus. You cheated us. Think you can cheat death?" Ezra knew this kind of man and knew that silent tolerance of his threats would throw him off his game faster than any fearful or arrogant reply.

"What kind of a man attacks another man through his friends?" Nathan's disgust was scalding. "You ain't got the guts to face Larabee head on?"

"Oh, I'm not the one with the grudge. I'm just someone very good at his job." He backhanded Nathan across the jaw for no apparent reason other than he wanted to hit someone. Nathan came back up on his knees, too worried about the threat against his friends to consider his own situation.

Buck groaned again. This time he tried to move his arm, as if to put it under himself and push up. The arm didn't seem to be responding to commands, though, and it fell back to his side. It was still like a signal. Two men manhandled JD onto an unfamiliar horse. The leader held his gun on Nathan as a third man tied Ezra's hands tightly before him. "Not an extra horse, Bishop. Want we should take the big guy's gray for the gambler?"

There was a strange look that came over their leader's face. Nathan sensed immediately his consternation that his man had slipped up and used his real name. Because it concerned him so, Nathan memorized it. Bishop read this in the dark healer's features. His hostility flared even higher and turned to the remaining of the seven caught up in this ordeal. "You think that's good? You think you know me?" Nathan didn't reply. He didn't know how to in a way that might sooth the man's ire. "Maybe I have to give you something else to think about after all." There was a sadistic quality to the anger now. Nathan was sorry immediately that he had reacted to hearing the name. Why couldn't he be more like Ezra?

"Turn around." The big man said. He was almost as tall as Nathan; tall enough to look him in the eye. Nathan hesitated. He met Ezra's gaze. "Turn. Around." Bannister repeated.

Nathan sensed the man's gun drift toward Ezra's head. He saw no alternative and turned his back to the tableau. He heard some skittering. "Let Larabee know. Tell Larabee it's his fault."

Then Nathan smelled it. Smoke. They had set the livery on fire. "You can't ..." Nathan started. The sharp cough of a gun interrupted him. A body fell. He heard JD's anguished cry around the gag. Nathan, dreading what he might see, tried to turn around. The bulk of the other man up against him prevented him from seeing what had happened. "Now we have enough horses." The man purred in Nathan's ear. Then the butt of the man's Colt connected violently at the base of the ex-slave's neck, and the gentle gunfighter remembered nothing else.

+ + + + + + +

The smoke was thicker than the flames, but both were being fanned by a gusty wind that tunneled between the wide and open doors at each end of the livery. The flames were catching up to the smoke, fed as they were by the blow. Several townspeople were already scurrying around searching for direction, a course of action, when Vin exited the sheriff's office. Josiah was running to help from the church. The tracker fell in beside the man in black as he rushed past from the saloon.

As he got closer to the building, Vin heard the frightened squeals, snorts and stomping of the horses. The primitive fear of the horses, their not comprehending or understanding the attack, reached into his soul. Even as he veered to rescue the animals, he realized he was comparing the attack against them to the letter he had received. It brought him up short, that he would compare the life and death situation, even if only of animals, to the mere receiving of a derogatory comment. Worse it had stopped him for a split second and stolen time that could make a difference. Larabee was past him. Tanner sped forward to make up for his lapse.

"Nathan!" Josiah cried. The healer lay half in and half out of the barn-like doors. Josiah skidded to his knees beside his friend, felt a pulse and immediately lifted him out of the doorway and away from the danger. The jostling revived the black man. He began to struggle. "Nathan, Nathan, it's Josiah. You're safe. Calm down."

Slowly Nathan's eyes focused. When he saw this, the Preacher took time to glance around. The townspeople had started a more than adequate bucket brigade. One or two more hands wouldn't help much.

Nathan seemed to have to think, to take in his surroundings. Then the flames in the livery seemed to galvanize him. He tried to move. Josiah held him down. And he fought his old friend. His thoughts were still fragmented. He hadn't even realized he had not explained the situation. Larabee saw this; remembering he had watched Ezra walk out to join Nathan. His voice didn't reveal the dread the next question brought forward. "Nathan, where's Ezra?"

The searching look in Nathan's eyes as he focused on the gaping doors of the livery indicated that he was clearly expounding on this question as he gasped, "Buck ... JD ..."

Larabee jumped. He was headed into the flames. Josiah loosened his hold on Nathan, rose and tried to intercept the duster-clad leader. Vin gaped. Larabee turned in his skin as he thought only a cat could and almost went over Josiah's shoulder in his determination to get into the stable. Josiah couldn't hold on. Larabee was inside. Vin was with him -- He knew exactly what his best friend was thinking. The gunshot.

The smoke was thick; the flames ripping with the wind. The smell of burning hay permeated the air. The frightened cries of the horses were increasing. At times Vin never even heard them, focused first on Nathan then the dread that one of his friends was still inside. But between those thought-focusing traumas, the sounds of the horses tore at him. The first thing he noted was that Buck and JD's horses, still saddled, were inside. That didn't bode well for the two. As inseparable as they had become after JD thought he had lost the older man, visions of them going down together couldn't be erased from his mind.

Then he saw the body on the blood soaked hay. Larabee, coughing from the smoke, was already there. The look on his friend's face was unreadable. But it wasn't destroyed. Vin moved closer and confirmed what he believed. The body wasn't one of his friends. Vin pulled his bandana up over his nose and mouth to protect himself from the thick, oily smoke.

They both looked around. Whatever had happened had taken place near this door. Buck, Ezra and JD weren't here. Not being able to save his friends, Larabee determinedly did what he could. He loosened the reins of their horses and slapped them on the rump to encourage them out of the doors. They didn't need the encouragement. Vin was already opening stalls and untying the rest of the horses. All seven boarded their horses here and Vin was equally determined to rescue them and the other stock. Some of the animals ran out the door near the body. The others fled out the back doors. The roof was creaking. The ignited hay was beginning to rain down on them. The smoke was choking them. But not until all of the animals were safe did Larabee and Tanner themselves escape the flames.

Coughing, they knelt beside Nathan. Larabee noticed someone had brought out the body. It had to be Josiah. "You saved that! Buck and the others could have been in there!"

"You wouldn't have been saving the horses if you thought they were in there." Josiah answered patiently. He let his fear and anxiety out in certain ways - Penance or alcohol. Anger was Larabee's way. Nathan was just relieved at who was and wasn't dead. He had dreaded that Josiah would carry out a corpse in a bright green jacket.

"Better to help save the animals than that --"

"I didn't save the man. I'm not so fixated on Christian burial practices. At least not for the likes of him. I saved the only evidence we have to what is going on."

Larabee wanted to fight. He wanted to rail at something - someone. But Josiah's tactic worked. The man realized there was no benefit in continuing this discussion. "Nathan, what do you know?" The pained expression on the healer's face brought the gunfighter up short and his next question was with a sincere softness. "Are you all right?"

The other man nodded, fingering the knot behind his ear. His fingers came away bloody. Josiah dipped his bandana in one of the pails that came past and cleaned the blood.

"They set the livery on fire as a diversion."


This time Nathan shook his head, 'no'. He didn't really know the answer to that. He supplied what he did know. "That one called the leader Bishop or some such. I think that's what bought him a bullet." After a beat, his dark eyes met those of his leader, "Do you know that name?"

"Am I supposed to?" Guilt immediately fed off the man in waves.

"No." The pained look on his friend's face added a degree of sincerity to his voice. "No. They said you wouldn't know them." It was, literally, the truth, Nathan rationalized. The man said he was hired to do this job.

"Wasn't this one of the men playing cards with Ezra earlier tonight?" Josiah asked, still looking to the body as a source of clues.

"Revenge?" Larabee hissed in righteous anger, "Those damn cards caused this ...?"

"No." Nathan started to tell him that it was revenge, but the gambler was innocent this time. It was the gunslinger's dark reputation that had ripped their group apart. But what good would that do? The implication of those words and the resulting guilt would only distract their leader from focusing on the rescue.

"No," Nathan repeated. Single words were easier as he fought the throbbing headache, but he forced himself to supply more information. "They were after Buck. And JD as a tool to use against him. Ezra showing up just let them get back at him for winning their money."

"If this is over some outraged husband ..." Their leader didn't finish the sentence. Through his fury he couldn't find the words.

Larabee's anger was like a jagged, broken wheel. Unleashed, the spokes stabbed out at any target. He was angry at the bushwackers who had kidnapped men who were closer to him than he could ever admit, even to himself. But those responsible weren't here. When Chris Larabee wasn't able to focus his anger on the guilty, if the innocent or injured party were a closer target, they felt his ire. That lack of control had done considerable hurt to relationships ever since Josiah had known the man. He feared it was only a matter of time before the misdirected anger caused irreparable damage. At least this time neither of the maligned had heard the accusations. But then again, maybe he'd rather have Buck and Ezra here to defend themselves than at the mercy of such violent men.

+ + + + + + +

JD was horrified that they would leave Nathan unconscious in the flaming stables. But Chris, Vin and Josiah would have heard the gunshot and already be on the way. Nathan would be safe. At least there was that.

The young sheriff remembered how he had watched their attackers indifferently kill the man who had called the leader Bishop and all but sling the smaller gambler over the dead man's horse. Then they had led their captives toward the back livery doors.

The boy recalled he had been almost cocky by that time. Seven horses together? Vin would be on them before they reached the scrub brush country outside of town. Those hopes had been shattered as the men immediately separated upon hitting the street. One of the men circled back to track the activity as the town fought to save the livery. Ezra and Buck were lead by two of their captors each in an opposite direction. The leader of the group ponied JD's unfamiliar mount in a third direction out of town.

Now JD couldn't hide his anxiety as cold realization sank in. He was alone and couldn't help his friends. They had split up and how would even Vin follow three separate trails? How would he know which one to follow? Most frightening -- more so than seeing Buck unconscious and unable to protect himself, more so than Ezra's green jacket disappearing into the gloom, at the mercy of a man who had only smirked when his own partner had been gunned down by their leader -- most frightening was the look on the man who led his horse. The man seemed to read his mind - the hope and then the hope gone. And the man laughed.


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