Mind Over Matter

by SoDak7

Chris sat in the saloon, drinking his morning coffee, perusing the early morning patrons. His eyes flicked to the other six peacekeepers that were seated in a couple different places, eating their first meal of the day before heading out to do their various jobs. With his back angled near the entrance doors, the gunslinger kept an eye out for any strangers who walked in. Right now, those in the building were all regulars. Hearing chair legs scrap against the wooden flooring, Chris moved his line of sight up to the platform table where Buck, JD, Vin and Ezra were sitting. Tanner had gotten up amidst some soft chuckling and was ambling down the three steps.

Walking by the gunslinger, Vin gave him a wink and a lopsided grin.

Chris lifted his cup in acknowledgement and the corners of his mouth turned up. Ezra had been beaten in a came of cards the night before by Vin and the stakes had been for the morning patrol. If he had to guess, he’d say somehow the two men had just played a game of chance, Vin had lost, possibly by choice, and gotten his patrol back. Larabee knew Tanner enjoyed the early ride.

“Mr. Tanner?” Ezra called from where he was seated. “Take this with you,” he said as he flipped a coin to the tracker. “It just might come in handy some day,” he added with a gold-toothed grin.

Pausing half-way through the bat wing doors, Vin turned at Ezra’s voice and reached up to catch the coin that was tumbling end over end, breaking through the dusty light rays that came through the window, as it arched towards him.

Just as he was about to snatch the coin from the air, he was knocked violently back into the building, a bullet hitting him high in the left shoulder. The gold coin hit the floor with a dull thud the same time the tracker’s body did. Both lay quiet and still.

Chaos erupted as women screamed and bodies dove to the floor, trying to escape the barrage of bullets that hit the saloon. Chris instantly knocked his table over, using it as a shield, his eyes going to his friend who lay on the dirty floor.

“Cover me!” he yelled as his men broke out windows and sent their bullets back across the street in order to give him time to drag Vin behind the upturned table.

Nathan, scrunched down, ran over to help get Vin out of harm’s way and to see how much damage had been done. They pulled the semi-conscious man behind Larabee's upturned table.

“JD! Go out the back and get Nathan’s bag!” Larabee commanded, seeing Vin was alive but needing medical attention.

“Be careful!” Buck yelled out as JD stayed hunched over and ran through the building into the back kitchen area. A few seconds later, a volley of shots was heard coming from the back, a door slammed shut and Dunne appeared breathlessly at the door frame.

“Can’t get out the back,” he told the men, wiping something wet off his cheek, then noticing blood on the back of his hand.

“You hurt?” Buck called to him.

“Just a scratch,” came the answer as the young man ducked and went over to the opposite side of the window where Josiah was shooting.

“Shots are aimed high,” the ex-preacher called out. “Seems they’re not tryin’ to hit anyone, now," he added, his eyes straying to the overturned table that was shielding three of his friends.

“Just keeping us pinned down,” Ezra agreed.

Vin moaned softly, eyes flickering. Instinct made him reach for his gun, knowing he’d been hurt, but he felt a hand stop his movements and heard an, “Easy now, don’t move.” Nathan's voice.

“Chris? Might want ta come look at this,” Buck said, his voice seemingly over- loud, the din of shots fired coming to a final halt. Only sounds now were the deep, uneasy breaths being taken and the clicking noise of bullets being rechambered.

“Chris?” Vin whispered, eyes meeting his friend's. “Help me up. Need ta . . .”

“Just stay down, Vin,” Chris answered him softly, hand on his friend’s chest, applying gentle pressure to restrain his struggles. “We’ll take care of this. Nathan?” the gunslinger looked at the healer, needing to know Jackson could handle Tanner.

Nathan gave him a nod and once again tried to soothe the anxious, injured man as Larabee moved carefully to get up, trying not to jar Tanner’s shoulder. Wasn’t hard to guess Vin was probably the intended target all along and now maybe they’d find out just what was going on, although it seemed pretty cut and dried . . . to the peacekeepers anyway.

“Anybody else hurt?” Nathan called out when Chris got up to leave. Hearing a bunch of quiet “no’s” as the handful of patrons began to move around behind him, he turned his attention back to his patient. He didn’t like the fact he couldn’t get to his medical supplies or the clinic. If there was one thing the healer really hated, it was a feeling of helplessness he got when someone was hurting and he was powerless to help and right now, that's how he felt.

“Nathan. Here,” Inez said, scooting up along side of him and handing him some clean rags and a bottle of whiskey.

“I have some things in my room,” she told him, taking away the bloodied bandana from the tracker’s wound so the healer could replace it with a new cloth, “to help with this.”

“Good,” Nathan replied, absorbed in what he was doing. “We’re gonna need it.” Anything was better than nothing. Their attention turned to Larabee when they heard him quietly swear.

Chris didn’t recognize the man that stood in the center of the street but when his eyes panned the rooftops, he saw a man he’d seen not more than an hour ago right here in the saloon. Small in statue, wire rimmed glasses and carrying no weapon, the gunslinger had watched him with interest at first, but dismissed him as any kind of a threat. He cursed himself for not questioning the man and being more alert. There was no doubt he was the one responsible for Vin being shot, the man now standing tall across the way, rifle cradled in his arms.

“Larabee! Chris Larabee!”

“I hear ya,” Chris answered, staying behind cover but watching intently the man standing in the street directly across from them. He was built about like Josiah, but younger.

“Just want to make sure I have your attention.”

“You got it. What do you want?” Like he didn’t already know.

“Want just what we were aimin’ at. Vin Tanner. My sharpshooter, Horace,” and he turned to wave a hand at the man standing behind him on the rooftop, “tells me he didn’t get a clean shot, thinks maybe he mighta just winged Tanner.”

Ezra shuddered at that admittance, his eyes going to the downed tracker. If Vin hadn’t turned to catch the coin he’d flipped to him, his friend would have taken the shot right in the middle of the chest and no doubt would be dead. He blinked his eyes hard and finished listening to the man outside.

“We’ve got you surrounded. No way out. So here’s what I want you to do,” the outlaw said, striking a lucifer with his thumbnail and lighting a cigar. He took a deep drag, then blew a puff of smoke into the morning air.

“Man’s got a lot of guts standing right out there in the middle like that,” Josiah's voice spoke roughly, eyes scanning the street.

“How ‘bout I just plug the son of a bitch right now?” Buck whispered, pulling the hammer back on his gun.

“Might want to hold off on that. Check what’s comin’ up on his right first,” Josiah spoke, and all eyes went that direction.

"They got Mrs. Travis," JD announced loud enough for all in the building to hear.

Larabee’s eyes narrowed as he saw Mary Travis being escorted down the boardwalk, across the way, in their direction. He could tell she was frightened, her body held rigid as she walked. Frightened and angry.

“Damn,” Buck whispered out. “This just keeps gettin' uglier.”

“Ugly yes, and obviously a well contrived plan, I might add,” Ezra commented, knowing now, along with his comrades, that their hands were really tied what with Mrs. Travis being held hostage or at least that's what he assumed was going to happen.

The man in the middle of the street turned to look at the woman coming down the boardwalk and watched as she glared defiantly at him before being told to sit in a nearby chair by her captor. Then turning his attention back to the saloon, he took a deep drag on his cigar before continuing.

“I’d like to make him eat that thing, lit end first,” Buck mumbled, then heard a snort come from over JD’s way.

“Now, me and the boys been thinkin’. We don’t want you all to think poorly of us, so we promise nobody else'll get hurt if you just follow our instructions.” Pointing his cigar- holding fingers towards the saloon he said, “First we want all those innocent people to come on out of there, not interested in them, but, and make no mistake, Horace knows how many are in there and what they are wearing for weapons. Now, he’ll be watchin’ when they come out, so don’t be thinkin’ about holdin’ out on us. Be sure to bring the double barrel that's behind the bar, too. Oh and one more thing,” he paused after the man who was watching Mary said something to him, “have that pretty barmaid bring my men some whiskey.”

“That’d be four bottles then?” Buck tossed the question out through his broken window, counting the one in back plus the three out in front.

The outlawed laughed, puffed on his cigar and held up his hand to quiet the man behind him. “Nice try, Cowboy. Let me rephrase that. Have her bring out all she can carry.”

Nobody in the saloon made a move to leave, instead they looked at the peacekeepers and waited until given the directive to go. When Larabee turned and faced them, then waved his gun at the door, only then did they stand up, leave their hiding places and head to the entrance. Most couldn't help but take a glance at the downed man, wondering if he’d live or die. One thing they were relatively sure of; by the end of the day, their streets would be bloodied once again and the undertaker would be busy, only question was . . . whose blood and whose bodies?

+ + + + + + +

As the people in the saloon headed out and Inez collected whiskey bottles, Chris came back over to Nathan. Squatting down, he winced, looking at Vin’s bloody shoulder. It didn’t look good. He knew his friend was in pain, it was written all over his face. Sliding his gaze to Nathan, he silently asked a question.

“Need ta get him upstairs to a bed,” the healer answered softly. "Inez has things I can use. Got to get that bullet out,” the healer told him, eyes reflecting his concern and anxiousness.

They both looked back down as a low moan was emitted and Vin’s eyes popped open. Looking intently at Larabee, Vin tried desperately to relay his feelings to the man. He knew this was all about the bounty money and he didn’t want his friends hurt or killed because of it. He wouldn’t be able to live with that.

“Chris,” he whispered out, as his right hand came up. “Jest help me up. You . . you can,” he licked his lips and fought to stay conscious, “you can get me later . . . like b’fore.”

Chris took his friend’s arm and held tight, but didn’t give any indication of helping him up. Instead he leaned close to the injured man and told him with conviction in his voice, “We’ll figure a way out of this, Vin. Not giving in just yet.”

Vin felt himself deflate hearing that, and he frowned, showing Chris his displeasure, but he was just too damn weak to do anything about it. If he could only . . .

“Josiah?” Chris called, seeing Vin lose his fight with staying conscious. “Help Nathan take him upstairs." The gunslinger let go of his friend's lax arm as Sanchez came over to help out.

Just as the two men bent to pick up the tracker, more instructions were called out as the last patrons left the saloon.

“Well, that was done nicely and without incident,” the man said, as Inez came out the doors, carrying the bottles of whiskey. He motioned for her to put them down on a chair, then waved her to get down the street. "Next, I want that young sheriff to bring all your weapons out and lay them down. There . . .”

“The hell he will,” Buck bellowed out, knowing just like the rest that they wouldn’t have a chance to save themselves, let alone Vin or even Mary if they gave up their weapons.

“Might I need to remind you of the little lady back here,” the outlaw said as he jabbed with his thumb over his shoulder in back of him. “She’s here to make sure you do just as you are told.”

“We give up our guns, we can kiss our asses goodbye,” Buck whispered out, as he looked around at his friends, eyes coming to a halt when they looked at Tanner.

“You got any ideas, I’d like to hear them,” Chris told him as Buck kicked out and a chair went skidding across the floor.

Josiah and Nathan handed over their guns and knives to JD and then proceeded to gently carry Vin up the stairs.

Chris followed Buck's line of sight as Vin was being taken upstairs. "We're not handing him over," he said, eyes locking with the ladies' man's as Buck turned to look at him, frustration and anger written all over his face.

JD grabbed the shotgun from behind the bar then went around to each man, taking their weapons. With his arms full, he headed out the batwing doors and deposited the precious cargo on another chair next to the bottles of whiskey Inez had brought out.

"Well done, my good man," the cigar smoking outlaw said, chuckling slightly at the deathly glare the young sheriff threw at him before disappearing back into the saloon.

"Seems as though we are about to be graced with a visit," Ezra announced as he watched the man, Horace, who was on the roof, meet his boss in the middle of the street. Orders were given to the man holding Mary captive then the two proceeded to the saloon. Must have been to shoot first and ask questions later, Ezra thought since Mary's captor straightened up and pointed his gun directly at the woman, hammer pulled back.

"Son of a bitch," Buck said under his breath, seeing the same thing the gambler had.

"Looks like we need to be on our best behavior," was the last thing said as Horace and his boss entered the building.

"I'd appreciate that very much," the big man said, eyes squinting in adjustment, acknowledging what the conman had said. "And so would the lady," he added, scanning the faces, making sure these men realized if they made one wrong move, he wouldn't hesitate in having her killed.

Looking from one man to another, the outlaw gave a visible shudder. "Cold in here," he said around the cigar clenched in his teeth, mocking the icy glares he was getting. He'd never admit it, but an involuntary shiver did run down his spine the minute he'd entered the building. Four men stood stock still, watching him with their cold, hate-filled eyes, bodies tense with pent-up fury, even the young one radiating anger. Smart men though, they held their tongues and stayed put. He doubted these men rarely found themselves in such a precarious situation. He'd like to feel smug about it, but the day wasn't over with yet and they didn't have what they'd come for either. Gloating could come later.

"Horace, check them out," he commanded, breaking out of his thoughts, taking out his own pistol and watching as his man looked for any weapons, making sure each peacekeeper pulled back their jacket just to be sure they weren't hiding anything. The sharpshooter moved from the young one, to the fancy dressed man, then to the big one with the mustache who looked like he was ready to spit nails, and finally to the man dressed in black. Larabee. If looks could kill, the outlaw leader knew he'd be six feet under and decayed already.

"Three men ain't here, Mr. Store," Horace told him after finishing his job. "The darkie, the big fella and Tanner."

"Store? That your name? Like in 'store owner' or store keep'?

The outlaw turned to the mustachioed man. "Maybe you heard of me, eh?" he grinned as he rolled the cigar around in his fingers.

"Just makin' sure." Larabee's soft voice spoke, as Store turned his way and looked at him. "Get it right on your tombstone that way."

"You know, I don't think I like the way you talk . . ." Horace started to say as he stepped toward the man in black, pulling the hammer back on his gun.

"Leave it, Horace," Store interrupted, waving the little man off. "Mr. Larabee is just talking big . . . in a losing situation," he said, eyes still locked with the gunslinger's. He finally looked away when the man in black narrowed his eyes and gave him a cocky grin. Better not turn our backs on this one, he thought.

Chris watched as Store looked away from him, stuck the cigar back in his mouth and rolled it around as he studied the floorboards in the area where Vin had fallen moving his line of sight along where the injured man had been pulled behind the upturned table. There were visible dark stains in both places.

Turning to glance up at the second floor, the leader said, "Guessin' he was probably taken upstairs. By the amount of blood here, I'd say Mr. Tanner isn't in such good shape," he announced, eyes flicking to Larabee with a smug look. "Reckon I'll go on up and have a look see myself," he added.

"Nah uh," he chided, leveling his gun at Larabee's chest, as the man made a move towards him. "Best you just stay right where you are," he motioned with his cigar-holding fingers to the outside, his intent clear. He gave a small nod when seeing the gunslinger back down.

"They try anything . . . . kill 'em," Store told Horace as he flicked the cigar stub over the back of the bar and headed up the stairs.

Halfway up, Store met with a man coming down. A big man whose glare rivaled Larabee's in it's intensity and looking as though he'd love nothing more than to crush him with those huge hands. Although Store imagined they were about the same size, nothing gave a man more of an advantage than pure, raw hatred, like what was being directed at him. Pausing as they passed each other on the steps, Store noticed the dried blood on the man and figured he'd been helping with Tanner. Maybe the deathly stare meant the wanted man was dead. He hoped so. These peacekeepers were beginning to get on his nerves . . . making him sweat and he really hated that. Continuing on his way, he hollered down at Horace to be sure to check this new man for weapons. He was sure glad they'd thought of the plan they had. Taking the newspaper woman was sheer genius on their part because he knew these were men that looked death straight in the eye and met it head on. The little voice in the back of his head was telling him that even though he had the upper hand, it didn't necessarily win him the battle . . . yet. He'd have to be mighty careful; needed to put his mind over the matter at hand.

+ + + + + + +

A few thoughts crossed Josiah's mind as Store passed him on the stairs, none of them Christianly. Like how fast could he break the man's neck was one of them, but no one was close enough to the little sharpshooter downstairs to prevent him from getting a shot off, alerting the other outlaws of trouble and with Mrs. Travis being held hostage, he knew he couldn't jeopardize her life. Walking slowly down the stairs, his eyes never left Horace's face. Vin was a good friend, one he had a lot of respect for and held close to his heart. This little weasel of a man had tried to kill that friend, might still succeed in doing so, Vin not out of the woods yet, so Josiah was doing his best to put the fear of God in the man just by looking at him and using his superior physical appearance to let him know that if the tables were turned, he wouldn't have a snowball's chance in hell of coming out of this alive.

"You know if you didn't have a gun on that woman out there, I'd carve you up and serve you on a platter," Buck hissed at Horace as the little man motioned for Josiah to get away from the staircase and to lift up his coat and turn around.

"Yeah, but we do have the woman, and you can't do anything about it," Horace answered, satisfied that the big man was defenseless, being sure to keep his distance from all of them. He took a quick glance up the stairs and swallowed hard. He really wished his boss would come back down. He'd never been nervous on other jobs before, but these men were making him sweat.

"You're not gettin' him."

Horace cut his eyes to the gunslinger in black who'd uttered those words so softly and with deadly assurance. Hell, even without a gun the man looked to be a menace. He'd seen Larabee watching him earlier when he was in the saloon having breakfast. He hadn't worn a gun and with his small frame and glasses, he appeared non-threatening and he knew the gunslinger had dismissed him after studying him for awhile. The ruse worked every time and they had used it in a lot of towns. This one was just more of a challenge because of the occupancy of seven gunslingers, but with the added bonus of five hundred dollars for a wanted man, Store just couldn't pass it up. And he'd come up with a foolproof plan too. Yes sir, they were going to make a killing in this town . . . maybe two. He grinned at his own play on words and thought about the money they’d make here. He felt his bravado return and spoke flippantly to the men in front of him, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Wait ’till you find out what Mr. Store has in store for you,” he chuckled. “I love that line. What Mr. Store has in store for you,” he repeated. “Guess none of you got a sense of humor,” he added, the faces in front of him still threatening.

“Yes, well, rest assured. We’ll be laughing when we’re dancing on your graves,” Ezra deadpanned, no hint of amusement on his face.

Horace swallowed once again, beads of sweat appearing on his upper lip. He could sure use a drink. He'd have to wait though, until his boss was finished upstairs. The sounds of doors opening and closing told him Store was checking out each room to be sure no one was hiding in them. How many damn rooms were there anyway? He wanted to be done and out of here . . . now!

+ + + + + + +

Hearing the door open, Nathan slipped the knife he had under Vin's pillow and took hold of the scissors that Inez had in her sewing kit. He began to wash them in the little basin that held water in it, giving the impression they were what he was going to use to get the bullet out of his friend. He didn't want to give the outlaw leader any notion that he had a knife.

"Well,” said Store as he came over to the bed where Tanner lay, eyes taking in everything. A small smile touched his lips when he saw a ladies’ sewing kit laying open on the night stand and the scissors Nathan was drying off.

"I would imagine taking a bullet out with those would test a man's skill, now wouldn't it?" he said, an amused glint in his eyes. "Something I wouldn‘t mind watching,” he added, pulling back the bloody cloth on the injured man‘s shoulder and making a clucking noise with his tongue at what he saw. “Don't try anything stupid," he warned, looking up and seeing the defiant look in the brown eyes. All cut from the same cloth, he thought, knowing that if Tanner's eyes were open, he'd probably see the same hateful look in them too.

"So what's the prognosis, doc? Think he’ll make it?"

"What the hell you care for?" Nathan hissed at him.

"Oh, I care. Makes a hell of a difference whether a man is sittin' up in a saddle or bein' toted across it. Long way to Texas, you know. Towns. People askin’ questions. The smell. A frown and half shake of the head accompanied the last statement.

Seeing the outlaw’s eyes drift toward the scissors he’d laid down, Nathan took a clean rag and began to wash around Vin’s wound. “Odds be better the sooner I git this bullet out,” he mumbled, hoping the man would lose interest and leave him to do his job. The healer was silently praying that the man wasn’t serious when saying he’d like to stay and watch. Vin’s chances would be cut down immensely if he did have to dig out the bullet with a pair of scissors.

A clock’s tick tock was the only sound heard in the pregnant silence that followed.

Finally, Nathan heard the outlaw shift his stance and a sigh was huffed out.

"Just be sure to sew him up nice and tight, Doc . . . if he survives. Don't look like he can stand ta lose any more blood. Think I'll hold you personally accountable for keepin' him alive,” the outlaw said with a nod of his head. “One hour, Doc. Then we come and get him. If he's dead . . . well, then your friends'll be down two men,” the warning came with the click of the gun’s hammer being pulled back. “Comprende?”

Nathan looked up at the man, nodded his head, and watched as the outlaw leader took one final scrutinizing look at Vin, then turned and left, closing the door behind him. Silently he let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding in. Turning back to his patient, his eyes locked with the pained blue ones of his friend.

“Just take it easy, Vin,” he said as he pulled the hidden knife from under the pillow, then grabbed the bottle of Whiskey he’d kept concealed down by his foot. “Gonna get that bullet out, now,” he added as Tanner’s eyes drifted shut again.

“Lord, help me,” he whispered into the air.

+ + + + + + +

Coming down the stairs at a jaunt, Store grinned big when he looked at the solemn peacekeepers before him, as if he alone was privy to something funny. The scissors and small sewing kit was a joke to him, using them to save a man's life, but that wasn’t anything he was going to share with these men. He had more important things on his mind.

“Doc’s about ready to take the bullet out,” Stone informed the men, then looked at the big man he’d met coming down the stairs and nodded to him. “Could use your help,” he added, watching the man move at once and head up the steps.

“You might not believe this, but I’d just as soon have Tanner sittin’ in his saddle rather than draped over it," the outlaw said, sliding his gun back in it's holster.

“You would?” came the question and a surprised look from Horace.

“Course I would,” Stone answered after lighting another cigar and taking a couple of deep drags until the end lit up. “Couple weeks of hot Texas sun,” he made a face, “better for us if he lives.”

Horace gave a grimace and nodded his agreement. “Yeah, maybe it’s a good thing Tanner moved then, eh? he said, giving his boss a grin and a raised eyebrow.

“Perhaps allowing one of us to retrieve Mr. Jackson’s medical supplies would help in that endeavor.”

After a moment of silence when Ezra knew the man wasn’t going to agree, he tried again. “A knife and a bottle of Whiskey, then.”

“My man took all the knives from the back when you all were so attentive to what was happening out front. Sorry,” he said, no trace of sympathy in his voice. “He’ll just have to make due with what he has,” and he grinned again.

“And if he doesn’t . . . make it?”

Stone looked at the young man who’d asked the question, flicked some ash from his cigar and told him, “We’ll take him as far as we can stand it. Don’t need a whole body for identification purposes.” He gave a feral grin, seeing the hazel eyes flick over his shoulder and widen. The face had paled and a choked noise came from the anguished features. Without looking, Stone knew Horace had done a slicing motion across his neck with his finger, giving the youth an answer to his question.

The outlaw leader drew his gun and clicked the hammer back when the man with the mustache moved near the young Sheriff and softly said something to him. Blue eyes that burned with fury looked at him then, a defiant look on his face.

"Well, gentlemen," Stone began, reholstering his weapon after deciding no threat was intended. He took out a pocket watch, snapped it open and studied it for a moment. "I told your Doc upstairs we'd be back in an hour to get Tanner. Until then," he said, looking up, "I reckon we'll just go on over to the bank and busy ourselves with making a withdrawal. Then we'll visit one of your fine eating establishments and well...that should be enough work for one day I suppose," he finished by snapping the lid shut on the watch and depositing it back in his pocket.

"Let's go Horace," he commanded as the pistol came back out again, just in case.

Deliberately walking by Larabee, he could almost feel the angry tension given off by the man. The gunslinger's brim of his flat, black hat hid his features, but Store could imagine what they'd look like. Pausing for just a second before going out the door he whispered, "Keep 'em in line, if you know what's good for you."

Before taking another step, he heard his answer in a low deadly growl. "You're a dead man."

+ + + + + + +

Larabee was headed up the stairs, two at a time, before Store was all the way through the bat wing doors.

"What are we going to do?" JD asked, voice shaking with emotion. "We can't let him have Vin . . . " he couldn't continue, couldn't speak the horrible act that could befall one of his heroes.

"We'll think of something, JD," Ezra spoke after clearing his throat and shaking himself out of a shocked emotion. What Stone had implied for Vin was almost too much for his mind to wrap around, and he was a learned man, a man who had witnessed many atrocities in his line of work. Money and greed could bring out the evil in men, but right now, faced with what seemed like an impossible impasse, he figured his emotions were running as rampant as JD's. He just schooled himself into not letting them show. A mind over matter type of thing.

"Well, we're gonna have to think fast and hard," Buck said, breaking into the men's thoughts. "Our hands are pretty much tied with them having Mary," he added, looking out the doors and seeing Mary still sitting in the chair, her captor with his gun ready, right next to her.

"We can't just hand Vin over to them," JD almost yelled. "You heard what they said they'd do to him," his hand involuntarily going to his neck and he swallowed hard.

Putting his hands on the young man's shoulder's Buck tried to calm him. "I know, JD, I know. We'll think of something." I pray that we do. "We always do."

All three men looked up as Josiah and Chris came down the stairs.

"So?" Buck asked.

"Nathan got the bullet out and the bleeding stopped. If he can just rest, he'll be okay."

"For now."

Five solemn men agreed with what the gambler uttered and knew their time to come up with something was ticking away.

Acting on that thought, Josiah grabbed a bottle and some glasses as the others lead the way to a table near the front, off to the side of the door, to watch out the window, keeping Mary in their sights.

Store had left another man by the entrance to keep tabs on them. Almost wanted to make a man laugh. The outlaws had the upperhand right now, but still put a guard on them. Perhaps Store and his men had heard of their reputation; the one they had of never giving up, never going out without a fight. They were going to need everything they had to get out of this one. Nothing stood in their favor, except for the fact that Vin was going to live . . . at least, for now.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah poured a glass for each man and held his up. “Though our woes be many and our struggles be mighty...give us strength oh Lord, to cut down our adversaries.”

“Amen” and “I’ll drink to that,” was heard as four glasses were tipped. The fifth stood untouched. Larabee slouched in his chair, right hand fingers drumming on the table, anger tempered only by the fact that a plan was needed and needed fast.

“Anybody got any ideas?” JD asked as he looked around the table at his friends.

“I don’t see as we have much of a choice,” Buck answered with a look to Chris.

“We need weapons is what we need,” JD said, his hands held out over the table as if to drive home his point. “You still got yours, right Ezra?” That little weapon was always so well hidden, even Horace hadn’t seen it when he’d checked the gambler over.

“A pop gun with one shot ain’t gonna give us much help, kid.” Buck said, with a shake of his head.

“One shot for that high and mighty Store.”

“And then what about the guy who’s got Mary?” Buck asked calmly, watching his young friend deflate from that question, everyone knowing Mary would be dead if they even attempted something like that.

“Nathan’s got a knife,” Josiah said wistfully, rotating the shot glass in his hand.

“So we have a gun and a knife. There must be more things around here we can use for weapons,” JD said, hope arising once again, turning to look around the room then noticing their ‘guard’ look over the doors at them.

“Can’t do much with that guy lookin’ in here on us,” he groused, turning back to the table.

“There’s not much we can do, period, JD,” Buck said softly and the table went silent, each man’s mind searching for an idea or realizing with solemn knowledge that the ladies’ man was possibly right.

“Wait!” JD said as he snapped his fingers. “Waletta has a rifle in her room,” he nearly yelled, as four heads snapped to attention, all looking in his direction.

“Shhh . . . keep your voice down,” Buck whispered, taking a quick look to see if the man at the entrance had heard JD’s outburst.

“And how would you have acquired this piece of information, might I ask?”

JD huffed a perturbed look at the gambler and held his hands up at the looks he was getting, especially from Buck. “What?” he questioned. He wasn’t sure he liked the wide-eyed stares pointed at him, not knowing if it was the information about the gun that stunned them or the fact that he knew it was in the lady’s room. Normally there was only one reason to go into those rooms and . . .

“JD?” The voice called softly from his left, breaking him from his thoughts. “You know it for a fact?”

“It was Casey,” he stammered, looking at Larabee. “I mean . . . Casey told me Waletta had a rifle in her room. They’re friends and one of Waletta’s . . . ah . . . visitor’s keeps it there, just in case, I guess.” He shrugged. “Maybe it doesn’t even have any bullets in it, I don’t know.”

“All we need is one,” Chris said, the calmness in his voice no where near the emotion he was feeling.

“You got a plan?”

“Maybe,” the man in black answered his oldest friend.

“Somebody should take a look. See if the rifle is there.”

“I’ll go,” Buck said, nodding his head at Sanchez. “I know where her room is,” he answered with a small grin.

“Thought maybe you would,” Josiah answered, pouring himself another drink.

“Check on Vin and see if Nathan can get away. He needs to know what’s going on.”

Buck nodded to Chris that he would as he got up from the table. His eyes narrowed as he looked to the door, noticing the man outside watching him. Wilmington held out his hands to show he wasn’t up to anything and headed up the stairs.

+ + + + + + +

A few minutes ticked by, a door opened then shut, then the same noise repeated itself only this time it was followed by footsteps coming down the stairs. Buck sank into the chair he’d been in, and Josiah pulled up one for Nathan.

The ladies’ man tried to appear as nonchalant as he could, seeing they were being watched again, as he nodded his head and murmured, “It’s there. Two bullets. I put it in Vin‘s room.”

After nodding he understood, Chris turned to Nathan, “How’s Vin?”

“Holding his own,” Nathan reported. “But in thirty minutes they’re gonna come and take him and I don’t know,” he shook his head, “I just don’t know.”

“Maybe that’s what we should do,” Buck said as he looked at the men. “Let them take him, we can always come after . . .”

“Minute he steps foot out that door, they’ll kill him,” Chris hissed out.

“We don’t know that!” Buck growled back at him. “It might be our only chance.”

“I seriously doubt they are going to just let him walk out of here, let alone allow us to live. They might be moronic brigands, but they’ll know we’ll be on their trail.”

“Might take Mary as hostage,” Josiah put in, not liking where his thoughts were taking him.

JD’s shoulders sagged at that thought.

“Buck said you might have a plan, Chris,” Nathan mentioned, looking at the brooding features of the gunslinger.

When Chris turned his eyes upon his men, they could see a glint of something they hadn’t seen in the last few hours. Hope.

+ + + + + + +

The door opened and closed quietly but the jangle of the spurs gave away the identity of the man who’d entered. Vin opened his eyes and studied the face of his friend as Larabee sat in a chair next to the bed. He watched as the black hat was removed and a hand ran through the blond hair, a sigh was expelled and finally the eyes met his own.

“How ya feelin’?”

“Been better.”

Chris grimaced at the honesty.

“Got a plan.”

“So do I,” Vin replied, determination in his voice.

“Hear me out, Vin,” Chris said softly, knowing once Tanner got something in his mind, it was tough to change it.

“Chris, I know they got Mary. This is her life we’re talkin’ about . . .”

“And yours.”

Like there was any comparison, Vin thought, but didn’t voice it. He knew Larabee guessed at what he had just thought by the look on his face. Damn! They’d been down this path before. He really hated putting his friends in such dangerous situations on account of the bounty. But for some damn reason, Chris seemed to thrive on such situations. The gunslinger loved a challenge . . . he guessed maybe they all did, but this time was different; this time, Mary’s life was involved.

Heaving a sigh, he gave way, allowing Chris to tell him his idea.

“Think you can do it?” came the question after the plan was laid out. Larabee got his answer by looking into his friend’s intense blue eyes. That was all he needed to know. If Vin thought he could do it, it’d be done.

“See ya in a bit. It’s almost showtime,” Chris said, flashing a grin, that could be construed only as ’cocky’, as he got up and slipped his hat back on.

Vin shook his head as a smile of his own found it’s way to his lips. Hell, they were probably all going to die, but it wouldn’t be without a fight.

Before turning to leave, Chris put out his arm and Vin gingerly grabbed hold. The grips tightened for just a moment and eyes locked.

“Let’s do this,” were the words uttered by Larabee before he let go and left.

+ + + + + + +

Shutting the door after him, Chris met Buck and Ezra in the hallway, gathering what they needed.

“The ruse is nearly completed. Just the finishing touches left,” Ezra said, grinning wide enough to flash his gold tooth. “Now if you’ll excuse me,” he added as he moved past Larabee to enter the room Vin was in.

“You sure about this, Chris?” Buck asked before the two headed down the stairs. When met with a near-glare, he added, “I just want ta make sure you let him make the decision to do this, I mean, there is a lot ridin’ on him . . . this . . .”

“And you think I don’t know that?” Larabee asked, his eyes narrowing as he turned his body toward Wilmington’s, the move a definite threatening one.

“What I think, Chris,” Buck answered him, lowering his voice, his hands out in explanation, “is that Vin would do just about anything you asked him to no . . .”

“Then you don’t know him very well,” Chris nearly hissed at him with a look that meant the conversation was over.

Buck pulled himself to his full height at the tone Larabee had used with him, and the insinuation. He met his friend’s no-nonsense stare with one of his own, letting Chris know he still wasn‘t thrilled with the plan, but before he could say anymore, the man in black turned from him and headed down the stairs.

Taking a deep breath and letting his eyes close and open slowly, Buck got control of his emotions. Mind over matter, he told himself. There was risk just waking up each day . . . he knew that as much as anyone. It just worried him that a lady’s life was directly involved in what he considered “their” risk. Tanner’s risk. He’d do whatever it took to get her out of this alive. Shaking off the melancholy thoughts, he headed downstairs.

+ + + + + + +

“Times up, gentlemen,” Store called out around his cigar as he closed the top on his watch and pocketed it.

Motioning with his hand, two men started into the saloon, intending to get Tanner. Chris met them outside the door, their progress halted by a menacing look.

“My men are bringing him out,” he said firmly, almost as a challenge to Store, letting the man know they weren’t going to run roughshod over him.

Waving his men away, the outlaw gave him a nod and grinned at him. “Glad to hear you’ve accepted the consequences,” then turning to his man that had Mary he jerked his head, telling him to bring the woman to him.

Taking Mary’s arm, he said something to her captor and pointed down the street, the man then hustled to join two other outlaws who were tying down money bags on their horses.

Chris made a quick count. Six. At least that’s what he could see. No Horace though and Store didn't have his gun out on Mary. That worried him. His eyes scanned the rooftops as Store began to speak.

“I figured the little lady should ride along with us for a time, just to insure that you and your men don’t come after us, you understand. It was either that or," and he heaved out a sigh, "kill a bunch of unarmed men and well, I’m just not that cold-hearted,” he said with an evil grin, belying that fact.

Chris wanted in the worst way to go out into the street, grab Mary away from him, and protect her, but he restrained himself, having to let their plan play itself out. He just wished to hell he knew where Horace was.

When a shuffling noise came from behind him, Chris moved to the side as Buck, Josiah and JD came out of the saloon, holding the ends of a blanket that sagged under the weight of a body wrapped up in it.

Hearing Mary take in a ragged breath, Chris looked out at her as she put a hand to her throat, her features twisted in unbelief and sorrow.

“Well, I’m right sorry,” Store said factiously, as he motioned for one of his men to go and check the body that the three men had gently laid down on the boardwalk to left of the saloon doors.

“Appears you are missing two of your men,” the outlaw leader pointed out when he didn’t see anyone else coming out the entrance. “Hank. Take a look.”

Hank peered over top the saloon doors and narrowed his eyes, watching the dark-skinned man help another man in a red coat slowly come down the stairs.

“They’s comin’ boss. The darkie’s helpin’ another down the stairs. Hell, it’s gonna take ‘em the rest of the day ta get out here,” he said in a disgusted voice.

“Didn’t realize you had another injured man, Larabee,” Store said, coming closer to the saloon, pulling Mary with him.

Chris stepped out into the street, his intent to keep Store where he was. “He was hurt worse than we thought, is all,” Larabee told him. “You’ll never get away with this,” he threatened, reaching out to take hold of Mary.

Store stopped and stepped back, pulling the frightened woman with him. He studied the gunslinger for a moment and puffed on his cigar. “We need ta get this show on the road,” he said more to himself than anyone. A heavy feeling hit the pit of his stomach. Something’s not right. Go in and give ‘em a hand,” he told Hank, pointing with his chin to the inside of the building, pulling his gun from it’s holster at the same time, holding it near his captive.

Chris’ heart was racing. He didn’t want to be where he was, but he’d had no choice. His eyes were watching Store intently, not giving anything away, but noting the grip he had on Mary. He was on the balls of his feet, ready to move quick when he got the signal. He put Horace out of his mind, concentrating on the one thing he needed to.

The man nearest the blanket had finally gotten the three peacekeepers to back up so he could check on the body. As soon as he pulled open the cover of the blanket, his eyes opened wide in shock, just before he fell over dead, the bullet of a derringer sinking into his forehead.

Chris bulldozed into Mary, ripping her from a surprised Store, and hit the dirt, falling on top of the woman, protecting her from the shots he now heard. He jerked violently as something heavy hit the ground next to him. Lifting and turning his head, he looked into the wide eyes of Store . . . who was stone cold dead, courtesy of Tanner’s shot from the second floor window. Feeling for the outlaw’s gun he grabbed it, all the while reassuring Mary that everything was going to be fine. He just didn’t want to get up before knowing where the wire-rimmed little sharpshooter was.

Meanwhile on the boardwalk, after untangling his way out of the blanket, Ezra got up and crouched down behind some barrels. Buck had grabbed the dead man’s gun and was firing at the three outlaws down the street who were trying to mount up on the frightened horses and get out of town with the bank’s money.

JD had scurried back into the saloon and caught the gun Nathan threw to him after the healer had stabbed the outlaw who’d come to help him and “Ezra”, a bedsheet-stuffed dummy, dressed in pants, the gambler’s red jacket and his hat. The young man had promptly headed back outside and into the fray.

Upstairs, Vin allowed himself a deep breath but didn’t move away from the gunsight or take his finger from the trigger. He knew there was a sharpshooter out there somewhere and Chris and Mary were lying unprotected in the middle of the street yet. The pain in his left shoulder was almost unbearable and he blinked his eyes quickly to keep them in focus and repeated over and over to himself that he was fine, that he just had to hold on for a few more minutes. He’d been telling himself “a few more minutes” for quite a long time now and his body was beginning to work against him. The strain of holding the rifle was taking a toll, and he could feel the quivering in his muscles begin as they started to protest. Mind over matter, he thought to himself.

He felt more than heard someone come up behind him, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up.

“Well, well,” a soft voice behind him said and Vin instinctively knew the man was the missing sharpshooter.

“Vin Tanner. Sharpshooter extraordinaire. Too bad we have to meet under such . . . hostile conditions. I am glad you are alive though. Seems I just may need your help in getting out of this town,” he said, calmly, noting that the shooting in the street had come to a halt.

“Now put the gun down, get up slowly and turn around.”

Vin let the weapon slip from his grip. He didn’t have much strength to hold on to it anymore, anyway, and pushed himself from his kneeling position to stand, using the window sill for help. Holding one arm out in surrender, he turned slowly to meet his captor.

Horace cleared his throat and paled slightly at the deadly glare he was getting from man who looked like death warmed over.

“Let’s go, and move nice and slow.”

Vin snorted and raised an eyebrow. Like he could do anything but “slow” right now, anyway.

“I said, let’s . . .” and that’s all he got out before crumpling to the floor, unconscious. Nathan had come up from behind and hit him over the head with the butt end of the knife.

“Not real intuitive, is he?” the healer asked, looking down at the man and taking his weapon from him.

Vin went to turn back around to look out the window, but a wave of pain hit him. He winced and went down on one knee. Nathan was at his side in a moment.

“We need ta get you back into bed.”

“Check on Mary ‘n Chris,” Vin whispered out, eyes shut tight against the pain.

“Alright,” Nathan agreed, keeping one hand on Vin’s arm to keep him steady He glanced quickly out the open window, saw Mary and Chris standing in the middle of the street, apparently unhurt, the others coming out to join them. Sticking his arm out the window he waved when seeing Chris’ eyes look up in their direction.

“Everybody’s okay, Vin. Chris and Mary are fine.” Nathan breathed a sigh of relief seeing the men gather in the street. Alive to fight another day, he thought and shook his head. They’d beaten the odds again. He mouthed a silent “Thank you” before turning back to the tracker. “Now let’s get you up,” he said as he helped his friend stand and they headed back to Inez’s room, meeting JD along the way. The young man was left to deal with Horace.

+ + + + + + +

Two nights later the men were gathered in the saloon enjoying an evening meal and each other’s company, realizing just how close to disaster they'd come this time.

Vin was still distressed over the fact that Mary’s life had been threatened because of his bounty, but she was quick to point out that the outlaws came to town to rob the bank initially, not to take him, so what happened could have happened anyway. She knew her risks living in a frontier town, a single woman with her own business, but she was undaunted and Vin respected her for that. He was thinking about leaving, but after talking to her, she had him believing that if he did leave, her life would be in more danger . . . as well as the other men’s. They needed him and she, in turn, needed him to help them keep the town safe from men like Store. He’d just given her that half smile and a shake of his head when she finished, knowing no matter how it was put, he was needed. He wasn’t up to arguing with anyone anyway and for sure didn’t want to disappoint Chris, and he knew leaving would do that. Larabee would never voice it, but Vin knew it.

“A toast, brothers,” Josiah’s voice boomed out. “To life. To living. To fighting. And to living to fight and fighting to live. Here, here,” he finished while raising his glass to the middle.

Eyes blinked in bewilderment and brows furrowed, thinking, as glasses were clinked together. JD took a sidelong glance at Buck, eyes questioning, and then took a drink when seeing a slight shrug come from his friend.

“Reckon I'll head ta my room,” Vin told them. Sitting outside most of the day and being up and about had taken a toll on him. He tired easily these days, but his strength was returning.

Amid the “goodnights” and “see ya in the mornings", he got up, Chris following suit. Larabee had remained with him quite a bit lately, not that he minded, his friend was good company, but it did amaze him to some extent. That he’d been 'picked off' so easily and nearly killed had sombered them all. It would pass, he knew, as soon as the next situation presented itself, but it was a testimony to how close they’d all become, how much they relied on each other for strength and commitment. It was a good thing, he had concluded, in all the time he’d had to ponder on it.

Now, if he could just talk Chris into letting him go out the front entrance again. That too, would come, in time.

“Well, gentlemen, it appears as though it’s about that time of the evening to begin my nocturnal undertaking. Anyone care to join me on the platform?” he asked, looking around the table at his comrades.

“I don’t know, Ezra. That’s where this whole mess started. Don’t know as I want to go up there yet,” JD told him honestly.

"Superstitious, are we, Mr. Dunne?" Ezra lifted an eyebrow in question, seeing the serious look on the young man's face.

“Superstition is merely putting mind over matter," Josiah said absently.

“What about you and your crows then?” Nathan asked, a smile gracing his face seeing an even bigger one break out on his friend’s, at the question.

“Never fear, my lad,” Ezra quickly put in not giving the ex-preacher time to launch into one of his stories. “I knew things would turn out in our favor.”

“Yeah right,” JD sputtered out, in a disbelieving snort. “And how would you have known that?” he asked, noticing Buck sit back, arms crossed over his chest, eyes narrowing in on the gambler, waiting for Ezra’s explanation.

Seeing he had everyone’s attention, the conman took a coin from his pocket. “This coin, gentlemen . . . the very one I flipped to Vin the other morning,” he clarified, “was heads up on the floor when I later picked it up. It’s a fact, among the gambling community anyway, that a heads-up coin assures one of certain victory.

“Now that’s superstition,” JD announced, pointing his finger at Ezra, while nodding the others.

“No, that’s confidence, son. Pure and simple,” the southerner stated as he flipped the coin into the air, caught it and slapped it down on the table. Giving a gold tooth grin, he pushed back his chair, stood up and began to walk away.

JD reached over, picked the coin and noticed that it had landed heads up. He turned it over, and then repeated the action. “Hey,” he called to Standish. “This is a double-sided eagle.”

“Precisely,” came the answer with wink.

“We win either way,” Nathan said softly, nodding his head thoughtfully.

“That sure explains a lot of things,” Buck said, a frown crossing his face, realizing now why he’d lost so many bets doing the coin toss thing with Ezra.

“Sure does,” Josiah agreed, smiling. Mind over matter. It didn't matter what you called it or believed in; fate, luck, confidence, divine intervention, the flip of a coin, . . . whatever. It worked because they believed in themselves . . . and each other, to overcome.