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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.

* * * * *

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