The Spirit of a Hero

by Mitzi

There was no doubt that the sand had completely recreated the face of the desert. But the changes were too subtle for the human eye. Vin Tanner, who had trained himself to notice the smallest detail, was the possible exception. The tracker wasn't interested in the brilliant sunset that was promising them a clear day tomorrow, much less how the blast of the sand had eroded still more of the obelisk-like outcropping that sheltered them.

Vin was however, very aware of his two unconscious friends and that Nathan was doing everything he could to keep them alive. He knew exactly where Chris was and that he was using the opportunity and need to build a fire and heat water to distance himself from the drama. Vin had no doubt that his best friend was terrified that one or the other of the men would succumb to their condition and was steeling himself for a loss he wasn't certain he could endure.

And then there was JD. Every time anyone moved or took a step back, they ran into the young man who hovered so near. He wanted to help but was afraid to do the wrong thing.

"I don't understand." JD offered up. Nathan backed into and stumbled over the boy as the healer once again moved from Buck to Ezra. "Sorry," he muttered meekly, as doe brown eyes watched Nathan try to be two places at once.

Ezra trembled with chills and yet the dark healer directed Josiah to soak the blanket that covered him with water. Vin mirrored the religious man's actions by drenching the blanket covering Buck. JD could see the fine tremors wracking his best friend's body as well. But in addition, the tall gunfighter was trying to curl in on himself and unconsciousness was giving way to some sort of delirium. "Nathan ..."

"Get over here, boy." Nathan ordered. That one needed something to occupy his mind. JD jumped to comply. Nathan thrust one of his knives into the other's hands and a flat, one-foot long spear-like leaf of aloe vera in the other. "Do what I do." Nathan cut the inner skin of the cactus away from the transparent flesh below. The outer concave part of the leaf formed a natural container. He cut into the meat of the plant and mashed it into a gelatinous, semi-liquid state. JD did the same trying to ignore how horribly slimy the stuff was and the grassy, bitter smell. Nathan took both of the succulent leaves. "Split all the rest of the aloe. Soften it all up." JD nodded.

"Chris, leave that for now. Vin needs help with Buck."

Chris determinedly moved from where he had just put water on to heat and joined the others. The closer he came to joining the others, the more hesitant was his step.

"What's wrong with them? They were awake, talking ..." JD was too worried to let things drop.

"JD," Nathan replied patiently, "Their bodies had all but shut down."

"They're freezing and you're pouring water ..."

"The chills are from shock not cold. From the sunburn." The gentle fingers lightly layered the aloe vera on Ezra's shoulders. The plant's membrane, the consistency of jelly, melted into the fiery skin and the weepy, broken blisters like butter into a biscuit. "There is no moisture ... water ... sweat ...we've got to get their body temperatures down and moisture back into them."

Suddenly Buck jolted and tried to curl up into a ball. "Nathan!" Vin called, not knowing what was happening or what to do. "Hold him, Vin." It was Josiah who got to him first, grabbed the big man and held him as he wrapped his arms around his belly and pulled his legs up to his chest. The preacher held him but let him stay in that position as it seemed to offer some comfort or relief from the sudden pain.

"Cramps." Nathan said.

"It will pass, Buck. Ride it out." As his men were ministering to their friends, Larabee focused beyond his anger by focusing on every detail of what was happening. He was thinking about what he would do to the men who caused this.

"Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra's weak voice questioned what was going on.

""He's got cramps." Nathan repeated. "Vin and Josiah are tending to him. What about you?"

"Headache. Thirsty."

"Upset stomach? Think you can hold some water down?"

Ezra nodded. "I don't understand. We are still in this God forsaken wasteland?"

"'Fraid so. You gotta rest up before we move."

Josiah lost his grip on their rakish comrade who seemed to try to crawl away from the pain. Vin reached out and even in a semi-conscious state, Buck pulled away. This broke Larabee from his emotional paralysis and he moved in to help hold his old friend. "Buck, c'mon, Big Dog, take it easy." The gunfighter took Josiah's place. "Best let him sit up 'til he settles." Larabee muttered, almost to himself and he settled the younger man against his shoulder. Josiah and Vin exchanged a smile at this quality of their leader they so rarely saw; the part of him that kept Wilmington so loyal; the part of him they all sensed cared about them above the gunfighter's own safety.

Ezra tried to look over to reassure himself that Buck was there. "He has a head wound, Mr. Jackson."

"I know, but he woke up for Chris earlier." That seemed to remind him of something. "Chris, that water hot yet?"


"That'll do. I need a cup for both of them." He drizzled more water on the blanket around the gambler. JD left up like a skittish colt, so anxious was he to ge4t the water; to do something to help. "C-cold ..." Ezra admitted.

"I know, it's partly 'cause the night is coming on. That and your body's in some shock from that sunburn and it's got you chilled." He patiently explained one more time what was going on with the gambler's body.

Ezra tried to push the wet blanket away. Nathan stopped the gambler's hands. "We've got to get your body temperature down. Get you rehydrated." He got close to his friend's face to emphasize the seriousness. He carefully rubbed some of the aloe across the damaged lips. "Don't fight me on this. It's too important."

"I envy Mr. Wilmington his unconscious state. I have never been so singularly miserable in my life." He slumped forward to avoid touching his enflamed skin to any surface. The rough blanket was torture in itself. He tried one last time to push the blanket away but Nathan brushed his hands back as he spoke to JD. "Put some salt in each cup."

Ezra interrupted him. "Please, the cover is too ..."

"Gotta stay, Ezra. I'm sorry. I know it's painful." His voice was truly sympathetic as he handed two large chunks of the aloe to their youngest. "Dissolve this in there, too." Dunne took the plant and did as he was told.

Josiah handed another leaf of aloe to Chris. He rubbed it as gently as he could onto the parched lips of the man he was supporting.

JD had stopped dissolving the aloe vera and salt to stare at his weak, unconscious friend. He had a sad, small, lost look in his eyes. Vin glanced up and noticed. He stood and took the temporarily forgotten aloe vera leaf from the younger man. "Let me show you how well this works." The frontiersman started to rub it on his young friend's shoulders, under the shirt.

"No!" He pulled back quickly. "You have to save that!"

"We've got plenty."

"We were lucky to find so much. And bringing the extra pony kegs of water because we brought the extra horses, ... I could almost see God's intervention in saving our friends." Josiah said, almost to himself, but there was something bothering him.

"Drink this." Nathan said to Ezra as Vin took the concoction from JD and finally handed to their healer. Ezra greedily drank in the liquid, only to spit it out. "God Almighty, Nathan, are you trying to poison me?"

"I know it's bitter, ..."

"I refuse...."

"Drink it or I'll damn well choke it down you." Nathan's voice reflected his concern and how important the liquid was.

"Please, Ezra," JD pled, "Nathan says your body can still shut down ... you're real sick." Ezra met Nathan's eyes, "When this is over we will have to work on your bedside manner." His drawl was much thicker. He was tiring himself out. Nathan smiled, thankful for the sarcasm. His friend was asleep almost before he finished the restorative.

Nathan carefully cleaned and put a thin strip of bandage around the graze along the smaller man's ribs. Something had to be done to keep the dirt out, but it would rub that burn something fierce.

Nathan finally moved over to help Chris and Josiah get the liquid into their other friend and rewrap the broken left hand. When he took off the tattered bandages, it became clear all over again how red and tortured the skin was compared to the toasty brown shade of the hand that had seen a lot of outside work. It looked pasty white in comparison...

+ + + + + + +

Nathan thought back on that night, a few short hours ago, and how for that brief time they had all worked together for the common goal of keeping their group together. He looked at the wagon and hoped it would be that way again. They had set the unused saddles on end and draped the blankets over them. With the horseshoe nails they all carried, they had secured the blankets over the saddles and wagon sideboards to afford some shade for Ezra and Buck. Buck had his head leaning against one saddle to avoid touching his tender skin to any surface. His eyes were unfocused and lost. Ezra was propped on one shoulder and didn't miss the look. When he caught the healer's eyes, they knew they were both trying to think of something to say.

How could things have gone so badly so quickly?

Nathan remembered Vin sitting alone last night, for a long time. Had he seen this coming? Nathan wondered what the former bounty hunter saw when he looked out on nature, so rugged and unforgiving.

Vin studied the silhouettes of the mesas, spires and obelisks that made up the desert behind them. His thoughts might have surprised their healer.

Misshapen castles
Bizarre jagged precipes pulsating in heat wave disguise
Ageless mirages taunting and urging
Useless arms to drag over unnaturally sharp grains of sand

Vin saw the untamed beauty. It had lost some of its appeal after coming so close to losing their friends to the unforgiving nature of the land.

Those arms cry don't give up
Blistered eyes and arid tongue dream of hope
Tears endlessly baked away still cry
Calluses long since rawed by grit
Plead bleedingly for one last chance at mirages

The beauty was still there. He shouldn't blame the land for how men had tried to us it.

I suffer as each part of me suffers
My tracks at last are fading from crusted earth
Cracked and barren features mirror my own
Life flows leave my extremities ...
Concentrate at my failing source

The sons-of-bitches had tried to make the desert guilty of their sins - like they had tried to make his poetry guilty of his inability to track.

I am aware I go against myself
Numbed sight attacks your mirage -
For as I dwindle -
Rejuvenating rains long since gone -
You defeat yourself

The desert was just there. Neither good nor evil. The tracks hadn't been there. The men had intentionally left him with nothing to follow.

I rise on your own heat waves
Carried to oases I only built of your mirages
I will return one day
I will fill with moisture and hope
The impression I left before your face

Buck and Ezra were finally sleeping a healing sleep instead of the semi-conscious state where they were fighting for their lives. Larabee hadn't let them lie Buck flat until he was sound asleep. There was something there, something in their past that they didn't share. But Nathan wasn't up to examining it at the time and was finally nodding in exhaustion. Josiah was lost in thought, not meditation. He had something on his mind. JD was watching Chris. Chris was getting drunk. Vin thought about calling his friend on it, but that wasn't their relationship. Buck got in his face about such things. Vin would be there to pick up the pieces.

Suddenly a loud crash of glass breaking brought Vin quickly to his feet. Only then did he notice it had gotten too dark to really see the desert around him. The campfire flames were reaching for the sky, fueled by the last of the whiskey from the broken bottle Larabee had thrown into them.

Nathan was on his feet before he was fully awake, trying to recognize any possible danger. JD had leapt, startled. Josiah stood between Larabee and the others in the camp.

The gunfighter started toward Nathan. Josiah blocked his path. Larabee called to Nathan. "They must have said something. Who was behind this?"

The healer walked closer, recognizing a pain in his friend that medicine couldn't heal. "No names."

"JD, you were with them longer." Larabee turned on the younger man.

"I'm sorry, Chris. They told Ezra they got paid $1,000.00. That's all."

"There's got to be something, otherwise why ...

"There was something Nathan said ..." Josiah spoke, but almost to himself. It didn't matter. The tone in his voice had them all listening. "... about how you had to know your patient. How they would react, how they would think." He turned and met the eyes of their leader. "Chris, someone comes after you, he faces you like a man, or if he's a coward, he'll back shoot you. What kind of being comes after a man through his friends?"

Chris was silent. Josiah followed the inevitable train of thought and tried to cut it off. "Don't go there. Chris, Ella killed your family to keep you, not to punish you. Who would kill others to punish you?"

"Someone trying to recreate the person you were when you thought your family had been killed for that reason?" Vin offered up.

Josiah shook his head. "He isn't killing. He is setting everyone up to fail. Buck to fail to protect JD." He nodded to Chris, "You to fail to protect people you cared about." Josiah took three pieces of paper from his pocket and handed them to Chris. Not understanding, Chris read them. Vin and the others moved in to see what they were. Chris scowled and looked at Vin, "Who sent this to you?" His eyes turned to Nathan, "You don't believe this do you?" Josiah had saved the three pieces of paper that had placed doubt in his friends' minds. Chris read the notes that attacked Vin's poetry, Nathan's healing and his own past. It was the first time the others knew they had all been attacked with the written word.

"It's like Josiah said, the part of me that feels the words, helps me read nature. They threw me for a while ..." Vin began.

"But they cheated to do it." JD added with youthful innocence and insight. "They didn't leave any trail to recognize."

"Nathan, you have to understand if you hadn't known to mix natural cures with medicine and knowledge, we would have lost Ezra and Buck tonight." Vin stated.

"I'm okay with things." Nathan smiled.

"It wasn't you who were attacked, Chris, it was all of us. But the way to make you think you failed was to make you think you had failed to protect us from your past." Josiah's voice pleaded with the man in black to understand this.

"Who have we caused to fail that would be so elaborate?" Nathan asked. It was beyond any of them to understand what kind of man it would take to hatch this scheme or why.

"There ain't no one like that. You see things happening you don't like. You're looking for reasons for those things." Chris growled.

Josiah wouldn't be dissuaded. "Whoever he is, he's no worse than anyone who uses words to do harm. He just knows what he's doing." Josiah said with an anger borne of his past and his experiences with men who knew how to work words.

"What about Ezra and JD?" Nathan asked. "Why didn't he attack them, too?"

"He may have. And we don't have enough of the puzzle to put it all together."

"Or maybe things didn't go the way he planned." JD offered. They all looked at him. "Those men weren't supposed to take Ezra. Maybe if they'd left him, he would have kept you so stirred up or so angry, you wouldn't have figured out ..." The others were staring at him. Suddenly very self-conscious, he stuttered to Chris, "S-sorry, it's just sometimes ... you and him ... you know ... Sorry." The boy lowered his eyes.

Above him the others met each other's eyes and knew there might be more truth in all of this than they wanted to believe. They were quiet, all lost in individual thoughts.

Then they heard it. "Ezra, damn it, wake up!" JD jumped first. Later, Chris Larabee would think he should have cared enough to react first to their friend's voice.

"Shit." Wilmington thought when he opened his eyes to the late night sky. The moon, still almost full, was well up and blocking the Milky Way and most of the stars. But they'd be able to see. His tight, burned skin didn't seem so painful. Might be the cool desert night breeze across it. He knew he was as weak as a kitten, and God, it felt good to lie here and sleep. Just ten more minutes. What could that hurt?

He jerked up quickly and the action caused his head to throb unmercifully to the beat of his pulse. Ezra. Where ... there he was. He wasn't here alone. He might could give up on himself, but not when the life of another friend weighed in the balance. On shaky legs and arms, he crawled over to rouse the gambler. He almost thought he heard voices; Chris's raised in anger as it was so often lately. No surprise there. It must be the wind. "Ezra, hey, Standish, we gotta move ...C'mon, you Southern cuss, we gotta make up some time." The voice was raspy and wouldn't get above a whisper. He shook the smaller man who grumbled angrily and rolled over onto his back.

The combination of the sudden pain when his sunburn touched the ground and Buck's voice brought him awake. "Mr. Wilmington?"

"We gotta move out, try to find water before that sun gets up ..."

It concerned the gambler that his friend was not aware of his surroundings and thought they were still alone. "Buck, we're safe here ..." Before he could say more the others were there.

"Buck!" JD called and grabbed his arm, without thinking. Buck swung a weak fist in his direction, thinking Bannister and his men had returned and they were under attack. The fist never made contact. Larabee easily wrapped the man in a bear hug from behind and pinned his arms helplessly at his side. "Buck. Buck, it's Chris. You're safe. We found you."

"I'm gonna kill you, Bannister."

"Buck, it's Chris. Wake up." His old friend kept struggling and showed no reaction to the voice. Nathan poured water over his head trying to bring him around. Buck still struggled.

Ezra staggered to his feet and reached out, "Mr. - Buck. JD brought help. Your friends are here." Vin didn't miss the fact that the conman had said "Your friends" not "Our friends". He needed to have a talk with the gambler.

Nathan put a cup in Ezra's hand and helped him raise it to the other man's lips. A quick glance got a quick reassurance, "It's just water." Nathan smiled despite the situation. Apparently the man wasn't going to be any party to feeding his friend the aloe and salt potion. As they helped get the contents of the cup into the other man, Nathan explained, "Confusions a part of heat exhaustion sometimes. Ain't the concussion, I don't think. It'll pass." The others looked relieved. Chris loosened his hold on his old friend from confinement to support.

Finally there seemed to be some recognition come into the eyes. "JD?"

"Yeah, Buck, me and the guys, all of us."

Wilmington smiled as his tired eyes swept the others. Then he frowned and looked back at Chris. "Was Zach here?"

The other man almost looked like he'd been punched. "Zach Monahans ain't never here when you need him." He answered abruptly.

"He's there, Chris, just doesn't always know how to show it." Buck added in a small voice as he gratefully took the water. Chris, Josiah, Vin and Nathan helped Buck and Ezra sit down.

Doesn't know how to show it any more than you do, Larabee. Ezra heard the rest of the statement in the tone of voice if no one else did. Damn. Two father figures who hate each other, Ezra amended his earlier insight. But this wasn't the time for the discussion. "This Mr. Monahans came up in our talks. I believe, as Mr. Jackson mentioned, our friend is confused as to what is real and what was merely conversation." Larabee gave the gambler a glare that seemed to demand, 'What do you know about it?'

"Everything's alright?" Buck looked directly at Chris when he asked. There was something bothering his old friend. He didn't get an answer. "Chris?"

"Everything's fine." It came out a little harsh, not so believable, but then he knelt down and said more softly, "That is if you can figure out a way to sleep with that burn, so we can move out in the morning."

Buck nodded. Chris left Nathan, JD and Josiah to make their injured friends comfortable. Vin started to help Nathan, but sensed Chris needed help himself.

Chris went back to stare into the fire. Vin walked up and tried to read what his friend was seeing in the flames. "You don't think this is because of me?" He asked the younger man. He trusted his perceptions.

"They were tryin' to get to you, with those words. Like they did with me and Nathan."

"Tell that to Wilmington." Their leader said with some bitterness. Larabee had never thought that he wouldn't be the first person the lady's man would turn to. But it was Ezra, then JD who had been able to bring him back to his senses tonight. Vin was confused by the statement. He didn't see what Chris was seeing. Hell, Larabee wasn't sure what was bothering him. Except he thought he might be losing something he thought could only be lost through death.

Josiah was aware of the fragile group dynamics that had been rocking and shifting from the first time they united in Four Corners and had escalated since Clay Kestrel had laid the seeds of doubt among their group. He knew what was bothering their dark clad leader even if he didn't see it himself. "Buck and Ezra have been through a lot together lately."

"He blames me for this." That explained to Vin and Josiah at least why the gunfighter thought he should blame himself. He thought Buck didn't respond to his voice because he no longer trusted him. Was this really the first time Wilmington had turned to someone else before he turned to Chris?

"He knew to expect to hear Ezra's voice, being out here together and all ..."

"Buck is supposed to depend on me." "Does he know that? If you're questioning Buck's loyalty, don't try to put it on the attack of strangers, Chris. You have been begrudging in giving your support for that friendship since you arrived in Four Corners." Josiah said harshly. He was in no mood to be ignored in this. If Chris must doubt himself because of the words on that note, let it be from a real disruption in what was going on around him, not an imaginary one.

Chris turned on Josiah as if attacking the man would lessen the truth in what he said.

Snarling, groveling, spitting truth
What gives you the right
To make men make you what you are
Tactfully hidden in their blind fright?

"Chris," Josiah continued defiantly, "Whoever is doing this knows you well enough to trigger these feelings, too. Don't let him."

Chris was silent for so long the others didn't know if they should move Josiah out of harm's way, or ask if they could help or pretend nothing had been said and act like it never happened. Vin couldn't stand to see his friend upset over this.

Finally Chris spoke. "If there is a man out there like that, I'm going to find him and finish it." Before anyone could ask how, he continued, "Those men who had JD. We're going to find them and get it out of them."

"I'm going with you." JD stated flatly. No one was sure how long he had been there or how much he had heard. Chris met his eyes. JD didn't know if the man was seeing a boy, trouble, incompetence or nothing at all. "You need me. I know what they look like."

He waited. He was determined to go if he had to follow after them. But surprisingly, Chris nodded. "We leave at sunup."

+ + + + + + +

Buck hadn't seemed surprised when he was told Chris had gone after the men responsible for the current events. He hadn't been surprised that Vin had accompanied him. But when he heard that the gunfighter had let JD ride with them a light had gone out of his eyes. And that light had yet to return now, as they traveled in silence back toward Four Corners, three men short.

Nathan and Josiah knew something was going on, they remembered hearing parts of what Buck had said about JD becoming more like Larabee. But only Ezra knew how much their easy-going friend feared that fate. And he regretted that he had no words of comfort, no words that wouldn't sound superficial since their friends had already left. Four Corners was in sight. All they could do was get there, rest up, and wait.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner and JD Dunne rode into Four Corners, eyes straight ahead and oblivious to the effect their return, alone, had on the people watching from windows and from the boardwalk. Mary saw the three and ran out of the door of the Clarion. Something stopped her. Body language, the expressions on their faces, something kept the part of her that was a newswoman as well as the part of her that was a friend from moving past the boardwalk. She, too, watched the three men ride through the street.

There had been no definite trail to follow. Vin wasn't surprised that the sandstorm had blown away all but a hint of the horses' passage. His instincts told him that those he did find were leading him back toward Four Corners. So they had headed back to Four Corners as well. They headed silently toward the livery. Vin noticed how much JD was like the silent, solemn Larabee when he didn't have the influence of Buck, Ezra, or the other more social members of their group.

Originally hoping to find only four new horses in the livery, they couldn't help but be disappointed to discover trailhands from a cattle drive were in town. The stables were full and spilling over to the corral. The repairs were well underway, but some of the stalls were still uninhabitable. Even the cattle drive's remuda had been brought in for their ferriers attention. There was no way to try and find the horses they were looking for. The soft sand Vin had originally followed them in had not had enough substance to hold an imprint of the detailed scrappings and wear on the horseshoes that might have delineated them from the other shod animals. They handed their own horses to the liveryman and carefully checked the horses.

Vin noticed the wagon they had borrowed was not back yet. It didn't surprise him that they had beaten the others back. But he would feel much more comfortable when everyone was in town again

"Vin?" Larabee asked quietly.

"Nothing." He drew his attention back to their immediate goal. " I can't tell if their horses are here or not."


"I'm sorry, Chris, guess I wasn't paying enough attention."

The duster-clad gunfighter took a deep sigh. "Saloon?" He asked of Tanner.

"Hotel." He responded and headed out the doors. Neither Larabee nor Dunne hid their confusion, but neither did they hesitate to follow.

The hotelkeeper looked up as the tracker entered and smiled a greeting. "Mind if I have a look at your registration book?" Tanner asked quietly.

Without hesitation, but with the same curious expression as Chris and JD, he offered the ledger-like book over. Larabee was surprised to see his friend pull out the pieces of paper that held the writings that had threatened all of their confidences. He carefully compared the handwriting to the registration signatures. Finally he pointed at a name and said with certainty. "This man wrote the notes to me and Nathan."

Chris raised an eyebrow. "The note," Vin held up the one sent to him. "... made me see how the words ... the trackin' were all the same. Made me think maybe the same eye for trackin' might help me liken a man's letterin' to how he pens his name."

"They outsmarted themselves." Chris smiled thinly with a feeling of wicked satisfaction.

Chris read the name. "Blake Bishop. When did he check in?"

"Yesterday." The hotel keep offered.


"Couple, no, three others with him."

Chris's smile turned to a feral grin. "They're here." JD proclaimed before his hero could.

Vin was still concentrating on the registration book. "Harve, when did this feller come in?"

The Innkeeper looked at the name. "Been here three days."

"Foster." Vin read to himself. Then he looked at his best friend. "He penned the other note." Chris took the notes and compared the letters himself.

"JD, I want you to saddle up a spare horse. Ride out to meet Nathan and the others. I want them to know those men are in town and to watch out for them." JD was off like a shot. "Saloon?" Chris repeated the question.

"Saloon." Vin agreed this time.

+ + + + + + +

As JD hurried back to the livery, he was suddenly grabbed from the alley and dragged deep into the narrow passage. Bannister leered at him as the bear dragged him further into the alleyway. "Boy, we had an agreement." The other men were there as well as one he barely recognized from the night this all started.

The big man's forearm against JD's throat almost had his breath cut off. "Chris and Vin know you're in town." He croaked.

Bannister showed him a pistol that he held concealed between them. "Get the gambler's money for us and we'll be gone."

JD allowed himself to be pushed along. They were taking the back streets to the saloon. His entire focus was on the fact that Ezra's gun was hidden with the money. He was going to get his chance. He would make these men pay for what they did to his friends.

+ + + + + + +

Chris and Vin pushed their way into the saloon. It was crowded. They walked over to the bar to be greeted by Inez. The fiery Spanish senorita had been waiting for these men to stride into the establishment for two days that had seemed like a lifetime. Her heart clinched when they came in alone. She could have died several small emotional deaths in the time it took them to enter, evaluate the current occupants for any immediate threat, find none and move toward her and the bar. "Senors?" The question hung, afraid of an answer and yet afraid not to know.

"We found 'em, Inez. JD's with us. Josiah and Nathan are bringing those other two rascals along." Tanner smiled to end her worries.

"They're safe?"

"Some worse for wear." The sudden change in his demeanor told her it was worse than he wanted to admit to her or himself. The undercurrent of anger in this usually easy-going tracker told her someone would pay. He must have realized she was reading him so easily because the smile returned, the features relaxed and he continued, "Nothing a little sympathy from you wouldn't go a long way to healing with the both of 'em."

"And you've been hanging around those two scoundrels too long when you start talking like that." She relaxed; sensing things were not insurmountable.

"All these fellers part of the cattle drive?" Chris asked, his patience at its limit. He knew Inez deserved to be reassured that the others were safe. But he wanted the potential dangers accounted for before his injured friends, who couldn't take care of themselves, were back in town. For some reason he wanted to deal with these men before JD had to identify them or be a part of doling out justice. He suspected Wilmington was acting as his conscience again.

The bartender realized that there was more to the question. "They are all trailhands." She affirmed as hard eyes scanned the room.

"Any other strangers in town?"

"Suspicious strangers you mean?" It's what made her so good at her job, "Four men came in night before last. I think I've seen them before. They met with a man who was in town since before you rode out. They were quiet, stayed to themselves."

She was going to add more, but Larabee had heard enough. "Describe them." He growled. Inez got the feeling she was about to cause the deaths of these men. It showed in her hesitation.

"Inez, they'll come after us again. We gotta end this now. They don't play by the rules. We'll be more fair with them than they were with our friends." It was Vin who offered the words. Larabee didn't care to explain himself.

+ + + + + + +

Bannister and Foster kept JD at gunpoint in the alleyway until they at last saw the two regulators leave the saloon and head toward the hotel. Bannister nodded to Foster who moved in slightly ahead of them.

JD worried about where the other men had gone. He watched as Chris and Vin moved in the opposite direction. He thought of calling out to them but logic told him his best chance of survival was to bide his time and use the gun hidden in Ezra's room. He wondered again where the other men were. He knew he should try to warn his friends, but didn't know how. Suddenly he felt very incompetent and, all over again, very much like the boy among men.

Inez couldn't catch her breath when she saw young JD Dunne walk into the bar with two of the men his older friends had so recently asked about. Foster walked casually over to the polished walnut and brass bar. Bannister and JD headed on toward the stairs. Foster moved to stand across from Inez. He casually placed his Colt .44 between them and smiled as if discussing the weather on a pleasant spring day, "My friend and the kid have business upstairs, then we'll be leaving. A lot of people will get hurt and it will be your fault if you do anything but tend to your guests." Her rich brown eyes followed the other two up the stairs and realized that there was a gun on JD as well. She was worried and unconsciously wrung the dishrag between her hands.

+ + + + + + +

JD stepped into the small room. It felt a bit abandoned, even though the occupant had only been gone two nights. There was enough illumination coming through the window that Bannister chose not to trust the boy to light a lamp nor do it himself.

"Well?" The bigger man urged impatiently. He still held the pistol to his side, a tacit threat. JD was already judging whether to grab Ezra's throw-down gun quickly and take the man by surprise, or draw it out slowly as if he were bringing up the money. Should he try to shoot the man as the weapon cleared the floor? Or risk getting it up where he could actually aim. Buck would say aim. Chris would shoot from the floor. Should he give the man a chance to surrender?

Bannister stood with his back to the closed door. JD turned to face him as he knelt at the foot of the oversized bed and pried at the thin slat of wood closest to the footboard. Bannister motioned encouragement with the barrel of the gun. JD reached into the recess. His fingers immediately brushed across two bundles of money. He stretched, seeking the gun. Nothing. He felt as far back and across as he could. Nothing. Fear and a sinking loss of all hope overtook him. He tried not to let it show.

"Hey, Kid, get with it."

JD's mind was racing. He could hand this man the money and hope he left. That wasn't going to happen. And hoping it would happen wouldn't make it so. He could throw the money at Bannister. At the worst it would surprise him enough that JD could go for the gun. At least getting killed, the sound of the gunshot would alert Chris and Vin. At the best, maybe the man's greed would lead him to try to pick up the money and give Chris or Vin time to get here and avenge his death. Maybe he could talk the man into something like Ezra would. He tensed his leg muscles as he grabbed the handful of bills. He was ready to move.

"Looking for this?" A smooth voice asked from behind him. Recognition of the voice turned his spine to ice water. He had only thought he had been afraid a second ago. He had only thought the situation had been desperate a second ago. And the look on Bannister's face said the other man was equally unsettled by the change.

Neither of them had noticed that the closet door was open a crack. It was swung open now, and the tall, calm, suave Clay Kestrel was pointing Ezra's throw-down gun into the room in a way that made them both an equal target. The man's dark eyes held delighted amusement. His silky, straight, jet black hair hung across his shoulders and shadowed much of his face in the growing morning light.

JD didn't answer. He recognized the gun as one Ezra sometimes carried in his shoulder holster. He closed his eyes in an attempt to fight the despair that was trying to take over.

+ + + + + + +

Inez Recillos watched the man before her. She watched closely for a chance to do something to change the situation and take the upper hand from this man. She tried to will Chris Larabee or Vin Tanner to come through the door, but it wasn't to be.

+ + + + + + +

"Hey, Clay, man, I didn't know you were in town." Bannister tried to sound light.

"Put the gun down, Blake." The refined gunfighter said, and it was almost a suggestion. The other man complied like a rat hypnotized by a rattlesnake as it moved in for the kill. He simply tossed the gun on the bed.

Everything Josiah had said fell into place. JD had never completely understood how the man now before him had torn at Buck and convinced him to leave his home in Four Corners. He didn't understand how this man had been able to convince the usually pragmatic and look-out-for-number-one gambler to let himself be dragged into a makeshift prisoner of war camp. But if anyone could and would use words to tear apart their family, individually and together, it was this man. Ezra and Buck had brought down his plundering campaign. Kestrel failed. Buck and Chris had defied his attempts to rip apart their friendship. Failed. He hadn't been able to convince Josiah and Nathan he would be as good a leader for the regulators in the town as Larabee was. JD couldn't help but smile at the man. Failure. Loser. He hadn't been able to take down these men JD admired so. And he hadn't been able to cause them to fail. JD Dunne wanted this man dead, as badly as he suspected, as Chris Larabee had ever wanted anyone to die. And he wanted Bannister dead because he was weak enough to follow this comanchero.

Kestrel must have read it all in the young man's eyes. He laughed out loud and offered the gun he held, butt first, to the youngest regulator, "You want to kill him?"

JD couldn't believe he was being offered that gun and that opportunity.


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