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Part 17

Jackson chewed nervously on his lip, not sure whether or not to speak his mind. There was a glimmer of hope. The angle of the bullet wound and position of the wound offered a chance when certain death was assumed.

Should he speak? Should he offer that sliver of appeasement knowing that if he were wrong he would dash the hopes of those around him? Maybe he would hold his tongue and wait it out. If he were correct in his assumptions then Wilmington would start getting stronger in a day or two...if he survived the blood loss and possibility of infection.

Infection. There was always that risk. The ugly secondary marauder always lurked around wounds. Like a bird of prey waiting for a creature to falter, infection would dive in and kill its victim. A simple wound could become fatal, a potentially deadly wound could suddenly go belly up if Infection set its clinging vines around the wound. Like a wild fire it would spread through out the body, burning and destroying its victim. Nathan had seen many strong men crumble and die under the tenacious clutches of infections.

Should he speak up? Jackson stared around the camp. JD stacked fire wood next the small blaze. They had enough sun bleached twisted logs to keep a fire roaring for days. Dunne's movements were slow thoughtless. The boy's eyes never truly left Buck's still form.

Jackson bit his tongue. Chris sat beside Wilmington. The gunslinger stared at his long time friend just daring him to die on him. Larabee's face was set in fury. The undulating shadows of fire light enhanced the devilish expression in the gunslinger.

Nathan stared from Buck to JD and back Chris. Should he offer reprieve where there might not be any? Should he open his mouth and speak what he hoped to be the truth? What should he do?

He would ask Josiah. Jackson searched the campsite for the missing preacher.

* * * * *

Vin followed the same path down to the fledgling stream. He carried two blankets with him.

The tracker easily found his two friends. The moon offered enough light to see by. Though it was still a full moon it did not hold the same luster as it had the first night. Its light seemed to be waning.

"How's he doin'?" Tanner asked. He squatted beside the stream. Sanchez knelt in the small sandy stream bed. The icy clear water washed up over his thighs and around Standish's bare shoulders. A pile of fetid clothing lay by the bank in shallow water. A few rocks had been placed on the articles in an attempt to keep them from tumbling down stream.

"Brother Ezra is a fighter," Sanchez remarked. The large preacher gazed up from his charge and faced the tracker.


"He's still hanging on," Tanner answered quietly.

Sanchez merely nodded. He turned his attention to the gambler in his arms. He had stripped the southerner of his fouled clothing. Standish would have been indignant at the gross invasion but Josiah feared he would not get to hear that tirade. The gambler was fastidiously neat and to be covered with such filth would seep some dignity from the man.

"Chris wants you to bring Ezra back up to the camp," Vin spoke quietly. Hope danced at the edges of his words. Chris was giving orders. He no longer sat dumbly blaming everything for the fate that befell his group of men.

Josiah caught the faint lining of reprieve. He understood what trials Vin faced should Buck fall. Funny how one death could tear so many apart while another death, though tragic, touched lives in a manner completely different. If it touched lives at all. Yes, any death no matter who or what touched someone or something.

Would the simple passing of the southerner create such a devastating effect on the lawmen? Josiah gazed back down at the wheezing man in his arms trying to find an honest answer. The very fact he had to search brought a groan of protest to the preacher.

"Ya need a hand?" Tanner asked stepping into the mid shin level water. He would help anyhow. Sitting idle was not something he could do.

* * * * *

Jackson gazed up when he heard people approaching the camp. Vin entered first. He jogged over to his saddle untied his bed roll and quickly laid it out on the ground. Josiah came in a few minutes later.

The large preacher was slightly bent over under the weight in his arms. He carried Standish wrapped in two blankets. Bare legs and feet dangled over one arm while exposed shoulders where propped in the other arm. Standish's head hung back toward the ground his mouth pulled ajar and eyes forced slightly open.

If Nathan was right Buck's chances may have improved slightly over Ezra's. Jackson felt no relief, no comfort, only a deepening of regret.

The healer watched quietly as Josiah and Vin lowered their burden onto the bed roll. They shifted the conman onto his side. The change in position resulted in heaves from the ailing gambler.

Nathan shut his eyes, hoping the simple action would block out the added responsibility that was just brought into camp. Responsibly and burden. How could he think of a friend as a burden, a yoke to be carried. The healer swiveled his saddened gaze from one fallen man to the next. Both weighed heavily on his shoulders. They were friends.....and because of that the toil had increased greatly.

Maybe he would speak up. Maybe a potential for hope was better than no hope at all.

* * * * *

JD sat between staring at the flames. How could they lose Buck? How could he have not even considered Ezra falling to the vengeance?

"He still with us?" Larabee asked without looking up. Chris stirred the coals to the fire. He would reek havoc on the young men that did this.

Both Nathan and Josiah jerked their heads up at the inquiry. Who was Chris referring too?

"Yeah Chris, Buck's still fighting," Nathan answered quickly.

Sanchez dropped his gaze back to the gambler. He laid a cold rag across the back of Standish's neck. Though the night was chilly the younger man's skin was burning up. A fever raged unchecked.

Sanchez had seen this kind of poison before. If consumed in enough quantity then a painful death would befall its victim. Castor bean seeds. A few would send a man to his knees with severe cramps, retching and foul stool. Josiah had seen men bleed inside out from such poisonings. He had seen courageous spiteful men fight the effect of the little seed. These men had eventually fallen dying in their own bloody juices as fevers took their minds. A frightful and miserable way to go.

"Josiah?" Chris spoke again. The anger in his tone turned heads. "How is he doin?" Larabee seethed. Unbeknownst to him one of his men had been struck down. Someone hit and battered one of his men without his knowledge. For once Standish was innocent. He did not deserve this...he did not bring this painful illness on himself.

Chris had. Larabee and Wilmington's past had finally caught up to them and struck indiscriminately. Thank goodness it was not JD or Vin or one of the others.......

Larabee angrily threw his stick into the fire. No. He did not prefer to lose Standish over one of the others...no, he would not have picked the gambler as the 'scape goat'.

The fool southerner may have thought that of Chris and the others and maybe himself. But the gambler was wrong. Larabee would not....did not wish any mishap to befall his group.

Should ever the choice arise, Chris would never single out one of his men, one of his family, to be a target of such violence. Larabee if faced with such a brutal choice would pick himself. He would not leave it to fall....on the one who always expected it.

It enraged him beyond measure that the others assumed he inquired only of Wilmington. Standish was no less of a friend. If they thought that way of Chris did they think that way themselves? Did they hold Buck's impending death with more fear and trepidation than Ezra's. If they did then they all could go to hell.

They were seven. Seven equal...seven strong.....Seven distinct personalities...seven distinct strengths and weaknesses. Seven very distinct lives that somehow had melded together to make each man individually better.

Chris valued them all...six lives he held above his own...six trying irritating men that had become family. Not just one or two of them...Seven.

Larabee nailed each of the conscious men with a challenging stare. Two men lay dying in their midst. Two very important and cherished lives hung in the balance. Seven could easily become five before morning.

* * * * *

Part 18

JD found his hands fascinating, when Chris hit him with a pointed gaze.

Nathan suddenly felt compelled to check for Buck's pulse. Vin stoked the fire watching the flame.

Josiah met the younger man's gaze, "He's fightin' back Chris," Sanchez mumbled out.

* * * * *

Cole and Devlin sat hunkered back in the brush. They had watched some what amused when the other four men had ridden hell bent for leather into the camp. The fool southerner had stumbled away to die somewhere. So be it.

Wilmington still fought and hung onto life in the embrace of Larabee.


Cole could not have asked for a better audience. Let the others witness what a coward, a weakling Larabee was when faced with the death of Wilmington. Donavon slid a smile across his features. Chris would not only lose Wilmington but he would lose face with his men.

Cole watched with growing enthusiasm as the mood of the camp became somber. They were just waiting for Wilmington to die.

The eldest Donavon swung a gaze at his brother. He nudged Devlin's arm a smile splitting his grizzled face. The grin drooped. Devlin's face seemed haunted.

"Ya did good Dev." Cole encouraged. It was after all Devlin's idea to gut shoot Wilmington.

Devlin kept his eyes on the camp. He forced a weak smile on his face and turned his attention to his older brother. 'Where'd you go Cole? I thought you would have been back by now,' Devlin mused. All this and still Cole seemed different.

Devlin wanted to go home. He started to voice his desire when his oldest brother hushed him.

"Ssshhh Dev. lets hear what the Darky has to say," Donavon crawled forward on his belly inching a few yards out from under the brush. He did not want to miss any of the impending helplessness of Larabee.

* * * * *

"I ain't sure I should say anything or not," Nathan began. He had tossed and turned the dilemma over in his head and finally decided he could not hold the information back. If it held the potential for hope then it had to be shared.

"What is it Nathan?" Chris asked. He had gone back to his solitary thoughts. The others were used to such behavior so he gave it to them.

Josiah gazed up from his administrations over the gambler. Vin stopped his harmonica playing. It was a small gesture in which everyone was slightly grateful. The man did not know how to carry a tune. Buck had offered to teach him a few notes but the tracker staunchly refused. No one understood why. The music made Tanner comfortable so the others tolerated it (sometimes quietly and sometimes not so tolerantly).

JD stopped whittling on a stick. He still sat some distance from Wilmington. They all understood the gesture. Dunne himself had yet to realize he kept himself away from his dearest friend.

"I've bin doin' some think'n on Buck here, n'," Nathan stumbled over the words. How to say that the wound might not be the death sentence they all perceived it to be without giving to much false hope.

"Jist spit it out Nathan," Vin prompted. He was in no mood for people right now. In fact he cursed the day he ever hooked up with these other six men. On his own, he fought for himself, hurt only for himself and feared only for himself. Now he found those emotions incorporated the other six men. That could really wear on a fella.

"Well if'n I'm right, but I ain't no doctor mind ya," Jackson scrambled.

"Nathan say what cha got to say," JD had found his voice for the first time that evening. If Buck was dying he did not want the news dragged out any longer than it had to be.

"Well then, um, Buck's wound might not be fatal," There he said it. It was out in the open.

Silence met his statement. The other five stared at him silently for a moment.

Finally Chris softly spoke up, "How?"

"Well judg'in from the angle and place of the entry wound 'n the exit wound," Jackson shrugged, "there is a chance that the bullet missed 'is intestines 'n stomach." Nathan stood up and continued, "see the bullet looks as if it came in like this," He pointed at his upper left abdomen, "an' traveled like this and exited here," again he pointed to his own anatomy near his back just above level of the entry wound. "What I'm say'n is..." Jackson took a deep breath, "it mighta miss'd the guts maybe nicked the stomach and got the liver bleed'n some. It shoulda bit a chunk from the lung but..." He paused gazing back down at Wilmington.

"But..." Josiah prompted.

"But he's breath'n to good," Nathan said, "and the bleed'ns stopp'd. I suspect when Chris cauterized the wound it mighta stopped all the bleed'n," Jackson paused and then quietly added, "It's jist a guess but I've seen wilder things happin."

"He's gonna live?" JD whispered in astonishment.

Jackson closed his eyes. This is what he didn't want, "No, JD I aint sayin' that..."

"But you just...." Dunne implored. He held a glimmer of hope and now it vanished.

"He's just said Buck don't have to die," Vin quietly spoke up. He would latch onto that morsel of hope.

"But he still might," Chris broke in. Good news was always shadowed by the worst news.

* * * * *

Cole heard the conversation. His fury rose.

Devlin listened intently. Wilmington might not die. The young man could not say that he was disappointed. Cole had not come back to him like he had thought. They were far from home. It was time to just go back to the farm.

The youngest Donavon was about to suggest it when Cole suddenly jumped to his feet.

"Nooo!" He screamed. Cole driven by blind raged raced toward the camp brandishing his gun. Wilmington would die. Larabee would watch it happen. They would suffer as Liam and he had suffered.

* * * * *

Chris heard the enraged scream and watched with fascination as a body melted out of the darkness toward their camp. At first the black shape held no recognition but as the form bled from the shadows and the light flickered across the running form, Chris recognized it.


A gun roared and dust blew into the air beside Wilmington. People around the campfire jumped. Nathan protectively threw himself across Buck. Josiah pulled Standish tighter to himself drawing his gun. Vin tackled an angry JD to the ground.

Larabee had his gun drawn and fired before the others could return fire.

Cole Donavon's mad assault was slowed. His racing gait hit a hitch. He was forced by some unseen obstruction to step back and to the side but his forward momentum continued. The blood curdling scream had lost some rage.

Another cloud of dust kicked up on the other side of Wilmington. The Ladies man lay unreactive. The other four peace keepers held their fire. Vin kept his hand on JD's arm while holding the younger man pinned to the ground.

Chris would handle this.

Larabee fired again.

Cole stopped. His gun hand fell to his side. He tottered forward and backward for an agonizing moment. His unblinking eyes were still full of hatred mixed with disbelief. Donavon stared slack jawed at the dark gunslinger and then crumpled to the ground in a twisted heap.

No one in the camp moved.

Devlin still lay in the grass. His blue eyes were wide, his mouth slightly gaped. Oh Gawd Cole. Cole.. Cole what have you done? Cole?

The youngest and only surviving Donavon crawled to his feet. He was unaware that he walked toward his fallen brother. He did not notice the other young man that encroached on his brother's form from the other side.

Devlin stumbled up to his fallen brother. 'Cole', he whispered. The young man stared at his oldest brother in disbelief. He was alive just a minute ago. Just a few seconds ago Cole was smiling at him. Oh my gawd Cole. "Cole?" Devlin asked again louder. Disbelief dripped from his tone. He could not be gone. It would mean Devlin had to face the world alone. 'Noooo. Cole, git up. Lets go home. I wanna go home. Please. Oh gawd please get up.'

Devlin did not realize he spoke out loud. Instead he stared at the glassy empty eyes of his brother. Even the growing red splotches on his brother's unmoving chest went unseen.

Then he noticed someone standing across from his brother's body.

A target.

* * * * *

JD jogged out of camp to check the body. He ignored the others that yelled at him to wait. There might be two of them. Dunne did not hear it. Instead he wanted to look up on the murdering monster who had shot Buck and poisoned Standish.

Dunne did not slow down until he reached the body.

It was then he realized someone else stood over the corpse.

* * * * *

Both young men recognized each others presence at the same time.

"Yer killed my brother," Devlin hissed through falling tears.

"Yer shot Buck in cold blood," JD seethed back.

"He murdered Liam, he deserved to die," Devlin countered. There was a reason behind shooting Wilmington. Gunning Cole down was just plain murder.

"Yer brother Liam killed four people," Dunne retorted.

Devlin stared over the corpse of his last brother, "Yer took my only brother."

JD met the gaze and rage filled him, "Takin Buck ain't gonna bring'im back."

"Vermin ate his guts," Devlin sobbed his voice cracking but his posture was still ready to fight.

Dunne stared back. His hand twitched over the hilt of his pearl handled guns. He would gun down this kid and avenge Buck.

"He kilt family, family gotta stick together," Devlin mumbled out lost. Cole was gone. His mom and Liam and Pa all gone. He was all alone. No one. They took Cole from him. Ohh Gawd all alone.

"Go back home," JD whispered. He backed away from brothers. Unpredictable. Wilmington would call this unpredictable....dangerous. Buck was always right. What would he do without Buck? Oh Gawd how could he face the day without Buck at his side needling him about something?

This sniveling kid tried to take Buck from him. Anger welled back up. Vengeance bubbled to the surface. He ground his teeth as he took another step back. Why was he backing up? Why didn't he draw down on this lone brother. Why was he willing to let this kid walk away?

JD decided he was not willing to let go of vengeance.

Devlin stared one last time at his brother's lifeless eyes. He would not face a day without his brother. He would not let another family member slip from his fingers unanswered. That sheriff that slowly back down would pay for killing Cole.

Devlin would follow Cole down the righteous path of revenge.

Both Devlin and JD reached for their guns.

* * * * *

Part 19

'It's not how fast ya are...but how accurate you are,' Buck's words vibrated through JD's head.

His hand reached for his gun. He dipped his hip and knee just a bit as his hand unconsciously pulled for the ivory handle.

A shot tore through the night. JD's hand still rested on the handle of the gun. It had never cleared leather.

Devlin Donavon had a gift. A special deadly talent that fell to one in a thousand or maybe one in a million. He had both unheard of speed and incredibly accurate aim. He was one in a life time.

JD never stood a chance. Dunne was above average; better than most. Devlin was not most people. He was one of the very few. Only a hand full of people walked the earth that could match his skill and dexterity with a gun.

This canyon held two such marked people.

Dunne watched open mouth as Devlin Donavon crumbled to the earth beside his brother.

Chris Larabee had the gift too. Curse really...truth be known.

The dark gunslinger holstered his gun and turned back to camp. He left JD to the corpses and to whoever else had the energy to help the kid through tonight's many lessons.

Vin rose from the fire. Josiah still wiped vomit and other body fluids from the gambler. Nathan coaxed Buck from the edge of death and Chris sat between two ailing friends.

Tanner thought he had better see to JD.

* * * * *

Nathan checked the bandages again. There was not much more he could do. Buck's breathing remained labored. The Ladies man responded to pain but never fluttered open an eye. Jackson kept a cold compress on the forehead. It did more good for himself and the others than it actually did for Buck. Jackson did not want to sit idle. With two men struggling for life how could he sit and do nothing?

It was the waiting. The intolerable Waiting game. It was times like these that the gambler would be making odds and taking bets. Jackson ground his teeth. He hated this part of healing. Did the hard work pay off? Did he do the right thing? What did he miss?

It was these times he felt his patience grow short with the others. Though he hid it and curbed his temper. It was the hellish waiting period that brought him to the brink of angry retorts and short answers.

Nathan's tolerance for the gambler normally hit rock bottom. How could a man attempt to make money on another's suffering...even his own. Jackson had no doubt that if the conman was conscious he would be making odds on his very own survival. What would they be? Would the gambler be the underdog? Would he beat the odds?

It was during these times that Nathan would like to toss Larabee out on his ear. Jackson did not need the quiet pensive gaze of their leader following his every move. JD's penned up energy had no place in a sick room. The boy just moved to much. Buck normally found solace with a young lady. It was during this waiting period that Jackson wished he could wait alone. He wished the others would find something else to do and leave him to his own ineffectualness.

Jackson moved over to the fire. It still crackled and snapped spiraling smoke up with the breeze.

The healer's dark gaze fell to JD. The kid had drifted off to sleep just a few hours ago. He and Vin had buried the two brothers in shallow graves near the canyon wall. It was the first time the healer had seen such rage in JD. Dunne nearly threw his life away for the sake of revenge. What a colossal waste of life.

What had the others taught JD?

Vin still fingered through the coffee found in Buck's saddle bags. Castor Bean seeds. Nathan had never heard of them before. Apparently, Josiah, Vin and Chris had....judging by the forlorn expressions on their faces.

The Preacher had yet to leave Standish. The conman seemed dwarfed by the blankets covering him. A fever roared through the gambler and tired muscles continued to contract and heave. The body had given up long ago to protect itself from aspiration. The duty had fallen to Josiah. With every episode Sanchez would gently manipulate the smaller man with a practiced hand so the vile gastric fluid could flow unimpeded between cracked dry lips.

Jackson sighed. There was not much he could do for Standish. The poison was doing its best to kill the man. There was no cure. Nathan closed his eyes and rubbed at his face tiredly.

He could do no more for Buck.....but keep bandages clean and dry. He could not aid Ezra...in a manner of speaking it was to late.

Chris had finally succumbed to the effect of the blow to the head. A concussion. Nathan was sure. By now the dangerous after math of such an injury seemed to have passed. Jackson, however, could not be certain.

Once again all he could do was watch and wait.

Larabee had refused aid earlier... "Leave it be Nathan," Chris had warned when Jackson approached him with the intent of tending the wound. It gave him something he could do that would make a difference.

The voice was soft, unmenacing but somehow enough to freeze Nathan.

Jackson did not push the issue.

Larabee in one night had single handily finished wiping out a family. He did it to save Buck. He had undoubtedly saved JD's life.

Nathan stared at the sleeping form a few yards away. The lingering effects of the concussion did provide one positive thing. This one night Chris would sleep without nightmares.

The faces of the Donavon's would not plague his dreams....maybe tomorrow. The pale drawn face of Buck would not hover behind closed eyelids. Tonight Chris would rest undisturbed. Images of the dead would lay dormant until another night.

Nathan settled back on his bed roll next to Buck's.

All he could do was wait until morning.

* * * * *

Nathan did not intend on falling asleep. In fact he did not believe he had succumbed to the cries of his body.

Voices disturbed him. His eyes blinked open and it was then he realized that yes indeed he had slept the night....well part of the night.

Morning sunlight lit up the canyon. The light blue sky and scant white clouds indicated that it was not only morning but well past dawn.

Jackson jumped awake. Buck!

Nathan abruptly sat up and turned to peer down at the man a few feet from him.

Larabee blocked his view. Worse yet Chris was talking to someone.

"Now jist hold still," Larabee's stern voice rang out softly.

There was more grumbling and soft rebuttals but Nathan could not make heads or tails of them.

"Mornin' Nathan," JD spoke up. A bright smile plastered on his patchy face. The boy never seemed to pack a razor. The sheriff held out a cup of coffee to the healer.

Nathan accepted it silently with a nod of thanks.

"Buck iffen ya don't quit ya squirmin' we're gonna lit JD here change them bandages," Vin's exasperated tone cut across the quickly warming morning.

Josiah chuckled from across the fire. He still sat beside the gambler. Dark circles hung under his eyes. The preacher used his hip to keep the still man on his side. Bare feet stuck out from under the blankets on one end and a mop of dark hair from the opposite end.

Nathan let cautious smile etch his features.

They were still seven.

"Gawd Damnit, Buck!" Larabee hissed out slapping bandages back into the skillet of water.

"It hurts pard'," Wilmington whispered out but the easy going attitude dripped from the tone. "Now iffen you were Pansy...."The teasing leer was unmistakable.

"Save it Buck," Chris chuckled out.

"Let JD clean the wound," Vin returned as he wrapped a piece of cloth around the wounds, "then we'd see'im squirm."

" Ey!" Dunne attempted to sound indignant but could not quite pull it off. Buck had survived the night. Not only that but actually spoke and looked around camp.

Jackson eased around Larabee and stared at his patient, "How ya feelin' Buck?" He asked.

"Fine until these two started playin' Doctor," Wilmington retorted. Everything on him hurt. His limbs seemed weighted he felt out of breath. It even hurt to move his eyes. Gawd he was tired.

"That's gratitude fer ya," Tanner stood up, "I'm gonna go help Ezra; least he won't complain," Vin muttered as he stalked toward Josiah.

"Cuz he's still sleepin'," JD laughed out in response.

The tracker sat heavily beside the preacher and poured himself some coffee.

Larabee shook his head. He patted Buck on the shoulder and smiled his relief.

"Glad to have ya back," Chris muttered softly.

Buck smiled reassuringly and with fluttering eyelids muttered, "Ain't ever gonna leave ya pard'."

Chris's hand lingered on Wilmington's shoulder. The 'thank you' was left unspoken.

"He sleepin'?" JD asked a bit worried.

Larabee quickly stood and faced the young sheriff, "Yea JD he's sleepin'." Chris nodded to Nathan with a half smile.

Jackson closed his eyes and nodded in return. It paid off. They won the pot. Buck beat the odds...so far. He survived the night and was stronger. The healer watched as Larabee disappeared down the winding path to the stream. Water still needed collected. Bandages needed boiled and blankets washed.

The waiting had been not fruitless. This was why Jackson tried to help people. Chris and Ezra had done the ground work on Buck. They had made Jackson's job so easy. In saving Buck, Chris remained among the emotionally living.

Though Larabee thanked the healer, Nathan knew the true thanks belonged to Wilmington. Buck survived because he wanted to survive, he lived because he needed to see another day.

The seven remained seven.

Retching filled the area. One battle had turned for the better. The war was not over. Another battle still raged. Jackson sighed tiredly. He rose and crossed the small camp to tend his other patient.

"Easy pard'" Vin whispered quietly. The tracker had thrown the rest of the seeds into the fire. He knew of no medicine that could help the gambler. Josiah and Vin held the gambler's face out of the yellowish fluid that drooled from slightly parted lips.

Nathan squatted down between the three men. The bright yellow held no trace of blood, fresh or digested...hope still flickered.

* * * * *

Buck lay quietly under the blankets. A gently breeze wafed across him. Pain burned in the distance but close enough to prevent a comfortable sleep. Wilmington settled for the hazy level of half slumber. He knew JD sat beside him. He could hear Chris and Nathan move about camp. Josiah snored somewhere near by. Vin and Ezra? He had not heard a sound from those two.

Those two off together would bring the whole canyon down on them. A smile peppered Buck's face. He had no inclination to wake up and move about. If he laid still, if he breathed just right then the sharp stab of agony would remain at bay.

Yes sir, Good Ole Buck Wilmington was going to lay right here and let the day slip by quietly. Like a lazy Sunday afternoon. The only thing he was missing was his fishing pole and feminine company.

" 'Ey Buck ya awake?" JD asked. He had seen the smile of contentment on his friend.

Before Wilmington could find the energy to answer an authoritative voice rang out.

"JD help Vin fix up some shade."

Buck hid his smile. Chris was back to giving orders. Larabee had not given up and slunk back to the bottle. Who would have blamed him. How many people could one man lose before he gave up on everything....even himself? Wilmington did not fiddle with this thought to long. Sleep snuck up and grabbed him.

Nathan squatted down by the creek washing the soiled blankets and drying the clothing left in the stream. He purposely did it himself. He needed to know if there was blood mixed with the soiled belongings that once wrapped Standish. Josiah and Vin had both agreed no blood tinged the fluids but Jackson had to be sure. He wanted to make certain himself that there was a shard of hope.

Under the late morning sun, the healer scrubbed and beat blankets against rocks and laid them out to dry.

JD followed Vin's lead and picked the tallest straightest tree limbs he could find. It came down to choosing just about any stick with some length. The canyon did not harbor such treasures. Dunne collected an arm full and dragged them back to camp dropping them just outside the small perimeter of the camp.

"JD bring'em over here," Vin directed. The morning sun already threatened the coming of an unusually hot day. Buck and Ezra would need protection from heat.

Dunne held the poles as Vin tied the top of a blanket to it creating a lean-to of sorts. JD had been so engrossed in watching Vin he failed to notice Chris slink up beside him.

Dunne gave a start when a hand firmly grasped his shoulder. He partially turned and saw the dark gunslinger, " Hey Chris," JD tried to smile out. The young sheriff was still slightly bothered by the fact Chris intervened with his fight. JD knew it was his right to challenge Devlin. No one should have interfered.

"You ever pull a fool stunt like that," Chris spoke softly. No one else needed to hear this reprimand. JD made a mistake last night. A youthful sense of honor based on asinine codes only got fools killed. "I'll shoot ya myself," Larabee did not bother forcing JD to look him in the eye. The kid did not need to be forced into submission. He made a mistake a stupid act that most likely would not get repeated. "You understand me?" Chris finished. He wanted to make himself clear. Last night JD could have gotten himself killed. What would it have done to Buck?

Dunne stared at the ground. He knew what Chris was talking about. Had Larabee not gunned down Devlin there might have been a chance JD would be lying next to Buck or worse yet Cole Donavon.

JD let out a sigh of relief when Chris walked away. Dunne hung his head leaning slightly on the pole for support. He had run out of camp like a fool. He not only humiliated himself but reinforced what a greenhorn he really was out here. Dumb..dumb...dumb...dumb...

"He's jist worried about ya kid," Vin spoke up finally. He placed the finishing knots on the lean-to. "Chris ain't willin' to lose anyone 'specially you," Tanner met the young man in the eye. He spoke the truth. JD needed to see it.

* * * * *

Part 20

The afternoon slipped by with shimmering waves of heat. Buck had kicked his blankets off only to have them replaced repeatedly. With each bandage change Wilmington argued with a little more vehemence and strength. JD even let him sip water from one of the water skin bags, under Jackson's watchful eye. Dunne wrestled with supporting Wilmington's head until Chris came over to help. A peace offering to JD and re-assuring himself Buck was still ok.

Across the camp the gambler huddled under the blankets. Josiah and Vin had carried him down to the stream again. The fever seemed higher. Once again Sanchez sat in the stream holding onto the southerner with Vin waiting patiently on shore.

The tracker did not bother interfering with the ritual. Sanchez believed he needed penance. For what Vin could not be sure, but it was apparent Josiah had taken the gambler's illness somewhat personal. Vin held his tongue and watched. The answers would reveal themselves with time. There would be no need for intrusive questions.

Tanner watched as the southerner began to stir. He could not hear what was said but watched somewhat amused when Josiah let out a rolling laugh. Whatever they spoke of was short and to the point, unusual for Ezra. After a few minutes Sanchez gathered up the smaller man and brought him to shore. They wrapped him back in blankets and together the tracker and preacher carried the gambler back to camp.

* * * * *

Chris and Nathan had tended the animals. It was obvious they would not be able to stay in the canyon too long. There was no feed for the animals and the supplies that the men brought were only enough for a few days.

"How we gonna git them out of here?" Jackson asked. His gaze landed on Buck who once again fallen asleep and to the empty spot where Ezra had lain.

"Bin think'n on it," Larabee answered. He turned and gazed at Nathan, "any ideas?"

Jackson chuckled, "Nope."

Larabee nodded his head and watched with some amusement as Josiah and Vin wrestled themselves up the trail with the conman stretched out between them cocooned in blankets.

Healer and gunslinger watched the twosome for moment, "Ya think he's gonna make it?" Chris asked.

"Don't rightly know," Nathan responded in earnest, "ain't never seen the likes of that kind of poison before.....don't know how it acts."

Their quiet conversation was interrupted when Josiah spoke up, "Well brothers I think Ezra here is gonna do ok," The preacher smiled mischievously.

"Why ya say that Josiah?" JD asked. The kid hardly left Buck's side unless someone needed him to do something.

Sanchez's grin grew wider, "Cuz he jist asked me if his team won the bet."

"Shhhiiiiitttt," Chris drawled out a full fledge smirk flashed across his face.

"Damn man and his money," Jackson chuckled.

"Well?" JD asked. Who did win?

* * * * *

The night passed more smoothly for the seven. Buck bit back the pain that flared in his side. A smile seemed to lace his features whenever one of the others sat with him. It did not surprise Larabee in the least. Wilmington knew how to make people feel at ease. Buck hurt but there was no way he would share that pain with someone else. He kept it to himself.

Chris knew this and the others started to realize it. Water and broth were slowly introduced to Buck and much to everyone's relief it stayed down.

Buck was not out of danger but things were improving. If infection was held at bay, if he could hold food and if his guts, should they have been hit, did not rot out on him...then he would survive.

Jackson, as well as the others, knew there was a lot of IF's involved.

The gambler still nodded in and out. Waking only briefly, not daring to move, fearing the violent riot his stomach and bowels might wreak on him. A fierce headache kept him quiet. His eyes hurt with the intrusion of light, his head pounded so severely that his teeth hurt. Most times he lay completely still on his side fearing what his body would do to him in return.

The whites of Standish's eyes had turned bright red, red freckles dotted his cheeks. At first this frightened Nathan. Was the conman slowly bleeding to death? Had the body's clotting gone haywire? After observing the southern man Jackson discerned the nature of the blood. The bouts of violent retching had burst the tiny blood vessels in his sclera. The headache only worsened.

Josiah kept his vigil on the gambler and Vin watched the preacher. Chris surveyed his men and wondered how he was getting them home. All Seven of them.

* * * * *

The answer presented itself the next morning. Buck had eaten a little more broth JD and Nathan offered him. His appetite was understandably diminished.

Josiah had succumbed to sleep leaving Vin watching over the conman. Larabee found them in a quiet conversation.

The headache must be loosening its grip. Good. It was unnatural for Standish to be so quiet.

Chris sipped his coffee and worked on the logistics of getting them all out of the canyon. They could send someone to town. It would be a day and a half trip if they did not stop for the night to town and then two days back. They did not have enough food to last that long. Besides even with a wagon they still had to traverse to the top of the canyon.

Larabee stared from Buck to Ezra. Neither man had the strength to lift their own heads off the ground let along walk or ride. Carry them? On what? Buck would probably start bleeding again. A travois? Trail was to narrow to risk it.

The answer came in the form of Yosemite and his son.

At the sound of approaching foot steps Chris rested his hand on his gun. Tanner flipped the safety off his mare's leg and Nathan indiscriminately pulled a blade.

"Ahh there you are Mr. Larabee," Yosemite's jovial voice cut through the afternoon. Chris immediately recognized it and forced back a smile. Yosemite was the farrier for Four Corners. He was a large man with arms and neck speaking volumes of the man's occupation. There was not a human being in the surrounding area that matched good ole Yosemite in size. His boy, Hans, was a close replica. The son bore the same striking blond hair, same eyes and same height. Where his father had large bulging biceps and forearms, Hans had the sinewy strength of youth. The boy was still in his growing years. He was lean with a voracious appetite.

The four peacekeepers shared inquisitive looks. The horse shoer was far from home.

"Yosemite....Hans," Chris greeted.

"What brings ya way out here?" Nathan asked. Figures... Josiah was sleeping, that left the civilities and burden of conversation to Jackson. Vin and Chris would just stare at the two newcomers and make them feel uncomfortable.

"Mrs. Travis thought there might be trouble," Hans answered. His father still struggled with the English.

Vin smirked at Chris. Larabee shot the tracker a silencing glare. He did not need them ribbing him about his pseudo relationship with Mary.

"Guess she was right," Hans said glancing around the small camp. Yosemite cuffed his son gently on the back of the head. Proper manners no matter what country needed heeding.

"Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Standish?..." Yosemite started to inquire but Nathan interrupted him. Jackson liked the farrier. He came from overseas somewhere. His neck was as thick as his accent. Funny thing about the shoer though, he was always smiling about something. Saw good in everything. Every horse had a redeeming quality even the raunchiest of nags.

"They're hanging in there," Nathan said.

"You bring a wagon?" Larabee cut to the chase. He would have time for polite conversation later.

"Ya," Yosemite returned. He liked Mr. Larabee. The man let you know where you stood with him. If he did not like you.....he shot you. Well maybe not that cut and dry but most times...Yes. There were times when Mr. Larabee threatened to shoot one of his men, the Gambler. Yes the Southerner would sometimes earn the gunslingers wrath. Then there was the time Mr. Larabee held a razor to Mr. Buck's throat and warned him of something. Yes, Mr. Larabee had a short temper but he was a forgiving man. Yosemite appreciated the gunslinger's black and white view of the world.

"It's on the West Rim," The shoer answered carefully choosing his words.

"We ground tied the horses," Hans answered, "and walked down to search for you."

"How'd you know where we were?" Nathan asked.

"Mary suggested we start here," Hans replied not missing the accusatory chuckle out of Vin. Nathan ducked his head and wiped something off his lip.

Chris glared at both men. Thank God Buck was sleeping.

"Ye should marry the woman, Chris," A weak Midwestern voice rang out softly a chuckle lacing the words.

"Shut up Buck," the retort matched the stern face.

Yosemite ignored the stern rebukes, verbal and otherwise. "I will have Hans bring the team to rest above us and then we go?" He did not want to linger in the likes of Devil's Canyon longer than necessary.

"Hans take JD with you," Chris ordered staring at the sheriff. Dunne needed a break. The kid had been walking on egg shells around everyone. He spent most of his time with Buck but if anyone needed anything JD got it. He was seeking forgiveness for things that did not deserve a second thought.

JD wanted to argue. He wanted to stay with Buck. What if Ezra died? Dunne's hesitation died in his throat. Chris was not listening to excuses.

* * * * *

A chill settled as the sunset in the horizon. Buck sipped more water from Nathan's canteen. His neck shook with exertion.

"Buck jist let me do all the work," Jackson admonished. The ladies man was going to need all his strength tomorrow. Nathan could not be sure if Buck actually listened or if his waning strength finally gave out. After a few short moments Wilmington settled back against the bedroll without argument. The healer fixed the blankets around Buck's shoulders and adjusted the makeshift pillow. His color was coming back, though he still appeared pale. The greyish tinge of death had finally left him. The pain in his midsection had reduced itself to the immediate area of the bullet wound. The fever had been held in check. It lingered, however, in the background like a harbinger of doom.....storm clouds just sitting off the shore line waiting for prevailing winds.

"I'm fine Nathan go check on Ezra," Buck whispered. It took awhile but he had finally gotten Josiah to tell him what had happened after being shot. Chris was not talking, as was typical. Nathan avoided the conversation and acted as if he did not hear the question and Vin was busy with Yosemite during the latter part of the afternoon. Wilmington had finally threatened Josiah that he would crawl his way over to the Southerner to get answers if he had to.

Sanchez must have realized it was not an idle threat and related the tale the best he knew it.

In the end, Buck asked, "Is he gonna live?"

Sanchez answered honestly, "Don't rightly know."

It was now dark and Buck wrestled with the idea he might lose one of the others. Contemplating such a loss ebbed his strength. Jackson saw this and quietly answered, "Buck he's not been sick all afternoon. He keeps that up and tomorrow we'll give him some water." Nathan hoped this would ease Wilmington's mind.

"Nathan, that stuff lingers in ya for days," Buck replied. He had known people who had mistakenly eaten the seeds before. They had not died but boy they sure wished they had. From the sounds of it though, the coffee was ladened with the poison. Standish was as tough as shoe leather, though appearances would hint otherwise. Still that much poison, being that sick for that long....a body could only take so much.

"Can't ya give him some water now?" Buck asked his eyes traveling passed the wrinkle in the blanket covering him to the conman.

"Nope he might start gettin' sick again....his body can't afford that," Jackson said. He had answered the very same question from the others. The healer noticed the confused glance he received and explained, "If I give him some water and he gets sick again he'll lose more than he gained....make sense?"

The confused expression remained in place though the eyelids appeared droopier. Nathan sighed, "Ok imagine it this way.....If every time I put a nickel in the Bank....Ezra would come along and take out a Double Eagle......I'd be losing money even though I'm puttin' some in to save."

Buck stared at him his eyes growing heavy and his mind muddled. Wilmington felt himself falling back to sleep but he needed to clarify one thing, "Nathan, Ezra would never steal money from ya," there was a slight pause, "without good reason," a small smile punctuated the statement.

Nathan shook his head in frustration. Why didn't they get it? JD had said the same thing. Of course, Ezra would not steal from him, but that was not the point of the example. Ohhhh they were frustrating people.

* * * * *

JD and Hans returned to the camp a few hours later. They dropped the supplies they brought down from the wagon next to the Tracker. Vin was cooking tonight.

The moon shone brightly across the canyon. An uncountable number of stars lit up the dark sky. The crackling of the fire was a welcoming sound. JD and Hans were starved. A rabbit or snake would taste good right about now.

"Horses are just above the rim in the clearing," Dunne said dropping with exaggerated exhaustion on his bed roll. "How's..."

"Buck's fine," Vin answered. He stirred a stew over the fire.

"Ya boys hungry?" Tanner asked.

Both men jumped to their feet as if they had not eaten in days.

* * * * *

Chris and Yosemite watched the two 'boys' with pride. With a little gentle persuasion and an occasional shove the two boys would grow to be fine men.

"Tomorrow we leave the canyon? Yes?" Yosemite asked.

Larabee bit off the end of a cheroot and spit it on the ground, "Yeaah," He drawled out not so sure of his answer. They would have to leave tomorrow, most likely morning. It was getting to hot too travel in the heat of the day.

The gunslinger turned his gaze toward the preacher and the gambler. Josiah had made it his personal crusade to tend Ezra. Chris was curious as to why but held his tongue. The gambler had not been sick since morning. Maybe the poison was leaving his system? Maybe the slippery SOB beat death just as Buck apparently had. Maybe...

* * * * *

Part 21

Ezra felt terrible. Misery had settled down on him and taken up residence in his bones. He ached. Standish kept his eyes closed and ran his dry tongue over his even drier teeth. A thick foul tasting film filled his mouth. His head hurt but not with the same nauseating intensity it had before. At least he could move his tongue without creating piercing pain in his head. He moved a leg. Slid it actually, straightened it out. Muscles protested. They had become cramped and stiffened. He could not recall the last time he stretched out his legs. They seemed forever curled up against his midsection. With the movement of one leg, the twin thought it too should have the same rights and demanded movement. He slid the other leg, straightening it out. His stomach remained settled. His shoulder began to complain. He paused trying to discern why his shoulder would throb. Standish remained still trying to get his bearings with his eyes closed. His hip hurt too.

After a few moments he realized he lay on his side.

Last time he tried to move he vomited all over himself. It was not something he wanted to repeat. The headache had finally taken a back seat to his other discomforts. The fear that retching might renew said headache kept him very still.

The shoulder and hip increased their volume of complaint.

Ezra delicately attempted to roll onto his back.

He could not. Standish sighed. He couldn't move. His headache had paralyzed him. Oh well. He would just lie here.....The shoulder and hip would not hear of it.

With a protesting groan, the gambler tried once again to relieve the pressure on the down side of his body. Whether it was the left or right side eluded him for the moment.

* * * * *

Josiah was brought out of his half slumber when Standish leaned against him. Sanchez unconsciously dropped a hand to the gamblers head, "Easy brother yer doin' jist fine." It was the same motions and words he had spoken all through last night. They seemed to have a calming effect on the younger man. Sanchez left his hand on the sweat drenched head without truly waking.

The pressure against his leg increased followed by a low groan.

Sanchez opened his eyes. The camp was asleep. Buck's bed roll was flanked by JD and Nathan's. Chris and Vin slept on either side of Josiah and Standish. Hans and his father had taken the opposite side of camp next to JD. The cook fire struggled for life. The coals were a bright orange with just a few yellowish flames curling in the gentle breeze. The preacher listened as the horses foraged just outside of camp, outside of the lighted hue cast by the fire.

His attention was pulled back to his charge. Standish was waking up. Figures, like the owls and creatures of the desert, Standish preferred nights. The form laying to Sanchez's left now pressed against the outside of Josiah's leg with a blanketed back.

"Ezra?" Josiah whispered out. He felt the gambler's forehead, then cheek and finally neck. Perspiration covered the younger man. His skin was cool and slick to touch.

"Ezra?" Josiah called softly again. There was no sign of fever. The pressure against Sanchez's leg increased as Standish pushed weakly against it.

"Ezra you awake brother?" Sanchez leaned over the smaller man trying to get a glimpse of his features.

"Josiah?" The thick southern accent masked the name skewing the pronunciation making it almost unrecognizable.

"Right here Ezra," Sanchez quickly offered a small heartfelt 'Thankyou'.

"Shoulder hurts," Standish mumbled out still refusing to open his eyes. The breeze cut across his skin making him feel somewhat refreshed.

Josiah understood and simply slid over a few inches. He delicately helped roll the gambler onto his back. The preacher waited for any sign Standish might get sick again. Sanchez watched as the closed eyes remained shut and the dry tongue swipe at equally dry lips.

"Better?" He asked.

The answer was a soft snore.

* * * * *

Buck woke to the sounds of a breaking camp. He wanted nothing more than to help them. Lying here being helpless did not suit Wilmington. The Ladies man struggled to pull himself from the dregs of sleep. It was a task just to forced tired eyelids to peel themselves apart. The sky was still dark. The number of stars were greatly diminished and a greyish arc covered the eastern sky. Morning was coming but would not be upon them for another hour or so maybe more. Dew laced his blankets and the jacket he used as a pillow. He heard JD and someone else, Hans? maybe....lead the horses to water.

Why were they breaking camp. Was something wrong?

He tried to sit up but his midsection quickly and firmly put a stop to such foolish actions. He hissed out in pain and frustration.

"Let that be a lesson to ya," Chris said as he squatted down beside Wilmington, "jist lie still and let us do the work."

"What's goin' on?" Buck whispered out trying to get control over the burning ache in his side.

"We're headin' up to the ridge today and start back to town," Larabee answered. The decision had bothered him all night. He did not want to move Buck prematurely. He had already lost too much blood. Nathan did not even want to risk sitting Wilmington up too straight fearing he would just black out. Larabee tossed and turned over the notion of sending someone back to town for supplies but again the time it took to go and come back would still be to long. The horses needed feed and there was not enough game to keep nine men fed. Well eight if one were to leave and then counting Buck and Ezra's lack of appetite more like six men. There just was not enough food to last that long.

"Ezra gonna be up to it?" Buck asked.

Chris was not surprised by the question. Wilmington always put himself second to his friends. Here he was lying in some gawd forsaken canyon with a potentially lethal bullet wound and he was worried about the gambler. No, Larabee was not surprised at all.

"Yeah he'll be fine," Chris answered. "Fever broke last night and he's been holding his own since yesterday morning." Larabee had spoken with Josiah and Nathan earlier this morning. Standish was still had one foot in the grave but it seemed he found his footing.

"We're gonna be carrying you out," Chris held up his hand halting the protest that started to pour from Wilmington, "if it gets too much for ya jist speak up and we'll stop....ok?" Larabee stared down at Buck, "don't fight with me on this one Buck...ya gonna lose." His tone held no joviality, no kindness. Larabee would bind and gag Wilmington if he had to. This was too important to waste energy on needless argument.

Buck merely nodded his head. He did not have the strength to argue...not right now. When he was feeling better....Chris and he were going to have a little discussion.

Larabee straightened up and disappeared out of Buck's line of sight. Chris had seen that look before. Wilmington would take the directions now only because he did not have the strength to fight. When Buck was feeling better, Chris knew he would have the fight of his life on his hands. The blond gunslinger smiled. He would look forward to that day.

* * * * *

Yosemite and Josiah took the front end of the two poles, Nathan and Chris eached grabbed the back end of the poles. They had slung Wilmington in-between the poles resting on thick canvas. The two poles ran along the outer edge of the canvas creating a stretcher. The sun had just peaked over the trees. A cool breeze still whispered across the waking land. The sky had lightened from the grey of a false dawn to soft pinks and purples. The four men headed out of camp.

Buck woke briefly to the sudden movement but the laudanum Nathan had forced down him prevented the ladies man from fully awakening. It was going to be a steep hard climb out of the canyon for everyone.

Periodically Wilmington's glazed blue eyes would flutter open. With a detachment spawned from the opiate, Buck would attempt to sit up. During those infrequent times Larabee would merely place his hand over the ladies man face and force the mustached head back down. "Stay put Buck," inevitably followed.

Hans and JD had already left poning the horses and gear out and setting up a small fire at the top of the ridge. Once they got Wilmington out bandages would have to be changed again.

Vin stayed behind with Standish. For his part the gambler remained sleeping, slightly curled on one side. Tanner did his best to wipe the copious amount of sweat from the gambler. The tracker was somewhat amazed the gambler had any excess fluid left in him.

Late morning had crept up on the land. The dew had evaporated long ago. The sand had given up its morning damp coolness and started to warm up...uncomfortably so. Standish slept occasionally kicking some blankets off. The tracker quietly replaced them. The gambler would be still for a while longer and again shuck the covers, without looking up Vin merely pulled them back up. This went on for another hour.

Yosemite, Chris and Josiah returned with the stretcher.

"How is he?" Sanchez asked. He dropped down beside the gambler and felt for the fever. None. They would not risk giving him water now. They would wait until they reached the top.

Standish responded to the touch by weakly swatting at the intrusive hand, "Hot," he mumbled out once again pushing the blankets down off his bare shoulders.

"Gotta leave it on ya Ezra," Tanner softly explained pulling the blankets back up for the umpteenth time, "you'll burn under this sun."

"Ezra we're gonna carry ya out of the canyon," Chris said as he and Yosemite laid the canvas stretcher down beside the curled form, "its gonna git rough on ya, but just hold on and we'll be out in no time."

His only response was a muttled, "hot."

Sanchez smiled and together the four men placed the gambler in the stretcher. Their efforts were rewarded with a groan.

* * * * *

Jackson stared down at Wilmington as if he had lost what little brains he might have possessed.

"You are not riding in a saddle," Nathan retorted with uncharacteristic impatience.

"Nathan I'm feeling stronger," Buck explained slowly as if talking to a child who did not understand a basic principle.

Josiah saw that the healer was close to strangling Wilmington and felt it prudent to interfere. Chris and Vin sat back and watched the growing hostilities with amusement. Buck could be an ornery pig headed fool when he wanted to be.

When the Laudanum had finally worn off and he woke from a comfortable slumber, Buck had been a thorn. Chris and the others had just crested the trail head of the canyon with Standish only to find Nathan and Buck arguing.

JD and Hans had found it within their best interest to vacate the area and tend the horses.

"Ya'r not riding in a saddle Buck," Jackson bit out with vehemence. He had toiled night and day over the large Midwesterner. He would not sit idly by and let the fool kill himself. Jackson figured it was and should be within his rights to strangle Wilmington.

"I'm feelin' much better," Buck said, "thanks to you of course," he splashed a sickening sweet smile across his pale features. It did not have the desired results. Instead of softening up the healer it only served to further irritate him.

Josiah stepped in before Jackson undid all his hard work.

"Brother Buck if you can manage to sit up on yer own," Josiah reasoned winking at Jackson in a conspiratorial manner, "and git in the saddle on yer own you can ride back to town."

" 'Ey that's not fair," Standish muttered from place in the back of the wagon. Upon reaching the topside camp Yosemite and the others deposited their cargo immediately in the wagon. The force in which he had hit the bed boards was enough to roust the gambler from a comfortable midday nap.

"Yer best keep out of this Ezra," Vin whispered from over the edge of the wagon, "Nathan's itchin' fer a fight." Tanner chuckled as the conman quietly nestled his head back down on his jacket. If Jackson was looking for a fight he normally fixated on the southerner. Ezra thought he felt well enough to ride...not spar verbal or otherwise. He would hold his tongue. As he was contemplating the rewards of silence Standish slipped off once again to sleep. The tracker stayed by his side until Vin was sure the breathing was even and unlabored.

"Well.....we're waitin'," Nathan commented. His arms were folded across his chest and he tapped his foot in a hostile manner as he stared pointedly at the Ladies man.

There was a pause and a somewhat timid, "Ain't I sittin' up now?" Buck blinked open his eyes.

Josiah, Chris and Yosemite without further comment picked up the bedroll and Buck and gently laid him in the back of the wagon next to the gambler.

"You look like hell Mr. Wilmington," Standish muttered out behind closed eyelids, "not even JD was buying that ruse."

"Ezra, yer full of crap," Buck retorted. Damn he thought he had actually made it into a sitting position...amazing what a little dizziness could do to a person.

JD's voice peeped up, "Actually Buck....Ezra ain't full of nothing', least of all....well um..ya git my meanin'."

Wilmington turned his attention to the young sheriff and then to the man lying beside him, "Ahh jeez Ezra I hope ya're feelin' better."

Josiah took the drivers seat on the buckboard. Sanchez snapped the reins chuckling at the dwindling commentary behind him. Chris and Vin took point. Nathan trailed behind the wagon threatening the two wayward souls with medical indignities if they did not lay still. The two Donavon horses had been tied to the wagon. Yosemite rode Buck's grey enjoying the smoothness and intelligence of the large gelding. Horse and rider matched skill and strength. JD and Hans raced out in front. Hans finally had a chance to ride the temperamental chestnut gelding. It had speed and attitude.

* * * * *

It was a two day ride back to town. They took it slow trying to avoid jousting the occupants of the wagons....for very different reasons. They camped the first night just on the outer reaches of the stream. Jackson and JD changed Buck's bandages. Together they forced more liquid and some bread down the Ladies' man. Wilmington ate hesitantly and staunchly refused the medicine Jackson urged him to take. Nathan gently explained to Buck that Laudanum if used correctly could aid in his recovery. Rest was the best thing for him and Buck could not sleep if he were in too much pain. Wilmington conceded grudgingly.

Josiah slowly introduced water to the gambler. Standish refused at first. He did not want to jeopardize his slight reprieve from retching. He did not want to test his stomach. Ezra even tried flat out honesty...He was just not very hungry or thirsty.

Sanchez insisted. With a firm hand and more endurance than his captive, the preacher dribbled a few sips of tepid water down the conman. When the water was tasted and stayed down...the flood gates opened. The body realized how dehydrated it had become and wanted to rectify the problem at once. One instant, Josiah found himself gently forcing water on the gambler and a few minutes later he was holding the canteen just out of the gambler's desperate reach.

Josiah had been forced to hand the canteens to Chris.

Late that evening Larabee was pulled from his thoughts as a groan escaped from Wilmington. Chris sat quietly beside his friend letting his presence alone reassure the recovering Ladies man.

The next morning they started out late. Both Buck and Ezra slept deeply. Nathan did not want them disturbed. Standish's belly growled and gurgled threatening to return the small amount of water dropped on it the evening before. Sanchez and Tanner sat nearby waiting with clean blankets and clothing.

Midmorning saw the group back on the trail heading for town. It was unseasonably hot. They stopped at the stream to let the horses drink. Yosemite and Nathan carried a sleeping Buck across. Blood loss, laudanum, the low grade fever kept Wilmington out.

Larabee watched from a discreet distance. He trusted Nathan and Yosemite but sometimes Buck needed to see an old friendly face in order to relax.

The lurching and jarring of the wagon crossing the rocky stream bed would only do harm. Yosemite re-crossed and helped Josiah with Standish. Ezra muttered he could walk across. Sanchez merely sat the gambler up. A sudden wave of dizziness halted any further argument from the conman.

Chris drove the team across while JD ponied the other horses. Once across they continued toward town.

Hans and JD rode head. Youthful impatience, the undesirable urge to ride fast set them ahead of everyone else. Nathan decided to put that to his advantage. He had directed the two young men to make sure the clinic was ready for their two ailing friends.

Buck slept through the directive. Standish heard it, though his stomach ached miserably (whether from hunger or the poison he could not be sure) he added his thoughts on Nathan's plans.

"I think Mr. Jackson...." He whispered out warily but was cut off by Jackson.

"You ain't doin' any thinkin'...so jist lie there like Buck and shut yer trap," Jackson plasted an insincere smile on his face. The healer was not going to put up with any lip from those two. Jackson was getting ready to battle his two patience.

He would have the upper hand for a day or two but when their strength returned and Nathan realized he would be out numbered and out matched.

Nathan smile turned genuine when Ezra laid his head back on the coat and settled back down on his side. He still clutched at his midsection.

Jackson frowned with concern....fatigued muscles? lingering effects of the poison? hunger? or something else? Nathan watched the southerner for a bit. Standish blinked and stared at Buck's blanket. He drew his legs closer to his midsection and eventually drifted back to sleep.

* * * * *

They entered town two hours later. Buck lay blinking wide eyed trying to figure out where he was this time. Chris and Yosemite loomed over him smiling in a distorted kind of way. Wilmington furrowed his brow. He knew they carried him up stairs to Nathan's clinic but he did not seem to have the strength to complain or make a comment. Wilmington watched blarey eyed as the two men laid him down and pulled blankets up over him. He heard them talk, heard their voices but could not quite make heads or tails out of what they were saying. He tried to say something but succeeded only in mumbling. Yosemite and Chris both ignored him.

Down by the wagon Josiah and Vin dragged Standish out of the Buckboard by his ankles. The simple movement jarred the conman awake. He struggled weakly to lash out at whoever grasped his feet.

"Easy Pard' we're jist gitt'n ya up ta Nathan's," Tanner chuckled as a pale bony ankle wrenched itself free.

Standish for his part struggled to raise his head off the bed roll. His muscles had put out enough effort the last few days and would not respond. Fatigue, dehydration and exhaustion had taken there toll.

"Nooo," He whispered out tiredly. Truth be told at the moment he was quite comfortable in the back of the wagon. The sun and blankets were refreshingly warm and if he lay still his stomach would stop twisting itself in threatening knots.

"Come on Brother," Josiah chuckled out. It was good to see some fight back in their conman. Vin and Josiah slid him further to the edge of the wagon.

Ezra blinked more rapidly and realized what was happening whether he wanted it to or not.

"Alright, alright, jist let me sit up for a moment," He whispered out tiredly. Every muscle in his body ached and each felt as if it were made of lead.

Tanner and Sanchez exchanged glances. Vin shrugged. Together they sat the conman up. He would have fallen to the side but both preacher and tracker kept a steadying hand on him.

Standish for his part sat slouched over forearms resting wearily on blanketed knees. He spit the ever increasing build up of saliva onto the ground. He did not wish to risk the hazards of swallowing.

"You doin' ok pard'?" Vin asked Ezra but stared at Josiah with worry. The preacher merely shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.

"Yeahh," Standish drawled out slowly. Fine. He could barely hold his chin up and his hands shook.

"Lits git you up stairs," Josiah said. Together Vin and Josiah each grabbed an arm and hauled the gambler to his bare feet. The wool blankets fell from his waist to the ground. It was then Ezra realized he wore pants....someone elses pants but at least he was clothed....well at least pants. Not the it bothered him much right now. The impropriety of not being fully clothed or clothed at all was not something he bothered to give much thought to at the moment. Well at least not when one was contemplating vomiting all over oneself.

With shaking legs and questionable strength he struggled up the wooden steps to the clinic. Vin beside him holding his upper arm and Josiah behind them with his callused hand supporting the small of the gambler's back.

* * * * *

Twenty minutes later Jackson sat in a quiet clinic. Everyone had gone....well except the two sleeping forms residing in the beds.

Mrs. Travis met Chris for an early dinner. A thank you dinner arranged by Vin Tanner at the hotel. It seemed everyone involved knew of the dinner except for Chris. Mary was flattered by the word of mouth invitation passed onto her by none other than the tracker.

JD wired the Judge and then planned on meeting Josiah and Yosemite in the saloon. Inez had briefly entered the clinic to ensure that both Buck and Ezra were indeed alive.

Inez swore Nathan to secrecy......he had better not tell Senor Wilmington of her visit.

Nathan closed a small tattered book on poisons. He rested the aged parchment on the wood chipped desk and stared over at his patients. The room was cast in the dark shadows of night. The lamp ineffectually pushed back the encroaching darkness. There was enough light to make out the two forms resting in the beds. Buck snored softly laying on his back unmoving. The simple rise and fall of his chest and the light snores simple indicators that he was still among the living. Standish lay still curled on one side wrapping a protective arm around his midsection. Saliva pooled slightly in front of his features. Nathan sighed and crossed the distance. He wiped the clinging moisture from the parted lips. Standish stirred and mumbled swiping a heavy hand at his face.

"Go to sleep Ezra its alright," Jackson waited briefly as the conman's breathing leveled out and once again slipped back into a deep sleep.

The healer headed for the porch door. The night was cool and clear, a slight breeze rolled down main street. Nathan would sit outside for a few moments. He turned and stared one more time at his friends.

They needed rest. The darn fools were lucky.

* * * * *

Part 22

Chris and Vin sat enjoying a beer outside the saloon. It had been three days since returning from the Canyon. The midmorning still remained cool. The sound of twin hammers vibrated through the area. Josiah and Nathan were once again working on the church roof. The sound of pounding nails was much more preferable than listening to the tirades of Nathan and his patients.

Nathan had enjoyed one and a half days of relative peace. Then the feeding frenzy started. Buck and Ezra fed off each others complaints. After just one day of constant arguments the healer tossed up his hands and opened the clinic door.

He set Standish and Wilmington to fend for themselves. Buck immediate found solace in the arms of numerous worried ladies. Ezra settled himself behind a felt covered table and a deck of cards. Solitaire and stud poker with the some of the other six kept him quiet. Though neither man had endurance or much strength both exuded perseverance.

The sound of galloping horses drew Vin and Chris's attention down main street. The sound of fast approaching horses apparently grabbed Josiah and Nathan's curiosity because the hammering had ceased.

Two horses came barreling around the mercantile. They were neck and neck. The large grey maybe inching a head by a nose. The lithe bay would not be out done and dug in harder. Both horses had their necks extended, ears flat back and nostrils flared. They tore up main street in ground swallowing strides. Both riders leaned down beside their animals straightened necks urging them forward seeking more speed with clenched heels. With arms stretched out over manes, elbow's slightly bent and hands still, the two riders paralleled each other. Each seeking and edge over their opponent.

The two racing geldings were brought up to a sharp halt when they passed an imaginary finish line. The grey and bay both tucked their hindquarters underneath themselves nearly sitting on their haunches sliding to a stop. Both riders then presumed arguing...both claiming they won the race. It was agreed they disagreed and decided to seek the judgment from the mastermind behind this race.

The bay and grey pulled up to the hitching rail in front of the saloon.

"Casey, JD," Chris said in a friendly but wary tone, "it might be best ya don't race up main street."

"It jist ain't safe," Vin added. Larabee should not have to carry the burden of subtle discipline alone.

"Yes sir," Casey mumbled.

"Sorry Chris," JD answered.

Both stopped and waited a respectable moment and finally asked, "Ezra who won?"

The foursome turned their attention to the form quietly tilted back in his chair against the saloon wall. The flat top black hat had been pulled down low to block out the morning sun.

With no answer forth coming, Tanner carefully reached over to the precariously balanced hat. With a delicate touch, as if fearing the bite of a snake, he carefully lifted up the black hat.

"Sorry, Ms Casey, JD," Tanner chuckled quietly, "the racin' Judge seems to have fall'n asleep."

Casey skewered her mouth into a frown and JD added an "Aw schucks."

"Ya'll wouldn't happen to notice which...." Casey piped up hitting Chris and Vin with a hopeful stare.

"Nope we didn't," Larabee gracefully bowed out of the potential sticky situation.

"Angles all wrong," Vin followed Chris's lead.

"Darn," JD mumbled. Both kids headed the horses back to the livery.

""Ey Casey," Vin reached out to stop the young lady.

"Yeah Mr. Tanner?"

"Buck still recoverin'......." Tanner was not sure how to ask the delicate question.

"Restin' up over at Ms. Thompson's place this morning," Casey answered with the innocence that begot her age, "I'm suppose to bring his horse up there this afternoon, cuz Ms Lizza gonna watch over Buck until evenin' and then I think Ms. Daisy might fetch him so he can git a meal." Casey was slightly worried about whether or not she had the ladies in the right order. It did not really matter she was just suppose to exercise the Grey for the next couple of weeks.

Chris and Vin held back their chuckles until both kids were out of ear shot.

The tracker reached over to the gambler and gently pulled a deck of cards from the conman's coat pocket. He began to deal a hand of poker for Chris and himself.

"Good way to git yerself shot, pard'" Larabee pointed out.

"Ezra?" Vin said, "Nahh, yer could blow up the town around'im and he wouldn't know."

The two men played cards into the early afternoon. Josiah and Nathan finally joined them, it was getting too hot to be on a roof. Both men stared at the still sleeping gambler. Jackson shook his head wondering why not just sleep in a bed. 'Stubborn, Mule headed....'

Then again Buck was out 'convalescing' all over the territory. He might not have gotten himself out of bed often but Nathan hardly thought the Ladies man would be resting. Sure his wounds prevented strenuous activity but the ladies who tended him all had adventurous spirits and flexibility...or so Nathan had been told.

The four men shared a bottle of whiskey and enjoyed a quiet friendly game of cards. It would not last.

In a couple of weeks the Seven would be seven strong again.

The End

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