The Spirit of a Hero

by Mitzi

Ezra collapsed to the ground as soon as they reached the shade. The wind was like the breath of hell and had robbed them of any cooling perspiration. Buck made it far enough to prop himself up against the largest boulder. And they lay there, taking fast, shallow breaths. Buck had another cramp, this time deep in his belly and it didn't seem to want to go away. It was always strange how the chills overtook his body from a bad sunburn. And tired, so tired ... His arms already had some tan, but his chest and shoulders hadn't seen enough sun to protect them from this attack. He noticed that all of Ezra's body was a solid fiery red. But underneath the burn the gambler was pale and clammy.

Ezra didn't want to move. He had a throbbing headache that threatened to remove his scalp from the rest of his head. He was dizzy and nauseous even though there was nothing in his stomach to lose. He didn't want to move.

Buck tried to focus. He couldn't remember. There was something ... something ... "Hey, Ezra?" There was no response. "Ezra?"

"Mr. Wilmington?" He finally got the weak response.

"About gettin' JD out of this ... thanks."

"Only logical course of action."

Buck didn't argue the point, but his tone of voice said, 'thanks, anyway.' The words said, "He's a good kid. He deserved a chance."

Ezra pulled himself forward to share the rock beside the other man. Buck was nodding, trying to stay awake. The older man was clearly still suffering from the concussion and it was enhanced by the heat exhaustion. Ezra thought to take advantage of the situation. "Mr. Wilmington, what is it of Mr. Larabee that you see in that boy?"

Buck opened his eyes and looked at the smaller man. He wasn't as far gone as the gambler had thought. Finally he closed his eyes and spoke, "Lots of little things." There was a pause. Then he continued. "Passion. My Ma said passion and love are two words that you should never use unless you mean them."

And my mother taught me to never use those words at all. The thought leap unbidden into the conman's mind.

Buck opened his tired, scratchy eyes to see if Ezra was laughing at him yet. He wasn't, but he couldn't quite figure out what the look on the younger man's face was. He couldn't know all the emotions that went together to form that expression. But the look encouraged him to continue. "There's a passion in the boy that'll burn him up from the inside if it goes wrong."

"Like it did Mr. Larabee?" There was no response. Ezra offered, "There are differences, too."

"Yeah," Buck sighed, "Chris didn't set out to be this way. JD wants to be Chris Larabee."

Ezra thought back on the things the two of them had been through together. He knew the many responsibilities the older man put on himself even when no one else did. Buck knew Ezra knew. It caused a strange distance between them ... not when Buck tried to comfort or reassure Ezra of his self-worth, but only when Ezra tried to return the favor; tried get the lady's man to open up. That one didn't know how to talk about his feelings. He only thought people would like him, wanted him around when he was happy, fun and helpful. What kind of childhood made him feel his self-worth only in the happiness of others? And how, of all people, had he latched on to Chris Larabee as a gauge for how well he was accomplishing his goals? In doing so was he unconsciously setting himself up for failure? No. Ezra knew that Buck meant something to Larabee, but of all people who couldn't show it ... no matter. Ezra was determined to show the man that people who knew him ... scars, warts, ghosts and all ... still admired what they saw. He wanted to give Buck the security of that feeling that, in fact, Buck had already given the pleasantly surprised conman. Besides, he rationalized, it gave him something to think about beyond his current misery.

"Sometimes I have difficulty in identifying the qualities that would keep you loyal to a man like Mr. Larabee all these years." Finally he continued the conversation.

Ezra realized he may have pushed as far as he was going to be allowed this time. Enough time passed that Ezra began to think he wouldn't get an answer. He was surprised when Buck spoke. "Zach Monahans."


"That's who you sound like when you say those things about Chris. Zach taught me to ride, shoot, hunt ... and says he thought he taught me better than to ride with the likes of Chris Larabee."

"Not a fan of our legendary leader?"

"Shut up and rest."

Ezra blinked. Two father figures. Yep, Buck Wilmington hid a lot. Ezra knew about hiding one's past and reaction to it. He would let it drop. "God, Mr. Wilmington, how can I rest covered in sand and currently under the assumption that I would have to die to feel better?"

Buck didn't move his head from where it rested against the granite or open his eyes. "When we get back, we're goin' fishin'. In a snow fed river that's so clear in spots you can pick the one you want to catch. There'll be pecan trees so big their shade lowers the temperature ten degrees when you're under 'em. Think about that. You can almost feel the breeze. This time of year the Confederate Jasmine has the whole riverbank smellin' like some fancy society lady's garden party. Can you hear the water over the rocks? Mockingbirds and song sparrows. Think on it hard enough, you can go there in them thoughts, go where the hurt ain't ... the squirrels fussin' at ya for invadin' ..." He felt the smaller man's head slump against his shoulder. "That's right, Ezra, go where there ain't no pain." The lanky gunfighter knew he was alone now and added, "I'll haunt ole Chris 'til he buries us in that river, Pard."

A shadow passed over Buck's eyes, like a cloud scudding quickly in front of the sun. There and gone. He cracked open a swollen eye enough to see that not a single white puff textured the light blue sky. But there had been a shadow. He licked at his lips, but there was no moisture. His tongue caught on the deep cracks that made his lips look as plated and broken and dusty as the barren, waterless desert floor.

When he thought he heard a horse's hooves, he was too tired to open his eyes again. They were moving away anyhow. His exhaustion-slowed thoughts never recalled the mystery man who had shot Ezra from this outcropping or wondered if the horse might be connected to that man.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah had wanted to ride out with Larabee and Tanner. He had wanted to be the one to exact vengeance for the pain inflicted, mentally and physically, on his friends. Only he was not willing to face his own guilt if he rode after revenge rather than doing everything he could to save those who had been left in the desert. And, in a way to that end, the decision to accompany Nathan had been a selfish one.

So, as usual, Josiah Sanchez would abide by Larabee's directions, not because he felt obligated, or out of fear or respect or even the belief that the man's plans were the right ones. Especially when he was driven, that man could make mistakes. No, Josiah Sanchez complied for the same reason he did anything. It suited him. And there was something else. The thought was beginning to form in his mind that there was much more to this than a mere kidnapping or revenge.

He made the decision because it suited him. Just like it suited him to think of the others as friends, not family. JD needed family, not him. His family wasn't close. His family caused pain. His family caused confusion, a loss of balance. He'd thought once about it, that he might consider these men his family - family the way it should be. He thought about it long and hard one night, aided in his insight by the whiskey. But he had clearly decided 'no'. They were his brothers as in the 'Family of Man', but on a personal level they were his friends. He'd found them, chosen them, worked at it and earned the friendship. It was something he couldn't imagine a family could give him.

So, there would be time later to deal with whatever Larabee and Tanner left of the men who had done this. For now he would help his friends, but later ... Josiah did not believe the adage "What goes around, comes around." ... not without mortal intervention. But he believed the tenet should be true and helped it along anytime he could. And this ...this would be a standard for helping it along. If Larabee and Tanner left any of the men alive, Sanchez would see to it that they would find themselves in the desert. And not Chris Larabee or Nathan Jackson, not anger or reason, would stop him.

What goes around comes around wasn't from the Bible. Josiah was very much afraid, from his past experience, God's sense of justice was on a much higher plane. He prayed for it to be in His interest to see over their three wayward companions and bring them to safety. At least give them a chance ... to find them in time ... a chance to help them. Just a chance. He knew what these men could do given a chance. He prayed, but, as was so often lately, he was afraid of the prayer. Because, what if the answer was no? He had actually begun to find some reconciliation between his father's religion and all the other religions ... it had been at such a great cost ... if this prayer wasn't answered ...

What was that? Something glinted in the sun. It brought him back the disillusioned preacher back to his surroundings. The wind was up even more. Fine sand, a harbinger of the approaching storm, stung his face and neck. The land was so flat that he could see a fine ribbon of brown separating the horizon from the sky. He was seeing the dust storm roiling down. Then the flash came again. It was to his right ... toward a small stand of rock. Buck would try to make it to shelter if possible. Josiah knew that. Despite the knowledge, he'd continued to follow the trail he'd been given. He'd been afraid to veer in the direction of the shade for fear that his friends had not been able to travel.

But nothing that big, natural to the desert, would reflect the sun like that.

By the time these thoughts had processed, Josiah had already kneed his horse close enough to recognize the source of the reflection. A canteen. It had a bullet hole in it, but damn it, it was a canteen. And two sets of footprints led from it toward the rocks. He could still see Nathan and the wagon in the far distance. That meant Nathan could see him. He headed his horse for the outcropping. Thank you, Lord. The answer had been yes.

+ + + + + + +

Perkins had just filled his canteen and stood up to scan the horizon. At first he thought what he saw was a buzzard low on the horizon. Then, elongated and distorted by the liquidy heat waves rising from the desert floor, he thought it might be a mirage.

But when a second figure on horseback crested the slight rise, silhouetted in the afternoon sun, he realized two avenging angels were bearing down on them. He realized the horsemen were very close. And he realized he and his partners were in trouble. "Blake!"

The tension in his voice had Bannister quickly scanning the landscape for danger. He and the other two saw what had Perkins distressed at the same time.

JD didn't know why they had blindfolded him. But with nothing to see, he had turned inside himself and was lost in thought. He was worried about his friends in the desert and Nathan who they had left injured. He ran through his mind different ways it could play out in Ezra's room when he got his hand on the gambler's hidden gun. He didn't even hear Perkins' worried voice. The first thing he knew, he was startled out of his reverie by two sets of rough hands grabbing him and unceremoniously throwing him into a saddle. He held on as best his roped hands would allow as the horse was jolted from a standstill to a gallop.

The men were silent in their flight and it was unnerving to the boy. The sounds of the horses and leather squeaking on leather, the jingle of reins was all he could hear. What he did know was that wherever these men were this anxious to get to, he wanted no part of it. So JD used every trick he could think of or any he thought might work to slow them down.

Bannister dared a glance over his shoulder. The two men following them were close enough to be identified as Larabee and Tanner. The Boss had carefully schooled them on these seven men and how he thought they would each react in given situations. The Boss had wanted his men to observe and make sure they reacted as was predicted. But that son-of-a-bitch had told them that there was no way they would catch up to them in the desert. Yet here they were. Tanner and Larabee. Deadly aim, long distance aim, willingness to kill. Damn. They might hesitate to shoot for a time, worried they would hit the kid, but eventually ...

Bannister made his decision. Somehow the peacekeepers were closing in. On the run he loosened one boot from a stirrup and jammed it into JD's chest.

Unsuspecting of the attack, the boy rolled backwards over the mare's rump. But only one foot cleared its stirrup. Barely registering what was happening, he found himself dragged behind the racing horse, helpless with his hands tied and eyes covered, he felt this must be some entertainment for the outlaws. He raised his arms and tried to protect his head as best he could.

Chris was riding low over his gelding's neck. They had been lucky to stalk the enemy as far as they had, but now, like a cougar on the hunt, he was determined to run this prey to the ground.

When Chris saw JD dislodged, his first response was to let Vin stop the boy's horse and tend to him. Larabee wanted those men. Suddenly it hit him, more of an emotion than a crystallized thought, but Buck wasn't here to protect the Kid and would be pissed if ... the space, the time that separated Larabee from Tanner's horse, the space of a heartbeat, could add to serious injury for the boy. The thoughts translated into the slightest of mixed signals to Larabee's black. That, in combination with the gelding's exhaustion, caused him to give a quick staggering stutter step before he regained his footing again and tried to obey his master's directions.

But the stumble seem to release Larabee from his focus on revenge. His horse was giving all he could and then some, but he was spent. The horses those men rode were fresh.

Larabee pulled up and wheeled smoothly around to help Vin stop JD's horse.

JD could tell by the abruptness of the stop that someone was controlling the horse now. He was struggling to rub the blindfold away from his eyes, sit up, and free his boot all at the same time. Nothing was getting accomplished. Before he got enough composure to take one thing at a time, he felt strong hands on his shoulders. He immediately began to struggle, which served to agitate the skittish horse, and it threatened to take off again.

"Be still, JD."

"Vin?" His voice was heavy with relief. The tracker pulled the blindfold away from the boy's eyes. JD had to blink quickly as his eyes adjusted to the sudden reacquaintance with the brilliant, unforgiving sunlight. The tracker freed his friend's ankle from the stirrup before he moved back and cut the ropes from his wrists.

"Are you all right?" The bounty hunter asked. He bent down to try to get a glance at the boy's eyes. His eyes told everything. But now those eyes were lowered and hidden behind the dark bangs that were covered in a light dusty sand. "JD, look at me."

JD lightly put a hand on his friend's chest as if needing physical proof he was real. But he did finally raise his eyes to look around. Chris had stepped up behind Tanner and JD's eyes brightened at the sight, but he kept searching.

"They're gone." Vin offered.

Memories erupted, "Buck and Ezra!"

"Nathan and Josiah have gone after them..."

"Nathan's okay?"

"He's fine."

JD pushed the hair back from his eyes and behind one ear, a gesture the observant tracker had come to recognize as something the boy did before he moved in a hurry. "We gotta ..."

"Get you cleaned up and seen to." Tanner kept a hand on his shoulder so he couldn't rise. Larabee handed Vin a canteen and he in turn gave it to the boy who took it thankfully and greedily.

"I ain't hurt ..." Vin took the canteen and poured the water over the boy's head. "Vin you can't waste that." JD pulled back.

"We got plenty. We need to get your body temperature down."

"Please, Vin ...Chris ...." He was anxious to go.

"Me and Vin gotta rest our horses." It was the first thing the gunfighter had said. He had the reins of all three horses in his hands. The two blacks were lathered, breathing hard and dancing and pawing the ground. JD could tell they smelled the small water source in the Skinout beside them. The poor animals were desperate for water. JD nodded. And with the decision his mind registered the pain his body was in. His knees almost gave out in response. Vin was there to catch him and help him up the rocky incline.

It was one of the mysteries of nature that an underground spring fed into this giant bowl-like structure in the middle of the desert while the flatlands for miles around were starving for even a drop of moisture.

Larabee took on the care of the horses and let Vin tend to the boy. He walked them, controlled the water so they wouldn't flounder, even brushed some of the dried lather and grit from their coats. He listened to Tanner gently coax the story out of their youngest member. Yes, Buck and Ezra had been alive the last time he saw them. Chris and Vin shared a quick expression of relief and the tension ratcheted down a notch. But not for long after JD described the injuries sustained by the two and how they had been left vulnerable to the desert.

Vin was glad to see that the sunburn was the worst injury the boy had to be concerned about. The cuts and scrapes caused by being dragged by the horse were thankfully minor. The tracker checked and cleaned each one carefully as he listened to the youngster's story.

"I'm sorry, Vin." JD offered at last, "They kept me blindfolded. I don't know how long we rode, or direction or ..." He kept throwing quick worried glances at their sullen leader who stomped back and forth tending to the horses. Vin had to force him to remember to drink the tepid water.

"That's my job, Kid. I'll find 'em." He didn't miss the way JD watched Chris. "You did good. Didn't he, Chris?" The inflection of his voice went unnoticed by the young sheriff, but it was like a splash of cold water in the face of the gunfighter. He had ignored JD, being so preoccupied with the situation. He had busied himself with the horses to avoid the emotions JD and his story threatened to bring forth. Because of it the boy thought he'd done something wrong; thought he'd failed his friends. Larabee was again reminded of the strength of a single word.

Chris squatted down in front of his friends and gently double-checked the cuts and long scrapes Vin had cleaned. "You did real good, Kid." He was rewarded with a small, proud smile. There was still worry, but the tension ratcheted down again.

Between his anxiety and finally feeling safe under the protection of two of his heroes, JD at last gave in to sleep. Chris watched him concentrate on forcing his eyelids open the last two times before exhaustion finally won and sleep came. For a flash it took Chris back to Adam fighting his bedtime with everything he had. Usually it was because Buck was telling one of his outlandish stories ... how the polecat got his stripe or the bear lost his tail. Larabee clamped down on the memories of Adam and Buck or anything that could hurt too much.

When the boy finally dozed, Larabee took advantage of the high ground to check out the desert to the northwest. Then Vin was beside him.

The wind whipped back the wide brims of their hats. Tiny pinpricks of sand hit their faces. Chris squinted and studied the same ribbon of brown separating the horizon and the sky that had concerned Josiah.

"We still got four hours, maybe five." Vin tried to offer reassurance in the arrival time of the sandstorm.

"But it's coming." Larabee knew the horses had to drink and rest. He knew they had to take care of JD. All he could do was wait and wonder if Josiah and Nathan would find the others before the sand came in.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan Jackson was so frustrated he wanted to shoot something. He wanted to scream at the top of his lungs in pure anger. There was too much that needed to be done. It all needed to be done first. None of it was getting done and the trials were piling up, one on top of the other.

When he'd finally come upon Josiah and their fallen friends, the relief that washed over him was immeasurable. He could tell by the way Josiah was leaning over them that they had to be alive. The Preacher was trying to revive them and get water down them. Had that only been thirty minutes ago? Seemed like a lifetime. Their friends needed attention badly. The best they'd done so far was tie bandanas around their mouths and noses to keep them from choking on the damnable sand. They needed shelter. The horses needed shelter. And there wasn't any.

The sand storm was coming in now full force. Sustained winds of thirty miles per hour impaled them with the minute grains of sand. It felt like hundreds of tiny needles pricking the skin. It whipped their coats. Their hats had long since fallen to their backs held there by the chin straps.

Nathan tried to come up with a course of action. They could lay the wagon on its side, perpendicular to the largest ridge on the outcropping and form some semblance of a windbreak. But the horses were tied to the wagon. They could give the horses some shelter, but there were no tie downs. If they lost the horses they would be in the same shape as Buck and Ezra. And he needed to be trying to get water into those two and lowering their body temperatures. They couldn't move those two to the more protected side of the outcropping until they had the wagon tipped and were sure it wouldn't topple over on them. Two people couldn't do it. But they had to try.

Josiah was trying to tip the wagon. What little help Nathan was able to offer was next to useless. He had one hand and shoulder against the wagon wall, but in his other hand he was trying to control the reins of four frightened horses. It was hopeless. And Nathan wanted to scream defiance at whoever set this in motion; whoever let them get this far and fail.

Then he felt a gentle, reassuring pat on his shoulder, sensed rather than saw through the dust that it was Vin there, taking the reins and passing them over to JD. The boy had a way with animals. He adeptly controlled the four skittish animals for all their size in addition to the three he, Vin and Chris had ridden up on.

Then Vin and Chris added their strength to turning the wagon. Once it was settled they tied the horses to one end. The tall rocks supplied all the cover they would need. Quickly they bundled up the unconscious Ezra and Buck and moved them to the makeshift shelter.

They distributed the extra blankets Nathan had brought and the bedrolls. They tented them over their upper bodies for whatever added protection that could afford.

Chris cradled Wilmington under one blanket. Nathan got the feeling that the gunslinger, ever fighting to control his emotions, had not allowed himself to register the damage done to his friend.

Josiah continued his attempts to trickle water squeezed from a cloth past the unconscious gambler's cracked and chapped lips

Between them, Vin held the blankets over himself and JD. The boy had folded in on himself physically and mentally at the glance he got of his friends and their condition. His head rested on his knees. His knees were pulled tightly to his chest and his arms were wrapped around his legs. As much as Nathan was drawn to the boy, to check his condition, he knew Ezra and Buck needed his attention first.

Vin wished desperately that he could find the words to ease the young sheriff's guilt and fears. Any words needed now would lose their effect shouted over the roar of the wind. Unbidden the attack on his poetry came back to him. How had he thought to write poetry where each descriptive word must mean so much? Because, Tanner, you know what words are important. He told himself and force away the doubts. And you know when words aren't important. Vin wrapped an arm around JD's shoulders lightly. He knew the sunburn might not be registering now in light of all else going on, but it would. He pulled the young man closer until his head rested on his shoulder. The boy reached over and took a handful of Vin's shirt as a lifeline and relaxed ever so slightly.

Nathan couldn't sit still. The storm was stealing precious time from his injured friends. Had it been less than two days since this nightmare started? He moved to the covers that housed Chris and Buck first when he heard angry shouting coming from their leader.

Slipping under the blankets and adding his hands to holding it in even more of a tent shape, Nathan was startled to see Chris desperately, almost angrily trying to rouse Buck. Fearing the worst, Nathan quickly confirmed to himself that the lanky ladies' man was still breathing. "Chris, use the water, cool his body down. Let him sleep through this."

"You gotta tell Buck you're here." The man in black growled. "Nathan, you've always got to let Buck know you came for him, no matter how much you think he should sleep." It was a prescription the healer understood he was being told he must follow in any similar situation. He nodded. Chris tried to keep his voice indifferent but there was a touch of regret there that his friend would believe he would be abandoned. Gradually Nathan began to wonder what Larabee saw when he looked behind the easygoing façade Buck put forth for the rest of them.

Nathan studied the men. Like a knife into an onion, fate had cut through Buck Wilmington and Chris Larabee and given the others this glimpse at the men they thought they knew. You couldn't see what was there ... it was only a slit, it didn't tear away any of the outer skin ... but it hinted at the layers of complexity hidden safely beneath the easy smile of one and the fearsome silence of the other. Nathan was surprised by the look in Ezra's eyes. He seemed both fascinated and angered by this interaction. Well, hell, at least the damn Southerner was conscious.

Now if only ... Nathan doubted that the lanky gunfighter would have responded to anyone else's call, but by damn, he opened his eyes for his old friend.

The blankets billowed and slapped into them at the will of the angry wind. Their arms were going to get tired.

"We're here, Pard. Buck, we've come for you."

Chris grimaced. He hated that first look of surprised gratitude each time as the situation registered and the memories filtered back and Wilmington finally realized someone had bothered to look for him. Damn, Larabee hated that look. And he hated Zach Monahans for putting it there. Why couldn't the bastard believe people cared enough ... Chris broke off from his own memories and anger when he realized his friend's mouth was too dry and swollen to speak, but he was worried about the others... "Ezra's fine. Right over there. Josiah's with him." Buck tried to speak. Larabee tried to get a few drops of water down his throat. It seemed too swollen to accept the gift. The liquid ran down his lips that were so dry they didn't absorb the moisture, either.

The gunslinger watched his friend's eyes, then responded. "We found JD, too."

Chris watched the dry, bloodshot, grit scratched, swollen eyes, that were barely a foot from his own under the makeshift shelter. It didn't look like Buck was able to see much further than that. The wind squalled and popped the cloth in on them. The eyes didn't blink. They were still questioning. Larabee's arm snaked past Nathan and grabbed JD from under the blanket next to him. For a brief moment they were all exposed to the fury of the storm. The sand adhered to the angles of their cheeks and brows and turned to mud where the water they had tried to give out was drying on their faces.

So what was it? Nathan wondered. Was Larabee the psychic one? Or were all the special friendships the man forged so strong that they could communicate on an unspoken level? However it worked, the gunfighter knew what his friend was trying to ask.

Vin scooted over to allow the blanket to follow JD. Larabee pulled JD up to Buck's face.

Worried at first when he saw Buck resting against their leader's shoulder, relief washed over the youngest of the seven when he saw his mentor's eyes open and searching his. Weakly Buck reached up and touched the boy's cheek. Vin wondered if that was a trait they shared or JD had picked it up from Buck -- the need to touch before he could believe something or someone was real. JD grabbed the hand in both of his and held on. Reassured, Buck sank back against the security that was Chris Larabee and into unconsciousness. JD wasn't letting go of the hand, but leaned against the granite wall and shut his eyes. They weren't being separated.

The day was rapidly turning dark because of the storm surrounding them. The bedrolls tented over them increased the darkness. But Nathan saw Larabee smirk at the two friends now sleeping between the others. He saw Vin's eyes dance at the pretended resignation of the situation which didn't begin to conceal the relief and contentment the somber gunfighter would never verbally express.

Chris and Vin clasped hands full the blankets as a means of enlarging the shelter. They leaned their arms over the other two to rest against the rock face for some support. They bent their knees and stomped down on the tails of the blankets. The lean-to they formed had plenty of room.

Satisfied here for now, Nathan moved over to check on their shepherd and lost lamb.

While the frosted green eyes weren't as focused as the healer would have liked, they were open and alert enough to follow him as he sidled under their protective blankets. Was there even a hint of annoyance in those green eyes, that he had allowed a few seconds of the sandstorm to filter in as he changed his position? Nathan smiled at the gambler who came up with a weak smile in return.

"Mr. ... Sanchez ... says ... others..." The voice was painfully raspy.

"Restin' like you should be."

"In ... hosp ...ita ...ble Envir ...onment ..." Ezra explained as the reason he could not rest.

Josiah laughed at the response. Nathan smiled his answer, "Best rest while you can. You come around enough to feel that sunburn, you're gonna think inhospitable environment." That got a grimace.

The healer was glad to see that this Southern gentleman was sucking on the clean cloth Josiah retrieved from the medical supplies and getting much needed fluid in his system. When the big man brought the cloth back up to his mouth again, the gambler swatted it away and reached for the canteen.

"Nope." Nathan broke in. "Too much too fast, you'll get sick. This ain't the time or place." Taking in their barely 3x10 cocoon that housed seven grown men, he had to agree and accepted the cloth.

Nathan reached around to feel of the smaller man's wound that he'd glanced earlier and JD had told him about. He was concerned about how dry the skin was. "You got a fever in that graze. It might try to get infected."

"Whole body's on fire. How can you tell?" Josiah asked.

"There's a difference." Nathan assured him. Then spoke to Standish, "We'll take care of you, though. Think you can rest until the storm passes?" But the gambler was already asleep.

Nathan took Josiah's hand and led him in Chris's and Vin's example of the best way to hold the tent. They settled in for the duration.

+ + + + + + +

Inez Recillos glanced up quickly when they blew through the bat wing doors. They were four men moving as one. The smile growing on her lips faded when she realized these were strangers without the same dynamics, the same oneness she'd hoped to recognize. No, these men were acquaintances, not friends. Their single-mindedness was merely to get some sort of alcohol to quench their thirst.

Bannister led his men toward the bar. Tiny clouds of dust erupted where they slapped their hats against their jackets and shirts. They had almost outrun the sandstorm blowing in from the desert. Now they were ready to wash the part they couldn't outrun out of their throats.

Inez served them their beers and went back to wiping down the bar.

The four men strolled to a back table where they could watch the goings-on in the smoky room. It wasn't long before Foster pushed his way through the doors. He got a bottle of whiskey and joined the others.

Bannister's body language didn't change, his hooded eyes gave nothing away, but he practically hissed at Foster as he joined their table. "What the hell happened?"

"You tell me. Everything was goin' 'xactly like he said it would, then, in the middle of the night, they light out like hell's own fires were chasin' them."

"How many left out of here?"

"All four."

"How'd they find us?" The 'Possum fretted.

"They tracked you down?" Foster barely remembered to keep his voice down. That wasn't supposed to happen.

"Two tried to run us to ground." Perkins volunteered. Foster looked surprised.

"The other two must've gone lookin' for Wilmington and the gambler. If they find 'em-"

"Ain't no way ... Blake, we left 'em half dead..."

"The Kid. He can pick us out."

"Larabee'll gut shoot us, Blake!" The Bear's voice began to rise. A sharp look from Bannister brought it back down to a whisper as he continued, " That damn tracker'll stake us out over a red ant hill and coat us with honey." He'd been paying close attention to Buck and Ezra's comments about their friends. He was well aware of Larabee's reputation.

"Well, we lived up to our part of the bargain."

"We've got our money." The 'Possum stated. He and the bear were both hinky about sticking around.

"Let's get while the gettin's good." The bear volunteered.

"What are we waiting for?" It came back to the 'possum.

"The gambler's money." Greed and understanding registered for 'Possum and Bear. Foster frowned. "I don't know, Pal, we got..."

Bannister quickly redirected the conversation. "I was one of the 'soldiers' at the POW camp. That's where I met the Boss." They'd all heard the stories about the renegade Union officer's who had tried to hold so many Southerners responsible for war crimes. Bannister didn't elaborate on the fact that he had been in it as an easy way to plunder the countryside.

He met each man's eyes before he continued. If greed wouldn't convince them, Bannister would try another tact ... one that motivated Bannister himself more than he cared to admit. "Larabee and his gang hunted us down clean across the country, outnumbered as they were, nine or ten to one. Our best bet is to take 'em out. Or they'll never stop looking for us. 'Specially with Wilmington and Standish dead by our hands."

The others were clearly hesitant. Bannister looked around to make sure no one could hear him. "We grab the boy when he gets back to town and make him show us where the money is. We gotta take him out. Otherwise he'll lead the others to us no matter where we go ..." Bannister waited for them to let this sink in.

"How much money the gambler got socked away?" Foster asked. It was the first he'd heard of this development, but like the boss said, he caught on fast.

"Enough to make it worth our while." Bannister teased.

"I don't want to be lookin' over my shoulder for the likes of Chris Larabee the rest of my life." 'Possum offered up. "Better see him dead, now."

"Tanner's got a $500.00 bounty on his head. We play these cards right, we'll be rollin' in money." Foster grinned, showing his tobacco-stained teeth. He had gotten a taste for this manipulation his boss had introduced him to. With what he'd been told about these men, he was sure they could figure out a way to kill them all. "Hell, maybe we should rob the damn bank on the way out of town." His grin got even wider.


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