RESCUED
Magnificent Seven Old West
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The Citadel

by Scribe

DISCLAIMER: All the characters from the "Magnificent Seven" T.V. series are property of Trilogy Entertainment, The Mirisch Group, MGM Worldwide.


Prologue: The Hill

It had been raining for three straight days.

He was cold and hungry and a little afraid. The rest of the faces around him were similarly gripped with such feelings and the pall of doom weighed heavily upon them. They had already spent more time in this gully than they should have and no doubt enemy reinforcements were well aware that they were here and were closing in. The tightening noose around their necks had driven their morale in to the dirt and though he was their lieutenant, he could say or do very little to lift their spirits when their commanding officer was determined to crushing it further into dust.

Captain Hannibal Alexander Julius, whose family had given him that auspicious appellation in the hopes that the name would somehow affect the person, truly believed he was the military equal of his namesakes. The fact that he had no successes in the battlefield to date was attributed by him to the inefficiency of the men under his command. While the young man had only recently began his tenure as one of Juliusí lieutenants, he had enough intelligence behind him to know that Julius lacked all the necessary characters requirements that made Hannibal, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar the generals they had been.

Unfortunately, lack of ability did not dampen the manís belief that he was the greatest commander in the field of battle that was currently known to the rest of the world as the American Civil War. Under his command, the highest casualty rate of any platoon was credited to his genius. In his determination to succeed in taking that hill or that enemy encampment, he was willing to risk everyoneís life except his own. It deepened the animosity of those who had survived his strategies that Julius often took the rear when he sent his men into battle, careful that the military excellence he represented was not extinguished in his senseless death.

He often spouted such words when he canvassed the field after the battle and side stepped the bodies of the men he had sent to die.

The lieutenant had only wanted to survive his tenure under Juliusí command. He had learnt long ago what the price was for breaking the chain of command and the course his life had taken following that mistake was burned into him. Standing up for what he believed had cost him everything, the respect of his father, the career he might have had and the life he had walked away from. He had become a lieutenant thanks to his three years in West Point and the fact that he had distinguished himself enough in prior battles to be awarded a battlefield commission. Until that moment, he had not believed that he would ever become an officer after his disgraceful departure from West Point and felt that if he could just come out of this war with his skin intact, perhaps he could pick up the reins of his life. Perhaps even sum up the courage to face the father he had failed so miserably.

Unfortunately, Lieutenant Chris Larabee was starting to suspect that he may not even survive the night.

Over the gully where he and men were entrenched was a hill that headquarters had decided most empathically had to be taken in order to spearhead a larger invasion. Unfortunately, before that end could be achieved, the platoon of men currently sitting under the teeming rain would have to fight their way to the peak without being massacred by the Rebel contingent giving similar orders to defend the location. Already their numbers had been cut down significantly until only a handful of Union soldiers remained. Despite Julius belief that sacrificing his men would be an adequate price for such a victory, they had been unable to break the line of defence the rebels had maintained so determinedly over the last four days.

Although the defeat of the Confederate armies was more or less eminent, the enemy was not going without a fight. The capture of this hill would be a beach head for the Union to launch its advance into southern territory. It was not just a battle to the Confederates but the end of all things if they were to yield the territory. They knew this were and determined to prevent the capture by any means necessary, marshalling forces from all across the area in order to combat the platoon that was intending to take it. Chris knew as well as the rest of the men in the platoon that they would never survive the united assault by those forces if they delayed any longer. Unfortunately, thanks to Julius, their numbers had decreased to such as state that even if they did try for the hill before those reinforcements arrived, they were hardly in a position to be much of a threat. The odds on either side of the coin were not good and no one expected to survive.

Chris watched the men huddled in the rain filled gully, their boots soaked from the inch of water that had accumulated on the floor of the fissure, covered in mud and shivering. They did not have a medic and Julius was not about to let any man leave his command, injured or not. Thus the motley collection of mud covered soldiers, bleeding and demoralised, remained where they were inside the gully, trying to bleed some warmth into their bodies by running their hands togethers, unable to create the friction that would generate heat because their hands palms wet.

"Larabee!" He heard Juliusí voice snap into his brain and conditioning to that voice forced him upright.

The men reacted to Juliusí voice through the rain with unmasked contempt and Chris could empathise with the feeling. Taking a deep breath, he lifted himself off the stool he had been sitting and tossed away the coffee that had become cold from the rain before trudging through the walls of the trench. They watched him leave, knowing that he was one of their own despite the officerís bars on the uniform and his indifference to the situation, aware that when it came down to it, he was not cut from the same cloth as most officers they knew. Without realising it, he had their loyalty from the number of times he had stood head to head with Julius, even though he was as powerless as they were.

Chris climbed out of the gully and saw Julius occupying the only tent they had in their possession, dining on hot food and looking decidedly more comfortable then the men with him. Beside him, Sargent Bellison, clearly one of Julius supporters was tending to his needs, more like a valet instead of a soldier. Chrisí stomach heaved in disgust at the sight when the rest of platoon had not a dry pair of socks between them while their commanding officer, who had stationed himself well away from the danger, indulged himself in whatever luxury there was to be found in this place.

"Captain." Chris announced himself, trying to ignore the aromatic scent of food that was being prepared over a fire not far from him. His stomach rumbled instinctively, reminding him like the rest of the men who could no doubt smell this enticing aroma soon enough, that he was hungry. "You wanted to see me."

"Iíve decided that today is the day." Julius announced, standing up from his chair and removing the napkin that was tucked in his shirt to face the younger man.

"The day for what Sir?" Chris drawled although his dispassionate demeanour belied the fact that his insides were knotting with foreboding.

"The day we take that hill." Julius looked back at Chris like this was something he ought to know without being told.

"Are we expecting reinforcements?" Chris inquired.

Juliusí face darkened considerably at the mere suggestion. "What on earth for?"

"Sir, you cannot expect us to take that hill without reinforcement. Our ammunition is down and the men are exhausted after three days in the rain, trying to take that hill over and over again. You send them out there and all you will be doing is getting them killed."

"Now you listen to me." Julius who was a short man by Chrisí stature, with dark hair and narrow features, stormed up to Chris and glared at him. "We are going to take that hill today without reinforcements. I will not be the laughing stock of the entire Union by asking reinforcements just to take one measly patch of dirt! Am I understood?" He glowered at Chris.

Chris stared at him and knew then that the man was insane but he was mad man in power and that made very dangerous indeed. The lieutenant cast his gaze down at the manís hand and saw it poised over his sabre. He had no doubt that if he refused to obey, Julius would not hesitate to make an attempt at running him through with that weapon. Behind them both, Sargent Bellison had stopped what he was doing and had his gun ready to fire in case Chris decided to take this any further.

"Yes Sir." Chris stepped away from both of them and decided that he rather die on the battlefield then at the hands of this twisted duo. "Perfectly."

"I knew you would come to your senses" Julius smiled triumphantly. "You are after all an intelligent man. You come from a distinguished pedigree of warriors. You should be able to recognise genius in the making. We will take that hill." He grinned even wider but Chris had turned on his heels and started walking away before he said anything he might regret.

Chris returned to the gully deciding in the short journey from Juliusí tent to the trenches that he was not about to die to fulfil the bastardís delusions of grandeur. They did not have much ammunition left but they did have dynamite and that would have to suffice to provide some of cover as they tried to traverse the distance between themselves and the Confederate encampment. Julius had ordered them to take the hill but he had not said how and that gave Chris some latitude to work with. He was barely twenty years old and while he had seen enough combat to know what he was doing, he had never actually formulated strategy, let alone lead men on his own.

Chris had never wanted to break the chain of command however, to obey the order given to simply take the hill would end his life on that muddy space between the two opposing forces and Chris was not about to go out this way. His father had always said that there came time for a man, whether he be a soldier, a doctor or a politician, to find out what he was made of and it looked like the moment for Lieutenant Chris Larabee was finally here.

"Weíve been ordered to take the hill." Chris replied as he descended into the muddy trench.

The response was not at all favourable with the men voicing their dismay at the order. Fear showed up in their faces but mostly anger as the man who would send them on a suicide run like this. Chris wondered if Julius had any idea how close he was to having a full scale mutiny on his hands unless Chris offered them the words that would keep them all from being courtmarshalled.

"That crazy bastard is going to git us killed!" A corporal named Henderson spoke up angrily.

"Maybe," Chris said calmly. "But I got a plan. How much dynamite do we have left?" He asked no one in particularly.

Finally a man not much older than himself with dark hair and a cocky look on his face, with no real feeling about the dying to come except perhaps annoyance, responded. "We got fourteen sticks of dynamite and fuses." The private replied. He looked younger than Chris but was quite taller and sported a moustache that was struggling to gain prominence on his face but still resembled peach fuzz at this time.

"Wilmington right?" Chris looked at the private, aware that he had only been transferred into the unit in the last few weeks. Chris had not had much opportunity to speak to the new arrival before this.

"Yeah," he tipped his cap in Chrisí direction. "We got about 14 sticks left, fuses are a little well but theyíll do."

It would be enough, Chris thought to himself. It had to be. "Get all of it and come with me."

+ + + + + + +

The rain had not stopped pouring and Chris stared at the path ahead, knowing in the flank of sparse trees, Private Wilmington was waiting. Wilmington had not at all been pleased to have been left out of the action but when Chris explained what needed doing and how vital it was to the survival of all, the man was happy to oblige. Despite himself, he could not deny that the good natured private was growing on him. In the meantime, the rest of the men were falling into a line of charge, having received orders to ignore everything that Captain Julius might say to them and following the instructions he had given them prior to their formation on the field.

"Remember men," Julius continued his speech to which no one was really listening, concentrating on what they had to do get out of this situation alive. "When I give the order. You will let nothing get in your way. You will fight to the top of that hill and claim in the name of the Union!" He exclaimed, expecting them to sound their agreement to his rousing speech with a battle cry of enthusiasm and was disappointed when they did not. Frowning, he stepped aside and watched the row of bayonetís and guns create a jagged phalanx of steel before the men about to go into battle.

Chris did the same, hoping to hell he was right about what he was planning or else a lot of men were going to die. He wondered what his father would do in this situation and then realised if General Larabee were here, they would have taken the hill days ago and need not have any reason to countermand the orders of their commanding officer.

"CHARGE!!!!!!" Julius shouted.

The platoon rushed forward, all eyes watching Chris as he led the charge across the field. The rain was still coming down and no matter how he may reason that his plan were sound, people were still going to die. Chris unsheathed his sabre and held it up high, running through the mud with the rest of the infantryman following when suddenly, Chris dropped the blade and shouted.

"First wave, in position!" Chris ordered and saw the designated men halt in their progress. No sooner than they had done that, Private Wilmington appeared out of his hiding place and began hurling what sticks of dynamite he had in his possession towards the Confederate encampment. At this distance, he could not possibly hope for the explosives to reach them however, the following eruptions would create enough disarray for the platoon to cross the space needed before the rebels could cut them to pieces. Instead of the standard battle cry that was uttered where everyone would be alerted to their presence, Chris had ordered them to remain silent. The only thing he wished them to hear was the dynamite detonating.

True enough, the resounding explosions took place shortly before the arrival of the Union soldiers broke through the smoke that had been created in its wake. Although he could not see the rebel encampment, he could imagine the chaos taking place and hoped it was enough. Although enemy gunfire had broken out, it was halted abruptly as the Confederates tried to decide if they had somehow sneaked a canon into the vicinity. It was precisely the illusion Chris had been trying to foster but knew the margin between indecision and action would be slight and so the timing of the attack had to be precise. When the soldiers of the Union blue broken through the clouds of smoke created by multiple explosions, Chris issued another order. "Drop!"

The men at the head of the line immediately fell to their bellies and kept their heads down as Chris waved his sabre at the line that had been formed with their guns primed to fire. As soon as the signal was given, a loud roar of gunfire escaped, further clearing the way for the line to proceed. He glanced at the woods and saw Wilmington had advanced far enough to begin again and he sent another volley of dynamite into the air to coincide with the wall of bullets lying towards the enemy. The barrage continued and the soldiers of the front line advanced a little further. The strategy alternated between the three phases that Chris had employed and amazingly enough, it worked. Eventually, they reached the rebel encampment, closer than they had ever managed in three days of fighting and effort under the command of Captain Hannibal Julius.

The rebel enclave was completely destroyed by dayís end with a surprising number of soldiers in the platoon surviving the engagement. The hill was taken and the mood of jubilation was shared by everyone in the aftermath of the battle. When it was all said and done, Chris walked the length of the rebel stronghold and found no joy in seeing the broken bodies lying in the mud, even if they were wearing Confederate uniforms. Blue or grey, they were still dead and the ideology that prompted their death was probably the last thing on their mind when the end came.

"Lieutenant!" He heard a voice call after him. Chris turned to see Wilmington hurrying towards him, wearing a big grin on his face, swaggering forward and exulting in the cheers by the others at his part in the battle.

"Private." Chris said unable to remain disaffected by that intoxicating smile and allowed himself to reciprocate with a shadowy version of the one displayed by the Private.

"I got to say Lieutenant," Wilmington laughed. "You are one crazy son of a bitch. I thought we were done for."

"Just lucky." Chris shrugged, unwilling to take the credit when they had lost men to this action.

"Lucky my assÖ." Buck remarked when suddenly, Julius appeared out of nowhere, with Bellison at his side. Judging by the stony expressions on both men, Chris realised that it was time to face the music for what he had done. He had expected this reaction sooner or later and wanted nothing more than to get it over and done with.

"Larabee!" Julius roared, his face dark with anger. For once, he was not concerned with the victory that had been achieved and was striding towards Chris with purpose. His outburst captured the attention of every soldier present and they paused what they were doing and shifted their attention to the unfolding drama between the Captain and the lieutenant.

"Yes Sir." Chris gave Wilmington a weary look and turned to his commanding officer.

"You countermanded my orders!" The man accused. "I ordered a straight charge! What the hell was that ridiculous manoeuvre you pulled!"

Chris saw no reason to lie to any of the manís accusation. "It got us across the field in one piece Sir." Chris replied. "A full frontal assault would have cut us down before we even got half way across the terrain. I countermanded your orders Sir but only so that a lot of good men could walk away from this alive, myself included."

In the face of all the death around him, suddenly his desire to keep his rank did not mean that much any more. The taste for command had left him in the last hour. As he had been spearing Confederates with the bloody sabre in its scabbard and shooting them left, right and centre, Chris realised that a military career did not seem as glorious a vocation as he had always dreamed. The General always made it sound so easy but until now, Chris had not realised just how hard it could be and had no wish to lead men ever again once this war was over.

"You are a coward." Julius shouted with rage, unable to believe that one of his own men was speaking to him like this. He was a genius and if had not been for Larabeeís interference, the day would still have been his, no matter what ludicrous method this upstart had employed.

"I ainít the one waiting behind the lines while my men get killed Sir." Chris glared at him directly, finally saying what everyone else was thinking. Court martial or not, Chris was determine to have that much say at least. Even if he was to be locked up for the rest of the war, it would have been worth it just to educate this man on a few home truths.

"How dare you!" The Captain sputtered in fury, his eyes widening with outrage. "Iíll have you drawn and quartered for this! I am your superior officer!"

"No, merely a higher ranking one!" Chris retorted, deciding that along with breaking the chain of command, he might as well take as stab at insubordination as well and turned his back on the man.

"Donít you walk away from me!" Julius screeched like a man possessed but Chris could not care. Around them were dozens of men who would never walk away from anything again and so this little tirade did little to impress him. No doubt, Julius would have him before a Board of Discipline but at the moment Chris was hardly concerned. He was done for the day and he needed a drink.

Julius saw the lieutenant striding away and looked around to see the sniggers that were barely hidden by those who remained. The contempt in their eyes was for him and Julius realised at that instant that he would lose all credibility in their eyes if he allowed such defiance to go unchecked. As it was, this interloper had stolen the victory that should have been his with his audacious plan of attack and Julius would broke no one taking what was his. Before he even had time to consider his actions, the Captain pulled out his gun.

"Lieutenant!" Chris heard Wilmington scream a warning.

Chris reacted immediately to the urgency in that voice and started to turn. However he never managed to face his attacker as the bullet from the Captainís gun tore into his back. The pain was beyond belief as Chris felt the penetration through muscle and flesh. He did not even notice when his legs buckled under him. The last thing he remembered was tumbling to the dirt, into the oblivion of darkness, almost grateful at cool relief offered by the black.

+ + + + + + +

Chris spent three weeks in a military hospital and then a month in convalescence regaining the use of his legs. The bullet fired by Hannibal Julius had nearly severed his spinal chord and could have left crippled him forever. Fortunately, field surgeons were able to extract the piece of lead without that devastating outcome and Chris later learnt that Private Wilmington had been largely responsible for his arrival at the hospital. Captain Julius was stripped of his bars and dishonourably discharged when the men of his platoon arrested him and his Sargent on the spot after he had shot Chris in the back.

Chris learnt that during his time in hospital, a military tribunal was convened and the men of his platoon had given a damning testimony of Juliusí action as well as bringing to light the incompetence in the manís abilities as a military commander. The result of the tribunal deliberations also commended Chris with the victory of the last battle and he was summarily promoted, while Julius was stripped and discharged, facing imprisonment for attempted murder. Chris returned to duty with the platoon under his command and Captainís bars on his uniform. His first action upon returning to combat was to promote Private Wilmington to the rank of Sargent, whom he learnt upon closer acquaintance, preferred to be called Buck.

Part One: Bellison

Chris Larabee hated it whenever they came up empty.

The seven had been on their way home after spending three hard days following up a lead that claimed notorious outlaw Johnny Ringo was in the vicinity and emerged with nothing, leaving Chris with the impression that it had been a wild goose chase to begin with. Ringo was starting to develop mythological status as an outlaw, with every two bit hustler claiming to have worked with the stone killer at one point or another. As Ezra had so succinctly put it and had almost convinced Chris that beating the man to death might not be a bad thing, Ďthe Chinese whisper had left them wandering the desert seeking the Promised Landí.

Sometimes, it was worth breaking a few bones just to wipe that smirk of the gamblerís face, Chris thought as they rode home.

He realised he was in a foul mood but could not help himself. Three days away from Mary made him anxious. Ever since he learnt about her pregnancy, he felt uncomfortable about leaving her for any length of time. Considering what had happened to Sarah and Adam when he had left them, Chris felt he could be forgiven for his paranoia. It would not have been so bad if they had actually manage to even sight Ringo but the information had been sparse with just enough crumbs to keep them from giving up.

"So now that you and the lovely Doctor Styles had made definitive plans to carry out your nuptials, have you any idea when exactly that will be?" Chris heard Ezra asking Vin as they took the familiar trail home, unable to deny that he was feeling better knowing Four Corners was not too far away.

"Nope." Vin shrugged, having been very close mouthed about setting a date since Alex and he had yet to come to an agreement on that point. "Just know weíre gonna to do it."

"Well stay away from Inez," Buck warned. "Woman goes crazy whenever she gets a whiff of one of these things." He recalled how she had been during Chris and Maryís weddings and knew the twitching he had seen in her eyes over the last few weeks was just the first symptom of her desire to plan Alex and Vinís nuptials.

"Considering what a romantic exercise in sentiment her own ceremony was, I wonder why." Ezra looked at him sarcastically. "I mean she hardly had the wedding of her dreams now did she?"

"Yeah," Nathan chuckled. "Most of the time the bride and groom say I do and kiss. In your case, you two said the words and had a baby!"

"Adds new meaning to the term shotgun wedding." Josiah added, joining in the gentle teasing.

"Thatís it," Vin came to a decision after seeing what poor Buck was going through at this moment. "Weíre getting out of town to get hitched."

"You wish," Buck retorted, unperturbed by any of the comments made by his so called friends because he would not change a thing about how he and Inez had been joined. For both, the day they had been married had coincided with the arrival of their little girl and nothing could make either of them regret the lack of ceremony. "Ainít gonna happen."

"Why?" Vin met his gaze pointedly. "Alex said she doesnít want any fuss."

"Hah!" Buck snorted in derision. "They all say that and I can tell you now that it is the greatest lie since Ezra said heís an honest business man now."

"Hey!" Ezra exclaimed in protest. "Mr Wilmington, I take umbrage at that remark."

"Hate to admit this pard," Chris who had no wish to get involved in this debate but was forced to support Buck on this issue in case Vin embarked upon a course of action that would get him disembowelled by his lady. "But heís right. Sheíll want a wedding."

"See?" Buck grinned, glad to see Chris being supportive on this issue since his own nuptials had been a three ringed circus, though no one in their right mind would dare say to the gunslingerís face. "No matter what they say about not wanting a big wedding with all the trimmings, no matter how rough and tumble they are, how independent they claim to be or hell for that matter, how above all the fuss they are, every woman wants a big wedding."

"Every woman?" JD asked, looking to the faces of his older contemporaries to see if they were in agreement with Buckís statement. While JD had never brought up the subject with Casey, since they were not even engaged, let alone thinking about marriage, he could not imagine her in a white dress, flowers or a veil.

"I confer with Mr Wilmington on this my young friend." Ezra agreed. "It is a kind of disease really. This charming creature to whom you have pledged your life suddenly becomes this terrifying harpy who requires cake, place cards and bridesmaids. Iíve seen men fall into their web before, it is not pretty sight."

"Alex ainít like that at all." Vin said firmly, refusing to believe that his level headed, sensible doctor could be so typically feminine.

"Sure she ainít." Buck rolled his eyes in resignation.

"Whatever you say pard," Chris added, making a note to be present in order to scoop up whatever pieces of Vin were left after he made that decision known to Alex.

"We shall remind you of this conversation when you are fitted for your suit." Ezra grinned and delighted in the horrified expression on Vinís face at the concept of wearing anything other than his buckskins.

"Hopefully it will be for the wedding and not a funeral." Nathan tried to say with a straight face but couldnít quite manage it and had to turn away to keep from laughing.

"Ah Vin," Josiah smiled "So young, so much to learn."

JD could only say, "Every woman?"

+ + + + + + +

Four Corners was less than an hourís ride when they came across the convoy of wagons travelling across the open spaces before the town. The procession of covered wagons rumbled through the knee length covering of dried grass turned golden from the heat of the sun and were driven by men who did not at all look like the settlers one normally associated with such journeys. The seven did not reveal themselves immediately upon sighting the group and immediately Vin was despatched to ensure the nature of these travellers before the rest of the lawmen crossed their paths.

Vin rode far enough ahead so that he could use eyeglass without being seen. It was normal practice for Chris to send him ahead, mostly because he knew better than the others, how to approach stealthily without anyone noticing him. Vin had a tendency to fade into the background and he knew how to observe without drawing attention to himself. Years of tracking buffalo had taught him that since the consequences were quite grave if those hefty creatures discovered his presence. One would not guess to look at them, but buffalo could be pretty ornery when they caught humans spying on them.

Vin did dismounted Peso before they reached the crest of the last hill they needed to cross before finding themselves on top of the convoy. He kept low as he neared the peak and dropped to his haunches, allowing the lengthy blades of grass to mask his presence as he held up the telescope and looked through it. It did not take him long following that initial observation to realise that the convoy was not at all a wagon train on its way to tame some new piece of land no one had yet to stake a claim on. The absence of women gave that away unless it was a settlement of funny cowboys, like the one Buck had the distinction of escorting, when his..her...whatever...wig had blown off in the wind.

Jokes aside, the men riding into those wagons and horses playing escort to the procession were up to serious business. They were all heavily armed, with rifles and gun belts around their waists. Vin tried to see what was in the back of those wagons but could not get a clear enough look to make a positive identification beyond the fact that they were boxes. There was some serious artillery accompanying these wagons and Vin became more and more certain that something was amiss. Deciding he had seen enough, he quickly withdrew the way he came, still maintaining his anonymity, before returning to Peso where climbed back into the saddle in order to return to Chris and report what he had observed.

Feeling that same tingling sensation he could never explain but had come to rely upon as the instinct that was almost always right about danger, Chris and the rest of the seven approached as close as they dared. It did not take long before Vin reached them and related what he had seen. Chris took a deep breath, more certain that ever that they had stumbled upon something, although he could not discern at this time whether or not that something was a danger to them or Four Corners.

"You say theyíre only carrying boxes?" Chris mused, trying to think what could be the point of the journey.

"Maybe theyíre carrying supplies." Buck pointed out, unable to dismiss the most plausible explanation.

"Carrying a lot of guns for supplies." Vin drawled because his sense of trouble was just as acute for Chris and the situation did not look right in his opinion. "That many boxes, wonder why they donít take it on the railroad."

"It could be these gentlemen prefer their cargo to remain anonymous." Ezra added.

"Could be where theyíre going ainít got railway lines yet." Nathan suggested. However, like the rest of his companions, he found the situation odd. "Still, we are the law in these parts, closest thing to it any way. We could search them."

"They donít look like the kind who are going to appreciate that." Vin pointed out even though he was all for Nathanís idea. He wanted to know what was in those boxes as well, not simply to satisfy his curiosity but because the men who were guarding their cargo seemed ready to kill for it. Anything that engendered that much protection could not be legal or safe for that matter.

"Well then weíll ask them real nice." Chris retorted, digging his heels into his mount and gesturing the others to follow him. As the horse galloped away towards the convoy, the rest of the seven fell behind their leader. This time, the arrival of seven men on horseback could not be masked by any trick of stealth and the moment, they crossed the height of the last hill overlooking the path being taken by the convoy, Chris knew that they were seen. However, he did not mean to get into a shooting match just yet, not until they knew what was being carried.

With a fort now established in the Territory, it was not wrong to assume that what was in those crates could be bound for the army. However, Chris knew that the army was not prone to allowing civilians to freight their supplies, particularly ones so sensitive that it would require a convoy impersonating the disarming facade of canvas covered wagons common to settlers. Judging by Vinís description, Chris very much doubted that these men were soldiers in disguise either.

When they peaked the crest of the hill, Chris knew they were being watched. In the distance, they could see the convoy come to a halt. While that in itself was nothing, Chris unfastened the flap on his holster and saw Vin checking the Winchester nestled in the makeshift holster than he had fashioned so the weapon could be worn and drawn like any handgun. The others were doing the same, aware that their progress was now being watched closely. Josiah remained impassive and without much reaction but he had pushed his dark coat behind his holster, while Nathan used one arm to remove his coat, freeing up the assortment of knives he wore on his person for use if it came down to a fight.

The convoy did not move once it sighed the strangers. They had travelled for many miles without being accosted and had to assume that this streak of isolation could not last forever. Still, every man prepared himself for a fight as the seven riders closed in on their distance. The nature of their cargo made a fire fight difficult but by the same token, they could not allow it to be discovered either. There was too much at stake to let things unravel because of this unexpected visitation.

Chris rode towards the lead wagon once they closed in on the convoy, hoping that there would be a benign reason their presence but found that he did not mind if they chose to be difficult. With being horse rancher, a husband and a father, Chrisí reputation as being the original bad element was suffering a lack of credibility of late and secretly, he longed for action to convince him that he had not changed that much.

"Fan out." Chris ordered as they approached the convoy. There was probably nothing in this but if it did become ugly then it was wise to have the perimeter secured. Josiah, Buck and Ezra took off in one direction, while Vin stayed at his side with Nathan and JD heading off in the other direction. As they spread out over the flat plain, Chris saw guns peeking through the seams of the canvas tents stretched over the wagons and knew with certainty that they were not just facing a bunch of travellers but something with more sinister intent.

Chris and Vin slowed as they approached the lead wagon, their horses trotting forward at a casual pace as they reached the two men who were behind the reins. The driver was no one that Chris knew, however, he had the kind of face that faded easily into the background. Most of his face was hidden behind the tan coloured hat he was wearing but he looked like any cowhand that Chris might see in the saloon on a Saturday night. His companion however, was another thing entirely. Chris recognised him immediately and was certain the man knew who he was too. His hair was longer and certainly greyer, with a drooping moustache that did not look too different from Buckís with a goatee protruding off the edge of his chin, just as greying.

"Bellison." Chris stated.

There was no need for introductions or reminders as Bellisonís intense hazel coloured eyes snapped to his face at the remark. "Lieutenant." He let the word slip out of his mouth like it was something foul that needed ejecting.

"You know him?" Vin asked Chris immediately, seeing the tightening of Chrisí jaw and the anger filtering into his eyes that was unusual for Chris. Normally, in the face of the enemy, Chris was impassive, never one to show his hand until he was ready to strike For real anger to penetrate that mask of cool indifference told Vin that the situation had just moved from potential to definitive trouble.

"I know him." Chris said shortly, knowing by just the look in Bellisonís face that he was up to no good and if Chris had any doubts that his desire to search the contents of those crates was unjustified, seeing Bellison here wiped all that away.

"How long has it been Lieutenant?" Bellison asked.

"Long enough." Chris replied tautly, not about to leap into the fray just yet and reminding himself he had a job to do, not embark upon any personal vendettas to which a military tribunal had already settled on his behalf. "What are you carrying Bellison?" He asked, watching the man with his predatory reflexes ready to move at a momentís notice.

"Donít see how itís any of your business, Lieutenant." Bellison used the appellation like it was a bad word.

"Me and my friends are the law in these parts." Chris answered, inwardly flinching each time Bellison called him ĎLieutenantí and was fighting the urge to put a bullet in the manís head as he had stood by and allowed Hannibal Julius to put a bullet in Chrisí back so many years ago. The pain of his convalescence came back to haunt him, not to mention that terrifying moment when he had woken up and found his legs were numb. At the time, the swelling from the bullet wound pressing up against his spine had been the reason for the temporary paralysis but in the few seconds it took before that was explained to him, it was easily the most frightening seconds of Chris Larabeeís entire life.

Bellison and his companion took stock of the men surrounding his convoy of wagons before turning back to Chris. "So I see and that gives you the right to search my property without my say so."

"I guess it does." Chris responded, a slow smile of pleasure at this little bit of upset for Bellison crossed his face when he spoke. "Please, give me some trouble. I wouldnít mind shooting you if I can."

Vinís eyes widened in surprise while Bellisonís narrowed. Vin had never seen Chris so inflamed and wondered what on earth this man had done to the gunslinger to engender such hatred. Obviously, they must have known each other during the war since Bellison kept referring Chris as Lieutenant."

"Look," Vin spoke up since Chris was not thinking straight. "We keep the peace around here. It looks might suspicious for a convoy to be travelling through the Territory looking like settlers but ainít." He tried to be the voice of reason because he had the feeling the slightest provocation was going to trigger Chrisí fierce desire to make this man pay for some past grievance.

"Ainít gonna happen." The other man barked. "You ainít got no right to search us. We ainít done nothing."

"Shut up Clancy." Bellison snapped, his gaze still fixed upon Chris and understood that this chance meeting was under the worst possible circumstances. "You ainít got no right to do this Lieutenant. You know it and I know it. You just mad because of what happened."

No sooner than those words had crossed his lips, Chris pulled out his gun and trained the barrel squarely between Bellisonís eyes. "If you call me Lieutenant one more time, Iíll kill you." He warned and made certain that the man knew it was no idle threat since Chris fully intended to do it if Bellison gave him cause.

Vin could see the menace in Chrisí eyes and knew as well as Bellison, how close he stood on the periphery. The man swallowed anxiously and looked around himself and his convoy to take stock of the other lawmen surrounding him, as if trying to make a decision. Vinís own hand was poised over his Winchester but in truth, he was uncertain who ought to be restrained, Bellison or Chris. There was a lot of anger inside his best friend at the moment and it would take only a nudge for Chris to go over the edge. When Chris Larabee was properly inspired, he could be as mean as a rattlesnake. Cletus Fowler could attest to that.

If he were still alive.

"Alright," Bellison conceded at last. "Do what you got to."

"ButÖ." His companion started to protest almost immediately.

"Just shut up Clancy," Bellison barked angrily. "The sooner we get this over and done with, the better it will be for us. They ainít got no reason to hold us for our cargo and they know it."

"Glad you decided to be reasonable." Chris said lowering his gun when suddenly, Bellison went for his and fired so quickly that if Chris had not ducked, the bullet would have gone through his skull. A second shot exploded from the side of the wagon, cutting through the sharpshooterís shoulder. Peso reared up in fright as the bullet whizzed past his ear and toppled Vin from the saddle. As Chris recovered from the deception, Bellison had picked up the reins and snapped them hard. The wagon bolted forward as gunfire erupted from all around them.

"Vin!" Chris shouted, looking down at the tracker who was down in the dirt, picking himself painfully from the dirt, clutching an injured shoulder.

"Iím okay!" Vin reassured him. "Go after that bastard!"

Chris did not need to be reminded twice and dug in his spurs into the side of his horse, sending the animal off into a powerful surge of acceleration as it galloped forward after the wagon that trailed a cloud of dust and dirt in its sudden departure.

Meanwhile the other wagons attempted to make the same hasty departure but Nathan and JD immediately cut them off, riding in hard and fast across the path they would have to take, with guns blazing. However, it appeared that even though their route of escape had been severed, they had no intention of allowing anyone to reach their cargo. Through a hail bullets managed to drive the duo back far enough to dismount their wagons and get into a defensive position in readiness for a fight. The wagons were soon circled in traditional formation as if they were settlers fighting off Indians or something of the like.

Nathan and JD began shooting, aiming in particular for the men hiding behind the canvas. If there was any doubt that they were ferrying something illegal, it had been more or less swept away by the ferocity of the defence being mounted against the lawmen. Nathan and JD kept on their horses, using speed to keep them from harm as they started shooting. The enemyís fire was mostly concentrated underneath the wagons. JD sent a barrage of fire at that vulnerable location and saw them rip through the bodies of the men who were shooting at them from there. A rifle barrel peeked through the seams and Nathan saw the movement of someone taking aim at the youth who had just despatched his friends.

"JD, duck!" Nathan ordered and fired at the shooter before he could fire.

JD let himself slide to one side of his saddle as he rode by the wagon and felt the bullet fly by closely enough to know that if not for Nathanís timely warning, he would have been done for.

"Thanks Nathan." He grinned, fully of cocky pride and broke off from the fight in order to reload his gun in safety as Buck had drilled into his head on so many occasions.

Nathan saw the crimson stain of blood expanding against the white canvas of the wagon covering after he had killed JDís would be killer. The silhouette of the dead body could be seen pushing up against the canvas. However, the guardians of the convoy were far from done. There were still a good number of them that were being left to the ministrations of Buck, Josiah and Ezra.

The three lawmen were carrying out the same manoeuvre, circling the tents like they were rampaging Indians. Buck for the life of him could not imagine what was so important that these men were willing to die for what was inside these crates. While it would be easier to simply yield the day and allow the search, they had opted to fight a battle where they had very little chance of winning. Buck also noticed that they were trying to draw as much of the fire away from the wagons to themselves, almost as if what was inside the crates were too precious to be damaged and had to be shielded with their bodies.

Buck saw movement through the canvas and concentrated his gunfire on that spot. His bullets tore through the canvas barrier and the splatter of red against the white made a contrasting confirmation that he had nailed his target. Although Buck could not completely see the man in the midst of his death throes, he could make out the long barrel of a shot gun as the man fell against the canvas. In his descent, he must have accidentally pulled the trigger to the weapon because the loud boom tore through the air over the sound of already deafening gunfire.

However, it was nothing in comparison to the explosion that followed.

The entire wagon was blown apart, along with anyone who might have taken refuge under it. The fireball spread outwards and consumed the horses tethered unfortunately to the wagon and forced everyone away from the heat of the blast before contracting into solid wall of flames. The terrible scream of horses in their death throes lasted only second before Buck recovered his senses enough to shoot the poor animals and end their fiery torture. The men below the wagon needed no such mercy. The explosion had more or less killed them instantly.

"Jesus Christ." Buck exclaimed, horrified by the blazing inferno before them.

"What the hell was that?" Vin who was on his horse again, rode next to Buck who had been frozen in place following the spectacle. There was debris of flaming pieces of wagon covering the immediate area, spread out in a wide radius.

"They must have dynamite in those crates!" Vin replied as he struggled to keep Peso steady, since the horses had been so spooked by the terrible sound of the explosion that they were still rather nervous and difficult to control since the impulse to bolt was overwhelming.

"Dynamite doesnít go up like that!" Buck retorted.

His belief was further aided by the fact that the explosion had more or less caused the men defending the other wagons to abandon their posts. While the lawmenís attention had been focussed on the explosion, they emerged from their hiding places, hands up and weapons dropped to the ground, deciding that cargo capable of so much destruction was not worth defending especially when one could get killed doing it.

"This ainít worth it Mister!" One of them shouted as he approached the lawmen with his hands up. "We were paid to transport this stuff, no one said anything about getting blown up sky high doing it." A short, rotund looking man with a mouth full of rotten teeth said as he kept his hands where they could be seen.

"Whatís the cargo?" Vin asked, glad the fighting was over because his shoulder throbbed from where he had fallen. The bullet that had grazed its shoulder had done very little damage thanks to the buckskin jacket he wore. The fall had caused him more pain the bullet.

"Donít know Mister," the man answered truthfully, anxiously keeping an eye on all the guns aimed at him the rest of his companions. "We was paid real well but we werenít told where it was going or why. We were only supposed to follow Bellison to the drop off."

"Alright," Vin nodded, deciding that there was enough fear in that face to warrant the information he was volunteering to be the truth. "Brother Josiah, Nate, JD, you want to round these boys up, while me and Buck take look see?" Vin asked as he nudged Peso forward to one of the intact and abandoned wagons.

"Always happy to oblige," Josiah tipped his hat towards the youthful tracker and reached for the rope hanging form his saddle. He dismounted a moment later and approached the men while JD and Nathan kept their guns trained on anyone of the men who decided to have a change of heart regarding the terms of their surrender.

"Whereís Chris?" Buck inquired as he and Vin trotted toward the nearest wagon.

"He went after that the guy in front. Seems Chris knew him." Vin replied. "Though I canít say Iíve ever seen Chris so fired up to shoot someone, except maybe Fowler and Ella."

"Well that ainít saying much," Buck admitted having known Chris in the days before the seven and Mary. After Sarah and Adam had died, Chrisís temper had a hair trigger that required little to set the gunslinger off on one of his rampages.

"No, this was kind of personal." Vin replied, understanding what Buck was talking about since they were all privy to the infamous Larabee moods.

"Who was he?" Buck asked, feeling his curiosity piqued.

"I think he said his name was Bellison."

Buck turned to Vin sharply. "Bellison?" He demanded. "Are you sure he said Bellison?"

Realising that Buck knew who this person was as well, Vin nodded quickly. "Yeah, thatís what Chris called him. He kept calling Chris, Lieutenant."

"Shit!" Buck swore under his breath, very troubled by this. "I hope Chris doesnít kill him."

Conversation was suspended for the moment as they climbed into the back of the wagon and spied the crates these men had been willing to defend so fiercely until that tremendous explosion had taught them otherwise. All boxes were nailed shut as the two men examined them closely and discovered that the wagon space was almost filled with their volume. Finally, Buck found a crowbar and prised the wooden lid off since Vin was in no shape to do so with his injured shoulder.

The lid came off easily and Buck realised that though they were nailed shut, the nails used to hold the lid close were not meant to secure with any real strength. Whoever had locked up the contents of these boxes had wanted to ensure that it would not require much effort to remove them from inside once they had arrived at their destination. Inside the crates were tall jars, sealed at the top with a clear fluid. For a minute neither knew what they were looking at until they made the connection to the explosion.

"Oh shit." Buck whispered and immediately pushed himself away from the crates, amazed that they had not blown themselves to kingdom come already after all the shooting and gunplay that had been going on during the last half hour.

"Yeah." Vin nodded in agreement and then came to another startling realisation when he remembered Chris. "Christ!" He swore loudly and quickly scrambled out of the back tray, wincing at the pain that snaked up his injured arm because of his exertions.

"Hey watch it!" Buck hissed at the tracker for making the wagon bounce a little bit from his sudden movement during his departure. Buck himself took as much care as he hurried out of the wagon, not prepared to die in such a dramatic fashion, at least not for another thirty to forty years at least. "I ainít ready to die yet!" He cursed as he followed Vin out of the wagon. The tracker did not waste any time as he hurried to his horse and mounted Peso, ignoring the injury to his shoulder as he rode towards the direction that he had last seen Chris in the gunslingerís relentless pursuit of the man called Bellison.

+ + + + + + +

Chris fired again.

The hired gun at the back of the wagon was doing his absolute best to ensure that Chris did not close the distance that separated the wagon from his black gelding. The wagon thundered forward, trying desperately to outrun Chris even though it was a futile effort With less of load to carry and not required to run in tandem as the horses yoked to the wagon was required to do, the gelding narrowed the gap easily. Chris kept his head down as he fired, making each bullet count and forcing the shootist trying to kill him, further into behind the obscurity of the canvas. The more he pushed the man back, the quicker he was able to bring himself towards the trayís edge. Chris paid little attention to where they were going, aware only that Bellison was on the wagon and had tried to kill him again.

He looked up during the pause in firing and saw the hired gun withdrawing further into the wagon in order to reload his rifle. Knowing that the narrow margin of time taken to reload the weapon was the opening he needed to get to the wagon, Chris pushed his horse harder, until the black gelding was galloping forward in a blur of speed. He took careful aim as he saw the man glancing up anxiously, trying to reload his shotgun before Chris closed the distance between them. There was a moment of clarity when both men met each otherís eyes and one realised that it was too late. The gunslinger pulled the trigger on his peacemaker and saw his opponent stagger backwards when the bullet found its target, the enemyís gun tumbling out of his hand and bouncing out of the wagon harmlessly before disappearing behind them as the wagon and its pursuer left it behind.

The man collapsed into a heap, his blood running across the floor boards of the wagon while droplets were whisked away by the wind as the team of horses maintained their frantic speed to escape Chris. With that opposition out of the way, the distance between the two was quickly shortened and very soon Chris found himself nearing the edge of the wagon. He could see the crates sliding across the floor precariously and once again, he wondered what Bellison was so determined to hide. The gelding continued at its relentless pace forward, determined to bring his master to where Chris desired.

The gelding came up the side of the wagon and Chris jumped free of the saddle into the back tray. He landed on his knees and immediately had to leap out of the way of the bullets Bellison was firing at him from the wagon. He rolled to his feet easily and fired back. Unfortunately, his bullet did not hit Bellison but the driver. Chris felt his stomach hollow knowing he had shot a man in the back but had little time to soul search on the matter since it had been an accident and Bellison had been shooting at him. When the driver slumped over the seat, Bellison met Chrisí gaze and decided that staying was not worth it, considering what they were carrying in those crates that his pursuer had no idea about.

As Chris hurried up the length of the wagon, Bellison jumped off the speeding carriage into the soft grass. The wagon continued its juggernaut pace and Chris emerged at the head of it to see Bellison being left behind as the horses kept running ahead. Looking before him, Chris saw that the wagon was nearing the edge of a ravine and knew that if he did not bring the team of horses to a halt it could end very badly for everyone concerned.

"Chris!" He suddenly heard Vin shouting as the tracker rode up fast beside the wagon, struggling to catch up.

Christ searched for the driverís reins and saw that they had slipped below the wagon and there was no way to retrieve it unless he was willing to get in between the harness of both animals and pick it up from the ground where it was dragging. The ravine was starting to loom closer in the distance and Chris knew if he did not get off this wagon soon, he would go over the edge with it. Still, he was not willing to let the horses plunge to their deaths if he could help it. Standing up, he took a step back and braced himself on the seat, even though the wagon was rocking precariously and balance was not easily maintained. Taking a deep breath, he took two quick steps forward and launched himself onto the back of one of the frantic horses.

"Chris!" Vin shouted again, having seen Chris performed that minor feat of daring. "Get off that thing!"

The horses were extremely spooked and despite Chrisí best efforts to calm them down into stopping, they still continued rapidly towards the edge. He tried pulling on the bridle of the animal he had mounted in an effort to bring it to a stop but the horse was too panicked to do so. It was galloping even faster, as if its adrenaline were pumping with as much ferocity as Chris had been in his determination to get Bellison in his sights.

"Chris, you got to get off there!" Vin rode harder and faster, pushing Peso the edge of its limits as he came along side of Chris. "That wagons full of nitro!" The tracker warned.

Nitro? Chris looked over his shoulder instinctively because the word penetrated and sunk through the haze of his rage and his stubborn determination to get his hands on Bellison. It was something of a miracle that he had not been blown to pieces with the gunfire exchanged prior to his embarking on the wagon. He finally understood why Bellison had not chosen to stay and fight him since the Sargent was not someone he could call a coward, slimy as the bastard was.

"Hell!" Chris swore under his breath and saw what Vin intended as the tracker tried to narrow the space between Peso and the horse Chris was presently situated. He secured his footing to perform the manoeuvre required once Vin was in position and felt badly that the horses could not be saved. The edge was becoming dangerously close and Chris knew if he was going to make the crossing it would have to be now.

Finally Vin was in position and he extended his hands towards the gunslinger. Chris looked at head, seeing nothing but space in front of him as the wagon started to run out of ground. Taking a deep breath, he grabbed Vinís arm and jumped off the horse, barely making it onto the saddle before Vin pulled him into place. He saw the tracker wince in pain and realised that Vin had offered him his injured arm. The wagon continued on its way and both men could only watch helplessly as it reached the edge and showed no signs of stopping.

Chris and Vin watched in morbid fascination as the wagon went over the ravine and flinched at the sound of terrified horses who probably came out of their stupor long enough to realise that they had condemned themselves to die. Terrified screeches followed the horsesí descent and though they did not have to see the destruction that followed, they could well imagine it. However, the cargo of nitro glycerin in the back of the wagon was not about let their passing end that simply.

The impact of all that nitro created the explosion Vin feared. The ground fairly shook as a column of flame shot through the air that could be seen even from the edge of the cliff. Chris and Vin climbed off Peso and walked to the precipice, feeling the same curiosity at to the spectacle of destruction that was taking place at the bottom of the ravine. Nitro was deadly and unstable. That it had taken such a tremendous impact to cause the detonation that had been created upon its abrupt stop was a surprise. Vin considered it a small miracle that it had not been set off during the gunfight Chris had exchanged with the occupants of the wagon prior to its violent demise.

Beneath them, the two lawmen from Four Corners were faced with the sight of a demolished wagon and two horses consumed in a ball of fire. They could smell horse flesh burning and the stench made their stomach curl with distaste. Debris was scattered through the floor of the ravine and for a long moment, Chris could only watch the flames, mesmerised by the dance of fire as his mind thought about Bellison and their history.

"Thanks Vin." Chris said to Vin, grateful that the tracker had come after him before he had allowed his vengeance to make the fire below his funeral pyre as well.

"Donít mention it pard," Vin answered easily. "I didnít see where Bellison went though." He apologised. At the time, he had been too concerned with reaching Chris after learning what dangerous cargo the wagon had been carrying.

"Thatís okay," Chris frowned. "Heíll turn up again."

However, Chris did not say what was truly on his mind. As far as he knew, Sargent Bellison should be languishing inside an army prison for what he had stood by and allowed done by Captain Hannibal Julius. If he was not incarcerated but free then with that realisation, Chris was faced with another unpleasant possibility.

Was Julius out there too?

Part Two: Fires of the Soul

There were bodies everywhere. He was gagging on a breath that was thick with the scent of old blood. It curdled the air and left a lingering stench of death against the overpowering backdrop of the carnage around him. He had woken up into hell, or so he thought when he opened his eyes after an eternity of black and thought for a moment that he had died. Around him were broken bodies, writhing in shock and pain. He saw amputees kicking non existent legs and screaming to doctor and nurses who were trying hard to keep them from trying to stand, defiant in the belief they were still whole. He saw grey skinned doctors, working tirelessly, their aprons stained with so much blood that they looked like butchers in a slaughterhouse not physicians.

He was certain they felt the same.

When Lieutenant Larabee work up, he saw all that and wished that he was dead because he could not feel his legs. The panic gripped him was the fiercest he had ever known in his life and he started to descend into a fit of terror as he started screaming for someone to tell him that what he was feeling below the waist was not what his mind could not accept.

"Easy there, Lieutenant!" He heard a voice along side his bed, holding him down as the amputee he had seen needed to be held down.

"Chris!" He gasped. "My name is Chris!"

"I know that Sir," Wilmington repeated himself, putting his considerable strength into pinning Chrisí shoulderís to the bed and forcing the terrified lieutenant who had never been afraid of anything for as long as the private had known him, to calm down and look into his face. "It ainít what you think. Youíre okay. Really!"

"I canít feel my legs!" Chris screamed. His life was over! He was a cripple! He couldnít walk! Couldnít have children! Couldnít even be a man!

"Itís temporary!" Wilmington stated firmly. "You got my word on that Lieutenant!"

"Chris." Chris looked at his face and knew his words were in earnest. The genuine compassion and sincerity in the privateís face bled away his fear and slowly, he descended from the altitude of terror into a calmer state of mind.

"Chris," Wilmington said with a faint smile as if he could not accustom himself to calling Chris any other thing. "I know you canít feel nothing but the doctors said this might happen." He continued to speak, unwilling to let this man who had saved his life and a whole lot of others, endure this ordeal alone. "The bullet almost crippled you but they manage to get it out before it did any permanent harm. They did say that it went in fairly close to your back and when you get hit like this, thereís some sort of swelling inside that pushes against the nerves. Thatís why you canít feel anything. When it goes down again, youíll get feeling back in your legs."


Chris eased back into his pillow, the fight dissipating and there was something comforting about having Wilmington around. "What happened?" He managed to ask after a few seconds.

"Ainít no reason to talk about that now Sir," Wilmington said evasively.

"Donít make me pull rank on you Private." Chris gave him a look, tinged with a faint hint of a smile which created a broader one on Wilmingtonís face.

"Okay Sir," he answered sobering up as if he found the subject distasteful. "It was Captain Julius. He shot you in the back. The men grabbed him and Bellison after he done it. Guess he underestimated how grateful the men were to you after saving their necks the way you did."

"How did I get here?" Chris croaked. His throat felt dry and he needed water. He was glancing at the side of his cot, hoping there was a pitcher of the stuff nearby when he saw Wilmington already reaching for it to pour him a glass. The private held the cup to his lips and Chris took greedy gulps. It felt as if he had been out for days and his mouth was full of cotton.

"After we took care of Bellison, me and a couple of volunteers walked off the line to get you here." Wilmington explained before putting the cup back on top of the small table next to his cot.

Suddenly Chris had a premonition that he owed his life to this young man who had most likely been the main instigation for his being brought here to this field hospital. "Thanks, Wilmington." Chris found himself saying.

"My friends call me Buck," Wilmington replied.

Chris met his gaze and let a hollow smile steal across his face. "Buck it is."

"Chris." Buckís voice snapped him back to the present and Chris turned back to his old friend who was waiting for an answer to a question that he had not heard.

"What?" Chris asked, trying to remember what Buck and Vin had been saying when his mind had drifted off to memories best left in the past.

"I said we canít bring this stuff back to town," Buck frowned, wondering where Chris had been the last two minutes. He certainly was not on the plains where they had intercepted the convoy of wagons and was now attempting to discern its fate. "This much nitro is going to bring someoneís attention. We ought to hide it until we know what to do with it."

"Concerns me what so much of it is doing out here." Nathan declared while cleaning the wound on Vinís shoulder in order to keep it from aggravation before they could return to Four Corners where it could be tended to properly. "This much nitro is enough to start a small war." The healer glanced briefly at the four remaining wagons that remained intact after two of its number had been destroyed.

"Obviously they were going somewhere with it." Ezra answered and Chris had to focus for a moment to shake the fog over his brain. This entire situation with Bellison had awoke some very unpleasant memories for Chris and he had trouble concentrating on the present, when so much of the past kept surfacing to remind him of the players that had suddenly walked onto the present stage.

"What happened to Bellison." Chris asked suddenly, slicing neatly through their speculations.

"Josiah and I rode around looking for him," JD spoke up gingerly, a little fearful of the hard edge he heard in Chrisí voice. If a word could be put to the gunslingerís mood at this moment, JD was certain Ďfilthyí would have done quite nicely. Chris was a volcano about to erupt and he was making all his friends nervous. "We couldnít find a sign of him."

"Manís good." Josiah rumbled with an unhappy scowl on his face before Chris could respond to JDís findings. "We didnít even see any tracks."

"He used to be an Indian scout before the war," Chris responded, unaware from where that piece of information had come for a moment before he realised that as a Sargent under his command, Chris was required to know Bellisonís history. "Pretty good one from what I heard." He volunteered further a second later and reached into his duster for his cheroot. Suddenly, he needed a smoke real bad. A drink would have to wait until after he got into town.

"So what are we going to do about the nitro?" Vin asked, flinching a little when Nathan tightened a bandage around his injured biceps.

"Hide it." Buck repeated his thoughts on the matter. "Ainít no way that Bellison could have anything to do with the army if he was running things. If that ainít army, then it canít be legal. Railroad construction use dynamite, not nitro. Youíre looking to do some serious damage with that kind of firepower."

No one could argue with Buckís statement. After seeing how the wagon had been literally incinerated by one stray shotgun pellet, there was no denying the perilous nature of the cargo that had been in the process of transportation when the seven had come across it.

"Okay so we hide it," Josiah replied. "Where?" He looked at his companions in question. "We ought to keep it out of sight.

Chris tended to agree with the preacher on that assertion and thought quickly as to what they should do about with the wagons and their cargo. "Weíll take it to the ranch for now." He said after a moment. "Josiah, you and JD will keep guard on it once we get there. Weíll keep this men in jail for now, at least until we can work out what this nitro meant for."

"We must attempt to find out to whom it was destined to reach." Ezra pointed out. "Explosive in this quantity had a purpose, not to mention someone must have paid a tidy sum to purchase it. I think our concerns ought to be focussed on who might come searching in an attempt to reclaim their property."

"Ezraís right," Chris agreed with the gambler, having considered that himself. "The sooner we get it off our hands the better. Weíd be inviting a lot of trouble by hanging on to it and we canít just hand it to anyone either. Its gonna have to be the army."

"Well one thing is for sure," Vin started to say and then hissed at Nathan when the healer secured the bandage and kept it from unravelling by use of a safety pin. He scowled at Nathan who returned a look to stifle his complaint or be prepared to get iodine later. The tracker decided against it and turned back to the topic of conversation. "Whatever that stuff was meant for, it ainít legal. You donít move nitro this way, not unless you want it kept real quiet."

"Iíll get back to town and wire the army." Chris replied, deciding that the army was the only ones who had any business with this type of munition and would know how to dispose of it or at least take the problem off their hands. However, Chris wanted to know what part of Bellison had to play in this. Whatever it was, Chris was certain it was no good. The appearance of Bellison now sparked other concerns, in particular the fate of Hannibal Julius. Chris had assumed the man had been languishing in a prison since the last days of the war but if Bellison was out and he had incurred the same sentence as Julius, then what of the Captain himself?

Chris did not add that the reason he wanted to wire the army was not simply to tell them about the nitro and ridding themselves of a powder keg of trouble but also to make some inquiries into Juliusí ultimate fate.

"We ought to clear out one of the wagons." Buck suggested. "That lot donít look too happy to ride shotgun to the stuff after what happened to the other wagons."

Chris could hardly blame them for that. Before he and Vin had returned, Buck and the others had tied up the men guarding the shipment and rounded them into one place in order to move them back to Four Corners. The gunslinger glanced at the unhappy faces tied up and disarmed waiting judgement, near enough for any of the seven to notice if one of them decided to go back on their word of surrender.

"Okay," Chris agreed with that plan. "There should be room to clear out one since the others donít need space for a guard and supplies any more. Untie a few of them and get them to do the unloading Buck." Chris ordered before adding. "Weíll have to tether our horses behind the wagons and take them to the ranch ourselves. I donít trust these men any further than I can throw Ďem. Vin you ride shotgun with someone, you ainít in to shape to handle a wagon gently."

"Thanks pard." Vin frowned, hating it whenever he was injured.

"I do feel that we ought to be asking for hazard pay," Ezra retorted as he eyed the four wagons that needed transportation back to Four Corners. Driving a wagon full of nitro glycerin was not exactly the way he wished to exit this life if indeed it was time for him to meet his maker.

"Well you can bring that up with the Judge, the next time heís in town." Chris retorted, more or less expecting some form of complaint from Ezra as if it were some ritual that the gambler felt obligated to perform each time they ran into something unexpected. It brought some sense into Chrisí universe to know that at least some things would never change and was almost grateful for the banter in light of Bellisonís appearance today.

"Alright," Chris said with a loud sigh. "Letís get to it. I want to be out of here before it gets dark."

With a purpose set before them, the lawmen started to break up, each unconsciously knowing what Chris required of them following their brief discussion regarding their surprise discovery. Buck lingered a moment, wanting to speak to Chris because the gunslinger seemed preoccupied even though he had snapped out of his reverie long enough to give them directions.

"You okay Chris?" Buck asked once the others were a few steps ahead.

"Iím fine." Chris said shortly, knowing why he was asking.

"So you really saw Bellison." Buck remarked. "I thought he was rotting in a federal jail somewhere."

"It was him." Chris said firmly, wishing no mistake on that. "He even called me Lieutenant."

That would make sense Buck decided since Bellison had been absent when Chris had been promoted to Captain. "I wondered what happened to him."

"I didnít," the gunslinger replied staring into the horizon, trying to see something that was not there. "I just wanted him gone."

"Youíre thinking about the Captain ainít ya?" Buck guessed accurately, since he was thinking about Hannibal Julius himself.

"Heís out here somewhere Buck." Chris declared, not knowing how he knew but certain he was right. The moment he had seen Bellison, Chris had no doubt that the former Sargeant was still in the employ of his former master. How strongly he had reacted to Chris was proof of that. "This time he ainít gonna get the chance to shoot me in the back."

+ + + + + + +

It was well into dark by the time the seven finally returned to town with their prisoners. The nitro presently resided at the Lucky Seven ranch, guarded by JD and Josiah for the time being. After Vin had come into town and had his arm properly treated, the tracker would return home and complete the triumvirate of protection that the explosives required. Chris wanted it gone as soon as possible and went straight to the telegraph office to wire the local fort regarding their problem, hoping that someone would soon arrive from the army to collect the liquid explosive. After leaving Franklin with explicit instructions that the telegraph was to be sent immediately, Chris headed for the saloon in need of a drink.

He felt slightly guilty knowing that he ought to be going home for supper but the whole business with Bellison had brought back memories he neither wanted nor could tolerate. A bullet to the back had changed him forever, not simply because he had faced the fear of being half a man until he regained use of his legs but it had educated him most profoundly on how deep human ugliness could reach. He came out of the hospital and convalescence a harder man, with idealism burned away in place of cold cynicism. A situation which had not improved when he had lost Sarah and Adam. He had reached full circle of becoming the man he was now when his wife and child had died.

Even marriage to Mary had not taken the sharp edge of him and he nothing ever would.

He sat at their usual table in the Standish Tavern, still being bartended by Rain for the moment because Inezís role as manager did not require her present on a full time basis. The new mother would come in during the afternoons and early evenings to serve meals for the clientele before taking herself home and retrieving her daughter from Rain who doubled as baby sister during Inezís tenure in the saloon. It was quite an amicable arrangement that had the lady bartender playing the multiple roles she had set for herself. Chris was amazed at her stamina and knew that when their child was born, Mary would be just as tireless. Women seemed to be able to relegate their time into neat little parcels while men were less inclined to be so organised.

Buck had headed off for home shortly after they had delivered the nitro the ranch, undoubtedly eager to see his wife and his new baby even though the big man would be hard pressed to admit it. Chris could hardly blame him for that. Buck had always enjoyed having a family around him even though he confessed to being a ladies man. Ever since his marriage, he had astonished all his friends by his ability to remain faithful to Inez and his utter devotion to his daughter Elena. It was not unusual for the rest of the seven catching the proud father doting unashamedly on his new child.

Chris found himself alone in the Standish Tavern since Ezra had taken the task of keeping an eye on the prisoners in the jailhouse, since JD and Josiah were required to keep an eye on the nitro at the ranch. Nathan would eventually join the gambler once the healer was done looking after he was done treating Vinís arm. No doubt, Vin would head back to the ranch after Nathan was done and complete the triumvirate of protection for the nitro since voluntary rest was not in the trackerís vocabulary. Chris found an involuntary smile stealing across his face at how Vin would fare with that sort of thinking when he found himself married to a doctor.

When he finally decided to go home, he found Mary on her chair, having fallen asleep there while mending some clothes, the bulk of which still sat in a basket at her feet. Her sewing kit rested gently on her lap along with a shirt of his she had been working on at the time she had dozed off and Chris found himself by the doorway to the parlour watching her sleep. By the looks of her, it appeared she had just an equally exhausting day as he did. She was wearing her work clothes and her hair tied up in a bun, had worked free with stray strands brushing her skin after her exertions.

They said pregnant women were supposed to glow and at this moment, whether or not Mary knew it, Chris found his breath taken away by how radiant she looked. The pregnancy was starting to show a little, with a slight curve at her belly he sometimes felt almost afraid to touch for the sheer happiness he felt, when he woke up and realised that she was his and hope had come with her. The initial stages of her pregnancy had been difficult, with morning sickness being particularly brutal. Chris remembered the nights when she had spent most of it retching and wondered how the women of the world did not kill their men from the sheer frustration of being the only one to suffer when it came time for a child to be born. Now Mary spent most of her time, trying not to devour everything in the house and Chris was grateful for that or else he would have to go hunting.

After watching her, Bellison and Julius seemed far away and he came forward quietly, removing the objects in her lap and placing it aside so she could find it easily in the morning before slipping his arms around her and lifting her off the chair. The fact that she barely stirred as he carried her up the stairs towards their bedroom was a testament to how tired she was and now Chris felt doubly guilty for hiding out in the saloon when he should have been home with her. She did not stir until after he had begun ascending the stairs and the irregular movement woke her.

"Chris." She whispered as she fluttered her eyelids and looked up at him. "What are you doing?" She asked even though she was not quite awake yet and reluctant to be free of those wonderful arms around her.

"Taking you to bed." He answered as they reached the top of the stairs.

"Why Mr Larabee," she teased softly. "What are you suggesting?"

Chris found himself grinning. "Mrs Larabee, you got way to much energy for me." He joked and once again, felt himself renewed when he stared into those blue grey eyes.

"Well put me down," she said yawning. "I must be heavy."

"Not a chance," he replied. "I ainít never letting you go now that I got you."

"Flatterer." She smiled and nuzzled her face in her chest, not about to argue with him as he carried her into their bedroom. "Any trouble on the way back?" She asked since trouble and the seven went like bacon and eggs and any other clicheí pairing.

"A little," Chris admitted but not about to go into detail. He was not ready to talk about how he felt about Julius and Bellison. It delved too deeply in the parts of his life he did not want to talk about. If started telling her about them, then he might have to tell her about the rest of it and even now, nearly twenty years after the event, he still found it hard to talk about. However, he would not keep it from her because she was his wife but he was not going to volunteer it either. At least not yet anyway. Right now, he wanted nothing more than to hold his wife in his arms and fall asleep with her scent in his lungs. "But nothing we couldnít handle. Vin got a little hurt."

"Vin always gets hurt," Mary mumbled, letting her sleepiness overtake her again. "I swear I do believe the only reason heís marrying Alex, is so he can have a doctor on call."

"Oh Iíd say there at least one other reason." He chuckled softly as he lay her down on the bed, wondering how it was possible that she could take away all the turmoil inside of him with just her smile.

"Probably," she laughed and started to undress as he did the same to join her in her bed. She noted the expression on his face as she undid the buttons on her dress and found herself asking. "Chris, are you all right?"

Chris looked over his shoulder at her, wondering how she was able to manage to discern that something was wrong and then opted against trying to understand how she knew and deal with the fact that she did. "Iím just thinking about things."

"Like what?" She asked, tossing her dress into the near by chair.

"Nothing important." He shrugged and climbed into the sheets with her, once he was freed of clothing. Naked, he slid next to her body and delighted at the feel of her bare skin against hers. Fabric always seemed to be a hindrance when they went to bed and after months of marriage, they had decided that it was pointless wearing anything at all with Chrisí craving for his wife almost matched by her surprisingly ravenous appetite for him.

Mary continued to stare a little longer before she was willing to nestle into the warmth of his embrace, aware that there was something wrong even if he did not wish to discuss it. However, it was never wise to push him into revealing his inner soul unless he was ready to do so and by the manner of him at this time, Mary assumed that he was far from it. "I was going to clear out the spare room for the nursery, what do you think?" She asked as she snuggled next to him.

"Fine." He said stiffly. "Whatever you like."

"Chris there is something wrong." She pushed herself up on her elbow to look at him.

"I said drop it." He spoke with more harshness than he intended, wishing that she would just leave it alone and then realised that she had and it was he who had bitten.

"Chris, I am not one of your men." She responded just as sharply, completely awake now.

"I know you ainít," he said guiltily. "But I donít want to talk about it or anything to do with the baby right now, is that too hard for you to understand?"

"Of course not," she started to stammer, realising for the first time that he might have trouble coping with the fact that he was soon to be a new father, no matter how much he might have attempted to hide that fact from her. "I just asking your opinion." She was not sure how to deal with this now that the possibility had presented itself to her so starkly.

"You can take care of it yourself Mary," Chris frowned, rolling on his side, suddenly having no wish to face her when he felt unable to stem the hostility that was frothing from inside him without pause.

"Chris...." Mary found herself starting to get upset.

"Look!" He jumped out of bed and grabbed a pillow. "Iím too tired for this." Without saying another word, he pulled on his pants and padded out of the room, leaving Mary to stare after him in stunned silence.

+ + + + + + +

Although Vin had wanted to wait in town until Alex returned from one of her house calls, he knew that Josiah and JD were at the ranch guarding the nitro and should probably go home to give them a hand. Even though Nathan had specifically ordered him to get some rest, both he and the tracker knew that was about as likely to happen as Ezra suddenly giving up cards and taking up knitting as a past time. By the time Vin got to the ranch, it was after dark and he found Alex already present. The doctor had stopped by on her way back to Four Corners to see if he was back from his trip and found Josiah and JD.

Vin walked into the shack and was greeted by the pleasant aroma of food cooking. Josiah and JD were seated at the hewn kitchen table while Alex was at the stove cooking. Despite the jokes he often made at her expense, Alex could cook and quite well. She just did not do it that often. It felt good seeing her there and Vin could not deny looking forward to the day when she lived here permanently. Vin let himself in quietly and gestured for Josiah and JD to be quiet as he went to announce himself to Alex. Both men nodded in understanding and returned to their conversation at the table, leaving the couple to their sentimental exchanges, trying not to notice.

"Hey there Doc." Vin said sliding his hand around her waist and kissing her neck while she was stirring the stew inside the pot before her.

"Vin!" Alex stopped what she was doing immediately and turned around wrapped her arms around him, before their mouths melted in a warm kiss. "Are you okay?" She said breathlessly as she recovered from the effect of his lips against hers and moved to baser instincts. "JD said you were hurt." Her eyes shifted to his arm and noticed the slight bulge of a bandage under his buckskins.

"Iím okay," he assured her, his hands resting comfortably on her waist. "It was just a scratch." He replied before kissing her again, since that was more of a tonic for what ailed him than any treatment Nathan could prescribed.

"It is huh?" She looked at him with apparent disbelief. "Iíll check it out later. In the meantime, are you hungry?" Alex asked, gesturing towards the pot and its boiling contents with a sidelong glance.

Vin could not deny that he was a little hungry. He had not stopped to get some dinner in his eagerness to flee Nathanís ministrations and found the aroma of whatever was cooking to be almost as enticing as Alex herself. "I could eat." He winked at her suggestively.

"Food I mean." She laughed and pulled his hat over his face before turning back to the stove. "Get out there and sit down, Iíll bring this out in a minute."

"Okay," Vin nodded obediently and took the opportunity to deliver a playful slap on her rear as he departed, garnering a dark look of mock offence as he walked to the kitchen table to join Josiah and JD.

"You really think someone will come after this stuff?" JD asked when Vin sat down and poured himself a cup of the piping hot coffee.

"Iíd say so." Vin answered meeting Josiahís gaze who believed the same thing. "Nitro ainít meant to be moved like that and not that much of it."

"Whomever wanted it in those quantities had some kind of purpose for it." Josiah replied. "Anyone needing to cause that much damage is not about to let their means slip out of their reach just because of us. We should expect trouble."

The appearance of Alex suddenly reminded Vin of something important. If danger was coming then it was best that she were not here. She was of course oblivious to what was running through his mind as she started serving the meal, with JD eagerly waiting for the food as only a young man of his age could.

"Alex," Vin spoke up as he pulled her on to his lap as she walked past to take a seat beside him. "Iíll take you back to town when weíre done with dinner. It might be a little dangerous for you around here with the nitro being kept here."

Her disappointment showed but she understood that he was only being so cautious because he was worried about her. "What about you three?" Alex said unable to forget that he was in danger too. "Are you guys going to be all right?"

"I doubt theyíll come after us tonight," Josiah responded allaying her fears. "And tomorrow, Chris and the others will be here, so we should be all right."

"Well take care," she frowned looking at the three of them in concern. Although her love for Vin was without question, Josiah and JD were her friends, she did not want them harmed any more than she wished to see Vin in danger. "I guess weíll have to talk about the wedding another night," she shrugged as she turned back to Vin.

"The wedding?" Vin swallowed visibly. "Whatís there to talk about?" He asked, suddenly revisited by all the sage advice that he had been given by his friends earlier that day. Vin cast a terrified glance at both Josiah and JD who could only look on in sympathy.

"Well there are arrangements to make," Alex answered, confused by the tension that was suddenly in his voice. "We havenít decided on anything yet."

"What arrangements?" He asked, suddenly taking on the appearance of a deer in someoneís sights. "We go get a preacher and get it done."

"Vin," Alex looked at him as if he was a child who needed education in the simplest terms. "Its not that simple. Thereís the ceremony, where weíre going to do it, who you want for a best man, that sort of thing."

Vin lifted her off his lap and said very firmly. "You see this is how it starts, first you say arrangements, then you say you want ten people and then twenty, next thing we know, we got more fuss than we know what to do with. I ainít putting up with it, Alex." He stood up and met her eye to eye.

"Vin, have you lost your mind?" Alex declared, staring at him as if he had come from another planet. "When I mean arrangements, I mean are we going to get Josiah to do it? Do you have any religious preference? You talked about doing an Indian thing once and what exactly do you mean youíre not putting up with it?" Her hands rested on her hips which told every man in the room especially Vin that she was angry. "It was your idea to get married, Vin Tanner." She jabbed him in the chest with her finger. "If youíre having some problems with it, I suggest we get it out in the open now."

"Vin," Josiah started to speak out. "Maybe we ought to go outside."

"Shut up Josiah, its fine." He said sharply. "Alex I ainít got no problem marrying you, I just donít want things to get out of hand. Now a manís got the right to say how things goes in his house with his woman."

Josiah shook his head as he heard those words escape Vin and did not even have to see the black cloud on Alexís face to know what Vin just unleashed upon himself and he picked up his plate and moved to the far end of the table. JD who was just as mesmerised by what was going on, understood the need for distance and did the same.

"His woman?" Alex could only stutter for a few seconds. "Did you say his woman?"

"Thatís right," Vin replied, still too wrapped up in paranoia to see that he was hurtling towards the abyss. "I mean I donít want no wedding where Iím gonna get fitted for a suit like some kind of undertaker going to a funeral and I donít want place cards or cake!"

"Well," she said nodding in understanding, taking it a lot calmer than Vin had thought she would. "Iím assuming that this topic came up in conversation today, JD?" She looked at the young man because of the two bystanders present, JD was the one most likely to tell her what she needed to know.

"Sort of." JD flinched, offering a silent apology to Vin for his betrayal.

"I see," Alex nodded almost reflectively before turning to Vin and said in a very calm voice that frightened the men in the room more than four wagons of nitro going up in flames. "For starters, contrary to what youíve probably been told by Buck Iím guessing, I really do want a small ceremony with our friends and no fuss! I donít know what garbage has been fed into your head," she shot a murderous glare at Josiah and JD before turning back to Vin. "But if you keep up this Ďwomaní crap, youíll be walking down the aisle with Peso!" With that she stormed out of the room, pausing long enough to grab her riding coat and her sun hat before she walked out the door and slammed it shut behind her.

Vin looked at Josiah and JD trying to discern what had come over him when he let out a groan at the realisation of his utter foolishness wrought of a paranoia and too much advice. "Aw hell! Alex!" He hurried after her.

Vin had pulled open the door and saw Alex striding purposefully towards her horse, wondering whether or not there was any way to grovel and still maintain oneís dignity. "Alex, honey, Iím sorry!" He called after her. "I donít know what came over me!"

"How about stupidity!" She shouted as she swung her coat around herself and shoved her arm roughly through the sleeve.

"Look," he ran up to her and took her arm gently, "I let Buck talk me into believing that you wanted this big wedding with all the trimmings and I guess I got a little crazy."

"Gee, you think?" She glared at him sarcastically.

"Iím sorry darlin," he implored giving her that look he knew she could never stay mad at for very long.

Anything she was going to say was cut short by the sudden eruption of gunfire. The bullet struck the hitching post next to her and Alex let out a startled cry of fear as Vin forced her to the ground and went for his gun. Phoebe started rearing up on her hind legs, the sound of bullets far too close for the animalís liking and sending it into panic as it tried to pull itself free of its tether. Vin tried to get a look at where the bullets were coming from but they were right in the open and he was more concerned with getting Alex to safety. He unsheathed his Winchester and fired into the direction of the gunfire but could not see for certain where it was coming from.

"Vin!" Alex cried out terrified. "Whatís happening!"

"Keep your head down!" He barked and ordered her to stay low as they took refuge behind the scant protection of the hitching post. The water trough was only a few feet in front of them and if they ran for it, they could reach its safety. It was not much in the way of cover but Vin was dealing with one crisis at a time. He did not know how many guns were out there waiting for them but he could tell that it was enough to overcome all three of the lawmen from Four Corners. He fired a few more times and then realised to his dismay he would have to reload.

"Alex," he shouted and grabbed her hand. "When I say go, we make for the trough, you hear?" He ordered.

She looked at him apprehensively and nodded, a far cry from the woman who had just given him hell a few seconds ago. "All right," she swallowed breathlessly, lips quivering and face etched in fear. "Just tell me when to run."

He took her hand in his as the bullet impacted at the ground near them with Phoebe kicking and neighing in fright, providing enough cover for their attackers to have trouble closing in on them. The animalís bulk was the only thing that had kept them from cut down so far. The horseís hooves kicking and stamping on the ground had created a small cloud of dust and since it made no difference whether or not they waited to make their run to safety, Vin decided sooner was the better of the two options.

"Come on!" He answered and the two of them scrambled to their feet and emerged from behind Phoebe taking the gunfire with them as they ran forward. It was only until after they had started running did Vin realise the enormity of their situation. Bullets were coming at them from all directions not just one. The projectiles struck the ground, they embedded themselves into the wood of the hitching post and even flew past the bodies running to escape the reach of lead. Vin and Alex practically skidded on their bellies behind the water trough before scrambling behind the obstruction of wood.

"Theyíve set up a kill zone." Vin replied as he started reloading his weapon.

"A what?" Alex asked terrified as she slid next to him.

"Theyíve got us surrounded." He explained as his fingers moved at lighting speed to insert cartridges into the chamber of his Winchester.

"Oh my god!" Alex cried out and tried to peer over the edge when a bullet splintered the edge of the trough near her and forced a cry of fright as she recoiled back into cover.

"Keep your head down woman!" He replied pulling her the rest of the way down.

"Donít yell at me!" She shouted in anger borne party of the fear she was feeling. She hated that she could not see them and that made it all the worse, knowing that the enemy whomever, was closing in on them.

"Iím not yelling at you!" He swore back and decided that that they had to get to the shack or else they were not going to last very long where they were. Suddenly, he saw Josiah and JD taking point, laying down a barrage of fire though the windows they had broken in order to offer cover to Alex and Vin so that they could make a run for the shack.

"Vin!" Josiah shouted, the manís deep voice like a beacon of light to a ship lost at sea. "Weíre covering you!" The preacher repeated himself.

"Alex," Vin turned to her, seeing just how afraid she was as she crouched low, shuddering at every eruption of gunfire, trying not to react in fright each time she heard a bullet too closer to her. She was breathing hard and had pulled her legs close to her body and watching everything like a skittish animal. "We got to make a run for it." He said in low voice, trying to keep calm himself because she needed him to look like he at least knew what he was doing.

"Okay," she nodded. "What do we have to do?" She asked, lips quivering a little.

"When I tell you, you keep your head down and make for the shack as fast as you can." Vin instructed, flinching when another projectile struck the wooden through and send tiny splinters in all directions. "Josiah is giving us cover to make it there."

"What about you?" She asked, unwilling to leave him until she knew he was going to be safe too. She did not want him to put himself at unnecessary risk by trying to protect her and she was not going without him.

"Iíll be right behind you." Vin answered automatically, knowing that to say otherwise was to ensure that she would not do as he asked. Alex was just as fiercely protective of him as he was of her. "I promise." He added, just to make sure that she understood that he was not saying whatever he could to make her obey.

"Okay," she nodded quickly and moved into position, mindful of what he had told her about keeping her head down. Her heart was pounding in her ears and she was really quite frightened with what was happening but knowing Vin was behind her, gave Alex some measure of resolve not to fail him at this most perilous hour.

Vin glanced at Josiah through the broken glass and nodded at the preacher as a signal to lay down a wall of suppressing fire at their unseen attackers. Josiah shouted something to JD that Vin could not quite hear over the sound of gunplay but soon understood its content when JD started firing with both guns with Josiah doing the same. The wall of bullets that flew through the window shattered what remained of the glass, sending fragments in all directions.

"Alex, run!" Vin ordered and Alex hurried from behind their refuge, like a sprinter at the start of a race. She ran forward quickly, pulling her skirts up above her ankles, while keeping her head down at the same time. She could not see the men trying to kill them but Alex knew, trying to seek them out would be a fatal mistake. She did however look behind her long enough to see Vin behind her, shooting in the direction that Josiah and JD were doing with his freshly reloaded Winchester. It took less than a second for her to look over her shoulder but it was enough time for one bullet to find its mark. She felt it enter her shoulder, creating white hot pain that forced a cry of pain from her before she was even aware that she had been hit. It swept the strength out of her legs and the air from her lungs.

"ALEX!" Vin screamed as he saw her stumble and fall to the ground, her white shirt bloodied as she landed on her knees and braced her fall with her hands. He continued shooting and hurried forward, his arm wrapping itself around her waist as he pulled her up and tried to keep her moving. Alex was hurt but not so much that she did not realise the importance to both their lives at continuing forward. He heard her groan in pain as she forced herself to move and together they ran towards the shack, with Vinís arm secure around her waist as they stepped onto the porch and practically leapt through the front door.

"Alex are you all right?" Vin demanded as he kicked the door close behind. Both of them were side by side by the floor with Alex rolling onto her back and clutching her injured shoulder, her face contorted into a vision of pain.

With Vin and Alex securely inside, their attackers concentrated all firepower on the shack. Bullet tore through the walls, smashing cups and plates and anything that it was able to reach. Josiah and JD were crouched low below the windowsills, emerging long enough to fire before the hail of gunfire kept them low.

"How bad is she hurt?" Josiah shouted as he looked on briefly at the tracker who was trying to make the judgement for himself. If worse came to worse, they might have to make a run for it.

Vin was tearing at her sleeves, trying to examine the bullet wound himself. "I donít know yet."

"I think its a flesh wound!" She hissed closing her eyes in an effort to control the pain. "God it hurts!" She swore, trying not to cry as the pain bit into her.

"We canít stay here!" JD declared. "Iím almost out of ammo!" He was quickly loading all the remaining bullets into his own guns.

"Unfortunately," Josiah remarked as another bullet smashed into lamp and shattered it across the floor. "So am I. Vin, we got to move."

Vin thought quickly as he looked at Alex trying to control her pain and not be a hindrance to them in this critical situation. She was right, it was a flesh wound with the blood making it look a lot worse than it really was. They were running out of ammo and they had nothing in which to barter for their lives except.....

"Alex," he looked at her. "Can you move?"

"Yes." She nodded, speaking through clenched teeth as she did so. "I can move."

Vin had a plan and it was risky but it was the only chance that any of them had at the moment. "Josiah, weíre going to the barn!"

"The barn?" Josiah looked back at him. "Why?"

"Because thereís only one thing those bastards care about here and its that damn nitro! They wonít shoot at the barn if we tell them its there. They need it too much to fire on us!"

As much as Josiah hated to admit it, Vin was right. If they made their escape through the back, there was just enough cover in trees and shrubs for them to reach the barn without getting themselves killed.

"Hold your fire!" Vin ordered. "Keep everything we got for the run!"

Josiah, JD and Vin exchanged glances, aware of how much of a gamble this was precisely. The numbers out there were more than just a few, they were a lot and judging by the fact that the enemy was willing to destroy the shack and kill everyone inside to get what they wanted was indication of their ruthlessness. If any of them were going to walk out of here alive, they were going to have to take this one shot, no matter how slender it might be. Outside, the darkness would give them something of an advantage; Vin hoped that was enough.

With Josiah helping Alex to her feet and JD offering the illusion they were still resisting, Vin did the one thing he could to assure that they would be given something of a distraction while they made their run towards the barn. The horses had been removed earlier in order to accommodate the wagonloads of nitro they had found in their encounter with Bellison. It was meant to be a safe refuge for the explosives until the army could come and take it off their hands. Unfortunately, the barn would now seem the safest place to be if they were to survive this attack.

The shattered lamp had sent oil in all directions and as JD continued to fire, trying to put up enough of a fight to be convincing, Vin took a last look at the shack that had been his first real home and knew he would miss the place. He hoped Chris would understand why this needed to be done as he held the burning piece of wood from the stove above the inflammatory liquid sprayed throughout the small corner of the room.

"JD, get going!" Vin ordered as he prepared to ignite the oil.

"We go together!" JD said defiantly, not willing to let Vin indulge in any last minute heroics.

"JD!" Vin exclaimed exasperated. "We ainít got time for this!"

"Then you better do what you gotta!" JD declared, facing down the tracker with the same determination that Vin wanted him to leave.

Finally, Vin had to concede and tossed the wood into the oil and watched it ignite immediately. As the flames began to build, bathing the room in a glow of amber malevolence in a preview of the destruction to come, JD hurried to Vin as both men retreated out the back entrance of the small shack. Vin looked back long enough to see the entire room become consumed, with everything he owned in it except for what was left in his wagon before deciding someone was going to pay for this.

When they emerged into the night air, Josiah and Alex were already making their way through the cover of trees towards the barn. The gunfire was still raining on the shack, putting more and more holes through the place that Vin could actually see tendrils of smoke exuding from the bullet holes. It would not take long for the place to become an inferno and they just enough time before that happened to do that. No doubt, the enemy would be expecting them to emerge and if they did not do so before the fire took the building, their subterfuge would be discovered.

With most of the gunfire concentrated on the shack, the group was able to reach the barn with little or no trouble. No doubt, if Bellison was behind this, he might have learnt that Chris Larabee owned this parcel of land and had come here hoping to trap the gunslinger into revealing the whereabouts of his nitro shipment.

"How sheís doing?" Vin asked as he and JD joined Josiah who was using his considerable strength to keep the doctor on her feet and moving. Even though she had said it was probably a flesh wound, Alex was hardly the best judge of that at the moment. The blood flowing onto to her torn shirt had turned the soiled white into crimson and Vin could see the slick wet on her dark vest.

"Pretty good." Josiah answered as they saw the barn close by. The tracker was keeping his eyes open, trying to see if the enemy was close by through the cover of branches and leaves. Fortunately, wherever they were launching their attack, it was not close by.

"Speak for yourself." She grunted. "This hurts! How can you guys stand it!"

That pretty much told Vin that she was more annoyed than hurt, which gave him some measure of relief, as they continued their journey to the barn. The gunfire was continuing beyond the sight of trees but some of it had started to level off and with the increasing clouds of smoke billowing from the shack, it was starting to dawn upon the enemy that something was afoot.

"Theyíre wondering why we ainít out yet." JD stated, mirroring exactly what Bellison and his men might be starting to guess.

"Weíre almost there!" Vin shouted and caused them all to increase their pace forward, when suddenly more gunfire erupted. Bullets tore through the foliage, shredding as the hot lead pass through them.

"Run!" Vin shouted and opened fire, able to see some of the shooters this time and knowing where to aim. He had better night vision than the others and could see them clearly through the canopy of branches, twigs and other shrubs. Josiah swept Alex into his arms and carried her the rest of the way as JD and Vin took care of their pursuers who were realising where they were going now and were doing everything possible to keep them from reaching the barn.

With what little ammunition that was left in their guns, Vin and JD managed to keep them away and finally passed though the large doors of the barn before closing it shut. While JD secured the door, Vin hurried up the ladder to the loft while Josiah tended to Alex. He scaled the length of the building quickly and opened the small window on the top of the structure. Below him, the wagons had been left untethered with their dangerous cargo still in place. The gunfire had stopped now, mostly because their attackers were aware that the game had shifted the minute they had taken refuge inside this building.

Vin pushed open the window and peered outside. He could see the shack burning away to its inevitable end and make out the faint outline of the enemy scattered throughout the immediate area. He counted at least ten of them and knew leaving the shack had been a good idea. Otherwise, the lawmen from Four Corners and Alex would now be dead. Still, he had one more act to play in this drama to ensure their continued survival and he would do it now, while Bellison and his men were still reeling from the sudden change in circumstances.

"We got your nitro in here!" Vin shouted on top of his voice. "You donít back away, weíll blow it up!"

Vin looked down at his friends and saw their anxious faces praying that the gamble he had taken with their lives had been the correct one. Vin hoped so too. He swallowed deeply and waited for the few seconds that it took for an answer to come. His stomach knotted slowly, like a snake coiling into a muscle of tension, waiting to spring if the right response was not received. Vin looked at Alex, saw the blood on her shoulder and told himself that this had to work. It felt like almost an eternity when he suddenly heard a voice respond.

"Youíre bluffing!" The man called out and despite having heard it only once before, Vin knew that it was indeed the elusive Mr Bellison for whom Chris held so much hatred.

"Try me!" Vin shouted back, seeing the man himself emerging from his hiding place. It was Bellison all right. The former Indian scout strode brazenly towards the barn, halting when he saw Vin targeting him with his Winchester, unaware that the chamber was empty because Vin had used up the last of his ammunition reaching the barn. "We give up and youíll kill us anyway! Near as I can figure it, we ainít got nothing to lose!"

"You let us take what we want and weíll let you go!" Bellison tried another tact.

"Like hell you will!" Vin retorted, not knowing much about Bellison but certain of that at least. "You try to come in here and weíll blow this nitro sky high and take as many of you with us as we can!"

Bellison paused in mid step, appearing to consider his options. The man withdrew into the darkness and Vin held his breath, waiting for a further response. In the nearby distance, the sky was illuminated in amber as the fire from the shack continued to burn with heat. He did not know how long he stayed perched on that ledge waiting but it became evident that Bellison was not about to rush them, with the possibility that his cargo could be destroyed.

The silence of minutes stretched into hours with the lawmen keeping a vigil throughout most of the night, rotating their period of wakefulness with that of sleep in the instance the enemy attempted to force their way into the structure. In the meantime, Alex offered instructions enough to Vin for him to be able to patch her shoulder until the morning, aware that only at daylight would help come.

"I suppose you think this gets you out of trouble." She said with a smile as he used a length of her skirt as a make shift bandage. The injury was not quite a flesh wound thought as she had believed because the bullet was lodged in muscle and bone but Alex assured him that it could wait until morning for treatment as long as the bleeding had been halted.

"I was kind of hoping." He looked at her trying to hide his worry. Next to him, JD was fast asleep, snoring lightly. The youth had succumbed to some well deserved rest after keeping himself awake for half the night while Josiah had taken a few hours to sleep. Vin had found it difficult to sleep though, knowing that the stalemate could end at any time if Bellison became convinced that he was bluffing. Josiah was keeping a vigil from the loft, ensuring that there were no surprises in the middle of the night.

"Iím sorry I got mad at you." Alex whispered drowsily from his lap. "I really donít want a big wedding you know."

"I donít really want to walk down no aisle with Peso." Vin joked and was pleased when she rewarded him with another smile.

"Good," Alex mumbled softly as she fought a losing battle with sleep. "I donít think that horse will fit my wedding dress." She chuckled before the exhaustion finally caught up with her and she succumbed to her dreams.

+ + + + + + +

"Didnít you sleep well last night, Chris?" Nathan inquired when he saw Chris Larabee massaging his neck for the umpteenth time as they took the familiar trail that would complete their journey towards the ranch the next morning.

"I slept fine." Chris said tautly, immediately desisting in the action now that the astute healer who observed everything noticed it. Chris did not want it known by anyone that he had spent the last night trying to sleep on a chair following his abrupt departure from his bedroom. Chris had no need of his friends telling what an idiot he was when he himself knew that he had no reason to behave the way he had towards Mary. His nerves had been agitated by Bellisonís appearance and he had taken it out on his wife for no good reason. Mary had hardly spoken two words to him this morning and he felt awful enough as it was without having to explain it to his friends as well.

"Oh Jesus." Chris heard Buck suddenly exclaim as his old friend became the first to turn the corner and get a full view of the ranch.

His response immediately captured the attention of everyone and Chris felt his heart constrict in his chest as he rode on ahead and saw what had forced such a dismal exclamation from Buck. As he saw the smouldering remains of the shack, he was suddenly reminded of the morning that he had come back from Mexico and found his home burned to the ground as the shack now appeared. Chris jumped out of the saddle, trapped in a place of absolute horror as they saw the evidence of the gunfight from the evening before.

"VIN!" Chris shouted, unable to imagine how he would cope if he had to go searching for his best friend in the cindered remains of his home.

"JD!" Buck cried out, just as paralysed by fear at the thought that the boy might have shared Vinís fate, not to mention Josiah and Alex who were here last night as well.

Chris dragged himself to the shack, what was left of it anyway, trying to ignore the charred smell of wood and the sight of all that destruction. He could not be certain of any body being amongst the wreckage but then he had used the same argument when he had came home that morning from Mexico and found the remains of his wife and son in the still warm embers. Chris was not certain if he could go through that again. Buck had dismounted and was wearing the same stricken expression on his face, no doubt revisited by the same memories. Ezra and Nathan lingered behind, new to the horror but affected just the same. They crept forward slowly, almost afraid of what they might find if they searched too deeply amongst the ruins.

"Buck!" JDís voice sang out of the barn and was like the sweetest music they had ever heard.

As Buck, Nathan and Ezra hurried towards the youth who emerged from the barn with Josiah and Vin, Chris found himself letting out a deep sigh of relief as the cold fist around his heart suddenly unclenched and he found he could breathe again. The others were too far from him to notice but Chris was shaking inwardly, coming to grips with the intense emotion of seeing his friend alive and well, not victims of another fire. After a few seconds, he composed himself and forced his legs to move. Before he had heard JD and seen with his two eyes that his friends were among the living, he was not certain that he could have managed it.

Buck had embraced JD happily, with Ezra greeting Josiah with a wide grin which was only a fraction of the real depth of his feeling, while Nathan was not so restrained and wrapped his arms around the preacher in a bear hug that spoke his happiness clearly. Vin did not join them. He stepped out of the barn just far enough to show that he was all right, before retreating inside the building once.

"Alex is hurt Nathan," JD quickly said to Nathan.

"Hurt?" Nathan looked up in concern, all thoughts of a happy reunion fading from his mind as he strode towards the barn.

"What happened?" Chris finally found his voice.

"We got ambushed last night," Josiah started to explain. "It was your friend Bellison. He and about a dozen men came after us. Alex got shot and Vin took us into the barn. Figured he could use the nitro for leverage. We threatened to blow it up if they tried to come for us."

"My god." Buck exclaimed. "That bastard keeps turning up."

"Well considering the value of what is inside the barn, he could hardly afford to gamble with it loss. Mr Tannerís punting saved the day." Ezra commented.

"This ainít over then," Chris let out a deep sigh, grateful that no one was hurt this time but it was not going to be the last. "Theyíll come back." He said grimly and everyone knew he was right. While the nitro was in their possession, its owners were going to attempt to retrieve it.

Even it meant killing every last one of them.

Part Three: The General

Chris Larabee was not happy when he returned to Four Corners.

Even though his friends had survived the attack of the previous night without any fatalities, Chris was seething in rage and itching to vent some of his anger on the men responsible, knowing inwardly that Bellison was not the man in charge. He did not know how he knew but the instincts that kept him alive for so many years was more reliable than any factual data so Chris tended to believe it when his gut told him it was Hannibal Julius behind all this. Unfortunately, a gut feeling could not lead him to find the man and it was this lack of knowledge that further deepened Chris frustration and the stoked the fires of his rage into a filthy mix of bad temperament and lethal intent.

Not wishing to create any further friction between himself and Mary because he knew she had not deserved his outburst and had probably given rise to all sorts of insecurities in his reaction about her idea of a nursery, that he wanted to spare her his mood for the moment. After returning from the Lucky Seven ranch and shifting the location of the nitro to Nettie Wellís property, Chris busied himself in town. Naturally the first order of business was getting Alex patched up. Josiah, JD and Vin went to get some well deserved rest while Buck and Ezra ensured the nitro was well hidden on Nettieís property, not anywhere the widow or her niece could get hurt if anyone came after it. Bellisonís men must have come from somewhere and for the moment that was the only lead they had to finding him. Chris was forced to stay behind in the hopes that the army would send a wire in response to their request to remove the nitro.

By late afternoon, Franklin at the telegraph office delivered the message he was waiting for and as he glanced at the paper, realised that the army should be arriving at any moment if the contents of the message were to be believed. Apparently, they were sending down a general or something to collect the stuff. This did not improve Chrisí mood because he was in no condition to deal with a pompous ass of a Union general, having more experience with those than he would like to admit. Finally as the sun set on the day and Chris debated whether or not he was going home for supper, he found himself in the saloon with the rest of his comrades who had congregated there after the dayís events. Vin had just returned from visiting Alex who was even worse tempered when she was a patient and found that he had a partner in misery when Vin ordered a double and downed it in one swallow.

"Howís Miss Alex?" Nathan inquired as Vin ordered a beer after he had finished his double whisky and drifted towards their usual table with his mug once it was served to him.

"Oh meaner than a rattle snake." Vin shook his head wondering how any woman could be so impossible about her own health and have no trouble dictating how others should conduct their own.

"Then sheís fine." Chris replied, aware of how Mary could be. During the period when she had been suffering the worst of morning sickness, she had roamed the house like a bear with a thorn in its foot. He had to take Billy fishing just to ensure she did not start devouring her own child with the furious state her mood had been.

"Miss Alex can be a handful," Nathan chuckled. "Good thing, I donít have to put up with that sort of thing.

God must have been listening because a second after that comment had passed his lips; Rain stopped at their table on her way back to the bar with an empty tray and barked. "Nathan Jackson, are you not supposed to be studying? Your tests are only a few weeks away."

"Come on Rain....." Nathan started to say, glad that his colouring hid his embarrassment because his friends at the table were trying their hardest to rein in the sniggers and chortles threatening to escape them in front of his lady.

"I will hear no arguments Nathan," she said firmly. "You yourself, said you needed much studying time. I will not serve you another drink because you will leave after this one."

"But...."

She was not listening and continued her journey. Only after she had disappeared into the kitchen did the explosion of laughter erupt from almost everyone at the table.

Naturally it was Ezra who spoke first. "You are indeed a fortunate man, Mr Jackson." The gambler said holding a poker face even though the rest of them were still laughing while Nathan was trying to keep some dignity by holding his head high. "I would hate to see you suffering the same troubles as the rest of us."

"Shut up Ezra." Nathan growled when suddenly, he noticed a new arrival in the saloon.

In fact anyone who was not sitting at the table would have a hard time missing the man who entered through the bat wing doors, everyone except Chris that is. The gunslinger was in the process of getting another drink while the rest of his companions were staring at the man who walked into the room. Dressed in dark blue of a Union uniform, it was hard not to notice the braids and markings in gold of a senior military officer. The man himself was something to behold. If a word could be applied to him, then it would be granite. The eyes were hard like stone, dark and sharp with intense powers of perception as its deep gaze moved across the saloon, placing everyone under deep scrutiny.

He was aware that he had everyoneís undivided attention at his entry into the establishment but showed little or no reaction. It was a face that was on intimate terms with battle and death. His eyes were the most telling thing about him, impenetrable like the mask he wore on his face as he continued inside the room, with another lesser officer in flank as if the man was used to being there. The general and he was a general in every sense of the word by the way he moved paused briefly when he saw the black garbed gunslinger at the bar.

To the six lawmen, there was something familiar about him they could not place, in the jaw and especially in the eyes and almost certainly in the manner. He moved like a predator, dangerous and silent but nonetheless someone who closed in for the kill on numerous occasions and was very good at it. He reminded them of a wolf, one that was accustomed to being at the pack and had won its alpha position through many tests of battle. He was the quintessential seasoned warrior of the field.

"Christopher Junior?" He called out. His voice was like gravel.

Chris dropped his glass and almost spun around, unable to ignore that voice after twenty-one years because he was still as conditioned to obey it as when he had been when he was a child.

"S...S....Sir?" Chris stammered, turning around and finding himself face to face with his.....he could not even imagine it, let alone say it out loud.

"It is you." The man said with no smile on his face but the pleasure at seeing Chris was unmistakable. The man strode across the floor, leaving his companion behind while the others watching his progress across the room, transfixed.

"Sir," Chris swallowed hard and nodded, eyes wide as he saw General Christopher Marcus Larabee walking towards him large as life. He glanced anxiously as his friends, almost pleading for help but they were too astonished by his reaction to provide anything except wide-eyed stares to the drama unfolding before them.

"Christopher Junior." The general almost smiled as he stood face to face with his son. "What are you doing here?"

"Please Sir," Chris released a breath and felt like he was ten years old again. "Donít call me that."

The general frowned. "There is nothing wrong with your name, son. Your mother liked it well enough."

"Well she ainít here." He found himself saying and that became the focus of that powerful glare that made him wish he had not spoken out of turn. "Iím sorry....." he started to stammer and then felt utterly ridiculous for apologising like a child.

"Christopher then," the general conceded, unwilling to show the boy how pleased he was to see his son. "Itís been a long time." He pointed out, no hint of accusation, just a simple statement of fact.

"Yes it has," Chris swallowed, trying not to feel guilty that it was mostly because of him that they had not seen each other in all that time. Chris had fled from his life after West Point and in his shame, he had not bothered telling the general where he was going or even facing him since the terrible day of his ejection from the Academy. "How have you been Sir?"

"Better than you I hear," the general said coolly, always with that understated voice lacking in feeling but not intensity. "You became a gunslinger? I sent you the best schools in Indiana so that you can get drunk and pick fights in saloons across the West?"

"I am not a gunslinger." Chris straightened up, regaining some of his bearings and preparing to protest.

"I donít have time for this," the general brushed aside anything further he had to say. "Whoís the law in this town? I came here to see him."

"I am." Chris said reluctantly, uncertain how the general was going to take this bit of news. "Me and six men have been hired to protect the town unofficially." Suddenly it occurred to Chris that the general had come to town because of the wire he had sent to the army in regards to the nitro glycerin shipment they had stumbled across. "Youíre here about the nitro."

"That and a little more." The general responded. "Are you settled here?" He asked.

"Yes," Chris nodded, glancing past the manís shoulder to see the others watching them both with a mixture of amusement and outright surprise. "I got a horse ranch outside of town."

"Married?" The general looked at him.

"Yes." He nodded and realised that the general probably knew about Sarah and Adam and felt a pang of guilt that his actions had kept his father from ever knowing his grandson.

"I trust I will get to meet your wife this time." He retorted before turning on his heels and starting out of the saloon just as abruptly as he always did when he had little patience with a subject or a person. "Well letís get started."

Chris could only stare after him as he made his way out of the saloon. His companion, a colonel by the looks of it, immediately fell into stride with the general as he headed towards the door. The Colonel looked over his shoulder long enough to offer Chris a look of confusion before the general paused and said in a loud voice.

"Are you coming Christopher?" He asked in that same firm voice.

"Yes Sir," Chris answered automatically and winced when he did. He was a grown man for god sakes! Why was he still behaving like a child in front of his father? As soon as the words left him, the general continued onwards, expecting him to be not far behind. Only when the man had left the room, could Chris feel any semblance of normalcy returning to him. He was breathing hard trying to catch his breath as he walked towards the table where his friends were seated.

"Mr Larabee, did we just happen to be in the presence of your.....dare we say it....." Ezra started to say.

"Yes," Chris looked down and shot the gambler a murderous glare. "That was my father."

"Your father is a general?" JD exclaimed even though it should have been painfully obvious by the union blue uniform and the gold braids.

"You okay pard?" Vin asked, seeing the look in Chrisí eyes as that being of someone who was thrown completely out of his depth and shaken to the core. In the years that Vin had ridden with Chris and dared to call him his best friend, the tracker had never seen Chris so off balance. He supposed the arrival of a long lost father would do that to a person.

"Damn Chris," Buck looked at him with a wide grin before Chris could answer. "You never told me you had a dad in the army. Hell I known you longer than anyone here and thatís the first time I knew you werenít raised by bears."

"CHRISTOPHER ARE YOU COMING?" The general voice barked through the open saloon door once again.

Chris rolled his eyes and swore under his breath, finding this entire episode exceedingly humiliating and wishing the earth would swallow him up instead. "Iím coming Sir." He answered loudly but politely, through his teeth before starting towards the door and gave his friends a look of pure menace. "First one of you says a word and I shoot something off that donít grow back." He growled and strode out the bat wing doors.

No one said a word until after Chris had left.

"Wow." Nathan whistled softly. "That was Chris father."

"I guess so," Josiah replied, completely understanding why the hardened gunslinger was the way he was. "I guess the apple donít fall too far from the tree after all."

"You know," Buck downed the last of his beer as he prepared to step into the fray, not about to miss one minute of this reunion between Chris Larabee and his father for anything in the world. "Iíve known him for going on thirteen years now and thatís the first time Iíve even seen him squirm like this. And I ainít far wrong his being raised by bears either."

"Hey, ainít I got enough trouble!" Chris stuck his head through the bat wing doors again, impatience etched in his face as he waited for them. "Get your asses out here!"

"Like I said," Buck sighed when Chris had disappeared again. "Bears."

+ + + + + + +

Ten minutes later, Chris Larabee found himself inside the confines of the jailhouse with the rest of his men in the untenable position between his men and his father. There was silence as both camps faced each other and it fell to him to introduce them to each other even though he was not relishing one minute of this torture. At present, the only comfortable position for him to be was on his horse, riding like a bat out of hell away from Four Corners forever. In nineteen years, this was the one place he did not wish to be when General Christopher Marcus Larabee was present.

"This is here is General Marcus Larabee," Chris said reluctantly to his men after he had introduced them to his father. He shot them a furious glare to keep any comments about his paternal relationship with the general to themselves.

"Men," the general tipped his hat at their direction in acknowledgment as he stood amongst them and gestured to the soldier on his left. "This is Colonel Markham my adjutant. I hear youíve come across a load of nitro."

"More than a load General," Ezra spoke up. "A veritable fortune."

"How much?" Larabee asked without looking at Chris but nevertheless expected the answer to come from his son.

"Four wagon loads," Chris replied from where he was seated behind the desk. "Six to begin with. Two got blown up when during gunfire and pursuit."

"That would be about right Sir, " Markham declared with Larabee nodding in agreement.

"What would be right?" Buck questioned, guessing as they all had by now by the generalís manner that there was more going on here than just a simple matter of nitro.

"You donít need to know." Markham retorted. "Its classified."

"You need our help and in our town," Chris said firmly, staring down the man as he rose to his feet. "You better declassify it if you expect our cooperation." He tried not to look at the general as he made that bold statement.

Markham opened his mouth to speak when Larabee responded, with a little bit of a smile. "Its all right Markham, tell them."

"But Sir," Markham protested and Larabee silenced him with a look that each member of the seven knew all too well with the exception of Chris.

"Oh my god, it is hereditary." Ezra remarked and received a scathing glare from Chris but a rather amused one from the general.

"Yes Sir, " the Colonel swallowed and faced the men before him once again, rather contritely this time around. "Less than a week ago, one of our army trains carrying a large shipment of nitro glycerin was ambushed a hijacked by train robbers. They killed everyone on board and stole the shipment bound for a munition factory in the east. We traced them as far as Eagle Bend and believe they were to be delivered to a secret buyer deep in the Territory."

"Well they came after us where we had it stashed last night." Vin spoke up. "At least ten of them. So its pretty sure bet theyíre gonna still try and make that delivery."

"Was anyone hurt?" Larabee asked.

"Just a lady doctor friend of ours," Chris answered, unable to meet his fatherís gaze. "But Vin there managed to keep them from getting their hands on it again." He glanced in Vinís direction so that the general would know about whom he was speaking.

"Good job," the general looked at the tracker and commended. "However, since they found it the first time, chances are they will do it again. Iíve got a dozen men coming on their way here from the nearest fort to take it off your hands, can I count on you boys to keep an eye on it in the mean time?" He asked no one in particular even though it was fairly obvious that the lawmen of Four Corners took their lead from his son.

"Weíll give you whatever help you need." Chris answered for them. "In the meantime, you mind telling me who they are?"

"General...." Markham looked at Larabee once again, trying to remind him of the protocol in this matter.

"These men are putting their lives on the line, they have the right to know what theyíre dealing with and I believe, Colonel," and he put enough emphasis on the manís rank to impress upon Markham who was in charge here. "That my son may have an added insight into this situation that you do not."

"I fail to see how." Markham said in a very measured voice, not at all liking the situation but not brave enough to say what was truly on his mind.

Chris did not understand. What did his father think he might know about this that he was willing to stand up against his own colonel? Suddenly, it occurred to him. "You mean Bellison."

"Not exactly," Larabee looked up and met his sonís eyes and. "Bellison doesnít work alone does he?"

"Oh shit Chris," Buck exclaimed grasping the meaning behind the generalís words just as quickly as Chris had. "He means Julius!"

"Who?" Nathan looked at Chris in question. "Whose Julius?"

"The general means Hannibal Alexander Julius." Markham announced reluctantly, since it now appeared that the younger Larabee had some idea bout the man that was at the centre of all this trouble.

"Last I heard, he and Bellison were supposed to be in a military prison somewhere." Chris retorted, making no attempt to explain it to the others, at least not yet.

"Julius came from a very rich family," Larabee answered. "He stayed in jail for a few years and eventually got forgotten by anyone who mattered. When that happened, it was to easy to pay someone to look the other way when he made an escape attempt. He got out and Bellison with him. They disappeared for a couple years and then we started hearing things."

"Like what?" Josiah asked.

"A secret organisation like the Ku Klux Klan but better organised and with purer goals that a simple matter of racial division. This one has a doctrine of completely uniting all races into one cohesive fighting unit that would overthrow the present regime and drive the status quo into the dirt."

"Forgive me for saying so Sir," Nathan spoke up reluctantly. "That donít exactly sound bad."

"Not it doesnít," Larabee nodded in agreement, willing to admit that there were certain merits in the ideology that united men of all colour. "However, they achieve their goals through murder and terrorism. Those are not the best foundation for the launch of a new order. Violence to gain power may be effective but establish a government in those lines is a dangerous thing and factions break up easily and weíve all seen what civil war does a country. If you think two sides is dangerous, wait until its every racial group with a gripe." He paused a moment and contained his speech making for the moment.

Chris found himself recognising the pattern and thought with a smile that very little about his father changed, especially his way of commanding men and his ability to recognise what meant something to them. The general did not believe in speech making and when he accidentally fell into some form of oration, he usually stopped himself as soon as he realised it. Still, his father had a way of understatement that made the men under his command distinguish him from being just another officer but a soldier, whose ideas were those that they could identify. The general concerned himself with getting the job done, not the military niceties that had to be observed in the process.

Larabee knew nothing of his sonís ruminations and continued. "However, at this time, we are not discussing ideology, weíre talking about large scale terrorism. That much nitro has a purpose and with Hannibal Julius thinking heís a military genius, a fact my son can personally attest, he is accustomed to spilling a lot of blood to obtain a mission objective, innocent or not. Make no mistake, the secret buyer is Hannibal Julius and for that much nitro, we better take him seriously."

"Heís right," Chris agreed, taking the nod by Larabee as permission to continue "In the war, Julius had the highest casualty rate of any field commander carrying the Union flag. Heíd let his own men walk into a trap if it would win the day."

"How did you survive?" JD asked, fascinated by this aspect of Chrisí past. While they all knew he had been in the army during the war, it was something that Chris did not like to discuss and always brushed aside the subject whenever it arose.

"We almost didnít," Buck answered for Chris knowing his old friendís distaste of talking about his tenure of military service. "Until the last battle, we lost a lot of men. When I joined the platoon, they were calling him a butcher. It was just before that last battle and crazy son of a bitch ordered us to charge the rebsÖ."

"Mr Wilmington," Ezra cleared his throat. "Another reference if you would please?" The southern replied with a hint of sarcasm.

"Sorry Ez," Buck winced remembering that Ezra would have most likely been one of those ĎRebsí during the war. "Well they would have killed us all if he had done what Julius told us to do, take the hill in a straight charge. Lucky for us, our lieutenant had a better idea." He glanced at Chris who allowed a slight curl at the corner of his lip to be seen as Chris recalled the start of his friendship with Buck Wilmington. "If wasnít for Chris, we would all be dead. Julius knew nothing about fighting a battle, all he knew how to do is direct people from the rear where it was safe. When he found out that Chris had taken the hill with a different plan, the bastard shot Chris in the back in front of all of the men. I swore they almost tore him to pieces for that."

"Its ancient history." Chris said quickly, not liking to talk about that incident, especially with the general present.

"Well," Larabee shrugged watching Chrisí reaction very carefully. "It might be an idea to talk to the men you arrested."

"They said they donít know nothing." Vin took the lead gesturing towards the cells where most of them had been penned. "But that ainít saying much. Iím sure they know something they donít think is important but might be enough for us to get a bead on Bellison."

"Operation with that many men in these parts ainít exactly easy to hide." Chris agreed and then considered their options. "Vin, it might be an idea if you and me take a ride out to Purgatory tomorrow, see what the word is."

"Okay." The tracker nodded.

"The rest of you get out to Nettieís place at first light." Chris continued issuing orders, perfectly aware that his father was watching him closely and feeling extremely self conscious about it in the process. "I want that nitro watched round the clock, apologise to Nettie about imposing on her like this and tell her weíre working on getting it off her property. Nathan, can you manage that with Alex out for the count?"

"Sheís too ornery to stay in bed," Nathan shrugged, knowing that the doctor had sense enough to know what is good for her even though she could be as stubborn as a mule. "Sheíll be up and around no matter what I say."

"You can bet your ass on that." Vin muttered under his breath.

"Markham you will accompany them," Larabee said to his adjutant, issuing a few orders of their own since a course of action was being decided upon and to his secret pride, quite effectively by his son. "Iíll be going with my son."

Chris shot his father a look, clearly unhappy about that. "That ainít necessary." He said quickly.

"I must agree SirÖ." Markham responded just as abruptly.

"This is not up for negotiation." The general stated firmly with an expression of pure steel in his eyes that made everyone flinch at seeing its immovable and impenetrable resolve.

Chris knew better than to argue with the man. "Fine." He said tautly, not relishing the idea but having no choice since circumstances had made it unavoidable and he was not about to shirk his responsibilities to Four Corners, just because he had personal problems. "Weíll pick you wherever youíre staying. Someone can point you at the local hotel." Saying nothing else, Chris walked out of the room, wanting nothing more than to be as far away from here as possible.

The general said nothing as he watched Chris leave so abruptly, aware that there was a great deal of tension that needed resolving but his son like him, was stubborn and there was much to say to each other after so many years apart. The awkwardness following Chrisí departure was palpable and Vin took the lead in Chrisí absence as it was his custom, although in the beginning he was the only one unaware of it.

"Iíll take you to the hotel Sir, if youíd like." Vin volunteered since they would need to know where the man was staying if he intended to go with them to Purgatory the next day.

"Weíd appreciate that." Larabee said quietly, showing no signs that Chrisí actions had bothered him. "Weíve been riding all day to get here. We could use some sleep and a good meal." The general said taking of his hat and running his gloved hand through his thinning dark hair. "Itís been a long day."

To that, no one could disagree.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was almost home when he heard footsteps running after him. Without even needing to turn around and see who it was, Chris knew instinctively that it was without question, Buck. Vin would be smart enough to leave him alone but only Buck would have the nerve or the stubbornness for that matter, to confront him with this issue. Buck was like a personal demon that would never let him turn his back on such things even at the threat of death. He continued walking, not bothering to pause even though he knew he was being pursued and swore that if Buck said a word on this matter, he would shoot the man, friend or not.

"Goddamn Chris!" Buck finally reached him. "That manís your father! How can you just walk away like that?"

Chris froze in his steps and whirled around to face his oldest friend with a look of nothing less than pure warning. "Let it be. I donít want to talk about it." He growled in a low voice.

Buck let out an exasperated groan as he returned a look of pure disbelief at the man, unable to comprehend how a grown man could be so pig headed about things sometimes. "How come I ainít never heard you talk about your father?" Buck demanded, unable to deny that he was a little hurt by the lack of disclosure. After all, they had known each other for a lot of years. "The way youíve been so closed mouth about it, I always figured he was dead or something." The accusation in his voice was unmistakable.

Chrisí jaw tightened and he glared at Buck. "What part of ĎI donít want to talk about ití, do you not understand Buck?" He said through clenched teeth, smouldering with anger that Buck could not let this go. His tightly reined emotions were playing havoc with him now and as much as he tried to control them and crushed them ruthlessly with a will of iron, Chris found he was unable to establish that foothold right despite best efforts to regain his composure. He did not want to deal with this right now! It was bad enough seeing the man let alone trying to deal with his emotions on the matter with someone else.

"None of it, I guess." Buck retorted, unwilling to let Chris walk away without talking about it or at least explaining something about why the general had remained such a secret. Chris knew everything about Buck and until now, Buck thought he was the authority on Chris as well. "I mean, Iíve know you for a lot of years and youíve never even spoken about him. Is what he did to you that bad?"

"It ainít about what he did!" Chris finally exploded, forcing the words out that he did not wish anyone to hear but it came forth from his lips in a torrent he could not stop. "Itís about what I did!"

As Buckís expression evaporated into surprise, Chris felt silent, hoping that at last his old friend would get it into his head that he did not wish to talk about this at all. With that message delivered acutely, Chris continued towards the Clarionís front door, leaving left Buck behind him and hoping this time, Buck would have the sense not to follow him.

+ + + + + + +

"How long has he been here?" Larabee asked the young man named Vin Tanner as they left the jailhouse and headed in the direction of the hotel. Vin had the feeling that general was more interested in Chris rather than directions to a good hotel and Vin told himself he was going to be very guarded about what he said about on any subject of inquiry regarding Chris. Markham had gone on ahead, perhaps suspecting that the general wanted some privacy in his deliberations with Vin.

"About three years." Vin answered, deciding that was information that the general could hear from anyone, so Vin would not be betraying any confidences by revealing it.

"Iíve tried to keep track of him over the years," Larabee explained, never meeting Vin in the eye as he asked. Instead those dark eyes were fixed on the road ahead and in that much at least, Vin saw the similarities between father and son. "I knew he lost his wife and boy but he seemed to fade away after that. Heard now and then that he had some kind of a reputation as a gunfighter."

"He ainít never killed anyone who didnít have it coming." Vin spoke up in Chrisí defence. "He drifted here about the time I did and when the local judge offered us a dollar a day to keep the peace, it seemed like a good idea at the time to stay."

"And his new wife is from here?" The general did not want to compromise the young manís friendship with Chris but there was just so much that he did not know. Pride had kept him from seeking out the boy before this. Boy, Larabee snorted, wondering how he could refer to Chris that way. He was hardly a boy any more and yet the general could see him no other way.

"She owns the local paper." Once again, Vin volunteered information that Larabee could obtain from anyone. "Nameís Mary."

"Good," Larabee said quietly and there was just enough hint in his voice to indicate that he was rather relieved that Chris had found someone. "You men been riding with him for long?" It was not impossible to miss the camaraderie that existed among the eclectic group of men that made up law enforcement in this town.

"Little under three years." Vin answered as they neared the establishment. There were questions Vin wanted to ask him but felt constrained by his friendship for doing so. "You donít mind me asking, when was the last time you saw Chris?"

Larabee knew exactly when. The date had been burned into memory for the last twenty years along with questions and debates as to what he might have done differently to change the way things were between them. "He would have been nineteen." Larabee answered. "He came home to Indiana from West Point, during the holidays. That was the last time I saw him."

"West Point." Even Vin knew what that was. "Chris went to West Point?"

The general seemed amused by the younger manís surprise and suddenly drew insight into why this tracker was his sonís closest friend. There was much about Vin Tanner that reminded Larabee as it must have Chris about himself as a youth. Tanner had the same quiet, unassuming manner that the son he remembered had possessed. No doubt, Chris could see a great deal of himself in Vin.

"Yes." He nodded. "He was Academy for three years." Larabee answered, not wishing to divulge any more realising that Chris had kept much away from the people in his life, even though it was obvious that any one of them were willing to die for one another. That kind of loyalty did not come easily and Larabee was proud that his son had been able to inspire such devotion from the men he rode with.

Hearing Chris went to West Point did not really surprise Vin all that much. Chris always had an air of authority around him and the tracker knew he was well read as well as having a strange code of honour that was unusual for a man who lived by the gun. He supposed it made sense that all that would have come from somewhere. Suddenly, Vin found himself understanding Chris just a little bit better and wondered what could have driven father and son a part. For a military man, the general seemed like they had first described him, granite. However, there was also the same underlying empathy that Chris often surprised everyone around him by showing unexpectedly. Vin who made it a habit to observe people in the background, did not think that the general was as hard nose as first impressions might give.

"So what happened between you two?" Vin found himself asking, aware that he was probably going to get told to mind his own business but curiosity got the better of him.

However, the general surprised him by answering. "I donít know." He looked at Vin. "He had some trouble at the Academy and left. Last time I heard from him."

Vin wanted to question the man further on that point but did not broach the subject without sounding overly invasive and he was not in the habit of sticking his nose in other peopleís business, in particular Chris Larabeeís. Thus he was almost grateful when they finally arrived at the Four Corners hotel where he was able to make a graceful habit without the temptation of quizzing the general more about his best friends origins. After all, it was clear that with so much silence between the two men, there was much between them that was unresolved.

+ + + + + + +

Mary was at the sink washing dishes when Chris entered his house.

After everything that happened today, he had forgotten that he had been a total bastard to his wife the night before and conceded that it was time he stopped being foolish and made his apologies. Seeing his father today had taught him one thing, sometimes a man just had to face the music. She looked over her shoulder at him as she heard his footsteps in the kitchen, saying nothing as her blue gray eyes met his and returned to her chore before the sink.

Chris felt doubly guilty knowing that he had hurt her because he had seen her sadness in her eyes and felt it stab at his heart in sharp, acute potency. Taking a deep breath, he slid his arms around her and lowered his lips to her neck. Mary stiffened at his touch even though she had stopped what she was doing. He could sense that she was not at all moved by this gesture of tenderness and considering how he had behaved, Chris could hardly blame her.

"Iím sorry." He said softly in her ear. "I was behaved badly last night. I ainít got excuse for it. I guess it just got to me a little."

Mary did not speak for a moment but she did not push him away either as he held her. "Are you sorry weíre having a baby Chris?" She asked softly, her voice was low and strained, as if she were hiding the emotion in her voice.

Chris was taken back by the question but then in light at his reaction to the simple mention of a nursery for their child, could understand why she would make the inquiry. "Iím not sorry." He replied and knew it was an honest answer. "Iím just a little scared of how itís going to change me. Iíve been living this life for the past few years of a rough and tumble gunslinger, I kind of forgot that I was once a father and a husband too. I love you and I love Billy and I love this baby thatís all of us," he caressed her swelling abdomen. "And I had no cause to take it out on you because I was feeling badly."

Mary could never really stay mad at Chris for very long and knew his apology was in earnest. She leaned back into his embrace, a clear indication that her anger had faded and things were right between them. "Youíre such an idiot."

"Like youíre always saying," Chris smiled faintly, showering her slender neck with light kisses. "Iím a man, you canít expect much better." He teased.

"Thatís right and donít you forget it." She joked. "Have you eaten?" Mary asked.

"Not yet," he answered, somewhat guilty that he had missed supper too.

"Iíll fix you something." She said turning around and facing him. "Sit down." After months of marriage, Chris knew when one of her orders was not a request and complied after kissing her on the lips, just to show that he was not completely submissive.

"So what on earth was wrong with you last night?" Mary asked as she busied herself warming the dinner she had prepared for him earlier, in the event he came in to supper. "I havenít seen you that annoyed since that time you had to bail Ezra, Josiah and Buck from that jail in Jamestown."

"Donít remind me," Chris winced, recalling the incident where involving a card game, an argument over a saloon girl and too much alcohol. He found all three in jail with hangovers the size of the Grand Canyon and had to bail them out and smooth over with the sheriff of that town some charges of drunk and disorderly behaviour. "Yesterday wasnít as bad as today." He remarked, noting that she had cooked pie and felt his stomach leap with excitement over the prospect of the eating to come. Mary made the best pies.

"What happened today?" She glanced over her shoulder at him in concern, unable to imagine what could place him in an even worse mood than he was yesterday.

Chris supposed he should tell her. Word was going to get around quickly and if he thought Mary had let him off lightly for his jackassy behaviour last night, it was nothing in comparison with her fury if she learnt about his father from a source other than him. Clearing his throat, he let the words out and had no idea it could be so difficult just to make what should have been a simple revelation.

"My father just showed up in town."

Mary stopped what she was doing immediately and turned around. "Your father?" She looked at him in disbelief. "I thought you were raised by bears."

Chris gave her a look. "What is it with you and Buck?" He grumbled.

"Iím sorry," she said with an apologetic smile. "Your father? I didnít know he was alive. Youíve never talked about him. Has he come here to see you?"

She fired about a dozen questions at him so quickly that Chris had no idea where one began and the other ended, however, he did manage to get a word in edge wise when she paused for a breath. "No he didnít come to town to see me." Chris replied and then went on to explain their experiences yesterday with Bellison and the nitro. Mary would have only been aware that Alex was injured through some form of misadventure but in general the nitroís existence was something of a secret.

"So it was just blind luck that he was the one the army sent?" Mary asked, having served him his food and sat down to hear more on this subject.

"More or less." Chris frowned, unable to believe how fate worked sometimes. He had spent the last twenty one years trying to avoid facing his father and had reached a point in his life where the guilt and the shame had subsided to tolerable levels, now with the generalís return was also the regret at how he had conducted himself.

"So where is he?" Mary looked at him. "Did you invite him here to stay?"

"No!" Chris exclaimed horrified. "I donít want him here!"

"Chris?" Mary stared at him with nothing less than astonishment. "The man is your father. You havenít seen him in god only knows how long and you donít even invite to your home, to meet your family?í

"I canít face him." He declared uncomfortably.

"Its time that you did." She pointed out. "You canít run away from him forever."

"Iím not running." Chris protested, knowing in truth that he was. He had not stayed long enough to allow the general to make any inquiry about his life here and knew the reason for his apprehension tomorrow was partially because he did not wish to spend the whole day with his father, even if it was in the line of duty. As much as he wanted to find Bellison and Julius, Chris was willing to ignore the whole situation if it meant that he could ignore Marcus Larabee as well.

"Then invite him to dinner tomorrow night." She challenged. "Youíre his son and its only right that you do so unless you donít wish to face him."

"I donít," Chris muttered under his breath but knew she was probably right but he could not bring himself to do it. Chris picked at his food, feeling like a kid that was forced to do something he did not want to. Suddenly, Chris had a deeper understanding of what Billy endured when Mary required something of him the child did not wish to undertake.

"Chris." Mary stared at him reproachfully. "You canít avoid this forever."

"I can try." He said shortly and put enough tension behind his voice to indicate that he did not want to discuss it further. Unfortunately for him, Mary was not about to let the matter rest even if he was going to be pig headed about it. She could see it in his eyes that he wished things were different but typical male pride and the type that was not so generic but seemed specific to men whose names ended with Larabee, kept him from making the necessary conciliatory effort.

"Its up to you of course." She responded and rose from the table. "Well, Iíve got to go check on Alex. See howís she doing." Mary started to withdraw from the kitchen, glad that he did not look up at her as she tried to keep her voice as neutral as possible.

"Alright," Chris nodded, deep in thought at the valid points she had made about how he was handling this. "Donít be too long. Itís getting pretty dark out there."

"I wonít be." She smiled and hurried out the kitchen door, hoping that he would not be too mad at her for what she was about to do.

+ + + + + + +

"You know," Ezra Standish said inside the confines of the Standish saloon, staring at the contents of the shot glass he was about to drink from, gathering his thoughts in the amber fluid that swirled within. "I always thought that Mr Larabee had some mysterious origins but I must say that even this has outdone my most fanciful imaginings on the subject."

"I gotta agree with you." Nathan admitted, glancing sheepishly at Rain who was frowning her disapproval that he had returned to the saloon, even though he should be studying hard for his coming medical exams. "I thought Chris might have been in the army but I canít picture his being from a rich family, let alone a rich military family."

"I can." JD replied, wondering how anyone else could not see it. Chris always carried himself with authority and men naturally looked to him for leadership, even his older companions who would rather believe that they were outcasts who had found their place in this odd fellowship. True as that might be, there was even more truth that it was Chris that bound them together. There was something about him that made people want to earn Chris Larabeeís respect because it was quite something to win favour in the manís eyes. Chris appeared to have seen much in his lifetime and had no patience for fools so when he considered someone apart of his circle of friends, it was a privilege indeed. Having met the general though, explained a great deal about why Chris Larabee was the man he was.

"You would," Buck replied, deciding he would have one more drink for the road before he went home. "Youíd have fun watching a rattlesnake just before he bit you." Buck was still in preponderance over Chrisí words, trying to understand what the gunslinger might have done to have so much guilt. He had thought Sarah and Adamís death that been deep enough but this had the power to eclipse even that loss, mostly because on some level, Chris knew that the death of his wife and child was not his fault. However, the same could not be said about this. Buck knew Chris well enough to know that his old friend felt intensely guilty about the situation with his father although for the life of him, Buck could not imagine why.

Vin returned to the saloon at that moment, deciding to grab a quick drink and see if Rain was up to cooking him some dinner to take to Alex, when he noticed his friends congregating around their usual table in the saloon. No doubt discussing the events of the day or more precisely, General Larabee. The tracker went to Rain first and made his order for dinner before joining his friends as they speculated upon the surprise arrival of Chrisí father.

"Is the good general tucked away at the hotel?" Buck asked.

"Yeah." Vin nodded, perfectly aware that Buck was dying to know if the general had said anything to him about Chris. "He is now."

"Itís a damn shame that Chris is so pig headed about his father." Buck said attempting to prompt Vin into talking, a tactic that was not lost on the tracker or anyone else with an ounce of intelligence for that matter.

"Yeah." Vin nodded with a completely straight face, wise to what Buck was attempting to do and not prepared to reveal anything that had been discussed between him and the general since he was certain the man had not intended their exchange to be the subject of conversation.

"I believe Mr Wilmington is on a fishing expedition." Ezra replied.

"Thanks a lot Ezra," Buck fumed, giving the gambler a dark look. "I was trying to soften him up."

"I think we all were aware of that Buck." Josiah retorted. "You need a little more practise at being subtle." The preacher easing back into his chair and taking the head off his mug of beer.

"Alright then," Buck bristled. "Iím a little out of practise."

"You men you were actually subtle at some point?" Nathan joined in on the teasing. They were all firmly in Vinís corner at this point, believing that Chrisí troubles with his father were his own and not for them to discuss so blithely or interfere in any attempt at reconciliation. When it came to Chris Larabee, old friend or not, that was the surest way to get something shot off and as Chris had put it so succinctly, it would probably be something that would not grow back.

"Come on Vin," Buck demanded. "What did he say?"

"Nothing that I want to repeat." Vin declared and decided that some ground rules needed to be placed before someone did or said something that was going to create more difficulty between father and son then there already was. "Buck, Iíd stay out of this if I were you. It donít sound like neither Chris nor his dad need anyone helping them out."

"You donít know Chris," Buck protested. "Heíll keep this inside and be as stubborn as a mule about it and before you know it, his dad will be gone and heíll just let him go without saying a word."

"Maybe we should let him be Buck," JD remarked believing that Chris Larabee was smart enough to make his own decisions without Buck interfering. JD could understand it when Buck felt the need to butt in when it came to him but not someone like Chris, who was old enough and in JDís opinion, smart enough to know whether he wanted help or not.

"Buck," Vin spoke up and used a tone of voice rarely heard but unable to ignore when he felt enough to impress it on people. "Let it go. Youíll do more harm than good by trying to help because Chris has got to make the choice himself to set thing right between him and his pa, ainít no one can make it for him."

Buck frowned because he knew that Vin was right and seeing the faces around him nod in agreement, realised that they believed the same and so should he.

"Alright then," Buck conceded defeat. "Iíll stay out of it but Iím telling you, Chris ainít gonna to anything if no one pushes him into it."

"Well I seriously doubt," Ezra drawled removing a deck of cards from inside his burgundy coloured coat. "Anyone with the possible exception of you Mr Wilmington, would be foolish enough to do that."

+ + + + + + +

Once Mary arrived at the hotel, it did not take her long to find out what room the general and his attache was occupying. As she made her way into the dining room where the hotel clerk had told her he had seen Marcus Larabee and Colonel Markham adjourning to the restaurant for some dinner, she questioned what she was doing. Mary knew her husband and even though she saw it in his face that he hated the way things were between himself and his father, pride and twenty years of hesitation was keeping him from doing what he ought to in order to set things right. Loving a man like Chris Larabee was all about taking risks and as she allowed her eyes to search the dining room for a Union general it was not difficult to spot the father when she was in love with the son.

He did not at all look like Chris, being of stockier build and darker completion but the eyes were the same and the set of the jaw, particularly when determined would no doubt be identical. She approached the table, having no idea how to introduce herself and knowing that lack of knowledge regarding any subject had never stopped her from doing anything before. Taking a deep breath, she stepped up to the table and captured the generalís interest who immediately rose to his feet as it was proper for officer and gentlemen alike to do so in the company of a lady.

"General Larabee," Mary said politely. "I am Mary, Chrisí wife."

"I am pleased to meet you." He answered with a faint smile but genuine in its depth of feeling. Like Chris, it all showed in the eyes. "Join us."

He sounded so much like Chris it was uncanny and yet his voice was different but the tone and the manner were the same. Mary observed him with fascination, seeing her husband in his fatherís face but unable to place the exact nature of the similarities, knowing only that it was there.

"General," Markham rose to his feet. "I should be turning in. Mrs Larabee," he bowed politely in his direction, no doubt his sudden departure arising from his belief that they needed privacy to discuss family matters. "It was a pleasure."

Mary offered a polite response and waited until Markham had left before she turned her attention back to her father-in-law. "I came to invite you to dinner tomorrow evening." Mary said launching into the reason for her presence here.

"Really?" He raised a brow. "Does Christopher know about this invitation?"

"No." Mary answered. "But Iím sure he wonít mind." Actually he was going to mind a lot, he was going to start minding the minute Mary went home and told him about it. However, she would face anything for Chris Larabee, even his wrath.

"I think you will find otherwise." He remarked, not wishing to cause any trouble between Chris and his wife. Although he did profess to like the spirited creature with the cascading gold hair who had captured his sonís heart and obviously by her effect on his life, had allowed him to begin a new existence in this frontier town.

"Probably," she confessed with a smile. "But thatís my problem not yours. It is my wish that you join your son, your step grandson and myself for dinner tomorrow. Can you attend?"

"He will be angry with you." Larabee pointed out.

"I can handle it." Mary declared firmly. "Heís been mad at me before."

The general smiled and not a faint smile but a genuine smile of pleasure that told her that he would indeed appear at the Larabee household, if just to see how she would fare against Chris when she told him about this. "For your trouble, Iíll be there."

"Good, then Iíll expect you for supper tomorrow night then." Mary smiled and started to leave.

"You donít have to do this." Larabee spoke up, halting her progress away from his table.

"I want to," Mary looked at her father in law and dropped her hand to her belly. "I have a child coming into this world that would like to know its grandfather, Iím sure of it."

Larabee lowered his gaze long enough to nod slightly in understanding. "Youíre like his mother you know."

"Really?" Mary said with surprise because she knew almost nothing about Chrisí family. It was not that he avoided the topic, itís just that he did not volunteer anything. Mary knew nothing about Chrisí past before the war and she wondered now why she had not inquired. Perhaps, she suspected that there was something he could not speak of even though she had not imagined what it could be and with all the demons he had in his life, there seemed to be no reason to dredge up another when it was possible to avoid it. However, that had been wrong on her part because she was his wife and they had to be able to share everything together, even who they had been in the lifetime before Four Corners.

"She was stubborn too." He grinned.

"Well," Mary raised a brow and said with a straight face. "Like father, like son."

"My grandson," Larabee inquired. "He have a name?"

"Billy." She replied, happy that he had inquired after her son and indicated that he had taken to heart what she had said about wanting him to be apart of their family, no matter how adverse Chris was to this at the moment. "Heís eight years old, gets into more trouble than I know what to do with." She laughed.

The general nodded slightly and for a moment, his eyes clouded over and went a far away place that was enigmatic as it was sad, Mary thought as she saw it surface visibly. "He has that mucin in common with Christopher then." Larabee said with a smile, perhaps trying to discern why things had gone so wrong with that child in the present of his adulthood.

"Billy would be thrilled to hear all about it." Mary answered and knew that to be the truth.

She just hoped Chris was as well.

Part Four: Shadows of Conspiracy

Things had changed in Purgatory.

When Vin Tanner had first introduced him to this little town on the edge of the border, Chris had been appalled by the way things took place around here. His opinion was based upon the fact that everyone who wanted a place to hide and disappear, at some point or another arrived in Purgatory. The main centre of commerce in the town had been based upon the requirements of those who preferred obscurity and anonymity. Thus there were businesses in operation in the open whose presence would not be tolerated in towns where good Christian folk were in residence. Cat houses with their ladies, painted and barely dressed in worn silk finery beckoned travellers as they rode through the main street. There were saloons where health standards did not exist and the rotgut sold could make a man blind if he was brave enough or desperate enough to partake of it, not to mention the sawbones who sought to pass themselves off as doctors.

It was the place where your boots were stolen off your feet if you should be unlucky to die in the street.

Unfortunately, as much as it was a den of villainy and lawlessness, it was also a melting pot of information. In Purgatory, people talked and the words they spoke was almost a commodity valuable enough to trade. On numerous occasions, Chris and Vin had found this place to provide answers where none could be found elsewhere. Usually received from Maria, a saloon girl whose acquaintance with Chris was both professional and intimate at the same time, she kept her ears open and often delivered reliable intelligence while being smart enough to ensure that she was not labelled an informant. Fortunately, she had spent enough time in the past with Chris Larabee behind close doors for the rest of Purgatory to assume his frequent visits were of a sexual nature.

However, as they rode into Purgatory this time, there was something strangely different about the place that was difficult to discern at first. Instead of the usual revelry, there was an atmosphere of gloom that seemed to constrict the usual colour from the town. Instead of drunken bandits roaming the streets looking for a fight, working girls visible for the eye to see, there was nothing but quiet that resonated through the dusty streets and made the new arrivals tense with unease.

"Is it me or is things a might quiet from what it usually is?" Vin asked as the continued towards the saloon where Maria was known to frequent.

"Something has spooked these people." Chris said, watching the apprehension in the eyes of those who lived here on a permanent basis. It took a few minutes from Chris to survey the place and discover what so different about it.

"Youíre right." Larabee responded, his steely gaze discovering the same thing about the faces before him and even though he had never been to Purgatory before, he had seen enough ugliness in his life time to know what intimidation looked like.

"I donít see anyone." Vin remarked, pin pointing it at last. While the locals could be seen, Vin could not see any signs of travellers like themselves. It was as if Purgatory had been abandoned and yet, there were horses hitched outside the saloons and brothels which was a clear indicator that someone was here. Suddenly, Vin was grateful that the general had forgone the uniform today and was clad in normal civilian clothing that made him look like any other traveller from these parts.

"Letís find Maria." Chris replied, suddenly concerned about the Mexicanís welfare. Even though they had not been lovers since he and Mary had started their relationship, he still had a great deal of affection for the young woman who had offered him comfort and warmth at a time when he had sorely needed it. He was equally grateful that she had made it feel like more than just a paid convenience.

"She a working girl?" His father looked at him.

"Something like that." Chris answered, feeing uncomfortable about discussing Maria with him. It was bad enough that they had ridden from Four Corners without saying a word regarding the situation as it existed between them, keeping the conversation focussed on the job at hand. The last thing Chris wanted was for him to know about his previous dalliances as well.

Larabee nodded, having said nothing about his encounter with Mary the night before. Considering that he was going to turn up at Chrisí door this evening, the general was trying hard not to make things any worse. The boyís wife was determined that they share a meal together and Larabee liked her enough to desire making that wish a reality. In truth, he was curious to know how his son was faring in Four Corners and getting on with his life after the tragic death of the daughter in law and grandson he had never managed to meet.

They dismounted off their horses and made their way to the open air saloon where Maria spent most of her time. The establishment was a mish mash of corrugated iron, crumbling brick walls and canvas but somehow it served as a saloon by the number of clients inside it at the moment was any indication of its success. The moment the trio entered the establishment, all eyes fell on them. Maria, who was at the bar, immediately rose to her feet and approached them with a wide smile on his face.

"Senor," she said loudly. "I have been waiting for you." Without allowing him to say anything else, she wrapped her arms around him and pressed her lips to him in a passionate kiss.

For a moment, Chris had no idea what she was trying to do and was about to push her away when her lips shifted furtively to his ear and whispered. "Play along, Senor. It is not safe here any more."

"Well its good to see you too," Chris understood and responded by returning her kiss, much to the astonishment of Vin and the disapproval of his father. Both were staring at him hard, unspoken in their reproach because of his marital status. Chris left Mariaís lips but kept his arms draped around her waist. "I told my friends here that you would take care of them." He said with a suggestive expression on his face for the benefit of those that might be watching.

"Of course I can Senor," she broke away from Vin and repeated the same seductive greeting by kissing the tracker on the lips and running her fingers through his dark hair. Once she had completed the performance, she pulled away and beckoned them with a smile. "Come with me, I have a room."

Saying nothing further but appearing as if they were here for a good time instead of information, the three visitors followed the sultry Latin beauty out of the saloon. Maria led then across the street towards a rather run down building which served as a lodging house where she had a room. Maria stayed close to Chris, continuing the facade as her arms remained wrapped around his waist while periodically exchanging kisses with him until they arrived in her room.

As soon as they were in the privacy of the small room that was furnished only with a bed, a wooden chair, bureau and a washstand, Maria pulled herself away from Chris. "I am sorry Senor." She said genuinely apologetic because she knew he took his vows of marriage seriously. "Things have changed around here."

"Iíve noticed." Chris frowned wiping the red colouring on her lips from his face before he went home with it and had a great deal of explaining to do. "Whatís happened here?"

"I ainít seen this place so dead in all the times Iíve been this way." Vin remarked as he eased onto the bed.

"People look scared." Larabee agreed, walking toward the window and parting the curtains wide enough to look outside. Thanks to Mariaís bit of play acting, their presence here had not garnered any unwelcomed attention but he would still like to know what was happening to frighten locals to such an extent. With all the violence that was commonplace in this kind of community, it had to be something considerable to shake their jaded foundations.

"They are scared." Maria swallowed. "Ever since these men rode into town, the word has gone out that Purgatory is no longer a safe haven."

"What men?" Chris asked, joining his father at the window, trying to see what Maria was talking about.

"They came about two weeks ago and theyíre run out of town everyone who is not one of their number." Maria explained. "Those who do not leave are killed."

"How many of them are there?" Chris asked, knowing that it would take a few men to create this kind of intimidation, especially in a place like Purgatory which was mostly frequented by hardened outlaws.

"Enough to chase every hombre out of town. They have not left and they make sure those who are not of one them do not stay for very long." She shivered. "That is why I had to bring you up here. If they saw me talking to you like we always do, I think they would hurt me."

This troubled Chris a great deal. He did not like the idea of Maria being in danger because of them. "Do you have any idea who they are or what they want?" He asked again. He could see the men in question through the dirt clouded glass of her window and had to admit, they did not look at all like the regular cut of visitors who came to Purgatory. There was something in their manner that indicated that there was more to them then just laying low in this locality. It almost felt as if they were waiting. Chris wondered if what they were waiting for was nitro.

"I do not know," she shook her head. "But they remind me of soldiers." Maria volunteered, unafraid to show that these men frightened.

"Not soldiers," Larabee glanced at Chris and then Vin. "But they are definitely from an army of some kind."

"You think these men are from Juliusí shadow group?" Chris turned to him, unable to deny that the thought had crossed his mind also.

"This would be a good a place as any to hide out and wait for orders," Vin commented. "If these are the same bastards that came after us at the ranch." The trackerís dislike was obvious and Chris knew that he was itching to give the men who had shot Alex some well deserved payback.

"Which mean," Larabee said grimly. "We ought to get out of here."

"Not yet," Chris declared. "If these are Juliusí men, they might know where he is. Or at least what his plans are."

"This isnít the time to get that kind of information." Larabee countered. "If these are the same men who came after you and your friends, theyíll know you on sight and shoot us before we can get out of town. We need to leave and send someone they havenít seen who has a reason to be here other than looking for information."

Chris and Vin looked at each other. "Ezra."

"The gambler?" Larabee asked, remembering the southerner in the fancy burgundy coat and could agree with that choice. Although he stood out in a crowd, there was no way one could mistake Ezra for a lawman unless they knew him personally. Ezra had a better chance of infiltrating their number and getting information than anyone else in the seven. "That could work."

"Yeah," Chris nodded. "Heíll bitch some about having to do this but Ezra knows how to get people to talk."

"And I will keep my ears open for you." Maria added, always willing to help.

Chris turned around and faced her immediately. "Not a chance." He replied. "I know you want to help and Iíll be glad if youíve got any new that comes your way but donít go searching for it. These bastards are willing to kill anyone who gets in their way. I donít want you hurt."

Maria blushed, rather touched by Chrisí concern for her. "I will be fine, Senor." She offered him a grateful smile, feeling pleased that there was someone who cared for her as more than a piece of flesh he paid for and felt singularly envious of the woman who had captured his heart.

"He is right maíam." Vin replied. "They had no trouble shooting a woman. Cross them and theyíll kill you."

Maria conceded defeat at last in the face of that ominous advice and nodded. "Gracias," she sighed. "But you should leave now. There are people here who know who you are and might tell them."

"Sheís right." Larabee answered and then he looked at her. "You have some place you can go?"

"Si Senor," Maria nodded. "I have friends who live out of town."

"Good," the general showed his relief with short escape of breath. "I suggest you go there and we make tracks. They donít know why weíre here, letís not give them a reason to get suspicious."

Chris did not like running out of town like a bunch of outlaws however, if there were as many of Julius menís in town as they suspected, then staying was around was ill advised and likely to get them all killed. More over it was highly likely that Bellison was in town and the moment he saw Chris, he would set his entire horde of fanatics upon his hated enemy and not even Chris wanted to face those odds. He did not mind the dying but going out of this world with Bellison and Julius still living was something that did not at all sit well with him.

"Alright," he sighed forced to agree that the general was right. "Lets get the hell out of here."

+ + + + + + +

"This is getting us nowhere." Buck said emerging from the jailhouse and leaving Markham within the building to deal with the prisoners they had been interrogating most of the day. Despite their best efforts to burrow through the stories of all men employed by Bellison to get some idea of what Julius agenda might have been with the nitro glycerin he had hijacked a government train to acquire, little or no information had been garnered that was of any value. Even though Markham was steadfast in his belief that persistence would win the day, Buck had long past that opinion and formed a different theory of his own.

"They ainít talking?" Josiah asked as he sat on the foot of the steps leading to the jailhouse, smoking a piece of cheroot.

"Not a word." Buck frowned as he sat down heavily next to the preacher who had guard duty as per Chrisí orders. While it appeared that the men inside the jailhouse may be nothing more than hired hands on the surface, with the possibility that they might be dealing with fanatics brought forward, Chris was taking no chances. If they believed for a cause strongly enough, they might be willing to die to defend it or at the very least, say anything in its protection. Until it could be established that the prisoners were any more than what they were, Chrisí orders were to be that they remained in jail indefinitely.

Colonel Markham seemed to be in agreement with the younger Larabeeís assertion and wished to question the men himself, not voicing his opinion that he felt he would have better success than a group of gunfighters. While Buck took no offence to his unspoken allusions, he had to agree that it was sensible to conduct an in-depth interrogation, in case there was anything to find out. Thus he sent Ezra, Nathan and JD ahead, with every intention of joining them now that their efforts here had proved fruitless.

"If they know anything," Buck sighed casting his gaze across the busy street and enjoying the mild heat of morning sun on his face as he tried to shake the knot that that formed in his stomach ever since he heard about Bellison and by extension, Julius. "They ainít saying or theyíre hiding it well."

"You think theyíre lying?" Josiah asked.

Buck Wilmington could be a paradox at time. While he tended to project an image of being a well meaning, good natured oaf, there was an intellect that read people with extreme clarity and a deep sense of compassion to those who were emotional wrought and needed friendship. There was something of the crusader in Buck because he felt the need to salvage even the most ravaged psyche while at the same time nurturing the ones that needed guidance, JD for instance. In truth, Buckís concern towards JD was more fatherly than it was as a friend and the boy who by all accounts, had not know his father, benefited greatly from it and convinced all of them even before Buck knew it, he would be a great father. Buckís empathy made him quite astute at reading people and if he believed that Bellisonís men were insincere then Josiah believed it as well.

"They could be." He sighed. "Thereís something about them that donít sit quite right about with me. Sure, they donít want to get blown up but maybe they gave up because they didnít want nothing to happen to the nitro."

"Thatís might be," Josiah had to admit, since the possibility had not arisen and he had to agree that the prisoners had given up easily enough for their motivations to be suspect. Although by that same token, seeing a wagon being obliterated by an explosion the likes of which had not been seen since God smote Sodom, might also be a compelling factor to surrender.

"I think Chris is right about us keeping them here indefinitely," Buck answered. "No telling what they might do if we let them go. They might just turn around and try to get that shipment back."

"When is the army meant to be here?" Josiah inquired.

"According to the Colonel, theyíll probably be here sometime today." He replied, wishing they knew more about what Julius was planning. Buck did not want to voice a further concern which he wondered Chris had considered since they had run into Bellison. It was mostly because of him and Chris that Julius and Bellison had been drummed out of the army and into a military stockade for god only knew how long. If the man was vengeful enough to shoot Chris in the back, he would no doubt have harboured a great deal of thought on the subject of revenge during his incarceration. Now that Bellison had seen Chris and possibly Buck, he would have no doubt brought that intelligence back to his master who might be inclined to exact his revenge now that he knew where the object of his hatred was residing.

"Whatís troubling you Buck?" Josiah inquired, able to see the worry in his eyes, despite Buckís attempt to hide it.

"Iím just wondering whether I ought to get Inez and the baby into town for a few days, until this blows over." Buck responded, feeling a little embarrassed about bringing up the subject because he did not want to seem overly paranoid. However, he could not dispel the feeling of fear that they were wide open to attack out there on the homestead alone.

The preacher met his gaze and saw that there were real fears in his eyes. "You want to tell me about it?" There was more to his worries than just the nitro, that much Josiah could tell. Buck Wilmington was rarely tense about anything and the responsibilities of being a family man were still new to him so he had not yet learn to hide it as well.

Buck had not thought about the unsavoury events that had transpired at the tail end of the war that coincided with his first meeting with Chris Larabee. Indeed, Chris professed no desire to speak of those days particularly in light of what Juliusí bullet had almost done to him. Buck had stayed in the field hospital with Chris as long as he could before he was shipped back to the unit with the rest of the men. However, he had gone reluctantly because he could not forget the terror he had seen in Chrisí face until the first sensations returned to his legs and it was not something a man could ever forget which was why he suspected Chris did not wish to talk about it.

"I was mostly responsible for what happened to Julius after he shot Chris. When the rest of the men heard the gunshot, they were scattered around the place, so they didnít see it happened. Bellison was more than ready to cover up for him and Julius was about to blame it on some non existent Reb sniper. I wasnít about to let him get away with that so I told them what really happened. Chris saved all our butts and I wasnít about to let him die and I knew Julius wouldnít let us take him to a field hospital to save his life. So yeah, I told the rest of the men that Julius had shot Chris in the back for keeping us alive."

Josiah did not need to hear the rest of the tell since he had a good idea what happened next, not simply because the tale had been related to them the evening before but because Chris Larabee had the tendency to inspire the loyalty of those who rode with him. Josiah could just picture a young Lieutenant Larabee taking charge of the unit when Julius had given his deadly instructions and circumventing them to engender a more favourable outcome. He could also picture the men whose lives he had saved being incensed at how he had been rewarded for his determination to save them.

"I didnít have to say anything for them to lay into Bellison and Julius, just the truth." Buck continued. "They would have torn him a part if I hadnít reasoned with them that we had to get Chris help. We marched of the line to get Chris to the field hospital and even then we werenít sure he was going to make it."

"How bad was he hit?" The preacher inquired, unable to deny his fascination at hearing this story because it went some way to explaining why Chris had such aversion to shooting anyone in the back.

"Pretty badly," Buck said quietly, remembering the sheer panic that had been on Chrisí face when he had first woke up after being unconscious in bed for almost three days. "He got shot in the back and the doctorís werenít sure at first that they could keep him from being crippled. I think all up, he spent two months getting better and the first two or three of those weeks, he had not feeling in his legs. I donít think I ever saw him that scared, ever."

"Thing like that would scare anyone," Josiah had to admit. A man in this day and age was defined by whether or not he could stand tall and Chris had too much pride in himself to settle for less. Josiah could appreciate how terrifying those two weeks must have been for Chris as he lingered between not knowing if his life as he knew was over and unable to imagine how to cope if it was. The preacher would not wish that limbo on anyone.

"It sure scared Chris and the army threw the book at both Julius and Bellison." Buck revealed. "Iím thinking if Bellison saw Chris and maybe me too, they might get it in their heads to get some revenge."

Clearly, this had unsettled Buck and having experienced the ferocity of the enemyís attack first hand, he could understand why Buck wanted to protect his family from such men. They had no aversion to shooting down women as witnessed when they had gunned Alex down. The only reason the doctor had survived that onslaught was because Vin had been present. It hollowed the preacherís inside to think what would happen if Inez and little Elena Rose were left to the ministrations of such savagery. Bellison had cause enough to deliver that kind of blow just to get his revenge.

"Better safe than sorry." Josiah answered and thought quickly on a course of action. "Iíll go talk to Miss Julia, Iím sure she wouldnít have any trouble riding out to your place and get Inez and the baby in town."

"Thanks Josiah," Buck broke with a smile, clearly relieved because he had an obligation to join the others who were at Nettieís keeping watch on the nitro. "You think Julia will mind?"

"I donít think so," Josiah answered, knowing that the young lady had a soft spot for him and that allowed him a little mileage to exploit her affection for a good cause. Besides, he could see the indecision assaulting Buck as he deliberated between whether or not he was being overly cautious in his concerns or neglecting his family. Josiah was hoped his solution helped a little. "You know women, they love any chance to go visiting."

Buck was going to agree most vocally since his spirits had picked up a little when Markham emerged from inside the jailhouse looking just as frustrated as Buck had been during his attempt at interrogating the prisoners. The colonel paused at the steps before the two men and tried not to show his annoyance at his failure.

"How did go Colonel?" Buck asked innocently, perfectly aware that Markhamís effects had been negligible.

"Not so good," the soldier frowned unhappily. "I swear those men are extremely practised at being evasive. If I didnít know betterÖ." The thought faded from his lips when he realised he had not a shred of proof for his beliefs, no matter how strong a gut feeling he had.

"Youíd say they were lying?" Buck finished the sentence he could not complete.

"You got that feeling too?" The soldier asked with a little smile.

"I do." The lawmen nodded. "I think that we had better lock them up tight because thereís too much about them, we donít know."

"They could be Citadel members." Markham sighed, wishing he had something more concrete because he had spent a lifetime adhering to facts, not supposition. Being in military intelligence demanded such precision because lives could be lost on hearsay and what ifs. "However, the ones weíve encountered are extremely violent men, easily provoked into speaking their mind. At least all the ones weíve ever managed to get our hands on."

"Have there been many?" Josiah looked at the colonel who was not much older than him but seemed bland and featureless. Markham could disappear into a crowd and remain hidden indefinitely if he liked and Josiah had a feeling he spent much of his life fading into the background to uncover secrets.

"Enough to know that Julius is getting quite a following." The colonel said grimly. "For the last two to three years, he has been gathering momentum. He gets them in with all this idealism and unity of man but he keeps them in through violence. Those who stay are the fanatics and a whole army of fanatics is a nightmare I donít want to imagine becoming reality."

"Funny how reasonable men who believe in freedom and justice and all the good things in life are willing to murder if they believe any of that is under threat." The preacher remarked.

"Well Julius ainít no believer in any of those things." Buck said rising to his feet. "The only thing he believes in is seeing how many men he put in the ground to be called a hero."

"The most dangerous thing of all," Markham added with a dark expression on his face. "Is he truly believes it."

+ + + + + + +

Mary was nervous and knew she had good reason to feel this way considering that in less than half an hour or so, the general was going to come knocking on the front door for dinner and she had yet to tell Chris that they weer having a dinner guest. He returned home less than an hour ago, determined to be present at the evening meal for which he had been absent the last few days. His effort to be home was as much to do with spending time with his family as it was to make it up to Mary for their quarrel two nights ago. As Mary put the finishing touches on the meal and the kitchen oozed with the aroma of all sort of savouries, she wondered why it had not occurred to him yet that there might be a reason for her efforts in the kitchen.

Well, he was a man after all, Mary sighed.

Mary had stepped in to the dining room and where she had laid out the good cutlery and crockery with Billy in assistance while Chris cleaned up for supper, unaware of the surprised she was about to spring on him and hoped he would not be too angry with her. Although she had wanted to tell him this morning, the unhappy expression on his face at having to ride out to Purgatory with his father was deterrent enough for her to postpone her news until later today. Unfortunately, she had not found the opportunity or for that matter, the nerve when he had come home either and now, with the eleventh hour was fast approaching, telling him was going to be a redundant gesture.

"Ma, why are you setting another place?" Billy asked as he helped her with the setting of the table as it was one of his chores to perform prior to the ritual of supper. During the days before Chris had become a permanent member of the household, it was one of the things that Mary had no idea Billy delighted in doing with her. In his mind, it was the one chore that he would take great exception to being usurped and told himself repeatedly he would have to point this out to the new baby when it arrived.

"Quiet Billy," Mary said gently, looking about apprehensively in case Chris would have overheard the question. Of course it was impossible that he could since at the moment, he was in the upstairs bedroom, getting a bath and discarding his dusty clothes for fresh ones. "Itís a surprise for Chris."

"A surprise for Chris?" The boyís face brightened. "What sort of surprise?" He asked excitedly as he was with anything relating to his adored stepfather.

"Weíve got a guest coming." Mary answered, keeping her voice down and telling herself she was being ridiculous since Chris was nowhere in hearing distance. "But you canít tell Chris until he gets here, promise?" She looked at her son sternly.

"I promise." He nodded, his tiny chin wrinkling with decision not to betray his motherís trust.

"Well if you promise," she looked at him, running her hand across his cheek. "Tonight we have a very special guest coming to see Chris. Itsí Chris pa."

"Chrisí pa!" Billy exclaimed before he remembered it was a secret and quickly whispered in a lower voice. "Chris has a pa?"

"Yes he does," Mary answered, lowering herself so she could meet her son eye to eye. "Now Chris hasnít seen his father in a long time and it might be a bit of a surprise to him so you mustnít tell Chris that his father is here until he arrives. Can you do that for me?" She gave him the look she did whenever she required him to do something important for her.

"I can do that ma," he beamed and continued setting the table without a care in the world.

Mary envied the bliss of youth and gazed apprehensively at the ceiling, wondering if she were not perhaps over reacting a little. Perhaps it would not be so bad. Although Chris had not come out and said it, she was certain that he wished things were different between his father and himself. All Mary had done really, was to give the efforts towards reconciliation a little nudge. There was no great sin in that. In fact, if one really looked at it, it could be said that she was doing a good thing, a true test of love for her husband. Thatís what she had done, proven her love for Chris and he could not be mad at her for that surely?

Then the door knocked and Maryís first thoughts were; Iím so dead.

+ + + + + + +

"Mary!" Chris Larabee sang out at the top of the stairs as he heard the door knocking. "Someoneís at the door."

When the second knock was heard and she had yet to answer it, Chris decided that since he was on his way down, he might as well get it anyway. Hopefully, no great catastrophe had taken place since his return from Purgatory that would require taking him out of his house for the evening. Chris was feeling badly that he had been away from home this past week and looked forward to spending an evening with Mary and Billy. Although he had promised himself to never neglect his wife and son, now that he had them again, Chris had to adhere to his responsibilities to Four Corners and unfortunately, that meant that he would never truly be one of those men who could be home for every supper.

Since Mary had yet to answer the door and was no doubt in the midst of dinner preparations, Chris hastened his descent down the stairs. However, it was not very long before he heard Billy running down the hallway to open the door. Chris relaxed his pace and reached the foot of the steps when he heard a familiar voice addressing Billy at the doorway. Chris froze in place as he forced himself to complete the journey, not wanting to believe what he was hearing but could offer his mind no other explanation.

"Ma said you were coming...." Chris heard Billy greet the new arrival and swallowed when he heard the response.

"You must be Billy." The generalís voice answered and Chris who had yet to be seen by his son or his father, stood in the shadows, trying to discern what the man was doing here before his mind wrapped itself around the only possible way this could happen.

Mary.

Chris took a deep breath and did not bother to greet his father as the door, since Billy had taken care of that already. Instead, he tried to rein in the fury that was bubbling to the surface and strode towards the kitchen where his dear wife was presently putting the finishing touches to supper. As he passed by the dining room, he saw the table set with table cloth and the good china Mary only used for guests and smouldered as his suspicions were confirmed. Part of Chris could not believe how she had gone behind his back and done this and then another part of him was hardly surprised because it was just the sort of thing Mary would do and probably because she thought that it was the right thing to do. Weighing in all these factors in the seconds before he reached the kitchen did something to alleviate his extreme displeasure at what she had done.

Mary was in the midst of pulling off her stove mitts when he entered the room and she swallowed visibly in expectation of his arrival, as soon as she had heard the door knocking.

"Something you want to tell me?" He looked at her hard, telling himself over and over again not to say anything that he would regret.

"That depends on how mad youíre going to get." She offered meekly.

"Itís gone past that now." Chris retorted folding his arms and bearing down on her with that sharp gaze which made her feel like a little girl caught in the act of perpetrating some childish bit of mischief. "So you might as well tell me."

"Chris," she responded, refusing to be intimidated by him. "He is your father. Itís only the proper thegn to do. You donít let family come to town without even inviting them to dinner. I thought it would be nice for Billy to meet his grandfather." It was a lame excuse and she knew it but it seemed a great deal less provocative than telling him he was being a pig headed idiot.

Chris straightened up instinctively and came towards her. "You had no right to do this." He growled in a low voice. "Whatís happening me and my father is between us, not you."

"I am your wife." Mary returned just as sharply. "When I married you, I accepted everything in your life to become part of mine, including your father. Heís not just apart of your family, heís also mine and I will not allow this petulance to continue. I asked him to join us to dinner because I thought you were adult enough to at least sit across the table from him for a meal. Was I wrong?"

"No you werenít," Chris grumbled, knowing that she was right but refusing to forgive her nonetheless. "Iíll go out there and Iíll be polite but when he goes, weíre going to have some talking to do."

With that, he left the room with Mary letting out a sigh that could not really be called relief since she was not out of trouble yet and had more or less received a stay of execution for the time being.

"Well," she said quietly to herself. "At least he didnít take it badly."

+ + + + + + +

There were a thousand places Chris Larabee would prefer to be at right now. He could even endure being in that illegal prison where he had been held captive and called Inmate 78 again, just to avoid being at the head off this table, facing his father over a meal for the first time in almost 21 years. The general was in uniform, much to the delight of his new grandson who fired away question after question at him in typical childhood ignorance of the awkward mood. The general seemed amused by the questions and answered the young boy with good natured warmth despite the icy reception he had received from the childís stepfather.

Chris and Mary had hardly exchanged words but Mary could tell his anger had not abated for he was still glaring at her that smouldering gaze that indicated that he was intensely angry with her and was keeping his temper only because they had company. Whether or not, the general noticed the discourse between husband and wife was unknown to her for he did not make mention of it. Finally Mary tired of the silence and decided that she was not going to make her guest feel unwelcomed just because her husband was behaving with less maturity than her eight year old son.

"So tell me General," Mary said in between bites of her meal. "What exactly do you do for the army?"

Larabee had noticed the enmity between his son and his wife. Judging by the look on Chrisí face which he knew from years of experience to be the usual mask worn by his son when sulking, he assumed that she had not told Chris about his arrival until he appeared on their doorstep. Still, she was trying so hard to make the evening move smoothly that he would not make it any more difficult by bringing up a topic that would trigger his sonís seething temper.

"Military intelligence." Larabee answered.

"That sounds dangerous." Mary declared although she could well believe that he was able to fade into the background whenever he liked. He had once of those faces that could be many things when it needed to be.

"It can be." Larabee answered. "During the war, I spent a great deal of time behind enemy lines, gathering information on Confederate troop deployment. These days, I merely oversee threats to internal security of the nation, keeping an eye on groups like the Ku Klux Klan and smaller militant cells that have sprung up."

"Yes," Mary nodded, remembering just how prolific the Klan could be when its members were properly motivated. "We had an unfortunate case of that some months ago."

"They come and go." The general placed his fork down. "It was much easier in the old days, when we knew who the enemy was. Now they could be anyone. Theyíre in our towns, riding down our streets and unfortunately in our schools. In Indiana, you have left over abolitionist movements from the war who donít believe our present policies toward the coloureds are much better from when they were in slavery. Allison Bradley married one of them." Larabee glanced briefly at Chris. "You remember Allison donít you?"

Chris shrugged, remembering the young woman well and narrowing his eyes as he glared at his father for bringing her up. "I remember."

"After you didnít come back from the Point, she married a school teacher. He was into the movement heavily. It ended badly." Larabee continued, digging into a succulent morsel of food as he waited for Chris to answer, almost daring him to respond in an unspoken challenge.

"I had my reasons." Chris said quietly, aware that they were inching slowly towards the reason at the heart of their 21-year separation and he was fighting the journey there every step of the way. It was taking every inch of control he possessed not to leave the room however, conditioning to behave in front of his father was too difficult to break, even though he was a grown man in his own home.

"Iím sure you did." Larabee remarked shortly, not wishing to have their confrontation in front of the child who was somewhat confused by his eldersí behaviour. "Madeleine retired to Virginia a few years ago."

"Madeleine?" Mary asked quizzically, trying to steer past the moment to smoother waters.

"Yes," the general nodded. "She was our housekeeper since Brigid passed on. She more or less helped me raise Chris after his mother died."

Mary glanced instinctively at Chris, not even knowing that much about her husband and felt somewhat incensed by that. Chris showed no reaction to that revelation but his Adamís apple bobbed so she knew that he was uncomfortable about having that bit of news reach her, especially when he had never brought it up with her in all the time they had been married. "When did she pass away?" Mary could not help but ask.

"When I was eight." Chris answered before the general could answer. "My mother died when I was eight."

"Iím sorry," she said softly both to Chris and to his father. "She must have been very young."

"She was," Larabeeís response was quiet and even though he wore the same damnable impassive mask on his face that Chris did, Mary saw enough reaction to know that the general still missed his wife dearly and her own response was instinctive. Her hand was in his before she even knew what she was doing, squeezing it gently.

"Thank you." He offered her a warm smile and decided that he liked his daughter in law very much, even if her husband was too big for him to take behind the woodshed, no matter how much he sorely needed it.

Chris also saw the sadness in his fatherís eyes, something that he had never noticed when he was a youth or perhaps did not understand enough to know what it meant. His memories of his mother were vague after so many years but he did remember that his father had adored Brigid Larabee. For the first time since General Marcus Larabee had suddenly made his reappearance in his life, Chris felt that perhaps it was time that he made some effort to resolve things between them. After all, the man had come here and not brought up the situation in West Point or demanded an explanation from him, when it was well within his rights to do so.

"How come you didnít become a soldier too Chris?" Billy asked and suddenly all the rules went straight out the window with that one question.

Chris did not what to say even though the question sliced through all his thoughts. He looked at his young son, eyes filled with curiosity, with no idea about the turmoil he had caused by that simple inquiry or the fact that he had dragged Chris and the general into the heart of their estrangement. "It just didnít work out." Chris stammered, searching for a better explanation than that and cursing under his breath when none was forthcoming.

"Why not?" Billy probed further, no idea of the discomfiture he was causing.

Mary on the other hand, was well aware of it and moved quickly to intercede because she sensed they were nearing a subject that was not at all wise to approach if she wanted the rest of the evening to continue without confrontation. "Billy, itís not polite to be so nosy." She said gently, sparring Chris the need to answer the question.

"Iím not being nosyÖ." Billy whined a little, noticing from the tone of his motherís voice that there was a hint of reproach in it.

"Actually Christopher did very well at the Academy."

"You mean West Point?" Mary exclaimed, unable to keep the shock from her voice at the realisation that the Academy was the informal name used by those who attended West Point Military Academy to refer to the prestigious institution.

"Yes," Larabee glanced at Chris, not hiding his distaste that Chris had hidden so much from his new family. "Christopher attended West Point for three years."

"Whatís West Point?" Billy blurted out.

"Itís a school." Chris said sharply. "We donít need to talk about this."

"I think itís about time you talked about something." Larabee replied, feeling his own anger rising at the belligerent attitude behind displayed by his son. "It doesnít look like youíre telling anybody anything? Are you ashamed of where you come from?" The general demanded. His voice never rose an octave but the anger in it was defined by the clarity of his enunciation.

"I ainít ashamed of anything." Chris retorted. "It ainít no oneís business but my own."

"Not when it affects everyone around you." Larabee returned. "After 21 years, I think I deserve an explanation."

"Maybe this isnít the best timeÖ." Mary started to say.

"Stay out of this!" Chris fairly roared at her and immediately saw the hurt in her eyes as he did so.

"Donít yell at her because youíre not adult enough to face the problem." The general came quickly to her defence.

"Please, donít." She implored them both to remain calm. However, it had gone past that and she knew it. Even Billy was shrinking into his chair, fear in his face as the discussion turned ugly. He did not like to see Chris and his ma fighting.

"I apologise," the general said reining in his temper before he did something he said anything further. "Iíll be going."

"General," Mary spoke out. "Donít leave."

"Let it be." Chris ordered, not even looking at her but glaring at his father with years of frustration and anger hidden under the surface of his eyes.

"Let it be?" Mary whirled around and stared at him. "Chris," she paused a moment catching he breath to give her opinion on this entire situation. "You know just about everything in my life. I have held nothing back from you because that is what being married is about. Sharing. However, I have found out more about you in the last ten minutes than I have had in a life time and frankly, I am appalled!"

"MaryÖ." Chris started to see that there was more than just hurt in her eyes over his harsh words but something than ran deeper, something that shook the foundation of trust they held for each other.

"Donít Mary me!" Mary declared. "What else havenít you told me?"

"Mary, this isnít the time to discuss it." Chris tried to get the upper hand by exerting some control over the situation but Mary would have none of it.

"When will it be time to discuss it?" She demanded. "The next time you have a long lost relation show up?" She stood up from the table and flung her napkin at him before storming away from the table, leaving everyone speechless for a few seconds.

"May I be excused?" Billy spoke up meekly after awhile, having finally summoned the courage to speak in the face of the bitter episode that had taken place only moments ago. The boy looked clearly disturbed by what had transpired between his parents and Chris was similarly dismayed that he had been forced to witness the entire scene.

"Sure." Chris sighed and felt his heart sink at how quickly Billy moved to get away from him. He supposed after what the poor child had been forced to sit through, Chris could hardly blame the child for wishing to be well out of the line of fire. Once Billy had gone, Chris found himself facing the general alone and as much as he wanted to blame the man for alienating Mary and causing his son to flee from the table, Chris knew it was not his fatherís fault.

"I could use a drink." Chris sighed; knowing it was time to have it out. Actually it was long past time that he did but at least he had come this far to admit it and finally to do something to rectify things. He had lived with this for too long. Chris had assumed his father would blame him and compounding his mistake by not giving the man the benefit of the doubt when it had been a courtesy his father had always reciprocated even though Chris had chose to ignore that when he fled all those years ago.

"Saloon?" His father looked at him with a smile.

"Saloon." Chris nodded.

After all, he was his fatherís son.

+ + + + + + +

When they walked into the Standish Tavern together, Chris was glad that none of the seven were present since they were scattered all over the place with the protection of the nitro and the guarding of the prisoners respectively. Chris himself had planned to go to the jailhouse after dinner and relieve Josiah who needed some rest after playing warden to their prisoners in the jailhouse. At the moment, Vin was no doubt visiting Alex while at the same time, catching up with some rest himself after their ride to Purgatory and back. The others were still guarding the nitro at Nettieís place and were no doubt enjoying the widowís hospitality during that particular chore.

Even though the mood between the two men was still tense, Chris had come to the begrudging realisation that he had to have it out with his father, or at least go some way to explaining his actions. It was obvious that while the general did not want to come outright and demand a reason for his behaviour, the man still wanted to know what had happened between them that would justify his son disappearing for the last twenty one years. Especially when he had done nothing to warrant such desertion. The general never spoke about his feelings and Chrisí childhood following his motherís death that been an odyssey of trying to understand what was taking place beneath his fatherís battle hardened exterior.

The tavern was busy at this time of night and so they found themselves an out of the way table at the corner of the room in order to get that drink that was so needed after what had taken place at home. Rain who was on permanent duty bartending most evenings, quickly served them their drinks aware of the situation between father and son and hid her pleasure that they had finally agreed to sit down to talk. Rain had strong opinions when it came to kinfolk and she firmly believed that there was no reason in the world why a family should not resolve its differences.

Once the young lady had gone, Chris found that there was no longer any reason to remain silent on the past that neither man could get by to start some kind of future acquaintance. He took a sip of his beer and savoured the drink a moment, perfectly aware that his father was watching him with steely eyes.

"I think Iíll be sleeping in the spare room again." Chris sighed.

"Iíd say so." His father managed an amused expression. "Sheís a fiery woman."

"You donít know the half of it." Chris eased back into his chair, unable to meet his fatherís gaze because the moment of truth had finally arrived and he could not bring himself to that yet until the words had finally escaped him.

"I like her." Larabee remarked and honestly meant it. "Thatís a hell of a nice family you got there, Christopher."

To that at least, Chris could not disagree. "Thanks."

"I would have liked to have met your first." He added and forced Chrisí eyes to meet his.

"I donít want to talk about them." Chris said shortly. "I ainít ready for that yet." It was true. No matter how much time had passed, it was still difficult to speak about Sarah and Adam without feeling the black well of grief coming to claim him. There were too many memories, too many ugly things that had burned into his memory the day he found them. Charred bodies and dark cinder on his skin that might have been pieces of them, that was all the memory he had left of Sarah and Adam that soiled all his other recollections of them. He could not speak of them, not to his father who could see through him with more ease than anyone in the world. The pain was too raw.

"Okay," Larabee nodded in understanding, aware of how they had died and able to see the darkness that had surfaced in Chrisí eyes at the very mention of them.

"Iím sorry you never got to know them," Chris managed to say that much at least. "It was wrong to shut you out when it wasnít your fault what happened."

"You want to tell me what did happen?" The general inquired, unaware that he had been holding his breath. He had waited for so long to ask that question. How many nights had he lain awake, trying to decide whether or not it was worth tracking down his son just to shake the answer out of him. However, Chrisí stubborn pride was an inherited flaw and Larabee could not deny that he had been afflicted similarly and it had kept him from making that all-important first step.

"We were out for the weekend." Chris began, revisiting memories he had not wanted to think about for so long because of the indelible marks it had left in its wake and the ramifications that had followed him for the rest of his life from that one mistake. A mistake he was not even sure was wrong to begin with. "There was this saloon not far from our billets and we went there sometime. It was me and a few others."

The general knew something of the events that Chris was describing because of the report he would eventually receive from the Academy after Chris had left. "This is where the girl died?"

"Yeah." Chris looked up and after a moment decided that it was no real surprise to him that the general knew. "She was nothing, just a barmaid you know. She wasnít even a saloon girl. Her name was Karen I think."

Chris needed another sip of his beer when he brought Karenís image to his mind. She was beautiful but not extraordinary. She had red ribbons in her dark hair and she looked far more attractive than any of the worn saloon girls. "All us cadets thought she was really something."

"What happened?"

"I was with some of the others." Chris still refused to name the men who had been with him, aware now that it was all over and Karen dead and buried and such revelations would serve no one, twenty-one years after the fact. "We were leaving the saloon for the evening when we saw Karen heading home. I wanted to get back to barracks but the others thought it might be fun to talk to her. I didnít think much of it at the time because it seemed harmless at the time."

"Was it?" Larabee asked, his voice tightening because it always started out that way, the dirty sordid crimes that found their origins in the word harmless.

"No," Chris swallowed, feeling a lump in his throat as the story shifted into its next phase. "It started becoming more and by the time she got home, she was practically running for her life. I tried to stop them but the others were drunk and a little high on whatever it is that made them do what they did next. Karen lived alone and they broke into her house and raped her. All five of them."

Larabeeís stomach hollowed, seeing the intense pain in Chrisí eyes as he relived the moment in his mindís eye. Every scream and pathetic plea to stop was burned into Chrisí memory. Years later, when Buck Wilmingtonís Alice had fallen to the same horror, Chris had made it his personal quest to bring Damien Westbrook to justice because he had failed to do so for Karen.

"I did try to do something but they turned on me and by the time they were finished with me, I was in no condition to help her. I still hear sometimes though," Chris held his mug to his mouth and took a deep swallow because his throat felt dry. "I still canít stand the sight of red ribbons. Sarah wore them once and I had to tell her take it off cause it made me so sick."

Larabee knew that Chris had made allegations implicating his fellow cadets in the death of the girl named Karen Cassidy who was found murdered and raped in her home. The five accused naturally provided each otherís alibis and eventually, it came down to Chrisí word against them and they were unwilling to let one man or their conscience, stand in the way of a military career and so they held firm in the lie. With no corroborating evidence and the beating he had received at their hands proof of a possible vendetta, Chris had been dishonourably discharged for conduct unbecoming a cadet of West Point Academy.

"Why didnít you just come home?" Larabee asked. "I would have believed you."

"You were so proud of me being in Academy," Chris answered thinking how ludicrous his reasoning had been in the face of experience. "I just didnít know how to face you and tell you that I had failed."

"The Academy was not my wish for you." His father sighed wondering how so much misconception could have been engendered from two people who had shared the same roof for so long. "Sure I was proud that you wanted to be a soldier. There isnít a father in this world thatís not proud of a son who wants to follow in his footsteps but I always thought it was what you wanted."

"I wasnít no soldier." Chris said feeling even worse now that he had heard that. His father had always been so impassive and hard to read, Chris had to rely on signals because he wanted to be strong and resolute like Marcus Larabee had been. Marcus Larabee never showed when he was hurt. He kept it inside, hidden away so that he was the only one who could suffer his pain. Chris had tried to be that way and knew to a certain extent that he had succeeded, except that pain like that needed to be expressed. It had to be or else it ate away at you, a piece at a time. Chris had learnt that too late. "I liked the Academy well enough but I knew I was no good at it."

"Your instructors thought you were extremely promising." Larabee revealed, concealing that the reports he had received from Chrisí teachers in those days had spoken of a cadet who had the potential to be a great military officer in time. Larabee had known that before Chris had gone to the Academy because his son was logical and cool under pressure. He could imagine Chris keeping his head during the tragic circumstances that had led to his discharge, he was even proud that the boy was willing to risk it all to see justice had done.

"I could do it if I needed to," Chris admitted. "Soldiering that is but after the war, I was sure I didnít want to do it forever." He let out another deep sigh knowing he had digressed and then continued. "When I got kicked out, I didnít know what to do. I couldnítí face you and I was angry that the truth got hidden and a girl had died and I hadnít been able to stop it. There were a hundred things running through my head, none of it made sense but all I knew was that I couldnít go home. I wandered a bit and then the war broke out and I signed up in the infantry."

"I know," Larabee nodded. "I tried to keep track of you." He confessed to that much, not wanting the boy to think he had not made any effort to find him during those years. "I knew you were promoted to Lieutenant and then Captain. I half expected you to come home once the war was done but you didnít."

"Buck and I got to be friends," Chris replied, knowing the truth was more because he still had not managed to overcome his fear of seeing his father and after six years, it had become even worse and Chris abandoned the idea all together. "We wanted to ranch horses so thatís what we did."

"And after Sarah?"

"After Sarah, there was nothing." He said unable to meet his fatherís eyes. "When I found them both, I was ready to die with them and I looked long and hard to make that happen but for some I reason I was still standing. I wanted to die so bad I could taste it. Then one day I rode into this town, expecting it to be no different than the last place Iíd been. I was looking for a saloon when I ran into her." A slow smile formed across Chrisí face when he thought about the first time he had seen Mary Travis. "She made me want to live for the first time in three years. With her came the others and I found something that could be called peace I suppose."

"Sometimes you gotta take what you can get." Larabee replied softly.

Chris could not argue with that and had to admit that he was luckier than most. He had been given a second chance when the six men and Mary had entered his life and realised at that instant that perhaps his father deserved to get one as well.

Part Five: The Door

"Pray tell why it is always I that has to undertake these tiresome chores?" Ezra Standish asked of Chris Larabee when the gunslinger met him at the Standish Tavern the next morning to inform him that he was required to go to Purgatory for a little of reconnaissance. The gamblerís mood was already less than hospitable, considering the man had spent most of the night camped outdoors keeping watch on the nitro at Nettieís place with JD and Nathan for company. As romantic as a night under the stars might sound to someone else, especially Vin Tanner, it was Ezraís belief that the progress of human civilisation had been undertaken so that human beings no longer needed to sleep in the open.

Unfortunately, Chris Larabee was in no better mood. He had been forced to spend his evening alternating between a few hours sleep in the spare room and spending the rest of the night on guard duty while suffering an immense hangover after the drinking session he and his father had indulged during their attempt to talk things through. While progress had been made with the general, Mary was another story entirely and she was still extremely displeased at learning just how much he had kept secret from her during their months of marriage. He supposed he did not blame her for being mad but he was not about to start apologising for himself.

As he downed coffee, hoping to dispel the prolific throbbing in his temples, he winced as Ezraís typical petulance ringing in his ears. Chris was no in no mind to argue with the man who could reduce to him to a murderous disposition by his diatribe of protest when they both knew he was going to Purgatory one way or another. "Because youíre good at it and being a professional gambler that you are, you donít exactly look like a lawman."

"Thank you so much." Ezra retorted and added. "Neither do you for that matter but I will not quibble."

"Ezra just shut up and go." Vin groaned, having less patience than Chris and seeing his best friend inching towards the edge of his restraint and wanted to spare Ezra a thrashing if he continued his ambivalence and tipped Chris over the edge. "We just need you to snoop around a bit and get some answers."

"Since you asked so nicely Mr Tanner," Ezra frowned, knowing that they were right and that he was the only one who could do this. One of the advantages of being Ezra Standish was the fact that wherever he went, he was pegged as a gambler immediately, mostly because of his immaculate grooming and sense of fashion. His manner would not allow most people to believe that he was a lawman and supposed that the misconception was what made him so exploitable as a source of information. "I shall depart after breakfast."

"Keep your eyes open," Chris warned, pouring himself another cup of coffee after the first cup had done nothing to dissipate the headache he was suffering or eliminate the aftertaste of too much alcohol in his system. "There are a lot of them and apparently they donít take kindly too strangers."

"I will be my charming best." Ezra grinned, aware that he was living dangerously by baiting Chris like this but could not help himself when it was so obvious the man was suffering from a night of libation.

"Just donít get shot." Chris growled, knowing what Ezra was playing at and not impressed by the gamblerís sense of humour.

Vin drifted away from the table and crossed the floor of the saloon, deciding that he did not wish to witness the carnage that Ezra was inviting upon himself. Glancing out through the saloon doors, he saw the people outside suddenly turning their attention towards the same direction, their eyes fixed on something that was coming down the street. Vin stepped through the doors, allowing them to swing backwards when he emerged onto the boardwalk The gentle rumble of horses was resonating through the floor boards, until he could feel them under his feet. Folk were emerging from stores and stepping out of from under shop awnings so that they could get a clearer look at what was coming down the street.

Vin could not count their number but he estimated at least a full platoon of Union soldiers riding into town, in their blue uniforms, dusty from travel through the dry terrain of the territory. It looked as if they were riding all night and at the head of the formidable display of rifles and bayonets was a lieutenant in full uniform, who seemed younger than Vin did and looked like he had less experience then the men he commanded. In either case, they still looked impressive enough to capture the attention of the townsfolk as they rode into Four Corners.

"Chris!" Vin called out, cutting through the continued bantering between Chris and Ezra.

Chris was at his side in seconds with Ezra not far behind and the three lawmen watched the procession of blue uniforms moving through their town. No doubt, they would be searching for the general and since Chris was more or less the law in this town, the gunslinger found himself striding forward to deal with the new arrivals.

"Well," Ezra said to Vin as Chris left them standing on the board walk. "Perhaps now we can be liberated of the tiresome chore of watching over the armyís comedy of errors."

"It wasnít their fault that they were hijacked," Vin glanced at the gambler but did not wish to reveal that he was glad to have the nitro taken off their hands too. There was enough trouble out there with Bellisonís discovery that Chris Larabee now resided in Four Corners.

"Forgive me if I seem a little biased." Ezra remarked. "Union soldiers in large numbers still make me a little nervous."

"Thatís okay, Confederate." Vin responded with a smile and took delight when the gambler made a face at him for the appellation.

"On that note I think I shall make my departure to Purgatory," Ezra said bristling. "Less I fall prey to more of your vulgar generalisations of southern pride."

Vin chuckled and replied. "You think you might need help?" Vin asked, knowing Chris had wanted to discuss that with Ezra that prior to the gamblerís departure to Purgatory but with the sudden arrival of the army requiring their leaderís attention, there had been no opportunity to bring up the subject.

"I do not believe so." Ezra replied. "Us gamblers are a solitary lot, we travel the plains searching for the game, picking up permanent fixtures in our lives. It is a lonely existenceÖ."

"Enough," Vin groaned. "Get going."

Ezra tipped his hat at Vin as he descended the steps towards the livery stable where Chaucer was stabled when Ezra had no need of the animal. "I will try to get back in the morning. If you would be so good as to tell my dear Julia where I am, I would appreciate it."

"Will do." Vin nodded in understanding, knowing that he would wish similar intelligence to reach Alex if he had to leave town unexpectedly and knew the fiery headed Emporium owner would be worried if Ezra just suddenly up and disappeared. However, as the southerner widened the space between them, Vin could not resist but call out.

"Take care, Johnny Reb!"

Ezra paused and turned around long enough to offer Vin a well known but not at all gentlemanly gesture with his middle finger before he continued walking.

+ + + + + + +

Chris saw the general emerging from the hotel as he neared the platoon of union soldiers riding into his town. The people of Four Corners were obviously curious as to the presence of the army since Chris and rest of the seven had kept the existence of the nitro a secret from everyone else except those who were directly involved, like Nettie Wells. Nettie knew well enough to keep silent about the presence of such a volatile substance on her property. Chris could see the curiosity on their faces and knew that sooner or later he would have to given them some kind of explanation but not yet. Until the nitro was safely gone from Four Corners, Chris did not have to tell them anything.

Larabee was in full uniform and immediately recognisable by the soldiers whose presence he had requested here. As the procession came to a halt upon sighting him, they straightened up in their saddles and offered the proper salute before the general put them at ease. Following that gesture, the lieutenant in the lead dismounted his horse and strode towards Larabee. Chris arrived just in time to take position next to his fatherís flank, a clear indication not only to his father but to the new arrivals that Four Corners was his town and he wanted to be involved in whatever process that led to the removal of the nitro.

"General Larabee Sir," the lieutenant announced as he reached Larabee. "Lieutenant Cleary."

"Lieutenant." Larabee nodded in acknowledgment. "This is Christopher Larabee, he is the law in these parts."

Cleary looked at Chris, obviously trying to discern if the similarities in surname was just a coincidence when the general noticing his ruminations, spoke up and put that question to rest. "Yes he is my son, now letís move along, shall we?" Larabee said abruptly.

Cleary swallowed and averted his eyes from Chris, who kept his stony expression in place even though there was a slight curl to the corner of his lips when the lieutenant turned back to the general.

"The situation is this." Larabee replied, getting to the heart of the matter. "A shipment of nitro is presently being guarded by the men under Christopherís charge. The nitro was stolen from one of our army trains and I require you and your men to assume the duty of guarding the shipment until I can make proper arrangements to have it transported from the nearest railway line. I believe that is in Sweet Water. You will take your men and proceed to the present location of the substance with my son, to relieve the men who have been guarding it since its arrival here. If all goes well, we will move out to Sweet Water tomorrow. Is that clear?"

"Yes Sir," Cleary nodded event though there were questions he liked answered like what a generalís son was doing playing lawmen to a small hole in the wall town like this. However, he kept that curiosity to himself since he did not believe the general would not appreciate his interest.

"I want it kept quiet." Chris added further before Larabee could dismiss the lieutenant. "Folks donít know about the nitro and there ainít no reason for them to find out until after itís gone. No sense creating a situation when there ainít no need for one."

"Good thinking." The general seemed to agree and faced Clearl once more. "That clear enough for you, lieutenant?"

"It is Sir." Cleary answered, not at all liking that he was at the mercy of this civilian because of his relationship to the general, however, like before, he was not about to say anything about it.

"One other thing," Chris brought up the subject, now that it appeared that men were available for what he required. "Weíve been guarding the prisoners round the clock and the nitro at the same time. I could use a few of your soldiers in my jailhouse to give us a break."

"Do it." Larabee looked at Cleary.

"Yes Sir," Cleary nodded and understood then and there that the general would be granting a great many of his sonís requests. It took a few minutes before Cleary selected the men necessary to take up guard duty and Chris aimed them in the direction of the jailhouse. Chris knew that Buck wanted to spend some time with Inez and Elena Rose after their exhausting schedule of the last few days. Chris himself had been enduring the same pace and was glad that some relief was in sight, even if it came in the form of this pompous lieutenant who looked like he had less experience than JD.

"Well if they hold here for ten minutes," Chris remarked after the men had been despatched to the jailhouse and he had nothing more that needed doing in town to keep them from setting out after the nitro. "Iíll get my horse and we can ride out to Nettieís. You coming?" He regarded his father.

"Not yet," Larabee replied. "I have to organise rail transportation for the cargo. Lieutenant, you will be under the authority of Colonel Markham upon arrival at your destination but you will adhere and respect local authority do you understand?" The general said firmly, making it very clear that he did not want the contempt that some officers tended to regard local law enforcement being displayed here. He may not have been in his sonís life for 21 years but he had knew Christopher well enough now to be aware that his son ran on a short fuse and was a crack shot. With a hint of pride as well as amusement, Larabee could not deny that he was built in pretty much the same way except that experience had tempered him with a little more restraint. Still it was nice to know that Chris had inherited some thing from him.

"Understood," Cleary answered, his gaze shifting to Chris long enough to show his dislike at those set of orders.

"Me and Vin will take Ďem out there." Chris regarded his father and then gestured that he wanted a moment away the eyes of Cleary who was unhappy at Larabeeís instructions to him about the treatment of his son. However, Chris wondered if that attitude would change if he knew that the order had been given mostly to keep Cleary from getting a bullet in the ass if he pulled any of that superior military crap with Chris.

Both men started to walk to the saloon where Vin was waiting to see what they were doing when Chris cleared his throat and summed up the courage to say what was needed. Strange how the personal stuff was so difficult to get out. "If youíre still in town tonight," Chris cast a sidelong glance at him. "I thought we might try supper again."

"You sure?" Larabee asked showing no reaction to that request but then the general had the best poker face of anyone he knew, even Ezra. Everything the man had ever felt was well hidden behind that tough mask and Chris knew that unconsciously, he had tried to emulate that invulnerability and had succeeded to a lesser degree.

"Hell, I ainít sure about nothing any more but I know Mary was right about family." He admitted trying to inject some humour into the situation in order to avoid the awkwardness he felt.

"She was." The general agreed and then added after a moment. "By the way, I sent you to best schools I could think of, why do you sound like some like uneducated hick cowboy?"

Chris straightened up in annoyance at the description, particularly the use of the word Ďcowboyí and stared at his father. "I ainít a Ö" His son started to say.

"Donít... correct.....me." Larabee retorted firmly and put Chris on the receiving end of one of those sharp glares that he had only up till now been in the habit of delivering to others. It was enough to cut short anything he had to say and suddenly Chris understood what the others often meant by the ĎLarabee glareí.

"Yes Sir," Chris fumed, remembering himself. "I canít remember but were you always a hard nose son of a bitch?" He asked.

"Yes," Larabee nodded, not at all offended and unafraid to admit it. He was starting to enjoy his son as the adult, even if the years apart had made him a little rough around the edges. "But back then I could slap you around if you noticed."

Both men looked at each other for a moment and an involuntary smile escaped Chris which Larabee soon shared and for the first time since his father had walked into his life, Chris did not feel so bad about the way things were between them.

"Well," Chris drawled as he started walking again. "At least I know where I got it from."

+ + + + + + +

Bellison had men in place for almost two days now.

Ever since the failed attempt to recover the nitro had forced them into retreat in order to rethink their strategy, Bellison had decided that a new tactic had to be taken. It was obvious the men that the Lieutenant had under his command would die before allowing anyone to take the nitro and with the arrival of a union general in town, it further complicated matters. Bellison gave his orders from Purgatory, knowing that their time in that locality would draw to a close the moment they acquired the nitro. Who could have foreseen the intervention of Chris Larabee, a man that Bellison had wanted in his sights for so long?. When he had reported his findings to the Commander, the man had almost been euphoric about getting his hands on the lieutenant that had destroyed both their lives.

However, Julius was not stupid especially when there was so much at stake. When their first attempt to recover the nitro had failed, the plans for revenge had been placed on hold for the time being at least until they knew how they were going to try for it again. Bellison knew that any strangers in town would be recognised on sight and thus he had kept his men watching the main tracks into town, knowing that nitro in the quantities the lawmen had discovered could only be despatched by the army. Eventually, the military would arrive to resume ownership of the dangerous shipment and Bellison knew the army well enough to be confident that he would have no trouble reacquiring the nitro from them once they took possession of it.

Less than a few hours after the arrival of the army in Four Corners and the subsequent notification that they had assumed the duties of guarding the nitro, Bellison knew that it was time to move and settle all scores at the same time. As instructed, one of his men had the foresight to follow the platoon to where the nitro was being kept since it was impossible to hide the tracks of so many men and discovered their property was now hidden on the property of a farm outside of town.

The guardians who had been keeping watch on the nitro relinquished their duties and headed back to town, having been told in no uncertain terms by the new arrivals that they need no longer worry about the shipment that had been the cause of so much trouble. Bellison could have predicted that as easily as he had known that the fresh face lieutenant in charge was no match for someone with brains. The lawmen from Four Corners had been dangerous but the army officer who ordered his men to set up camp in the open field where the nitro was kept hidden beneath bales of hay and canvas was exploitable.

Bellison and his men rode out to the farm when the sun had started to set, ensuring they were not seen by avoiding the main trails. Among Larabeeís number was a tracker and Bellison had learnt enough about Vin Tanner after their initial encounter to know that that the man was very good at what he did and would be able to read the signs of their presence if he chose to go looking. The timing had to be precise and Bellisonís man had been keeping watch on the proceedings almost immediately after the platoon had began setting up camp. Bellisonís plan to retrieve to the nitro hinged on arriving at a specific time.

That is before the platoonís cook decided to serve dinner.

+ + + + + + +

A few hours earlier, Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner had ridden towards Nettie Wells place, leading the military contingent that had arrived to take charge of the nitro shipment that was being hidden on the ladyís property. Lieutenant Cleary who was not hiding his disdain at having to mind his manners before civilian authorities, kept a suitable distance from them which suited Chris just fine. He did not like being reminded that he had to be respected because he was a generalís son any more than Cleary liked being forced to do so. However, he had to admit feeling some measure of ease now that his relationship with his father had moved out of hostility and approaching that could be described as familial affection. The pleasure of that almost made a sizeable dent in his hangover as the day progressed.

Vin Tanner was in similarly good spirits, mostly because Alex was on the mend and also because the arrival of the army in the locality indicated that Nettie was no longer in danger from anyone who might attempt to recover the nitro. Although the tracker had not been pleased to hide the volatile shipment at the ladyís home after what had happened to Alex when Bellison had come to claim it, Chris had impressed upon him that they had very little choice in the matter. If Bellison knew enough about Chris to track them down at the ranch then it might be conceivable that he would have the same information about Buck as well and perhaps all of them. Nettie had no real connection to them other than friendship and would have been the last place that Bellison would look.

"So things okay with you and your pa?" Vin asked as they took the familiar turn of road that led to Nettieís property. Peso was so accustomed to travelling down this path that the horse needed no directions from its master and trotted along on its own, requiring very little incentive from Vin.

"Getting there." Chris replied not minding discussing the subject with Vin. With Buck it was harder, because the man was full of good advice and but lacked tolerance for hesitation. Buck ran on nothing but passion and while it was admirable to be around a person like that, it could be damn annoying when Buck Wilmington felt people were bottling emotions that ought to be expressed and would not relent until they did. With Vin, it was different. Mostly because Vin knew Chris better than most people with the exception of Mary and probably even better than Buck. Vin understood what it was like to feel the need to keep oneís feelings private and when he felt the inclination to intercede, also knew when was the best time to pull back when his inquiries became too much for Chris to handle. Buck did not know how to do that and had been the cause of more arguments between them than anything else in their longstanding friendship.

"Mary invited him to dinner last night." Chris revealed.

Vin showed no reaction but flinched inwardly, glad that he had been absent at that meeting. He doubted that Chris would have seen the gesture by his wife as anything but meddlesome. "How did it go?"

"Not well." Chris said uncomfortably and thought secretly, that was probably an understatement of how things had gone. "I slept in the spare room last night." He did not look at Vin as he said that and Vin had enough sense not to make comment because the tracker wanted see his next birthday.

"I guess Iím apologising tonight." He finally broke the awkward silence that lingered after his last statement.

"Iíve done that." Vin admitted with a wry smile. "Well slept in my wagon anyway. I almost did again with this whole wedding business." An involuntary frown crossed his face when he thought about that whole episode with Alex and how badly things had gone because he allowed paranoia to get the better of him.

"You given any thoughts to what you gonna do about that?" Chris asked, feeling glad that he was not the only one embroiled with personal difficulties and was more than happy to shift the attention back to Vinís forthcoming nuptials or lack of for that matter.

"I donít know," Vin groaned, visibly frustrated by the whole subject. "She says she doesnít want a big fuss and I know I sure as hell donít want one and then again, I keeping thinking about what Buck said andÖ"

"Just donít take too much Buck has to say to heart," Chris warned. "We are talking about a man who married his wife when she was in labour."

"I suppose," Vin chuckled, remembering the whole incident well. It was still subject of much amusement between the seven whenever Buck was absent. It ranked right up there with the time Ezra had to dress up as a lady singer in Wickestown and when Josiah had come charging to the rescue of his lady fair at Guy Royalís spread, drunk as a coot. "I keep thinking about what she ought to have instead of what she says she wants. I wonder whether she says she doesnít want no fuss because she knows Iíd hate it."

"Well I tell ya Vin," Chris said with a sigh, for once glad for the benefit of experience because he was able to offer some advice in this regard, scant as it was. Despite generalisations by Buck, no woman was ever the same as another, just as men were individually different. "Alex is pretty sure about things and if she says she wants a small wedding, Iíd listen to her."

"I want to just want to find a preacher somewhere and do it quiet you know?" The tracker sighed, having no real problem with marrying the love of his life but not at all looking forward to all the ceremony that came with it. Ezraís talk about suits and place card, not to mention Buckís pearls of wisdom about him having to be on display had stolen all the enjoyment out of what should have been an experience he had been looking forward.

"I know," Chris understood completely, having wished for something with a little less fanfare himself, when he and Mary had tied the knot. Fortunately, Alex was not as public a figure as Mary was in Four Corners and so she was under less pressure to invite the entire town to her wedding. Besides, Chris had a good sense of Alexandra Styles and believed that she wanted an understated ceremony as much as Vin although the female in her would not sit still for an elopement, no matter how much Vin might wish otherwise. There were something about the gender that could not be denied, a wedding ceremony was one of those.

"Think of it this way," the gunslinger said with devious smile. "You only gotta do it once."

"Thanks pard," Vin frowned as they caught sight of Nettieís house in the distance. "Youíre a real help."

+ + + + + + +

Instead of heading towards the house, Chris and Vin motioned Cleary and his men to follow them off the main track through the trees. They continued through a rough patch between the trees that made up the untamed terrain that surrounded the property. While Bellison might not suspect Nettieís being a possible place of refuge for the nitro, Chris did not want to take any chances. Placing the nitro a suitable distance away from the homestead would ensure that even if Bellison did discover its location, Nettie would be far enough away from the site when they came to retrieve it.

While Nettieís property was quite sizeable, she did not have the money or resources to exploit the land and thus pastoral farming was confined to the small plot in the immediate vicinity of the homestead. Vin actually preferred the rugged terrain remaining as it was because there was a beauty to it that he and Alex had often enjoyed whenever they came riding out this way some nights. So many of the pivotal moments in their relationship had taken place at Nettieís. The first time his hands had touched hers and she had looked into his eyes and realised that there was more to her feelings for him than she had possibly known. Even though Vin and Alex spent most of their time at the ranch these days, they still liked to ride up to the creek and enjoy the space where their love had built its foundations.

It did not take them long to reach the small campsite that Buck and the other had set up while guarding the nitro that was hidden behind several large bales of hay and thick sheets of canvas. From a distance, it appeared as if the paddock where the wagons had been left were empty except for the stacks of feed covered with canvas to protect it from the elements. Only upon closer observation would anyone discover that they were far from being anything so benign.

As usual, JD was taking his duties very seriously, perched up on the top of a stacked pile of baled hay, shotgun cradled in his arms as his youthful face tensed with concentration. Obviously, the young man had appointed himself lookout and was keeping a firm eye on the terrain while his older peers sat in close proximity to the nitro, confident that JD would alert them if trouble arose. Actually JD would alert them even if there was absolutely nothing taking place and he was simply bored which was really the reason why he was not often selected to take up position as lookout. Nevertheless the nature of the terrain made the designation of a lookout rather redundant since they could all see well in advance if anyone was approaching.

While Markham assumed command of the platoon and its lieutenant, a state of affairs to which Chris was quite grateful since Markham at least seemed to have a great deal more intelligence than Cleary did, Vin and Chris greeted their comrades and appraised them of what was happening. All three men looked as exhausted as they probably felt and Chris was pleased to be able to tell his friends that it was finally safe enough to leave the nitro in the hands of the proper authorities now that they had arrived.

"So what now, Chris?" JD asked, aware that the gunslinger wanted to go after Bellison and the infamous Captain Julius, now that they no longer had to worry about keeping the nitro guard.

"We get some rest," Chris said firmly. "Ezraís gone to Purgatory to snoop around a little. He ought to be back tomorrow, until then there ainít a lot we can do. Weíve been working around the clock since this began and we need to rest up in case Bellison and his men decide to throw anything else at us." Instinctively, he glanced over his shoulder at the soldiers who were scattering across the area, setting up camp and felt a shudder of concern he could not explain. Markham seemed capable enough to take care of things but Chris could not help feeling apprehensive. Shaking off the feeling a minute later because he knew he hated just turning things over to someone else besides the men who rode with him, Chris knew the army could handle things on their own.

"When are they moving the nitro?" Josiah inquired, catching the sliver of uneasiness that had surfaced momentarily in Chrisí eyes.

"Tomorrow. According to the general." Vin answered as Chris lapsed into thought for a moment. "Theyíll be taking it to Sweet Water and getting it away from there by train."

"I hope they have better luck hanging on to it this time." Nathan retorted, unashamed to admit that he felt it the height of incompetence that such a dangerous cargo could have been stolen right from under the militaryís nose, not to mention how many lives were lost in the process.

"I think theyíve learnt well enough." The preacher remarked.

"Iím not so sure." Chris found himself admitting. "If thereís one thing I remember about the army is memory lasts as long as the next commander."

"Maybe we ought to keep an eye on things." JD added. "I mean, like you said it is a lot of nitro to lose."

Chris considered that already and knew that the two officers on the field with them were tolerating his presence at the barest fraction of civil. If he were to start inferring that they were not up to doing their jobs, it could deepen the animosity already felt into boiling point and Chris had enough troubles at the moment without having to deal with the slighted egos of union officers. Besides, not even Bellison and his men was fool enough to hit a platoon of soldiers who were expecting trouble with what they were guarding.

"No," Chris shook his head and hoped he was doing the right thing. "This is their show, let them handle it. We got bigger fish to fry."

+ + + + + + +

Despite the anonymity of their present location, Markham was still uncomfortable about the nitro being out in the open as it was. The members of the Citadel, a designation that no one in intelligence liked using because giving this enemy a name would only make the threat they posed all the more real, were one of the most dangerous militant groups to emerge in recent times. Unlike the Ku Klux Klan whose membership was mostly limited to the south and was splintered and disorganised, prolific only in the acts of violence committed against the coloureds, the Citadel was a very different kettle of fish entirely.

Originally a peaceful movement, Hannibal Julius had entered the picture and made the Citadel something more by inciting the belief among the membership that change for the betterment of all man kind could only be done through violence. The Civil War seemed a case in point, considering how the war had brought about the emancipation of slaves. With no knowledge of his past, the members of Citadel, those who had opted to remain in light of this sudden shift in policy, looked upon the former Union Captain as a visionary whose quest for equality made him the kind of leader worth dying for. Until now, Markham and Larabee had been watching Julius moved his pieces into place, preparing for a first strike that would leave an indelible impression upon all that the Citadel had arrived.

In what form that impression would take was the biggest wild card in this whole scenario even though the ingredients of so much nitro was cause for a great deal of concern. Markham wondered if Chris Larabee had any idea of just what kind of membership the Citadel now spanned. It was not a matter of a few dozen men here and there, but cells across the country. The fear that Larabee had not spoken to his son was that even if they did manage to get his hands on Julius, the legacy he had created would not die. In fact, killing him might be the very worst thing they could do for it would only turn him into a martyr and give impetus for a thousand acts of violent retribution.

Markham gazed up at the sky above and saw the stars out in full force. It was not lost upon him the beauty of this land and how the sky seemed so much brighter when not having to compete with the lights of a big city. He stared a moment at the wide expanse of stars before the aroma of the evening meal captured his attention and forced him to his feet in search of it. Although there were reconnaissance patrols and sentries on guard, it did not appear as if the Citadel was going to make a move tonight. He supposed Julius had improved on military tactics considerably since he was Chris Larabeeís commanding officer but detracting from making foolish attacks like a frontal assault.

"Whatís cooking?" Markham asked as he reached the cook at the far end of the camp. Around him, there were a few others lingering about awaiting for the evening meal. Even though it was summer, the temperatures dropped drastically at night and had most of the men burrowing deep into their coats, trying to escape the cold while waiting in expectation of hot food.

"Just some stew." The grizzled sergeant replied as he continued stirring the contents of the cauldron suspended over the fire. "But thereís lot of it and itís hot."

Which met the army standard for being edible, Markham thought and decided after nearly twenty years as a military man, his stomach had no sense of taste left and could endure anything. "Good enough for me." He remarked and walked away, not knowing the man well enough to continue the conversation.

A private caught his eye and the man shifted uncomfortably before slinking into the shadows to avoid making any eye contact. Markham frowned, hating the awkwardness of rank at times. He supposed he had become accustomed the last few days to being regarded like a human being by the men who rode with Chris Larabee that it took adjustment to be looked upon as a colonel once more. He saw Lieutenant Cleary sitting amidst his men, pouring himself a cup of coffee and decided he would not mind a cup himself. Approaching them the lieutenant, Cleary started to rise to attention, as did the rest of the group with him before Markham gestured for them to remain at ease.

"Just want a cup of Joe." Markham replied and immediately prompted someone into pouring some of the beverage into a tin mug before handing it to him.

"How long have you been here, Colonel?" Cleary asked in what appeared to be an attempt at conversation rather than any real interest to find out.

"About two days," Markham responded, savouring the feel of hot coffee in his mouth. "We rode in straight after we got Larabeeís telegram."

"You mean the general?" Cleary looked at him.

"No his son." Markham answered and immediately saw a dark look eclipsing the young lieutenantís face.

"I see." Lieutenant Cleary nodded taking a sip of coffee in a clumsy attempt to avoid talking about that particular subject. By this time, dinner was more or less ready and soldiers were gathering with their army supplied steel dinner plates, to line up for food. As bodies drifted off to get in line the two commanding officers remained where they were for the moment. There was no need to rush because as the cook had declared earlier, there was plenty of food and no need to jockey for position in fears of missing a serving.

"Heís not so bad." The colonel said with a smile. Although he had not liked Chris Larabee either upon first meeting, it became very clear that much of the steel that made the father the man Markham respected was also present in the son. "I have found the junior Larabee to be no fool."

"He is a civilian." Cleary remarked.

"That he is but he was a Captain in the war." Markham pointed out and drew surprise from Cleary who could hardly imagine the savage looking man that was Chris Larabee had once worn the uniform of a Union captain.

"I donít believe it. He hardly looks like the type to be a soldier." Cleary remarked as the cook made a brief appearance and served them each a plate of food. After thanking the grizzled looking sergeant, both men took a moment to partake of the savoury stew before resuming their conversation. Around them, the chatter around the camp had become silent in favour of cutlery clattering against metal plates as the soldiers dined.

"Wars change men in ways that are hard to define." Markham replied and knew that it was true. A man being shot in the back had much reason for his perspective to alter, as certainly Chris Larabeeís had been when Julius had attempted to murder him.

Cleary nodded for a moment and did not speak, appearing to ruminate on the colonelís words while continuing to eat. Both officers said nothing for a moment, taking a few minutes to clean their plate because the day had been long and it was hungry. The food was not exactly the quality a gourmand who demand but it was tasty and very soon. He had set down his place and let his gaze travel around the camp momentarily, spying all the soldiers who were engaged in similar culinary pursuits until his eye rested on the private he had seen earlier. The man was not eating but watching everyone. For a moment, Markham wondered why wasnít he hungry and noted the way he observed the others. Curiosity got the better of him and he leaned over to the lieutenant. "Cleary, who is that private over there? Seems kind of solitary."

"Which man?" Cleary asked as he leaned over to get a better look at whom the colonel required him to identify. It was hard to get into position because his stomach was burning with pain and he was starting to feel a little jittery. He glanced momentarily at his plate and thought that something must have disagreed with him. Perhaps, too much pepper. In either case, he ignored the sensation and turned his attention to Markhamís question.

"That one there." Markham pointed him out.

Cleary eyes searched the faces and quickly saw the man Markham wanted him to find which was easy enough to do because he knew every man in his platoon and the man that Markham had pointed to was not someone he recognised. With a start, Cleary stood up at the realisation that had never seen the man before and was certain did not belong at any time to his platoon. His abrupt rise created fresh pain in his abdomen and for a moment he thought he had a severe case of indigestion when he realised that Markham was no longer interested in his answer. The colonel was gasping in pain, trying hard to breathe as he clutched his chest.

Cleary started to feel the same constriction in his chest at the same time he heard someone crying out and then someone else, until cacophony of voices that resonated through the thickening fog of pain drowned out his ability to distinguish one from the other. The young man tried desperately to cling to his senses as he felt his voice dissolve in his throat as the cords became emersed in bile and fear. He saw the men he had rode with, with whom he had commanded and whose very lives were his to protect and guide, choking in pain as they dropped to their knees and did a different dance each but moving to the same rhythm of death.

The astonishment of what he was seeing centred his thoughts for the moment and he saw his entire platoon in the throes of the same malaise, struggling to breathe as if the air that was denied them was not just to their lungs. He felt the same tightening and he gasped louder more desperately as he tried to flood his body with the precious oxygen that was not penetrating some invisible net that seemed to have them all. His men were convulsing on the ground; some were clutching their stomachs in pain while others had already descended into a black place that beyond help of any kind. He watched with rising horror, intermingled with the knowledge that the swirling inside his mind and the depravation of breath was only the prelude to a condition that had no escape.

There was a final moment of lucidity when the fog cleared long enough for Cleary to sight the face that had begun the descent into hell for all his men. The face stared back at Cleary, perhaps realising throughout the chaos taking place around him that the play was finally reaching its last act. He seemed to smile then, pleased at the drama-reaching climax. Cleary understood then, with a clarity of mind that had been denied him most of his short life because of arrogance and short sightedness how doomed they had been the moment, they believed they were better and smarter than the enemy.

He tried to scream when the realisation finally breached the swirl of delirium that was his mind and when it came, he did not even know if the sound had escaped him was his at because all he could hear was that desperate screaming from so many others......

+ + + + + + +

Nettie Wells had heard the gunshots and when she had gone to investigate, decided that she was glad she had made Casey stay at the homestead and not be forced to witness what she had when she arrived at the site of the army encampment. She had lived a hard life and was certain by this juncture of it that there was very little that could shake her to the core. However, what she had seen in the aftermath of the violence at the camp was enough to eclipse all the experiences of the past and sear its grisly visage into memory forever.

She had no idea how much time had passed after the cessation of the gunfire she had heard and her arrival to allow the man responsible for the carnage to make good their escape. In truth, she was rather relieved that she had not been present at the time they had perpetrated their murderous work for men who would kill in this way were not people she ever wanted to meet. Nettie moved through the camp, almost dazed as she tried to search for signs of life. As she had expected there were none. Whomever had done this was extremely thorough, leaving no survivors. During the war, she had seen battles and the aftermath that followed and it struck close to home that what now lay at her feet was not so different.

She did not know how long she wandered through the camp but the time seemed to drag with every face she saw until finally, she could do nothing but pull herself away from it. Mounting her horse and leaving the terrible scene behind her, she rode home first because she knew the news of what had happened at the camp needed to reach the seven and Casey was a faster rider than she was. Her niece could traverse the distance between their property and Four Corners swiftly and for some reason, Nettie wanted Casey far from here until the soldiers could be properly attended to. There was some things that Nettie did not want Casey to see, no matter how grown up the girl confessed to being.

"What was it Aunt Nettie?" Casey asked, emerging onto the porch the moment she heard Nettieís horse approaching home.

"You ainít got time for me to answer any questions Casey," Nettie said quickly, wishing to avoid the subject all together. "You got to get riding to Four Corners, right away."

"Why?" Casey demanded, feeling her pulse quicken at the intensity of Nettieís words. Something was terribly wrong and even though she wanted to know what that was, there was something in Nettieís manner that indicated it would not be a good idea to ask.

"Casey." Nettie gave her a look and confirmed her suspicion. "I want you to get riding to Four Corners right away and find Chris. Tell him something bad has happened to the soldiers and that he needs to come right away."

"Whatís happened?" Casey tried again, feeling apprehensive because there was something in Nettieís eyes that told her that there was more to it and that it might just be too awful to imagine.

"Now Casey." Nettie said sharply. "Get going now."

The young woman could only nod and hurried into her house to get dressed for the trip, understanding by Nettieís tone alone that it was best that she did not know what had happened until Nettie was ready to tell her about it. With a matter of minutes, Casey was dressed in her riding clothes and had mounted her horse to make the journey to Four Corners.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was about to head home and make his apologies to Mary for their latest argument with every intention of ensuring that this was their last altercation on the matter when Casey Wells rode into the town like a bat out hell. With dark hair trailing behind her as she pushed her mare to its limits, the girl looked like a harbinger of doom. It did not take her long to bring news to him that something terrible had taken place at Nettieís and that she had been sent to town to fetch him and the others. Judging by the way that Nettie had been closed mouth about disclosing anything in the presence of Casey; Chris had to believe that it must have been bad.

Fortunately, with the exception of Ezra who would not be expected to return until the next day, the rest of the seven were in town, having congregated there after taking care of business in their respective private lives. While Chris had not seen Mary since his wife had spent most of the day running errands, he did take some time to explain to Billy that things between his ma and Chris were not all as bad as it they had appeared the night before. While Chris was more of a father to Billy than anything else these days, he had remembered how fearful the boy had been at the change in status quo when Chris had married his mother. Taking Billy aside and explaining things to him like they were still friends not father and son had gone a long way to forging the bonds that made the later possible.

Deciding that the presence of the general was probably a good idea as well, Chris fetched his father from his hotel and within the hour of Caseyís arrival in town, they were all riding towards Nettie Wellís property. Chris had ordered Casey to stay at Alexandra Stylesí home until they had discerned what exactly was the nature of the crisis that had been reason for their summons to Nettieís. However, as they rode out towards the Wellsí property, Chris knew that there was no reason that Nettie would summon them like this unless the situation was critical.

The mood was tense as they rode to Nettieís with conversation being short and clipped in anticipation of what they would find when they arrived at the army encampment. It was well into night when they finally reached the parcel of land they had left a few hours ago in the hands of Markham and his men. The most noticeable thing that captured their attention upon returning to this site was the silence. When they had departed earlier, there were all the sounds associated with life, lively chatters, orders being thrown about not to mention the preparations for the setting up of camp. Now there was nothing but audible silence. The only thing that was alive in area were themselves and the chirping of crickets in the dark.

The campfire had burned itself out by this point and as they lit fires in order to see, the discovery that came upon that illumination was not necessarily one that any of them would have liked. As the light from the fire spread out over the area, Chris heard the breaths of just about every one of his friends catch in their throats. For himself, he felt his stomach tightening in nothing less than disgust at what was before him. For a moment, the enormity of it did not register on him or any of them for that matter, but once they saw the horror in all its scope, could well appreciate why Nettie had sent Casey for them so quickly.

Bodies.

As far as the eye could see, throughout the entire length and breath of the camp, there were bodies littering the ground as if this had been the site of a great battle where all the combatants who fought had died without a drop of blood being spilt. Of course, later on when they shifted through the corpses, they would find one or two soldiers that had been killed by bullets not the poison that had been fed to their comrades. The scene before the new arrivals was nothing less than horrific as they took in the sight of bodies growing cold rapidly in the twilight. For the longest time no one could speak. Not even Chris Larabee who thought that he had seen the very worst of what the night had to offer could find words to describe what was before them.

"Oh my god." Someone finally managed to squeeze sound out of their throat and Chris thought it might have come from Josiah.

The silence broken had made them all come to life and it was Nathan who was fastest to react because his mind was focussed not on the dead but on how many that might still be alive. With that impetus to compel him forward, the healer went to the man nearest to him and began examining the fallen body. Only when he rolled the person onto his back and Josiah had approached them both with a makeshift torch, did he discover it to be that of Lieutenant Cleary.

"What the hell did this?" Vin asked. The trackerís voice was lower than normal and Chris could only shake his head mutely as he went to investigate the rest of the camp to see if this carnage had taken place was as complete as it appeared.

"Poison." Nathan spoke up after he had made a quick study of Clearyís body below him.

"Poison?" Larabee tuned to him. The generalís eyes glimmered in the dark but only Chris knew how truly furious he was even though he did nothing to show his rage. It festered beneath the surface, revealing itself in the tightening of his jaw.

"Yeah," Nathan nodded and captured their undivided attention. "Looks like prussic acid." He answered after a moment, having learnt that much from the books he had been pouring over the past year in preparation for his medical exams. "Itís odourless and in food, you wouldnít even know its there but you can tell by the colour of the tongue."

"Colour?" Buck asked quietly as he kept a close eye on JD who had never seen death on this scale and was turning a different shade himself. The boy was doing everything he could not to get sick but he was fighting a losing battle.

"His tongue is blue." The healer turned away and went to another patient, hoping against hope that he would find someone alive even though logic dictated that this was impossible now. If it was prussic acid that did this then it was highly unlikely that any survivors would be found. "Prussic acid does this. It keeps oxygen from getting to the lungs and body."

"You mean these men suffocated on dry land." Larabee replied coldly. His voice was like glass and it cut through each man present.

"This is sick....." JD started to say, his breathing increasing as he saw these bodies around him and could not imagine how anyone could do this. "A man has a right to see his killer." The boy answered, his throat becoming drier and drier with each second that passed. He could feel sweat forming under his hair and his skin heating up with anger and raw disgust the likes of which he had never known. "Thereís gotta be some kind of honour to fighting, not this!"

"JD." Buck was on him in a second, trying to settle him down. "Calm down!"

"I caní calm down!" JD shouted. "Thereís gotta be someone alive!"

Suddenly, the general was suddenly in front of him and Larabee took JDís face in his hands and said very calmly with that voice which had the power to make even Chris Larabee feel safe. "Look at me." He ordered and JD found himself unable to do anything but stare into those eyes turned obsidian in the dark. "Every fight has its dead, those are the rules. We donít like it but thatís the way it is. You need to calm down because I need every man here focussed if weíre gonna get the sons of bitches who did this and trust me, we are going to get them. Even if we chase them to hell and back, they are going to answer for this. Understand? Now shut it off. Put it some place inside your mind and closed the door."

JD shuddered and tried not to look at the bodies around him and knew the older man was right. He could not think about it or else he would be no good to anyone.

"Listen to the man JD," Buck said quietly, not entirely sure whether or not that was the tactic he would have used but unable to deny that the effects were exactly what JD needed at this moment.

"When you feel it creeping out at you," the general continued to say in the same voice, cold as ice and yet the sharp splinter through black they needed to centre their horror upon which to give them strength in this darkest of hours. "Just donít look and try to keep that door inside your head shut. Keep slamming that door until it stays close."

JD nodded slowly, his head still in the manís hands and let out a deep breath. "Shut the door." He swallowed and the general released him. Closing his eyes, he tried very hard to do what the man had asked and kept reminding himself that he had to be strong because the general needed him to be that way.

"You okay JD?" Buck asked, wrapping an arm around him just to show him that he was not alone.

"Iím fine Buck." JD smiled nervously, trying not to look too closely at anything.

The big man tipped his hat towards the general in a gesture of gratitude which Larabee acknowledge with a slight bow of his head before returning to his son and his very able second. Chris had gone to the far side of the camp, their presence marked by the torch they were carrying. However, its illumination had so far revealed nothing but menace and the stakes for how much further things could deteriorated seemed to need redefining with each new discovery. God only knows what Vin would find as he scouted the area. The tracker who was better at seeing in the dark had no need of light and Chris knew that if there were answers to be found, only Vin could manage it.

"Is it gone?" Larabee asked, not even needing an answer really because this kind of massacre could have only one purpose.

"All of it." Chris sighed as he viewed the empty place where the nitro had been. "As sick as this is, its Juliusí style."

"A man who shoots another in the back will not have trouble poisoning him either." Larabee frowned, letting his gaze sweep across the bales of hay that were scattered across the area after the enemy had found their precious cargo. "Kid was right," he said icily. "There ought to be some honour to how men fight and the one who would do this needs putting down, quickly."

"Weíll oblige him that." Chris answered meeting his fatherís gaze as Nathan came to join them. Behind them, Josiah and Buck were starting to gather bodies and it was a task they would all soon have to partake because it was wrong to leave the dead just lying on the earth waiting to be claimed by buzzards or any nocturnal predator.

"Not all of them were poisoned." Nathan answered. "Looks to me they all went at pretty much the same time. Someone poisoned the food they were eating for supper. Some didnít eat of course and looks as if they were shot."

"Jesus." Chris whispered, unable to imagine the callousness of it all and yet knowing he had to deal with it because its evidence was undeniable.

"Itís all of them?" Larabee inquired.

"Yes Sir," Nathan nodded and then added reluctantly. "Including Markham."

Larabee looked up at him sharply as the news impacted off him and then faded away a moment later. "He was good man." The general said quietly, his gaze dropping to his feet as he thought about the friend who had been at his side for more years than he cared to remember. "Markham was in intelligence for years, he was best undercover man I knew." Larabee replied neutrally, no signs of remorse in his voice as he spoke about a friend who might just reappear instead of lying in the dirt dead and gone forever. "Twenty years out there and he gets killed by poison at supper."

"Iím sorry Sir." Chris offered, aware that his father was feeling a great deal of sorrow at Markhamís death.

"Same thing that goes for the boy, goes for me too." The general cleared his throat and looked up at him. "It needs to be put away some place dark for the time being."

"Chris." Vin made his appearance out of the shadows a few seconds later. The trackerís expression was even stonier than usual although Chris could hardly blame him for his grim disposition considering what lay before them. "I found two bodies a ways from here. Their clothes were stripped. I think theyíre from the platoon."

"Thatís how they got in." Chris nodded, unsurprised by this news at all. "Probably took out a recon patrol that was sweeping the area and stole their uniforms."

"Yeah," Vin nodded. "I found tracks even further out than that. I donít think they belonged to your men general."

"Let me guess, they lead from another way in here?" Larabee asked, guessing what had taken place once the revelation of stolen uniforms had been made.

"Itís a tougher route but good riders can make it with the help of an experience man with the land." Vin answered.

"Bellison." Chris muttered softly. Bellison was a tracker like Vin and if there was a way to approach without being seen, Bellison would have found it.

"There were a lot of them." The tracker continued for the benefit of those waiting to hear his findings. "I figured they waited while the two who grabbed uniforms, came into camp and did what they had to until the poison took effect. Once these army boys were dead or dying, they came in and killed anyone who wasnít poisoned and then took the nitro."

"Shit!" Chris swore unable to believe that he had walked away from this place allowing that kid to be in charge who not only got himself and the men under his command killed but also lost the entire shipment of nitro that was most likely to kill even more people. "I knew we should have kept an eye on this ourselves."

Larabee stiffened and turned to him. "Then you would be dead too and the nitro would still be gone."

His father was right but knowing did not change things. The nitro was gone and they were no closer to finding Bellison and his men then they were when this all started. Chris wondered if things could get any worse.

+ + + + + + +

Mary glanced outside the window once again, wondering why she was doing that when it was quite obvious that Chris would not be home for awhile. After hearing from Casey that Nettie had summoned the lawmen to her property, Mary assumed that some crisis had occurred that required their immediate attention since they could be no other reason why Nettie would make such a request. The widow was not prone to exaggeration and Mary tried not to worry about Chris and what danger might be waiting for him. Billy had gone to bed already and Mary knew she ought to be doing the same but she could never could sleep well when Chris was out there somewhere, facing who knew what kind of danger.

She found herself in the parlour, curling up with a book she had read a hundred times before. However, she often felt comforted by its words in times of crisis and thus she continued to read it over and over again, this time doing so while nursing a cup of hot chocolate. She was in the midst of a sip when suddenly, the door knocked. Instinctively, she glanced at the clock wondering who it could be at this hour and hoped it was not some emergency that required Chrisí attention because she would not be able to accommodate the late night caller if it were.

Setting aside the cup on the nearby side table, she tightened the chord around her robe as she proceeded to the back porch where most visitors to the Larabee household tended to use when they came calling for purposed not related to the Clarion. She did not recognise the shape through the glass but that did not mean anything because the darkness outside made it difficult to see.

Upon reaching it, she pulled open the door and found herself staring into the barrel of a gun. The man who stood before her was no one she knew but the menace she saw in his face was unmistakable and telling of his intentions. Giving her little or no time at all to react, he jammed the gun into her belly and said with a perfectly calm voice.

"Good evening Mrs Larabee," he smiled. "Permit me to introduce myself, I am Mr Bellison."

Part Six: The Right Hand of God

Ezra could sense trouble in the wind even though he had no idea of what was transpiring in Four Corners during his journey to Purgatory.

Upon his arrival, the gambler headed towards the saloon normally occupied by the very lovely Maria, with whom Chris Larabee had spent much time in his bachelor days. The illusion that he was here to see a saloon girl for whatever delights she might provide was sufficient to convince those who were watching that he was here simply for carnal reasons and not any subterfuge that would draw suspicion upon him. As much as he had complained while in the company of Vin Tanner and Chris Larabee earlier on that day, he did concede they were wise in sending him to undertake this particular bout of intelligence gathering.

It further amused Ezra though he would never say it aloud, especially to Chris Larabee who would die before admitting it, that he sensed the reason for all of the gunslingerís cautions were not for the success of the task he had been assigned but rather his own safety. Buck had described Chris as being raised by bears and after seeing the paternity that produced Chris Larabee, Ezra could well understand the reason why the gunslinger was so protective about the men he rode with. While the analogy was not something that Ezra would ever reveal to Chris, mostly because he wanted to live to a ripe old age, Chris was like a mother bear and those who threatened his cubs earned his extreme displeasure as well as a voracious response in retaliation.

Arriving in Purgatory, he noticed the sombre atmosphere that Vin had described to him but maintained the facade of noticing nothing out of the ordinary as he hitched Chaucer to the hitching post. Allowing his gaze to sweep across the unimpressive collection of mud and render buildings, he could see faces peering out the door and windows unobtrusively and with secrecy behind their every movement. Ezra could read the body language of those who took enough interest in his arrival to dislodge themselves from their places of hiding and told Ezra that their reasons were more than just passing.

The gambler ignored the attention, knowing that it was vital to his survival that he did not allow any suspicion to rise at his actions. He walked into the saloon before looking around the well lit establishment with its canvas swaying above head, allowing fresh air and sunshine into its premises. Considering the nature of the business conducted here, it was novel decor for a saloon and had to admit that it must have been popular because the place was full. His eyes scanned the room, searching for the lusty looking woman with the wild hair and full lips. Ezra had to confess finding her a tasty morsel indeed and could well understand Chrisí interest in the past. When he did not see her, Ezra had to assume she was somewhere with a customer and drifted towards the bar.

"The finest of whatever you have." Ezra asked the rather slovenly bartender, perfectly aware that the best of what the establishment had to offer would be anything that was not brewed by two yokels with a still and common parentage.

The man snorted and reached underneath the bar for a bottle of Red Eye. For this place, Ezra decided it must have been Napoleon brandy in comparison to what was normally served here. He poured Ezra a glass and was about to retreat with the bottle when the gambler gestured him to let it remain. Once monies were exchanged for the transaction, Ezra took the opportunity to find out about Maria and hoped that wherever she was, it would not be for too long.

"Tell me kind Sir," Ezra answered, offering him an extra coin. "When will the charming Miss Maria be arriving."

The man stiffened and pushed the coin back to Ezra, his demeanour shifting from gruff and derisive to gruff and unhappy, a change that did not bode well for his inquiry and put Ezra on guard immediately. "She wonít be back."

"Of course she has to come back," Ezra declared for the benefit of anyone listening. "Now that young lady truly knows how to take care of a manís needs and I have dire craving for her personal expertise in a more solitary location." He threw in a leer of suggestion just for effect.

"Sheís dead." He retorted.

Ezra fell silent trying to hide the shock and commended himself inwardly that he managed quite well to conceal all traces of Maria meaning more to him than just a passing acquaintance. He took a deep breath and let it out dispelling any personal feelings he might have on the matter and replaced it with a mask that would suit the moment. To the casual observer, they would have seen nothing out of the ordinary, just the visage of someone given unexpected news but nothing more. Ezra if anything was very good at hiding how he truly felt. A poker face was an absolute necessity in his line of work.

How unfortunate." Ezra answered a little more sedately. "How did it happen?"

"She asked to many questions," the man growled, his manner indicating that he felt more grief about the matter than he would like to have admitted but thought it unwise to reveal it. Ezra could appreciate that, after all the man would have seen Maria on a day to day basis. She could not operate here without his sufferance and did not press the subject any more since it was obvious she had met her end prematurely by agents who were still present.

"Point taken." Ezra nodded and replied. "Well it appears I might just have to find my amusement in Purgatorio somewhere else. Poor child will be missed. She was trulyÖ" he paused and offered a salacious leer at anyone who was paying attention. "Gifted."

Whether or not the bartender could see through his ruse was question unanswered because the man turned away and returned to serving his other customers. Ezra lingered a moment longer, downing the contents of his shot glass and left the premises in search of a game at the gambling halls elsewhere. His departure barely rated notice by those in the saloon who appeared to be regulars since the bartender addressed them by name. Ezra had a feeling that the men he wanted to meet would not be greeted so favourably the gruff owner of the establishment.

Only after he had left the place, did Ezra drop the mask of indifference at Mariaís death long enough to permit sorrow to wash over him. Chris was not going to take this well and Ezra did not relish telling the gunslinger that the woman had died, especially considering the nature of their past relationship. Undoubtedly she must have been killed straight after Chris and Vin had encountered her yesterday and the only reason that Ezra could imagine anyone taking her life must have been on account of her association with the gunslinger. If a report had reached Bellison about her acquaintance past or present with Chris Larabee, her fate would have been sealed.

Ezra would have liked to have learnt something more about her death in order to bring it back to Chris who would undoubtedly wish to know just before he started blaming himself for it, however, to probe too deeply into that question would have brought unwanted attention. Ezra could not afford that right now. He crossed the street and noticed his movements followed by eyes seated under the awnings of some buildings, through the windows of some lodging houses and saloons, not to mention anyone else on the street. They observed him, trying to decide what he was and became uneasy when they could not come to a suitable answer. The gambler pretended not to notice their scrutiny as he slipped through the bat wing doors of the largest gambling establishment in Purgatory. That distinction was earned simply because it had a number of felt covered tables and a roulette wheel while the others were mostly little more than saloons with tables for the purpose.

Ezra entered the establishment and let his gaze sweep over the room as he took in the sight of the patrons. As Maria had warned Chris prior to her tragic demise, there were new players in town that were not of the calibre that usually frequented Purgatory. Outlaws had a certain look and feel about them, a weary disposition that perhaps cried out their exile state in their dusty clothes, the worn butt of their guns used over a length of time and the fact that everyone who came in was a potential danger. When he walked in and saw the men around him, who appeared to have purpose in their faces as if they were killing time while awaiting something to happen, Ezra knew that he was at the heart of the malaise that had overtaken Purgatory.

The dealer who was at the blackjack table glanced at him apprehensively as if trying to warn him away or for that matter anyone else. Before him were three men. The two flanking the one in the middle looked inconsequential and told Ezra in the way they studied him closely that they were merely protection. The person in the middle seemed unperturbed by his entrance, bordering on indifference and continued to play. Stature wise, he was not very big or tall but he could be considered spry and the muscles that Ezra spied beneath the silk of his shirt was cultivated over a great deal of physical punishment. His face was not that of a man used to hardship, bordering on refined with dark hair and a darker eyes that were filled with intelligence. Ezra had no doubt he had no difficulty with filling his bed at night for he held the persona of someone who was always cool under fire and used to getting what he wanted.

Without even being introduced, Ezra knew he was looking at Hannibal Julius.

However, the gambler was too much the consummate professional to show that he was aware of the manís identity and made his way boldly to the table where an empty chair beckoned those who was brave enough to join the game. He was aware that he was watched as he made his progress towards the table, knowing that the intensity of their scrutiny had increased a thousand fold because he was approaching their leader. In particular by the two men who sat by Juliusí side.

Ezra sat down without asking and said quite confidently, drawing Juliusí attention to him. Fortunately, the dealer had just completed the last set with Julius winning his money back while the others were seeing theirs swept away by the house. "Deal me in my good man." He instructed reaching for the money that he always had tucked away as the tools of his trade.

"I do not believe you were asked to join us, Sir." Julius remarked.

"I do not believe your permission is required." Ezra retorted as he saw the dealer glancing anxiously at Julius as if fearful that they were perched on the brink of some unpleasantness.

"Iím afraid at this table it is." The commander of the Citadel remarked, sitting straight in his chair and focussing his full attention at the newcomer.

"And I am afraid that I have the right to utilise these facilities as freely as the next man but if you wish to take issue with that, I have no objection."

The dealer continued to mete out the cards, his hands trembling slightly as he tried not to show fear at the violence threatening to erupt at the arrival of this new face. Ezra ignored the threat in Juliusí voice even though he was poised to react if the man wished to take great offence at his presence at the table.

"My men are all around you," Julius responded, still using that calm voice. "What chance do you think you will have against all of us?" His eyes shifted away from the gambler long enough to let his gaze sweep across the establishment. However, Ezra who was focussed on his cards, did not even look up to acknowledge the threat.

"Not much." Ezra said smoothly. "But when this becomes a shooting match. I will not aim for them, just you."

The two next to Julius started to rise when the man himself gestured them to remain seated and regarded the interloper once again before erupting into laughter. It was a short laugh but enough to diffuse the situation as Julius composed himself and remarked. "You are brave man, Iíll give you that." A smile crossed his face. "You may stay."

"Thank you." Ezra answered politely, not about to rekindle the tension by being rude.

"I am Hannibal Julius," the man motioned his body guards aside so that he could have a clear line of sight with Ezra when he extended his hand. "You are?"

"Ezra Standish." He said lowering his cards long enough to return the handshake.

"So Mr Standish," Julius studied him. "Whatís a southern gentleman doing out here in the Territory?"

"Trying to earn a living." Ezra replied. "I am a professional gambler after all, small forgotten backwaters like these are my trade."

The dealer had stopped what he was doing, not about to anger Julius by interrupting him with mundane matters like the game while the man was conversing with the stranger. After the near miss, the man was simply grateful that he was still alive and did not want to quibble with the details.

"Hardly seems like a dignified way to make a living." Julius pointed out.

"I have never been partial to menial labour," Ezra responded with a sigh. "Although I sometimes take on work as a hired gun."

"Really?" The manís interest was sparked on that statement. "Are you fast?"

"So they tell me." Ezra finally met his gaze. "However, if you would like a more accurate definition of that, I am pleased to say that if I had in mind to take offence at your earlier behaviour, I would have you and your body guards before the rest of your men could take me."

"Itís just a lot of talk." One of them declared.

"Now its not nice to assume someoneís lying before theyíve had a chance to prove it Thomas." Julius was in the midst of saying when suddenly, he saw Ezra moving like a fast blur. In less than a second, the gambler had a tiny derringer aimed at Thomas while the gun slung around his hips was aimed at his second protector. The dealer stumbled away from the table, trying to get out of sight of the gunfight poised to erupt. Throughout the room, the rest of Juliusí men were on their feet ready to shoot when Julius grinned even wider.

"Stand down!" He barked, wanting no one to act rashly when it was obvious the gambler had no intention of firing. Thomas swallowed visibly facing the barrel of the small weapon which was still capable of taking his life.

"Was than an adequate enough demonstration for you?" Ezra inquired with a perfectly innocent expression on his face despite the fact that he had almost brought the room to a state of pandemonium.

"Quite adequate." Julius replied, clapping slight.

"Thank you." Ezra tipped his hat and replaced the derringer into its hiding place and reholstered his gun before sitting down. Thomas and his fellow protector gave him a venomous look at the humiliation he had brought upon them before their leader spoke.

"Leave us." Julius ordered.

Thomas opened his mouth to argue but the look he received from Julius about such a course forced his silence immediately. In a few seconds, both men withdrew, leaving Julius alone with Ezra. They retreated to the bar, joining their comrades who would no doubt console them for their embarrassment at the hands of this gambler who had captured their leaderís attention.

"Tell me Mr Standish, do you ever crave to be part of a cause greater than yourself?" Julius asked.

"I am afraid that after the last war, I am spent of such idealistic notions." Ezra replied, wondering what Julius was about to ask him even though he suspected that it would have to do with the organisation called the Citadel.

"That is unfortunate because I have need of a man like you. Talented, obviously learned and resourceful. You could come far with us." He looked at his men to show Ezra the scope of the word Ďusí.

"What exactly do you mean by far?" Ezra inquired. "When I fought for the Confederates, they preached that we would have a free south and now after much death and bloodshed, we are still under the yoke of the damn union. I am not a believer in slavery, I abhor the practise but the right to live as one wishes should not be dictated to by any state." Of course, he felt nothing like this at all but for the purpose of the illusion he was creating for Julius, it was necessary to tell the man what he would like to hear.

"I agree totally," Julius answered. "What would you say that my idealistic notions as you put it would see an end to the union flag and allow every man to live as he wishes? No matter what the colour or creed."

"I would say," Ezra said with a smile. "That I am interested."

+ + + + + + +

By the time the lawmen and the general had finished with the bodies, what with gathering all of them together and leaving them covered beneath the canvas left behind when the nitro had been stolen, it was almost dawn and everyone wanted to get home for some well needed rest. Still after what they had seen at the camp, sleep was not going to come easily with the images of so many dead men still fresh in their memory. Buck was putting up at Julia Pembertonís since Inez and the baby were there already while Vin had returned to Alexís home since there was no shack left at the ranch for him to occupy. Deciding that Mary was right about a great many things in relation to family, Chris invited his father home for the night, offering him the spare bedroom that had been his sleeping place since the general had arrived. He intended to apologise to Mary for everything, aware that he had been obtuse since this all had started and that she had been right to do what she had because Lord knew he would hav e let it sit until the situation became intolerable or until it went away, unresolved.

"I can go back to the hotel." Larabee remarked as they spied the building that the Clarion News called its office and Chris called home. "Its no trouble."

"This is closer." Chris replied wearily, feeling exhaustion in his bones and longed to slip into the covers with Mary and feel the warmth of her body against his while he whispered his apologies in her ear for being such a disagreeable bastard the past few days. "Besides, Mary didnít like you staying at any hotel. You know how women are."

"Its been awhile." Larabee said with a smile. "But I do remember."

"Iím surprised you didnít get married again." Chris remarked, never having the courage to say this to his father when he was younger but as Mary and so many others had told him lately, things change and so did people.

Larabee did not seem offended by the inquiry and realised that Chris was the only person from whom he would have tolerated that question. Everyone else would have been told to mind their own business. "Your mother was enough. I donít need to replace her." He said shortly and hoped that would be the end of his sonís curiosity. In truth, Gabrielle Larabeeís death was something that he had never allowed himself to get over. He loved her as much now as he loved her then and he was perfectly content to live his life alone because he could not imagine any other woman calling herself Mrs Marcus Larabee.

For once, Chris felt he had something of the advantage on the subject. "I used to feel that way too. When Sarah was gone, I couldnít even imagine having a family again. I couldnít stand feeling the same hurt again but then I came here and met Mary. I knew the moment I met her I was either going to kill her or marry her."

The general chuckled softly. "There are women who do that." He agreed. "Your wife is one of them. Not many women manage in a place like this," he remarked allowing his eyes to sweep over the town as they neared home. "She is something to do that."

"You donít know the half of it." Chris drawled as he pushed open the gate that emptied out into the small patch of garden around their house. As Chris rounded the building, he noted that there was darkness peeking through the windows and that put him on guard, even though there could be a perfectly logical explanation. He tensed, not knowing why but aware of the feeling that was often a prelude to something sinister. Hastening his pace, Chris did not make mention of his suspicions to his father, more focussed on getting into the house when he reached the back porch and saw that the front door was wide open.

Darkness gaped back at him through the open door when there should have been a light left burning for him in the kitchen. It was Maryís habit to leave at least one lamp for him whenever he was expected back late. Chris could have dismissed the anomaly of the absence of that familiar candle in the dark that beckoned him home when he returned but coupled with the back door staring at him, taunted him with all kinds of fear. He did not realise he had started running until he was through the front door and had started shouting.

"Mary!" He cried out.

There was no answer.

By now, even Larabee had seen enough to convince him that there might be cause for alarm. He followed closely after his son who ran through the house, calling for his wife only to be greeted by that damnable silence. He paused at the sight of a lamp and immediately lit the thing, flooding the house with light while above him, Chrisí footsteps could be heard running up the stairs to the upper floor of the house. As he continued deeper into the Larabee home, he repeated the process of illuminating the home, in order to discern what had happened here tonight. There were no signs of violence here but it was obvious something was amiss. An almost full cup of cocoa on the table, now cold and a book lying on its face. Nothing suspicious there but he wondered what had taken her away that she had not come back to finish it.

Chris ran to the bedroom, knowing already that she was gone because she would have answered him by now and dreaded at the possibility of finding her here in the face of her silence. He burst into their bedroom and saw that the bed was still made but no signs of Mary. Chris started to feel his heart pound in his chest, unable to think clearly for the sheer horror of what might have happened to Mary suddenly impressing upon itself in his mind. At that moment, he remembered his son and started for the boyís bed room when suddenly the door open quietly. Billy emerged from the darkness, tears glistening his face as he ran into Chrisí arms and embrace his stepfather.

"Pa!" Billy cried out as he clung to Chris. He some times did that when he was terribly afraid or when he had nightmares, forgetting long enough in his fear that the man he clung to for comfort was not his father.

"Billy!" Chris let out a sigh of relief seeing the boy was safe even though the whereabouts of Mary left him beside himself with fear. "Are you okay, pard?" Chris asked, composing himself as best he could because the boy needed him to be strong.

"He took her Chris!" The child exclaimed, wiping his tears from his red cheeks as he stuttered in the best explanation he could give about what had happened to his mother. "I woke up when I heard ma trying to tell the man not to take me. I didnít want him to hurt her so I climbed out the window and hid so he couldnít find me!"

"Who Billy?" Chris asked, hoping against hope that it was not whom he suspected.

"Bellison." Billy cried out, letting the name escape him like he was holding it in his breath. Billy had forced himself to remember every detail because when Chris came home, he would have to tell so that they could find ma again. "Ma called him Mr Bellison."

Chris closed his eyes slowly as he came to grips with what he had prayed was not true but in truth, could not be anything else. The air was forced out of his lungs as a silent cry of despair ran through his soul. He could feel the black abyss that had been his constant companion after Sarahís death and during all the days before his marriage to Mary, pressing hard against the periphery of his consciousness, harking its return in a taunting voice.

Disconnect it, he told himself. Disconnect it or youíre never getting her back.

By this time, Larabee had come up the stairs and seen that Billy was safe but the situation was far from good. The expression on Chrisí face had more power to frighten him than anything he had ever seen in nearly four decades of military service. It was devoid of any emotion with a detachment he had seen only in stone killers who were used to murder without any feeling or conscious.

"Theyíve got her." Chris said simply straightening up, with Billy still in his arms. The boy was clinging on to Chris for dear life, his head leaning against his fatherís shoulder, trying not to be afraid that his ma was gone and believing with all the might in his small body that Chris would bring her home.

"Damn." Larabee whispered softly.

"It was Bellison." Chris answered, his face was a mask of stone and knew that if anything happened to Mary there was nowhere on this earth that Bellison or Julius could hide that Chris would not find them and wreak bloody revenge.

"They must have come here straight after stealing the nitro." Larabee answered.

"Its either or warning to let it go or revenge." Chris stated, hoping that it was the former. A warning for the lawmen to keep away hinged on keeping Mary alive for the threat to hold, however, revenge did not require Maryís continued existence. There was enough history between himself, Bellison and Julius to warrant them being spiteful enough to kill her for what they had endured in prison. However, Chris had to believe that Bellison had timed his kidnapping with the theft of the nitro for a reason. "For now, Iíll take it as a warning."

"What do you want to do?" The general asked because Mary was his wife.

"First Iím going to take my son some place where he can get some sleep." Chris said putting on a confident face for Billyís sake even though he was quivering inside. He had not felt so much fear for her life since that nightmarish episode when her body had been taken by an ancient evil and even this had the potential to be worse. If she died, there would be no miracle sarcophagus to restore her life or the life of their unborn child. He would lose them both forever.

"Donít leave me Chris." Billy whined terrified of losing his stepfather now that his mother had been taken by the bad man.

"Hey pard," Chrisí tough mask melted enough to show warmth for this little boy who was just as precious to him as his mother. The healing process in the wake of Sarah and Adamís death had as much to do with Billy as it had with Mary. "I ainít leaving you, I promise but I got to go find your ma. Now, Iím gonna take you to Juliaís." Chris hoped the emporium owner would not mind having a full house but Billyís infatuation with her would make the time away from both parents somewhat tolerable. "Julia will look after you while Iím gone but I promise you, when I come back, your ma will be with me."

+ + + + + + +

Less than half an hour later, the rest of the seven were congregated in the parlour of Julia Pembertonís house. The lady had taken the liberty of putting Billy to bed while the men gathered to discuss the situation. Chris felt that it was rather a redundant gesture because he wanted to ride out of town right now to Purgatory and kill every man present until someone told him where Mary was. He was riding the barest edge of control and as he paced the floor of the Juliaís parlour, the rest of the seven could see how dangerous their leader was in his present state.

Even his father.

"We ought to get going now." Chris said in a low voice that did not leave room for discussion or negotiation, just obedience.

"Listen pard," Vin spoke up, always having the power to soothe the beast when it was unleased inside Chris Larabee although this time, it was going to be problematic with the intense emotions he could see in Chrisí eyes. "Ezra will be back in a couple of hours. We ought to wait until then to see what he knows. If we go rushing into Purgatory with our guns blazing, sheís gonna get hurt."

"Sheís gonna get hurt even if we donít go!" Chris shot the tracker a look. "We shouldnít be wasting jawing about it when sheís out there!"

The others recoiled slightly at fury in his voice and knew that to provoke it was unwise but Vin was different animal altogether, not too dissimilar from Chris and not about to be intimidated either. That was one thing that made him stand apart from the others in his relationship with the gunslinger. Vin Tanner refused to tread lightly around Chris Larabee when the truth needed saying. "Chris I know how you feelÖ.."

"You donít know a damn thing about how I feel!" Chris nearly roared. "It ainít your wife out there! Its mine!"

"Keep your voice down goddamn it!" Buck hissed angrily, inspired by paternal concern to speak up. "There are kids in the house and youíre probably scaring Billy half to death!" The lawman was certain that Chrisí words were echoing throughout the place and would reach the young boy who was surely afraid enough as it was about his motherís life without hearing his father becoming unglued as well.

"Donít tell me about my son!" The gunslinger took a threatening step towards Buck and Vin was at his side immediately to stop the advance by taking firm grip on his arm that kept Chris from going any further. Chris swatted the trackerís hand away, all kinds of dangerous emotions coursing through his veins by the intrusion and whirled around to face Vin, forgetting all about Buck as he glared at his best friend with a glint in his eyes that could only be considered murderous. Vin was not about to let him continue the way he was and grabbed his shoulder again. Everyone was on their feet, aware that this was about to become very ugly.

"TakeÖ yourÖ. handsÖ. offÖ.meÖ.now." Chris growled in a tone that was feral in its threat.

"Or what?" Vin demanded, aware that his friend had gone over the edge and only reason by those around him was going to pull him back.

"Or Iím going toÖ.."

"Thatís enough CHRISTOPHER!" Marcus Larabee snapped, raising his voice in a seldom seen manner but one that no one could ignore once exerted. He strode forward and pulled both men apart as if he were separating two sparring children and shoved them aside. When Vin had stepped away, Larabee turned on Chris who still looked nearly savage and nothing at all like the son he had sent off to the Academy, fresh and ready to take on the world. It tore him apart inside to see what twenty one years had done to his boy and knew that if he did not act now, Chris would do something they would both spend the next twenty one years regretting.

"Cool off." He ordered. "Youíre running on anger at the moment and all youíre going to do if you ride into that place is get yourself and your men killed. Youíre no good to your wife the way you are and if you canít handle the situation, you will stand down and leave it to those of us who can."

Chris bristled in anger about to respond in kind when he realised that his father was right. His eyes swept across the room and saw the friends whose worry for him was etched in their faces. From the shock and fear in JD who idolised him, to the understanding in Josiah and the anxiousness in Nathan who had never seen the gunslinger so infuriated. Buck appeared relieved that the tension had passed while Vin stared at him with the same resolute expression the tracker wore whenever he was determined to see something through, no matter how foolhardy it was. They were his friends and they feared for him as much as they feared him and inspiring that kind of feeling in the family that was as close to him as the man who had finally forced him to see reason made Chris want to turn away in shame.

"Vin, Buck," Chris swallowed hard. "Iím sorry." He said in a hoarse voice, unable to believe those words could be so painful to say.

"Its okay Chris," Buck smiled, glad that the moment was behind them. For a minute, he was not certain how far things were going to descend. He had not seen Chris this enraged since before the gunslinger had come to Four Corners when Chris would put a bullet into a man just for looking at him wrong. "If it was Inez, I canít say I would be feeling any different."

Vin did not make any comment, merely taking the apology with a gentle nod of acknowledgment.

Larabee let out a deep breath, relieved that the tension was over for now and then returned to the situation at hand because all were still shell shocked from the fight that almost was. "Now you got a man in Purgatory gathering intelligence," the general said to Chris and pulled his son further out of the red haze of rage that had threatened to overtake him a few minutes ago. "I say let him do his job. If he is meant to be back in a few hours, then letís wait this out. If he has not found anything then we will go to Purgatory and this time, we wonít ask as nicely. Is that alright with you?" The general stared at Chris.

Chris nodded. "Thatís fine with me." He answered. "But if Ezra doesnít come back when heís supposed to, then Iím going to Purgatory and hell is coming with me."

+ + + + + + +

"Well Ezra," Hannibal Julius looked across the table at him through a glass of red wine and asked. "You have heard my proposal, might I entice you to join my little organisation?"

Ezra who had joined the leader of the Citadel for dinner after spending most of the day in the manís company, regarded the question carefully after absorbing much of the politics that made up the doctrine of the Citadel. "It is a fascinating offer but while I am interested in the position, I am not entirely converted in the ideology. Do I need to be a true believer to qualify as a viable candidate?"

Julius leaned back into the chair of the dining table in the suite of rooms he occupied in what was possibly the best hotel in Purgatory. While its premises was hardly luxurious, it was spacious and afforded its occupier the trappings of opulence by the pretext of civilisation that was scattered about in the worn divans and cheap replicas of antique furniture, like the dining table that they were now sitting before. Judging by Juliusí conversations during most of the day, the gambler discerned that the man was starved for intelligent exchange that was not afforded to him by the racial assortment that made up his Ďcultí. Undoubtedly, Julius was the product of an expensive education and they conversed on a wide range of topics starting from the decline of western civilisation in Juliusí opinion to the works of Shakespeare.

"Fortunately, conversion is only a prerequisite for the lower echelons of my new order. I prefer to rely upon the intelligence of my inner circle rather than their belief." Julius responded to his earlier question about becoming a member of the organisation to which Ezra believed had a very select membership if one wished to be more than just a foot soldier.

"In that case I find myself unable to turn away in the face of opportunity." Ezra replied taking a sip of this mediocre red cabernet that he was forced to imbibe but supposed in Purgatory, wine of any distinction was something of a luxury. "What exactly do you require of me?"

"I require you to keep an open mind." Julius remarked and gestured to the guards who had been present at all times during the evening to leave. They had stood at the doorway to the suite and had counterparts who stationed on the other side of the wall, ensuring that no harm come to their master and Ezra was certain that they were all willing to die in the defence of his physical being.

"I keep an open mind about most things." Ezra answered smoothly; not about to cause ripples when he was so close to being let into the inner sanctum of Juliusí intentions.

"Not so fast," the man remarked, sitting up in his chair and staring at Ezra so the gambler could not make any mistake regarding the nature of what was being asked of him. "Once you are let in, there is no going back. I am opening up to you a world of possibility, where at my side you could literally hold this country in the palm of your hand and perhaps the world, in some future when my message spreads across the sea. You must understand that all you know before this moment is ended, like a page turned. The opportunity I am offering you is to be taken or not to be taken, there is no in between."

"And if I choose not to accept?" The gambler looked at Julius; glad that he was still armed even though Ezra knew that should he harm the man, he would not leave this room alive. Still, he had enough bullets to ensure that he was not taken without a fight and the last one could always be reserved for him. If worse came to worse, Ezra prefer to take a gentlemanís way out.

"If you choose not to accept?" Julius shrugged. "Then we finish this charming meal before us and I bid you adieu when the evening is done before we go our separate ways. No hard feelings."

Somehow Ezra was sceptical of it being so simple. However, he had to ask to make the facade he presented of actually considering the notion appear truthful or at all genuine. "Those are agreeable terms. However, I must ask a question and I pray that you appreciate my reasons for the inquiry."

"I am intrigued." Julius leaned forward, not expecting any further questions to be asked of him now that they were poised on the edge of decision.

"I am able to partake of my trade in any gambling houses scattered across the Territory but I chose to come here for a specific reason today." Ezra began, hoping that the truth within the lie would help strengthen the illusion as well as answer some questions he knew Chris Larabee would ask later on when the gambler saw him again. "There was a young lady, I would not say that I was overly affectionate about her, except that maybe I did care a little about her welfare in exchange for all the pleasure she has afforded me in the times I had partook of her services. I was told that she was killed, I would like to know why. Her name was Maria."

If Julius felt any dislike to being asked that, he did not show it. Instead he simply nodded in understanding and ruminated on the question as if considering his answer as Ezra had done so to his proposal earlier.

"I will allow you this indulgence because I see she meant something to you," he said finally. "She was a liability who chose to ally herself with one of my enemies. She was known to pass information to this agent on frequent occasions and it was in the interest of my organisation that she be removed."

"I always knew her sideline would bring her nothing but trouble," Ezra pretended to sigh with disapproval. "I had often told her that those who pass information for money do not have lengthy life spans. Unfortunately, the lady could not be convinced otherwise." He paused a moment, pretending to deal with what he had been told when secretly, Ezra knew that Julius had sealed his fate by striking out at Maria because nothing on earth was going to save him from Chris Larabeeís wrath when the gunslinger learnt what he had done. "I thank you for your honestly, Hannibal." Ezra answered finally. "I know you did not have to tell me the truth."

"Those in my organisation deserved nothing less," Julius answered graciously. "The question now lies before us, on whether or not you are to be counted as such."

A further pause followed and Ezra finally nodded, hoping the deal he made with the devil at this moment did not see himself lose body and soul later. It was mostly his body that gave him most cause for concern since Ezra had no idea whether or not he still had a soul to lose. "I accept your offer. I want to belong somewhere. I tire of wandering around aimlessly, like some creature lost to service or duty. If you can give me purpose then I will pledge myself to you."

Julius burst into a wide grin and replied with nothing less than pleasure. "I knew it!" He laughed. "I knew you could be one of us."

"Now," Ezra joined in his laughter and added. " I am sufficiently intrigued by the enigmatic nature of your earlier statement. What do you mean by keeping an open mind?"

Julius rose to his feet and walked along the table; fingers tracing the wood as he reached Ezra and stood behind him, dropping his hands on the both sides of Ezraís shoulders. Leaning close to Ezraís ear, until the gambler could feel the manís breath tickling his ear, he spoke. "There are ways to achieve power Ezra, ways that reek of conformity and slavery to an institution that keeps out those who should be gods among men while allowing mediocrity to cling to its seats of dominance when it should be cast down by their betters. I am such a god among men." He whispered in a voice that almost sounded like seduction.

Ezra fought the urge to keep from pulling away, learning something else about Julius that made him recoil and re-evaluate his previous estimation of endangering his body and soul by falling sway to Juliusí words. Suddenly, Ezra understood why Julius had been so eager to invite a relative stranger into the Citadel and thought furiously as to what he should do. Responding to the manís advances was unthinkable. However, as Juliusí fingers pressed into his flesh, savouring the feel of Ezraís skin the way Julia might do when she was feeling particularly expressive in her desire for him, Ezra reminded himself that knocking Julius on his ass was probably the worst thing he could do at this point. He was never one to walk away from an opening (so to speak) and if Juliusí intentions for him was what he suspected, Ezra found himself faced with an opportunity of great value if he could keep his emotions in check and his virtue intact.

Seeing that the gambler had not pulled away, gave Julius leave to continue with his caresses and he kept speaking in the soft, taunting voice that sang like a loverís kiss while rubbing the skin under the gamblerís crisp white shirt and dark vest with his fingertips.

"I will have my seat on the right hand of God but to achieve that supreme power I must use any means necessary to cast down those who would presume to be my equal. Those fools in Washington who bicker and argue about how a country should be governed when the only sensible course is by force of arms. I plan to run this nation red in a river of blood the likes of which has not been seen since Caesar crossed the Rubicon and became an Emperor. I will be an Emperor in this land Ezra but to do this minor miracle, I must spill blood. The weak must first be purged so that a new order can be established. Are you the strong or are you the weak?"

Ezra felt another shudder of horror, realising that he was responding to the manís touch because there was something in Juliusí voice that was as seductive as his touch. Ezra fought the knot in his stomach that demanded he remove himself from Julius because he was in a position to learn much if he could just endure this. However, inwardly Ezra told himself that this was as far as he was going because there was no way in hell, he was laying with a man.

Still, Ezra could understand why so many here were willing to die for him. When Julius spoke with this intensity, even if not for the purpose of seduction, it was easy to become lost in the glory of what the man was trying to convey. Had the gambler been unable to recognise Julius for what he was, he too might have fallen under that same spell. Juliusí gift did not come from his ability to command armies but rather splendid orations that reached into the soul and infected those who listened with the fervour of his words.

It took all of Ezraís control to maintain his composure until Julius finally straightened and moved away up but not before touching Ezraís ear with his lips. Julius circled to the front of gambler so that he could look into Ezraís eyes face to face in order to capture his reaction. Considering that he was fighting the urge not to get the hell out of there, Ezra believed he managed quite well to look as if nothing had bothered him about the last few minutes.

Strangely enough, it was not the first time that Ezra had been propositioned in this way. As a youth, travelling with Maude to some of the seamier places that she frequented to run her shell games, he had met men who were that way inclined. Maudeís reaction to this had nearly been wolverine, which was some of the reason why she had promptly enrolled him at boarding school for the next few years until she felt it time for him to learn the family trade.

However, this was the first time he had been approached as an adult and knew where his predilections lay to find the whole notion of laying with another man unimaginable. Pulling himself together while trying to keep the mask of enthralled attention on his face, Ezra shuddered to think what Juliusí effect would be open those who were more susceptible to the power of suggestion that was so hypnotic and mesmerising.

"I have never counted myself as weak." Ezra said finally. "Nor have I been afraid of getting my hands dirty so to speak. In every great achievement that has ever been undertaken in history, there has been a price to be paid by those who wish to erect an edifice to the magnificent. Caesar did cross the Rubicon and he did build an empire with his life being the price. To shed the blood of the weak to become a god, seems hardly a price as opposed to a requirement."

Ezraís answer was designed to allow Julius to hear exactly what he wanted to and when the man beamed at him with a smile, Ezra knew he had succeeded.

"I knew you would understand." Julius grinned widely. "I knew you were a visionary. I will conquer the world with you at my right hand."

"So," Ezra said with smile. "Now that I have taken a step towards greatness, what next?"

"Ah," Julius rose to his feet and motioned for Ezra to do the same. "This cannot be explained, it needs to be seen with the eyes," he grabbed a long coat hanging on the wall near the door and slipped it over his shoulders. "Come," he turned to Ezra. "Weíre going a for a ride."

+ + + + + + +

It was almost three hours later when they arrived at their destination.

They had travelled far from Purgatory into what was a harsh no manís land seldom travelled by many because there was nothing of value this far out. It was considered heartless terrain even by those who were accustomed to the severity of life in the Territory. The place had been euphemistically nicknamed the Barrens and it was quite an adequate description. Fifty years ago, the Barrens had held life but the coal mining industry that had been the centre of commerce for the area had since withered and died, taking with it in its demise, the population that had thrived here that could not survive without it. Unfortunately, the open shaft method of mining had not only destroyed the local ecology but the river that ran through the area was not full of silt and coal dust, unfit for drinking or farming. With the disappearance of the waterway, went the last vestiges of settlement and thus the Barrens was born.

As they rode deeper into the Barrens passing towns that had been taken by the dust storms, whose remnants could be seen in old buildings that would soon vanish like the community that had deserted it, there was a sense of eeriness about the place that made Ezra shudder. Unfortunately, he wanted to follow this rabbit hole as far as it would lead and thus Ezra forced himself to continue the journey. They were deep into the Barrens when Julius brought him to what appeared to be the abandoned mining facility that had been the centre of all things here a long time ago. Upon approaching the encampment, Ezra found that as a base of operations, it was near perfect. There were miles of tunnels beneath the earth that would be an ideal hiding place if discovered, not to mention that this whole area was so inhospitable that visitors stumbling across the camp would be far and few.

They rode into camp in the dead of night, arousing very little attention as they entered the perimeter of the facility, penetrating the barb wire fence that surrounded the place and kept interlopers out. Ezra kept his eye on just how many flickering lights he saw through the windows of the barracks that were once occupied by miners and saw quite a few. He wondered just how Citadel foot soldiers there actually were and felt rather grateful that the army was in Four Corners. There was no way the seven could take on numbers like this.

Julius rode through the track that speared through the camp until they arrived at what must have been the main office for it was the largest building in the facility. As they approached it, Ezra saw the silhouette of something familiar next to the structure. Until they neared it, he could not discern what it was beyond the fact that he had seen it before. When they finally came close enough for Ezra to make out what it was, he discovered that the shapes were in fact wagons, the same wagons that he and the rest of the seven had spent the last two days guarding.

And they were all carrying nitro.

Fortunately, the darkness kept his surprise from being seen by Julius but Ezraís mind was working furiously, trying to understand how they had managed to wrestle away the shipment from a platoon of soldiers. The terrain where the nitro had been stored made it impossible for someone to merely sneak up and steal it without incurring great losses in the attempt. Suddenly, Ezra felt a cold chill as a possibility of what violence might have been wrought in order to achieve this minor miracle.

"This is our base of operations." Julius declared proudly as the man dismounted his palomino mare and expected the same of Ezra. Ezra dismounted Chaucer, trying not to stare at the nitro as he tethered the horse to a hitching post and followed Julius up the steps towards the main office. They had not progressed very far when suddenly, a man emerged from the building. Even though there was very little illumination coming from the building, the full moon was out and allowed enough light for Ezra to identify the man.

Bellison.

Fortunately, throughout this entire affair, starting from their initial discovery of the nitro, Bellison had not had the opportunity to see Ezra. When Ezra had taken part in retrieving the wagons, he had been too far away from Bellison to identify him clearly before the man was forced to flee with Chris Larabee in pursuit. Since all of his men were still incarcerated in the Four Corners jail, Ezra could be assured of his anonymity because the lionís den was the last place he wanted to be when they discovered him to be the enemy.

"Samuel!" Julius called out, meeting his trusted lieutenant with a pat on his shoulder. "I see you have retrieved our property."

"Yes Commander," Bellison nodded but was more interested in the stranger behind him and quickly estimated the reasons for his presence by his pretty boy looks and fancy clothes. Shrugging off his personal feelings on the matter since genius did not require piety of soul, he looked at Julius for an introduction. "It went as well as you instructed. There was little resistance when we rode into the camp."

Ezra tried not to pay attention, appearing indifferent to the conversation even though he was absorbing every word and was burning with curiosity as to the specifics of the discussion, particularly since the nitro was here.

"And the other matter?" Julius asked, unafraid of hiding anything and upon reflection, Ezra decided he had no reason to be concerned because if Ezra was proven to be false, he would never leave this place to tell anyone what he had learnt.

"It went smoothly," Bellison answered with a smile. "The woman is here."

"This evening just gets better doesnít it," Julius smiled as if he were a boy who had been given a very good series of Christmas presents. Turning to Ezra, he motioned the gambler over. "Samuel, this is Mr Ezra Standish, he will be joining us."

Bellison rose a brow at that statement, assuming that Ezra had been brought here simply for the purpose of Juliusí amusement, not to be given candidacy in their organisation. "Joining us, how?"

"Mr Standish is extremely talented with a good head on his shoulders," Julius remarked continuing up the stairs and gesturing for both of them to follow. "We need to broaden our hierarchy if we are to conquer the world Samuel and foot soldiers will not to do."

Bellison clearly did not like the explanation no matter how much the Commander believed otherwise and revealed his dislike by giving Ezra a dark look as they passed through the front door of the office and entered the building. Ezra knew that Bellison saw him as something of a threat and so he would have to be extremely careful around the man to not arouse any more suspicion that Bellison already felt towards him.

The interior of the office had been converted rather impressively into living quarters fit for a god, Ezra supposed, with rooms furnished with expensive rugs on the floors, furniture that were actually antiques this time and not cheap copies. By the looks of it, Julius had been established here for quite some time and if not for the accidental discovery of the nitro that had been transferred overland, it was likely that none of the seven would have any clue as to the existence of this dangerous militant group. The organisation as Julius had explained was still in its fledgling state but the number of its members, made Ezra grateful that the seven had discovered its existence before it was allowed to grow any larger.

"So where is our guest?" Julius asked, making no attempt to explain what was happening to the last member of the triumvirate that was advancing into the building.

"I had her put in your quarters." Bellison answered. "I assumed you would want to see her as soon as you got back."

"You know me too well Samuel," Julius smiled and looked over his shoulder at Ezra. "Mr Bellison here has been my faithful companion for a great many years. You may trust him with your life even though he is not as versed in the academic arts as you and I."

"That is not a failing that I will not be able to live with." Ezra said casually, hiding how anxious he was to see who this lady was that Julius had waiting for him in his quarters. Ever since the mention of her, Ezra had a terrible premonition of something ominous about to emerge from the shadows. He continued walking up the corridor and Ezra held back, ensuring he was the last person to enter the room so that if his worst suspicions were confirmed, he would be able to act and save both of their lives.

"You have selected to join us at a most exciting time," Julius continued to speak, as if he was enjoying this game of revelation. "In two days, we are going to make our first strike against the oppressors who are suffocating this nature and serve notice that we have arrived."

"Commander," Bellison responded. "There is no need for us to go into details," the man said quickly halting the vital information from passing the commanderís lips, obviously believing that Ezra had not proven himself trustworthy to be given such detail about what they were planning to do.

"Of course you are right," Julius replied good naturedly and gave Ezra a long look. "We will have plenty of time to talk about this later."

Ezra prayed inwardly that talk was all that Julius had in mind.

+ + + + + + +

Mary did not want to show her fear but the truth was, she was terrified.

As she heard the footsteps approaching the door to the room she had found herself confined to ever since she had been brought here at gunpoint from Four Corners, Mary felt another surge of anxiety over her welfare and that of her unborn child. At least, they had not managed to get their hands on Billy, Mary thought to herself, taking comfort in that small consolation. She had no idea where Billy had hidden himself but she hoped he had remained there until Chris had come home. As she thought of her husband, she could not imagine what the effect of her kidnapping would have upon Chris Larabee. He would be no doubt tearing the countryside apart attempting to find her.

Bellison had said very little to her, except to make the occasional threat in order to force her into cooperating with him during their journey here. She did not know where they were but the duration of the trip told her that she was some hours away from Four Corners. Their journey had been undertaken entirely in the dark and thus allowed her to see very little of the land which might have otherwise helped her to identify where she was going. Although they had made no attempt to tie her up after leaving her in this room, she knew that there were guards outside the door and there were no windows for her to make her exit. Realising that it was wiser for her to cooperate than give them trouble Mary placed herself in a wing chair next to a lavish four poster bed inside the room that was her cell.

The first man to enter was obviously the leader for Bellison stood behind him in a clearly secondary position. This must be Julius, Mary thought and decided that Chrisí description was not far wrong even though he did not seem like an incompetent, in the face of the organisational acumen it must have taken to build the power base she now found herself surrounded. However, her eyes widened at the sight of Ezra following them both and the gambler met her gaze long enough to convey the secret plea to keep their association a secret. Considering that both their lives depended on it, Mary obeyed and hid all expression from her eyes as she regarded Julius who walked towards her.

The commander of the Citadel did not speak for a moment, content merely to study the wife of his hated enemy and Mary felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end from his close scrutiny. Mary felt a little better knowing that she was not completely alone even though Ezra hardly seemed to be in a position at the moment to provide an escape. Still, knowing that he was here was comfort enough when all she had been feeling before was the portents of doom.

"Well I must give the lieutenant some credit," Julius remarked, observing Mary like she was a prized horse or some animal on display. "He does have impeccable taste. You are an extraordinarily beautiful woman Mrs Larabee."

"What do you want from me?" Mary demanded, trying to be brave but unable to deny that she was more frightened by his compliment than anything else because that could be a prelude to fate that might be worse than death.

"She is beautiful isnít she?" Julius asked Bellison for his opinion on the subject and then left his gaze shift downwards a little and remarked. "And she is also with child. Larabeeís undoubtedly. An unexpected boon."

"If you hurt meÖ." Mary started to say.

"Rest assured madam," Julius remarked, as if amused by her spark. "If I choose to hurt you, there is no one hear that will lift a finger in your defence. However, my inclination is not that way directed for the moment." He answered, walking towards the table at the far corner of the room holding a sifter of cognac and glasses for the purpose. "I require you as insurance that your husband stays out of my affairs for the duration. Make no mistake on the fact that a day of reckoning is approaching between Lieutenant Larabee and myself but that day has not arrived. You will remain here until I have no longer any use for you and if you give me once ounce of trouble, I swear to you Madam, that you will become personally acquainted with every man in this camp, do I make myself clear?" He shot her a look of pure ice with enough menace for Mary to know that he meant it.

Ezra watched helplessly, seeing the terror in Maryís face and wanting more than anything to take away that fear with some decisive action that would ensure her liberation. Unfortunately, for the moment, there was very little he could do without endangering them both with a premature attempt at rescue. As hard as it was for her to endure it as it was for him to reach that decision, Ezra knew they had no choice but to bide their time and hoped that Julius was true to his word about not intending any harm upon her at the moment.

He prayed that it was not a hope in vain because Ezra could not look Chris Larabee in the face if he had to bring the gunslinger the news that both the women he cared for were dead.

Part Seven: The Luck of the Draw

When the Klan had come to Four Corners and Ezra had found that in order to uncover the dark intentions of Nicholas Serfonteine and his minions, he had to infiltrate the organisation, Ezra had thought he could not ever be called onto play a more odious part. However, as he now found himself inside the private quarters of Hannibal Julius who was at this moment, having a private discussion with his lieutenant, Bellison, Ezra knew that he would have to re-evaluate the standard of odious when it came to role-playing. With Mary kept prisoner in the room adjoining, Ezra knew that Julius could not be allowed to keep her indefinitely because when Chris Larabee found out that she was gone, if he did not already know, the man would literally tear Purgatory apart in the attempt to retrieve her. He would do so with no concern about the tremendous odds against him and would probably get himself killed in the process, if Ezra knew the leader of the seven to any degree.

Thus, the gambler was left with little alternative but to free Mary and to do it soon.

He had two assets on his side in coming to this determination. One, Julius would not be expecting a rescue. The location of his camp was so cleverly hidden that save the torture of his men, there was no way Chris could find his way here and thus Ezra had the element of surprise. Two, as much as Ezra loathed to admit it; the man was attracted to him and as disgusting as that might sound, he would have to play up that attraction to reach Mrs Larabee. He kept telling himself as he removed his burgundy coat and draped it on the nearby bed post that he was only going to play along with Julius long enough to catch the man off guard.

Of course, telling himself that and trying not to be revolted by it was another thing entirely. He knew why Bellison had suddenly become suspicious of him after Julius had announced that he was to be more than just a visitor but a member of the organisation. Obviously, Julius had entertained before and Bellison had until that point, assigned Ezra to being just one of many paramours that had spent time in Juliusí sheets. Ezra told himself resolutely that he was not going to go that far and knew that there was no danger of that happening. As it was, he was so repulsed by simply having to play the role of someone who was that way inclined that actually engaging in the act was enough to make him sick.

As he sat on the wing chair that Mary had occupied during Juliusí interview with her, he kept glancing at the door that she had been taken through and knew that the poor woman was probably terrified with fear after Juliusí threat to hand her to his men. Fortunately, Ezra knew Mary was not foolish enough to try such a thing after seeing him there and hoped she would keep that in mind over the next few hours. The late hour of the evening ensured there was no other sound through the building and as he listened carefully, he could hear footsteps approaching. Julius and Bellison had disappeared for awhile, no doubt to take stock of the nitro that somehow found its way back to them and Julius had instructed him to wait in this room and get Ďcomfortableí.

Ezraís skin crawled; just imagining what that might exactly entail.

Suddenly, he heard voices talking and footsteps approaching. Silently, he rose to his feet and went to the door, pressing his ear against the polished wood surface as he listened closely to the conversation-taking place on the other side. The voices were far away at first but drifted closer as the approach became more eminent and intruded upon arrival. At first they were indistinct but soon he could hear Bellison and Juliusí voices clearly. Bellison had ensured that Julius had kept silent about their plans for the nitro earlier and Ezra had limits to what he was willing to do get Julius to reveal the information to him. Thus, eaves dropping seemed to be the only means left to him and he hoped it was enough. Whatever the Citadel was planning however, seemed looming closer and closer and Ezra had the feeling if he did not find out what their intentions were, everyone was going to have cause to regret it bitterly.

"I think you are overly paranoid Samuel." Ezra made out Julius voice saying clearly to Bellison. The impatience in his voice was obvious.

"You have no idea who this man is Sir." Bellison pointed out and it did not take any feat of genius for Ezra to know that he was the subject of discussion. "Simply letting him into your plans because you want him is dangerous."

"I have a feeling about him," Julius retorted, the offence in his voice not yet distinct but it was there and Bellison must be aware that he was riding the barest threads of his masterís impatience. "However, if you believe that caution is required, I will respect your decision. There is no need for him to know what we are planning in two days at the railroad camp."

Railroad camp? Ezra thought furiously, was that the purpose this exercise? Julius had claimed he needed bloodshed and to inflict a first strike upon the government to serve notice that the Citadel had arrived? Was that the purpose of the nitro, to destroy a camp full of Chinese workers to disrupt the building of the railroad? It did not make sense to Ezra because if that was all Julius was planning then he would not need nitro to reach that end when he had more than enough men and guns to accomplish a straight out massacre without expending a small fortune on nitro. There was something about it all that did not make sense and yet Ezra had learnt information that needed to be delivered to Chris Larabee and the rest of his comrades.

"Thank you Sir," Bellison replied. "If you donít mind, Iíd like him kept here until after its over. You can find out how much you trust him after that. Weíve everything weíve put into this, you donít want any mistakes."

"You are a venomous creature arenít you." Julius answered as he neared the door and immediately put Ezra on guard to move at a momentís notice. "However, I had every intention of keeping Mr Standish out of the loop for the duration of our business with the railroad. In the meantime, I will see just how much he is willing to surrender to the cause."

Ezra could not see the smile on Juliusí face but he could just imagine and told himself silently that he was surrendering nothing.

Knowing that Julius was seconds from entering the room, Ezra immediately returned to the chair quietly and picked up a nearby book to read as he replaced himself and pretended to be flipping through its yellowed pages. The book titled the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius was just the sort of reading material Ezra would expect of a man who considered himself equal to the Caesar which whom he shared some of his name. He looked as if he were a man killing time when the door swung open and Bellison entered the room to find him exactly where he ought to be with an expression of expectation on his face Ezra hoped looked convincing.

"I apologise for keeping you waiting, Ezra." Bellison smiled at him, a bottle of wine in his hand, which he set down on the same cabinet that held his sifter of cognac. He regarded Ezra for a moment, taking note of the gamblerís jacket that was draped on the bedpost.

"No apologies are necessary," Ezra remarked with smile. "I assume that it must take quiet a bit of time to run all this." He let his gaze sweep across the room even though the scope was far beyond the confines of the walls around them.

"As I said before," Julius said approaching him. "We intend to take the world thus our perceptions and our operations must fit the scale of that desire."

"I appreciate the satisfaction of desire." Ezra said, giving the man a look that oozed with suggestion.

"Really?" Julius swallowed as Ezra dropped the book on the side table and stood up.

Julius was slightly smaller than him and as Ezra told himself to play the game very carefully because it would require the greatest performance of his life to carry out this facade convincingly, took a step closer to Julius until the man was inches away from him. "The vintage of that bottle is quite exquisite," Ezra whispered huskily. "Perhaps a glass or two might help things move somewhat easier."

He saw Julius swallowing in reaction to his closeness before the man found voice enough to speak. "Yes," he said softly. "It might at that." He took a step towards the cabinet once again, turning his back on Ezra as he drew away. Ezra took a deep breath, telling himself not to move too quickly because he wanted to ensure that Bellison was far enough away from the room before he made his bid to rescue Mary and get out of here with both their skins intact. Unfortunately, filling the space in between the time of her rescue and this point was hardest part of the exercise. He knew exactly what was needed to put Julius off guard for him to strike and it was not an idle request when he asked for a drink first.

He watched Julius fill two glasses of wine and then return to him, expectation and desire burning in the manís eyes as he gazed at Ezra. Ezra hid his own anxieties well enough, hoping that he was able to quash the natural revulsion he felt. Juliusí eyes were moving up and down his form and suddenly Ezra had some idea of what women must go through when men regarded them in that way, particularly when the attention was unwanted.

"I got this bottle during my trip up north." Julius replied as he handed Ezra the glass, his fingers brushing the gamblerís knuckle as he made the exchange. "I drink nothing but French wine." He remarked as he held the glass to his lips.

"They are the masters of their craft." Ezra answered holding the glass to his lips and taking a tentative sip. The red wine was very good and for a few moments, the air was charged with the electricity of anticipation as Ezra wondered whether he ought to make the first move in order to get things started or allow Julius to take the initiative. Julius did nothing of the sort and Ezra grew impatient with the prolongation of this torture before he decided that Julius was trying to test him and see how far he was willing to go without being prompted.

"There are other kinds of masters," Ezra said with a smile, removing the glass from Julius hand and placed both of them on a nearby side table before turning his attention to the man he was attempting to seduce. Steeling himself inwardly, Ezra decided that he was going to get this over and done with and took a deep breath before crushing his lips against Julius in a searing kiss, he normally reserved for Julia. Forcing himself not to think what he was doing and focussing on the kiss like his life depended on it, which it did really, Ezra delivered a passionate exchange of tongues while trying not to feel repulsed by the feel of stubble against his cheek.

Whether or not Ezraís distaste for what he was doing showed, Julius did not notice either way and was still reeling from the effects of the pleasurable sensation when Ezra pulled back. The manís eyes were still closed and the seconds of distraction was all that Ezra needed. Giving him no warning, Ezra slammed his head into Juliusí forehead and sent him staggering backwards too shocked to even utter a cry. He opened his eyes just to see a balled fist coming at him and then another, until the black of unconsciousness claimed him and he knew nothing more.

Ezra looked at the crumpled form of Julius for little more than a second before he reached for the glass of wine and took a deep gulp of it until he drained the contents completely. However, the refined beverage did nothing to quell his distaste for what he had done and Ezra reached for the other glass and drained it with just as much vigour. When both glasses were finally empty, Ezra turned his attention to unconscious body of Julius and dragged the body to the bed and searched for something in which to tie up the man with. Julius had more or less assumed that he would be spending a night of passion with Ezra and had expressed as much to Bellison and doubted if anyone would interrupt them before morning. Finding the cord of smoking jacket hanging on a nearby hook, he used the ornate length of rope to tie up the leader of the Citadel before stuffing his mouth with a handkerchief so that Julius would be robbed of speech when he finally woke up.

Once Julius was taken care of, Ezra went to the door and locked it. He had something of a plan in mind and hoped it would work because he was not quite sure where Mary was beyond the fact that she had been taken through the other door in the room and assumed that she could not be far. Going to the bureau drawer, he pulled it open and went through the contents, finding what he needed and hoped it would do. Juliusí stature was slight to begin with so he doubted that the spoils of his theft would not be inadequate for Ezraís requirements. He left the garments on the chair, retrieved his own coat and then went to the door through where he had seen Mary Larabee last disappear.

Opening it cautiously, he saw it empty into another room that appeared to Juliusí study. Apparently, thing wing was dedicated entirely to his use and Ezra spied a desk and room full of ornate furnishings. Even though he ought to be finding Mary, he could not help but drift towards the large oak desk and spy its contents. Whatever Julius had been working on was yet to be finalised but the unrolled plans that stretched across the table were clear enough for him to recognise even if he did not understand what all of it meant. The meandering path through the plans which were really maps, were marked in red in places and it took a moment for Ezra to realise that it was actually the path of the railway line that had been built over the last few years.

He knew that Julius intended destroying the railway encampment with all its workers, Chinese and Caucasian, however the locations on the plans he was now seeing were nowhere near that location. What did he plan to do at all these locations? Knowing that it was probably not the best thing to do, Ezra rolled up the map and folded it as compactly as he could before slipping it into his coat. If they made it out of this place alive, he would need this information to present to Chris Larabee. Leaving the room, since it was folly to delay any more than he had to, he peered through the crack of the adjoining door and saw that it led to a corridor. One guard stood outside a door further down the hallway and Ezra guessed that was the most likely location of Mary Larabee.

Her guard did not look very impressive physically or smart for that matter. Ezra hoped his evaluation was correct because he would have reason to regret it greatly if he was wrong. Looking inside the room again, he found a paperweight on the desk and returned to the doorway. Taking a deep breath, he tossed it out in the hallway, creating a loud clattering noise as it skittered across the floor and immediately captured the attention of the guard who was pulled away from his prisoner to investigate. Ezra kept the door close, waiting until he saw the manís shadow in front of the door before he swung it open and moved forward at lightning speed. The guard had barely time to register the footsteps behind him before he felt the impact of a gun butt on the base of his skull. The man dropped to his knees in a dead weight and Ezra wasted no time in dragging his unconscious body into the study and leaving it there. The blow to the head had been hard and while the man seemed comatose for the moment, t here was no real way of telling how long it would be before he was conscious again and Ezra did not have the time to tie him up.

Crossing the corridor in seconds, Ezra opened the door that had been guarded and slipped inside. Mary had been pacing the floor and stopped in mid step when she saw Ezra coming through the doorway. The room she had been kept was furnished quite well and it appeared that Julius had intended keeping her for sometime, since the detail to her surroundings seemed quite permanent.

"Ezra, thank god!" Mary embraced him and Ezra could not help thinking as he felt her body pressing up against his that nothing could quite compare to having a woman in oneís arms. He could still feel stubble against his cheeks and renewed a fresh bout of distaste, which he shook off because this was hardly the time for it.

"Are you all right Mary?" He asked concerned, looking her over to ensure for himself that no harm had come to her.

"Yes," she nodded. "Iím fine. Are we leaving?" She asked hopefully, praying that he had a plan because Julius was very mad and she hated to think what demands he might make of Chris during her captivity.

"Immediately," he answered and gestured her to follow him as he poked his head through the doorway to ensure that the coast was absolutely clear for them to continue any father. As anticipated for the lateness of the hour, no one appeared to be coming and they crossed the corridor into the room where Ezra had left Maryís guard. The man was still unconscious but seeing him sprawled across the carpeted floor, gave Ezra another idea and he dropped to his knees beside the prone figure.

"Mary, take of your clothes." He instructed.

"I beg your pardon Mr Standish?" Mary gave him a look.

"Mrs Larabee," Ezra sighed and responded. "You have no idea what I have endured tonight in order to rescue you but believe me, I do not relish what will happen to me if I am caught offering you liberty. So please take my word for it when I say that you will be divesting your clothing for a disguise and not any sleazy liberties you think me capable."

"Of course," she scolded herself for her foolishness since she ought to know better and immediately moved to the other side of the room as she began removing her clothing while Ezra pretended not to notice her as he did the same for her guard. She was stripped down to her under things when Ezra handed her the bundle of clothing, not needing further instruction than that. He kept his gaze averted away from her as much as possible and turned around when she had taken the clothing from him. While she dressed, he turned his back on her and picked up the guardís hat as well as relieving him of his gun belt. Mary was a good shot and if they were discovered, he might need the extra firepower.

"Where is Julius?" Mary asked once she was dressed.

"Resting comfortably I hope, bound and gagged." Ezra answered as he flopped the guardsí hat on her head and immediately prompted Mary to tie her long gold hair into a bun and hiding it beneath the head wear. "Here take this," he handed her the gun belt.

Mary swallowed as she realised what she might be called on to do but brushed away such reservations because the child in her belly would be no oneís creature and deserved a chance of life, which would be stolen if Juliusí plans for her were realised. Fastening the gun belt to her waist, she followed Ezra who was preparing to step into the corridor once again.

"How did you manage to knock him out?" Mary asked, wondering how Ezra had accomplished the minor miracle of incapacitating Julius when Mary had the impression he was not a man who left himself open to attack by trusting a stranger he could have only met recently.

"I caught him by surprise." Ezra said clearing his throat, having no wish to go into detail about what he had done to secure her fledgling freedom. Suffice to say when he got home, he would spend some time accommodating himself with the more appropriate forms of sexual expression with the correct partner.

"How?" Mary pressed, noticing something in Ezraís manner that bordered on discomfiture. She did not think anything ever got under the gamblerís skin to show so clearly.

"Mary," Ezra looked at her with a frown. "Perhaps we ought to concentrate on our escape rather than the dynamics of how we arrived at this point. I will be happy to answer all your questions when we are far away from this place."

Mary wanted to press but it appeared that Ezra was is in no mood for question and left it for the moment. However, she told herself that he was not going to slither out of it that easily if they did return to Four Corners. By now, she and the gambler had emerged into the corridor but instead of taking the most direct route back to the main exit, Ezra opted to find a back way out of the place. It was inconceivable that a structure this size would not have such exit and prayed that he was right about this or else their flight from danger would be savagely curtailed.

Not much was stirring and they were stealthy in their movements to ensure no one was incited to investigate as they continued down the dimly lit corridors, saying nothing to each other as they followed the meandering pathway before them. Ezra could tell that Mary was afraid and thanked god that she was not more heavily pregnant than she already was or else the disguise would not have worked. Despite her fear, she held together as admirably as always and Ezra could see in that light, what made her so precious to Chris that he would do anything to see her safe return.

After what seemed like an eternity, they arrived at a nondescript door that seemed seldom used and Ezra turned the lock praying that it was what they had been seeking. When the crack of darkness filtered through the opening, Ezra saw the bright glimmer of stars up above and let out a sigh of relief, knowing that this was indeed an exit way and not more danger. Until they reached the horses and put this place far behind them, Ezra was not presumptuous enough to assume they were safe. There were still too many numbers around them for his liking and if those numbers were alerted to the escape presently taking place, there was no way Mary or Ezra would make it out alive.

The rear exit was mostly for the purpose of entering the mines but it was possible to make their way to the front of the building where Chaucer had been hitched. The barracks were the men were stationed were still with slumber and while there would be a few people about, mostly on guard duty, Ezra knew the chances of making it to his trusted steed was good. Hannibal was utterly confident that his bastion of power was still a well guarded secret and so the possibility of intruders or for that matter was remote. They circled the building in good time and as they neared the front of the structure, Ezra saw Chaucer just where he had left the animal.

"How are we going to do this?" Mary whispered quietly as their escape brought them into the open somewhat.

"There seems to be little alternative but to make the direct approach." Ezra confessed. "Either way we look at it, it is going to be a risky venture. We have nothing to lose." Ezra did not add however, that if they were captured, she was not going to be the only one who would have to worry about violation.

"Youíre the gambling man." Mary sighed and let him take the lead as they stepped out from behind the shadows of the building into the open space before the building.

Two men walking around at night in this place could be easily explained by anyone who saw them and as being nothing more than sentries. Chaucer snorted in recognition as the animal saw Ezra approach and the gambler was just as relieved to see his old friend upon arrival.

"Climb on." He instructed quietly as he untethered Chaucer from the hitching post, his eyes moving about the place, keeping watch for anything unexpected.

Mary obeyed without question and had her hands poised on her weapons, prepared to shoot if any trouble came about unexpectedly before Ezra was able to mount the animal. So far, their actions had gone unnoticed but Mary as not so much of an optimist that she believed this could go on indefinitely. They only reason they had not brought the entire camp down on them had to do with luck and nothing else. Ezra came up along side of Chaucer after he had free the animal from the hitching post and pulled himself into the saddle with Mary behind him.

"So far so good." He said quietly when suddenly, he heard voices emanating from inside the building. Without even needing to hear the contents of the speech, Ezra knew it was Bellison. He grabbed the reins and dug his heels into Chaucerís sides, startling the animal into a sudden burst of speed as he saw Bellison emerged from the front of the building. Ezra felt his heart pounding as the manís gaze met his and with him was the guard, whom he had attacked earlier, still clad in his long johns.

"STOP THEM!" Bellison roared.

Chaucer was already galloping at full stead and behind him, Mary had pulled out her guns and was firing into the night, clearing a path for them as bodies started emerging from the shadows, hell bent on stopping them. Chris had been teaching her how to handle her weapons and Mary was proficient enough with them to hold her on even though she found the idea of using them not at all proper unless the situation warranted it, like now. She was not entirely sure that she had hit anyone she was shooting at as they rode through the main track of the camp, leaving Bellison them but she could still hear his cries alerting everyone to their escape.

Ezra felt his heart pounding as he pulled out his own gun and added his fire to the formidable defence Mary was mounting by keeping away anyone who might try to stop their departure. He knew that they had to move as quickly as possible because if the signal to close the main gates reached the gatekeepers before they did, then both of them would be effectively trapped inside a net of barbed wire fencing.

"Reload!" Mary called out as her guns went empty and she struggled to stay on the horse behind him while at the same time fumbling for the bullets that were in the gun belt. Unlike the men, she had no skill with this and had great difficulty trying to coordinate her fingers amidst the constant rhythm of Chaucer, galloping forward at top speed throughout the camp. Ezra took up the slack created by her attempts to reload her weapon, aiming with more precision than she and offering much incentive for any attackers to keep out of their way.

"We must make it through the gate." Ezra called out as Mary finally finished reloading her gun as Chaucer neared the gate that led to open terrain. Ezra hoped the gate remained open, as it had been when they had first rode into the place or they were going to be faced with set of problems. However, upon their approach, he was pleased to see that it still remained unsecured. While the gatekeepers were aware of some commotion, they were still uncertain what to do although the horse galloping towards them was giving them a fair idea.

"Mary, aim for the men at the gate!" He ordered.

Mary nodded wildly and hoped her aim was as good as she thought and started pulling the trigger. Bullets tore through the metal and wood, splintering the fence line as they ducked for cover, trying to escape the barrage. Ezra dug his heels deeper into Chaucer, trying to push the animal even harder because they simply had to clear this obstacle. Once they were through, he was confident that they had enough of a head start to keep out of the Citadelís reach since hiding from Bellison would impossible when the man was an experienced tracker. Chaucer, perhaps understanding the danger to his master, surged ahead in a burst of speed that swept them through the gates while both Mary and Ezra continued to fire, keeping the gate open as the steed carried them to open space.

They continued at that juggernaut pace until the camp became a vague shape in the night, until they could no longer hear the sound of horses in pursuit even though they knew some would be coming. There was no way that Bellison would let either of them go, Ezra knew that and if Julius discovered the absence of the plan on his desk, the need to retrieve them became more than just a question of vengeance. Once they had put enough distance between themselves and the Citadel camp, they finally slowed down long enough to catch their breaths, for a moment at least. For what he had done to Julius, Ezra was almost as terrified of what would happen to him as what Maryís fate would be if they fell into that lunaticís hands again.

"Ezra," Mary said when Chaucer had slowed down and was trotting forward at a more tolerable pace. "Thank you for getting me out of there." She embraced him hard from sheer gratitude. "That man is insane." Mary declared and truly meant it. She had never met someone who was so clinically psychotic in her life and men like that frightened her to the core.

"You have no idea how much insane pales in true comparison to that individualís state of mind. We must return to Four Corners immediately, I am afraid that the scope of his plans for the nitro glycerin is far more sinister than we ever imagined." He answered gravely.

"Chris said he was crazy," Mary continued to speak. "But God I never imagined how."

"He intends to launch some twisted new order." Ezra frowned. "Normally I would not give such plans much credence but he has a manner about him that tends to invite disciples to the cause and that makes him exceedingly dangerous."

There was something in his eyes that revealed more than just fear on the basis of the manís lunacy, Mary noticed. Something deeply personal, she sensed he did not want known. "Ezra, are you all right?"

Ezra nodded slowly not prepared to tell anyone about what had transpired between himself and Julius. Although the encounter was fleeting, it unsettled Ezra to know that he had the power to be swayed by words like anyone else. For a man who was accustomed to believing that he could see every angle coming and could not be surprised by anyone, Julius had shook the core of his self-assurance.

"I am fine Mrs Larabee," Ezra flashed her his typical smug and dimpled smile, trying to brush aside the unease he felt in his bones. He did not know why but somehow, he had this strangest feeling that Julius was not done with him, not by a long shot and their next encounter was not going to be as amiable as the first. Julius had let down his defences and trusted Ezra enough to show the gambler his private universe and Ezra had repaid that trust by taking advantage of the manís affection and attraction to him. There were people who killed for less than that and Ezra had a feeling that he might have supplanted Chris Larabee as the source of Juliusí hatred.

"All right Ezra," Mary nodded, understanding that he did not wish to talk about it even though it was painfully obvious he was anything but fine.

+ + + + + + +

Chris could not sleep.

He paced the back porch of Julia Pembertonís home after the others had disbanded until morning in anticipation of Ezraís return, hopefully with news about the Citadel and a possible location where they might find the Citadel and ultimately Mary Larabee. With Billy asleep in the same room where Elena Rose was dreaming her infant dreams, Chris had opted to take Juliaís offer to stay the night because he could not imagine going home when Mary was not there. The sight of those empty rooms would break whatever restraint was keeping him tethered to Four Corners instead of doing something foolish. His father had chose to remain at his side and Chris finally wandered out of the parlour when the man had fallen asleep in exhaustion.

Chris did not know how long he spent looking into that face, trying to discern how much of him came from Marcus Larabee. His father and him did not look alike except for the eyes. Chris remembered enough of his mother to know that his looks came from her. While Marcus had been sturdy and of stock build, Gabrielle Larabee had been slender and lean, with dark blond hair and her well-chiselled features. Chris had inherited most of his features but everything beneath the skin was his fatherís. Until the general had come back into his life, he had not realised how much. Finally, he left the room, not wanting to disturb the man even though Julia had offered them both of a room and had gone to bed herself.

He knew sleep was impossible while Mary was out there and so he stepped into the night air and looked out into the stars, telling himself repeatedly that if he lost her, he would not know what he would do. Unfortunately, it was not just her and Chris could not believe fate would be so cruel to take a wife and child away from him or steal another parent from Billy. He could smell the light fragrance of Juliaís garden and wondered how she managed to keep the garden in full bloom even though Four Corners was as dry and course as one might imagine of a frontier town.

"Chris?." He heard her voice call behind him and looked over his shoulder.

Julia Pemberton had heard the footsteps and assumed it could only be Chris. Even though, Ezra being gone could not compare to the kidnapping of Mary Larabee, Julia could empathise slightly with the fear he must be feeling over her disappearance. After hearing about the murder of the army platoon that had arrived in Four Corners today, she knew that she did not wish Ezra to be anywhere near their murderers. Unfortunately, she had to console herself that risk would always be part of his life and in this regard, she could appreciate something of what Chris must be feeling. She stared at him with concern as she emerged into the night with the gunslinger whilst tying the chord on her silk robe tighter around her waist before running her fingers through her dishevelled hair.

"Iím sorry," Chris apologised, hating to be more trouble after she had opened her home to him and his family, especially when she had the Wilmingtonís to contend with already as house guests. "I didnít mean to wake you."

"Its okay," she smiled warmly as if it was hardly a thought in her mind before taking a seat on the steps leading to her garden. "I couldnít sleep myself. I never do when you guys are out there, be it all of you or just Ezra."

Chris regarded her for a moment, realising that he did not know much about Julia Pemberton despite her lengthy relationship with Ezra. He knew that she had a promiscuous nature and was once a rather calculating creature. In some ways, she still was but her love for Ezra coupled with the fact that she was considered one of the Ďfamilyí had tempered her and she had proved herself to be just as reliable as Ezra. She was still very different from Mary though, worldly and cynical to the core, which made him wonder what terrible turns life had taken upon her that she was so jaded about things when in truth she was still a young woman.

"Iím grateful to you for letting Billy and us stay the night," Chris remarked taking a seat next to her and gazed out in the moonlight garden. "I know you got a full house already."

Julia knew enough about men to understand he was having a great deal of trouble trying to keep his emotions in check. She could hardly blame him of course. Having lost a wife and son once already to violence, Maryís abduction must have seemed like a nightmare returned. "Itís kind of nice actually," she admitted. "I had a big family full of cousins and aunts and all kinds of relations but we were not close the way Mary, Inez and Alex are to me. Having you and Billy, along with Inez, Elena Rose and even Buck is sort of like having that big family again only better because you all mean more to me than they ever did." Julia surprised herself by saying that because Chris Larabee had always intimidated her.

A slow smile crossed his lips and she knew the expression was rare for him, considering the circumstances. "Yeah, I know what you mean."

"Chris," Julia said seriously. "I donít know any person more resourceful than your wife. If there is a way for her to come back to you or stay alive long enough for you to reach her, Mary will find it. You have to trust in her ability to keep her head above water."

His jaw tightened as he tried to take her words to heart and while it may not soothe him entirely, he did appreciate the effort. "Well, she does know how to get in and out of trouble better than any woman I know."

"Besides," Julia continued, pleased that she got a smile out of him or made something of a dent in the rock hard exterior. "Ezra can get anyone to talk when he gets into a card game. Iím sure heís on his way back here with all kinds of news."

Chris was not about to pin his hopes on that assumption but he knew that he had little choice. Ezra had a manner slipperier than a snake and if anyone knew how to use that silver tongue of his to gain an advantage, it was Ezra Standish. Strange how when they had all first come together, he would not trust Ezra as far he could throw the gambler and yet it had taken three short years for him to rely upon the man with his life.

"Either than or a pocket full of cash.." Chris pointed out.

"Well," Julia chuckled. "We are talking about Ezra after all. I love the man but he loses all good sense the moment he sees loose change."

"I resent that remark." Ezra Standish suddenly declared, paralysing both Julia and Chris respectively when he stepped out of the shadows of the garden. "I only lose good sense when I see dollar green."

Both Chris and Julia were stupefied with astonishment as they saw the gambler come out of nowhere. When sense finally returned to them, they would realise later that Ezra had seen the lights dimmed in the house and chose to make a discreet entry through the back door using the key in his possession. It took little more than an instant for his surprise at seeing Ezraís sudden appearance to be eclipsed by a discovery that was even more incredible but not all unwanted. For a moment, Chris felt his breath stymie inside his throat as he caught sight of the slight figure walking next to the gambler dressed in manís clothing, not daring to hope that it was who he thought. However, the moment she pulled off her hat and let that golden cascade fall around her shoulders, Chris knew it could be no one else.

"Mary!" Chris exclaimed with nothing less than sheer joy as his wife ran into his arms.

"Chris!" She bounded exuberantly towards him. Mary practically leapt into his arms with near girlish delirium and their bodies met in a powerful embrace as Chris swept her off her feet and twirled her around before their mouths melted together in a more passionate greeting. Chris held onto her tight, trying not to let his emotions get the better of him as he held her close and felt two hearts beating against his body. In secret, he thanked God for bringing her back to him and then realised he had a more earthly show of gratitude to make.

"Did he hurt you?" Chris asked, his voice hoarse with emotion when they parted enough to look each other in the eye.

"No," Mary shook her head wildly, gold hair tossing about her shoulders as she responded. "Ezra got me out of there before anything could happen. I wasnít there for more than a few hours." She said breathlessly, just as ecstatic to be back with her husband as he was to have her with him again. "Is Billy all right?"

"Billyís fine." Chris answered before pulling her to him again and holding her against his chest as he took a breath of her heady scent in his lungs and knew with the awareness of sense that she was truly here and not some dream he might be having. "Heís in the house asleep."

"Thank god," she whispered as she savoured the feel of his arms around her and knew that as long she could feel them, she would be safe from anything. "I didnít know where he was and Bellison didnít want to look for him."

"He hid out on the window ledge so he could tell me who took you." Chris whispered, glad the darkness was hiding the lustre of his eyes that were almost teary with feeling. "Heís a brave boy," he said quietly, lifting her chin with his finger so he could plant a kiss on her forehead. "Just like his mother."

Mary smiled and shifted her gaze towards Ezra and Julia who were exchanging a passionate greeting of their own. "I canít take the credit," she confessed. "If it wasnít for Ezra, I would still be there."

Chris nodded and did not interrupt the gambler and his lady as they exchanged their greetings.

Julia was also wrapped up in Ezraís arms and was somewhat surprised at the intensity of the kiss he delivered to her when their mouths had met. Although she had worried about him, she had known that he was in no immediate danger and while she was glad he was back safe, her passion or worry had not been inflamed as Chrisí own had been. However, as Ezra kissed her now, she felt some urgency as his mouth plundered hers that made her question the reason for it. Was it fear over the miracle he had just conjured in delivering Mary to them? Julia knew her lover well enough to know that it was not and yet the reason for his lips devouring hers was beyond her ability to explain. While Julia did not mind the fiery greeting, she wondered what had inspired it.

"You okay Ezra?" She asked quietly out of Chris and Maryís earshot when he finally released her lips from that searing kiss.

A flash of something she could not described surface momentarily in his eyes and he brushed it away with his usual debonair cockiness. "I shall endeavour to tell you about it sometime." He answered and shrugged away the look of concern in her emerald coloured eyes following that smidgen of revelation.

Using the present crisis to evade any further inquiries she might have on the matter, Ezra finally turned to Chris, who was still holding his wife in his arms, no doubt relieved that she was returned safe and sound. However, even though the situation was calm for the moment, after what he had learnt tonight from Hannibal Julius, the danger had not passed despite their return.

"Mr Larabee," Ezra said still holding Julia in his arms, although his need to hold the woman that he loved was not out of relief at being with her again but for an entirely different reason. After what happened with Julius, he needed to shake this feeling of disgust that churned away in his stomach each time he recalled what he had been forced to do to secure Maryís freedom. "We need to get the others immediately, I fear that we have something of a minor war to deal with."

"Weíll do that soon enough," Chris nodded, aware that for Ezra to be this grave, the situation was definitely worse that anyone had imagined. Ezra was a cynic through and through who always assumed the worse and seldom allowed it to faze his cool, polished exterior. What Chris saw in his face could not be hidden under the facade of refined civilisation. The man was clearly shaken and Chris had every reason to trust his perception that things were about to go to hell in a hand basket.

However, first things first. There was no crisis that could not allow for the few seconds that Chris needed to thank his friend for what he had done. The gunslinger raised his eyes to Ezra and said with genuine gratitude. "There ainít no way I can thank for you for this Ezra." Chris said glancing at Mary and knew this to be utterly true when saw Maryís lovely face looking up at him, proud that he had taken the time to express his thanks.

"Well perhaps a raise the next time we see the judge." Ezra remarked, a dimpled smile crossing his features because he knew that such disclosures were difficult for Chris and confessed that he felt a little awkward himself. He often found that levity was good for such instances.

"Youíre a lost cause." Chris laughed softly but not blind to the tactic the gambler was using. Instead he nodded slightly at Ezra and knew that would be enough for the man to understand how thankful he was for what had been done.

"That sounds like a no, Mr Larabee." Ezra quipped and for the first time since he had rescued Mary from the Citadel, felt himself able to forget his encounter with Hannibal Julius.

"Oh grow up!" Julia groaned and glanced at Mary. "How on earth did you ever put up with them before the rest of us girls came along?"

"They grow on you," Mary beamed looking adoringly at Chris and then shifting a similarly affection gaze Ezra although this one was more platonic. "They grow on you real easily."

+ + + + + + +

The hour was late but Ezra was right about getting the others once he had imparted to Chris what he had learnt at the Citadel camp. After rousing Buck and the General, the three lawmen went to summon the rest of their comrades in order to congregate at Julia Pembertonís home and discuss the situation. While Mary rested after her nightís adventures, Inez had taken the liberty of getting some early breakfast prepared for the men while Julia minded Elena Rose when the seven got down to the business of discussing their next course of action following Ezraís return. While no one made mention of it as they congregated in the spacious parlour of Juliaís home, each were glad to see the safe return of Mary Larabee and were equally impressed at the fortuity that saw Ezra able to effect her rescue.

"So theyíre going to hit the railway camp?" Buck declared once the news of what Ezra had overheard had been revealed to the rest of his comrades. As Buck made that statement, Inez handed him a plate of food which he received gratefully by giving her a playful pat on the behind to which she flashed him a radiant smile before making the same offering to Ezra and others in the room.

"It makes sense." The general answered as he took a sip of coffee. "They want to make an opening statement, something that grabs attentions. This is the way to do it."

"Thatís right," Chris agreed with his father on that assessment. "Julius wants to take on the government and the railroad though privately owned is still sanctioned by the government. Its not just that though. The West is opening up because of the railroad, In twenty years we ainít gonna recognise this place and most of this is gonna happen because of the railroad. By going for the railroad, heís showing that he ainít just destroying something important, heís got the power to shape the country in the way he sees fit."

"Jesus." Vin exclaimed, unable to imagine the megalomania that must inspire such belief. "So heís going to wipe out the railway camp and make his point. There are hundreds of workers out there and if Ezraís right, almost a hundred of Juliusí men."

"The camp I saw was huge." Ezra confirmed this with a nod as he swallowed the morsel of food in his mouth. "I would say we are facing great numbers here, much more than we seven are capable of handling."

"Well weíll get some help from the railroad." Nathan replied, not wishing to admit the situation was as bleak as all that. He knew he was probably being optimistic but then he knew of no other way to be in a situation like this. There was enough bad news to be concerned about without adding to it with negative behaviour. "Theyíve got men there to keep things in line."

"Not enough." Josiah rumbled in his deep throaty voice as he thought about the friends they had at the camp who would be wiped out if Juliusí plan were allowed to come to fruition, in particular Wo Chin. Wo Chin had suffered enough hardship in his life; having been brought to America by his father to work on the railroad, only to lose him to the corruption that had run rife there. "A lot of the Chinese workers have family with them. Weíd either have to move them out or use some of the men to help with the defence."

"What about that army?" JD inquired. "Couldnít they help?" As he brought up the subject, he could not help being reminded of the bodies they had piled together in a heap only a few short hours ago. Remembering what the general had told him to do, JD steeled himself inwardly and closed the door on that image because now was not the time to think about it.

"No," Larabee shook his head in response. "The men who came into town yesterday was from the nearest fort. As it is, they spared every man they had to deal with the nitro. It will take time for them to get reinforcements."

"So its just us." Chris stated for the benefit of everyone present because that was what they were left with after everything. "Assuming thatís all heís planning to do."

"Thatís all?" Buck looked at the gunslinger, hating to imagine what he could mean by that. "Wiping out a railway camp makes for a pretty busy day, Chris." He pointed out.

"Yeah," Vin voiced his own reservations on the issue that Chris had trouble with. "Whatís the point of the nitro then? If he was just planning to wipe out the camp, heís got more than enough men for that. Heís got enough explosives to wipe half the towns in the Territory off the map and he wanted it back real bad for it to be just for a matter of it being his property. Iíd say heís planning to use it on something and soon."

"Maybe heís going to use the nitro on the railway camp." JD suggested, unable to fathom the carnage the man was willing to cause for an ideal, if that was this was ever about in the first place and not a grab at feeling powerful when he was nothing.

"Considering how much destruction that would cause, it could be something of the statement heís trying to get across." Nathan replied.

"For most men maybe but not for Julius," Chris answered gesturing to the map that was on the table before them. "Whatever has been marked in red on that map is not the railway camp, itís some place else and that worries me."

"Letís have a look." The general stepped forward as they all surrounded the table and ran their eyes over the plan that Ezra had wisely absconded with during his brief time in Juliusí office.

"It is a map of this general area." Ezra remarked, since no one had really had the chance to really examine the thing to any great detail. They had been too busy considering their course of action in repelling the coming attack on the railway encampment. As Chris spread out the partially rolled out length of paper, the seven immediately converged upon it with close scrutiny. Ezra had been correct about the location. It did indeed span across most of the Territory, in particular this section of it. Chris could see Four Corners, Bitter Creek and Sweet Water, not to mention a lot of other small towns they all knew from their travels as lawmen in the area.

"I know what this is." Vin suddenly announced and on further reflection it seemed logical that the tracker would know the lay of the land a lot better than the rest of them. Chris was grateful that Vinís reading skills had progressed to a point where he could actually read a map as well as this when it was not a long time ago when the tracker relied solely upon his skills and an eidetic memory to get him from place to place. "This is the railway line."

"Heís right." Larabee agreed after a moment and offered the young man a smile. It was uncanny just how much like Chris, Vin Tanner was. In some instance, the general found it easier to deal with the tracker than his son because Vin was more like the way Chris used to be when they had been in each otherís lives. He had a feeling that Chris saw this similarity too which had something to do with why Vin seemed to be the only one that could pacify Chris when he was enraged and for that matter, the only one who dared to do it. The son he remembered would keep counsel to himself until he felt it necessary to speak up. Vin was a lot like that.

"It is the railway line and these red spots are where bridges and major junctures are supposed to be."

"Thatís it!" Chris exclaimed, finally understanding the manís plan. He was not just going to destroy the railway camp but also eliminate any possibility of anyone putting to use the line of track that it had built. "Heís using the nitro to blow up the track at all this points. Heís out to make a statement that a person, who can destroy a thing, also controls it! Making it impossible for the railroad to come through here would effectively halt the progress of the West in its tracks. Sure, even if we get him after heís done it wonít change the fact that it would take years to replace everything heís blown up."

"A charming legacy." Ezra replied coldly, remembering the words Julius had used to him. "He did say that he was prepared to run this nation in a river of red."

"God," Nathan swore with disgust. "A fanatic with delusions of grandeur."

"He ainít no fanatic," Chris muttered with visible anger. "Heís always had this idea that he was Napoleon or Alexander the Great reincarnated and that he was going to build an empire they way they did. He was next to incompetent when we were on the line but twenty years changes a man."

"You have no idea." Ezra said under his breath and noticed he was getting some odd looks when he realised they had all heard him.

"Something you want to tell us Ezra?" Chris looked at him, aware that the gambler was hiding something.

"Nothing of consequence," Ezra replied smoothly, not about to tell anyone just how different Julius was and how he had made this discovery. "I merely noticed that the man has a great ability at oration that can capture the minds of the gullible. I heard how Bellison addressed Julius when I was at the camp, they really do believe he is the Second Coming."

"Nothing worse than men acting out of faith." Josiah sighed, acquainted with too many like that in his time to be blinded by just how dangerous they could be.

"This isnít faith," the general retorted. "This is for a cause and that can be worse. Most people donít kill for faith but theyíll go to war over a cause."

"So what do we do?" JD inquired, unable to fathom how they were going to deal with this threat. "We canít be at two places at once."

"More than two," Buck pointed out, since the kid had a valid point. "Look at how many circles in red there are."

Chris said nothing at first because he was too busy thinking about the options left to them. There were eight of them including his father and although he was not to happy about his father being involved for fear of his getting hurt, Chris knew that the general would not take kindly to that thinking. As it was, every available man could not be spared if they were to lead a two pronged attack upon the enemy, not to mention making some provision to ensure the women were safe. A silence fell over the room as they all ruminated in secret at their choices and the danger that lay before them when Chris finally made himself heard.

"Sir," he turned to his father. "I need you to go with Buck, Nathan, Josiah and JD to the railway camp. Youíre going to have to coordinate with them to get some kind of defence mounted and evacuation, not necessarily in that order. We donít have a lot time. Iím going to assume that Julius doesnít know that Ezra over heard him and without that information, Ezra getting his hands on the map is next to useless."

"Thatís assuming a lot." Larabee retorted even though Chrisí judgement was sound.

"It is," Chris nodded in agreement. "However, we donít got a lot of choice. Vin, Ezra and I are gonna head out to the Barrens. Ezra said the nitro was still there when he and Mary took off so they would have to move it soon. If everything is planned for tomorrow, then it has to be moved tonight and nitro ainít something that can be moved quickly so theyíd have to get moving soon to get to all these places." He gestured at the map.

"I take it we are going to be there to destroy this convoy?" Ezra said coolly, not liking the idea of going back to the camp but aware that it was the only way to handle the situation.

"If weíre lucky," Chris said glancing at Vin because the impetus for destroying the convoy and getting out with their skin intact was going to rely solely upon Vin Tannerís skill as a sharpshooter. "We wonít be getting close enough to get shot at, at least not until we do what we have to first."

"How reassuring." The gambler remarked, wondering what Chris had in mind.

"One other thing," Chris spoke up. "I want the women moved. All of them, Rain too Nathan." He looked at the healer. "I ainít leaving the girls wide open to attack while weíre gone. I can tell you right now, Julius would do that just out of spite and especially if he thinks heís gonna lose."

"Where do we send em?" Buck asked, perfectly aware of what Chris was saying. He had seen Julius put a bullet through Chrisí back years ago for the audacity of winning his battle from right under his nose, Buck was hardly surprised at any depths that Julius could sink to.

"The Indian village." Vin suggested promptly. "Chano and Kojay will make sure theyíre safe and hide them if anyone comes calling."

"Good idea," Chris agreed with that. "Get the girls ready to move out before the sun comes out. JD, I think Casey ought to be okay where she is." The gunslinger replied, seeing the concern in the youthís eyes over her welfare. "Josiah, I donít think that many people know about you and Audrey for her to be in any danger but get her anyway and Lillith too."

Josiah nodded sombrely, glad that Audrey was factored into their deliberations. He did not like to think that the widow could be in any danger while they were out of town with no way to protect her if Julius and his fanatics came riding into Four Corners to inflict revenge upon them for what they were about to do. "She ainít gonna be too happy about it but Iím sure I can convince her otherwise."

"Iím sure you will," Chris replied and turned to his father again. "Josiah will know who to talk to once you get to the railway camp. The guy in charge is pretty reasonable so Iím sure youíll be able to get some help from him."

"Good," the general nodded. "A dayís not much time to evacuate that many people but Iím assuming that railway workers would travel light so it canít be that hard." Despite being proud of his son for giving orders so flawlessly, Larabee could not help be concerned at the task he had assigned himself. Three men was hardly a formidable force to take on Julius and his men should the convoy be accompanied with a good number of people and the truth was, he seriously doubted it would be anything but heavily guarded.

"You three gonna be okay?" He asked trying not to show he was overly concerned but he was. Now that he had found his son again, Larabee was not looking forward to losing him and it was not just Chris but the young sharpshooter by his side. He had grown quite found of Vin Tanner since they had met and while he did not know the gambler, Larabee was just as grateful as Chris for the safe return of his daughter in law.

"As anyone can be." Chris responded aware of the feelings that motivated the question and felt similarly concerned about the general facing the numbers that were anticipated when Julius made the first move in his grand scheme. "If we can ignite the nitro from a distance, we take care of one problem long before they can reach us to stop it."

"Youíre going to have be a fair distance away to manage that." The general replied; acknowledging that the plan was sound but uncertain if the skill required making that kind of a shot existed. He knew that his son was very fast with the quick draw but shooting from the hip was one thing. The kind of shot that Chris was talking about required a sniper at least and that was not the kind of skill that dropped out of thin air. "Is that possible?" The doubt in his voice showed.

"Well fortunately for us," Ezra said grinning at Vin who felt no need to let the general know that he was quite capable of setting of the nitro from 700 yards away if required since the gambler was more than ready to do the honours. "We have Mr Tanner."

"Thatís right Sir," Buck added confidently, aware that the man was fearful for his son but in typical Larabee stubbornness, was not about to verbalise it to any deeper clarification. "Ol' Vin here can put down anything once he sets his mind to it. Ainít seen nothing he hasnít be able to shoot for yet, except maybe a quiet wedding." The big man remarked unable to keep from making that little joke because things were serious enough as it is and they had to let some of those tension go before they left here and did what they had to do.

"Thanks a lot Buck." Vin muttered with a look of sarcasm.

The general nodded, deciding that was as much assurance as he was going to get on the subject. "Quiet wedding huh?" He looked at Vin. "There is no such thing you know, they all want big weddings. You might as well resign yourself to it son." The barest fraction of a smile crossed his face but Chris knew that for the general that was almost a grin.

"See I told you!" Buck declared triumphantly.

"You know," Vin frowned. "If I take any more advice from you Buck, Josiah there is gonna be doing a ceremony with just me and my horse."

"It could be worse," Nathan added, as they took a moment to enjoy the bantering on this subject before they left the room and went to face the darkness of Hannibal Juliusí Citadel.

"How could it be worse?" Vin asked, looking to Chris for help. The gunslinger shrugged his shoulders in an expression that clearly told him he was on his own.

"Inez could be planning the thing." Josiah laughed.

Inez chose that very exact moment to return to the room, bringing with her a pot of coffee that filled the space with its aromatic sense. "Wedding?" She exclaimed. "Vin, did you say you wanted me to plan a wedding?"

"Josiah," Vin glared at the preacher not trusting himself to answer her but managed a low growl through his gritted teeth "If its the last thing I do, Iím gonna get you for this."

Part Eight: Once More Onto the Breach

Ezra had no intention of returning to the Barrens so soon.

When he and Mary rode out of the place the night before, the gambler had sincerely prayed it would be the last time he ever set foot in the harsh wasteland. He knew he was being ridiculous, that what he had done to free Mary Travis was a means to an end not some deep seeded part of himself that he had no idea existed, until now. Something about Julius made him feel fear the way nothing had in too long. Oh Ezra had known his share of pain, he had known his share of vile, sadistic men but this was the first time he felt genuine fear. Mostly, he felt contempt for what they were but Julius had struck a nerve he did not believe could be reached.

He spent his life being able to read people, to look into their eyes and know immediately what they were thinking, he could see the presence of a soul or the lack of one. In truth, it was very comforting to know that the gift he possessed would always give him some kind of edge over the people he associated with. It was one of the reasons why he was apart of the fellowship of seven men guarding Four Corners.

He knew in the beginning that Chris Larabee had not trusted him and Ezra could not blame the man for that assertion considering their first adventure together had seen him turning tail and running. However, while he saw the lack of trust in Chrisí eyes, he could also see something else and it was the something else that made him stay because Ezra could tell that the gunslinger believed he deserved a second chance. As cynical as he tended to be about most things, Ezra would gladly follow Chris Larabee into hell if it was required because he rarely met anyone willing to give him a second chance and it was even more rare, when he wanted the opportunity.

Reading people was his trade and as astute as his observations were about his friends, Ezra knew the reason for his apprehension with Hannibal Julius was because for that very reason. Understanding Hannibal Julius by being able to read him was what struck cold fear into his heart. There were many things that could paralyse people with fear and he had chanced upon men several times in his life to know that there was always something in the core of them to inspire savage brutality. Whatever form or shape it took, it was there, festering in the darkness, growing strength with each act of murder or cruelty.

There was nothing in Julius.

No fear, no conscience, not even a soul. There was no history to make him what he was, he had come into the world simple being as such. It frightened Ezra beyond belief because there was no way to reason with a creature like this because nothing mattered enough to him personally except filling the void with his most baser impulses. What made the whole thing worse was that Julius was able to draw others into his insanity, until they fell into the void as well and became part of a larger evil that had now had the name, Citadel. Ezra did not voice to his companions as they rode into the Barrens that even if they stopped Julius from carrying out his plans for the railroad, the movement would still exist and the seven would be known to the enemy.

"Do you hear that?" The tracker suddenly interrupted their short break with that statement and put his two friends on immediate alert.

Their journey had been broken in order for the tracker to examine the main trails that led out of the Barrens to the places displayed in the map. They needed to see if a convoy had come through in the last few hours. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how one looked at it, the convoy had yet to make its departure from the mining facility that served as the Citadel base of operations. They had been travelling most of the morning and paused long enough to get some rest and to water the horses, not that there were many places in this area for such an endeavour. They had stopped at the banks of what was fast becoming an ox-bow lake. Time and erosion was choking the life out of the estuary, turning it eventually into a pond and finally into a swamp before the heat dissolved it completely. In the here and now, it still gasped uncertainly with life and provided a temporary oasis in the Barrens.

Chris immediately went for his gun as did Ezra as they strained to listen what the tracker with his acute sense of hearing picked up before they did. The voices was so distant that Chris could not even be sure that it was indeed human speech and not the sounds of nature that came with being so far out in the wilderness. He could hear birds flapping their wings in the air, lording over their human neighbours with a cry of triumph as they soared overhead while some other creatures just as native to the land made their noises but little that could be distinguished as human life.

Ezra was not so selective. Mr Tanner had proven time and time again that he was not to be ignored when he issued such warnings. Ezra immediately rose to his feet and pulled on the jacket he had divested off himself during the interlude, undoing the flap of his gun holster at the same time. He looked over the flat terrain, seeing nothing but shrubs, rocks and horizon but no sign of life. At least not yet. "I think it would be prudent to assume that if anyone was approaching this location that it would be for the purpose of partaking of this pool the way we had." He gesture to the cache of fresh water.

"Saddle up," Chris did not need to hear the sounds to know that they were there. Vin had said they were coming and as far as the gunslinger was concerned, that was more than enough for him. He glanced at Vin and was soon collecting their belongings and eradicating any signs of their presence before falling into stride with the tracker. "Vin, make sure that there are no tracks of any kind for them to find. If Bellison is with them, we donít want him to know that we were here."

Vin nodded in understanding while Ezra looked about anxiously. Chris noticed something had spooked the gambler but for the life of him could not imagine what that might be. "You okay, Ezra?" He asked as he led his black gelding away from the watering hole while Vin took the precautions necessary to mask their presence.

"I am fine Mr Larabee," Ezra asked tautly. "Why do you ask?"

"You seem kind of tense." Chris pointed out as they put some distance between themselves and the oasis. When Chris was certain that they were far enough away for no one to be looking for tracks, they could mount their horses and widen the gap.

"We are about to engage idealistic fanatics armed with too much nitro glycerin, preparing to kill innocents and you wonder why I have reason to be tense?" Ezra looked at him and became aware that Vin was also listening closely even though he made no comment. Obviously, the tracker had also noticed what Chris had in the odd behaviour being displayed by Ezra.

"Yeah." Chris nodded simply. "Weíve been in worse situations."

"When?" The gambler looked at him incredulously.

"Something I ought to know Ezra?" Chris asked, deciding that gentle inquiry was not going to do it and subtlety performed on a master like Ezra was a pointless effort. Ezra was too slick to answer anything but a direct question. He would side step everything else easily and avoid giving anything away.

"Nothing." Ezra said shortly. "Nothing that effects our present circumstances."

Chris wanted to know more but could see from Ezraís manner that the gambler did not wish to discuss it further and Chris had enough issues about privacy to not pry into someone elseís. Still, he could not help feeling some curiosity as to what could shake the cool, deliberate image of the professional con man that Ezra Standish wore as comfortably as his fancy clothes. Chris suspected more went on then Ezra was prepared to tell him and while he believed the man when he claimed that his silence had nothing to do with the situation at hand, Chris could not help wondering what the gambler found so difficult to reveal.

It did not help he supposed, that Ezra was forced to bring him news about Maria. In the light of Maryís safe return, Chris had almost forgotten about the warm, sultry woman who had shared his bed before Mary and felt slightly ashamed about letting her death slip his mind. Inside him, there was a place where he kept his grief and knew that when he got his hands on Bellison and Julius, Chris had every intention of making the bastards pay for Mariaís death. She had been the soft voice and warm body that gave him comfort when he was ready to drink himself into oblivion whenever the pain of Sarah and Adam became even too much for him to cope. That she met her end because of him was unforgivable and made Chris swear an oath to mount the heads of those responsible for death on tall pikes as an example to any others that might be so frivolous about taking an innocent life.

He was about to answer in response to the gamblerís cryptic declaration when the sounds that he and Ezra had been unable to hear earlier became more acute. All three lawmen dug their heels into their mounts, causing the animals to hasten their departure and concealing their presence to the new arrivals.

There was something of a hill in the nearby distance which would provide for a good vantage point while they determined who was coming. Although no one made mention of it, the Barrens were barely inhabited and if someone was coming, there was really no doubt as to whom they could be. The trio of riders quickly made their way up the rocky incline, moving their horses from the line of sight as the reached the top and waited behind the scabs of rock running along the peak of the ridge, to await their appearance of the voices.

From the height, they were able to see the approach that Vin had warned them about using the senses hones from years of skill and tracking ability. The voices carried clearly across the flat terrain below them Chris was able to discern after several minutes that there were a lot of them coming towards the watering hole. He counted at least twenty men on horse back, all heavily armed, rifles tucked in their saddles as they neared the edge of the water. The reason for the armaments was clear to the lawmen as they spied the same wagons they had guarded so fastidiously until the army had arrived, travelling with the enemy.

"Can you make the shot from here?" Chris asked even though he was certain that Vin was trying to make that determination himself. It was quite a distance away, almost 800 yards by his reckoning and the ridge offered a clear line of sight but it was going to take extremely precise shooting. Vin could not afford to waste a single bullet to detonate the nitro before Bellison and his men close the distance between them and cut them to pieces. While he was confident that they might survive those odds, he knew that the engagement at the railway camp could not afford to be without them and so getting hurt here or worse yet, dying was something they could not afford.

Vin stared at the convoy moving obliviously to the lake, unaware at this time of their existence. When he pulled the trigger all that would change and there would not be many locations where he could make the shot before they guessed where he, Chris and Ezra were holed up. There were five wagons and he had to make five long range shots which he hoped would be able to set off the nitro at first attempt, if not he would have to try again which meant more time. Vin took all this into consideration before finally nodding slowly.

"Yeah, I reckon I can." He nodded.

Chris took a deep breath and faced the convoy once more. He thought quickly as to how they would proceed, recalling the plan he had in mind prior to their departure from Four Corners. He would have preferred better terrain to make the attempt and but decided that it was always up in the air where the engagement was going to be. Chris knew Bellison well enough to say for certain that if they succeeded in destroying the nitro, the former Indian scout would hunt them down until he had bodies to bring back to Julius for the blunder of allowing such a disaster to befall the mission. It was the only way Bellison could save his neck because even though the years had changed Julius into believing he was a demi-god, he was also a deity who did not look upon failure well.

"Get ready Vin," Chris ordered. "As soon as they get comfortable, make your shots."

Whether or not they destroyed the nitro using Vinís sharpshooting skills, there was a deeper agenda that all three men were perfectly aware. None of the men accompanying the convoy could be allowed to return to Julius to warn him that the plans for his grand scheme was not progressing as it should. Whatever took place now, Julius had to make his move against the camp for the Citadel to be vulnerable.

Which meant win or lose, no one was walking away from this fight.

+ + + + + + +

News of a coming massacre did not go down well with the powers of be, particularly on a construction site that had workers numbering in the hundreds who had difficulty comprehending the language of their employers. While Chris, Ezra and Vin were dealing with the status of the nitro, the general led the men normally devoted to his son to carry out their part of the plan, that is assisting in the evacuation of as many workers from the site as possible. The army had been wired for assistance but even Larabee was realistic enough to know that help was at least two days away and with an attack due sometime tomorrow, their assistance when it arrived would be too late.

Considering that most of the Chinese workers had family and the site had become the impromptu location of the local Chinese community with an infrastructure of a small town consisting of bazaars where peddlers sold their wares and exotic foods, gambling houses and opium dens. The last time the lawmen had visited it had been an exotic blend of the mysterious orient and the burgeoning industry of the new West. Now it was starting to become a town in its own rights, whose lifespan would last just about as long as it took for the construction work to complete with no fixed location. When the railway line continued deeper into the Territory, this patchwork community would pick up its roots and follow it along until it reached the inevitable conclusion of disappearing however when the work was done or settling down permanently.

As Josiah Sanchez allowed his gaze to sweep across the crowds of workers, moving with the precision of an ant colony, he realised what a Herculean task lay before them. There were so many people he could barely count them all and it was not exaggerating when their number was believed to be in the hundred. They were not merely of Chinese extraction but also Mexicans and any other race that had crossed the ocean in the belief that America was the land of opportunity. Perhaps it was, Josiah could not say rightly for sure, knowing that the journey had been tragic for many people.

McPhee the rail boss was presently arguing with the general who was putting across his argument that to ignore the warning about the attack would be a fatal mistake for everyone present. Josiah knew that until the general had arrived here and seen women and children living in the makeshift shanties that made up the bulk of the camp, the scope of much devastation could be caused had not fully impressed itself upon him. McPhee himself, was a reasonable man but he was bound by the limitations of what he could do to move so many people in so short a time.

"Iím telling we canít move all these people out of here by tomorrow!" McPhee continued to debate with the general. It amused the rest of the seven to no end to see that the general was handling things the way Chris handled them, with the same obtuse manner and force of will that made most people flinch whenever they had to look into the powerful gaze of his dark eyes.

"Iím telling you, this is not a request." Larabee said firmly. "In 24 hours, youíre going to have close t a hundred men on horseback riding into this camp with the sole purpose of killing every living thing they can lay their hands on. Weíre going to have a tough enough time keeping those men at bay without having to worry about women and children!"

"Listen, I hear you." McPhee tried to reason with the general but was starting to have a strange idea that this was never a request to begin with but an order that the man expected obeyed without any argument. "But Iím telling you, even if we could begin the evacuation, we couldnít get them far enough for it to be any good. We donít have enough horses or wagons in the entire camp to move that many people!"

"Well we better think of something," Larabee declared sharply, trying not to let his temper get the better of him. He looked about the camp, seeing old faces intermingled with young ones, going about their business with no idea that Armageddon was about to come down on them in less than a day. Neither was his mood improved knowing that his son was out there somewhere, battling it out against great numbers where it was possible for him to lose the boy again. "The men coming are fanatics. They believe theyíre killing for a cause, which means they wonít have any difficulty killing everyone in sight if they can."

"Maybe there is a way around this." Buck added aware that the desperation of the situation was provoking the tempers of both men.

"Like what?" McPhee asked. The workers in his camp were not just paid labourers, some of them were his friends and he cared about all of them. Prior to his assuming the role of rail boss, his predecessors had been nothing less than criminally abusive of the Chinese workers under their yoke, stealing their wages and killing anyone who dared to speak out. Since those men had been vanquished by the very men who had brought him the terrible news of what was coming, McPhee had tried to do right by the workers, treating them as more than just cattle but as human beings. He would not revert to type by moving them like livestock when there was nowhere to go.

"Look," Buck said trying to be the voice of reason since he was well accustomed to playing the role for Chris when Vin was absent. " We canít move all of them but maybe we can get the women and children out."

"That could be done." McPhee nodded, thinking how many there were exactly and while it would take the entire day to accomplish such a feat it was possible to move that many people. "But weíd still have a lot of workers here by the time these raiders of yours show up."

"I think we ought to see how many are willing to stand up and fight with us." Nathan suggested. "After all, itís their necks weíre trying to save, their families."

"Thatís something," the general nodded and then looked up at McPhee. "Alright, get started on evacuating the women and children immediately, I want them on wagons out of here by sundown. Meanwhile, weíve got to set up some kind of fortifications for this camp, make it as hard as they can to get in here. Youíve got explosives I take it?"

"Yeah," McPhee replied, glad that they had come to a compromise and moved past the point of bickering to get some work done. He had to pray that this general and the lawmen knew what they were doing. "We used it for the construction." He answered.

"Get your powder man here," Buck replied. "Weíre up a reception committee for those boys when they come around tomorrow."

+ + + + + + +

The convoy had come to a halt at the watering hole with no signs that they were aware of any visitors to the place prior to their arrival.

Chris, Ezra and Vin watched carefully as the enemy started to make camp for at least an hour or so as they took the time to water their horses and allow both man and beast to get some rest before resuming their caravan out of the Barrens. Chris saw Bellison barking orders to his men, having picked up no signs of their tracks and confirming to the gunslinger that Vin was still better than the former Indian Scout when it came to art of tracking and reading the land.

Speaking of Vin, the sharpshooter was stretched out on his stomach, resting on his elbows as he prepared the lengthy projectiles with their full metal jackets in a neat row as he set up for the sniper barrage he would soon deliver upon the enemy. As of yet, the Citadel fanatics had no idea that they were being watched and Chris wanted no more time to pass than required to give them the chance to make the discovery even though the lawmen from Four Corners were discreetly hidden. While Vin made his own preparations, Chris and Ezra did the same with their own weapons, keeping their ammunition within easy reach while ensuring that all the guns they carried were fully loaded, down to the derringer tucked away under Ezraís crisp white sleeve.

"How you doing Vin?" Chris asked again, glancing across the landscape to whatever was transpiring at the enemy camp. So far men had been dispersed around the wagon and he could tell that despite their relaxed manner under the afternoon sun, it would take little more than a nudge to coax them into full alertness if they thought trouble was in the air.

"Almost there pard." Vin said with no hint of anxiousness despite the fact that their entire plan relied upon his skill. However both Chris and Ezra knew that his unflappable demeanour was for their benefit only. They could tell by the taut line of his jaw and the tension in his manner that he was concentrating fully on the momentous task he had before him.

"Mr Tanner, I hope your skills are as lauded as we think they are or this is going to end badly." Ezra drawled.

"Thanks," Vin cast his gaze over his shoulder at the gambler. "Iíll remember that the next you want to borrow one of my scarves after you lose everything at the gambling tables."

"Excuse me, I think we ought to clarify that I only had to borrow you scarf once," Ezra said with great dignity. "The other time, the proprietor of the establishment was good enough to make that donation and thus saving my honour, not to mention my modesty."

"Saving your honour my ass," Vin retorted and then said with a smug smile. "Or maybe he just want to spare his customers from seeing yours like half the town did when you had walk out of there." The tracker chuckled, knowing how much Ezra had to be reminded of the unfortunate incident when he had become obsessed with defeating a fellow gambler (who turned to be cheating) until he had lost just about everything, including his shirt.

"At least I had a table cloth to cover my nudity," Ezra smirked at him. "If I recall the last time you were caught in a similar situation, you had to run Ďbuck nakedí, pardon the pun until you found your clothes."

"True," Vin retorted not about to cry defeat yet since he had an addendum to that statement he was certain Ezra was also going to hate hearing about. "Still come the next night I could and you didnít."

"That Sir," Ezra bristled, "was an underhanded trick. Potassium nitrate should be made an illegal substance...."

"Will you two cut it out!" Chris growled in a low voice but with enough intensity to make them both sit up and pay attention. He would rather his comrades remain focussed instead of indulging in this juvenile bantering when so much relied upon them. "Your usual comedy act can wait."

"Iíll have you know that our Ďcomedy actí as you put it is the toast of four states." The gambler said with a perfectly straight face, exchanging a slight snigger of mischief with the tracker who returned it with a sparkle in his blue eyes.

Chris shook his head and wondered why he bothered. Despite the two men being diametrically opposed as any two human beings might be; Ezra with his polish and refinement and Vin who was more rustic in his ways. The duo seemed to have the same strange sense of humour and could always be counted on, usually with Buck, who made the last part of their triumvirate to playing practical jokes that was more suited to ten year old boys.

Just to prove that they were not completely unmindful of the urgency over their present circumstances, Vin positioned his rifle and raised himself to his elbows, his eye lowering to the sight to take aim. "Iím ready as Iím every gonna be pard."

"Okay," Chris nodded, forgetting everything else now that the moment was upon them. He glanced in Ezraís direction and offered the gambler a slight nod as he retrieved his ivory handled peacemaker and cocked the gun with an audible click. There was no need to speak since everything that needed saying passed between their eyes in a secret language that was far more effective than the spoken word.

Ezra unsheathed his own guns and depressed the trigger just enough for the hammer to pull back in readiness for action when it finally came time to shoot. While his face showed no signs of apprehension, Chris spied his Adamís apple bobbing once or twice so slightly that no one else would have noticed other than Chris and the rest of the seven. It was not often the mask wavered but when it did, it was still enough to conceal the fact from most people except those who knew him very well.

"We ready?" Chris asked, just to make certain, since there was no going back once they began.

"Yep." Came Vinís short reply.

"Once more onto the breach, dear friends. Once more." Ezra muttered softly.

"Henry the Fifth," Chris surprised him by responding. "Before the battle of Agincourt." A slow smile stole across his face in the wake of Ezraís surprised expression. "Good choice, Ez."

"Let us hope we win the day like they did." Ezra remarked and face front.

"All right Vin," Chris said finally. "Do it."

Vin nodded and took a deep breath and aimed the long barrel of the gun in the direction of the farthest wagon from his line of sight. He aimed to make the most difficult shots first and then move onto the ones closer. If he missed, he would have more time to reload and try again before hell broke loose and Bellisonís men came after them. He was well aware even though Chris had not made mention of it, that none of those wagons could be allowed to escape with its cargo intact.

It took less than two seconds for the bullet to escape the long barrel of the rifle and strike its target once the trigger was pulled. The sound was so loud that Chris and Ezra had to retreat a few away as the roar filled the air and alerted everyone on the lonely plains to the muzzle blast from that first shot. The roar that followed the release of the chemical reaction made the gunshot pale as the bullet tore through the canvas and struck home. The wagon seemed to ignite in a ball of fire as the nitro glycerin was ignited and a surge of flames shot through the blue sky. The three men who were guarding the wagon at the time did not have time to scream before a wall of flames enveloped them even if they had not already been killed by the shock wave.

The small camp immediately went into disarray as terrified and angry voices followed the eruption. The fire burned so hot and fierce that Chris and Ezra could hear the rumble of flames as it consumed everything that was the wagon. Chris could see Bellison running towards the wreckage with the rest of his men, disorientated by the sudden attack, however he was recovering quickly and in doing so, his began surveying the terrain, trying to discern where the attack had originated. Chris knew it would not take him long to make that determination. Bellison began shouting and although Chris could not hear exactly what was being said, he was certain it was an order to move the nitro before they lost any more of it.

Unfortunately, Vin was not about to let them happen and Chris shifted his gaze long enough to see the sharpshooter taking aim once again, his face intense with concentration as he readied his rifle to make the second shot. Chris closed his ears, having no wish to be deafened by the blast when the bullet was fired. Vin seemed to be oblivious to the noise since the bullet was travelling away from him, taking the sound with it. As he pulled back the trigger of the gun and fired again, the spent casing clattered to the ground next to him.

The second shot more or less told Bellison where the shooting was coming from and Chris could make out the former Sargent and Indian scout pointing towards them as he started running towards his horse, beckoning men to follow as they scurried away from the nitro. Those who were guarding the nitro were not prepared to remain by it after seeing what had happened to their comrades following the first shot. When the second struck home with just as much precision and the following detonation lashed out with such force that the custodians of the wagon that had been hit, whom had been fleeing at the same time was given no chance of escape. Chris watched in horrific fascination as their bodies were flung forward with such force that when they landed, he was certain that the ground had snapped their bones like kindling.

In the meantime, Bellison and a large group of his men had mounted their horses and were galloping towards them at top speed. It would take no more than a few minutes for them to reach the ridge and there was still three wagons left to destroy. Somehow, he and Ezra would have to hold them off and allow Vin to finish what he needed to get the job done.

"Vin," Chris said firmly as the trackerís fingers were moving nimbly and with rapid speed as he reloaded his rifle to continue the sniper assault. "Whatever happens, keep shooting." The gunslinger ordered.

"I hear you pard." Vin nodded in understanding, pausing long enough to offer his best friend a look of acknowledgment, not merely to the instruction but to the necessity behind that order. "Good luck." He said quietly. "If not, Iíll see you both in hell." With that, he went back to his task and prepared to take aim again when he slid another projectile, with its smooth metal jacket into place and performed the lever action trigger that readied the bullet to fire.

Chris and Ezra kept their heads down and skimmed along the other side of the ridge, seeking the optimum firing position to defend themselves when Bellison and his men arrived. They found the most direct route leading up to the ridge and took position flanking the top of the passageway that allowed horses to traverse up the steep incline. Chris took refuge behind the rock just as he heard a third shot being fired, followed by the powerful boom of another rifle blast. He saw Bellison reacted to the shot, turning around long enough to see whether or not the bullet had struck home and swore when it did. The result of it meeting its target could not be masked when another wagon was laid to waste. Fragments of wood and fabric scattered across the plains, strewn amongst dead body and fiery embers of debris.

Chris saw Bellisonís expression harden with black hatred and knew that the man was going to take no prisoners when the day was done. This was only going to end with one of them dying.

"All right Ezra," Chris met the gamblerís gaze one last time before they faced the enemy. "Here they come."

Chris took aim and waited until the riders came into range of his weapon, unwilling to waste any bullets by firing prematurely simply because his adrenalin was up. Bellison and his men thundered across the ground, the furious pounding of hooves against the earth was starting to make the ground tremble. Behind them, the backdrop of the horizon started to take on the appearance of a battlefield, with bodies everywhere and fire burning black columns of smoke into the clear blue sky. Bellison could not see them yet but Chris was certain that the sergeant had a fair idea of who had perpetrated the destruction of their precious cargo.

The barrage of gunfire that came at them the moment Bellison and his men were close enough to fire was so fierce that it drove Chris and Ezra back behind the scab of rock as bullets impacted on its surface, sending sharp fragments in all directions. From his hiding place, Chris could see Vin pausing long enough to look at them with concern when he barked at the tracker to continue. "Keep shooting!"

Vin nodded and turned his attention back to the wagons as Chris aimed his guns at Bellison and started firing. The bullets that escaped his gun took down two of the large gathering advancing towards them. Bellison himself hardly batted at an eye at the death of his men and shouted at them over the sound of gunfire to keep going when suddenly another explosion roared through the air and brought their horses to a sudden stop from the violence of the noise. The animals reared up on their hind quarters, giving Chris and Ezra enough of an opening to sent a murderous hail of bullets at them.

Both lawmen were deadly shots and were aiming carefully instead of firing wildly as Bellison and his men were doing. The enemy had the ammunition to spare while Chris and Ezra did not and the lawmen made every bullet count. A host of bodies tumbled from their horses, causing more discourse with the animals made a desperate attempt to avoid trampling the humans as conditioning had forbade them. However, in their efforts to do, they collided with other horses still carrying their riders.

The destruction of the fourth and last wagon had effectively ended the threat of the nitro and with this task completed to utter satisfaction, Vin turned the rifle in his hands towards the men who were struggling to reach them. The others, who had been guarding the wagons and had wisely fled when the explosions had started, were now riding to meet up with Bellison to join his numbers in taking vengeance upon the lawmen that had shredded their plans for the railroad tracks. Without needing time to draw breath, Vin changed the direction of his aim and pulled back the lever action trigger of his rifle.

Ezra saw Bellisonís reinforcements falling into the dirt as they attempted to breach the distance between themselves and their leader. The gambler glanced over his shoulder long enough to see the tracker taking up the slack and felt some admiration for the manís skill. The shots that destroyed the wagon were truly beautiful, if such violence could ever be labelled a thing of art which Ezra felt this was very close to being. He paused a moment and reloaded his gun, while Chris continued to fire at the horde that was less than two hundred yards away. There were at least six of them approaching, with Bellison leading the charge.

Ezra rolled back onto the rock, his chest pressing hard against the protection as he aimed and fired, using as much cool deliberation in shooting as he did when playing cards. He squeezed the trigger almost gently, mindful at the danger looming forward with each powerful stride of the horses galloping towards them. The shot took down the man at Bellisonís side and Chris maintained the barrage on his end, taking down the man at the far end. Bellisonís look of hatred started to wane slightly as he realised that his men was being cut down around him. However, his uncertainty had not asserted himself to a point where he had considered withdrawing.

One hundred yards. Ezra swallowed, seeing the four men starting to climb up the incline. Once they crossed the steep hill and were upon himself and Chris on horseback, there would be no place to hide. Chris and Ezra offered each other a quick glance in an unspoken agreement that Bellison could not be allowed to reach them. The time for the finesse of marksmanship was over. Now it was a straight out fire fight, brutal and swift. The two lawmen emerged and started shooting, creating of wall of bullets that allowed nothing to penetrate and more of Bellisonís men met their deaths, signalling their end by the unceremonious dislodgment from the saddle before the tumbled down the slope, taking dirt and rocks with them. Very soon, Bellison found himself the only one leading his charge and he realised half way through the journey upwards that he was alone.

"Sargent!" Chris shouted and rose to his feet, emerging from the rock and daring the man forward. "So much for the revolution!"

Ezra did not know what Chris was doing and decided that it was really unimportant for him to have that question answered because Bellison was alone and Chris was more than capable of handling himself. Instead, he turned his attention to the reinforcements that Vin working through steadily, using his rifle to deadly accuracy until only two or three men had manage to escape the barrage of sniper fire. Ezra turned his attention to them and took them out with as much efficiency as he and Chris had despatched the rest of their comrades a short time ago.

Bellison was still approaching. Chris knew he would after he had offered that derisive remark at the man. In a shot, actually one of two really, that Chris had waited the last sixteen years to make, he cocked his gun slowly and took aim. This was not just for two months of hell inside a military hospital, wondering if he would ever walk again. This was the kidnapping of his wife, for dragging her out of her house in the dead of night and frightening his son with the terror of possibly losing another parent. And this was also about the murder of a young woman who had been his lover, more importantly his friend. Maria had been his anchor when despair had threatened to claim him. Without her loving touch and soft voice in the night to tell him there was things that were worth living for, he might not have ever told Mary how he felt and everything since then might never have been. When Bellison had taken Mariaís life, he had sealed his own doom and erased any doubt in Chrisí mind that he would survive their final meeting.

Bellison did not falter in his progress, perhaps believing the same thing as he prepared to kill the man that had seen him languishing inside the confines of a hellish military prison for so many years and also readied himself to shoot. However, of the two, it was Chris who did not flinch while the closer Bellison approached, the more uncertain he became that he might not be able to accomplish what he intended. Unfortunately, by the time he came to that realisation and felt his resolve falter, he had reached the top of the incline and the end of his opportunity to escape.

Chris pulled the trigger and fired only one shot.

One shot was all that was required really. The bullet slammed into the centre of Bellisonís forehead, exiting through the back of his head and erupting his scalp in large gruesome fragments of meat as the life drained from the manís eyes. He seemed mostly surprised as everything that he was splattered across the back of his horse and on the ground before the animal reared up in fear of the death it could scent heavily in its nostrils and panicked. It threw Bellisonís body out of the saddle and the corpse rolled down the slope a ways before coming to a stop.

Chris watched his body come to a halt dispassionately, feeling no remorse or satisfaction, just the partial closure that would only reach completion when Julius joined Bellison in that same grisly pose. The gunslinger regarded the dead man for a moment before he whispered softly under his breath.

"For you Maria."

+ + + + + + +

Until the lawmen and the rail boss actually began the process of evacuation, none had realised just how monumental a task was set before them. Language difficulties aside, most of the families had not been happy to be pulled apart even for a day and for reasons of safety. Most were willing to brave the danger that was coming just to keep their families intact. Josiah could well understand why this was. Most of the Chinese workers had nothing else to bind them to this world except the families that they had brought with them from the orient. To lose that was to be completely alone and like so many people, oriental or not, that was a difficult thing to bear.

Fortunately, Josiah enlisted the aid of Wo Chin who in the past year and a half had metamorphosed from an angry youth mourning his father to a young man discovering his own identity in the new world. Along with the family friend who had assumed responsibility of the young man since his fatherís death, Chong Soon and Wo Chin had acted as translators, attempting to convey to the workers what would be the deadly consequences if they did not make haste and depart. Josiah felt a little like Moses heralding the Israelites out of Egypt as he saw families gathering everything they had into small parcels, bound by cloth as the wagons were readied to ferry them away.

Mostly and women and children went first, with a good many able bodied men remaining behind and offering to take up the task of defence. While Josiah and JD took charge of the evacuation, Buck and the railway companyís powder man, an elderly gentleman named Horton, prepared to surround the camp with explosive mines to give Juliusí Citadel a surprise when they made their arrival the next day. Horton who had been in the business for so long that he probably started when Buck was in diapers, had been adding some refinement to the lawmanís skill. While Buck knew how to set up dynamite and detonators, the others knew he was not all that much of an expert and could appreciate why he was so eager when Horton offered to teach him the tricks of the trade.

In the meantime, Nathan was preparing for the wounded that would inevitably follow any gunfight, especially the one with the scale they would be facing the next day. The healer had wished that he could have summoned Alexandra Styles but knew that Vin Tanner would not appreciate his future wife involved in this action. Thus he enlisted the aid of the local healer, Doctor Soong whom apart from having unsuccessful love potions, did know something about treating more physical wounds like the ones they were expecting tomorrow. With the Doctorís aid, the two men had established something of a first aid station in one of the shantyís that was some distance away from the fighting.

The general was just as busy, coordinating with McPhee and the rest of his men, where to position themselves when the attack came and what area was defensible and was needed to mined with obstacles where men could not successfully keep the invaders out. Everyone was in agreement that with the absence of Chris Larabee, it was quite comforting to have his formidable father around, directing things. Josiah could see where Chris had acquired his own leadership skills even though his conversations with Larabee indicated that Chris had no taste for soldiering. Josiah supposed that being able to do something and wanting to do it were two different things.

Josiah and JD escorted the wagons far away from the camp, to piece of land that was well hidden and not frequented by most because its position had it far from the main settlements in the area. As a temporary refuge, it was rather Spartan and had a small creek not too far from it that would serve as a source of water until it was safe for them to return to the camp. Fortunately, a lengthy stay was not anticipated. One way or another, the next day would decide that with no room for doubt. The caravans of women and children continued most of the day as the lawmen moved everyone who was in danger or unable to defend themselves into the temporary refuge.

By evening, Buck and Horton had set up the defensive perimeter and Wo Chin had aided with the construction of fortifications not unlike those they had built when they were defending the Seminole village and more recently, Four Corners, during its siege. No one was certain how much effect this would have on Juliusí men but any advantage was welcomed. Buck and Nathan then began the task of distributing any spare guns there were kept in the weapons cache railway office among the men who had volunteered to fight with them. Most had limited awareness of guns and such and a few hours was expended familiarising them with the use of the weapons for them to be effective against Juliusí men when the attack came.

The preparations continued into the night until finally, all that could be done had been undertaken. With nightfall there was little to be done until morning. Sentries were posted in strategic locations around the perimeter to ensure that Julius did not catch them unawares by launching premature attack in the middle of the night. The mood was tense. When the last of the preparations had concluded, the seven gathered around a campfire Josiah had made, trying not to notice the silence that moved through the place in the wake of the evacuation. Although there were still a large number of people in the camp, it was still a pale shadow of what it had been when they had first arrived that morning.

As twilight descended over them, the lawmen took supper of whatever the camp cook had prepared, trying not to think about the odds that they would be facing tomorrow, or how their other comrades were faring on their part of the plan.

"How do you think theyíre doing?" JD asked as he wolfed down the food before him, displaying his youth in his voracious appetite while the others picked at their meal.

"Probably on their way back now." Buck said confidently, always the internal optimistic and being especially so on this occasion because Chrisí father was present. Although the general had remained mostly silent during the meal and remained impassive, it was not hard to see that in his silence, his thoughts were with his son.

In some ways, Buck envied Chris having a father to worry about him when most of their number was lacking in that privilege. He had no idea who his father did and sometimes wondered if his mother had any idea herself. Almost nothing was known about Ezraís father except that he existed enough to provide Maude Standish with his name and a son, while Vin did not even know that much, uncertain whether or not the name Tanner was from the paternal or maternal side of his family. From what Buck knew of JDís life before he came here, the youth had only vague memories of his father and was mostly raised by his mother. Nathanís own father had retired to the Seminole village since his arrival in Four Corners and the healer occasionally went to visit the old men there, since he preferred a place where the world could forget him. Meanwhile from all descriptions, Josiahís relationship with his father was antagonistic to say the least.

"I think we got a good chance of giving those Citadel boys something to remember." Nathan remarked, pleased with the progress they had made today and especially so because they had managed the feat of moving the women and children out of the camp to a place of safety.

The general seemed to agree. "We need to take Julius," he said in his gravelly voice, joining in the conversation for the first time. "If we can take him, the rest of them will be disorganised."

"Thatís true," Josiah nodded. "From what Ezra told us, it seemed that Julius kept control to himself and Bellison."

"Chances are thatís who Chris ran into." Buck replied. "Blowing up the rail way tracks is an important job, he wouldnít trust that to any one than the good olí sarge." He snorted, not hiding his dislike.

"Yeah," Nathan agreed. "They do seemed joined at the hip." The healer pointed out, recalling what Buck had told them about the man previously.

"Heís a sycophant." Larabee said shortly. "Heíll follow his master like a dog."

"Not any more." The younger version of that same voice responded breaking the pause that had followed.

"Chris!" JD said euphonically as he saw the gunslinger entered the amber light of their campfire. The others immediately rose to their feet and offered similar welcomes to the three weary travellers who had ridden and fast after their confrontation with Bellison so that they could return to the railway camp and stand with their friends when the attack came the next day. The general did not show his joy as exuberantly as Buck and JD, merely giving his son a slight nod before the entire group sat in front of the fire once again, allowing the heat to warm their bones as they caught up with each other over the dayís events.

"So I am assuming Bellison is no longer a problem." Larabee asked as he waited for Chris to down his cup of coffee as Buck volunteered to go get them some food.

"Neither the nitro or Mr Bellison will be causing us any further difficulty by their continued existence." Ezra drawled as he rested his back against his bed roll and took pleasure in being able just relax for a short time until the next crisis came along which in this instance, would be at dawn.

"That nitro is all gone?" Nathan inquired.

"Yeah," Vin nodded. "Every last wagon." The tracker confirmed, feeling no need to go into detail how the shots that had ended their threat had almost been perfect. He was rather satisfied that he had managed to accomplish the task without endangering his companions with the inconvenience of a misfire.

"Nobody got away alive to warn Julius." Chris added. "We saw to it." He did not need to clarify what those measures entailed

"So theyíre still coming." Buck sighed, not relishing the fight, especially when they were expecting large casualty numbers with the workers who had volunteered to stay and fight at their side being so green.

"Julius has a point to make," Ezra said with a hint of bitterness in his voice that was not lost upon the others and secretly, they wondered what on earth had transpired between Julius and Ezra to warrant so much personal dislike from the gambler. "He will do so sacrificing all his men if necessary just so that us peons know that the right hand of god had spoken."

"He actually say that?" JD gasped, somewhat horrified by the description and the motivation behind such callousness, not to mention his delusions of grandeur.

"Itís a step up from military genius." Chris remarked.

"Well," Larabee said with a loud sigh. "Tomorrow, weíll find out how right he is about that."

+ + + + + + +

Time.

There had seemed a lot of it in the darkness. The moon above them had illuminated much of the night and followed through hours until dawn finally arrived. No one could sleep really, even though they were all exhausted from the dayís preparation, hoping everything that done in readiness for the attack the next day would be enough. Eventually some of the seven drifted off into slumber but their dreams were uneasy and sporadic and eventually, they found themselves awake and awaited the morning together.

In the light of dawn, there was no signs of the previous nightís anxieties, just the grim determination by the seven to survive the day and keep the people around them in a similar state of health. Even though the women and children had been evacuated, their husbands, their father and their brothers, were still here and though ready to fight were not warriors by nature. Despite proving they had the heart needed to defend themselves against Juliusí fanatics.

It had not been that long since Chris Larabee had been apart a battle like this. When Selina Quint had led Mexican bandits to lay waste to the town of Four Corners in order to clear the land for the likes of Guy Royal and Stuart James, Chris had been forced to plan the strategy that allowed the town to prevail against that threat. This situation was not much different than that terrible affair although this engagement worried Chris a great deal more. With the exception of the men working for McPhee and the rest of the seven, very few of those called on to defend the settlement had any established weapons training.

The majority were simple Chinese workers, who in most likely hood had never even seen a gun let alone acquire enough skill in 24 hours to defend themselves with any real capability. What was worse, the men who made up the bulk of Juliusí Citadel were men who followed a cause for which they were prepared to die for. As Ezra had told them, Julius had seen to it that the men who followed him were trained to kill. The man had wanted an army that would become a singular force of terror that would shake the foundations of the government and strike fear into the hearts of people by the very mention of their name. Julius kept them mean and hungry so they'd always have an edge and it was edge that gave Chris reason for concern. Still when it was all said and done, there was no use worrying about things he could not change. They had asked for leadership and the seven had given had given it. He had to believe that was enough.

The seven had been dispersed around the length and breadth of the camp in preparation for the attack. Chris and his father were situated in the most obvious place where Julius would select to penetrate the camp when he eventually arrived. Buck and Horton had mined the area intensively, intending on killing as many of the enemy when they made their initial charge. Having established a minefield of sorts strategically around the camp, the big man had gone to oversee the detonations, while Vin had been assigned to utilise some of McPheeís men as snipers. After what had happened with the nitro, Chris could safely say that sniper fire could be an extremely effective weapon in the right hands and as far as he was concerned, those hands could not be more capable than Vin Tannerís

He paced up and down space where Ezra was poised over one of the detonators with a slew of McPheeís men who were awaiting for the invaders with their guns. Larabee watched his son walking back and forth and knew that Chris was working himself into an ever-tightening knot of tension that was ill advised at this time.

"Relax." He ordered.

"I canít." Chris frowned and continued pacing. They had set up a defensive perimeter and the men stationed along the precarious border seemed to grow more impatient by the waiting game that had started the moment the sun had risen this morning. Chris wished Ezraís intelligence was more specific, he hated waiting for the moment as much as they did and wanted it over and done with.

"Youíre making me nervous, knock it off." His father said with just enough edge in his voice to demand obedience.

"You know Iím not a kid any more." Chris pointed, unaware that Ezra was finding great amusement in the observation of this exchange between a father and son whose disposition was so similar it was like watching two great rocks slamming into each other, it was just a question of odds who would crumble first. If Ezra were actually fool enough to lay such a bet, he would put the odds on the senior Larabee prevailing.

"I noticed." Larabee remarked. "If you were, Iíd smack you around and before I gave you that piece advice. Youíre working yourself up and making your men nervous."

"I am not." Chris retorted and turned to Ezra. "Am I?"

"Mr Larabee, there is not enough money in this world to make me answer that question." Ezra said with a dimpled smile. "I am afraid you boys will have to settle this matter on your own."

"Coward." He retorted.

"Thatís not a nice to say to the man," Larabee said sternly. "Apologise to Mr Standish."

Chris opened his mouth to say what he thought about that when suddenly, the loud whine of a bugle from the lookouts who had been stationed at the highest points they had been able to find, delivered irrefutable proof of the inevitable news of trouble with its braying. The loud penetrating sound moved through the group of men stationed at this beachhead like a ripple through water and immediately, everyone raised their guns and readied himself to begin shooting at a momentís notice.

Before he could question the specific of what their sentries had seen, the silence was shattered by a new sound. Around him, his father and Ezra had yet to pick it up, only Vin could have such acute hearing and he was up on that ridge with a dozen men who were readying themselves for their part of the fighting. Everyone else was still oblivious to it which was hardly surprising since Chris had trained himself to detect such things.

"I hear gun fire." Chris spoke up.

Immediately Larabee stood and listened closely. "I hear it." He said after a moment. "Theyíre trying to take down the lookouts."

"Are you sure?" Ezra asked staring into the line of the horizon trying to focus on the sound. "I don't hear anything."

"Wait for it." Chris responded coolly.

The gunfire approached like a whisper, carried on the waves of a rolling breeze. It tickled the ears as it started to rise in momentum. Very soon, they were all hearing it.

"Hold position!" Larabee ordered the men who were at the perimeter, looking as if they might run, now that the sound of many riders was approaching. His voice seemed to jar them back to their senses and he hoped that would be enough. They had mined this area because it was the more vulnerable to attack and because Julius was not fool enough to forgo the golden opportunity of exploiting such a tactical advantage.

"Here they come." Chris said the second time in as many days.

It was difficult to see how many of them were coming because when they peaked the crest of the horizon, Chris could only see an endless line of horses, thundering towards them, dragging hell with them as the crossed the battlefield and closed in on the prey. He could not see Julius and Chris was uncertain if the man was even here since he rarely led the charge personally in the battles during the war. No doubt, Julius was where it was safe, offering his men up as cannon fodder for his bloody victor.

As Chris took a deep breath and tried not to feel apprehension at the enemy forces closing in on them, he hoped the men who were standing with him had the same resolve. Even Ezraís facade of calm deliberation had faded somewhat and there was just enough dark in the gamblerís eyes for Chris to see he slightly afraid. His father, remained impassive but then the general had seen much worse in his time and Chris had to admit that there was enough of his fatherí s blood in him to keep his own fear at bay as well. Still, the enemy was impressive as they thundered forward, appearing well armed and ready to battle to the death as they raised their guns and prepared to kill in the name of their cause.

"Lord." Ezra found himself saying as he saw the full might of the Citadel bearing down on him and his friends.

"Donít let them spook you," Chris said coolly, his eyes fixed on the enemy as they closed in. He did not see superior numbers or the possibility of death. He saw only that after sixteen years, he and Hannibal Julius were going to have their moment of reckoning.

"I will try but unlike you, I left my iron stomach in my other suit." Ezra said sarcastically.

"Well think of this way," the general remarked. "They can kill you only once."

"Now why didnít I think of that?" The gambler rolled his eyes. "I used to be such an optimistic soul."

Chris did not respond, instead he looked at Ezra and soon calmly. "Get ready."

Ezra nodded quietly, all business now as the riders started to approach the kill zone where the mines were waiting for them. Resting his hands on the handle that would set off the charges when he depressed it, Ezra kept his eye trained on either of the Larabeeís awaiting them to give the signal. He glanced long enough at the men behind him to see that they were waiting with similar anticipation for Chris to give the signal and Ezra prayed that Buck Wilmingtonís lesson under the tutelage of Mister Horton had improved his skill as a powder man.

Or this was going to be much of a defence.

Chris did not pay much attention to Ezra, focussed instead on the men approaching and undoing the flap of his holster so that his gun would be easily retrieved when the hurricane of riders and guns finally rolled on top of them. His eyes skimmed over the faces of the men who were stationed there with him and he could see their fear in their eyes. Good, he thought to himself. A little bit of healthy fear was a good thing. It might just make them take that extra bit of care to stay alive when the shooting started and the real fighting began.

He could see the faces of the men who were coming to kill them and knew that this was the time. He glanced at Ezra and immediately issued the order the southerner had been awaiting.

"Now!" He barked unaware that he had shouted until the sound escaped him.

The roar of the explosion seemed to fill the air as the earth trembled from the mortal wound delivered upon it. Geysers of heat and earth blasted forth from the ground, knocking men off their horses, killing mount and rider in some instances, as bodies began falling like the debris that was scattering throughout the minefield that had been prepared for them. As expected, the charge scattered in disarray as the riders attempted to gain some equilibrium in the face of the violent eruptions. The formidable line of invaders had become an ant colony after someone had smashed a rock through it.

However, their numbers were too many to call this action a victory just yet and while the invaders in this tiny theatre of the war was suffering their first defeat of the day, Larabee instructed the men with him into the next phase of their battle. "Rifles!" He ordered.

Guns were simultaneously raised across the defensive perimeter. Even Chris and Ezra had now unsheathed their guns and were ready to take advantage of the confusion that had been caused by the minefield. It was not going to last indefinitely and to make it work, they had to act fast.

"Cut them down!" Larabee ordered.

Gunfire erupted simultaneously, creating a concussion of sound so loud that it was almost painful to hear it. The riders who had been reeling from the minefield were not assaulted by what appeared to be a wall of bullets from guns with varying degrees lethal power. Some managed to escape the torrent of projectiles but most were cut down as they tried to close the distance between their prey and themselves, stupefied in some respects by the formidable defence they were encountering. There was no break in the firing, the rotation of gunfire had been prepared before this so that there would be no pause while someone paused to reload to order to shoot again. While Chris paused to refill the empty chamber of his gun and discard his spend cartridges, Ezra took up the slack and so it continued like this for what seemed an eternity, even though only minutes had passed by.

The space before the line they were defending was now covered in bloodied corpses and those who still lived were starting to reconsider the notion of dying for a cause when so many around them had paid the price already. Their horses were becoming more panicked with the continued onslaught of ammunition. They were rearing up on their hind quarters, toppling their master and spinning further and further into the chaos as they attempted to evade the gunfire fire that seemed to be coming from all around. It was hard to say who was more distraught of the two, master or beast but in the end, the dying was the great equaliser.

Chris had been hoping that this might happen and when he saw the some of the riders turning tail and running, he felt a flood of relief wash through him. Exchanging glances at Ezra and the general who was sharing his understated elation, he let a small smile curl at the corner of his lips when a slight ripple of cheers broke out amongst the men who were fighting with them. Still the victory at their front was only of many that had to be won and the war was by no means over.

+ + + + + + +

Across the camp, Vin Tanner and the men who were assigned the task of providing sniper support were laying waste to the enemy attempting to breach the perimeter through the gully that ran along the northern border. As they stationed themselves along the peak and stared down at the advancing force, Vin loaded his gun again and continued firing into the thickest part of the riders trying to breach their defences. The general had stated the night before that Julius was of the belief that surprise and large numbers would take the place of military strategy. With the fortifications installed by the railway workers doing their worst, it was obvious that it was going to be a fatal mistake for the would be demi-god.

Obviously, Julius had counted heavily on the element of surprise because no self respecting commander with an ounce of sense would send his men into some a vulnerable position with high walls on either side and only one visible means of escape. They would have to traverse the length of the gully in order to reach the camp and with snipers established on either side, they were effectively penned in. Vin remained dispassionate about the men he was sending to their deaths each time he pulled the trigger and pinned his target, since, it was Julius who was far more responsible that he. As the barrage of bullets continued to rain down on the helpless soldiers of the Citadel cause, bodies began to cover the ground in a carpet of flesh. Horses bolted away from the scene of the carnage, their animal senses detecting the scent much too prolifically for them to fight their natural instinct to flee.

Vin saw the remaining riders below them starting to panic, barking orders amongst themselves as they attempted to salvage the situation but the dead around them was making it difficult to adhere to reasonable thinking with any effectiveness. If this was to be ended without further blood shed, the sharpshooter decided he had to act now.

"Hold you fire!" He shouted to the rest of his companions, consisting of McPheeís men and the workers on the railway who had prior rifle expertise. Slowly, the discharge of gunfire came to a slow halt and the enemy below looked up in question at the sudden cessation.

"You men down there got a choice on how you want this to end," Vin said loudly to them, hoping they would take the offer and walk away. "You can drop your guns and go or we can keep firing until youíre just pile a corpses like your friends down there."

"How do we know you ainít gonna shoot us once our back is turned?" One of them retaliated.

"You donít." Vin retorted, wanting there to be no mistake on this. "It doesnít matter one way or another whether you give it or not. Weíll cut you down before you even get to the camp, let alone make it out of this gully alive. It donít matter any to us how you leave here, dead or alive, just as long you leave."

Vin held his breath as he waited for their answer although to look at him, one could not hardly see that there was anticipation in his eyes. The sharpshooter wore the same unflappable expression as always, hiding how he felt beneath a well practised mask of indifference. He could see the riders arguing their decision amongst themselves, raised voice and frightened ones blending in a mix of debate until finally, an answer emerged from the mire of choice.

It came in the form of a gun being dropped to the ground, followed by another and another after that, until the dirt beneath disappeared under a cache of weaponry that ranged from small derringers to long barrelled rifles like the one he carried himself.

"This ainít over!" One of the men yelled as they prepared to leave the gully, the sour taste of defeat in their mouths was evident by the anger in their faces. "The Citadel takes care of its enemies, not today or tomorrow, but weíll be coming for ya!"

Vinís voice was ice cold when he spoke. "Get going." He said, pulling the lever action trigger of his rifle just to make his point.

The man who had spoken glared at the tracker before digging his heels into his horse and gestured to what remained of his comrades to follow. A dark storm cloud followed them as they rode away and Vin felt a slight chill run through his spine as he saw them disappear into the distance because he believed them.

The Citadel was not done with them, not by a long shot.

+ + + + + + +

Similar engagements continued throughout the next few hours with some breaches being made when some of the invaders broke into the camp. With the combined efforts of the seven, McPheeís men and the Chinese railroad workers to repel them, Juliusí men were soon killed or fleeing. It became apparent that Julius had established his entire campaign on taking the camp by surprise, believing that Ezra had only learnt about the destruction of the railway tracks and not about the massacre he had planned to carry out. While there was death on all sides, JD had taken a bullet to the shoulder, Josiahís had been hit in the leg and the seven had suffered a slew of other minor abrasions and lacerations from close quarters fighting in one form or another. However, at the end of the day, it was the invaders who suffered the worst of the combat.

By nightfall, the battle was more or less ended with their efforts directed towards the cleaning up of those who had fallen and the destruction that had taken place during the day. The camp had suffered much but as McPhee pointed out, nothing destroyed could not be replaced. The dead that remained in the wake of the battle more rightly distressed the rail boss and one of the more despised jobs of the evening was the gathering of the dead in preparation of burial. Nathan remained in his medical tent with the doctor he had enlisted for his cause and spent most of his time tending to injuries on either side. The rest of the seven took the task of rounding up the last of Juliusí men who had not been killed, merely captured.

There was no sign of Julius himself.

Chris had been right when he assumed that Julius would not take active part in the engagement. He supposed demi-gods did not wallow in the trenches with the rest of their men. Of course, it was possible that he had been killed in the fighting over the course of the day. Unfortunately, there was so many bodies to deal with that it would take some time to make that determination and Chris was not holding his breath at finding the man among the dead. Julius was most likely back in the Barrens, waiting for his men to return with news of victory and Chris smiled with a certain amount of satisfaction knowing that the defeat would sting more than any revenge he could deliver upon this former captain.

There was much cleaning up to do in the wake of the battle and the decision to return to Four Corners with the prisoners was postponed until the morning because most of the seven were too exhausted after the past two days to make the trip. They needed to recoup their strength and allow injuries sustained, time to heal at least for the evening. No one argued with Chris when he made that suggestion and were grateful to their leader for the consideration. Although they would be taking turns guarding the prisoners throughout the course of the night, no one was eager to get going anywhere.

After the past three days, Ezra Standish had come to the firm conclusion that he needed a drink.

The gambler made his way to where the horses were kept in order to retrieve a metal flask he kept in Chaucerís saddle for emergency use. Unlike the swill enjoyed by most of his comrades, Ezra was in the mood for something finer and decided that surviving the day had definitely earned him some smooth malt whisky. The gambler made his way across the camp, feeling a pang of remorse as he saw the bodies of Chinese workers under sheets, tended to by their stoic country men and wished it had not come to this. He thought of Li Pong and was glad he had sent her to San Francisco because he would not have been impressed if she had been present during this situation.

Of course, if Li Pong was still here, a lot of things would be different.

Strange how coming back here had brought the memory of her back to his mind when he had hardly given her a second thought in almost a year and a half. He supposed with Julia in his life there was little reason to do that and Li Pong was happy with her family for him to feel any regrets about what she could have meant to him and his life had she remained in Four Corners. Upon leaving the noises of the camp when he neared the outskirts where the horses were corralled, he looked up at the sky to marvel at the beauty of the stars overhead. It was hard to believe that things could be so peaceful now when just hours ago, this had been nothing less than a battlefield.

Ezra sighted Chaucer amongst the other horses and immediately hastened his pace to reach his trusted companion. The animal nickered upon seeing him, recognising its master and taking a step forward to greet the human who stroked its lengthy nose on arrival. "Hello old friend," Ezra spoke out loud, soothing the animal with his smooth and refine voice. "Its been quite a day, has it not?"

Chaucer seemed to agree, nuzzling into his pocket, in search of sugar or some other treat that Ezra often brought it when the gambler return to his horse.

"Sorry," Ezra apologised as he pulled away and went to his saddle. "Nothing today but I promise you a feast when we return to Four Corners in the morning."

Suddenly, out of nowhere, something struck at his knee, buckling his legs from under him and driving him straight into the ground immediately. He let out a soft grunt of pain as he felt the digging of sharp rocks and grit into his flesh when his knees hit the dirt on the ground. Chaucer neighed in disapproval and backed away, causing discourse among the other horses who had to move in order to accommodate the sudden shift. Ezra went for his gun but never got the chance to reach it. Before he could even graze the butt of the weapon with his fingers, he felt the sharp blade of a knife pressing into his neck. Freezing immediately, he swallowed as he felt a hand holding his head poised over the knife he could not see but definitely felt.

"Mister Standish." The voice said coolly and Ezra knew immediately that it was Julius.

"Mr Julius." Ezra said confidently, trying to hide his fear and responded in the same voice he used whenever he was about to put down a straight flush and takes someoneís money. To show fear was to give Julius more power over him that he already had since their last encounter and Ezra was not going to do that again.

"I trusted you." His gloved hand moved over Ezraís cheek and caressed it, making Ezra stiffen with revulsion at the manís gentle touch. He lowered his lips to Ezraís ears and whispered softly with the same seductive tone. "I could have given you the world and everything that you have ever wanted but you chose to betray me. I can only believe that you did not fully understand what you were being offered, so I make it again."

"You have nothing that I want." Ezra said firmly and pulled his head away, daring to risk being cut if it meant giving Julius a clear indication of where his loyalties remained as well as his sexuality for that matter.

"I do not believe that is true," Julius continued, unperturbed by Ezraís intense words of refusal. "I believe that there is apart of you who knows better, that has different ideas about what it wants. I trusted that part of you and you betrayed me and destroyed my plans to strike a blow towards the regime that has enslaved us all. I have to assume that you are misguided."

"I am hardly misguided Julius," Ezra snapped, feeling the knife breaking skin. "I just do not believe a damn thing you say! Your campaign is in tatters and you have as much chance of conquering the world with your genius as I do of ever responding to your advances! So if you are done with your attempt to sway me, I suggest you either kill me now and be done with it or else scamper back under the rock from which you emerged. Either way, you are boring me with your diatribe."

Julius offered a short laugh of amusement. "You wound me Ezra," he said with a smile that Ezra could not see but was certain he was displaying. "This campaign is one of many and what you discovered in the Barrens is only one of my enclaves. I have such places scattered throughout this country and the loss of life today is merely a temporary setback. You and the lieutenant have inconvenienced me, nothing more. As for killing you?" Julius paused a moment as his lips brushed against Ezra's cheek, daring the gambler to move.

"Get your hands off me!" Ezra exploded but could not offer much resistance when Julius reminded him of the situation when the blade bit into his skin and he felt warm blood oozing from a slight cut that was enough to sting but not to kill him.

"I have no intention of killing you Ezra," Julius continued smoothly after he had put down Ezraís effort to break free. "I do intend however on having you one way or another. I would have preferred you come to me of your own will but rest assured that we are far from done. You may tell your master that for this encounter, the day is his but I swear to you Ezra, you and I will meet again and the next time, you will be mine."

With that he planted a firm kiss on the gamblerís cheek and released him. Ezra went for his gun and spun around ready to shoot the bastard dead but Julius was gone, disappearing into the night like a mist. Ezra searched the shadows to catch sight of the man in his retreat but there was nothing to see but dark looming shadows that seemed more prolific in the light of Juliusí brief appearance.

Ezra took a deep breath and was grateful that no one was present because he would not have like to have been seen so shaken and he was shaken. Something about the threat that the man had made suddenly told Ezra that Julius no longer considered Chris his hated enemy. He had not killed the gambler this time because he had some terrible revenge planned after he had taken sufficient time to lick his wounds and address his losses. Ezra wiped the blood from his neck where the blade had cut and knew the wound was minor but the warning Julius had made was not.

Ezra had a feeling that if he were to fall into Juliusí power again, he would not come away so unscathed.

Epilogue:Full of Surprises

As expected, when the seven returned to the Barrens two days after the army reinforcements had arrived to take charge of the prisoners captured during the attempted massacre at the railway camp, the mining facility that had been the centre of Juliusí power during this entire affair, was abandoned. This came as little surprise to everyone concerned especially Chris, who knew that Julius was too much of a coward to remain and face the music, just like he had been careful to stay out of the fighting and let his men shed all the blood for his victories.

The facility was like a ghost town when they arrived, with everything of value removed until only the buildings remained, waiting to be swept into the dust by the harsh winds that travelled the terrain, dissolving into time like everything else that was forgotten. It was a far cry from the place that Ezra had described when he and Mary had returned only a few days ago. A thorough search was made nonetheless although no one expected to find anything, least of all Julius. Wherever he was, Chris was certain the man was planning ugly vengeance against those who had conspired to destroy his dream of godhood before it even had a chance to emerge.

Chris and Vin had ridden to Purgatorio the night before and discovered that things in the town had returned to normal with the Citadel members who had taken up residence there having quit the place soon after the attack had failed. No doubt, they had departed on Juliusí orders and would emerge soon enough if what Vin told Chris was true when the sniper force had chased away the handful of men that had been left after their barrage of gunfire. Chris expected that it was not the last time they would be hearing about the dreaded organisation and now they had specific reason to fear because they were enemies not only to Julius but to the Citadel as well.

Ezra had related to them how Julius had approached him in the aftermath of the battle and delivered the warning as well as the minor injury to the gamblerís neck under the manís blade. There was something in Ezraís narration that seemed out of place like his behaviour had been since the return from the mining facility the night he had rescued Mary. Chris sensed there was something he was not telling them. While his trust in Ezra was without question, it worried Chris to see the gambler so unsettled and he clearly was after the encounter with Julius.

Although Chris wanted to question Ezra further on this, he did not because he had the faint suspicion that Ezra would tell him to mind his own business. After years of friendship, Chris had come to recognise that there were two sides to the gambler. One persona was the money loving, professional gambler who would sell his mother (although with Maude it was understandable) for a quick buck. The other side to Ezra which was not so verbose or cynical, was deeply private and possessing of more feeling for the people in his life than he would like to admit. If Ezra wanted to remain silent, Chris respected him enough to allow him that. For saving Maryís life, Chris had no trouble making that small allowance.

The damage to the railway site though considerable, was nothing that would not be repaired in a few days, McPhee had stated and alleged that the construction work on the tracks would begin in less than a week. In the meantime, the women and children were returned to the camp once things had settled enough for it to be allowed. The army also took charge of retrieving the bodies of the soldiers that had been poisoned in order to return them to their families. The general had spent an entire afternoon penning a letter to Colonel Markhamís family whom he knew personally after working with the man for so long.

Although his father bore the death of his trusted adjutant stoically, Chris could tell that the general was saddened by the death of his old friend whom by all accounts had been at his side for the last ten years. Chris supposed that he would be hit just as hard if he were to lose any of the men riding at his side and remembered a terrible instance not too long ago when they had all believed Vin had died. Until he was restored to them, Chris had been unable to imagine life without the tracker riding shot gun no matter how much trouble they were in. He hoped that allowing the general to be apart of his life and that of his family was in some small way, able to compensate for that loss.

For Chris himself, even though Julius had escaped, he felt strangely at peace with the way things had transpired, even reaching resolution. Of course, if the man who had taught him to despise anyone who put a bullet in anotherís back, ever strayed back into his sights again, Chris would see to it that Julius regretted the encounter but for himself, Chris was in no hurry to seek him out. Also, after twenty one years of soul searching and deep seeded guilt over his actions following his expulsion from the Academy, Chris was finally able to let go of that particular burden. His father did not judge his actions and was willing to forgive him. With a soul that had reason to bear much already, Chris was pleased that he was able to let go of one of his demons.

He would never shake them all away but at least he was making a start.

+ + + + + + +

"What a mess." Buck looked at the ruins of the shack now that the crisis was over and they had finally time to pay some attention to the damage done to the shack during the attack by the Citadel when they had attempted to recover the nitro.

"No kidding." Vin agreed, unhappy to see the first real home of his own in such a state of destruction. Even though he had not called the shack home for little than a few months, it did pained him to see Chrisí gift to him like this. Nothing much remained of the building except a pile of ashes and burned wood after the shack had collapsed upon itself when the fire had eaten away the support beams.

"Well think of it this way," Nathan said looking over the wreckage with as much distaste, recalling how terrible it had been when they had first sighted the destruction, when they were unaware whether or not Vin, Josiah, JD and Alex had made it out of there alive. "Now you got the chance to rebuild the way you like."

"And big enough for two." Alex pointed out trying to make her fiancee feel better because she could see in his eyes the sadness of losing the shack. Considering she shared so many nights here with him, herself, Alex felt rather emotional about it. Although her arm was still in a sling, the lady was much improved in health when she sidled up next to Vin and slid her uninjured arm under his heavy coat and pulled herself closer to him by hooking her arm around his waist.

"Yeah," Vin smiled at that, liking the idea that soon, he would be able to share every night with her and also the mornings that came after. As it was, the hours he had spent with Alex out here was as close to heaven as he could possibly imagine. Draping his arm across her shoulder, he savoured her warmth next to him and added. "Ainít gonna be nothing fancy though. I ainít that great at house building."

"Youíll manage," Josiah quipped, the big man was feasting on some sandwiches that Mary had laid out on a picnic blanket. He took a swallow and then added. "With a little help from us of course."

"Sure," Buck nodded in agreement as he joined his wife since the idea of building would have to wait until they got back into town for materials. Besides, they needed to sit down and take stock of how Vin would want the place rebuilt. As Alex had just mentioned, the shack would no longer be for one. "Why not? Everything about this place seems to become a group effort sooner than later."

"I think its admirable." Mary remarked. The editor of the Clarion News was stretched out on a blanket, occasionally glancing up from her books as she lazed in the afternoon son, in order to see what her friends were getting up to and participating in their conversation.

The seven were out here today in order to assess the damage incurred to the Lucky 7 ranch during their firefight with the Citadel as well as checking on the horses. As it was a beautiful day outside, the women had opted for picnic outdoors to enjoy the sunshine and catch up with each other after the trials of the past few days while their men took stock of what needed doing around the ranch in the wake of the destruction.

As Mary surveyed the scene before her, she smiled seeing Inez next to her bouncing Elena Rose in her lap. The little baby was giggling quite happily as her mother played with her and garnered a smile of pleasure from anyone who happened to glance at her cherubic face. Julia was basking in the sunshine from under Ezraís hat, while the gambler lay next to his lady, playing a game of solitaire where Julia would prod at him now and then at where a card should go. Vin, Nathan and Alex were still looking over the damage to the shack. As Mary looked at the doctor, her journalistic sense told her that even now Alex as envisioning what the new structure was going to be, particularly after a few feminine additions to the overall design that Vin and Nathan were discussing.

"Well the horses are okay." JD Dunne announced, as he and Casey Wells joined them. The youth had volunteered to check the horses and furnished them with feed. Although he would be had pressed to admit it, JD loved helping out at the ranch especially when he was allowed to tend to the horses. As a boy in the city, the horses he tended to at the rich school where his mother worked were the closest things he could imagine to being in the west. It was an affection that still continued now, even though he had his own and did actually in the west. "I got them watered and fed."

"You mean I did." Casey reminded with a hint of teasing in his voice. "Youíre not suppose to be doing hard work, remember?"

"I remember Casey," JD retorted, wishing his girl was no so difficult some time. "I could have done it myself, you didnít have to help me."

"Iím glad she did," Nathan glanced at the young sheriff long enough to say firmly. "At least one of you have got sense."

"See." Casey smirked at him in triumph and JD shrugged his shoulders, deciding he was never going to win this argument and conceded defeat by spotting food and heading towards it.

"Thanks to both of you anyway," Vin replied after all that as he continued to shift through the ashes and rubble of the shack with his boot, trying to see if anything could be salvaged within the ashes.

"So you will be staying out here Alex, after the wedding?" Julia Pemberton inquired. The fiery headed Emporium owner appeared like something out of a portrait as her yellow dress bloomed around her and really did look as if she ought to be captured on canvas with the sunlight bouncing off her creamy skin.

"Yes," Alex nodded pulling away from the tracker so she could join the others and leaving Vin and Nathan to their ruminations about the new shack. "Iíll still have the clinic in town but its not too far to travel back and forth from here. Besides, it might even be peaceful not having people knock on my door for minor injuries that can wait until morning."

"That means theyíll come after me." Nathan remarked with a slight frown as he turned away from Vin long enough to point out.

"Hey," the doctor grinned mischievously. "I didnít say it was a perfect plan." She winked at the healer with mischief and created chuckles all around when he pretended to throw his hat at her.

"So," Inez asked with more than just passing curiosity. "When are you two getting married?"

"Come on honey," Buck automatically jumped in, perfectly aware of where she was going with this. "You got enough do as it is without getting it in your head to plan a wedding too." It was true. With the baby and Inez returning on a limited basis to the saloon to do the cooking, her time was becoming increasingly finite and Buck did not want her to over do things.

"Buck," Inez gave him a look of playful confidence, taking no offence at his caution because she knew that he was only think of her. "You have no idea how versatile I can be." Her eyes twinkled with suggestion as Buckís grin grew wider.

"Darling," he offered her a grin just as full of salacious intent before tweaking the nose of his little daughter who chortled in delight, "I know just how talented you can be." Both husband and wife laughed, enjoying what appeared to be a very private joke.

"And with that," Ezra spoke up over the sound of their voices. "I think we can safely move along to another subject. In fact, any subject." The gambler swept his gaze at the faces around him for someone to move away from the embarrassing topic of Buck Wilmingtonís love life. Its not like they not been regaled by the tales of his exploits endlessly during his bachelor years without having to endure the same ordeal during his adventures in matrimonial bliss as well.

"Like a wedding." Josiah suggested devilishly and garnered a dark look from Vin for bringing back the conversation to that volatile subject once more. He had hoped they would more onto something else because Inez was getting that voracious look in her eyes and Vin was certain the Mexican was picturing him in a suit even as they spoke.

Alex who noticed Vin starting to squirm with the possibility of a large wedding, shook her head in exasperation and decided she was going to put a stop to this right now. "Contrary to popular belief and those of you who have been offering my dear fianceeí so much good advice that heís itching to take off for the hills, I do not want a big wedding." She stated firmly for the benefit of those around her, giving Vin a look of impatience at being so thick headed about not listening to her no matter how many times she had stressed the point.

"So you say." Ezra teased.

Alex turned to Julia and said sweetly. "Now Miss Pemberton, didnít you say that you wanted a big wedding with all the trimmings when you and Ezra finally took the plunge? You know the kind with a dozen bridesmaids and a party that would last a week? I mean you have been together just as long as Vin and I have been so how is you two are discussing wedding plans?" She asked smugly, hoping Julia caught on.

Miss Pemberton who rarely let anything slip by her, took the opportunity to indulge in some harmless fun at Ezraís expense and nodded in excitement. "Absolutely!" She declared with a just enough enthusiasm in her voice to give Ezra concern. "In my family, we had enormous weddings. Why everyone in town turned up and then some. It was truly magical. I hope some day my wedding is that romantic, whenever that is going to be....." She let out a longing sight in a performance that was to rival Maude Standish at her very best and left Ezraís mouth hanging open. The rest of his friends were laughing in amusement at the sheer panic on his face that his love might be considering seriously the possibility of a wedding.

"And I could plan it!" Inez added, enjoying seeing Ezra perspiring profusely.

"Youíre obsessed!" Mary exclaimed and prodded Inez in exasperation while she laughed, joining in the fun they were all enjoying as Ezra began to appear very nervous.

"Now Julia," Ezra started to speak after he regained enough equilibrium to do so. "We talked about this remember? You didnít want to get married just yet."

"Boy," Nathan chuckled. "I ainít seen you this nervous since you lost your shirt at the tables." The healer enjoyed it when Ezra was taken into account for his actions or lack of them. However, he had to admit being inordinately grateful that Rain was not present during this conversation. Talk about opening a can of worms!

However, Ezra was not about to cry defeat at least without taking someone else with him. "It seems to me Mrs Wilmington, you ought to plan an affair for yourself." His eyes narrowed with a wicked smirk as he looked at Buck. "After all, you do deserve so much better than the nuptial ceremony you received when you formalise your attachment to Mr Wilmington."

"Shut up Ezra," Buck tried to growl quietly but was unfortunately heard by Inez, who was immediately outraged by his attempt to silence Ezra on the subject.

"What do you mean shut up Ezra?" Inez glared at him. "I always wanted a nice wedding and instead I got an I do in between labour pains."

"Not to mention a tracker for your bridesmaid." Ezra added just to add fuel to the fire. "Although," he looked at Vin with teasing smile, proving to everyone to never assume he was done for the count. "He did look might fetching with all that hair."

"Hey!" Vin retorted incensed. "The only reason you werenít the bridesmaid was because we didnít have no dress for you to put on."

"A dress?" Julia said blankly, searching everyoneís face for an explanation. "Whatís this about a dress?"

"Oh no....." Ezra stared at his friends and issued a warning in his voice to them that they had better not even thinking about telling the woman he loved about that story. It was embarrassing enough as it was, without having to relive it through the narration of others. He did not care how funny a tale it was.

"Come on Ezra," Josiah was grinning, seeing the warning and ignoring it completely "Sing something for us."

"Something soft and pretty." Nathan added, delighting as Ezra went red and started to fume as Julia became more insistent on knowing what this was about.

"Come on Ezra," Casey joined in. "What about this dress?"

"I didnít even know you could sing." Julia chimed in; sensing something very funny at the storm of Ezraís embarrassed expression.

"I think it was Red River Valley wasnít it?" JD asked, no one in particular and even though the answer was not important but the crimson colour filtering into Ezraís face was.

The group started arguing amongst themselves, with Inez demanding to know why Buck had a problem with them having a wedding. Ezra was just about to choke the life out of the next person who attempted to relate the tale of why he had been forced to wear a dress at Wickestown. Alex was trying desperately to convince Vin that she really did want a small ceremony for their wedding, while the others simply enjoyed the chaos. In the midst of all this, Mary took up Elena Rose from her arguing parents, who hardly noticed in their Ďdiscussioní and looked at the child with a warm smile.

"Come on," she said cradling the baby in her arms as she rose to her feet. "Letís go find Chris."

+ + + + + + +

Mary did not have far to walk before she found Chris, his father and Billy sitting at the edge of the nearby creek where they often came to fish whenever time permitted. Leaving the bickering of the so called adults behind, the editor of the Clarion News and her best friendís daughter took the familiar trail through the woods until she heard the bubbling sounds of water rushing by at a lethargic pace. Chris was lazing back on the grass, his fishing rod firmly planted into the grass while the general, who was not in uniform, was showing Billy how to tie a fly.

"Hey ma!" Billy waved happily as he saw his mother approaching and his announcement of her arrival made the two Larabee men look over their shoulder at her approach.

"Hello," Mary smiled as she joined Chris on the grass beside him. "I thought Iíd come and see what my boys are up to."

"Not much," Chris remarked as Mary leaned over and kissed him before she nestled comfortably beside him on the ground, sitting cross-legged as Elena Rose stared fascinated by the swaying of her gold hair. The child soon had her tiny fist around a lock and was making a tentative attempt to see if it tasted as good as it looked.

"I thought Iíd take Elena Rose away from the others. It was getting pretty ugly over there." She said with a smile.

"Trouble?" Chris asked instinctively.

"Wedding talk." Mary replied shortly and needed to make no further explanation.

"Vin making for Mexico yet?" The gunslinger asked as he tickled Elena rose under her chin and saw a toothless smile beaming back at him.

"Almost there." Mary giggled, remembering the expression on Vinís face when she had departed.

"Boyís going to get himself an ulcer before he even gets to a preacher." Larabee pointed out with the barest hint of a smile.

Unfortunately, Mary could not disagree with that assessment. "Alex is trying to calm him down but you know Vin."

"Heís a good kid." The general added once he had given Billy the proper instruction and aided his new grandson to cast his line into the water. "A little quiet but nevertheless a good kid."

Chris knew his father well enough to know that was the generalís way of approving of his companions and also revealing a deeper liking for Vin as more than just one of the men Chris rode with. Like Chris himself, Marcus Larabee was seeing the same things he saw in Vin Tanner the first time they had met. Although he did not voice it, Chris suspected that the general thought of Vin as the son he had lost and Chris as the son he had been returned. There was no other way to be more specific than that, it was just a feeling and it pleased Chris to know that since he and Vin were already like brothers.

"Ití a shame you canít stay longer," Mary sighed, enjoying having a full house these past few days. In the aftermath of their engagement with the Citadel and Hannibal Julius, the general had been enjoying the Larabee householdís hospitality. It felt as if their family was growing in leaps and bounds and Mary liked it.

"I have to get back to Washington." Larabee answered honestly. "In light of what has happened here, I need to re-evaluate our existing strategy in cornering the Citadel. Itís obvious now that theyíre more than just another militant group but becoming a terrorist organisation. What happened here could be just the start of a fully fledged campaign of terror."

"How awful." Mary shuddered, remembering the insanity she had seen in Julius eyes and knew that having such a man in charge of so many and not be above violence had to be someoneís nightmare come true. It was certainly hers.

"I donít doubt it," Chris said not really concerned for the moment. No doubt, Julius would come back this way but the next time Chris would be ready for him and the self styled demi-god would not escape so easily. "Weíll keep an eye out for him here."

"Do that," Larabee warned with just enough tension in his voice to mean it. "Heís got a personal stake when it comes to you."

"So do I." Chris answered, with menace surfacing in his voice to confirm that Julius would be the one at a disadvantage if the man came after the Larabee family again.

"Well I hope you will come back for the christening." Mary smiled, moving off the topic to something a little closer to home.

"Couldnít keep me away." Larabee replied, casting his daughter in law a look of warmth. "Good thing about being a general at my age, is I get more time to attend to personal matters."

"Donít be a stranger," Chris admitted finally. "You got family here who would be happy to have you come back any time."

Father and son exchanged a look of silent contemplation for a few seconds and though they had been separated by twenty one years of misconception and pride, it was good to know that things between them were at last resolved. Perhaps it would never truly be easy to hurdle the loss of those years and Chris suspected that there was much work needed before their relationship could return to what it was but then anything was possible.

If Chris Larabee had learnt one thing in the last three years, life was full of surprises and this one was one he could did not at all mind.

The End