The Spirit of a Hero

by Mitzi

The fire had, indeed, been a diversion. The hay had been dampened to cause more smoke than blaze or permanent ruin. Why would someone take such care to minimize property loss?

Josiah didn't have time to contemplate the situation. It was something in Nathan's eyes that caught and held Josiah tonight. The flames were near extinction. The darkness was creeping back by degrees. But they didn't hide what Josiah saw in his best friend's eyes. Deceit. Nathan Jackson was hiding something. That something could cause the usually brutally honest healer to conceal facts that might save their friends concerned the preacher deeply.

So involved in trying to read the rocky emotions of Larabee and Jackson, Josiah didn't realize Vin was missing until Chris's brusque greeting announced his reappearance. "Anything?"

"Releasing the other horses erased any trail I could pick up here. Further out I still couldn't pick up sign from seven horses together." He was basing his search on the information Nathan had provided as to the number of men who had been involved in the attack. "Maybe at first light ..."

"Moon's almost as bright as early morning light. Seven horses, Vin. Buck and the others may not have to first light." As Nathan and Josiah heard it, it was a question - desperate but simply saying 'Are you sure?'

Vin heard accusation. His self-confidence was already eaten at, first by the written attack and then when his comparison of the criticism had slowed his response time to a situation that could have been life or death for four of his friends. And though it was not something he could put into words, Vin felt that the part of him from which the words came was the part of him that helped him read sign; interpret nature. Now his self-confidence took an equally violent blow when he thought he was failing his friends. "I'll try again." He said simply and was gone.

Larabee turned back to Nathan. "Did they say anything? Any clue who ...?"

"They were hired. The man behind this wasn't there."

"Do you remember anything they said? To give you a clue where they were headed?"

"They were careful." Nathan replied groggily. The adrenaline surge was wearing off. "Mighty careful." He nodded to the body. "That one accidentally called the leader by his real name. That's the result."

Chris stared into the darkness. "Bishop." He struggled with it unsuccessfully.

Josiah came up with a course of action. "We'll get with Mrs. Travis in the morning. Wire some towns about the name ... go through wanted posters ..."

"That's not going to tell us where they are!" Larabee was again striking out in his helplessness.

"You got a better suggestion?" Josiah asked softly, trying to keep any challenge out of the question. Chris met his eyes then stalked off into the dark night between the street fires.

There was something wrong with all three of his friends tonight. Josiah had never been able to reach Larabee in this state. It caused more distance between them when he tried. Vin was out looking for impossible signs because he thought if Chris asked it of him, he should be able to do better.

Nathan was the only one within his reach just now. That one he could make talk. He met Nathan's eyes as he offered him a hand up. Nathan knew the interrogation he was in store for if he didn't concede gracefully. It showed on his face. Josiah broke into a broad smile despite the circumstances. Nathan returned it. It was good to have Josiah around. To share the burden he carried. He couldn't afford to tell Larabee he was the reason for their friends' peril. He could tell Josiah. Together they would figure something out.

+ + + + + + +

Vin opened one bat wing door enough to slip through. The others were at the usual table. Was there comfort in rallying here? Or did it drive home the loss; that some of their number were missing? Vin knew Josiah and Nathan could have been asleep because it was the smart thing to do. But the volatile Chris Larabee shouldn't - couldn't - be left alone. And so they stayed up to watch over him and hopefully prevent any reckless actions. Tanner knew that Larabee would have be equally worried about Josiah or Nathan if they were the missing. Vin knew how much his friendship meant to the older man. He didn't know why. He didn't analyze. It was one of those friendships that would be lessened if you tried to figure why it worked. He would be thankful for it. Be inspired by it.

It was the three men who were missing who were irreconciled in Larabee's mind. The boy didn't know if he had earned the gunfighter's respect. The dark clad gunfighter had never taken the time to tell him that he had. The old friend thought he still had to earn forgiveness. Larabee had never said there was nothing to forgive. The antagonistic gambler didn't know if he had earned his trust. Chris had never told him trust had been there from the beginning or he would never have gotten his second chance. If anything happened to them before the slate was cleared, it would always be etched in the memory.

As much as Vin was worried about his friends, he worried about Chris. The thoughts flashed through his mind in the time it took him to move from the door to his friends' table.

Chris Larabee looked the question at his friend from beneath the wide black brim of his hat; read the response and lowered his eyes back to his glass. Without a word he knew the tracker had been unsuccessful in his search.

Chris shot the liquor back and poured another. Josiah and Nathan weren't drinking. There would be time enough for that later if they needed the escape.

Larabee, however, unhesitatingly poured another shot and one for the tracker. Vin ignored his glass. Chris held his glass between forefinger and thumb. Suspended there it caught the light like flame and it caught the tracker's fascination.

Soft red fire ...

Tanner shut down the thought forcefully.

Larabee downed the liquid like it was water.

Soft red fire that doesn't burn ...

"I hear Buck gave in to take the boy grapplin'." Josiah murmured as if things would be back on track shortly.

"Reckon he'll grab that one big as a Conestoga?" Vin played along, surprising himself. But it was to give his mind something external to focus on.

Lies believed and good times gone ...

Vin shook his head to get the words out of his mind.

"I want Buck healed up before he goes out like that." Nathan growled as if it were the most important injury facing the tall man.

"Buck don't know how to be sick." Chris said. There was history there. Bitterness.

A memory that won't be scalded clear ...

"Buck and Ezra ain't neither 100% yet." Nathan shot back.

"Well, they ain't fishin', are they? They're out there with men who are 100% and want to kill them." Chris growled and drank directly from the bottle.

Vin pulled himself up and left abruptly. Josiah and Nathan watched him leave the room. Larabee, lost in his own emotional turmoil, missed what was going on with his troubled friend.

+ + + + + + +

Vin's boots seemed to hit the hard boardwalk in rhythm to the words that wouldn't leave his head. He tried to block them from his mind or concentrate on ways to find his friends. The words wouldn't be drowned out.

Soft red fire that doesn't burn
A memory that won't be scalded clear
Of lies believed and good times gone
That maybe never were

I exist the day to live the glass
And find in the amber bottom
The last rosy swirl of all things that should have been
But finally never were

Oh, God, let the magic work
Don't let me grow immune
To the slow stupor I grow
'Gainst truths that return all too soon.

The image of his haunted gunfighter friend emerged in words. It came as naturally as breathing. How the hell could he be thinking of poetry at a time like this?! Vin threw himself into the chair outside the sheriff's office and pulled the yellowed, accusatory paper out of his pocket and fingered it. Why wouldn't the rhymes leave him alone? He never wanted to be part of them again.

+ + + + + + +

JD rode docily beside the man next to him. He wasn't sure if he had ever hated a man before. Just after leaving Four Corners the man had pulled up the reins on both horses. Grabbing JD's chin and pulling him around, he used the glow of the full moon to drill his glare into the younger man's eyes. "I'm going to untie you. I'm going to take the gag out. If you run, your friends will die. If you go for help, if I get arrested, they'll still die."

JD remembered looking back. They were barely past where the main street gave way to the hard-packed prairie road between towns. He could ride back. He could get Larabee and make this man talk. But what if the man escaped? What if he didn't know where the others had been taken? What would Buck do in his place? What would Vin do in these circumstances?

The man had ridden off. The arrogant bastard had never even looked back to see if JD would follow. It was like the man knew how the boy would react. Worse, it was like he was testing a theory as to how he had been told the boy would react.

And so, now, a full day into the unrelenting desert, JD found himself following slightly behind the man and memorizing every feature. The man's stringy gray hair hung down thin and straight as a board to his shoulders. Small pox scarred his face. The flat bulbous, ruddy nose somehow had JD thinking of someone who couldn't control his drinking. JD would never forget the face. And if anything happened to his two friends, he would escape and hunt this man down and kill him.

The man acted like he thought he could predict what JD would do. Could he predict that taking the gentler influences from the boy's life and leaving him with Chris Larabee would be signing his own death warrant as well as a death warrant for anyone who helped hurt his friends?

+ + + + + + +

Ezra knew they had ridden through the night when the first morning rays finally began to chase away the chill. He was blindfolded, but even without that, he couldn't have kept up with the subtle angles and detours this man had taken to conceal their final destination. Ezra Standish was not an outdoorsman.

At sunrise the man had they called him Perkins? had stopped and pulled Standish off the rough-gaited horse. He untied the gambler's soft, talented hands so that he could striped off his rich green jacket, brocade vest, ruffled shirt and rig for his derringer. They had already taken the small firearm.

Whoever they were, these men had known Ezra carried the sleeve weapon. They had known of the bond that had grown between Wilmington and the boy. They had known there was a past between Larabee and Wilmington. These men had way too much information regarding the goings on in Four Corners and its resident peacekeepers.

The man never removed Ezra's blindfold. But the clicking sound told him his captor was delighted to now investigate the spring mechanism that worked the small gun's arm piece. The man was distracted. The metal on metal told Ezra exactly where the man was. The conman smiled to himself. This would be too easy.

Based on where the sound came from and how tall he remembered the man to be, Ezra threw his shoulder hopefully towards the other man's solar plexus. Ezra was rewarded with a started gasp for breath as he and his captor went to the ground. He had ripped off the blindfold and landed two blows before the other man could react. He slammed Perkins' hand against a rock until he let go of the derringer.

Perkins finally got the leverage to kick the smaller man off, but Ezra bounced back to his feet immediately ignoring the protesting injuries from the night before. With a long practiced slight of hand, Ezra Standish came up with the six-shooter that had so recently rested in his adversary's holster. Perkins raised his hands slowly. "You do this you best keep runnin'." The man's voice tried to show more confidence than he felt. "Those other two will be dead and Larabee'll never let you rest."

The taller, heavier man started to worry when he didn't see any reaction in the gambler's face. I don't have any doubt I could hide from Mr. Larabee you low-life son-of-a-bitch. You're just lucky I've learned recently I can't run from myself. The gambler didn't keep the gun directed at the other man. They both knew where they stood for this particular hand. The rest of the game was still to be decided.

Ezra realized he hadn't had any water since before this ordeal began and they had ridden already to where the dry, cracked red clay began to give way to the powdery wind-beaten silt of the true desert. Ezra sidled over to Perkins' horse and grabbed the canteen. After taking a swallow, he poured more water over his head to give himself time to think. "I'll take you back to town. I'm sure Mr. Tanner can convince you to tell us everything you know with a few techniques he has acquired from the native inhabitants of this land."

Perkins had to figure out what had been said. But, unfortunately, he had an answer. "We're on a time schedule. You're cuttin' it close as it is. Any of the three of us don't show up, the others kill their men."

Damn it. The gambler cursed himself, although it never showed on his face. Every logical bone in his body said ride out. A few of them even dared suggest Larabee would understand if he were to bring this one in and get help. But Buck looked to have been hurt pretty badly. JD wouldn't be able to think beyond that fact. Ezra's mind flashed uncontrollably to Nathan unconscious in the burning barn. He clamped down on that train of thought. Stay with what must be dealt with first. There will be time for the other later.

The man who so recently had the upper hand watched the well-dressed dandy. How had he gotten the drop on him? What would he do now? He carried the gun casually, not overtly on guard or concerned about the taut situation. But still, Perkins had the feeling the man would as soon shoot him as not. He watched Standish saunter over, pick up the derringer, palmed it then look from his shirt and jacket into the glaring sun. He turned conversationally to Perkins. "Removing the shirt is to insure the greatest debilitating effects of the sun?"

Perkins' already creased brow wrinkled in confusion. He didn't want to say the wrong thing, but for the life of him he didn't understand the question. Ezra saw this and shook his head. With his patience and perhaps time waning, he backhanded the man. "Is it part of the plan that we suffer from the effects of the sun?"

"Yeah." The man said slowly. What the hell am I doing. Ezra shouted to himself mentally. Outwardly he gave nothing away. Well, I guess I'm out of luck with the shirt It amazed him how, with this thought, he could suddenly feel the sun's heat being absorbed by his skin. But if he was wearing the shirt when they made it to the rendezvous point, it would garner unwanted suspicion.

Ezra found his own gun and holster hooked over the saddle horn of Perkins' saddle. He fingered it and let Perkins sweat the silence as he formulated a plan of action.

Finally Ezra turned and dumped the bullets from Perkins' six-shooter. He kept the derringer aimed in the outlaw's general direction. It was enough to keep that hired gun at bay. Ezra tossed the revolver back to Perkins. "Return it to the holster." The empty gun was replaced.

Only then with his free hand did Ezra retrieve his own revolver while leaving the holster draped where it was. Ezra mounted his bay, palmed the derringer, concealed the other gun between his saddle and saddle blanket and sighed. The sweat wouldn't do it much good, but c'est la vie. Finally he wrapped the length of rope around his wrists as if he were tied. "Shall we proceed?"

When Perkins was on his gelding Ezra pulled up next to him. "And with all due haste, I suggest." Ezra added. "Because if we are too late to save my friends, I will cut your heart out and let you watch it take its last beat." He allowed Perkins to pull forward as if still in control of the situation.

+ + + + + + +

Foster followed his assignment. He was to stay in town and see how the others reacted to the kidnapping of their friends. He sat in the chair outside the general store and observed. The Boss would be pleased.

Larabee split his time between drinking and wandering the streets like a rabid dog. He was alienating himself from everyone in town. While it might not have been a conscious action on his part, it was deliberate.

The Tracker was exhausting himself searching for clues that didn't exist.

The Preacher seemed resigned. Resigned that his God was not a fair God and miracles weren't forthcoming. Whatever regrets he had over the loss of his friends were buried with careful practice beside so many other regrets. He couldn't comfort his friends. He couldn't comfort himself. He surprisingly seemed to comfort the townspeople, the working girls, and the ranchers, perhaps feeding them false hope he himself couldn't believe in.

The Healer kept himself busy with other injuries and sickness in town. It was almost as if he sought out people who needed his care as a means to occupy his mind.

But most amazing of all, after less than 24 hours, the remaining lawmen were keeping their own company. They had joined each other in the saloon at first, but those times were fewer now. The frustration of not having a course of action, of not being able to help their friends, was tearing them apart. Being together reminded them of their helplessness; reinforced their failure. Men like these did not like to be reminded of such things.

The Boss was a genius. He had complimented Foster by saying that he had the mind to appreciate what was happening as the family unit disintegrated. Appreciate it? More than that, he was fascinated by it. There was more damage being done here than they could have done with any gun.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra's horse trailed behind Perkins as they pulled to a stop before the men camped in the vast stretch of nothingness that was the badlands. There were a few yucca and saguaro. Not even barrel cactus or prickly pear dared this climate. The silty, powdery sand was the kind that would burn up through the soles of your boots. There were rugged outcroppings two to three hundred yards further beyond, but here there was only sand and sun and heat.

Buck was sitting, his legs akimbo and his long arms to his side. He was staring into the distance as if he were not quite aware of his surroundings. The rust colored blood, dry enough to start flaking on his neck and face, gave clear indication that they had not given them water to drink, much less clean the wound. JD was beside him, whispering softly. Like Standish, the shirts had been removed from the other two peacekeepers. Their arms were tanned, from where they would roll up their sleeves before indulging in manual labor. But the pale skin on their chests and back and shoulders was beginning to turn pink.

Ezra was touched at what he read in the young man's face as he looked up and saw his Southern friend alive. First and foremost, he was glad to see his friend safe. He was glad to have someone he trusted to help him with Wilmington. Then he was regretful that his friend was in the situation with them. Ezra smiled encouragingly at the boy and winked.

Bannister "I'll-kill-you-if-you-call-me-Bishop" was beside the horses, and between Ezra and his friends. A bear of a man stood even closer to the boy. The last man in the crew, who reminded Ezra of an Opossum, was watering the horses. Buck was in no condition to help them. The boy tried so hard. But would he know how to react quickly enough when Ezra made his move?

Ezra sighed to himself. It was an elaborate gamble, but the stakes were too high to fold. Ezra mentally sucked in a breath as Bannister called out, "You're late, Perkins."

Perkins didn't know what to say. To distract them Ezra jumped off of his horse to dash toward JD and Buck. "JD!" The emotional outburst was carefully gauged. It did the job. More of a reflex, more to stay in command of the situation, Bannister moved between Ezra and his friends. In that instant, Ezra grabbed the man by the throat and stuck the tiny gun to his temple. The bear and the 'possum were fast enough to draw their weapons and point them at JD and Buck. JD had moved to stand between Buck and the guns. His eyes moved from Ezra to the others. "Gentlemen," Ezra finally drawled, "shall we negotiate this situation?"

Buck was trying to stand, but his equilibrium was suffering from the head injury. "Stay still Buck! We got it!" JD pled. Ezra forced himself to focus on the threat before him. WE GOT IT? Ezra repeated to himself. This situation was hardly under control. That's comical.

"What'cha got in that peashooter, two shots?" The leader of the men hissed.

"But I assure you I am proficient and will take one of you out with each bullet." He replied to Bannister.

"And the rest of us kill you three."

"But which of you will be left standing? Is this employment worth it?"

Perkins was sweating. "My gun's empty. He got the drop on me." The rest was left unspoken. He would be useless in this confrontation.

"G -go for the one furthest from Buck. I'll keep this one from getting to him." JD referred to the bear beside him and tried to act brave. He meant what he said, but didn't know his chances against the mountain of a man. He hoped his willingness to fight, if nothing else, would add some support to Ezra's position. He regretted that his voice betrayed his fear.

Ezra almost laughed out loud. JD wasn't experienced enough to watch his enemies reactions. JD's anxiety made him an unknown quantity. It showed in the way Bannister's body tensed. Worrying over what a frightened cub, with just enough experience to have killed, would do to protect his own, threw the hardened gunfighter off his game. Ezra made a mental note to tell the boy how well that worked and to use it to his advantage as long as his youthful looks allowed.

"How much are you getting paid to do this?" Ezra asked casually. He kept Bannister as a shield between him and the others. He very gradually started moving toward his friends - not enough to make them a single target, but close enough to cover them if it all went to hell.

"How much?" He asked again to conceal his movement.

"Thousand dollars. Split between the survivors." Perkins submitted.

"Perhaps I can alleviate some tension in our little stalemate. What if I increase that sum? You return us safely to Four Corners, and tell us who hired you...?" Ezra let the question trail off and waited for a response. The men were clearly afraid of the man they were working for, but the money was tempting.

"Ezra," When the silence looked to linger, JD called softly as not to distract him too much, "Buck needs some water. We haven't had any since..."

Somehow that made the gambler very angry. He turned vicious green eyes on Perkins. "Give the boy a canteen." He hesitated and looked to Bannister for permission. When the man was slow in responding, Ezra roughly tapped him on the temple with the derringer. "To show good faith in the arbitration."

Bannister finally nodded. Perkins complied. "Stay away from him. Toss it to his feet." Ezra ordered, trying to keep as much control as possible over the volatile situation. The man complied.

JD scrambled to the canteen. His hands were tied in front of him, but he was still able to quickly get it to his dazed friend's lips. The Southerner watched. Buck seemed to be aware of his surroundings just not as coordinated as he usually was.

"Easy, easy," JD encouraged as the big man drank hungrily from the canteen. It wasn't long before he shoved the water to the boy in a motion clearly insisting he drink his share. Where the boy touched the older man the skin on both their arms turned white briefly before returning to its reddish tinge. A sunburn already. Damn. "Where are their shirts?"

Bannister was ready to negotiate now and answered with a question of his own. "What guarantee do we have you'll give us the money?" He had shown himself too readily influenced by money at the poker table. Ezra knew he had him hooked. Ezra had edged to his saddle where the larger, more effective gun was concealed. Just as he took hold of the grip, the shot rang out.

Ezra felt the burn in his side and his legs collapsing before the sound registered. A red veil covered his vision. The six shooter fell from numb fingers. He felt someone rip something from his other hand. The derringer was gone. The same someone shoved him roughly onto his back.

Standish saw JD scramble to get to his side. The huge gunman grabbed the boy around the waist and completely lifted him off the ground. Buck was able to get on the man's back. In his weakened state, the rogue was thrown off the man's shoulders like a terrier pup.

One man had a gun pointed at Buck's head. By the look on his friend's face, Ezra was afraid the threat of the gun wouldn't be enough to keep him from doing something foolish. JD was still struggling in the grasp of the man-mountain.

From what Ezra could tell the bullet had gouged a chunk of flesh and muscle from across his rib cage. Thankfully a bullet from that distance had lost some velocity. Still his side burned unmercifully. There was no sign of the sniper. . Ezra noticed even their captors seemed surprised by the gunshot. Disturbed, even. They too were looking around for its source.

The shot had to have come from the stone outcropping probably 200 yards west. Hell of a shot Ezra caught himself gasping as the initial shock wore off and the pain filtered into his consciousness. Bannister hunkered down to observe him impassively. Ezra didn't react. He knew from the poker table how to play this man. Ezra couldn't keep the pain from etching its mark on his face, but he kept it to a minimum. The space of a few heartbeats seemed an eternity. Bannister looked around as if to confirm who could and who couldn't hear him. Bannister got in Ezra's face. "Now we'll negotiate, you son-of-a-bitch."

+ + + + + + +

Josiah studied the forlorn tracker in the light of the setting sun. He was seated in front of the jail. Sanchez felt he was looking at another man. The relaxed "I know who I am, for better or worse" Vin Tanner wasn't there. This one was tensed, his nervous fingers fidgeting with the harmonia instead of playing it ...

As he moved silently closer, Josiah was surprised to see that what he had assumed to be the mouth organ was instead a slip of paper the younger man was folding and unfolding without looking at it.

"Evenin', Vin," The big man greeted him as he deftly snatched the paper from the jittery fingers.

"Damn it to hell! Josiah!" Damn if he almost didn't go for his gun at the intrusion. Josiah noted as he read. Even after taking in each word, the preacher couldn't quite absorb what he held. "What is this?" He was indignant for his friend.

"Please, Josiah ..."

"Is this what has you distracted?"

"What do you think of me? That I'm frettin' over such as that with Ezra and ..." Josiah put a gentling hand on his friend's shoulder. It gave the shy tracker the encouragement he needed to try to explain himself. "It's like the part of me that ... that felt those words is the part that helps me read nature - and the changes a man causes when he moves through it. How can that be, Josiah? Because someone don't like the way I threw a few words together I ..."

"Your confidence is gone?"

"I can't find the tracks. Eight horses ..."

Josiah was quiet for a moment before he spoke softly, sincerely, intensely so that Vin would listen, "It may be many years before we understand how one part of who we are is a part of all else we are. It took a lot of courage to put your thoughts in writing. To attack that attacks all that you are. Don't let it." Josiah's words grew in intensity. "They were words to be proud of."

Vin didn't meet his eyes, he stared at the paper and wallowed in the silence no matter how he tried to pull himself out. But Josiah, reading his mind, threw him a life line. "Why is it easier to believe one hard word from a stranger who hides behind anonymity than your friends?"

"You wouldn't say anything if you were thinkin' the truth would be hurtful." Tanner said in a small voice. This was not Vin Tanner. No violence or threat of a beating or bullet would have done this to him.

Josiah, understanding men who attacked with words, his father being one of the best, suddenly hated the breed all over again. "We wouldn't let you embarrass yourself."

"You didn't know."

"Mary showed us before it went to print."

"But there weren't no name ..."

"She was afraid it was too good and too sensitive ..." He smiled at Vin's embarrassment at the word. "...that it would open you up to physical attack. No one could expect this." He thumped the paper with his finger.

"Chris saw this before ..."

"Said the part of you that the poem comes from is what keeps the bounty hunter a man. He said no one should be afraid to feel. I think he spoke from his heart. Personal experience."

There was a silence then, growing too long between them. Josiah repeated his earlier question to stop the silence, "Why is it so hard to believe the truth in the words of friends over the lies on an enemy? A stranger?" He watched the younger man struggle with the ideas. This one and the one planted by the critical paper. "Try it, Vin. See which one you're afraid of and which one feels right."

"Ya know," Vin started, with a self-depreciating grin, "JD etched marks in all of our horses' shoes. Said he wanted to make them easy for me to find ...didn't have the heart to tell him I knew the natural wear of all those shoes well enough to follow ..." Tanner jumped up, suddenly angry. He surprised Josiah. "This ain't' me. Frettin' over words - mine or anybody else's. Questioning something I've been good at all my life it's ... I'm getting soft."

"You ever have a friend before? A real friend?" Vin stopped instantly and stared at him as the big man continued. "We ain't men geared for that. I never had so much to lose before. You?"

Vin thought back to the older man in the tribe who raised him. "I'd just forgotten how it felt."

Vin sat back down. Josiah sat beside him. The shared peace that was again between them was something Vin had always been able to read.

+ + + + + + +

JD was curious. Whoever grazed Ezra had never showed up. Now he, Buck and Ezra were sitting in the hot white sand with no shirts, no hats and no water.

Their captors kept the camp throughout the day. They had their shirts and hats that protected them from the worst of the sun's debilitating effects, and they drank water whenever they wanted. But they weren't immune to Buck and Ezra when the two were together.

As Buck had seemed to revive some, he first visually checked Ezra's wound. It was bleeding, but not much. So maybe it wasn't a bad thing. The slight bleeding might wash some of the dirt out and lessen the chances of infection. The blood was staining the waistband of his trousers and the experience of the gunfighter told him that it would be turning tacky and uncomfortable. He was sure Ezra hated uncomfortable. He reminded himself it could be worse.

Resigned to their situation, at least temporarily, Buck decided to amuse himself by irritating the hell out of their captors. It was a natural talent he had refined over the years, often on Chris Larabee to pull him out of his often churlish moods. He started by explaining in elaborate detail how whiskey would increase the effects of the sun. He tried to wheedle them into torturing him with some until Ezra volunteered the fact that they probably didn't have any. They couldn't afford it having lost all of their money because of their abhorrent gambling skills.

Their kidnappers were having some palaver of their own but it was clear by the occasionally tensed shoulders or head that almost turned to glare at them that their audience was hearing every word. And it was getting to them.

Now, Buck was lying on his back in the sand, eyes closed and had moved on to a diatribe on Chris Larabee's penchant for vengeance. "I had to follow him across two states and part of the territory one time when some fellas beat up a friend of his and stole his grub stake. And fast? He was so mad, he called all three of them gunfighters out an' took 'em on. Sorriest thing, when he has to shoot that fast, he don't have time to wing a body. They're all pushin' up daisies, now."

"But at least it was fast?" Ezra asked with a false concern.

"Nope, fires at center mass. Two were gut shot. One took out a lung." Ezra tsk-tsked at the ungentlemanly demise. JD turned to hide a smirk as the 'possum squirmed. His friends were fascinating him with the way they were eating away at the self-confidence of these men with mere words while they were, themselves, in such vulnerable positions. What would it accomplish? If they were working toward a goal, they hadn't let JD in on it, but it did pass the time.

"It never ceases to amaze me that you survived your association with him all those years." Ezra mused.

"It never ceases to amaze me you've survived your association with him all of two years." Buck responded in a low key imitation of the southerner's drawl.

"Touché." Ezra smiled with genuine affection in the tone.

"You're a gentlemen and a scholar, Ezra." Buck replied keeping up the banter.

"That puts me in mind of Mr. Sanchez." Ezra offered. "I suspect he could break church pews in his anger and I feel sure he would be able to break a man's back with his bare hands."

"Might rather it." Buck observed.

"An appeal to his religious roots? To feel the fruits of his labor? Guns and bullets are so long distance - so impersonal, no, Josiah would break a man's back and leave him to reflect on how he got to that point in this life."

"Josiah's big on ponderin'." Buck agreed seriously. "Not like Vin."

"Just the opposite, I would think." Ezra agreed. "He would want to practice his sharpshooting technique. How far can one shoot, having a predisposition to do so, Mr. Wilmington?"

"I figure he could pick a man off at 300 yards movin' or still. Whoever they got perched in them mesas that took a shot at you? Vin's got range on him."

"And of course the preeminent Mr. Jackson with his knives ..."

"Shut up!" Perkins broke first. He stumbled to get his traction as he made his way toward them. "Shut up!" The man towered over the prisoners sitting on the sand. Buck ignored him and never opened his eyes. Ezra looked up at him with an expression of total innocence.

"Mr. Wilmington, I do believe that there are elements of this little soiree that these men weren't let in on before they hired on."

Bannister sauntered over to stand between his man and the others. "Chris Larabee is nothing compared to the man who's payin' us. You don't cross him."

"But there's only one of him." Buck pointed out as he sat up and began paying more attention to the situation.

"A valid point. While I would consider Mr. Larabee and his compadres, individually and together, are a force to be reckoned with, I question how much of a threat one man could be against what, four? Five of you?"

"He's right." The bear spoke up, not liking to be slighted or his courage questioned.

Moving quickly and grabbing Ezra by his neck, before Bannister could stop him, Perkins growled, "So, what about that money?"

"I'll take you to it."

The man placed the palm of his left hand over Ezra's wound and leaned into it.

Ezra couldn't hold back the scream that escaped his raw throat. Buck tried to crawl to him and was kicked back by the 'possum. JD lunged to help and was caught up in the grasp of the bear.

"Let up." Bannister ordered.

Perkins held there for a moment then finally let up. "That attitude could prove painful." He purred to Ezra.

Ezra turned suddenly serious. "You intend to abandon us to a slow death in this wasteland. Anything, no matter how painful, that speeds up that end is preferable to the alternative."

"Your friends over there feel the same way?"

"You've done your homework. How much do you think that matters to me?" Ezra didn't look to see the reaction of his friends to this statement. He was betting again. This time he was gambling that the "Boss" wanted them to die in the desert or otherwise they would already be dead. He was also wagering that he and Buck had successfully played on their egos regarding their courage and their greed.

"He's slippery as a slug." Bannister cited, referring to Standish and not willing to return him to town.

"Take the boy with you." Ezra stated flatly.

"No!" JD demanded. He had been enthralled at how Buck and Ezra had manipulated these men and how close they were to getting a chance for one of them to get to town, maybe escape, maybe rescue the others. He was startled and angry when Ezra suggested he be the one to go.

"I'll tell him where the money's hidden. You get it on top of what your boss is paying you." Ezra didn't take the time to respond to the boy.

"Ezra, I don't want to leave you here."

The gambler ignored the youngster. "You let him go after you get the money. He at least gets some chance to get help to us. You've fulfilled your obligation of leaving us here and you will at least double your profit." He had to make it sound like he was still looking out for his own best interests.


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