Lethal Love by LT

Disclaimer: Not Mine, Not makin' money. Written for my pleasure and hopefully, the pleasure of others.

Spoilers: Serpents, Inmate 78, maybe others.

Special thanks: Chris, Katy, and Mitzi, thanks for the ideas and the prods. Heidi, I couldn't have finished this without you! Thank you for the great beta job.

Rated: PG-13 for violence and language

Characters: All Seven

This story follows 6 months after Serpents. It helps if you've seen that episode.

Authors Note: The picture above shows the actual first prison built in the new state of Colorado. At one time, it held 3 women. It was located in Canon City. John Routt was the first elected governor of the new state.


Chapter One

"Mornin' Mary." Vin snaked his head around the door of the newspaper office and greeted the blonde publisher/editor of the Clarion.

Mary looked up from writing one of her editorials and smiled at the lanky Texan. "How are you this morning, Vin? It's a glorious day, isn't it?"

"Yes, ma'am. You wouldn't by any chance have a few extra minutes today to help me with my readin', would ya?" Vin turned on the puppy dog look that he was pretty sure Mary couldn't resist.

Shocked, Mary stood and walked towards the door where Vin still stood. "You haven't asked me to help you with your reading in months! Why now, not that I mind helping you?" She pulled the door open further, inviting the tracker inside.

"We got kinda busy what with Buck leavin' and the Calhoun clan causin' trouble and I just didn't feel much like takin' the time, I guess. But now things have settled down and we're kinda used to coverin' for Buck, JD's not mopin' quite so much, and Chris, well, he's over bein' pissed. I got the time, that is if'n ya do."

With a wave of her hand, Mary said, "Go have a seat behind the desk. I just got in a few new papers on yesterday's stage. We'll look them over together, okay?" Mary had been as stunned as the rest of them when the ladies man had taken off to find Louisa Perkins four weeks ago but she wasn't aware that Larabee had been that upset. Buck had professed his love to the woman and had waited patiently, almost five months, for her to return. When she didn't, he went in search of her. It was his life after all. He wasn't tied to this town or to any of the Seven as far as Mary knew. She had seen the youngest of the Seven moping around town. That she understood as JD and Buck seemed to have a very close bond with one another. But Chris? At times Chris had seemed to wish Buck gone from Four Corners and him, had threatened him on more than one occasion, had left him out of important ventures like taking Blackfox back to his old ranch. Why would Chris get so upset when Buck finally did leave? Maybe she could get a little more information out of the reserved Texan.

"Alright, Vin, this one is from Bennetsville, up by Colorado. Why don't we start there?" Mary spread the folded sheet of paper out smoothly on her desk. "You might as well start with the headlines..... the big print," she added when Vin turned to give her an inquisitive glance.

Vin, his tongue caught up between his teeth, began sounding out the words to the largest headline. "Found..ers Day Cel..e..bra..tion Success." He looked to the gorgeous blonde for confirmation of his pronunciation.

"Very good, Vin. You're getting much better. You just need to practice. Try another one." Mary turned her head and waved as she noticed Gloria Potter walking by.

Vin scanned the page and picked out a headline near the bottom of the page. "Wall...ace aid..e mur..der..ed, gu...ber...na Ah shucks, Mary, this one don't make no sense."

Mary glanced down the page and found the article that went with the headline. "The man's name is Wallace and he's running for governor in the new state of Colorado. That's what the big word means, governor. It's pronounced gubernatorial. It's a fancy word..." She ceased speaking and stared in shock at the newsprint.

Worried, Vin nudged the newspaper woman. "Mary?" When he got no response, he said her name again, "Mary, what's wrong?"

"Oh my God, Vin, this article says that Louisa Perkins was murdered." Mary's face suddenly lost all of its color.

"That's the woman... What else does it say, Mary?" Fear crept its way up Vin's spine. He knew there was more to the story and from the look on Mary's face, it wasn't good.

Taking a deep breath, Mary read the last line of the article. "Mr. Wallace will remain in Desperate to testify against suspect Buck Wilmington. The trial is expected to be completed by the end of the week." Suddenly, she found her mouth too dry to go on.

"They think Buck killed that red-headed woman?" Vin sounded flabbergasted, unable to fit the pieces together. Buck wouldn't kill any woman, especially not Miss Perkins. Buck, if anything, was too protective of women, all women. He had left town to go be with Louisa, not harm her!

"Vin," Mary found her voice as she gazed at the date on the top of the newspaper. "This paper is two weeks old. The trial is over. Has anyone heard from Buck in the last week?"

Woefully Vin shook his head. "Guess I better round up the guys. Can I have this paper, Mary?"

"Of course. Vin, I'll wire Orrin. Maybe he can find out what happened. He knows a lot of judges."

"Yeah, okay, do what ya can." Vin folded the newspaper into quarters. "I've got to get the others ready to ride. We gotta go get Bucklin outta this mess."

"Vin, it was murder, it may be.."

Vin stopped the blonde with his hand. "Don't go there, Mary. You know Buck, he wouldn't do something like that." With a determination he didn't really feel, he continued, "We'll get him back, we have to."

"I'll pray that you do. Vin, Chris and Buck had a falling-out when he left. I don't know if he'll want to aid Buck this time."

"He needs that big son-of-a-bitch more than he'll ever admit. Yeah, they fought just before Bucklin left, so if somethin' happened to Buck, Chris will never forgive himself, just like...." He stopped suddenly, remembering Chris's desire for privacy, especially where his family was concerned.

Mary knew better than to press. She had heard the story of Chris in the barber shop after Buck had told her about Sarah and Adam Larabee. "Wonder what it was about Louisa Perkins that got to Buck like it seems to have. He never seemed like a man that got too close to any one woman." she thought out loud. Looking at Vin again, she asked, "The fight was over Miss Perkins, wasn't it?"

"He told Bucklin ta get over it, that she wasn't any good for him," The Texan stopped himself again, thinking back on the day before the rogue left. Chris had laid it all out on the line, not sparing any fault that he personally saw in the redhead that Buck seemed so besotted with. The others could tell that their leader was pushing Buck away but they couldn't seem to stop the impending train wreck. Buck had finally had enough and shoved himself away from the table and Chris's indictments of Louisa. Getting up, his face stone cold, his voice deadly soft, he snarled, "Ain't for you to decide now, is it, Stud?" The venom in that voice was a slap in the face and Chris blanched. Buck had strode out the door of the saloon and Chris never got a chance to set things right between the two of them. Vin kicked at the floor, seeing the catastrophe ahead of them. "I can't put this off any longer." With that he was out the door.

+ + + + + + +

The first member of the Seven he spotted was Josiah Sanchez. The tracker quickly made his way to stand before him as the big man slapped paint on his renovated church. The look on the young man's face stopped the oldest of the Seven in his tracks.

"Trouble has come in search of us once again, hasn't it, Brother Tanner?"

"'Fraid so, Josiah. It's Buck, he's in trouble. Can you gather up Ezra and Nathan and meet us in the saloon?" Vin was already moving, on his mission to find JD and Chris..

Vin continued down the street to the sheriff's office. He knew that JD was probably inside, going over the wanted posters that had arrived on yesterdays stage. He hesitated slightly, his hand on the door knob. Taking in a deep breath, he opened the door and watched JD's head snap up.

"Hey, Vin. What's up?" JD had been disheartened for two weeks straight when Buck left. The youngest had been torn between going with Buck and staying in Four Corners. Buck resolved the issue, telling the young man that he had faith in him being able to stand on his own. "Besides," Buck had said, " I'm headin' out to find me a woman, Kid. You'd just be in the way!" However, JD had gotten himself balanced once again with the help of Vin and Josiah. Both men had made time for the young Easterner and he had responded favorably.

"JD," Vin began but stopped. Shaking his head, he tried again. "JD, meet the rest of us at the saloon, would ya? It's about Bucklin."

"Buck! Have you heard from him, Vin? What did he say? Did he find Miss Perkins? Is he coming back soon?" JD was on his feet, adjusting the bowler he wore on top of his head. He had heard the name Buck but he hadn't ascertained Vin's sorrow.

"Just head ta the saloon, Kid. I gotta find Chris." Vin left the youth open mouthed, his heart in his throat. The tracker couldn't tell the youth that his 'big brother' might have already swung from the gallows.

As Vin hurried out of the sheriff's office, he spotted his best friend coming out of the livery. The leader of the Seven was dusting off his pants, having just finished a tour of the out-lying area. Vin stopped and waited for the man in black to join him. Without a word between them, Chris felt his chest tighten. Something was wrong. He met Vin's stride and the two entered the saloon together.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah dropped his brush, quickly wiped his hands, and hurried to the stairway that led to Nathan's clinic. He burst into the room, startling the black man who had been reading, trying to keep up with all the latest medical advancements, even if he didn't trust himself to perform the treatments and surgical procedures.

"Better pack your medical bag. It's Brother Buck. Vin's heard from him somehow and wants us to meet at the saloon." The serious look on Josiah's face had Nathan on his feet instantly, packing his medical bag with all the things he thought might be called for. Josiah didn't wait, he turned and headed back down the stairs. He figured Ezra was still in bed and he made his way to the gambler's room.

The sound of Ezra unlocking the door answered Josiah's pounding fist. The door opened slowly and Ezra, his hair standing on end, peered out at the big ex-preacher.

"What could possibly make you think that hammering upon my door at this ungodly hour would be worth your time and effort?" Ezra squinted into the sunlight that flooded the hallway from the end window.

"Buck's in trouble. Vin's gathering the rest of us. See you downstairs in ten minutes." He turned and walked slowly down the stairs. He ordered a bottle of whiskey and six glasses from Inez and made his way to the table they had long ago claimed as theirs

Within ten minutes, all six had gathered at the table, fear in some eyes, curiosity in some, and ire in one set of green eyes. When everyone was seated, Vin shoved the newspaper at Josiah.

"Bottom of the page, a man tryin' to be governor was attacked." Vin pointed and Josiah searched the newsprint.

He read it silently first. "Oh my God!"

"Out loud Sanchez!" Chris had a knot of fear clutching at his intestines. "What in the hell has Wilmington gotten himself into now?"

Chapter Two

"Hey Willy."

Buck flinched at the nickname and did his best to ignore the demanding voice. He pulled his knees up tighter to his body and tried to shut out the noises that surrounded him. He simply wanted to be left alone but by now, he knew that wasn't going to happen. He had arrived at the penitentiary in Canon City nine days ago, only to find that the reputation of the "Magnificent Seven" had preceded him and seemed to be known by all the inmates. Three men who knew Chris and himself, two men who knew Ezra, and one who had been shot by Josiah had already confronted him. One man had even accused him of being in cahoots with Vin when the tracker brought the man's older brother to justice five years ago. He had been in three confrontations resulting in cuts and bruises and today, when he finally lost his temper and fought back with the fury of a mountain lion, the guards had struck him with clubs to subdue him.

He gently touched the swollen eye and the stitches in the cut just above it. One guard, in particular, seemed to enjoy taunting the large man and he was the one who had hit Buck about the head today. His name was Teeters, Caleb Teeters. Buck made a concerted effort to avoid the man but Teeters seemed to be keeping an eye on Buck, although the ladies man couldn't figure out why.

"Willy, I'm talkin' to ya!"

Buck rolled over, away from the annoying voice. He had no intention of answering his cellmate. The diminutive man with the giant ego only wanted to aggravate the lawman from New Mexico. It was the only reason Caesar Garibaldi would want to talk to him. From the first moment Buck had been shoved into his cell, Garibaldi had made it his entertainment to torment him. The two of them had never met before, at least not that the ladies man could remember. As far as Buck could tell, he and the murdering runt had nothing and no one in common. Garibaldi was also serving a life sentence, also for murder as were the other two men in the cell. The obnoxious runt was unlike any of the other prisoners that Buck had met so far. He was a true force to be reckoned with as he controlled about half of the prison population. Garibaldi not only ruled the prisoners, he held sway over most of the guards as well. It would be a fool that attempted to take on Caesar Garibaldi, and Buck was no fool.

Two others made up the residents of the small, ten by ten, cell. Sledge, a huge, dim-witted man, slept in the cot below Baldi. He was the little tyrant's muscle. Sledge and two or three others meted out the punishment that Baldi determined was needed. The ladies man had been on the painful end of that punishment just today. The bunk above Buck was occupied by a sixteen year old tow-head from Wichita. Everybody called him Cooter. He was a quiet lad, barely five foot eight. He admitted to killing an elderly woman during a gunfight started by his deceased brother. He was weighed down by the guilt even though the bank robbery was his brother's idea. Cooter had taken to Buck immediately, feeling a kinship with the big-hearted gunfighter.

"Hey Willy, where's the famous Seven now, huh?"

Baldi knew all about Buck and his six friends, who had been the regulators in Four Corners for almost eighteen months now. His six friends still were for all he knew. Buck put his hand over his ear and closed his eyes tight. 'Leave me alone!' he screamed in his mind. 'God, I can't do this! I just want out!'

But, he had to face the truth, this was his life now. A ten by ten foot cell, shared with three other men, in a limestone building that housed over two hundred men. The cell had three stone walls and iron bars facing the central corridor. Two sets of bunks, one on each side made up the sum total of the furniture inside the small space. A slop bucket and a wash pan nailed onto a wooden shelf in the back corner by Buck's feet, made up the rest of the items in the cold, damp cell.

The bottom bunk on the left side was Buck's world now. It was five foot six inches long and held a thin straw mattress. One lightweight wool blanket was the only comfort that he had. And the blanket did nothing to alleviate the cold that seemed to permeate the entire prison. Buck had always been a man who could sleep anywhere as long as he could stretch out his limbs. He preferred to sleep flat on his back with a woman tucked in close beside him, snuggling close for the heat his body provided. In his new world, he barely slept at all, curled on his side in a fetal position, shivering, all his clothes on except his boots. He took in a ragged breath and tried to relax.

He thought back to the trial..

Sheriff Black opened the door to his cell. "Come on, Wilmington. It's time." Buck rose with difficulty, using a hand on the bars to gain his feet. His head ached from the blow that Wallace's henchman had given him, using the butt of his gun to bludgeon Buck's temple. His ribs complained from the beating he had taken when he was down on the carpet and his eyes were swollen and inflamed from the handful of ashes Wallace had thrown at his face. The sheriff grabbed his elbow and lead him stumbling from the jail. They made their way over to the saloon, McCabe to his left, taunting him all the way. Black held out a chair to him and helped him ease down into it. A dark haired man sat beside him but Buck couldn't remember seeing him before. He looked nervous and about as young as JD.

A gavel pounded nearby and his head throbbed even harder. He lowered his head until it was cradled in his hands. The scoundral didn't need to look at the twelve men sitting of to the side, he figured they all thought he was guilty. He would have. No one would believe the word of a gunfighter over that of a respected citizen who was campaigning for governor.

Time drug on, his headache getting worse and worse. Men came and went from the chair that sat by the judge, their testimony a slur of words he didn't grasp. Suddenly, everyone was getting up and McCabe had ahold of his arm. He heard angry words but he relaxed when he was eased back into his chair. What seemed like hours later, the gavel was pounding again and the judge was speaking, calling his name. The young man next to him urged him to stand.

Mr. Wilmington, you have been found guilty by a jury of your peers." There was a pause. "Do you understand what I'm saying?"

His attorney laid his hand on Buck arm. "You've been found guilty. Nod your head."

Buck did and slowly looked at the judge's face. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to cause trouble for her." It was the only thing he had said all day.

Judge Brumcort shook his head sadly. "Mr. Wilmington," he said and then stopped himself. Murder was a hanging offense still but this man didn't seem to deserve that final punishment. "Sir, you will spend the rest of your life in the prison in Canon City. Sheriff, you will accompany the prisoner there expeditiously."

McCabe grabbed his arm, mumbling something about a miscarriage of justice. That was the end of the ladies man's freedom.

Shaken from his fuzzy reminisces, Buck groaned inwardly and then, almost against his will, he reacted, "What do you want, Baldi?"

"I don't like that name! Stop callin' me that!" The little man bristled. "I'm Mr. Garibaldi to you, scum. Ya got a lot of balls for a man with a big black shiner, ya know that." The little Czar rolled onto his stomach and looked down at the tall peacekeeper on the bunk across from him. "I think that things are gonna git real interestin' for you, Willy. Yeah, real interestin' and a whole lot painful." He laughed aloud and the big goon below him joined in the torment and laughter.

"Yeah, Willy, we can hurt ya real good, can't' we, boss?" Sledge added to the taunting.

Baldi rolled over onto his back. "Ya know what, Sledge, I think we just might wait fer awhile, wait 'til Willy's not expectin' it. Then we'll teach him a lesson he ain't gonna forget. Wha ' da ya think 'bout that, ya stinkin' woman killer? Ya think we should wait awhile ta teach ya another lesson? What, cat got yer tongue, Willy? Well, you think on it fer now. Sweet dreams!" Within minutes, Baldi was asleep. Sledge was deeply snoring seconds later.

Buck felt a weight on his mattress and he turned slightly towards the boy who slept above him. The scoundrel sighed. Cooter reminded him of JD, naive and in over his head. The blonde didn't have a clue as to how to handle the situation he was in. If it wasn't for Buck, Walter Coots would already be dead.

"Why do ya try ta piss 'em off, Buck? Ain't gonna git ya nuthin' but another beatin'." Cooter curled up to the back of his cellmate. He was cold, lonely and scared, and the big gunfighter didn't seem to mind.

"Just somethin' to do, I guess, Coot. Good night," he whispered as he turned his face back towards the wall. Soon he heard the deep breathing of the boy behind him. Before he too fell asleep, he sent his prayers up to Josiah's God. "Lord, I wish it could have turned out different but you know I'm as guilty in this as Wallace. Take care of Louisa and let her know I look forward to seeing her again, if you let me. And please, keep Chris safe and don't let the boy turn bitter over this."

Chapter Three

Six men rode hell bent for leather toward Desperate, Colorado. Their mission was to see justice done, for not a one of them believed that the scales of justice had tipped in the right direction. Just before they had ridden out of town, Mary had received word from Judge Travis that Judge Brumcort had given Buck life in prison instead of hanging. That news had lifted spirits briefly but the fact remained, Buck Wilmington was in prison for a murder none of the six could believe he had committed.

Chris had barely spoken to any of them, Vin tried to stay beside his deadly friend but the man in black usually shot ahead of him, preferring to be alone. JD fluctuated between being sure that the mistake could be corrected and being sure that he would never see his best friend again. Ezra barely spoke, never complained and, all in all, mystified the others. Josiah tried to be the calming force for them all but even he was having trouble staying positive. Nathan simply tried to keep all of them going.

On the fifth day, an hour after the sun had set, they stopped and set up camp. It was done quickly, efficiently, and in total silence.

"Chris, what are we..." JD didn't get to finish his question before Larabee got up and removed himself from the presence of the others. JD slumped, defeated, his head hanging low so that none of his fellow peacekeepers could see his tears as they made their way silently down his cheeks.

Josiah moved closer to the youngster. "JD, he's so troubled, he doesn't know whether he's coming or going. Don't get me wrong, we all are distressed over this turn of events but Chris, well, he's in a stew over this 'cause he's supposed to be our leader and he has no idea how to fix this. And Buck, well, he's about as close to a brother as Chris ever had. So, until we get to Desperate, let's leave him to Vin. We will get our stray back, JD. I don't know exactly how yet, but we will. We'll be there tomorrow and then, things will start to improve."

Without raising his head, JD sniffed back the tears and then asked, "Do you think they'll let us see him, Josiah?"

"John Dunne, do you really think they could keep us from him? Of course we'll see him! And when we do, we'll find out the whole story and work to correct the wrong that's been done to our brother." The ex-preacher rubbed circles into JD's back, messaging knotted muscles. He felt bad for the junior member of their group. JD had come to rely so heavily on the big man that his deletion from them was having an overwhelming effect on the lad. They simply had to discover the truth and whatever it was, JD would have to accept it.

"Gentlemen, if we apply ourselves on the morrow, we should arrive at our destination around three. I suggest we all attempt to get some rest." With that, Ezra moved to his bedroll and turned his back to the others.

Ezra was right, they should try to get some rest, but Josiah and Nathan both stared at the green back of the gambler's wool coat and sighed. Why was Buck's conviction having such an effect on Ezra? When did he and Buck get so close? When Josiah thought about it, the two men were flip sides of the same coin. Both men had been raised by women that the general public snubbed or, in some cases, abhorred. They had no one to depend on except themselves, their wit and their guns. They had suffered through a war and its atrocities, surviving only to struggle to find their place in the newly reunited country. They had both ventured west, seeking out the wild, rough, life that the untamed land provided. And finally, coming to grips with their insecurities and hidden heartaches to find a home in Four Corners. Ezra must understand that if Buck's foibles, namely the ladies, could rip him away from the Seven, then his gambling could do the same. And if one was missing from the Seven, then they would possibly fall like a house of cards. Josiah moved to squat behind the gambler.

"We're going to need you more than ever, Son. Your agile mind must be in high gear to solve this most unsettling mystery."

Ezra rolled toward the voice, the baritone that usually brought warmth and confidence. "I will do whatever is required of me, Mr. Sanchez. I abhor the idea of our rogue being locked up in a penitentiary. It sits heavy on my soul," he smiled weakly, "That is if you believe in such a thing, Preacher. It is ironic, is it not, that of all the women that Mr. Wilmington had been with, it is the one he professed to love most that put him behind bars."

"Yeah, it's ironic, all right. Good night, Ezra."

"Good night, Josiah."

Chapter Four

Shortly after noon the next day, the six dusty men rode spent horses down the main street of Desperate. Chris had them underway before the sun was even thinking of appearing on the horizon. He had pushed his black gelding as far as the horse was capable of going, the others following as best they could. When the last of the six had arrived at the ridge that overlooked the mining town, they had discovered Chris Larabee waiting for them.

"We ride in as one. And nobody gets in our way, understand?" The leader spoke grimly, his voice cold. The others nodded and together, they made their way into town.

A hush fell over the mining town as the six rode slowly through their midst. Women hurried for the protection of stores and husbands. Children stopped in the middle of the street, hearing their mothers call hesitantly for them but not moving from their vantage point. Men gathered, whispering, pointing, and cringing from the safety of the boardwalk and side buildings.

"That's the Larabee gang."

"I read all about 'em in that dime novel. Nuthin' can stop 'em."

"Where's the seventh?"

"We found 'im guilty, remember!"

"Ah, shit!"

Chris pulled his black gelding to a halt by the hitching post in front of the largest saloon. The others followed suit, dismounting and awaiting orders. They knew the goal; they trusted their leader to get them to it. Slowly, his eyes taking in everything around him, the black clad gunfighter eased himself down from his saddle. He handed his reins to Nathan.

"You and JD, take the horses to the stable. Make sure they're well taken care of." With that, he moved up onto the boardwalk and entered the saloon through its batwing doors. He stood menacingly, adjusting to the darkness of the room, looking for anyone who might be stupid enough to pique his ire. Finding no one willing to stand up to him and his entourage, he made his way to the bar. Vin, Ezra, and Josiah fanned out on either side of the black clad gunfighter and they arrived at the bar four abreast. A bottle of whiskey and four glasses appeared immediately without them asking for it. Josiah poured and they all sipped their drinks in silence. Ezra was the first to turn around, facing the few patrons who still remained. 'They're staying to see the show,' he thought to himself. 'Well, hope they enjoy it.'

When Chris and Vin turned to glare at the patrons that still hung on, the air filled with a tension so thick a spoon would stand up in it. Without a sound, the men of Desperate, barely breathing, disappeared into the brightness of the November day. Chris made his way to the table that sat at the back of the room. It was a defense mechanism that was so ingrained in all of them, the thought never crossed their minds as to why they sat in the shadows. Vin moved with him but Ezra and Josiah stayed by the bar. The wait had begun.


JD and Nathan made their way to the livery that sat at the edge of town. It was beat up, the dry aging wood in serious need of paint. As they walked in, leading the spent horses, a scraggly man in a leather apron came out of a storeroom at the back of the building.

"What ken I do fer ya?" He wiped huge hands on the apron in a futile attempt to cleanse them before offering the right one to JD.

The Seven's youngest never made a move to reciprocate. His attention was locked on the corral that stood just outside the side door. He noted the big gray stood alone, its head down. JD handed the reins of his and Vin's horses to Nathan and then moved toward the door.

"Hey Bourbon," he said softly. The gray's head popped up and he snorted, tossing his head as if angry with the Easterner. He whinnied loudly, sadly, and then trod over to where JD stood. He shivered as the warm hand gently stroked his neck. "We've come to take you home, boy." The tears, which had largely remained in check since the newspaper article had been read, spilled in large salty drops down dirty, weather beaten cheeks. The reality of Buck's prison sentence struck the lad and his shoulders bobbed with sobs as he continued to stroke the horse's neck and muzzle. Nathan, having completed business with the proprietor of the livery, came to stand beside the young sheriff and offered his support with a gentle hand on JD's back. They stood that way for several minutes until JD regained control over his emotions.

"He's gone, isn't he, Nathan? He had his trial and an honest judge sentenced him. We can't just ride in and take him like we did Chris, can we?"

"I ain't too knowledgeable on the law, JD, but if there is any way around it, Chris and Ezra will find it. We've got to believe in that, we can't think any other way. I already told the owner that we're taking Bourbon when we leave. Buck would want him to be with us. Now, wash your face and let's go join the others."

The dark haired youth nodded, heading for the water trough to erase the tracks of the tears from his face.

Chapter Five

"Floyd, Ace is over at the boardin' house. Get his ass out of bed and have him meet me at the saloon. Tell him Larabee and his gang just rode in." Slim Black had been expecting the gunfighters. Within minutes of the arrest of Buck Wilmington by his deputy, Sheriff Black knew there would be trouble. He had recognized the suspect's name and knew he was associated with Larabee. He didn't want trouble and he had attempted to investigate the woman's murder but his deputy had assured him that the case was airtight and with a hand on the butt of his gun, Ace had implied that being too nosey wouldn't be too good for the health of Slim's family.

Slim was fifty-one years old. He had spent the years since the war as the sheriff of one mining town after another until he got to Desperate. Desperate, although wild and run down, had become his home. He had gotten married, even had two kids, and had let himself become soft. He knew it, the town knew it, but the citizens still held a certain respect for the man and thus they let him stay on as sheriff. It wasn't that he had changed in his regard to the law and justice, he still believed strongly in those principals. It was more that he wasn't able to stand up against those who stood beside him. His wife ran his home with an iron will, never asking his opinion on anything. He was fine with that. It was the fact that his deputy, Ace McCabe, ran the town that caused him to lie awake at night, determining to stand up to the man and take back his town, his home, the next day, only to awaken to the reality of the situation. Slim was scared to death of Ace and his cronies. He wanted to live the rest of his life in peace, to watch his kids grow up. These things made him keep his mouth shut and live with the situation.

Slim walked inside the jail and pulled out his double gauge shotgun. He checked the barrel and slipped two cartridges into the chambers. He adjusted his clothes and made sure that his badge was prominently displayed. He drew a deep breath and made his way to the saloon. He paused just outside the batwing doors. His knees shook but he pushed his way inside and made his way directly to the table in the shadows and stood before the two men who remained seated.

"Don't want no trouble from you and your men, Larabee." He tried to sound forceful but he feared he had failed miserably. He gripped the shotgun tighter.

Chris tilted his head slightly and peered at the sheriff with cold hard eyes. Slowly, never saying a word, he looked back down to the glass sitting on the worn wooden table. He picked up his whiskey and slowly downed the strong liquor. Finally, after having let the frightened man stew in his own sweat, he said, "You know why we're here." It wasn't a question.

"Now, look here, Larabee, your man had a fair trial. He was caught red handed by my deputy and Mr. Wallace, the guy runnin' for governor. He beat Mr. Wallace up when he tried to stop him from choking the woman. There's nothin' for you and yours ta do here. Your man's already been transported to the new state pen. So, ya all best just move on."

Just as Slim finished his speech, JD and Nathan entered. The sheriff's head swivelled to see who had entered, hoping it would be his deputy. Instead, he saw that it was two more of the gunfighters from Four Corners who now surrounded him. He took a step back and swung the shotgun around, trying to keep an eye on all six men at the same time. "I'm warnin' all a'ya, keep them guns holstered. He was guilty and he got what he deserved."

"Can't agree with ya there, Sheriff." Vin stood slowly, his hand held slightly away from his mare's leg.

"You see, Sheriff, we have been able to obtain an unique perspective on our errant lothario over the past year. We are in accord when it comes to the realization that there is nothing in the world, short of her hurting one of us, that could possibly compel that man to slay a member of the weaker sex."

Slim stared open mouthed at the man in the fancy green coat. He had no idea what the dandy had just said.

Josiah moved up beside Ezra. "He didn't do it."

The circle tightened and Slim once again brought the shotgun up to shoulder height, waving it side to side, trying cover all six interlopers. Josiah reached out a big hand and grabbed the gun barrel. "Put it down. If we wanted ya dead, you'd be six feet under already."

"What did Buck have to say for himself? He had ta have told you the truth. He didn't do it, somebody else did," JD stood straight and as tall as he could. "He loved Louisa, he wouldn't have hurt a hair on her head."

Slim swallowed, his throat dry as sand. "He, uh, he didn't say anything. He got knocked out as he was fightin' with my deputy and Wallace's bodyguard. When he finally came to, he was, I don't know, blank I guess. Never uttered one word. Not even at the trial. Not 'til the Judge sentenced 'im, then he said he was sorry. Said somethin' like, I let ya down and I'm sorry. Didn't know who he was talkin' to though. Ace took him to Canon City the next day. That's the last I seen of 'im, Larabee."

The batwing doors swung open and in swaggered Ace McCabe. He was a big man, tall as Buck with broad shoulders and muscular build. He was a handsome man and he knew it. But unlike Buck Wilmington, Ace only took care of himself. The men and women who found themselves in the deputy's ring of friends were all afraid of his temper. Slim Black was simply afraid of the younger man. Slim knew the man was unscrupulous. But by the time Slim had realized this fact, Ace had taken over the jail and quite simply, ran the town.

"Well, if it ain't the notorious gang from down south. Figured you'd be showin' up before too long. Sorry ya rode all this way for nothin' Larabee." Ace smiled evilly, standing slightly sideways, his hand resting on his gun.

Chris rose slowly to his feet, his hand also on his gun. Vin moved to stand on his right side. JD shifted and stood on his left side, Buck's place. "Well, well, we're notorious. How 'bout that, boys?"

Ezra grinned. "I do believe that we have earned that nom de plume, Mr. Larabee. Why a whole book was published about us, citing our various deeds of daring."

Chris shook his head, grinning, his eyes still cold as ice. "When you're right, you're right, Ezra. Guess we are notorious." He drug out the last word, carefully pronouncing it.

Ace looked from the gunfighter to the gambler and back again. He had the feeling they were making fun of him and he had to regain control. "Guess you're too late. Your guns ain't gonna change a thing this time. Murderin' bastard should'a hung. Judge was awful lenient. He's probably getting' his come uppance at the pen though." The deputy snickered.

Wrong move! Ezra pivoted and brought his right arm up, the derringer snapping down and into the palm of his hand. Before he knew it, Ace McCabe was staring into the small barrel, a foot from his face.

"If you have one ounce of brain in your thick skull, sir, I'd apologize and then make myself scarce while my compadres and myself are in this despicable berg." The gambler moved slightly closer, the derringer now inches from the shocked man's face. McCabe never would have guessed the dandy would come at him first. "And if we find that you are in some way responsible for our friend being in prison, you will wish you had been incarcerated in the pen when you had the chance. Do you understand, sir?"

Ace McCabe stepped back, glaring coldly at the man who had threatened him. He turned on his heel and left.

"Cretin!" Ezra pulled the small gun back into the harness up his sleeve and then dusted off his coat sleeve.

"Need ta watch that one." Vin eased his lanky frame back down into his chair.

"Sheriff, we will get to the bottom of this. Someone in this town is guilty of murderin' Miss Perkins because it's damn sure not Buck Wilmington." The man in the black duster spoke softly, but his message was loud and clear.

Black's eyes bulged at the implied threat. His sweaty hands still filled with shotgun, he backed away from the six gunfighters and eased his way out the door. He leaned, breathless, against the front wall of the saloon. He was caught between a rock and a hard place. What was he going to do?

Chapter Six

Larabee felt five sets of eyes staring at him, waiting for him to reveal the plan to retrieve their missing 'brother'. Only problem with that was, Chris didn't have a plan. He had used all his energy on the long ride to Desperate, being angry or scared or angry or worried or angry. Mostly angry with Buck for leaving the safety of Four Corners where he knew he had men who would guard his back. He was angry that Buck put one of his women "friends" before JD, the others, hell, before him. It wasn't right and Buck should have known that! No woman was worth Buck's life. For that matter, no man was!

Now that they were in the town where Buck's fate had been sealed, Chris had to find a way to prove that the authorities were wrong. He had to find proof of Buck's innocence and absolve him of the consequences of his apparent guilt. Chris studied his drink for a long time.

"Mr. Larabee, might I suggest that you and Mr. Dunne proceed to the penitentiary and talk to our missing scoundrel. Surely he must know what happened to Miss Perkins. Perhaps he is aware of the killer's identity. The rest of us will remain here and try to ascertain exactly what occurred." Ezra read people of all sorts. It was the way he had stayed alive and out of jail himself. He knew, without a doubt, that their leader was in a quandary as how to proceed. The con artist also knew more about the legal system than he had ever let on to his comrades. Maude had made sure that he knew all the ins and outs of the court system.

Chris turned an appraising look at the gambler. He rapidly agreed with Standish, took the suggestion and ran with it. "Yeah, we'll leave in the morning. The rest of you need to start talkin' to everyone in town. Find out all you can about what Miss Perkins was doing here, about her position with the politician who testified against Buck, anything that might give us a clue as to who the real killer was."

Ezra didn't want to step on the authority of their leader but he had one further suggestion that they might try. "I was also thinking that perhaps one or more of us should proceed to Denver and try to persuade the temporary governor of the need to reopen the case. The newly formed state of Colorado is not fully set up and the judicial system has not been fully appointed. Therefore, the appeals process could take a prolonged time with Mr. Wilmington having to endure incarceration until it was over. Perhaps one of us could persuade the governor that Mr. Wilmington would be better off awaiting a new trial in a neutral city jail rather than the penitentiary."

Five mouths opened but not a word found its way out. None of the others had considered going to the top of the state's government. Could it really work? Could they convince the governor to release Buck?

"Ya think there might be a chance of that, Ez? You could talk to the governor and get Buck outta there?" JD had perked up at the conman's suggestion.

"I would be more than willing to attempt such a maneuver, my young friend, but there are no promises."

Larabee's full attention was on the gambler. "You'd have to be at your most persuasive, Standish. I've seen ya wiggle your way out of a lot of situations with your smooth tongue and ten dollar words but this is a little outta your league, ain't it?"

"My good sir, my mother and I traveled in some of the highest circles in the South during my formative years. You have met my mother. Do you doubt her ability to entrench herself in high society?"

Despite the circumstances, several of the group smiled. None of them had a doubt that Maude Standish could ingratiate herself into any social circle. And none of them had a doubt that her son was just as unctuous as she was.

Once again, five sets of eyes looked to their leader for action. Larabee sighed. "It's worth a shot, Ezra. Take Josiah with ya."

Standish nodded and turned towards the big ex-preacher. "We shall both need to be at our elocutionary best, my dear Reverend."

"That we shall, Brother Standish, that we shall."


Ace McCabe was furious. Nobody treated him that way in his own town. Nobody! How dare this bunch of hooligans force him to back down, to leave his saloon! They wouldn't get away with it. He would make sure they got their come-uppance. But first, he had to cover his ass. He headed straight to the telegraph office.

Oliver Dancy liked being the telegraph operator. It was an easy job. Plus, he had the benefit of knowing all that was sent over the line. He really liked that part of his job. He liked the fringe benefits that came with that information. He had a tidy sum in the bank thanks to that information. He looked up as his friend and business associate, McCabe opened the door and forcibly made his way to the counter. The deputy glared at Mrs. Jones who was about to send a telegram to her sister regarding the upcoming wedding of her daughter. The woman wasn't a fool.

"I'll come back later, Oliver." She rushed out the door.

"I need two messages sent."

Oliver smiled and grabbed his paper and a pencil. "I'm ready."

Chapter Seven

Slim Black sat behind his desk. The jail was empty; it usually was except on Saturday nights. He flipped silently through the newest wanted posters but he didn't take in any of the information on the sheets of paper. His mind was on the six men who were still in the saloon and the one man who had spent a few days in his jail cell. Disgusted with himself, he got up and began pacing the room.

When had he sunk so low? When had he become less than a man? When he was younger, he had pride in himself. He had enjoyed being a lawman. Others had respected him. When had he lost not only others respect but his own?

"You're a son of a bitch, Slim Black. You let him run your life! You let her run your life! And why? Because it's easy, isn't it? Because you've given up and grown lazy. You're not worth two bits, are you, you worthless piece of shit!" The words echoed around the sturdy structure. He stopped pacing and let the anger build. God, how he hated his life, what he had become over the past ten years. To relieve the fury inside, he whirled around and smashed his fist into the brick wall. "God damn, you're an idiot!"

Shaking his hand and his head, he thought back to the day Miss Perkins had died.

He had seen McCabe running toward the hotel, right behind that brute that Wallace called his aide. He had wondered what might be going on but didn't feel inclined to cross the street and find out for himself. It wasn't until about twenty minutes later that McCabe and Mr. Ferguson came out of the hotel, dragging a tall, lanky, stranger between the two of them. Now was the time to mosey back to the jail and find out what the hell the unknown man had done. After all, it was still his town.

"What's he in here for?" he asked, nodding his head toward the semi-conscious man, who had been thrown roughly into the back cell.

Adding one final kick to the poor man's body and subsequently locking the door, the deputy almost smiled. "He murdered that pretty redhead assistant of Mr. Wallace. When Wallace caught him red handed, the bastard attacked him. Took both me and Ferguson to pull this lug off the candidate. Ferguson hit him upside the head or we would still be fightin' with him."

Black walked over to the bars, searching the man's battered face. "Ain't never seen him before. Did Wallace have a clue as to why he'd wanna kill her?"

McCabe moved to stand beside his boss. "Guess he came from some town down south, had a big infatuation on her, thought she would marry him. When she sent him packin', he turned on her."

Ferguson, who stood back near the desk, snorted. "Miss Perkins was engaged to Mr. Wallace. She didn't have no time to spend on a loser like him."

Slim looked from his deputy to the big brute and back. Something was fishy between the two but he wasn't going to push McCabe and risk his own life because of some poor joe. He glanced back at the prisoner and thought he should probably get the doc over to take a look at him. The man was a mess and Slim didn't want the Judge admonishing him for how he treated his prisoner's.

After retrieving his best friend, Doc Anders, he watched as the doctor stitched the nasty gash on the side of the man's head and cleaned his face and eyes. As Anders was finishing his administrations, the stranger groggily came to and opened his swollen eyes.

"Wha' happen'd?" he slurred. He tried to sit up but the doctor pushed him back down onto the lumpy mattress.

"That's what I want to know. My deputy says you murdered Miss Perkins. You got somethin' to say 'bout that?" Slim sipped at his cup of black coffee.

"Louisa....she's dead?" The man looked shocked. He fought harder to get up and the doctor let go. He staggered to his feet but couldn't stand for long. He sank back onto the bunk. "How? Who killed 'er?"

Slim studied the man's face. He didn't see any deceptiveness or fabrication there. "They say you done it."

"No, no, not me. Not me," the stranger whispered as he lost his grip on consciousness once again.

"He didn't do it," Slim murmured as his friend exited the cell.

Exhaling a deep sigh, he searched his soul. He couldn't do it one minute longer. He couldn't let an innocent man sit in a prison because he was spineless. He couldn't let a man's reputation be ruined because somebody scared the shit out of him. He took a deep breath and sat back down at the desk. He grabbed two pieces of plain paper and began to write.


"Are you Mr. Larabee?" A short towheaded youth stood before the man in black, his hat and an envelope in his hands. He looked ready to bolt as the gunfighter raised his head.

Chris eyes him suspiciously. "What do you want, kid?" The lad thrust the envelope at him and as soon as Chris took it in his hand, the youth ran back out of the saloon. Chris watched the boy go and then studied the envelope. His name was written in bold letters. He ripped open the envelope and quickly read the letter.

Come to the sheriff's office at midnight. Come alone and enter through the rear. I have information that might help.

Sheriff Black

"Who's it from, Cowboy?" Vin was the only one still at the table with him. The others had gone to check into the hotel.

"Black. Seems he wants to tell me somethin'. Wants me to come alone at midnight." Chris turned his head slightly to see the tracker's reaction. He got a lifting of eyebrows and a narrowing of blue eyes.

"Ya goin'?"

Chris nodded and then pulled out his pocket watch. Two hours until midnight. He stood up and stretched. Vin was beside him as he headed out the door. They both found a seat in the shadows of the closed general store and they made themselves comfortable. They weren't in the mood for an ambush.

When the watch hands reached midnight, Chris Larabee made his way to the back door of the jail. He and Vin had been watching for any movement in or around the sheriff's office and hadn't seen any except for one shadow as if moved slowly back and forth across the shaded window. They presumed it was a nervous sheriff.

Chris had his gun out as he silently entered the building. Eyes ever alert for danger, he checked the cells and found no one. He moved into the main room and watched a preoccupied man mumble to himself.

"Ya gotta do it, you worthless bag of bones. Ya can't keep hidin' like this."

"And who is it you're hidin' from?" Larabee watched as the older man jumped nearly out of his leathery skin. The man gasped as his hand went automatically to the gun at his side. "Wouldn't do that, if I was you."

Slim cautiously dropped his hand down at his side. He took a deep breath to fight the jitters that assailed his body. "From the man I used ta be. I wasn't always the laughin' stock of the town, Larabee. I used to have at least a shred of pride in what I do. Don't know exactly when I lost it but it's been gone a while now." He moved to sit behind the desk and motioned for Chris to sit opposite him. He fingered another envelope. Slowly, he handed it over to the lawman from New Mexico.

Chris took it but didn't open it. The man in front of him would tell him what was in it. He waited.

"I don't know exactly what happened in that hotel room. I'd guess there was a fight. I assume your friend beat the tar out of Wallace. But I doubt he killed that woman. When McCabe and that hired gun of Wallace's drug Wilmington in here, he was unconscious. Beat up real bad. Took him a long time to come around. I had the doc look at him but he said there weren't much he could do. Doc did try to clean out his eyes some and stitched a nasty gash on his head. Was almost time for the trial before he really woke up. He was still woozy, had to hang on to him as we took him across the street. Don't know if he was even really aware of what was goin' on. Judge wanted to postpone but Wallace, he was real persuasive. Said he had to move on to the next town, couldn't be held up from the 'campaign trail'. Sides, it was a governor candidate, his right hand man, and a deputy versus a gunslinger from out of town. Never did hear his side of the story. He never spoke one word in his own defense." Black stopped and went to pour himself a cup of strong black coffee. He offered some to Chris and, when the man in black nodded, he handed Chris a cup before he continued.

"I ain't sure who killed Miss Perkins." Slim smiled, remembering the woman who had spent a week in his town. "She sure was a purty thing, with that red hair and that big smile. What a shame. Somebody snapped her neck, probably with his bare hands. Might 'a been Wallace, might 'a been the bodyguard. All I do know is that, well, it wasn't your friend. I'm sorry I didn't speak up at the trial but what good would it a 'done? I didn't witness the crime. Judge Brumcort, I don't think he thought Wilmington was guilty either but the jury gave the verdict. The big guy just stood there, didn't say a thing in his defense. Probably was still in shock or still out of it from the knock on the head. Prob'ly why the Judge gave him life instead of the rope."

Slim shifted gears. He pointed to Chris's right hand. "Mr. Larabee, I know Dave Collins, he's the warden over at Canon City. He's a good man but he don't have much experience. He wrote me not long ago. Said he feels like he's at the bottom of the well, not really knowin' what's goin' on around him. That letter is to him, askin' a favor. I told him to let ya see your friend, talk to him about what really happened. Hopefully, Dave'll cooperate with ya."

Chris lowered his head. It felt as if a whole bale of hay had been removed from his shoulders. Hope seemed to blossom where none had been before. Not that there was any real proof that they could hang Buck's life on, but there was a smidge of optimism. When he raised his head again, he nodded to Slim Black.

"You're probably right about there bein' nothin' you could do at the trial. Look, Sheriff, I'm leaving two men here. They're gonna start lookin' into things. Could ya keep an eye on 'em 'til we get back?"

Slim straightened his shoulders. Larabee was looking him right in the eye, a trace of respect in the gunfighter's steady gaze. He stuck out his hand and shook with the man in black. "I'll help as much as I can, Mr. Larabee. McCabe is a dangerous man though. He don't like to be pushed around in front of his peers, he strikes like a snake out of a prickly patch. Make sure whoever stays knows to watch their backs."

Chris nodded and left the jail. Plans had just changed!

Chapter Eight

The six planned to gather in the hotel's restaurant first thing in the morning. Upon arriving, Ezra and Josiah had their packed saddlebags with them. They were ready to head off to Denver. They tried their best to be optimistic but deep inside neither man felt their trip would be worthwhile. Two gunfighters from out of state, attempting to see the governor pro tem, trying to get him to overturn a verdict where the man's opponent in the race for governor was the victim, was more than an uphill battle. It was like riding into Purgatorio and shouting, "you're under arrest." The impossibility was lying like a brick in both men's stomachs.

Chris was the last to arrive. He also had his saddlebags packed. He sat and poured himself a cup of coffee. Drawing in a deep breath, he simply stated, "JD, you ain't goin' to the prison."

JD's head snapped up like a string had suddenly been pulled. "What? Nah, you ain't serious, are ya, Chris? I ..." He had started to say that he needed to see Buck, needed to put his hands on the man, to know that his 'big brother' was still alive and well. He needed to tell him that they were going to get him out of that hell hole no matter what. He needed Buck to know that the others were still there for him. "Chris, I gotta go!"

"JD, I had a long talk with Black last night. He told me who he thought did the killin' and he don't think Buck was the murderer. But he also said that Buck was hurt pretty bad. He said Buck had a real nasty head wound, that his eyes were infected, and that he was havin' trouble just walkin' across a street. I need Nathan to go with me, to check Buck out. From my experience, prison doctors ain't much ta hang your hat on. 'Sides, I need a real good shot to watch Junior's back for me. The two of you will be alone in this town tryin' to find out who the real killer is, he might still be here in town. I got the feelin' you're gonna stir up a hornet's nest before Nate and I get back." He looked right into the youth's eyes, a melancholy feeling pouring forth. "I know how you feel, JD. I feel it too but your stayin' put is what I need ya to do. I think Nathan is gonna be needed up in Canon City."

JD watched Chris, saw the sadness slump his shoulders, knew the pain their leader felt. He wanted so much to go to that prison and see Buck but he knew that Chris was right. Buck might need Nathan.

"All right, Chris. I'll stay here with Vin. We'll do all we can to dig up something to clear Buck. Did the sheriff have a clue as to who might have really done it?"

Chris sighed and smiled slightly. JD had grown into a fine man, mainly with Buck's assistance. "He figured Wallace or his bodyguard did it. Just a feelin' though, not enough to bring to court. You and Vin watch yourselves. That deputy won't take kindly to you provin' he's on the take."

"We will, Chris. And, Chris, tell Buck ... well, just tell him I'm lookin' forward to seein' him. God, I hope he's not too bad off."

The gunfighter put a hand on the youngest's shoulder. Quietly, he replied, "Me too, kid. I'll make sure he knows you wanted to come." His hand dropped and he leaned over to pick up his saddlebags. "Ready Nathan?"

Minutes later, the six remaining members of the Magnificent Seven split up into pairs, wished each other good luck, and went their separate ways.

Chapter Nine

Buck made his way slowly to the back of the wash shed. Shortly after arriving at the prison, he had discovered the bench at the back of the shed and the relative isolation of the locale. He could sit there and forget for a few minutes each day that his life was over. His body protested as he eased his lanky frame down onto the cold wooden bench. He had faced three of Baldi's hit men yesterday and they had worked him over real good. Once again, he had fought back but the odds were against him and he had ended up with two black eyes, a swollen cheek, bruised ribs and, possibly, a broken hand. He cradled the swollen hand with his left hand and laid his head back against the rough bricks of the building.

He closed his eyes and thought of his six friends. Would they somehow discover what had happened to him? What would they do then? He was sure of one thing. If JD found out where he was and what he had done, the boy would never speak to him again. That was fine with Buck. The youth from back East needed to get on with his life. He needed to settle down, perhaps marry that sweet little filly of his. Buck knew it would be a waste of time to try to persuade him to take up some other occupation but Four Corners was getting better and with the other five to back him, being sheriff wasn't such a bad life's work.

Easing his right hand into his lap, he ran a weary left hand over his bruised, inflamed eyes. He swiped at the crusted eyelashes and rubbed a knuckle into the burning corner of his right eyelid. He was so tired! Tired of the headaches, tired of the blurry vision, tired of this place and the men he was forced to associate with. He longed for a clean bed where he could stretch out. He longed for a soft warm female body to bury himself in. But mostly, he longed for the companionship of his six brothers, the men who made Four Corners his home.

The sounds of footsteps brought his head up. 'Damn Buck, keep alert!' he chastised himself as he quickly stood to face yet another foe. The odious guard, Caleb Teeters, stood before him, slapping his three-foot long nightstick into his left palm, smiling at the tall mustached prisoner.

"What are ya doin' back here, boy? Ya tryin' to escape?" Teeters took a step towards Buck, forcing Buck to step back into the bench he had just been sitting on. Teeters chuckled as Buck tried to catch his balance. He reached out and shoved Buck back to hit the wall of the shed. The rogue's foot caught on a rounded river rock and he stumbled forward to maintain his balance. He bumped into Teeters and paid for his transgression with a blow to his shoulder from the hard thick stick. Buck didn't say a word. He had not only witnessed this guard's animosity towards other prisoners but he had felt the stick before on several occasions. He would give the man nothing of himself.

"Down on your knees, you murderin' bastard," Teeters hissed in Buck's ear. Again he slapped the stick into the palm of his left hand. It was a gesture meant to intimidate, however it did nothing but fuel Buck's anger.

"Don't call me that." The words were hissed back at the scurrilous, muscular guard. Buck turned his head and glared at the slightly shorter man with the pockmarked face.

"You givin' me orders? Oh, that's good, Wilmington. Real funny," he chuckled mirthlessly at the defiant prisoner. "What, you don't like bein' reminded that you're a murderer or is it you don't like recollectin' that you're a bastard?" The last word was spat out like a man would spit out rancid beef.

"Go ta hell, Teeters," Buck's anger was peaking, about to erupt.

The sadistic guard could feel the fury building in the man he was intentionally trying to provoke. One more comment should do it. "You'll git there long before me, you whore lovin' murderer."

Buck's head came up straighter and the muscles in his jaw clenched. Both hands closed into fists of rage at his sides. Just as he was about to strike out at the object of his wrath, a voice rang out loud and clear, if only in his mind. 'You can't win, don't do it.' It was Chris's voice that Buck heard. The voice that had, for years, kept the quick-tempered gunfighter's wrath in check, once again dispelled his anger. Buck turned and faced the enormous stone wall. He pictured his old friend standing before him, the gleam in his eye, the right hand resting comfortably on the butt of his pistol. He took a deep breath and tried to force himself to relax.

Caleb saw his opponent's body tense and then relax. That wasn't what he wanted. He had a job to do and he wanted the man before him so angry that he lashed out without thinking. He needed to push a little further.

"What happened Wilmington, did the lady ya killed find out you're a whore's bastard son? Did she reject ya 'cause your mama sold herself to any man with a few bucks? Was that why ya choked the life outta her, you motherfucker?" As he spat the last word at Buck, Teeters shoved his wooden stick into the rogue's already tender ribs, driving the breath out of the lanky man.

Buck bent over to regain his breath and came up fighting mad. The last few weeks had bent him but he was going to show this man that Buck Wilmington didn't give up and he didn't break. He brought his fist up and drove it forcefully into the guard's solar plexus. Teeters had been expecting it but it still drove him back, his breath gone. Buck moved in with all the force he had left in his exhausted body. An upper cut caught the sadistic guard on the chin. His head snapped back and he went down on his back.

Caleb was in extremely good shape however, and he sprang right back up. He had threaded a leather piece through the stick he carried and always had it around his wrist. Thus, the stick was still at hand. He ducked Buck's next punch and brought his hand around from the outside, hitting Buck's left side with all his body weight behind the blow. Buck could feel his rib crack from the force and the pain shot through his weakened body. His rage fueled his body though and he threw another punch at Teeters, catching him in the ribs. Caleb took a step back and then bent low, swinging the stick and connecting with Buck's knee.

Buck went down, his leg instantly numb. His head hung low between his arms. As he brought it up, he saw the guard laughing and Buck lunged from his hands and knees to hit the man in the stomach with his shoulder. Teeters fell backwards, Buck on top of him. The guard struck out with his club and hit Buck along the left side of his head, cutting his scalp and starting the bloodletting. The big prisoner was stunned and Caleb easily rolled both of them over. Now on top, Caleb stuck once, twice, three times. Buck brought up his arm in a defensive mode and caught two of the blows on his forearm. The third one, though, got through and caught him on the cheekbone. With that blow, Buck was done.

"What the HELL is GOING ON?" The question thundered through Buck's pain filled mind. The voice registered in Buck's memory but he couldn't connect it with a body. He was fighting to maintain a grip on consciousness. It did register with him that the beating had stopped. That was a positive.

"What the hell are you doing, Teeters? What happened?" The captain of the guards pulled his underling off the bloody prisoner and forced him back away from the man Teeters had seemed intent on killing. James Collins stood forcefully between the repugnant guard and the injured man who had yet to move on the ground. He may have gotten his job because his brother was the warden, but he took it seriously.

Teeters stood, rage boiling his blood, his hand clenching and unclenching its grip on the club. How dare this pretty boy interfere with him? He glared at the six foot blond in front of him, panting, trying to control his murderous vehement wrath. "He attacked me!" he finally spat out. "No prisoner attacks me and lives."

"Well, this one is going to. Get back to the other prisoners." When his order was not immediately acted upon, James stepped closer to the vile man in front of him. "Go!"

Caleb Teeters spat out a mouthful of blood, hitting Buck's leg. Still looking daggers at his boss, he turned on his heel and left the bloody prisoner to the ministrations of Collins. He searched the rest of the prisoners who were milling about the yard, ignorant of the fight that had taken place. Upon spotting the prisoner he was looking for, he made his way to the corner of the yard where Caesar Garibaldi was 'holding court'.

"Garibaldi, stay put. The rest of you, get lost." Giving their yard boss an uncertain glance, the six big men that were sitting with the little tyrant got up and disappeared into the general mass of men in the prison yard.

Caesar ran his white hand through his greasy black hair and smiled up at the guard. "What can I do for ya, Teeters? Ain't got any hooch on me t'day." The diminutive gang leader scrutinized the man before him. He and Teeters had long ago set the parameters of their relationship. Teeters got Baldi everything he wanted and in return, Baldi did most of Teeters' dirty work. "Tried ta handle somethin' on yer own, didn't ya?"

"Yeah. That son of a bitch Collins stuck his highfalutin' nose in where it don't belong. I want one of your guys to put an end to your new cellmate. By tomorrow at the latest. And Caesar, make it hurt." Caleb rubbed his sore jaw, waiting for the undersized murdering henchman to agree to the request.

"Gonna need a big knife." Caesar grinned, his rotting teeth showing evilly. "And a scared patsy."

Chapter Ten

James Collins called one of his fellow guards over and together they picked up the tall prisoner and dragged him inside to the infirmary. They didn't have a certified doctor at the prison. The one that had been there had up and quit about a month earlier. The warden hadn't replaced him yet. So for now, a prisoner named Riley did his best to take care of his fellow inmates. Riley had gone to medical school for a while back before the war. When the war was over, however, Riley had found he liked the relative easy life of crime better than he did book learning and higher education. Of course, the old adage came true. Crime didn't pay and now, he found himself serving ten years for bank robbery. It was an easy gig though, working here in the infirmary. He set bones and stitched up cuts, took care of fevers and rotten teeth. Anything more, well, nobody really cared if the prisoners lived or died anyway.

"Do what you can for him, Riley. I'll be back shortly. I want his version of what happened." They deposited Buck on the middle of the three clean beds. Both guards then left the two prisoners alone.

Riley sighed. He had already worked on this man. Two weeks before, he had stitched up a nasty cut over his left eye. Now, the man, he thought his name was Buck, was in need of more than just stitching. "What in the hell did ya do this time? You sure have a knack of pissin' people off, doncha!" He set to work, doing his best to set the broken arm and stitch the deep cuts. He tightly wrapped the man's ribs, cleaned up the bloodied face, and then he bandaged the swollen knee, keeping the leg from bending. Finally, he placed a hot compress on the cheekbone of the once handsome rogue. "I done all I can, buddy, the rest is up to you." Riley left the man to his misery and went back to his game of solitaire.

An hour later, James Collins walked back into the infirmary with a plateful of food. "Go on down for mess, Riley." He waved the bank robber out with a move of his head. He sat down by the tall prisoner. "You up for a little chow?"

The dark haired man was hungry, but his jaw was swollen and very sore. He shook his head slightly. He eased himself up onto the pillows. "Thanks, though," He mumbled.

"Figured ya would have trouble eatin', so I brought some gravy from the stew and some soft bread. That change your mind?" Again he offered food to the prisoner.

Buck smiled as much as he could. "Yeah." Collins put the tray on Buck's lap and he dug into the easily chewed food. When he was done, he wiped his mouth with the edge of the sheet and sighed. "Don't suppose I could spend my time right here in this bed?"

"No, but ya can spend the night, on one condition." Collins, setting the tray on the next bed, sat and looked intently at the badly beaten man in front of him.

"What condition?" Buck was suspicious of everybody in the hellhole he found himself residing in. The cell was looking better.

Collins saw the look of wariness come over the man and he shook his head. He couldn't blame the man for mistrusting his request. "I just want the truth about what happened today. That's all. We've been havin' a lot of trouble from Teeters. Lookin' for a reason to fire him. Government job, hard to get rid of people, ya know. Ya willin' to talk?"

Buck thought it over for a few minutes. When Collins assumed that he wasn't willing to inform on the sadistic guard, he pushed a little further. "I know who you are. That little dime novel made all seven of ya famous. Haven't quite figured out why you're here. Ya don't seem the murderin' type ta me. Don't suppose you're willin' to talk about that either, huh?"

Buck's chin rose. He had been proud of the Seven's job in Four Corners. He had finally found a home and a job that he loved doing. He had never liked being a hired gun. In fact, he had only sold his gun a few times, mainly when he was so broke he had no choice. He had only used his gun at other times to back Chris when the gunfighter had been so full of self hate that he tried to get himself killed to rid himself of the pain. However, he had found his niche in life when he was a Texas Ranger and then again when he had joined the others in defense of first, the Seminole village and then, the dying New Mexico town.

The way things stood now though, he was ashamed of what had become of him and he silently prayed that JD never found out where he was. His chin fell towards his chest in disgrace when he thought of the youth that had looked up to him as a mentor and big brother.

"I'm a prisoner in here for murder, that's who I am. Ain't nothin' more to say."

"That's not what the book had to say. Said you and the other six were bigger than life back there in Four Corners. What brought ya to Colorado?"

That damn dime novel!! Buck shook his head slowly. They never should have agreed to tell Steele anything! JD and Ezra had been excited about it though and the others, except for Chris and Vin, had agreed to tell Steele some of their adventures. He remembered greatly exaggerating his portion of the story. Always figured the others did too.

The reason behind his journey to Desperate wasn't any business of the humane guard sitting waiting for an answer. However, the felonious guard, who had beaten him for no reason, was his business. He turned his head slowly to face the man known for his fairness. "Teeters has been on my case since the day I arrived. Don't know why. He caught me by myself and he started in on me. I probably shouldn't have but he pissed me off. I tried to fight back after he hit me a couple times but he had that damn stick. Caught me in the knee and I didn't get up in time. That's when he caught me on the arm." Buck shifted uncomfortably in the soft bed. "Thanks for steppin' in."

"You say he was on ya from the start? Wonder why?" Collins sat back in the chair and made himself comfortable. He figured now that the man was talking, he would get the whole story.

"No idea. Teeters and my cellmate are tight, I know that. He takes part of Baldi's profit for lookin' the other way. Couple of the other guards are in cahoots with him but he's the one who's been out to get me."

"Ya never met him before ya got here?"

"Nope. Never could figure why he was so obsessed with me. Baldi, too. They started in on me the first day I was here and haven't let up since. Believe me, I've tried to stay in the shadows. Don't want anything to do with them or their little enterprises. I just want to do my time." He almost added 'and get out of here' but that wasn't an option. He was in this hellhole for the rest of his life. He took in as deep a breath as his hurting ribs would allow and closed his badly bruised eye against the mental anguish that assailed him.

James saw the debilitating remorse that threatened to shut down the basically good man before him. He suddenly felt sorry for the prisoner, something he hadn't done with any of the other men in the ten months he had been working with his brother at the prison. He wanted to do something for the man. He decided providing an ear to listen to his story would be the only way he could help.

"I'd be willin' to listen if ya got somethin' ya want to get off your chest. Ain't got nowhere ta be tonight." He spoke softly, compassion clearly denoted in his tone. He sat and patiently waited for the downtrodden prisoner to make the next move.

Several minutes later, after gathering his composure, Buck opened his eye and sought out the blonde sitting in the chair next to his bed. Emotion strong in his quiet voice, he said, "You remind me of Josiah. He was always right there when I needed him." Barely above a whisper, he added "He had most of the answers too. It was a stupid move on my part to leave. Chris knew it. Sure wish I'd a listened to him that time." He took a shuddering breath. "That danged fool book didn't tell half the story it shoulda. It shoulda been about friendship and trust, belief in the others to always be at your back when ya needed 'em. Not those tall tales we all lied about."

James chuckled softly. "Tell me more about Josiah. He really an ex-preacher?"

Buck shook his head slowly. He ached all over, especially his cheek where the compress was still in place. He was bone weary and soul tired and he didn't want to share his memories of his six 'brothers' with anyone connected with the prison. He decided to steer the guard away from Four Corners. "You don't think you could get me switched to another cell, do ya?"

James looked deep into the man's eyes and saw the pain and remorse that remembering had brought to him. The man would say no more about his time as a peacekeeper. "I'll try. Why don't you try to sleep now. I'll have Riley come back in and put a new compress on that cheek. I'll see ya tomorrow."


"Please, Caesar, don't' make me do it. I never killed anyone before. I can't kill him, I can't! Get somebody else, please, Caesar." The boy trembled in Sledge's grip. He gasped for breath as the arm around his neck tightened.

"You got nine years and seven months ta go, boy. Ya wanna live through to see the outside again?" Caesar Garibaldi picked at his fingernails with a long sharp knife. He wasn't even looking at the panicky youth.

The meaty forearm loosened slightly and Cooter croaked out, "Yeah."

Baldi stood slowly and slithered up to stand right in the boy's face. Without warning, the knife he had been holding was at Cooter's throat, drawing blood from a thin cut. "You will do it or your life will become a living hell." He bumped his knee against the boy's groin. "You understand me, boy?"

Tears streaming down his face, Cooter sniffed back his runny nose. Inhaling a shuddering breath, he nodded.

Chapter Eleven

Mid-morning the next day, Larabee and Jackson rode up to the front gate of Colorado's only penitentiary. Two guards with fully loaded rifles stood between them and the gate. Another guard came out of the guard shack and approached the two men.

"Can I help you?" He eyed the man in black suspiciously.

"We would like to talk to the warden, please. We got a letter of introduction. Would ya take it to him?" Nathan did the talking for the two of them. Chris just glared menacingly.

The guard glared back at the man on the spirited black gelding and reluctantly moved forward to take the letter from Nathan's hand. "You two stay put. Any move towards your guns and my men will take the appropriate action. You understand?"

"Don't worry, we just want to talk to the warden." Nathan smiled half heartedly to show the guard they meant no harm and then he slowly dismounted, prepared to wait. Larabee followed suit a minute later. The two talked quietly while they awaited the return of the guard.

Fifteen minutes later, the guard escorted them to an interview room and told them to sit and wait. The warden and another guard showed up shortly afterwards. Quickly assessing the two men before him, David Collins extended his hand.

"I'm Warden Collins. I understand that you wish to see a prisoner, talk to him. We generally don't allow people to come willy nilly to our front gate, insisting on seeing one of our inmates. However, I've known Slim Black for a long time and he's asked me to cooperate with the two of you. My brother here is also in favor of letting you see your friend. So, I'll make this one exception but, gentlemen, this will be the only time. James, take their gun belts and check them for other weapons. I'm sure you have no objections to that, do you, Mr. Larabee?" David Collins was a man of presence. He demanded attention simply by the way he handled himself. He was tall, with short light brown hair. He had a broad chest and was dressed in a stern black suit.

Chris wasn't sure he liked the man but he cooperated. James Collins took both men's guns and knives and then he left the room. Nathan suspected that he had gone to get Buck but not a word was spoken. The silence grated on all three men. The warden finally broke the silence.

"I'm sorry to inform you that your friend is not in the best of conditions right now. My brother reported to me just this morning that Mr. Wilmington was...well, punished by another one of our guards just yesterday for an attempted escape. He spent the night in the infirmary but the prisoner insisted on going back into the general population this morning. It seems he has a broken arm and several cuts and bruises on his face. We try to keep a tight rein on our inmates, Mr. Larabee, but, I assure you, we do not abuse them." Collins squirmed slightly under Chris's intense gaze. "Actually, Mr. Wilmington has been in several fights since he arrived but he doesn't really seem to be a troublemaker. It seems he and his cellmates don't get along too well and we are taking steps to move him to another cellblock. Uh, would either of you like a cup of coffee or water? You must have had a long ride."

Nathan shook his head but Chris didn't bother to answer the man. He held the warden's attention with his green glare and the twitch of tightening muscles in his jaw. His hands clenched and unclenched several times. Larabee had no respect for prison wardens, his mind flashing back to when he was illegally held for ransom in a makeshift prison in Jericho. He wasn't about to let this man off the hook for Buck's injuries. He wanted to see Buck standing straight and tall like the ladies man always did, a smile lighting up his face, a twinkle of humor and life in his eyes. Chris forced himself to relax, to remain calm in the face of this disastrous situation. He drew in a calming breath and waited.

Chapter Twelve

JD and Vin walked down the quiet street and made their way to the hotel. So far they had been unable to find even one person who would talk to them about what had happened that day in the hotel room where Louisa Perkins had met her demise. Either no one knew the truth or perhaps, the truth had already come out. JD would never believe that Buck could be capable of killing a woman, especially Louisa, but stranger things had happened and Vin knew that given the right circumstances, every one of the Seven could kill. It seemed that the truth might never come to light. As they entered the hotel, JD stopped before going into the dining room.

"I'm going up to the room to get my watch. I've felt naked without it all morning." JD started towards the stairway as Vin made his way to a table at the back of the small restaurant.

As JD came out of the room he was sharing with the Texan, a petite Chinese woman stood waiting for him. She was young, her long straight black hair tied back from her face with a yellow ribbon. She didn't look the young man in the face as she bashfully asked, "Are you the man who seeks untold truths?"

Startled, JD asked, "Excuse me, but do you know something about the murder that took place here about a month ago?"

The young woman nodded. She looked scared to death but she didn't run. "I wish to talk to you but not here where others might hear. Could you come to the laundry out behind the hotel?"

"Of course, Miss?" JD felt a spark of hope rise in his chest.

"My name is of no consequence. Your friend was kind to me and my mother. I wish to help if I can. Please, come to the laundry in a few minutes." She left, moving quickly towards the back stairway.

JD made the decision to not go downstairs and inform Vin of the woman and the hint of information she had provided. If he went down and even whispered to Vin about meeting the woman, others might notice. He didn't want to cause any problem for the frightened maid. He went back inside his room and forced himself to sit and wait for five minutes before he too made his way down the back staircase. He checked to see if anyone was around before he slipped into the shed used to do the hotel's sheets and towels. Once inside the shadowy interior, he let his eyes adjust to the sparse light. Near the steaming pot of water stood the young lady with her elderly mother right beside her.

"Do you know something about Buck and Miss Perkins?" JD walked slowly towards the two women. Both looked like they were ready to take flight at any second.

"The man with the mustache, he was in the woman's room. He was frantic when he came out and asked me to get bath water for the woman. He followed me down here and carried the water for me. I followed him back to the room with extra towels." She stopped and listened as her mother whispered in her ear. She turned her head back to JD and added, " He had stopped a man from hurting my mother the evening before. A man was drunk and was trying to pull my mother into his room. Your friend took offense and hit the man, carried him into his room. He even smiled at my mother. She wanted to thank him but she does not speak English."

JD smiled at that. It was so like Buck to protect a defenseless woman. Yes, that was his best friend, not a murderer of a woman. "What did you see inside Miss Perkins room?"

The young woman bit her lip and then looked at JD, sorrow written clearly on her face. "The beautiful woman, she was curled on the bed. Her clothes were bloody and she was crying. She didn't look hurt and I think the blood was coming from below."

"Below?" JD didn't understand.

"From under her skirts," the girl whispered.

"Oh," JD said as understanding struck.

The girl continued, her voice stronger. "We set up the tub by the fireplace and I was pouring the water in as he was helping the woman to her feet. He was very gentle and caring, not angry or upset. He asked me if I would help her get undressed and into the tub while he went for the doctor. When I said yes he hurried out of the room. He came back quickly, followed by Dr. Anders. I stayed in the corner in case the lady needed my help. Your friend was so kind to the woman, talking to her softly, encouraging her that everything would be all right. Sir, I don't believe he would have done what they say he did. She was fine when I left but I didn't see anymore than that."

JD breathed a sigh of relief. Now maybe they could get some answers out of other people. They would return to the doctor's office. Vin was good at getting answers out of strangers reluctant to talk to them. JD smiled broadly at the two women. "You don't know how much this means to us. This could be the break we've been looking for to get a new trial. Thank you, miss. And thank your mother too."

"But I did not ... how do you say... I did not help the man?" The young hotel maid looked perplexed. She took a step towards JD. "I wish to help but I'm afraid that I did not."

"Oh, you did! You gave us hope and a place to start. You see, that is exactly how our friend would have acted around a woman, caring and loving. He came to ask the woman to marry him. He loved her. He wouldn't hurt any woman but especially not Miss Perkins. I think we'll go pay the doctor a little visit and move on from there. We owe you for this. You're the only one in town who seems to have the guts to speak the truth. You are a truly good woman and we thank you." He moved close to the young woman and leaned towards her. He gently placed a chaste kiss on her cheek. Stepping back he grinned at the blushing young woman. 'Guess I did learn a thing or two from Buck.' JD thought as he left the two women smiling. He hurried inside to find Vin just coming towards the back door.

"Where you been? Ya had me frettin', boy!" Vin's voice held trepidation as he quietly reprimanded his young friend. Obviously, the tracker had been searching for him, knowing that Ace McCabe was watching their every move, eager to get rid of them from his town.

"Vin," he started, contritely, "sorry for not telling ya where I was goin' but I didn't want to endanger the girl." When the Texan gave him a curious glare, JD grabbed his leather coated arm and lead him outside. After looking around for anyone who might overhear them, the young sheriff softly explained. "One of the maids was with Buck and Louisa shortly before she died. She stayed with Louisa while Buck went for the doctor. She said Buck was very gentle with Miss Perkins, not rough or angry. Unfortunately, she didn't see anything else. But, maybe the doctor knows more than he was willing to tell us earlier. Ya think if we took the sheriff with us, the doctor might say more?"

Vin nodded his head. "That does sound more like our Bucklin, don't it? Maybe with a familiar face along, the ol' Doc might have another story ta tell. Lets go."


The two regulators from New Mexico made their way to the sheriff's office and talked Black into going with them to the doctor's office. Dr. Anders was one of the first citizens of Desperate that they had tried to talk to yesterday but all he had to say was that Buck was suffering from a concussion and he gotten ashes in his eyes causing a painful eye infection. He agreed that Buck might have still been suffering the effects of the concussion during his trial and it could have been the reason that the ladies man never even tried to defend himself. He failed to mention that he had been with Buck and Louisa just before the murder took place.

Knocking softly on the door to the doctor's house, Slim Black lead the way in. Dr. Anders was in his forties, round, bald, with glasses but he had a friendly, caring, appearance about him. He was definitely a trusted member of the community and his testimony would have been helpful to Buck's defense.

Slim waited until all four of them were seated in his parlor with cups of coffee in front of them before speaking to his friend about the reason for their visit. "Doc, we got some information that leads us to believe that you might know more about what happened to Miss Perkins than you ever told me. Why would you hide that from me, Gil? Did somebody threaten you?"

"I didn't hide anything from you, Slim!" Dr. Anders stood, feigning insult. Vin saw right through it.

"Don't bullshit us, Doctor! You had information that could'a saved our friend from prison. Spill it now or you'll wish you had a doctor!" Vin stood and slowly, menacingly, approached the short man of medicine.

Slim quickly got to his feet and moved between the two men, protecting his longtime friend from the intimidating, longhaired, gunfighter. "All right now, let's just calm down here! Gil, sit down. These men are fightin' for their friend's life, a friend that I don't believe belongs in jail any more than you or I. So, come on, tell us what you saw or heard that day."

Dr. Anders glared at Vin, then turned his face towards his friend and sighed. He moved to a wing chair in the corner of the room and sat, perched on the edge with his hands clasped over his knees. "He ain't gonna like my talkin' to you, Slim. You know he's a mean son of a bitch. What do I do if he comes to pay a visit?"

"Did he threaten you, Gil?" Slim had taken a seat in the matching chair by the fireplace. He leaned toward one of the honest men that he knew. He could see how scared his friend was and he tried to put him at ease. "Gil, these men are ready and willin' to take Ace on. He ain't gonna bother you, I promise." He stared at the man until he noticed the slight nod.

"He told me to stay quiet." He quickly glanced at the parlor door and then, in a hushed voice he added, "He knows about Mildred, Slim."

The sheriff nodded, understanding why the revered town doctor would agree to stay out of the proceedings in the murder of Miss Perkins. His wife would kill him if she found he was keeping a woman on the side! "Gil, what did you see that morning?"

The doctor sat back, defeated. "I didn't see anything pertainin' to the murder, Slim. Honest. I was up in her room, examining her about thirty minutes before hand. She was bleeding and I got her to lay down, gave her something for the pain." He looked up at the two outsiders standing by the fireplace. "Your friend, he was upset, but not angry or violent. He was anxious, worried, seemed to be treating her like she was special to him. I'm sorry I can't tell you anything more."

JD pushed away from the fireplace and started pacing the room. "There's gotta be more that you saw or heard! Think, Doc, what was goin' on between them? Was she upset with him?"

The doctor slowly shook his head. "No, sure didn't seem like it. They were holding hands, she seemed comforted by his presence."

JD stopped in front of the doctor's chair. He leaned down, putting a hand on each of the chair arms. "Was there anyone in the hall or comin' up the stairs? Think hard, Doctor Anders!"

The doctor looked up into the young face of the gunfighter and saw the worry there in the blue eyes. He racked his brain, trying to remember all that happened that day. "I think maybe I saw Wallace's assistant, the one that beat up your friend. And..." He hesitated because it was against his policy to give out patient information. The woman was dead, though, so he guessed it didn't matter much to her. "Miss Perkins, she was bleeding from the loss of a fetus. My guess was it was self inflicted."

Three men stared at the doctor in complete confoundment. None of them said a word for several minutes, absorbing the information that Louisa was pregnant. The fact that she had caused an abortion was hard for all of the men to fathom and it added a major wrinkle to the situation.

"Wonder whose it was?" JD whispered, partly to himself but the others heard and looked intently at the youth. Again the room was silent.

"Doc, Buck hadn't seen Louisa in 'bout five months. Was she that far along?" Vin knew a little more about pregnancy then JD but not much. Surely she would have been showing her condition by the time Buck found her. And knowing Buck, he would have been thrilled at the prospect of having a child.

"I'm sorry, I don't know. I didn't see much of her before that day. I was pretty busy that week and didn't go to any of Wallace's rallies. Slim, you've seen pregnant ladies before, did she look with child?"

"Shoot, Gil, with all them skirts and slips ladies wear nowadays, I can't tell. Sorry. I guess my question would be why she did what she did? This is getting muddier with everyone we talk to." He got up and held out his hand. "Gil, nothin's gonna be said 'til we know more. Just keep a low profile and Ace won't know you said anythin'. If he bothers ya, come straight to me, okay?" The two shook on it and Slim herded JD and Vin out the doctor's back door.

They all headed to the saloon and a drink to contemplate the latest information.

Chapter Thirteen

Ezra and Josiah arrived in Denver, tired, dirty, and totally frustrated. During the long twenty-four hour ride, both men had come up with ideas for approaching the governor pro temp. They had discarded all of them for one reasons or another. Truth be told, they had no connections in Colorado that were legitimate ones and both knew it would be nearly impossible to get an appointment with Governor Routt during his campaign for governor.

"Well, Son, I would imagine that two dusty, trail-weary gunfighters like ourselves would be shot on sight if we tried to gain entry to the governor mansion. So, the first order of business is to get a hotel room and a bath. Pick one, Mr. Standish." Josiah sat atop his large roan and pointed to the numerous hotels that lined the street.

"Josiah," the gambler started and then abruptly stopped. Across the street from them, two young gentlemen were escorting a blonde woman down the boardwalk. Ezra sighed as he recognized the woman. "Maude."

The ex-preacher, who had retained his childish crush on Ezra's mother for over a year, followed the Southerner's line of sight. He started laughing at the run of bad luck the Seven were having. "Don't suppose she's here on legitimate business. Maybe we could just ignore her for the time being?"

Ezra joined the laughter. "Ah, Mr. Sanchez, the one thing I could always count on with Mother was her exceptional, almost uncanny, knowledge of my plans and her ability to disrupt them. I assure you, my friend, she will find us. Since she is heading towards the Carlton, shall we make our way to the Eldorado? It seems reasonably clean and affordable."

The two men backtracked and, turning their reins over to a stable boy, they carried their saddlebags to the front desk of the mid-sized hotel. Tomorrow, they would make their way to the offices of the appointed governor. Somehow, they would worm their way in to see him and convince him that Buck Wilmington needed to be granted another trial. It was going to be a long uphill battle. They both hoped their comrades were having better luck.

Chapter Fourteen

Buck limped his way across the yard to where his young friend was sitting by himself. The boy, younger than JD, looked more miserable than Buck felt. The scoundrel could have stayed in the infirmary for another day but what was the use. He had to return to the general population sooner or later and face Teeters again. He wanted the vicious guard to know that he wasn't afraid of him, that he wasn't one to back down from a confrontation. He chuckled to himself as he thought of another confrontation where the odds were definitely in the other man's favor. Buck had skewered that man on his own sword. Maybe, somewhere in this cold stone hell, he could miraculously come up with another blade.

"Hey, Cooter, ya look like yer dog just up and died. What's wrong?" He tried to smile but his cheek and jaw were still swollen and it came off as a grimace. His knee was tightly wrapped and the bandage kept the knee joint stiff, making his movements slow and awkward.

The boy looked up as he grew closer. There was panic and fear in the light blue eyes as they beseeched Buck for an answer. Cooter knew there wasn't one. He had no choice, just like he had no choice the day his older brother went into the bank. He had to do what he was told, no matter what the consequences because the alternative was beyond any hell he could imagine. 'Go away, Buck, don't come over here! Shit, ya were suppose ta be in the clinic, not out here in the open yard.' He glanced at the small gathering in the corner of the yard. Caesar smiled at him, and then the small murdering bastard nodded his head and the smile turned into a menacing glare. 'Ain't got no choice, Buck, I gotta do it.'

Cooter stood before the tall man who had befriended him, giving him warmth and comfort where none had existed before. The young bank robber paused, his right hand dropping down to his side, letting the cold sharp blade drop down into his hand. He took a step forward.

"Wilmington." The now familiar voice rang out over the din of the mingling prisoners. James Collins was beckoning to the dark haired peacekeeper.

Buck turned his head, finding James Collins amongst the crowd of men in the prison yard. He saw the guard motioning for him to follow him inside. He nodded to the guard and then turned back to the skinny kid. "Gotta go, Coot," he uttered as the flash of steel caught his eye. He barely had time to register the tear that slid down the boy's cheek as the knife was driven up to its hilt into his left side. His legs gave out as the pain made its way to his brain and screamed for attention. He fell, his life giving blood spilling from the jagged wound. As he lie bleeding, he heard the sound of a gun but he lost consciousness before the young convict fell beside him, the life gone from the boy's body all too soon.


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