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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.

* * * * *

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