The Spirit of a Hero

by Mitzi

A thousand thoughts filtered through Vin's mind as he crossed the street to the saloon. Josiah's talk had done some good, supplied a little perspective. But he was warring with himself over the news he thought to impart. He didn't want to be the source of false hope, but at least they would be doing something.

As the former buffalo hunter walked through the swinging doors, he was encouraged to see the others had at least stopped avoiding each other and sat together, although in silence, at the familiar table.

The other three looked up in silent greeting. Josiah slid a chair out with his foot for Vin to join them.

The tracker studied the men, then spoke, "I found three sets of two horses that left last night around the time of the fire." The others knew this was leading somewhere and even Chris looked up expectantly. "I don't know why they would split up ..."

"They thought they had to? To intentionally throw you off?" Nathan suggested.

"They got more confidence in me than I do." Vin smiled self-depreciatingly

"When we asked around, no one remembered a lot of activity besides buckboards and the stagecoach last couple of days. That many people leaving at once can't be a coincidence." Josiah offered up.

"Should we follow all three? Split up?" Nathan asked, anxious for a course of action.

They all looked to Vin for an answer. Josiah silently willed his young friend to trust himself. Try He thought so hard he was sure the younger man must be able to read his mind. Try for yourself. For everyone. When the tracker spoke there was the slightest hint of an unfamiliar treble. "One track led to the badlands. Ain't likely a man would be goin' out there this time of year unless he's up to no good or prospectin'. The other two are on busy paths that'll lose themselves in other travel activity soon enough." He stopped and offered the other side. "But at best we'll only be findin' one of our boys -if I'm right."

"You find him," Chris voice was low. "He'll tell us where the others are."

"What if I'm wrong? What if this is our only chance to find them and I'm wrong?" The responsibility never weighed so heavy.

Chris was surprised at the self-doubt. "At least it's a chance." Then he added, "Tracking is more than reading sign. It's knowing your target. It's an instinct. You've got it."

"I got enough of the trail marked. We can leave as soon as the moon's up," Vin offered.

Chris stood and squeezed the tracker's shoulder as he passed. Vin wondered again at how words could lead to hesitation and possibly tumble down everything that had become important to him. And he wondered how that single action by one man could give it all back.

Their somber leader disappeared. None of the others were invited in the move. The man needed some time to himself. He bottled too much up inside. This was something Josiah began to sense that the dark gunfighter had in common with the bounty hunter. The ex-preacher was beginning to see that what first appeared to be a sense of inner peace in the younger man was, instead, a way of hiding emotions he was afraid would be perceived as weakness.

Sanchez rubbed his big hand over his face and thought about the mask Vin wore to hide the internal turmoil. Did Chris,Vin, Buck and Ezra have any idea how alike they were in their differences? Four different masks, but all for the same purpose.

+ + + + + +

Night was falling in purple hues that only could be created along the desert floor. One group of four men debated the fate of the other three who sat nearby.

"And I'm saying to hell with it." The bear demanded.

"He's right. We did the man's job we got paid for. He wanted two of them lawmen out here ..."

"He wanted Wilmington and the boy."

"Probably because they were on patrol together - making it easier for us." He rationalized. He wanted the gambler's money.

"How could it matter which ones stay?"

"Think how much money that gambler could have holed back." "It could be a bluff ..."

"He's got our money! And it ain't on him." This seemed to confirm the existence of a hidey-hole to the bear. Bannister glanced uncomfortably over at their prisoners.

+ + + + + +

"You could go." JD argued. His body shivered involuntarily. It was partially from the chill as darkness set in, partially from the shock caused by the sunburn to his upper body.

"Then they would be expecting subterfuge. We need them off guard to have the best chance of success." JD took the offensive, "And with me, they'll think it's just some dumb kid riding along like you do."

"We haven't thought that for a long time." Buck assured him, but there was a tiredness in his voice that colored the sincerity.

"I can help." JD turned from the offensive to pleading.

"You are helping. When they look at you JD, let'em see a boy." Buck's voice intensified. "And when they are stupid and let their guard down because of it, you stop 'em. You get away and get Chris or you kill'em. Don't wait for them to draw first. Don't give 'em a chance to surrender. You stay alive, boy. You hear me?"

"Buck could go..."

Ezra was sitting between JD and Buck. Shirtless, water blisters were beginning to appear on their shoulders. He was sure their backs weren't fairing any better. Sweat kept dripping into his eyes as fast as he could rub it out with his shoulder. Gritty sand had somehow worked its way between his skin and waistband. It reminded him of the fairy tale The Princess And The Pea because his attempts to lead a sheltered existence made the sensation singularly uncomfortable.

The entire situation was making the southerner impatient and testy. He turned to speak directly to the young Easterner. "They would watch Buck too closely. JD, please, take a moment - and we only have a moment - to examine this logically. If Mr. Wilmington were to accompany the felons to town, he is too disoriented, and his reflexes too slowed to be effective against them."

"You're hurt, Ezra." JD was hell-bent on arguing.

Ezra leaned into the boy, barely aware of protecting his own wound. "Mr. Dunne, you are very possibly Buck's only chance. He's already weak from his injuries. That sun will leech our strength in short order. It is up to you to get these men back to Four Corners, elude them and return with help. We're trusting you with our lives." JD's eyes slid to where Buck was watching and turned back to meet the gambler's eyes.

"If I accompany them and you remain, Mr. Wilmington will push himself too hard to get you to safety."

"You don't know how he worries about you, Ezra, when you're not around."

Ezra gave him a smile. "Will you trust me to watch out for Mr. Wilmington? While you take care of your responsibility and yourself?"

"Thank you, Ezra."

Buck couldn't hear what was being said. He'd let Ezra play it his way and trust him to get JD out of this. He had almost dozed when a glance down showed him a bluebottle fly had landed on his friend's wounded side. He immediately tried to shoo it away before the Southerner noticed, but it wasn't to be.

At first Ezra simply swatted at the insect. But suddenly memories erupted and he began slapping at the nasty beast like it was poison. He shifted roughly into JD. The damned creature didn't move fast enough so he would move from it. Even with his hands tied behind him, he tried to swat at the spot. Then immediately and frantically he was trying to twist his arms to swat at the barely healed scar along his shoulder blade.

His agitation startled their captors who were on their feet, guns drawn and at the ready. Wide-eyed, JD was looking for the threat. Buck's body responded to the drawn guns and Ezra's panic with an insurgence of "fight or flight" adrenaline. The reaction seemed to help his questionable coordination and, on his knees, hands tied behind him, he got in Ezra's face. "It's gone! Ezra, Pard, it's gone. I saw it light. It was only there a second. Are you hearing me?"

Ezra slowly stilled. He looked into Buck's eyes for the truth. He found it there. Then he shut his own eyes to regroup. Of all the memories that would ever haunt the fine-boned gambler, the maggots, boring into his flesh and the helplessness of that moment in the POW camp, were the ones that would always remind him that there were some things worse than death.

When he finally opened his eyes, he saw that the men who had rallied to the excitement gradually lowered their weapons. Ezra's voice, when he spoke, left no doubt how disturbed he still was, "Gentlemen, make a decision. Now. Or I will make it for you. I will force you to shoot me and my secret will die with me."

Bannister's eyes slid from Standish to Wilmington to Dunne. The youngster was worried about what he had witnessed, but was as confused as the others. The seasoned gunfighter had some insight into the strange behavior of the gambler and he was afraid that it wasn't a bluff.

"This better be worth it." Bannister growled as an acknowledgement of the terms.

"You'll let the boy go when you have the money and give him a chance to get us help?" Ezra knew it was a farce, but he had to play up the false optimism for the men to believe his motives.

"That's the terms." Bannister smirked.

Everyone stood in anticipation, finally Ezra commented dryly. "Gentlemen. It would defeat the purpose of this exercise if I were to tell the lad the location of my funds with you in hearing distance, no?"

Taking their lead from Bannister when he finally backed off, the men moved away from the peacekeepers.

"One last thing, Mr. Dunne, there is a Colt .45 to the side of the money. Don't hesitate to use it." This brought a glimmer of hope to JD's brown eyes.

Buck leveled his shoulder into JD to get his full attention and locked eyes as he gave a last order. "You kill'em, boy. You stay alive. You hear me?"

"I don't want to leave and worry about you ..."

Buck wished he could pull him forward with one large hand around his neck. Instead, he whispered, "I'm proud of you, Boy."

JD held his eyes wide and blinked several times to dry out the childish, stinging tears that threatened. He won that battle. He couldn't trust himself with words so he nodded as he backed away toward the men who were preparing to leave his friends at the mercy of the sweltering sun.

Bannister suddenly grabbed his upper arm and dragged the boy to the horses. As he turned, JD noticed it. He forced himself to keep from reacting. They hadn't picked up the canteen he had dropped when Ezra was shot.

"I'll be back, Buck. I'll bring help."

"Or maybe we'll just kill him for fun once we got the money." The bear snarled as he towered over Buck and Ezra. For the first time, Ezra noticed the remnants of Union blue on the man's clothes.

"One thing we left out earlier...Larabee and the others? You don't have to worry about any of them. Anything happens to that boy, they won't be able to get to you before I do." Buck's voice was matter-of-fact as if there was so much truth in the statement that it needed no reinforcement through vocal emphasis. Bannister and the Bear laughed the statement off and mounted their horses. As they rode away, Bannister pulled his Colt and fired a single bullet into the canteen almost hidden behind Buck. With a loud guffaw he led the small band away.

JD could tell both of his friends had been well aware of the canteen and were disillusioned with this loss. JD held on with his knees as Bannister's men led him and the two spare horses away. He kept turning back to see his friends shrink into the distance God, this felt so wrong. Finally his friends were lost to him, swallowed up by the night.

+ + + + + +

Josiah knocked perfunctorily before he let himself into Nathan's clinic. His longtime friend barely glanced up from where he was rolling strips of bandages to take with him, but began speaking as if they had been together all evening. "I figured to take the buckboard. It might slow us down, but Vin following such an old trail ... that'll take time in itself."

"We'd best tie their horses behind and carry the tack. If they're able to ride, they'll take our mounts afore they use the wagon." There was something special about the bond forming between seven loners, but there wasn't a more stubborn, hard-headed bunch, either.

Nathan moved over to put some herbs and tinctures in his bag. "I'm thinking I don't know how Buck will react to these tonics. The man can come through without a scratch where everyone else is laid up, then, he gets hisself near killed in that hellhole and don't give himself time to heal before ..." He carefully wrapped his few precious instruments and stowed them in the bag. "... And Ezra and JD? Walkin' accidents waiting to happen."

"Nathan ..."

"What do I waste my time for? Chris's too private to take help. Vin - he thinks nature can heal him better than I can ... he thinks being inside my four walls is punishment ..."

"Nathan." Josiah tried to break through. Something was wrong.

"JD's gotta prove how tough he is ... Buck and Ezra afraid to need help - afraid no one will give it!"

Josiah blinked at this surprising insight Nathan kept to himself. He wished he had time to consider the healer's intuition, but by the way he was working himself up, it was his friend who needed help this time. "Nathan!"

"What!?" Nathan turned angry, worked up eyes on his friend. "What about you? Is it penance that makes you rather suffer than let me help you?"

They stared at each other. Brown eyes met blue. Nathan had let his guard down again with the one man he knew would accept him through it. "What's really bothering you?" Josiah asked softly.

"What if I'm not good enough?"

"Where the hell does that come from?" Josiah's voice was tinged with anger. Now Nathan was questioning himself?

Nathan, subdued now, handed him a sheet of paper. Josiah started reading then scanned, although there were only two short paragraphs. Danger to the community ... practicing medicine without a license ...false hope ...illegal ..."

"What the hell is this? Where did it come from?"

"Found it on my door."

"We've been through this before." Josiah said softly. "Do you think the people you've healed care if you have a license?"

"It's coming, Josiah, people with more education than me, people who've been schooled ... they'll care that I don't know the terms and scientific names ..."

"That's true. Because they want to feel they are an elite group. They want to feel that you must go to school, not that you can master your craft through the learning process."

"Progress, civilization. That means you'll have to have a piece of paper that says you know what you're doing."

"People who think they know better and say so in words." Josiah spat. "Do you think the person who penned this can heal? Has your knowledge? Or just an opinion?"

"I gotta be careful. Not to overstep what I know or they'll be right."

"No one can be harder on you than yourself. Don't let words make you second-guess your God-given talent. We have friends who can't afford that right now."

"I just ain't sure." It wasn't lost on Josiah that these were the same words Vin had used. So Josiah decided to use another friend's answer to this same appeal. "To paraphrase our Mr. Larabee, healing is more than medicine and instruments. It's knowing your patient. It's an instinct. You've got it." There was an uncomfortable silence. Finally Josiah'd had enough. "What about you, Nathan? What about how you refuse help when you're hurt?"

"I at least understand the logic of healing properly, giving the injury time to heal."


Then Nathan realized Josiah was speaking of this emotional wound as well as any physical damage. And putting it in that light, he needed to let the hurt from the words heal as well. "Thank you, Josiah." Josiah pulled him into a comforting bear hug that spoke volumes.

+ + + + + +

"Good God, Mr. Wilmington, the desert runs as hot and cold as many a woman I've met." Ezra drawled as he shivered from the chill that overtook his body. Night fell quickly in the desert. "Is it really freezing out here?"

"It's a might chilly. But part of it's brought on by that sunburn." His friend conceded as he twisted his arms about behind his back. He never allowed for the fact that his own skin was just as red and blistered. "How bad are you hurt?" He asked, referring to the bullet wound. The moon wasn't up yet, and although the sky was clear, there wasn't enough light to see anything but black shadows tinged with blue outlines. Now that he was finally free to take a closer look at his friend's wound, it was too dark to see.

"It stings, but truly it's just gouged out some meat. It'll grow back. More immediately, if you'll maneuver around perhaps we can work on our ropes ..." His jaw dropped open as Buck pulled his free hands before him and finished loosening the loops from his left wrist. "Hidden talents?" Ezra asked, duly impressed.

"One of my Ma's lady friends taught me." Buck volunteered casually as he rushed to save what water he could. He wedged the damaged canteen into the sand at an angle to save as much water as possible. Then he skooched around to start working on Ezra's bonds. He could hear the gears turning in his friend's head. A lady residing in a brothel that good with ropes ... "The trick is to tense your muscles right tight while they're puttin' 'em on ya. That's a good start. There's a little more to it."

"Indeed." Ezra seemed to decide whether to continue the discussion and finally changed the subject - for now. "A course of action?"

"I ain't gonna lie to ya, Ezra. We're gonna be hurtin' when that sun comes up." They shared a portion of the precious water. "Our best bet is to make what time we can tonight and hole up at any shade we find during the day."

"I bow to your experience." Ezra started in the direction the horses had gone.

Buck grabbed his belt loop to stop him then wrapped his long fingers around his scalp to turn the gambler facing 45 degrees from his intended path. He avoided touching any of the aching, irritated skin. "I don't know why they're taking an out of the way path, but if it was to throw us off, they ain't givin' ol' Buck the credit he's due."

Ezra unquestioningly moved in the direction his friend directed.

+ + + + + +

As the morning sun greeted another day, JD Dunne felt surprisingly energized. He hadn't slept in two nights. Although he had been given his hat and shirt so his condition wouldn't get worse and become even more obvious in town, the material of the shirt smarted and was rough. He'd never noticed it before. Of course it had never rubbed against his tender inflamed skin and ruptured the sickly water blisters on his shoulders and upper back before either.

These men needled him unmercifully on how Buck and Ezra would suffer - the muscle cramps, dizzying nausea, throbbing headaches and weakness that forced a man's body to give up before his mind did. Bannister said a man almost watched himself die. Perkins ruminated almost fondly on how toward the end, even men who knew to go to shade would see mirages so realistic they pulled them from that sanctuary; that slight reprieve.

And then they would laugh at how easy it had been to take three of the so-called "Magnificent Seven". "Two and a half," the possum amended, trying to get a rise out of JD. They'll look at you, JD. Let 'em see a boy. And when they're stupid enough and let their guard down, you stop 'em. JD focused on Buck's words and rode, head down, and tried to look defeated. But JD knew he would kill these men. He would gun them down with the same efficiency as Chris Larabee. These men would never ridicule his friends where anyone else would ever hear it.

He noticed a chaparral race away from them. It had a thin snake in its beak. The creosote bushes were giving way to low grasses; the desert was giving way to plains as the men pulled up.

Bannister took Buck's shirt, covered in dried blood, and Ezra's frilled white linen shirt and tied them to the saddle horn of one of the spare horses. He also put a note there, but didn't offer to tell JD what it said. Then he swatted the horse on the flank to get it on its way. It was one of the livery horses. JD knew it would take those shirts right back to town. Vin would have that trail in no time ...

JD didn't have to speculate. Bannister turned back to his men. "Let that one take a direct route. We'll stop by the water hole at Skinout Plateau and fill the canteens." He paused long enough to pull himself into the saddle. "By the time we work our way to town the other's'll be trying to backtrack the mare. The town will be ours."

"I need Vin to help me get back to Buck and Ezra." JD demanded.

"You'll have to work with what ya got, kid." Perkins smirked. He didn't seem too concerned one way or the other.

JD knew they planned on killing him as soon as they had the money. They had no intention of letting him bring help to the others. Well, he may have learned from Chris Larabee how to hate people who hurt your family, but he had learned from Ezra Standish how to play a mark and let them believe what they wanted. So JD nodded meekly as if accepting that, at least, he would be given a chance to rescue his friends. Oh, he'd get his chance. These men just didn't know it. Would Chris and the others be out following that horse? It didn't matter.

As they rode, the pinks and oranges in the eastern sky gave way to the cloudless robin's egg blue of the day.

+ + + + + +

Dawn gave way to mid-morning. The high desert chill gave itself up to the heat.

Chris rode a little behind Tanner to stay out of the way. It didn't matter. They had long since run out of any legitimate trail to follow. Now they were heading in the last direction they had - they were following Vin's hunch. But damn it, at least they were doing something.

Josiah shared the buckboard with Nathan. But he had, in fact, brought JD, Ezra and Buck's horses tied to the back. They wouldn't want to ride the wagon if they didn't have to. Besides, leaving with the horses gave hope, no matter how imaginary, to the town that their three missing peacekeepers would soon return. Josiah was sensitive to the pulse of the town, even more so than Nathan. While the healer focused on their physical health, the preacher centered on the mental wellbeing of the town. And it was ebbing. They were spoiled having seven men protect the town. There had been more than one set of eyes watching them leave even though it had at such a late hour.

What was the bond between the seven? Josiah wondered, not for the first time. What made the safety of the others so important to the separate individuals? It went beyond friendship. It was as if by saving the group, the individuals were saving the vulnerable, often hidden humanity that had been very nearly lost to each of them before they met.

Why, after many, many years of not needing anyone, did so many of them suddenly need each other? Why did the others, those that all along knew they needed one person to care, share the friendships so willingly? Josiah couldn't answer that for himself. How could he answer it for the others?

His musings were drawn back to the present when Vin pulled his horse to a stop. A riderless horse was cantering toward them. They took a moment to evaluate the situation and look for potential danger. But in that space of two breaths, Vin dismounted his own black to approach the mare. She didn't seem skittish, but he wouldn't take chances. Cooing gentling words as he approached, he watched the horse's ears twitch toward him and huge brown eyes roll his direction. It watched the stranger come nearer, but didn't exhibit fear.

The others stayed back to let Vin approach the animal. But as soon as he touched the reins and his mind touched on what was tied to the saddle horn, it was Larabee who reached the shirts first and grabbed them. A small piece of parchment floated to the ground.

Josiah and Nathan walked up as the man in black picked up the paper. They all watched the dark gunslinger's expression cloud over like thunderheads rolling across the plains.

Chris's heart clenched when he saw the bloody shirts tied around the saddle horn.

He recognized the animal as was one of the livery horses, missing since their friends disappeared. But the words ...

Faster than a snake striking, Chris had his fists wound deep in the lapels of Nathan's jacket. The paper was still crumpled in his fingers. He was nose-to-nose with the tall black man. The livery horse skittered sideways in an attempt to get away from the startling motions and emotions that came off the man in waves. Vin fought to settle the horse. Josiah fought to get himself wedged between Chris and Nathan. "This is because of me?" The blond demanded with fear and guilt, "What did they say? Why didn't you tell me?"

Nathan was trying to pry the other man's fingers from his clothes. The anger had taken over. That meant the gunfighter would strike out at the nearest target.

"It's not because of you!" Nathan tried to force the words to penetrate Chris's veil of hate.

Josiah finally pushed Larabee from his friend. "You don't know the men who did this."

"Chris," Nathan offered as an apology, "They said they were hired ... never mentioned

any names ... any clues to who was paying them. If I had thought it would help any by telling you ..."

"It's just words, Chris. Words to make you doubt yourself. We can't afford that. Buck and the others can't afford that." Josiah fought to find words that would reach their leader.

Larabee fought for control. His eyes were shades darker with emotion. His body tremored once with the effort to control himself and not strike out at something - anything - anyone. "They're doing this because of me ... because Buck's my friend ... because JD's ..."

"There's no truth in those words," Nathan insisted. "It's facts, maybe, skewed by some man's hatred and pettiness, but not the truth." And in saying the words, Nathan realized it was just as true of the letter he had received as it was of the letter now crumpled in the gunslinger's hand. Josiah met Nathan's eyes and read the understanding there. And realized it also extended to the written attack on Vin, Facts, maybe, skewed by hatred and pettiness, but not the truth

"I can follow these fresh tracks right back." Vin offered to diffuse the situation. "They've made a mistake, Chris."

Or they know it doesn't matter. It's too late. Larabee didn't say it out loud, but the thought scared him to death. He strode over and remounted, not waiting for the others. There was no apology, no release from his emotions. Tanner was right. However this played out, even he could follow this horse's path. They would find the men who did this.

Vin handed the horse's reins to Josiah. "We'll keep you in sight."

The others nodded. They knew when Larabee was driven he couldn't be controlled. Only one of the two people who could steer him was present. That person mounted his horse and followed.

Nathan and Josiah returned to the wagon and followed at the slower pace it demanded.

+ + + + + +

Ezra plodded along after Buck. The sun was unfortunately well on it's path across the sky. They hadn't come upon any shade. No outcropping, no trees, nothing. So they kept moving.

As Ezra had predicted, the white sand burned through his boot soles. The sun beat down mercilessly on his sunburn and blisters. He could concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other or he could concentrate on the pain. There was nothing else. Neither of them were doing much more than staggering forward. They were weaving to a degree that the footprints behind him brought to mind a sidewinder. His mouth was dry and his tongue, that felt swollen twice it's size, stuck to the roof of his mouth. And Buck ...

At that moment the other man cried out in pain and twisted at an awkward angle as he fell to the ground. The damaged canteen fell from his hands and rolled. With a sound as close to a sob as he knew he would ever hear from the dark-haired gunfighter, Ezra watched him scramble over to retrieve the canteen. Buck got his hands on the canteen and held it like a baby. The bandages and splints on the left hand were ragged and useless. The big man was not being nearly as careful of the injury as he should. "nonononono ..." It was like a chant.

With his forward momentum stopped, Standish fell to his knees in exhaustion. Somewhere he found the strength to crawl over to the other man. He started to put a comforting hand on a shoulder. A look at the angry red skin stopped him. Instead he lowered the compassionate touch to the lanky gunman's leg.

"I'm sorry, Ezra, I'm sorry."

Ezra gently took the canteen, "Mr. Wilmington, this has been empty for some time." Wilmington still looked devastated at his lapse. "Look," Ezra added calmly, logically, "There is no liquid where the canteen fell." His friend looked over and seemed to relax when it appeared he was not guilty of wasting the precious water. "What happened?" Ezra asked to move the topic away from the water.

Buck looked up but didn't seem to be focusing. The fine sand stuck to his face, the dried blood and hair and worked its way into the open blisters. The gambler was surprised at how thin the man was despite his height and frame. "Buck!" This got the other man's attention. "Did you turn your ankle?"

"What? Oh, no, no. Charlie Horse." He seemed to remember the pain and massaged his right calf. "Damn."

"Are you going to be able to continue?"

"That's the only choice we got."

"I must confess, I am having trouble with this fighting Mother Nature."

"Ain't fightin' nature, Ezra. You're fightin' yourself. Makin' yourself keep goin' when you want to stop."

Ezra thought about what had been said. Resigning himself to the battle, he conceded with self-depreciating sarcasm, "I fear you have more experience at that than I do."

Buck swiped at the sweat and sand on his forehead. "Not a chance, Pard." Buck finally whispered. "But your secret's safe with me." He smiled weakly. Ezra looked a little taken aback by the words, but he smiled, too. Buck looked at the scattering of boulders he'd been leading them toward since sunup. "We can't rest. We gotta move. It's not much further."

Ezra simply nodded.

Buck took hold of the underside of Ezra's arm to help him to his feet. He ended up using the hold for them to leverage each other up.

"Buck, look, water."

Buck winced and followed his friend's eyes. The wavy liquid was there to see. "Mirage. Let's go."

"No. It's real."

"Ezra, we're going to those boulders and find some shade and wait until dark. Then we're headin' out again. No strayin' after somethin' that ain't there." The story of my life. Flashed through the gambler's mind ...Straying after something that isn't there. "But ..."

Buck kept his grip on his friend and started walking. He was too weak to argue.

The thought of abandoning the water empowered Ezra. He was ready to protest, physically, if necessary. Suddenly he realized how cool and damp the other man's skin was. Ezra's own skin was red, hot and dry. The other man was looking at him, but again, his eyes didn't seem to focus. The pupils were dilated. Damn, they were a pair. Again. Wilmington looked like he was staying up on sheer willpower. Ezra looked around, wishing he'd see their friends coming out of the same damn wavy reflection as the water. All five of them riding ... no, four. That made him think of JD. Aw, hell He had promised to watch out for Buck. He would go with Mr. Wilmington and get him settled in the shade and then come back for the water.

They started toward the shade. Their feet slid across the ground that was becoming more hard-packed and plated than sandy. They were both too tired and too weak to lift their legs. No, it didn't seem anyone was riding to their aid this time. As far as the eye could see, nothing. The empty canteen lay abandoned behind them.

+ + + + + +

Chris Larabee was lost in dark and morose thoughts; the scrap of paper still crumpled in his fist, even as he rode into the desert. Chris realized he had always expected Buck to be there. And it brought a pain-filled insight into himself, a grief that stretched back to who he was before Sarah and Adam died, those few times he would look around and realize he had chased the man away; chased away his own humanity and conscience. Now, these men who didn't even know them thought it would hurt the surprisingly gentle ladies' man more to watch a wet-behind-the-ears kid and a crooked gambler die than for the two of them to be together at the end. Damn them to hell.

The Kid. Reminded him of that trail song, "Little Joe The Wrangler"; tried so hard it killed him. The Gambler. Tried so hard to hide so much. Why did he try to hide all the good? And Larabee wondered why he himself was asking the questions or even cared. Maybe, Larabee thought, he was learning to be his own humanity again, his own conscience, thanks to Buck and Vin, but now ... He shut down on the train of thought. He was very good at that, denying point "A" from leading to point "B", even after they'd once got started. He leaned further over his horse's neck and urged it forward.

Chris rode on with narrow-minded determination. He finally had a course of action to help him distance himself from unwanted thoughts. He almost didn't register Vin calling his name. He glanced back, then pulled up. Vin was thirty yards behind him leaning over and looking at the ground. The buckboard was coming up much further behind the tracker.

The gunfighter wheeled his horse and trotted back. "What have you got?"

Vin glanced one way then the other. The wind was shuffling his hair. Chris hadn't even noticed it before, but it was coming up and it was past breeze on its way to a real blow. It would quickly conceal any signs that existed.

"They stopped here to let that horse go." Vin stated.

"They? Who they?" Josiah tried to get clarification as he and Nathan approached.

Vin ignored the question. "Six or seven horses, Chris." But he was hesitant about something.

"Spit it out, damn it."

"Ezra, Buck and JD. Four kidnappers." Vin moved off of his horse as he spoke. He lay down on the ground. At eye level the shadows cast by the shallow hoof prints were more pronounced. He studied the tracks. Chris fought to keep quiet and be patient; let the man work. "The one horse we've got? All of the other horses but one are carrying weight."

Nathan got it first. "Two empty saddle horses. One of our men is still with them." They were all silent for a beat. The ramifications were endless. Where two dead? Why keep one ... "The shirts belonged to Buck and Ezra." He offered up. It didn't explain anything, just a statement of fact.

"Not two hours ahead of us." Vin volunteered referring to the horses and riders who had left the tracks. "Not trying to make time." He added, not trying to speculate on the whys of the situation.

Chris was striding back to his horse. "Nathan, you and Josiah head on into the desert. Vin and I are going to bring back ... whoever they have with them."

Nathan and Josiah both looked at Vin. He vacillated. Chris was already mounted. "Can you follow the tracks?" The tracker asked of the other two, and was referring to the trail that led into the desert.

"Seven horses from now on? Yeah, Brother, we'll find them."

"Hurry. We're all fightin' the weather blowin' in." Vin swung into his saddle and spurred after Chris.

Josiah turned to the healer, "I'm thinking to take Buck's gray and move out before the trail's lost. Then I can leave clearer sign - lead you in."

"Go." Nathan stated as an acknowledgement of the logic. He looked into the desert. The dark silhouettes he saw circling on the air currents sent a chill down his spine. He didn't care what Josiah said. There were birds worse than crows. Buzzards.


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