Poison by Heather F
FeatureSummary: Guys make a bet about Vin's tracking ability but some bad guys are after Chris and Buck
Categories: Gen > Old West Characters: Chris
Genres: Drama, Hurt/Comfort
Warnings: Gen
Challenges: None
Series: None
Chapters: 4 Completed: Yes Word count: 53480 Read: 11371 Published: 07/18/2004 Updated: 07/18/2004
Story Notes:
All mistakes, errors, misspellings, poor grammar....Are mine, All mine. Any words you don't recognize...I made up (for lack of a better excuse). This was actually spell checked and proofed...some time ago and re done the other night...Lord only knows where that copy went... You will begin to understand why I never mastered a second language. English is a bugger.
Disclaimers: Not mine; No money made etc
Warnings: ?able language;
Thanks: Mitzi (her idea) and Wendy...of course. Their encouragement during the months this was toiled over was greatly appreciated (as always)
Archive: Yes please...

1. Part 1-5 by Heather F

2. Part 6-10 by Heather F

3. Part 11-16 by Heather F

4. Part 17-22 by Heather F

Part 1-5 by Heather F
Part 1

A raptor soared in the desert night sky. Its wings stretched out silhouetted against a midnight blue backdrop. It's flight feathers separated like fingers on a hand as it soared, climbing higher. The powerful legs were drawn up tight to the body. Talons were clenched securely closed. The large bird rode the thermal currents searching the dark desert ground for a meal. Its piercing yellow eyes focused briefly on the small flickering flame resting in the narrow canyon floor. It did not recognize the light as fire, it did not recognize the three forms huddled around it as men. It did categorize that at the moment they would not be a suitable meal. Not yet. The smell of death hung prematurely from the small lighted area but death had not yet claimed any victims.

The bird swooped higher up into the sky catching another thermal current. It switched its powerful vision from the three forms and concentrated once again on the plateau a few hundred feet above the humans. The full moon offered clear visibility to the hunter. Very few clouds dotted the starry sky. A desert hare caught the raptors attention. The hare browsed in a nervous fashion alert for any danger that might spring upon it.

The humans already forgotten the bird tucked its wings close to its body and dove on the unsuspecting prey. It careened to the earth at an alarming rate. In utter silence the bird descended on the hare. Wind and desert air rushed passed the bird as it threw itself at the hapless victim.

At the last second the rabbit sensed the rapidly approaching danger. Primal instinct felt the threat from above. In less than a second the prey bolted. It scurried off in panic seeking adequate protection under prickly sage. It paused keeping still waiting as death swooped by on the wind. The hare paused a moment longer ensuring its safety before it continued to chew the morsel of food it still stored in its cheeks. It had escaped death for now. Hunger would lull it out into the open before morning. Danger lurked both on the ground and from above. With heightened senses and a rapid heart rate the hare balled itself within the confining protection of the sage.

The bird quickly adjusted its wings, refolded its powerful legs and pulled out of its steep dive just inches above the clay packed ground. Wind brushed and stirred as the raptor skimmed the empty spot. Another meal escaped. The bird climbed high into the night. It ignored the silver highlighted clouds. It did not recognize or marvel at the numerous stars that off set the black sky.

The hunter circled, searching, again its eyes fell to the struggling fire light. Three forms one by itself laying curled like an animal on its last breath. The others were a conflagration of melted shapes. The smell of blood was strongest from these two forms. Death permeated the area. The raptor would stay close. A scavenged meal was better than an empty gullet.

* * * * *

Chris cradled the head and shoulders of his life long friend. Buck shivered in the chill of the arid night. Larabee pulled his worried gaze from the countless stars above to the mustached man that bled in his arms. He pulled Buck tighter to himself trying to share body heat, trying to stave off death. The presence of Death had slowly coiled its tendrils around his friends icy form. "Hold on Buck jist a little longer," Chris whispered his desperation clear. The pleading tone would have wrenched hearts had anyone been paying attention.

A raw breeze blew low across the desert canyon. The large sand stone walls rose like black monoliths all around them reaching into the sky. They stood out like black specters of death looming over the three men that huddled in their midst. A stream trickled near by, it too going through its own throes of death. In a few short weeks it would be nothing more than a sandy stream bottom, an empty promise to any traveler. Water would not trickle through its banks until late next spring.

Buck's muscles trembled again. A low groan escaped parched lips and legs stirred.

"Easy Pard'" Chris whispered hugging the large form to himself unsure how to offer comfort to a man who had comforted him through his most trying times.

"C..c..c..old" Wilmington stuttered.

Larabee folded Buck's weathered callused hands within his own. Chris had never felt live skin so chilled. A small campfire crackled just a few short inches away. Blankets surrounded the larger man. He lay on both Chris and his own bed rolls and was covered by Ezra's and all three blankets.

"I know Buck jist hold on," Chris pleaded with his friend, "Nathan'll be here soon, jis'hang on a little longer." Larabee tried to comfort his dying friend, unconsciously tightening his grip. A lie. He just lied to Buck. Chris shut his eyes and took a shuttering breath. He had stooped so low as to use a Standish tactic to give false hope to a dying man. How could it be wrong? How could it be immoral to try and ease some of the agony with false hope?

Jackson wasn't coming.

Nathan sat comfortably in Four Corners unaware of the miserable death cresting over one of the seven.

"Goin'...nowhere...pard," Buck whispered out quietly. A small smile split his face. He knew he was dying. The guilt he felt about leaving Chris hurt more than any bullet hole to the side. The loss Chris was floundering through was worse than any amount of blood that spilled unimpeded from Wilmington's body. Buck silently cursed himself for failing his friend. He hoped Vin would be able to pick up the pieces and put Chris back together again. Oh how he was going to miss Chris and the others. Gawd he felt terrible. How could he have failed Chris so badly. The smile started to fade as the pain began to roll through him like a building wave.

Chris missed the small light hearted smirk.

"Thhh...irrr..ssstty" Buck grimaced as the pain crested and crashed down on him. He ground his teeth and tried to muffle the groan. Oh God this hurts so bad.

"Hold on Buck," Larabee reached for one of the canteens. He picked it up and shook it. It was empty. Chris dropped it in disgust and stretched for the other one. It too was empty. Gawd damn gambler....

"Ezra!" Chris shot out in a harsh whisper. He waited a moment and watched the curled form from across the fire move with great reluctance.

The gambler had come down with a stomach sickness just before dawn this morning. Larabee had gone to relieve him from watch to find him on his knees heaving. Chris had silently sworn. Could anything else possibly go wrong. Buck had been gut shot the night before, they were being pursued by two brothers bent on revenge and then Standish had come down with an illness.

"Ezra!" Larabee bit out a little louder dragging the stubborn southerner into some sluggish movements. Larabee shifted the heavy weight of Wilmington in his arms trying to get a more comfortable grip.

"Toss me your canteen." Chris waited a few intolerable moments. The quiet sounds of the desert night were lost on him. Instead he was only concerned with comforting a dying friend.

Standish unwrapped an arm from around his midsection and reached for his canteen. He had trouble focusing on it. His head pounded and felt as if it were caught in a vice. His stomach seemed to rest just behind his tonsils, the slightest wrong movement sent him lurching to his knees heaving. Gawd it was cold out.

He reached a shaky hand for the canteen. It was light. To light. It was empty. The others were empty, he knew because he had drank them as well. He was so incredibly thirsty. Never, could he recall ever craving the sweet taste of water so badly. Hell anything liquid.

"Empty," he breathed out. It hurt to talk. His headache was so fierce his teeth ached, just the simple action of moving his tongue brought misery to his head. He kept his eyes closed the light of the fire sent physical nauseating pain shooting through his head.

"Gawd damn it Ezra you drank all the water?" Larabee hissed out infuriated. Larabee stared with murderous intent at the curled form across the campfire from Buck and himself.

"Ey,....pard.....go......easy..." Buck whispered out. He did not understand why Chris was angry. Wilmington did not realize much right now, even the fact that it was night eluded him. He could only focus on his incredible thirst and the impending damage he was about to impart on his oldest friend.

"Ezra go fill the canteens," Chris ordered. He held tightly to Buck. Larabee could feel the blood from the saturated bandages soak through his pants leg. He could feel Buck's life ebb from him as the expanding pool of blood was absorbed down his thigh. Wilmington only wanted water and Chris could not even offer him that little reprieve.

"Ezra!" Larabee barked out in desperation. He would not let Buck die craving something as simple as a sip of water.

The dark blue coated form across the fire stirred again.

"Git some water," Chris ordered again. Why Buck? Why did Buck have to take a bullet? Why not him?

"Come on Ezra git on your feet, go git some water," Larabee's coaxing was mixed with a threat.

Standish moved.

Ezra heard Larabee. The gambler missed the coaxing, the pleading, and the unspoken threats. He was thirsty, gawd awful thirsty. Water. Chris wanted water, Buck desired water and so did himself. Ezra would fill the canteens and drink himself full. Maybe he would even drink from the stream before filling the canteens. Yes, he would do that and then fill the canteens.

Larabee tightened his grip around Buck and watched as Standish gamely pulled himself to his knees and then struggle to his feet. Chris tossed the two empty canteens toward Standish. With an unsteady gait the gambler staggered off in the direction of the cold running stream.

Chris watched the stooped southern frame dissolve into the desert night.

Larabee gazed back up at the blanket of stars that adorned the dark sky. A full moon held the sky giving the night an unearthly clear glow. Moon shadows were cast forlornly across the desert. A chorus of Coyotes yipped and howled in the distance. The shriek of something falling prey to tooth or talon cut through the night. The slight breeze kept the hovering insects at bay, its passage marked by a hollow moan as it wove between canyon walls. The small camp fire danced and crackled in the refreshing breeze sending spirals of smoke and sparks diagonally into the heavens.

Chris never noticed the symphony of night creatures. In turn the nocturnal creatures ignored the struggle of a man that slowly bled to death in the arms of a friend. Life and death was the one thing that put all living creatures on an equal plane. Nothing could escape the vast reach of the reaper.

Larabee closed his eyes, silently begging Buck to hang on, not to give up. A prayer found its way into his thoughts. His private pleas turned into a request. A trade. A life for a life. He prayed to a God he had blamed for his family's violent death. A God he blamed as much as he blamed himself. Chris bartered with a God he had given up on and grew to hate.

Trade a life for a life.

Spare Buck. If a soul needed taking tonight, take his, take Chris's. End his suffering. Let JD's older brother survive. Let Wilmington live another night to spend in the arms of a lady he hardly knew. Give Buck another chance to accuse Standish of cheating.

A simple trade a life for a life.

Let Buck live. Let Wilmington continue to teach others how to live life to the fullest, laugh at life's most difficult obstacles. Please don't take Buck from those who need him the most.

What kind of God would pull such a gifted man from this earth and leave a numb murderous gunslinger to face an unsuspecting world. What kind of God would let a young boy burn to death? What kind of God would take a loving mother and wife from a husband?

The same kind of God that would let a best friend bleed to death, the kind of God that would turn a blind eye to the battle waged on this quiet crisp arid night.

Please a life for a life.

Chris clenched Buck tighter to his chest. Maybe his heart could beat for both men.

Please take his life spare Buck's.

A life for a life.

A simple bargain a simple request.

A deaf God.

Wilmington did not want to die. He did not want to bleed to death. He would not go without a fight. Wilmington could not feel Larabee's tightening grip around him. He was not aware of the battle Chris waged. Buck did know that Chris fought. Right now behind the pain, behind the leaden feeling somewhere veiled beyond the sea of grey that comprised of Bucks chilled world, Chris fought like a raging demon. Buck would help him. Wilmington would stand by his side and once more beat the odds. Together Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington would face insurmountable odds and beat them back. They would prevail against death. They had before and they would this time.

If they could just get the bleeding stopped. He felt so thirsty.

"Cautery," Both whispered it. Buck slightly behind Chris's words. The simple word became a tangle of syllables that no outsider would understand.

"Buck," Chris spoke quietly staring down at the pale features. The moonlight did not enhance the blanched features. "Buck we can try an' cauterize the wound." Larabee would not do it without Buck's permission.

Wilmington peeled his eyelids apart. Gawd they felt so heavy. He was so cold. The thought of fire brought false promise of warmth. He merely nodded a slow near impossible movement that left him feeling exhausted.

"It could kill ya Buck?" Larabee whispered back. He slid the Bowie from Buck's belt and leaned forward over Wilmington slipping the large blade into the edge of the flame.

"Dy'n...any'how...pard'" The words floated off the hot labored breath. Another wave of pain washed through Wilmington. A groan escaped.

"Hold on Buck," Chris cinched his arms tighter around his friend. He would not let Buck go. He would defy the God that had stolen away his wife and son. He would bare his teeth at the deities that stole souls to early from this earth. Chris Larabee would fight Satan himself tonight to wrestle back the life of Buck Wilmington....

And if anyone had asked.....Ezra Standish would have laid the odds in favor of Chris and Buck. The gambler, after all, left nothing to chance.

The large stainless steel blade turned black, then shone bright red and orange and finally turned white. The knife was ready.

Chris slid out from under Wilmington. He laid the large gunslinger flat on the two bed rolls. Chris pulled back the blankets and the third bed roll and pulled up Wilmington's blood soaked shirt. The make shift bandages were soaked and dripping uselessly. Larabee removed the sopping shirts that once made up the gamblers laundry.

The entry wound was deceivingly small. The size of a child's pinkie maybe. Blood oozed from the red swollen hole. The exit wound was alarmingly large. It could easily accommodate an adult index finger. With each ragged breath blood ran from the gaping tattered maw.

"You ready Buck?" Chris asked. He received no answer. Wilmington lay on his side exposing the wound to the light of the fire.

Chris cursed quietly out loud. He would not even get a chance to say good bye. Damn you Wilmington. Larabee, as was his nature, became angry. He was infuriated with the world. To hell with everything and everyone especially you Buck Wilmington. You can go to hell, because when you get there I'll be there to kick your pathetic butt. Damn you for passing out on me and leaving me alone. You son of a whore damn you for dying on me.....

Chris wiped at his eyes angry at the tears that threatened to fall on their own accord without his permission. To hell with the world. Larabee watched as Buck drew in a ragged breath. You better hold on Buck Wilmington or I'll kill you myself.

Chris grabbed the handle of the Bowie knife. It singed his hand. Chris's rage was such that he did not notice the burn that scorched his palm. Larabee knelt beside his life long friend. He held the white blade over a man that had pulled him through a war and the loss of a family. Chris shut his eyes and once again bargained.

A life for a life.

He placed the blade into the exit wound.

Smoke billowed from the hole. Blood popped and burned, skin curled and turned black. The heavy unmistakable smell of burnt flesh filled the area.

Buck arched away from the searing pain.

A blood curdling scream tore across the night.

It careened and bounced off canyon walls echoing like a hellish roll of thunder. It washed over the singing coyotes silencing them abruptly. Raptors heads swiveled on necks searching out the sound of the potential meal. Crickets and insects of the night stopped their chatter briefly as the tortured cry rolled passed them.

Vin, JD, Nathan and Josiah pulled their horses to a halt. No one spoke. The death scream washed over them like a flash flood. Tears rolled unbeknownst to JD down his dusty cheeks. Sanchez closed his eyes and prayed for a miracle and Nathan realized he was to late. Tanner ground his teeth, he failed his friends. The wrenching scream belonged to Buck Wilmington.

The anguished cry of pain sailed over the unconscious form near the stream. The parched dry lips never got to taste the sweet water that lay only a few yards away. Canteens hung in a loose grasp. A columns of ants marched unhindered by the sudden obstruction. They continued their purposeful movement over fevered cheeks. A few black ants strayed into the partially parted lips and a few up un-reacting nostrils. The insects discovered nothing of use on their detours and return to their ranks. They crossed the face, traversed the neck, back to the ground unaware and unconcerned of the impending death of the gambler.

* * * * *

Part 2

Three days earlier.

The early morning heat promised another unusually warm spring day. The sky shifted slowly from the dark purples and pale pinks to a lighter blue. The morning sun rose just above the budding trees that surrounded the small burg of Four Corners. A few morning clouds dotted the sky just enough to give the horizon a brilliant display of color. A comfortable breeze whispered down the main street past the slowly waking residents within the wood planked buildings. Seven men sat in the saloon.

An uncommon occurrence. It only punctuated the unnatural tedium that had befallen the normally boisterous bucking throes of a growing frontier town. Four Corners for the past month had been quiet. Much too quiet. The seven peacekeepers were becoming restless.

Chris found his normally solitary mornings amongst his fellow peacekeepers. This bothered him. Not that he did not enjoy their company. Their antics were enough to keep a smile on his face. Still to see all seven in the saloon before noon and on more than one occasion was enough to raise alarm. This was a dilemma he was not sure how to handle. Instead, he sipped at his coffee and moved himself outside to enjoy the morning. He could still listen half heartily to the argument between ex slave and southerner.

Chris smiled as he headed for the bat wing doors. He wondered when Nathan would learn that Ezra's basic understanding between right and wrong, honest and dishonest were as blurred as a cowpuncher's vision on payday. Larabee gave the healer credit for trying and Josiah for not knocking both senseless. How Sanchez ended up in the middle of the heated discussions always surprised the gunslinger. Josiah was a big boy, he could handle himself and those two to boot. Larabee would not worry about blood shed this morning. Though it would at least make things interesting.

Buck was badgering Vin about Tanner's tracking ability. JD had finally learned to hold his tongue and shoot barbs at whatever target revealed itself. Larabee chuckled as he settled in the chair outside the saloon. Wilmington was normally on the receiving end of Dunne's one liners. Vin tended to speak very little and what he did say was usually well thought out. Wilmington as was his tendency took on everything in a whirlwind fashion.

Chris stretched his legs out and stifled a yawn. He was not even tired but the inactivity was wearing down on him. Something had to give soon. Larabee closed his eyes wrapping his hands around the coffee mug. He listened as the voices from within the saloon rose in volume. Chris let a slight frown crease his weathered face. Surprisingly it was not Nathan berating the conman or the Southerner insulting the ex-slave. Buck's voice rang out in the early morning shattering any hopes for a peaceful day.

Buck leaned across the table. His blue eyes bore into Tanner's slightly amused features.

"I know your good at what ya do Vin but face it, you wouldn't be near as successful at tracking one of us." Wilmington sat back in his chair with a smug look. "Hell we know all your tricks," Buck crossed his arms over his chest proud of his logic, "we ain't some unsuspecting criminal with no clue on how to cover a trail." Buck twiddled with his coffee mug ignoring the others that had quieted down to listen to the conversation.

Tanner sat back in his chair smiling. The others recognized the slight curl of the lip. Tanner was smiling alright, like a predator just before it made the kill. Buck was heading toward something big and from the leer on Tanner's face it was most likely going to become a man size trap.

Wilmington either ignored the look or just played into it. Buck loved a challenge. "Hell Vin I bet you couldn't track some of us down on a good day."

The word 'bet' rang across the saloon like church bell. Outside Chris sat forward resting all for legs of the chair on the boardwalk. Larabee smiled he could just imagine Standish's face lighting up at the prospect of a wager. Chris chuckled when the southern voice rang out...

"Did you just say, 'bet'?" Ezra completely dismissed Nathan and his usual recruit and slid his chair over to the table occupied by Vin, Buck and JD. "Are you gentlemen really going to place a wager on Mr. Tanner's tracking skills?" Ezra glanced from Vin to Buck like a man entering an open vault with no one in attendance. Money was to be made.

Tanner leaned back in his chair and eyed Wilmington. A confident smile creased the trackers lean face. He could use a challenge. Vin cocked his head in a questionable fashion dropping the inquiry in Wilmington's boots.

Standish followed the silent communication and gazed upon Buck in a lecherous fashion. The smell of money hung in the air.

"I bet ya Vin," Buck leaned forward resting his arms on the rounded table matching Tanner's amused stare, " that you wouldn't be able to track some of us down if we knew yer were hound'n us." Wilmington smiled at Tanner goading him into the wager.

"Buck I'd give you a days head start and still catch up to ya within three days." Tanner replied softly unruffled by the challenge.

JD leaned back in his chair. His eyes wide, this sounded serious.

Ezra sat forward rubbing his hands. Finally money would head in his direction. It was about time.

"Your on," Buck replied.

"Ok gentlemen," Standish said recognizing his cue. It was time to let the professionals enter the game and take control. "rules need to be established, parameters must be made and wages announced." Ezra loved a good bet.

"What?" JD asked. He sat right beside the gambler and still did not understand what was said. What was Buck thinking? Vin was the best tracker in the territory.

"He said its time to set the rules down and bet money," Josiah responded. He and Jackson dragged their chairs over to the table. This was getting interesting.

"Ok let me get this straight," Ezra placed his hands down on the wood chipped table. A calming gesture for all those around him. The more people involved the more money, the bigger the pot the larger his winnings. Oh life was sweet. "Vin you are going to give Buck and some of us one day head start and then attempt to track them down before the end of three days?"

"Attempt? Ahh hell Ezra I'd find you bef're the mornin' of the second day," Tanner said pushing the gambler to take sides. Vin figured he would get the smooth talking southerner to earn some of the money he intended on fleecing off the sweat of the others. Vin included.

Ezra arched an eyebrow, "Touché," Standish raised his coffee cup in mock salute, " the stakes my dear man have just gone up," Standish sat back in his chair. Vin figured to make Buck's trials more difficult by 'strapping' Wilmington with Ezra. The conman saw the ploy and played into it. It would be his chance to prove to Vin and the others that he could hold his own when pressed on the trail. It also allowed him to increase the wagering. The others assumed him to be a liability in the wilderness. Ezra would just make more of a profit on that foolish assumption.

"Ok then, Buck and I get one....." Standish started to reiterated but again was cut off.

Larabee strode purposefully into the saloon. A smile lanced his face. This wager had some intrigue and challenge. "Count me on your team Ezra," Chris met Tanner's unperturbed stare, ignoring the floundering southerner.

The sharpshooter merely bowed his head in consent. Three men were easier to track than one or two for that matter. Vin would enjoy showing his fellow peacekeepers just how good a tracker he really was, no matter who he was after. Tanner would have them before the three days were out.

Ezra swung around in his chair, surprise and shock stealing away the cocky smirk that once lay across his clean shaven features. His erratically moving elbow knocked JD's coffee cup into the young sheriff's lap. Dunne hollered in shock and skidded his chair away from the table. The legs of the chair caught on the uneven flooring and toppled over backward spilling Dunne to the ground. A small cloud of dust billowed from the sudden displacement.

Standish missed Dunne's wild ride and stared at the gunslinger with open mouthed shock. Larabee wanted to be on his team. Chris wanted to participate in a bet and openly sided with Standish. The conman followed the movements of the lean gunslinger. Larabee was playing him, using him for something. There had to be an angle to this sudden overt show of camaraderie. Hell, Larabee could only tolerated him on a good day and normally only at the gaming tables. Why this?

"Think he's gonna go into some kind of apoplexy?" Josiah asked none to quietly of Nathan. Both men as well as the others, save poor JD, stared at the gambler with amusement.

"Best shut yer mouth Ezra b'fore some flies take up residence," Tanner uttered out quietly. Larabee's request was unexpected to say the least.

Wilmington raised his hand to Standish's jaw and shoved it closed. The action was enough to pull the gambler from his momentary lapse.

Chris pulled up a chair and sat next to Tanner across from the gambler. Larabee smiled at the southerner offering no sense of comfort to the now unbalanced cardsharp.

"That ok with you Ezra?" Chris asked, not really caring if it was ok or not. The gunslinger watched as the shock wore off the southerners face. It was replaced with a cold scrutinizing gaze trying to discern the angle for Chris's sudden alliance.

Ezra stared at Chris trying to figure out what made the gunslinger want to side with him. Mr. Larabee made no effort to hide his distrust of the gambler, well at least with money. Ezra could not really fault the man. Standish could not trust himself with other people's money. Well he could to some degree. Ezra knew he would use it as a means to attain goals that were beneficial to himself. There really wasn't anything wrong with self improvement and personal gain.

Larabee was up to something. Standish just had to figure it out.

Josiah did not bother hiding his chuckle. He wondered how Chris would cross the bridge of distrust between Larabee and the gambler.

* * * * *

Sanchez had spoken to the gunslinger just after the incident with the attempt on Mary's life. The gambler ,out of character, had stepped in front of an assassin and taken a bullet meant for Mrs. Travis. Ezra should have died but the money he had hidden away in his pockets, 'for save keeping' saved his life. Standish had admitted, while laying on the street that he should not be tempted with safe guarding large sums of cash. With Nathan removing ten thousand dollars of ill gotten money from the gambler's pockets, Chris merely nodded.

Josiah had been haunted by ghosts that week and had not been as 'helpful' to his floundering sheep as he should have been. Standish had actually come to him seeking aide, well money if truth be told. The preacher tired of fighting demons, exhausted from failing to solve his own problems, laid overwhelming temptation into the hands of the gambler. He had turned and snapped at the gambler laying not only the burden of blame and some measure of righteous guilt but also the dreaded "Apple". Sanchez saw himself no better than the snake that had tempted Eve in the Garden.

Standish had failed miserably. He fell to the lure of money. Ezra was not ashamed of his fall and maybe not even surprised by it. The gambler had taken it all in stride. It was his nature. What had bothered the gambler the most and in frustrated rantings (due to his inability to get his sticky hands on the money) was the lack of trust the others had in him. Especially Larabee. For all his blustering and comical posturing Standish was dismayed by the absence of faith by Chris. It might have been more correct to say, it was not so much the lack of faith Chris had in Ezra but how accurately Larabee had read the gambler.

Ezra thought Chris did not trust him. Truth be told it was true. When it came to money. The man was unashamedly greedy. The other six knew it, Ezra was somewhat aware of it, and they kept obscene temptation away from him.

It would be no wiser to have Buck safe guard a sweet young lady than it would to have Ezra watch over a railroad Payroll. Buck would seduce or be seduced by his charge and...well Ezra...he to would be seduced by the captivating promise of wealth.

There was a glimmer of hope for the conman. The others saw it. Chris especially. Deep down under the layers of wealthy clothes and gross self indulgent arrogance a decent human being struggled. It was a slight minor fight but at least there was some awakening of a fledgling conscious.

Standish's actions had proven this when he stepped in front of the assassin and took the bullet for Mary. Chris had indeed been right. Larabee had originally taken a gamble on hiring the conman but it had panned out. Chris had questioned his decision almost every time he saw the suave cardsharp. Ezra was good in a gunfight, saloon brawl, tolerantly acceptable on the trail but his love of money made him questionable.

Standish took a bullet to save Mary. The simple unselfish and rightfully deadly act was vindication enough for Larabee. Standish was trustworthy... well...just not with anyone's money.

Josiah feared that Ezra missed the fact that Larabee gained a measure of faith in the conman that day.

Sanchez conveyed this observation to Chris a little over a month ago. The preacher had found the gunslinger alone one morning. In an unobtrusive manner, herded Larabee into a conversation circling this very issue. Standish needed to know he was, in fact, trusted (with non monetary responsibilities) that Larabee had not lost faith in the knavish cardsharp.

Chris had listened quietly nodding his head sipping his steaming coffee. In the end, he only muttered a soft, "Yeah, maybe." That was it. Sanchez left the porch and left the responsibility squarely on Larabee's shoulders.

Today, it seemed Chris finally found an opportunity to cross that bridge. Larabee voluntarily placed himself in a situation in which he and Standish would have to work in conjunction to attain a common goal. Well, an almost common goal.

Josiah had to admit it would not be the same goal at all. Ezra craved the lure of the pot and Chris wanted to test his abilities against Tanner.

Sanchez sighed well at least it got Standish and Larabee on the same side of the fence for a while. Buck would be there to defuse any explosive situations.

+ + + + + + +

"Alright gentlemen," Standish found his voice and pulled a quick recovery, "lets lay down the ground rules, shall we?" He faced the other men a dimpled smile showing off his gold premolar.

JD settled himself back onto his chair harrumphing Ezra's flamboyant arm movements. He nearly got burned in a very delicate area.

"Ok, its gonna be Chris, Ezra and me," Buck said sitting forward catching Larabee's eyes. The two were going to make ground beef of these others. Maybe teach Tanner a trick or too. It would do the tracker good to get a some real challenges. Lately, the criminals had practically been leaving trail markers. Even JD and Ezra could have tracked some of them to ground.

Vin smiled wolfishly. He really hated to have Chris dragged into this, but maybe it would be good for Larabee. Chris needed a challenge. Vin would toy with them for a little bit let them think they were winning and then close the trap on the threesome. It would be good harmless revenge. Vin fought to keep his smile from spreading. It was about time he fleeced the gambler and won some money back. It would be good to knock Buck down a peg or two just let him know that tracking and hiding a trail was not easy. Chris just might learn something and even teach Vin a trick.

The tracker was looking forward to the hunt.

"We leave at first light," Larabee picked up. He pointedly directed his gaze away from the southerner. Mornings and the gambler mixed about as readily as water and oil. He really did not want to start off with an argument.

"I'll give ya a full day's light an' then start in after ya," Tanner concluded.

"Where do ya have ta finish at?" JD asked trying to pick the wet pant leg away from his inner thigh. What an embarrassing stain.

"Outlaws don't tell us where they're goin' when the lite out of town JD," Nathan pointed out.

Chris silently answered the Kid's question, 'the Canyon.'

* * * * *

Part 3

Devil's Canyon was a three days ride North West of town. It was an unforgiving place in the summer time. The sun beat the clay until is lifted and curled in tiny plates. Water holes were sucked dry by the scorched land and nothing higher than tumble weeds thrived around the rim of the canyon. The canyon's sandy bottom lay over a hundred feet below the desert floor. It was made mostly of soft sifting sand that could burn a man's foot through his boot. In the spring time, a stream meandered through its dark ominous walls. The water, however, fell prey to the leaching rays of the summer sun and dried up before the end of May. Monstrous rock monoliths rose from the canyon floor diverting but not halting the steady flow of the spring water. It was said nothing lived down in the canyon. Like the desert, things were sizzled under the relentless rays of daylight and at night a sharp freeze fell over the land. Sage, sand and a few hardy insects survived in the canyon. Nothing, thrived.

"If we have a place of conclusion would it not undermine our efforts?" Ezra asked not sure he liked the way the rules were being laid down. This seemed to give Vin an unfair advantage.

Tanner noticed the slight panic that flashed across the gambler's countenance. Vin appreciated the vote of confidence. Standish was beginning to think this was not a sure thing after all. Tanner felt good about that, the conniving gambler was having second thoughts about betting against Vin.

"Nah Ezra, we don't need to know we're y'all goin'" Tanner slowly intoned a chuckle escaped, "cuz I'll have ya before ya git where ev'r it is ya're goin'." Vin's mind was working quickly. Having an common finish line did give him undo advantage. There were only so many different ways out of town. Then again the same lack of options or the same plethora of options faced fleeing outlaws. If Vin should happen to lose Buck or Chris's trail, which of course is unlikely, he would need a back up plan.

Standish had a right to be worried.

"You have to leave something behind for us pick up, like a small marker hidden out of the way," Tanner explained as the idea started coming to mind.

"Like a treasure hunt," JD helped out.

Buck began to warm up to the idea, "Ok we leave something behind to be found," he nailed Vin with a smug smile, "you'll have to look for it Vin," Buck said.

"We leave two things on each day," Chris confirmed. He caught onto the train of thought. Larabee really did look forward to the hunt. It would be fun to test Vin's ability against his own. Chris knew he was not near as good a tracker as Tanner but Larabee felt confident he could hold his own if push came to shove. This gave him the opportunity to test it. Buck would do alright. He and Wilmington had been on the trail together for nearly a life time. Wilmington was a man to have at your side in a pinch. Buck and he had faced and survived odds that would have left most men dead. Buck and he were a team had been for a life time. They would prevail. Standish, well maybe if Vin took JD it would even the odds.

"Alright gentlemen lets make this clear," Ezra said leaning forward surveying the faces of the others at the table. For this particular wager the rules needed to be clear. Usually Ezra liked to muddy the water to hide any possible 'exits' he might need to employ. This particular gamble needed to be run with clear boundaries. Standish himself knew he was out of his element. Had Vin not challenged him into participating, Ezra would have been content to stay in town and hold onto the wages.

"Mr. Wilmington, Mr. Larabee and myself have three days in which we have to elude you gentlemen," nods circled the table. "We must leave two items, secreted away somewhere along the trail each day for Mr. Tanner and his team to secure," again he paused checking for agreement.

"If we make it three days undetected we win," Ezra smiled already tasting victory.

"If we catch you," Vin smiled confidently, "you lose."

"Only if you have all six items in your possession," Standish returned.

"Who's on Vin's team?" JD asked. He wanted in on this anything to get out of town. It was down right boring. The Dime novels never mentioned the 'down time' between gunfights.

"I'll take JD," Tanner said without hesitation. The kid was picking up the skills of tracking quite quickly.

Larabee and Wilmington exchanged quick glances that were not lost on JD or Ezra.

Standish silently fumed, 'they think I'm going to be a hindrance,' Ezra bit back his indignation. They are using Mr. Dunne's green horn status to offset my supposed lack of ability. They were in for a shock.

JD wanted to kick Buck. 'they're happy Vin's taking me, think I'll slow Vin up, make up for them having to take Ezra,' Dunne wanted to win now, not because of the money. Hell Ezra could have his winnings. He was going to show Buck just how good a tracker he really could be given the chance.

Josiah noticed the silent communication between Buck and Chris and also knew that it was not lost on Ezra or JD. Nothing was ever easy.

"I'm with you Brother Vin," Josiah's baritone voice rang quietly around the near empty saloon. Someone would have to keep the peace or pick up the pieces.

"Y'all don't mind I'm going to sit this one out," Jackson said tiredly. The others might have been experiencing a slow month, but things had been busy for him. With foals and calves hitting the ground, farmers and ranchers had been on the receiving end of upset momma's. Nathan could not remember having to wrap so many ribs or legs before. This spring season had brought out the fight in mares and cows alike and their owners were paying for it in flesh. Heck just yesterday poor ole Evan Thompson took a cloven hoof to the chest that knocked him through the corral. Busted three ribs up real good. When would people learn not to come between momma's and their babies?

They nodded their consent. The rules were set, teams picked and wages made. The seven dispersed for the day. They would start at first light the next morning. Nathan watched the six other men and wondered if he should stick close to town. Something told Jackson that all the ingredients for a disaster were in the cauldron.

Larabee smiled as he headed out of the saloon. Devil's Canyon. It would be a suitable place. If Vin was indeed hot on their trail they could lose the tenacious tracker within that convoluted maze.

Tanner watched Chris quietly. Vin knew it. Devil's Canyon. The sly dog was going to try and make the Canyon and, if need be, lose Vin and his team with in its twisted innards. Vin chuckled. He loved the Canyon.

* * * * *

Cole Donavon was not a decent man. He did not have any misconceptions of his morality or lack of ethics. Cole knew that when his time came due his soul would burn in eternal damnation. This revelation did not bother him. In fact, he relished the idea, looked forward to it with almost barely contained glee. Yes, he would burn in Hades for his wrong doings on this pitiful earth. A malicious leer slid across the chiseled whiskered face. Cole folded his lean arms across a wiry chest as he watched his youngest brother. Hell had better be ware.

Hades....A warm place with a nasty attitude. He belonged there and would welcome the challenge. Devlin, of course deserved better. Cole's little brother should have been spared the miserable existence they had been forced to endure. It was not to be, so no time should be wasted dwelling on it . Delvin would follow his older brother through the gates of hell. They would remain together that was all that really mattered in the end.

Cole watched contentedly as his baby brother slipped the poisonous seeds into Wilmington's saddle bags. The smell of coffee briefly overrode the aroma of the livery. A simple little seed found throughout Texas and a those few territories just north of it. Small innocuous looking things that could kill a grown man if enough were consumed. The beauty of it was not the death that they imparted but the severe illness that they wrought on their victims. To those that consumed these little gems, would fall into a realm of agony one to two days after they were eaten or drank.

Cole let a chuckle out. Oh yes, he and Devlin were going to hell but Buck Wilmington and Chris Larabee would go first. Poetic justice.

Cole's twisted smile transformed into a snarl as he remembered the day his younger brother, Liam, was gut shot by the gunslingers. Donavon growled with predatory animosity. Wilmington and Larabee had gut shot his younger brother and left him to die. They did not even bother to finish him off. They shot him and left. Liam did not die easily. No sir. He was Sean Donna's son and a fighter. Liam held on for three days, slowly bleeding to death in agony as his guts and innards slowly died away, rotting inside of him. Liam died from the inside out. He lived through his torturous death. The middle brother knew he was dead the second the two slugs tore through his lower and middle abdomen. Intestines slowly leaked ingesta into the large cavity as blood seeped from the body in an ungodly slow fashion. Liam had suffered. Suffered miserably. He had been reduced to a chilled bloodless corpse with a rapid heart beat. In the end, he died crying for reprieve, begging one of his brothers to kill him.

Cole on that third day put a bullet in his younger brother's head. He ended Liam's suffering as Devlin dug the grave just on the other side of the grassy knoll.

Wilmington and Larabee were to blame. They too would suffer. They would suffer the severe abdominal pain and cramps, they would die in an agonizing manner. Neither would know the source of their illness and would continue to consume more of it until they could no longer bear to move. Yes, as the poisoned worked and their thirsts increased they would drink more of the little seeds thus cinching their own painful deaths. An eye for an eye.

Cole would not take a chance of meeting them face to face. He had lost one younger brother, he would not lose two. He had promised his loving Mother, so long ago, that he would watch over and protect her sons while she was sick. Their mother had died before Devlin celebrated his tenth birthday. The death hit their father hard. He had become an angry man, brutal. Through his brawn and relentlessness he had taught his sons self reliance, tenacity and ruthlessness. His boys had grown in his image.

Then Larabee and Wilmington entered the picture.

The Senior Donavon was shot down in a saloon brawl. Liam had fired into the crowd that gathered around the dying father. Liam had acted out of pain and blind rage. His five bullets had found three targets; some nameless cow pushers and a saloon wench had fallen to his pain. Larabee and Wilmington drew and shot Liam. Gunned him down in cold blood. Killed him mercilessly because Liam had grieved for his father.

Cole had dragged his wounded brother from the corpse of their father. Carried him home only to witness him rot from the inside out. The house had come to smell of fetid flesh. Flies had blown the wound. Despite Devlin's fight to keep Liam free from crawling flesh eating pests they came. The bugs had swarmed the wound. Devlin had tried day and night to help his brother. Cole had watched, listening to the moans and cries of his brothers. Listened as the rice like fly larva ate the dead flesh from the living corpse of his younger brother. Liam had to listen while the vermin consumed his dying flesh.

Cole had become a demon. Devlin had followed his brother out of loyalty and a passion born of hate. He too would repay Wilmington and Larabee for the atrocities that befell their family.

* * * * *

Devlin secured the leather bags on Wilmington's saddle, patting them quietly knowing full well what he had just done. Devlin stood the same height as his older brother. Both just at six feet. Cole was older by three years. They could have been twins. Both with dark bay colored hair, piercing blue eyes and sprinkling of freckles. Dimples would have adorned Cole's cheeks if he had smiled. There was very little in this world that brought out a smile. The impending death of the two murderers that strutted through Four Corners, enticed a feral grin to his leathered features.

His dimples came from his mother.

Devlin smiled when he remembered his mother. She had soft hands and a freckled face. Her voice was quiet and always seemed to laugh. He could not recall the specific's of her features but when he thought of her a comforting feeling blanketed him. His mother loved him tenderly a direct contrast to his father. His father was a hard man, forging his sons into men that would survive in an untamed, unruly world. At the experienced age of twenty-two, Devlin had set himself on a path of revenge and retribution. He had lost a mother to illness, a father to fight and a brother to blind cruelty.

It was time to wreak some revenge. Devlin would extract the proper form of payment from the two lawmen. He would avenge the wrongful death of his older brother. Then and maybe then Cole would return to him. After taking Wilmington and Larabee to the gates of Hell, maybe the laughing Cole that Devlin had once known would come back. It would not happen before then Devlin knew this in his heart. Cole had died the day he put a bullet in Liam. When Devlin had buried his older brother on the grassy knoll overlooking their humble homestead, the youngest knew he buried a piece of Cole too.

Larabee and Wilmington would pay, and pay in spades.

* * * * *

JD fumed as he tossed his knife angrily into the boardwalk. He sat in his chair tilting it back against the jail house wall. He would show Buck and Chris. JD Dunne was not the greenhorn that first jumped from the moving stage coach so many years ago. When would Buck realize that JD was no longer just a dumb city kid? The Sheriff harrumphed, probably never.

" 'Ey Kid," Tanner settled down in the chair next Dunne. He stretched out his long leather clad legs and pulled his hat down over his eyes. The sun had begun to set in the west. The comfortable spring like warmth slowly slipped from the land and the cold winter chill seemed to settle back in place. In just over an hour it would be dark out, the moon would almost be full. Tanner smiled to himself. He wondered if Buck, Chris or Ezra even realized that it would be a full moon in just a few nights. With a full moon hanging low in a spring sky, it would be possible to track them even at night. Ezra wouldn't know if it were day or night unless the sun rose and set around his gaming table. Buck might have noticed. Chris should and probably did take into account the phase of the moon. Larabee liked a challenge. Tanner would accommodate him.

He had noticed the irritation on JD's face this morning at the saloon. Everyone did but Chris and Buck. Even Ezra seemed a bit put out. That was unusual, the gambler took most things in stride, well as long as it did not directly include money. The silent insinuations between Buck and Chris had stirred ill feelings in both Dunne and Standish. The two supposed greenhorns had something to prove now. It might make Vin's job a little more difficult. JD might think he had something to prove to Vin and act rashly. Ezra, on the other hand, would be on his 'best' behavior, whatever that might be, probably just not irritating Chris to the point of murder. That would hinder Tanner somewhat. He was as shocked as everyone else when Chris volunteered to side with Standish.

Vin figured those two would bicker so much he would just have to follow a blood trail. Ezra never knew when to keep his mouth shut when it came to Larabee. It would make Vin's job a lot less difficult. Not that it was going to be terribly trying anyhow. To track three men to a predestined finishing spot would be as easy as licking melted butter off a knife. Throw Standish and Larabee into the mix and all Vin would have to do is follow the destruction that tended to ensnare the two men. With Buck and Chris's silent but not unnoticed communication it changed the circumstances. Ezra realized what was expected of him and it infuriated him. Tanner had seen it easy enough. Standish would change his behavior and mannerisms to keep his unpredictable nature intact. He would not fight with Chris. As a result there would be no blood trail, no destruction, nothing which would simply say 'Chris and Ezra fought here'. Tanner sighed it really did not matter. He would have those three spotted before the established time limit.

The tracker stole a sidelong glance at the young sheriff. JD could not hide his anger and frustration as easily as Standish.

"JD? You ok?" Tanner asked again.

Dunne glanced over a Vin briefly then leaned forward retrieving his small knife from the boardwalk. "Jist fine, why?"

"Nuthin' just want'd ta make sure yer ready fer tomorra," Tanner replied quietly settling back in his chair, "We'll have those three before they reach Devil's Canyon," Vin smiled under the brim of his hat. He followed JD with his eyes. He did not want the young man thinking Vin doubted his abilities. Dunne was a fast learner and he had great retention. If anything JD would be a big help.

"Don't worry Vin I won't mess it up fer ya," JD muttered out still seething.

"Never was," Tanner intoned quietly. As far as he was concerned the matter was taken care of, JD knew where Vin stood.

Dunne gazed at the hat shrouded sharpshooter. Vin did not seem concerned about JD riding with him. A small smile spread across JD's face. He would prove to Buck and Chris that he was just as good as them when it came to tracking.

* * * * *

Part 4

Chris had expected to have to drag the gambler from his bed that first morning. The sun had not even crested the horizon. It was still dark out as Larabee crossed the main street, leaving the warm comforts of the boarding house heading toward the saloon to roust Standish. Larabee had wanted to drop that responsibility onto Wilmington but Buck was in the arms of Pansy bemoaning his fate. Larabee smiled in the early morning blackness. There were something's that one could always count on: the sun rising in the East, setting in the West, and Buck in the arms of a young lady.

Chris hopped up the step to the boardwalk. The hollow sound of his boots marked his passage. Chris pushed through the batwing doors and stopped in surprise.

Ezra sat drinking a cup of coffee at the bar.

Larabee paused for a brief moment. He wondered if the southerner had gone to bed at all. Funny thing about the gambler, he would sometimes rather forgo sleep if he had to be up and moving at any 'ungodly' hour of the morning.

Chris did not care for the reason. Standish was awake and apparently functional. That was enough for now.

"You ready?" Chris asked quietly. The morning had a sharp chill to it. It seemed to magnify the silence that enveloped the still sleeping town. Larabee's subdued voice rang loudly across the empty saloon.

Ezra gazed up from his coffee. This time of day was an a front to the senses. It was unnatural for him to be up and moving contemplating the day. One should be either engaged in a game of chance or nestled away comfortably under blankets in deep repose. Whatever made him join these wretches in such a fool hearty exercise?


Yes of course. There was a lot to be said for wealth.

"Lead the way," Standish tried to smile but could not find it in his heart to force undo activity on his body.

Larabee turned on his heel and headed back out into the dark morning. The street fires still struggled to hold onto what little life they had left. In an hour or so the sun would begin to glow just behind the tree line. The small blazes that lined the main street would die out leaving the dirt thorough way bathed in the grey of predawn light. Stars had begun to fade in the sky, the slight shifting of constellations marked the passage of time.

Chris entered the livery to find Buck saddling his large grey gelding. Larabee noticed Standish had actually packed and secured his saddle bags the night before. Anything to give himself a few extra minutes of sleep. If indeed he did manage to make it to bed.

"Buck," Chris said in way of greeting. He felt surprisingly good. It was almost just like old times. He and Buck hitting the trail before sun up. They normally would have been packing away a hardy lunch that Sarah ....had....packed. The momentary flash of joy sizzled with the blurry image of his beloved wife and fading son.

"Chris," Wilmington responded with a smile. Pansy was never a disappointment. "You drag Ezra's sorry ass out of bed?"

"No he did not," Standish responded entering the livery. The morning chill cut through both his coats. What ever possessed him to engage in such sophomoric games?

"'Ey Ezra," Buck boomed out happily. Wilmington turned and faced the southerner. Standish might have been up and moving but he was hardly awake.

"Don't worry pard' I packed some coffee fer ya, so yer won't have to suffer to much on the trail," Buck chuckled. They would make Devil's Canyon in no time and lose Vin and the others before the sun hit midday. Hell, if things fell according to plan Ezra would be able to enjoy a quiet cup of coffee morning and night.

* * * * *

Vin Tanner lay flat on his belly on the roof of the Mercantile peering down his spy glass. A humorous smirk crossed his face. The threesome headed South out of town. The tracker did not bother biting back a chuckle. Chris and Buck were acting as predicted. The comment yesterday had Ezra up out of bed before either of the other two. Tanner had to concede that the change in behavior of the gambler would be a problem. One could usually count on the southerner to slow the others up by a good ten minutes with just his complaining and general surliness in the morning. It would not be the case these next few days. Still Buck and Chris were behaving in their typical manner.

Vin was going to enjoy the next couple of days. He knew how Chris and Buck thought and figured it would not be a problem tracking them. His only hesitancy lay in obvious fact that if he knew how they thought, then it would stand to reason that Chris and Buck had a clear understanding on how Vin thought. Those two would act accordingly and change their behavior.

Tanner smiled again as he lay on the roof. This was where Standish came into play. The Southerner was a bull headed obstinate man if pushed to hard. They all were, but no one was as quick with remarks as Standish. An unfortunate trait that landed him trouble time and again with Larabee and Jackson. Standish would be the counter balance for the two other men. Chris and Buck would have to act and react without their extremist tendencies. They would modify their behavior but only to so much.

Tanner peered down the spy glass again and chuckled.

The threesome left before first light, getting a jump on the day. They headed South out of town the opposite direction of Devil's Canyon. Tanner handed the spy glass to JD who muffled yet another yawn. The kid was eager to get moving. Vin had to agree with Dunne but still they had to wait a full days light before they could start out after the others.

"Watch'em for a moment will ya JD." Vin said. Tanner rolled over onto his back and made himself a smoke. He licked the paper sealing the ends closed.

"Why Vin?" Dunne asked. He held the telescope to his eye and did as requested. Dunne would do exactly as Tanner said without argument. Vin could teach him a lot about tracking and more importantly with the Texan's help he could finally prove to Buck and Chris that he was good on the trail.

"Cuz in about ten minutes they're gonna turn left 'n' head East fer a bit before changin' direction agin 'n' head toward Devil's Canyon," Vin stated matter of factly.

JD took his eye from the spy glass stared at Tanner for a brief second and then refocused his attention.

Nine and a half minutes later the trio turned left taking an Easterly direction.

"Hot damn Vin," JD sputtered with a joyous whoop, "How'd ya know they'd do that?"

Vin still lying on his back, smiled smugly, "Chris likes ta flank things, scout'm out before he rides straight into ta somethin'." Tanner closed his eyes enjoying the winter chill that hung on the morning air. Yup, as easy as lickin' butter off a knife.

He, JD and Josiah would have those three before night fall tomorrow.

"Lit's go git ready kid," Vin said standing up. Chris, Buck and Ezra would be out of sight by now. There would be nothing left to watch except the sunrise. The two men silently disappeared through the crawl space in the roof.

A crow sat quietly on the bank roof across the street.

* * * * *

Buck leaned back in his saddle soaking up the late morning rays. Chris had lead them on a tortuous meandering route. They had climbed over grassy hills, rock slabs, across hard packed sage covered ground before finally swinging North West.

It promised to be another beautiful day. A few white clouds hung high in the sky. The sun warmed the air beating back the chill of the previous night and morning. Buck had peeled off his rough coat and tied it behind his saddle. A nice day indeed.

The horses kept up a brisk walk. They were in good condition and could handle this pace for most of the day. Buck knew Chris would not stop if it could be avoided. Wilmington chuckled. Larabee would ride all day and night just to reach the canyon before Vin. The horses could make it probably but getting them back out would be a trial. With watering holes drying up it there would be no point in pushing the horses to extremes.

A hawk cried out. Its shrill cut through the mid morning day comfortably breaking the silence that had blanketed the small group.

Buck had figured Ezra's mouth was just not awake yet and Chris, ahh Hell Chris wouldn't say anything just for conversation sake. The man was just plain uncommunicative when you got right down to it.

Wilmington as was his habit conversed enough for both he and Chris when they were out on the trail together. Lately Buck had JD to talk with but not today. Ezra would have to do in a pinch.

Not that conversing with the gambler was bad, not at all. It was just half the time Buck had no idea what the man was saying.

Buck swung around in his saddle and faced the conman. Standish still wore both his coats and his hat hung somewhat over his eyes effectively shielding them from the bright sunlight.

"How ya hold'n up Ezra?" Wilmington asked. His cheerful voice rang out over the clop of hooves and the creaking of leather. "Ya know Ezra the mornin' sun won't kill ya if it shines on ya," Buck continued to ramble. It felt so good to be outside. Invigorating, he had heard Mary use that word once. He would try it on Ezra, "Ain't it invigorating to be outside Ezra?"

Chris furrowed his brow as he lead the others, "Invigorating?" Where did Buck dig up that word. He was glad Standish had come along. It gave Buck someone to focus his energy on instead of Chris. Larabee actually enjoyed the banter and one sided conversations Buck and he had when ever they were out on the trail. Buck knew him so well that when Wilmington asked Larabee a question Buck would answer it for him. Chris did not mind, most times Buck answered it correctly.

Chris let a broad smile stretch across his face bringing out his dimples. Standish was not so tolerant in the mornings.

The southern drawl floated up the line, "Shut up Buck."

Buck's smile brightened, 'understood that,' he said to himself. Wilmington, undaunted, continued his dialogue with Standish.

+ + + + + + +

The threesome came to slow meandering stream. Even with the promise of Spring the water traveled slowly rolling with a soft murmur within its grassy banks. Trees and brush clung to the subsisting on the water that traversed just a few feet away.

Chris nudged his black gelding into the icy water. The animal did not hesitate. It stepped boldly into the river adjusting its gate to the slippery rolling ground it now tread upon. Buck's grey leaped in with a flourish. Horse and rider feeding off of one another's enthusiasm. The dapple grey dropped its head into the water and snorted. It pranced and splashed about in the stream with its front legs shaking its head. Up ahead Chris chuckled to himself. Buck and his gelding deserved one another. That fool horse would go anywhere Wilmington asked it and would find away to amuse itself once it got there. A typical Buck.

The chestnut quarter horse paused. It really did not trust the shifting ground below the moving water. It could not see the stream bed and therefore would not obligingly step off something as stable as solid earth. Standish could not really disagree with his horse. Sometimes the animal possessed more common sense than most people. Today was not the day for attitude. He quietly asked the animal to step off the bank. The horse complied.

Chris had turned around in the saddle when he heard the pregnant pause between horses entering the stream. He watched Standish nonchalantly urge his quarter horse down off the bank. The animal did not seem to relish the water as much as the grey in front of him. Larabee let a half smile cross his face. The chestnut hung back keeping its distance from the frolicking grey. Standish did not seem to mind. Chris figured neither horse nor rider wanted to get unduly soaked.

They trudged down the middle of the stream. Conversation had been halted. The horses clomping through two feet of water made communication difficult. The stream widened out enough to accommodate two horses side by side but they retained their single file line. Tributaries fed into the larger stream occasionally Buck would ride up one disappear turn around and join up with the others. Just something to keep Vin busy.

They passed one inlet. Ezra pulled up his horse. He sat quietly for a brief moment a puzzled expression on his face. Buck and Chris both noticed the change in volume of horses moving through water. Both held their horses and swung around in their saddles.

"Ezra what are you doin'?" Buck asked. He knew it was to good to be true. It really was not anyone's fault. It just was not in Standish's nature to go along quietly with anyone. Wilmington did not bother turning to face Chris. He knew Larabee did not have the patience for this kind of hesitation. They were on a schedule and Larabee was punctual if anything.

"Are we not attempting to gain Devil's Canyon?" Standish asked slightly confused.

"Yeah so come'n," Buck said.

Chris held his tongue. He would let Wilmington handle this little episode. Larabee figured his time would come soon enough. Maybe he should have just ignored Josiah.

"Yes, well if that is the case then why are we not taking this route?" Standish asked again indicating to the tributary he now stood before.

"Cuz this is the way to Devil's Canyon," Buck answered.

Chris sat back in this saddle and watched the gambler. Ezra had kept his mouth shut all morning and had been cooperative. Why would he suddenly change tactics? If he stalled to much then he ran the risk of losing the bet. That would be unacceptable to the conman. No something was definitely in the making.

Buck squinted his eyes at the southerner. Standish was up to something.

"What are you gettin' at Ezra," Chris edged his horse quietly back up the rocky steam bed.

"I know for a fact that this," he indicated to the small rapidly moving stream to his left, "minor tributary springs from Devil's Canyon." His green eyes belied the quiet confidence in his voice.

Chris merely raised his eye brows in askance. Buck shrugged. This was new to him but he was open to ideas. He and Chris had rode all through this territory and knew it forward and backward. There was not a trail that they had not traversed. This was something new.

"Gentlemen, gentleman," Standish let a devilish smile tweak his face offering only a hint of his dimples, "trust me."

Buck shut his eyes and groaned and Chris shook his head in dismay.

Standish saw this and sighed. He leaned his wrists on his saddle horns and slumped forward, "Your lack of faith is disturbing," His smile never faltered.

Sanchez's words came back to haunt Larabee. Chris swore silently, he really hoped to avoid such situations.

"What makes you so sure?" Larabee would hear the explanation first and then make a decision.

Ezra cocked his head slightly and sighed again, "Well if you recall the unfortunate disagreement between Mr. Sanchez and myself a few weeks back?"

Buck interrupted him, "Ya mean the time you took money from the poor box?" Wilmington thought that had to be the lowest move a person could pull.....until he heard the reason behind it.

"I did not steal the money," Standish bit out trying to hide his sudden anger. The short sightedness of his compatriots was appalling.

"Ya took it without ask'n," Buck pointed out. Something's were just plain wrong no matter how you looked at it. Ezra really crossed the line on that fool stunt. It paid off in the end but the hell he lived through before it turned right could not have been worth it. Wilmington amended his thoughts. For Ezra yes the monetary gain would definitely make dancing with the Devil worth his efforts.

"Only because if I had asked Mr. Sanchez would have said 'No," Standish returned. He had acted purely for the good of others....with only slight profit for himself. Why did no one else understand the motivations that resulted in such positive results? One could not hope to survive on a dollar a day and thrive, even if room and board were thrown into the deal. Some times a person had to stretch the flimsy, shifting boundaries of right and wrong to create opportunities. Ezra had serendipitously dipped into the 'collection box' removed a tiny sum and converted it into a moderately large sum, in a relatively short time span. What could possibly be wrong with such actions? The money had been returned and then some. Josiah's collections had nearly tripled as a direct result of Standish's intervention. Instead of being praised, Ezra found himself on the receiving end of just about everyone's righteous indignation. The only one not to openly judge him was Chris Larabee. Standish found very little comfort in the older man's silence. Chris tended to use lead as a language medium.

"Enough," Chris said. He had heard these same arguments six weeks ago. He did not need to relive them. "What's your point Ezra?" He would strangle Josiah the next time he saw him.

"Well if you gentlemen remember correctly you suggested that perhaps it would be within my best interest to make myself somewhat scarce for a short time," Ezra reminded them.

"We told ya ta git out of town before Josiah killed ya," Buck said. Sanchez was ready to rip the southerner apart limb by limb. Josiah could be down right scary when properly riled.

"Yes well I could not go to Eagle Bend, Bitter Creek is more than a week away and..." Standish was saying but was interrupted by Chris's tired.

"Git to the point Ezra," The man could not answer a simple question straight forward.

"I thought it best to cover my tracks somewhat," Ezra continued undaunted by the glares, "in case you gentlemen were unable to restrain Mr. Sanchez. I stumbled across this little stream and it lead to Devil's Canyon." A sly smile lit up his face and he added, "in a most convoluted manner."

Chris frowned muffling his chuckle and nodded his head. Buck laughed. Both men swept their arms in an outward manner, "lead the way," Chris chuckled.

Chaucer, familiar with the watery trail gamely trod up the quick moving stream. Buck and Chris fell in behind the gambler sharing amused glances. The Gambler might be a bonus after all.

* * * * *

Part 5

JD checked the saddle bags one more time. He ran through all the gear. Nothing was going to slow them down. Cinches were good, bridles intact. The few leather ties that were worn were replaced. He rechecked their supplies a for a third time. There was no way Buck was going to win this bet.

No way at all.

JD finished double checking Josiah's massive saddle. Dunne had to struggle just to lift it. No wonder Sanchez' had such a huge horse. JD chuckled, wondering why it did not have a swayed back.

The sun would be setting in a little over an hour. Things were ready. Vin said they would be able to track them at night and get a jump on the other three. A bright smile lit up JD's face. He could just picture Bucks face when they caught them. Haa, it would be priceless. Dunne was already trying to figure out how to rub the older man's taunting face in it. JD laughed, Yes sir, they were going to find Buck and Chris in no time. No time at all.

The young sheriff left the livery heading over toward the saloon. Josiah would be there now. The large ex-preacher had been working on the church roof with Nathan. They had lost quite a few shakes with the last wind storm. Sanchez had been making some wood shingles throughout the winter to keep himself busy and indoors. Good thing he did, it would seem they would be using all of them to replace the ones ripped up by the last couple of gales.

Dunne hopped up the saloon steps and pushed his way into the wood heated establishment.

* * * * *

Cole and Devlin stood leaning on the bar enjoying their whiskey. Devlin watched his older brother. Today was the first time Cole had actually laughed in a long time. It reminded the young man of his mother. Cole had her eyes and smile but their fathers disposition. Devlin loved his Pa, admired him too. He was a tough man, though, fierce with his sons. His rugged features had become edged with anger with the passing of his wife. Devlin sighed. He caught a reflection of himself in the saloon mirror. His image held more of their Sire. Though the youngest Donavon did not appear a day over his birthday he carried the sharpness given to him naturally by his father. His heart however, fell in line with his mother's. A gentle creature only wanting what was best for her three boys.

Devlin only yearned to heal his oldest brother. If killing Wilmington and Larabee were the only way to do it then so be it. Let the two gun slingers writher in agony as Liam had done. Let them put bullets in their heads to end their suffering. Let them writher in agony as Liam had done. Let them cry for a merciful death. Devlin silently wondered if Larabee had the strength and love for Wilmington to end his suffering. Would blond gunslinger put a stop to the horrific agony Wilmington was sure to endure? Would Wilmington be able to push Larabee passed the pain and torture of a slow death and end it quickly? Would they have Cole's strength and determination?

If this could bring Cole back. If this would lighten the heart of the eldest Donavon then Devlin would see it done. He wanted his brother back by his side. Devlin was tired of the hateful shell that his oldest brother had become since Liam died.

"We got'em good didn't we Cole?" Devlin said smiling into his shot glass. He glanced at his brother hoping to see a trace of a smile.

"Yup sure did Dev." The oldest boy intoned. "Got'em good." Cole was not interested in what Devlin had to say. Instead he concentrated on his whisky. He had planned on riding out at first light and watching the festivities from a far. The more he sat ,the more he contemplated on leaving this evening.

JD sat at a table behind the two brothers. He had ignored them when he had first sat down. His interest had become piqued. They looked like trouble. They were not much older than himself but they had an air of danger. Buck had always said that those who did not care about consequences were the most dangerous. They would not care who they killed, how they killed or if they themselves were killed. It was those criminals that were unpredictable and thus very dangerous. Those who moved about the world with no conscience. JD had not been sure what Buck was talking about until now.

Those two men were exactly what Buck had tried to describe to him. Those two at the bar were young, wild and unpredictable. Trouble would follow in their trail like a whirlwind.

Dunne sat quietly listening for more conversation. He would have to warn Nathan and maybe convince Josiah to stay behind. If it sounded bad enough maybe he and Vin would forgo the hunt and watch these two. Chris and Buck would understand. Ezra? He would just assume he won the pot and keep all the money himself. Well, he would try at least.

Devlin sipped on his drink. He never really liked the sting of whiskey. He had always preferred beer. Cole liked the rot gut and therefore Devlin would follow his lead.

"Think Larabee or Wilmington will know what hit'em?"

Trying not to react to the simple question took all of JD's will power. He needed more information.

"Nope," Cole answered into his glass. He swiveled his eyes toward his baby brother and realized the kid needed more attention. Cole has promised his momma he would look after the younger two. He had with Liam to a certain extent. He had ended Liam's suffering. Devlin deserved better. The youngest needed more of his time. Cole sighed. He only wanted to drink in silence. It was not to be with Devlin around. The damn kid had to much energy, to many questions and constantly needed reassurance. The oldest Donavon loved his brother dearly. Sometimes however he just wished he could gag the kid on occasions: like now.

"Nah Dev, they ain't gonna have a clue," Cole set his drink down and faced his only living relative. There was no one else in the saloon accept the pretty Mexican barmaid down at the other end and some green horn kid with long hair.

Cole gave his brother his full attention and smiled, "but we're gonna make sure they know who done it," His smile was wicked, " right before they beg for mercy."

Devlin smiled with his brother. Good ole Cole was almost back with him. It would be just like old times well without their Pa or Liam. That was ok, Cole and him would be family again and go back to living a normal life.

"Ya gonna put a bullet in'em Cole?" Devlin asked He really did not care. Truth be told he just wanted to ride out of the territory knowing the two lawmen were going to die. He did not want to witness their deaths. He had witnessed enough death for a life time. It made Cole happy talking about it so Devlin would do so to keep his brother in good spirits.

"I don't know Dev. maybe," the eldest answered, his eyes fell to JD. The greenhorn kid did not seem to interested in their conversation. Good Cole would hate to have to kill an innocent. He would if he had too but if it could be avoided it would be best.

"When do ya think they'll drink the coffee?" Devlin asked hoping this train of thought would keep Cole's black mood from coming back. Cole had been a living demon since Liam died. Sometimes he actually frightened Devlin. He knew his older brother would never hurt him it was just sometimes he got this look in his eyes. It was almost as if the Devil himself used Cole's eyes to survey the world. It left a chill in Devlin.

"Probably tonight." A leer crawled across the face bringing out one dimple. Devlin smiled half heartily. Ma had dimples just like that when she smiled.

Dunne kept his head down absently running his small knife around his finger nails trying to dislodge the dirt and grime that had accumulated there over the past few days. His heart raced. He caught his breath. What had those two done to Buck and Chris? Oh my God. Buck! JD kept his seat. He could not tip his hand now. He could feel the eyes of the older one on him, watching him for a reaction.

Unpredictable. Buck would call them unpredictable and therefore dangerous...deadly.

JD calmly ran the blade down the edge of his left index finger. He drew blood as he unconsciously increased the pressure trying to keep shaking fingers under control.

"Ya wanna go watch and see'em drink it?" Devlin put a hint of excitement in his voice. He wanted to go home now. The poison was in the coffee. The two law men would drink it and suffer then hopefully die. It was enough for Devlin. Cole needed more, however, so the youngest brother offered his support and enthusiasm.

"Sure Dev." Cole sighed, so much for a quiet night of drinking. It would be a full moon tonight. Besides the brothers had tailed the two lawmen and gambler until they headed up the tiny tributary. They would not be hard to find.

JD kept his head down but watched as the two men exited the saloon. He waited until the rhythmic clunk of the saloon doors slowed and came to rest.

Dunne was out of his chair like a shot, "Inez where's Vin?"

Inez gazed up from wiping down glasses, "Senor?" She asked a smile faltering on her lips as she saw the anxiety in the young man's face.

"Where's Vin and the others?" JD nearly shouted. Why didn't she just tell them and quit wiping the glass. Buck was out there and maybe hurt.

"Right here Brother Dunne," Josiah's baritone voice boomed across the saloon. Vin and Nathan were beside them.

"We've got to ride," JD stammered running passed them.

"Whoa pard' we got to give them a full days light," Vin answered a smile on his face. The kid was just dying to catch Buck and prove himself.

"No we can't" JD's eyes were wild. Fear emanated off him like a physical being. Dunne tried to pull his arm free but Vin's grip was firm.

"Why don't ya slow down and tell us what's wrong," Jackson asked. From the near hysterical look in JD's eyes one could assume something happened to Buck.

Nathan knew it. It would not last. With the other six gone he hoped for a peaceful three days. They would probably get banged up on the trail come home needing tending but for three days Jackson had figured on having some peace. Apparently his plans just crumbled in on themselves. How could those three grown men have gotten themselves into trouble? Jackson paused in his ruminations. How would JD know if they did? The young Sheriff would never cheat. He was too honest. Ezra, now that snake he would cheat the wings off an angel if he thought he could get away with it. The man was exasperating.

"We don't have time," JD implored. Why weren't they moving?

"Time for what JD?" Vin asked. The kid was lathered up about something big.

"They poisoned the coffee I think," JD explained. Don't they get it. They had to ride now. Oh Gawd Buck always made the coffee. Chris and the others always drank it at night too. Ezra normally sipped at it and threw it out. He hated Buck's coffee. The gambler would be alright. Thank goodness. Maybe Standish would be able to help them. "Ezra will probably be ok," JD amended.

"Son sit down and start at the beginning," Josiah forced the boy into a chair. The young never made sense. They were always rushing off to do something foolish and rash.

JD saw that he was not getting anywhere with them. He quickly complied and dove into the tale.

* * * * *

Buck rested the tin coffee pot on the edge of the small flame. It sat on a flat river rock that he had carried up from a few yards away. The sun had just set. Vin and the others would be on their trail by tomorrow. Wilmington smiled. JD would be driving everybody crazy tonight. The kid would be bouncing off the walls. He should have made a bet with Ezra on whether or not Vin would convince Nathan to drug the kid. Buck smiled at the thought.

Vin was in for a real awakening. Tanner was good second to none most likely, when it came to tracking. There was not a fugitive the bounty hunter could not hound to the earth. Buck smiled. Vin had never had to track Chris or Buck. Hell even Ezra had a trick up his sleeve, probably kept it right next to that blasted Ace Buck knew to live up there too. Damn gambler. Wilmington shook his head slightly getting his thoughts back in order.

Yup ole Vin would be scratching his head over this one. Boy Buck would be able to gloat over this one for months.

"'Ey Ezra ya gut yer mug, coffee's 'bout ready," Wilmington smiled through the groans from the southerner. Standish professed to despise his coffee but he always took a cup.

Ezra moaned theatrically. Wilmington made the worst coffee known to man. Vin one time had tried to make a stick stand up in the swill. It had almost worked. Standish climbed to his feet and shuffled the few feet to Wilmington. It was never polite to refuse an offer. Buck was proud of his coffee. Ezra could not fathom why. Etiquette dictated he should take a cup. Ezra did.

Larabee grabbed his tin as well. He could never figure out why Standish always accepted a cup. The man just slipped into the night and dumped most of it out. Chris figured it had something to do with manners. Proper manners verse lying, the scales did not balance evenly in the gunslingers eyes. Larabee did not waste much time on it. Nathan did and vocally too, until Vin quietly pointed out that Ezra did in fact have scruples they were just different than most other peoples.

Chris was not sure what Vin was getting at but Larabee was thankful for the quiet observation. It kept Jackson from badgering the conman and Ezra from retaliating.

They had made good time today. Standish's little short cut had saved them some distance and covered their tracks exceedingly well. Chris murmured a 'thanks' as Buck filled his cup. They would risk a fire tonight, it would be their 'marker' for Vin in the morning.

If Vin found this spot.

Larabee had to concede that Vin would most likely be on them like fleas on a dog. The aloof tracker had an almost sixth sense about these kind of things. Once or twice Chris could have sworn he caught Vin testing the air, trying to smell out their elusive fugitives. Larabee kept his comments to himself.....afraid of what the answer might be if he had actually asked Vin. What if the sharpshooter could actually catch scent of his prey?

Chris sat down on his bed roll and leaned against his saddle. He wrapped his long fingers around the cup. With the setting of the sun the winter chill recaptured the land. Larabee smiled trying to picture Vin leading JD and Josiah on the trail. Josiah would be silent or maybe offer some insight into something only he could see. Sometimes Sanchez just plain confused Chris.

JD, he would be talking non stop. They would not be going fast enough, how did Vin know which way to go? How could Vin be so sure if they were on the right trail? What made Vin think they went this way? A chuckle escaped from Chris as he brought the steaming mug to his lips. Larabee figured he should have made a bet with Standish as to whether or not Tanner would actually gag the kid.

Chris sipped the coffee. It was hot. And.... This coffee was rancid. "AHHH gawd Buck," Larabee hissed out. He spit his coffee on the ground and held the cup away from himself as if it had the pox. "This is terrible," Larabee spit a few more times just for good measure.

"My sentiments exactly Mr. Larabee," Ezra sing songed from across the small fire. Standish held the cup to his lips and took a few obligatory sips. Manners always dictate that you try something before admitting a dislike to it. Ezra hated Buck's coffee. He was ready to spit the thickened swill out just to mimic Larabee. Instead the gambler found the coffee to be surprisingly good. He raised his eyebrows in shock and took another sip. He had to have been wrong. No, it was actually good.

Ezra was pulled from his shock when Buck tossed the contents of his cup out, "Awwgghhh, that is foul," Wilmington gagged out. "Gawd Chris I'm sorry," Buck stood up still spitting trying to cleanse his mouth of the bitter taste that covered it.

"Actually I must confess Mr. Wilmington this is some of the finest coffee you have ever made," Standish said sipping yet again at the soothing liquid.

Buck and Chris exchanged glances, "The pot's yours then Ezra," Wilmington said. What had happened to his coffee? It was one of the few things Buck could brag about that did not involve women. Buck headed down to the river to wash out his and Chris's cups. It was the least he could do for almost poisoning his oldest friend with such foul swill.

Ezra sat back against his saddle. What a pleasant bonus, finally some good coffee.

* * * * *

Part 6-10 by Heather F
Part 6

Vin lead the four other men out of town. He did not bother following Larabee's original trail. JD had marked where the threesome had switched direction. Tanner's blue eyes strained under the moon light trying to read the signs in the hard clay. Devil's Canyon. They were heading for the Canyon. Vin followed the twisting meandering trail trying his best to ignore the jittering movements of the gelding beside him. Tanner had thought about heading straight for the place but Jackson's made a good point.

What if Chris and Buck don't make it to the canyon? What if they fall sick before they reach their destination? Ezra would most likely stick with them and try to help them the best he could. The damn Southerner would stay close and watch helplessly as two friends died.

Would Standish recognize the signs of poisoning?

Nathan wanted to know what kind of poison. The sketchy description that JD had over heard could have been any number of things. Besides what if the two young men who masterminded this plot picked the wrong weed or plant. How did they know how to dose it? How familiar with the poison were the two vengeful outlaws? Was there a cure? All these questions swirled relentlessly through Nathan's mind. God help them.

Josiah rode silently in the back. The lighthearted game had taken a murderous angle. The preacher gazed up at the bright night sky and wondered what kind of twisted humor brought such trials to men. They could not follow the two young men. No one had seen which way they rode out of town. None of the others wanted to waste time trying to pick up their trail when they knew which direction Chris and Buck had taken.

JD kept his bay under control Both horse and rider fed off each other's frenzy. Dunne was no stranger to horses and understood the need for a calm seat. Still his gelding felt the charged energy from his rider and pranced in response. Dunne kept his mouth shut. He did not want to interfere with Vin's tracking. Buck! Only you could find trouble out in the middle of no where! Do I have to look out for you all the time? Darn it Buck you had better be alright cuz when we find you I'm gonna strangle you myself. Dunne seethed under the halting pace they were forced to keep. Maybe Ezra was right, rules were for the losers. JD and the others had followed the rules and now they just might lose two friends over it. Dunne silently prayed to his mom, she always knew what to do, well before she took sick.

* * * * *

Chris lounged back on his saddle resting his hands behind his head. He watched slightly amused as the cardsharp finished a second cup of coffee. Figures he liked it when no one else did.

"Ezra we leave at first light," Larabee pointed out. He did not know what it was about coffee but if he drank it to late at night he never fell asleep. It normally took a couple of stiff shots of whiskey to help him doze off after consuming coffee.

"What a surprise Mr. Larabee," Standish dead panned. He rested the empty mug next to his saddle bags. First light. Didn't anyone enjoy a good nights sleep other than himself? The gambler lay on his bed roll resting his head on the saddle. He had put the saddle blanket under the roll in an attempt to soften the ground and add some insulation against the cold.

Larabee turned his head as he heard Buck rumble from under his bed roll, "Flipp'n moon is brighter than the morn'n sun." Wilmington grumbled something else and then immediately stopped.

Chris sat up, "Bright enough to ride by even."

Buck wiggled out from under his blankets, "Maybe even track by," his insinuations clear.

Ezra watched the clipped conversation with growing apprehension. They could not be serious. It was freezing out. Bad enough they had to sleep outside on the frozen ground. Those two could not possibly be serious.

Without further words to one another the two men scrambled to their feet, "Vin's out tonight," Buck whispered with exasperation. The man was a damn blood hound on the scent.

"Yup," Chris agreed. He and Buck started breaking up camp. Larabee's gaze fell to the unmoving gambler.

"Come on Ezra git your butt up where movin out now," Chris's tone left no room for argument.

Standish made room, "What happened to first light?" Ezra slowly extracted himself from the warm confines of his sleeping rolls. Right now he would take a few hours of rest over no hours of rest.

"Move it Ezra," Chris said softly. The threat rolled across the small camp. It brought a curse to Standish and a smile to Buck.

Chris lead the other two down a twisting turning trail. The dry soil rolled under the horses feet as they made wove amongst the small twisted plants that struggled to survive in unforgiving environment. Rolling hills rose around them offering a dark wave like impressions against the unusually bright night. The horses picked their way cautiously following the movements and foot placements of the one in front of them.

Chris with subtle leg commands directed his mount off the trail. Without hesitation and with well earned trust the black gelding slid from the path like a shadow. The soft clop of shoes on packed dirt became muffled as they entered into a tall browning grassy hill. They would traverse here cut along the ridge, getting a view of Devil's canyon and then pick their way down into its depths.

The Buck whistled quietly to himself. He loved the night. The moon accented the beauty of the area. The freedom and thrill of the chase added to his enthusiasm. His Grey felt it. Though it's walk was smooth the grey stretched out it's long legs in ground eating strides. Its nostrils flared and eyes swiveled as it kept pace behind the familiar black gelding. Yes this was a familiar sensation a familiar scenario. The grey knew they would be on the trail a long time. No more sitting in stalls or livery corrals. It was out on the trail and from the feel of it they would be out for quite awhile. That was fine with the grey. Like its owner, the gelding relished the freedom and work of being on the move. The Grey shook its head achieving its goal, more reins to allow freer movements. Buck smiled and complied to his horse's request.

Ezra sighed quietly. Good thing he had the coffee. This looked liked it was going to be along night. Larabee would push until they reached the canyon. Standish closed his eyes and fell into an easy rhythm with his horse. The chestnut moved gracefully and slowly. It felt no sense of urgency. There had been no raised voices, no shouting, no frantic movements from his master. They were on the trail but not being chased. The gelding would not waste its energy trying to keep pace with the other two. The chestnut kept them in sight, watched their movements and foot placements and mimicked them at his own pace. Until his master asked for speed the quarter horse would keep his leisurely pace.

Chris peered over his shoulder. Buck and his Grey kept pace easily. The big gelding was just pleased to be out of town, much like its owner. Larabee squinted his eyes and focused on the lagging third in their party. Larabee shook his head, he should have known. Standish and his fool horse were two of a kind. Neither moved unless absolutely necessary. When it was deemed necessary then one had better watch out. The Chestnut had the same attitude as its owner. It would roll with only so much before it balked.

Larabee swiveled back around. Dear ol' Vin did not stand a chance. Tanner was good. There was no doubt. Chris had never seen a better tracker. Larabee smiled but Vin had never had to hunt down Buck or himself. No things had been easy on Vin lately, his skill had not been tested very much. Chris settled into the saddle and leaned back giving the Black his head. Yeah, Vin and the others would realize just how difficult it was to track someone who knew what they were doing.

* * * * *

Cole and Devlin had watched in dismay as the threesome rode the ridge. The three lawmen were silhouettes against the moonlit sky. Larabee and Wilmington rode one behind the other and the gambler trod a few yards behind them.

"Ya think they drank the coffee?" Devlin asked. What if they had not. What if their plans were falling apart. Even in the dark Devlin could see the anger rise in his older brother. See yes, but one could feel it. Hatred and frustration emanated from his brother like waves of heat. The old Cole was buried again. The smile and smugness slipped from his features. The cold mask of fury fell into place. Devlin cursed the three men. It was their fault. All they had to do was drink the blasted coffee. Drink the swill get sick and die. Cole would come back. Cole would be his old self again and they would be a family.

" 'Ow the hell should I know," Cole spat out. Couldn't the damn kid keep his mouth shut? What did Devlin want from him?

Devlin shied slightly from the sharp rebuke. Cole was mad at him again. Without Cole he would have no family. His older brother was all he had in this world. Devlin needed him and Cole needed Devlin.....or so the youngest brother hoped. It was just sometimes, sometimes Devlin was under the impression that his older brother wanted him gone. Sometimes Cole looked at Devlin as if the youngest reminded him of a pain that was still fresh.

"Maybe we could....." Devlin started to mutter quietly.

"Do what!?" Cole hissed out in anger. Why couldn't the kid just shut up and let him think? He turned away from his youngest brother. Devlin was his biggest responsibility. Cole turned his back on his brother and faced the two men he yearned to kill. The kid might come first but the demise of Larabee and Wilmington was paramount. Once this was done Devlin and he would be a family again.

Devlin hunkered down in his saddle trying to create distance from the anger of his brother. He only wanted to help.

"I don't know, just shoot'em maybe," Devlin offered meekly. He wished this business was over. Liam would not come back even with the miserable death of the two lawmen.

Cole swung around. His fist was balled in rage. He had never struck his little brother before, well not out of anger. Cole caught himself. The fear in Devlin's shadowed eyes was unmistakable. Cole swore under his breath. His baby brother feared him. He was doing all this for Devlin. Didn't the kid understand?

Shoot them? Cole stared at his younger brother as the words rang through his mind. Just shoot them. Not as elaborate, not as safe as they had planned but...why not? They would get this business over with and move on to bigger and better things.

Devlin watched his brother. He feared Cole would actually hit him. Cole had never hit him unless they were rough housing or something. Never, never out of fury. Devlin watched his brother closely. If Cole hit him then he would have deserved it. If there was one thing the youngest Donavon knew and that was the oldest were always the wisest.

"I think yer onto something Dev." Cole smiled out. Simple. Quick...Perfect.

* * * * *

Vin's gelding trod carefully adjacent to the path. It understood the mood its owner was in tonight. They were on the hunt. The horse adjusted its gait. It would not waste its energy fighting the rein. Not like the wild bay gelding beside him.

"Dang it JD!" Vin raised his voice as Dunne's gelding stomped and skidded on the dirt trail. JD realizing what his horse had done pulled it quickly off the trail into the grass and continued to prance about. His Quarter horse's powerful hindquarters jarred into Vin's mount.

Dunne harshly cursed his bay and violently yanked it back over the trail to the other side effectively creating distance between himself and Vin. The Bay responded to the nervous energy with a more jolting, jittery, gait.

"Sorry Vin," A thoroughly cowed JD answered back in apology. He hung his head as his heart raced. 'Dang horse why don't ya just listen to me?' Had Dunne given it much thought he would have realized the animal was listening to everything his rider imparted to it.

"Easy brothers," Josiah intoned from behind. The tension had been building. JD and his beloved bay felt it and fed off it. Their youthful excitement had charged the atmosphere. With the bright moonlight, the foursome made for a ghost like images. Apparitions really, figures sliding quietly on a the trail, with apprehension filling in their wake. Sanchez tried to turn his morbid thoughts but found he could not do so successfully.

"How the hell do ya expect me to..." Vin started and then stopped noticing the wounded posture in JD. They were all worried about Chris and Buck. Tanner had never felt such urgency before when tracking others. If he was not fast enough Chris could die. They had to move quicker, he knew it but if they moved to fast then they would miss something. JD was just anxious. They all were even Josiah and Nathan. "It's jist harder to read their trail if ya steppin' on it JD," Tanner explained unnecessarily.

Dunne merely nodded his head. Tears threatened to spill over his eyes. No, he was tougher than that, so wasn't Buck. Buck would not succumb to any stupid poison. No way, not Buck. Dunne settled himself in his seat tried to relax his hands and not fight with his horse.

Nathan watched the two younger men. He held his tongue, barely. They were wasting time talking. The quicker they got to the two men the better. If a poison sat to long in the body then the likely hood for a successful antidote became very small. If there was in fact an antidote to be found. The more time they wasted arguing on the trail the more likely they were going to lose two good friends. Joining into the argument would get them nowhere.

Josiah held his breath. There was time for fighting later. Sanchez prayed Standish knew enough on how to help his two ailing friends. Would Ezra push them to the canyon to ensure victory in the bet? Would Standish leave them and head to the canyon himself in hopes of winning? The lure of a bet, the smell of wager and the clang of coin was a vice the gambler seemed unable to ignore. Sanchez prayed that Ezra would feel the pull of responsibility of friendship and family and stay by his two ailing friends. After the collection box incident Josiah knew it would take a miracle.

* * * * *

Buck kept the balance of his seat as his grey danced and stretched along the ridge. The wind had turned brisk and bit through clothing. Wilmington smiled. Ezra would be earning his money this time. Wilmington watched as Chris led them off the ridge. The gunslinger and his black gelding were solid configuration of black shapes. The two moved as one. They communicated without word or overt motion. Horse and rider pre-empted each others intentions.

Buck remember there was a time when he and Chris had been almost the same way. A time when Chris and himself knew each others thoughts knew each others motivations. Times had changed both men. Wilmington had willingly took responsibility of JD. Chris was better now. He did not need Buck's constant company or observations. Larabee had found an anchor in Four Corners and the violent death of Sara and Adam had started to come under control. Buck loosened his tether on his friend.

JD needed the constant guidance. It was different with JD. Buck did not have to worry who the kid would kill in a drunken rage, or who the kid might threaten when a dark mood attempted to drown him. Instead Wilmington faced the strange but refreshing battle of keeping the kid out of harms way. He kept JD from falling victim to others drunken rage, or wild impulses of violence. Wilmington's techniques had changed. His protectorate had switched but the goals remained the same. He worked hard to keep JD safe just as he had with Chris.

Vin had Chris now. Buck happily reneged his responsibility. Wilmington's hands had become chapped and cracked from holding back the reins that kept Larabee somewhat civil. Vin thankfully filled the slot. With Vin Tanner and Four Corners nursing Larabee, Buck quietly slipped from the part he had played. Every time Buck watched Chris and Vin share a beer or a whiskey, Wilmington thanked Vin silently or with a simple nod of the head. The Lady's man and Sharpshooter understood the shift in responsibility and welcomed it.

The wind became buffered once they left the ridge and started their slow decent toward the Plateau. From the plateau they would hit the steep rolling trail that descended into the bowels of the canyon.

* * * * *

Part 7

The wind had sent a chill through the southerner. He pulled his coats tighter around himself as his horse took its first steps from the ridge. All this for a lousy few dollars. What had become of his way of life....heck his life? Standish sighed. Riding at night with Larabee and Wilmington was preferable to riding at night alone unsure of ones future. Standish did not have any clear vision what direction his future lay but he had an idea that since meeting up with these six formidable but often time irritating men, his life had changed for the better. Well it had changed...he was willing to leave it at that for the moment. Riding along this God forsaken trail in the dead of night for a few dollars was not particularly inspiring but it was better than what he had done last night: which was basically nothing except maybe avoid the holy indignant glares from a one Josiah Sanchez. That man could hold a grudge.

For a man of religious bearing he had no concept of the future...strange for a preacher. Then again Mr. Sanchez was no main stream 'man of the cloth'. Hardly. He was a hard drinking, tough brawling S.O.B with a strange sense of right and wrong and apparently had the memory of an elephant.

Ezra sighed, to bad Mr. Sanchez's sense of proper behavior and improper behavior fell so close to the other five. Standish had hoped the preacher would see the bigger picture...see that in this case as in most instances (when concerning monetary gain) the ends justified the means. Standish absently patted the neck of his gelding unconsciously seeking an ally from his horse. So what if he took a few pennies from the collection box. He had successfully converted it into a small treasure. Ezra smiled, he was very good at what he did, gamble, but his run of luck with the 'church' money had to have had some divine intervention. Why could no one else see it? All that hard effort, all that sweat to convert a few scraggly pennies into something worth while. It took determination, skill and concentration not to mention a great deal of personal risk. What did he get in return for all his work?....Nothing, no thanks, no gratitude, just, 'yer a snake Ezra.' or 'best git out of town for a while Ezra,' or worse yet, he had received more than a few looks of disappointment from the people he hoped to gain some measure of respect.

It was not like they returned the money. Oh no....they used it every last penny, well except the small percentage he kept for himself.


Standish leaned slightly back in the saddle as his Quarterhorse meandered down the slope. Ezra smiled his horse would have appreciated his efforts.

Chris angled his black into a stand of gnarled trees. They would rest here before heading down into Devil's canyon. From the ridge the canyon appeared only as a sea of black with no depth. The place seemed to blunt even the brightness of the moon. Larabee began to understand how the place earned its name. From this stand of trees one could hear the wind moan through the dark twisting corridors of the canyon. The sound was almost unnerving.

Larabee was pulled from his reverie when his gelding tensed and its ears swiveled forward. The horse snorted and stomped its front feet. Chris pulled back on the reins whispering quietly to his mount as his hand rested on the butt of his revolver. He effortlessly removed the safety rigging and was about to cautiously draw it when a voice stopped him.

"Hold it Larabee," it commanded. It originated from his left but was still masked by the thick shadows of the night.

Buck made for his gun hoping Chris's form would shield him from their unseen assailant when another voice rang out. This time it came from the right, "Don't Wilmington," It sounded younger than the first voice but there was an edge to it.

"Git off yer horses," The first voice ordered. Chris and Buck shared hopeful glances. Standish had yet to catch up with them. Maybe the astute gambler would pick up that something was wrong.

"Wilmington git off on the right," The second voice called out.

Chris and Buck swung from their saddles. Standish would be their ace in the hole.

Buck walked a few steps forward and stood near his friend but far enough to maintain two distinct targets. Wilmington was not really worried, ole Ezra was pretty smart, he'd figure out something was wrong.

"Are we taking a break Mr. Larabee?" The southern voice rang through the clearing. His annoyance at having to travel in the dead of night was easily discernible in his tone.

Chris swore. Buck would have laughed outright had the situation not been so serious. Who was to say Standish did not just trip into this little episode with the intentions to just rile Chris. The gambler sometimes ran a few cards short of a full deck......Who else would have stolen from Josiah's Sunday's collection?

"Reb, ya best shut yer trap and git off yer horse," The voice to the left rang out.

"An who pray tell is giving the orders," Standish drawled out. He must have missed something on his approach to the small clearing. Mr. Larabee will surly be blaming him for not reading the situation before blundering into it. The insufferable man thought Ezra carried a crystal ball.

A shot rang out and Standish's hat flew from his head.

The Southerner scrambled from his horse, "There is no need for hostilities gentlemen," Standish muttered quickly.

Chris smiled...that should teach the insolent SOB to keep his mouth shut. Whoever fired the gun was either a deadly shot or very lucky.

Standish traversed the few feet and stood to the other side of Larabee. The short spring grass had already started collecting dew. It shimmered in the pale moonlight reflecting some of the light casting a bright hue to the area.

"Friends of yours Mr. Larabee?" Ezra asked. His heart raced. The last shot was a little to close for comfort. He did not bother retrieving his hat. His horse had a preponderance of picking up hats and gnawing on them. A dreadful habit it had acquired from its previous owner.

"Shut up Ezra or I'll shoot ya myself," Larabee whispered back.

Buck chuckled. It was nice to see that not much interfered with Chris and Ezra's relationship.

The trio's attention was drawn to the trees when a shadowy figure emerged. There was a hint of familiarity to it but Chris could not place it. He gazed to Buck and saw the ladies Man wrestling with the same flirtations of recognition.

"I take it you two gentlemen know this miscreant?" Ezra asked reading the expressions on his two fellow peacekeepers.

'Oh so now he is observant,' Larabee thought with a rush of irritation, 'damn man is frustrating.'

"Of course he knows us," The silhouette slid closer to them. His features were masked in heavy shadows created by his hat. A second figure melted from the trees to the right. It too held its hat down low. Both men held guns at the ready. "Don't ya Larabee?" The forms paused as they stood only a few yards from their captors.

They twosome were no fools. They kept themselves apart from each other and a respectable distance from their foes. Should the three peace keepers decide to try and turn the tables the two men with the guns would have time to react.

"What's the matter Wilmington cat gut yer tongue," the voice to the right leered. Devlin wanted this over. He wanted to gut shoot these two and leave them to die. The third, the southerner had no business in this mess but if he made a move then he too would die.

Cole became infuriated. He and Devlin had rode like banshee's on the wind to reach this little spot before the peace keepers. They had made hasty plans and finally put them into action. Larabee and Wilmington would not even give them the decency of recognition.

"You sonofabitch, don't you remember us?" Cole spit out. He fought with himself. He did not want to squeeze the trigger just yet. He wanted recognition from his captives.

Buck and Chris exchanged curious glances. Wilmington shrugged he had no idea. Larabee just shook his head a smile etching across his face.

Ezra furrowed his brow. Apparently Mr. Larabee and Wilmington could not remember every revenge seeking lunatic on their tail.

It was time for a little help, "Dear sirs they cannot see your faces," Standish pointed out needlessly, "how are they to recognize you?" It seemed like an obvious explanation to the southerner. What an uneducated bunch....both sides.

"Shut yer trap," Cole hissed out, "he and Wilmington gut shut our brother and left him to die." The oldest Donavon brother turned his attention and hatred back toward the other lawmen, "Ya left him to rot with two holes in his belly." Cole's anger and need for revenge suddenly became tangible.

Chris, Buck and Ezra all came to the same conclusion.....They were in serious trouble.

Again silence.

Ezra was becoming exasperated. "Mr. Larabee, Mr. Wilmington how many people could you have possibly gut shot and leave to die that you are unable dredge up the names of these two misguided young men?" What was it with these two? Did they have enemies behind every tree?

"I ain't sure Ezra but yer gonna be next if ya don't shut up," Chris hissed out. Damn man was getting on his nerves.

Standish took a tiny step forward, "Perhaps another hint?" he asked with delicate sense of conversation. Maybe with enough distraction and redirection the others would have a chance to act. "You see my compatriots are bereft of any inclination of history." He turned back and hit Larabee with an annoyed stare, "they have this trying habit of involving unsuspecting innocents when others come seeking revenge." Standish turned his gaze back to the alleged leader of this little duo. A snake like smile was plastered on his face.

"What he say Cole?" Devlin asked. The southern was gonna get shot just because he was annoying.

Buck snapped his fingers and pointed, "Cole Donavon," Wilmington nearly shouted out. He turned his attention to Chris, "don't ya remember Chris, Liam Donavon took to shooting people in the saloon after his daddy died. Killed that little saloon girl and those cow hands" The old man had been a cur. The world was a better place without Daddy Donavon. He was a vicious man who led a brutal life. The bastard had the gall to drag his three sons around with him where ever he traveled. The boys never stood a chance. Apparently they were as rotten to the core as their pa.

"Gives you no right to gut shoot'im and leave'im for dead," Devlin bit out. He cared and tended long and hard over his brother. He had picked every last one of those wiggling maggots from the belly wounds. It was all to no avail because by the end of the next day the wave like masses would be back gnawing on the dying flesh of his still alive brother.

"Mr. Larabee are there any other vagrants that might be on your trail seeking retribution for past crimes?" Ezra drawled out. His plan for redirection had failed. This situation was just plain intolerable.

"Did it ever occur to you and Mr. Wilmington while you were performing such acts of violence and mayhem on the rest of the unsuspecting world that you should have implemented the use of aliases.... that under the guise of other names it might have been possible to avoid having such persons from following your path?" Ezra stared at his two partners with exasperation. They were amateurs. No wonder his beloved mother shuttered at the company he kept. This was almost inexcusable.

"I mean surly you did not gun down these men's brother while still using your given names?" Standish waited for brief second or two.

His answer came on the silence. With open exasperation, he uttered, "Amateurs," tossing his arms in the air with frustration, "I'm riding with amateurs, Lord preserve me," he muttered to himself.

"Shut up Ezra," Chris would strangle him when they got out of this and then Larabee would hunt down Josiah and shoot him too.

Devlin and Cole exchanged worried glances. The southerner sounded like a lunatic. It was bad luck to shoot the crazies. They would leave him to his madness.

"What'da ya want Cole?" Buck asked. For all of Standish's posturing the two holding the guns kept their attention squarely rooted on Larabee and himself. Wilmington hoped maybe Ezra would be able to use that pea shooter he kept hidden up his sleeve.

"For you to suffer like Liam," with that Cole pulled the trigger.

* * * * *

Part 8

Chris saw the change in body language just before the gun fired. He screamed, "Noooo" and tried to push Buck out of the way.

Standish flicked his wrist activating the mechanism that held the derringer.

Buck categorized two very different sensations. He recognized the roar of the gun and the desperate scream from Chris. For a brief moment Wilmington actually feared Chris had been hit. Then something slammed into his upper abdomen and just behind that hands shoved his shoulder and threw him to the ground. Wilmington watched with detached rapture as the moonlit world suddenly took on tilted askewed view. He smiled wondering if this was how Standish viewed the world...just slightly off balance. A crushing weight settled on his body and then all thought escaped him as his conscious world spiraled into deep blackness.

Larabee threw himself at Buck drawing his gun. His body worked on rote reflexes. His gun hand worked as an independent entity. The revolver barked with an answer of its own.

Devlin recognized his brothers demeanor. Cole was going to fire. They had already decided who would get gut shot and would get to watch the other die. As planned Cole shot Wilmington. Devlin fired his gun twice. The first bullet skimmed across the black clad gunslingers forehead. The second shot buried itself at the feet of the southerner.

A third shot had rung out burying itself in Cole's thigh. The oldest brother had been knocked off his feet.

Standish was turning his attention toward the still standing brother.

"Don't do it Reb," Cole barked out with a harsh laugh clutching his thigh, "as ya can see my baby brother is deadly with a gun." Cole did not bother hiding his laugh. How the heck did Larabee get a shot off?

For all his innocence and naiveté, Devlin was second to none with a gun. He had a natural talent...a gift. The elder Donavon had all recognized it the first time the youngest had picked up a gun so many years ago. The others just had to nurture and stream line the gift. Funny thing was of the Donavon family Devlin was the deadliest with a gun but you could break him with just a harsh look. A cold note from his father left the youngest shaking with no confidence. Cole had protected and coddled his brother because he needed the kid's gift.

Their job was done. All they had to do was sit back and watch the three men from a safe distance. Watch them suffer, fight and then eventually die.

Ezra's derringer smoked in his palm. With a simple turn of his hand he hid the gun from view. He only had one shot left. There was no way he would be able to take out the youngest boy, redraw and dispatch with the other brother. He would have to bide his time.

Standish relaxed his posture as much as he could at the moment. He kept his gaze on the two brothers but tried to gleam sideways glances at his unmoving friends.

"You will not get away with this," Ezra stated coldly. He had no intentions of letting these two men get away; out shooting and out gunning him and his compatriots. Himself or one of the other seven would hunt these two young men down to the ends of the earth and dispatch with their own form of justice.

Standish's anger was such that he failed to recognize that it was these same very thoughts that had motivated Cole and Devlin into action in the first place.

An eye for an eye did indeed leave you blind....so blind that when one was caught in the tornado winds of revenge they failed to see that their actions begot similar heinous reactions in the victim's surviving friends. Revenge for revenge sake left only corpses and poor excuses in the wake of the destruction.

Ezra stood by silently as the two brothers aided one another out of the small forested enclave. Once he could no longer see them Standish secured his derringer and quickly made his way over to his friends.

He rolled Larabee off Wilmington. In the moonlight, he could easily see the deep furrow made by the glancing shot. The youngest brother had either incredibly good aim or Mr. Larabee had just used up another one of his nine lives. With Chris out of the way, Ezra took a closer look at Buck.

Wilmington had not been so fortunate.

He had a strong rapid pulse and drew even shallow breaths. Ezra could tell even in the moonlight and with his limited knowledge that Wilmington's condition would deteriorate.

"Damn it to hell," Standish muttered. He tore open Buck's shirt. He rolled the larger man onto his back settling him on the ground. A small neat hole perforated the upper left section of the abdomen. Blood oozed at a steady rate from the small hole.

Ezra, sighed and struggled to lift Buck onto his side again. The exit hole was larger and apparently nicked a rib. The hole was not in a straight line with the entry wound. Blood poured freely from this larger wound. The skin was jaggered and torn. Swelling had already begun to settle in while bruising crept up Wilmington's back.

"Son of a bitch," Ezra cursed again. He quickly removed his cravat and jammed it into the larger hole. Buck groaned and moved slightly away from the pain. Standish muttered an apology. He held the small inadequate piece of material against the wound and watched with dismay as it quickly became saturated. "Damn, damn damn..." He uttered. This was not going to work.

Standish quickly left Wilmington's side and ran to his saddle bags. He had a few clean shirts. He pulled out the white finely made clothing and snapped them unfolding them with a flick of his wrist. With out preamble he quickly refolded one and mashed it into the exit wound, with the second he wrapped it around Wilmington's midsection tying the arms tightly.

All the while he muttered to himself. His nervous, frantic energy verbalized itself as he worked feverishly, "If you only used Aliases you two blundering fools could avoid mishaps such as this.." he would whisper as he maneuvered the Ladies Man into a more comfortable position. "Ohh no we have to be ruthless and dumb....now that's a deadly combination." He would take a breath and tighten the bandage, then resume his monologue this time taking on Larabee's tone and mannerisms, "I'm Chris Larabee and I'm gonna kill you, shoot you dead...by the way you can find me in Four Corners...using the same name."

Ezra left Buck for a moment and went to the horses. He grab sleeping rolls and blankets. "You would think that for all your brains you fools would instigate the use of aliases," Ezra hurried back to Wilmington, "...Chris Loathsome or something...Or Curmudgeon Larabee." Standish wrestled Buck onto a bed roll and covered him with blankets. "But, of course not, why should you? Mr. Wilmington tries to bed every woman he meets. Probably encourages them to use his real name." Ezra stood up and wiped his bloody hands on his trousers in an unthinking agitated manner, "Doesn't anyone think about consequences and retaliation?"

Ezra began collecting fire wood. Vin and the other would catch up with them by tomorrow night if all went well. His angry green eyes landed on Buck. He wondered if Mr. Wilmington would last that long. Standish became infuriated all over again.

"What is it with you two?" He stared from one unconscious man to the other. "Do you encourage others to hunt you down and shoot at you?" Standish began snapping twigs and collecting fuel to start the blaze, "How do you attract such lunatics?" he asked befuddled, as he piled up the small collection of debris, "just a simple alias, a little misdirection....didn't your mothers teach you anything?" Standish then maneuvered larger pieces of wood onto the growing pile. He worked by simple rote memory of the few things Tanner had taught him about surviving in the wilderness.

"Two grown men with the sense that would fill a whisky glass," Ezra nursed the small stretching flame by blowing on it gently trying to encourage its growth. Standish sat back on his haunches as the flame took hold and began to devour the larger branches and fuel.

The gambler headed back to the horses. Someone had to tend the animals. He peered over at Wilmington and Larabee. Those two were not going to be a lot of help anytime soon. Once he got the horses settled he would put on a pot of coffee. It would most definitely be needed tonight.

* * * * *

Vin followed the tracks to the river bank. Tanner bit his cheek. Chris and the others had gone over the bank, they were using the moving water and rocky riverbed to hide their tracks. With time Vin would be able to track them with little difficulty. But they did not have time.

"We got to stop here," Vin said with open dejection. Chris what were you thinking? Didn't you know you were dying. Please Chris just hole up tonight and let us catch up to you.

"But Vin," JD started to speak but was cut off by quick threatening glare from Tanner. JD swallowed his words. They all knew the stakes. If Tanner needed to stop here then there was a reason for it. Dunne just could not fathom it. Why stop now? The land was almost as bright as dawn.

"JD they went into the river," Tanner bit out. His frustration became audible for everyone. Tanner felt useless. He had two friends out there dying somewhere and here he was stopping to get some sleep.

"I can't track'em by this light if they're in the water," Tanner ripped his saddle from his mount and threw it to the ground in an angry gesture. Didn't the kid get it. Did JD really think that they were stopping because they were tired? Come on Kid think!

JD stared at Vin. The tracker had never lost his temper with him before. Of all the seven Vin was the one who kept his temper. "I know Vin," JD muttered quietly. He really did not know but there had to be a darn good reason as to why they were stopping tonight. He would not push Tanner into talking if he did not want to explain it.

Josiah watched the two younger men wondering if he would actually have to separate them. Sanchez smiled sadly. No, not those two. Vin would hold himself in check and JD would never strike back. Funny thing about JD he was loyal like a dog. He looked up to all of them. Learned from them and listened. Sometimes the kid listened to well. JD heard the anger and frustrations in the others voices when they spoke. He was forever getting his feelings hurt because he gleamed too much information from the tones of conversations and not just the language.

Nathan kept quiet. He ran through his saddle bags again checking his supplies hoping he had everything he needed. Jackson realized the futility of such actions. He had know idea what he was up against. How do you treat something you have no idea what it is your battling? Why couldn't it be a gunshot wound or something. Those were bad enough but at least he had a routine down. With those he knew what to do...some what. Who was he fooling he was no doctor. He was just lucky.

Lucky. The damn gambler did not even believe in luck. The southerner believed in making his own luck. Maybe there was something to that statement. Apparently it worked for Standish, he was still alive and well despite just about everyone he ever met.

"Dang Nathan how many times ya gonna go through yer bags?" JD asked as he took the healers horse and started tending it bedding it down for the night.

"As many times as it takes JD," Jackson bit out. He had no idea what he was up against and how much time he had to pull off some miracle.

"Easy brothers," Josiah's soft voice rang through the small camp. He would wreak vengeance on those desperate souls that had brought harm to this small group. He would play intermediary until his temper got the best of him.

* * * * *

Part 9

Chris stirred. Oh Gawd his head hurt. He tried to bring a hand up to his forehead but found that action took more effort than he was ready to expend. He lay still listening to the sounds around him. As noise filtered in so did flashes of memory. It came back to him in a jumble of images. Buck!

Wilmington watched his oldest friend slowly climb back from the sea of unconsciousness that he had rested in for just a little while. Buck could not be sure how long they had been out. Judging from the desperate motions of Ezra over the camp fire it could not have been to long.

Buck had watched and listened with quiet amusement as the gambler had sputtered and ranted about and nursed a small campfire to life. Wilmington considered offering a few suggestions out to Standish about the small fire, but then thought better of it. Ezra looked ready to shoot someone just for the sake of releasing tension.

" 'Ey pard' welcome back," Buck tried to smile and sound natural. Truth be told his whole body hurt. It was agony to just breath. He felt nauseous and light headed. He knew he had been gut shot and knew that he would probably not survive this wound. Damn he had failed Chris.

"Buck?" Chris rasped out quietly. Oh Gawd Buck had been shot. Larabee tried to move to Wilmington wanting to assess his friends wounds for himself.

The Ladies man seemed to have read his mind, "Don't worry pard' Ezra patched me up pretty good," Wilmington attempted a weak smile. His hands clutched at his bloody abdomen. From the feel of things it seemed as if the bleeding had stopped.

Maybe he had a chance after all.

"Where's Ezra?" Chris whispered out. He wanted to move, wanted to go after the murdering brothers who had brought Wilmington to this state. His head would not cooperate. It hurt just to blink let alone attempt to raise his head off the saddle pad it rested on.

"Listen," Buck answered again in a soft humorous tone.

Both men quieted down. The sounds of night penetrated the area. Crickets sang, an occasional Coyote yelp traveled on the slight breeze even a hoot owl's lonesome tune floated by. The most pronounce sound, however, was a thick angry southern accent that bemoaned the intelligence of his compatriots.

"You think he's a bit put out?" Buck asked. He had curled up on his side trying instinctively to protect the wound from outside forces.

"I think he's insulting us?" Larabee intoned lightly. If Buck could find levity in this situation then Chris would accommodate him. Good ole Buck always found something to smile about.

"Think we should tell him we're awake?" Wilmington asked. The pain in his side hit him in earnest. He grimaced and curled tighter into himself. He let out a tortured hiss as he tried to control the wave of pain that crashed down on him.

A raptor cried in the night.

Chris watched with building frustration. "Ride with it Buck, just let it roll through you," he coached quietly. Larabee waited until the blue eyes opened. The dark gunslinger's heart lurched as he stared at the glazed expression on his friends face.

Buck blinked a few times and again a weak smile creased his harrowed features, "Let's not telli'm jis' yet," Wilmington took a breath, "side's he's working hisself into a tizzy."

Chris had to pause for a bit not sure what Wilmington was referring too until Standish's voice rolled angrily across the clearing.

"The injustice of it all...." The accent was stronger than usual and the words clipped. Chris watched as the gambler moved about the small camp getting things in place. Ripping shirts, placing them in boiling water. Every once in a while Standish would sip from his tin coffee cup. Larabee wondered how the southern man could drink such swill. Standish's actions were motivated out of nervous, fretful energy.

Larabee took it to be a bad sign. Standish had tended Wilmington's wound. The conman was scared and that scared Chris.

Ezra watched the boiling water in the small iron skillet. Funny that Buck, Ladies Man extraordinaire would carry a skillet. Then again it was a good thing he did. Most times Buck or Josiah did the cooking while on the trail. That left JD, Vin and Ezra to do dishes. Standish normally suckered one of the others to do it for him....well up until Jackson put a stop to it. The man was always running interference when it came to one of Ezra's schemes.

Standish stirred the remnants of his white shirts around in the pan. What he would not give to have Mr. Jackson right now berating him for some supposed wrong doing. Nathan would know what to do, he always did. Ezra had to concede he liked the black healer. Heck Nathan was one of the few people that kept him honest. Standish, of course, fought back but he appreciated that Jackson felt the gambler was worth the effort of trying to teach something too.

To bad someone did not teach those two miscreants the simple art of redirection. His green eyes narrowed as they fell on the unmoving bodies of Larabee and Wilmington. Oh Gawd what if Buck did not pull through? What would happen to Chris? To JD? Aww hell what would happen to all of them? They were seven strong....Not six...They were seven. They were all intricate part of a greater scheme. Destroy one section and the rest would crumble.

Damn, Damn, Damn. Why now? Why out here in the middle of know where? Standish cursed the cards that had been dealt. The futility of the situation was beyond maddening.

"You sanctimonious Neanderthals," Standish bit out. His drawl had taken on a sharp edge. He was angry and helpless and full of penned up energy. He needed an outlet. Those two misguided individuals would have to be suitable targets. Ezra would not point his anger at himself. He did that enough when it came to gambling and cons.

Out here in the wilds, with revenge seeking lunatics traipsing through the woods was not something he could control. It did not fall under Maude's teachings. She had taught her son to survive. Maude had spent a life time teaching her boy to thrive in the turbulence of saloon life, gambling boats and big cities.

Ezra did not feel comfortable in the great outdoors. Nor did he want or care for the responsibilities of other men's lives. Oh no...No sir. Not Ezra Standish. He had been taught from day one to watch his own back, to make sure an exit existed for himself. His responsibilities stopped with himself and his own survival. Maude had taught him well and the bastard son from the deep south had lived to adulthood in world torn apart by war and bigotry.

Ezra never tore his gaze from the two men. They had been friends for life time. Standish let out a scornful chuckle. Look where it got them. Buck would surly die and Chris would become a shell of a man. A demon with blond hair bent on self destruction. Ezra had no doubts that Larabee would achieve his dark dubious desire in that direction.

Friendship. Where did it get you?

One gut shot and dying and the other a dark harbinger of self hatred.

Ezra had never felt so helpless as he did right now. Buck and Chris had something he had always been jealous of. They were friends. They were willing to throw themselves at the mercy of criminals to protect one another.

The others were the same way....Ezra himself included.

It was this entwining friendship from a group of men that Standish cursed. He had never belonged to a group. He had never wanted to, never openly desired it. Standish had joked and played and rode with the other six in the beginning, as an ends to a means. He would get his pardon....then skip town.

Well he earned his pardon and he stayed. Those six irritating, loathsome, righteous, curmudgeons had become his friends. Almost like family. Not family though, family would dump you when your usefulness was up. Family would allow you to stay but not allow you into their group. No those other six men were his friends. They were better than family.

And he hated them for it.

Buck Wilmington lay only a few feet away with a bullet wound through his gut. If he should die then the friendships would falter. Oh sure the others would try and hold it together. They would try to keep Chris from sinking back into the bottle. They would fight tooth and nail to save the group.

They were meant to be Seven....not six. Though individually they would all survive this tragedy, the bond that kept them together as a working thriving unit would crumble and die.

Destiny for Seven.

The tendrils of camaraderie would shrivel up and blow away like dust on a summer day. Ezra would be on his own again. Chris would drown in whiskey, JD would wander back East and Vin to Tacosa, probably get himself hung. Josiah and Nathan had the best odds on survival, well Nathan really. Even the formidable preacher would find some unholy penance to perform and it would most likely be his undoing.

Standish ran his hands over his face. He could not keep this train of thought. This was getting him nowhere.

Buck was still alive. He would not count his money yet. He would not tally up his losses until the hand was played out.

Standish stirred the white strips again. He sat before the fire, gnarled stick in one hand coffee in the other. He would not fold. There was to much at stake. He would make a run at this game and cheat if need be. Vin and the others would catch up to them. They would know what to do.

They would share the burden as friends often time did when crisis hit the group.

"Never even occurred to you to use aliases," Ezra pulled a few strips of cloth from the boiling water. He walked over toward Wilmington and knelt beside the large man.

"A little misdirection goes along way," Standish mumbled to himself, "am I the only one who received a proper education?"

"Ya think he'll ever shut up Chris?" Wilmington whispered out in forced good humor.

"Nope," Larabee answered back. A sly smile leeched across his face when he witnessed the shocked expression on the gambler.

Chris wondered what kept the Southern man in Four Corners. What made the once wandering conman settle down and stick with the rest? Even now when all instincts in the man told him to run he held his ground. Larabee had always a certain admiration for the gambler. Standish had been taught to run to find refuge in flight. It was always safest to leave a battle when one stood alone against an army. Chris figured, for a life time Standish had been an island. He walked and played amongst crowds but never amongst friends. The gambler wove his magic in saloons filled with potentially hostile patrons and he had survived. He had made it because the sly southerner knew how to read a crowd. He knew when the tides turned against him and when that rip current struck he discreetly left for safer territory. Larabee could not fault the man, not really.

Chris could not remember a time when he had to face a world alone. The world had to face Chris Larabee. The unsuspecting populace had to weather out the black tides that surged through the dark gunslinger. In all those times Buck stood at his side, watched his back. Chris could stand and fight against insurmountable odds because he had faithful Wilmington at his back. As time wore on....he had nothing left to lose. With the further passage of time Buck's place at his back had come to hold Vin and the others. Now he had something to lose. Billy and Mary had some how found away into his closed heart. Feeling found its way into his soul. With in these other six men and a feisty newspaper editor and her young son, Chris Larabee faced the world with small formidable army.

Maybe that was why Standish hung around, maybe it was why he stayed tonight when the odds were so against him. Here he was working diligently around a campfire, fighting to keep Wilmington alive, knowing full well that the two men who committed this crime still ran free. Standish stayed, Chris thought, because for the first time in his life someone might actually come to his defense. Someone might stand up for him, not because he was right or wrong, but because he was Ezra Standish, a friend.

Chris watched as the gambler nearly bolted at the sounds of their voices. Even in a group the southerner expected to be alone. What away to face the world. Larabee wondered if Standish felt the loneliness more, now that he belonged to something or did the camaraderie of friendship dull the ache of past solitude.

It did not really matter in the long run. Standish was here now doing the best he could with what he knew. For Chris that was enough. More than enough because it went against Standish's very nature.

He was a creature of flight. He was both predator and prey. He would attack only if the odds were favorable or cornered. When the current swept against him he fled. Simple survival.

Chris, Vin and Buck were predators. They would attack and attack. They would never stop coming at you. They would never stop trying to take down their prey until they either succeeded or died trying. They would not run no matter what the odds. They would face any wraith man made or not with a more brutal fury. They were men of action and deeds no matter how violent. It was their nature. It was how they faced the world. Chris silent and deadly, Vin quiet and shy and Buck loud and full of motion...but their natures mirrored one another. They would not flee.

* * * * *

The sound of their voices surprised Standish enough that he swore and fell back on his haunches nearly dropping the cleaned strips of material.

"I'm glad your feeling better," Ezra remarked trying to control his hammering heart. He lowered the blankets covering Buck and lifted up the blood stained shirt.

"How long have you two gentlemen been lucid?" Standish wanted to redirect Wilmington's attention from the task at hand. The Cravat had to be removed. The bleeding had been slowed, nearly stopped.

"Long enough to hear you think Curmudgeon Larabee should have a name change," Buck whispered out. He breathed in sharply as Standish fumbled with the dressing. The man had nimble fingers when dealing the cards but when it came to tending wounds a hammer would have had a softer touch.

"My apologies Buck," Ezra whispered out cringing every time Buck winced.

"It's ok pard'"

"How are you feeling Mr. Larabee," Standish asked as he retied the original shirt back in place over the folded strips that had been lain against the gaping exit wound in Wilmington's back.

"Fine," The answer was curt and to the point.

Standish merely nodded and went back to the fire.

"Would you gentlemen like some coffee?" He was not sure if Buck should have anything to eat or drink. Some people believed in forcing liquids and though most times it was an excellent idea with a gut wound...Standish just didn't know. It would do the man no good, in fact more harm, if he were to vomit.

Where was Nathan?

"Ezra that stuff is horrible," Buck's reply being answer enough for both men. Despite their best efforts, Gunslinger and Ladies man drifted off to sleep.

Ezra sat staring at the small flames. He hoped tomorrow brought Vin and the others. He prayed Buck made it through the night and wondered if it would be Larabee's last night with Buck alive. Standish mentally kicked himself for his morbid thoughts. Instead he concentrated on sipping his coffee. In a few hours he would have to wake Larabee. A dreadful chore.

* * * * *

Part 10

Vin lay in his bed roll and stared up at the night sky. The slowly shifting positions of the constellations marked the passage of time. It was so bright but still not enough light to risk tracking their friends through the water. The sharpshooter listened to the campfire snap and pop. The branches were slightly wet still clinging to their spring moisture. The hissing of released steam added to the back round noise. Tanner knew he was not the only one laying awake. Josiah and Nathan both lay silently in their respective blankets.

Those two were formidable when it came to snoring. Buck had once joked that a night watch was not needed when Sanchez and Jackson laid down to sleep. The combined noise alone would keep potential marauders away. This had earned the ladies man a few chuckles and two scathing looks.

Tanner kept his eyes on the night sky. He listened as JD continued to toss and roll. The kid could not keep still even in sleep. Standish had once remarked that between the ungodly sounds emanating from the depths of Jackson and Sanchez and Dunne's inability to keep still it was a wonder anyone got rest at all.

Vin bit back a chuckle at the memory. Josiah had been in a foul mood during that comment and hauled the gambler out of camp and tossed him into a nearby river. No more comments had been uttered about snoring.

Tanner felt a rock under his lower back and fished a hand blindly under his makeshift bedding. He tossed the jaggered stone a few yards away listening as it bounced and rolled along the hard packed dirt. His frustration seemed tangible.

"Don't worry brother we will find them in time," Josiah's soft baritone voice floated over the small camp.

Vin did not bother answering. What was the point? They were going to find Buck and Chris the there was never any doubt in his mind. What he dreaded and feared most....what if they were to late? What if Buck and Chris were better at hiding their trail? What if Vin missed something along the way. Would his lack of education his lack of skill be his undoing?

Tanner closed his eyes. He did not believe in the Deity of other White Men. He did not hold much stock in a system that slaughtered the very People that raised him. If Vin had learned one thing since acquainting himself with these other six men it was trust. Tanner had no problem in trusting people it was just later he would regret it. Unlike Standish who found subterfuge in every act of kindness. Tanner searched for kindness in every outwardly cruel act. Funny Vin thought that he should learn something from the slithering conman. Yet Ezra in actions alone had entrenched in Tanner the need to cover all his bets. Don't leave anything to chance. When one stood alone and faced outrageous odds it was always in ones best interest to learn all possible avenues of escape.

Vin would do no different in this situation. It was with a tentative quiet voice, "Josiah ya wouldn't mind..."

Sanchez smiled under the broad brim of his hat. He too stared up at the heavens. Instead of marking the slow passage of time he was carrying on a monologue. Hopefully the right 'spirits' were listening.

"Already done brother," Josiah answered. He would save Vin the humility of having to ask a favor from a friend. Especially a favor that would delve into a realm Tanner did not woefully believe in just yet...maybe never. Sanchez would not push his beliefs or his father's teachings onto the others. Josiah watched the bright tail of a shooting star. How could he pass on his believes when he himself did not know where his faith may actually lay. What were his believes what Cannons did he live by? Sanchez had no answers. His faith was as muddled and misdirected as a silt lined puddle. Yes, Josiah would spare Vin the hypocrisy of having to ask for a prayer from a God in which Tanner had no true faith.

JD listened to the brief conversation. Tears fell unseen. He curled on himself feeling the salty tears cut paths across the bridge of his nose. If Vin was asking for such a favor then things were in deed terribly wrong. Dunne kept his misery to himself. The others did not need the added burden of his weakness, or so he thought. He brushed angrily at his running nose. Here he was a grown man crying over the helplessness of the situation. He knew Vin and Josiah weren't shedding tears. Nathan was not visibly shaking over the enormous responsibility that was about to befall his shoulders. No, the other three men stood and faced the hardships that fell murderously upon their small family. Only himself, JD, crumbled to tears. He was weak. Again he muffled a sniffle, choked back a sob and fought with himself to be as tough as the others....to be as confident as Vin and as rock stable as Josiah. If only he had Nathan's brains and skill maybe he could of some help to this group. Instead he was just a sniveling kid afraid of losing his best friend and his hero.

What of Standish? JD felt another tear roll across his nose. Damn tears. Ezra wouldn't be crying he would be doing everything he could to help Chris and Buck. Dunne's breath hitched again....what if the brothers shot Ezra or hurt him too so he could not help them. Oh Gawd...the tears came in earnest. Dunne muffled his sobs biting his lip. He was so weak. So terribly weak..a momma's boy.

Nathan lay on his side listening to JD fight back his tears. The kid. Jackson had empathy like that once. They all did. Each and everyone one of them had lost that special gift. Somewhere along the way the empathy had been beaten, stolen, cheated or just plain buried. The other six actively tried not to put themselves in someone else's boots.

Not JD. It was what made him strong in most aspects. His gift really. In this case his possible undoing. It was this empathy the others had tried to preserve in their young friend. It was JD who, in his naiveté gave the benefit of the doubt. He felt others' pain. Dunne never acted without realizing what he would be imparting on those he acted against. The death of Annie had nearly killed the boy. He took a life a terrible, horrible accident. Dunne had felt that death had put himself in the shoes of those kids whose mother had been stolen from them. Stolen from them because of his bullet. JD had taken their mother just as his mother had been taken from him...to soon and too young.

Now in the middle of the night amongst hardened men the young man hid his fear. Jackson wanted nothing more than to ease JD's pain. He wanted to impart to the young Bostonian that it was this very gift that made him strong. It was not something to hide, he did not need to bury his pain from those he considered friends.

Jackson did not know how to approach the boy. Instead he settled for watching him from under hooded eyes. Nathan admired the youngest in the group who was still able to express his grief and fear.

Nathan hoped Josiah's prayer found a sympathetic entity. Maybe an angel with JD's heart would hear the silent plea and act on their behalf.

* * * * *

The grey of a false dawn lit up the sky. A few thin clouds dotted the slate colored morning. Standish slowly pulled himself into a sitting position. He held his coats tightly closed. The morning dew had settled heavily on everything even himself.

He really hated the outdoors.

The small moderate fire still blazed. For the fifth time Ezra made his way over to the two fallen friends. The bleeding had stopped in Buck's wound. Thank goodness. Maybe there was hope after all. Chris had become more and more coherent each time Standish woke him. This pleased the cardsharp to no end.

The southerner did not want the responsibility of the other men's lives resting in his slippery hands. He was adept at watching out for only one life...his own. Even his horse would fend for itself when push came to shove. It was a cruel world they lived in and Standish was no fool. Watch out for number one...then if circumstances permitted it one could then dabble in the foolish acts of a good Samaritan. Ezra had to admit he found some personally fulfilling rewards in such unselfish acts but normally he performed said duties purely by mistake.

It was not in his nature or in his experience to tend to those who held no immediate advantage for his own personal stakes.

So what the devil was he doing here..soaking wet, cold and trying to save the life of a one Buck Wilmington? There was nothing to be gained from said actions. Not monetary..No money had nothing to do with it.

If Buck died it would hurt. Plain and simple. It would hurt...just thinking about it brought a physical pain to Standish. Ezra bit back his rising panic. Oh God don't take Buck. The unnerved southerner shot a quick look in the direction of the two gunslingers. The both breathed. One shallow in the normal rhythm of sleep and the other raggard and to deep. Not Buck please not Buck.

Ezra wiped his face with both hands trying to gain his composure. All he had to do was get Chris on his feet and hopefully shift some of the burden onto Larabee. Yes share the weight. Together they could keep Buck alive long enough for Nathan to reach them.

Oh God, Nathan wasn't coming.....Standish in a fit of frustration threw more wood onto the fire. Jackson was in town reveling in the tranquility wrought by the absence of the others. No...no..no.. this was not fair. They needed Nathan.

Standish gripped his coffee cup and sipped from the near empty mug. It was time to get Chris up and moving. The gambler pushed himself to stiff sore legs. The muscles had become cramped do to the cold raw weather. With stiffness born of a man burdened with more than usual, the southerner crossed the small grassy space to the two sleeping men.

The gambler knelt beside the blond man. The bullets passage was marked by a shallow furrow in the skin and a spectacular shade of maroons and blues...some deep enough to match more than a few of Standish's duck tailed coats.

With a simple nudge to the shoulder, Larabee bolted up right. His hazel eyes wild searching left and right.

"Are you alright Mr. Larabee?" Ezra asked to tired and cold to put much concern into his voice. Buck was his biggest worry.

"How's Buck?" Chris bit out. He was getting sick and tired of Standish waking him up.

"He is alive," Ezra answered as he made his way over to the ladies man to check the bandages.

"Leave that," Chris said again. His rough voice was raw. There was a cold edge to it that caused the Southerner to look up.

Larabee noted the questionable expression on the haggard features of the southerner. Chris did not mean to be so brusque. His head hurt, his stomach bubbled with violent tendencies and he was tired. Bone tired. All Larabee wanted to do was curl up and go back to sleep. He could not. Would not..Buck needed help. Wilmington hung to life with a loosening grasp.

Chris was not mad at Standish, not in the slightest. The damn gambler was out of his element working under conditions he had avoided all his adult life. The conman had pulled another trick out of his hat....Wilmington survived the night.

Larabee did not intend to make Standish a target of his frustration. It was not done with premeditation at all. Anger was a knee jerk reaction. Rage was easier and more satisfying to deal with than worry and fear.

What if Buck died? No, Chris would not think like that...he would not let his thoughts race down those rails. Instead Chris acted in a manner that best suited him. He lashed out. He gave orders without explanation expecting them to be followed because he uttered them...more importantly because Buck needed it. Action was always preferable to stewing. They needed to be moving.

Unfortunately those commands fell on the one person in the seven who would not follow blindly. Demands were thrust at a man who floundered all night in the turbulent seas of forced actions. Chris refused to see this and Standish failed to uncover the true motivations that pushed Larabee. Both men fell back on what they knew.

One spit orders and the other balked. The old friction was back but the levity was seriously lacking.

Standish threw a caustic glare at Larabee, 'Did Larabee blame him some how for this mess?'

When Standish hesitated in moving Chris seethed, "Git the horses ready we're movin' down into the canyon." He left no room for argument, he left no leeway for discussion. The dark clad gunslinger rolled unsteadily to his knees and with some difficulty crawled over to Wilmington.

Standish stared at him with an unmasked look of astonishment. Ezra was about to spit back a reply of his own but hesitated again. What more could he have done last night? He got the bleeding stopped. Mr. Wilmington made it through the night. Standish acted and reacted with everything in his arsenal. What did Mr. Larabee expect from him? What more could Chris possibly want from him?

"Git movin'" Chris hissed out again. They had to get to the bottom of the Canyon. That was their best chance of running across Tanner. If Larabee knew Vin, then Tanner had already figured out where they were headed. The short cut Standish had shown them was a curse in disguise. Vin would not have known about it and Buck had done a commendable job covering their tracks.

Tanner was sure to lose them trying to follow them through the water so he would head to Devil's Canyon and hope to pick up their trail there. It is what Chris would do.

"Mr. Larabee you can't be serious," Ezra stammered out. The blow to the head had to be affecting the gunfighter more severely then Standish originally thought. "Mr. Wilmington will just start bleeding again." The conman did not try hiding his incredulous shock. Why would they even risk moving the Ladies Man? It was madness.

"Ezra shut yer damn mouth and git the horses," Chris's hand fell to the butt of his gun. It was an absent minded move. He was not even conscious that he had made it. A natural reaction to his rising anger and frustration. Larabee wanted nothing more than to keep Buck still. He understood the risks he took by bringing Wilmington down into the depths of the canyon. Chris could not bear to risk missing Tanner. Vin could search the canyon for days before realizing the others had never made it down there.

Splitting up? No...Chris would not risk sending Ezra down into the bowels of the Canyon alone. The place was a natural maze of dead ends and circling paths. A man unused to such places could wander for days retracing their steps without ever realizing it. In this spring heat with drying watering holes it would be a murderous thing to do. Sending Ezra alone into the canyon would be no different than shooting him.

Besides the Donavon brothers were still lurking close by. Larabee could feel it. The gunslinger hated to admit it but right now Standish held the steadiest hand and therefore offered the best defense should the two brothers decide to come back.

Chris contemplated going himself but then he left Buck in the hands of the gambler. Though Ezra had already proved his capabilities in tending the wounded Larabee hesitated. His faith in the conman was not in question. What if Buck died? What if Wilmington passed from this life and Chris did not have a chance to say good bye? What if Chris came back only to find Buck had died while he was gone......just like before. No, Larabee would not separate the group. They would face their enemies together and face the burden of death as a small group.

The situation flowed with helplessness.

Chris stared at the gambler. Didn't the foolish man realize that Vin would be approaching the Canyon from the West End and they themselves sat on the East Rim. There was no way Vin would know they were up there. While Ezra and he waited up on the rim for Tanner,,,Vin would be searching the bottom of the Canyon oblivious to their location.

Ezra did not shift his eyes from Chris's face. His peripheral vision had spotted the hand resting on the butt of the gun. Standish knew first hand that Larabee would do anything to protect his men. The man would fight any individual, he would go up against any odds to protect one of his own. Standish had been on the receiving end of such rabid protection. It scared him when he realized just how determined Chris could be in ensuring the safety of his 'family'. Ezra himself sat within that realm, but Standish knew Buck was near the epicenter.

Standish found it funny that he did not really fear for his own life when Chris rested a practiced hand on the butt of his revolver. Ezra was shocked, he felt frightened for Buck's safety.

Some kind of twisted logic drove Larabee. Ezra could not fathom it. Standish understood the desperation and fear that drove Chris. The gambler felt it himself.

Without a word Ezra headed for the horses.

* * * * *
Part 11-16 by Heather F
Part 11

Cole and Devlin rested on their bellies in the tall grass. They had watched the small camp from afar. The two brothers smiled. Wilmington was suffering. They watched as the gambler tended the fallen men. This suited Cole just fine. Let the southern man fix up Wilmington it would serve their purposes in the long run anyhow. The gunslinger would linger longer.

The oldest brother nearly laughed out loud as he watched the gambler gather the horses. They three men were moving out. Larabee was a fool. He was keeping company with two dead men.

* * * * *

Vin lead the way through the stream. Peso kept his pace even and methodical. He understood the position of his rider. Things were serious. Horse and rider had done this many times before. This time however the mount picked up on his riders anxiety. Unlike the brash gelding that snorted and stomped behind them, Peso became even more cautious. The gelding did not fight the rein, did not dance or toss his head. Instead the black settled down and slowed his pace. The time for speed would becoming. It always came later.

Josiah's chestnut acted as a buffer between Peso and JD's nervous bay. The preacher held a tight rein on his horse and growing frustration. Sanchez pushed his hat back off his forehead and stared at the broad leafed trees that dotted the area. A crow sat mutely on the highest branch. Sanchez focused on the black harbinger of death and willed it away. When that failed he pulled his gun and fired a round.

The sharp report of pistol fire sent the bird lazily into the morning sky. Heads swiveled in panic and surprise.

"Just trying to keep the devil at bay," Sanchez explained not disguising his disgust. The large black bird settled, unruffled, back on its perch. The other three men followed the preachers gaze and saw the ebony symbol of death. The giant winged creature returned the stares as if mocking them. The small area suddenly erupted with gun fire as the four men drew their guns and fired in random. The bird in panicky haste launched itself from the shattered bullet ridden branch. It cried out in fury as it sought safety in light blue sky. The tree branch riddled with holes, bark torn from its skin fell to the water below with a small splash.

Josiah smiled slyly to himself. Let that be a lesson to any spirit that wished to bring foul play upon the seven.

A Raven, please let it be a Raven, JD begged silently.

Jackson's roan hung back slightly. It was used to fast paced traveling on the get go and slow returns. This was something different. Normally his rider saddled him in a huff and kicked him into a gallop or a fast ground eating trot. Their destination normally a barn or small modest homestead. The gelding was familiar with those actions. This was unusual. There was a need for speed. The gelding could feel it in the seat of his rider and in the tensions of the reins and yet his rider held him back. The gelding would abide for now. When asked it would cover ground rapidly and easily but until then it was content to follow the others.

Tanner paused at most of the tributaries. He cursed Buck. The large grey gelding had danced his way up many of the small rivers only to return again. It ate precious time. It had been Wilmington's intention and it succeeded. With each new convergence the others would wait in silent impatience as Vin searched the water. He would focus past the glittering moving water onto the rocky bed and try to read the signs. A slow tedious process that had everyone on edge. After a few minutes Vin would egg them onward.

They continued like this for most of the morning. Vin followed the slight shod scrapings on the rocky bed. They passed yet another tributary. It appeared as if Buck's Grey had traveled up it. Probably another false lead. Tanner decided to ignore it. Devil's Canyon lay before them a day and a half ride. That was where Chris was headed. The tracker would try and play the odds, take a risk and head straight there. In the canyon on the sandy flooring he would find their tracks and make up time then. They strode past the tributary.

JD recognized this small stream. His guts twisted in knots. His heart hammered in his chest. He had already angered Vin yesterday. He knew the others had heard him crying last night and it shamed him. Vin and the others were smarter than he ever hoped to be. They knew more about signs and people than JD could every learn in a life time.

Dunne knew this stream...he knew where it lead. JD made a decision.

The young Sheriff pulled back on his reins fighting his gelding to a halt. The bay danced and splashed in the water. It shook its head trying to wrestle more reins so it could go further, keep up with the others. JD fought the horse, fought his fear and held his ground.

Vin and Josiah noticed the increased fight between horse and rider. Vin turned in his saddle annoyance and anxiety written clearly on his face. He wanted JD to read his expression so Tanner would not have to use words to make his point.

Josiah did not bother interfering. He had seen crows. Crows...who had they lost? Did they lose both men?

"JD what're ya doin'?" Tanner was forced to ask.

"This goes to Devil's Canyon," JD's voice was low and wavered with fear. He did not want to incur the anger of these men, his friends.

"JD quit wastin' time," Jackson answered for Vin. They did not have time for this kind of argument. Nathan could only hope they reached the others before the poison, whatever it maybe, did irreversible damage.

"JD that ain't the way ta Devil's Canyon," Tanner spoke slowly trying to contain his impatience.

"Yeah it is, you can go this way too," Dunne spoke again. His voice became stronger as he was forced to face more than one front. Nathan behind him Vin in front of him. Where did Josiah rest in all this?

"No ya can't J..." Vin started to say but Josiah cut him off. The larger preacher did not want to fight, not now. When they did find the others and if one should be gone from them, fighting will only serve to hurt them further.

"What makes you so sure son?" Sanchez used a tender tone. He did not want to scare the kid any more than he already was at the moment. If JD felt strongly enough to stand up not only to Vin but Nathan and himself then Dunne had a reason for it. They would hear him out.

"Well ya remember when ya got all mad at Ezra for the collection basket scam?" Dunne started off tentatively. Josiah had become demonic in his intentions of dismembering the conman.

The others nodded. Sanchez felt slightly ashamed of his blind rage but then again it was somewhat justified.

"Well I followed him out of town...just to make sure he was alright..." JD stammered not sure how far to go with this little tale. His dark eyes fell to Jackson.

Nathan blushed slightly. Though Josiah had never got his hands on the slithering thief....Jackson had...and belted him good right in the head...a couple of times. The healer had been so outraged he had not even considered his actions might have been witnessed. It was not that Nathan was sorry for his violent outburst. He wasn't. Someone had to teach the southern fool the difference between right and wrong. If that entailed a small burst of violence then so be it. Nathan never considered he was observed. Apparently JD witnessed it. Jackson was not a violent man by nature but his world bred physical confrontations and sometimes that was just plain difficult to ignore.

"What's your point JD?" Tanner asked wiping his brow.

"Ezra went to Devil's Canyon, he took this stream," JD explained. When no one said anything JD's speech quickened with fear, "he made Devil's Canyon before late afternoon."

This developed the desired results. Vin, Josiah and Nathan shared incredulous looks.

"Yeah think Ezra told Chris?" Vin asked out loud.

"With money involved?....Yup," Josiah answered.

"Bet Chris and Buck listened too," Nathan finished the thought.

Tanner lead the way up the stream. Each man gave JD a congratulatory pat on the back.

For the first time since this mess started JD smiled.

* * * * *

Part 12

Chris lead Buck's grey down the steep trail. The narrow rolling hard packed trail switched back every few hundred yards, in an attempt to accommodate the shear angle of the foot path. The grey no longer pranced or played. Instead it lifted and placed each shod foot gently. The animal recognized the signs, smelled the blood and knew its rider was in danger. Death clung to his rider and now himself. Instead of shying from such odorous foreshadowing of doom it accommodated it. Horse and rider had been together for a life time. The grey's life time.

The grey allowed himself to be lead by the black horse. The man in black occasionally tugged impatiently on the reins. The grey tried to hasten its pace without jostling its rider. The man in black was dangerous. Though the Grey's ability to reason was limited it did understand the necessity to answer the frustrated tugs.

Standish rode drag, as usual. The Chestnut gelding plodded along following the others. Something was wrong. His rider no longer sat tall in the saddle. The familiar flip of cards, that accompanied this kind of pace was missing. Instead the weight on the gelding's back even set differently, almost unbalanced. The Chestnut swiveled its ears to face its rider, listening for any kind of command. Nothing...not even the ever frequent pats of encouragement. Death emanated off the body in front of them. The grey did not seem concerned...the Chestnut would then show no concern either. Instead the quarter horse kept pace with the other two waiting for directions from its rider.

Chris kept peering over his shoulder at the slumped from of Buck. Wilmington held desperately to the horn with one hand and his upper stomach with his other. Blood had begun to stain his hands. Larabee shut his eyes briefly and faced forward.

The ladies man held on to the saddle with grim determination. He knew he was bleeding again. He also knew that Chris was aware of this. They could not stop here not on this ledge. What had happened? What drove them onward Buck could not be sure. He did know, however, that he had faith in Larabee. Chris would do everything in his power to keep them alive. Larabee was not a quitter. A smile crept onto the pale mustached face. He and Chris had danced with the Devil on numerous occasions...this would be no different. Chris would not walk away from a fight and Buck would not lose one.

With determination born out of pure stubborn bull headedness, Buck hung on to the saddle. He would come out of this scrape with nothing more than a few funny stories. He had enough material to harangue the southerner until next summer. Ole Buck was going to survive this piddly ant gunshot wound. Buck was tougher than some dirty faced kid and a chunk of lead. Yes sir, Chris lost enough people in his life time he would not lose Buck Wilmington.

Ezra held onto his stomach. He loosened his shirt collar and unbuttoned his vest. His stomach boiled and gurgled. He grimaced when cramps seized his midsection. With his left hand he gripped the saddle horn. The reins drooped loosely at the horse's neck. His right wrapped itself tightly around his midsection. Out of desperation he loosened the top button of his trousers hoping to release some of the pressure on his abdomen. A chill settled in his bones despite the desert sun. He leaned forward as cramps raged through him. A small groan escaped his lips. Oh gawd not now...he could not come down with something now.

* * * * *

Cole and Devlin shadowed the small party. Wilmington rode like a rag doll, swaying in the saddle as Larabee ponied him down the slope. Cole elbowed his little brother with enthusiasm when he saw the southerner double up with pain. The poison was working. Larabee would watch two of his friends die. Justice was theirs to be had. The legendary Chris Larabee would be brought to his knees while he watched two friends die slow agonizing deaths.

Devlin smiled and took a quick sideways glance at his older brother. Cole looked so happy. His dimples were easily discernible. Cole was coming back. Devlin wanted to hug his brother. It had been so long since he had seen a genuine smile on his oldest brother. Devlin knew this would work, he just knew it would. When Larabee was forced to shoot Wilmington then all would be right in the world. He and Cole could go home and be a family again. Maybe even go back to farming. Their Ma would have liked that...liked that a lot. Maybe Devlin would go back to school. Ma always wanted him to go to school, get a proper education. When this was done that's what he would do. They would get the family farm running again and when Cole had that under control Devlin would get a 'proper education'. Yes sir things were going as planned.

Cole noticed his brother grinning like a fool. Good. The kid was happy. His wounds were finally healing. When this little drama was played out he and Devlin would head north. There were some cattle barons looking for hired guns. The settlers were encroaching on grazing land and some renegades were stealing beefs. With Devlin's skill with a gun and proof they had destroyed Chris Larabee they should have no problem finding work. The oldest Donavon was glad to see his baby brother so happy. The kid had the stomach to kill. It made his job of convincing Devlin into their new livelihood so much easier.

* * * * *

Chris searched the area for a suitable camp site. They needed something close to the wandering stream but easily defensible. The black sand of the canyon held the suns heat. Instead of being cooler Devil's canyon contained and radiated scorching temperatures. Some labeled it the Devil's breath. Chris wiped his brow with the back of his hand. It was midday and already the temperature seemed intolerably high.

He did not bother gazing over his shoulder. He could hear the movement of the grey behind him. Buck hung on to the saddle with strength born out of desperation. The gambler followed close behind. How could the man still be wearing his coat?

After a few minutes of searching Chris brought his horse to a halt, "We'll camp here." Again an order.

Wilmington did not hear the spoken words. It took a moment for him to realize the gentle rocking of his horse had finally came to an end. The painful placement of each foot had finally ceased. Buck did not categorize this did not try and decipher it. The jolting pain through his midsection had diminished.

"Ezra get a fire going," Chris said as he approached Buck. Wilmington listed in his saddle dangerously to the left. The grey stood wide stanced accommodating the awkward placement of the dead weight. Larabee smiled. The foolish horse was as in tuned with its rider as its rider was with the fairer sex. With gentle hands born from being a father once, Larabee eased his bloody friend out of the blood stained saddle and onto the scorching sand.

"Just hang on for a second Buck," Larabee realized he spoke mostly to himself but in speaking to Wilmington it allowed himself to carry the belief Buck would make it. He had too. The dark gunslinger reached up and removed Wilmington's bed roll and tossed it on the ground beside the Ladies man.

"Ezra give me you bed roll," Chris gazed up briefly from his task. The conman moved slowly, slightly hunched over. There was no spring in his step and no hint of rebellion. Chris really did not expect a fight but he did anticipate some kind of conversation.

Silence. Not unwelcomed just uncommon.

Chris turned his attention back to Buck. A few minutes later Standish's bed roll landed with a soft thud in the sand beside them.

"Thanks," Larabee muttered. He had opened Wilmington's shirt. The wound had been bleeding steadily, especially the exit wound. It had remained cleaned. The strips of cloth Standish had plugged the holes with had done their jobs. The heat around the wounds themselves was minimal. If they could avoid infection and if Buck survived the blood loss maybe he had a chance.

Chris shut his eyes. Who was he fooling?

Anger began to boil and smolder. He heard a shuffling behind him. A target. "Ezra what the hell are you doing?" He snapped out.

Standish did not bother reacting. Cramps hit him so fiercely he doubled over clutching his midsection. The small splattering of fire wood fell to the sand. Oh gawd what was happening?

He did not answer Chris's question. Instead he sunk to his knees tucking his chin to his chest trying to control his breathing. As quickly as the spasm struck it left.

With a shuttering breath he began to pile up the wood and start a fire. It was so cold.

With no answer forthcoming. Chris whipped his head around and saw the gambler start on the fire. Good. Buck needed to be kept warm. The canyon was like a furnace but Wilmington trembled. The loss of blood was always accompanied by a loss of body heat.

"I'm going to scout around and mark a trail for Vin and the others." Chris climbed to his feet. He would change Buck's bandages once they got water boiling and new strips cleaned.

"Tend to the horses and fill the canteens," Larabee swung himself up into the saddle.

He noticed the pale features of the gambler and the unsteady hands. Something was wrong.....other than Buck's injury.

"And Ezra," Chris let the statement hang until the gambler gazed up at him. The southerner looked haggard and worried...almost as if in pain. The potential loss of Buck had struck the gambler harder than Chris thought. "Watch yer back those two are still out there," With that Chris nudged his black out of camp.

Standish merely nodded to himself. He watched Larabee's receding back, then cramps crashed down upon him again. This time he did not bother swallowing the deep moan. He fell to his side and curled tightly into a ball as an invisible fist twisted his guts. In a few agonizing moments they passed leaving him weak and breathless. Oh Gawd what was happening?

Tend the horses....Fill the canteens....He could do that and then he would lay down...Just for a second. First the horses and then water. Buck needed water.

Buck felt the warmth from the sandy ground and welcomed it. He shivered and cringed. It was so cold, bone numbing cold. Wilmington held tightly to his midsection. He could feel the blood seep between his clenched fist. The forearm muscles had cramped and frozen in place. Buck did not think he could release his grip if he wanted to. With every shiver he stifled a groan. Chris did not need any added grief. The man was doing the best he could, Buck just wished he could do more to help.

* * * * *

Part 13

Tanner led them out of the stream. The horses bounded up the clay bank, through tall spring grass and under the budding deciduous trees that lined the modest banks. A cooling breeze blew off the land while the sun warmed the area. A hawk circled the semi-arid land to their left in search of a meal.

Vin took note of his surroundings but for the most part he ignored it. His attention remained riveted on the few feet of ground just before him. The tracks were getting easier to follow. Buck and Chris had figured on Ezra's short cut throwing them off.

The twosome had underestimated JD's input. It was a common occurrence. The kid was young and inexperienced but it did not make him any less valuable. In fact it was the kids enthusiasm and kind heartiness that made him invaluable. Who else would have taken it upon themselves to follow the gambler especially after what had happened. No one...but apparently the kid had..and because of it he ensured the southerner's safety that day and today improved the chances of saving Buck and Chris.

Just as Vin had thought Ezra would be a hindrance on the trail Tanner found the opposite true. The gambler had discovered a short cut which by all means might have won them the waged bet. Unfortunately it might have also been the undoing of the seven.

Vin followed the signs of bent grass through the trees until it petered out on the hard clay packed desert floor. No matter really. Buck's dancing grey and the lazy scrapping step of Standish's Quarter horse were easy to follow...especially now. The three had become careless and cocky. Not like Larabee at all. Vin paused. What if the poison had hit them already?

He nudged Peso into a quicker walk.

Nathan cursed the Southerner for the umpteenth time that day. The fool and his bets and now his short cuts. Jackson had to amend that the wager was not entirely Ezra's doing. In fact he had only joined in after Wilmington planted the seed. Still the conman could not resist the lure of the coin. Now this short cut. Thank goodness JD had the heart to follow the slippery fish out of town. The healer sat back against the cantle of the saddle his heart raced. Would Ezra know what to do when those two came down sick?

Jackson shut his eyes. Chris tended to get down right unforgiving when not feeling well. Hopefully Standish would read the signs and not rile the sick man. Nathan let a small smile flicker across his dusty face, hopefully Ezra would keep his mouth shut and avoid a bullet. Larabee had a quick temper and an even quicker hand.

* * * * *

Cole and Devlin stayed out of sight. They watched as the fancy Southerner shot up from a balled position to his knees crawling a few yards before violently emptying his stomach. Larabee had yet to return from his ride. Wilmington lay across the camp from the smaller man oblivious to everything but his own misery. The Donavon brothers smiled with anticipation.

* * * * *

Chris returned to camp as the sun hung just above the horizon. The sky had transformed into a brilliant array of pinks, reds and purples. Larabee noticed the display. Bruising. The colors of bruising just like on Buck's back and midsection. Larabee unsaddled his horse and removed his rifle from its well oiled scabbard. He had left a trail for Vin. Hopefully the Donavon would not be able to decipher it.

Larabee laid the rifle next to Buck and checked his wound. Apparently Ezra had cleaned it and changed the bandages. The Southerner could pull his weight in a pinch. Larabee never doubted it. He wondered why Ezra had no more faith in himself as he did. The man was resourceful, sneaky and quick. His only fault of course was untamed greed. Everyone had a vice or two. Standish's lay with the clink of dollars. Just as Larabee sometime lost his control over the black moods that coursed through him, and just as Josiah lost his battle with the bottle Ezra sometimes gave into the lure of money. It got him in trouble, just as Chris's moods dragged him into confrontations, and Sanchez's drunkenness landed him in jail. Standish's craving for money sometimes landed him at odds with the others. It had been no different a few weeks back.

Larabee smiled briefly at the thought. Josiah had been down right 'Old Testament' mad. Chris chuckled at the memory of the preacher storming into the saloon throwing bodies and tables out of his way as he descended upon the gambler like the wrath of God himself. Heck, Josiah would have reached him too if Buck had not ran interference buying the Southerner much needed time to exist the erupting inferno that was once the saloon. Good ole Buck always sticking up for the dark horse.

Larabee laid a hand on the ladies man forehead. He was surprised when he found Buck staring up at him. His eyes were glazed with pain and his features deathly pale, a smile curled up under the bushy mustache, "'Ey Chris," he whispered out hoarsely, "how we doin'?"

Chris returned the smile, "Ya just hang in there Buck," Larabee reached for a canteen and dragged over next to the ladies man, "Vin'll be here in no time," Chris continued to smile trying to hide his dread.

"Not if he don't know about Ezra's short cut," Buck answered back. He gratefully sipped from the canteen. He could not recall ever being so thirsty in his life. He had tried to convince Ezra to leave the canteen right beside him but Standish would not listen. The gambler seemed unsure what to do about the water but the more Buck pushed the quicker Standish made up his mind. Something about to much water and vomiting. Buck did not care he just wanted a drink. Hell right now he could drink an ocean full.

"Where is Ezra?" Chris asked staring around the small camp. The fire blazed. Enough sun bleached wood rested next to it to last a few nights. All three canteens were full and both Buck's and Ezra's horse were on tethers. Where was the conman.

"I don't know," Buck answered reaching and tugging weakly on the canteen strap, "was here a few minutes ago."

Chris absently kept the water out of Buck's desperate grasp. To much water would do more damage than good. Lord only knows what the bullet plowed through and if his body should reject the fluid he would start bleeding all over again, not to mention worsening his dehydration.

"Stay put Buck," Larabee said. He slowly rose from his squatting position keeping the canteen with him. Wilmington watched with panicked desperation as the canteen slowly drifted from him in Larabee's gasp. Damn those two. Always doing what was best for everyone else.

Chris walked to the other side of the camp and dropped the canteen well out of reach of Wilmington. Larabee rested his hand on the handle of his revolver. He listened intently to sounds of the closing day.

The small stream trickled by a few yards down the sloping trail. The horses picked and nibbled at the slim pickings in their immediate reach. The more he strained the less he heard. Then he recognized a sound. It did not belong to the creatures of the canyon. It was decidablely human.

Larabee followed the sound of repeated retching cringing himself with each violent out burst. Chris parted a few bushes and found the gambler.

Standish rested on all fours with his forehead in the sand. Larabee was about to speak when the heaves hit again. Standish's back arched, his arms straightened out as his fists curled and his neck unbowed itself instinctively. Coffee and hard tack dotted the immediate area.

'What the hell?' Chris thought. He did not have time or the energy for something like this.

Larabee held his tongue until Standish settled back down on his haunches once again resting his head on the sand and his arms snaking around his midsection. A few shivers shook his body.

"Ezra ya alright?" Larabee asked.

"Right as rain," Came the hoarse reply.

"Good when yer done here come back to camp," the concern was in the tone of voice, "it ain't safe out here alone," Chris explained quietly.

Ezra merely nodded his head without lifting it from the ground. He did not have the energy to point out to their fearless leader that a well placed bullet right now was very much indeed a welcomed visitor.

* * * * *

Tanner swore as he squinted his eyes against the fading light. He cursed Larabee's name and Buck for starting such a foolish competition and he uttered a black oath on Standish for accepting wages. The last and most pronounced foul oath fell on himself.

They had left the tall lush river bed grass land that snaked through the arid mesas like a green border to the meandering river. Now as the sun slipped below the horizon and shadows lengthened as night approached the land became more difficult to read.

Chris had lead the others off the trail a few miles back. The three peace keepers had increased their pace. Well judging from the tracks Chris's black and Buck's grey had stretched their strides swallowing more ground. Standish and his gelding as was custom straggled behind finding no desire to push themselves.

The tracker did not bother voicing his disgust out loud. Josiah shadowed him acting as a protective wall. Who was he protecting? JD from Vin or Vin from JD? Always the peacekeeper unless he himself was riled. Tanner ground his teeth. Sweat rolled down the side of his face cutting through the accumulation of trail dust. His deeply tan features were furrowed in desperate anger.

Josiah followed the tracker up along the ridge. JD had quieted down as had his mount. It seemed the youthful energy of both rider and horse had been desiccated in the drying heat of the spring sun. Sanchez continued to offer up prayers. He searched his teachings made offers to the numerous Gods that he had learned about. In his mind they were all the same, just different names. Amongst the clop of shod hooves and creaking leather Josiah spoke mutely to any deity that would listen.

Nathan once again ran through his minds eyes all the supplies he had in his bag. Step by step he worked himself through the many procedures he might be called upon to use when they found their friends. What were the signs of poisoning? Depended on the kind of poison...Vomiting..maybe...rashes...maybe...fever or clamminess....how would you approach each symptom. Dehydration? Most likely...force liquids? Maybe...maybe not...were they vomiting? Was there blood present..was the blood black or red? Black was almost a death sentence..maybe not..not in all cases...Red blood...better chances..unless it just did not have time to be digested....Bleeding gums? Bruising on the abdomen? How to treat those conditions. He could not treat such bleeding. He would have to prepare his patience for the inevitable and worse yet he would have to inform the survivors of the potential hopelessness of the situation.

Jackson closed his eyes. His saddle bags carried no miracle cures. He glanced down at his dirty hands. They clenched at the reins portraying his apprehension. What was he suppose to do? How was he to prepare himself to face a battle that most likely was already lost?

The healer shut his eyes. This kind of thinking would get him no where. If Chris and Buck were alive then there was a chance. There was always a miracle in the wings. As long as a pulse existed, as long as a breath was dragged in then there was a chance.

Nathan took a deep breath, settled his nerves and started running through possible scenarios and logical solutions....again.

JD heard Jackson take a calming breath. Dunne did not bother turning around in his saddle. He feared what he might see. Nathan always was nervous when facing an impending rescue or patient. Once Jackson delved into a situation though, he would become calm and in control. Nathan with a knife in his hand was like Chris with a gun. Confident and unmatched in skill.

Nathan was nervous, that was normal. JD slumped in his saddle and patted his gelding's lathered neck. His ma always taught, "Never pray for an easy life...Pray to be strong.." He did not know where his ma had learned that piece of wisdom but she had repeated it enough in his short time with her that it was etched in his mind.

JD closed his eyes. He was tired of being strong...he wanted something to be easy...Just this once. Please let Buck be ok.. Please Ma watch over Buck and Chris...keep them safe until Nathan can help them. Please Ma?

The four peace keepers followed the ridge. The stars had slowly melted into view and the moon claimed the dark sky. It was not near as bright as it had been last night. A few wispy clouds dotted the sky. The light reflected off them creating a halo against dark grey centers.

JD ignored the night sky and the hawk that sailed above them.

* * * * *

Cole gazed over his shoulder as Devlin approached. The kid had brought the horses to water. From their little cove secreted back against the sandstone wall of the canyon they had an unobstructed view of the small camp a few hundred yards away from them.

The foolish gambler had made more coffee. Larabee refused the proffered cup. Donavon gritted his teeth in frustration. No matter really..Larabee will be suffering enough in the end.

The southerner took a few tentative swallows of coffee and then fled the camp falling to his knees his body purging itself of the intrusive liquid.

This brought a glaring smile to Cole's face. Yes indeed. Larabee would watch two friends fall under his protective grasp and he could do nothing to stop it.

"How's it going Cole?" Devlin asked quietly. In another day or so he and his brother would be heading home. Life would be back to normal. Devlin could hardly wait.

"Real good kid," Cole whispered back. He tore a bite from the hardtack he held and chewed it thoughtfully. Things would work out just fine.

* * * * *

Chris watched with dismay as the conman hastily fled camp after drinking a little coffee. Though the gunslinger could not clearly see the southerner he had no trouble hearing him. Of all the times why did Standish have to pick now to come down with something?

Larabee wiped Buck's brow. The bleeding had not stopped. It still seeped from the exit wound. With each haggard breath more fluid soaked the makeshift bandages. The iron skillet sat beside the small fire on a flat rock. A canteen lay with in easy reach. Between the Ladies Man and the Gambler the canteens seemed forever empty.

Chris had finally threatened the cardsharp. Every time Standish put something past his lips it would spew out only a few moments later. Ezra had merely raised his sunken green eyes at the threat, 'ya go for another canteen again an' I'll shoot ya myself.' Chris knew it was a little harsh but he had no idea how else to get Standish's attention. Larabee actually feared the foolish man would reach for the highly regarded water just out of spite. Or maybe relief. The gambler looked tortured.

To ease tension and offer a slight truce, Chris took two of the canteens and gave Ezra one. Larabee wanted to set a night watch up. He had originally intended on having Standish stand first watch and then let the man get a few hours of sleep.

Now watching him from across the fire it seemed highly unlikely. The southerner had been reduced to a curled ball with his coats clutched tightly closed. An occasional moan would float across the small space these were normally followed by more retching and other forms of discomfort.

Buck shifted. His side felt on fire. His whole midsection. Gawd it was cold out. He tried to move and hit something. A voice floated over him. Chris. Chris was still with him, cradling his head and shoulders. Of course he would be..Buck would have done the same for him.

"Hold on Buck, jis a little longer," Larabee whispered out.....

A raptor soared above searching for a meal.

* * * * *

Part 14

Vin lead Peso into the small forested clearing.

The story suddenly changed...new players entered the scene.

"Hold up," He called out raising his hand with a closed fist. He did not bother looking up from the story that was written out in a language he read as easily as JD read books.

The tracker dropped the reins leaving Peso to his own devices. The horse remained stationary. He understood the body language and the sudden rise in tensions. His rider still worked still gave commands without actions. The horse would stop and wait...this was not the time to test limits.

Vin read the matted wet grass with increasing alarm. He stood in Chris's diminishing boot prints. With narrowed blue eyes he turned right..Buck would have come up on Chris's right. He always had..well until Vin quietly slipped into his role. But Vin had not been with them so Buck would resume his place as Chris's watcher but more importantly his defendant. Tanner's practiced eye swiveled left. Standish. The gambler was to cocky to stand behind anyone and out of loyalty to Larabee Ezra would stand up and be accounted amongst though who stood up for and follow the dark gunslinger.

Vin took a few careful steps forward. He searched the ground trying to read symbols and meanings where most people saw only muddled actions and an old campsite. Ignore the obvious for now. Someone camped the night. The fact was established by the charcoal remains of the fire scarred ground.

Two people faced the threesome. They came from the cover of the trees. They had the drop on Larabee and the others. This was not obvious...Vin nearly missed it.

Someone was shot....The realization it Tanner like a physical blow. The tracker quickly retraced his own steps and again stood in Larabee's shoes. Buck to the right....Ezra to the left...Chris in the middle. They faced two men. Who of the three was hit?

A few dark stains muddled the grass. A small campfire had once burned all night long just off to the right. The irritated foot placements that marred the area belonged to Standish. The man had been pacing...nervous energy. Vin could picture it. Back and forth probably talking to himself maybe rubbing at his bottom lip with his thumb.

Where were Chris and Buck? The abrupt movements of the conman would no doubt irritate Larabee. No scuffle. Was Chris unconscious? Was he to busy tending Wilmington?

No not that...if he had been tending Wilmington then Larabee's patience would be frayed raw Standish's body would have littered the area...Or...Chris would have sent him back for help.

No extra boot scrapings from Chris or Buck. Both went down? Both shot? Not enough blood.

What happened?

Calm down read the signs. Get a breath, close your eyes and read the story..

Vin closed his eyes and slowly re-opened them. He focused on the blood stain. A rag sat discarded on the ground. Tanner picked it up and unraveled it. His dusty callused fingers ran the material back and forth; fine linen from a well made shirt. Standish's.

Tanner gazed at the discarded piece of cloth and remembered..... 'If something pulls your attention down then look up.' An old adage passed on to him by an ancient grizzled miner.

Tanner gazed up at the tree limb over heard and found his marker. He let out a whoop.

"Josiah see if'n ya can reach that," He pointed up to another strip of cloth tied to the looming tree branch.

The large preacher nudged his horse under the limb. Stretching to his full height in the stirrups he grasped the branch pulling it down a few inches. He removed the rag. A two words were hastily scrolled on it.

He did not bother handing it to Vin and the tracker did not bother asking for it. It was a written message. For all of Tanners ability at reading nature and the nature of men he still could not read man's written words. He never had the need nor the desire...until now.

"Its from Chris," Josiah said. He angled the small scrap of cloth trying to capture as much of the moonlight as he could. He read out loud, " 'Need Nathan'"

The four men stared at one another. Vin gathered up the reins to Peso and walked to the far edge of the camp.

"Josiah...um..." JD stammered, "how'd ya know it's from Chris?" Maybe it was from Ezra or better yet Buck.

"Not enough purty words for Ezra and Buck would have asked for Violet," Nathan smiled reassuringly to the kid. Chris apparently was still up and able to move. More to the point, Larabee realized they were in trouble and had enough sense to seek help. Why not send someone?

"They headed down to the bottom of the canyon," Vin's soft Texan drawl cut across the small clearing getting everyone's attention.

"Why'd they go 'n' do a fool thing like that?" Jackson asked. They were so close and yet those three continued their foolish game.

Tanner sighed. The others might have been able to read written words but out here they were as illiterate as he was in town. "Cuz someone's huntin'em," Tanner paused and shuffled his feet.

"What is it brother," Josiah asked. He knew there was more to the tale than the tracker was admitting.

"One of'em's been shot," Tanner added, "I'm figuring its Buck," he said sadly. Not that he wished one of the others to have taken the bullet. No far from it. It was just the crest fallen expression on JD's face was enough to take the bite out of the meanest dog.

"Ya sure?" JD asked. His tone already defeated. If Vin said it then it must have been true. Why Buck?

Tanner swung back up into the saddle and closed his eyes. "No kid, but last night Ezra damn near walked a hole to China and Chris left the note," Vin shrugged, "jist stands to reason that Buck must a bin hurt." Then as if to explain himself further he added, "No real signs of Buck movin' around much."

The small group of men were silent for a moment. Wilmington had energy to match JD.

Tanner clicked Peso back onto the trail. This time he did not have to search for hidden markers. Chris had marked the trail with snapped twigs and obvious foot placements.

Chris, Buck and Ezra were in trouble.

* * * * *

Vin lead them down the narrow trail. The rolling dirt path clung to the canyon's face. It was a shear drop on the other side. The horses as is their natures walked on the outside edge of the trail. Their riders long accustom to such tendencies centered themselves in their seats forcing the animals to keep an eye on the edge. No one wanted to fall not man nor beast.

The mood was somber at best. Men kept their thoughts to themselves. Saddles creaked and complained as the occasional horse blew in agitation.

The quiet of the evening was shattered. A piercing inhuman scream rolled down the canyon. It bounced off the walls carried over the low lying vegetation squelching any sounds from all who heard it. It careened down the canyon like raging waters from a flash flood. Horses shied and some whinnied. Vin closed his eyes in failure. Tears fell unashamed from JD. Josiah cursed God and Jackson apologized for not being there when needed.

Buck's tormented scream of pain nearly drowned them with fear.

* * * * *

Cole laughed. Devlin stared at the small camp a few hundred yards away. He realized he did not want this...not at all.

* * * * *

Part 15

Chris put the knife down. The smell of burnt flesh filled the area. Buck had arched away from the pain, the burning blade Chris placed in the wound. Wilmington instinctively moved away from Larabee.

Chris muttered a curse. He spilled retched oaths at every living thing near him. The knife was laid carefully back next to the skillet. It might be needed again. God Forbid.

The dark gunslinger did not need to feel for a pulse. He knew Wilmington still breathed. He could feel the rise and fall of the man's ribs. Chris would not leave Buck. Never. He would stay by his side until the end. Larabee shut his eyes. Anger seeped from his pores as frustration rose.

With a tenderness that rivaled his blind hatred, Larabee gently eased Wilmington head and shoulders back onto his lap. It might not be the best thing for the wound but it was what was best for Buck. For Chris.

Larabee leaned back against his saddle and closed his eyes. He thought of Sarah and Adam. Thought about how they died alone and afraid probably calling out his name, reaching for him. Searching for safety and security from a man who would not show.

Larabee held tightly to Buck. He felt every breath his friend took, felt every pulse. He would be there he would stay with Wilmington. No one was taking Buck from him....not some bullet, not some dumb kids bent on revenge. Not some meaningless deity. Chris cinched his arms tighter around his best friend offering body heat. He would stay with Buck until the end.

Chris did not know how long he sat like that leaning against his saddle holding desperately to Wilmington. He did not realize he stared mindlessly into the crackling fire. It was not until a hand rested on his shoulder did he suddenly notice other men had invaded his territory.

Living healthy men walked while his oldest friend lay dying painfully in his arms. Anger roared to the surface. The gunslinger reacted the only way he knew how. He reached with alarming speed for his gun.

A foot stepped on the revolver that lay only a few inches from his hand. A boot. Attached to a Buckskin clad leg.

"Chris did ya drink the coffee?" Vin asked again. Gawd how many times was he going to have to ask the same question.

"What?" Larabee asked somewhat dazed. How did all these men sneak into camp without him hearing them?

"The coffee. Did ya drink the coffee?" This time it was Nathan. Jackson was trying to peel Buck out of his arms. Larabee was not willing to let go.

"Coffee?" Larabee answered. What the devil were these fools babbling about.

"Brother you have to let go," Josiah knelt on one knee before him as if talking to a child, "let Nathan work on Buck." The voice was soft and reassuring...coddling. Chris wanted to rip the source to shreds. No everything was not alright...no he did not need coddling. He needed Buck He wanted Wilmington standing in front of him laughing at him because JD got the drop on the infamous Chris Larabee.

"Chris did Buck drink da coffee?" JD's impatience was unmasked. Youthful patience, which was limited at best fell by the wayside.

"Damn it Chris answer us?" Tanner grabbed the gunslinger by the front of the shirt and pulled his head around.

"Let go of Buck," Vin nearly bit out. He would be damned if he traveled all this way to have Chris shut down on him.

Nathan gently manipulated the larger man from Larabee and with Josiah's help they stretched Buck out. Wilmington merely groaned weakly attempting to move a leg. Jackson smiled. Buck still lived. He had a pulse that was all that matter. You can not save corpses. Wilmington was close and the reaper stood on the welcome matt but Nathan would be damned if he opened the door.

Josiah left Chris to Vin. If anyone could reach the gunslinger it would be the tracker. The large preacher began rifling through Buck's weather worn saddle bags. He quickly found the object of his search. He held up the small paper satchel that had been wrapped with a cloth.

The coffee. Sanchez stared at the amount and then back at the men huddled on the far side of the fire.

"Its half gone," Josiah called out. The small parcel seemed diminutive in his large callused hand.

Jackson swore and shook his head. JD wiped furiously at impending tears.

"JD get the bandages and salve out of my bags and bring'em over here," Jackson said curtly.

Sanchez noted the transformation over the healer. The nervousness and apprehension were gone. Jackson had a patient and a friend in need, there was not time for self doubt. That would come later for better or for worse the second guessing, the self incrimination always came later...whether there was success or not. Sanchez wondered at the ambiguity of Jackson's calling.

"JD when your done with that build up the fire," Sanchez added. The boy would not be able to sit idle. In his eagerness to help he would fumble and act as an obstruction. JD was a good man. In the face of another tragedy or accident the kid was second to none in a pinch. This was Buck who was down. Family. JD's oldest brother in a sense...Dunne's whole world evolved around Wilmington whether the kid admitted or not.

Keep JD busy...it would keep him from getting hurt...no angry glares, sharp retorts or unnecessary apologies.

Tanner knelt in front of Larabee. Chris was with them again. Vin saw the smoldering anger rise to the surface of the hazel eyes. Even in the flickering light of the campfire the dark promise of revenge showed unmistakably.

"How much coffee did Buck drink?" Tanner asked again. He kept his place close to his friend. Chris might strike out. If it made him feel better then Vin would take the blow. Instead he was met by a confused expression and slowly shaking head.

"None," Chris answered. What was the obsession with the coffee?

"None?" Tanner repeated. That could not be right. Buck always made the coffee and usually gloated over his abilities.

"No, tasted terrible," Chris was off balance. What the heck was Tanner so concerned about.

"Did ya have any coffee?" Vin sat back watching his friend. Larabee appeared dazed off kilter...unbalanced as Josiah would say.

"No," Chris said. The anger flashed back, "why are you so lathered up about the coffee?" Larabee tried to inch closer to Buck. Tanner stopped him.

"No one drank the coffee?" The tracker knew that could not be true. Buck's supplies had been dipped into. The blackened pot still sat on the rim of the fire. It had percolated itself to just grounds.

"No," Chris stated keeping his eyes on Buck. In the periphery he noticed Nathan working diligently over his friend. How did Nathan get here so fast.

Then JD's voice rang out, "Um...'Ey 'as anyone seen Ezra?" His voice was tentative at best. He did not want to disturb Nathan. Chris looked ready to shoot someone and Josiah had him doing busy work.

Everyone stared at one another and then expectantly at Chris.

Larabee gazed over at Vin, "Ezra drank all the coffee."

Chris did not expect the reaction he received.

"Son of a ..... Where is he Chris?" Tanner grabbed Larabee by the front of the shirt. He did not answer quick enough, "Chris where the 'ell is Ezra?"

"He went to fill the canteens," Larabee answered back with anger of his own. "What the hell is going on?" His question fell on the quickly receding back of Tanner.

"They poisoned the coffee," Josiah answered. He tossed the coffee sack next to the fire and followed the tracker to the shallow stream.

"Who poisoned the coffee," Chris asked. What was going on? Wasn't bad enough Buck was shot?

"Probably the same ones who shot Buck," JD mumbled out. Oh Gawd.

* * * * *

Vin followed the sandy trail down a gentle slope. A few pebbles rolled under his boots and a scattering of bristling sage grabbed for his buckskin leg. Tanner concentrated on the scrapping halting footprints in the sand. Every few yards a small circle of dried matter rested in the trail normally between clenched hand prints. Someone had been getting sick. Violently so.

Tanner bit back his panic. This was not the time for such a foolish display of energy. With a quickening pace and a racing heart the Texan hurried down the trail.

"Oh No," Vin whispered when he spied the dark curled up shape on the ground amongst the lengthening shadows of evening. Tanner broke out into a trot and then dropped to his knees beside Standish.

The tracker quickly felt for a pulse. It was fast too fast to count. The skin was hot to the touch. Vin was not sure if it were a true fever or the heat from the sand and sun.

Josiah spotted Vin kneeling beside the gambler. Sanchez quickly dropped on the other side, "Is he alive?" The large preacher felt for a pulse as he asked. Tanner nodded and softly said, "Yeah," as he watched Josiah's massive hands on the smaller man's neck.

Together both men wiped the marching ants from their prone friends slack face. Vin felt the course skin from chapped lips against his hands. He could not block out the intense heat emanating from the flushed and burned features. For all intent in purposes, Standish appeared dead.

"Back to camp?" Vin asked. To punctuate his sentence Standish's body started heaving again. The limbs remained limp, the body nearly rag doll except for the violent tensing and purging of the muscles involved with retching.

Josiah gently twisted the direction of the conman's face allowing the vomitus to fall from slack lips with the pull of gravity. There was no conscious reaction from Standish.

"No I'll bring him to the stream," Sanchez paused and met Vin's eyes, "to keep him comfortable."

Tanner curtly nodded his head in agreement. Together both men lifted the gambler off the radiating heat of the Canyon floor. With some help from Tanner, Josiah adjusted the dead weight in his arms to a more manageable position.

Vin kept his eyes on Josiah's chest trying to avoid staring at the slack features of the once animated gambler. Twice Tanner tried to rest Standish's head against the preachers shoulder and twice it fell lifelessly backward hanging over Josiah's arm. With his neck exposed to the sky and mouth pulled open, and short dark hair reaching for the ground, Tanner thought he was looking at a corpse.

"Go back and tell the others we found him," Josiah spoke softly. "Keep Nathan with Buck," Sanchez ordered sadly, "I'll tend Ezra." With that Sanchez turned his back on Vin and slowly made his way toward the stream.

Vin watched the large man descend the sandy path. For such a powerfully built man Sanchez had a tenderness that surprised them all. His broad shoulders and back blocked out most of the form in his arms. The seemingly lifeless bobbing of Standish's head hanging over the crux of the Preacher's arm had burned its image in the trackers brain.

Tanner choked back a ragged sigh and again admired JD for the kid's inability to hide his fears and capability in expressing his pain. Vin headed back toward the small camp.

* * * * *

Part 16

Chris peered up angrily from the fire he stoked with a twisted branch. Vin entered the small corona of light. Larabee stared angrily at the man. Not angry with Vin, no never angry at Vin but still hatred poured from the gunslinger and anyone who ventured near him felt it. The others had kept their distance. Just as they were keeping their distance from Buck. Only Nathan ventured near Wilmington. Only the healer broke through the aura of death that emanated from the once jovial Ladies man.

JD sat huddled by himself watching from across the fire. His eyes darting nervously from Buck to Chris back to Nathan. Larabee nearly barked out a laugh. The poor kid, the damn fool should have known better than to throw his lot in with a bunch of two bit gunslingers. JD should have realized what he was getting mixed up in, damn fool. It would have been easier on the kid if he had gotten his own head blown off than it was for him to watch Buck slowly wither away. Dunne was dying from the inside out....just like Liam Donavon just like Buck was doing now, just as Chris had done when Sarah and Adam had died and now again with Buck's impending death. Chris narrowed his eyes at the young man. Damn fool kid should have known better...

Chris turned his biting gaze at Tanner not seeing the tracker at all.

Vin did not bother returning the stare. Larabee had been shattered. When that bullet tore through Wilmington its passage potentially destroyed two lives. Vin stopped. No, not two, seven. Yes Seven lives would fall to one bullet. The tracker wondered if the kid who pulled the trigger realized just how effective his shot had been. In one simple moment a tortured man-child did something that none of the local cattle barons had been able to successfully accomplished. The revenge of a simple dangerous young man had done what many hired guns had failed to succeed at. An angry half grown kid pulled the trigger and destroyed the Seven.

Vin shut his eyes. He closed out the ineffectual light of the campfire. He tried to hide from the shattered remains of the blond gunslinger he had come to call a brother.

Chris Larabee had been devastated before. He had crumbled and withered under the imposing death of his family. Buck had picked up the pieces. Buck had put them together and slowly rebuilt the man that lead the seven.

Vin sighed tiredly. How was he to do that? How was Vin suppose to pick up the shattered remains of Chris Larabee and put him back together again. Didn't Buck understand what would happen if he should pass from this life?

Vin's blue eyes skittered over the bundled form of Wilmington. Nathan knelt by the large man's head talking reassuringly to a man who knew he was dying. Tanner quickly averted his eyes. Wilmington was the last thread Chris had to his family. Buck was the last tie to a life that had once promised happiness and peace. With the violent destruction of that dream Buck became the binding that held Larabee together. If Buck should die then the last tendril that Larabee had with his dead family would fall asunder.

Vin knew that when Chris laughed with Buck or spoke of old times Chris would relive the memories of his former life. There was a time when those unwanted memories sent the man in black on a murderous rampage or a violent drinking binge. Over time that had begun to change. With persistence born from unmatched loyalty Buck stayed by Chris's side. With the gentle persuasions of Four Corners, Mary Travis and her son Billy Chris began to let loose of his demons. Wilmington had nodded and nudged the dark gunslinger down the road to healing, had picked up and protected a falling down drunk of a friend. Buck had weathered the storms and black tidal moods that swamped Larabee. It was Buck who without ire stepped down from his perch as guardian and handed the responsibility to Tanner.

Tanner accepted the reins. He and Chris had become as close as brothers. With that relationship came the job of caring for one another like brothers. It was new to Vin. Family was a concept he had once wished for and later spurned. Now that he was strapped with six others he did not want to lose it. Tonight, it was slipping through his fingers like dry desert sand. He did not know how to stop it.

Vin caught a glimpse of Larabee squatting in front of the fire. Already, he was just a shell. A smoldering demon that would become no different than the angry boy who gunned down Wilmington.

Tanner was suppose to rein Chris in, keep him under control....keep him alive.

Vin Tanner did not want the responsibility. He thought he did, he thought he understood Chris. Maybe he did, and maybe that was why Vin understood what a losing proposition he faced. Chris would not drag himself up from the black cesspool of despair. Larabee would not allow anyone to help him up. He would fight and strike at anyone or anything that tried to breach his private world of grief.

Tanner knew this....knew this because he too was shattered and destroyed. If Buck were to die what would be left? Who would watch out for JD? Dunne would never let anyone that close to him again. The kid had an anger him that nearly matched Larabee's. JD did not know it existed, empathy and forgiveness kept the futility of anger under tight wraps. With the premeditated murder of Buck that forgiveness and gift of empathy would be thrust aside. JD Dunne would become the Young Chris Larabee who lost his family. Forgiveness would not be so easy for Dunne to offer. The vengeful murderer of Buck Wilmington had not granted it to JD's best friend.

An eye for an eye might leave us blind, but Tanner thought it left one hollow...dead inside.

Vin did not want to stay around to watch the men he had come to love as brothers fall. He would not stay to watch Chris drink himself to death or challenge a gunman that he hoped would be faster than himself.

Tanner knew he would stay. He knew he would spend his life watching over Chris.

The tracker stared tiredly at the dancing flames. He knew that his turn as guardian over Chris

Larabee would be very short lived. Chris would not allow himself to survive long without Buck.

* * * * *

Chris followed the sharpshooters absent gaze to the fire. The men around him were slowly falling from one another. The binds that held seven men together would not hold six. The death of one unraveled the delicate bonds of friendship and camaraderie.

Frustration roared through Chris's veins. Buck would not allow something like this to happen. Wilmington would fight to keep the others together.

Chris would do the same. It would be his 'marker' to his oldest friend. Buck wanted family. He wanted JD as his little brother and the others as his immediate family. The Ladies man would not sit idly by and let this all fall apart. Buck would grab the unraveling strings and pull them together.

Larabee would attempt the same. He did not have Buck's easy going manner or pliable personality. Chris would get the job done if he had to kill one of the others. He would hold the others together for as long as he could. It was the least he could do in Buck's memory....should he not survive.

The dark gunslinger was not in the mood for the hurt the others felt. Chris did not want to soften the death of one of their own. Death hurt. It was final. No second chances, no come backs. Nothing. When Death came for one of yours it took it. It ripped that individual from you with no compassion. It would leave a hole, a crater in ones soul.

Death danced amongst this campsite. It flirted with one of the seven.

Larabee had had enough.

"Where's Ezra?" Chris words were hissed out softly. Larabee's demons had been reborn. The dark specter that haunted his dreams had finally scratched and clawed enough that it could rage during Larabee's waking moments. Larabee did not hold Standish accountable. The southerner was just another target with in reach.

"Down at the crick," Tanner responded in a soft drawl. No warmth emanated from the fire. Funny, how the impending death of one of their own could numb you but still allow you to feel so cold.

"What the hell's he doin' down there?" Chris bit out never raising his voice. He felt JD's eyes following the conversation. The kid had not completely shut down.

"Dyin'," Vin's answered in quiet resignation.

* * * * *

JD dropped his head to his hands and buried them between his knees. Never again would he allow anyone to get this close to him. Never again. Gawd Buck don't die....please. Dunne bit back the tears that threatened to spill again. No..he would shed no more tears for anyone. He had cried over his last dead body. He had grieved and ached over the loss of his mother. No more. To hell with you Buck. If you won't fight to live, I won't fight to care.

The sharp bark of Chris's voice snapped heads up. Nathan ceased his gentle administrations to Buck. JD's snapped his neck up and stared at Chris. Vin jerked as if pushed.

"Git down there and drag his southern ass back up here," Larabee bit out. "You tell Josiah if that son of a bitch is dyin' he's gonna do it here amongst friends..." Chris straightened his squatting posture and matched Tanner's gaze.

Vin felt a glimmer of hope. There was fight left. The twisted anger that ate at Larabee's soul burned in a new direction.

"I'm not goin' to let that southern bastard die down there alone so he can haunt me later on," Chris slowly climbed to his feet, "git movin' Vin."

There was no kindness in the voice or the posture. Vin did not care. Larabee was going to fight.

Chris turned his attention to the kid. Dunne should have known what he was getting into when he rode into Four Corners so long ago. He did not....he was a kid seeking adventure.....He found it...Now he was paying the dues on it.

Larabee would not let Dunne pay alone, "JD gather up more wood," His tone held no leeway. Dunne did not stir, "Move it!" Chris nearly spat the words out. It galvanized the boy into action.

Nathan watched from beside Buck. Jackson had figured when they lost Buck they would lose JD and Chris as well. The boy was devastated. Chris...Chris had become something frightening. It was not his actions but his lack of actions. Hatred emanated off him like heat off a wood stove. The healer wondered how long Larabee would last before someone gunned him down...before Chris allowed himself to be gunned down.

Vin could only do so much.

Nathan watched with apprehension as Larabee strode toward him.

"Let's move him closer to the fire," Chris spoke softly but again there was no room for discussion. Buck would get moved. Nathan could either help or get the hell out of the way.

* * * * *
Part 17-22 by Heather F
Part 17

Jackson chewed nervously on his lip, not sure whether or not to speak his mind. There was a glimmer of hope. The angle of the bullet wound and position of the wound offered a chance when certain death was assumed.

Should he speak? Should he offer that sliver of appeasement knowing that if he were wrong he would dash the hopes of those around him? Maybe he would hold his tongue and wait it out. If he were correct in his assumptions then Wilmington would start getting stronger in a day or two...if he survived the blood loss and possibility of infection.

Infection. There was always that risk. The ugly secondary marauder always lurked around wounds. Like a bird of prey waiting for a creature to falter, infection would dive in and kill its victim. A simple wound could become fatal, a potentially deadly wound could suddenly go belly up if Infection set its clinging vines around the wound. Like a wild fire it would spread through out the body, burning and destroying its victim. Nathan had seen many strong men crumble and die under the tenacious clutches of infections.

Should he speak up? Jackson stared around the camp. JD stacked fire wood next the small blaze. They had enough sun bleached twisted logs to keep a fire roaring for days. Dunne's movements were slow thoughtless. The boy's eyes never truly left Buck's still form.

Jackson bit his tongue. Chris sat beside Wilmington. The gunslinger stared at his long time friend just daring him to die on him. Larabee's face was set in fury. The undulating shadows of fire light enhanced the devilish expression in the gunslinger.

Nathan stared from Buck to JD and back Chris. Should he offer reprieve where there might not be any? Should he open his mouth and speak what he hoped to be the truth? What should he do?

He would ask Josiah. Jackson searched the campsite for the missing preacher.

* * * * *

Vin followed the same path down to the fledgling stream. He carried two blankets with him.

The tracker easily found his two friends. The moon offered enough light to see by. Though it was still a full moon it did not hold the same luster as it had the first night. Its light seemed to be waning.

"How's he doin'?" Tanner asked. He squatted beside the stream. Sanchez knelt in the small sandy stream bed. The icy clear water washed up over his thighs and around Standish's bare shoulders. A pile of fetid clothing lay by the bank in shallow water. A few rocks had been placed on the articles in an attempt to keep them from tumbling down stream.

"Brother Ezra is a fighter," Sanchez remarked. The large preacher gazed up from his charge and faced the tracker.


"He's still hanging on," Tanner answered quietly.

Sanchez merely nodded. He turned his attention to the gambler in his arms. He had stripped the southerner of his fouled clothing. Standish would have been indignant at the gross invasion but Josiah feared he would not get to hear that tirade. The gambler was fastidiously neat and to be covered with such filth would seep some dignity from the man.

"Chris wants you to bring Ezra back up to the camp," Vin spoke quietly. Hope danced at the edges of his words. Chris was giving orders. He no longer sat dumbly blaming everything for the fate that befell his group of men.

Josiah caught the faint lining of reprieve. He understood what trials Vin faced should Buck fall. Funny how one death could tear so many apart while another death, though tragic, touched lives in a manner completely different. If it touched lives at all. Yes, any death no matter who or what touched someone or something.

Would the simple passing of the southerner create such a devastating effect on the lawmen? Josiah gazed back down at the wheezing man in his arms trying to find an honest answer. The very fact he had to search brought a groan of protest to the preacher.

"Ya need a hand?" Tanner asked stepping into the mid shin level water. He would help anyhow. Sitting idle was not something he could do.

* * * * *

Jackson gazed up when he heard people approaching the camp. Vin entered first. He jogged over to his saddle untied his bed roll and quickly laid it out on the ground. Josiah came in a few minutes later.

The large preacher was slightly bent over under the weight in his arms. He carried Standish wrapped in two blankets. Bare legs and feet dangled over one arm while exposed shoulders where propped in the other arm. Standish's head hung back toward the ground his mouth pulled ajar and eyes forced slightly open.

If Nathan was right Buck's chances may have improved slightly over Ezra's. Jackson felt no relief, no comfort, only a deepening of regret.

The healer watched quietly as Josiah and Vin lowered their burden onto the bed roll. They shifted the conman onto his side. The change in position resulted in heaves from the ailing gambler.

Nathan shut his eyes, hoping the simple action would block out the added responsibility that was just brought into camp. Responsibly and burden. How could he think of a friend as a burden, a yoke to be carried. The healer swiveled his saddened gaze from one fallen man to the next. Both weighed heavily on his shoulders. They were friends.....and because of that the toil had increased greatly.

Maybe he would speak up. Maybe a potential for hope was better than no hope at all.

* * * * *

JD sat between staring at the flames. How could they lose Buck? How could he have not even considered Ezra falling to the vengeance?

"He still with us?" Larabee asked without looking up. Chris stirred the coals to the fire. He would reek havoc on the young men that did this.

Both Nathan and Josiah jerked their heads up at the inquiry. Who was Chris referring too?

"Yeah Chris, Buck's still fighting," Nathan answered quickly.

Sanchez dropped his gaze back to the gambler. He laid a cold rag across the back of Standish's neck. Though the night was chilly the younger man's skin was burning up. A fever raged unchecked.

Sanchez had seen this kind of poison before. If consumed in enough quantity then a painful death would befall its victim. Castor bean seeds. A few would send a man to his knees with severe cramps, retching and foul stool. Josiah had seen men bleed inside out from such poisonings. He had seen courageous spiteful men fight the effect of the little seed. These men had eventually fallen dying in their own bloody juices as fevers took their minds. A frightful and miserable way to go.

"Josiah?" Chris spoke again. The anger in his tone turned heads. "How is he doin?" Larabee seethed. Unbeknownst to him one of his men had been struck down. Someone hit and battered one of his men without his knowledge. For once Standish was innocent. He did not deserve this...he did not bring this painful illness on himself.

Chris had. Larabee and Wilmington's past had finally caught up to them and struck indiscriminately. Thank goodness it was not JD or Vin or one of the others.......

Larabee angrily threw his stick into the fire. No. He did not prefer to lose Standish over one of the others...no, he would not have picked the gambler as the 'scape goat'.

The fool southerner may have thought that of Chris and the others and maybe himself. But the gambler was wrong. Larabee would not....did not wish any mishap to befall his group.

Should ever the choice arise, Chris would never single out one of his men, one of his family, to be a target of such violence. Larabee if faced with such a brutal choice would pick himself. He would not leave it to fall....on the one who always expected it.

It enraged him beyond measure that the others assumed he inquired only of Wilmington. Standish was no less of a friend. If they thought that way of Chris did they think that way themselves? Did they hold Buck's impending death with more fear and trepidation than Ezra's. If they did then they all could go to hell.

They were seven. Seven equal...seven strong.....Seven distinct personalities...seven distinct strengths and weaknesses. Seven very distinct lives that somehow had melded together to make each man individually better.

Chris valued them all...six lives he held above his own...six trying irritating men that had become family. Not just one or two of them...Seven.

Larabee nailed each of the conscious men with a challenging stare. Two men lay dying in their midst. Two very important and cherished lives hung in the balance. Seven could easily become five before morning.

* * * * *

Part 18

JD found his hands fascinating, when Chris hit him with a pointed gaze.

Nathan suddenly felt compelled to check for Buck's pulse. Vin stoked the fire watching the flame.

Josiah met the younger man's gaze, "He's fightin' back Chris," Sanchez mumbled out.

* * * * *

Cole and Devlin sat hunkered back in the brush. They had watched some what amused when the other four men had ridden hell bent for leather into the camp. The fool southerner had stumbled away to die somewhere. So be it.

Wilmington still fought and hung onto life in the embrace of Larabee.


Cole could not have asked for a better audience. Let the others witness what a coward, a weakling Larabee was when faced with the death of Wilmington. Donavon slid a smile across his features. Chris would not only lose Wilmington but he would lose face with his men.

Cole watched with growing enthusiasm as the mood of the camp became somber. They were just waiting for Wilmington to die.

The eldest Donavon swung a gaze at his brother. He nudged Devlin's arm a smile splitting his grizzled face. The grin drooped. Devlin's face seemed haunted.

"Ya did good Dev." Cole encouraged. It was after all Devlin's idea to gut shoot Wilmington.

Devlin kept his eyes on the camp. He forced a weak smile on his face and turned his attention to his older brother. 'Where'd you go Cole? I thought you would have been back by now,' Devlin mused. All this and still Cole seemed different.

Devlin wanted to go home. He started to voice his desire when his oldest brother hushed him.

"Ssshhh Dev. lets hear what the Darky has to say," Donavon crawled forward on his belly inching a few yards out from under the brush. He did not want to miss any of the impending helplessness of Larabee.

* * * * *

"I ain't sure I should say anything or not," Nathan began. He had tossed and turned the dilemma over in his head and finally decided he could not hold the information back. If it held the potential for hope then it had to be shared.

"What is it Nathan?" Chris asked. He had gone back to his solitary thoughts. The others were used to such behavior so he gave it to them.

Josiah gazed up from his administrations over the gambler. Vin stopped his harmonica playing. It was a small gesture in which everyone was slightly grateful. The man did not know how to carry a tune. Buck had offered to teach him a few notes but the tracker staunchly refused. No one understood why. The music made Tanner comfortable so the others tolerated it (sometimes quietly and sometimes not so tolerantly).

JD stopped whittling on a stick. He still sat some distance from Wilmington. They all understood the gesture. Dunne himself had yet to realize he kept himself away from his dearest friend.

"I've bin doin' some think'n on Buck here, n'," Nathan stumbled over the words. How to say that the wound might not be the death sentence they all perceived it to be without giving to much false hope.

"Jist spit it out Nathan," Vin prompted. He was in no mood for people right now. In fact he cursed the day he ever hooked up with these other six men. On his own, he fought for himself, hurt only for himself and feared only for himself. Now he found those emotions incorporated the other six men. That could really wear on a fella.

"Well if'n I'm right, but I ain't no doctor mind ya," Jackson scrambled.

"Nathan say what cha got to say," JD had found his voice for the first time that evening. If Buck was dying he did not want the news dragged out any longer than it had to be.

"Well then, um, Buck's wound might not be fatal," There he said it. It was out in the open.

Silence met his statement. The other five stared at him silently for a moment.

Finally Chris softly spoke up, "How?"

"Well judg'in from the angle and place of the entry wound 'n the exit wound," Jackson shrugged, "there is a chance that the bullet missed 'is intestines 'n stomach." Nathan stood up and continued, "see the bullet looks as if it came in like this," He pointed at his upper left abdomen, "an' traveled like this and exited here," again he pointed to his own anatomy near his back just above level of the entry wound. "What I'm say'n is..." Jackson took a deep breath, "it mighta miss'd the guts maybe nicked the stomach and got the liver bleed'n some. It shoulda bit a chunk from the lung but..." He paused gazing back down at Wilmington.

"But..." Josiah prompted.

"But he's breath'n to good," Nathan said, "and the bleed'ns stopp'd. I suspect when Chris cauterized the wound it mighta stopped all the bleed'n," Jackson paused and then quietly added, "It's jist a guess but I've seen wilder things happin."

"He's gonna live?" JD whispered in astonishment.

Jackson closed his eyes. This is what he didn't want, "No, JD I aint sayin' that..."

"But you just...." Dunne implored. He held a glimmer of hope and now it vanished.

"He's just said Buck don't have to die," Vin quietly spoke up. He would latch onto that morsel of hope.

"But he still might," Chris broke in. Good news was always shadowed by the worst news.

* * * * *

Cole heard the conversation. His fury rose.

Devlin listened intently. Wilmington might not die. The young man could not say that he was disappointed. Cole had not come back to him like he had thought. They were far from home. It was time to just go back to the farm.

The youngest Donavon was about to suggest it when Cole suddenly jumped to his feet.

"Nooo!" He screamed. Cole driven by blind raged raced toward the camp brandishing his gun. Wilmington would die. Larabee would watch it happen. They would suffer as Liam and he had suffered.

* * * * *

Chris heard the enraged scream and watched with fascination as a body melted out of the darkness toward their camp. At first the black shape held no recognition but as the form bled from the shadows and the light flickered across the running form, Chris recognized it.


A gun roared and dust blew into the air beside Wilmington. People around the campfire jumped. Nathan protectively threw himself across Buck. Josiah pulled Standish tighter to himself drawing his gun. Vin tackled an angry JD to the ground.

Larabee had his gun drawn and fired before the others could return fire.

Cole Donavon's mad assault was slowed. His racing gait hit a hitch. He was forced by some unseen obstruction to step back and to the side but his forward momentum continued. The blood curdling scream had lost some rage.

Another cloud of dust kicked up on the other side of Wilmington. The Ladies man lay unreactive. The other four peace keepers held their fire. Vin kept his hand on JD's arm while holding the younger man pinned to the ground.

Chris would handle this.

Larabee fired again.

Cole stopped. His gun hand fell to his side. He tottered forward and backward for an agonizing moment. His unblinking eyes were still full of hatred mixed with disbelief. Donavon stared slack jawed at the dark gunslinger and then crumpled to the ground in a twisted heap.

No one in the camp moved.

Devlin still lay in the grass. His blue eyes were wide, his mouth slightly gaped. Oh Gawd Cole. Cole.. Cole what have you done? Cole?

The youngest and only surviving Donavon crawled to his feet. He was unaware that he walked toward his fallen brother. He did not notice the other young man that encroached on his brother's form from the other side.

Devlin stumbled up to his fallen brother. 'Cole', he whispered. The young man stared at his oldest brother in disbelief. He was alive just a minute ago. Just a few seconds ago Cole was smiling at him. Oh my gawd Cole. "Cole?" Devlin asked again louder. Disbelief dripped from his tone. He could not be gone. It would mean Devlin had to face the world alone. 'Noooo. Cole, git up. Lets go home. I wanna go home. Please. Oh gawd please get up.'

Devlin did not realize he spoke out loud. Instead he stared at the glassy empty eyes of his brother. Even the growing red splotches on his brother's unmoving chest went unseen.

Then he noticed someone standing across from his brother's body.

A target.

* * * * *

JD jogged out of camp to check the body. He ignored the others that yelled at him to wait. There might be two of them. Dunne did not hear it. Instead he wanted to look up on the murdering monster who had shot Buck and poisoned Standish.

Dunne did not slow down until he reached the body.

It was then he realized someone else stood over the corpse.

* * * * *

Both young men recognized each others presence at the same time.

"Yer killed my brother," Devlin hissed through falling tears.

"Yer shot Buck in cold blood," JD seethed back.

"He murdered Liam, he deserved to die," Devlin countered. There was a reason behind shooting Wilmington. Gunning Cole down was just plain murder.

"Yer brother Liam killed four people," Dunne retorted.

Devlin stared over the corpse of his last brother, "Yer took my only brother."

JD met the gaze and rage filled him, "Takin Buck ain't gonna bring'im back."

"Vermin ate his guts," Devlin sobbed his voice cracking but his posture was still ready to fight.

Dunne stared back. His hand twitched over the hilt of his pearl handled guns. He would gun down this kid and avenge Buck.

"He kilt family, family gotta stick together," Devlin mumbled out lost. Cole was gone. His mom and Liam and Pa all gone. He was all alone. No one. They took Cole from him. Ohh Gawd all alone.

"Go back home," JD whispered. He backed away from brothers. Unpredictable. Wilmington would call this unpredictable....dangerous. Buck was always right. What would he do without Buck? Oh Gawd how could he face the day without Buck at his side needling him about something?

This sniveling kid tried to take Buck from him. Anger welled back up. Vengeance bubbled to the surface. He ground his teeth as he took another step back. Why was he backing up? Why didn't he draw down on this lone brother. Why was he willing to let this kid walk away?

JD decided he was not willing to let go of vengeance.

Devlin stared one last time at his brother's lifeless eyes. He would not face a day without his brother. He would not let another family member slip from his fingers unanswered. That sheriff that slowly back down would pay for killing Cole.

Devlin would follow Cole down the righteous path of revenge.

Both Devlin and JD reached for their guns.

* * * * *

Part 19

'It's not how fast ya are...but how accurate you are,' Buck's words vibrated through JD's head.

His hand reached for his gun. He dipped his hip and knee just a bit as his hand unconsciously pulled for the ivory handle.

A shot tore through the night. JD's hand still rested on the handle of the gun. It had never cleared leather.

Devlin Donavon had a gift. A special deadly talent that fell to one in a thousand or maybe one in a million. He had both unheard of speed and incredibly accurate aim. He was one in a life time.

JD never stood a chance. Dunne was above average; better than most. Devlin was not most people. He was one of the very few. Only a hand full of people walked the earth that could match his skill and dexterity with a gun.

This canyon held two such marked people.

Dunne watched open mouth as Devlin Donavon crumbled to the earth beside his brother.

Chris Larabee had the gift too. Curse really...truth be known.

The dark gunslinger holstered his gun and turned back to camp. He left JD to the corpses and to whoever else had the energy to help the kid through tonight's many lessons.

Vin rose from the fire. Josiah still wiped vomit and other body fluids from the gambler. Nathan coaxed Buck from the edge of death and Chris sat between two ailing friends.

Tanner thought he had better see to JD.

* * * * *

Nathan checked the bandages again. There was not much more he could do. Buck's breathing remained labored. The Ladies man responded to pain but never fluttered open an eye. Jackson kept a cold compress on the forehead. It did more good for himself and the others than it actually did for Buck. Jackson did not want to sit idle. With two men struggling for life how could he sit and do nothing?

It was the waiting. The intolerable Waiting game. It was times like these that the gambler would be making odds and taking bets. Jackson ground his teeth. He hated this part of healing. Did the hard work pay off? Did he do the right thing? What did he miss?

It was these times he felt his patience grow short with the others. Though he hid it and curbed his temper. It was the hellish waiting period that brought him to the brink of angry retorts and short answers.

Nathan's tolerance for the gambler normally hit rock bottom. How could a man attempt to make money on another's suffering...even his own. Jackson had no doubt that if the conman was conscious he would be making odds on his very own survival. What would they be? Would the gambler be the underdog? Would he beat the odds?

It was during these times that Nathan would like to toss Larabee out on his ear. Jackson did not need the quiet pensive gaze of their leader following his every move. JD's penned up energy had no place in a sick room. The boy just moved to much. Buck normally found solace with a young lady. It was during this waiting period that Jackson wished he could wait alone. He wished the others would find something else to do and leave him to his own ineffectualness.

Jackson moved over to the fire. It still crackled and snapped spiraling smoke up with the breeze.

The healer's dark gaze fell to JD. The kid had drifted off to sleep just a few hours ago. He and Vin had buried the two brothers in shallow graves near the canyon wall. It was the first time the healer had seen such rage in JD. Dunne nearly threw his life away for the sake of revenge. What a colossal waste of life.

What had the others taught JD?

Vin still fingered through the coffee found in Buck's saddle bags. Castor Bean seeds. Nathan had never heard of them before. Apparently, Josiah, Vin and Chris had....judging by the forlorn expressions on their faces.

The Preacher had yet to leave Standish. The conman seemed dwarfed by the blankets covering him. A fever roared through the gambler and tired muscles continued to contract and heave. The body had given up long ago to protect itself from aspiration. The duty had fallen to Josiah. With every episode Sanchez would gently manipulate the smaller man with a practiced hand so the vile gastric fluid could flow unimpeded between cracked dry lips.

Jackson sighed. There was not much he could do for Standish. The poison was doing its best to kill the man. There was no cure. Nathan closed his eyes and rubbed at his face tiredly.

He could do no more for Buck.....but keep bandages clean and dry. He could not aid Ezra...in a manner of speaking it was to late.

Chris had finally succumbed to the effect of the blow to the head. A concussion. Nathan was sure. By now the dangerous after math of such an injury seemed to have passed. Jackson, however, could not be certain.

Once again all he could do was watch and wait.

Larabee had refused aid earlier... "Leave it be Nathan," Chris had warned when Jackson approached him with the intent of tending the wound. It gave him something he could do that would make a difference.

The voice was soft, unmenacing but somehow enough to freeze Nathan.

Jackson did not push the issue.

Larabee in one night had single handily finished wiping out a family. He did it to save Buck. He had undoubtedly saved JD's life.

Nathan stared at the sleeping form a few yards away. The lingering effects of the concussion did provide one positive thing. This one night Chris would sleep without nightmares.

The faces of the Donavon's would not plague his dreams....maybe tomorrow. The pale drawn face of Buck would not hover behind closed eyelids. Tonight Chris would rest undisturbed. Images of the dead would lay dormant until another night.

Nathan settled back on his bed roll next to Buck's.

All he could do was wait until morning.

* * * * *

Nathan did not intend on falling asleep. In fact he did not believe he had succumbed to the cries of his body.

Voices disturbed him. His eyes blinked open and it was then he realized that yes indeed he had slept the night....well part of the night.

Morning sunlight lit up the canyon. The light blue sky and scant white clouds indicated that it was not only morning but well past dawn.

Jackson jumped awake. Buck!

Nathan abruptly sat up and turned to peer down at the man a few feet from him.

Larabee blocked his view. Worse yet Chris was talking to someone.

"Now jist hold still," Larabee's stern voice rang out softly.

There was more grumbling and soft rebuttals but Nathan could not make heads or tails of them.

"Mornin' Nathan," JD spoke up. A bright smile plastered on his patchy face. The boy never seemed to pack a razor. The sheriff held out a cup of coffee to the healer.

Nathan accepted it silently with a nod of thanks.

"Buck iffen ya don't quit ya squirmin' we're gonna lit JD here change them bandages," Vin's exasperated tone cut across the quickly warming morning.

Josiah chuckled from across the fire. He still sat beside the gambler. Dark circles hung under his eyes. The preacher used his hip to keep the still man on his side. Bare feet stuck out from under the blankets on one end and a mop of dark hair from the opposite end.

Nathan let cautious smile etch his features.

They were still seven.

"Gawd Damnit, Buck!" Larabee hissed out slapping bandages back into the skillet of water.

"It hurts pard'," Wilmington whispered out but the easy going attitude dripped from the tone. "Now iffen you were Pansy...."The teasing leer was unmistakable.

"Save it Buck," Chris chuckled out.

"Let JD clean the wound," Vin returned as he wrapped a piece of cloth around the wounds, "then we'd see'im squirm."

" Ey!" Dunne attempted to sound indignant but could not quite pull it off. Buck had survived the night. Not only that but actually spoke and looked around camp.

Jackson eased around Larabee and stared at his patient, "How ya feelin' Buck?" He asked.

"Fine until these two started playin' Doctor," Wilmington retorted. Everything on him hurt. His limbs seemed weighted he felt out of breath. It even hurt to move his eyes. Gawd he was tired.

"That's gratitude fer ya," Tanner stood up, "I'm gonna go help Ezra; least he won't complain," Vin muttered as he stalked toward Josiah.

"Cuz he's still sleepin'," JD laughed out in response.

The tracker sat heavily beside the preacher and poured himself some coffee.

Larabee shook his head. He patted Buck on the shoulder and smiled his relief.

"Glad to have ya back," Chris muttered softly.

Buck smiled reassuringly and with fluttering eyelids muttered, "Ain't ever gonna leave ya pard'."

Chris's hand lingered on Wilmington's shoulder. The 'thank you' was left unspoken.

"He sleepin'?" JD asked a bit worried.

Larabee quickly stood and faced the young sheriff, "Yea JD he's sleepin'." Chris nodded to Nathan with a half smile.

Jackson closed his eyes and nodded in return. It paid off. They won the pot. Buck beat the odds...so far. He survived the night and was stronger. The healer watched as Larabee disappeared down the winding path to the stream. Water still needed collected. Bandages needed boiled and blankets washed.

The waiting had been not fruitless. This was why Jackson tried to help people. Chris and Ezra had done the ground work on Buck. They had made Jackson's job so easy. In saving Buck, Chris remained among the emotionally living.

Though Larabee thanked the healer, Nathan knew the true thanks belonged to Wilmington. Buck survived because he wanted to survive, he lived because he needed to see another day.

The seven remained seven.

Retching filled the area. One battle had turned for the better. The war was not over. Another battle still raged. Jackson sighed tiredly. He rose and crossed the small camp to tend his other patient.

"Easy pard'" Vin whispered quietly. The tracker had thrown the rest of the seeds into the fire. He knew of no medicine that could help the gambler. Josiah and Vin held the gambler's face out of the yellowish fluid that drooled from slightly parted lips.

Nathan squatted down between the three men. The bright yellow held no trace of blood, fresh or digested...hope still flickered.

* * * * *

Buck lay quietly under the blankets. A gently breeze wafed across him. Pain burned in the distance but close enough to prevent a comfortable sleep. Wilmington settled for the hazy level of half slumber. He knew JD sat beside him. He could hear Chris and Nathan move about camp. Josiah snored somewhere near by. Vin and Ezra? He had not heard a sound from those two.

Those two off together would bring the whole canyon down on them. A smile peppered Buck's face. He had no inclination to wake up and move about. If he laid still, if he breathed just right then the sharp stab of agony would remain at bay.

Yes sir, Good Ole Buck Wilmington was going to lay right here and let the day slip by quietly. Like a lazy Sunday afternoon. The only thing he was missing was his fishing pole and feminine company.

" 'Ey Buck ya awake?" JD asked. He had seen the smile of contentment on his friend.

Before Wilmington could find the energy to answer an authoritative voice rang out.

"JD help Vin fix up some shade."

Buck hid his smile. Chris was back to giving orders. Larabee had not given up and slunk back to the bottle. Who would have blamed him. How many people could one man lose before he gave up on everything....even himself? Wilmington did not fiddle with this thought to long. Sleep snuck up and grabbed him.

Nathan squatted down by the creek washing the soiled blankets and drying the clothing left in the stream. He purposely did it himself. He needed to know if there was blood mixed with the soiled belongings that once wrapped Standish. Josiah and Vin had both agreed no blood tinged the fluids but Jackson had to be sure. He wanted to make certain himself that there was a shard of hope.

Under the late morning sun, the healer scrubbed and beat blankets against rocks and laid them out to dry.

JD followed Vin's lead and picked the tallest straightest tree limbs he could find. It came down to choosing just about any stick with some length. The canyon did not harbor such treasures. Dunne collected an arm full and dragged them back to camp dropping them just outside the small perimeter of the camp.

"JD bring'em over here," Vin directed. The morning sun already threatened the coming of an unusually hot day. Buck and Ezra would need protection from heat.

Dunne held the poles as Vin tied the top of a blanket to it creating a lean-to of sorts. JD had been so engrossed in watching Vin he failed to notice Chris slink up beside him.

Dunne gave a start when a hand firmly grasped his shoulder. He partially turned and saw the dark gunslinger, " Hey Chris," JD tried to smile out. The young sheriff was still slightly bothered by the fact Chris intervened with his fight. JD knew it was his right to challenge Devlin. No one should have interfered.

"You ever pull a fool stunt like that," Chris spoke softly. No one else needed to hear this reprimand. JD made a mistake last night. A youthful sense of honor based on asinine codes only got fools killed. "I'll shoot ya myself," Larabee did not bother forcing JD to look him in the eye. The kid did not need to be forced into submission. He made a mistake a stupid act that most likely would not get repeated. "You understand me?" Chris finished. He wanted to make himself clear. Last night JD could have gotten himself killed. What would it have done to Buck?

Dunne stared at the ground. He knew what Chris was talking about. Had Larabee not gunned down Devlin there might have been a chance JD would be lying next to Buck or worse yet Cole Donavon.

JD let out a sigh of relief when Chris walked away. Dunne hung his head leaning slightly on the pole for support. He had run out of camp like a fool. He not only humiliated himself but reinforced what a greenhorn he really was out here. Dumb..dumb...dumb...dumb...

"He's jist worried about ya kid," Vin spoke up finally. He placed the finishing knots on the lean-to. "Chris ain't willin' to lose anyone 'specially you," Tanner met the young man in the eye. He spoke the truth. JD needed to see it.

* * * * *

Part 20

The afternoon slipped by with shimmering waves of heat. Buck had kicked his blankets off only to have them replaced repeatedly. With each bandage change Wilmington argued with a little more vehemence and strength. JD even let him sip water from one of the water skin bags, under Jackson's watchful eye. Dunne wrestled with supporting Wilmington's head until Chris came over to help. A peace offering to JD and re-assuring himself Buck was still ok.

Across the camp the gambler huddled under the blankets. Josiah and Vin had carried him down to the stream again. The fever seemed higher. Once again Sanchez sat in the stream holding onto the southerner with Vin waiting patiently on shore.

The tracker did not bother interfering with the ritual. Sanchez believed he needed penance. For what Vin could not be sure, but it was apparent Josiah had taken the gambler's illness somewhat personal. Vin held his tongue and watched. The answers would reveal themselves with time. There would be no need for intrusive questions.

Tanner watched as the southerner began to stir. He could not hear what was said but watched somewhat amused when Josiah let out a rolling laugh. Whatever they spoke of was short and to the point, unusual for Ezra. After a few minutes Sanchez gathered up the smaller man and brought him to shore. They wrapped him back in blankets and together the tracker and preacher carried the gambler back to camp.

* * * * *

Chris and Nathan had tended the animals. It was obvious they would not be able to stay in the canyon too long. There was no feed for the animals and the supplies that the men brought were only enough for a few days.

"How we gonna git them out of here?" Jackson asked. His gaze landed on Buck who once again fallen asleep and to the empty spot where Ezra had lain.

"Bin think'n on it," Larabee answered. He turned and gazed at Nathan, "any ideas?"

Jackson chuckled, "Nope."

Larabee nodded his head and watched with some amusement as Josiah and Vin wrestled themselves up the trail with the conman stretched out between them cocooned in blankets.

Healer and gunslinger watched the twosome for moment, "Ya think he's gonna make it?" Chris asked.

"Don't rightly know," Nathan responded in earnest, "ain't never seen the likes of that kind of poison before.....don't know how it acts."

Their quiet conversation was interrupted when Josiah spoke up, "Well brothers I think Ezra here is gonna do ok," The preacher smiled mischievously.

"Why ya say that Josiah?" JD asked. The kid hardly left Buck's side unless someone needed him to do something.

Sanchez's grin grew wider, "Cuz he jist asked me if his team won the bet."

"Shhhiiiiitttt," Chris drawled out a full fledge smirk flashed across his face.

"Damn man and his money," Jackson chuckled.

"Well?" JD asked. Who did win?

* * * * *

The night passed more smoothly for the seven. Buck bit back the pain that flared in his side. A smile seemed to lace his features whenever one of the others sat with him. It did not surprise Larabee in the least. Wilmington knew how to make people feel at ease. Buck hurt but there was no way he would share that pain with someone else. He kept it to himself.

Chris knew this and the others started to realize it. Water and broth were slowly introduced to Buck and much to everyone's relief it stayed down.

Buck was not out of danger but things were improving. If infection was held at bay, if he could hold food and if his guts, should they have been hit, did not rot out on him...then he would survive.

Jackson, as well as the others, knew there was a lot of IF's involved.

The gambler still nodded in and out. Waking only briefly, not daring to move, fearing the violent riot his stomach and bowels might wreak on him. A fierce headache kept him quiet. His eyes hurt with the intrusion of light, his head pounded so severely that his teeth hurt. Most times he lay completely still on his side fearing what his body would do to him in return.

The whites of Standish's eyes had turned bright red, red freckles dotted his cheeks. At first this frightened Nathan. Was the conman slowly bleeding to death? Had the body's clotting gone haywire? After observing the southern man Jackson discerned the nature of the blood. The bouts of violent retching had burst the tiny blood vessels in his sclera. The headache only worsened.

Josiah kept his vigil on the gambler and Vin watched the preacher. Chris surveyed his men and wondered how he was getting them home. All Seven of them.

* * * * *

The answer presented itself the next morning. Buck had eaten a little more broth JD and Nathan offered him. His appetite was understandably diminished.

Josiah had succumbed to sleep leaving Vin watching over the conman. Larabee found them in a quiet conversation.

The headache must be loosening its grip. Good. It was unnatural for Standish to be so quiet.

Chris sipped his coffee and worked on the logistics of getting them all out of the canyon. They could send someone to town. It would be a day and a half trip if they did not stop for the night to town and then two days back. They did not have enough food to last that long. Besides even with a wagon they still had to traverse to the top of the canyon.

Larabee stared from Buck to Ezra. Neither man had the strength to lift their own heads off the ground let along walk or ride. Carry them? On what? Buck would probably start bleeding again. A travois? Trail was to narrow to risk it.

The answer came in the form of Yosemite and his son.

At the sound of approaching foot steps Chris rested his hand on his gun. Tanner flipped the safety off his mare's leg and Nathan indiscriminately pulled a blade.

"Ahh there you are Mr. Larabee," Yosemite's jovial voice cut through the afternoon. Chris immediately recognized it and forced back a smile. Yosemite was the farrier for Four Corners. He was a large man with arms and neck speaking volumes of the man's occupation. There was not a human being in the surrounding area that matched good ole Yosemite in size. His boy, Hans, was a close replica. The son bore the same striking blond hair, same eyes and same height. Where his father had large bulging biceps and forearms, Hans had the sinewy strength of youth. The boy was still in his growing years. He was lean with a voracious appetite.

The four peacekeepers shared inquisitive looks. The horse shoer was far from home.

"Yosemite....Hans," Chris greeted.

"What brings ya way out here?" Nathan asked. Figures... Josiah was sleeping, that left the civilities and burden of conversation to Jackson. Vin and Chris would just stare at the two newcomers and make them feel uncomfortable.

"Mrs. Travis thought there might be trouble," Hans answered. His father still struggled with the English.

Vin smirked at Chris. Larabee shot the tracker a silencing glare. He did not need them ribbing him about his pseudo relationship with Mary.

"Guess she was right," Hans said glancing around the small camp. Yosemite cuffed his son gently on the back of the head. Proper manners no matter what country needed heeding.

"Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Standish?..." Yosemite started to inquire but Nathan interrupted him. Jackson liked the farrier. He came from overseas somewhere. His neck was as thick as his accent. Funny thing about the shoer though, he was always smiling about something. Saw good in everything. Every horse had a redeeming quality even the raunchiest of nags.

"They're hanging in there," Nathan said.

"You bring a wagon?" Larabee cut to the chase. He would have time for polite conversation later.

"Ya," Yosemite returned. He liked Mr. Larabee. The man let you know where you stood with him. If he did not like you.....he shot you. Well maybe not that cut and dry but most times...Yes. There were times when Mr. Larabee threatened to shoot one of his men, the Gambler. Yes the Southerner would sometimes earn the gunslingers wrath. Then there was the time Mr. Larabee held a razor to Mr. Buck's throat and warned him of something. Yes, Mr. Larabee had a short temper but he was a forgiving man. Yosemite appreciated the gunslinger's black and white view of the world.

"It's on the West Rim," The shoer answered carefully choosing his words.

"We ground tied the horses," Hans answered, "and walked down to search for you."

"How'd you know where we were?" Nathan asked.

"Mary suggested we start here," Hans replied not missing the accusatory chuckle out of Vin. Nathan ducked his head and wiped something off his lip.

Chris glared at both men. Thank God Buck was sleeping.

"Ye should marry the woman, Chris," A weak Midwestern voice rang out softly a chuckle lacing the words.

"Shut up Buck," the retort matched the stern face.

Yosemite ignored the stern rebukes, verbal and otherwise. "I will have Hans bring the team to rest above us and then we go?" He did not want to linger in the likes of Devil's Canyon longer than necessary.

"Hans take JD with you," Chris ordered staring at the sheriff. Dunne needed a break. The kid had been walking on egg shells around everyone. He spent most of his time with Buck but if anyone needed anything JD got it. He was seeking forgiveness for things that did not deserve a second thought.

JD wanted to argue. He wanted to stay with Buck. What if Ezra died? Dunne's hesitation died in his throat. Chris was not listening to excuses.

* * * * *

A chill settled as the sunset in the horizon. Buck sipped more water from Nathan's canteen. His neck shook with exertion.

"Buck jist let me do all the work," Jackson admonished. The ladies man was going to need all his strength tomorrow. Nathan could not be sure if Buck actually listened or if his waning strength finally gave out. After a few short moments Wilmington settled back against the bedroll without argument. The healer fixed the blankets around Buck's shoulders and adjusted the makeshift pillow. His color was coming back, though he still appeared pale. The greyish tinge of death had finally left him. The pain in his midsection had reduced itself to the immediate area of the bullet wound. The fever had been held in check. It lingered, however, in the background like a harbinger of doom.....storm clouds just sitting off the shore line waiting for prevailing winds.

"I'm fine Nathan go check on Ezra," Buck whispered. It took awhile but he had finally gotten Josiah to tell him what had happened after being shot. Chris was not talking, as was typical. Nathan avoided the conversation and acted as if he did not hear the question and Vin was busy with Yosemite during the latter part of the afternoon. Wilmington had finally threatened Josiah that he would crawl his way over to the Southerner to get answers if he had to.

Sanchez must have realized it was not an idle threat and related the tale the best he knew it.

In the end, Buck asked, "Is he gonna live?"

Sanchez answered honestly, "Don't rightly know."

It was now dark and Buck wrestled with the idea he might lose one of the others. Contemplating such a loss ebbed his strength. Jackson saw this and quietly answered, "Buck he's not been sick all afternoon. He keeps that up and tomorrow we'll give him some water." Nathan hoped this would ease Wilmington's mind.

"Nathan, that stuff lingers in ya for days," Buck replied. He had known people who had mistakenly eaten the seeds before. They had not died but boy they sure wished they had. From the sounds of it though, the coffee was ladened with the poison. Standish was as tough as shoe leather, though appearances would hint otherwise. Still that much poison, being that sick for that long....a body could only take so much.

"Can't ya give him some water now?" Buck asked his eyes traveling passed the wrinkle in the blanket covering him to the conman.

"Nope he might start gettin' sick again....his body can't afford that," Jackson said. He had answered the very same question from the others. The healer noticed the confused glance he received and explained, "If I give him some water and he gets sick again he'll lose more than he gained....make sense?"

The confused expression remained in place though the eyelids appeared droopier. Nathan sighed, "Ok imagine it this way.....If every time I put a nickel in the Bank....Ezra would come along and take out a Double Eagle......I'd be losing money even though I'm puttin' some in to save."

Buck stared at him his eyes growing heavy and his mind muddled. Wilmington felt himself falling back to sleep but he needed to clarify one thing, "Nathan, Ezra would never steal money from ya," there was a slight pause, "without good reason," a small smile punctuated the statement.

Nathan shook his head in frustration. Why didn't they get it? JD had said the same thing. Of course, Ezra would not steal from him, but that was not the point of the example. Ohhhh they were frustrating people.

* * * * *

JD and Hans returned to the camp a few hours later. They dropped the supplies they brought down from the wagon next to the Tracker. Vin was cooking tonight.

The moon shone brightly across the canyon. An uncountable number of stars lit up the dark sky. The crackling of the fire was a welcoming sound. JD and Hans were starved. A rabbit or snake would taste good right about now.

"Horses are just above the rim in the clearing," Dunne said dropping with exaggerated exhaustion on his bed roll. "How's..."

"Buck's fine," Vin answered. He stirred a stew over the fire.

"Ya boys hungry?" Tanner asked.

Both men jumped to their feet as if they had not eaten in days.

* * * * *

Chris and Yosemite watched the two 'boys' with pride. With a little gentle persuasion and an occasional shove the two boys would grow to be fine men.

"Tomorrow we leave the canyon? Yes?" Yosemite asked.

Larabee bit off the end of a cheroot and spit it on the ground, "Yeaah," He drawled out not so sure of his answer. They would have to leave tomorrow, most likely morning. It was getting to hot too travel in the heat of the day.

The gunslinger turned his gaze toward the preacher and the gambler. Josiah had made it his personal crusade to tend Ezra. Chris was curious as to why but held his tongue. The gambler had not been sick since morning. Maybe the poison was leaving his system? Maybe the slippery SOB beat death just as Buck apparently had. Maybe...

* * * * *

Part 21

Ezra felt terrible. Misery had settled down on him and taken up residence in his bones. He ached. Standish kept his eyes closed and ran his dry tongue over his even drier teeth. A thick foul tasting film filled his mouth. His head hurt but not with the same nauseating intensity it had before. At least he could move his tongue without creating piercing pain in his head. He moved a leg. Slid it actually, straightened it out. Muscles protested. They had become cramped and stiffened. He could not recall the last time he stretched out his legs. They seemed forever curled up against his midsection. With the movement of one leg, the twin thought it too should have the same rights and demanded movement. He slid the other leg, straightening it out. His stomach remained settled. His shoulder began to complain. He paused trying to discern why his shoulder would throb. Standish remained still trying to get his bearings with his eyes closed. His hip hurt too.

After a few moments he realized he lay on his side.

Last time he tried to move he vomited all over himself. It was not something he wanted to repeat. The headache had finally taken a back seat to his other discomforts. The fear that retching might renew said headache kept him very still.

The shoulder and hip increased their volume of complaint.

Ezra delicately attempted to roll onto his back.

He could not. Standish sighed. He couldn't move. His headache had paralyzed him. Oh well. He would just lie here.....The shoulder and hip would not hear of it.

With a protesting groan, the gambler tried once again to relieve the pressure on the down side of his body. Whether it was the left or right side eluded him for the moment.

* * * * *

Josiah was brought out of his half slumber when Standish leaned against him. Sanchez unconsciously dropped a hand to the gamblers head, "Easy brother yer doin' jist fine." It was the same motions and words he had spoken all through last night. They seemed to have a calming effect on the younger man. Sanchez left his hand on the sweat drenched head without truly waking.

The pressure against his leg increased followed by a low groan.

Sanchez opened his eyes. The camp was asleep. Buck's bed roll was flanked by JD and Nathan's. Chris and Vin slept on either side of Josiah and Standish. Hans and his father had taken the opposite side of camp next to JD. The cook fire struggled for life. The coals were a bright orange with just a few yellowish flames curling in the gentle breeze. The preacher listened as the horses foraged just outside of camp, outside of the lighted hue cast by the fire.

His attention was pulled back to his charge. Standish was waking up. Figures, like the owls and creatures of the desert, Standish preferred nights. The form laying to Sanchez's left now pressed against the outside of Josiah's leg with a blanketed back.

"Ezra?" Josiah whispered out. He felt the gambler's forehead, then cheek and finally neck. Perspiration covered the younger man. His skin was cool and slick to touch.

"Ezra?" Josiah called softly again. There was no sign of fever. The pressure against Sanchez's leg increased as Standish pushed weakly against it.

"Ezra you awake brother?" Sanchez leaned over the smaller man trying to get a glimpse of his features.

"Josiah?" The thick southern accent masked the name skewing the pronunciation making it almost unrecognizable.

"Right here Ezra," Sanchez quickly offered a small heartfelt 'Thankyou'.

"Shoulder hurts," Standish mumbled out still refusing to open his eyes. The breeze cut across his skin making him feel somewhat refreshed.

Josiah understood and simply slid over a few inches. He delicately helped roll the gambler onto his back. The preacher waited for any sign Standish might get sick again. Sanchez watched as the closed eyes remained shut and the dry tongue swipe at equally dry lips.

"Better?" He asked.

The answer was a soft snore.

* * * * *

Buck woke to the sounds of a breaking camp. He wanted nothing more than to help them. Lying here being helpless did not suit Wilmington. The Ladies man struggled to pull himself from the dregs of sleep. It was a task just to forced tired eyelids to peel themselves apart. The sky was still dark. The number of stars were greatly diminished and a greyish arc covered the eastern sky. Morning was coming but would not be upon them for another hour or so maybe more. Dew laced his blankets and the jacket he used as a pillow. He heard JD and someone else, Hans? maybe....lead the horses to water.

Why were they breaking camp. Was something wrong?

He tried to sit up but his midsection quickly and firmly put a stop to such foolish actions. He hissed out in pain and frustration.

"Let that be a lesson to ya," Chris said as he squatted down beside Wilmington, "jist lie still and let us do the work."

"What's goin' on?" Buck whispered out trying to get control over the burning ache in his side.

"We're headin' up to the ridge today and start back to town," Larabee answered. The decision had bothered him all night. He did not want to move Buck prematurely. He had already lost too much blood. Nathan did not even want to risk sitting Wilmington up too straight fearing he would just black out. Larabee tossed and turned over the notion of sending someone back to town for supplies but again the time it took to go and come back would still be to long. The horses needed feed and there was not enough game to keep nine men fed. Well eight if one were to leave and then counting Buck and Ezra's lack of appetite more like six men. There just was not enough food to last that long.

"Ezra gonna be up to it?" Buck asked.

Chris was not surprised by the question. Wilmington always put himself second to his friends. Here he was lying in some gawd forsaken canyon with a potentially lethal bullet wound and he was worried about the gambler. No, Larabee was not surprised at all.

"Yeah he'll be fine," Chris answered. "Fever broke last night and he's been holding his own since yesterday morning." Larabee had spoken with Josiah and Nathan earlier this morning. Standish was still had one foot in the grave but it seemed he found his footing.

"We're gonna be carrying you out," Chris held up his hand halting the protest that started to pour from Wilmington, "if it gets too much for ya jist speak up and we'll stop....ok?" Larabee stared down at Buck, "don't fight with me on this one Buck...ya gonna lose." His tone held no joviality, no kindness. Larabee would bind and gag Wilmington if he had to. This was too important to waste energy on needless argument.

Buck merely nodded his head. He did not have the strength to argue...not right now. When he was feeling better....Chris and he were going to have a little discussion.

Larabee straightened up and disappeared out of Buck's line of sight. Chris had seen that look before. Wilmington would take the directions now only because he did not have the strength to fight. When Buck was feeling better, Chris knew he would have the fight of his life on his hands. The blond gunslinger smiled. He would look forward to that day.

* * * * *

Yosemite and Josiah took the front end of the two poles, Nathan and Chris eached grabbed the back end of the poles. They had slung Wilmington in-between the poles resting on thick canvas. The two poles ran along the outer edge of the canvas creating a stretcher. The sun had just peaked over the trees. A cool breeze still whispered across the waking land. The sky had lightened from the grey of a false dawn to soft pinks and purples. The four men headed out of camp.

Buck woke briefly to the sudden movement but the laudanum Nathan had forced down him prevented the ladies man from fully awakening. It was going to be a steep hard climb out of the canyon for everyone.

Periodically Wilmington's glazed blue eyes would flutter open. With a detachment spawned from the opiate, Buck would attempt to sit up. During those infrequent times Larabee would merely place his hand over the ladies man face and force the mustached head back down. "Stay put Buck," inevitably followed.

Hans and JD had already left poning the horses and gear out and setting up a small fire at the top of the ridge. Once they got Wilmington out bandages would have to be changed again.

Vin stayed behind with Standish. For his part the gambler remained sleeping, slightly curled on one side. Tanner did his best to wipe the copious amount of sweat from the gambler. The tracker was somewhat amazed the gambler had any excess fluid left in him.

Late morning had crept up on the land. The dew had evaporated long ago. The sand had given up its morning damp coolness and started to warm up...uncomfortably so. Standish slept occasionally kicking some blankets off. The tracker quietly replaced them. The gambler would be still for a while longer and again shuck the covers, without looking up Vin merely pulled them back up. This went on for another hour.

Yosemite, Chris and Josiah returned with the stretcher.

"How is he?" Sanchez asked. He dropped down beside the gambler and felt for the fever. None. They would not risk giving him water now. They would wait until they reached the top.

Standish responded to the touch by weakly swatting at the intrusive hand, "Hot," he mumbled out once again pushing the blankets down off his bare shoulders.

"Gotta leave it on ya Ezra," Tanner softly explained pulling the blankets back up for the umpteenth time, "you'll burn under this sun."

"Ezra we're gonna carry ya out of the canyon," Chris said as he and Yosemite laid the canvas stretcher down beside the curled form, "its gonna git rough on ya, but just hold on and we'll be out in no time."

His only response was a muttled, "hot."

Sanchez smiled and together the four men placed the gambler in the stretcher. Their efforts were rewarded with a groan.

* * * * *

Jackson stared down at Wilmington as if he had lost what little brains he might have possessed.

"You are not riding in a saddle," Nathan retorted with uncharacteristic impatience.

"Nathan I'm feeling stronger," Buck explained slowly as if talking to a child who did not understand a basic principle.

Josiah saw that the healer was close to strangling Wilmington and felt it prudent to interfere. Chris and Vin sat back and watched the growing hostilities with amusement. Buck could be an ornery pig headed fool when he wanted to be.

When the Laudanum had finally worn off and he woke from a comfortable slumber, Buck had been a thorn. Chris and the others had just crested the trail head of the canyon with Standish only to find Nathan and Buck arguing.

JD and Hans had found it within their best interest to vacate the area and tend the horses.

"Ya'r not riding in a saddle Buck," Jackson bit out with vehemence. He had toiled night and day over the large Midwesterner. He would not sit idly by and let the fool kill himself. Jackson figured it was and should be within his rights to strangle Wilmington.

"I'm feelin' much better," Buck said, "thanks to you of course," he splashed a sickening sweet smile across his pale features. It did not have the desired results. Instead of softening up the healer it only served to further irritate him.

Josiah stepped in before Jackson undid all his hard work.

"Brother Buck if you can manage to sit up on yer own," Josiah reasoned winking at Jackson in a conspiratorial manner, "and git in the saddle on yer own you can ride back to town."

" 'Ey that's not fair," Standish muttered from place in the back of the wagon. Upon reaching the topside camp Yosemite and the others deposited their cargo immediately in the wagon. The force in which he had hit the bed boards was enough to roust the gambler from a comfortable midday nap.

"Yer best keep out of this Ezra," Vin whispered from over the edge of the wagon, "Nathan's itchin' fer a fight." Tanner chuckled as the conman quietly nestled his head back down on his jacket. If Jackson was looking for a fight he normally fixated on the southerner. Ezra thought he felt well enough to ride...not spar verbal or otherwise. He would hold his tongue. As he was contemplating the rewards of silence Standish slipped off once again to sleep. The tracker stayed by his side until Vin was sure the breathing was even and unlabored.

"Well.....we're waitin'," Nathan commented. His arms were folded across his chest and he tapped his foot in a hostile manner as he stared pointedly at the Ladies man.

There was a pause and a somewhat timid, "Ain't I sittin' up now?" Buck blinked open his eyes.

Josiah, Chris and Yosemite without further comment picked up the bedroll and Buck and gently laid him in the back of the wagon next to the gambler.

"You look like hell Mr. Wilmington," Standish muttered out behind closed eyelids, "not even JD was buying that ruse."

"Ezra, yer full of crap," Buck retorted. Damn he thought he had actually made it into a sitting position...amazing what a little dizziness could do to a person.

JD's voice peeped up, "Actually Buck....Ezra ain't full of nothing', least of all....well um..ya git my meanin'."

Wilmington turned his attention to the young sheriff and then to the man lying beside him, "Ahh jeez Ezra I hope ya're feelin' better."

Josiah took the drivers seat on the buckboard. Sanchez snapped the reins chuckling at the dwindling commentary behind him. Chris and Vin took point. Nathan trailed behind the wagon threatening the two wayward souls with medical indignities if they did not lay still. The two Donavon horses had been tied to the wagon. Yosemite rode Buck's grey enjoying the smoothness and intelligence of the large gelding. Horse and rider matched skill and strength. JD and Hans raced out in front. Hans finally had a chance to ride the temperamental chestnut gelding. It had speed and attitude.

* * * * *

It was a two day ride back to town. They took it slow trying to avoid jousting the occupants of the wagons....for very different reasons. They camped the first night just on the outer reaches of the stream. Jackson and JD changed Buck's bandages. Together they forced more liquid and some bread down the Ladies' man. Wilmington ate hesitantly and staunchly refused the medicine Jackson urged him to take. Nathan gently explained to Buck that Laudanum if used correctly could aid in his recovery. Rest was the best thing for him and Buck could not sleep if he were in too much pain. Wilmington conceded grudgingly.

Josiah slowly introduced water to the gambler. Standish refused at first. He did not want to jeopardize his slight reprieve from retching. He did not want to test his stomach. Ezra even tried flat out honesty...He was just not very hungry or thirsty.

Sanchez insisted. With a firm hand and more endurance than his captive, the preacher dribbled a few sips of tepid water down the conman. When the water was tasted and stayed down...the flood gates opened. The body realized how dehydrated it had become and wanted to rectify the problem at once. One instant, Josiah found himself gently forcing water on the gambler and a few minutes later he was holding the canteen just out of the gambler's desperate reach.

Josiah had been forced to hand the canteens to Chris.

Late that evening Larabee was pulled from his thoughts as a groan escaped from Wilmington. Chris sat quietly beside his friend letting his presence alone reassure the recovering Ladies man.

The next morning they started out late. Both Buck and Ezra slept deeply. Nathan did not want them disturbed. Standish's belly growled and gurgled threatening to return the small amount of water dropped on it the evening before. Sanchez and Tanner sat nearby waiting with clean blankets and clothing.

Midmorning saw the group back on the trail heading for town. It was unseasonably hot. They stopped at the stream to let the horses drink. Yosemite and Nathan carried a sleeping Buck across. Blood loss, laudanum, the low grade fever kept Wilmington out.

Larabee watched from a discreet distance. He trusted Nathan and Yosemite but sometimes Buck needed to see an old friendly face in order to relax.

The lurching and jarring of the wagon crossing the rocky stream bed would only do harm. Yosemite re-crossed and helped Josiah with Standish. Ezra muttered he could walk across. Sanchez merely sat the gambler up. A sudden wave of dizziness halted any further argument from the conman.

Chris drove the team across while JD ponied the other horses. Once across they continued toward town.

Hans and JD rode head. Youthful impatience, the undesirable urge to ride fast set them ahead of everyone else. Nathan decided to put that to his advantage. He had directed the two young men to make sure the clinic was ready for their two ailing friends.

Buck slept through the directive. Standish heard it, though his stomach ached miserably (whether from hunger or the poison he could not be sure) he added his thoughts on Nathan's plans.

"I think Mr. Jackson...." He whispered out warily but was cut off by Jackson.

"You ain't doin' any thinkin'...so jist lie there like Buck and shut yer trap," Jackson plasted an insincere smile on his face. The healer was not going to put up with any lip from those two. Jackson was getting ready to battle his two patience.

He would have the upper hand for a day or two but when their strength returned and Nathan realized he would be out numbered and out matched.

Nathan smile turned genuine when Ezra laid his head back on the coat and settled back down on his side. He still clutched at his midsection.

Jackson frowned with concern....fatigued muscles? lingering effects of the poison? hunger? or something else? Nathan watched the southerner for a bit. Standish blinked and stared at Buck's blanket. He drew his legs closer to his midsection and eventually drifted back to sleep.

* * * * *

They entered town two hours later. Buck lay blinking wide eyed trying to figure out where he was this time. Chris and Yosemite loomed over him smiling in a distorted kind of way. Wilmington furrowed his brow. He knew they carried him up stairs to Nathan's clinic but he did not seem to have the strength to complain or make a comment. Wilmington watched blarey eyed as the two men laid him down and pulled blankets up over him. He heard them talk, heard their voices but could not quite make heads or tails out of what they were saying. He tried to say something but succeeded only in mumbling. Yosemite and Chris both ignored him.

Down by the wagon Josiah and Vin dragged Standish out of the Buckboard by his ankles. The simple movement jarred the conman awake. He struggled weakly to lash out at whoever grasped his feet.

"Easy Pard' we're jist gitt'n ya up ta Nathan's," Tanner chuckled as a pale bony ankle wrenched itself free.

Standish for his part struggled to raise his head off the bed roll. His muscles had put out enough effort the last few days and would not respond. Fatigue, dehydration and exhaustion had taken there toll.

"Nooo," He whispered out tiredly. Truth be told at the moment he was quite comfortable in the back of the wagon. The sun and blankets were refreshingly warm and if he lay still his stomach would stop twisting itself in threatening knots.

"Come on Brother," Josiah chuckled out. It was good to see some fight back in their conman. Vin and Josiah slid him further to the edge of the wagon.

Ezra blinked more rapidly and realized what was happening whether he wanted it to or not.

"Alright, alright, jist let me sit up for a moment," He whispered out tiredly. Every muscle in his body ached and each felt as if it were made of lead.

Tanner and Sanchez exchanged glances. Vin shrugged. Together they sat the conman up. He would have fallen to the side but both preacher and tracker kept a steadying hand on him.

Standish for his part sat slouched over forearms resting wearily on blanketed knees. He spit the ever increasing build up of saliva onto the ground. He did not wish to risk the hazards of swallowing.

"You doin' ok pard'?" Vin asked Ezra but stared at Josiah with worry. The preacher merely shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.

"Yeahh," Standish drawled out slowly. Fine. He could barely hold his chin up and his hands shook.

"Lits git you up stairs," Josiah said. Together Vin and Josiah each grabbed an arm and hauled the gambler to his bare feet. The wool blankets fell from his waist to the ground. It was then Ezra realized he wore pants....someone elses pants but at least he was clothed....well at least pants. Not the it bothered him much right now. The impropriety of not being fully clothed or clothed at all was not something he bothered to give much thought to at the moment. Well at least not when one was contemplating vomiting all over oneself.

With shaking legs and questionable strength he struggled up the wooden steps to the clinic. Vin beside him holding his upper arm and Josiah behind them with his callused hand supporting the small of the gambler's back.

* * * * *

Twenty minutes later Jackson sat in a quiet clinic. Everyone had gone....well except the two sleeping forms residing in the beds.

Mrs. Travis met Chris for an early dinner. A thank you dinner arranged by Vin Tanner at the hotel. It seemed everyone involved knew of the dinner except for Chris. Mary was flattered by the word of mouth invitation passed onto her by none other than the tracker.

JD wired the Judge and then planned on meeting Josiah and Yosemite in the saloon. Inez had briefly entered the clinic to ensure that both Buck and Ezra were indeed alive.

Inez swore Nathan to secrecy......he had better not tell Senor Wilmington of her visit.

Nathan closed a small tattered book on poisons. He rested the aged parchment on the wood chipped desk and stared over at his patients. The room was cast in the dark shadows of night. The lamp ineffectually pushed back the encroaching darkness. There was enough light to make out the two forms resting in the beds. Buck snored softly laying on his back unmoving. The simple rise and fall of his chest and the light snores simple indicators that he was still among the living. Standish lay still curled on one side wrapping a protective arm around his midsection. Saliva pooled slightly in front of his features. Nathan sighed and crossed the distance. He wiped the clinging moisture from the parted lips. Standish stirred and mumbled swiping a heavy hand at his face.

"Go to sleep Ezra its alright," Jackson waited briefly as the conman's breathing leveled out and once again slipped back into a deep sleep.

The healer headed for the porch door. The night was cool and clear, a slight breeze rolled down main street. Nathan would sit outside for a few moments. He turned and stared one more time at his friends.

They needed rest. The darn fools were lucky.

* * * * *

Part 22

Chris and Vin sat enjoying a beer outside the saloon. It had been three days since returning from the Canyon. The midmorning still remained cool. The sound of twin hammers vibrated through the area. Josiah and Nathan were once again working on the church roof. The sound of pounding nails was much more preferable than listening to the tirades of Nathan and his patients.

Nathan had enjoyed one and a half days of relative peace. Then the feeding frenzy started. Buck and Ezra fed off each others complaints. After just one day of constant arguments the healer tossed up his hands and opened the clinic door.

He set Standish and Wilmington to fend for themselves. Buck immediate found solace in the arms of numerous worried ladies. Ezra settled himself behind a felt covered table and a deck of cards. Solitaire and stud poker with the some of the other six kept him quiet. Though neither man had endurance or much strength both exuded perseverance.

The sound of galloping horses drew Vin and Chris's attention down main street. The sound of fast approaching horses apparently grabbed Josiah and Nathan's curiosity because the hammering had ceased.

Two horses came barreling around the mercantile. They were neck and neck. The large grey maybe inching a head by a nose. The lithe bay would not be out done and dug in harder. Both horses had their necks extended, ears flat back and nostrils flared. They tore up main street in ground swallowing strides. Both riders leaned down beside their animals straightened necks urging them forward seeking more speed with clenched heels. With arms stretched out over manes, elbow's slightly bent and hands still, the two riders paralleled each other. Each seeking and edge over their opponent.

The two racing geldings were brought up to a sharp halt when they passed an imaginary finish line. The grey and bay both tucked their hindquarters underneath themselves nearly sitting on their haunches sliding to a stop. Both riders then presumed arguing...both claiming they won the race. It was agreed they disagreed and decided to seek the judgment from the mastermind behind this race.

The bay and grey pulled up to the hitching rail in front of the saloon.

"Casey, JD," Chris said in a friendly but wary tone, "it might be best ya don't race up main street."

"It jist ain't safe," Vin added. Larabee should not have to carry the burden of subtle discipline alone.

"Yes sir," Casey mumbled.

"Sorry Chris," JD answered.

Both stopped and waited a respectable moment and finally asked, "Ezra who won?"

The foursome turned their attention to the form quietly tilted back in his chair against the saloon wall. The flat top black hat had been pulled down low to block out the morning sun.

With no answer forth coming, Tanner carefully reached over to the precariously balanced hat. With a delicate touch, as if fearing the bite of a snake, he carefully lifted up the black hat.

"Sorry, Ms Casey, JD," Tanner chuckled quietly, "the racin' Judge seems to have fall'n asleep."

Casey skewered her mouth into a frown and JD added an "Aw schucks."

"Ya'll wouldn't happen to notice which...." Casey piped up hitting Chris and Vin with a hopeful stare.

"Nope we didn't," Larabee gracefully bowed out of the potential sticky situation.

"Angles all wrong," Vin followed Chris's lead.

"Darn," JD mumbled. Both kids headed the horses back to the livery.

""Ey Casey," Vin reached out to stop the young lady.

"Yeah Mr. Tanner?"

"Buck still recoverin'......." Tanner was not sure how to ask the delicate question.

"Restin' up over at Ms. Thompson's place this morning," Casey answered with the innocence that begot her age, "I'm suppose to bring his horse up there this afternoon, cuz Ms Lizza gonna watch over Buck until evenin' and then I think Ms. Daisy might fetch him so he can git a meal." Casey was slightly worried about whether or not she had the ladies in the right order. It did not really matter she was just suppose to exercise the Grey for the next couple of weeks.

Chris and Vin held back their chuckles until both kids were out of ear shot.

The tracker reached over to the gambler and gently pulled a deck of cards from the conman's coat pocket. He began to deal a hand of poker for Chris and himself.

"Good way to git yerself shot, pard'" Larabee pointed out.

"Ezra?" Vin said, "Nahh, yer could blow up the town around'im and he wouldn't know."

The two men played cards into the early afternoon. Josiah and Nathan finally joined them, it was getting too hot to be on a roof. Both men stared at the still sleeping gambler. Jackson shook his head wondering why not just sleep in a bed. 'Stubborn, Mule headed....'

Then again Buck was out 'convalescing' all over the territory. He might not have gotten himself out of bed often but Nathan hardly thought the Ladies man would be resting. Sure his wounds prevented strenuous activity but the ladies who tended him all had adventurous spirits and flexibility...or so Nathan had been told.

The four men shared a bottle of whiskey and enjoyed a quiet friendly game of cards. It would not last.

In a couple of weeks the Seven would be seven strong again.

The End
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