Ridin' For The Brand

by SoDak7

Jiles Tatum slowed his big bay from a lope to a walk as he entered the town of Four Corners from the south. Glancing ahead and to his right, he saw the objects of his reason for making the twelve- mile visit gathered outside the Standish Tavern, spilled around a table, enjoying the early morning sunrise and coffee. Narrowing his eyes, he squinted, making out each man's profile, knowing them by sight and reputation only. Wasn't hard to pick out the ex-preacher man, Josiah Sanchez, nor the darkie healer, Nathan Jackson, both being big men as was that woman-chaser, Buck Wilmington. A patch of red appeared briefly, signaling that the card sharp, Ezra Standish was there, partially hidden by the lanky frame of their tracker, Vin Tanner, and young Easterner, JD Dunne. Another step of his horse and Chris Larabee came into view. This was the man Jiles really wanted to speak with. . . the reluctant but undisputed leader in town of both the law and the other six men.

Tatum had argued back and forth with his ranch hands for three days about what he was now going to do. Hell, he'd even taken to arguing with himself as he rode into town, sounding like some daft old woman, coming up with all kinds of reasons why he should...or shouldn't be making this trip. He'd never been a man who needed any outside help, could handle most things on his own, but he was faced with a dilemma and he'd come to the conclusion that he did, indeed, need some help this time. If Larabee or his men turned him down, then, well, then he didn't know what he was going to do. He hadn't crossed that bridge yet, so to speak. One thing at a time and drawing nearer to these formidable men almost made him want to forfeit the whole affair. But the fact that his ranch, his very livelihood was at stake, made him sit taller as he rode up to the hitching post nearest the seven peacekeepers.

Throwing the reins over his horse's head and watching as they fell loosely over the wooden rail, Jiles stepped down from his horse and acknowledged the nods that were tossed his way from some of the men.

"Mr. Larabee?" he nodded to the man dressed in all black, seated at the head of the table. "Like to have a word with you, if I could." Amidst all the chair shuffling and noise of six other men on the move, he added, "reckon this might concern all of you, really." He felt like a blasted fool now as they all looked at him like he couldn't make up his mind whether to come up or go down a set of stairs. He shrugged. "Came ta ask a favor."

+ + + + + + +

Jiles Tatum. Chris Larabee ran the man's identity though the files in his mind: Cattleman. Thousand acre ranch north of town along the Santee River. Widower. Hard worker. Came to town periodically with his ranch hands. Law-abiding.

"What is it we can do for you?" Chris asked as his men parted enough for Tatum to step closer to the table and take a seat opposite Larabee.

"I got a bit of a problem and was hopin' maybe some of you men could help me out," Tatum stated, looking not only at Larabee but the others as well. He knew they worked mainly as a whole, but once in awhile would break apart to do what was needed. All depended the situation, he figured, or how much of a threat they deemed that situation.

"What's the problem?" came the question, asked softly and sincerely.

Tatum glanced at Wilmington, saw the concerned look and quick bob of the head as if giving him the go ahead to answer. A smart man didn't pussy-foot around when dealing with men of their caliber. So he got straight to the point and said simply, "Got a herd of cattle I need ta get to market north up by Poncha City. I'm down a few men and could use the help." There, he'd said it and gotten it off his chest. He watched faces and postures to read what the initial reactions would be. He knew these men weren't drovers or cowmen. Probably none had ever herded a cow in their life. Possibly never wanted to either. More than likely, he'd made a big mistake, but he took heart in the fact that no one scoffed nor did anyone just walk away.

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't you have a least at half a dozen men at your disposal?"

"Yes. No. Well normally I do, yes, have six hired hands," Jiles stumbled over his words, trying to answer the man named Standish, "but lately I find myself short-handed." Great! This was going about as good as a cow in a mud hole. Could he be any denser? Why did these men make him feel like a bumbling idiot? He let out a huge sigh and felt his shoulders involuntarily slump.

"Suppose you start at the beginning," Larabee told him, a no-nonsense tone in the quiet voice, eyes penetrating his from under the flat-brimmed black hat.

Taking a deep breath, nodding his agreement and splaying his hands out on the table, Jiles Tatum, consummate rancher, told the seven peacekeepers what had been going on the last couple of months; he'd lost two of his ranch hands, the Tabor brothers, to rival rancher Stewart James, the man drawing them away from him with the promise of wages he could in no way compete with. Then there were the little accidents: trees falling across roads making them impassable; water holes suddenly becoming rancid; cattle spooked and run off, broken or missing tools and the final straw: a wheel coming apart on a wagon, injuring top hand, Tabor Smith. Jiles was a man that prided himself on taking care of his men and his equipment. After thinking things over a hundred times in his mind, he started to think that everything happening might be connected and that he wasn't suppose to get his cattle to market.

"Now I've got myself, three men and nearly 400 hundred cattle to move 500 miles," Jiles finished, shaking his head and absently picking at the small wooden splinters that dotted the table. "I need help, pure and simple. That's why I'm here."

"You thinkin' someone's behind those 'accidents'?" the tracker, Tanner asked.

"Got some notions, but no proof," Jiles' jaw hardened as he answered, looking at the long-haired man dressed in a hide coat, whose eyes were unreadable under the shade of his Cavalry hat.

"Look, Mr. Larabee," Tatum spoke carefully, "I know this is asking a hell of a lot. I realize it's really none of your business, it'll be out of your jurisdiction and well, I'm sure," he said, looking around at the men, "none of you have probably ever pushed a cow before." He shook his head. "I just didn't know where else to turn. James and Guy Royal are combining to drive their cattle over to the railhead in Ridge city and send them that way. I don't have the money to do that."

"Why not hire out from the town? Might be some folks willin' to push cows, make some extra money." Buck asked, wanting to know why Tatum came to them specifically.

Probably thinkin' there might be trouble along the way, Vin thought, his instincts telling him that's why the man came to them first. Tatum needed protection as well as someone to help herd his cattle. Larabee's eye's met his for a split second and Vin knew he was going to ask what they both were thinking.

"You expectin' trouble?"

"I can't rightly say, Mr. Larabee," Tatum answered with a shrug, 'but bein' the first ta get one's cattle to the buyer can be mighty competitive. Usually they draw the highest price. I get mine there before anyone else and chances are some of the other cattlemen from around these parts will get a lower bid. They might take offense to that."

"Ranchers like Royal and James," Buck reasoned, talking to no one in particular, standing up straighter against the post he'd been leaning against.

"Could be." Jiles shrugged and shook his head. "Could be I'm just jumping at shadows, too, I don't know. A gut feeling I guess." He looked at Larabee and saw the man purse his lips in thought.

"A lucrative business venture then, no doubt," Ezra pointed out, watching the cattleman nod his head in solemn agreement.

"How we 'spose to get there first if they are going by train?" JD asked not understanding that concept at all.

"It'll take time for them to get organized 'n the cattle cars gotta get here from the East," Tatum answered. "Be time for us to get there first if we get started right away."

It suddenly got very quiet in the still of the morning, everyone weighing in their minds what they did or didn't want to do, eyes keeping to themselves so as not to give away thoughts or emotions to the next man.

A dog barked somewhere down the street, a dust devil churned up dirt as it twirled past the boardwalk in front of the Saloon and Tatum's horse's bridle rigging jingled when the big bay shook it's head as if inpatient to leave.

Jiles cleared his throat, dispelling the quiet and solemn attitudes. "Well, I've got some errands ta do. Give you time to think on it," he said, the last coming out more in a question form, giving the peacekeepers a chance to flat out tell him no. "I'll look you up before leaving," he said, eyes meeting Larabee's. "Oh," he added while pushing away from the table and standing up, "pay is a percentage of what the cattle bring at market. The more I get for them, the more we make." He gave a nod of his head in leaving, descended the two steps into the street, mounted his horse and headed back down the street to the livery.

Closing his eyes, Jiles took a deep breath. Aside from the questions that were asked of him, he'd left the table not having a clue as to which way these men might bend. They were definitely a closed group, hard to read, even the young one. He didn't know how tight they were tied to Circuit Court Judge Orrin Travis, if he told them what they could or couldn't do. He doubted that somehow, but knew the Judge had sent them along for protection on a wagon train, which traveled far out of their territory. The seven had also gone to a railroad camp to investigate some deaths and they definitely didn't have any say in that situation, it being a government job. Seems these men were into defending those they figured needed it. Hopefully, he thought, they deemed him needy of defending also.

+ + + + + + +

"Well, boys. What do you think?" Larabee asked after watching Tatum enter the livery. He looked around at the faces of his men.

"Tatum's right. We'd be out of our territory and I doubt any of us know about pushin' cows," Buck answered as he pulled out a chair and sat back down at the table, head bobbin' up and down like it had a loose connection, "unless there is someone here hiding that bit of information," he added, sliding a quick glance at Tanner. Vin, he knew, could rope. He'd seen him do it a couple of times, but didn't know where or how the man had come about that talent. If the ladies man was waiting for some kind of a response from the ex-bounty hunter, he didn't get one. Not even a twitch.

Silence reigned around the table, Larabee and Wilmington the only ones seated at the moment.

JD, as if all of a sudden coming out of a stupor, pulled out a chair, sat down and announced, "I'll do it if anyone else does." He looked around at his friends, trying to read their expressions.

"Could use a few days out in the good Lord's fresh air I suppose," Josiah's voice rumbled low, the man standing with his back against the Saloon front, looking out at the heavens. "Sides, if Tatum thinks there might be trouble, a few extra hands couldn't hurt."

"Well, if James and Royal are causing some problems, a little payback might be in order," Buck agreed, rubbing his hands together, a smile playing underneath his moustache, knowing the others thought the same. Giving the two prominent cattlemen a taste of their own medicine for once would be nice, the pair always scheming to control the territory in one way or another. "We never got to show our appreciation for their man Earl's redecoration of the town. 'Sides, this place 's been quiet as church mice the last few weeks. Think I could use a little excitement."

"That a yes then?" JD asked, his excitement building at the prospect that they all may be pushing a herd of cattle north. It was a job he'd never thought of doing, but if the opportunity was there, he'd take it. Could be something that might come in handy for becoming a Texas Ranger some day.

"Good. That's three of us so far," the young easterner said, seeing Wilmington give him an affirmative nod. He rapped his fists on the table and looked at the rest of the men. "Vin? Nathan? Ezra?" he questioned, taking a quick look at each man.

Vin gave a non-committal shrug as he leaned back against a support post, thumbs tucked snugly in behind the front of his gun belt. "Reckon I ain't got nothin' else pressin' right now." Even though he faced JD, he slanted his eyes in Larabee's direction, searching out the man's face, wanting to know what his friend was thinking.

"Might be needin' some doctorin' along the way, 'specially if trouble is followin'," Nathan spoke, more to himself than anyone, his mind already calculating on the supplies he'd be needing. Cattle, storms, stampedes . . . a likely mix for trouble, the healer thought to himself.

"Ezra?" JD asked a second time, noting that the gambler seemed to be lost in his own thoughts.

Pushing himself away from the building where he was standing, Standish finally acknowledged the fact that he'd been called on. Twice. "It's a pity that I cannot lend my services," he answered, patting his red-jacketed chest, maneuvering himself into a chair, "but I know nothing of the bovine species. Besides, if everyone else is participating in this endeavor, then the town will stand in need of . . ."

"I'll wire Judge Travis. Let him know we're all," Larabee glanced at the conman, seeing the brows shoot up and eyes open wide, "going on a cattle drive. Like Nathan said, might be trouble followin' Tatum."

Ezra opened his mouth to say something, closed it and started tapping his trigger finger nervously on the table. The wheels in his mind were spinning helplessly as if on a greased track. What to say, what to say. Think Ezra, think! "But . . . but the town shouldn't . . .," the conman stammered before being cut off again.

"Town'll be fine," Larabee said in such a way that meant the subject was closed. "We'll get some of the deputies from Eagle Bend over here help keep watch. Buck? JD? Talk to Yosemite, Virgil and some others. Let 'em know we'll be gone for a couple of weeks. I'll go send some wires."

"Alright!" JD exclaimed, a grin spreading from ear to ear. "Hey, we get to be cowboys!"

The next instant it got so quiet one could have heard a pin drop. Breaths were held and at least five sets of eyes slid over to glance at Chris Larabee. Calling the man a "cowboy" was akin to calling him out for a gunfight.

Seeing a disgruntled frown and the eyes narrowing in on JD, Buck cleared his throat and started to intervene for the kid, wanting to keep him from whatever remark the gunslinger was going to say when Ezra beat him to the punch with one word.


"I believe the correct moniker would be, drovers, not cowboys" the gambler explained unenthusiastically, when JD threw him a questioning glance. "Frankly of all the endeavors I thought of undertaking, being a drover was not one of them." Course neither was being in law enforcement, was his next thought.

"Okay," JD said nodding, taking in this newfound wisdom, then in the next heartbeat asked, "Bovine? What's that?" He wondered if anyone else noticed the whitish pallor of the gambler. Looked like the man just had the blood sucked out of him.

"What's what?" Ezra frowned, his mind having a tough time wrapping around the fact that he'd be subjected to herding cattle.

"Bovine. You said you didn't know anything about a bovine species. What's bovine?"

"Bovine, my dear boy," Ezra answered in his not-so-patient teaching voice, "is the classification of a certain species. In this case it would mean cows. Cattle. There are names for all species of things: equine, horses; feline, cats; canine, dogs . . ."

"Asinine," Buck interjected, then chuckled at the look Standish shot him.

"Let's do this," came the command from the man in black as he pushed away from the table, chasing away the quiet snickering but not the grins as the men parted ways to get ready for a cattle drive.

"Mr. Larabee," Ezra called as he hustled to catch up with the gunslinger who was nearly to the telegraph office.

Chris stopped on the boardwalk just outside the building and turned to face the conman, mentally steeling himself for what he knew was going to be a barrage of some fast-talking, fancy-worded excuses for wanting out of the job they were going to undertake.

"Mr. Larabee? Chris?" Ezra started, one finger poised in the air to help make his point. "I . . ."

"Save it, Ezra. If there's going to be trouble we need every one of us to watch our backs."

"Yes, I concur," the gambler agreed, lowering his hand. When seeing the puzzled look the man in black gave him, he added, "I've resigned myself to the fact that I'll be . . . herding cattle," a pained look came over his face before continuing, "but if say, Judge Travis were to deem this job worthy of our peacekeeping duties, then along with reaping the rewards at the end of the drive we should also continue with our regular salary, is that correct? It's for all our benefits that I . . .", he hurried to clarify himself after seeing the dark look he was getting.

"Mr. Larabee?" he called to the retreating black back. "Mr. Larabee?" Shrugging, he mumbled, "Seemed like a reasonable question to me," before turning on his heel and heading to his room above the saloon.

After sending the wires, Larabee located Jiles Tatum and told him the seven would be going along on the drive. Both men exchanged information and Chris told the rancher they'd be at his place, ready to go at dawn.

+ + + + + + +

"Wow! Would ya look at that?" JD exclaimed early the next morning as the men came up over a rise that looked down at the Tatum ranch and spread.

"A veritable sea of cowhide," Ezra said dryly. "I can hardly contain myself."

"Sure is a lot of beeves," Nathan agreed, awed by the sight he was looking at.

"Amen, brother. Amen." Josiah breathed.

"Don't 'spose there'll be any ladies goin' along," Buck said, in a defeated tone, eyes searching around the people gathered near the ranch house. A grin graced his face as a familiar figure came into view and he turned slightly to his left to see if JD had noticed yet. He hadn't. This is going to be interesting, he thought as his grin widened.

"You sure you want to do this," Vin asked Chris, eyes on the cattle below. They sat side by side on their horses, mimicking each other's posture, wrists crossed over their saddle horns.

"Little late ta back out now," Larabee answered. "'Sides, wouldn't want ta disappoint Ezra," he added with a wolfish grin to Tanner who returned one back. "Let's go, boys," he called out in the next instant.

As one, the seven peacekeepers headed down the hill to participate in what most hoped, was a once in a lifetime adventure.

+ + + + + + +

"Mr. Larabee." Jiles called in acknowledgement, as his new "drovers" rode near to where he was standing, offering his hand in greeting. His relief at seeing the men was apparent from the welcoming smile.

"Call me Chris," Larabee told him, shaking the proffered hand.

Tatum nodded at that. "We can do the formal introductions later, but the man about to climb aboard the supply wagon," he pointed over to where the seven witnessed what appeared to be an older, limping, ranch hand checking his tie downs, "is Stubby Morgan. He's the cook and the man to see about supplies. Can also help with the doctorin'" he added, eyes searching out Jackson, figuring that might be something the black healer might want to know.

"Gus Short is the man over by the corral. He can help you pick out a horse to ride. Not sayin' you can't ride your own, but these horses know how to work cattle. It's up to you, but every man will have an extra horse in the remuda.

"That's Tabor over there on the porch," Jiles continued, with a slight movement of his head in the direction of a man leaning against a post, one hand resting on the top of a stout cane which was raised up to touch the brim of his hat in greeting when realizing he was the topic of conversation.

"He be here by himself all the time we're gone?" Nathan asked, concerned over a man with a busted leg being alone for a couple of weeks.

"Comeila, my house woman is here along with her husband Juan and some of the neighbors will be by to check on things," Tatum answered, impressed with the sincerity of the healer over a man he knew nothing about. "Got one more man, Lefty Hayman. He's out with the herd right now."

Six men headed their horses over to the corral, the seventh saw something he wanted to check out and turned his mount in a different direction. "Be there in a minute," JD called to Buck, recognizing the small bay horse tied up in front of the bunk house.

Just as Dunne rode up to the building, a young woman emerged, saddlebags over a shoulder and coiled lariat in her hand. JD's jaw dropped and his eyes popped open so wide they pained him.

"Casey?" he squeaked. He really hated it when his voice went up an octave like that.

"Hey, JD" she answered nonchalantly while tossing the saddlebags over her horse's rump and moved to the other side, securing the rope to her saddle.

"What are you doin?" he asked, afraid he already knew the answer but hoped he was wrong. She was just probably one of the neighbors Jiles talked about that was going to help out while the men was gone. Yeah he was sure that's what it probably was.

"Same as you. Goin' on a cattle drive."

"Oh, I don't think so!" The words sounded foolish even to him . . . as if he could tell the independent Casey Wells what she could and couldn't do. Too late he realized he'd just made a couple of very bad mistakes. One, was even thinking he could tell her what to do, and two, was voicing that opinion. She stopped what she was doing and leveled a stare so scathing he found himself unconsciously checking to be sure his eyebrows weren't singed.

"You can't tell me what to do, JD," she said with an air of authority, pert nose high in the air. "I was invited to help with this drive long before Jiles even thought of asking you seven."

"Jiles?" JD balked at Casey's usage of the man's first name.

"Yeah, him and me are related," the young lady explained haughtily as she mounted her horse and spun him around to face a stunned Dunne. "He's Aunt Nettie's youngest sister's husband's brother." She grinned at JD's confused look.

"Gotta go. Catch ya later. Hi Buck," she waved to the approaching ladies man, who grinned and waved back, then put her heels to her horse and rode off.

"Can you believe it, Buck? She's going along. A trail drive is no place for a girl!"

"You tell her that?"

"Course I did. Well, I tried to, but you know Casey, once she gets something in her head, a team of wild horses couldn't make her change her mind," he threw up his hands in a defeated motion. "I can't believe Tatum asked her to go along. What are you grinnin' at? This is serious Buck. She could get hurt or somethin. Can't believe Nettie would let her go," he mumbled, shaking his head.

"You finished?"


"Let's go, JD. We got work to do," the big man gently tried to steer his young friend into getting his mind back on what they were suppose to be doing. "She'll be fine. Hell, she probably knows more about this kind of thing than all of us put together," he added for extra measure, firmly believing that himself. "Come on, kid. Need to get you another mount."

JD reluctantly turned his horse to follow Buck after one last glance over his shoulder, watching Casey's retreating form. She had just stopped at the supply wagon and was talking to the older man, Stumpy, who was patiently waiting on them from his driver's perch. When he turned back around to follow Buck, he couldn't stop the small grin that graced his lips. That girl sure could get under his skin.

The seven peacekeepers picked out new and extra mounts to ride except for Tanner who kept his gelding, Peso, to ride first, and before long the remuda was ready. JD learned that Casey was in charge of the string of horses which made him feel somewhat better knowing she wouldn't be in and amongst the cattle. They'd all been warned about the dangers, specifically to be always aware of the critters' horns.

As the crew rode out of the yard, Vin took a sidelong glance again at the man named Tabor. He knew the man, seen him before, somewhere, but for the life of him, couldn't think of where. It left a bad taste in his mouth. He frowned and noticed Larabee watching him with a questioning look. He shrugged back in answer. It would come to him.

"Just follow our lead," Tatum shouted as he, Gus and the other cowhand, Shorty, slapped coiled lariats against their chap-covered legs and yelled "Hiya" as they wove in and out of the herd.

Slowly and en masse the "sea of cowhide" began to rise up, bellowing their belligerence at having to move.

"Would ya look at that," JD said to Buck, eyes beholding something he'd never seen before.

"Yeah," Buck answered forlornly, "not a pretty woman in skirts anywhere. Wonder if . . ."

"No, not that. That!" Dunne spoke enthusiastically, pointing to a group of beeves that just stood up. "See how they get up? Opposite of a horse. Horses get up front first," he explained when seeing the befuddled expression on his friend's face, "and these cows are getting up hind end first. See that?"

"Kid? You need a life."

"Oh come on, Buck, this'll be great! Just think of the stories you can tell the ladies when you get back," JD said, trying to cajole his best friend out of the melancholy mood he'd fallen into. "Let's head 'em up and move 'em out," he added in his best deep voice finally coxing a smile from Wilmington. The two then moved out like the rest, coiled lariats held high, yelling and whistling, doing their part in getting the cattle out on the trail.

"You got someone ridin' drag?" Vin shouted at Tatum above the bawling noise as he and Larabee pulled up their horses alongside the foreman.

"Your man Standish volunteered," Jiles yelled back, turning in his saddle to look to the rear of the herd. "Don't think he fully understood the implications of it though," he added, turning back to the front. "Gave me a funny look when I told him to keep a kerchief over his nose and mouth."

"You think he's the right man for the job?" Tatum asked, worried now when he saw Tanner and Larabee's eyes meet then duck their heads to hide the grins that broke out.

"He'll do fine," the gunslinger answered, serious now, and gave a nod of approval before turning his cowpony to the right, riding alongside the moving herd. That left the ex-bounty hunter with the rancher.

"How far ya plannin' on makin' it today?" the question from Tanner pulling Jiles back from his thoughts.

Tatum shrugged. "'Bout to Carson's draw I reckon. That'd be near 25 miles. Figure to not make a whole day of it, don't want my new hands too sore or backin' out after the first day." He grinned at Tanner. "You ever rode herd before?" He thought to retract the question when seeing the younger man frown some and eyes look to the horizon. Felt like he'd just intruded where he shouldn't have.

"Once or twice, I reckon," came the answer.

Vin touched the brim of his hat, gathered his rope and rode off into the melee before any more questions were asked of him. He knew Tatum had asked a simple enough question, but it had brought back some memories he wasn't too fond of. Better to just lose himself in the job and forget about it. Needed to do some ponderin' on where he'd see that Tabor fella anyhow. It'd come to him.

Jiles Tatum watched Tanner ride away and cocked his head. These seven men. Everybody in the territory knew if you messed with one, you brought the wrath of hell down on yourself, but they were all so different. Like a pot full of stew; a mixture of this and that, but all needed to make the whole. He imagined they all had stories of their own, but like true men of the west, those stories were packed away and what mattered was the here and now. And Jiles was glad they were here now.

+ + + + + + +

The day stretched on, morning giving way to afternoon then early evening, every man and woman doing their job, the newcomers watching and learning as the hours wore on. The weather was good, the herd content to move. Casey's group of horses were trail hardened so it wasn't difficult for her to keep them in line. All in all it'd been an ideal day from the beginning until the time Jiles decided to call a halt, knowing his new drovers would need a good rest before he started to push them the next day.

Grass was plentiful yet where they decided to stop and so the cattle went to grazing. Stubby stopped the chuckwagon near the right front of the herd and started working on getting some grub ready for supper. Lunch time had consisted of just bread and jerky so he knew he'd have some hungry men on his hands by the time he got his stew going. Stubby knew he'd be able to count on Casey to help him out also. She was a like a whirlwind, but he loved having her around. She did more work then some men he knew and was pleased when Tatum said she could come along. Although she was a seasoned worker around horses and cattle, Stubby knew they'd all watch out for her, but they had to be sure she didn't know that. Spitfire and damnation, just like her Aunt. Yes sir, that Nettie Wells was quite the woman. Stubby grinned to himself, poised on the edge of his coach seat, lost in his thoughts of the elder Wells.

"Stubby!" The call shattered his daydreaming and he finished climbing off the wagon, grumbling something about how a man couldn't even get a moment's time to think.

"We'll be comin' in about 10 minutes or so," Tatum yelled to him, before wheeling his bay around, heading back to the herd.

Stubby nodded, got his pit ready and started the coffee off first thing.

Before long, men gathered around a fallen log drinking coffee, talking about their day and taking a rest. A few would head out for night duty but for now they could relax, eat a meal and turn in, for the day started early for drovers on a cattle drive.

Nathan was telling of his horse's talents in rounding up strays, it's ability to turn a cow all on it's own while he just sat the saddle, to which Jiles explained that that was the way a true cowpony was trained. As Tatum informed them of the breeding and subsequent training to turn a horse into one that could work cows, Ezra rode into camp looking like a man who'd fallen into a river of dust.

Conversations ceased and smiles appeared as the usual dapper dandy tried to shake and slap the layers of dirt off. The grins turned into quiet snickers as Standish pulled the kerchief away from his nose and mouth, showing quite possibly the only two clean spots on his person.

"What a deplorable way to earn a living," the conman groused as he sat on a protruding part of the log, a plume of dust escaping his clothing as he plopped down, causing those around him to pull in their coffee cups and wave away the dust mist. "There'll be snowballs in hell before I do that again."

"Reckon you'd be a mite more careful next time you volunteer for somethin'," Gus told him, grinning, showing off a near toothless mouth.

"You can rest assured on that, my friend," the southerner agreed, taking off his hat, showering the area around him with more dirt and dust. "Oh this is just disgusting," he added, frowning and looking down at himself not knowing where to even begin ridding himself of the vile substance.

"I don't suppose there would be any chance of water nearby?" Ezra asked, looking at Tanner, trusting the man would know of any water holes in the area.

"No chance. Sorry Ez," Vin said with a shrug.

"Tomorrow we'll be crossing the Little Moreau," Tatum stated. "Can get yourself cleaned up then."

"Tomorrow? Tomorrow . . . great! Means I get to spend the whole night encrusted in layers of dirt trapped in God only know where," mumbled the gambler.

"God created man out of dust," Josiah stated matter-of-factly, running his fingers around the edge of his coffee cup, cleaning it off before taking a sip.

"Yes, and to my knowledge, it's when we die that we return to that state, not while living and breathing," Ezra snipped, watching as Wilmington walked toward him slowly and carefully, a shallow pan of water in his hands.

"That, Mr. Wilmington will hardly begin . . ."

"Oh, this ain't for you. This is to wash your food off first before eating it," Buck said, placing the pan near Ezra, then backing off, chuckling along with the rest of the men at both the joke and at the conman's look of utter disbelief. He had just enough time to turn around before the water hit him in the backside, soaking the rear of his pants.

"May you be chaffed in all the right places," muttered Ezra, knowing his face probably did resemble a certain nocturnal mammal. No need to make fun though, tomorrow someone else would be in the same situation. He didn't mind the ribbing, not really. Made him feel like part of the group.

While the men made way for Stubby and his stew to be set on the fire, Vin approached Jiles.

"You crossed the Little Moreau before?" the tracker questioned.

"Few times, usually later though, never this early. Why?"

Tanner shrugged. "Mind ifn I swing over there early morn and take a look?"

"No, by all means, but I was told by someone I trust that this place we're crossin' would be safe this time of the year, but if you think there might be a problem, then we need ta know and soon." If this man Tanner had a doubt, he was going to listen. These seven peacekeepers didn't stay alive by not listening and trusting one another. He'd heed the man's advice.

Vin nodded to the man and moved away.

"Problem?" Larabee had watched the exchange and caught up with Tanner at the picket line.

"Not sure," Vin answered Chris as he untied the bedroll off his horse's back. "Want ta check out the place we'll be crossin' tomorrow. Used to be some sand traps in that area, could see 'em later in the year, but this early, they'd be covered. Dangerous for man and horse."


"Yeah. I'll leave early. Get back quick as I can."

"Alright. Need someone to ride with you?" Chris knew Vin was capable and careful, but quicksand, and being alone . . .

Reading his friend's thoughts, Vin told him, "Be okay, Chris. Know what I'm lookin' for. You and Buck takin' first watch?" He figured he'd change the subject.

"Yeah. Ridin' out soon as we eat."

"Should be a peaceful night," Vin told him, looking up to the sky.


"Let's eat," Chris said and they headed back into camp.

+ + + + + + +

Later in the evening, Chris moved alongside the herd alert for anything out of the ordinary. He pulled his horse to a stop and glanced across the way at Buck. A smile graced his face as he heard bits and pieces of the ladies' man's conversation to the cattle. All about his conquests the stories were, voice inflections and hand movements given just as if the man were talking to a room full of young prodigies. He shook his head. Thank heaven he only knew one Buck.

Nudging his horse into moving again, Larabee finally caught a glimpse of Tatum's brand. He hadn't paid attention before. The moonlight shone off one steer's hip and Chris saw it plainly. The number seven was there along with another number intertwined with it. He peered closely. Great, he thought as an involuntary shiver went up his spine. Now I know I'm going to regret this. He shook his head, expelled a sigh and moved on to continue his round.

+ + + + + + +

Morning came early, too early for some, but even before the big orange ball began lighting up the Eastern sky, the men had eaten and were back in their saddles getting the herd up and moving.

Gus was pulling drag today so Ezra was in a much better mood except for the early hour, but there had been no card playing last night, the men knowing they would be in the saddle a full day plus, so bed time had come early. Today was their first big push.

A herd this size could generally cover around fifty miles a day on a flat with no trouble. Throw in a river, hills, or desert and that could slow a herd considerably. Today was to be one of those days. The Little Moreau. Tatum was a little disturbed by the fact that the tracker, Vin Tanner, had gone to check out the crossing. Not that his being gone bothered him . . . just the fact that Tanner felt he needed to go. For why? Like there might be something wrong with the place to cross? He didn't know. It just sat on him like heavy like a too big coat. Uncomfortable. Bothered him. He'd had it on good conscious that it was the best place to cross. So why question it? He felt himself shrug as if answering himself. Talking to myself again. Need to quit that. He needed to get his mind on the task at hand. He had seven men that had never pushed cattle before now going to take a herd across a river. He needed to talk to each one, making sure they knew what had to be done. Gus rode drag today for a reason. He could keep things from bogging down near the rear, stop the ones that wanted to balk and turn back, keep 'em moving.

Tatum set his thoughts of Tanner aside and went to do what was needed. He was confident. Had to be. He was the trail boss.

+ + + + + + +

Vin sat astride Diamond, his cowpony for the day, so named for the perfectly shaped diamond on his forehead. Black, like Peso, and powerfully built like his gelding also. Tanner had picked him because Gus had said the horse could be a little rank at times, but knew his job well. Diamond had proved Gus right for when he mounted him early this morning the horse had bucked and crowhopped for nearly a full minute before deciding the rider wasn't going to fall off or get off. He'd settled down and did what was asked of him then.

They sat perfectly still in the early morning, Vin taking notice of the water and how it moved, Diamond seemingly doing the very same thing. Two spots the tracker had noticed where the water puckered before moving on. Two spots where he figured there to be sand traps, or quicksand. Either one could be deadly to a cow, a horse or a person, for that matter. Drive a herd in there and cows get stuck, or a horse and rider . . . thrashing around . . . Vin shook his head, trying to dislodge old memories, and turned his horse upstream.

After checking a good couple of miles up river and being satisfied with what he'd found all along the way, Vin had stopped for a moment about a quarter mile from the quicksand area to stick a few tree limbs on the bank so that the men could see them and keep the herd to the left. He was just finishing tying off a red kerchief on one of the sticks when his heart raced at the sound of a "HIYA" and a herd of horses came thundering into his view. The remuda! Casey! She and the horses were headed right into the quicksand area!

"CASEY!" he yelled although knowing she'd never hear him over the running horses. "GET AWAY! NO!" he waved his arms and yelled. She didn't see him.

Putting his foot in the stirrup, Vin was thankful he was riding a well trained cowpony. Once the horse felt your boot hit the foothold, it would be off and running, and Diamond was well trained. The animal ran like it's tail was on fire.

The big black raced along the water front with Vin yelling and waving his arms but they couldn't stop what was about to happen. The horses hit the water running, thankfully the lead horse sensed something and, quick as a wink, veered off to the right side, the others following in it's wake. All but Casey's horse. The little bay had no idea what it was heading into.

All of a sudden, Casey's horse came to a jolted stop, being instantly stuck in the sucking sand. The girl nearly toppled over the head of her horse, but to her credit, kept her seat. Yelling at the top of her lungs, pleading even, she worked in a frenzy, kicking and using the reins trying to get the animal out of it's precarious situation. She never even noticed when a rope floated over her shoulders but gave a yelp of surprise as she was yanked from the saddle and pulled through the water, flailing, until she stood, finally noticing for the first time that Vin was there. When the rope loop was snapped loose, she immediately took it off and Vin was back twirling it high over his head, settling the loop over her horse's head all the while yelling at her to stay on the bank.

Casey's hands flew to her mouth to try and stifle the whimpers that were coming from her wet, shaking body. She was crying, sobbing, and felt like a small child, watching helplessly as her horse struggled for it's very life. Nellie was sinking! Being sucked into some unseen hole. Dirt and sand turned the water a murky color as Vin's horse fought for purchase, the two working together to save the entrapped animal. Nellie's frightened screams penetrated Casey's heart and her knees felt like jelly.


"JD! Save Nellie! PLEASE!" Her hands reached out to her friend in supplication, pleading for him to help. Her crying sobs finally overtook her and she fell to her knees.

The young man felt torn . . . desperately wanting to comfort Casey, he'd never seen her this way, and needing to help Vin. His eyes blurred at the pain all around him. What do . . .


Vin's urgent command snapped him into action, leaving Casey and riding out into the river.

"Get your rope on him!"

Took him two tries, but JD's rope joined Vin's around Nellie's neck.

"Pull, JD!"

This was horrible to be a part of. JD didn't understand what Vin was trying to do. The more they pulled, the more Nellie fought and her fighting, her tossing of her head, was tightening the ropes around her neck. He figured if the animal didn't die from fright, or drown, she would certainly be choked to death.

"Pull, JD! Dammit, PULL!"

And he did. Vin's big black was nearly sitting on it's haunches it was pulling so hard, scrabbling on the rocky bottom. JD grit his teeth, commanded his horse to "back up! back up! back up!" and pulled back so hard on the reins he figured the poor animal's mouth would be sore for a month of Sundays.

JD didn't think they could do it, Nellie was weakening, her thrashing becoming pitiful and she could no longer make any noise, her wind pipe being closed off. He wanted to yell at Vin, tell him to stop, that they were making it worse, that they were tormenting her and what the hell did he think he was doing?

And just like that it was over. It was like Nellie popped out of whatever it was that had a hold on her. She fell over on her side, not having the strength to right herself.

JD sat spellbound as Vin lunged his horse close to Nellie, jumped into the thigh-deep water, bowie knife in hand, when did he do that? and cut both ropes from around her neck with two quick movements. He then worked to keep the horse's head above the water for the couple of minutes it took for Nellie to realize she could breathe and move. She worked at getting her feet underneath herself and stood up. The little bay gave a mighty shake that sent her stirrups to flapping and a spray of water dousing Vin.

"JD! Get back to the herd and tell them to turn 'em west, quarter of a mile. GO!"

Unwinding the rope from around his saddle horn as fast as his shaking hands could, JD brought his horse out of the river, stopping by Casey. He held his arm out to her. "Come on, Casey. I'll take you back." It hurt him bad to see her so broken up. He just wanted to take her away from it all.

But she shook her head at him, refusing his offer. In a shaky almost whispery voice that was filled with fear and pain, she told him she had to stay with Nellie. She hugged herself close and looked out into the river, watching as Vin got her horse up.

He would have liked to argue with her, but knew he didn't have time. Saying a quiet "okay", he looked upstream and saw where Vin had placed some poles to mark the spot he wanted the cattle to cross. Then he put his heels to his horse, letting up on the reins as much as he could, wanting forgiveness for being so rough before. As the animal responded, JD could hardly believe the resilience of the cowpony.

Sobs constricted deep in Casey's belly as Vin brought Nellie closer to her. The bay was shaking and she wasn't walking quite right. Close to shore, she couldn't wait any longer and waded out, arms reaching to engulf her pet's neck. She buried her face in the wet fur and cried. A few minutes later, she heard Vin's voice softly telling her to bring her horse back to shore.

"Do you think she's going to be alright?" Casey watched Tanner take a deep breath before answering.

"In time."

"But what about now? What do I do?" She was almost afraid to hear his answer.

"Don't think she can make it with the herd now. Best ta let her go. Needs time to heal up those muscles. We'll find her when we come back through," he added when seeing Casey's eyes open wide at the thought of leaving her horse behind.

"Good spot here. Water, plenty of grass. She'll be fine."

Casey nodded her head, mostly because she couldn't speak over the lump that had formed in her throat. He never even suggested she quit and head back home.

Vin raised his eyes and saw the cattle approaching. "Need ta help with gettin' the herd across. You be okay here awhile?"

She nodded. But like the true pioneer that she was, she looked to be sure all the other horses were still together on the other side of the river. They were and they were still her responsibility. She untied her lariat from the saddle and headed downstream to cross where Vin told her it was the shallowest.

She'd trust Tanner to help her find her horse when they came back home. For now she'd get herself another horse, resaddle it, let Nellie go and continue on. It's what her Aunt Nettie would do. Her chin came up higher as she set her sights on her goals.

+ + + + + + +

Curiosity ran high when the men saw JD ride back to the herd hell bent for leather. The young man had stopped for a minute at the supply wagon, arms flying every which way and raced off then to find Tatum.

Jiles met Dunne halfway as did Larabee wanting to know what was going on. JD told them they needed to turn the herd a good quarter of a mile to the west, the reason why and what had happened. He told it all in a rush of words, but one thing came through and that was the threat to man and beast if they didn't turn the cattle.

Tatum conversed  with Lefty who took off quick-like to catch up with the lead steer, a big raw-boned, long horn, aptly named Spear, because of the sharp points at the end of his horns. The animal was extremely docile, extremely smart and a "hell of a leader" in Stubby's words. He did have one bad habit though, he would tend to wander from time to time, just start grazing and never look back. Tatum's men had lost a lot of hours hunting down the animal and bringing him back to the ranch. But he was worth all the trouble he caused.

The seasoned cowhand turned the lead steer to the west, the others following right behind.

+ + + + + + +

"JD? What happened?" Buck wanted to know when he finally caught up with the kid.

"Aw, Buck, it was awful! Casey's horse got stuck in the water and . . ."

"Horses don't get stuck in the water, JD."

"Well, she was stuck and Casey was crying and Vin was nearly strangling her . . ."

"Casey?" Buck's voice rose in disbelief.

"Huh? No. Nellie."

Wilmington rolled his eyes. "Who the hell is Nellie?" This was going to be complicated, he could tell already.

"Casey's horse. Buck you aren't listening."

"I AM listening but you're not making any sense. Just who was Vin strangling?"

"Nellie! And he wasn't strangling, strangling. His rope . . . and mine were so tight on Nellie's neck it was choking her, but we were trying to get her unstuck."

"From the water."

"Well, whatever it was that had her stuck. And she was stuck good but we got her out."

"And Casey? She was where?"

"On the shore, watching."

"Scared and crying?"


Buck's head nodded up and down slowly. "Did you comfort her?"

"Didn't have time. Had to get here to warn Tatum."

"Well, tonight, young man," Buck's voice had gone soft and quiet, "you spend some time with that little girl."

JD nodded and Buck clapped him on the back. "Let's get this herd across the water."

"Yeah, right," JD answered and took a deep breath. "Look, there's Vin."

"Need ta keep your mind on what you're doin', kid." Buck told his young friend, then smiled and nodded when JD acknowledged that and they rode off, working at keeping the cattle turned to the west.

+ + + + + + +

That night around the campfire the whole story was laid out of what had happened. Tatum had told Casey if she wanted to head back, he'd send Gus partway with her to be sure she got back safely, but the young girl wouldn't hear of it. She was in it for the long haul. Nellie was safe on the other side of the Little Moreau and Casey had complete confidence in Vin's ability to track her down when they returned. It bothered her more than she let on to leave her beloved horse behind, but she put on a brave front. Jiles had sent her and JD out for night watch because he knew the best thing to do was for her to keep her mind busy on work.

Dunne caught the poignant look Wilmington threw him while saddling up to ride out with Casey.

A few games of cards were played before the men retired for the second night. Ezra had won most of the hands, but he found out that Gus Short was a talented man at poker. The gambler went to bed figuring he'd have to keep his eye on that wrangler.

"Your men did well today," Jiles said, approaching Larabee, who was looking out over the herd. The man dressed in black turned to him, and slowly withdrew the cheroot that was clamped between his teeth. Without saying a word, Tatum knew the gunslinger was upset with him, his body language said it all. He was thankful the black, flat brimmed hat was pulled low so he couldn't see the eyes he knew were drilling him. And why shouldn't Larabee be upset? Tatum had put them all in danger today. If not for the tracker, Tanner, they'd a been in a hell of a mess. And he knew it. He thought for a minute that Larabee was just going to walk away from him, probably not wanting to do or say something he might regret.

"Maybe you should be thinkin' about who it is you're trustin'." The cigar was dropped and quickly crushed beneath a black boot. The soft jingle of spurs signaled Larabee's departure.

How could a man's voice be so soft and yet exude such deadly menace at the same time?

Jiles took a deep breath and squinted out to the horizon. He'd definitely take Larabee's advice.

+ + + + + + +

Early next morning, right after breakfast, Ezra and Buck quickly helped Stubby reload the covered wagon. The wind was blowing dust devils and the air had a funny, thick feel to it. Items had to be stored quickly or lost forever, blowing across the endless flat land.

"So tell me, Stubby, how is it that you acquired such a name?" Ezra asked the older man out of curiosity. The gambler was nearly appalled by his own lack of manners, asking such a personal question, but he was indeed curious, as it seemed Wilmington was also since he stood close to hear the answer above the wind. "That name usually conjures up images of partly missing fingers or perhaps a leg, and yet you appear to be quite . . . intact." Good lord, he was becoming as crass as a turkey buzzard!

"Well, not so's you kin tell anyways," Stubby cackled, his whiskered face breaking out into a grin.

"See, when I was knee high to a grasshopper, my Pappy brought home a big ol' steer. Give ta him cuz'n it was meaner than a bobcat with it's tail caught. Had horns this long," he held out his arms at quite an impressive width. "Anyway, ta make a story short, I got to close to this ornery old coot and he done swang them horns at me. Near ta cut me in half," he added, making a slicing motion below his belt.

Ezra swallowed hard after his mouth finally shut and out of the corner of his eye, he swore he saw Buck involuntarily pinch his thighs together and heard something akin to a whimper come out of the rogue's tightly closed mouth.

"I'm a bit of a peculiarity to the womenfolk, ifn ya know what I mean," he whispered conspiratorially to the stunned men, then winked at them. The two peacekeepers fought valiantly to keep their eyes trained on Stubby's face and no where else.

"Let's move out!" Tatum called out over the wind, causing all three men to move; Stubby to the front of the wagon, the other two to their horses.

"Well. Now that was more information than I cared to digest at this early hour," Ezra informed Buck with a grimace, as they mounted their horses.

"Any hour more like it," Buck answered with a solemn nod and a shudder.

Stubby climbed aboard the wagon and chuckled, pulling out a stub of an old cigar from his side pocket and jammed it in his mouth, teeth clenching to hold it in place. He'd never tire of the look on people's faces when he told that story. "Git up there!" he yelled, around the stub, slapping the reins across the horse's rumps to get them moving. Wind was going to kick up something later today, he'd bet his false teeth on it.

+ + + + + + +

The wind churned up dirt and loosened sagebrush, creating rolling tumbleweeds that at times looked like little people running away across the flats. The wind also stirred up the cattle. They were restless, bawling and cranky. The drovers spent a lot of time chasing after strays, trying to keep the herd intact. If a man wasn't used to the saddle by now, he would be by days end, or he'd be eating his meals standing up.

Today, kerchiefs were in use by everyone not just the drag rider. That job was being chosen each night before turning in by whomever drew the lowest card. If you'd done the job already, then you were exempt, at least until everyone did a round. It wasn't a job the men volunteered for. They'd learned that after the first day. And Buck had won last night, or lost, depending on how you looked at it.

The men didn't stop and light for lunch, it was just too risky today. The herd needed constant attention, so Stubby and Casey passed out jerky and biscuits when the drovers came to the wagon. The food was eaten while riding, JD dubbing it as "fast food." Mother Nature had some plans in the working, that was plain to see. The sky had turned a dark blue then near-black, and the clouds churned, but fortunately most of the threatening stuff had moved off to the north and then to the east of where they were.

The wind let down some and even though the skies had opened up a couple of times throughout the day, they weren't drenching rains. Just enough to keep some of the dust down. The men had lost count the number of times they'd put on and taken off their slickers. The air still felt heavy though and thunder rumbled from somewhere in the dark clouds and for Vin, a man who understood nature, it bothered him.

"Sure looks like we lucked out of that one, huh?" JD said as the drovers all met for a few minutes to get their orders from Tatum.

"Cain't turn your back on Mother Nature," Gus told him. "Seen her more than once come back and hit when it weren't expected. Nah, I think we'd best keep our eyes on that there storm, no matter ifn it looks like it went 'round us."

Jiles listened to his old friend and right hand man. He trusted Gus' instincts and he himself had seen storms do a complete turn and head back the way they'd come. So he wasn't going to let up on the men just yet. Night time was coming, and he wanted to get the men fed and back out on duty as soon as possible. He'd been watching Tanner watch the skies and point some things out to Larabee, to which the gunslinger would nod his head as if agreeing or learning, he didn't know which. But he'd like to know what the tracker knew. The man might be younger than him, but word was, there was none better than Vin Tanner for tracking or hunting down people. He'd lived with the Indians, he'd heard. Also that the man was deadly with a rifle. A sharpshooter. Stubby had informed him that Tanner "could shoot the needle off a porkypine at a hundred yards." Sounded like one of the older man's yarns to him but he'd never seen the man in action. Just knew he was someone that didn't abide by injustices done to others. None of the peacekeepers did. That, they all seemed to have in common.

"We'll eat in shifts, couple men at a time," Jiles informed them. "Unless the air clears, we'll all keep watch tonight. Once it gets dark, we won't be able to see anything until it's on us and then it could be too late. Cattle are still restless, best to take heed of that and be ready. Could be a long night. Lefty and I'll eat last," he added, "the rest of you can decide amongst yourselves." With a nod to the men, he and his two ranch hands headed back to the herd.

"What you thinkin', Vin?" Nathan asked as he watched the stormy, dark clouds being illuminated by the light show, seemingly so many miles from them. He too, had seen Vin and Larabee talking while watching the storm brew and then abate. Vin knew a lot of things, about the land, about nature. He'd learned that first hand when he'd gone along with Tanner to hunt down Chanu.

"I think he's right," Vin answered. "Don't think we're done yet for the night."

That ominous warning weighed heavy on the men's shoulders. To a man, there wasn't much they were afraid of, but they were out of their element here. A gunfight was different. Battling nature and five hundred ornery animals was another matter. Once again, and as so many times before, they'd watch each other's backs, no matter the enemy. It was an unwritten rule.

Lightning streaked across the skies, sometimes racing horizontally from here to lord knew where, other times a bolt would dagger downwards, striking the earth with ground shaking tremors and deadly force.

"No offense Vin, but I hope you both are wrong and it all stays over there," Buck motioned with his head to the northeast, "and leaves us alone."

"Don't have ta be over there to do the damage over here," Vin said, wanting them to all understand the dangers of the situation.

"I got a feelin' I ain't gonna like whatever it is you're gonna say next," Wilmington said with a sigh, leaning forward and crossing his wrists over the saddle horn.

"Ever heard of 'blue lightnin'?" the ex-bounty hunter asked his friends.

No one spoke, giving Vin the go ahead to inform them.

"Storm might be over there," he jutted his chin off in the direction of the turbulent storm, "but the lightnin' can strike miles away from it."

"Like over here?" JD asked, eyes going from looking in the distance back to Tanner.

Vin gave a curt nod. "Seen where the lightnin' can ride on top of the steers horns. Makes 'em look blue. Spooks 'em."

"Spooks me and I ain't never seen it," Buck said.

"Well, like the boss man said, 'it could be a long night', " reiterated Josiah. "Might as well eat and settle in. As much as I enjoy seeing God's mighty works in person, I think this is one I'd like to miss out on."

They quickly decided on who was going to eat when.

"I knew I was going to regret this," Chris spoke quietly to no one in particular as the men broke apart.

JD went to eat first since then he could spend a few minutes talking with Casey. She'd been ordered

to stay with the chuck wagon, something she did but wasn't very happy about. He'd seen her narrow her eyes at him when she'd caught him nodding his head in agreement with Tatum about the decision. He figured he'd best see if she was still upset with him. Might just slop his food on a plate and turn her back to him completely. She could infuriate him so! And after the quicksand scare he thought they were on good terms. Women could sure change their minds in a hurry.

+ + + + + + +

If a man would have had his pocket watch out he'd a noted that at precisely ten-oh-five all hell broke loose. That's the exact time a streak of lightning ripped across the skies, drove downward and struck an unsuspecting steer's horn and ricocheted from him to the next steer's horns and on down the line. It was as Vin said. The lightning was an eerie blue in color and bathed the steers in the same color as it passed from one to the next. The electricity snapped in the air and made a man's neck hairs stand on end.

The sight stunned the drovers, but the bawling cattle began pushing against each other trying to get away from the frightening light. Then a clap of thunder boomed so loud it reverberated throughout a man's bones and echoed from one end of the valley they were in to the other.

The cattle were off and running and there was no force on earth that was going to stop them in their panic, short of a miracle.

Tatum, Gus, Lefty and Stubby had regaled the seven peacekeepers of stories about stampedes and what should be done and what shouldn't be done. A stampede would test the metal of man and horse. Both had to keep their wits about them in order to survive. A man who went down in a stampede would more than likely become part of the landscape, only recognized because he'd be the one missing.

Jiles told the men that if a stampede were to happen, they were to try and keep the herd from fanning out, to keep them together as much as possible, staying along the sides and not getting caught in any way in the middle or in any splits.

The drovers ran their horses along with the cattle desperately trying to keep them from going in four different directions. They were swept along in the surging mass of cowhide, shouts lost in a combination of the storm's fury, the bawling cattle, the thunder of five hundred beeves running at top speed.

Lightning flashed and for a moment the scene looked like something sketched in one of JD's dime novels. Black. Everything in black. Arms raised, lariats held high, hats on the rider's backs held there only by the string which cut into their throats, dusters blown back away from the owner's body, mouths opened, yelling something no one would ever hear, horses manes and tails a blur, and everyone looked the same . . . just black figures racing against the storm and a moving mass of horns and hide.

+ + + + + + +

JD was in trouble. He'd gotten inside a split, cattle running on the left of him and some on the right. Lightning flashed and too late he saw a shiny black area dead ahead. His horse lost it's stride as it hit the water-filled dip and the young man fought to keep his balance. Losing it's speed, horse and rider were surrounded by cattle pushing and shoving, horns bumping and ripping into the horse, causing the animal to panic. To JD's horror, he felt his horse losing ground and slip, nearly going down, but the gelding fought valiantly to save himself and his rider. Lunging to it's right, the cowpony cleared a path, and successfully made it out of the split, but paid the ultimate price, taking a dive to it's knees in a last ditch effort to save the man who rode him.

JD was pitched forward out of harm's way but was not out of danger for at any second a steer could veer off and come at him with more right behind. Standing on the ground was definitely not the place to be. He didn't even have time to think before he heard a voice yell his name and a hand reach down to grab his arm.

"JD!" Buck yelled and grabbed his friend's arm, hoisting him up behind the saddle. Buck had been riding hard behind JD and throughout the lightning flashes, he'd witnessed what had happened. Seeing the young man tossed to the ground, Wilmington had spurred his horse forward, his own safety be dammed, until he could reach JD.

The two rode a short distance where Buck deposited JD behind a sturdy oak.

"Stay here! Don't move!" commanded the big man. "I'll come back and get you. You hear me?" The white of JD's face showed in the dark night and Buck could see him nod his assent. He also saw the glistening of tears in the young man's eyes. He reeled his horse around and headed back into the fray, blinking his eyes rapidly to clear away the water that suddenly pooled in them.

It took the men nearly a half hour of hard riding to get the cattle stopped. A miracle did happen. The story would be told of Vin Tanner on his own gelding, riding like the wind on one side of the charging herd, racing to get to the front and Gus Short doing the same on the other side. Both men knew if they got to the head of the herd and turned one side into the other, it would slow the them considerably, and that is what they had done. By no means an easy task, nor a safe one.

The lightning and thunder had slowly dissipated, moving off in a direction away from them.

It was over. For now. Come day break, hours would be spent retrieving strays, putting the drive a day behind schedule. At least the stampede had headed in the right direction, that was about the only thing in their favor. Horses, men and cattle would suffer from this night.

Chris immediately began searching for his men. When the stampede started, they lost sight of each other. It was every man for himself. Larabee figured he'd take a gunfight with the odds of ten to one over something like this any day. He heard a horse come up from behind and then Vin was beside him, Peso lathered, winded, and fighting the bit as if to say he wanted more.

"You alright," Chris heard him ask in a tight voice and knew if he could see Tanner's face, it'd have worry written all over it. Just like his own. He'd seen what Tanner had done. Sometime they'd have a talk. Over whiskey. In a saloon. At a table. Where a man belonged.

"Yeah," Chris answered, knowing Vin wouldn't be able to see the nod of his head. "Let's find the others."

They rode silently together, Vin pointing out whenever he'd see a human silhouette. By the time they'd reached the supply wagon, all the peacekeepers were accounted for except Josiah. And Tatum was missing Lefty.

Nathan was treating JD for two broken fingers on his left hand. Dunne hadn't even noticed when it happened, had been too numb with fear. Only other time he'd felt so afraid and helpless was when he froze in the battle with Achilles. It ate at him that he'd freeze like a turd in a blizzard.

Casey had put aside her fears when she saw that JD had been injured. She thought the day at the river was bad, but this night, this dark and stormy night, she knew she'd never ever forget. And now Josiah and Lefty were missing. Her mind thought the worst.

She wasn't the only one who thought the worst. They all did. They couldn't help it. A man on a horse should have been at the wagon by now. Thing of it was, it being so dark out, it would be nearly impossible to find a downed man in these conditions and waiting until light could be the difference between life and death for one who was injured.

Larabee and his men only knew one thing . . . they'd look for Josiah. They'd spend the rest of the night hours and all day looking for their friend if need be. To hell with the cattle for now. Casey was set to go also. Josiah was her friend and nobody was going to stop her from helping.

Tatum needed to find his man too. The cattle were spent and as long as the night remained calm, they weren't going to go anywhere. Couldn't do any rounding up until morning anyway, and so finding Smith and Sanchez was their first priority. After the horses rested a few more minutes, they were all ready to take off in different directions to search for the missing men.

Vin held up a hand, a warning. He'd heard the faint clip clop of horses hooves and voices. Shortly someone yelled, "Ho, the camp. Comin' in." Two men on one horse appeared and right behind them was Josiah on what was obviously one of the other men's mount.

Nathan moved quickly to Josiah's side as did Ezra in order to help the injured man down. In what moonlight there was now that the storm had passed, it was easy to see Josiah had blood on one side of his face.

"Nothin' to fret about boys. Just lost a battle with a tree branch is all," he said as his two friends helped him over to the wagon tongue to sit.

"Hush now," Nathan told him. "I'll be the judge of that. Let me take a look see. You're bleedin' like a stuck pig. Ezra? Hold that light up here higher will you. Got to clean this up. Likely you'll be needin' stitches."

Josiah looked around, seeing that all his friends were accounted for and he breathed a "thank you" to the man upstairs. "Lefty didn't make it," he told Tatum, realizing the men were going to head out after the one missing. "I'm sorry," he added, knowing that would be hard news to take. "Went down couple miles back. Tried to get to him, but that's when I met up with the tree. Weren't for these two here," and he gestured to the two men now standing on the ground, "likely I wouldn't be here either."

Tatum walked over to the men, scrutinizing them as he came closer. "What you two doing out on a night like this?" He tried not to sound accusing or demanding, but it was peculiar for anyone to be out on such a stormy night . . . unless they had reason.

"We were lookin' for some cover from the storm. Heard what sounded like a herd of buffalo and came this way instead. Tried to help, but weren't in time to help your man. Sorry about that." The young man paused a minute, then stuck out his hand. "My name's Jesse, this here is Cole," he jerked his head sideways, indicating the other young man. "We're headed back East. Home for us."

Jiles shook hands with both young men. "Appreciate you tryin' to help," he told them, gut instinct telling him they were truthful. "Been a long night for us. Reckon we could all use a little something ta eat. You're invited to stay, if you want," he told the newcomers. Turning to Gus, he told him that as soon as it was light, they'd head back to find Lefty and give him a proper burial. Josiah told them he'd go along. The others would work at rounding up the strays.

+ + + + + + +

Morning finally broke, the red ball of the eastern sun starting to peep out over the horizon. It'd been a long night, a fitful night for some, but they all tried to grab a few hours of sleep before beginning what they knew would be a day-long chore. Jiles had told the two young men, Jesse and Cole, the night before, that they could stay on and help if they were so inclined. And they were, for one day at least.

Tatum, Gus and Josiah had left before daybreak, backtracking to where they'd found Lefty's body . . . or what was left of it and give the man a proper burial. Stubby had sent along something of his own to be buried along with Lefty, "as a remembrance," he'd said. Josiah said a prayer and that was it. One man's life snuffed out quickly and violently, now buried out on the lone prairie. It was, sadly enough, the way of the west, especially if one was a cowboy. And Lefty Hayman had been one hell of a cowboy, so said Tatum and Short.

While the men worked at rounding up the cattle that had wandered off, Casey did her job of getting the remuda back together. They were down a couple of horses, with the deaths of JD's and Lefty's, but she knew her job, finished it and then helped with the cattle. The three that had gone off to bury Lefty were back before she knew it, faces solemn but hard with determination.

Chris and Vin had rode off together and were now sitting and contemplating their next move.

Directly ahead of them was Spears and he was in a bit of a predicament even if he didn't think so.

He was standing hock deep in a mud hole.

"Think he's stuck?" Chris asked, arms crossed over the saddle horn, looking the situation over.

"Don't appear ta be. Ain't thrashin'," came the answer from his partner, as he unhooked his rope from it's tie down. Making a loop and deftly tossing it over the steer's head, Vin flipped his wrist and snugged the rope tight.

Chris looked at Vin. "You've done this once or twice before." The word "this" covering a lot more than just the roping the steer. It was a statement not a question, no answer required if none was to be given.

"Once or twice," Vin told him anyway, knowing what Larabee was getting at. "Long time ago, Chris. Lost a good friend once on a drive like this one. Ain't somethin' I like ta think on."

"Alright," Chris answered, respecting his friend's wishes. "How you want ta do this?"

"Get your rope on him and we'll try pullin' first. Might just walk right outta there."

Chris got his rope ready, walked his horse closer to the animal and then tossed his loop and watched it join Vin's. Riding back to join Vin, he saw his friend grinning at him. "Ain't no cowboy," is all he said then heard Tanner's quiet chuckle beside him.

"Let's do this," Larabee commanded, trying to keep a straight face, wrapping his rope around the saddle horn.

They pulled this way and that way, but Spears just wouldn't budge. His head stuck out from the ropes pulling on him, but that was the only part that moved. He appeared to be stuck good.

"Great!" came the exasperated sigh from the gunslinger after the two men had tried everything they could. "Now what?"

"Reckon one of us is gonna have ta push," Vin mused, glancing over at Larabee.

Chris' eyes met the laughing blue ones. "Flip ya for it," he said. After Vin's nod of approval, Larabee reached inside a pocket and drew out a coin.

"Call it in the air."

Vin watched Larabee flip the coin off his thumbnail, then called "heads" as it somersaulted upwards, stopped, then fell downward, landing with a soft thunk on the ground between them. Both leaned over from their horses to see what it read.

"Damn," came the soft reply from the tracker. He looked up in time to see a flash of white right before Larabee told him to hand over his rope.

Vin unwound his lariat, gave it to Chris, stepped off his horse, removed his chaps and boots, waded into the mud hole and got positioned behind Spears. Putting a hand on either side of the steer's bony backside, he looked up at Larabee and gave a nod.

Chris' cowpony backed up pulling both ropes taunt, then began to scrabble backwards, fighting for a hold on the slick grass, working hard to get Spears out of the mud hole.

Vin, meanwhile, put his shoulder into his work, and just as soon as he had all his weight forward, pushing on the hind end of the steer, Spears decided he'd had enough. He sauntered forward a couple of steps and walked out.

Chris' horse nearly fell over backwards as the ropes went limp and Vin . . . Vin went face first into the mud hole.

Larabee managed to keep his seat as his horse scrambled to all fours but nearly lost it again when he saw his mud-caked friend emerging out of the hole. He was pretty sure he saw a blue-eyed glare aimed at him when he'd asked Vin if he was okay, the tracker not sharing in the laughter at the moment.

Pulling grass and wiping himself off as best as he could, then putting his boots back on, Vin slapped his chaps over the saddle. Tanner didn't say a word when Chris handed him back his rope, nor did he say anything when Larabee told him he'd take the steer back to the herd if he wanted to clean up some. They'd parted but not before the gunslinger had gotten a rueful grin out of his friend, telling him he'd buy him a beer for supper that evening. They wished.

Riding back to the supply wagon to grab some cleaner clothes from his pack, Vin ignored any and all attempts to stop him.

"Mr. Tanner?" Ezra called out when seeing Vin ride by with what looked like mud from head to toe.

"Well, now. There's somethin' you don't see every day," Buck said laughingly as he pulled up near Standish. "Looks like Vin has had himself quite the day already."

"Looks like whatever it was . . . he lost." The two men shared a chuckle. "Speaking of lost, Mr. Wilmington, since Vin seems to be obviously otherwise occupied, would you care to join me in bringing back a couple of wayfaring bovines that I believe belong with this god-forsaken masse of cowhide? I spotted them back just a ways," Ezra gave his head a jerk over his left shoulder.

"They are scattered ta hell and back, that's for damn sure." Let's go get 'em, then. Two more we won't have ta worry about," Buck said the men reined their horses around. "Did I ever tell you just how fetching you look in a pair of chaps, Ezra?"

Laughter rang out when the gambler gave the ladies' man a friendly shove as they rode to gather up the lost steers.

+ + + + + + +

"Got mine," Ezra boasted as his rope landed neatly around a steer that was hiding in the brush. If anything, at least I've learned the finer art of lassoing, he thought, then rolled his eyes. Like that would ever come in handy around a poker table. Then he snorted. Dear Mother, he thought and grinned, gold tooth shinning in the sun, when thinking of what he'd be writing in his next letter. Ezra wound his rope around the saddle horn and proceeded to pull the unwilling creature out of hiding. "Want me to wait for you?" he couldn't help saying that without keeping the laughter out of his voice.

"Yours would be easy," Buck grumbled as the animal he went after kept trying to allude him, finally backing the steer into corner of scrub trees. "I'll catch up," he tossed over his shoulder, making ready to rope the animal.

Wilmington narrowed his eyes when the steer lowered his head and started pawing the earth.

"Now hold on there, big fella. No need for that. Now, I'm just tryin' ta help out here, get you back where you belong," Buck kept up the litany trying to calm the now snorting and head-tossing steer.

"Okay, okay . . . we can settle this without any bloodshed." Preferably not mine. "Me and ol' Chief here are just gonna back away and you can just go about your business. No problem."

Horse and rider backed up and out of the way, giving the steer room to escape which is what it did. Lifting it's head back up, no longer sensing danger, the animal moseyed right on past as if nothing had happened. Buck frowned as he watched the animal go by.


"EZRA!" Buck yelled again, noticing the conman was too engaged in hauling his 'prize' back to the herd to pay attention. Looked like he was even singing . . . hands held out wide, body in motion. "Well, hell," he muttered, realizing the steer Standish had didn't seem to be as ornery as the one he'd tried to rope. Stubborn yes. Dragging it's feet like an unruly child. Hopefully it did have Tatum's brand on it, his hadn't and they'd been warned about rogue cattle. Mean, ornery and cantankerous was how Gus had put it. Like to rip apart anything that came near to it.

Tapping his horse's sides with his heels, Wilmington started off after Ezra but was diverted when a couple of cattle veered out ahead of him through the brush. Taking one last look at the gambler, feeling confident that Standish knew what he was doing, Buck raced after the strays.

The next few minutes were a blur, Ezra hardly recalling what went wrong. One minute he was pulling on a stubborn steer, the next that same steer was pulling on his horse. The animal had refused to go any further, and instead, was now doing some kind of a half circle stalk at the end of his rope. It's head was down, moving side to side and up and down. And worse, it was pawing the ground, like it was getting ready to . . .

Charge. He's going to charge me! Good Lord, I'm about to be skewered! Ezra panicked and struggled to get the rope unwound from his saddle horn. He couldn't get it loose! His fingers fumbled, he ripped and jerked, but with the steer's constant drag, the rope had become impossibly tight. His horse kept sidestepping trying to get away, like it sensed what was going to happen.

The steer snorted, snot came flying out of it's nose in long string-like globs, flinging right and left. Standish could hear someone yelling at him to "CUT THE ROPE!" But even if he did have a knife, where was his knife? Even if he did have a knife, the beast was getting ready to charge. His horse shied again now nearly in a frenzy to get away. GET OFF! GET OFF! his mind screamed at him. He heard the command, wanted to comply, but his body betrayed him, holding firm in the saddle. "Oh good God," he breathed when the steer charged, head low, nothing on it's mind but to thrust deep it's powerful horns. He heard a scream of "NOOO!" and then another that sounded like some Comanche war cry. A brown blur passed on his left and he distinctly heard a ting noise. His horse was catapulted to the right like it had been shot from a slingshot, and lost it's balance. Ezra's mind yelled yet again . . . Jump! Tuck! Roll! and this time his body listened and responded. After hitting the ground, then standing, he was scooped up neatly by two riders one on either side of him, lifting him by his arms and carrying him off to a safe distance. When they let him down, he could barely stand, legs feeling like jelly.

"Damn, but them boys are hard on lariats and horses!" Stubby snorted and spoke to himself, moving the cigar from one side of his mouth to the other, watching in awe and shaking his head at what he had just witnessed. If he were a younger man, he'd want to join up with these seven men.

Ezra looked back to where he'd been just mere seconds ago, seeing the aftermath of his near demise. The cowpony, after being run over by the steer, had gotten up, shook itself and trotted away not looking any worse for wear and the crazed steer was being chased away by Gus and Tatum. It was the chaos off to his right that drew his attention, however, and he suddenly knew who his savior had been . . . Vin Tanner.

Vin had just finished washing up and changing his clothes when he'd heard Stubby mumbling something about some "fancy-pants varmint not knowin' how ta lead a horse ta water." He'd come around the front of the wagon only to see that the cook was grumbling about Ezra pulling a steer back to the main herd. It was then that he instinctively knew the imminent danger his friend was in. He didn't need Stubby to tell him that it probably was a rogue steer if it had to be roped and dragged. By the time he'd cinched on his gunbelt and vaulted into the saddle, the longhorn was just about to charge horse and rider. Pulling his knife he raced forward, yelling out a war cry just before putting himself and Peso between Ezra and the enraged steer. His mind registered pain as the beast's horns raked across his lower leg just as he reached forward to sever the rope, setting Ezra free.

Tanner was aware only that Standish's horse had fallen to the right, both of them, he hoped, out of harm's way. Seeing Tatum and his men racing by, he had to trust that they'd handle the situation. He had his own troubles. Peso was wild-eyed in panic, crowhopping and fighting the bit. Vin was having trouble controlling him. With his own leg beating out it's pain, he looked down and noted that his horse had been sliced by the rogue's horns, no doubt the smell of blood and it's own pain, frightening the animal even more. Vin managed to kick free of the stirrups and jumped down, nearly going to his knees, grunting in pain. He'd kept hold of one rein, not wanting to let his horse free, and struggled with one good leg to try and calm Peso.

A strong hand and a soft voice came to his rescue.

"Whoa, easy, boy. You're okay, easy now," Chris kept up the soothing words as his hand closed over Vin's in order to take the rein from him. Having taken control, Larabee stepped in front of his friend and worked at bringing Peso to calmness. "Easy, son, you're okay, easy, easy. It's okay."

Nathan, although needing to get to Vin, stayed back and out of the way, not wanting to spook the horse anymore. He couldn't tell for sure, but Peso just might need some stitching up and Vin wasn't putting a lot of weight on his left leg.

What seemed like an eternity turned out to be only a few minutes, but Larabee had finally gotten to where he and Vin could approach Peso and begin to check out the damage.

"Let me take care of this, Vin, let Nathan check you out," Chris told his friend, knowing the man was upset, more so over the injury to his horse than himself. A man's horse could easily become one's best friend out here in the west and Peso definitely meant alot to Vin and Chris knew it. And Vin knew that Chris knew it, so giving a curt nod, he allowed Larabee to take his horse and do what he could. The slashes weren't life threatening, the saddle and Vin's own leg taking most of the brunt, but nevertheless, it was enough to unnerve horse and man.

Vin's leg checked out to be badly bruised, Nathan telling him that he'd likely be sore for some time, but nothing bad enough to keep him from sitting a horse. So Tanner and Diamond got back to work rounding up strays with the rest of the men. Peso wasn't too bad off, but was hobbled so that he had to stay close to camp.

Ezra, aside from being scared out of a half day's growth, was fine also and gamely got back into rounding up more strays being sure this time that they had the enmeshed number 78 branded into their hip. He kept a sharp eye out on Vin for two reasons; one, to make sure he stayed in the saddle and two, for an opportunity to thank the tracker for saving his life.

Standish got his chance right before supper. "Mr. Tanner . . . Vin?" Ezra called as he walked over to where Vin was checking on Peso, cleaning once again the oozing wounds. It was an awkward moment for the gambler; saying thank you to a man who'd saved his life didn't come easy although by all rights it should. He pondered how he should approach the subject and cleared his throat.

"Your heroic efforts today . . ."

"I ain't no hero, Ezra."

"Perhaps not by your standards, Mr. Tanner, but certainly by mine. You put your life on the line for me today and I want you to know that I am indebted to you."

"You'd a done the same fer me."

"Well," Ezra gave a short, derisive laugh, running his hand along the black gelding's back. "I don't believe I have the intestinal fortitude nor the instincts to act as you did, but I thank you for your vote of confidence." Holding his hand out for the rag Vin was using to swab at Peso's wounds he added, "Now, if would you allow me the liberty of taking over for you here while you eat and rest that leg, I would consider it a favor. I'm sure Mr. Jackson would much rather you took it somewhat easy before putting in another insufferable day tomorrow. Lord, but would this trail drive ever end?

Vin studied Ezra for a few seconds. Handing over the rag, he said softly, "Don't take guts ta save another man's life, Ezra. Just heart."

Yes, well then, you have more heart than anyone I know, thought Ezra as Vin turned and limped back to camp.

Suppertime was pretty quiet this night, the men bone tired and haggard. A lot had happened the last couple of days and they desperately needed some rest and peace. Even the cattle were tired after the stampede and roundup, most laying down, mouths in motion as they chewed their cud, content for now. One peaceful night and an easy day of traveling would make a world of difference for men and beasts.

Stubby corralled Ezra after they'd eaten. "Come on, fancy pants. You, me and the little lady got first watch tonight."

"You? But I thought you couldn't ride, you know . . ." the conman's hands gesturing when he couldn't find the words.

"Hell, I'm more suited to that ol' wagon bench I know, but I kin sit a saddle and baby-sit. Ain't much ta that. Now let's go, we's keeping that little gal awaitin'!" He grinned as he walked away, munching on the end of his cigar. City folk were so easy ta fool.

The dark sky was dotted with thousands of pinholes reflecting light, the moon but a sliver as it looked to be sitting on it's haunches and the air was filled with the sounds and smells of nighttime. Peaceful. Just what the drovers wanted . . . and needed.

+ + + + + + +

Morning broke with the clanging of Stubby pots and kettles as he set about preparing breakfast. Jesse and Cole stayed the night but were ready to head off east after being fed. Tatum had paid them well, thanking them for their help in rounding up the strays and Josiah was doubly thankful for their helping him during the storm and stampede.

After Jesse and Cole left, Tatum regrouped the men telling them that they would be leaving the flats and heading into hilly country. Some of it would be rough, but once they cleared the ridge that he pointed out, then the town of Poncha City would only be a half a day's ride. They were nearly to their destination.

"Anyone got anything ta add? Any questions?" Jiles asked before the men broke camp and got the herd up and moving. He was curious to see if Tanner or any of the others would have anything to say. He valued their opinions. Every day with these seven men brought him closer to understanding why so many had pegged them as magnificent. He was seeing it first hand. They amazed him and that wasn't easy to do. He'd come to this territory five years ago, eked out a living, each year increasing his herd until he got to where he was now. It was all hard work and he'd had to live by his wits, learning as he went along. But these men, they worked together liked they known each other all their lives. Worked hard, some played hard, nothing phony about them, they were just what you saw. They were the kind of stuff people wrote books about. Jiles caught himself daydreaming again nearly missing the conversations going on around him. Least he hadn't embarrassed himself by talking out loud. He cleared his throat and paid attention.

The men were discussing the fact that if Royal and James were going to try anything, it would probably happen when they left the flats. More places for a man to hide and ambush them. As tired as they were, they knew now they'd have to be extra alert. Tanner volunteered to scout ahead, Casey was put on drag for the day, figuring that would be the safest for her, for if an attack did happen, it would probably come from the front up in the hills. The drovers left camp, knowing what was expected of them.

The day wore on, dragging the cattle and drovers along with it. Vin had come back and informed the trail boss and others that the trail was clear up ahead, he hadn't seen signs of any horses or humans. This was what they needed . . . a day to do just what they were suppose to do, herd cattle with none of the other extracurricular stuff going on.

Nathan pulled his mount up alongside Josiah's.

"How you doin'?" he asked, still concerned over the ex-preacher's head wound. He would have preferred his friend took the seat next to Stubby for half a day at least, the lines of fatigue showing after a day of rounding up strays, but Sanchez wouldn't hear of it.

"Doin' just fine." Josiah gave the healer a big grin. "Beautiful out here isn't it?" He spread his hands wide, taking in the area surrounding them.

Nathan chuckled low and shook his head. Josiah was a man that was tough to keep down, physically or emotionally. "You know, things could have ended a lot differently in that stampede the other night." The healer had hid his feelings well that night and the next day, but truth be told, he'd feared the worse about his friend that night and the thought of losing Josiah had not only saddened him, but frightened him also. He considered the big man to be his closest friend, an ally.

"Precisely why I'm givin' thanks to the good Lord for this day and these sights. Lucky to be here."

"Lucky for you He put a tree in your way, kept you from getting trampled."

"Amen to that, brother, amen. Although," he touched the white bandage that encircled his head under his hat and gave a painful hiss, "He didn't have to be quite so forceful about it."

"Probably thought it was the best and only way to get your attention, you havin' such a hard head and all," said with a smile that showed off Jackson's white teeth in a dark face made more so by the layer of dirt.

"Wup, hey, hiya," Josiah yelled as a young steer broke away from the herd. "We'll have to discuss your theory on hard heads later," Sanchez yelled over his shoulder with a grin as he took after the runaway.

Nathan chuckled again then turned his eyes to Tanner. He studied the man's posture and watched to see if there was any indication that Vin's leg was giving him problems. Not that he could do anything about it, the tracker just as hard-headed as Sanchez. Hell, they were all hard-headed. He supposed they thought the same of him. Just one more thing the men seemed to have in common. As time went on, it became apparent that underneath, no matter the color, no matter the past, all seven were, indeed, cut from the same cloth. Even Ezra. Now that was a sobering thought, Nathan mused. He watched Larabee cut through a break in the herd opposite Tanner and ride up alongside the tracker. Chris would keep a watchful eye on him, of that, Nathan knew for sure. He tapped his horse's sides and rode to help Josiah return the steer back to the herd.

A quiet day and a quiet night. Perfect. A man couldn't have asked for anything better. Tatum sat his mount, having a smoke, looking over his herd. Satisfied. That's what he was this very moment. Satisfied. Happy. Didn't come along often for a man out in the west, but for now, it was nearly perfect.

His eyes narrowed as he watched Tanner and Larabee ride side by side along the herd. Early shift. Next morning the tracker and Jackson were going to head out and check the watering hole the cattle would be at later in the day. Jiles noticed these two men, Larabee and Tanner, didn't converse much with each other, communicated mostly through their eyes and their actions. He'd had a younger brother like that once. Could spend hours on end with each other, never say a word and yet, knew one another like the back of their hands. Even the thinking. Their pa always told them they were twins, just born two years apart is all, then he'd laugh. A smile graced Tatum's lips as he thought back to old times. Blinking his eyes, he came back to the present. Here he was daydreamin' again. Maybe he did "need a woman" as the ladies' man, Buck Wilmington, had told him the other night. Told him if a man got to thinkin' too much on his own and talkin' to himself, then it was time to settle down with a good woman, because for damn sure then you wouldn't HAVE any time to think or talk to yourself. Your life wasn't your own from that point on. Actually now that he thought about it, he wasn't sure if Wilmington was saying the settling down was a good thing or not.

Tossing his smoke aside, Jiles headed back to camp. Couple more days left and the cattle would be sold. Lock, stock and barrel. He was looking forward to that. Could it really be this easy?

+ + + + + + +

"Nathan!" Vin's whispered yell stopped the black man in his tracks. He'd been filling canteens at the watering hole and was going to take a drink himself when he heard Tanner's warning. Laying the canteens down, he slowly reached for his gun and was startled when the tracker squatted down beside him. He hadn't heard the man come up on him.

"Wau-nee-chee," Vin rasped out.

"What's that mean?"

"Means no good. The water's no good, been poisoned."

Nathan looked around when Vin pointed his chin in a couple of different directions. Sure enough, there were a few dead animals near them and across the way.

"Saw some tracks over yonder," the tracker's head jerked to the left of them. "Coupla hours old." Then looking at Nathan he asked, "You drink any water?"

"Couple of sips when I first got here, not much though," Nathan's brown eyes met Vin's blue ones. He wasn't sure how much trouble he was in. Tanner nodded a couple of times, understanding.

Vin stood, Nathan doing the same. "You get back to the herd, tell 'em about the water. We're gonna have ta skirt around this hole." Heading over to Diamond, Vin reached into his saddle bag and pulled out a little leather pouch and handed it to his friend. "Have Stubby pound the root in here to a powder, mix it with some water, drink it and it'll take care of the poison. It's gonna make ya sick, but it'll do the trick." He figured Nathan didn't drink enough to cause much of a problem, but that didn't mean he wasn't going to get a gut ache.

Nathan nodded and took the pouch. "What you gonna do?" He might be worried about the poison he'd drank, but he was just as anxious about leaving Vin alone, although the man didn't seem to worried at the moment.

"Gonna look around some. This valley," and Vin's eyes roamed panned the area, "it's a good spot for an ambush. Might be they left a trail. I'll check out those bluffs first, make sure they aren't waitin' for us." Seeing Jackson hesitate, he told him, "I'll be careful. You go warn the others and take care of yourself."

Nathan nodded, mounted his horse and headed back to the herd.

"Now, let's see what you boys are cookin' up," Vin whispered, swinging into the saddle and pulling his rifle from it's boot all in one fluid motion.

+ + + + + + +

Chris pushed his horse into a ground-eating gallop when hearing some far-off shots. After Nathan had come back to the herd and told them what had happened, he'd left the others to go after Vin, hoping to meet the man coming back to the herd. Now it seemed as though someone had other plans. Could be what they had thought was coming true.

Coming abreast on top of a knoll, the man in black witnessed something that made his heart jump to his throat. Tanner had just been shot out of his saddle, the blast knocking the man down a tree filled embankment. A menacing growl found it's way out of his throat and Larabee spurred his horse into a run down the hill, pulling his rifle out as he rode. Firing off some quick shots to the area where the ambushers had shot his friend, Chris gave himself cover until he came to the spot where he'd seen Vin go down. Jumping from his horse as a spattering of shots filled the area around him, Larabee crouched behind a boulder, looking down the embankment, calling out for his friend. Nothing. No answer. Trying once, then twice, he attempted to get over by the edge to look for Vin, but was kept penned down. The outlaws had the high ground and it was virtually impossible for him to make a move. Damn, he thought when more shooting started, this time from behind. Thinking he was getting caught in a crossfire and hunkering down even more, Chris took a look over his shoulder. Buck!

The ladies' man was leading a charge, JD, Ezra, Josiah and Jiles right behind him. Good ol' Buck, thought Larabee as he fired repeatedly up into the high ground, giving his friends as much cover as he could.

Breathlessly, Wilmington joined Larabee behind the boulder, the other men fanning out to their right behind various types of cover.


"Hit. Went over the edge there," Chris motioned with his head. "Keepin' me penned down, can't get to him."

Wilmington's face hardened. "Well, we'll just see what we can do about that." Buck stuck his head out around the boulder then ducked back. "Hey Chris?"

"What?" Chris answered, checking the chambers of his ivory-handled Colt. He'd depleted the rifle's bullets laying down cover for his men.

"Take a look see at those scrubs up and over to our left."

Chris stayed low, peeked out behind the rock and narrowed his eyes, trying to pick out whatever it was that Buck wanted him to see.

"Nearly straight up from us now," Wilmington whispered from the other side of their shelter. "See him?"

Chris pulled his head back and breathed a sigh of relief. Alright. Either the bushwhackers had missed Vin or he wasn't hurt bad enough to stay down. Whichever, Chris felt a weight lift from his heart and a different kind of anger took over now. He met Buck's eyes and saw the smile.

"Gonna be like shootin' ducks on a pond," the rogue said, refilling his pistol and handing it to Larabee. He would use his own rifle and let his friend, who he knew would be leading a charge, use it to blaze a way up the hill.

"They still got the high ground. We gotta be careful, wait for Vin to draw their attention."

"Well, hell. You know 'careful' is my middle name, Stud," Buck chided his old friend, pulling his hat down tight, signaling he was ready. One thing Wilmington loved, well, besides women, was a good fight. He was anxious to get this thing started.

Larabee got his point across to the others on what was going to go down so all understood to wait until Vin started shooting first in order to draw the outlaws attention. Then they'd charge up the hill, hitting the men head on, something he knew they'd never expect. Bad guys were normally long on bullets, but short on brains.

Tatum thought they were just plain crazy when he figured out what they were going to do. Five years of hard work to get a herd together and he was going to run up a hill against lord knew how many gunmen. It just wasn't done . . . shouldn't be done, the word "suicide" popping into his mind, but then, these weren't ordinary men he was with, he knew that also. Hell, even Dunne was grinning like the town drunk, anxious to get at it. Jiles took some deep breaths to calm himself when he heard the distinct boom of a rifle above and to his left. Tanner? Once, twice, three times and then he was up and moving. Lord God have mercy!

Vin picked off three men right away; those using rifles to fire on his friends below. Taking aim at another he heard a yell and a black duster flew by his sights, the man wearing it obliterating anything in his way as death was dealt out by the six shooters spitting lead, one in each hand. Welcome ta Larabee justice, was Vin's thought. Another man appeared and another until Vin counted five, six with Larabee. Hell, they were ready to take on an army!

"You alright," Chris asked when Vin joined them, giving the tracker a once over and slight nod when Tanner acknowledged that he was.

"Anybody alive?" was Larabee's next question, standing in the middle of what looked like a massacre.

"Just this one," Josiah said as he pushed a man forward. "Caught him and another tryin' ta run away; other one made it. Guess this one's gimpy leg slowed him down some." The outlaw's leg buckled with the shove and he went to his knees.

"Smith?" Tatum asked incredulously. "Tabor?" He grabbed the man, standing him upright so he could look directly at his face. "You? But why? I don't understand." All he could do was ask questions although what he really wanted to do was punch the man.

"Who you workin' for?" Larabee grabbed the man away from Tatum and shoved him back down on the ground. "Tell us!"

"They'll kill me if I tell you," Smith yelled back.

"And we'll kill you if you don't," Buck told the man in a deadly voice as he stood over him, cocking his rifle and putting the barrel in the middle of Tabor's chest.

Larabee's spurs jangled as he stepped closer to Tatum's hired man. "Royal or James?"

"Or both?" Buck asked, giving the man another nudge with the end of his rifle.

A rifle shot rang out, Tanner yelled, "GET DOWN!" and bodies flew in all directions, hitting the ground.

Vin crouched, setting his sights on where the shot came from when another was fired from above. Then Tanner's rifle boomed, which was followed directly by a cry of pain. A man stood up, dropped his rifle which clanged harmlessly down the hillside, then the man himself fell and bumped along until coming to a dead stop. Literally.

JD and Ezra headed up the hillside to check on the man, Josiah telling one of them to go see if the man had been riding a dappled gray, for that was the color of the horse ridden by the one that got away.

Nudging a dead Tabor Smith with the toe of his boot, Wilmington heaved a sigh. "Looks like there isn't anyone alive now to tell us who was behind this."

"Oh, I think we have a pretty good idea," Chris said, handing Buck's gun back to him as Ezra and JD came back to join them with the news that they'd found the gray horse over the rise.

"He was with Earl the night he tried ta burn the town down," Vin said, after studying what was left of Smith's face. "Knew I seen him somewhere."

"I can't believe he sold me out," Jiles said, still in shock over the fact that his top hand had tried to kill them.

"Well, the acquisition of large amounts of money," Ezra stated, pulling a wad of bills out of his pocket and thumbing through them, "can alter the course of a man's loyalties, I'm afraid." He shook his head before adding, "We found this in that unfortunate miscreant's," he pointed with the money to the dead outlaw on the hill, "saddle bags."

"He dead?" JD asked, looking at Smith, figuring he was.

"Yup," answered Buck, putting his rifle over his shoulder. "We're done here. Better get back to the herd," he added, looking at Tatum.

"Mr. Tatum, seeing as how this money was intended to do you harm, perhaps you would like to keep it . . . for something," Ezra told him, holding out the money to the trail boss.

"It's blood money. Don't want anything ta do with it," Jiles said in a tight voice, looking back at his deceased hired hand one more time before heading back to his horse.

"Well yes, but . . . well," Ezra stammered as the rest of his friends filed past, leaving him standing momentarily speechless, money in hand. Finally, not knowing what else to do, he pocketed it and followed them.

+ + + + + + +

Two days later found the trail hands pushing their steers into a variety of holding pens outside of Poncha City, three cattle buyers already waiting in town for them. Tatum and his men counted a total of four hundred and ninety-three head, having lost some in the stampede and a couple to sickness along the way. Also counted in the loss had been two horses and one good man. And three lariats, as Stubby kept lamenting.

Tatum was pleased and so were his ranch hands. The drive had been a success except for the loss of their friend. The cattle buyers were anxious to do business and in that respect, Jiles was extremely happy at the outcome. He'd made some good money off his beeves. He'd be able to buy a couple more good bulls and start building his herd again.

The men eventually found their way to the saloon and the bathhouse, in that order, and took rooms in the boarding house. They figured to get a good night's rest and head back to Four Corners sometime in the morning.

Casey did the same but spent her time helping Stubby reorganize the supply wagon for his return trip. She'd be going back with the seven . . . she was anxious to return, find Nellie and to see her Aunt Nettie.

Relaxing at a saloon table after supper, the seven peacekeepers ruminated about the past week.

"I don't know about the rest of you but I am NEVER going to do anything like this again," Buck said. "Nope, never. I don't care how much the pay is," he punctuated the sentences with flinging his arms out sideways and giving his head a quick shake. "That cattle-drivin' business is dangerous work," he added, drawing the word dangerous out.

"Yeah, you can say that again," JD agreed, taking a sip of beer and nodding his head. "Think I'll just stick to catching bad guys."

"Well, you'll have some great stories to tell your kids."

JD snorted at Wilmington's statement. "Gotta have a girl first before you can have kids. Casey hasn't hardly said two words to me the last coupla days."

"Well, I would imagine a young lady doesn't like to be told that her best attributes are scrubbing pots and chopping onions," Ezra put in as he shuffled his deck of cards.

JD shrugged and held his hands out as he caught the frown and disgusted look Buck gave him.

"Come on, Kid, we need ta talk," Wilmington said as he hauled JD to his feet and they headed over to the bar.

"Ezra, what are you doing?" Nathan asked, voice tinged with impatience after watching and listening to the conman shuffle and reshuffle his deck of cards for about what he figured was the hundredth time.

"Practicing, my good man. Practicing. After only having the chance to play cards a couple of times while on our latest . . . undertaking, I am getting warmed up for what I hope," and he looked over at a table where four men were sitting playing cards, "will be a night worth remembering. Now if you gentlemen will excuse me." Ezra rapped the cards on the table to straighten them and got up to leave the table.

"What did you do with that money from the outlaws anyway?" Jackson wanted to know before Standish walked away.

"Invested it." He gave a wide, gold-toothed grin and walked away. "Pardon me, gentlemen, but do you have room for another player?"

Nathan shook his head. "Invested it. In what, I wonder?"

"Never know when it comes to Ezra," Josiah remarked. "The mind cannot fathom the possibilities."

Nathan chuckled and stubbed out the cigar he'd been smoking. "Well, I think I'm going to turn in. Be nice to head back on our own time tomorrow."

"Without eating a hatful of dirt." Josiah added, then decided to follow Nathan back to the boarding house.

Vin and Chris were left sitting alone, sipping on their whiskey and watching the patrons.

Larabee glanced over at his partner. "What about you?" he asked. "You willin' ta do this, say, in another two years or so?"

Vin toyed with his whiskey glass awhile before answering. He cocked his head and looked at Larabee. "Two years. Long time ta be plannin' ahead."

Chris nodded at the truth in that.

"Plan on takin' some time off when we get back, I know that." Vin told him after a few minutes, refilling his glass along with Larabee's.

"Same here. Got some work to do out at my place. Much as I love bein' on a horse, I'll be glad to have my feet on the ground for a couple of days. Eat my own cookin'." He grinned at Vin.

Tanner nodded, a smile lifted the corners of his mouth. "Need any help?"

"Workin' or cookin'?"


"Could use some help."

Two glasses raised together in an unspoken pact. Not the first one made by these two friends, nor would it be the last.

+ + + + + + +

"Casey? What are you doing?" JD asked while watching the girl stuff another brown paper-wrapped parcel into her already bulging saddle bag.

"What does it look like I'm doing?" she answered impatiently, giving the last package an extra shove in order to get the buckle latched.

Stepping back out of her way as Casey moved around to the other side of her horse, he answered, "Looks like you bought out the whole store."

She huffed at him. "Just bought a few things is all and something for Aunt Nettie. You buy anything with the money you earned?" she wanted to know, coming to a halt in front of him.

"Matter of fact I did," JD said, and held out a pretty piece of blue ribbon all tied up in a neat bow.

Casey's eyes lit up and a huge smile graced her face. "JD!" she nearly squealed. "This is for me?" She took the ribbon from his outstretched hand, opened it up and ran the silk piece through her fingers, admiring it.

"Well, it sure ain't for my horse!" He cleared his throat and ordered himself to calm down and think. "Yeah, well, the blue kinda matched your eyes, so I . . ." he shrugged and rocked back on his heels.

"You bought this for me? Oh, JD, it's perfect!" She took her eyes off her gift and looked at her friend then gave him a quick hard hug. "Thank you, JD. You want that I should put it in my hair now?"

"Well, I don't know," the young man answered honestly. "It is awfully dusty . . ."

"Oh, you're right. I'll put it away and save it for a special time. What a thoughtful thing . . ." she turned away before JD could see her eyes glistening. Busying herself with her horse's tack and reins she broke out in a smile when Dunne excused himself and walked over to where the other men were getting ready to mount up.

"Told ya," was all Buck whispered when JD walked past him.

"Anybody seen Ezra?" Chris wanted to know.

"Is he up?" Nathan asked, well aware of the gambler's late night hours. They hadn't seen him at breakfast.

"I'm ready ta get this show on the road, boys," Buck said not wanting to wait around any longer.

Just then the man they were wondering about rode around the corner of the livery, trailing the horse called Diamond.

"Sorry to keep you gentlemen, and lady, waiting, but I was finishing up a business transaction with Mr. Tatum."

"You bought yourself a horse?" Nathan asked, unbelief in his voice.

"No. I bought an investment."

"Looks like a horse ta me," Josiah remarked.

Standish ignored his friends' good-natured chuckles and rode over near Vin. "Mr. Tanner, I would be greatly honored if you'd take control of my investment for me. Seeing as how your steed . . ."

"Equine," interrupted Wilmington, laughter in his voice.

". . . needs more time to heal," Ezra continued with a jut of his chin in the direction of an unsaddled Peso tethered to Vin's saddle, "I thought perhaps you would rather ride Diamond than the one you are presently on. It would save us the trouble of having to trail two horses," he added the last statement in hopes that the man would see the practical side of his offer.

Vin studied the conman for a minute. A dog barked somewhere down a back alley, a dust devil churned up dirt, twirling it past the men then dying off further down the street and the horses' mouth bits jangled as they shook their heads, impatient to get going.

Standish knew the tracker saw right through his ruse.

Tanner finally nodded in agreement, quickly untacking and then resaddling the black gelding while JD took the rental back to the livery and retrieved Vin's money.

"Ready?" Larabee asked his men once Vin was mounted again.

"Let's blow this place," Buck said. "I'm gettin' real tired of the smell of 'cow'."

"Bovine," JD corrected him, then rode off to escape Buck's playful swing at him. Casey kicked her pony into a gallop to catch up with him.

"Ezra? You do this 'investment' for you or for Vin?" Nathan asked when the gambler rode by him and Josiah.

"The answer to that, Mr. Jackson, is whatever you believe it to be."

"Huh," Nathan grunted when Ezra saluted him with a finger dip of his hat and rode off. The healer glanced over at Josiah.

"Beats me," answered the big man with a shrug. "The Lord does work in mysterious ways."