Magnificent Seven Old West
From Whence Cometh My Help

by Laura

Disclaimer: The characters of "The Magnificent Seven" do not belong to me, and I am not trying to make any money or steal them from Trilogy and MGM and anybody else that has their hand in that delectable cookie jar. Anybody you don't recognize belongs to me. I doubt anybody'd want to use them, but if so, just put ' em back as you found them. Also, there is a poem, "The Ultimate Battle", that will be quoted throughout the story that needs to be labeled. It belongs to me, and if anyone wants to put it out anywhere, I ask that you please keep my name attatched to it.

Special Note: This chapter contains some descriptions of slave life, as well as a rather detailed description of the torture of a slave. Might not be for those with exceptionally queasy stomachs. Also, their are some racial slurrs which do not reflect my beliefs, but were part of the story.

Psalms 121:1 -- "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help?"

Ezra Standish felt good. The sun was slowly sinking lower in the distance behind him, the warmth a pleasant sensation to his body. His mount also felt the good mood his rider was in and snorted, tossing his head up and down. The pain of Brett's death was still a heavy burden on the southener's heart, but he was now keenly aware of the six brothers that were a part of his life. Six men that he would do anything to protect, no matter what it cost him. Just as they had been there for him over the past week after Brett's funeral, always sitting with him, comforting him, he would do the same. Thinking these thoughts, the gambler turned a bit in his saddle, his emerald gaze falling on his silent companion.

The gentle healer, Nathan Jackson, sat his horse almost absent-mindedly, his soft brown eyes focused on nothing but his own thoughts. The two men were returning to Four Corners after delivering a prisoner to the authorities in another town, and Nathan found his mind wandering to the time they had spent in the man's company.

Malachai Sanders had been a quiet, easy-going man; an ex-slave that seemed to go out of his way to accomadate people. Not one that many would think capable of murder. And yet, he had taken someone's life. Four someones, to be exact. Six years earlier, he had killed James Sanders, along with his wife, Mary, and their two daughters, Jacqueline and Savanahh. After doing away with his master and his family, Malachai left, taking to the wild territories out west. It had been claimed that he was also a leader of a group of men that responsible for several robberies, including one death from them. All in all, a bloody and checkered past that didn't seem to fit with the short, wiry form that belonged to Malachai Sanders.

"..kson. Mr. Jackson. Nathan." The southeners voice finally penetrated into the healer's brain, and Nathan jerked up, finding Ezra's emerald concerned gaze focused on his face.

"Are you quite alright, Mr. Jackson?" Standish asked, his voice and face not hiding the worry he held for his friend. Nathan waved him off, not knowing how to explain his thoughts to the gambler. Ezra did not ask again, but kept his eyes flicking back to his companion. Nathan had been quiet ever since the trip from Four Corners had begun. Ezra had chalked it up to the fact that they were transporting such a dispicable character, but even after they had deposited their charge, the healer had remained off his normal behaviour.

Nathan's thoughts returned to Sanders. How many times had he considered doing exactly what the other man had done? How many times had Nathan himself fought the urge to murder the men that took their whips and tried to lash every last ounce of life from his body? He didn't even try and count them; they were too many. He tried to tell himself that he wouldn't have gone as far as killing the whole family, but he caught himself. Could he be so sure? He knew the power of his anger, knew what he was capable of doing when he was in such a state. What made him so different from the man they had just delivered to those that were to hang him? He shook himself from his dark thoughts, catching Ezra's worried eyes on him. Nathan was silent for a few more minutes before deciding to broach the subject with the gambler.

"Ezra...." Standish turned, waiting for Nathan to continue. "What makes one man different from another?" The gambler studied his friend for a moment, unsure of where the question had come from. It had an obvious answer as far as he was concerned, but he could tell that Nathan didn't seem to agree.

"Why, Mr. Jackson, I would have to say it is what is in his soul. His heart." Nathan just nodded. A few minutes later, he asked another question.

"And what if two men have the same feelings in their heart, but only one acts on them. Isn't he just as guilty as the man who echoed his thoughts inside?" Ezra tried to follow these questions to a logical destination, but couldn't fathom where the healer was leading him.

"In that case, I would have to ask why the one man refused to take the same course of action as the other. Did he refrain because of cowardice of the consequences, or because he knew that such deeds were not right by the laws of God and men?" Ezra thought he saw Nathan tense at his question, a hard bite flaring briefly in the usually soft brown eyes.

"What if his reason was because there was never an opportunity? The chains were never let off, no freedom of movement. The whips and clubs always present to keep the order." Nathan's voice was edged with something dark and dangerous and Ezra was growing more and more concerned. Taking a risk, he asked his next question quietly.

"And if the chains had been removed, what would you have done?" Nathan whipped his head around, his eyes meeting the steady emerald gaze of the gambler, knowing that Ezra had figured out the personal nature of the conversation. All the anger and stiffness left him and he slumped as he realized his answer to the soft question.

"I don't know. I don't know if I would have done anything but weep for joy. But, what if I'd done what Malachai Sanders did? God knows I thought about it. What gives me the right to deliver another man whose thoughts were mirrors of my own to someone that's going to kill him for those thoughts?" Ezra finally realized what had been eating away at the ex-slave and silently wondered how to proceed.

"Mr. Jackson, I believe you have every right to be riding free. No matter what your thoughts during your enslavement, they were, no doubt, an expected reaction to the treatment you recieved. What Malachai Sanders did was pure, unadulterated murder. He did not act out of indignation for his repression, but rather out of hatred." Nathan turned, a light of anger in his eyes.

"And didn't he have the right to be angry? Didn't he have the right to feel hatred?" The healer was yelling, and Ezra had to hold the reins tighter to keep his horse from shying away from the loud voice. His eyes widened as Nathan stopped his mount altogether, his body shaking.

"I am not questioning his right to feel in such a manner, Mr. Jackson, but rather his means of alleviating those emotions." Ezra's soft drawal was lost under the other's heated voice as Nathan continued.

"You don't know what it was like. The pain and fear that you carried every day. Being used for target practice. Something to play with, like a new toy when the overseers were drunk. Watching as families are split and sold apart. Watching as children are whipped to within an inch of their lives ' cause they couldn't carry the same amount as the other men, their blood mixing with their tears and urine as they were scared beyond their own control of their bodies. Watching as not only the women and girls, but men and boys as well, were taken, beaten, and raped. Forced to watch, forced to listen to their cries for help. Forced to participate." The healer's voice cracked and he looked at Ezra's paling face, realizing that at some point he had reached over and grabbed the lapels of the gambler's dark green coat. He released him, mumbling an apology.

Ezra smoothed the fabric automatically, his eyes on Nathan. He didn't dare voice the indignant thought running through his head. He knew all too well the punishments of slavery. Not from the same point of Nathan, but from the view of a small, ten year old boy that had been brought along by a drunk uncle to watch the rape, burning, and finally, the hanging of a black man and woman. The sight still shook his memory at times, bringing back the nightmarish cries as the flames licked at their bloody skin. How when he tried to run from the scene, his uncle had merely knocked him to the ground, threatening him with the same fate if he didn't stay put. Ezra tried to stop the memory, but it finished with the agony of seeing his hand forced by one much larger to hold a burning torch high between the kicking legs of the woman, her agonizing screams mixing with the drunken laughter of his uncle in his ears. The gambler shook, forcing back the bile and sobs, knowing he couldn't relate the reason behind them to Nathan. Not now. Possibly not ever.

"You're right, Nathan," he found himself saying. The healer was looking at him intently, the anger still visible in his brown eyes, but covered by something that Ezra recognized as regret and pain. "I don't know about being a slave. But I do know about the nature of man that is in you. You are a healer, a creator of the second chance at life. True, you have taken lives as well, but never out of any type of hatred on your behalf, except for the hatred of those that are truly wicked. And I think that you know that. Inside, you know you are right in taking part in Sanders' transportation to his date with justice. Listen to yourself." Ezra wouldn't have believed for a moment that he was capable of portraying that kind of emotion to anyone. And yet, he had found it so easy. [Now,] he thought, watching Nathan closely, [if only he will believe me.]

Nathan could not believe what he was hearing, but as he looked into the emerald eyes of the gambler, Jackson realized that Ezra was speaking what he felt was the truth. No outbursts about Nathan's grabbing or yelling, just words of honesty and hope. Nathan closed his eyes, fighting the battle deep within himself.

"Let me alone for awhile, will ya Ezra? I'll catch up." Nathan looked at the gambler, noticing the quick "no" that formed on his lips, then the nervous tongue slipping over those same lips.

"Alright, Mr. Jackson. I shall travel slowly so as you may catch overtake my journey all the quicker." With a tip of his hat, Ezra nudged his mount forward, glancing back to see Nathan staring at the ground, his body taught with his thoughts. The beginning lines of a long ago poem reached his mind.

"The ultimate battle waits within. It is the battle of good and darkness, And it is a battle that we must win." He whispered it softly, trying to recall the rest as he moved forward, the trees soon surrounding him and cutting off his view.

On a rise above, several men sat their horses, waiting patiently for their leader to return from where he was watching the two lawmen. A short, wiry black man walked towards them, his smile full of an evil joy.

"This ought ta be real easy now, boys. Them lawdogs done split up. Johnson, Orville, and Jeremiah, ya'll go after that doctor fella. Be real gentle with him, now. No messing with him until I get back." The three other black men nodded, turning their horses to make their way down to the clearing where their prey sat his mount. The other four men looked at their boss.

Malachai Sanders stretched, climbing into the saddle. Once the two men had left, it hadn't taken much work to kill off the sheriff of the small town and make the rendevouz he had set up with his men. And now, both would pay for their part in his short-lived incarceration.

"I want that white gambler," he said, fingering the leather quirt on his saddle. The others nodded, knowing immediately what that simple statement meant. No one had better put a bullet in that fancy dressed man before Sanders. Before the man had gotten his fun out of the gambler's body. And then, after there was nothing else that could come from the man's body, they would kill him.

Nathan stared hard at the ground, making no move to go after Ezra. He knew that the gambler had spoken truthfully. Knew that he agreed with him, but the doubts and questions still remained. But, as Ezra's words echoed through his head over and over again, he found that they drowned out the protests he had felt so strongly. A small weight was lifted from his soul as he realized that he was in the right in his actions.

Jackson gathered up the reins, ready to catch up to his friend. His friend. He liked the sound of that. He and Ezra had gotten off to a rather rocky start, and yet, the healer knew that they would be there for each other as if they had been together for years. A warmth hit him and he smiled, feeling like himself for the first time in a few very long days. A noise from off his right caught his attention, and Nathan turned, tensing up as the three men rode out into the clearing.

All three had the look of men that made their living on the run, their eyes cold and dark. But what worried Nathan the most was the scatter-gun one of them held. He knew, at that range, that any move against them would get himself torn in half. Soon, he was surrounded. They spoke not a word, settling for taking his guns and rummaging through his saddle bags. Assured that he no longer posed a threat, the man with the scatter-gun lowered it. Nathan felt the ropes binding his wrists to the saddle horn and fought the urge to lash out, knowing that the gun was not completely out of play. For a moment, he considered grabbing the captor at his hands and using him as a shield, but knew that the gun would cut through both of them. The healer had no doubts that the man would shoot through his companion to get to him.

Finally, with their captive bound to the saddle, gagged, and helpless to do anything, they relaxed. The scatter-gun stayed out, and Nathan watched that man move to cover his back. The other two rode by his side, taking the reins to lead the horse. Nathan longed for them to speak, trying to make his tongue work behind the heavy cloth they had shoved in his mouth. Instead, they led him back the way they had come. Nathan's last thought was a prayer that Ezra was not suffering the same fate. And that the gambler would come back and figure out how to get him away.

Ezra let his hands rest on the horn of his saddle, the reins slack. His only movements towards the pace of the horse were to keep the path straight. Aside from that, he allowed the animal to move slowly, taking the time to dip its head and sample the grass around it. The gambler didn't want to press to far ahead, too fast. He thought he had seen the reasoning in Nathan's eyes before he left, thought the man would be here soon. And yet, he had yet to show. For the third time in half an hour, Ezra looked at his pocket watch. The feeling of unease was growing in his stomach. [Ten more minutes,] he thought. [I'll give him ten more minutes before I go back for him.]

The gambler sat for another five before turning his horse, unable to keep himself to the time limit he'd set. As he did so, a movement caught his eye, and Ezra shook his head, not believing what he saw. A man rode towards him from the direction Ezra had just turned to go. An almost maniacal smile was on his dark face, and Ezra gave that uneasy feeling a name. Malachai Sanders.

Faster than Ezra thought possible, Sanders' gun was up, and his green eyes saw the flash from the gun before he heard the loud bark of the shot. He felt his hat whipped off his head as the bullet tore through the felt. With a grunt, the gambler pulled his horse back around, kicking it into a fast gallop. Daring a look over his shoulder, Ezra saw Sanders' calmly sitting his horse. Almost dreading what that simple act might imply, Standish faced forwards again, not having time to duck as his horse ran under the rope that was stretched across his path.

The harsh thread of the lariat slammed against his shoulders, sliding up to cut across his throat as he was jerked from the horse. Ezra lay on the ground, trying desperately to find the air he needed to rise, the ground bringing back the vibrations as his horse kept going on its course. It also brought the sound of two other horses to his ears. Opening his eyes, Ezra fought back the groan he felt coming on as the world swam around him.

Two shadows fell over him, and Ezra did his best to pull away from the arms that roughly pulled him up from the ground. A second later, he was glad of their presence as their fierce grip kept him from collapsing back to the ground. A form moved in front of him, and Ezra snapped to greater awareness as a resounding slap met his cheek. Malachai stood before him, only a few inches shorter than the gambler. His dark eyes glinted with malice as he reached out and grabbed the gambler's chin in his rough hands.

"Well, ain't so all powerful now, are ya fancy man? With your high falutin' clothes and that pretty boy face a' yours." Ezra tried not to pull back from Sanders as he pressed his face close to his. He was doing his best to keep his face blank, not wanting them to see fear in his eyes. And fear there was. Fear that came from knowing that these three men had nothing to lose by his death, as well as their supreme hatred for anyone whose skin was lighter than theirs. Ezra hoped Sanders wouldn't remember how much his voice reflected his ancestory. That hope was short-lived.

"Take this Reb's coat off. I kinda like it." Ezra held back a sigh. First Top Hat Bob and now Sanders. What was it about this coat? Ezra would have almost sworn the article was cursed. Once the coat was removed, Ezra's derringer was visible. Sanders took it, along with his other weapons, placing them inside the coat before tying the bundle together. Coming back, he rubbed his hands together in anticipation, causing Ezra's neck to bristle.

Malachai wasted no words on the southener, merely stepping up close before delivering four solid blows to Ezra's unprotected middle. The gambler tried to curl up, but the arms holding him wouldn't allow it. He felt a hand yank cruelly at his hair, pulling his face up and into the punch from Sanders. The bitter taste of his own blood filled his mouth. Feeling the adrenline and anger mix together in his body, Ezra spat out the crimson liquid, aiming and hitting Malachai's cheek.

The outlaw smiled a bit, wiping away the blood before stepping back up. Ezra lost count of the punches, feeling his body sag as the fists connected to his stomach, chest, and head. He welcomed the darkness that was starting to take him, but almost cried out as cold water was splashed on his face, keeping him from it.

"Don't try and leave us just yet, Reb. I ain't done with you yet!" Ezra tried to make his eyes focus around the sweat, tears, and blood pouring from his face. A small gasp escaped his ravaged lips as Malachai walked towards him, lightly swinging the wicked riding quirt from his saddle.

"Good Lord," he mumbled before tightening up as the first lash whipped across his chest.

Ezra tried to lay still on the cool grass, wanting it to soothe the fire of his body. Malachai had been exceptionally thorough with his lashes, covering the gambler's whole body with the cruel leather. There wasn't a part of him that didn't ache or burn with red hot pain. He curled up, wincing as his skin pulled at the many tears, feeling the blood running down him. A pair of boots came into his blurred vision, and Ezra forced himself to look up, anger making him shake as he saw both his hat and coat adorning Sanders' frame..

"What's a'matter, white boy? You cain't take it? I sure bet you dished it out a lot though, didn't ya? Not thinkin' nothin' about how those folks out in the fields felt as long as you could sit on yore porch and crack that whip." Sanders' voice was trembling with hatred, and Ezra just looked up at him, unsure of how the man had come to that conclusion. Sure, he had lived with relatives that owned slaves, but he had never been a part of their torment or enforcement. [Except that time with Uncle Jarrod,] he told himself, unable to stop the shudder that came with the memory.

Malachai let his anger grow, not bothering to check its flow. Swinging his leg back, he put everything he had into kicking the prone body before him. Ezra tried to protect his ribs, drawing his legs up further. Pain exploded from his right knee as Sanders' boot connected straight on with his knee-cap. Crying out, Ezra rolled over, giving the man a clear shot at his back. The beating continued until, once again, the gambler was on the verge of passing out.

Sanders stopped, his ears delighting in the heavy wheezing and low moaning of the man in front of him. Gazing up at the sun, he decided the time had come to go meet the rest of his men. With a motion of his head, a rope was brought over to him. Ezra felt himself hauled painfully to his feet, his body one continuous mass of bruises and bloody welts. His brain barely registered the fact of what was to happen next as Sanders picked out a branch at the right height, sending the rope sailing over it.

The two men dragged Standish over to where their boss stood, holding him steady as the loop was placed around his neck. Once this was done, they removed their support, allowing the man to fall to the ground as they went to their horses. When all three mounted, Malachai took the end of the rope, wrapping it around a nearby tree before pulling back slightly.

Ezra felt the rope grow tight around his neck. He struggled to move his hands up to grasp the rope, feeling it tighten further around his fingers. The pressure kept growing in force until the gambler was on his knees, his green eyes flicking about frantically for something to help with his escape. Another yank brought him to his feet, then his toes, and finally, Ezra felt the full blown weight of his body being held by the rope around his neck. His breath was cut off, and he felt the true fear that came when faced with a slow, trying death.

Straining, Ezra felt his toes brush the ground. He did it again and realized that the branch was too low. Gaining a fragile purchase, Ezra felt the rope slacken enough for air to get down his tight throat. Prayer after prayer ran through his brain as he looked up, realizing that the branch was within arms reach. He forced his arm up, trying to grab it enough to help with the pull on his throat. The crack of a shot made him cringe, not having enough air to cry out as the bullet sliced through his arm, just above the elbow of his left arm.

Sanders' fury was almost tangible as he realized that the he wouldn't be able to hang the gambler. He released the rope, watching as the man dropped to the ground, his chest heaving as he tried to regain oxygen to his lungs. He drew his gun, looking over at his men with a frustrated sigh.

"I guess we'll just have to do this the ol' fashioned way, heh boys?" The others looked at him with tentative smiles, trying to guage his mood. When they didn't pull their own weapons, Sanders allowed his irritation to be directed at them. "Now, damn ya! I want ta get back an' have a chat with that doctor fella!" Ezra's mind groaned at that statement, now knowing for sure what had delayed Nathan for so long. He looked over at the men, seeing them pull their revolvers and level them at his body.

The three shots went off as one, and what little air he had regained was driven from the gambler in a long scream as the bullets burned their way into his body. The three men were gone before the echo had died, not even glancing back at the still, bloody form on the ground. The five men rode without speaking, each keeping his own thoughts as their eyes searched the surrounding area for any sign of their two compadres.

Chris Larabee was riding point, his brain still reeling from the telegraph they had recieved a scant three hours ago. The message had been short, and yet, the implied meaning behind it had spoken volumes. Sanders had escaped and killed the sheriff and deputy before he and his gang headed off, shouting out threats to all within earshot, as well as the two men that had brought the outlaw to the jail.

Chris had relayed the message, saddling up his horse as quickly as he could. The others had followed suit, each taking care to pack extra ammunition. Chris felt extremely uneasy as he had tried to pack some of Nathan's doctoring supplies, unsure of what to take. Josiah had come and rescued him from that job, quickly plucking the basics from their places and throwing them into the extra set of saddle-bags Chris held. After that, the men had mounted and tore out of town, leaving word with Mary as to the situation, knowing that she would inform all of what was going on.

Off to the left of the black-clad gunman, Buck Wilmington carefully watched his friend. He knew the rage that was lurking beneath that icy glare in Larabee's eyes. Knew it well. He also knew where that rage came from, stemming from the river of emotion that flowed through the gunman's guarded soul. Chris knew what it was to lose loved ones and friends, more-so than any man had a right to know. And it was that knowledge that made him cherish those that he let into his life. Those that touched his heart. Made him cherish and protect them with every fiber of his being. And whenever anything came along that threatened one of those well-kept relations... Chris Larabee would rage. And God help the person that followed through their threats, for then they would be hunted to Hell and back with no mercy, chased until the day they died, either at their own hand or Larabee's. Yes, Buck knew that rage well. For it was almost identical to that which filled his own heart. That which filled all the hearts of their small group. That same rage that would drive them to save, protect, and keep their companion's souls, no matter the cost to their own.

On the other side of the silent leader, the equally silent Vin Tanner kept his gaze moving over the country. Every now and then, he would let it settle on each of his companions. He didn't even bother looking at Chris. He knew all to well what he'd find there. The same went with Buck. Buck, he knew, would be watching Chris, taking care to see that the gunman kept a tight lid on his anger until the time was right to release it. Vin knew he could count on Buck to watch out for the man that he considered a brother, just like the rest of these men he rode with. They might not share the name of Tanner with him, but he knew they all shared a kindred spirit that would keep them together, no matter what. Knew that, finally, he had found that lost part of his heart that died with his mother. That it was starting to beat again. And with that beating, came trust. Trust of these men with his life, and theirs to him. And now, with two of those tender, trusted lives in danger, Vin could feel the Tanner in him raring to fight for his family. Turning to his right, Vin let his gaze land on the youngest member of their group.

JD Dunne was scared, and he was not afraid to let the emotion show in his eyes. He had been in the jail with Sanders while waiting to see who would transport the man. Try as he might, no amount of threats had kept the man's mouth shut as he told story after story about what he had done to the family that had owned him as a slave. JD knew he was gonna have nightmares for months, but now, his own health held no worry for him. For Sanders was out. Escaped. And heading towards his friends who probably had no idea that they were in any kind of danger. JD remembered the coldness he had seen enter Sanders' eyes as Ezra's southern drawal explained the situation of transfer to the young sheriff. He knew that the ex-slave would take a personal hatred for the gambler, and now, the man was free to act on that hatred. As well as the hatred for Nathan, whom he considered a traitor to his own people. JD wished that Sanders hadn't talked so much. The man carried so much anger in his soul that the young man feared he would stop at nothing to exact his revenge on the two peace-keepers that had led him off to jail. And that thought scared JD more than anything had in his whole life.

On the other end of the line of men that galloped over the land, Josiah Sanchez sat rigid on his horse. The ex-preacher knew he should have been praying for forgiveness for the souls of both those he rode after, as well as those he rode with. He could clearly see the anger and fear that coursed through the group, but could not bring himself to pray for anything except the quick and veangeful justice of the Lord on any that did harm to the two men that they searched for. His words to Mrs. Nichols rang through his head.... "An eye for an eye leaves us blind." He knew those words to be true, but the emotional flood that washed through the four men at his side had already left them blind. The unkown leaving an empty hole in their souls in which anger, fear, and veangence took root and grew. When they had their two companions back, safe and sound, then Josiah would pray for forgiveness for their wicked intent. But, he knew, deep in his own heart where he felt the wrath taking shape, if they came upon anything but the two men in as good a condition as they left, the gates of Hell would be opened under a river of blood, and the angels of veangence would be flying high.

Nathan tried to make himself as comfortable as possible against the rocky outcropping he had been thrown against, but whichever way he turned himself, the hard granite found new ways to poke and prod at his back. The men had yet to speak one word to him, instead keeping a gun on him at all times while they sat and watched. Nathan knew they were waiting for something, but he was unsure as to what that something was. The sound of horses reached his ears and Nathan sat up a little straighter. [Or maybe they're waiting on *someone*,] he thought.

Sure enough, three horses came around the corner a couple hundred yards away. Nathan's breathing hitched as he caught sight of the dark green coat and black hat on the man riding in the middle. A feeling of relief mixed with sadness flowed through him. Relief that Ezra was still alive, but sadness at the fact that the gambler had been captured. As the trio came closer, Nathan felt that something wasn't quite right. Ezra looked smaller than Nathan had always thought he was. Was the man doubled over? Injured? With a sinking feeling, the healer realized that he was not looking at his friend, but rather somebody wearing Ezra's hat and jacket.

As that piece of information sunk in, Nathan's panic rose once again. He knew from experience that Ezra did not give up his clothing easily. The last time had cost him a large painful blow to the face for his refusal to Top Hat Bob. As the man drew close enough, Nathan felt as though his heart had dropped into his stomach. Malachai Sanders. The former slave sauntered over to where he was, brushing lightly at the coat. Nathan saw the long streaks of dirt on the back of it, knowing he had been right. Ezra had not given up his jacket without a fight. The healer saw no blood marks on it and released a sigh of relief. It was a relief short lived, however, as he looked up and saw the ominous bullet hole in Ezra's black hat.

"What do ya think, Doc? I think they suit me. That damned Reb wasn't gonna need ' em no more, that's fer sure." The cold laughter that followed that comment sent chills down Nathan's spine as he felt the truth behind Malachai's words. Ezra was dead. And there was nothing he could do about it. He recalled his last conversation with the gambler, how he had asked the healer what he would have done had the restraints been removed. Looking up at the evil light in Sanders' eyes, Nathan had an answer this time. If the ropes had been cut loose he would kill the man before him. And not give his corpse a second thought.

As it was, a numb feeling settled over Nathan, and the gentle nature of the healer disappeared. In its place, the quiet, seething fury of the destroyer that rested inside him took hold. Before he knew what he was doing, Nathan launched himself at Sanders'still chuckling form, knocking the smaller man to the ground. With his hands still tied together, Nathan couldn't use the punches he was used too. Instead, he tucked both hands together into one giant fist, hitting first one side, then the other of Malachai's shocked face.

Suddenly, the world spun, and Nathan heard a loud crack from behind him. He dropped to the ground, his head throbbing with wild pain. He dared a glance upwards, his brown eyes taking focus of the man holding a rifle, the butt end down as if it had just been used as a club. Nathan could feel the blood running down the back of his head, knowing he probably had a concussion. He felt hands grabbing at him and he was hauled to his feet. Nathan swayed unsteadily, trying to focus the images before him into something that made sense. When he was finally able to do so, he quickly wished he hadn't.

Malachai stood before him, literally sputtering with rage. Even perfectly healthy, Nathan doubted he could have blocked the swift punch that connected to his cheek. He felt the sickening pop and knew that Sanders had just broken his cheek bone. After this, Malachai seemed to calm considerably, reaching out to grasp Nathan's chin in his fingers. He jerked hard, smiling at the small moan of pain that came from the jar to the broken bone.

"String ' im out over there ' twixt those two trees. Let's see if he screams like that fancy pants friend of his did." Nathan tried to snarl at them, but the pain it brought his face made him regret it. The men made short work of securing him. The rag was tore from his mouth, as well as his shirt being ripped from his body. The ropes bit into his wrists as he stood, spread-eagle. The others began setting up camp, getting ready for what would likely be a long night. Sanders' came to stand before him, wiping idly at the blood running from the split lip Nathan had succeeded in giving him with Ezra's sleeve.

"Ya know, ya ought not to behave like that to yore own people. We's the same." Nathan ignored the pain speaking caused, leaning his face out towards Sanders.

"We ain't nothin' alike. Except maybe skin color. But that's not what counts. You gotta go deeper than that, but I don't think there's much worth looking for under your skin." His voice was a hissed whisper and he saw the icy anger that came to Sanders' features. For a moment, he thought the other man was going to hit him again. And then, to his surprise, Malachai smiled.

"Well, well. Ain't we just as high and mighty as them white folks? I think ya been hangin' around them to long, Doc. ' Bout time we brought ya back to where ya belong." Sanders walked all around Nathan, his hand going out to trace the scars of previous whippings on the other's back. Then he leaned in close to Nathan's ear, using his best weapon.

"I bet your friend would've had some scars like these if he'd lived long enough for ' em to heal." He reached out, testing the taughtness of the ropes holding Nathan. "Kinda fittin', don't ya think? The same rope that was done been ' round his neck now holds you still so I can have some more fun." Nathan sank against his bonds, trying not to listen. Sanders walked back in front of him again, eyeing the smooth skin of his upper body.

"Boys," he called out, waiting to see Nathan's eyes come up to meet his gaze. "Start us up a fire. And fetch me some long sticks."

Cold. The ground was very cold on his back. But that didn't make much sense. His front was on fire. Burning. Pain. As he recognized the heated sensation, the feeling spread to encompass his whole body. Ezra knew he needed to move. Needed to get up. But he couldn't remember why. And just the thought of moving made the pain grow worse, throbbing over every inch of his skin. Why did he need to get up? Nathan...something about Nathan.....

The entire situation came back to him in a rush, almost literally slamming into him. Ezra groaned as he remembered what he had suffered at Sanders' hands. At what Nathan was possibly suffering right then. A thought hit him, and Ezra went cold. What if Nathan wasn't suffering anymore? Sanders was capable of doing anything, as Standish knew first-hand. What if Nathan had been killed while Ezra lay on the ground?

A rage so cold it burned crept up through the gambler, almost hot enough to overpower any pain he might have felt as he forced himself to sit up. Almost. Ezra pushed with his left arm, attempting to roll himself over. The wound from Sandes' first shot screamed in protest and Ezra lay back, gasping. With greater care, Ezra rolled to use his right arm, trying to ignore the flashing lights at the edge of his vision as even this move tore through him.

He knew that there wasn't much he could do for the long, angry welts that thankfully no longer seeped blood. Instead, he concentrated on the several bullet holes in his body. The first, which he had already discovered by trying to use the arm, was hardly of consequence. Given a few days, it would heal up completely. However, as Ezra attempted to reach his left arm over and look to his right, he found that the second wound was far more complicated. His muscles twitched in response to his brain's commands, and Ezra nearly passed out from the pain which shot from his collar-bone down to his fingers.

The gambler instinctively grabbed the area with his right hand, the pressure sending out more pain. Ezra gingerly felt around, noticing the gaping hole on the front, but not the back. That could only mean that the bullet was still inside him, and from the pain that accompanied movement, it had broken his collar-bone. Which, basically, rendered his left arm useless. Ezra fought down the panic that rose within him, trying to picture himself as a one-armed gambler. Then, he calmed down, remembering that broken bones could be reset. His would just have to wait.

Gritting his teeth, Ezra tore off some of his bloody, ragged shirt and plugged the holes in his limp arm, knowing there wasn't much else he could do. With his good hand, he then moved on to the next spot of hot, pin-prickin pain in his body. He thankfully found both an entrance and exit would of the bullet on his lower right side, repeating the same doctoring process he had used earlier. That left only one more to find. His whole body was consumed with pain now, and Ezra was unsure of the third wound's location, searching his upper body and legs with his right hand, finding no extra wounds other than those already treated or recieved from Sanders' whipping.

Confusion reeled in his brain. There had been three shots...hadn't there? They were too close to miss him. What had happened to the third bullet. Ezra put his fingers to his lips, feeling the dry and chapped from the fever. He felt the ache beginning in that one spot between his shoulders and rotated his neck, trying to ease it a bit. A stinging cut its way through his veil of pain and Ezra ran his fingers gently over his neck, finding a long crease in the flesh on the right side that was not part of the raw burn the rope had left on his tender skin. He tried to swallow as he realized how close the bullet had come to going through his throat. He could feel no more blood leaking from it, so he decided to leave it alone, closing his eyes to gather the will and strength to rise. Luckily, [If there still is such a thing as Luck,] he thought quietly, he was still laying fairly close to the tree from which they had attempted to hang him.

Ezra reached out a shaky hand, carefully pulling himself so that he leaned against it, bringing his legs up so that his knees touched his chest. His leg protested where Sanders' had kicked him, but Ezra ignored it in light of the rest of the complaints his body was sending out. With a violent shove of force, he pushed himself up, using the tree at his back to lean against as that one move took his last bit of strength.

The gambler stayed there for a short period, his breaths coming in quick and shallow measures. Ezra opened his eyes, the green orbs hazy with fever. He thought briefly about using the remains of his shirt to form a sling for his arm, but discarded the idea, instead using his good hand to undo his belt. After several attempts, Ezra finally got the loop of leather in the right position and he pulled his left arm into its support, tightening it as best he could so that the injured limb was held tightly against his battered body. Ezra adjusted the strap to make sure it didn't put any more pressure on his neck wounds.

With a heavy sigh, he pushed himself away from the tree, gingerly testing his knee. It would support him, but Ezra wasn't sure for how long. Setting off as quickly as he could, Ezra followed the sharp marks of the horse's hooves in the soft ground, only hoping that he didn't have far to go. And with each step, Ezra prayed.

"Please, don't let me be too late."

Nathan prayed also. Prayed for it to end. His body thrummed with the excrutiating pain that Sanders' had been so meticulous in dispensing. Nathan couldn't remember recieving a whipping as bad as the one he had just gotten, even when he had been a slave. His clothes hung in shreds on his frame as he sagged against the ropes, no longer able to stand up on his own. The harsh fibers dug into his wrists, soaking up the blood from the raw patches they had rubbed as he thrashed about.

The gentle healer's prayers had been answered once already that night. Sanders' had finally ended the torture he took so much pleasure from, allowing the long sticks he had used to finally be consumed completely in the fire. Nathan shivered as his brown eyes struggled to focus on the flames that licked at the wood, much the same way Sanders' had licked his lips as the glowing tips of the sticks were placed close to his skin. They had never actually touched him long enough to sear, just close enough to bring out the dark, ugly blisters on his skin. Once they had judged the correct distance for this, after several attempts ending in different burned points to his flesh, they had proceeded to run the embers down long lines of his back, leaving a row of blistered, burning flesh in their wake.

Nathan could still smell the smoke from his charred skin where their hands had become unsteady, the tip actually piercing him to burn from the inside out. He hung, concentrating on breathing deeply, trying to ignore the scent he knew as his own burned body. Trying to forget how he had screamed. How the cries had burst from his throat to echo off the surrounding rocks. How they mixed in the air with a sound he hadn't recognized until he saw Malachai's smiling face. The sound of his laughter at Nathan's torment. And then, the screams had taken him again.

Now, Nathan begged that his second prayer would be answered. He knew that since they had not killed him yet, there was still plenty that Malachai had planned for him. The healer was uncertain as to how much more he could take before his brain simply shut-down under the continuous flood of pain. His face throbbed mercilessly from the broken cheek-bone. At least his vision had cleared enough that the healing part of Nathan's brain knew the concussion he had recieved wasn't too serious. And it was that cleared vision that made Nathan's prayers grow in intensity as he saw Sanders rise from his place around the fire, walking towards him. The outlaw took a long drink from the bottle he had carried with him, smiling as he walked around the beaten man.

"Well, well, well..... I bet those must hurt like hell, don't they, Doc?" Sanders walked around to face Nathan, the evilness growing in his eyes as Nathan focused his gaze on him. "You really oughtta clean them out, ' fore they go and get infected on ya." His brown eyes widened with the realization of what Sanders was about to do, and he pulled hard at the ropes with his remaining strength.

And then, that last strength was channeled into the scream that leaped from his body as Malachai poured the burning whiskey over Nathan's back.

Ezra leaned against the tree, his relief at finally finding Sanders and his men paling in comparison to the joy that leapt to his chest as he realized that Nathan was still alive. That joy dropped soon, though, as he realized the shape his friend was in. And taking the place of that joy, pushing the relief aside, Ezra's anger found its way into his limbs, giving him the strength to move forward.

Carefully, he crept down, his eyes always focused on the men below him. There were two walking around the edge of their camp, rifles held loosely in their arms, but they never walked farther away than the circle of fire-light reached. Ezra began to skirt around the men, working his way ever-closer to Nathan's stretched form. A sound reached his ears, and Ezra froze, peering cautiously over his shoulder.

The tiny bit of him that still believed in Lady Luck grew a bit as Ezra realized he'd walked up to the small patch of grass they'd staked their horses too. It grew even further as he realized that, like most men on the run, they had left them saddled, the girths loosened only slightly, always ready for a quick getaway. Ezra started to step towards them, knowing that a mount would be a tremendous aid in their escape, but stopped as they shied nervously, the smell of his blood beginning to make the animals edgy.

Ezra resisted the urge to curse loudly, instead letting loose a string of words inside his head that would have turned the air blue. His brain vaguely instructed his eyes to find Nathan's horse, and once done, his legs to carry him there. If there was one animal that would be accustomed to the smell of blood, the gentle healer's horse would be it. Ezra approached, holding out his hand so that the horse would recognize him. Ezra patted its nose gratefully, readying the horse as quickly as he could. He tested the saddle and found it steady enough he wouldn't have to bother with the cinch, another prayer of thankfullness flowing from his heart.

Leading the animal away with him, Ezra crept as close as he could before re-tying the horse. Then, he slipped closer. He was almost directly behind Nathan when he heard the voice of Sanders. Ezra watched warily as the ex-slave circled his friend, taking in the defeated slump to Nathan's shoulders, as well as the sickening stench of burnt flesh. Ezra clenched his teeth as his mind supplied him a possibility of what those facts together entailed. Ezra violently shoved his memories away, forcing himself to concentrate on the hear and now.

Sanders spoke to Nathan, the words soft and in-discernable. But Ezra clearly heard Nathan's gasp as the man began to struggle, and the gambler had to fight every instinct in him to rush forward as Sanders tipped the bottle over Nathan's back, pouring the liquor cruelly over the open wounds. Unable to watch, Ezra quietly crept away, going back to the horse. He leaned heavily against its neck, trying desperately to pull some of its strength into his body. Ezra looked out over the camp again, keeping his eyes away from where Sanders stood by Nathan, instead trying to find something, anything, he could use to save his friend.

No other course of action ever entered the gambler's head. Either he left here with Nathan, or he didn't leave at all. He had fought long and hard with himself to reach this level of friendship, and he would be damned if he let it slip away without a fight. He quickly skimmed his eyes over the small pile of blankets that his hat and coat rested on, foregoing their retrieval under Nathan's. His green gaze fell on one member of the group that sat next to the fire. Ezra squinted, trying to be sure if he saw what he thought he did.

A slow smile spread across his face, and Ezra scratched the horse's jaw as a plan began to form, its smoky tendrils of thought bringing a sense of hope back into his tired body.

Ezra made his way back to where he had stashed Nathan's horse, his gaze focusing once again on the man that had given him the inspiration and leverage he had so desperately needed for his surprise attack to work. Even though it had been over fifteen years since Ezra had last been exposed to what he was seeing, the memories were still clear in his mind.

The gambler smiled as the outlaw carefully set out the remaining items for his nightly offering. The rituals of voo-doo had been fairly common amongst the slaves on his uncle's plantation. Most of those that owned the slaves wouldn't listen to their teachings even if the information had been offered, but seeing as how Ezra was just a bastard child they were being paid to keep, no one really cared when the youngster had taken to hanging around one particularly old slave's hut.

Kuagna-Simhi, known to most as just Simhi, had taken a liking to the quiet child. Ezra had been eager to learn anything that would be tought to him, and Simhi was often surprised at how quickly Ezra grasped difficult concepts of his religion that some of the most experienced could not fully understand. The one thing that had intrigued Ezra the most, however, were the stories that were told about the many different spirits worshiped by the followers of voo-doo. The few that Ezra still remembered clearly were Papa Leigba, for peace and comfort, as well as Mama Leigba, for guidance. But the one that would help him out on this night was one of the most powerful in the religion. The Baron Somdhi, Lord of the Walking Un-Dead. The guardian and creator of zombies.

Ezra watched as the man made his offerings and quiet prayers, bowing low before the regal image of the Baron. Ezra knew he just had to wait until the man went on watch. He had already readied everything else that he could. The rest of the horses had finally accepted him and he had moved them all out around the camp. A quick search of Nathan's saddle bags had revealed a bottle of whiskey, from which Ezra had gladly taken a long pull from, several strips of bandaging, and a brand new bottle of laudanum. The gambler had been tempted to partake of that as well, but decided against it, knowing that he would need it for Nathan when he got the healer away. No doubts ever entered his mind as to whether or not he would succeed in retrieving his friend, for if he failed, it would be because he was dead, and then doubts wouldn't matter.

The gambler saw his mark carefully put away his belongings before rising and taking the place of one of the men. The others had finally lain down, including the second guard, leaving only his man out on watch. Ezra smiled, taking in their positions before walking in a direction that would intercept the guard, Nathan's horse following quietly behind. The gambler stopped just before he entered the other's sight, dropping the reins to ground-tie the horse before taking out several crushed leaves from his pocket. Ezra wetted them with his dry tongue, placing them carefully on his bruised face in the pattern of the Baron that Simhi had taught him so many years ago. Then taking a deep breath, he relaxed his features,making his eyes lifeless as possible before stepping out into the guards view. Whispering softly to himself, Ezra stepped around his cover.

"It's not a battle of childhood fears; Of horrible monsters untold. It's the battle of mind, spirit, and soul. It's a battle already centuries old." And it was a battle of wits Ezra was ready to make.

Ti Femme chanted quietly to himself, raising up his praise and worship to the spirits of his surrounding world. He would not allow himself to be distracted from his religious duties. He was, after all, a bokor, entrusted by the powerful spirits with their knowledge and strengths. He called out the name of the Baron, praising it, his supposedly calm guardsman walk turning into a slight swaying dance as he asked the Baron to bless him.

A movement caught his gaze, and he casually turned, not expecting any trouble. Sanders had bragged long and hard about the working over and sure death he had given the white gambler, and no one else was out in the region. So, the shock as Standish plodded out into open sight was enough to cause his jaw to drop. Femme's black eyes quickly took in the bloody, battered man before him, his gun staying by his side as he tried to figure out how the man was alive, much less walking? Then, his gaze realized what he was seeing, the leaves that were lain out on the man's forehead, cheeks and hands a quick testament to what he was seeing.

Ti cried out softly, his smile growing as he thankfully moved closer, putting out a hand to stop Ezra's blind progress. The man simply stood, ready to follow whatever orders were given him. Just as anyone who had fallen under the spell of the Baron would do. Femme understood the gift the god of the un-dead had presented him, and thanked him profoundly. He stood in front of the gambler, noticing that his gift seemed to be trying to speak.

"Speak," he ordered, delighted when the man shuddered a bit before answering. [How could I have doubted that it would not obey?] he thought to himself. [It is a gift from Baron Samdhi.] His present attempted to speak, but the voice came out only as a whisper. Ti Femme leaned in closer, waiting to hear what message the Baron had deemed him worthy to here from the lips of his gift.

And promptly found himself on the ground, his nose bleeding fiercly from the hit he had taken from Ezra's forehead. The gambler kicked out with his good leg, snapping the man's head back. Ezra knelt slowly, feeling the throb from his knee, and reached out with a shaky hand to find a pulse. Only to find there was none. Ezra felt the back of the man's neck, and realized his kick had broken it. Ezra almost shrugged, but caught himself before the attempted movement could be completed. Instead, he reached down, picking up the dropped rifle and setting it aside before going over the other man's body, taking what he thought might be usefull. His search produced a small revolver, which Ezra tucked between his belt and his chest, using the make-shift sling as a holster.

A knife, the makings for a cigarette, and a silver cross, emblazened with the Baron's symbol, completed the findings on the body. Ezra pocketed the first two before laying the cross on the others forehead. As he made his way back to his horse, Ezra prayed that if Baron Samdhi did walk the Earth, he would allow that soul to stay at rest for a *very* long time.

A sharp cry split the night, and Sanders jerked awake, his eyes flashing wildly about as a second cry ripped the echoes of the first. He knew that sound. Suddenly, there was a thundrous noise as the horses were stampeded into the camp. Sanders scrambled up, trying to climb the rock he had slept by. As he reached the top, he realized his guns were below him, liable to be damaged by the running animals. His brain worked quickly, trying to decide on the punishment that he would give to the man who had allowed this to happen. And then, a third cry came from the darkness, and Sanders recognized it with dread.

Ezra kicked the horse with all he had, the rifle secured to the saddle as he needed his good arm to hold the reins. He knew he would get only one chance at this, and he decided to take it quickly. Every ounce of pain, suffering, rage, anger, and hate poured out of him into his cry, the sound of the Rebel yell sending chills down his back. As he pushed the animals through the camp, he heard a strangled cry and looked over in time to see one of the outlaws slip from his perch to fall under the churning hooves.

And then, he was at Nathan's side. The healer looked up at him, the pain in his eyes making them shine brightly. Ezra leaned over as far as he could, grabbing the knife from where he'd slipped it in his boot to cut the black man free. Nathan slumped against the horse, and Ezra panicked for a moment, unsure of how he was going to get the man on the horse. He reached down, grasping at Nathan's arms. The healer made a valiant effor, pushing himself up enough to lay himself over the back of the horse. He latched his hands onto Ezra's leg as the gambler once again kicked the horse forward.

Sanders screamed out his anger as he watched the pair gallop off after the other horses, the darkness of the night soon hiding them from view.

[Step. Another step. Another step...] The cadence ran through Ezra's head as he walked alongside the limping animal. He had long since quit cursing the run of luck that had led to the horses ackward stumble which threw both men to the ground and now left them lame and bruised. The heavy jolt through his body had almost caused Ezra to pass out as his collar-bone ground against the broken ends of itself under his flesh.

Ezra had taken the opportunity to finally look to Nathan's wounds, giving the healer almost half of the bottle of laudanum, wanting the healer to sleep if possible. And sleep he did. Ezra doctored his friend as best he could, trying to remember all the different things he'd seen Nathan do at one time or another.

Satisfied that he'd done his best, Ezra had then turned to their one hope of survival. The animal was putting weight on the injured limb. A good sign. But not much weight. Ezra knew it would never be able to carry the both of them very far. And that had led them to where they were now. Nathan slumped forward, his hands tied to the saddle horn, and Ezra plodding along slowly beside the giant beast that carried the gentle man.

[Step. Another step. Another step...] The horse whickered and stopped as Ezra's last step landed on a tiny pebble, the heel of his boot twisting sharply. His knee sent sharp, lancing pain upwards, and Ezra dropped the ground, the blackness overtaking him quickly even as he spoke.

"I'm sorry Nathan....."

The first rays of sunshine were just beginning to cut through the darkness as Buck pulled himself from his bedroll. He had taken the next-to-last shift on guard, and was silently cursing his logic. He knew he didn't sleep well after being up on edge for two hours, so even after Vin took over, Buck hadn't been able to sleep. [Not that we needed anyone out on guard,] Buck thought as he looked over at the campfire and the dark figure beside it.

Chris blew softly at the steam coming from his cup, not waiting long enough before taking it to his lips and swallowing a large portion of the fresh coffee. It seared his mouth and throat all the way down, but Chris welcomed the pain. At least it was an emotion he knew how to handle. The gunman ran one hand over his face, rubbing at his blood-shot eyes. He had taken first watch last night, but had basically stayed awake the whole time. The blonde had tossed and turned on the ground until he finally got up and moved over to stir the embers of the fire.

His brain was reeling, and it was carrying his heart right along with it. Chris had finally decided that the worst part of the whole situation was not knowing. The men had left as soon as they had gotten word, and had yet to intercept their friends. But, that was understandable considering the distances to be traveled. It was the unkown that haunted the gunman's mind, its shapeless demons never letting him rest. A whispering memory crept through his mind. Something almost long forgotten. A voice....Sarah and Adam beside him in the church, listening to the pastor. [The figures that haunted our dreams before, Are nothing compared to this final test. It is the war inside ourselves, That we must fight to win eternal rest.]

Chris jerked himself from his memories, trying to shake away the images and meanings the words presented to his tired mind. He nodded to JD and Buck as the two came up, automatically starting in on each other, just like always. Chris found a measure of comfort in the familiarness of the routine, and felt some the tension ease from his shoulders.

The blonde gunman stood from the fire, turning to find where the lean tracker was standing. He called, feeling the tension return as Vin continued to stand, raising one hand to shade his eyes as he looked out towards something in the distance. Chris walked over and stood behind him, trying to find what had captured the ex-bounty hunter's attention. A soft curse came from his lips as his steely gaze fastened on the form in the distance.

Sharing a knowing look, the two ran for their horses, barely taking the time to tell JD and Buck what they were doing. The animals leapt as the two men sank spur. As they got closer to their destination, they slowed, not wanting to spook their prey. In the end, Vin moved close enough to snag the reins of the tired animal, leading it back to where their two friends, now joined by Josiah, were waiting. JD's hazel eyes widened as he realized what he was seeing.

"Hey, isn't that....?" The young man left the question hanging, not sure he really wanted an answer.

"Ezra's horse," Chris replied, swinging down off his mount to walk a few feet away, his hands clenched by his side. The hot fires of his rage were quickly cooled as the coldness of worry closed in.

"Dammit!" he muttered, his eyes closing as he raised his head to the sky.

The morning silence was broken by the soft whistling, mixing with the creaking of the wagon. Denise Mosler sat in the seat, the reins wrapped loosely between her long fingers. She loved this time of the day. It was always so peaceful and quiet. A soft whining from the bed of the wagon made her smile, the corners of her brown eyes crinkling. [Well, almost quiet,] she thought, reaching around to scratch the ears of the large mutt behind her.

"Hush now, Mikey." A big, black and brown head found its way over the seat and into her lap. Denise laughed again as the crying noise came from his adorable face. Giving in with an exagerrated sigh, she reached into her pocket, pulling out a piece of jerkey. Mikey began to quiver with excitement, sitting up in preparation as to what was soon to come. Denise threw the treat off the wagon and Mikey bounded out after it, nosing around in the dirt to find it.

Denise turned back to the front, barely putting any pressure on the reins, allowing the horses to choose their path down the rough ground. The sun finally broke over the rise and Denise turned her face towards it, the rays of light bringing out the soft dusting freckles on her nose and cheeks. The few strands of hair that escaped her old hat glistened healthy brown in the light.

The woman stretched, her tall, lanky form slightly defined for a moment under the comfortable flannel shirt she preferred. Denise took a breath, smelling the tobacco and cinammon on her sleeve. Just like her father. She had lived with the gentle man for most of her twenty-eight years, helping him on the small amount of land they owned. It wasn't good for farming, but the cattle enjoyed the cool green grass. After her father had disappeared a few months back, the land and animals were all she had left of him. Except for the shirts. Denise took up her whistling again, the thoughts of her father driving her to change the tune to a slower one.

Mikey's sudden barking brought Denise up short, her hands pulling back on the reins to stop their progress. A few seconds later, Mikey himself emerged from the branches, a smug, but urgent look on his face. The large dog danced around, whining and running off a short distance before coming back and repeating his actions. Actions that were plain as words. "Come look what I found. Follow me!" Denise quickly tied her team up and secured the wagon before jumping down. She knew that Mikey wouldn't put on such a show unless something was wrong. Denise took a cautious look around as she moved, her strong body quickly following the shadowy form of her dog. With a final push through the brush, Denise was brought up short as Mikey continued on to the trio before her.

The horse was just about completely done in, his sides heaving with exhaustion. With a quick glance, Denise could tell that the other two subjects weren't in much better shape. One sat slumped over the neck of the horse, his body almost one continual bandage. Cautiously, she approached them, catching the horse with ease. Closer, Denise was finally able to examine the man under the ground. His body was bruised and battered, and Denise cringed, wondering what the hell had happened to these two men. Mikey was nudging at her knee. The young woman knew she couldn't leave them on their own. She knelt down to check the pale man on the ground, one touch confirming her fears that fever had set in. His skin was on fire, and the young woman suspected that under all those bruises, his face was flushed bright red with its heat.

Coming to a descision, Denise made the man on the ground as comfortable as possible. Then, she rose and double checked to see that the mounted man was secure in the saddle. Her brown gaze quickly took in the ropes that held his hands on the saddle horn, and made sure they were tied well. With a whispered promise that neither man could here, she coaxed the tired horse forward, leading it and its precious burden back to where she had left her wagon. She turned just before leaving the clearing and pointed back to the injured man on the ground.

"Mikey, stay with him. Stay." The dog whined in understanding, moving back to sit by the man. The dark coated mutt straddled his charge's body with one leg, not touching him, but offering the best protection he knew his mistress asked of him. Denise made her way carefully, taking her time so as not to jar the man's body to hard. Upon reaching the wagon, she cut the ropes binding his wrists and reached up to gently ease his body from the saddle. He groaned as she put pressure on his back, and Denise apologized, even though he could not hear her, pausing to shift her grip.

But, it seemed that no matter where she touched, she caused the man pain. [What the hell's wrong with him under those bandages?!] Denise thought to herself as she decided to just do it quickly. With one hand on his arm and the other latched onto the back of his pants, Denise tugged with all her might, bringing his unconsious form down on top of her as she fell backwards into the wagon. She paused to catch her breath from where his weight had knocked it from her before easing out from under him. Grabbing the blankets that constituted her bedroll from their place in the corner, Denis rolled them out, making the spot as comfortable as possible. Then, she moved the man onto them, grimacing with every moan he made against his pain.

When she was satisfied that he would be okay until her return, Denise picked up the reins again. She paused, her work-rough hands moving soothingly over the nose of the animal as the man's horse made to follow her as she led. It whickered softly, leaning into the touch.

"C'mon, Old Man," unconsiously using the nick-name her father had given any horse. "Let's go get your other friend." She made better time on her return trip, not having to worry about anyone falling off the saddle on the rough terrain. As she reached the clearing again, Denise whistled, bringing Mikey to her side instantly. She took a moment to scratch the dog's head, rewarding him for his obedience with a scrap of jerky and kind words.

"Good Mikey. Now, go and wait for me at the wagon. Go on." The dog whined a little, not liking the idea of leaving his mistress alone so much. Denise grinned, giving his head a pat before pointing a finger in the direction of the wagon. "I'll be just fine. I'll whistle if I need you. Now go on. Wagon." The animal still seemed reluctant but bounded off as he had been commanded to do.

Denise stopped when she reached the man on the ground. She could tell his injuries easier as he didn't have any bandages on his wounds. The woman quickly guessed that all the bandages that had been had, were now wrapped around the black man's body. She held a quick, mental argument with herself, finally deciding not to try and mess with his wounds until she had reached the wagon. Kneeling beside him, Denise raised his body into a sitting position, feeling his weight rest against her as she moved around behind him. She noticed the makeshift sling from his belt that held his arm to his body, as well as the revolver that was still wedged tightly into it.

The woman paused long enough to remove the gun, not wanting to accidentally set it off, before wrapping her arms around his waist. He groaned, and Denise resisted the urge to sigh. [How the hell am I supposed to help these two if I can't even touch them without hurting them more?!] Her long arms almost wrapped completely around the man's stomach, and as she made to pull up, her right hand brushed against a jagged tear in the flesh, as well as a piece of stiff cloth that seemed to be stuck in the tear.. The man in her arms winced, moaning loudly. Denise felt a little ashamed for her earlier thoughts, realizing just how bad off this man was. Shifting her grip a little higher, she double checked for any more serious wounds. Finding none, she stood up quickly, bringing his limp body with her.

The man still groaned at the sharp movement, but it was too late. Denise half-carried, half-dragged her burden to the horse, stopping as she tried to decide how to get him on the horse. She knew that simply throwing him bodily over the saddle was out of the question considering the wound she'd found on his right side. Even if he was able to ride in that position, Denise seriously doubted her ability to get him there. Her arms were already trembling with the effort of holding him up.

She shifted him slighlty, and his head rolled back against her shoulder. Denise whispered soothingly, not knowing if he could hear her or not. Finally, an idea came to her and she decided to try it. Denise doubted it would work, but it was better than just standing there looking at the horse. Making sure that the upper half of her foot was under his heels, she shuffled forward. Releasing him with one hand, Denise held on to the whithers of the horse as she carefully lifted both their feet to the stirrup. His slid through easily, and Denise felt she had enough of a purchase to try her next move. With a quick and forceful swing, she brought her other leg up while moving as if to mount.

The press and rush of her body behind his forced the man to move with her, his leg settling over the horse as she dropped back to the ground, one foot still in the stirrup. Denise quickly balanced his lifeless form in the saddle before tugging her boot from its place in the stirrup, stumbling back a little as she did so. A smile of triumph lit up Denise's face as she secured him to the saddle much the same way his friend had been before heading off to the wagon.

Mikey raised his head up from where it lay next to the un-moving man as Denise came into view. He wagged his tail, holding off his happy bark as the woman placed a finger against her lips, the signal for quiet. The dog settled for a quick whine and lick at her fingers as she came close enough. Denise again rewarded the dog for his good behaviour before urging it down to the ground. She repeated the process used to remove the man from the saddle that she'd used on his friend, using the bedroll attatched to the back of the horses saddle to make him comfortable.

After doing this, Denise quickly loosened the saddle, but didn't pull it off, having no place for it with the two men in the back of her wagon. She also took the saddle bags and set them between the two men, glancing inside to see with relief at least a few things that she knew would help her immensly. Grabbing up a few handfuls of the soft grass, she rubbed the horse down, massaging the injured leg gently. Leaving the horse to nibble at the grassy ground, she walked around front, grabbing one of her canteens, as well as a worn rag. Pouring some of the water onto the rag, she raised the horses head and swabbed its mouth, ringing the excess liquid out onto the swollen tongue. She repeated the process three times before feeling that it was time to turn her attention to the two men.

Denise decided to see to the smaller man first, seeing as how it appeared that next-to-nothing had been done about his wounds. Her eyes critically ran up and down his frame, noticing with an uneasy feeling the long tears in his clothes. Peeling one of them apart on his lower leg, Denise bit her lip as she saw the angry red welt on his skin. A small amount of blood was around it, and the woman had a sinking feeling that the rest of the tears also hid a long mark like this. The woman took a clean corner of the rag and wet it, mixing just a touch from the whiskey bottle she'd found in the saddle bags with the water, gently washing away the blood from the many marks, trying not to let herself become distracted by how red and infected the skin was beginning to look.

After finishing with his legs, and wrapping a strip of blanket tightly around his swollen knee for support, Denise moved up. As carefully as she could, Denise undid the belt, sliding it off his body. His features clenched in a small wince and Denise waited, seeing if he would wake up. When he didn't, she continued to removed all the barriers between herself and the upper half of his body. Deciding that it would be easier on the both of them, and since the shirt was beyond repair anyway, Denise simply ripped the fabric along the seams, finally getting it clear of his body without to much movement.

Denise couldn't stop the gasp that escaped her lips. Besides the same long welts, his pale skin was covered in dried blood, the origin apparently from the semi-plugged holes in his left shoulder and right side. Denise was unsure of what do to. She could see the enflamed flesh surrounding the wounds, red and puckered, and knew they needed to be cleaned. But, the woman was afraid of pulling the make-shift bandages away, not wanting to start the blood flowing again. Finally, she reached a shaky hand out, resisted the urge to close her eyes or look away, and pulled the cloth from the front side wound.

The man twitched a little at the feeling, but nothing else. Denise sighed in relief as no more red, sticky, liquid came out. She reached around and pulled it from the back wound as well, smiling when it too stayed dry. Denise knew the next part would not be pleasant, but it still had to be done. Wetting the cloth liberally with the whiskey, foregoing the water this time, she ripped it in half, to plug both holes. Moving the rags as close as she could, Denise took a deep breath before pushing them roughly into the holes.

A sharp pain lanced up from her jaw and lip, and Denise moved back, stunned as the man's arm fell down to his side, trying to stop the pain. Ignoring her now bleeding lip, Denise moved to hold him still as the whiskey burned itself into his raw flesh. Finally, he stilled, slipping deeper into his unconsciousness. Denise wiped the blood from her chin and lip, gingerly touching the split with her tongue. She shook her head. Even out cold, that man could hit. With more care, she tore another strip off the blanket before covering it with the liquor. Denise layed one knee on his right arm, holding it to the bottom of the wagon as she pressed the doctored pad to the long crease on his neck.

He struggled briefly, but finding he could not strike out against the heat, the man turned away from it. Denise removed the pad, ripping it before re-dousing it. These two she used to replace the cloth in the wound above his left elbow. By now, the fight was quickly ebbing from him and Denise took advantage of his weakness to quickly treat the one in his shoulder. As she pushed against it, Denise felt the bones move under her pressing fingers. She cursed softly, not knowing what to do for that particular problem. Had it been an arm or leg, she could have set it with a splint, but this....

The woman did the only thing she could think of and re-rigged his belt sling, putting a few strips of blanket material under the leather to keep it from chafing. As she moved away, she looked down at his bruised face and smoothed the hair back from it. His whole body was raw and red, and she knew that the fever racing through him was only going to get worse. Denise pulled the semi-torn blanket up over him, tucking it tightly around his body to keep him still.

Denise turned to the black man. Taking precious time, she unrolled the bandages from his chest and arms, wincing in sympathy as she had to pull on some of them to unstick them from the wounds. When all were off, she felt the bile rise in her throat before she could stop it. For not only did the sight of the seared flesh greet her eyes, but the smell of it wafted out over her as well. Denise fought the urge to retch, holding a hand over her queasy stomach. She tried to think on what to do, picking out the same long welts that the other man had had running criss-crossed with the burn marks across his body.

Not knowing what else to do, Denise cleansed the bandages she'd pulled with some of the whiskey. She also ran one, soaked with water, over the fiery hot flesh, hoping that the coolness eased some of the burn. Then, quicker than she'd taken them off, Denise rolled the bandages back in place, hoping that the wounds would stay as clean as they were. She had seen no signs of infection, the man having been lucky enough to have had them cleaned fairly soon after they were inflicted. Denise flashed her gaze over to the smaller man at this thought, wishing he had tried to do something for his own wounds. [Probably wanted to save as much of the stuff as possible for his friend,] she realized.

Denise climbed off the wagon, stretching her shaking body, trying to calm herself down. She felt drained just from seeing the wounds the two men had recieved. They had obviously been whipped, but why? Why were they out here, with one horse, almost dead? Denise knew she'd just have to wait until one of them woke up before she found out. [If they woke up,] she thought with a shudder. She needed help. Quickly, she went around and grabbed the heavy tarp she always carried in her wagon in case of rain and spread it out over the back, making sure she tied it securely. It made a slight tent on the wood, and it would protect them from the sun once they got on their way.

The woman checked to make sure that the saddle on the horse was loose enough to be comfortable, but still secure enough that it wouldn't fall off, and then, Denise tied the reins to the back of the wagon. She leaned under the tarp to check on her patients once more, making sure they were settled. Denise put the whiskey back in the saddle bags, pressing them in a corner, not wanting to loose anything from them. Climbing back out, she moved and jumped back into her seat. Mikey soon joined her, crowding his big form on wooden ledge.

Denise wrapped an arm about him, making it easier for him to lay down across her. Grabbing the reins, the woman got her team moving again, wishing that she could go faster as they moved, but not wanting to jar the men anymore than necessary. She still had a good two and a half days travel before she reached Four Corners. Denise wasn't sure the men had that much time.

"I just didn't expect no wagon to be turnin' up aroun' here. Lookit them rocks. I mean, they's got to be some good horses to make way down this por' ' scuse for a trail." Sanders finally tuned out the endless droning of the skinny, almond colored man who stood by his horse, his hands gesturing and pointing out important features that just kept puzzling him. The outlaw scratched at the fabric of the heavy material coat he wore, debating on just leaving the gambler's fancy coat behind. The hat was set on his head with ease, however, and Sanders used that now to fan himself against the growing heat. Finally, he put the hat back on his head and held up his hand to silence the so-called tracker.

"Anybody here able to see where that wagon is headed by looking at the ground?" The other members of the gang looked at each other before slowly nodding. "Good," Malachai answered, drawing his gun in one quick movement and killing the unfortunately talkative tracker. The others carefully hid their cringing as the man fell dead, not wanting to draw any attention to themselves from their violent leader.

Ever since their prisoner's escape, Sanders had been in a foul mood, snapping at anyone and everyone that got in his way, by any means or form. They all turned their eyes back to their boss as he gestured gracefully, for them to take the lead. With a quick string of curses, Sanders made to follow his men, leaving the corpse of the tracker behind. [Let the buzzrds finish him off,] he thought with anger. That was another man that those two had killed. Sanders knew that his bullet had done it, but it was chasing after those damned lawmen that had caused it. Just as they had killed one man in that stampede. Sanders didn't much care about Ti Femme. That one had always secretly bothered him with all his dark magic and praising of spirits no one could see. But, it was the principle of the thing that mattered now. Femme was dead, killed by that white lawdog. And Sanders planned on making them pay for each death.

Preferrably with their own.

Denise watched the trail ahead carefully, her usually nervous feeling at following the trail that ran so close to the edge of the ravine intensified by the presence of the two injured men in the back of the wagon. Reaching a fairly wide spot, she pulled back on the reins, halting her team once more. As she had been doing for most of the morning, Denise jumped from the wagon and walked around to the back with her canteen. She quickly checked on her passengers, her heart dropping as, once again, she noticed no change in their condition. If anything, the smaller man was getting worse, his hair dark and wet with the sweat of his fever. Denise wiped their faces and wet their lips by pouring water over her fingers and rubbing them in.

Replacing the tarp, she turned and checked on the men's horse. It was walking much better, and Denise took a little extra time to run her hands over the animal's neck. With a final scratch to the sensitive area under its jaw, she moved to her own team. The pair of horses, both matching brown geldings, whickered at her approach, nibbling gently at her shirt and hair as she checked their harnesses. Denise smiled at their antics, playfully swatting their heads away as they nosed at her pockets.

"Sorry dears," she told the geldings. "No sugar right now." With a final pat to their velvety noses, Denise climbed back up on the wagon, waiting for Mikey to settle back down again before starting off once more. She dared a look over the edge of the ravine and shuddered at the long drop that ended in the jagged rocks. Looking back up, her brown eyes squinted as she caught a flash of movement. Being so close to the edge, the trail had a magnificent view of the low-lying ground. It was from this lower point that the movement came from. Denise thought she made out at least five riders, and one of them seemed to be leading a sixth horse.

Denise silently argued with herself over whether or not to try and get their attention. [They might be able to help.] [They also might be with the people that hurt those two.] [Then why are they riding up from the plains? If my guys were running *from* them, why would they move in *their* direction?] [Maybe those five are riding to join the others. Maybe they're trying to trap our two.] Denise shook her head, the voices of what were loosely considered logic and reason mixing heavily with the nervous paranoia she felt at not knowing the whole situation that had brought the two men to be injured so badly. Deciding that one way or another she would finally get some answers, Denise raised up one arm, waving it wildly. She drew a deep breath to shout, only to release it in a gasp as she heard Mikey growl loudly, raising up to bare his teeth at something behind her. The click of a gun hammer, followed by a dark voice from behind her made Denise turn sharply.

"Thanks for waitin' on us."

Sanders smiled at the woman on the wagon, his eyes glinting with a cruel happiness. He saw the large mutt by her side and watched it closely, his hand already edging closer to his gun. His men closed in from around her, trapping the wagon against the edge of the drop. Her brown eyes quickly calculated her chances before coming back to his face. He saw stubborness there and was excited by it. If it was one thing he enjoyed, it was breaking the spirit of those around him. Especially someone like this beautiful young filly before him. Sanders' smile widened as he pictured exactly how he would break this one to ride.

At a slight motion of his hand, Sanders' men moved closer to the wagon, two of them pulling Denise down from where she had just climbed to the seat, while the other went and lifted the tarp to look in the back of the wagon. With an excited waving, he threw the tarp back.

"It's them! We got ' em boss!" Sanders climbed down from his horse, keeping his eyes on the still growling form of the dog all the way. He was positive the woman had said something to it to keep it still this long. He wished it would move...he always did like moving targets. Reaching the wagon, he peered over the edge, grinning at it's occupants.

The Doc looked like he was improving. [I'll just have to see about that,] he thought evilly. His gaze moved to the gambler. Sanders critcally eyed the smaller man, noticing the sweaty flush of fever that clung to him. The outlaw was surprised he was even alive, and yet, he had already experienced that once before when the irritating southener had shown up and destroyed his camp. Reaching over, he threw the blankets off both of them, his eyes traveling over the raw, red exposed flesh of the gambler's chest.

"Leave them alone!" Sanders turned slowly, the sneer that covered his face sending chills down the woman's spine. Denise tried to look defiant, but found herself waning in the presence of these men. Sanders walked up to her and ran a hand down her cheek, caressing it as he ran a thumb over her slightly puffy lip. Then, he drew the hand back and slapped her, her head flying back at the the force of it.

That was all that was needed for Mikey to break, a loud growl erupting from his throat as he leapt from the wagon towards Sanders. A shot cut the bark short and Denise watched in horror as Mikey fell to the ground gracelessly, whimpering a little before lying still. She could see his dark coat growing wet with blood and began to fight the arms holding her.

"You bastards! Let me go!" She kicked out with her long legs viciously, taking satisfaction as someone grunted in pain at the contact. Denise felt an iron grip fasten over one of her ankles, effectively halting her struggles as she tried to balance on one foot. She tried to focus her gaze, not caring that the tears she hadn't noticed before blurred her vision slightly.

Sanders held her still, not wanting to feel her strength against his legs again. Carefully, he moved closer to her, sliding his grip up as he went. Denise tried to struggle against him, but couldn't jerk away from the two men at her side. Sanders touched her face again, trailing a finger through the fresh line of blood his slap had caused. When she moved away, he grabbed her chin in his hand roughly, jerking her around to face him. With a quick movement, he pressed his mouth to hers in a hard kiss, ravaging her already bruised and bleeding mouth. Denise fought harder to move, pushing the scream back down her throat. Sanders finally moved away from her and dropped her leg, wiping her blood from his face.

"Tie her up," he instructed, turning back to his horse. "She's coming with us. Put her on the Doc's horse. Cut the team loose, we'll take them with us. And push that wagon over the edge." Sanders mounted, watching as his men roughly tied the woman's arms behind her back, not caring when they brushed up against her body. His words finally sunk in, and she turned her head to him.

"What about the men in the back?" she asked, afraid of the answer she would receive. Sanders grinned slightly as he shrugged his shoulders.

"What about them?"

JD was acutely aware of the horse that followed close to his own, the reins tied tightly to his saddle horn. The horse that was supposed to have a rider, as well as a companion. Up until this morning, the younger man had been able to keep his hopes up by believing that they just hadn't caught up to Ezra and Nathan's position. He'd tried telling himeself that the horse might have just gotten away from the two, but that didn't last long. Ezra always took extra special care of his horse; a leftover from his days of living off his conning arts, when having a fresh mount ready to go had been a survival tactic. JD knew it was just habit now, but it was still something that you could count on Ezra doing. He would not have allowed his horse to get away from him if he could help it. That thought sent a shiver down JD's spine and he tried to turn his thoughts elsewhere, finally settling on where Vin was riding at the front, his eyes on the trail Ezra's horse had left.

The trail was fairly easy to follow considering there hadn't been a guiding hand on the reins. There were very few turns and twists, and the tracker was making easy work. Which wsn't exactly a good thing because it left him time to think. Both he and Chris had made a thorough inspection of the saddle, searching for even the smallest amount of blood. The fact that they had found none just brought more worry to the men. How the hell did Ezra's horse get off without him? They knew that nobody would take it without protest, but there were no signs of such on the animal itself. That either meant Ezra hadn't been harmed, or just hadn't been on the animal when the problem arose. Vin raised his bluey gaze from the ground, blinking rapidly to clear it before resuming his watch on the ground. As he did so, a movement from up the mountain caught his attention and Vin reined in his mount.

Chris pulled up sharp to keep from passing his friend, following his gaze as the ex-bounty man looked at something with interest. Chris turned his eyes upwards, barely catching the movement out of the corner of his eye as Vin brought out his spy-glass. The others reined in close to the pair, all squinting to see the form of the wagon. Vin looked for a moment before speaking, never dropping the glass from his eye.

"It's a woman. And a wagon. Dog too. Somebody's got her stopped......It's Sanders." This last bit of news was taken in with a large swallow of excitement mixed with fear and rage. If Sanders was this far towards Four Corners, and he escaped *after* Ezra and Nathan had left, where were the two peacekeepers.

The silence of thought was shattered by the sharp report of a bark, followed by the vague sounds of yelling. Vin strained to get a better view, but whatever was taking place was far enough from the edge to be blocked from his view.

"Damn," he muttered, taking the glass down. The men watched as the horses were removed from the wagon, a deep sense of unease covering them. Then, with a shudder, the wagon moved a bit. One more shudder, and the wagon went over the edge. An unmistakable cry of pain and anguish reached their ears as the wagon splintered into a hundred pieces at the bottom of the ravine. Ice ran through each of their veins as they recognized the voice that had given that scream. JD's choked voice carried over the deadly silence.


The others tried to keep up, but not even Vin's skill on horseback was enough to stay even with Chris. Buck found his mind wandering as he clung to the animal between his legs, giving the grey his head as they raced up towards the edge of the deep ravine. He thought back, to a scene much like the one his eyes were taking in now. Chris, racing ahead, his hat hanging off by the cord at his throat where the wind had knocked it back. The tense set of his shoulders as he leaned far over the neck of his horse, urging him to greater speed, not caring about the many dangers of pushing so hard, so fast.

But this time, there was no smouldering, charred ground where a small house should have stood. This time, there was only an empty patch of ground that had recently been occupied by a wagon. Buck would have sworn that he could still hear the echoes of Ezra's raw, agonizing cry in the air as he watched his friend slide his mount to a halt. Chris was off and running towards the ravine as the other men reached the clearing, jumping off to join him as he crouched at the edge.

Josiah purposely moved close to the trembling form of the black-clad gunman. The ex-preacher knew that the bond between all of them was strong, but he suspected that this man felt it the most. The large man resisted the urge to lay a comforting hand on Chris' shoulder, unsure of what the reaction might be. Instead, he squatted down beside him, allowing him to know of his presence, and his strength, if either were needed.

Vin peered over the edge quickly, taking in the remains of the wagon at a glance before pulling away. He remembered the last time he'd looked over the edge of cliff at a broken wagon. At that time, the bodies on the ground had been fakes, women's clothing stuffed to make it look like the "working girls" had gone over the edge. Women that he'd suppossedly driven to the edge, and then left to their deaths to save his own life. It had been Ezra's plan, following what he'd used that first time in the Seminole village. And then that riduculous purple dress Ezra had worn to save Mrs. Travis. Vin smiled slightly. That had been his way of getting back at the gambler for making him pull that stunt of jumping from the wagon to the team of horses. The smile soon faded, however, as he realized that any bodies that lay at the bottom of this ravine wouldn't be fake.

JD hung back, going close enough to the edge to feel comfortable with his compadres, but not looking over the edge. He couldn't. He couldn't let that last, small shred of hope collapse inside his heart, to shatter like a piece of glass. Instead, he looked off to the side, not bothering to wipe away the moisture that was beginning to gather in his eyes. JD breathed deeply as he watched Vin look away, his heart constricting tighter at the look on the tracker's face. The youth wasn't sure if that look was from what he'd seen on the ravine floor, or what the other *hadn't* seen. He edged a little closer, gathering his courage for a quick peek. He turned his head, but his eyes refused to open. He just couldn't look.

Buck, seeing that Josiah had taken his place at Chris' side, stood and looked about, watching as Vin moved away from the edge, scouting around for the tracks that would lead them away. His blue gaze fell on JD, and watched as the boy tried to look, but failed, instead wondering off in a direction following Vin's. The unusually solem cowboy turned back to the sharp drop, looking harder at the shards of what was left of the wagon. Nothing could've survived a fall like that. Especially a fragile, breakable, human body.

JD's voice cut through the other three men's thoughts as he called them over. Chris reluctantly left the edge, allowing himself to be hauled up and back by Josiah's strong, steady grip. The youth wasn't far down the trail when they saw Vin crouched over a form. The blonde's eyes lit up with an almost desperate hope before he realized that whatever had captured Vin's attention was too small to be one of their friends. As they got closer, they realized that Vin was holding a dog cradled to his lap, whispering soothingly as he moved his hands over the furry body. Chris' rushing mind quickly explained the situation to itself. [Hadn't Vin said something about there being a dog?]

A soft whimpering came as Vin pushed hard, plugging the bullet wound in the dog's body with his bandana. The mutt was either extrememly lucky, or the shooter had been a lousy aim. [But not too lousy,] Vin thought. He'd followed the blood trail for a good thirty feet before the dog had give-out and lain still, waiting for help to come from those it had entrusted its servace and loyalty in for so long.

"Well," Vin asked without looking up, forcing his eyes to stay fastened to the heaving sides of the dog. "Did ya'll find ' em? Can we get to ' em with a rope?" Vin was prepared to do anything to get his friends up and off to a proper burial. Just as he had been willing to give his all for them in life, he was willing to do it in their death as well.

"Hell," Chris started, his voice coming dangerously close to cracking. He felt Josiah move closer and fought for control, allowing some of his rage to take place of the bottomless grief. "Can't even see a body down there. Just wood." His words rang in his ears, and the gunman looked up at the tracker. The blue eyes met his own, the message that passed between them lost to the others, and taking the dog up in his arms, Vin followed Chris as the other set off for the horses at a dead run. Buck, JD, and Josiah stood, dumfounded, for a moment before taking off after their friends.

The ragged sound of breaths filled his ears, and he wished for the dreadful noise to stop. Until he realized that those tortured breaths were his own. That he was alive. Ezra tried to move, and suddenly wasn't as happy about being alive as he felt he should be. His arm was aching, the pain lapping at it hungrily with its flaming tongue, consuming the rest of his body as well. The gambler wasn't sure just how much longer he could stay awake, much less alive. His arms were tied cruelly behind him, the tight leather lashings cutting off the circulation to his hands.

The gambler had awoken not long after Sanders' discovery of them. He still wasn't clear on all that he'd heard. His head was swimming with the fever, and still wasn't staying straight too much. Ezra vaguely remembered a woman. A voice soft and full of concern. Full of anger, too. But the anger was quiet, concealed, waiting for just the right moment to be unleashed. And then, that voice cut through again. That dark, venomnous voice that Ezra was quickly beginning to hate. The first reply, so casually dismissing his and Nathan's lives as they readied the wagon to go over. [Nathan?!] Ezra tried to remember if Nathan had been pulled from the wagon as well, but his mind was a blur of agony and pain.

Ezra winced slightly as he remembered the scream that had tore from his throat as they'd pulled him from the wagon, yanking his arm about before tying it tightly behind his back. The rough handling had moved the pain from a steady, dull ache, to one of hot, greedy torturous agony, and Ezra hadn't been able to keep in the anguish any longer. His scream had put all the pain he'd felt in his body out in one loud shout. A shout that Ezra had fully expected to be his last. Suddenlly, the gambler heard a rustling behind him and made to turn over.

"Ezra, don't move," a voice hissed, and the southerner was relieved. Nathan sounded strong, almost normal, with only the slightest trace of strain. Ezra nodded and laid still, unsure of exactly what was going on behind him, but, as long as Nathan was there, he knew he wouldn't have to worry about it much. Nathan's voice invaded his senses again as his head lolled to the side, unable to support its weight.

"Ezra, keep talking to me." Nathan had felt the slight wince from the man in front of him, and he had been suddenly afraid he'd hurt the gambler more than he already was. Ezra had been fading in and out, sometimes not even remembering that he was with him. From the quick tense at his grunt of effort, followed by the soft relaxation at his voice, this appeared to have been one of those times.

"' Bout what?" came the reply, the southerner not botheirng with his large vocabulary. It hurt to much to breath on its own withouth throwing in the need to replace air left on unneeded words.

"Anything, just keep talking to me." Ezra began mumbling and Nathan went back to work on their bonds, half-listenging to the babble that came out the other's mouth. He was almost finished when Ezra began to start in on the poetry. Nathan knew that at any other time, he would have sat back and enjoyed the way the smooth words drifted off the soft, accented tongue of the gambler. But now, he didn't have the time. The healer tugged at the ropes, mumbling a quick apology as it pulled the arm further.

Nathan had been appalled when he'd woken up next to the other man. His own body still bore the marks of Sanders' attack, but Nathan could tell they would heal up nicely. Nathan's main concern for himself was in the broken cheekbone Sanders had given him. The slight concussion was already passed. His face was swollen, and his burns ached, but the healer in him wouldn't allow him to concentrate on his own pain. The doctoring he had recieved had saved him from the powerful throes of infectious fever that racked the man in front of him. The shivering, luckily, hadn't begun yet, but Nathan knew from the extent of the other man's injuries that it wasn't far away. And when it hit, the pain would explode ten times its current level, which appeared to rank between "Dear God," and pure, unadulterated hell.

Nathan grinned a bit as he almost freed their hands. It wasn't easy seeing as how they were laying back to back, the leather tieing them together where they lay. Plus, Ezra wasn't in much shape to help with the moves that were needed to free them, each breath jerking his frame mightily against the healer's body. Nathan pulled again, wincing himself at the soft, bitten cry of pain that escaped from Ezra.

The gambler bit his lip until he tasted the blood in his mouth, trying to fight off the shiver he felt building up at his stomach. To keep his mind away, he continued where he'd left off, not noticing when a final jerk left him free from his bonds. Checking for the guards, Nathan quickly turned to Ezra, laying the man flat on his back. The southerner continued his given task as Nathan did a quick look, poking slightly at the broken bones and other injuries.

Nathan chuckled as he looked around, releasing some of the tension that was drawing his shoulders taught as a random thought passed through his head. [Where did Ezra learn so dang much poetry,] he thought, gathering himself for a move to pick the man up. They were gonna have to get out now, while it was light enough to see. Nathan moved to swing the smaller man into his grasp, his attention caught fully on the gambler's last words before he drifted off into a sleep that even the sharpest pain couldn't reach him in.

"It's a battle that can't be avoided. It's something everyone must face. To win is to receive Heaven; To lose is to fall from Grace." Nathan looked down at the smaller man as he stood. To receive Heaven. To live. To escape. To lose.....death. Nathan gathered his friend tightly to him before beginning to move.

Just before all hell broke loose.

Denise had only experience true fear once in her life, and that had been when she realized that she her father had died, and she was alone. But now, she was afraid. Sanders had tied her to a small tree on the edge of the camp they had set up, her arms stretched around the thin trunk so that he could lash her wrists together. The outlaw also put bindings onher feet, remembering the powerful kick she had given earlier. And then, the games had begun.

Sanders had started off slow, a small slap when she refused him something. But those small slaps had grown to jaw-cracking blows with each rejection. Denise could feel the blood running from her mouth, dripping down her chin to flow down her neck. Her right eye was swollen, and Sanders was still coming back. He pressed in again, whispering softly. When he was in range, Denise spit out at him, noticing that the bloody saliva struck its goal, dribbling down his cheek.

With a dark growl, Sanders threw a punch at her stretched and un-protected stomach, wiping the mess from his face as she gasped in the pain of it, her breath stolen by his force. Moving quickly, Malachai moved forward, gripping a side of her shirt in each hand. With a forceful yank, the buttons flew off, leaving her upper body open to his gaze. His dark eyes saw the bruise already growing from his recent punch, but they didn't linger there for long. Traveling over her slim waist and naked chest, he finally focused on her red face, seeing the humiliation there.

Sanders moved in again, chuckling as she tried to shrink away. He grasped her sore jaw in his fingers before dropping a hand to cruelly squeeze her breast. "Pretty," he whispered. "Very pretty." He moved roughly over her, biting at her flesh as she tried to move away. Her body was shaking under his hands and Malachai laughed, moving down to savagely bite at the delicate skin of her breast. Denise cried out in pain, the tears moving from her eyes. She struggled desperately at the leather ties, not caring when the blood began to flow from her wrists where they bit into her flesh.

A bruising grip found her upper arms, his fingers pressing in to grip her hard, leaving instant bruises as she continued to fight against him. Sanders moved back up, taking her mouth with his as he let his hands roam at will. Taking the only avenue open to her, Denis gathered her resolve. The young woman opened her mouth under his kiss, trying not to gag as his tongue entered. When she felt him exploring, she clamped her teeth down as hard as she could, relishing the warm rush of his blood as she bit into the tender flesh.

Sanders pulled back with a cry, spitting out blood, his tongue a red, raw mess in his mouth. He moved up quickly, laying several slaps to her body, not caring where they landed.

"You worthless whore!" he screamed over and over, not caring when she couldn't hear him any more for the ringing in her ears. Finally, he stopped, stepping back to look at her. She leaned heavily against the tree, her eyes closed, breathing heavy. Bruises, ugly, purple, black bruises were forming everywhere, discoloring the pale flesh. Her face was a bloody mass, her grey eyes barely able to open against the swelling.

He pressed forward again, leaning over to whisper into her ear as he rubbed his body against hers. Denise tried to move her head away as she felt the cloth pressed against her mouth, his fingers tying it behind her head. She pushed at the gag with her tongue, trying to move it as his low chuckle filled her ears.

"Now, ta break ya to saddle. I'm gonna ta enjoy this." Denise's scream was muffled behind the heavy bandana as he sucked savagely at her throat. The tears flowed fresh from her swollen eyes as he tortured her body further with their pinching fingers and stinging slaps. And then, what she had feared the most caused her head to thrash back and forth, fighting with the gag and the ropes and the tree. Sanders' hands dropped to her waist, a finger running over the waistband of her trousers. They grasped at the fastenings, undoing the buttons one by one.

With one button left, Sanders moved away and Denise's eyes flew open, searching desperately for the sound that had taken those awful hands from her. A second shot followed, and Denise saw no more as she sagged with relief.

Denise came back from her faint slowly, yearning to slip back down into the comfort of the blackness. For with the light came pain. Not sharp, not unbearable, but an ache that spread from her ribs upwards. She swallowed, feeling her tongue heavy and dry in her mouth. With caution, she opened her brown eyes, ready to shut them again quickly if the light was to piercing. Instead, Denise found herself looking out on the soft hues of dusk, the crackling noise in her ears telling her of a camp fire not far away. It had been morning...what....... Everything came back to her in a rush as she felt the softness of the blankets tucked around her frame. The two men, Mikey, Sanders. A shudder tore through her, bringing a quick pain from her ribs. She cried out softly and a hand was instantly on her forehead, followed by a soothing voice.

"It's alright. Don't move. Nobody's gonna hurt you. Just relax and try not to breathe too deeply. You got some cracked ribs." Denise opened her eyes again, feeling the swelling around them as it tried to keep them shut. A giant of a man sat beside her, his greying hair softly glinting in the dim glow of the setting sun. His face was gentle and Denise felt the tension easing from her body. She thought she recognized him as one of the first she had seen come over the rise just before she'd lost her battle to the darkness. Just the fact that he was not a part of the group that had held her earlier was enough to relax her. She drew breath to speak, waiting for the pain to come. And it did, but not as sharply as it had before.

"The...two men...Mikey?" Her voice came out as a forced croak and the man held a canteen to her bruised lips. The water was cool as it flowed over the ravaged flesh of her mouth and she felt it immediately soak into the dry tissues of her parched throat. When the canteen was taken away, she watched as he wet a rag with it, using it to wipe her face.

"The two men that you saved are fine. Nathan checked you over in fact." At her blank look, he elaborated. "Nathan Jackson. He's the black man. Ezra Standish is his friend. I'm not sure who Mikey is...." Denise felt a small comfort at learning the two were safe, and a warmth spread through her as she gained the knowledge of their names.

"Mikey is...was my dog. They shot him." Her voice grew very small as she rememberd the dark coat glistening with blood. Mikey had been a recent attatchment not long after her father had died. He was only a puppy really, and it hurt to lose him.

"Oh, the dog. He's doing quite good, actually. The bullet didn't do any severe damage and with some rest he'll be chasing rabbits before you know it." Denise looked deep into the pale blue eyes that smiled at her, daring to hope that he was telling the truth. He moved aside and her eyes fell on the sleeping mound of feet and fur behind him. With a smile that started her lips bleeding again, she lay back down, her brown eyes growing heavy with exhaustion. One nagging thought kept them open though.

"Who are you?" she asked. Smiling gently, he smoothed her brown hair back from her forehead.

"Josiah. I'm one of Nathan and Ezra's friends." Denise relaxed back into sleep, mumbling as she did so.

"Thank you, Josiah."

"Thank you," Josiah whispered back, casting his eyes over to where the others sat. He knew that Ezra was still in a bad way, but it could have been a lot worse if this woman had not helped them. Josiah realized he'd forgotten to ask her name, and resolved to do so the next time she awoke. Standing quietly so as not to disturb her, nor the animal that had not left her side for an instant, Sanchez stood and stretched his large frame, feeling the tension pulling at his shoulders.

As he moved around the fire to reach the coffee, he found his gaze fastening on Ezra. The gambler was laying still for once, his body wrapped tightly in as many blankets as they could get, but the shivering had still continued to haunt his body. Finally, they had moved him as close to the fire as they dared, watching as the sweat covered his face and dampened his hair.

Josiah wished he had been telling the woman the truth when he had said the two men were fine. True, Nathan was doing extremely well considering what he'd been through. The burns were healing well, doubly so now that he had use of the supplies Josiah had brought him. The large man thought the healer was about to weep as his black bag was pushed into his hands. Supplies that could ease his and the woman's pain. But so far, the supplies had not been able to take it away from Ezra. The fever was too far into his body to stop it. All Nathan could do was try and keep the gambler comfortable while waiting for the firey menace to leave his body.

The healer stretched from his place beside Ezra, the white cloth he had wrapped around his head and face to help hold his cheek-bone steady a sharp contrast to his dark skin. Josiah passed a cup of the dark liquid over, accepting his nod of thanks before fetching himself one. Nathan reached over to place his hand on Ezra's forehead, finding the damp flesh almost as hot as the surface of the cup he held in his hands.

Nathan couldn't believe the extent of the injuries that Ezra had had, and yet, he had still come back for him. Saved him, twice. The first time when Sanders had captured them, and the second, during their rescue. Nathan had propped the gambler up beside some boulders as he went after the guard before them. At the same moment, the others came over the hill, shooting and shouting, causing general chaos and distraction. It had worked. Nathan had taken his man down, but had not noticed the one behind him. Until the sharp cry of pain from Ezra, that is. With the last of his strength, the gambler had pushed himself up, throwing his weight down on the other man. Nathan ran back, grabbing the gun he had dropped as they went to the ground.

Ezra had rolled away, groaning, almost screaming in his pain as the man's weight had forced him to land on his injured arm and shoulder. Thankfully, the agony soon took him off into oblivion, leaving his body to twitch with the spasms of the pain without his mind registering it. Nathan hoped the extra jarring wouldn't interfere with the healing, but he wasn't positive. After all was said and done, with Buck on one side and Josiah pulling on the other, Nathan thought the bones had snapped back into place without a hitch. At least he hoped they had.

The rest of the marks on the gambler's body, just like his, would fade with time, allowing only small scars to mar his flesh. Nathan pulled the blankets higher over his friend before relaxing back again. Chris and Vin walked up out of the now settled darkness, their rounds complete, satisfied that everything was as it should be. There would be no outward guard tonight. All the men they had been hunting were dead and cared for. They had made doubly sure of that. There would, however, by unspoken agreement, be someone with Ezra and the woman at all times.

"Chris, can't tell ya how good you boys looked comin' down that hill side. I was ' bout to give up on ya." Nathan's voice was slightly slurred from the tight wrapping of fabric about his upper cheek, but the note of gratitude hidden under the light-hearted remark did not go unheard by a single man around the fire. Nor did the pain that still radiated from their two friends. The others just nodded, and Vin smiled a bit.

"Aww, hell, Nathan. You know us...always gotta make an entrance of some sort to draw attention." Thank're welcome. The hidden words warmed each man, draining some of the heavy tension from their bodies. Nathan nodded, trying to stifle a yawn which came out anyway, his yelp of pain on the end of it bringing the show of tiredness to all.

"Get some sleep, Nathan. I'll sit up with Ezra for awhile." Chris caught the knowing look Buck flashed at him, but kept his gaze hooded, revealing nothing.

"Me too. Want to finish my coffee." Buck's offer was accepted by Chris with a slight nod and the cowboy relaxed a little further. Nathan shook his head.

"No, I need to stay up in case...." Another yawn capture him mid-sentence and Josiah laid his hand on the other's shoulder.

"What you need, my friend, is sleep. You won't do Ezra much good if you can't keep your eyes open, now can you?" Nathan grudgingly agreed to that statement, remembering how much his hands had shook while he was doing his first job on Ezra. He'd almost lost the bullet in his shoulder three times before his trembling hands had got it out. Reluctantly, he laid down, his eyes already drifting shut as a thought hit him.

"You'll wake me if..." Josiah nodded, murmuring assurances that they would not let Nathan sleep if he was needed. Of course, the ex-priest had no intention what-so-ever of letting anything wake the man up until morning. Not even if the Devil himself strolled into the camp. Vin watched the man drift off immediately, his features relaxing in sleep. With a yawn of his own, the tracker turned and eyed Chris and Buck.

"Think I'll turn in myself. You two wake me up about midnight and I'll take over." Chris gave a half-nod which earned him a skeptical look from Vin and a snort from Buck. "Dammit Larabee, I mean it. You ain't made outta stone ya know. You stay up all night again and you'll be sleepin' in the saddle tomorrow. I don't want ta have ta catch your heavy carcass if ya start to fall." That same half-nod. Vin made for his saddle, his blanket and bed-roll under Ezra, muttering softly about why he'd ever left the great outdoors to socialize with people. JD just smiled, the first real one since the whole thing had begun, and walked over to his own spot, making sure he was out of range before making his comment.

"Gee, Vin. I didn't think you knew how to speak that many words at once. Ow!" JD rubbed his shoulder, looking down to see Vin's harmonica at his feet. He'd forgotten just how good the tracker's aim was. Being much quieter, the young man laid down, carefully tossing the harmonica back towards its owner, not surprised in the least when Vin caught it and tucked it back in his shirt pocket.

Josiah watched the scene with amusement, noticing how much easier they all seemed to move around each other when all seven were together. He seriously doubted that anyone would be shook awake later that night to take over the watch of their friend. Chris just looked at him, nodding as the larger man smiled, reaching down to lay a hand on the heated forehead of the gambler before moving to find his own much needed rest.

"Sleep now, while you can. The battle begins when you awake." He stroked the damp hair back, leaning down to kiss Ezra's forehead much like a father to his son before standing. Moving on, he laid down away from the heat of the fire, finding the coolness a welcome change, taking away the remembered warmth of the gambler's skin. He let the half-remembered phrase finish in his mind before drifting off to sleep. [Your choices decide if you win or lose, and whether Heaven or Hell is the path you take.] These men, his family, had already been through Hell, more times than any of them cared to remember. Josiah deeply hoped that upon waking, the choices offered would lead them up from the darkness and out into the light once more.

Chris watched as the others bedded down before getting up to go take the position Josiah had so recently vacated. Buck moved with him, sitting at Ezra's feet. The gunman looked from the flushed gambler to the unusually silent cowboy. Buck didn't say a word, but grabbed the coffee, refilling both their cups. They drank the hot liquid silently. The latter didn't speak, knowing there was no need at the moment. After all, they had a long night ahead of them.

Chris looked over to where Buck was slumped against a rock, his mouth hanging open from where he'd dropped off mid-sentence. [Probably talked hiself to sleep,] the gunman thought with a smile. Buck had talked more in the past six hours than Chris could remember him talking in the entire time he'd known the cowboy. And none of it had really made sense, either. Buck jumped from subject to subject, telling Chris about a woman he'd met from South Carolina. And then a professor he'd shared a room with in a boarding house that had talked with so many big words Buck wasn't sure what would come out of his mouth if the man tried to let out a simple snore. Or the mother and her newborn son he'd saw passing through town. Eyes like pieces of jade, and so delicate Buck just wished he could protect the pair from the harshness of the world.

Something clicked in the gunslinger's head, and he flashed another look at his long time friend. South Carolina, big, fancy words, jade eyes.... Chris shook his head. In his own way, without even realizing it, Buck had been letting his constant worry for Ezra creep out in his stories. Chris looked up to the few stars that he could see through the tree-tops, their soft light glittering in the darkness of the sky.

These men had grown so close to one another, and Chris freely admitted that he'd been drawn into their mysterious circle as well. They protected one another, fought for one another, bled for one another, would die for one another, and Chris knew that was just the skimming the surface of what each man's depths of love and devotion would provide. What once was a meeting of drifters, lonely, pain-filled hearts, in a small town called Four Corners, had turned into a family. The only family some of them had ever known. And for others, a spark of life in souls long since dead.

Buck stirred in his sleep and Chris reached over, his hands so fast with a gun, ever-so-gently taking the dangerously close to dropping cup of coffee from his friend's hand. The gunman sank back to relax, his eyes picking up the soft warning hues of the coming dawn. Vin would be upset, he knew, but Chris didn't really care. He was used to sleepless nights. Nights of memories and haunted thoughts. He knew the limits he could press on his body. Taking another sip of his coffee, the gunman glanced back to check on Ezra. A slow smile broke out on his face as he realized that what he was seeing.

Ezra didn't try to move...he figured that would hurt too much. Instead, he watched the expressions flit across Larabee's face. Those features, normally so unreadable, even to him, were completely unguarded now, and Ezra found he could read Chris' thoughts as easily as if they were laid out on a page for him. And then, that intense gaze was resting on his face, locking with his own. The smile, such a rare occurrence for the gunman, coming easily to his lips.

Chris reached behind him for a canteen, holding it up for Ezra to see. The gambler nodded, wincing at the pull on his stiff body. Carefully, the gunman helped him raise up enough so that the water wouldn't choke Ezra going down his throat. Ezra could not remember the last time something tasted so good. It was as if the essence of heaven itself had been captured in the clear liquid.

Once the canteen was taken away, Ezra trusted himself to speak, relaxing in the welcome warmth and comfort of Larabee's arms. "Can we go home now?" he asked, his voice soft and raspy. He felt Chris pull him a bit tighter against his chest, carefull not to cause any pain to his injuries. Ezra felt himself slipping back into the folds of sleep, but he made himself wait to hear an answer to his question, his plea. Chris' voice came out heavy, but soft, the emotion behind it almost tangible.

"Yeah. We can go home now."

Nathan barely held back his laughter as he left his clinic, shutting the door on Ezra's indignant protests. Finally reaching the bottom of the stairs, the healer collapsed, his body protesting only slightly to the shaking laughter. Chris and Vin shared a look before crossing the street and joining the mirth stricken man.

"I take it news on Ezra's good?" Vin queried, leaning against the bannister as Nathan wiped away tears of laughter from his eyes. The black man nodded, trying to speak, but losing his breath to laughter once again.

"I...should've thou..thought of that....a long t-time ago...." Chris just shrugged and bounded up the stairs, his curiousity driving him to the door. He paused to listen before quietly opening the door far enough to see inside. Ezra lay on the bed, his arm tucked tightly to his chest to help the bone to heal. Nathan was sure it would return to normal after the break had healed, if Ezra gave it the chance.

The gunman saw nothing to warrant the healers display of laughter, so he pushed the door open further. A smile crossed his face as he watched Ezra stare sullenly at the object that kept him abed. It was obvious that there was nothing the gambler would be able to do to remove himself from the bed with the large dog draped across his legs. Mikey had taking a liking the quiet southener, never leaving his side all during the trip back, or since.

And not far from Mikey...Chris' gaze soon found Denise sitting by the side of the bed, her face turned towards him as she bit her lip to hold in her own laughter. The heavy beating she had taken almost a month ago was only visible in the slight, yellow bruises on her skin. Her brown eyes caught his and relayed the torture she felt from holding her laughter. Ezra's voice cut across the air.

"Mikey, come on...nice doggie......get off me now....." Mikey stood, arching his back in a languorous stretch. Ezra smiled, sure that he would finally be able to leave his bed. Sure, that is, until Mikey plodded up beside him to lap at his face before laying back down across his legs again. The sigh of disgust from Ezra finally undid the last of their control, and both Chris and Denise broke into un-restrained laughter. Denise stood and left Mikey to watch over Ezra, the southener's irate mumbling following the pair down the stairs.

"Thank you, for everything." It had been another week, and Nathan had finally allowed Ezra out of bed, but only for short periods of time. Mikey, though he still kept close to the gambler, had finally stopped his mother-hen routine. The bounties on Sanders and his men had come through, and with an understood decision, all the money had gone to Denise to repay her for the loss of her wagon. And now, the time had finally come for her to return to her home.

"No, thank you, ma'am." Nathan hugged her to him, the words he whispered in her ears lost to the winds of friendship for all eternity. The rest of the men were standing about to see her off, with Ezra sitting in a chair by the wall. Denise caught his eyes, their good-byes already said earlier in the privacy of the clinic. The dark haired woman had been quick to see past the outer layers of defense the gambler kept up, their souls merging with a spark. Not the spark of love, but the spark of two souls that understood one another. Two souls that cherished the knowledge of a kindred spirit in the world.

Ezra smiled, nodding to her. He would miss the woman's company. As well as that infernal dog. As Denise said good-bye to the rest of the men, Mikey ran over to give Ezra's face one last lick. The gambler scratched the head in exchange, gazing back and forth from the large brown eyes before him, to where he knew a similar pair waited.

"You will look after her." Ezra had no doubt that his statement was true, and that Mikey would be as good, if not better, than any of the men she had been in the company of. Mikey offered one last lick to his fingers before bounding off to the wagon. Ezra stood and followed, staying on the edge of the group. Denise climbed into the seat, shoving Mikey into the back with the supplies the excess reward money had purchased.

"Ezra," she said, hearing her name roll off his southern tongue in response. Slapping the reins, the wagon rolled out with a lurch, leaving the seven men behind. Ezra watched her head towards the mountains off in the distance, not moving until she was out of sight over the small hill just outside of town. Only then did he allow Nathan to press him back to his chair. Ezra kept flicking his gaze back towards where she had disappeared, knowing that he would never look at the hills without feeling that same sense of peace that Denise had brought to him during his recovery.

Josiah watched Ezra, his gaze following to where Ezra's became lost in the hills, seeing the comfort the view brought to his friend's jade eyes. Josiah felt the same peace from having his family whole again. Even if they were a little battered, they were home. And they always had a place to return to. And to look to.

"I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help?" He knew, deep in his heart, that his help would always come in the form of six men, riding by his side. Never to leave, never to shirk from their duties as his brothers. His help came from the men he trusted with his life.


The End

Psalms 121 (1st verse is the main inspiration) - "I lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of Heaven and Earth. He will not let your foot slip, he who watches over you will not slumber; Indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you, the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm, he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore."

"The Ultimate Battle" by: Laura Holder
The ultimate nightmare
Waits within.
It is the battle of light and darkness,
And it is a battle we must win.
It's not a battle of childhood fears;
Of horrible monsters untold.
It's the battle of mind, spirit, and soul.
It's a battle already centuries old.
The figures that haunted our dreams before
Are nothing compared to this final test.
It is the war inside ourselves
That we must fight to win eternal rest.
It's a battle that can't be avoided.
It's something everyone must face.
To win is to receive Heaven;
To lose is to fall from Grace.
So sleep now, while you can.
The battle begins when you awake.
Your choices decide if you win or lose,
And whether Heaven or Hell is the path you take.