Prisoner Transport

by HeatherF

Disclaimers: Not mine, no money made

Warnings: Bad language, violence etc. Written during a tremendously long bitter winter.

Dec. 04 Challenge by Beth B. would love to see the guys (all seven) or as close to it as you can come, in a desperate situation--I mean desperate! Either all seven are hurt, or it can be anything from blood blisters trapped under fingernails to exhausting every nurse and doctor at the local hospital (they don't have to have the same injury, LOL). Any time of year, any AU (as long as it's open)...but bonus points for using The green-river-killer and stocking stuffer in the same sentence!

Thanks: Mitzi, once again, she read through this monstrosity of pages and turned it into something recognizable. MegT because she’s smarter than me and fixes things I don’t even recognize.

Plot: It started with one: The seven escort some bad guys to the Judge.

Any similarities to other stories are purely coincidental.

Size: Approx. 250K

Part 1 - 2 | Part 3 - 5 | Part 6 - 9 | Part 10 - 11

Part 1

The weak mid winter sun hung lazily in the late afternoon sky. The pale blue seemed washed out against grey clouds. Looming trees cast shadows over crystalline snow dulling the sharp sparkle that forced eyes to narrow in a protective squint. A slight breeze sliced across the land, drying the snow of any moisture and brittling anything left exposed. Uncovered skin reddened; cheeks and lips became chapped and noses ran; toes curled in boots, as gloved hands knotted around stiffened leather reins and were kept close to the heat of their horses’ necks.

The seven peacekeepers rode single file. The horses picked their way along the rocky ledge as it snaked and curled cutting across the edge of the small cliff face. They rode warily along the trail, swaying quietly in motion with the horses’ steps. The sound of creaking leather and the slow fall of shod hooves filled the area. The foolery that had marked the trail from Colorado had fallen silent when the seven edged out onto the rim trail.

JD peered over the edge of the trail, craning his neck without disturbing his center of balance. “Hey, Buck you think the snow is deep enough to jump into from here.” The young sheriff stared at the open field of snow that lay a tantalizing twenty or so feet below him.

Vin chuckled having heard the question and turned cautiously in his saddle. His ornery Indian pony was more sure footed than any seasoned mule. “JD, ya’d jist git yerself soaked through,” Tanner answered. He could feel the dry skin of his cheeks fold under his smile, “Under all that snow and ice is Fischer’s lake.”

“Ice ‘s got to be pretty thick this time of year,” Buck pointed out quietly to himself, his voice barely stretching beyond the sounds of moving leather and horses.

JD nodded and stared out over the two acre expanse of open barren area. The wind had lifted and cut ripples across the snow, hiding the ice that lay below it. Small plumes of dried snow propelled by the wind, streaked and curled across the treeless expanse below. It reminded JD of ocean spray. It brought back a flavoring of his old home.

“Maybe we could come back here in the summer,” JD remarked. “Ya think it's deep enough to jump from here?”

“Should be,” Vin answered, “be damn cold though--- it’s fed by an underground stream, water don’t see the light a day ‘til it comes up here.” Tanner faced forward again. Ending the conversation and thinking on how much he would like to return to this little out of the way oasis. It had been a while since he had hit this rim trail. The precariousness of the trail, its exposure and lack of quick escape kept the bounty hunter turned bounty from returning. However, with his six friends and reluctant ‘guests’ it was a necessary evil. It cut time off their journey; a good solid day would be saved.

The main trail meandered up and over the ridge miles out of the way, prolonging their journey and putting them at risk for ambush.

The seven wanted to get back, back to Four Corners. This was the fastest route.

Josiah’s left arm was tiring. He readjusted his grip on the pony line trying to alleviate the cramping feel in his palm and dull ache in his shoulder. He gazed over his shoulder to the string of three grade geldings strung together single file and their cuffed prisoners.

The preacher turned forward satisfied that their three prisoners rode quietly if not slightly uncomfortably with their hands shackled behind their backs. This would not be the place to cause trouble. Especially knowing that it was a frozen lake below them and not an open field.

The three prisoners had family. The Corrigans were a vengeful ruthless clan which protected their own as fiercely as any of nature’s mothers. Ten in total, a father, a cluster of uncles and the three boys, full grown, and a vicious half grown man more vile and treacherous than the whole clan. It was this youngest one, Michael, who already stood behind bars under the strict thumb of Territorial Judge Orrin Travis, awaiting hanging beside he three older cousins.

Josiah didn’t bother scrutinizing the three bearded replicas. The brothers were sitting quiet, almost docile, letting the geldings pick the footing on the narrow trail. The ‘boys’ were mountainous behemoths, with hands as strong as clubs and minds as deceitful as Lucifer incarnate. They were nearly identical in not only appearance but in depraved cruelty. They killed because they could; they took because they wanted too; they burned because it soothed their flaming souls. The three had been dragged down by a righteous crowd of vigilantes that desired to only re-enact the blatant wanton and vile destruction these three had wrought upon their families. The law had turned aside, the local sheriff and deputies had stood with the angered righteous allowing a crowd’s mentality to preach about the spirit of the law while they desecrated it’s letters.

Judge Travis had stood above it. He had remained above the mindless, headless monster of a degenerate crowd and called upon the thinking, moving mechanism found only in Four Corners. Within days the seven had ridden into a tiny town of malcontent and hatred and stole away their very nexus of hatred. The seven slipped away under the cover of night with a blinding snow storm on their heels to cover their tracks. They had ridden hard that first night, stealing away the three gruesome brothers who promised them all a painful death at the hands of their kin.

The seven braved the storm, sheltered in an old line shack. When the brothers’ foul words and brutal threats grew tiresome, Chris hauled them outside one by one to sit through the biting chill of the winter storm, with no protection other than the clothes on their backs. The bitter wind and pelting snow beat the anger and words from the three brothers. In just a short few minutes, Larabee, more deadly than any three men combined, hauled the whitened and shivering captives back into the line shack.

The seven and the three brothers waited out the majority of the storm in relative silence. With the breaking of the sun over the tree tops they mounted up and headed out.

Hours later found them on the rim trail, cut in the middle of a cliff yards below the cliff’s forested top and yards above its beautiful icy feet.

Mother nature had a way of masking her harsh serenity.

Josiah settled in his saddle. A toothy grin split his face as he watched the gambler hunch down further into his rough coat, turtling his neck back and dropping his chin down as a blast of wind whistled at them from head on.

Josiah grinned, the rim trail might have just saved Standish’s life. With the narrowing of the trail and dropping ledge, Ezra had found it better to focus his attention on his horse’s foot placement than pointing out to Larabee the pitfalls and down side to peacekeeping as a profession.

Buck and JD had only added to the discussion by pointing out the pros and cons of such a job and the benefits that accompanied such employment.

The three men had badgered back and forth, on and on, as they traveled hour after hour. Occasionally the discussion was broken up with raucous bordello stories. However, they would eventually steer back to how they, as a group, could persuade the Judge to increase their wages. Josiah didn’t miss the flash of an amused smirk on Larabee’s face with each angle the gambler worked in order to improve their financial standings as a group. His tongue and mind were as sharp and quick as any blade Nathan ever threw.

Nathan on occasion would add his opinion, surprising most but none more than Standish when the healer sided with the lecherous gambler. The benevolent ex-slave quietly pointed out one could not eat gratitude and a dollar a day did not help replenish the supplies that were used in the line of duty.

Ezra, of course, jumped on any opportunity to have an ally at his side and ran with any point of view, good or bad, that might strengthen his position for an increase in allotted pay. For everyone, of course.

It was with great patience and some humor that Larabee and Vin listened to the verbal scheming and planning carried on by the gambler only to be added to or interjected by JD or Buck. Between the three of them, ideas sparked to light only to fizzle away hours down the trail as they mulled over details and minutia.

Left to their devices, Josiah couldn’t be sure if those three would end up owning the known world or just thrown in jail. Perhaps both.

It had been earlier in the day when JD had asked the fateful question of when Ezra planned on buying his next saloon. That had been met by a slight pause. Josiah had felt his heart constrict and noticed Nathan hunch a little lower in his saddle.

Within a few heartbeats, however, the light hearted southern chuckle cut through the early morning as an answer.

There was no verbal response. There were no articulated words that promised the hope of one day trying to fulfill a dream that had once been attained if only briefly to be lost to the cunning of family and the disloyalty of friends. It had been a humiliating and embarrassing defeat in a town such as Four Corners, where everyone knew each others business.

Sanchez ground his teeth in anger at himself for not seeing Maude’s potential manipulation for what it might have been. Maude had given Nathan a title and an office in a respectable business, she had fed JD’s boyish if blind whims and she had courted a foolish lonely man with smiles and companionship.

She had shown her son that he was no match for her, and that his friends were only as loyal as the lack of enticements that lay before them; the better the enticement, the less the loyalty. Friendship did not last in the face of a masterful con. Maude was one of the best.

Josiah had realized days later, after Maude had left town, that Ezra blamed himself more than any of them. He knew better than to expect loyalty and overt support from men whose dreams were easily answered by the wily whims of his mother. Even if those dreams were fulfilled in a fleeting whiff of what was possible.

The blame, Josiah feared, laid with the one who anticipated more of his friends than should have been expected. Josiah knew Ezra faulted them for their indiscretions but Standish also understood they stood no chance against a professional such as his mother. So the anger and hurt, though, fleetingly directed at them, had turned internal. Anger and loathing slowly morphed into an increasing self reliance and lack of expectations from those around him.

He had learned his lesson. Maude was, after all, a masterful teacher and Ezra, an apt pupil.

If they would not stand by her son in something as benign as a business venture, what would they do if the tide of a gunfight turned against them? What would they do if someone higher in their hierarchy of trust and friendship were in trouble at the same time as her son? If they were so easily swayed with a curtsy, a smile and a promise of respect, how easily would they turn their aim to protect someone they treasured above her son and leave him with the empty betrayal of someone who wouldn’t truly watch his back?

It stung Josiah to think that such lessons were taught with covert efficient, raw skill, and taken to heart so tightly.

Mother and son were one of a kind. And Maude had succinctly proven that the rest of humanity was nothing but a sea of amorphous grey and disloyalty.

They had trusted her more than her son. JD: his money; Nathan: his dream; and Josiah: well Ezra couldn’t truly grant what Josiah truly wanted from Maude--- a loving companion by his side through thick and thin. And Josiah realized his fault almost immediately in pursuing such riches from a person who offered only surface charm and good manners. Josiah understood what Mrs. Standish was, what she offered, what was not offered, and yet he had fallen for her wiles, her soft smiles and that fleeting taste of companionship with the fairer sex.

He sacrificed part of a friend’s dream. Though he alone could not have helped, and Ezra surely egged his mother on in a fashion only comprehendible with true Standish rivalry-- it still stood to be seen that Josiah did not measure up as the loyal friend he had imagined himself to be.

Maude offered it all and they fell for it and achieved it, if only for a short time. JD’s success lasted only until his last penny was gambled; Nathan’s title maintained but his conscience did not, Josiah’s heart though stolen, was returned.

It was a moment in time in which they had succumbed to their own personal basic desires. It was a flash of momentary blindness.

And Maude knew that it only took a moment of hesitation, a moment of indecision, for a bullet to find its mark, it took only a fraction of a second of blindness for something to go wrong and her son pay for that hesitancy with his life.

She had trampled his life long dream to teach him another lesson. She had used his friends as one would use a basic reader, and taught her boy an invaluable lesson.

If they couldn’t recognize his life’s dream was on the auction block, how could he expect them to recognize his life might be in jeopardy?

She had tempted them and they had fallen. And Ezra had witnessed it and learned.

Who had been the serpent then? Surely the burden of taking the Apple fell to them. Josiah shook his head. Maude was a professional as was her son. Perhaps that was what kept Standish from being truly angry with the others. Maude was indeed a professional, perhaps elite in her ability. What chance did a burned out preacher, a greenhorn and a struggling ex-slave have against such a well honed shark?

They had no chance. Ezra had to have realized it. Probably did realize it and accepted it. Maude would have known it too. Perhaps she had specifically targeted those three and not Buck, Vin or Chris.

Josiah realized then that if Standish were to ever gain ownership of another saloon he would be sure not to depend on his friends for their financial help.

Loyalty was as fickle as lady luck and it was best not to lay any trust in either. Or so Maude believed and had taught her son, again and again.

Josiah blew out a frustrated breath, readjusted his grip on the thick pony line and focused his attention back on the trail.

These maudlin thoughts would only make this journey more painful.

It was not lost on Josiah, how Vin had turned in his saddle and exchanged glances with Buck. A melancholy had settled once more over the group.

Buck’s sudden loud laughter had split the morning as he boisterously expounded on the wondrous wiles of a Ms. Jolly Jolene and her incredible flexibility. The building tension and unease snapped and things seemed to move forward away from the near past.

The day had passed with the peacekeepers leading their prisoners from the high snowy Colorado back country down to the calmer and warmer climes of the southwest territories.

As the sun dipped just to the tops of reaching pines in the horizon, Vin led the seven and their prisoners single file from the ridge trail to the sloping game trail toward the small frozen lake that lay at the cliff’s feet.

With each horse that left the narrow trail, Josiah breathed a little easier. It had been a dangerous shortcut. One they all agreed to take, to cut hours off their trip. The trail was narrow, the fall steep and the wind beating against the face of the cliff raw. It saved them time and dropped them at the icy shores of Fischer’s lake. Vin had assured them it was full of rainbow trout. Tonight they would dine on river trout. Josiah’s stomach growled just thinking about it.

Ahead of him by two horses, Ezra had turned in his saddle and was once again discussing with Buck the pitfalls of relying on only one source of income. That one needed to diversify their skills in order to keep themselves ahead of one’s competition.

JD, a horse ahead of the gambler, interjected and asked, ‘What competition?”

This was met by an exasperated roll of the eyes from the gambler as he ignored the young sheriff and once again continued his apparent never ending litany of get ahead quick schemes. The man was an endless supply of sleight of hand and plans that dabbled and played on the grey areas of the law.

Josiah watched, relieved as JD’s little bay hopped the last few steps from the narrow ridge trail to the slanting snow covered slope that meandered its way down toward the lake’s edge.

It was Buck’s sudden urgent holler that had Josiah tightening his grip on his reins and pulling the pony line closer to his midsection.

He didn’t see the mountain lion until it was mid air.

He didn’t have a free hand to grab for his gun.

Nor did he have time.

Buck’s gloved hand was already slapping leather when the adult cat slammed into the turned profile of the gambler.

With a howl and an inhuman scream, gambler and cat flew from the ridge trail, free falling, entangled together, for almost 20 feet before crashing through the snow and ice and into the black frigid waters of a winter lake.

Water gushed up into the air spilling onto the marred surface snow. Broken ice chunks sloshed back and forth in the wildly dancing water. Water slapped against the jaggered edges of the broken ice, licking at and melting the white snow that hung too close to its edges.

Black water rolled left and right as man and animal struggled below its inky surface.

Buck kicked his grey forward chasing the galloping Chaucer from the trail. Sanchez followed rapidly behind tugging frantically on the pony line. The nag geldings balked at the mistreatment, straightened their front legs and leaned back against the rope.

Josiah dallied the rope around his saddle horn and roughly urged his well fed gelding to plow ahead.

The ponied horses were dragged forward one by one, until the lead horse decided to walk instead of risk being dragged over the edge prematurely.

The preacher kept his eyes peeled on the sudden hole in the strangely placid snow covered lake. Water continued to heave and wave as man and beast broke the surface and struggled to keep afloat. Small black waves collided bursting up into the air, forming their own small white caps. Cat and gambler struggled to keep heads above the lashing water as limbs fought the sapping cold. Water crested and rolled up over the wind torn snow and seeped away the snow at the broken edges of ice.

Josiah watched as the gambler disappeared below the surface, clawing the cat’s back with gloved hands in a desperate attempt to stay above the water. He succeeded in only dragging the animal under with him.

The water boiled and heaved, masking the desperate battle just below its dark surface.

Standish suddenly shot up through the hole gasping for air, eyes wide and coated arms flailing.

In the back of his mind, Josiah noted Standish still wore his hat.

The cat resurfaced facing the gambler, paddling and scrambling much like the man. Both fighting for the edge of the ice in opposite directions, but were once again entangled.

Standish disappeared under the clawing and screaming onslaught of the cat while the large animal focused on the edge of the hole. It climbed up over the gambler and launched itself at the edge of the ice, catching it with curled front claws. Massive front feet gouged through the snow and into the ice. Taut sinewy forelimb and shoulder muscles bulged and flexed under thick hide as the animal snarled its determination and hauled itself from the freezing water. The big cat dragged its hind end free of the water, kicking off the gambler and re-submerging the human. The cat staggered a few steps, shook itself spraying droplets of water in all directions and then loped from the hole and its potential death.

Standish popped back up to the surface closer to the opposite edge of the hole. His face was a little less animated, his eyes still wide but his movements appeared slovenly. Josiah watched as the gambler raised leadened arms and flopped them heavily up onto the surface of the snow covered ice. He struggled to lift himself from the water. He cleared his shoulders and one arm desperately shot out further on the ice seeking some sort of leverage to pull himself away from dragging clutches of the water. Small plumes of white crystallized air marked the gambler’s panicked breaths.

Josiah cleared the ridge trail still poning the three prisoners. He directed his horse straight down the trail, impatiently trying to urge the animals to go faster.

He heard JD hollering to Buck and Buck yelling out to Ezra to hold on, help was coming.

Sanchez watched as Chris jumped from his horse, pulled off his boots. He looped the lasso Vin held the end to up and under his arms as he strode frantically out onto the ice.

Standish’s arms were slowly giving out, he gradually slipped deeper into the water. Curled fingers left deep grooves in the once pristine snow as icy water gradually wore him down, slowly and methodically dragging him deeper into the water despite his desperate efforts.

Josiah pulled his horse up beside the others and jumped off. He threw the reins of his horse to JD and grabbed the end of the rope from Vin.

The five men gathered at the shore line and watched as Larabee slid and slipped his way out to the gambler.

Ezra lay with his head on the surface of the ice. White clouds of breath marked his desperate attempts to summon more strength. His weakening muscles allowed arms and fisted hands to inch further toward the edge of the hole. Black water seeped up over his coated shoulders, weighting him down, bringing him closer to submerging under its frosting surface; like a boa slowly suffocating a struggling deer.

Every few seconds, the others noticed as Standish once again tried to gain a little more freedom from the water, only to lose it a moment later and sink a little further from sight.

Larabee reached the edge of the hole just as the strength in Standish’s shoulders and arms began to give in earnest and the gambler began to slide back under the water.

“Oh no you don’t” Larabee hissed out as he grabbed a handful of Standish’s ice covered jacket. The jacket and shirt rode up over the back of the gambler’s head, knocking his hat forward and onto the ice.

Larabee managed to halt the gambler’s decline for just a few short seconds.

The combined weight of Standish and his soaked clothing began dragging the two men toward the shifting black water.

“Help me out here, Ezra,” Chris wheezed out trying to gain purchase and haul Standish up out of the water with brute force. There was no leverage; the more Chris struggled the closer he found himself to the water’s edge.

The lasso around his shoulders tightened pinching skin and muscle under the stiff crinkle of a canvas coat.

The wool material of Ezra’s jacket slipped through his gloved fingers and Standish disappeared back into the water. His soaked clothing and tense muscles sunk him like rock.

Larabee cursed as he watched the Southerner fight to breach the surface. He reached down and grabbed a fist full of jacket again and hauled Ezra back to the surface of the water. Standish came up through the thin layer of ice panting with a little less effort, facing away from Larabee. Hypothermic and disoriented, Ezra began kicking to the opposite ledge his only visible salvation.

“No! Ezra!” Chris hollered out trying to gain the gambler’s attention. “This way!”

He watched frustrated as Standish continued to fight to keep his head above water and faced away from Chris struggling to reach the far edge.

Larabee’s “shit” was echoed on shore by the others as they watched Chris slide into the icy water behind Standish.

The water closed around Larabee’s chest like a vice with thousands of icy teeth. It stole his breath and sucked his strength. His muscles cramped in intense paralyzed agony.

He struggled up behind the gambler and grabbed hold of him.

Standish, fearing the cat, fought back submerging both of them.

Water closed around Larabee’s head, squeezing his head as if between the palms of a giant.

Part 2

On shore, Vin had already stripped out of his hide coat and sat on the ground pulling his boots off. “I get out there you haul those two back when I tell you!” Tanner ordered.

JD tossed Vin another rope.

“Hold on boys,” Nathan muttered.

The healer and others watched as Larabee resurfaced with Standish still fighting him. In an act of survival, Larabee lashed out and struck the gambler on jaw. Ezra’s head was thrown to the side. His struggles paused for only a moment.

Larabee struck a second time and this time Standish’s panicked struggles ceased as he suddenly went limp and threatened to slide back under the water taking Chris with him.

Larabee latched his arms around Standish’s coated chest and kicked his way a few feet to the hole’s edge.

He felt the rope tighten around his chest as the others hauled on the rope. He felt the fibers bite through his shirt and furrow into the skin of his chest and armpits.

His breath was squeezed from his lungs as his back was crushed between the force pulling on the rope and the immovable obstacle of the ice edge.

He was losing his grip on the gambler. Standish once again began struggling.

Ezra’s leaden weight was sliding through Larabee’s numb fingers as he lost the ability to feel his arms and legs.

Standish was weakly wiggling from him and there wasn’t a thing Chris could do about it.

“Come on, Ezra,” Larabee threatened with a hoarse voice. “Help me out.” He bit the words off through clenched teeth.

Standish stirred weakly in Larabee’s unresponsive arms.

Chris felt himself get banged into the ice again. He couldn’t take a breath as the rope scissored through his chest, constricting around him, preventing him from inhaling, from expanding his ribcage when needed.

Ezra slid a little lower in his embrace.

“No!” Chris whispered out in defiance trying to tighten his hold around the gambler’s chest but unable to feel his arms to know if he was successful or not.

Suddenly two hands and then arms were reaching around Chris, grabbing on to Standish’s coated shoulders. With a strength Larabee had only a few moments ago, the seemingly disembodied arms almost effortlessly hauled the gambler up over Larabee, scraping the gunfighter’s numb face on Standish’s frozen canvas coat and the surface of the ice. Then the rope pulled again and soon Chris felt himself hauled up and out of the icy depths and onto the face the frozen lake and its deep snow.

The hands were there again, reaching and pulling, shouting to him. Chris writhed to his hands and knees and fought a losing battle to lurch to his feet. He ignored the words that told him to take it easy. With tunnel vision, he watched as Sanchez edged out onto the ice and dragged Standish to the frozen shore by his coat collar. A second set of hands reached down and hauled Larabee to numb feet. “Come on Cowboy,” Vin’s voice sounded right in his ear.

Chris couldn’t keep track of time. He slid from Vin’s supportive grasp once they gained the shore. He could hear Buck telling JD to lead the horses up to the cave. He heard JD shout back, “What cave?” and remembered Ezra once saying JD couldn’t find his posterior in the dark with both hands. It had been back in the saloon, it had been sizzling hot outside making people irritable and short tempered. Chris would give anything to be that hot and uncomfortable again.

Larabee felt someone hauling him back to his feet and then into a saddle. He curled forward because his muscles couldn’t pull him upright.

He heard Nathan talking to someone. Ezra was stammering that something hurt. Hurt all over.

Time seemed to fold on itself, only to lengthen out for a moment or two---just enough for Chris to hear a snippet of rushed conversation and then it would be gone again.

He felt the horse move, heard voices talking urgently to one another and then things seemed to slow down and flitter from grey to black.

+ + + + + + +

JD hustled in and out of the cave with arm loads of wood. He watched surreptitiously as Nathan and Josiah stripped Standish of his ice crusted clothes. For his part, Ezra lay on the dirt floor of the cave curled in a tight ball. He occasionally shivered and moaned painfully. Sanchez and Jackson worked to straighten a flexed limb and then peel stiffened clothing free. Once the limb was released it clenched immediately in toward the torso. Dunne noted the swollen blotched areas of skin on Standish’s curled back and while some areas of skin were tenderly red adjacent areas were excruciatingly blanched, almost yellowish and corpse like.

“JD, that’s enough wood for now,” Buck’s voice broke JD’s stare. “Go get some big rocks,” Buck ordered as he bent forward and nursed a fledgling spiral of smoke that flickered into a timid, flame.

JD hesitated for a moment not sure if he understood Wilmington correctly.

“We’re gonna heat the rocks and git’em around Chris and Ezra,” Buck answered the unasked question.

JD swung his gaze to Larabee who shivered and did his best to aid Vin in removing his wet clothing.

The dark gunslinger looked no better than a frail old man too long in the tooth to last another winter.

JD bustled out of the cave.

“How’s he doin’ Vin?” Nathan asked as he tried to roll Standish onto his bare back to get a better look at the damage the cat’s claws had to have managed when it climbed over him to get out of the water.

“Fine,” Larabee chattered in answer, pain lancing his voice. Tanner merely chuckled doing his best to peel ice crusted clothing from cold burned skin.

Nathan didn’t bother to look up across the cave at the two men but instead concentrated on trying to wrestle one of Standish’s hands out from under his tucked chin.

“No,” Ezra whispered trying to keep his arms and hands close to his body as he tightened into himself and rolled back, cramping his head tightly to his chest and hiding his chin between bowed and rolled shoulders.

“Shit, Ezra,” Nathan mumbled sharply in frustration trying to unpeel tightened limbs away from the torso.

“Cold,” Standish moaned tucking himself into an impossibly tight ball despite the unrecognized hands that tried to unfurl him.

“Easy brother,” Josiah pacified, “he won’t be bleeding badly being this cold. Let’s get him covered up and go from there.”

Buck piled more wood on the fire drying it as the flames grew bolder and stronger.

JD returned with another armful of rocks.

“JD, git over here and strip down---Need you to share body heat with Ezra,” Nathan stated.

JD paused and stared at the healer as if he had lost his mind.

“What?” JD nearly squealed.

The three prisoners, in the back of the cave snickered and laughed. “Go on sheriff,” one sneered out, “go on an’ play wife to that blacky and his man. Figured a young pup like you got to run with a bunch like this 'cause nights git lonely,” the three men laughed to hurt and humiliate.

JD’s face reddened and he took an involuntary step back from Sanchez, Jackson and the blanketed but nude Standish.

“JD,” Nathan said again, ignoring the harsh laughter of the three shackled men.

Dunne hesitated and took another backward step distancing himself from the mocking, leering laughter and the other three peacekeepers.

Josiah let out a deep sigh and began pulling off his coat, “I’ve got it Nathan.”

JD looked wild eyed to the three prisoners, hoping to hear their knowing laughter end.

Buck watched with a hint of disappointment in his eyes. He tossed another log on the fire. “Since when do you care what scum like them think?” He asked as he took a side long glance at the young sheriff. “Ezra needin’ your help not as important as what they think of ya?” Buck asked as he jerked his chin in the direction of the three snickering men.

“What?” JD stammered, “What? Buck?” JD pulled his eyes from the three rough prisoners to Buck, “No!” He whispered indignantly.

“Yeah, well,” Buck answered unconvincingly, “you’re gonna have to pull Josiah’s weight.” Wilmington watched as Sanchez stripped down to his long underwear and shimmied under the blankets with Standish, hugging the curled gambler’s back up close to his chest. He heard Josiah suck in a shocked breath and mutter, “Damn he’s cold Nathan.”

“I know Josiah, I know,” Jackson muttered back patting the big man on a blanketed shoulder while straightening up to help Vin and Chris.

“Sure,” JD agreed slightly shame-faced answering Buck while watching Nathan and Josiah. “Gonna need you to fill the coffee pot with water, then get the horses unsaddled and gear brought in here and stowed. When yer done with that we’re gonna need more wood.”

JD was about to argue but stopped as he stared at Josiah who lay under his own and Nathan’s bedroll with Ezra curled tight against his chest. Sanchez pulled the blankets up over Standish’s wet head and continued to whisper nonstop to the semi-conscious gambler who lay painfully curled away from Sanchez.

+ + + + + + +

Chris pulled his blanket tighter across his shoulders and hunched closer to the fire, fighting the urge to just stick his hands and feet into the flames to warm them quicker. Large rocks lay just within the fire’s reach. Buck squatted next to the flames stirring a small pot of watery broth that contained salted tack.

Around the fire, wet clothing was laid out flat and draped over sticks jammed into the ground. Boots were hung over makeshift stakes to allow their insides to dry.

Nathan shuffled into the cave with more wood. He dropped it in a pile next Buck.

“Vin and JD?” Buck asked looking up from the steaming small dented pot.

“Fishin’,” Nathan returned. “Boy don’t need to be raked over the coals. He’s young and I took’im off guard.”

Buck nodded. JD was a smart kid--he only needed telling once.

“How ya doin’, Chris?” Nathan asked.

Larabee painfully raised his chin from his chest and looked to Nathan. “Better,” Chris whispered. “Ezra?”

“He’s still drifting in and out. He’s warmin’ up okay but I’m thinkin’ he smacked his head real good breaking through the ice, same with his hip. Shoulder ‘s where it belongs so that’s good. Figure’n his coat protected his ribs, his under arm holster might’ve done some damage though--Can’t get’im to relax enough to git a good look at’im.” Nathan kicked a large rock out from the reach of the flames and hesitantly tested it with his fingers.

Larabee nodded. He shivered again and pulled his blanket tighter across his shoulders and chest.

“He ain’t holdin’ a thought too good and is disoriented as Hell, could be the cold, could be from hittin’ his head,” Nathan rolled the stone further from the fire and then wrapped it in his coat and picked it up, “gonna have to wait see what happens---He’s gonna be stoved up as Hell come tomorrow.”

Buck and Chris shared a concerned look and then glanced at the three brothers tucked away into the far corner of the cave.

Jackson headed across the small cave and peeled the thick blanket off of Standish. The gambler groaned and clinched himself inward. Nathan quickly tucked the heated rock up into the folded blankets at the gambler’s midsection.

Standish groaned and brought his knees closer to his midsection.

“Easy son,” Josiah rumbled as the gambler’s curled back pressed into his midsection.

Sweat trickled down Josiah’s forehead and between his shoulders. It was stifling under the blankets.

“You doin’ okay Josiah?” Nathan asked a smile playing at his lips.

“Getting’ a might toasty in here,” Sanchez answered with a tight smile of his own.

Nathan merely nodded and rolled Standish’s head so his face pointed to the roof of the cave. His left eye was swollen closed, deep bruising had spread from his hair line to his jaw involving his ear and the white of his eye. Nathan clucked and shook his head. He let Standish’s head rest back against the folded coat offered as a pillow.

“How’s he look?”

“Like a mile of bad road.” Nathan fixed the blankets and then stared at Josiah. The healer remained squatting with his forearms resting on his thighs with his wrists hanging over his knees. “We get a few more rocks and I think you can get a break.”

Josiah nodded his head and let a relieved tired smile cross his face.

+ + + + + + +

The smell of fresh cooked trout over an open fire filled the moderate sized cave. Snow drifted down from the starless night sky. Big flakes danced and swayed in a slight breeze slowly adding to the multiple feet of snow already covering the ground around the lake and cave.

“Hey, ain’t ya gonna give us some?” One of the brothers shouted out.

“Nope,” Buck mumbled out around a mouth full of fish.

Vin leaned back against his saddle and extended his booted feet toward the fire, enjoying the dry heat.

“We gut ourselves a problem,” Vin’s soft spoken words reached the men surrounding the fire. His sharp blue eyes traveled from the unmoving gambler still ensconced in blankets back to the other peacekeepers. He placed the Richard’s conversion he had been cleaning next to the cleaned and oiled derringer and rig. Water would ruin a gun if given a chance. “Ain’t got enough feed around these parts for the horses and I’m thinkin’ Ezra ain’t gonna be too happy about goin’ back outside.”

Larabee, dressed in his recently dried clothes, leaned forward and rested his forearms on his knees. His holster lay just outside the heat of the fire, glistening under a new coat of oil while his newly cleaned gun sat within easy reach.


Jackson shook his head, “Cold is gonna have sapped him of all his strength.” Nathan paused a moment, “and he’s gonna be stiff and sore; got bruises so dark, thinkin’ maybe the bones underneath might be bruised too.”

Josiah as well as the others noticed the hesitation in the healer’s countenance.

“What else?”

Nathan gazed over at the gambler and then back to the others, “He hit his head real good goin’ through the ice.”

The healer raised a hand and halted any questions that might have streamed forth, “It could just be the cold making him confused and keepin’ ‘im from sayin’ much---“

“But,” Larabee asked.

“I ain’t too sure he knows who he is or who we are.” Nathan took a breath and let the questions fly across the small area. “Might be ‘cause he’s so cold, he really don’t care---jist can’t tell yet.”

After the voices died down and silence reigned around the area for a moment or two, Vin spoke up, “Still ain’t gonna have enough feed for all the horses.”

“Shit,” Larabee whispered and stared into his tin cup.

“We can’t be sure of anything until morning,” Josiah spoke up.

The silence in the cave was broken by the snapping of the fire and occasional gust of wind.

The three brothers sat huddled together just within the warmth and light of the flame, watching the peacekeepers with wary eyes. The middle brother let loose with a confident chuckle, “Don’t see no reason fer all yer frettin’; our kins jist gonna catch up to ya ‘n kill ya anyhow.”

JD snapped his head up, anger and worry battling one another,s letting a sliver of fear slip through unchallenged.

One of the brothers noticed it and stared meaningfully at the young sheriff.

Dunne’s resolve gained footing and met the deadly glare with one of his own.

Larabee watched the exchange and ignored it as did the others.

Night watches were set and men climbed into their bed rolls anxious about the next morning.

+ + + + + + +

Buck reached down and gently peeled the blanket back from Standish’s head glimpsing for himself the heavy bruising and damage.

The gambler stared back at him with a blood shot weary eye. There was no sign of trust or recognition.

Buck’s easy grin was not returned.

Vin sat near the entrance of the cave, mare’s leg cradled in his coated arms, and watched the three brothers who dozed peacefully as if they were not facing a hanging at the end of this ride.

Their relaxed self assured manner had the lawmen uneasy. For three who faced certain death at a hangman’s noose, they appeared unafraid and self confident.

Their unharried demeanor had Larabee setting two men on watch at night. It had them keeping the three men bound hand and foot and under constant supervision while the second on watch kept an eye out for any type of ambush.

Vin watched as Wilmington replaced the blanket back over Standish’s head and leaned over to cover the gambler’s pale ankle and foot that had escaped the stifling confines of the blankets and heated rocks.

The foot remained covered for only a moment or two before it stretched back out from under the blanket.

Tanner took it as a good sign. Standish was warming up but was uncomfortable as Hell if all his fidgeting and hesitant movements were any indication. He weren’t truly asleep but he sure as weren’t really awake either.

In a few hours, they would know if they were splitting up, staying together, traveling fast, or taking it relatively slow.

He sighed and turned his attention back to the blowing wind outside. The sky was clear and the stars bright against the sliver of moonlight.

The tracker watched the shadows hoping his eyes would adjust to the darkness of the night and deeper shadows.

The ‘family’ was out there somewhere, waiting for their chance to strike. If they were as vicious and as unpredictable as the three brothers sitting within their custody, then the seven were going to need every chance and bit of luck they could find.

+ + + + + + +

Early morning sun streaked over leafless trees casting the grey sky of a false dawn back under a splash of reds and purples. The air was bitter, almost brutal, but no wind scoured across the land or stripped heat from bodies.

Larabee watched and waited patiently as Josiah and Wilmington hurled a pale Standish into the saddle.

Standish’s big quarter horse stood with a wide stance and took his rider’s solid fall into the saddle with a grunt.

“That was not necessary gentlemen,” Standish mumbled out cautiously, stretching his right arm searching for his reins. Muscles protested and bones ached.

“Yeah well, left to your own devices I fear, brother, you’d still be buried under your blankets.”

“Well good sir,” Ezra stated softly moving his jaw as little as possible, “I don’t see that as a horrible alternative.”

“You might when their kin show up,” Vin added. A slight smirk brightened his reddened face.

Ezra raised a single eyebrow and offered the tracker a skeptical look.

“Well Hell, Vin , he could always get sick on them, like he did Nathan last night,” Buck chuckled.

Standish scowled, remembering nothing of the evening but intense discomfort.

“Come on Ezra,” JD stated as he wheeled his horse around to hand off the big Grey’s reins to Buck, “jist think, in a couple of days you’ll be back in yer ma’s saloon, and own bed.”

Standish stared at the young sheriff and furrowed his brow, “And you are…?”

JD let out an exasperated breath, “I’m JD, I’m the sheriff of Four Corners.”

Ezra raised his head and swiveled tired eyes toward Buck as if seeking confirmation.

“Amazing enough, he’s the sheriff.”

“More amazin’, he’s still alive,” Nathan added, chuckling and swinging up into his saddle. He turned his attention to the gambler, who sat slightly slumped in his saddle. Josiah and he had had a devil of the time getting Standish to fully wake up. As Jackson had feared, Standish’s disorientation and memory loss was not due solely to the cold. The gambler couldn’t recall their names, his own, Four Corners or even The Judge. It took them some time to cajole him out from under the blankets and get him dressed. Eventually Larabee reached down and ripped Standish’s blankets from his clutched grip and tossed him his clothes. Ezra was then ordered to get dressed and moving or Chris would help him with that too.

Josiah and the others shared amused looks and kept busy breaking camp.

Standish’s grumbling and soft spoken biting satire and anger, though scathing, were dulled by the obvious pain in his head and unsettled stomach.

The gear was gathered and packed as horses were watered, saddled and readied for the day’s ride.

“Iffen you start feeling sick or light headed you let me know, and we’ll stop,” Jackson said, staring pointedly at the gambler and then the gunslinger.

Ezra returned the black healer’s stern gaze and then followed the man’s pointed look to the dark blond haired gunslinger.

The man in black just exuded power and respect and Standish felt the pull of it; and that just irritated him.

“I’m feeling a bit peaked and light headed,” Standish said pointedly staring at Larabee and then Jackson.

“Tough,” Larabee bit out swinging his black gelding around and heading out onto the wooded trail. The cold stole his breath and his muscles tightened with the fresh memory of the bone breaking cold of yesterday afternoon’s ordeal.

Vin and Buck shared a chuckle. Wilmington shook his head, still smiling as the horses filed past him. He tucked in behind the last outlaw, bringing up the rear and watching their backs.