by Mitzi

The nine men that appeared out of the fog loped their horses down the middle of Four Corners' main street as if they owned it and defied anyone to take it back. It was late and dark and few people observed the impressive arrival. But confidence and strength came naturally to these men and it was not something put on for show.

Josiah Sanchez stood on the balcony outside the clinic and waited for Nathan Jackson. He observed the band from the outskirts of town until they dismounted their horses and entered the saloon. It was the way his mind worked that, at the same time, this observer of men noted the fog creeping into the small town of Four Corners. It occurred to him that it held many similarities to the cigar and roll-your-own smoke in the tavern - as many similarities as it held differences.

The texture and density were similar. They both enhanced their dark and shadowy environs that held, each their own, kinds of secrets. They both had their own wild smells; one from the vast frontier surrounding the town, the other from the humanity packed too tightly in too close quarters.

And they both wafted away, like sentient things, from this particular company of men that passed through them.

+ + + + + + +

When they entered the saloon all eyes were drawn to them. Inez Rocillios couldn't help but notice how these men moved with the same confidence as the seven regulators who protected the town. Something about them said the whole was more powerful than the sum of the individual parts.

Chris Larabee, slouched low in his usual straight back chair, long legs stretched far in front of him, watched the men from beneath the brim of his hat. <Trouble.> He appraised easily and finished off the last half of the shot glass.

Buck Wilmington didn't let his evaluation of the men affect him any more than his old time friend did. Capable of trouble and looking for it were two different things. Maybe they just wanted a drink.

Vin Tanner, hunter of men, evaluated the individuals rather than the group. He didn't like what he saw.

JD Dunne watched the men with the same impressionable awe with which he still observed all things that were so uniquely The West. Men like these personified this territory to him - bigger than life. The young easterner was unaware of the fact that he seemed to have this same fluid grace when he moved as one with the six other lawmen he called friends.

Without a word seven of the men broke off and took possession of a pair of tables. Rowdy, boisterous and loud, they scattered the local men and working girls who found somewhere else to be without a word spoken. The men took over the chairs.

With a heavy sigh Larabee pulled himself to his feet. Before he stood in front of the newcomers, Vin Tanner and Buck flanked him, casually, but with a combined air of authority to match those at the tables.

JD arrived a moment later. He wasn't as adept at reading Larabee as the other two men, but he was good at reading Wilmington. He moved to cover his partners until this most recent disruptive force had been assessed.

The leader of the men was obvious, despite the fact that he was probably one of the youngest in the gang. Vin put him at 24 or 25 years. He had light brown eyes, almost yellow. The golden brown bangs were as long as the hair on the back of his head. It fell across his eyes and gave the impression of a lone wolf watching them through dry winter straw. He sported a sawed off shotgun in a well-worn, modified holster.

Buck Wilmington saw in those golden eyes a frightening element. He saw deadly similarities between those eyes and the eyes of the man he stood by now. It was the look of one who had lost someone dear; lost part of what made him human.

Buck was glad that he only rarely had to see that look on his old friend's face these days. He didn't want to linger on those thoughts too long. They broached questions that reminded him that there were times that he wasn't proud of the man he himself had been; the man that had stood beside Larabee in those days. But damn, what a motivator guilt can be.

He forced his mind back to evaluating the young blond and his gang. The other men followed him because they respected him? Or feared him? Or did they respect the kind of thing that he was?

Buck had always held a secret hope that part of what had brought Larabee back - or kept him alive to bring himself back -- or kept him alive to let Vin and the others bring him back -- was the fact that Buck did not respect the man he was in those days. He didn't respect the anger or the willingness to gun a man down in the street. He didn't respect hiding in a bottle or lashing out in anger at anyone around whether they were the cause of the anger or not. And he didn't respect betraying a friendship under the justification of anger.

These men, or a majority of them, did respect those things. A casual side-glance at Vin said that the astute tracker had come to basically the same judgment. Buck wondered briefly what part of Vin's shuttered past let him identify these emotionally dead traits in one so young and the men who followed him. He hoped Vin never had the same frame of reference from which he himself had to see this. He prayed Vin would never see that Chris Larabee.

The evaluation took a heartbeat. Vin met Buck's eye and was once again amazed how intuitive the scoundrel was that he could read men so easily. Wilmington tried to give the impression he rarely pondered on things.

But Vin knew these men. He had looked down his mare's leg at their kind and down the scope of his rifle at them. And some of them he had killed with no more consideration than if they had been rabid dogs.

Vin mentally shook his head to clear the thoughts. He would have been surprised to know how much like Buck he was in this aspect. Now that he had found this town and these men, he didn't want to remember the past. He didn't want them to find out the sordid details.

Vin's eyes slid across to glance at Larabee. The fact that Chris didn't like what he was seeing, the anger, the bloodlust, the arrogance, the lack of respect for human life, ratcheted the tension up a notch. The dark gunfighter met the younger man's eyes with hooded lids and casualness gauged to antagonize the hotheaded youth.

Ezra Standish, ensconced in a poker game, didn't join in the posturing but came to a higher level of alertness in case he was needed. No one at the table was able to tell he was aware of what was going on.

"Even crowded as it is, I don't rightly think Inez would appreciate you runnin' off her regular customers," Buck opened the conversation. Careful to never get between Chris and Vin's guns and the other men, he did, as was his habit, walk right up to them with the clear indication that if they were asking for trouble he would accommodate.

"Didn't say a word to 'em," the leader replied. As he had been sized up, so had he sized up this man in the long duster and his compadres. He didn't see anything to back down from.

"Didn't tell 'em to keep their seats." Chris was pushing now, by force of will more than words. If these men wanted to start something, better to know now. The blonde met his cool gaze with eyes slanted up at him lazily and defiantly that said, <Bring it on>.

It was then that the last of the two strangers wove their way through the peacekeepers and distributed the beer mugs and pitchers among their friends. One, an older, ruddy complected redhead was in the lead. His graying, grizzled beard had a natural, untrimmed look.

"We forget we're a little rough lookin'," he volunteered, with a brilliant smile that would rival Buck Wilmington. "Just finished a cattle drive. Headed back to Oklahoma. Name's Red Clayton." He sat down the beer to put a beefy paw out to shake.

<They've already dropped the trailhands. These are the men who work the ranch year 'round. Their loyalty is to the kid-rancher.> Larabee added this new information to the mix.

"This here's the boss of the rockin' J's, Jason Miller," he introduced the defiant one that was still trying to stare down Chris Larabee. He didn't offer his hand. "That one's his kid brother, Kyte." Red nodded toward the reedy youth with slightly darker and wilder hair who had helped him distribute the beers. He was trying to grow a mustache and goatee, probably in an attempt to hide his still youthful features. "We'll be headed out in the morning."

Red still held his hand out. Buck took it and shook it amiably. Then Vin followed suit.

Chris gave a curt nod and moved on. Red's jovial smile turned into a smirk that reminded Vin of Standish. But the good-natured foreman did nothing more to recognize the slight; he didn't seem to be bothered by it.

<Maybe there was something to this civilization stuff> Josiah smiled. He and Nathan had entered during the confrontation. The alpha males and their packs had faced off and it hadn't resulted in immediate bloodshed. He clapped Nathan on the back and steered him toward the back table to arrive there at the same time as Chris, Vin and JD.

Chris didn't miss the fact that Buck wandered back toward a pair of saloon girls and Ezra on the raised dais. There was no hostility in the absence. But after the potential threat was evaluated, he just had places he'd rather be than sharing a table with them. <Been happening quite a bit lately.> Larabee thought. He was used to Buck sharing these moments.

It didn't bother Chris when, after one of these altercations, Buck, instead of coming to Larabee's table, took the time to spend with JD. He would explain what had happened or why, or tease out any residual nervousness that the situation had caused the kid. But JD was with them at the table. He still thought the burning whiskey tasted like medicine, but he was sipping a beer instead of milk. The nervous, unsure episodes were fewer all the time.

No, Buck had wandered over to heckle the gambler. Those two shouldn't get along like that, Larabee thought. Buck was all honesty and loyalty. Ezra Standish was deception and probably had more loyalty to that deck of cards than to any man.

Wilmington had best not be expecting the con man to be there to watch his back. <Not like I am...> That thought frozen in the dark gunfighter's brain. There had been times Buck had expected him to "be there" and he wasn't. Maybe Buck knows Ezra won't be there. If he doesn't expect anything he won't be disappointed. <Yeah, there had been times> The thought started for Larabee, < ... no, damn it, still and all, those two were too much trouble when they were together.>

Larabee felt eyes on him and realized he'd been focused on Buck making his way across the room -- walking away from him. JD was watching his friend now, trying to see what his hero was seeing. If Josiah and Nathan had noticed they had the good graces and good sense not to acknowledge anything and continued an amiable conversation.

Only Tanner blatantly met his eyes. The tracker seemed to read something that even the gunslinger wasn't aware of. <Figure it out, Larabee.> Vin screamed in his mind. He didn't let the thoughts out in word or facial expression.

Tanner remembered a night not long enough passed when Buck had told him how to gauge Larabee's drunkenness and then left him to care for their friend. Buck had said he himself was nothing but a vessel for old, painful memories for their friend.

Buck was still pulling away - leaving his best friend with new amigos that didn't reflect bad times.

Wilmington thought he was doing what was for the best, and deep down believed Larabee would appreciate the distance. But more recently, in the desert, when a delirious and hurt Wilmington turned to Ezra Standish for comfort, the gunfighter had not appreciated it at all.

And there would come a time if things kept going the way they were, when Larabee would be jealous as hell. The tracker wasn't sure Larabee would recognize the emotion. All of his feelings came back to anger in the end. Sometimes the somber widower knew what he was angry about. Sometimes he had to look for a target for the anger. And the tracker wasn't sure what Larabee would do if he ever got the chance to see the gambler as having betrayed their friend.

Vin felt a partial responsibility for Buck's withdrawal. The closeness between the infamous gunfighter and himself probably, on some levels, seemed to push the other man away.

Vin wished Buck could see that, on a superficial level, he had just as much trouble connecting and communicating with the taciturn shootist. It was on a deeper level, which he himself couldn't explain that he knew the loyalty he shared with Larabee. Just as clearly he knew that bond was still there between the two old friends if they would wake up to it. <Figure it out, Larabee. And figure what you want to do about it before it's too late.> Vin took another drink as he realized that Larabee, too was lost in thought.

"What do you think?" Larabee was startled by the question, partially because he wasn't interested in sharing his current uncomfortable observations. Neither his surprise nor his discomfort at the question showed as his eyes slowly made it around the table, trying to think back and remember where the conversation had been heading before he was distracted.

Then the healer broke the moment by nodding toward the nine ranch hands and Chris realized he was referring to them.

"A powder keg," was his evaluation.

"Best stay close ... make sure no one lights a fuse," Josiah observed.

+ + + + + + +

It didn't take long before the Rockin' J's men drifted apart. When they did, JD noticed, with some reflection, they lost the formidable aura they maintained as a group.

Dunne snorted derisively at the youngest, Kyte, who was flirting in a juvenile way with a saloon girl. "That one stumbles and goofs around like a wolf pup posturing for the pack," JD made this observation to Josiah as he accompanied the elder of their group to the bar for refills. "Well, he does," the youngest of the seven added defensively in response to the inscrutable look on the Preacher's face.

Josiah forced himself not to shake his head or rub a big hand over his face as he reflected on the young man who made the statement - as that young man turned around too fast from the bar and "goofily" stumbled into one of the trailhands. The grizzled, leathery man with the handlebar mustache, Mike, shoved JD away and into a town regular who smiled patiently, steadied him, smiled at Josiah and sent them on their way. <Yep, the pack made allowances for their own whelps.>

Behind them, Kyte's eyes went wide and he barely remembered his manners to excuse himself from the courtesan as he hurried back to his brother.

Kyte couldn't wait to work his way back to their tables with his news. "Do you know who that was?" He asked, awestruck as he nodded to the somber man in black that had recently confronted them. "That's Chris Larabee." Still no one seemed impressed. "Chris Larabee," he said in a smaller voice.

Jason finished his beer in a chug. "I'm gonna see how much of this trail dust I can wash off." He pointed his forefinger at his kid brother meaningfully.

"I know. I ain't gonna get in trouble," Kyte replied defensively.

Jason cut his eyes to his left. Red met the look and knew what it meant. "I'll watch out for him."

"Don't need watchin' out for," the youngster pouted.

Jason gave a brotherly snort of skepticism and strode out the door.

As JD sat back down, he pretended not to watch Buck kibitzing behind Ezra with one of the new girls on his lap. It was only regulars at the poker table tonight. And they knew their mustached peacekeeper delighted in teasing Standish on the rare occasions that he would lose, and so they enjoyed the light banter between the two.

Even so, Buck carefully sat behind his friend so that no one would suspect him of giving tells as to the other men's hands. And Ezra indifferently let the lanky gunslinger sit behind him where even six months ago he would never have trusted his exposed back to any man, even a so-called friend.

"Geez, Ezra, there ain't many spots on them cards in your hand," Buck laughed as he winked at Lilith.

"That, Mr. Wilmington, is because these are called face cards," the Southerner deadpanned. "They do not have 'spots'. Perhaps we have found a partial explanation for your abhorrent poker skills."

The other players laughed. Buck stretched forward and tipped the gambler's hat over his eyes.

+ + + + + + +

The redheaded foreman who was mussing young Kyte's hair as he kidded him about something, got up and moseyed to the bar for another beer. The leader of the men had turned in early. The five remaining, including Mike, laughed at Red and Kyte's shared joke. Kyte begrudgingly followed his friend up to the bar.

JD noticed how the younger Miller followed Red about, almost unconscious of the fact. And the older man kept an almost paternal eye on the boy. No matter what was going on in the crowded, dizzyingly active room, the man knew where his young charge was. <What was with the kid?> JD thought bitterly. <Did he need a babysitter?>

JD watched the interaction between the two strangers and his eyes slid involuntarily up the raised dais. He could see Buck laughing and the shoulder of Ezra's red jacket.

JD was worried that Buck was still mad at him over a recent incident where JD had called out some gunmen. They had tried to kill JD. They had tried to kill Ezra. They had tried to kill Buck. But for some reason a fast draw contest - to JD a fair fight - another true part of The West -- had angered his friend.

Buck happened to look up about the time the lad peeked in his direction. That brilliant, open smile, a wink, and a slight nod for JD to join them was all the boy needed. Buck had told him he didn't like the stunt and now it was forgotten. Dunne realized it was his own guilty conscience and the remembered expression on the older man's face, the disappointment and some unrecognizable fear, that had made him uncomfortable.

Beer mug in hand, the young sheriff was on his feet headed toward his other two friends. He even tossed a smile at Kyte Miller as they slid past each other in the close quarters of the Saturday night crowd.

Larabee's face was unreadable as he watched his three trouble magnets migrate toward each other.

"Chris?" His attention was drawn back to his table and he realized Nathan had had to repeat himself.


"I said I was planning on headin' out to the village in the morning. Think I should hold off?"

"Any trouble they're gonna cause will be tonight when they're all liquored up."

"Most of 'em've turned in," Vin observed.

"Maybe we'll luck out," Josiah smiled.

"Ezra Standish, you murderin' son of a bitch!" echoed through the saloon and cut through the sounds in the room.

"Then again, maybe not."

+ + + + + + +

Wandering through the smoky, dimly lit saloon Red Clayton decided to investigate the even more crowded raised dais where he suspected a poker game was in play.

He froze and his blood ran cold when he saw the man at the green felt table. The beer mug, almost to his lips, was forgotten.

The fear of what was to come was reflected in his eyes, "Ezra Standish, you murderin' son of a bitch!" These were the words that cut through the bar and back to the Seven's table.

Nothing seemed to happen at first, as everyone froze, trying to decide who had spoken and if there was an immediate threat.

Ezra glanced up from his cards with practiced calm as he'd done in similar situations so many times before. He moved with calculated ease so as not to escalate an already volatile situation. His right arm shifted away from his card hand to point his derringer in the general direction of the voice. He couldn't place the face of the angry man in front of him.

But when the man threw his beer mug to the floor, the crash of the breaking glass was like a starting gun. Ezra moved to activate his derringer.

Buck rose, pushed the saloon girl toward the stairs; toward safety, and, drawing his gun, moved away from Ezra so that they did not present a singular target. He moved so he could try to cover both Ezra and JD who he could see headed their way.

Sudden sounds acted as dangerous distractions for the peacekeepers. Each scrape or voice might present a threat and they were coming from all different angles -- Chairs scrapped across the rough-hewn floor; a couple of them tipped over with a crash.

Ezra registered that the former occupants were merely in a hurry to vacate the premises and not pushing the chairs back preparatory to joining the fray. Leathers, denim and cotton rustled together. Muffled profanity blended in.

Some people weren't even sure why they were running. It was this last, this panic of the unknown, that made the stampede-like exodus even wilder.

JD had unholstered his gun and headed up the few short steps to his friends. He was having about as much success as a salmon swimming upstream. He was fighting for all he was worth against the current of men and women who had so recently crowded the upstairs area as they now attempted to depart from the inevitable confrontation - none of their seven backed down from a fight. JD's head bobbed furiously trying to get a glance at Buck or Ezra to at least be sure they were still standing. The screams and shouts and curses prevented him from hearing what was going on.

Ezra had established his poker table as the one closest to the four steps leading up to the area. It allowed him a covert view of the entire bar. It protected his back. Everyone else who found a table up here must walk past him. The clink of coin, the shuffle of cards would lure them toward his table coming and going.

But now he had discovered a drawback to this location. With his newly discovered, maudlin sense of responsibility, and the way everyone was seeking safety by having to move between him and the red-headed stranger, he couldn't get a shot off without endangering innocent lives. <If I die under these circumstances, please don't let Mother find out.> The gambler registered all of this in the time it took the small gun to spring into his hand.

Buck and Ezra, still forced to hold their fire, worked the room with their eyes, searching out all points of potential trouble.

The redheaded ranch foreman had yet to move. It was the two simultaneous movements in his peripheral vision; at opposite angles and that seemed out of place, that drew the gambler's attention and had the hair on the back of his neck on end. Two guns came up and in his direction.

Ezra realized that neither he nor Buck could get a clear shot for fear of hitting the locals and other patrons who ran past them in an attempt to escape the danger.

+ + + + + + +

The sounds of twin gunfire echoed off each other and ripped across the rest of the room.

Where JD had only now fought his way to the action, the current of humanity parted like the Red Sea before Chris Larabee's focused need to check on and back up his friends. Already on their feet even before the report reverberated along the walls and down each of their spines, Vin, Josiah and Nathan formed a tight flying wedge behind their leader and were able to reach the other end of the saloon at almost the same time as Dunne.

Young Kyte Miller, at the 10 o'clock angle and that Neanderthal that had answered to Mike at his three o'clock had Standish covered. Ezra realized that if he dodged one of them, he would place himself right in the sights of the other.

<Where the hell were all these fleeing people coming from? They couldn't have all fit up here.> His mind was wandering because he'd already recognized he didn't have a way out. Maybe they wouldn't shoot with all the innocent people in the way - "Ezra!! Left!!"

Before the words were out of Buck's mouth, the gambler was responding. He dove to his left, toward the tall ladies' man. Buck reared back and used one of his long legs to kick the poker table across the floor to plow into Kyte's midsection. It knocked the air out of him and deflected his aim down as it doubled him over. Then the shots rang out.

Trevor Daniels, the father of four grown children, who only came into town one Saturday a month, fell as he ran between Ezra Standish and the gunmen.

A second bullet hit a heavy beer mug on the round table as Ezra nose-dived past it. He flinched back as the thick, fat chunks of glass pelted his left arm, torso and face.

Blinded by the blood streaming from the cuts at his temple and cheek and just below his ear, the southerner reflexively reached up with his left hand to stem the flow. He felt his back against the wall, and pulled his knees up to support the arm that pointed the derringer in the general direction he thought the danger now came from. He tried to evaluate the danger by using his other senses.

Kyte Miller again took aim on the helpless gambler. Wilmington, seeing this, was pushing bystanders out of his way as fast as he could to clear a shot and save his friend. He wasn't going to get the round off in time.

Even as Wilmington reached a level of despair at his helplessness, the gun leapt from the blonde youth's hand and blood billowed from just below the knuckles in the same instant that another gunshot echoed through the room.

Buck allowed himself a sigh of relief. Not many people would dare a shot like that. Chris Larabee was that good. Looking at his old time friend, Buck noted that Larabee had only shot the gun out of the boy's hand. That was not something the gunfighter would usually do when an individual was threatening someone under his protection.

At the same time Mike, the leathery trail hand, was also taking second aim at their friend. The man was backed up against the upper deck's railing. Buck raised his gun. But just then Josiah reached two huge hands around from over the railing. He wrapped one fist over the .45's cylinder. When it couldn't turn, the gun was harmless.

As the man spun around to punch Josiah and fight for release of the weapon, his jaw met Vin Tanner's fist three times in quick succession and he fell, stunned, to the sawdust covered floor. His grip loosened in his dazed state, his gun stayed in Josiah's hand.

Nathan spun and aimed his revolver on the remaining members of the group. By that time Vin had them covered as well. Josiah had his and Mike's gun pointed at the men.

JD had both his guns drawn and was dividing his attention between the men below and the tableau closer to him.

The men below reminded Dunne of a cattle herd milling restlessly in the heavy ominous air before a thunderstorm broke loose and lightening threatened its random deadly attacks. It would take very little to set them off. But so far the men were contained in their tracks. Formidable while backing up the gunmen in their cadre, alone the cowhands knew they were no match for these shootists.

Up above, Buck and Chris helped JD cover Red and the two would-be shooters. There wasn't much to it. Mike was dazed and still down. Kyte was bordering on shock from pain and blood loss. Red didn't seem to be aware of anything but wrapping his bandana around the youngster's wound to stop the bleeding and speaking gentle reassurances in his ear.

Ezra sat staring at a sliver of wood the bullet had bitten out of his table. It had the tiniest scrap of green felt still adhering to it. Everything had gone quiet around him. Things were under control.

He should get up and help take stock of the situation, but he found himself sitting, thinking. Nathan would probably believe he was in shock. Maybe he was.

Wilmington had been here.

He had known the others would come to back him, they had on many an occasion. But it was always after the fact. And he sometimes wondered if it wasn't as much to keep the peace as to protect their seventh man. And they had covered each other's backs before, but that was when they knew trouble was coming and covering each other was part of the game they had bought into.

Wilmington had been there.

To have one of the others present out of camaraderie when he needed them was something new. It was a singularly new experience and brought with it, even among the chaos, a new and calming feeling. He wondered if any of the others would understand the difference.

It was only later he would have time to question whether he wanted the responsibility; whether anything in his raising made him ready for the responsibility of that kind of friendship.

As soon as the tension in the room dissipated to a point where people would hopefully think before they acted, Nathan lowered his gun and moved quickly to the body of Trevor Daniels on the floor. Dark, almost purple/black blood spread thickly from the body and mingled with the sawdust. He had been dead as soon as the bullet hit. Nathan's eyes relayed the information to their leader. Then he moved on to their Southern partner.

Ezra had his left hand cupped at his jawline to stem the blood. His right hand still held the derringer. "Ezra. Ezra?" The tall healer gently lowered the derringer to the floor. "Ezra!" Finally the gambler blinked and directed his gaze at the other man. Wherever he had been, he was back with them now.

The ex-slave quickly grabbed Standish's arm as he would have reached up to rub at his temple. "Hell, Ezra, you look like a porcupine with all that glass stuck in you." The healer tried to make light of the damage because he was the only one so far to see that one large sliver of the mug had imbedded in the laugh lines at the other man's left eye. Much too close. The healer very unprofessionally grabbed the offending glass and pulled it from the folds of skin. He threw it away.

"Ow, damn it, Mr. Jackson. You could warn a man."

"Then it woulda hurt while you thought about it, hurt while I pulled it and hurt after. Now it only hurts after."

"I'll have to contemplate that logic, sir."

Inez materialized at Nathan's side and dabbed at the blood rivulets running down Ezra's face. Nathan thanked her with a nod and his tone of voice, but his words were more to the point, "Thank you, Ma'am, but best you get back, out of any line of fire."

She nodded, her head bowed, grieving for Daniels and guiltily offering up a selfish prayer of thanks that it wasn't Ezra lying there. The feathery brush of fingers across his upper arm relayed those thoughts to Ezra more clearly and more touchingly than any words ever could.

Her fingers passed across Buck's arm in a similar touch as she moved gracefully and quietly away. It said thank you for being safe and thank you for, as usual, protecting those who need protecting.

Even though his gun arm never wavered and his eyes never stopped scanning for potential danger, the kindhearted scoundrel smiled and winked. He didn't want her mood to get too serious. He didn't like serious. It could do a lot more damage than ugly. It led to other serious moments and to thinking too much.

Inez shook her head as if she were giving up on something, smiled, extended a final gentle touch to JD's cheek like a big sister would to her kid brother, and was gone.

<Damn. Damn. Damn.> Dunne berated himself. He just knew that the fiery senorita had seen that he was so nervous he was sweating buckets while the others seemed so composed and in control. He swallowed hard and resisted the urge to wipe the single bead of sweat from where it tickled his eyebrow and threatened to drip into his eye.

"Kyte needs help over here," Red bellowed.

"He can wait," Buck growled. The two men stared each other down. The concern of each for theirs was evident and stoked the anger in both.

"That miserable bastard is responsible for the deaths of two of this kid's brothers."

Nathan looked up quickly from Ezra to the boy at the statement. He had watched Kyte during the night. He hadn't seemed anything but amiable. He reminded Jackson of JD. What would it take for a kid like that to try to gun a man down? The answer was simple. JD had tried to kill a man very recently for even threatening the men he thought of as family.

"The one he's got left is turned plumb mean with guilt for not being able to save them," Red continued. The loss of family and the bitterness it caused struck a sympathetic chord with Larabee. Was he projecting his own suddenly buffeted emotions or did it seem that the healer had become torn between whom to treat?

"We'll patch everybody up in the safety of the jail," Chris offered. It would give the lot of them time to regroup.

Larabee saw Buck start over to help Ezra. "Buck. You and JD get that one over there," Chris ordered with a nod toward Mike.

He saw Buck balk at the order and continued deliberately before he could give voice to it. "Nathan, you take Ezra." He knew the self-styled guardian of the group wouldn't argue at having the healer in charge of their wounded friend.

"Vin ..." The leader of the seven let his eyes slide over to the man he'd shot. The foreman saw this. "Ain't nobody touchin' this boy but me," Red demanded.

Chris knew the gunshots and near riot exodus from the bar would soon bring the rest of Miller's men. One man wounded and all of the others forced to divide their attention between the prisoners and the rancher, they would be at a disadvantage.

Chris Larabee was painfully familiar with the look in the eyes of that lobo - that Jason Miller. That one would not think when there were people between him and his family ... or his revenge. He was going to be homicidal, suicidal, self-destructive, scared to death, and deadly dangerous; thinking to protect a last remaining loved one.

It didn't sound like that one would have had time for that fear to have frozen his heart and hardened him against those devastating emotions and instincts - or harden him against the loved ones themselves. Larabee mentally shook his head to clear it of those thoughts and replaced them by checking on the location of each of his men.

"Have your men stand down," the duster-clad shootist directed coldly. It was clear that this was a condition under which the one man would be allowed to escort the younger ranch owner.

The foreman barely nodded but his men backed away. When his eyes met one of them, that trialhand understood the order and, hating to be the one to break the news, nevertheless ran off to notify Jason of the events.

"Cover him, Vin," Larabee said in an effort to get things moving. The Texan nodded and motioned with his mare's leg for the older man and his charge to follow Buck and JD with their prisoner

"Josiah, get someone to make sure Daniels is seen to," Larabee whispered as he watched Miller's man run toward the boarding house. "Then get over to the jail as quick as you can. This ain't over."

Josiah nodded and scanned the stragglers for someone he could trust to follow through on these orders. He, too, wanted to get to the jail as quickly as possible so that they might present a united front to what would come - a united front and an extra gun. He had a suspicion they would need both.


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